The womanís eyes fluttered open, startled in wakefulness by the fingers moving in slow circles across her belly. Even tinged as it was by a sense of guilt for enjoying the contact, she closed her eyes and kept her breathing even, hoping to prolong the moment. She could sense the other was unaware of the action, seemingly lost in sleep, loosed from the fetters of conscious restraint. The hand was warm and the patterns against the well-defined muscles were maddeningly slow and random. It was comforting and soft and many other things that she knew were probably better left untouched and undiscovered. The tips of those fingers slowed, twitched, and then finally lay still, the palm radiating a starfish of warmth across her skin that drew her down once more into dreamless sleep.
The pounding on the door had barely begun before Xena awoke, grabbed her sword, and nearly pulled the door off its hinges to get it open. Weapon in hand she faced the armoured soldier banging frantically on the door for their attention.
The scarred veteran, grey-haired and obviously blind in one eye looked up at the warrior who, despite the loose robe, still exuded the presence and danger of a feral animal. "You had us keeping watch in the sewage system," she panted. "Kiefer said they were getting close. Maybe a few hours more and theyíll break through." She rushed her message anxious to get back to her post. "And councillor Laera has asked for you."
"What time is it?" Xena asked letting her grip on her sword relax marginally.
"About fifth hour past noon." Seeing the warriorís nod, the soldier turned and hurried back down the stairs leaving Xena standing in the doorway looking thoughtful. Time to put things in motion. Letís see just how ready you are, Stephicles.
Xena closed the door and moved to Gabrielleís side. With care she seated herself on the bed and turned her attention to the bard seeing the tight lines of Gabrielleís face deepening, even in sleep. Painkiller must be wearing off, she surmised. Her attention was drawn to an unusual warmth when she placed one thumb between the furrowed brows intent on rubbing away the deep-set tension. The callused hand cupped the womanís cheek, and even before her hand made contact she could feel the heat radiating from the skin. Feverish, Xena sighed, and began undoing the front of Gabrielleís robe. As gently as possible under the circumstances she peeled back the bandage covering the stitches and was dismayed to see that the swelling had not gone down. The edges of the wound oozed slightly and its overall colouring, to Xenaís critical eye, indicated an infection. Damn, that came on fast. She pressed a finger into the skin near the wound and drew an immediate response from Gabrielle. Greenish-blue eyes opened reluctantly on a quiet groan of pain.
"Is it time to get up already?" Gabrielle muttered, feeling groggy and disoriented. She flailed about a moment trying to sit up, but Xena gently restrained her and pushed her back down onto the mattress.
"I want you to stay in bed and get some more rest. You need it," Xena told her firmly. Her mind began running through the possible combinations of herbs to try and treat this, but was distressed by the amount of time each would most likely take to drive out the rapidly progressing infection. Bad timing. Very bad. We need to get to Kozani, and fast, or these people will never have a chance. The regrets sat heavy in her stomach, nearly making her ill. Gods, how I wish I had never brought you here.
As best she could she cleaned up the wound and replaced the bandage. It took a few minutes, but she brewed up another cup of the noxious medication for the bard, helping her to sit long enough to swallow and then rinse the taste away with water. Gabrielle shivered briefly as Xena laid her back down and covered her with the quilt. The hand gripping her own was cold and shaky even as the rest of her body sweltered to fight off the infection. Xena felt like a total heel for needing to leave her alone. "I need to speak with Laera, and see to the defences again. Iíll be back to check on you in a little while. Go ahead and sleep some more." She waited for the younger womanís eyes to close before rising to strip off her robe.
The garment was tossed negligently on the bed as she walked to the fireplace and began drawing on her clothes, completely unmindful of her state of undress. A few minutes later she pulled the familiar breastplate against herself and fastened the hooks and then grimaced as she added the scabbard to her waist. The weight dragging at her hip was not something she had felt in well over a year. She had stopped wearing it there shortly after she had made the decision to turn her life around. It had seemed like an outward symbol, albeit a small one, of the greater changes occurring within. Changes which were still unfolding with who knew what result at the end of it. It was something to see just how far she had come in a year and a half. But there was still so much farther to goÖ Xena pulled her hair free from the back of her shirt and shook out her long mane, remonstrating herself sharply. Enough of the philosophical soul searching nonsense already. Move it already!
She tossed her cloak over one shoulder, and paused to look over at Gabrielle. Her companion had already fallen back into a restless sleep. A deep golden wave of hair spilled across the pillow and around the heat-flushed face, and the sound of laboured breathing met Xenaís ears. The raven-haired woman watched with renewed worry the continuous efforts of Gabrielleís chest to draw in more air only to stop abruptly, the limits of an injured side having been reached. She swallowed hard, feeling that open vulnerability that had slowly, gradually, unknowingly developed as the bard found and exploited every chink in the emotional armour she had forged to avoid feeling anything again. To avoid feeling like this for anyone. But, if given a choice, would she honestly want to live without this anymore? Not a chance her heart replied. Not even for a second.
Before she quite realised it, she was once again at Gabrielleís side watching the bard struggle to get comfortable. She bent and brushed cool lips against her best friendís forehead before slowly retreating toward the door. "Iíll be back soon," Xena promised again quietly and saw the small smile form and fade as Gabrielle responded to her, even in sleep.
The warrior sighed, closed the door reluctantly behind her and went in search of the formidable councillor.
"Xena!" The warrior turned and spotted Kiran waving her over. Activity in the halls had settled somewhat with no new casualties from the townspeople trickling in. Still, she was aware how the people in the halls shrank back allowing for as much space between themselves and her. Not that she blamed them; the things she had been responsible for doing were simply monstrous by anyoneís standards. She couldnít even allow herself to hope that her actions here might change their impressions of her. No, she didnít even bother to think about things like that anymore; she wasnít atoning for her past to get people to like herÖ such shallow vanities would get her in as much trouble as the desire for power and control once had.
"Weíre meeting in the kitchens; with the hall being used for the wounded, it was the next largest space available," Kiran informed her and led her off down the corridor.
"Whatís the status of the sewage grating? One of your troops came to get me and said Stephiclesí men were getting close." The border of wounded against the walls petered out and Xena moved up to walk shoulder to shoulder with the captain.
"Iíve had close to a dozen troops posted there on shifts, every few hours, as you ordered. I stopped down there myself and heard them chipping away underground. Eerie."
They turned a corner and caught the scent of baking bread. Xenaís stomach rumbled and she suddenly realised that she couldnít quite remember the last time she had eaten. She tried to ignore it. "Do you have any hooded lanterns left?"
"Most are on the wall. But, we can maybe scrounge up a few. Light and use ëem when they break through?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah. Wait and see if theyíve got light of their own. Itíll make them a bigger target while still hiding your troops. You have crossbows?" Seeing the captainís nod, she continued. "Good. We need to take them down as quickly and cleanly as possible. Iíll want to salvage their uniforms. Do you have some sort of oil in a large quantity?
"Why?" Kiranís mind raced to keep up with the tall, dark warriorís thoughts. They walked into the kitchen and past the army of cooks working to prepare staple foods for as many people as possible.
Xenaís nose twitched as the heavenly smell of fresh baked bread became stronger. And was that stew? It would make sense; preserved vegetables and dried meat would last much longer under siege conditions, and it would serve to provide a filling meal. There were herbs in there, too. Thyme? And Rosemary? And something else that Gabrielle sometimes used in her preparations. Gods, I think Iíve been spoiled.
"Hungry?" Kiran asked catching the look on Xenaís face. The captain grabbed a pair of bowls and with the permission of one of the cooks, spooned a portion of the simmering contents from an oversized pot. With the bowl in one hand and a still hot loaf of bread in the other, the two women hunkered down at the trestle table set up in the far side of the comfortably warm room.
The table was covered by the maps and notes, which previously inhabited the council chambers. Once again her eyes scanned the detailed surface looking to turn every opportunity to their advantage. She took a bite of the stew and felt her insides gurgle unhappily as the heavily spiced meal met her stomach. No where near as good as Gabrielleís, but still better than most inns. You have most definitely spoiled me, my bard. The members of council came in, their muted robes mingling like a dark rainbow. Xenaís eyes were drawn to the diminutive woman who ruled the council behind the faÁade of a kindly old woman. Laera was hard, as hard as the hills that surrounded the city she governed. But, she too had changed since the last time Xena had seen her. Flintier, if thatís possible.
As her thoughts were wont to do, they brought back with vivid clarity the moment of their first meeting at the then smaller front gate. The walls had mostly been wood then, and the town militia not as disciplined or organised to her discerning eye. Still, the sight of Xena and her army wasnít enough to cause the woman to waver. Twice the councilwoman had refused tribute. And Xena had lost all patience. She had been willing to forego sacking the town, but the temerity of the old crone to show her such resistance and disrespect was an affront she couldnít afford and wouldnít tolerate.
Her men wouldnít have understood letting an old woman change their plans, and they were dangerously short of provisions. She had been angered beyond reason and had ridden forward, not especially caring if they moved out of the path of her horse of not. Fools, she thought, both then and now. They had stood proud and defiant before her and refused to move. It became an instant battle of wills. And hers was stronger than most. The results were left to lie bleeding in the snow or staring sightlessly up into the sharp winter blue sky. Four others met a similar fate at her lieutenantsí hands, though it might as well have been herself performing the deed; they were her men under her command. The responsibility had always been hers. Always.
Ever more so when at some point the town had caught fire. An accident perhaps? Or, the result of deliberate action taken by one of the more malicious criminals who followed her banner? So, as with Cirra, she had inadvertently taken the lives of women and children again. Whether by her hand or not. It had ever been her responsibility. The stew was suddenly a hard lump in her stomach and she abruptly pushed the bowl away, its contents only half gone. She listened in as the councillors argued noisily about what to do with the intruders once they broke in. With grim determination Xena pushed herself to her feet and moved closer to the discussion allowing her frame to straighten to its full height. Intimidation worked so much better when you towered over everybody else.
A few of them, tired of the killing, were trying to convince the others to jail the enemy soldiers and extract what information they could before sending them to trial.
"If we capture them, weíll have to hold and feed them," the one named Calli was pointing out. "Thatís hardly fair to the people. Theyíre already stretched to the limits. The healers have reported increased signs a malnutrition."
"Youíre right," Xena broke in before anyone else could continue. "Weíll kill them as they come through." She paused to gather every eye to her own, letting loose the force of her personality. "You canít afford to do anything else. Decreasing their numbers in a small controlled area means less risk to your militia in the short term and the rest of the people in the long run."
"Youíre going to just let them come on in?!" a younger man shouted. "Why donít you offer them an ale and a room at the inn while youíre at it?!"
Xena ignored his outburst and turned back to Kiran who was still finishing off the last of her bread. "Did you follow my instructions to throw the bodies and chakram over the wall?" She watched the captain swallow her food and nod in response.
"Oh, yeah. I went with the body disposal detail to the walls and called down for Stephicles. Weíve got a contact of sorts that does the parlaying for their side when we want to trade insults and discuss unlikely conditions of surrender." Seeing the impatient look on Xenaís face, Kiran hastened to continue. "So, I told him I had a message from the council for the general and to fetch him. When he got there, I had the troops toss the manís naked body over the wall. I waited a second to see if he recognised the body and then I said ëthis is what Neapolis thinks of your pathetic excuse for an incursion. We have the other four in custody and one of the women died. Weíre planning on getting back some of our own now. Theyíre going to provide us with information and just so you wonít miss your friends weíll be sure to send you a piece or two each day starting tomorrow. Unless you and your boys would like to just pack things up and take a walk?í"
Kiran took a sip of her drink to moisten her throat and then continued. "He looked like heíd swallowed a nettle. He shouted, hauled off and hit one of his own men. Then he looked back up at me and asked me if I had any idea of just who we were holding. I dropped the round thing of yours and said ëwe know exactly who we have here. Xena visited us once before and now sheís going to make it up to us for all that sheís done.í" Kiran paused to look, curious at the silent warriorís sudden, lop-sided smile gracing the fierce features. "You were right. He was almost frothing at the mouth. The last coherent thing I heard him say as he picked up your weapon and stomp off was something to the effect of being glad that the blonde bitch got it, and maybe youíd listen to him the next time." She shrugged. "Whatever that means. And he seems to think youíre going to escape."
"He said he couldnít wait to see how much of us you left lying around when youíd had enough. Heís not terribly smart is he?"
"Yes and no," Xena admitted. "Heís clever enough to have succeeded so far, but heís getting desperate, and he has a temper that heís allowing to interfere with his judgement. And, thankfully I have nothing against taking advantage of idiots." She placed her hands on the edge of the improvised map table and contemplated the enemyís position. "How many dead so far since the siege engines were first used? Civilian and military?"
The nervous looking man from yesterday spoke up. "One hundred, eighty-three civilians and forty-two militia."
"Keep the dead well away from any food or water storage. Restrict access to the area. Once someone dies they must be taken to that isolated spot. No funeral pyres. The cold will slow down the decay and hopefully the possibility of disease." She only had to wait a moment for the anticipated backlash against the order.
"How dare you!" cried another woman. "Leave our people laying out in a courtyard somewhere like cordwood? ThatÖ thatís sick. What kind of monster are you to speak of our dead so heartlessly?!" She looked vindicated when a few of the other councillors joined in to support her argument flinging words like knives at the warrior.
The map became the focus of Xenaís world, her eyes looking at the lines and colours and worn spots where the material had been folded too many times. She listened but tried hard not to be affected by their insults and anger. I wish you could be here, Gabrielle. You could deal with their emotionsÖ their anger. I canít do anything other than stand here and take it. What can I say to them? I understand your pain? I just want to keep them out of my way while I try and keep them safe from Stephicles. And from themselves too, it seems. The thought of the bard lying upstairs both steadied and worried her. She wanted to conclude this meeting as soon as possible and get back to her friend. When she left here she wanted Gabrielle with her.
"Sheís trying to save your lives." Xena looked up at the unexpected sound of the age-roughened voice of the elderly councillor breaking into the noise. Laera, having sat back for the most of the meeting, finally added her voice to the debate. "Wood is too precious a commodity to waste on the dead when the issue of the living is still unresolved." She turned her head to look directly into Xenaís eyes. "Isnít that so?"
"Yeah," the warrior answered, taken aback by the support from this unlooked-for ally. "Winning means that we hold on to all the resources we can. Even if it hurts."
"What would you know of our hurts?" the woman flung at her. "How do we know that you wonít betray us? Or get out and leave us here to die?"
Laera put out a hand. "Dimitra, thatís enough."
"No! It will never be enough. You killed my son, you bitch!" Dimitra threw herself at Xena "He was beaten to death trying to save me from being raped by your men!" Seven years of rage propelled her forward to claw at Xena even as the warrior grappled with her to hold her away. "He was eight years old! He was only eight!"
Hearing of the aftermath of her actions ripped at the scabs and scars of her soul even as the womanís nails ripped at her skin. The pain and guilt flowered anew as yet another image, even though it was one of her own making, emblazoned itself beside the others to torment her in the dark of her dreams and the shadows of her days. She felt the screams and curses like blows to her body, and didnít fight back; it was all she could offer. The womanís son was dead. She couldnít change that. "Iím sorry," she said softly, feeling helpless. "Iím so sorry." Others wrestled Dimitra away only to have the womanís knees buckle and deposit her on the floor, her face awash in grief stricken tears.
"Itís too late for sorry!" Dimitra screamed at her. The womanís body convulsed with her sobbing, oblivious to the efforts of those trying to comfort her.
"I know," Xena whispered. She dealt with the emotions the only way she knew how; she buried them, shoved them down deep enough that she could still function. The situation was too serious to allow herself to fall apart now. "I canít ever make up for it. I can only try to make certain that it doesnít happen again." She took a deep breath and forced control on herself once more. "I want two detachments in the sewage juncture areas. Weíll hold them there and force them to fight us on our terms. I have an idea, but it wonít be easy, and as hard as it might be to believe me right now, I need you to trust me."
The room was quiet but for the sounds of Dimitraís crying. Even the cooks stood stock still. Finally, Laera cleared her throat and stood. With slow steps she went to Dimitraís side and put out a frail hand on the other womanís head, as if in sad benediction. The wrinkled hand, having seen a life full of wonders and horrors brushed through the thick locks, as if comforting a child. The room stood in sombre heaviness watching the older woman kneel beside the other whoís grief poured out as if it would never end. Though aged, the arms that drew Dimitra close and held her tight bore the strength and implacable wisdom of a life deeply lived and Laera murmured softly to her as Dimitra wept.
The councillorís deep eyes flowed over the room to finally rest on Xena. She looked searchingly into those of the warrior, seeing much that was most often hidden from view. "We have each of us suffered in our own way." The withered hand never ceased to touch and to comfort as Laeraís voice, though quiet, became firmer. "And none of us would have it happen again." Her glance took in the others in the room, gathering them up with her eyes like lost children. With the lift of her chin she indicated the map-covered table. "So it will be here. Tell us your plans and how can we help."
Explanation long since delivered, Xena had taken up residence against the table sipping from a cup of cool water, courtesy of one of the cooks, and watched the councillors speak amongst themselves. Their unsubtle glances her way were returned in the form of a bored gaze, as if the warrior couldnít be bothered to care one way or another what the outcome of their deliberations might be. But, she did care. Unsettled still by Dimitraís outburst and feeling the gouges in her neck, Xena fought to steady her nerves while the others debated her plan in greater detail.
There was so little time left to them now. She fidgeted in earnest, anxious to check back on Gabrielle and to get started. The progress of the infection was a worry they couldnít afford right now, and her ribs, and with all the other bumps, bruises, and scrapesÖ The ride to Kozani was going to be long and painful, and the bard would have to do it on minimal medication. A comatose bard pumped full of pain killers would be a serious handicap if they ran into trouble along the way. Which they most assuredly would. Xena didnít doubt that for a second.
Though her mind was already jumping ahead to getting the two of them out of here, Xena's awareness kicked in and she let her eyes lift to see the elderly Laera approaching.
"May I join you?" she asked in her age roughened voice. At the warriorís acquiescent nod, the older woman seated herself and arranged her robes carefully around her feet. They watched the group for a time in a silence that for the moment neither felt particularly compelled to break.
Xena gave the other woman a sideways glance, unable to fathom her motives. That mystery frustrated her and made her wary, like a skittish animal. After all she had done the woman had spoken up for her, supported her, and given her plan her approval. An action which, even in light of what she proposed to do, carried a great deal of weight with her people.
"You want to know why," Laera spoke softly, seeming to discern her thoughts with unnerving ease. "Donít you."
Xena trained her gaze on Calli, the young councillor who argued fiercely over some comment, and took another sip of the water before nodding. She heard the other woman let out a sigh.
"Seeing you again has not been easy for us," she began. "But, I think you can see that for yourself. It took three years to really rebuild. Not just the town, but the lives as well. Though some never really recovered from their losses. The results of the fire wereÖ devastating." Laera paused, her voice tight and broken. She pounded a fist against her sunken chest and coughed roughly. "Damn winter weather," she muttered.
Xena accepted the cover up for what it was, and deigned not to notice the presence of unshed tears in her eyes. Nor the swirling knot of burn tissue that even after seven years had an openly raw quality about it.
"We survived and we carried on. We learned from our mistakes with you. Which is probably the only thing that prevented Stephicles from taking us in the first place, and kept us alive so far. We wonít be beaten again. I think many would rather burn the town, and Athena's tribute along with it, than see another warlord strip from us all that weíve worked so hard to restore." Laera turned and placed a weathered hand on the warrior's arm to draw the attention of those relentlessly fierce blue eyes to the flinty hardness of her own.
"Those that survived the attack drew closer together, first out of necessity, than out of a true feeling of community, of family. Those councillors with whom I share the responsibility of guiding and protecting the people are as much my children as my own were," she said gesturing to the circle of men and women passionately arguing their points of view to one another, a look of loving pride on her face. "Mind you, they squabble almost as much." She paused to tuck a stray lock of grey hair back behind one ear before continuing.
"We have been changed. For good or ill, it is done and we can only go on as best we may. There is strength there, and endurance, and a value and appreciation for life that perhaps wasnít present before. But, some still carry their memories like a yoke about their soul, refusing to let go and move on. Some were too stricken by it all and drifted away. If we have grown from the experience, I must admit we have also suffered from it. Many are wary of strangers and of large groups, fearing deception and unprovoked attacks such as what we deal with now." Laera watched Xena's lips tighten as the warrior's gaze turned away to seek out the dancing hearth flames on the other side of the kitchen.
"But, as I have witnessed the changes in my own people, so I must accept that the same was possible of you as well." The sure and quiet statement drew the warrior's attention immediately back. For once the older womanís tone took on the semblance of the grandmotherly looking woman she appeared to be, and her voice was gentle and sincere.
"The situation was, and still is, dire. With so much at stake I was almost willing to try anything when you appeared. I remember what you were and, unwilling to take a chance, I was going to have you tossed in a cell, truth be told," Laera told her bluntly. "It was your friend who convinced me though, and not by her story either, though she is quite talented even when exhausted and bleeding. Rather, it was her fiercely passionate defence of you. Her loyalty. Such unswerving devotion I might have attributed to infatuation, but what I saw in the corridor earlier this afternoon quickly disabused me of that notion. What is written on that girlís heart is anything but shallow hero worship."
Laera stopped a moment to gauge the effect of her words thus far. "I must say, your Gabrielle is very a persuasive and headstrong young woman. I could do little other than heed her, for both what she saidÖ and what she didnít say."
Xena studied the contents of her cup, outwardly calm, but feeling both pleased and uneasy at the womanís words as she recalled her own recent verbal slips. "Gabrielle isnít mine. She belongs to herself." She took a large swallow of water.
Laera watched the other woman with a look which suggested the warrior should know better than that, but left it alone. "She made me listen and opened my eyes to the possibilities. But, it has been your unflagging efforts on our behalf that have swayed me, Xena."
"I havenít done anything yet." Xena objected.
"No?" Laera questioned with a smile. "I beg to differ. The troops move with more purpose and confidence. The townspeople are better organised and, as much as possible, removed from harmís way. You and your friend have both risked your lives to protect and save people who have every reason to spit on you. Everything youíve done speaks to me of a woman with courage, integrity, and conscience. Your presence and actions have restored a measure of hope, and even if we fail, I can only thank you for what you have done, for what you have risked in helping us."
"I donít want your thanks," Xena said. The kind words hurt almost as much as Dimitraís curses. How could she ever be deserving of them? "Thatís not why Iím here."
"Donít you think I know that?" Laera spoke gently. "My people are not the only ones who have had trouble letting go of the past. I can clearly see how youíve changed and that is certainly all for the good. The remembrance of past misdeeds will only serve to prevent you from allowing yourself or others to repeat such acts. But, only in as far as it serves to help you atone. What good does it do to allow your past to consume you and destroy everything you are?"
"And what part of your life did I destroy, councillor?" Xena questioned harshly wanting an end to the conversation.
The words hit hard and for a moment Laera could only lean back and regard the warrior with sad, tired eyes. "The fire killed my daughter and grandchild. I was burned badly when I tried to save little Sasha. Apparently, I was overcome by smoke and in the end someone else had to rescue me. By then, my family had been burned alive, trapped inside their home."
It felt as though all the breath had been squeezed out of her body. "And them?" Xena croaked gesturing to the group still debating amongst themselves. ""Have they all suffered likewise by my hand?"
The councillor was clearly reluctant to answer.
"Have they?" Xena demanded, her patience with this long conversation running out.
"Yes, they have." The councillor answered simply. "In some way or another."
"Tell me." Xena whispered flatly. She had to know. She needed to know. As much as it hurt, it also built a resolve inside of her to see to it that it never happened again.
"I donít think-" the older woman began only to be abruptly cut off by the sight of the warrior surging to her feet.
Laeraís eyes narrowed as she regarded the growing tension in Xena as the warrior towered over her. She displayed no more fear now than when she faced the former warlord on the occasion of their first meeting. "Why do I get the impression that you enjoy flagellating yourself over this?"
"Fine. But I know they will articulate their experiences far more eloquently than I ever could." The old woman turned her attention back to the other councillors before Xena could say anything further. "Calli? Would you join us here please?"
The councillor in question broke away from the others and quickly approached the two women. "Yes, Laera?" She asked as she ran a narrow hand through copper curls.
"I have an awkward request. Would you relate how you were affected by the attack seven years ago?"
Xena watched the councillorís heart-shaped face crumble as memories too easily recalled came to the fore. Amber eyes glanced warily from Laera to herself, and she could feel the odd combination of enmity and reluctant respect emanating from the other woman.
"Itís alright." Laera reassured her, gently. "Xena asked to know."
Calli nodded and in slow halting words that gradually gathered steam relived the horror of watching her father cut down as he attempted to defend their home from Xena's army.
The young woman trembled in remembered reaction, the space of years having done little to dampen the emotions, especially now, when given the chance to confront the one responsible for his death.
One after another the councillors were called over to share their loss. Some were stone faced. Others were angry and bitter. Some broke down and wept, feeling the pain all over again.
At some point Xena had sat back down, her legs no longer able to support her as she took in each story and added it to the growing number of sins that blackened her soul. The warrior gripped the edge of the bench she sat on to hide the trembling of her hands, and gave each person her complete and undivided attention. She didnít utter a word in her defence. To her mind she didnít have one. This was the only opportunity they had short of executing her to gain some sense of satisfaction and closure from the horror wrought seven years ago. Each agonising fact was laid before her with stunning detail listing the villainy she and her men had been responsible for. Beatings. Murder. Theft. Rape.
And when the citizens had stood against her all those years she herself had ridden down the husband of one of the women in this room. In his memory did Europa take his place on the council. Xena flinched beneath the other womanís verbal onslaught but did not look away. Nor did she move when the woman slapped her hard across the face, leaving an angry imprint along the angled plane of one cheek.
Dimitra. Calli. Europa. Laera. Falden. Ortripes. Mikos. Sara. Heros. And how many countless others with similar stories? Too many. When the last had walked away Xena finally allowed her head to drop into her hands, her long hair thankfully hiding her face from view.
"Is that what you wanted to hear?" Laera asked. "Does knowing somehow make it easier? Or Better?" The elderly woman looked on in silence for a moment and felt a genuine pang of sympathy for the former warlord. "Xena, listen to me. You may not understand now, but just listen to me. Your struggle to find a way to make amends, and championing the side of good will perhaps move a few to regard you in a different light. Some of them may choose to forgive you. And that is a good thing, for both them and you. But the misery and guilt you inflict upon yourself for your past crimes will never end until you can learn to forgive yourself."
It brought back the eerie echo of another such conversation. ëÖand the only way to break the cycle is through loveÖ and forgiveness.í. Is that what Gabrielle had meant? "No." Xena immediately shook her head. "No. How could I? After all Iíve done?"
"Fine." There would be no getting through to her. Not now. Not yet, Laera decided. "I have another matter to bring up with you."
Xena scrubbed her face with both hands and turned to give the councillor her weary attention.
"I have a missive for you to carry with you. It will grant you safe conduct to Kozani council once you arrive. I am naming both you and Gabrielle as official envoys of Neapolis to represent our interests and request assistance to break the siege. The agreement between the two cities empowers us to request and receive aid in the event of such a situation. It should only be how much time it will take for all the bureaucratic nonsense to be dealt with before the forces are mustered."
In dealing with the nature of the problem again, Xena was able to focus herself on the mission once more. The politics and diplomatic part she hoped Gabrielle would be in some condition to deal with; since the thought of having to be patient and tactful was bound to make her feel like clobbering someone.
Laera looked about the kitchen, obviously in search of someone. "Where is that girl? There she is, the dear thing. Mira, come here please."
A medium sized woman with light brown hair walked over and curtsied before Laera, a small quirking smile on her round face. "How may I serve you, councillor?"
"Please, Mira." Laera laughed. "I havenít seen you look so respectful since the first day you arrived here. Why the change from your usually irreverent self?"
"Priestess Zoa reminded me in a manner which couldnít be ignored the value of obedient respect."
"She got you with the willow switch again, did she?" Laera raised one steel grey brow. "Is it working?"
"For perhaps another half hour and than Iíll be reverting back to my usual self."
Laera chuckled. "What a relief. Youíre much too young to be so serious and pretentious. Do you have the missive I asked you draw up?"
"Right here, councillor." From a pouch at her side Mira withdrew a leather scroll case. "Itís just awaiting your seal."
Laera unrolled the crisp parchment and quickly scanned the contents. Seeing everything in order she signed the bottom and affixed her seal to the wax Mira carefully dripped on the paper. With a small flourish, the old woman handed the package to the warrior. "There. See it and yourselves safely to Kozani, Xena. I donít have to tell you how important this is."
"No. I understand," Xena replied and stood up, carefully stretching the tension from her shoulders. "I wonít fail you."
"Give me no other promise than that you will do your best. You are but one woman, Xena. Remarkable, yes, but not invincible. Take care of yourself and your bard," Laera ordered her gently. "I want to see you back here as soon as possible."
"A week or so. Youíll know by then. One way or another."
The councillor gained her feet and put an arm around the acolyte. "Weíll be waiting for you. Good luck."
"You, too," Xena replied and signalled to Kiran as she headed for the door. It was a relief to be moving again. A relief to be out from beneath the all too perceptive eyes of Neapolisí eldest leader. With renewed purpose she left the kitchens, the captain trailing along behind her.
Xena closed the door to their room softly behind her and slumped against the solid wood, her eyes closing against the excruciating, soul-twisting pain. Gods, she was so tiredÖ and their storiesÖ how could she ever possibly atone for all that she had done to these people? Their pain was not something she had expected to have to deal with, to be touched by. How could anything she had suffered even compare? Their scars, their losses, the empty places in their lives, perhaps dealt with and mourned only to be dredged up again by her reappearance in this too similar situation. It was plain that being among them was a constant reminder of all the horrors they had managed to survive, to live through before. Because of her. To her mind, the only acceptable possibility would be to stop Stephicles from getting in. Or die trying.
After the intensely harrowing discussion and confrontation in the kitchen she had, with Kiran at her side, jogged out to the sewage grating in the unused section of a warehouse, and with her own ears listened at the covered grating to the steady chipping and sawing sounds beneath the surface. They were so close now. An hourÖ no more. She had run out of time. With final instructions and a doubling of the guard, all of which were armed heavily enough to make even Aresí eyes light up, Xena had headed back to the council hall and their room.
The warrior rubbed wearily at her eyes and then paused to lean her burden against the doorframe before moving to the side of the bed. In her sleep Gabrielle had pushed the heavy quilts away, her face pale despite the heavy flush in her cheeks. Dampening a cloth with the waterskin, Xena bathed the overheated skin, watching in concern as the flesh pebbled at the sharp contrast in temperature even as it soaked in the moisture.
"Hey," Xena whispered seeing the bardís eyelids flutter open. "Howíre you feeliní?"
Gabrielle grimaced as she opened and closed her mouth a couple times. "Gods, it feels like something crawled in my mouth and died," she responded hoarsely and gestured to the waterskin. "Can I have a drink?"
"Sure." Xena replied and helped her friend manage the heavy skin. "Drink as much as you can. Youíre pretty warm right now." Water trickled down the bardís chin in her haste to get water down her parched throat. Long moments passed until she finally pulled back, gasping for air. "Let me see your shoulder again." Gabrielle lay still while Xena pulled the robe away revealing the bandaged skin. Lifting the pad away Xena saw little to be happy about; the ruined flesh was still swollen, infected, and tender to the touch.
"How is it?" Gabrielle asked trying to see over Xenaís hands while she worked. When the warrior failed to answer, Gabrielle looked up to see the closed expression on her friendís face. "Xena?"
"Itís infected." Xena conceded finally. "Given how youíre hurt, Iíd prefer to leave you here, butÖ thereís no telling if or when Stephicles might break through andÖ I wonít leave you here to face that alone." The thought of what such an attack could mean to the people of Neapolis, the loss and devastation would be so much worse than what she had wrought. And GabrielleÖ she shuddered mentally, easily envisioning a horrific kaleidoscope of endings, all of which would only make death seem a blessed release in comparison.
"Leave me behind? Xena, what are you talking about? Have you found a way out?" Gabrielle struggled to bring herself out of the medicine induced haze to concentrate on what the warrior was telling her.
"I need you to get dressed. Iím taking you with me. It sounds as though the sappers are on the verge of breaking through the floor of the storage chamber." She was about to turn away when she felt a hand grip her arm.
"What happened?!" Gabrielle exclaimed suddenly as she reached out to trace the livid scratches down the side of Xenaís neck. She looked up into the warriorís eyes, noting the strain and the tightness there, before that too was buried beneath an impassive mask. "Xena, tell me. Whatís going on?"
"We donít have the time. Come on; get dressed," the warrior responded and rose to her feet. She retrieved the bardís clothes from the hearth and brought them to the bedside as Gabrielle struggled out of the robe. A pang of sympathy went through Xena as the bard groaned while trying to lever herself over the side of the bed.
How in the world does Xena do it? "Iím gonna die," Gabrielle muttered. She flexed sorely abused muscles, trying to alleviate some of the painful stiffness.
"Not today, youíre not." Xena replied, feeling herself react sharply to those words, as she pulled the bard upright. Not if I have anything to say about it. With deft motions a new bandage was wrapped around the bardís ribs and tied snugly in place. The bruise was finally showing signs of fading around the edges from purplish-blue to bluish-green. The likelihood of Gabrielle being able to fight worth a damn though was not high, Xena knew. The injured shoulder and ribs were impairments that would only worsen if Gabrielle insisted on getting into another tangle. Xena could only hope that this was as bad as it was going to get for the bard.
Though to her mind what Gabrielle had suffered so far was bad enough. And all my fault besides. If Iíd only protected you betterÖ or found some place to put you to keep you safe than this might never have happenedÖ She let tapered fingers graze the edges of the bruise still readily evident below the bottom of the bandage unintentionally tickling Gabrielle.
"Hey!" The bard protested and nearly fell over as she pulled away. "Do you mind? I thought you were in a hurry."
"Just making sure youíre awake," Xena improvised to cover her lapse. With help the bard was soon dressed again and ready to leave. Jerking a thumb over her shoulder Xena gestured towards the doorway. "Donít forget that on your way out."
"My staff!" Her fever did little to dampen her enthusiasm at having her weapon back. With ginger movements she grabbed the length of wood from where it leaned against the door frame and ran her hands familiarly along the grain. Even the strip of leather was still attached from the night they had climbed the wall. The sturdy material was tight and stiff from the rainwater, but as far as she could tell, still serviceable. She took a couple of slow, experimental swings and had to stop abruptly, her body protesting against even the most basic forms with the weapon. She made a small noise in her throat and stopped, allowing the end of the staff to meet the floor. One hand crept up to her shoulder, touching the wound in frustrated annoyance.
"Thatís about what I thought." She heard Xena drawl from behind her.
She turned the bard to face her, and put her own hand on the staff. "Look, I know youíre probably feeling like Tartarus right now, but I canít leave you behind. Itís just too dangerous. But, I donít want you fighting either, do you understand me? Youíll only make yourself worse, and your fever has me worried enough right now without adding anything else to the list." Xena reached out and traced her fingers along the sweat soaked tendrils at the bardís temple, brushing them back and out of the way. "So, when we go to the warehouse, I want you to stay back. Youíll be safer there - no arguments," Xena warned her friend, seeing the anger gathering in the green eyes. "At this rate I wonít even get my deposit back on you." The warrior brought her hand back to touch the stitches marring the sun bleached eyebrow presently lowering over the fever bright hazel eyes. She offered a smile to make sure Gabrielle knew she was teasing.
Gabrielle couldnít help it; the grin on Xenaís face was just too charming. "Forget it," she slapped the warrior in the midriff. "This bard is non-refundable. All sales are final."
"Over-priced merchandise if you ask me." Xena said looking her over. "And you eat more than my horse." She watched the bard digest this little comment and fought hard to contain her smile. Failing utterly.
"Not lately I havenít," Gabrielle pointed a finger threateningly at the older womanís grinning face. "But, Iíll get you for that anyway." She promised.
"Come on," Xena said, pulling the bard by the hand towards the door. "Youíll have to get me back later."
The storage chamber was lined three-quarters of the way around with two dozen of Kiranís troops. The shift had just changed allowing for fresh, not to mention eager, new soldiers to take position around the chamber. Boxes, barrels, and sacks had been moved out of the way, clearing a wide open space in the centre of the room to allow for greater mobility. Against one wall stood a dozen soldiers, darkly dressed, with loaded crossbows, while infantry obscured the walls on either side, heavily armed and so ready the room thrummed with barely contained energy. There was little movement and absolutely no sound from those waiting for an opportunity to do damage to the man who had made their lives misery for over two months. The need for silence was readily apparent; they could take no chances that the sappers might hear them and retreat. They had suffered too much already to allow such a chance to pass them by.
Gabrielle and Xena entered the chamber and quietly closed and barred the door behind them. At a hand gesture from the warrior Kiran moved to join them. Leaning over, Xena whispered to the captain. "Everything set?"
"Like you asked," the captain answered in a low tone. "Though I had a hard time ordering the last shift to leave. With the enemy so close to breaking through, they didnít want to miss out on the action. Hereís your crossbow, by the way."
"Theyíll see action soon enough," Xena assured her as she accepted the weapon. "Get into place, and close the lanterns." She watched Kiran move stealthily away and gesture to her troops to extinguish the remaining light. As the last of the light went out Xena pulled her companion closer to the wall near the door and behind a stack of wooden barrels. She put her mouth to the otherís ear, and whispered to her, "Youíll be safe so long as you stay here. And this time, you better be here when I get back." Xena pulled back and let the last vestiges of light glint off very serious eyes. "You understand me?" Feeling the bard nod, she pulled away and moved silently towards the wall where the others stood.
How long they waited there in the dark, she couldnít say. Her keen hearing was filled with the sounds of the soldierís breathing, the odd cough or sniffle, but it was the sound of the inexorable chipping that held her attention. Steady and rhythmic it was, like a heartbeat. On it went, until she was fighting the urge to pull up the sewer cover herself to tell them to hurry it up. All their hopes were riding on the next few minutes and if this didnít work, Xena knew she was about out of bright ideas.
The chipping stopped. Her focus narrowed again. Silence. A sudden scrapping at the underside of the grating. "This is it," A muffled voice from beneath the planking. "Hand me the axe." Moments later the sound of a solid pounding came from below. Rusted metal eventually gave way beneath the forceful blows allowing light to trickle through from below to cast rippling shadows across the ceiling.
The troops of Kiranís guard instinctively pulled back and tried to become part of the shadows, their dark clothes hiding them from the light.
Two saw blades came through the crack and made quick work of the wrought iron grid bars leaving a hole in the floor wide enough for a man to enter without difficulty. "Thatís it. Secure the room." The voice was clearer and closer now as a tousled sweaty-faced man heaved himself into the chamber and then reached down to help another through. They pulled out swords and peered around the room. "Come on up." Four more men, equally filthy, appeared through the hole. "You have the lantern?" the tousled man asked the last one up. The lantern was lifted high, itís light throwing the room into sharp relief. He turned back to stare into the darkness . "Lessee what weíve got."
"Nothiní but trouble," Xena drawled from the far shadows. The unexpected response startled the invaders into frozen stillness. Which was just what Xena was hoping for. "Now!" And the snap of more than a dozen crossbow strings filled the air. The enemy prickled with shafts, clawing at them, falling over dead on the floor or back into the hole. The sappersí leader stood stock still and then bolted for the tunnel. The lantern fell to the floor and went out, throwing the room into confusion.
"Get ëem!" Kiranís voice rang out.
Muffled cursing and thumping could be hard over the jingle of armour and the clang of weaponry.
"Where is he!"
"Who has him?!"
"Ouch, watch it!"
"Dammit, someone get a lantern lit!" Xena yelled over the growing ruckus. One by one the lanterns were opened allowing the light to illuminate the room. A wiggling mass of soldiers had converged on the hapless sapper, holding him down by the overwhelming weight of shear numbers. Xena tossed aside her crossbow and strode over to the noisy, cursing pile of troops. "After all this heíd better be under there somewhere," the warrior said to Kiran.
"Alright everybody; back off." Kiran ordered. Slowly the troops disentangled themselves. Three of the soldiers at the bottom held onto the man for dear life having prevented the sapper from pulling himself back into the tunnel and freedom.
Xena reached down and helped pull the man to his feet. In rapid succession she applied the pressure points at the sides of his neck and watched him slump immediately to his knees. She knelt down on one knee in front of him and grabbed a fistful of sweaty hair. Pulling her hand back drew his eyes level with her own, and the warrior offered her usual disclaimer. "Iíve shut off the blood flow to your brain. Youíve about thirty seconds to tell me what I want or you die. What was the plan once you were in?"
"I ainít telliní you, you back-stabbing bitch!" He spat at her. They stared at one another for a moment, as she allowed him another moment to think about it. The blood was now running from his nose down over his lips and still he shook his head. Giving a frustrated sigh Xena released the pressure points. She ripped her breast dagger free, grabbed one of the manís hands and slammed it down on the floor to lay the blade against the index finger. There wasnít time to convince him nicely. "Talk to me."
"Go to Tartarus!" he shouted defiantly.
"Fine." Xena pressed down abruptly and was rewarded with a soft crunch. The man opened his mouth to let out a blood curdling scream but the warrior slapped her hand against his face cutting off the sound. "You can be stubborn nine more times and then I go lower." Eyes wide with pain and shock met hers and blinked several times in rapid succession.
"Xena, what are you doing?" Gabrielleís voice came over her shoulder, stunned and horrified.
"Kiran, get her back," Xena ordered roughly never letting her eyes leave those of the prisoner. She heard shuffling behind her and the squawked protest of the bard being hauled bodily away. "Now. What was the plan?"
"Stephicles has three squads waiting outside." The man whimpered through his tears. "Oh Gods, donít cut me anymore, please," he babbled. "Itís all ground forcesÖ the mercenaries."
"What about the marauders and mounted troops?"
"Heís holding them in reserve ëtil the gate is secure. I swear it!" He almost screamed seeing her grab hold of his thumb.
"Tell me your name."
The line of questioning confused him, but he was eager to please. "Cepheus."
"Good. And the catapults?" she demanded.
"I donít know," he responded quickly his eyes shifting around the room, distressed to find no one here whoíd likely feel inclined to pull this mad woman away from him.
"Why donít I believe you?" She leaned on the blade again drawing blood. He squirmed about trying to pull free and was immediately restrained by several enthusiastic guards.
"I donít know anything!" He cried out.
Xena switched directions. "The other tunnel. How far along are they?"
"They didnít use a sewer line. They dug a tunnel under the east wall, but it kept collapsing. The rain. It was too wet." He felt the knife bite deeper. "Oh-please-oh-Gods-stop-I-swear-to-Hades-I-swearÖ"
"Right. You tell him that when you see him," Xena said and then, burying her fist in his hair, whipped the knife deeply across his throat, even as she brought his head down against the blade. He gurgled once in surprise and then fell bonelessly to the floor. A dark pool of blood welled quickly around his dead body and flowed in steady rivulets towards the sewer grating.
She wiped her breast dagger on his pant leg and then returned it to its hiding place. "Alright," she said climbing to her feet and ignoring the dark, wet stains on the front of her black tunic where his blood had sprayed. "You lot grab the lumber from outside and prepare to cover the hole. Do you have the oil?" She turned to Kiran.
"Uh, yeah." The captain was still staring at the now lifeless body and the wet puddle of blood around it. Sheíd been in battle before, yes, had taken lives, certainly, but thisÖ this was cold. The hand on her arm startled her and she looked up into winter blue eyes.
"You knew what to expect," Xena reminded her flatly. "I warned you. Now hurry. Get the oil and wood."
"Right." She ordered the troops to bring in the new planks of wood, soaked from having sat out in the rain for the past several hours. The oil had been transferred to three skins, making them easier to carry. These were set next to the hole.
As preparations were made Xena went to the back of the room where two burly men were standing watch over the bard. All three wore identical looks of irritated anger. Seeing the warriorís approach Gabrielle stood again only to have the two guards close in and trap her in place. She pushed against them with no visible results. "Dammit, Xena. Call them off already." One of the guards look over his shoulder and saw the lean figure of the Warrior Princess behind them. At her nod, they stepped away, and her sharp hearing caught the muttered conversation in passing.
"What a little she-cat."
"No kidding. Iíll be bruised for a week."
If things hadnít been so serious she might have smiled.
Gabrielle was furious. And scared. That had to be the most brutal thing she had ever seen Xena do in all the time they had been together. It reminded her of that moment back in Stephicles tent, when she had planned the attack on Neapolis, her friend had disappeared somewhere behind the cold and dangerous visage of the Warlord. "Xena?" she asked warily, feeling as though she stood on uncertain ground, hoping this wasnít a stranger standing before her.
"Put this on," was all the other woman said before going back to oversee the preparations for closing up the hole. The warrior had handed her the least bloodied of the uniforms one of the men had been wearing, complete with armour and helmet. Not certain how to handle the situation, she did as she was told, pausing to replace her black tunic with the sweat stained grey one. With help from one of the militia she shrugged into the leather armour and sagged a little beneath its weight. She braided her hair quickly and stuffed it inside the helmet giving her a more snug, comfortable fit. The man helping her did up the chin strap and then gave a grin and a gentle push towards the tunnel. Uncomfortable and hot from the fever, Gabrielle joined Xena near the entrance to the tunnel just as the warrior was giving Kiran her final instructions.
"-and remember what I said. Nail ëem tight. And no matter what donít open it up again. At least not until this whole thing is over with, one way or another," Xena said forcefully. "You got me?" Her tone said there was no room for discussion.
"Yeah, I got you," Kiran responded unhappily. "Hereís the skins. And the flint." She handed the skins over and watched as Xena drew them over her shoulder and stuffed the flint into her cleavage. "Good luck. Get back soon."
"We will," Xena assured her. "Count on it. About a week."
"See you then."
Gabrielle watched in some confusion as Xena grasped the lip of the hole and swung herself down into the darkness. The bard gripped staff more tightly and turned questioning eyes towards the militia captain. "Whatís going on?" she demanded, her eyes glancing over to look once more at Xenaís victim.
Kiranís face flashed disbelief. "She didnít tell you?"
"No," Gabrielle responded with growing worry.
"Gabrielle, get down here!" Xenaís voice echoed eerily up from within the dark confines of the tunnel.
"Thereís no time. Best just listen to her," Kiran said and moved to help.
Gabrielle sat carefully at the ledge of the hole and was suddenly assailed by the fetid odour of rot and raw sewage. "Oh, boy." She muttered. This was going to be distinctly unpleasant.
"Gab-ri-elle!" Xenaís impatient voice rang from below.
"Best not keep the Warrior Princess waiting," Kiran whispered. "Good luck to you."
"You, too." Gabrielle said, and then with the help of the captain and one of the militia was lowered into the tunnel. Sure hands grasped her hips and braced her descent into the darkness below. Her feet met icy water, and she exhaled sharply at the unexpected sensation. But, what was more overpowering than anything was the stench. Gods help me, but Iím gonna retch.
"Catch," came a voice from above, and she turned her face up to the thin beam of light to see someone dropping her staff down to the warrior.
"Seal it up," Xena ordered and then handed the weapon over before brushing past the bard.
"Xena, whatís happening? Where are we going now?" Gabrielle demanded. The nausea was growing, and she had to swallow hard against it.
Xena ignored the question and peered into the tunnel, her sharp eyes never at rest. "Itís easier if you breathe through your mouth," she said suddenly. "Here."
A skin was pressed into her hands. Gabrielle stared at it uncomprehendingly, wondering when the warrior would deign to fill her in on the details.
"Pour out a steady stream of this as we go. Not too much at a time, but steady. You understand?" Xena asked, distracted.
"Yeah, but-" Gabrielle began only to be cut off by a sharp gesture by the warrior.
"Not now. We have to go." And Xena bent over and sidled into the tunnel, seemingly oblivious to the smell, the freezing water reaching up nearly to her knees, and the tight, disgusting conditions of the tunnel. A dark, slimy residue hung from the sides and top of the tunnel, and though it was heavy, Gabrielle was suddenly very glad of the protective barrier that the helmet provided. She bent over, and gritted her teeth against the discomfort the odd angle caused in her side. As directed, she began pouring out the contents of the skin, a thin, but steady stream that echoed through the small enclosure as it struck the viscous surface. She watched as Xena began pouring out her own share of the liquid, all the while moving steadily through the tunnel.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she began noticing the side tunnels, varying in size, that appeared as they passed. All had been covered in metal grates, most half plugged with ancient debris and human waste. The one they followed showed the evidence of the sappers passing; the periodic grates they stepped through had been cut away allowing for easier transit.
Their own progress was quick. Gabrielle could tell that Xena was definitely moving to some sort of personal agenda, but what that might be and why the warrior felt it necessary to keep it from herÖ Itís that trust issue again, she thought angrily. She wonít share it with me, because she thinks Iíll mess it up. Probably has plans to drop me off somewhere once we get free of the camp. Though how in Hades weíre going to manage thatÖ The frustration mounted, as she witnessed the growing intense focus in her companion, that single-mindedness that excluded all extraneous details but the ones of importance to the warrior.
Thatís how she does it, Gabrielle decided. Thatís how she keeps goingÖ nothing matters but the result, no matter what the cost. No matter what the cost to herself. She shook her head, concentrating once more on the even flow of the liquid falling from the skin. And the interrogation. Athena, help you, Xena, but what were you doing? He told you what you wanted. Why did you kill him? "Xena?" She broke the quiet between them, fully intending to find out the answer. "Can I ask you something?"
"Not now, Gabrielle." Xena growled over her shoulder. "Stay quiet."
Gabrielle frowned, but kept her mouth shut, wondering how this particular story was going to end up. Somehow I donít think Iíll be calling this one a comedy.
Together they moved through the tunnel, following the slights curves and open branches until the stale and rank stench was replaced by the slightest draft of fresh air. The exit was just ahead. Gabrielle saw Xena reach back for her and a strong hand settled on her arm, pulling forward until she felt the warriorís warm breath against her ear.
"Now, listen to me." Xena whispered, an urgency in her deep, velvety voice. "The next ten minutes are going to be absolutely crucial. Iím going to give the men the go ahead to begin the invasion through the tunnel. I want you to make your way to the stable and get Argo ready. Get Aren to help you if you can. Wait for me there. If anyone questions you, tell them that I sent you." Xena took the skin from the bardís hands and proceeded to empty out the remainder of the contents into the stagnant water at their feet. "Try and keep your voice low, like a boyís. And donít try and hide; just walk purposefully through the camp to the stables. Take apart your staff. None of their troops would use one."
"Youíre going to send them through? ButÖ" Gabrielle questioned, her concern mounting. No staff? What is Xena thinking?! "Where will you be?"
"Iíve got some unfinished business here, and then Iíll meet you at the stables." The warrior tossed the two empty skins into a side tunnel out of sight and then reached back to loosen her sword in her scabbard. She didnít think sheíd need it, but who knew what might happen. "If Iím not there in ten minutes you try and get away. Stay low in the saddle, and remember what Iíve taught you." All this was said in a cold and factual voice, devoid of emotion. "Head for Amazonia. Youíve got rite of caste. You know Ephiny and the others will always welcome you there. I know youíll take good care of Argo."
"Wait a second. Xena-" Gabrielle failed to get anything further out as the older woman clapped a hand over her mouth. Even in the poor light Gabrielle could still pick up the glint of blue eyes burning fiercely into her own.
"Ten minutes." The level of tension and menace in the warrior intensified, giving an ardent light to the cold eyes. The bard's gaze searched them, looking for the soul she knew, her best friend. Her heart skipped and clenched as she wondered if she would see the other woman again. "Stay safe for me, Gabrielle." Xena huskily whispered, a small quirk at the corner of her mouth cracked the cold exterior so briefly that Gabrielle wondered if she had really even seen it. And then the warrior was gone.
There were shouts from sentries spotting a form exiting the tunnel, and Gabrielle heard the warriorís commanding voice give orders and quelling the chaos her sudden appearance created.
Using the distraction provided, Gabrielle moved quickly to the mouth of the tunnel and peered out into the still falling rain. She slogged through the water into the poor weather, feeling vulnerable and obvious as she climbed over the embankment. Gabrielle shivered in the cold, but squared her shoulders and strode through the darkness towards the lights of the camp. A crawling sensation went up and down her spine. She hadnít realised just how much her staff had become a part of her until now. She felt virtually naked without it. Come on, bard, Gabrielle scolded herself. Xenaís counting on you, here. With cold hands she shifted the heavy breastplate, its weight chaffing her injured shoulder to just this side of unbearable. Gabrielle pulled the helmet further down, the nose guard helping to obscure her features a little more. With a confident lift to her head, the bard began a purposeful gait between the tents, allowing her gaze to linger casually on the sights as she passed. She prayed that she wouldnít run into anyone she know; trying to explain her presence would no doubt be a venture into creative fiction.
The other troops barely glanced her way, focusing instead on their own tasks. Thankfully her memory of the route was still clear, having only been thereÖ Was it only the day before? Hard to believe how busy weíve been.
A sudden explosion of sound and light erupted into the night sky, briefly illuminating the enemy camp. Gabrielle whipped around to see a vast pillar of fire flare up against the wall where the sewer tunnel emptied into the half frozen gully. Her jaw fell open at the sight and after the initial concussive blast died away, she could hear the screaming. Gabrielleís lips moved silently, fearfully mouthing the warriorís name. Shouts and cries shattered the quiet as troops ran towards the fire. Resisting the urge to run too, the bard turned and continued towards the stables. With an aching heart she prayed that she would see Xena again.
Focused. Intent. Determined. And utterly ruthless.
She was all these things and more as she emerged from the tunnel. The warriorís eyes flitted over the camp, its tents and sentries keeping their constant watch over Neapolis. With long strides she hauled herself over the edge of the moat and quickly bore down on the troops who were just now taking notice of her presence. One thing she had learned early as a warlord; make ëem think youíre in charge by acting like it.
"Whatís the meaning of this?" Xena demanded. "Where are they?" She grabbed one man by the shoulder and drew him to her. "You. Get the squads ready." Xena gave him a shove and then pointed to another. "You, get Ackrayus. Weíre waiting. The tunnel is open and we havenít much time. Cepheus is holding the warehouse. Now move!" The look of stark fury was not one the troops were going to question. Her presence became the centre of activity as troops and messengers converged on her position, her directions and orders forging chaotic order around her.
It was barely a minute later when Ackrayus showed up, out of breath and plainly surprised to see her. "How in Hades did you get out?"
"Iím glad to see you, too." Xena responded sweetly. "Get your troops in there. The grate is open and weíre holding the position. The guards I took out in the jail will be coming around eventually. If you donít get in there, Iíll be happy to let Stephicles know just who blew this whole operation to Tartarus for him."
The man snarled hatefully at her, but turned and began signalling to his troops to form up. It was probably the one and only time that she would ever thank the enemy for being so organised and disciplined. It took far less time than should expected, and with Gabrielle waiting for her at the stable she was going to be cutting the plan close.
In double file lines the squads moved into the tunnel with Ackrayus leading the way. She waited, her icy eyes weighing the men who moved past her. Minutes past, and just as she began to worry about the elapse of time, the last of the group entered the tunnel. She waited as long as she dared, watching until the last men disappeared into the darkness, before following them into the edge of the tunnel. She waited a few more agonising heartbeats before reaching beneath her tunic to retrieve the flint Kiran had given her.
She squatted down, and glanced about herself, relieved to see that there was no one immediately close by. She might have time to get out of the way without being seen. Two quick strikes produced the desired sparks and she stood and flung herself into a desperate leap as the stagnant gully erupted in flames. The long settled waste lying in the tunnel was instantly ignited. The flames, fed by the oil, raced along the top of the surface lighting the resident methane and causing it to flare to life even as it wrought a horrific and searing death for the troops trapped within. A column of fire roared out of the enclosure, carrying with it the screams of the dying.
As she huddled in the mud against a tent, Xena watched with an expressionless face as a few men, covered in flames, staggered from the tunnel. Even if they lived, which Xena doubted strongly, they would be hideously scarred for life. And they would likely never harm anyone again. With a savage grin of satisfaction she turned and swung the last skin of oil from her shoulder and hurried off deeper into the camp.
Kiran and the other guards waited, talking quietly amongst themselves as they did so. Every few minutes her second in command would throw more water over the double layer of wood covering the sewer grating.
"How long?" One of the younger militia asked to the room at large. "Sheís been gone for a while now. She said weíd know."
"You will. Donít doubt her." Kiran reminded everyone. Including herself. The things she had witnessed in the past day or so had been astonishing. They were so fortunate to have the Warrior Princess on their side. Because there was just no way that she could have so ruthlessly interrogated a man like that, or been willing to sacrifice herself so casually in this latest plan. I just donít have that kind of strength. She respected Xena, and admired her too. Though, she realised just how terrifying the woman actually was, knowing that what she had seen so far was probably just a scratch at the surface of what the warrior was truly capable of.
As if to prove her point, the floor they rested on trembled slightly. Conversation ceased as the troops came to attention, their attitude watchful and wary. There was a hard hissing sound, like a strong inhalation, and a sudden rocking of the building as a crash of sound echoed through the chamber. Cries and screams filtered through the floor. Violent scratching and clawing, though muffled was frighteningly audible from beneath them.
The barrier trembled, absorbing the force of what sounded like the scraping of fingernails and edged weapons against the wood from below. The shouts and yelling grew in intensity and volume, until they merged into one ghastly, inhuman wail of fear and pain. The shrieking stole Kiranís breath away, and she unconsciously backed away from the make-shift cover until the wall at her back prevented her from going farther. Her pale eyes were wide and she sat spellbound listening to the terror unleashed by their cityís would-be saviour, her breath coming in laboured gasps. Voices pleaded, screamed, called out for the GodsÖ
Öcalling in that never-ending howl Ö
Öuntil Kiran believed she would go madÖ until at last, the voices faded into an unearthly and chilling silence.
In the stillness that followed, the only sounds remaining were that of the ragged breathing of her troops and the soft sobs of those who wept.
"Okay," Kiran whispered hoarsely. "Okay. Weíre okay." She lifted a shaking hand and rubbed at her face. She looked dumbly at the moisture on her palms and wondered how it got there.
"Captain?" her second asked, shakily. Dalis reached out a hand and grasped his captainís wrist feeling the same kind of dazed shock that was mirrored on her face. "Captain? Are you alright?"
"What? Yeah." She shook herself visibly.
"Youíre crying," he said softly, and lifted a hand to catch a tear on the verge of falling from the edge of her jaw.
She rubbed at her face again and took a deep breath. "Iím fine. Everybody else?" Her voice became stronger as she gathered herself and stood to survey her people. Trying to convey strength to her troops she gestured for everyone to draw closer. Their expressions were haunted and shaken, still feeling to shock of listening to trapped men die and Kiran could tell that the meaning behind those deaths still hadnít sunk in yet. It would though, sheíd see to that.
Mustering every ounce of reassurance she could, the captain gave them her most sincere smile. "Some of you have taken this hard, but remember; Xenaís made a serious dent in Stephiclesí army for us. And that means weíre that much closer to seeing the end of this with our lives still intact. According to the Warrior Princess heís going to be royally miffed, so itís more important than ever that we stay on our toes, keep everybodyís morale up, and hold tight until Xena gets back with help. Youíre among Neapolisí best," she told them and was pleased to see some chins come up, a few backs straighten, their pride touched. "We can do this. We can. I know we can." She made sure to make eye contact with every one of them before speaking again. "I want all of you to stand down for a while and take a break. Jopos, inform the third shiftís leader theyíre on the wall. Dismissed."
Kiran turned to her second and began firing off instructions. "Get these folks something to eat. And have something really heavy moved over top the grating. I donít want to take chances that they might try this route again. Then get me an update from the wall. I want to know if he's going to try something else now that we've cut him off."
"Where will you be?" Dalis asked as he put his helm back on over his sweat tousled hair.
"I have to make a report to the council. Let them know it worked. Then Iíll meet you on the walls."
"It did work, didnít it," he said, with a grin. There was a new buoyancy in the usually serious and taciturn man who had become her other set of hands since she assumed command of the cityís militia. And if it had that effect on himÖ
"Yeah," Kiran said with a slow smile, feeling more relaxed and confident than she had in ages, if ever. "Weíve got hope again."