Gabrielle sighed with relief when she entered the stable at last; by some stroke of luck or divine intervention she had made it that far without incident. With the camp’s attention drawn to the explosion and fire, she had worked a confused and worried expression on her face much like those worn by the other troops and followed Xena’s advice, moving steadily through the tents until she arrived at her destination.
The stables were for the most part empty, the mounted infantry having been ordered to readiness in anticipation of entering the city. Hope they’re really disappointed, Gabrielle smirked to herself. Moving with as much stealth as she could manage, the bard slipped from stall to stall until she found Xena’s mount. The palomino stood placidly, her golden coat reflecting warmly in the limited lantern light. "Hey, girl," she said and patted the animal’s hindquarters.
Argo whuffled in greeting and turned to look at her before returning to the hay in the feed trough. Gabrielle patted the horse once more and then grabbed the bridle from where it hung just outside the stall. "Hope you’ve forgiven me, Argo. Otherwise I have a feeling this is gonna hurt," the bard muttered as she sidled into the stall a little nervously.
"Hey!" a voice called out. "Get away from her!"
Panicked, Gabrielle turned and discovered the stable boy facing off against her with the business end of a pitchfork. "Aren, it’s me. Xena’s friend." She pulled off the oppressive helmet and let her long hair tumble haphazardly around her sweaty face.
Aren eyed her suspiciously and remained as he was. "Where is she then?"
I don’t have time for this. "She needs me to get her horse ready. Xena’s going to be meeting me any moment." Sweet Artemis, let it be true. "I’m short on time. She believes she can trust you." Gabrielle paused. "Is she right?"
She watched as he wavered for only a moment, before lowering the would-be weapon. "Does she really?"
"She certainly thinks I can count on your help," Gabrielle said carefully, hoping Xena was justified in her thinking. One shout from this boy and they’d be done for.
"Milady is the only one who seems to think so," Aren said, his voice revealing a bitterness out of place in one so young. "Give that here." He stretched out a hand for the bridle. "The way you’re holding it you’ll only wind up getting yourself tangled in it."
Wouldn’t be the first time. "Thanks. Where’s her saddle?" She watched him point with his chin to a tack room she had overlooked before slipping agilely into the stall and making short work of the bridle. Untouched yet by the changes of youth, his short, childish fingers were still efficient in removing the halter before convincing Argo to take the bit. He slid the crown band into place, and tightened it expertly.
Gabrielle found the distinctive saddle quickly and hauled it out while trying to think of other things to keep her mind off her shoulder and ribs. Like the food sitting in the hidden pouches in the straw. Her mouth watered uncontrollably and her stomach gurgled its displeasure. She growled right back and tried thinking about her ribs again instead.
Aren backed Argo out of the stall, took the saddle from her, and with practised ease dropped it on the animal’s shoulders and positioned it properly. Gabrielle watched Argo take a deep breath, bloating out her stomach in equine protest just as Aren tried to draw the girth strap into place. Oh, no. Come on, Argo. She knew Xena had a knack for this sort of problem when she needed to get going, but she had never been able to do it herself. The bard stepped forward to mention it, when the boy reached out and nudged Argo’s side with a fist.
"Come on, then, you," he said firmly, "none of that. Milady’s waiting on us, so suck it back in."
With amazement Gabrielle watched the warhorse, which normally wouldn’t suffer anyone but Xena, and maybe herself on a really good day, look over at the lad and give a sigh. Her muscled sides gradually deflated enough to allow for the saddle to be done up. Shaking her head, she gave the boy a huge smile. "I’ve never seen anyone but Xena get her to do that. How did you get to be so good with horses?"
He ducked his head as he ran his hands over Argo’s coat and shrugged. "I just like them. They know it, I guess."
Gabrielle hurried back into the stall and retrieved their bags from beneath the straw and quickly fixed them to the saddle. With a heavy heart the bard turned back to the boy and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I’ve got to go find Xena now. Things are going to be… rather dangerous around here for a little while. Try to stay out of sight. And, Aren?" She paused, reaching out to draw his face up, intent on making eye contact. Deep brown eyes looked warily back at her.
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Thanks for all your help; you are good at this. I’ll be sure to let Xena know how well you’ve been taking care of Argo for her." And maybe before this is done, we can get you out of here, and to someplace with a family to care for you, where people might appreciate you for who you are and not what you can do for them. She tucked the memory of his unabashed smile into a safe place and mounted the warhorse.
Clearing the stable doors, she directed Argo to an out of the way place still within site of the structure. The stirrups were too long for her, but she’d leave them the way they were, for when Xena joined her. And Xena would join her. She wouldn’t consider any other possibility. As she waited, she tucked her now soaked hair back into a pile and pulled the helmet back over her head, annoyed at how it only made the rain drip down her neck into her shirt. Time seemed to crawl and in the wretched weather she could only guess at how much time had passed. Were her ten minutes up yet? Doesn’t matter, she decided firmly, I’ll wait as long as I can.
On the tail end of those thoughts another flash of light ripped through the rainy darkness. Shouts and yells that had barely died from the first explosion rose in the wake of the second fire as one of the catapults erupted in flames, the rain doing little to extinguish the blaze. The storyteller’s heart rebounded from her worry, knowing that there was little doubt as to just who was causing all the damage. Her soul quivered gladly with the knowledge that her friend was still alive. Gabrielle blinked against the rain as she followed the progress of the soldiers who ran to put out the fire. The growing smell of smoke and a deeper, less pleasant smell that reminded her of charred meat, had began to affect the cavalry’s horses closer to the front lines, and she could see in the distance their efforts to bring their mounts back under control. Here and there a few bucked or bolted entirely, throwing their riders and bounding away from outstretched hands.
Gabrielle turned to see a large man, his dark hair straggled from the rain, one eye covered in a dark patch, its leather etched with an evilly glaring eye. "Why aren’t you with the others?"
"Sir?" She tried to keep her voice lowered, thinking of Andreas.
"Why aren’t you with the cavalry?" He approached and grabbed hold of the reins beneath Argo’s chin. The warhorse bobbed her head, disliking the stranger’s restrictive hold.
"I was told to wait here, sir." She saw the scepticism grow on his rugged face, his hand dropping to the hilt of the sword at his waist. Herself unarmed, the bard began to feel a sense of fear grow in the pit of her stomach. "And just who ordered that?" he demanded.
Gabrielle felt her insides flip over in relief. She watched as her friend emerged from the shadows and crossed her arms over her chest, looking none the worse for wear in Gabrielle's eyes for her recent activities.
"Xena," the man breathed in surprise. "I was led to believe you’d been captured."
"Brotuis betrayed us and I had no choice but to change the plans. Ackrayus has been killed. There’s a traitor in the camp and I was going to send out a messenger to call the raiders in to provide backup.
"I am commander of the mounted infantry. Not you." He jerked on Argo’s reins in emphasis, missing the narrowing of Xena's eyes. "You over step your authority, woman." He yanked on the reins again. "I don’t care who you are."
Argo, unused to such poor treatment, whinnied and tossed her head sharply. The sudden motion threw Gabrielle off balance, her helm falling from her head and into the mud below. In regaining her place in the saddle, the bard's hair fell around her shoulders giving Demicles a clear view of her for the first time.
Everything stopped. Gabrielle stared with wide eyes into that of the other man and watched as he realised what he was looking upon. "A girl?!" He swung towards Xena with an enraged expression on his face. "What is the meaning of this?!"
As the commander turned, Gabrielle took advantage of his distraction to lift her booted foot and drive it down into his shoulder with all her strength, loosening his grip on the bridle. The man let out a grunt, his arm momentarily numbed from the blow.
"Ride, Gabrielle!" The bard hesitated for the barest instant before squeezing her heels into Argo’s flanks, urging the warhorse into as quick a pace as she dared under such poor conditions. Even as she rode away she could hear the clash of weapons and hoped to the Gods that the warrior would find a way to meet up with her once she cleared the camp.
She laid herself low over the saddle as she rode through the remaining section of tents between her and woods. They pounded passes confused soldiers who stared at her as she rode by. A quick glance behind showed the marauders having been taken completely off guard by her sudden appearance. Together they cantered through the remainder of the camp almost completely unhindered.
Having broken free of the camp she rode for a moment or two, knowing that pursuit wouldn’t be far behind. Her eyes scanned the path back, looking for some sign of the warrior but it dawned on her, that with so many marauders behind her, Xena would be trapped and overwhelmed before long. A sudden decision led her to fit her staff back together, and with a firm hand to the reins, prod Argo into a gallop back along the way she had come. Gabrielle clung to the saddle, hoping not to be dislodged by the rough ride. The mare’s hooves kicked up furrows of mud behind them as the great warhorse dug in and hurtled back into the enemy camp.
As she had seen Xena do countless times, Gabrielle plastered a maniacal grin on her face and shouted at the top of her lungs as she gripped the staff tighter in one hand. The sudden reappearance of horse and rider threw the brigands into confused misdirected pursuit. "Come on, Argo," she muttered to the horse, and felt the golden mount respond as her muscles bunched and flowed beneath her. The surprise lasted only a moment and Gabrielle was forced to beat back the few soldiers reckless enough to attempt to grab at the horse’s saddle or bridle, while the rest were summarily dealt with by the unstoppable warhorse who merely trampled anything in her path.
She closed in on her objective, seeing Xena deeply involved in the fight. From even this distance she could see that though other man was not as skilled as the Warrior Princess, he was still good enough to be dangerous. Xena deflected a hard thrust and then used the man’s forward momentum to grasp the hand holding her opponent’s blade, swinging him around and off balance for an attack of her own.
And that’s when Gabrielle noticed it; the tiniest of hitches, a minute pause in the way Xena turned to lift her blade for the attack. Long experience in avidly watching her friend allowed Gabrielle to see that, from the way the warrior was moving, she had been hurt somehow. Fear nipped at her and she shifted her grip on the staff and reins to one hand even as she held out her right. "Xena!" the bard shouted to let her know she was coming.
The warrior glanced her way and her brow jumped in surprise. The image of the diminutive bard clinging to the warhorse and bearing down on her at full speed was bad enough. But it was the sight of what looked like half the enemy camp following hotly on her trail that was almost enough to distract her from the fight entirely. She turned back in time to duck beneath the other’s sword stroke, feeling the passage of the blade as it hissed through the air above her. Spinning on her heel, Xena reversed her sword, thrust in backwards and felt the hard connection when it found its mark in the body of her enemy. Demicles groaned as he slumped against her, and grimaced as she felt his hot breath against her neck. Disgusted, she quickly jerked her weapon free and shoved him away.
As the man staggered and fell to his knees, Xena shoved her sword home in its scabbard and broke into a sprint, pushing herself all out to come even with Argo. The warrior reached out one hand to grasp the bard’s while the other gripped the back of the saddle, using both to pull herself up and into place behind Gabrielle. "Let’s go!"
Gabrielle leaned low over Argo’s neck and felt Xena grip her strongly around the waist with both hands as the other woman gained her seat. Instead of taking the reins as the bard expected, the warrior brought her legs up snugly against her own and Gabrielle could feel Xena’s hands pull her body in closer holding her in a protective, sheltering embrace.
With the pressure of her legs against Gabrielle’s Xena directed Argo through the camp freeing her hands to pull her sword loose once more. Xena pressed Gabrielle down against the saddle horn to keep the smaller woman out of harm’s way as her weapon alternately dipped left and right, leaving a trail of dead and injured in their wake.
They broke free of the soldiers and, with a final spurt of energy from Argo, leapt over a rock formation, and sped away from the enemy camp into the darkness beyond.
"I can’t believe this!" Stephicles shouted at his men. From his vantage point at the entrance to his tent he witnessed the gouts of flame roaring out of the tunnel, the blistering heat blackening the city wall. Even at this distance, the billowing smoke issuing from the small hole carried with it the sickly sweet scent of burnt meat and fetid sewage to the rest of the camp. Perhaps fifty metres from where he stood, another column of fire raged, rendering the largest of his hard earned catapults completely useless. The efforts of his men to put out the fire were proving to be as unsuccessful as everything else of late.
The only thing working in his favour at the moment was the storm; he could only give thanks that the flames hadn’t spread to anything else at this point. He heard shuffling and a small cough from the two men behind him. Nader and Linus, two of his staunch commanders. Their infantry and archers had been dispatched already to contain the fire and assess and fix the damage if possible. He glared out into the night, deciding it was high time to let them know he meant business.
"Two months they’ve been hiding in there like turtles, and now this?!" Stephicles yelled as he threw his goblet at the guard standing near the door. The enraged general found the sound ofthe heavy pottery shattering against the unsuspecting man’s face rather satisfying. He ignored the soldier’s cry of pain as he turned on the two commanders in his tent. Nader and Linus tried to look anywhere but in their leader’s face. "Tell me!" he shouted as he backhanded Nader to the ground. Then pulled him up again only to plant his knee in the man’s gut. The commander dropped like a stone, gasping for air on the rug. Stephicles pulled back one heavily booted foot intent on making this as memorable a moment as he could for the other man.
"Ackrayus is dead," Linus spoke up quickly seeing that Stephicles was not going to stop beating on the other commander until someone gave him answers.
"How!" Stephicles left off kicking the hapless Nader and turned his attention to Linus. "How?" His voice dropped to a calm whisper that was almost more terrifying than his earlier temper. The light in his eyes, the wildness, was unlike any of the previous moods Linus had witnessed.
"The tunnel was a trap." Linus had to speak up to be heard above the sound of Nader’s groans. "Someone must have used oil. Set it on fire." He paused to swallow hard at the slight change of expression on the handsome face "It would have been an inferno in seconds. The gases…"
Stephicles tilted his head slightly and examined the man before him as though he had never seen him before.
"The two men who made it out are with the healer," Linus continued quickly. "But, Minos doesn’t hold out much hope for them."
"Who? Who did this?" Stephicles asked, stepping in much closer than Linus really felt comfortable with.
"My lord, I don’t… I don’t know," he admitted weakly. He had never seen such a display of temper before in Stephicles, and was quite unprepared for the flood of menace he felt directed toward him. The man had changed. Still the same intelligent, cunning and talented warrior who had hired him, yet… something was different. Even the men had noticed it, especially at the order to have those three men disembowelled. It had led to unrestrained whisperings among the troops. The excessive disciplining of the men had all of them on edge and wary, giving way to barely hushed mutterings of desertion and darker things, best unheard in the light of day. Maybe it was that they were so close to winning now that the soldiers had remained biddable to their commanders. Or maybe it’s just fear.
Stephicles eyes roamed over the tent, aware of nothing for a moment but his own thoughts. Of a sudden his eyes widened, and he spun around to look at the table covered by the map. In two short strides he made his way to it and slammed his fist down on its surface. The chakram was gone. "Damn her to Tartarus!" he growled. "I knew it! That bitch! She betrayed me! Me!" His eyes swept over the map and the rumble in his chest erupted in a growling snarl.
"Xena?" Nader croaked from where he knelt on the floor, holding his bruised chest.
"YES!" Stephicles shouted as he turned and kicked the man again. "Who the Hades do you think I mean?" He yelled at the form writhing on the floor. He paused, and abruptly turned silent.
And to Linus, that was even scarier.
Dark eyes turned back to the map on the table, scanning the terrain with a practised eye. "Alright. I want her found and returned to me. I could ignore the betrayal for the moment, except that she’s probably seeking aid for these stupid sheep. The nearest place is a few days from here. You." He suddenly turned and pointed at Linus. "are going to make certain she doesn’t reach Kozani. And if you fail me, I will hurt you so badly you’ll never sit on a horse again."
Linus believed him.
"Find Demicles. I want him to round up a score of cavalry and pursue the bitch. Hunt her down and drag her back here." He looked down at Nader. "How many of Ackrayus’ infantry did I lose?"
"All of ‘em," Nader grunted from the floor. "Close on to a hundred or so, minus the two in the infirmary."
"A third of the phalanx? Gods damn her!" Stephicles seethed. "Linus. Tell Demicles that he’s going after her. Pick some of your archers and send them with the cavalry. I want the two of you to stay here with me and help get this mess under control. Nader, I want the remaining catapults to give a constant barrage on the front gate. Check to see what the men’s progress is on that balista. Have them do as much damage as they can. And have some of the men construct a ram tower. I’ll have the stones pulled down by hand if I have to. I am so close." He walked over to a small table near the cushions and poured himself another drink, the other one having been lost when he nailed the guard in the face with the last goblet. He took a long pull, and walked around the tent, aware of how the other men watched him with wary fear. "I won’t fail because of your incompetence."
Silence descended upon the interior. The commanders watched uncertain whether or not to expect any further outbursts from their leader. The handsome young man, sipped his wine, and appeared deeply lost in thought.
"Milord," Nader interrupted. "The longer we stand here, the farther away she gets."
Stephicles looked over at the commander and finally nodded his head. "Send the search party. Maybe the outlying bandits we hired will run into her. If they manage to take Xena, I’ll even forgive them if they decide to kill the wench. At least her little blonde pet is dead," he muttered with apparent satisfaction. The general turned and saw his men still standing there. "Get moving. Except you, Linus. I want a private word with you."
Nader and Linus exchanged glances before the commander of infantry regained his feet and exited the tent, leaving the two men alone.
"I find it curious that we didn’t hear of this latest development from our informant." He turned his attention back to the commander, his good looks cold and angry. He balanced the goblet’s stem between the third and fourth fingers of his left and lifted his dark eyes to stare unrelentingly into those of the other, not allowing his follower to look away. "I’m waiting," Stephicles prompted quietly in a deceptively calm voice.
The hostility radiating from his general was causing a cold sweat to break out on his palms, his forehead. "Since Xena went over the wall I haven’t received any messages. The security was as tight as a virgin’s-"
"Spare me!" Stephicles snapped. "If I didn't still need you right now, I'd rip your heart out, so keep that in mind. I don't care how hard it is, you get those messages thrugh and keep me informed. Now leave."
Linus left the tent, a deep seated sense of relief nearly emptying his bladder for him. At the edge of the awning he surreptitiously wiped the sweat from his hands on his pant legs, and looked about him. Things had degenerated to the point that they couldn’t be certain that they would walk out of Stephicles’ tent alive anymore. "Glad that’s over," Linus muttered to his companion who was waiting for him.
"You said it," Nader answered, his hand moving to rub at his mid-section. "I don’t know how much more of this I’m going to take from that maniac."
"Quiet!" Linus hissed at him, glancing back over his shoulder into the tent. "With any luck we won’t have to worry about him for much longer. Things are going just as we want them to. Come on. We’d better get that search party together before he decides to use our guts for boot strings."
The guard, his tunic stained with wine and his face sporting new cuts, continued to stare out into the darkness, a grim smile on his face.
Stephicles took another swallow of wine, and allowed himself a moment to gather his thoughts. "You’re on the verge of losing your prize, you know."
A blue flash briefly lit the tent, and Stephicles could hear the sound of someone settling into the pillows.
"Nah, I have confidence yet. Things are still under control. Your plans for capturing her are exactly what I would have ordered."
"If you hadn’t counselled me to accept her help, I wouldn’t have lost all those men. We’d be inside the gods-be-damn town by now." The man reminded him. "I’m beginning to wonder if you’re losing your touch." He took another sip of his drink. The warlord never saw the blow that knocked him off his feet.
"Think, idiot! Do you really believe you would have made it into the town with Xena around?" the god castigated him. "You’re better off with her out of the way. Once you rip the doors off the hinges and get in there, this’ll be a snap."
Stephicles looked over his shoulder at the lounging Ares, a sour expression on his face. "‘Better off with her out of the way’? Your confidence in me is overwhelming."
Ares’ ringing laugh filled the tent.
They rode in silence for a time with nothing between them save the sound of their harsh breathing and the rhythmic pound of Argo’s shoes hitting the wet ground. The darkness, made worse by the continuing storm, was very nearly impenetrable, even to the warrior’s keen vision. The soggy ground absorbed the weight of the horse, and the remaining tracks were quickly swallowed and washed away in the driving rain. The only blessing to be found in this Gods’ accursed weather, Xena grumbled to herself, glancing back over her shoulder. She would push them as far and as fast as she dared tonight, and then find someplace to hole up for a few hours. Real sleep would be luxury for at least another week yet. For her anyway.
The leafless trees swayed and clacked together in the growing wind, and the lower branches slapped against them as they passed. The sharp breeze cut through their soaking clothes to settle in their bones in a deep, icy chill. Xena could feel the irregular shivering from her companion, but she didn’t dare stop yet; they were still too close to the camp to risk it. She reached back to pat Argo’s wet flank in silent commiseration with her mount. The warhorse snorted in return, and Xena knew that Argo was probably going to hold this one against her for a while. She tossed her head, flinging wet drops from her face, and concentrated again on the path they were forging. By her estimates it wouldn’t be much longer now until they reached their first destination.
Gabrielle huddled within the oversized armour, attempting to keep herself from the cold metal as much as possible. Her jaw clenched spasmodically. The pain of the steady rocking allowed the heavy armour to rub against the bard’s shoulder in an excruciating rhythm. Only sheer stubbornness locked the sounds of her hurt behind gritted teeth. Her feverish state rendered her dizzy and exhausted, leaving her vision slanted and unfocused on the path before them. That combined with the unpleasant sway of Argo’s stride was making her nauseous, but she kept it to herself, unwilling to burden Xena with so trivial a matter. She hung on though, her chapped hands gripping the saddle until her knuckles were nearly white, her body moving unevenly with the horse. Speed was important, and there was no way Gabrielle was going to let her condition slow them down.
The mare lurched just then, her shoes slipping on the wet, uneven terrain, causing the bard to tilt a little too much to compensate. Gabrielle slid to the side and would have unseated them both had Xena not pulled her in tightly. The armour dug in and she exhaled sharply when the breastplate pressed into her shoulder again. Gabrielle felt the warrior’s hand fumble for a moment with the reins, pulling back gently to slow their headlong flight into the forest. Argo eagerly complied and slowed to an amble, her heaving sides lathered with rain and sweat.
"You okay?" Xena breathed in her ear.
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes closed, trying to bring her laboured breathing under control.
"Hang in there," the warrior encouraged. "We’ll be there soon."
We’ll be where soon? The bard wanted to ask, but was content to allow Xena to deal with the details right now. She drifted, feeling an interminable amount of time pass before hearing the sound of Argo’s hooves splashing through deeper water. Heavy eyes sprang open as she felt her feet, already wet, become completely soaked as an ice cold stream swept up to her knees. She gasped loudly, gripped the saddle horn, and tried to draw her legs up out of the water.
"Easy now," Xena muttered, gripping both bard and reins tighter, her attention on keeping them from being washed away in the rising current. She could feel Argo shifting through the water, sometimes swimming, sometimes walking, often slipping. The flooded banks were a welcome sight as the warhorse heaved herself over the embankment onto firmer ground.
"Xena," Gabrielle croaked urgently unable to endure the discomfort any longer. "Please… get this stuff off me."
"Hold this." The warrior shoved the reins into Gabrielle’s hands and fumbled in the darkness at the unfamiliar buckles and hooks that held the armour tight to the storyteller’s body. Strong hands pulled the front and back plates away, while Gabrielle shifted slightly to help, her body feeling the abrupt release of the weight. "Ahh…" she breathed in relief.
"Give me a second here," Xena said, and twisting herself around she heaved the armour into the middle of the raging stream. The rough waters accepted the metal offering with barely a splash, the armour sinking almost immediately from sight. Satisfied, she reached down and fiddled with their saddlebags, finally locating the bard’s cloak. She shook out the garment and quickly wrapped the heavy wool around her friend’s body. Lastly, the quarterstaff was twisted apart and stowed in their packs. That done, Xena wrapped her arms around the bard again and they were moving.
Even through the cloak, Xena could feel Gabrielle's shivers. The young woman was slumped in her arms, but still fighting both horse and rider. The tension was more than evident in the taut muscles beneath her grip and Xena could only guess that the bard’s uneasiness with heights was the probably reason. Gabrielle's lack of balance in the saddle, however, was throwing them all off stride. After another particularly precarious jostle, the warrior changed her grasp on the bard’s waist. "Relax into me," Xena urged, murmuring into the bard’s ear. "I won’t let you fall. Just stop fighting it."
Gabrielle was wondering dazedly how in Hades the warrior expected her to do that when she felt Xena’s left hand leave her waist and slide down to press against the juncture of her hip. Through touch the other woman showed her how to settle and move with the motion of the horse. Without quite knowing how it happened Gabrielle began to notice how her body and Xena’s had seemed to meld together, rocking with the warhorse’s stride, feeling suspended somehow over the perfect point of balance between Argo’s shoulders. It was unlike any other ride she had experienced with Xena before. And with the feel of the warrior pressing against her, almost surrounding her, it was… Not something I want to think about right now…
"There ya go. You got it," Xena said, her tone tired, but pleased. "Easier on Argo this way."
"I’m so happy for Argo," Gabrielle got out, all the while knowing it wasn’t doing much for her peace of mind. Regardless, the more even motion was hypnotic, and the already worn and wounded woman’s body yielded to the strength and steadiness of the warrior behind her. Eyes gritted and heavy with lack of sleep faltered and closed, leaving the bard drifting in an uneasy slumber.
Feeling the bard going limp in her arms, Xena shook Gabrielle as firmly as she dared, not wanting to hurt her any further. "Hey, I need you to stay awake right now." The bard gave a grunt in response and blinked her eyes against the falling rain, attempting to straighten up a little to stay awake. If Stephicles’ men were to catch up to them now an armful of bard would put her at a distinct disadvantage. And they had enough of those at the moment. "Gabrielle?" Xena prodded the other woman again gently.
"Mmm," she mumbled in an unenthusiastic response. "Whazzup?"
"C’mon. Wake up."
"Are we wherever yet?" Gabrielle asked blearily wiping the rainwater from her chin. Would the damn stuff ever stop?
"Not yet. A few more hours and I’ll find us some place to stop for a while." She paused for a moment to direct Argo to a clearer path. I’m probably going to regret this, but- "Tell me a story?" It was the only thing she could think of to keep the bard awake and alert, and to be truthful, she needed it. Needed to hear Gabrielle's voice in this darkness. In her darkness. The pull was strong. So much rage and pain to fight against, to resist. I need you, Gabrielle. Need your light. Need your voice in my ears to keep me here.
"You want a story? Are you serious?" Gabrielle asked with suspicious incredulity. How often did this happen? Xena actually asking for a story?
Listen to her, thought Xena. Am I really that bad? Mentally reviewing the last few weeks she came to the unhappy conclusion that she probably was as guilty as the bard’s tone suggested. Have to work on that. If we make it through this one. "Yeah. Would you? Nothing about me, though, alright?" Please, Gabrielle. I need this.
Fuzzily the bard pulled herself together, even as she tried to get her head around the odd timing of the request. But, if she was up to it well- "Yeah. No problem." The strength of the bard’s voice picked up a little as her enthusiasm battled with her fatigue. "Um. Any requests, then?"
Anything, just please… "You pick. Just keep talking as long as you can." They would be on the road for a while until she could find her next intended stopover.
"Right. Okay." Gabrielle was up for this. Sure. "Well, I heard this one from one of the travellers passing through that last inn we were at, you know, about three weeks ago. It’s a local story from their village. He said that his mother’s mother told him of it when he was young. It’s a tale from the far north-west, farther north than Gaul, and colder than the isles of Britannia. And I will tell you the tale as he told it to me…"
A slow smile spread across angular features as the quiet voice breached the unlit places in her soul, long starved of the beloved woman’s golden voice. Her attentive ears fell easily into the subtle nuances and lilting cadences as the bard unfolded the story in soft tones. It drew her away from the nightmarish visions of Neapolis in flames, its people running, fighting, dying. Drew her to the here and now, and held her steady.
Xena pulled the cloak closer around the younger woman and then added her own cloak about them both against the rising wind. She angled herself to block the wind with her larger frame and then settled in to enjoy the bard’s story as they traversed the dark heart of the woods towards Kozani.
Hate was the only thing keeping him warm. The score of men behind him could curse and whine about the weather; he barely noticed it anymore. Hurt and humiliated by a woman, and demeaned in the eyes of his men, he was going to find her, and he was going to make her pay. For a long time. In front of his troops. And Stephicles would be lucky if there was anything left over for him to play with. Damn, that man to Tartarus for a fool. He rubbed at the blood stained bandages hastily wrapped around his side and let his teeth grind together. We should have taken the damn town and let her escape.
Demicles pushed his animal hard, unmindful of the dangers of a broken leg, or a lame mount. He was going to catch her, even if it meant riding every one of their mounts into the ground first. The bloodied gash on his side kept him focused, her name reverberating in time to the throbbing ache.
One of the scouts appeared in the darkness next to him. "What did you find?"
"I’ve found a set heading east towards the Peneus River. But, in this weather we might be too late. The tracks are washing away really fast."
"Follow them and set up markers as you go. We’ll follow those. Just try and track as far as you can."
"Yes, sir," the scout replied and ran off into the darkness ahead of the horses, disappearing almost immediately.
We’ll get you yet, Xena.
"-and the smallest of the birds, injured and unable to join his fellows, sought refuge in the arms of the great trees. Hopping to and fro, the little redwing looked for shelter from winter and the coming cold. A birch tree swayed in a dance with the wind and took no heed of the tiny bird’s request. Neither did the willow, nursing some deep and secret sorrow as it drooped mournfully over the rushing stream. And the proud, tall oak, soaring skyward, did not deign to notice the redwing limping awkwardly at its feet.
"At last," Gabrielle continued in a rough and tired voice. "The weary bird came to a spruce, tallest of the forest trees, which received him charitably and drew its thick-growing needles tight round him. A pine nearby spread its branches wide to shelter the creature more closely, and a dark juniper offered an abundance of berries to feed the bird until better days.
"The birch, the willow, and the oak paid for their lack of concern and inhospitality. When the winds howled after the first of the harsh frosts, it stripped them naked and shook them from their warm, summer dreams. Forever after, they would be vulnerable to winter’s icy blasts and face the snows as shivering skeletons, as a reminder of their lack of kindness. While the spruce, pine and juniper would remain always green." The bard’s voice trailed away into silence.
"Think it’s true?" Xena asked quietly, trying to keep Gabrielle talking.
"It’s a pretty little story," the bard responded in an equally soft tone. "But I think that most often people come up with their own explanations for the way things are because we just haven’t figured it out the real reasons yet."
"Is this more of your ‘people come from the sea’ theory?" Xena inquired indulgently.
"You’re such a sceptic. Keep this up and I won’t tell you how I think that the earth isn’t the centre of existence."
The warrior laughed. "I knew there was a reason I loved your imagination so much. Next you’ll be telling me that someday we’ll be able to visit the moon. Where do you come up with this stuff?"
Gabrielle sniffed and looked out into the woods. She yanked the hood of her cloak down further to keep out the rain, somewhat irritated with the warrior’s condescending tone. "Never mind."
"Hey-" Xena began, but stopped abruptly, her head whipping round, alerted by the sound of a weapon release. Her hand shot out and wrapped around the long shaft, ignoring the burn of the wood against her palm. With the other hand she pulled herself and the startled bard out of the saddle to land gracelessly in the mud next to the now unmoving Argo. "Keep down," Xena hissed and pushed Gabrielle against the side of a large tree. The bard landed clumsily between a pair of large gnarled roots. "Stay out of this one."
"Xena-" Gabrielle tried to get in, but the warrior was gone, vanishing into the pressing darkness, leaving her there to wonder what had happened. Shouts off to her left caught her immediate attention, followed closely by the sounds of weapons clashing together. Two screams and then silence. But, no sign of Xena. Gabrielle’s eyes swung back and forth, aware that they had most likely run into more of those brigands, and were not alone. She trained her eyes on Argo’s hooves and tried to concentrate on the sounds around her, picking up on what belonged, hoping to figure out what didn’t. Xena makes this look so easy. Above the sound of the rain and wind, she caught the faint irregular squish of mud somewhere to the right. Her hands clenched and she remembered that her staff was in the saddlebag. Frustrated and scared, Gabrielle felt around the ground for anything useful as a weapon. Her hand closed over wet leaves, dead stalks of grass, and finally a rock of significant size.
Her fingers grasped convulsively over the stone, her hearing locked on that sound, totally unaware of the danger looming up right behind her. The sudden rasp of harsh breathing made her gasp as she looked up over her shoulder, sensing too late the presence at her back. The shadow resolved itself into the shape of a man, a sword upraised, and an awful smile on his dirty, ill-kempt face. The instant before Gabrielle managed to gain her feet another shadow appeared from behind the first. The horrible leering smile dissolved into a howling rictus of pain when a sword erupted through his chest and stapled him to the trunk of the tree she leaned against. Wood chips and blood showered over her and she jerked in disgusted reaction. The shadow ripped the sword free and engaged another figure in the night as the first body hit the ground beside her, his surprised expression permanently etched on his face.
Gabrielle's breath came in ragged pants as she turned, suddenly remembering the sound she had been tracking before the brigand had surprised her. Impossibly large with lank streaming hair, the man swung an enormous axe easily back and forth with one hand, its double-headed edge humming with each casual pass. Her eyes grew wide and she backed up against the tree, slipping in the mud as she crab-crawled over roots and dead twigs, her rock clenched uselessly in one hand as she wondered how she was going to get out of this one.
The giant edged forward, grinning comfortably when he saw that she was alone and unarmed, the rock not even worthy of a second glance. He hefted the large weapon and brought it down in a lazy arc from over his head fully intending to split this little woman-child like a melon. Gabrielle rolled to one side and kicked out with all her strength, connecting solidly with the man’s right knee. Her time on the road at Xena's side had developed muscles strong enough to hyper-extend the knee outwards, spoiling his aim, and drawing forth an agonised shout while the bard continued to roll out of the way.
An ululating cry and a crunching thud landed the giant on his side next to her. Gabrielle took advantage of his momentary disorientation and struck him across the side of the head with the rock still gripped tightly in her hand. Someone reached out to grab her arm, startling her into action. Gabrielle swung round, her elbow extended, hoping to catch a piece of her opponent. Her arm was stopped in mid-swing, and held immobile while another arm encircled her neck.
She drew a breath to call out to Xena when a large hand covered her mouth, preventing her from making a sound. Gabrielle struggled, but couldn’t break free as she felt herself dragged around the side of the tree and pulled to her knees. A moment before she bit into the palm covering her mouth, a voice hissed in her ear, "Don’t you dare."
"Sthemna!" Her body sagged in relief.
"Stay quiet," the warrior whispered and slowly withdrew her hand. She relied more on her hearing and that innate sixth sense of hers to warn her of danger, her sight having been rendered almost useless. Her head tilted to one side, her eyes slitted while her body tensed in readiness. C’mon. C’mon! Where are you? Moments passed until she heard them.
"Where’d they go?" One of them muttered finally, giving away his position.
"Chi-ayiyiyiyiyi!" With precise movements she flung herself upwards into a somersault throwing herself over the heads of two of the brigands. The warrior let her knees bend with the impact of her landing, coiling herself to spring upwards again. She leapt and kicked out sharply, knocking one of the men back into a tree. In one continuous motion Xena dropped low and swung her foot around, sweeping the legs out from under the other, his footing already precarious in the slippery mud. The blade rang as she pulled it free from the scabbard across her back. With an easy spin of her wrist she twirled the blade in her hand and gave a throaty laugh.
The first man recovered and brought his own weapon to bear, swinging wildly. Their blades locked together long enough for Xena to haul off and tag him in the face with her fist. She ignored the stinging of her knuckles as she disengaged and then swung her weapon forward, cutting through armour and flesh, giving the brigand a more pressing concern to deal with. Ripping her weapon free from where it had caught in the brigand’s ribcage, she turned and waited for the last man to make his move. His eyes flitted once between her and his friend screaming piteously on the ground, before he dropped his sword and took off like a shot into the woods.
Xena took to the chase feeling the anger and excitement growing, until a growl of laughter erupted from her throat. The Warrior Princess was going to catch him, it was simply a matter of how long she wanted to play with him first. She could hear his ragged breathing and caught his desperate move in time to avoid the dagger he hurled back at her. She ducked easily, and sprinted forward, letting her long legs carry her fluidly over the uneven terrain. With a wild yell, she tackled him to the ground causing the both of them to slide in the mud to a bruising halt. The brigand was babbling now with terror, his hands clutching at his belt for the other knife housed at his waist.
He kicked out with his legs, attempting to loosen her hold and a solid blow connected with her right shoulder reawakening old hurts. She grunted aloud and was forced to release him while he crawled backwards, slipping all the while until an awkward twist brought him to his feet. When the man turned to run, she lunged forward and grabbed the back of his armour, flinging him down roughly to the ground. "Who are you!" he shrieked as he thrust at her with the dagger. The edge cut deeply through the side of her boot, making her grimace at the sting. But, otherwise, it had no apparent effect. "What are you?" he asked again in terror.
Xena ripped the dagger from his hand, grabbed his arm, and planted her knee against it, preventing him from doing further damage. Her other foot pinned the opposite arm into the dirt and she leaned in close, making certain he had a clear view of the dangerous grin lighting her face. "My name is Xena."
"Oh, Gods," he gabbled in recognition. "Please don’t. I don’t wanna die. Please."
"Bet the Neapolitans feel the same way. Just like the farmers. The ones you’ve beaten, and robbed, and torched. You’re a parasite, you cretinous piece of filth," she hissed. "How can you live with yourself? Given what you’ve done?" Who was she speaking to? The man on the ground or herself? She wasn’t sure anymore.
"I don’t… I-I can’t…" the man stammered, unable to pull free. His fingers wiggled useless and worm-like in the mud, numbed by the weight of the warrior on top of him.
"You won’t hurt them again," she told him softly. With a wild cry she drove the knife down with all her strength into his chest, once, twice, and felt his body buck sharply while he screamed his agony. She rode out the ever dwindling twitches until finally he lay still. Dark eyes clouded over and stared sightlessly past her into the heavens, the rain rolling like tears down his too-young face.
For a long moment Xena knelt there, glaring at the dead man and breathing hard. The man’s death had held a sense of satisfaction, feeding the fires of her rage and pain, yet leaving her largely empty at the same time. The emotions burned beneath the surface, roiling and moving, with each breath of air she took, threatening to engulf her. It wasn’t going to happen a second time. She would see to that. No matter what it takes. No matter what the cost. I’ll do it… I’ll pay the price. For Neapolis. For Dimitra. For Europa. For- "All of ‘em. Never again, you sonovabitch." Without a backward glance Xena rose to her feet, her thoughts focused and centred. She knew what she had to do. The warrior turned to head back to her companions only to be startled into stillness by the presence standing silently before her.
Leaning weakly against a tree with her mouth open and her features drawn, the bard was visibly pale, even in the poor light.
Gabrielle had followed her. Watched her. For how long? her tortured mind whispered, inwardly cringing in breathless, agonised self-loathing before the inner demons claimed her once more. The warrior’s expression settled and stilled, revealing nothing as the two friends stared at one another across a distance greater than the few feet that separated them.
"By the Gods, Xena," the bard whispered in horror, rooted in place, her eyes wide as saucers. "What have you done?"
Her lips pressed into a thin line, and her expression hardened. "What had to be done. We have to go." And she brushed past the bard without any further comment and strode quickly back to Argo.
Mutely, Gabrielle followed after her, uncertain and disturbed by what she had witnessed in the past few minutes. He was unarmed. He ran. You could have knocked him out… tied him up…something. And he begged you not to kill him, Xena. She clenched her fists tight so Xena couldn’t see the trembling of her hands as reaction set in to the cold and ruthless killing.
Her mobility hindered somewhat, she arrived back where they had left Argo, only to find Xena finishing off the other two brigands. The warrior was silent and efficient, and the only good thing Gabrielle could thank the Gods for was that Xena had made their endings swift and clean. She put a shaky hand to her face, wondering when it had all gone wrong. The warehouse? Or was it sooner than that? When, Xena? When did it happen that I was too blind to see it? To help you?
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena ordered as she remounted the warhorse. "There might be more around here somewhere." She held out a hand to draw the bard up, impatient to be moving again.
Reluctantly, the younger woman took the proffered hand, and braced herself as the warrior pulled her unceremoniously up onto the back of the saddle. The warrior nudged Argo into motion leaving the wrecked remains of human life behind.
He lost two men. By the time his troops had reached the stream the waters had already crested the banks, carrying with it the debris and branches washed away from the shore. The scouts had found the best route across they could, but to his mind, best did not necessarily mean easiest. Still, they forged across, pushing against the icy current. Most of them had made it without incident until one young man fell victim to a passing tree branch, its gnarled limbs catching and pulling him from his saddle to the frigid depths below. One of his fellows reached out to help, the others shouting encouragement over the sounds of the man’s frightened cries. The intentions had been good but the would-be rescuer’s armour over weighted him and dragged him under as well.
With a frustrated string of curses, Demicles ordered his men to leave behind any that couldn’t keep up. They were too few as it was to face the Warrior Princess.
Though at this rate, nature would kill them off faster than she ever would, he thought in annoyance. This was really not his day.
"There," Xena said at last, breaking the long silence a few hours later. She felt Gabrielle lift her head from where it rested against her shoulder to look where Xena was pointing.
The bard squinted wearily, trying to make out whatever it was Xena meant for her to see. The ground rose up sharply to end in a rock outcropping, its surface erupting from the hillside to expose the bare bones of the earth. Tangles of dead vegetation covered the rough surface, which in summer might be alive and fragrant with foliage and flowers, but now only looked barren and wholly inhospitable. "I don’t see anything," Gabrielle commented finally.
"Exactly," Xena replied levelly. She nudged Argo to the left for a brief time before reining the animal to a halt. The warrior scanned their surroundings briefly and then lifted a leg over the warhorse’s soaking mane to drop to the ground. Her lips twitched in a repressed wince as the cut on her calf broke open again, reminding her that she hadn’t dealt with it yet. It was a small annoyance, and hardly registered really, given all the other pressing issues holding her attention captive.
Gabrielle watched Xena approach the rock face with its clutter of loose stone and larger boulders. The warrior stepped lightly over the stones, pausing to kick a few out of her path, before stopping next one of the larger rocks. Gabrielle’s forehead scrunched, perplexed, as Xena leaned around both sides of the stone, running her hands over its surface looking for all intents and purposes as though she were searching for something. Just as the bard was about to ask what Xena thought she was doing, the warrior put her shoulder against the stone. Large hands gripped the irregular surface seeking firm hold and, with a deep breath, Xena leaned against the boulder and dug in, pushing with seemingly inexhaustible strength to uproot the massive weight.
Captivated, Gabrielle’s eyes widened at the display of sheer power. Body locked in its struggle, the warrior’s muscles flexed beneath the armour, rippling with effort. Under the sound of a grunting huff the sucking sounds grew louder as the soft mud reluctantly yielded its long held prize. With its release the movements became easier and the stone gradually shifted and moved until its own immense weight provided the necessary power to overcome its inertia. The deep reverberation of the stone falling to the ground shook Gabrielle even in the saddle. The concussive tremble was of no interest to Xena who drew her sword and suddenly pushed aside a network of vines, and to the complete astonishment of the bard, disappeared into the seemingly solid rock face. The bard started worriedly when she heard a scuffling sound emanate from entrance. "Xena?" she called out.
When she didn’t receive a response Gabrielle grabbed the saddle horn and swung awkwardly out of the saddle. Her legs almost gave out beneath her as renewed feeling coursed through her tired limbs bringing with it the uncomfortable tingle of pins and needles. For a moment she could only cling to the edge of the saddle, the dizziness making her head swim. As it gradually cleared she began to gingerly bend her legs, alternately her weight from foot to foot while she dug into their saddle bags for her staff. A few seconds later and she held the comforting length of wood in her hands allowing her to more confidently direct her attention to the dark opening.
Cautiously she stepped forward, careful of the slippery ground and loose rocks threatening to undermine her balance. "Xena?" she called out again, a little louder this time. Had Xena been hurt? Was there someone else in there? Waiting for them? Shut up, Gabrielle. If there’s someone else in there they sure as Hades know you’re out here now. Throwing back the edges of her cloak, Gabrielle gave herself more room to move, uncertain of what to expect. Licking her chapped lips she eyed the impenetrable darkness warily, her staff held tightly before her ready to swing or thrust if need be. Bracing herself, Gabrielle took a firm step forward into the darkness… and walked face first into a smelly, rotting animal skin. "Oh, gross," she muttered in revulsion and pulled back.
The hide was abruptly thrust aside and she was hit full in the eyes with blinding light. Flashing up a hand to shield her eyes, Gabrielle was taken by surprise when a hand grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. "Get in here," Xena’s voice ordered her. Blinking rapidly to adjust her vision, she looked around open mouthed at her new surroundings.
A cosy fire crackled and danced in one corner, its heat pulling her forward to stand gratefully before it. She knelt close to the flames and let her eyes rove over the confines of their shelter while trying to rub some warmth back into her cold hands.
It was deceptively large. One would never guess from the outside that a cave of this size was hidden behind the small stand of rocks on the hill. The floor of the cave was dry, sandy dirt which, given the condition of the ground they were used to sleeping on, was usually a reason to be excited. The sloping ceiling was at its highest near the cave entrance and gradually dropped until its jutting and cracked surface met the floor somewhere off in the semidarkness behind her. Over the sound of the fire she heard the steady and continual drip of water. Following the source of the sound she discovered a narrow crevice in the stone ceiling where past rainwater had come through, forming a deep basin of fresh, clean water in the stone beneath the hole.
The most curious thing about the cave to her though, besides the animal skin at the door, was the stack of aged wood near the fire, and the dusty lanterns lying unlit on a natural stone shelf. Not to mention the cache of rusted weaponry lying in an organised pile against one wall. Gabrielle reached out a curious hand, fingering the pitted surface of a sword, a pike, the warped shafts of a bundle of arrows. Her eyes roved over the collection, long abandoned here. To what end? For what purpose? By whom? Her thoughts roved and strayed, but always came back to consider the implications of the presence of the equipment here. And how did Xena know about this place?
About to return to the fire, her eyes chanced on dark stains, brown and faded on the stone next to the weaponry. Her fingers traced the spots, some large, most small. Dots and splashes of dark, dusted brown. Blood? Her brow crinkled as she stared and wondered. And what is that? The flicker of firelight caught the edge of something, reflecting off a darker, richer colour. Pushing aside a rotted scabbard revealed a sight that brought forth a gasp of surprise. Sacks, decayed and useless, had at some point in the past spilled its hidden contents into view once more. Dinars by the handful lay in the soft dirt, their minted surfaces scaled and coated with mould, but recognisable still. There must be hundreds! she realised in wonder, her mouth hanging open. I’ve never seen so much. Lila and I would lie awake sometimes at night wishing for a thousand dinars and wondering what we’d spend them on, but I never knew what it would look like… feel like… Her fingers trailed over the gold. What we could do with this… Never go hungry. Never sleep in the rain again. New clothes when we need them. New shoes for Argo… Her mind went on and on, cataloguing the possibilities, when a sound at the doorway caught her attention.
The skin was brushed aside admitting her companions into the warmth and safety of their temporary quarters. Xena pulled the hood of her cloak down as she led Argo deeper in the cave, shaking off the excess rain. The warrior removed her cloak and set it to dry on a peg Gabrielle had overlooked in her explorations. The saturated material hung limply next to the fire, steaming and dripping in the wavering light.
"Xena? Whose place is this?" Gabrielle asked gesturing to the contents of the cave.
"It’s mine," the warrior answered shortly and began to care for Argo. Without another word, she unbuckled the girth strap and pulled the saddle off the warhorse’s back. The animal whuffled, shifting and settling with a sigh. The bridle came next and was also set aside. Xena pulled the currycomb and hoof-pick from the saddlebag and began grooming the tired beast. "Sit by the fire and get warm. I’ll be done soon," she said, not turning around.
It sounded too much like an order for her taste, but Gabrielle was far too exhausted to make a fuss. She moved the short distance to where the fire crackled cheerily, and lowered herself to the soft packed ground with a groaning sigh. She curled on her good side and let the fingers of warmth trace over her. From her vantage point the bard let her half-closed eyes examine the interior of the cave again before falling on its long absent landlord. In the light of the fire, she could see the splatters of blood like gruesome decorations across the other woman’s body. Though dirty and scraped, the warrior seemed impervious to it all as she bent to lift one of Argo’s hooves. Finally, the ever present mask softened a little as Xena dug at the mud packed around the shoe and whispered to her attentive horse.
Gabrielle paused in her scrutiny a moment to tuck her arm beneath her cheek, settling herself a little more, before returning her attention to the warrior. Such contradictions of nature, Gabrielle contemplated, to be capable of the tender and gentle care she shows me and Argo, and yet she can kill from behind, gut a man, and stab a man in cold blood. And look at her… When Xena brushed her hair from her eyes the half-dried smears of blood around her face became more evident. Not a flinch. As if it doesn’t even bother her. But Gabrielle knew better. The warrior used the brush to give the tired horse long, slow strokes, murmuring soft words unintelligible to the bard to which Argo gave occasional whickering replies.
Gabrielle shivered and laid back next to the fire for a moment, feeling deathly tired and terribly alone. There was a place in her friend where she could not follow. A place that she had no window to see into. A dark place where Xena retreated that the bard could not find her way through to help her. This was different from Xena’s usual reticence or wordless silences where she had trouble expressing herself. This retreat was deeply intentional; Gabrielle was not meant to follow, or to know the thoughts and feelings of the warrior’s secret heart. The bard had made exactly two overtures to get Xena to talk after the fight. The first was met with a order to stay quiet. The second, and last, with a pointed request to simply shut up.
The shock and surprise were enough to keep her quiet for quite some time. But, that only made it worse. The uncommunicative nature of the warrior was nothing new, but the verbal isolation was difficult to accept. She had been completely shut out. And it hurt.
Her deep green eyes closed tight against it, wondering at the changes that had occurred in such a short time. First in the warehouse and then…
She had followed Xena, worried that the warrior might be ambushed and outnumbered if the other brigand was able to locate any of his fellows. She had followed, albeit at a slower pace, arriving in time… or perhaps, too late maybe, she amended… to see what had happened next.
The tracks had been almost impossible to follow. Instead she had relied more on sound. Yelling. Laughter. Animalistic growls. The sound of a man begging.
"Oh, Gods. Please don’t. I don’t wanna die. Please."
Hearing this she had quickly skirted through the trees still carrying her rock in her hand, startled by the sight which met her eyes.
"Bet the Neapolitans feel the same way. Just like the farmers. The ones you’ve beaten, and robbed, and torched. You’re a parasite, you cretinous piece of filth." She heard Xena hiss through clenched teeth. She could hear the anger, the rage. Even though the darkness was heavy she could see how the warrior’s body trembled with barely repressed emotions. "How can you live with yourself? Given what you’ve done?" There had been an odd quality to the tone of Xena’s voice, a shakiness, an uncertainty that frightened her. It was something she had never heard in Xena's voice before.
"I don’t… I-I can’t…" she had heard the man stammer in response. Gabrielle watched the man try and free himself, his fingers furrowing the mud, uselessly trying to dislodge the weight from on top of him. Xena had well and truly pinned him; one boot against his wrist and her other knee on his forearm.
"You won’t hurt them again."
It was spoken so softly she almost missed it. With a sudden premonition she had lurched forward seeing the strong arm lift a knife high in the air to bring it down with incredible force into the body below. Once. And again. The wild victorious cry mingled with the man’s sudden scream as his body protested the violent ending of his life. The warrior had hung onto the handle of the knife leaning in harder, ignoring the spray of hot blood, until the twitches gave way to unnerving stillness.
She had gulped for air, feeling as though she had run hard and far, but in reality having only covered the distance of two steps. The rock had fallen from her nerveless fingers and she was unaware of it, lost in shocked horror. She would have fallen to her knees had it not been for the tree next to her. For a long moment she had watched as Xena knelt there, her shoulders moving with each hard breath.
"All of ‘em. Never again, you sonovabitch." She heard Xena mutter with such cold finality that she feared. For whom, she wasn’t certain. She swallowed again as Xena rose smoothly to her feet and turned. Some corner of her mind had frozen in place wondering what Xena would do, would say, when she realised that she had seen it. All of it.
They had stared at one another for… what? An eternity it seemed. Had she seen a flicker of remorse? Of guilt? Or was it only the hopeful yearning of her imagination, of her faith in that part of Xena that had grown and professed to change from what she once had been? She wasn’t certain, in the face of the eyes that burned with such a fierce, dark light. That face, which had been cold and stark of emotion, held no recognisable sign of the friend she cared about more deeply than anything else in her life. "By the Gods, Xena" she had heard herself whisper, "what have you done?"
Xena's expression had hardened even further. "What had to be done. We have to go."
And that had been the end of it. No further discussion. Gabrielle let out a long breath and wiggled her shoulders to get a little more comfortable. It didn’t seem to make a difference though; no matter what she did, everything still ached. At the change in sound from the other side of the cave the bard opened her eyes and watched Xena retrieve a pan of water from the natural basin in the floor for Argo, and add a bowl of oats from their supplies next to it. Argo bent immediately to the offerings, almost knocking over the container in her enthusiasm.
With a last stroke to her coat, Xena gathered the brushes and stowed them away. She had felt Gabrielle's eyes on her the whole time, felt the heavy regard, the questions. The questions could wait, however; Argo had carried them far and fast, and she deserved more than to be left until last to be tended. Her care and condition were essential; Xena would never be able to complete this mission successfully without Argo. And that was the most important thing to her right now.
With calm purpose, Xena grabbed their belongings and moved closer to the fire, the blankets under one arm and the saddlebags in the hand of the other. She stood there for a long moment just looking at the shadows playing across Gabrielle’s face, at the lines of pain and worry that were engraved there. The urge to reach out to wipe those lines away, to ease the worry and fears was so deep, so desperate, she had to clenched her fingers to prevent it. What good would it do to comfort her, promise her everything would be fine, when she knew damn well that it probably wouldn’t turn out that way? How could she explain that there was no other way? Not if she was going to keep all of them safe?
The warrior dropped their things by the fire and then made a quick trip to the basin getting more than enough clean water for her purposes. In silence Xena lowered herself beside the bard and withdrew the medical kit from inside their bags. She placed the pan next to the coals of the fire while long fingers shifted through their supplies of medicines searching the inventory until she had the herb packets she needed. Hiding her dread behind a cool expression, she leaned over and brushed her fingers beneath Gabrielle's bangs to touch her forehead. The bard started in surprise, her eyes blinking into focus as they sought her out.
"Sorry," Gabrielle murmured as she took a breath. "I think I was half asleep."
Xena waited for the smaller woman to settle and then laid her hand against her forehead again. The rain had done little to relieve the fever that had held the bard in its grip since early that morning. Concern mounting, she tugged on Gabrielle’s clothes. "Get these off."
With the warrior’s help, Gabrielle pulled off the dead invader’s clothes and tossed them aside near the fire to dry. She was about to lay down again when a hand on her arm stopped her. Xena reached around and began undoing the laces on the front of her half-top. Gabrielle shrugged painfully attempting to get the top off, and got stuck halfway, her shoulder protesting the movement. The bard almost jumped out of her skin when she felt warm hands slide up her sides to ease the wet shirt over her head. Xena took the top from her and added it to the pile of clothes with a careless toss.
The clinical touch at her shoulder saddened her further. The contact, while gentle, was coldly impersonal and the hurt it caused had nothing to do with the injuries she bore. The soggy bandages wound round her shoulder were carefully eased away thankfully aided by their waterlogged state. Gabrielle felt the lightest brush of warm air against the nape of her neck when she heard Xena let out a harsh breath. "Is it bad?" she asked tentatively. She tried to see for herself, but the angle was wrong and the warrior’s hands were in the way, besides.
"Stay still," Xena told her more sternly than she meant to. The sight of the ruined skin appalled her. The skin was pulled tight around the stitches where the inflamed and infected flesh met at the ragged edges. Not a large wound initially, it looked much worse now than it had the last time she had looked at it. The pressure building beneath the surface had rendered the flesh white with graduated fingers of reddish tendrils stretching away from the wound. With one finger she gently brushed against the wound and heard the bard hiss in pain while the injury oozed fluid and pus. Would a poultice work fast enough to draw out the infection? It was progressing so fast. And the constant travel would only make it worse. The remembered effects of gangrene and wound poisoning whirled in a frightening circle in her mind’s eye even as she plundered her memories for another alternative than the one that most strongly presented itself.
Having felt no movement behind her in a long while, Gabrielle turned a little to catch the warrior regarding her shoulder with a worried and pensive expression. And anything that worried Xena was more than enough to scare her to death. "Xena?" she questioned in growing concern. Blue eyes lifted to her own and held silent communion there as dark brows furrowed and the angular jaw clenched and rippled with some unspoken feeling. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked again, her uncertainty and fear deepening.
Xena tore her eyes away and stared at the fire, where the embers licked and danced around the now bubbling pan of water, the steam mixing with the waves of heat. The worry faded to be replaced by stony resolve. "The cut is still infected and it’s worse. I think you can tell that without my saying. A poultice alone isn’t enough now. If I left you behind someplace safe and you could rest without moving much, then that and few other medicines would probably do it." The warrior paused and then turned to look the bard straight in the eye. "But, there’s no place I trust and there isn’t time."
"So-" Gabrielle tried to asked, but Xena continued on, interrupting her.
"It has to be lanced and cauterized," Xena stated with quiet finality.
The bard's face blanched. She had seen exactly what her friend was suggesting performed back in Neapolis. To Anna. It was horrible. And the stench… Gabrielle swallowed hard and whispered, "There’s no other way?"
"No," Xena responded shortly. No other way that would still allow them to get help and return in time to prevent Stephicles from taking the city. Gabrielle's shoulder, not to mention her other injuries, would need a few weeks to heal, at least. Xena didn’t have that time. Neither did Heros, and Laera, and Aren, and Kiran, and Bettina, and-
"There’s no other way." She would, short of allowing Gabrielle’s condition to worsen, do whatever it would take. Xena’s expression settled once more as her purpose reasserted itself.
"Now?" Gabrielle asked on an uneven breath. At Xena's nod, she lifted a hand to wipe away the sudden presence of cold sweat from her forehead. The warrior began preparing a mixture in advance and then set it next to the fire on a clean bandage. Gabrielle settled herself as comfortably as possible on the sandy floor at Xena's gesture while the warrior pulled the boiling water from the flames. The bard watched as the warrior drew off the heavy breastplate, pausing to remove the dagger from its hidden place, before setting the armour aside and out of the way. Her heart rate took a jagged turn upwards while Xena laid out the necessary implements and medicines near the fire.
Finally, after having sterilised her hands and the knife, Xena turned to face her trembling friend. "Are you ready?" Knowing the nature of the hurt she was about to inflict, Xena locked her feelings down deep, unable to afford the stifling emotions of fear and worry right now. At the bard’s murmured assent the warrior knelt down in front of her. "I can use pressure points for part of it if you want, but not on the whole thing."
"It’ll take a little while and I can’t risk doing permanent damage by leaving it on so long," Xena explained quickly. "Do you want to skip the lancing, or the cauterising?"
"Either way I’m gonna feel it afterwards, aren’t I?" Gabrielle pointed out fearfully, already knowing the answer. "I’ll skip the second part."
"Okay," Xena replied. Eyeing the way Gabrielle was breathing, she reached out to grasp the knot on the bandage still wound tightly around the bard’s chest. "Let’s get this off you; I don’t want you hyperventilating and passing out on me in the middle of it." The damp material yielded quickly beneath her fingers and she drew the cloth away. "Here. Bite down on this."
Gabrielle stared at the strip of leather the warrior held out to her and felt her stomach settle somewhere in the vicinity of her knees. With a shaky breath she took the leather and put it between her teeth. She saw Xena watching her and bared her teeth with a small growl for effect, trying to bring out some other expression than the resolute hardness that the warrior displayed now. To no apparent effect. Gabrielle let out a deep sigh through her teeth and readied herself.
"Here we go," Xena warned her, and used her breast dagger to split the strained stitches barely holding the wound closed. The moment she finished, the dagger was thrust into the embers of the fire.
The wound opened immediately beneath the firm pressure Xena applied against the sides, spilling forth a stream of sticky fluid and thick, yellowish pus. Xena ignored the barely muffled agonised cry Gabrielle let loose and deftly began cleaning out the infection. She could feel the bard alternately stiffen and shake beneath her hands as she repeatedly purged the wound. Warm water was poured over the cut to drain the residual discharge, until at last, the milky pus was washed away leaving clear blood to mingle with the water. Throughout the procedure Xena’s eyes frequently flicked back and forth between the wound and Gabrielle's face, tracking the bard’s condition.
Small droplets of sweat ran unnoticed over Gabrielle's furrowed brow, past tightly closed eyes to slip down the column of her neck to mix with the warm water. Her lips had curled back to reveal small, even teeth embedded in the leather strip, her facial muscles rigid with pain as the bard released a grating moan with each shallow breath. Xena felt her own body stiffen in silent sympathy, wishing there was some other way to help, to heal, but she pressed on knowing that distractions would only prolong the suffering.
Using a clean cloth, Xena dried the area thoroughly and then tossed the blood stained cloth next to the fire. "Done. I’m going to pinch the nerves now." She watched Gabrielle's head suddenly fall forward against her chest, the small shoulders quaking as the bard let the leather drop to the ground between them. "Oh, Gods, Xena. No more. Please?" Her voice was hoarse and thick from screaming. "I can’t."
Xena hardened her heart, unable to stop now no matter how badly Gabrielle hurt. "We’re almost there. Hang on now."
Laying her fingers along the exposed shoulder and upper back near the spine, Xena felt for the exact spot and then applied directed pressure to cut off all feeling. "Turn away, Gabrielle. Don’t watch." Green eyes looked to hers, trust and belief sitting there, in spite of all she had done and then turned away to stare at Argo.
With a settling breath of her own, Xena switched her position to wrap herself around the bard. From her friend’s left side, Xena draped one leg over Gabrielle's thighs while the other acted as a support from behind, her right knee upraised. Her left arm locked around the smaller woman from the front preventing any movement in the event Gabrielle tried to struggle or pull away. She drew the heated dagger from the embers of the fire, a cloth around the hilt to protect her hand from the heat, and she reasserted her grip one more time before laying the red hot metal against her bard’s pale skin.
Xena held on tighter when she felt Gabrielle twitch as the sizzling started. Her right hand drew the dagger up from the bottom of the cut laying the flat of the blade against the wound. The resulting cloud of smoke briefly obscured her vision bringing with it the sickly sweet smell of charred meat at close range. She dragged the blade carefully over the raw skin searing the wound shut before dropping the weapon in favour of the poultice prepared earlier. She slipped her hand under the bandage slathered with the mixture and quickly applied it to the newly treated surface. Several bandages were used to secure it in place before Xena slowed her movements and pulled Gabrielle back against her chest. Using one hand she reached forward and gently brushed the sweat soaked hair from Gabrielle's face. "I’m going to take it off now. You ready?"
"Do it," Gabrielle breathed before placing the leather strip back between her teeth. She thought she was ready, but nothing could have prepared her for the excruciating pain that exploded through her body the second after Xena released the pain blocks. She vaguely felt Xena tighten her hold, her attention more than adequately diverted by the white hot shards of pain radiating from her shoulder. She could barely breathe; it was so intense. In the overwhelming waves of pain, between each ragged accelerated heartbeat, did she become distantly aware of a sound so tortured she could only speculate on its origin. It was on some indistinct and shadowy level of awareness that she realise it came from herself before the darkness blessedly claimed her.