The screams still rang in her ears long after they had actually stopped. Xena shook her long hair from her face and stared down at the unconscious woman lying limp and unmoving, cradled tightly in her trembling arms. Her own breathing was strained in her ears and it took a deliberate effort to calm down. The depths to which she had been affected by the younger woman's pain had been something that she had never anticipated. So much like Thessaly...
And the moment she had released the pinch, Gabrielle's body had arched in shock as her body was finally permitted to feel the pain inflicted upon it. With no way to lessen the overflow, Xena could only hang on and attempt to prevent Gabrielle from ripping open the newly treated wound and damaging herself further. On and on it had gone, like a lost soul damned to eternal torment in Tartarus, until it had become too much for the bard's system to handle, and tear-blinded eyes had closed on an agonised moan.
Laying two fingers against Gabrielle's throat, she felt the jumpy and erratic pulse beneath her fingertips finally begin to slow and even out. Disquieted blue eyes took in the ashen complexion, noting the deep circles beneath the closed eyes and the even deeper furrows in the once clear brow. She eased the smaller woman down across her lap, still holding and supporting the narrow shoulders in her arms until Gabrielle's head rested against her chest. A single shaking hand lightly traced the treasured face, brushing the stray locks away, and touching the faintly parted lips. The callused hand lifted to caress a pallid cheek only to still at the feel of the deep heat of fever that still threatened, reminding her that the danger was not past. Not yet.
But, she couldn't afford to wait for long. Stephicles and his men certainly wouldn't wait. And the damage they would do... her mind conjured up the horrific images of her conquest of the city with the ease of long practice. Memories, raw and unfaded from constant probing, assailed her in all their putrid detail. Like unsettled ghosts, they haunted her. The echoes of screams and shouts and the clash of arms reverberated through her mind's eye, and closing her eyes tight did nothing but bring her crimes further into focus. The faces. The bodies. The dead and injured. They all intermingled with the brutal accounts shared with her from the victims themselves, their pain and anger and terrible hurt echoing again and again in the broken angles of her soul. How could I have done this? Why? A hard shake of her head cleared it some, bringing her back to the interior of the cave where a fire burned fitfully and her friend lay unconscious in her arms.
With careful movements, the warrior lay Gabrielle down on the sandy floor of the cave. Xena set up their blankets near the fire and then settled the bard beneath the warm material, wanting to avoid putting the younger woman's body under any additional stress. She added her own blanket over top and then tucked in the edges, determined that Gabrielle should be warm and dry. With any luck the added heat would help break the fever.
But, whether it did or didn't, she was still going on to Kozani. The only question was what to do with the bard. The semblance of a dark idea formed, created out of desperation. A deep part of her whispered that she could do it. It was safe here. There was wood, water, and she could leave enough food until she returned...
She clenched her teeth and raked frustrated fingers through her bloody and dirt matted hair, blaming herself all the while for Gabrielle's present condition. If only she hadn't toyed with those brigands, if only she hadn't taken her to Neapolis, If only Gabrielle had left her inside the house and escaped... Xena exhaled noisily and reached over to dump the soiled bandages into the fire. The flames readily accepted the offering and flared up, adding more light and heat to their shelter. Blue eyes lost in thought stared absently at the gauzy material that quickly blackened and rose piecemeal in firefly patterns to disappear against the shadowy ceiling above. What's done is done, Xena. You can only go on from here.
She already hated herself as it was; now that hatred could only be measured in a matter of the degrees of self-loathing. On one hand, three thousand people or more in need of desperate help. And on the other, a seriously injured woman who trusted, cared, and saw more good in her than she could ever dare believe was there. The two weighed heavily against her heart.
"I could help you make your decision, Xena."
The warrior ripped her sword loose and spun around, pressing the tip of her weapon against the God of War's chest. Her face twitched into an unfriendly smile. "I thought that stink was familiar."
"Tsk, tsk. Is this the greeting I get?" He glanced down at the indentation the sword was making in his skin.
"What do you want?" Xena asked, not moving
His eyes caressed her, taking in the intense air surrounding the woman along with the smears of blood and dirt, loving every detail. The strain of the last several days was readily evident in her posture and expression, and he could feel the tension radiating off her, she was so tightly wound. To his eyes, Xena was hovering on the knife's ragged edge, and it was a beautiful vision to behold. "You're in a tight spot right now. Stephicles' men are trailing not too far behind you, and their leader is peeved. He's entertaining himself by trying to come up with as many ways as possible to make you bleed without killing you, and I must say, he's inspired. And that's only you, by the way." He stroked a finger over one moustaches and then pointed towards the still figure lying by the fire. "When he finds out that Gabrielle's with you, he's just going to consider that a bonus for his men."
Her hard expression hid the stab of fear she felt inside. "Why are you telling me this?" She had learned the hard way not to accept anything, even information, from the pernicious deity without questioning his motives.
Ares carefully moved the bloodstained blade out of the way and took a step closer, his teeth gleaming in the firelight when he smiled. "I could help you."
"Help me?" she repeated incredulously. "When have you ever helped anyone but yourself?" Xena eyed him with suspicion.
He shrugged amiably. "Almost never, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Let me help you." He stepped behind her and cupped her arms in his large, warm hands to turn her slightly towards the young woman lying beneath the covers. Resting his chin on Xena's shoulder, Ares spoke quietly into her ear. "Look at her, Xena. You know better than most just how much pain she's in, and how gamely she's trying to hide it. She's going to slow you down, and get one or both of you killed in the process. Then Neapolis will be fair game for Stephicles and his men and, believe me, after barbecuing his soldiers you can bet he's not gonna be in too forgiving a mood when he meets up with that old crone, Laera. Even assuming you can make it to Kozani and back in time, you can't guess the outcome."
At his touch, Xena felt the tip of the sword drop into the dirt. The warmth of his hands was soothing, and she turned her dark head a little, feeling drawn to the seductive tones of his voice. Her eyes slipped closed when one hand slipped around her middle and held her closer against his hard chest.
"But you can win, if you're not burdened with worry about your little friend. I'll protect her for you while you save Neapolis."
Xena struggled free of the tangling mesh of words, trying to break loose of his insidious influence. "In exchange for what?"
"You," he whispered simply. "Come back to me, and I promise you she'll be kept safe from harm. Come back to me, and you can stop Stephicles with the might of an army at your back. You'll be able to save Neapolis, and wipe clean the debt you owe them." Ares could sense the battle that raged in her, the pull of the temptation as her agile mind considered the possibilities. "I know how it weighs on you, how the guilt gnaws at your soul and never lets you rest. You can make it right again. For the sake of the townspeople... for Gabrielle's sake, if no one else's... come back to me," he finished in an enticing murmur.
She knew he was right; with Gabrielle's injuries their chances were worse than slim, and all of them could die as a result if Xena insisted on taking the bard to Kozani and then back to the town. And there was no telling whether or not their allies would even assist them. Ares' offer was the only sure way of winning. The alternative scenarios played out in her head, each one with a grim and harrowing end. Her troubled eyes went back to Gabrielle as she weighed the risks. What could she do?
The warrior licked her suddenly dry lips, wondering if she were about to make a very huge mistake. Turning in his embrace, Xena cast her darkening blue eyes up to meet the even darker ones that watched her expectantly. It wasn't an easy choice. But, she made it, nonetheless. Indecision had never been one of her flaws.
The abrupt disappearance of the sensuous warmth that curled around her was like a dip in icy waters, and Xena shivered minutely in reaction. "Peddle your offers elsewhere, Ares; I'm busy."
The god pulled away, his handsome looks darkening with anger. "Last chance," he offered.
"It must gall you to have to play with second best these days, doesn't it?" Xena taunted. "Get lost."
His eyes flashed at the insult. "Have it your way. You and your irritating friend are dead, do you hear me? Stephicles will have my full support in crushing you into dust!"
Xena's laughter held an iron edge to it. "If he's so great, he wouldn't need your support in the first place, and you know it. Now get out of here."
The growl of fury echoed through the chamber for a long moment after the God of War vanished.
With the immediate threat gone, Xena let her shoulders slump, no longer needing the show of confidence and strength. So many obstacles yet to overcome, so many lives at stake, and she had thrown away a sure win in exchange for the chance to stay on that flimsy pedestal just a little while longer. You're a fool, she sneered at herself and pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead, hoping to hold back the headache that threatened. Just a sentimental fool.
Sparing the bard one last glance, Xena sat down on the opposite side of the fire to lean against the stone wall. Sleep pulled at her with insistent fingers, but as she often did, she shook it off and examined her sword instead. Blood and gore crusted the weapon from point to pommel obscuring the nicks and gouges in the otherwise well-cared for blade. The evidence of her night's work glimmered richly in the firelight, and she pondered the incongruity of it all as she turned the blade over in her hands. How similar I am to this, except, she paused to pour water over the sword and watched the blood run into the sand, my soul will never wash clean. She found a bone fragment stuck to the blade's edge and pulled it loose to toss it into the fire, and was suddenly angered by her unthinking casualness towards the evidence of the carnage she had created.
The anger sat and curdled her stomach and the sight of the blood on her blade nearly made her sick, an occurrence that had not happened in a long, long time. Her motions were coarse as she scrubbed at the stains. But, in the end it didn't matter. What she knew, what she had done was what might save their lives now. Monster or not, she would be the one to do it, not Ares. She knew what she had to do now. All it would take was focus. Xena glanced down to where the tip of the blade rested in the dirt to see that the sands had run with the blood of other men's lives. Theirs aren't the first, thought the warrior as her hands began the familiar strokes with the whetstone, nor the last.
There would be no sleep for her. Not now.
Xena wondered if she would ever truly sleep again.
"What have you found?" Demicles demanded as he eased himself out of the saddle. The scout ran to his side, breathing hard.
"Lucius sent me back to tell you we found a number of bodies. Outriders meant to patrol the perimeter." He gasped out. "They're all dead."
"Damn her to Tartarus!" He slapped his thigh with one gloved hand. He spun away and surveyed the trees in the darkness. "How far ahead does Lucius think she is??
"He's not certain. A couple hours at least, but the tracks are hard to read." Try impossible, but he wasn't going to tell his commander that, not with the look he was wearing right now.
"Show me the bodies."
The troop dismounted and followed on foot to the scene of carnage. Bodies twisted and mangled lay on the forest floor, their wounds hideously exposed, washed clean by the falling rain.
"Someone get me a torch." A moment later a weakly flickering brand was pushed into his waiting hand. He knelt by the side of one of the dead taking in the sight of the man's guts spilled on the ground and the ragged open wound where, clearly visible, were the cleanly shattered rib bones. He examined the scene with a clinical eye, grudgingly acknowledging the work of a fellow professional. The others had been dealt a quick death. A small mercy, really. But given who they'd been up against... Demicles figured they could have been the victim of a much worse fate.
"Commander?" the scout called to gain the man's attention. "There's one more over there a ways. Stabbed twice in the chest. Sir, the look on his face... like he'd been attacked by something escaped from Tartarus."
"He probably thought so," Demicles responded calmly. Six men had proved to be little more than an exercise for the Warrior Princess. Would eighteen be enough to take her down? He hoped so; he didn't relish becoming one of countless numbers to fall under her lethal sword.
"And, sir?" The scout broke into his pensive musings. "We've found what looks to be a second set of tracks. It looks as though she wasn't alone." Demicles stared hard at the young man, until the scout was fidgeting worriedly beneath the hard gaze. "Sir?"
Figures Stephicles wouldn't give me all the details. The furking son of a bacchae. Who's she got with her? "Tell the men to stand down. We'll take a rest and then be on our way." I knew this wasn't my day.
She awoke abruptly, disoriented and weak. Dark dreams clung faintly, though their substance and meaning had already begun to fade as she returned to conscious awareness. A film of perspiration coated her like a second skin beneath the pile of blankets and cloaks that covered her body and she felt shaky, ill, and hot. It's no wonder I dreamt of burning in Tartarus, she realised, brushing a hand against her damp face. I feel like I've been sautéed.
Though it took more effort than she expected, the bard managed to push the heavy folds down from under her chin. She had forgotten about her lack of clothes, but she sighed in relief nonetheless as the chilly air washed over her bare, sweat soaked body, cooling her almost immediately. Much like the stars at night, Gabrielle lay still and stared up at the rocky ceiling where her eyes sought out patterns and shapes in the firelight dancing over the cracks and bumps overhead. A heavy lassitude made even the slightest motion challenging and she abandoned any thoughts of getting up in the near future. Though how she was going to continue towards Kozani was a mystery to her. Her shoulder was a mess. She could feel it. But only because it was the loudest amongst the chorus of other aches she was presently experiencing.
If it wasn't for the fact that she was scared out of her wits for Xena in her present mood, Gabrielle would have been more than willing to stay put in the cave. Speaking of whom... her mind worriedly whispered. The bard swivelled her head slowly to the right scanning the interior of the cave for her companion. A sudden tugging on the covers made her start, and she twisted her head in the other way to see her friend above her, silhouetted against the flames.
"Xena?" she croaked, her voice husky and deep from harsh use. The warrior had at some point changed back into her leathers, the blood stained dark clothes nowhere to be seen.
Graceful hands drew the covers back up under her chin and tucked her in. "You need to stay covered up," was the stern response. The warrior briefly laid a hand across her heated forehead. The callused skin felt cool in comparison and Gabrielle couldn't help but lean into it. "You're still too warm, but the fever's finally begun to break." Reaching behind her, Xena produced one of their travel mugs. Its contents steamed fragrantly. "Here, I want you to drink some of this."
With Xena's help the bard swallowed some of the mixture. Whatever it was soothed her sore throat and dulled the constant roar of her other hurts. And surprisingly enough; it tasted good. "Mmm," she commented appreciatively, "what was in that?"
"A few things for the pain and fever, and a bit of mint for your throat," Xena replied as she withdrew to the other side of the fire. The steady glow of the flames cast her face in harsh angles and cutting lines, adding a hardness to her already serious expression. Blue eyes glinted as they regarded the bard, imprisoned by her weakened state beneath the weight of the blankets. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed and took careful inventory of her body. And concluded that her condition was just shy of utterly depressing. Green eyes flickered open a moment later and found those of her friend again. "I've been better," she acknowledged faintly. "How about you?" Maybe she'll talk to me now?
"Fine." The dark-haired woman lifted her one of her boots and bent to examine a tear she was in the process of mending.
Or maybe not. "Why don't I believe that?" Gabrielle commented quietly. She watched the warrior shrug slightly and the blue-eyes gazed steadily at the hands working the needle through the tough leather hide. "Xena, what's happening to you?" The bard didn't have a lot of energy, but whatever was left she was determined to use to draw the warrior out again.
Silence was her only answer.
"You were hurt. Worse than you told me. I saw how hard it was for you to swing at that guy back in the camp. And something else is bothering you. Why else would you shut me out? Unless..." A deliberate pause. "... it's something I did?" Gabrielle knew it probably wasn't, but it was as good a place to start as any. Blue eyes lifted for a moment to look at her before dropping to stare into the fire, the mending momentarily forgotten.
Gabrielle felt the quiet between them grow awkward and stilted. She regarded the ceiling again and let out a small sigh. Now what? Come on, bard. Think! Oh, wait... "There's been something I've meant to mention, but things got kind of hairy for a bit." Well, that's putting it mildly... "While you were out on the walls, I met someone in the council hall." Gabrielle continued on, recounting to the warrior her conversation with Mira in a voice gradually roughening into a hoarse rasp.
Attempting to share a little light-hearted humour with her dour friend, the bard told the acolyte's story of her most recent principle sins with the head priest in Kozani. If she thought she might get even a small smile from the warrior, Gabrielle was sorrowfully mistaken. Whatever nightmare held Xena in its iron clasp, its grip was unshakeable. She trailed off her narrative when she realised that her story was having no effect whatsoever. Is she even listening to me? Instead, she switched to a more pressing concern relating to the other part of her conversation with the ambitious would-be priestess. "Mira was also telling me about these dreams she has. Apparently she's a seer of some kind, and she said that ėdeath and hope ride within the storm'. Do you think it means anything?"
"A prophet, Gabrielle?" The warrior snorted in derision and returned to her mending with a shake of her dark head. "Probably not."
It's more than I've managed to get out of her in the last several hours. "But, what if it's important? What if it's a clue sent by Athena?"
Xena glared at her over the cheerfully dancing flames, her eyes glittering points from the reflected firelight. "Uh huh," she drawled in disdain, showing Gabrielle exactly what she thought of that idea.
Just like in the beginning. The only thing she hasn't done yet is grunt at me.
Releasing a tired, pent-up breath, the bard turned to stare out into the gloom of the far corner where the weapons were stacked. "You said that this place was yours, huh? It's great. From the outside I would never have imagined that there was anything in the rock face at all. Which is probably the point, right? The stuff over there looks like it's been sitting out for a while. When were you here last?"
Xena paused in the act of biting off the excess thread between her teeth to give her a terse reply. "Seven years ago."
Seven years...? Oh. She could have hit herself; how could she not have seen that one coming a league away? Without having to say anything further, Gabrielle realised that the warrior had used this cave at some point during her campaign against Neapolis. The bard tried to imagine what her friend had been like during that time, piecing together the glimpses of the darkness she had witnessed since she had begun her travels with Xena, the stories both from others and from Xena herself. And came up with a very scary picture. "Xena? I thought I saw dried blood by the weapons earlier. I was wondering... were you hurt back then?" Gabrielle winced at the agonised expression that breached the tough edges of the mask the warrior had donned.
"No," Xena spat out the word through clenched teeth. "Leave it, Gabrielle."
Whatever memory Gabrielle had triggered was only serving to push the other woman further away. Was it worth provoking her further? Her effort to draw out her friend could backfire. Dangerously perhaps. "Xena? I'm sor-" She broke off the beginnings of an apology as the light was suddenly blocked and cold blue eyes stared down at her from a distance that, at another time might have been pleasant, but now, only made Gabrielle feel a little bit claustrophobic. There was no place to back up to, and she was too weak to move away.
"You want to know whose it is, don't you?" Xena growled down at her. "Don't you?!"
Gabrielle blinked uncertainly back at the other woman, almost a stranger, with her sense of unease growing by leaps and bounds. "I-I-"
"Fine," the older woman interrupted in a hiss. And began relating a story that chilled the bard's heart. The usually inexpressive warrior found her tongue long enough to provide a chilling account of the events leading up to the blood spilled across the stones. Words were chosen with deliberate care, it seemed, to paint the warrior in a light as abhorrent as possible.
"I wanted information about Neapolis so we grabbed a few of the townsfolk and brought them back here. There was one who stood out more than the rest. His name was Pholus. Pholy for short; it was what his sister called him. Ash blonde hair. Eyes as green as summer leaves or clover, like yours. A little taller than you. A boyish smile that would melt a woman's heart. Claimed that since his father was gone, he was the man of the house. So I treated him like one." Xena let out a short, scornful laugh. "Rationalised to myself that it meant that I wasn't breaking my code to not harm women and children. Told him if he was helpful and didn't cause me trouble I'd spare his family. I taunted and teased him. Used him and insulted him, belittling his ėmanhood' at every opportunity. His restraint was admirable, but in a fit of understandable rage and fear, he finally made an attempt on my life. He failed, of course."
The warrior paused, shuddering to the echoes of some hidden memory, and sat back to bury her face in her hands. "How he screamed." Haunted blue eyes swept up and captured hers again. And she went on mercilessly, sparing neither of them, appearing to draw savage joy from tormenting herself with the detailed brutality of her past. As each moment unfolded in Gabrielle's imagination her eyes grew wider and wider until, "I pushed him off, turned, and drew." She gave a hard laugh. "My sword cut through his shoulder like butter; I didn't even feel it. His blood spilled everywhere, and the look on his face when he realised it really wasn't there anymore..."
The tears ran down Gabrielle's pain worn features. "No more, Xena. Please." She weakly reached out a hand to press shaking fingers against those lips, thinned from strain and anguish, to stop the nightmare from spilling forth. A strong hand grabbed hers in a vise-like grip making her gasp as her bones grated together. The cuts on her knuckles throbbed beneath the ungentle touch. "Don't do this to yourself," Gabrielle pleaded.
"No," Xena retorted sharply. "I'm not done yet."
"By the Gods, Xena. He was little more than a boy." She tried to pull back her hand and felt Xena grip her tighter. "Xena, please." Her panic was building; things were going from Drastically Bad to Infinitely Worse. Gabrielle let out a soft sob.
"That's right. If I was willing to do that to a child, what more would I eventually do to the rest of them? Is it any wonder they hate me? I'm a monster, Gabrielle. How could anything human do that? To a boy?" Her body trembled in rage and pain, her head bowing under the weight of guilt held too tight for too long.
Gabrielle tried to ignore the fact her hand was slowly being crushed, more fearful for her tortured friend caught in the tidal pool of her past than for herself. "Xena," she reached out with her other hand and laid a trembling palm against the warrior's cheek. "Xena, look at me?" Fighting her own desperate fear and fatigue, Gabrielle coaxed the warrior's eyes to meet her own.
"What you were is not what you are. Not now." The bard licked her heat-chapped lips and hoped to the Gods that her weakened voice could still convey all of her sincerity, her belief, her trust, to the other woman. "You are not a monster. I wouldn't be with you if you were. You are so much more than your past. You are your present, and the potential of your future yet to be realised. Don't lose yourself to this, Xena. Please," she rasped. "I can't bear to lose you." The grip on her hand loosened... and then fell away.
"I won't let what I did happen again, Gabrielle. I won't let Stephicles win. I can't." The rich, throaty voice was hoarse, strained with a mix of emotions barely held in check. Dark eyes slid to the back of the cave to see the ghostly images of a night long ago play themselves out yet again. "I'll stop him no matter what it takes. No matter what the cost."
"No matter what the cost," Gabrielle repeated softly. "No matter what the cost to you, you mean?"
Xena's eyes snapped back to meet Gabrielle's. "Can you sit there and tell me I don't deserve to pay for what I've done? You don't know a fraction of the atrocities I've committed." Xena slashed her hand out in a cutting gesture as she spoke. The warrior's breathing was laboured and she lurched to her feet to pace a few feet away. "It doesn't matter what happens to me, so long as they stay safe." She stopped suddenly and stared down at the weathered weapons lying rusted and pock marked at her bare feet. "No matter what it takes," Xena whispered ruthlessly, her fists clenching and unclenching by her sides.
The pain that grew in her chest that had nothing to do with her injuries. At that moment, seeing the tense set of the warrior's shoulders, there was nothing Gabrielle wanted to do more than to wrap her arms around her friend and hold the memories at bay. To hold out the world and all its worries... for just a little while. The bard cursed her weakened body and gripped the covers in frustration. "Xena," she breathed, holding her hand out to the warrior. "Don't do this to yourself. Please. Come here?"
Xena turned and regarded the outstretched hand, the muscles of her jaw rippling. She shook her dark mane and crossed her arms.
"We'll find a way through this. Let me help you." Gabrielle begged. "I can't stand to see you in pain." Something in what she said struck a nerve, because she witnessed an almost immediate change in the woman's expression. The deep lines of vulnerability faded away, replaced with the hard and stoic mask she dreaded.
The words hurt almost more than the tone of voice Xena used to utter them. "What?"
"There is no ėwe' in this, Gabrielle."
The words stole her breath away with the force of their impact. "What... what did you say?"
"As soon as the Kozani forces can be mustered, I'll be heading back to Neapolis to stop Stephicles. Alone. You're not coming with me."
"I can't believe this!" Gabrielle shouted, much to the detriment of her rapidly declining voice. "After everything that's happened. After everything that we've been through together. You're just going to leave me behind somewhere?"
"Don't you argue with me," Xena ordered her evenly.
Gabrielle somehow found the strength to lever herself up on her right elbow, the better to face the warrior. "To Tartarus with that! If you think I'm just going to let you leave me behind somewhere then you're sadly mistaken. I'm not going to let you do this alone. You're not alone, Xena. I'm your friend, remember?"
Silence from the other woman.
The frustrated bard raked a hand through her sweat-soaked hair. How could she argue when the other woman wouldn't even speak? "Gods, Xena, do you think I want to wait and worry that someone might come back only to bring me word that you've been hurt or killed? Or worse, no word at all? I couldn't... I... you..." Gabrielle fumbled with unfamiliar emotions, all too large and ill-fitting yet to make sense of, or express coherently. "Dammit, Xena, I care about you. Don't you understand...?" Her voice finally gave out to a gravel-like croak, and she collapsed back into the blankets with a groaning sigh.
"You're hurt and you're staying in Kozani," Xena said between clenched teeth. "That's all there is to it."
Gabrielle could only watch helplessly as the warrior turned and left the cave. On a ragged breath she turned her face to the wall and let her eyes drop shut against the pain. In the warrior's absence she finally uttered her deepest fear in a voice both weak and despairing, barely audible over the rhythmic drop of water and the sound of the fire.
"You said you wouldn't leave me..."
The grumbling of his men was anything but good-natured. The muttering was just loud enough for him to hear, as Demicles had no doubts that he was meant to. His men were afraid. They were supposed to take on a woman who had decimated a goodly portion of their army, made sport of six others, and had who knew with her? Eighteen men wasn't nearly enough in their mumbled estimations.
Demicles didn't give a toss what they thought. He wasn't going to accept failure any more than Stephicles would. And the longer they sat there the louder their protestations became. The commander kicked a rock out from underfoot. He'd had enough of this. "Alright. Shut up the lot of you. Bunch of whiners. If it weren't for the beards I wouldn't be able to tell that I've got men with me. You haven't even seen her yet and you're already pissing yourselves."
The men avoided his gaze, some with a sheepish expression on their faces.
"But, sir, the troops in the tunnel. Didn't she-"
"Enough. I don't hear snivelling excuses from cowards in my troop. Mount up. We're going after her now."
Under his dissatisfied glare, the remaining soldiers readied their mounts. As he took to his own horse, Demicles studiously ignored any sense of uneasy foreboding growing in his own belly. She's just a woman, he reminded himself. Just a woman.
He sure wished he believed that.
Xena stood over the sleeping form of the bard, watching the firelight patterns fall in undulating waves over one fair cheek. As ever, she lowered herself slowly to the younger woman's side and admired the burnished gold of her hair that, even bedraggled, made an enticing halo around her face. With a hesitant hand, the warrior reached out to stroke the fine strands, feeling the cool softness between her fingers.
She had walked for a time, oblivious to the elements, letting the rain and wind drive her where it would wanting, wishing, so much to be washed clean. Had she cried? Xena couldn't remember. She had wandered like a lost thing, adrift in the woods until the urgent weight of time brought her back here once more to the bard's side. The walk had settled her somewhat, but there would be no change in her plans. She knew that Gabrielle needed time and rest, both of which were in seriously short supply. But, the sooner she could get her friend to Kozani, the better. For all of them. She just had to focus.
Xena's impatience won out at last, and she gently shook Gabrielle's shoulder. "C'mon now. Wake up."
"...show you mine," the still slumbering woman mumbled.
"What?" Dark brows narrowed in confused interest before trying again. "Gabrielle?"
"Mmmphmm?" One green eye deigned to half open and look about. Seeing no imminent threat of warlords, cyclops, or villagers screaming for help, it immediately dropped shut. "Mmph." Her lips smacked once and she was gone again.
Xena moved away, refusing to allow the bard to engage her heart in this the picture of cherished innocence. The distraction was just too much. The warrior stood smoothly and used the toe of her boot to nudge the slumbering woman. "Gabrielle," she prodded again. "Wake up."
"Hmm?" Gabrielle murmured.
Another nudge. Harder this time. "Wake up," Xena said again, louder this time.
The bard's eyes flickered open and she started in surprise at the rude awakening. She stared up into the uncompromising expression above her and was filled with confused, sleepy fear at the unusually brisk treatment. It had been ages since the warrior had last used this method to wake her up, but given the expression on Xena's face, Gabrielle was hardly going to make an issue of it.
She swallowed hard and struggled to push herself upright, grimacing reluctantly in discomfort at the tender stiffness in her shoulder. In contradiction to all outward appearances of gruff distance, Xena dropped immediately back to one knee and helped to ease the bard upright. The gentleness of the warrior's touch belied the impassive expression that guarded her dark thoughts. But, Gabrielle stared unabashedly as Xena eased the bandages away to examine the condition of her injury.
She saw there the almost constant clenching of the angular jaw muscles, and the dark discoloured circles beneath the other woman's compelling blue eyes. Gabrielle knew Xena felt her watching, knew it and used the minute and tell-tale signs to piece together what she could of the warrior's mood. Anger. Depression. Determination, certainly. Probably more tired than she'd ever willingly admit. Hang on here, Gabrielle fought the urge to lean in closer and wondered if she truly saw it. There was a look in those eyes that the warrior couldn't hide. Not from her. It was safe to say that Xena probably had no idea that Gabrielle could see it, understand what it meant, but she knew. After opening her eyes in that Thessalian temple, having just been carried in on a stretcher, to see Xena leaning over her telling her to just relax, there had been an unprotected look on Xena's face there was no way she'd ever mistake for anything else. Concern. And fear. And a deep guilt, not only for what already was, but for what was yet to come.
If it was true than perhaps she could still reach her friend. That animalistic frenzy and intensely frightening outburst last night had terrified her, and had made her wonder if the warrior might not be able to pull through this time. Not if I can help it, Gabrielle decided grimly. But, now was not the time. She would wait for her moment.
Xena felt the bard's eyes boring into her, watching her every move. It was unnerving, but she'd be damned if she'd give any indication that it bothered her. As they had since the moment they met, Gabrielle's eyes, like searching tendrils, flowed over her, looking for a hole, a crack, some way through the barriers she held up in a sad and weary effort to protect the bard from what she was and what she could be. "There," she said and pulled away. "I'll rig a sling for it."
"Alright," Gabrielle answered softly, still keeping her eyes locked on Xena. It was only a matter of a few minutes before the bard was dressed, bandaged, and cloaked again.
Xena prowled restlessly about the cave, cleaning up, putting their things together and stowing them in their bags. She stopped briefly by the bard's side and gave her some of the meal left over from Stephicles' tent. "We need to get moving," she warned the other woman. "You have ėtil I've readied Argo to eat, so don't dawdle."
Gabrielle didn't. Xena didn't make empty threats, and the bard knew that if she didn't listen she'd wind up eating in the saddle. Definitely not her favourite place for a repast. It was barely enough time to finish before Xena came to collect her.
"Wait a second," Xena told her, seeing Gabrielle trying to stand on her own. "I don't want you falling over." The warrior laid a hand along her cheek and beneath her bangs again, feeling the faint residue of an unhealthy warmth still emanating from her skin. "Okay, hang on to me."
Gabrielle slipped her right arm around the warrior's neck and felt a pair of hands grasp her firmly. She gave a gasp, her grip tightening reflexively when Xena lifted her quickly and easily, and felt the taller woman lean back to balance them better. Looking down, she could see just how far off the ground Xena held her. She tightened her grip further. "You don't have to do this. I can walk, you know."
"I know you can," Xena answered, using her elbow to shunt aside the skin covering the entrance and ducking a little to avoid the rock ceiling forming the rough doorway. Outside, Argo waited patiently, cropping the wet winter grasses underfoot. "This is faster, though."
A few quick strides brought them to the animal's side. It would take only a moment's effort from the warrior to put her in the saddle again, but Gabrielle gripped Xena's shoulder to halt her. Blue eyes looked at her questioningly. "What is it you're going to do once you leave me?" Gabrielle asked quietly. "What is it that you don't want me to see?"
Xena's head shot back, looking for all the world as if the bard has just slapped her. The look in those eyes was raw, and wounded, and they stared at one another for a interminable amount of time.
" ėNo matter what the cost', you said," Gabrielle continued. "You won't let what you did happen again, you told me. What are you planning to do?"
Xena could only stare at the bard, her mind racing to find a plausible response. "I haven't thought it through yet." She almost cringed at the knowing look thrown back at her from the woman in her arms.
"You're thinking of leading the Kozani forces yourself, aren't you?"
"We don't have the time for this now." It was an evasion, and a not very good one at that, Xena realised. The all too knowing gaze from Gabrielle told her that in no uncertain terms. Without further comment the warrior raised her burden high enough to grasp the saddle and hoisted the both of them onto the warhorse. It took a moment, but she got the bard settled again in front of her, cloaks wrapped firmly around them to keep out the chill wind that blew now that the rain had finally stopped.
"Fine," Xena heard Gabrielle's voice say from in front of her. "Not right now. But, we will."
The warrior didn't like the sound of that, but remained silent. With a firm tap to Argo's flanks they were on their way again, heading inexorably towards Kozani.
Kiran, along with the dozens of troops along the walls, huddled against the stonework as another wave of arrows sliced the air overhead. The whisking sound past her ear made her jerk in response, even as one of her men toppled against her, a long shaft embedded in his chest. Kiran grunted at the impact, and fell, the weight of the dead man pinning them face to face briefly on the catwalk. A face she knew.
Aeneas, whom she'd sparred with. Exchanged practical jokes. Gone drinking with. Fishing. Shared memories, and dreams, and hopes during their long nights on duty as recruits. Aeneas who'd shyly given her a flower last festival and danced with her much to the studiously ignored amusement of their fellows. Dear, sweet, silly Aeneas. Dead. His glassy hazel eyes stared in surprise at her, as if questioning this odd little turn of events, and the heat of his blood against her skin tickled at the thin wall tenuously guarding her sanity. It was not the time to let go the hysterical little giggle that threatened to erupt. That would never do.
Kiran pushed him aside and staggered to her feet, her eyes blinking hotly against the smoke, and two days lack of sleep. "Sichaeus," she yelled hoarsely. "Get him off the walls."
The trooper sidled over cautiously, and brought one of the others with him. "To the temple?"
"No." The emotions battered at her, threatening to break her control. "He's dead. Put him aside for now. Quickly." They nodded their understanding and unceremoniously dragged the body out from underfoot. The shaft was pulled loose and added to the pile of growing ammunition to be turned back on their assailants. The bloodstained arrow shone wetly in the new morning light. Kiran shuddered, and turned away, willing the bitter nausea gone by dint of will alone. There wouldn't have been much to bring up anyway; she hadn't eaten since Xena left, small consolation as it was.
"Captain!" A shout from down the wall grabbed her immediate attention. "They're making another try!"
Kiran snatched up her bow and was barking orders even as she ran the length of the parapet to the gate. Surrounded by militia, she peered cautiously over the wall to the sight below.
Stephicles' men had, from somewhere, produced a generously sized battering ram, roughly shielded from overhead attacks and manned by at least two score men, maybe more. Shielded archers provided covering fire as the monstrous weapon was hauled into place.
Not wasting time, Kiran tossed orders over her shoulder, "Get me a score of our best archers. Now! Set up an oil drum and heat it. And, Dalis, get the second rotation back up here. Hurry!" She shoved the man on his way and then fit a shaft to her own bow. "Shield me, Toman," Kiran snapped. Another militiaman stepped in front of her, sheltering them both as much as possible with his leather embossed buckler. With careful intensity she sighted down the length of her arrow and slowly released her breath. For Aeneas, you bastards. Almost without thought she loosed the bowstring and watched in satisfaction as one of the raiders collapsed, the shaft buried in his thigh.
"Fire at will. Pick and choose your targets carefully," Kiran called up and down the lines as the archers took their places, their shield mates close. "We don't have the arrows to spare, so make them count, people."
The exchange of arrows was quick and furious. Troops fell on both sides, leaving dangerous gaps in their lines. Kiran turned to call again for the second rotation when the squad pounded up the steps and past her to the parapet with the rest of them. She knew them all now, by face and name, and counted them off in her head as they ran to the lines. Young and old, she knew them. They were the backbone of their city, and she felt a fierce wave of pride swell her heart as they threw all they could down on Stephicles' men to repel them from the gates. The deep pounding of the rough hewn ram's head resounded off the gateway, shivering the stonework beneath her feet.
"Drive them back!" Kiran shouted above the cacophony of sound. She flinched and gasped as the throat of the man next to her exploded in a shower of blood, his gurgling wet breathes making her stomach turn in response. Toman scrabbled at his neck where the arrow ran through from front to back and he looked at her, begging her with his youthful eyes to make it better before he buckled and fell off the wall to the flagstones below. "Toman!" She reached out to grab him too late, and swallowed hard at his body hit the ground below.
Kiran bit off a scream at the sudden hand on her shoulder. She turned and swallowed again, trying to concentrate on what the woman in front of her was saying.
"They're scaling the east wall!" the militia-woman yelled.
"Dammit!" the weary captain shouted and pulled herself roughly together. "Dalis!" She raised her voice, hoping her imperturbable second in command was close enough to hear her.
"Captain." He seemed to appear from nowhere to stand by her side, as he always did when she needed him.
"Take command here. They're trying for the east wall. Send a runner to Laera, and warn her of a possible breach in the defences."
Assured that the gate was in the best hands possible, she took off at a dead run for the east wall, willing herself to get there in time. Troops cleared the ways for her as she sprinted past, a bevy of soldiers falling in behind her at her signal.
Even in the distance she could see the tips of the ladders swinging up and against the crenellations on the wall. The hastily constructed wooden structures wavered and moved as the raiders below ascended to meet them. "Gods' dammit, don't let them up!" she cried, grabbing a pike from a fallen comrade's cold hand. With a push and a grunt she caught the hook of the pike against the top rung of the ladder and shoved it away from the wall. "C'mon!" And suddenly the others were there, standing shoulder to shoulder with her, beating the ladders back. The numbers grew, greater than what her small group could contain, until at last Stephicles' men burst over the wall.
Throwing her pike down, Kiran drew her sword and rushed to engage. "For Neapolis!" she screamed and heard the call answered likewise by those around her. The clash of weaponry shivered up her arms, the resulting high ring sounded loud in the air. She gave a growling sneer and laid into the man, ducking beneath one swing and coming up beneath his defences to shove her weapon into his gut. She let him drop and allowed the trooper behind her finish him off, intent on the next invader coming over the wall.
The shouts and screams faded to an unearthly and perfect silence leaving her with only the vision of events in breathtaking detail. The stinging burn of her wounds were as nothing; only the rise and fall of her blade against the fallible flesh of her enemy until none were left to stand would give her pause. The constant pound of metal against armour, against flesh. The rasp of her breathing in her chest. Cut. Thrust. Block. Swing. There was nothing elegant about it. Her gallant visions and dreams of war were ransacked and laid waste in light of the harsh reality around her.
She was aware that she had moved past the others and was surrounded now by the invaders. No matter. She would inflict whatever damage she could before they took her down. Kiran would not sell her life cheaply to jackals such as these. The young Captain laid into them, unaware of her constant shouts and howls of rage. How long she fought she'd never really know, but as much as she could, she ignored the leaden weight of her arm. Rise and fall. Hack and gore. Give and take. The violent dance was her world now.
A slice above her eye blinded but did not stop her. Kiran continued to battle, swinging her sword wildly before her. The swipe of one forearm cleared her vision for but a moment, and only the sight of one of her own throwing up a weapon to defend against her thrust broke through the focused haze. The panicked trooper was speaking, mouthing her name and sudden sound crashed against her senses, making her reel unsteadily on her feet. Hands caught her, voices called her name. Kiran felt herself lowered to the stone catwalk and the sword taken gently from her blood covered hands.
"Captain?" asked one.
"Don't stop. Don't let them over the wall," she got out, wiping at the blood on her face with a trembling hand. Hands held her down when she struggled to get to her feet. A voice called for a healer.
"Ain't no one to defend against, sir," said another. "They'd stopped coming after you gored the one with his own weapon and threw ėem over the wall. Took two of his pals with ėem. You killed or scared off the rest."
She blinked stupidly at him not remembering in the least what he was talking about. I didn't... did I? A vague memory of tearing an invader's weapon out of his own hands and skewering him with it came back in bits and pieces. There was so much blood covering her she wasn't certain what was hers and what wasn't. Kiran winced as practised hands laid open her pant leg and examined an ugly cut. "The gate. What's the status of the gate?"
"Secure, Captain," Zora murmured. "Lieutenant Dalis dropped oil on them even though it wasn't hot yet, and the archers set it on fire. They've pulled back. Stay still... please. You're hurt."
Kiran glanced up at the trooper's tone, and was hard pressed to miss the look of awed admiration pointed at her. The looks on all their faces. Gods, Kiran groaned mentally. I wanted their respect, but... She could already feel the distance growing between her and the people who were her friends. The sting of a disinfectant made her flinch sharply and hiss through her teeth. How in Hades did I get myself into this mess?
"I'll want ya to come to the temple, Captain," the healer said around the needle in her teeth.
"No," she replied firmly. "Sew me up and then see to my troops."
Zora began to protest. "But, Kiran-"
Kiran shot her a tight-lipped look and was marginally surprised at how fast the other woman shut up. "They're still out there. And I've got work to do."
"You're in no condition-" the healer began in protest.
Kiran broke in impatiently, "Am I gonna die of these wounds?"
"Well... no," the healer admitted wondering if the Captain were crazy. "But-"
"Then we're finished here." And she lurched to her feet, wincing as she put tentative weight back on her injured leg. Maybe if she told herself it didn't hurt, she'd be able to believe that in a couple of hours. "Zora, tell second rotation to stand down again. And inform Lieutenant Dalis that I'll be reporting to Councillor Laera. He has the command until I return."
"Yes, Captain," Zora said, returning Kiran's sword at the Captain's gesture.
Kiran could feel their eyes on her as she limped towards the stairway. Six days... six days, she thought to herself like a mantra. Six more days. Don't be too long, Xena. I don't know how long I can keep fooling them into thinking I know what the Tartarus I'm doing here.