She floated, anchored in place only by the distant call of her name. The spoken whisper plucked at the very strings of her soul.
Gabrielle… I need you.
The cherished voice called, and the bard was anxious to respond. The need in her heart finally met by the one most needed. Not left behind. The warrior was here, and the bard was needed; that was all she had to know.
Yes, she struggled to say. I'm here.
"Gabrielle, I need you. Now wake the Hades up."
The bard flinched awake, and found herself back in the saddle, her smaller body tucked securely into the folds of Xena's cloak with the warrior's strong arms holding her in place. She took in a small startled breath and cleared her sudden disorientation.
Almost two days on horseback had sapped what strength she had left, and finally she recalled that Xena had taken pity on her by letting her sleep awhile. Not at first however; the danger of being caught by the outer ring of raiders was still too great. But, by Xena's estimations, they were close enough to Kozani that the danger would be minimal, and so the bard had quickly fallen asleep, claiming what rest she could, nestled securely against her friend.
Two days of brittle silences. It had been agonising, to say the least. Gabrielle wondered if she had confronted her too soon, but she had to let Xena know that whether the warrior took the most blunt route or applied her usual unorthodox approach to problem solving, the bard knew her. Ever the pragmatist, Gabrielle also knew that the warrior's principles allowed for the ends to justify the means. If not so much now, at least they had in the old days. And she was getting what amounted to an up close and personal experience of what previously had been mostly stories; intangible and distant as the clouds.
All attempts at conversation had been rebuffed. No, Gabrielle corrected herself. No, a rebuff implies that the other person participated in the conversation in the first place. She's ignored me. Or just looked at me and not answered. She was almost ready to start talking to Argo she was so desperate. But, these, the first words Xena had spoken in almost two days were like a ray of sunshine in her overcast soul.
"I'm awake," she answered blearily, trying to make it sound like the truth.
A scrabbling behind her and then a tightly bound scroll was thrust into her hand. "Here. I want you to read this before we get to the gates."
Gates? Gabrielle's head lifted and she was surprised by the view. They had finally left the deep woods behind, and sat now on a restive Argo atop a hillock with a clear view of the far off city. A wide road approached from their distant right, winding it's way through the rolling countryside which, in later spring, Gabrielle could imagine would be covered in deep green, knee high grasses and fragrant wild flowers. But for now it only looked muddy and dead.
There was little traffic; the weather was still too unfriendly to all but the hardiest travellers. Or desperate, added Gabrielle. "What's this?" She held up the scroll a moment before attempting to undo the leather tie one-handed.
"Passage into the city, an audience with the council, and a binding agreement for military aid for Neapolis," Xena responded shortly after coaxing a weary Argo into motion again. "If they give a piece of paper any credence, that is."
"So, you've read it?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, but Laera gave me the general gist of it."
The bard juggled the unwieldy parchment against the saddle pommel and ran tired eyes across the neat script, quickly digesting the obligatory wherefores, members of the first party and other such legal-speak with casual ease. Language was her thing, after all. Her eyebrows jumped a little at a particular passage, and wondered how Xena would react if she knew it had been slipped in there. "So, we're official diplomats?" Gabrielle asked softly, her voice tired but mostly recovered from her ordeal in the cave.
"You are," Xena replied.
Gabrielle considered the other woman's response in light of the past few days and attempted to find the best manner in which to frame her question. "Is there any reason you wouldn't be as well?"
She felt Xena shrug behind her. "You're better at it."
"I'd really like you with me, though." The bard waded into dangerous waters carefully, mindful of Xena's feelings. "Will they object to your presence?"
"If you're asking me if I attacked their town, Gabrielle, then the answer is ‘no'."
Ouch. So much for diplomacy. The bard couldn't see the angry expression, but she could certainly hear it. Straining a little in the saddle Gabrielle tried to turn to look up at her friend. "If you want me to do this, you have to give me all the information you can, and that includes how they're probably going to react to you appearing on their doorstep."
The warrior continued to stare into the distance, and didn't respond.
Gabrielle huffed out a small breath and blinked gritty eyes to refocus on the scroll, absorbing its contents for later use. It was an old treaty and she was uncertain whether or not such an agreement might still be honoured. Legally, yes, everything was there, but enforcing it would be another matter. However, with Xena being so determined to make certain that Stephicles failed, well… I'm probably going to be wind up smoothing ruffled feathers, more than playing diplomat. She won't last through the usual opening round of pleasantries, much more the actual discussions. And after that, if all goes well… Gabrielle didn't want to think about that. Or rather she had to think of a way around that. "Xena? You will be with me, won't you?"
"Only until I leave," Xena replied brusquely.
Gabrielle tried not to wince. Ever sensitive to the tones and nuances of Xena's voice, she could hear the warrior's attempt at putting distance between them, felt it in the tension that held them both stiffly in the saddle. "I…" don't want you to leave. But how could she ever possibly say that? To her? This mission, more than most any other, seemed so personal and dark that Gabrielle had to struggle to grasp the desire, the need to prevail that drove Xena so doggedly. As if her entire salvation rested upon the outcome a few days hence. And who is to say that it doesn't? Gabrielle admitted. As unlikely as it seems, she could die. At the hands of someone smarter. Faster. Or just plain luckier. It's so important to her to succeed. Gabrielle bit on her lower lip, considering that for a moment.
Xena broke into her thoughts. "What?"
So if it's important to her, it's important to me, she decided with quiet resolve. Though there had never really been any question of that. "I just…" the bard began quietly, stuffing the scroll into a saddle pouch in easy reach, not caring if it crumpled. "I just wanted to ask you to be careful." She slipped her hand overtop the warrior's and twined her fingers into the longer ones at her waist, giving a heartfelt squeeze. Maybe it had just been her wishful imagination, but she could have sworn that the scarred and lethal hand had clasped hers more tightly in return.
The mud spattered beneath the horse's hooves, spraying the dark water over the still damp cobbles as Xena pulled the cantering warhorse to a stop. At their urgent entrance, a pair of guards came to their side, looking interested but cautious.
"Take us to the council," the bard stated quickly and shoved the scroll into the face of the closest man.
The older of the two, bearded and greying slightly at the temples, took the proffered scroll or risked losing an eye to the determined woman.
The younger man had 'new recruit' written all over him, from his clean and neatly pressed outfit to the stubborn cowlick studiously trained to lay almost flat. He looked Gabrielle up and down and, seeing the dirt, blood, and road fatigue, smirked roundly. "Oh, and I suppose we should roll out the red carpet and ask Zeus himself to serve you at dinner tonight?" he sneered.
The older man looked up from his reading and nailed the recruit with a glare. "Tesh, apologise to the Neapolitan Ambassador this instant, and then remove yourself to the stables for a month's muck-out duty."
"Am-ambassador?" he stuttered in surprise. "But…"
"I'm sorry." Crimson faced, the boy's head sagged and he physically drooped beneath the gaze of the two women on horseback.
"No harm done," the smaller of the two women murmured.
"I add my apologies, Ambassador."
"Gabrielle, if you please," the bard replied, attempting to put the man at ease. "I can imagine we look at sight, what with all the mud and everything."
"Well, welcome to Kozani. I'm Cain. I'll take you to the council. Tesh can take your horse to the stables with him since he's going there anyway." He glared at the sulking youth by his side. "Just so we can be prepared; would you know when Xena of Neapolis might be arriving?"
Gabrielle felt Xena start behind her, and barely held in a grin. Should have read the scroll, my friend. "Actually-" About to clear up the misconception the hard poke in her lower back made her rethink her comment. "She'll be joining me later."
"I'll advise the watch to expect her. May I assist you, Gabrielle?" He offered her a hand down from the saddle. And had to step back immediately to avoid the warrior swinging down from behind her companion. Cain saw her eyes assess him before turning back and grasping the smaller woman around the waist and lowering her easily to the ground. Muscular arms supported Gabrielle until she was steady, holding the small blonde closely for the barest moment before letting her go. The warrior woman stepped behind the Ambassador and gave him the coolest look he had ever seen.
A long time member of the army, he listened to the inner warning that tingled through his awareness and put him on his guard in the taller woman's presence. "If you'd like to follow me, I'll see you to a room where you can refresh yourselves while the council is informed of your visit." Cain gestured for the Ambassador to precede him, all the while keeping a surreptitious eye on the young woman's protector. "Tesh can see to your animal."
"I'll take care of her myself."
He was taken off guard by the smoky depth of the warrior's voice, and he noticed how Gabrielle's expression changed abruptly. Her careworn face took on a look he could only interpret as hurt and surprise, it was written so clearly on her face. The warrior's lips pressed resolutely together as the Ambassador let out a small sigh, her scabbed knuckles clenching the walking stick by her side.
He watched curiously at the odd dynamics between the two. Cain had assumed that the smaller woman had the authority, and perhaps she did, but the warrior was obviously used to determining her own course. The Ambassador turned to the raven-haired woman, her expression lined with worried and fatigue. "But-"
Cain felt those eyes on his again, and he politely took a few steps back out of range, though still within hearing distance.
"Please, don't do this," Gabrielle spoke quietly. "You said-"
"I'll find you later."
Before Gabrielle could say another word, Xena took Argo's bridle and nodded at the recruit to lead the way. The bard leaned her head against her staff, her green eyes following the graceful figure until it disappeared into a stable in the distance. Above the sounds of the bustling citizens came the rhythmic pounding of a blacksmith's hammer carried to her on the late day wind. A quiet cough brought her back to where Cain waited patiently to take her to her room. With a tired, but sincere smile she turned back to the man. "I'm ready to go."
"This way, Ambassador."
Pausing to spare a backward glance over her shoulder, a fleeting look of helpless loss passed over her face before she followed Cain deeper into the city.
Smoke billowed over the gate, its choking fumes obscuring the enemy below. The deep ring of metal accentuated the constant crash against the gates as the failing portal was reinforced with strips of metal.
Dalis turned a sceptical eye to his captain, and raised a dubious hand. "You really think this is going to work?" ‘This' was a conglomeration of frying pans, horseshoes, farm tools, and Gods knew what else melted down into rough metal plates and bound to the wood to keep it from shattering.
Kiran appraised their handiwork and gave her second a hard look. "If you had a better idea at the time, lieutenant, you could have spoken up last night." The smoke blackened, blood splattered glare she delivered shut the other man up, and he only shook his head and fiddled uneasily with his sword hilt. She rubbed a filthy hand across puffy eyes, red with lack of sleep and smoke. "Have Laera and the council made a decision yet?"
"A runner came by just before you came back from the temple," Dalis replied and pulled a crumpled parchment from his belt. "She'll authorise your plan, but…"
"But what?" Kiran demanded. "What did she say?"
Dalis hated delivering bad news. Or less than great news. The young woman before him, who had been catapulted so quickly into such a position of responsibility, had almost worn herself away to nothing in trying to keep them together and in one piece. "But it has to be volunteers only." He felt a jolt of sympathy for her at the look on her face. Kiran had pushed herself so hard and he watched worriedly as she only stared back at him for a long moment.
"All right," she let out around clenched teeth. "I want to talk to as many people before nightfall as I can. You have the watch."
He gave her a fist on heart salute, and watched sadly as she left the gate, the tired and worn body limping a little as she wound her way through the troops and civilians in the courtyard.
She watched from the shadows of the upper gallery, lending her full attention to the proceedings below. Her eyes focused on the small form speaking with lyrical eloquence to the five-member council, her fine hands moving often in emphasis of her arguments. The warrior's impatience bubbled near the surface, and she was hard pressed not to pace here in the darkness where she watched and waited for the outcome she depended upon Gabrielle to deliver.
There was so little time now. And with each new concern, or issue to be resolved, Xena felt a heightened desire to simply walk over and threaten to pull their walls down around their ears if they didn't help. The barely audible growl in her chest deepened. Each moment that passed was costly, and Xena finally began to pace, her long strides quick and choppy as her eyes continued to flick back and forth between the two parties.
She was keenly aware of the reluctant droop of Gabrielle's frame and the stubborn determination that kept the younger woman on her feet, but until the negotiations were completed she couldn't afford to let Gabrielle rest. As much as she hated to admit a lack of skill in anything, she knew that this was one arena she was ill prepared to fight in.
Between the haunting images and the incessant need to be doing something to help these people, Xena wondered yet again what held the bard to her side. What force or power could lead Gabrielle to see in her what might not really be there, to overcome all the hatred and suspicion and mistrust that she had surely earned over the years. That Gabrielle should do this to herself… Why? she silently demanded of her companion. For me? Don't you know I don't deserve you, and all you bring me?
Xena's eyes tracked to the bard, and narrowed at the pale features and the slightly swaying form of a woman so desperately tired as to be nearly unable to stand upright. The fever had broken only two days before and the breakneck pace she had forced Argo to travel had been hard on her friend. And her edged silences hadn't helped either. I didn't expect you to see through me so easily, Gabrielle. The look in your eyes. The expression on your face in the woods… I put that there. I never want you to look at me that way again, but if you had any idea of what I'm planning to do… Her footing on that pedestal was becoming precarious.
The sudden quiet drew her back from her sombre introspection, and she turned her attention to the rest of the room. The council members were locked in a huddle to confer in private, their murmured words almost audible to her keen hearing. Her blue eyes darting from one to the other, but always returned to her friend. The noise level in the chamber grew as the councillors argued back and forth and for a moment Xena noticed that all attention left the bard, who leaned heavily against the large oak table, her head bowed. Her concern tripped the hammer of her heart when she saw Gabrielle lift a trembling hand to her brow where the steady light gave evidence of a waxy complexion. Xena stood the in shadows, her fists clenched by her sides, and willed her strength to the visibly failing woman.
She watched Gabrielle pinch the bridge of her nose, the fair brow crinkled against the aching that Xena could almost feel just by watching her. C'mon, Gabrielle. Just a little longer. It's so important. Xena drew in a quick breath at the sight of the sudden change in the bard's expression, and without a moment's hesitation the warrior was in motion.
With all other activity momentarily focused elsewhere, Gabrielle succumbed to the incessant pull of exhaustion. She closed her eyes and let her arms support her on the table, feeling the cool, smooth surface beneath her palms. The council's divided stance was proving to be far harder an obstacle than she had anticipated. Try as she might though, Gabrielle's efforts to make them see the advantages of lending their support had yielded little thus far besides a council firmly ensconced into two camps, and a raging headache for herself.
The scroll from Laera had provided wide spread sanctions should they be necessary as bargaining chips, but the bard had kept those as a last resort. Neapolis had suffered so much loss already; how much more horrible would it be to place them in a situation leading to economic and political servitude? Shying away from begging, Gabrielle had instead appealed to their over-stated sense of security and safety, reminding them that if Stephicles succeeded, he would have one half of the tribute and would no doubt be on his way here next for the other half. Perhaps it was underhanded of her, but in desperation the bard had painted a gruesome picture of word spreading of the warlord's victory. How many more mercenaries would rally to his banner and come to fight against the Kozani? Would they see their citizens locked behind stone walls, their winter stores nearly depleted, and their trade cut off by an army outside their gates? It hadn't taken much in the way of imagination; she'd seen first hand the damage Stephicles had visited upon the proudly defiant Neapolitans.
They argued now about the validity of such an old treaty and the ramifications of their involvement. The battle of words had settled a deep-set tension in her shoulders, already tight and aching from her injuries. Not even a few minutes into the discussions, she'd removed the sling, feeling hampered and uncomfortable in the contraption, somehow unable to express herself when so confined. For now, however, she let her head drop and slowly rolled her neck from side to side, trying alleviate some of the tightness. The headache, pulsing hard and hot, had started about an hour before bringing speckles of dancing coloured light to her vision. She raised a hand, grimly noting its trembling as she attempted to rub away the pain emanating from behind gritty green eyes.
An unexpected wave of dizziness assailed her, and she felt her knees waver beneath her. Gabrielle reached out for purchase on the slick tabletop even as her vision blurred to a swirl of muted colour.
This is going to hurt, she realised absently as the floor rose to meet her and her world cloaked itself in darkness.
Xena was almost to the stairs when some inner sense compelled her to look back, and her eyes widened as Gabrielle's face drained completely of colour. Forget the stairs. The warrior vaulted over the railing instead, dropping to the council-room table with animal grace, her body coiling into a crouch to absorb the impact of the landing. Gasps of surprise and amazement met her sudden appearance amidst the strewn parchments, maps and quills. Her leg muscles flexed as she leapt off the table, landing at Gabrielle's side just as her friend crumpled to the hardwood floor.
Guards stationed around the room drew their weapons and approached, but Xena's attention focused only on the silent woman lying sprawled on her side. She reached out to brush her fingers against a pale and delicate throat, and felt a steady if rapid pulse moving beneath the surface. Recognising the faint for what it was, Xena gently turned the bard over and eased the woman into her lap. "Someone get me a cloth and some water."
"What is the meaning of this!" one of the councillors demanded. From her previous observation within the shadows of the upper gallery, she recognised the man as Alder Markus. His rotund form preceded him as he pushed through the guards and stared down his nose at the warrior. "Who do you think you are?"
"My name is Xena," she replied, and saw the inevitable signs of recognition. Ignoring the barely veiled expression of hostility, she chose to focus instead on the problem at hand. "The cloth and water. Now." The edge in her voice sent the portly man back a step, and after a moment of hesitation, he signalled to a page for the requested items.
She noted warily that two of the council members leant their heads together to confer before one of them quickly walked out of the room. Dismissing the wall of armed opposition entirely, Xena returned her attention to the woman in her arms. The waxy face drawing short, shallow breaths scared her a little. Her companion had finally reached the limits of her considerable inner strength, and the lack of food, rest, and good care had caught up with her at last.
A page approached cautiously from behind the town guard, and laid a bowl of water and a small pile of linens by her elbow before retreating quickly to a corner of the room. Xena grabbed a towel and wet it before applying it to the younger woman's clammy skin. "Gabrielle? C'mon, wake up now," she called to the bard, and was pleased to see the flutter of Gabrielle's lashes when the unconscious woman responded to her voice. "Gabrielle?"
The bard's furrowed brow flinched slightly at the touch of the damp cloth Xena drew across her skin, and the warrior took note of the small sigh that escaped the unconscious woman's lips. Xena tucked an errant strand of hair behind the Gabrielle's ear, and gave no indication that she even noticed the dozen or more guards that filed into the room behind the smug councilman, bringing the tally somewhere close to thirty. I suppose I should feel flattered that they think they need so many.
"Step away from the Ambassador," one of the guards ordered. "Remove your weapons and surrender now."
Xena gave an impatient shake of her head. "I don't have time for this. You don't have time for this. Didn't you hear a word that she said?"
Alder Markus frowned. "I find it hard to believe that this… this… warlord she's been talking about can get past our defences. We have sufficient armaments to protect ourselves from him."
Her eyes took in the whole of the council, and she could sense that perhaps half were ready to support the alliance, but the others were likely cronies or fence sitters who would follow the Alder's lead. "Maybe not at the moment, but once he gets ahold of Athena's tribute you're going to be in a world of trouble, because he won't stop until he has the other half of it."
"I've heard of you, Xena. You expect me to believe this… rubbish?" He picked up the missive from Laera and waved it disdainfully in the air.
Xena edged the material aside, lifted the bandage to reveal the bard's shoulder and heard the gasps of shock and disgust. "Look!" she growled. "Look at her. She's endured injuries and a week of Tartarus just so she could come here and argue with you people for four hours straight! Neither us would have bothered unless the need was urgent." Her fingers itched to make a more forceful argument, but she knew that convincing them at the point of a sword was unlikely to win her any converts. "Stephicles is determined and dangerous. Even worse, he's not alone; Ares is helping him."
There was a ripple of reaction through the room. Though siblings, it was no secret that Ares and Athena were often at cross-purposes. The heavy-set man before her merely crossed his arms, seemingly bent on being sceptical. "I have confidence that our army can hold him off. I see no reason we should become involved."
Gabrielle was laid gently on the floor before Xena sprang to her feet, her hands clenching and unclenching as she rapidly bore down on the councilman. Two guards stepped in front of her and she tossed them aside with hardly a glance. She'd had enough of this nonsense. The warrior wrapped her fists in his brocaded coat and pressed him up against the wall behind the table as she spoke. "Listen to me, you officious, stuck-up idiot. What part of ‘people are gonna die' do you not understand? This alliance was made in good faith and gifts were exchanged to bind it. If you break your word I swear I'll not only let it get around that this council can't be trusted, but I'll also tell ‘em that you were personally responsible for helping to destroy an entire town. How long will your stinkin' trade and prosperity last when no one will deal with you?" Xena was hardly aware of the fact that she had lifted the man completely off his feet she was so livid. "If I were Athena I'd be ashamed to have followers like you. Where's your compassion? Where's your mercy?" She shook him hard.
"Get off me, you bitch!" the councillor yelled, a mix of anger and terror in his suddenly high-pitched voice. "Get her away from me!"
"All you care about is protecting your precious skin," she sneered disdainfully. "Coward."
A guard rushed her from behind, his sword swinging toward her unprotected flank. With a swift sideways motion, Xena kicked outwards using her grip on the Alder to brace herself as she planted the heel of her boot in the guard's face. The resulting wet crunch resounded grotesquely through the room and the guard toppled to the floor, the sword completely forgotten.
The other guards moved slowly and cautiously forward, their weapons at the ready. Xena continued to ignore them. She banged Markus against the wall again, drawing his attention away from the man bleeding on the floor. Her voice dropped to a rough growl. "That woman over there has more heart, more courage, than anyone in this room. She doesn't even know these people, yet she's almost been killed more than once trying to save them. If you're not going to help me, I'll find some other way, but I'm not going to let you take me." She watched Markus stare at her in rapt fear, unable to speak a word.
The tense moment was broken by a small, soft voice. "Even if you could stop her, you can't take her prisoner."
Heads turns back towards the centre of the room where Gabrielle, still pale and weak, was awake and struggling to raise herself up on one elbow. "If you read the missive from Neapolis carefully," she continued slowly, tiredly. "You'll notice that Xena has also been designated an official ambassador and, as such, is protected by diplomatic immunity. I advise you to disregard this fact at your own risk. Doing so will not only incur Neapolis' wrath, but my own as well. And believe me, after the week I've had, you don't want to mess with me." Despite of her injured state, or perhaps because of it, no one in the room doubted the veracity of her statement.
Xena gave the man a dangerous smile and dropped him gracelessly to the floor. The guards were given a look of warning as she placed her hand on the hilt of her sword and slowly stepped back to the centre of the room towards Gabrielle. "If you're not going to help, then we'll go. But don't be surprised to see Stephicles show up on your doorstep. And there'll be no one to help you then." With gentle care, Xena then crouched to slip her arms beneath the battered body of her friend, lifting her with ease. She walked towards the councillors again, her burden cradled closely against her chest. "You might have a couple of weeks to prepare, but Stephicles will come for you," the warrior warned them. "It's not too late yet to change your minds."
The heavyset man had since regained his feet and was now pointing a finger at her. "We won't be dragged into this!" Alder Markus was obstinate, if wary. "We won't be forced!"
"Fools," Gabrielle muttered. "He'll come for you anyway, and you won't have a choice."
But Xena caught an exchange of looks behind Alder Markus' back, and wondered if another ending to this discussion wasn't brewing. Could she spare the time to wait? Can you afford not to wait? "Fine. Someone show me to a healer."
The same page as earlier stepped forward and quietly asked her to follow him. The last of her energy spent, Gabrielle laid her head against Xena's shoulder, her eyes already falling closed as the warrior carried her from the room. The cold and stony expression broke for a moment when the sound of voices, suddenly raised in argument, wafted back to her. The Warrior Princess smiled, but those who glimpsed it in passing felt a chill of dark menace at the sight of it.
Something woke her.
The warrior stirred and lifted her head from the surface of the bed, her eyes finding the bard exactly as she had left her; clean, bandaged, and deeply asleep. Letting out a breath, Xena blinked a few times, angry with herself for having rested when she could have been planning other alternatives to her current predicament. Sitting up prompted the eruption of pain along her back and she hissed softly in reaction to the sensation. She'd forgotten about that in the past couple of days. Well, ignored it is probably closer to the truth, Xena admitted to herself. A long few minutes spent stretching eased the growing stiffness in the bruised muscles along her shoulder and Xena wondered just how badly the injury might hinder her. She let out of a huff of annoyed frustration and ran her hands through her disordered locks as she attempted to gauge how much time had passed by the lines of sunlight falling across the pallet. Perhaps no more than two or three hours, but it was still more than she felt she could afford.
Glancing about the hall, she noted the healers and clergy that wandered freely through the ward, intent on their various tasks. A few other patients were present, but for the most part the beds here were empty. Concern for her friend brought her attention back to Gabrielle, and Xena allowed herself a long moment to simply watch the steady rise and fall of her chest. Normal colour was slowly returning to her cheeks, though the bruised shadows beneath her eyes would likely remain for a few days until sufficient food and rest restored the bard to her normal sprightly self. She reached out a hand and gently twined her fingers in the reddish-blonde strands, feeling a bittersweet happiness in the contact.
"Is the Ambassador doing better?"
Xena drew back her hand, feeling somewhat guilty, and turned to discover Ella, one of the members of council, standing at her shoulder. "She'll be fine," Xena replied briskly yet quietly, not wanting to wake Gabrielle. "What brings you here?"
"Despite Markus' comments not everyone on the council feels that non-involvement is the best way to resolve this situation," Ella informed her. "All it took was a majority to rule on the matter."
"What are you saying?" Her expression remained still in spite of the sudden tumultuous shift of her emotions brewing inside.
Ella gave a sad smile. "You have a six to one majority in favour of supporting the alliance. I'm ashamed that greed was at the bottom of some of the votes; it seems that there's always a profit to be made from war, but you scared good sense into the rest of us. As much as we would prefer to avoid the conflict, it's hard to avoid the truth that he'll be here next if he conquers Neapolis. Orders have already been sent to the military commander to prepare the army while leaving enough behind to provide sufficient support should things… go awry."
Elation tingled through her gut at the woman's words, and kick fired her adrenaline at the knowledge that the waiting was finally over. Stephicles would pay for what he'd done. And so will I. "I want you to take me to the barracks. I'd like to see to the preparations myself."
"Will you be visiting the temple?" the woman inquired.
The question took Xena by surprise. "The temple? What for?"
"Why, for the priestess' blessing and the Spear of Mercy." Ella seemed equally surprised by Xena's reaction. "Surely you won't leave without it?"
Divorcing herself from her general distaste for anything of a religious bent, Xena still studied the possibilities. She hadn't lived this long without considering all the angles. "Which part of the weapon do you have anyway?" Funny how, given that this was what everyone was fighting over, she hadn't actually laid eyes on the damned thing yet. Concern for their protection and safety had taken first priority, and Xena hadn't even bothered asking Laera to give her the half-dinar tour to see it.
"The shaft end."
A piece of wood, even a holy one, wasn't likely to add much in terms of an advantage to her way of thinking given the odds. "We'll leave it here. Otherwise, if we fail Stephicles gets the whole Spear without even a second fight. Better to keep the halves separate and avoid it falling into his hands."
"As you think best." Ella looked dubious, however. "Should I take you to the armoury now instead?"
"Yeah," Xena answered and stood up. She had already taken two steps down the aisle when she suddenly paused. "Gimme a second; I'll be right with you." Xena waited as Ella retreated as far as the hallway at the end of the room before turning back to the bed and its small, unmoving occupant.
Xena took one of Gabrielle's slack hands in her own as she knelt down beside the pallet. With the other she stroked a pallid cheek, her expression suddenly open and vulnerable as she gazed at her friend, her heart in her eyes. This is it, she thought with a heavy sigh. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but I don't know of any other way to do this and win. It felt as though the pedestal was crumbling beneath her very feet. She shut her eyes tight for a moment against the feeling of impending loss and tried to reclaim her focus. I have to do this… even if it disappoints you… even if it hurts you. I can't let them down. No matter what the cost.
She leaned over and brushed her lips against the bard's temple near the stitches, lingering as long as she dared. The fine hairs tickled her skin, and the ineffable essence that was Gabrielle's scent caressed her senses. Her eyes clenched shut as a need rose up in her chest, almost crushingly tight, to pull the other woman to her and never let her go. Suddenly faced with it, the sum of her emotion came abruptly into focus, and Xena bowed her head under the weight of it. It was a thing known, though reluctantly acknowledged. Until now. Opening her eyes, she drew back and gazed at the cherished features, wishing she could hear the bard's voice again, see the smile in her eyes, or feel the joy of her casual touch. So many things… so many things made suddenly so clear and simple…
I love you. "Goodbye, Gabrielle."
Slowly, painfully, she released the younger woman's hand, and felt the ache of the separation keenly in her chest. It hurt. More than she expected. But still she rose to her feet and, without another glance, followed Ella from the hospice. Xena blinked against the sunshine as she stepped through the door hoping that someday Gabrielle might be able to forgive her.
"I don't care what she said; you can't come with us!" Kiran roared. The last four days, filled with terrifying near misses and soul-rending losses, had hardened her and removed any remaining discomfort she had with her own authority. There simply wasn't time for it when a moment's hesitation could mean the difference between a life lost or saved. And she didn't mean to lose this one along with the rest. "You're too young and I won't have your death on my hands too!" She stalked across the cluttered barracks room and towards her latest source of frustration.
Mira's brown eyes flashed hotly and her hands bunched into fists as she stepped closer to the taller woman, her usual characteristic humour gone. "You're hardly older than I am, so I don't know where you get the bloody gall to tell me that I can't risk my life. You've been risking yourself every day for the past two months. Why should I stay safe behind these walls? Is my life worth any more than yours? Or more than theirs?" She pointed to the other two dozen or so volunteers avidly watching the clash of wills. "I'm coming with you!"
"No, you're not! Don't you get it? Some of us might not even return!" Kiran shouted back, trying hard to avoid looking at the other people in the room. She had made the dangers clear, but that didn't lessen the feeling of responsibility, of knowing that she was likely leading these people to their deaths in the hopes they could somehow buy the rest of the town more time. "If they caught you, you'd only wish you were dead."
"Don't you think that I've thought about that? All this," she flung one arm out wide, encompassing more than just the room and its occupants, "it isn't about whether or not I live or die. I'm supposed to go with you."
"What the Tartarus are you talking about?" She was sure the kid would try anything to get around her. Shaking her head and waving her hands, Kiran continued just as the acolyte was about to speak. "No. Better yet; don't tell me what you're talking about. The answer is no, ok? No. Laera's crazy for allowing you to go and put yourself in danger like this. Don't you wanna go home?"
"Of course I want to go home. My going with you is the only way that'll happen. I saw it in a dream. No, you listen," Mira demanded sharply as Kiran rolled her eyes. "There was a feeling of heaviness, like being smothered. And darkness was all around. Light exploded and shattered with a breath, and I could feel great danger hovering over you, but you were unaware of it. I could sense the direction, but not the source. In the dream I-I did something, somehow. I was able to reach you in time." Mira laid a hand on Kiran's bandaged arm, her voice suddenly quiet, but urgent. "You have to let me come with you. Neapolis' survival rests on you, and so long as you live the town will not fall."
Kiran felt a small sense of shock at the revelation and her thoughts locked in a kind of paralysis. She had lived with the possibility of her death ever since the warlord had arrived on their doorstep, but this… it was like having Hades himself standing over your shoulder. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end at the thought. I'm not that important. I'm not. But her gaze locked with the earnest dark eyes of the other woman, silently beholding the look of conviction in her expression, the worry and the sincerity. The tense silence pressed in on her, and the captain could believe that not a single person in that room breathed. "Did you tell Laera this? Is this why she let you go?" she finally managed to ask.
"I told her," Mira answered, her serious gaze faltering for a moment before returning with the familiar wry grin. "After she raged and shouted, and came close to calling Athena and her visions something unrepeatable, she finally gave in. But I have it on the best authority that if I don't bring you and me back in one piece I'd be better off finding work blessing fertiliser than showing my face in Laera's hall."
"I'll bet," Kiran snorted. Mindful of her injured leg, she eased herself down on a bench and tried to clear her whirling thoughts, the better to coldly consider her options. Despite Mira's devotion to the gods, she found it hard to envision herself as the ‘Saviour of Neapolis'. She wasn't about to say so aloud however; from the looks on her volunteers' faces they were scared enough to take everything Mira said straight to heart. That said, it came down to whether she was willing to sacrifice her own life if the prediction was right, or risk the girl's life if Mira was wrong.
The silence drew itself out painfully until someone coughed. Mira worried at her bottom lip and shifted from one foot to the other, watching anxiously.
Is it worth the risk? Kiran rubbed her hands against her thighs and took a deep breath. Gods, how I wish it wasn't me making this decision. Someone like Xena would know what to do. But Xena wasn't there. What would she do though? Kiran couldn't see the Warrior Princess having any patience whatsoever for the young woman. Though the captain didn't really share the same level of contempt for the gods, she had seen, in the matter of hours that Xena had been in the town, the depth of responsibility the warrior had taken on herself for the town's care and protection. Sitting in the same place, Kiran doubted that Xena, this Xena that she had met, would ever have traded her best interests over the safety of another. And the answer to that question made things suddenly clearer, if not easier, for her.
"Visions are powerful things," Kiran commented finally in a soft voice. "And Laera said you could go." She watched Mira stand straighter and an expression of barely hidden triumph surfaced in those brown eyes. The others murmured as well, her people beginning to shift in their seats anxious to start the mission. "But I have the final say here and you're still not coming with us."
Her words sunk in with the force of a rock hitting water. Mira's hopefulness evaporated, her dark brows drawing together as she stepped forward. Kiran felt the intangible heat of her anger and she blinked in surprise to find Mira suddenly standing over her as the room erupted in objections and loud grumbling.
"You can't do this!" Mira protested. "Why would you doom yourself and everyone along with you?"
The word ‘doom' was echoed around the room and the sudden proliferation of worried looks galvanised Kiran into action. One dirty, scraped hand reached out and yanked Mira down onto the bench next to her, shaking her hard. "Shut your mouth and don't let me hear another peep out of you, got it?" The glare she gave the young woman must have been pretty effective; Kiran was darkly satisfied to see that Mira immediately closed her mouth though she visibly sulked as she stared at the flagstones. That's fine, she thought to herself, just so long as she doesn't scare these people senseless. Gods be damned…
She stood back up and raised her voice over the growing din. "Quiet down! We're not doomed. And I'm not gonna die," she stated confidently. A beat. "Unless I eat your cooking again, Agnes. That was one nasty dish of stew last night." She grinned and pointed to one of the numerous troops who had volunteered for this assignment.
The woman in question blushed, but laughed good-naturedly. "I had a hard time figgerin' out a few things in there meself, capt'in," came Agnes' rejoinder.
A few more chuckles met her ears. "Ok, listen up," Kiran continued a little more seriously, feeling the tension ease. "There's always risk in something like this and it just can't be helped. But it's important, and Xena has given us a good chance to survive. We have to do what we can to hold out until she returns with help. Everyone here is depending on us to pull them through and I don't want to let them down. Just a day or so more and we should see hope on the horizon." Kiran stood again and stepped closer to the group of people, her eyes connecting with theirs.
"We're gonna do this. And I don't know about you, but if my death means that other people live then it's a price I'm willing to pay," she said steadily. "It's not too late for you to back out, but some company out there with me would be really appreciated." They shuffled a little in place, but no one moved, and for that Kiran was infinitely grateful. A presence at her back made her turn and she discovered Dalis standing by her side.
"We're with you, " he said in his quiet, sturdy voice. "What's the plan?"
Bless the man, she thought with relief. The question would reframe their attention and get the group moving in the right direction. "That battering ram of theirs is getting to be a real pain in my ass." A sense of fearful excitement mingled with their laughter, tickling her senses as she watched them moving closer to hear her. "They were using man power to move it before, but from what I've seen, they're trying to lever it up on some kind of rope swing. The gate's in sorry enough shape as it is, but with the added momentum behind the ram… it'll be more than we can handle, so we have to do something about it before it's too late."
Mira shifted on the bench and shook her head in confused annoyance, obviously still rankled by Kiran's decision. "I don't understand. What are you going to do?"
The captain looked around the room and then gave them a sly little smile. "We're gonna steal it from the bastards."
Xena paused in her pacing to look out the window as she noticed the changing light outside. Off in the distance the unmistakable signs of grey clouds tainted the edges of the sky, ponderous and heavy. Pushed by the rising wind, the clouds were threatening to overtake the brittle rays of sunshine casting their weak rays over the cobblestone streets below the armoury. Xena leaned out the open casement, breathed the fresher air and felt a chill breeze rustle through her hair. Her eyes, now blue, now grey, lifted to the heavens and took in the developing storm-front with growing anxiety. More rain, Xena predicted grimly. Maybe worse. Her gaze fell to the forests visible over the city's wall, her mind's eye already travelling the distance from here to Neapolis as she estimated how hard and far she could push so many men at once. It would not be easy, but her plan still held a chance. Slim though it was.
Damn you, Ares! She slammed her palm against the stone of the window ledge. The God of War's double-edged offer still echoed in her thoughts, taunting her with its certitude over the likely folly of her choice. Would he never leave her be?
Xena shook her head hard, and blinked against an abrupt gust of sudden wind. A sliver of unease invaded her chest and her piercing eyes turned to probe the shadows of the General's otherwise empty workroom. "Who's there?" she called, her voice soft and menacing.
You're not going to arrive in time to save them.
The voice was in her ear, in her head, in her soul. She lifted her fingers to touch her temples wondering if she was going mad. "It'll work. It has to work," Xena whispered, not even realising she did so.
You'll fail. You'll fail and they'll die. Neapolis… Kozani…
"No…" She spun around, her eyes raking over the room.
There's only one way to win for sure. Only one way to save them. Call for him…
Call for him…
It wasn't in her head after all. Not madness then, but near enough; she knew that voice. "Ares," she breathed his name like a curse. The inside of her skin seemed to shiver and crawl, and she whipped around in time to see a dark form materialise in a shower of brilliant blue sparks. The half-light of the room accentuated the hard planes of his face, giving him a look both handsome and cruel. His presence dominated the workroom making it seem smaller, and Xena felt herself take an unwilling step toward him before clamping down on the dark urge that drew her to him, desiring to answer the god's seductive call. She resolved to stay silent, let him make the first move.
"What?" he asked finally. "Not happy to see me?" He made a tsking noise at her and lazily wandered over to the broad wooden desk to lean against it. "What a shame."
Xena held her position over by the window, watching him closely and noting the tugging at the corners of his lips. Dying to tell me something, I'll bet. The god picked up an ornate letter opener, toyed with it idly, and regarded her in turn from beneath his dark brows.
"You know, Xena," began Ares. "You really should have taken my offer."
The warrior crossed her arms and leaned against the wall, affecting an air of total unconcern. "Oh yeah? How do you figure?"
He pushed off the desk and strolled over to one wall where weapons hung on display, his hands clasped behind his back. "Events are moving things beyond your already questionable control. Even with wings, you'll never make it there in time." Ares turned and smirked at her. "Not now."
She ignored the welter of frustrated fear, concentrating instead on the smugly arrogant expression on the god's face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you're going to arrive in time to hold a cookout with whatever's part of Neapolis is still burning after Stephicles' smashes down the gates."
It was all too easy to envision the searing heat of the flames, the dark, billowing clouds of smoke, the screams of the trapped- NO. It'll be different this time! She tried to force the images from her mind and instead focus in on the point that was of most interest to her. "What events? What have you gone and done?"
"Me? Why, nothing." Ares gave her a full smile and stepped closer to Xena, reaching out to touch a lock of dark hair trailing down to her breastplate. "I'm just the messenger."
"Riiiiight," she drawled, one brow raised expressively. "And you're in a sharing mood because…"
"I thought you might like to have the play-by-play," he replied. His smile faded, however, as his expression became suddenly more serious. "But you realise, I'm certain, that afterwards he's going to come straight here. And with your ragtag alliance out in the field, he's going to wipe out your men and come and find Kozani relatively defenceless. I suppose it's for the best really. And very considerate of you now that I think about it." Ares sighed dramatically and looked out into the street at the people passing by. "Sparing your friend the sight of you being killed, I mean. That's a true sign of friendship. Not to mention the fact that, since you're leaving her here, she'll likely have a few more days to live before Stephicles comes to hang that irritating little blonde from the walls the same way he will those other hillbilly hick worshippers of my sister's." He looked back at her, obviously waiting for some kind of response and seemed disappointed not to get it. "It doesn't have to be that way, of course," Ares reminded her. "You could change everything."
"If I accept your offer and become your Chosen again," Xena clarified with a grim finality.
"A warlord like Stephicles would only be the first. Think of all you could accomplish with me at your side. Think of the good you could do."
"The good?" The warrior tossed her head and stared at him incredulously. "When have you ever been concerned with the side of good?"
"I never said I was," he corrected her. "Good. Evil. They're concepts created by men to justify their ambitions and desires. I want glory. I want the screams of men and the clash of weapons ringing across a battlefield. I want war, Xena, whatever form it might come in. And I want you to give it to me as we shape the world to your vision." He was speaking quickly now, their gazes locked. "Your army will ride to victory and Neapolis will be saved. And Gabrielle will be kept safe until your return."
His news confirmed Xena's worst fear; she was just about out of time. On her own there was no way she could win. But… with his help… It gave her an icy chill to contemplate what that would mean. After all that she had fought for in the past year and a half, after all that she had struggled to change… No. How could she justify saving her soul at the loss of all the others? How could she turn him down and possibly – no; probably – endanger all their lives? Whatever it takes, she had said. No matter the cost.
Her breath came hard and Xena stared almost blindly at Ares as she weighed her options. And came to the dreadful conclusion that there really weren't any options to consider. She owed it to them to pay the price. Everything that I am. All that I hold dear. She would sacrifice it all in the hopes of winning through. Forgive me, Gabrielle… it's the only way. Xena raked her fingers through her hair and glanced out the window to the dark clouds marshalling their triumph over the early spring sky. Winter yet held sway.
"I…" Her eyes bleak and empty, she turned back to Ares. "I… accept," she whispered in a broken voice. Xena watched the elation in his eyes outshine even the light from the candles adorning the room. "When we defeat Stephicles I'll become your Chosen and ride at the head of your army."
"I knew you would come to your senses eventually." Ares slowly smiled as he spoke. "I knew this day would come." And he threw back his head and laughed.
She felt cold inside. Cold and drained. Xena could only watch as Ares' revelled in his victory and feel herself tumble off the pedestal once and for all, back into the darkness that spawned her.
Forgive me, Gabrielle.
He wiped down his face and hands with the towel his squire gave him, all the while spouting instructions that his scribe dutifully recorded as they strode from the stables. Orders from the council had sent the armoury into a maelstrom of activity, and even now his troops were assembling for the ride towards Neapolis. The heels of his riding boots rang on the stones, beating a hard, rhythmic tattoo as he passed through the corridors on his way to the study.
"Tell Erick to check the arrow supply," he continued. "I'm not going to have a repeat of that fiasco where we ran out of fletchings. And get a status report from the smithy on my armour, they should be almost done getting the shoulder piece hammered out again. That'll be all for now," he told them as they arrived at his workroom. He dismissed his men with a wave of his hand and paused to run his fingers through his short-cropped greying hair before opening the door. The portal swung inwards and he halted at the threshold seeing his guest staring out the window, apparently deep in thought. He coughed gently to make her aware of his presence, catching the twitch of her shoulders and realising that he had inadvertently startled the woman. Given her reputation, he would have assumed she would hear him coming from the stairway down the hall. It attested to the depth of her preoccupation that he caught her off guard. "Good evening, Ambassador," he said, in his cultured and pleasant voice. "I'm Taelere, General of the Kozani forces." He held out a hand, and watched the graceful and economic movements of her body as she grasped his forearm, warrior-style.
"Xena," he heard her murmur by way of introduction. "We can drop the ambassador stuff."
Maybe it was that, or perhaps it had something to do with the story the council had told him about this woman taking on a whole army by herself, but either way, Taelere found himself feeling an immediate liking for dark warrior, former warlord or no. Standing closer to her now he could see the rigours of a long campaign evident in her face and posture. The flesh beneath the burning blue eyes was bruised and dark, and he could tell that sleep was a luxury that she had not afforded herself in quite some time. Dirt and blood liberally crusted her armour, leathers, along with the body beneath, telling of more than one fiercely contested encounter. And too, something of her nature that she would disdain to rest until the mission was accomplished. She still stood strong, however; and Taelere paid silent respect to the skill and abilities that made such a feat possible given the circumstances.
"I understand that a situation is brewing over in Neapolis. Would you care to sit and tell me about it?" he invited, gesturing to the chairs arranged near his desk. Taelere waited until she had seated herself before doing so as well, noting the wry smile tugging at her mouth and suspecting that she was unused to being treated with manners by a fellow soldier.
"Do you have a map of the area between here and Neapolis?" she asked in a low, husky voice.
His brow briefly contracted at her tone, and if he didn't know any better he could have sworn the woman was upset in spite of her outwardly calm demeanour. Putting that aside for the time being, however, he retrieved a sheaf of maps from the pile on his desk and began sifting through them knowing of one in particular would serve their needs. The parchment found, Taelere spread it out on top, reached out for his knife and paused, seeing it had been moved from where he left it earlier that morning. The weapon was deposited onto one corner to hold it down while he smoothed down the edges of the other side. "This one should do the trick."
Xena's armour creaked faintly as she leaned forward, and the cooler air from the window carried the scent of leather and the tang of metal and blood to him, reminding him of the countless battlefields and skirmishes he had lived through.
He watched her eyes scour the map showing the area surrounding Kozani several days in all directions. "Here," she said, lifting a long, tapered finger to trace the forest around Neapolis. "They've set themselves up here on the west and north sides with control of the main stream that feeds into the town. He's also set up an outer perimeter of thugs to act as a buffer wall to keep others out. The raiders' armaments are fairly typical; swords, daggers, clubs, that sort of thing, but Stephicles is also using them for salvage and supply by hitting up the locals for food and goods. I haven't seen them all so I don't have a fix on numbers, but from what I've seen they're primarily on foot with a small force of calvery. My original estimations were somewhere around three hundred men, and three catapults, but now they're probably down to two hundred and a catapult and a half."
"That's a sizeable chunk," Taelere commented. "How did you manage it?"
He watched the corner of her mouth lift in a small smile, but her voice was devoid of emotion as she replied. "Trapped a phalanx in a sewer tunnel and set ‘em on fire. Then, while they were distracted, I crippled their catapults before escaping from the camp."
"Ah," he breathed, impressed. Her cold, factual tone made him sit back though, suddenly reminded him that he sat across from one of the finest military minds in Greece. "What do you need from me?"
"I need a quick, mobile group that can be put in the field in a very short time, one that's flexible and used to planning on the fly. Tell me what you've got in the way of men, horses, and weapons."
"Maybe a hundred horse and a hundred foot. Swords, pikes, bows and crossbows, daggers. They're fit, disciplined, and a goodly number of them have been blooded already. We've beefed up the horse considerably because of the rise in border skirmishes with some warlords this past year, plus there was a lordling that thought Kozani would be a cherry to be added to his orchard, if you take my meaning. They're solid."
"Can you find mounts for the foot soldiers? Will they be able to ride the distance and then fight?"
"Aye, what we don't already have in the stables we can buy or conscript from the town. The foot have taken a turn on the horses though I'd doubt they're especially comfortable with it. They can ride as far as Neapolis though I'll bet some will be a touch sore the next day." Taelere watched her absorb his words, and wondered what thoughts lay shielded behind those eyes. Xena stood abruptly and began a slow, measured pace of the room. Her restlessness was contagious, and Taelere found himself fighting the urge to fidget. "What do you have in mind for tactics?"
She came back to the table and leaned over the map, her eyes moving over the flat surface, and he could imagine her shifting through half a life's worth of strategy gleaned from more experience than most of the Kozani army put together possessed.
Her fingertip brushed over one section of tree line. "There's a ridge here that overlooks the road up to the main gate. A riverbed runs parallel to it shortly after leaving the woods on the other side. I want you to place your best archers on the ridge to harry their lines. At the same time, I want troops on the other side of the river in the woods, here," she pointed to a specific location for him, "and I want another contingent here back up on either side of the road. We should be able to encircle them and then drive them against the walls."
"If they're still standing," Taelere added. He was a realist if nothing else.
He got a solemn nod in return. "If they're still standing."
"Have you considered what to do if we don't arrive in time?" Hard, blue eyes met his own, and though she stared straight at him, the general wondered if Xena even saw him.
The warrior turned and stepped in front of the window to lean against the sill and stare out into the coming storm. To Taelere, she seemed pensive and troubled, and just as he was about to speak, Xena turned to face him. "I've been given… assurances… that we'll arrive in time."
"Assurances…" His brow contracted with his confusion. Being who she was, what she was… that could mean just about anything. A sudden thought struck him. "Is there a… more powerful agent working on your behalf?" It was the most outrageous thing he could think of, but it wasn't completely out of the realms of possibility given who he was dealing with.
Xena's burst of laughter was hard and sudden, the sound filling the room and lending a far different aspect to her features. It made her look younger, more approachable. It was… unexpected, and he found himself wondering at the woman behind the warrior. Taelere leaned back in his chair and regarded her steadily. "Do I amuse you?"
The laughter subsided, and Xena offered him an apologetic look before answering. "No, no, I was just thinking that with all the names to use, that one never occurred to me. But, you're quick, I like that."
He inclined his head in acknowledgement of the compliment and gave her a pointed look in return. "So, is there?" The humour left her, and the general felt a certain tension flowing from the warrior. Xena was reluctant to say, he could tell.
"Yes," she admitted slowly. "But, it's better for you if you don't know the details of the arrangement. I need to know... will the men follow my orders?"
"You would assume command of my men?" He wasn't surprised by her question, but he knew of her past and wouldn't jeopardise Kozani or anyone else by blindly giving an army into her care.
Xena looked at him and Taelere was certain she could read every thought going through his head. "Yes," she answered firmly. "I know the land, the people involved, and I've… done this before." A tightening around her eyes suggested some strong emotion held barely in check before reverting back to the smooth, intense expression he had been witness to thus far.
"If I weren't a cautious man, Xena, I might hand them over without a thought because the council gave me the order to. But, I want to hear it from your lips, why should I trust you with an army?" He leaned forward as he spoke. Taelere wanted the woman to convince him. If she can't, I'll tell the council to shore up our defences and wait for Stephicles instead. Always choose the lesser of two evils. And he knew that no matter what this other warlord was capable of, Xena represented a far, far worse potential threat.
He heard her shift as she pushed away from the sill and watched as she returned to her chair, sitting herself down slowly. Her eyes stared at the map for a long moment before lifting to meet his own again, waiting a beat before she spoke. "Because no one deserves to have their homes and lives torn apart. Or to watch a child be beaten to death in front of them. Or to live in constant fear of being ravished and tortured until they die. Or have their family burned alive. People with simple lives are not there to simply serve someone else's convenience. I did that to them once, and I was wrong." She swallowed hard, the mask of calm slipping for the barest moment. "And I won't let it happen again." Her tone was rough and hard, and from the sight of her hands gripping the armrests of the chair, the very tension singing through her frame, he could well believe every word.
Taelere stood and placed a hand on her shoulder, waiting for her eyes to meet his. "I believe you. I'll give orders that my men are to follow your command as they would my own."
"But only until the battle is over, Taelere," she replied with intensity. "Only then."
"Of course," he answered, somewhat confused by her comment.
"No. If I try to take command of your army after the battle, you have to stop me," Xena said. "Kill me if you must."
"What? But… why…?"
"No questions on this. Just promise me that if I try to take control, that you and your men will stop me any way you can," she pressed him. "Promise me."
"Alright," he answered, not understanding why he was agreeing, but believing her nonetheless. He trusted his gut, and he was surprised to feel no twinges of warning at her request. "I give you my word."
Only then did he see some of the tightness leach from her features, her body relax a fraction. "If you'll forgive the comment, Xena, you look like Tartarus. Why don't you use my cot and get a few hours sleep? You'd be undisturbed here in my study while I take care of the final details. A couple of hours will help since we'll be moving out as soon as the men are ready. If you're going to be leading them, I want you to be in as good a shape as possible if you're taking care of my men," he raised a hand as she opened her mouth. "I insist." He knew the battle that warred within her; he had faced it numerous times himself. She would want to oversee every nuance of the preparations, and only wear herself out in the long run. But if she was as smart as he took her for…
"Sounds like a good idea." And she gave him a small smile, which he quickly matched.
"I'll wake you in a couple of candle marks. Get what rest you can," he said and pointed to the made-up cot in a darkened corner. Taelere saw her nod, and was already heading for the door as the warrior removed her bracers, meaning to give her some privacy.
I don't envy her, the general commented to himself as he stepped into the hall and closed the door softly behind him. And if she's anything like me, I wouldn't bet a single dinar on finding her asleep by the time I get back.
No, Taelere had long since discovered, the fates of hundreds make for poor bed companions indeed.
"What news?" Stephicles demanded as the guard entered the tent.
"Sir." The man offered a fist on chest salute. "The hide skin roof has been completed, and the workers expect that they'll have the ram attached to the ropes in a few hours. Commander Linus says there's been no word from Demicles, but he's gone ahead and sent out a message to the raiders to start pulling in around the town."
Stephicles walked to the entrance and looked out beyond the guard's shoulder, observing the early nightfall as the cloud cover began to thicken. If the smell of rain carried on the wind, he wouldn't have known it for the stench of the poorly cured hides hanging thickly in the air. But, it's a small price to pay, he smiled to himself, considering the payoff. The ram, previously set before the gate, had been pulled back out of range of the town's archers to make the necessary repairs. He stepped outside for a moment, glanced between the tents to review their progress for himself, and hoped that they could finish quickly in case the weather changed on them again. No doubt the trapped citizens had stored up some water from the last deluge which put him behind schedule, but he didn't need the bad weather fouling up his plans for the battering ram as well.
The warlord returned to the tent's well-lit interior and handed several messages to the waiting guard. "Take these to Linus and await his response," he instructed and then waved at the man. "Off with you now." He felt the eyes of the soldier brush his neck before he turned and left the tent, and the warlord grimaced at the unspoken attention as he tossed the parchments down. Self-consciously, Stephicles rubbed at the bruise still evident on the side of his neck from the bitch's pinch, and settled himself into the pillows, a pile of reports littered around him. The siege was driving him nuts and he wondered what he had been thinking in petitioning the God of War for his patronage. Used to the more hands-on approach to warfare, the endless paperwork and siege tactics Ares had insisted he use were beginning to wear on him.
But, if it won him the Spear, he didn't doubt that Ares would find him worthy of the god's considerable backing. It had been many long years since his last Chosen, and Stephicles was determined to be Ares' next obvious choice.
"Learn from the best to be the best" Isn't that what the god had said?
"What I said," came the disembodied voice in a deep and resonating tone, "is ‘learn from the best to beat the best'. There's a difference. You don't want to stand among equals." A shower of blue light preceded the coalescence of the god's form, and suddenly Ares was there, reclining on the pillows across from him. "You want to decimate your enemies and reign supreme over the field. And for your information, patience is a sign of a good leader and the essence of success. You might try to cultivate some."
"You're full of quaint sayings today, aren't you?" Stephicles didn't appreciate the criticism. "Tell me something useful for a change. Tell me something that will get me another step closer to this Spear you're so anxious to get your hands on. Considering how your lust has lost us the advantage, you owe me, Ares!" he said as he leaned forward and pointed his finger at the seemingly unflappable immortal.
"I owe you? I owe you?" One dark brow lifted at the audacious demand.
"Yes," he replied belligerently. He was not going to let himself be intimidated.
Ares appeared to consider it, and then smiled. "Perhaps I do, at that." A pause. "Xena's on her way."
"What?!" Stephicles exclaimed and pounded a fist on his armour-covered thigh. "Damn that man! Demicles is dead when he returns."
"If he returns," Ares corrected. "But don't count on it. She's under the impression that she's going to arrive in time to stop you, but I wouldn't worry about it. The ram is almost ready."
The warlord growled, rose to his feet and paced along the length of the tent before slowing to a halt next to the map table. He leaned over it, his dark eyes scanning the too-familiar surface. "We need to get the advantage back."
"You need to keep better track of your sources, is what you need," Ares replied sarcastically. He stretched his muscular frame, a small smile playing about his lips as he stared up at the canvassed ceiling. "What if I told you that I'd heard from your spy?"
"You fail to remember that popping in and out of rooms is a limited talent. Our contact was cut off," he answered angrily. "If you know something, then bloody well share it."
"Tread lightly, mortal," Ares warned. "They're planning an attack on the ram once you have it in place which, from what I saw, should be in a few hours. Give them a chance to get close and then turn the tables on ‘em. It'll be all the sweeter when they realise they've been betrayed," Ares chuckled. "I'd love to see the expression on that old hag's face when she finds out what's happened."
Stephicles gave a slow, nasty smile at the thought. "They'll never know what hit them." With that, he retrieved a fresh scroll and began making out new orders. He would give them no mercy. They had their chance.
Behind Stephicles, Ares' own smile grew as he wondered who would be more surprised by the outcome of this little adventure, Stephicles or Xena. The God of War laughed again, loving how everything was falling exactly into place.
Wind-tossed torchlight cast dancing shadows across the cobbles and struck shards of white-gold light off the multitude of armoured bodies moving with speed and purpose in front of the armoury. Xena listened to the shouts and voices carried on the breeze, underscored by the rhythmic song of the smiths' hammers and the occasional whicker of restless horses. The temperature had dropped and she was glad of the heavy warmth of the cloak Taelere had demanded she borrow. From her usual vantage point, she watched the organised preparations of the troops and was pleased to see that Taelere had not exaggerated their efficiency. She shifted slightly atop Argo to ease her tired muscles and patted the warhorse's neck when her long-time companion let out a breathy sigh and shook her pale mane.
"Me too," she murmured in understanding and watched the mare's ears flicker back at the sound of her voice. The nap, if one could term staring at the ceiling as such, had been altogether too brief. Taelere's arrival to finally collect her had been a welcome interruption to the constant flow of thought that had refused to allow her any rest. If anything, the period of physical inactivity had made her aware, now more than ever, of how worn out her body truly was.
The warrior tilted her head back and felt the uncomfortable click and pop of her spine as she stared up at the heavens where nary a star was visible. From the smell of the wind it would be a long, wet ride back to Neapolis, and all the lonelier for the separation. She ducked her head and closed her eyes for a moment, allowing herself to think of a certain blonde-haired bard and wonder how she might be faring. With luck, Gabrielle would sleep through the night and well into tomorrow before waking and realising that she had already left.
Whether she won or lost the battle, Xena knew her end was coming. Either she would die on the field, or be cut down by Taelere's men to prevent her from siding with Ares. Xena could only hope that Gabrielle would understand her choice. She's young and strong, the warrior reassured herself. She'll move on. The pain of her feelings was a needle in her soul though, and she appreciated the irony of discovering these emotions only to lose them again. It had a dark justice to it, and seemed bleakly appropriate in light of her past. Her jaw clenched tightly, and she firmly tucked away her feelings in the farthest, darkest corner of her heart knowing that, for whatever time remained to her, she could not afford to feel them. The time for that was slipping away.
She felt a calmness fall over her, a kind of crystalline clarity that lent greater focus to her purpose. When Taelere finally approached her from the back of his lightly armoured warhorse, she watched him pause when his eyes met the cold, detached stillness of her own before he moved up along side of her.
"We're ready," he announced quietly. "They were given a brief outline of the situation, but I decided to wait to give them their full instructions until we're on the road or at rest stops along the way. Save us some time in getting out of here."
"Good," Xena commented shortly. "Before we go, I have something I want to give you." She reached back into one of the saddlebags hanging from Argo's tack and drew forth a rolled parchment. Her thumb brushed over the wax seal before holding it out for Taelere to take.
Bemused, he did so. "What's this?"
"When the battle is over I want this given to the bard Gabrielle, Ambassador of Neapolis," she informed him, each word spoken clearly and with a tone of stark finality that brought Taelere to abrupt stillness.
"You will no doubt wish to give it to her yourself," Taelere replied slowly, a sense of uneasy foreboding making the hairs on the back of his neck stand forth. He tried to hand the scroll back to her.
The warrior ignored the remark and pushed his hand away. "Remember your promise. If I try to take the army once Stephicles has been defeated, you will order your men to do whatever they must to stop me."
"Xena-" he protested only to be cut off by the sudden force of intense anger directed towards him.
"Remember!" Xena's low command brooked no opposition, and she nudged Argo forward towards the head of the column of waiting soldiers.
As she passed them, the troops began mounting, and she felt a tingle of memory fall about her like a warm, familiar blanket. Her eyes met theirs and watched with feral pleasure as their postures straightened while an air of strength and confidence grew in her far-reaching presence. The sound of her sword slowly clearing its scabbard was heard in the growing quiet along with the steady clip-clop of Argo's hooves on the cobblestones. Some hidden signal halted the mare and for a long moment the Warrior Princess let her gaze flow over the group, her eyes slowly claiming them as her own.
When at last she spoke, her rich, clear voice was carried easily on the night wind. "A two day ride from here a warlord has laid siege to the town of Neapolis. They guard Athena's Spear of Mercy, a gift offered by your temple that, between your peoples, is a sign of trust and protection. For two months now the Neapolitans have stood firm, fighting day and night to ward off the warlord's attacks. Their defences have been weakened however, and you represent their last hope of survival. Without you, they will be tortured and killed, and Athena's gift given into the hands of Ares, the God of War." She paused to let them consider her words. "Speed is essential, and I want no one with me who isn't willing or able to keep up." Fierce determination and pride met her eyes no matter where she looked.
"There is no greater cause than the fight for what is right, good, and just," Xena declared in ringing tones. "Your allies need you, and I'm determined to get there in time to kill this son of a bitch, or die trying. Who's with me?!" She thrust her sword into the air, its polished surfacing catching the light and glittering brightly as her resonate summons echoed off the stone walls.
A resounding cry answered her, a thundering roar that crested and peaked over her in an exhilarating wave of sound and emotion. It washed past her and she stabbed her sword heavenwards again, raising her voice over theirs. "KOZANI!"
As one they answered her call, and somewhere in the back of the column voices could be heard, suddenly raised in an ancient song of victory that caught and grew until the very sky vibrated with sound.
Feeling the energy thick in the air, Argo responded to her rider's lightest touch, and smoothly wheeled and reared, balancing for a breathless moment where all could see the Warrior Princess framed in firelight and shadow. With a wave of her sword, the column stirred and advanced, taking its first steps on the long road towards their nemesis. The cacophony of sound brought Kozani's citizens to their doorways and windows to watch in wonderment as the army rode forth, not understanding the sense of excitement and pride that stirred in them at the sight.
Xena rode straight and tall in the saddle with her cloak cast wide open, not even feeling the cold with the heat of the troops' heady response still singing in her blood. They were hers.
They would fight for her. All of them at her command. It was a glorious thing, and her soul thrilled to the long absent joy of the power of leading an army to victory. And it was all the more reason for Taelere to kill her if they managed to stop Stephicles in time. But, she would enjoy it while she could, and was unable to resist giving a low, rumbling laugh at the anticipation of giving in to that dark part of her soul.
The army rode through the streets of Kozani, and a familiar side street caught her eye. Down the way and slightly hidden by another building was the temple and healer's hall. Gabrielle, came the unbidden thought. She wrenched her eyes away and took a deep breath and fed the last of her emotions to the flame burning inside.
"Xena? Is anything wrong?"
She turned sharply at the sound of her name to discover that Taelere and his squire had ridden to the front of the column to join her. "No, it's nothing" the warrior replied. Burn the memories. Burn the emotions. Let it fuel her wrath and give strength to her arm. There was nothing left for her here. "Nothing at all."
The wavering candlelight illuminated the bed's restless occupant, bathing her features in shades of pained vulnerability. A light sheen of perspiration misted Gabrielle's brow and her hands clenched convulsively against the covers. She gave a series of small whimpers as she fought to shove back the blankets, caught in the dark corridors of her dreams. "No…" she moaned softly.
As if sensing the warrior's departure, Gabrielle rolled on her side and reached out, her distress evident in the tears that tracked down along her temples. "Xena… please…"
The figure standing in the shadows outside the candlelight watched it all, unmoved by the unconscious display of emotion. "You're too late," taunted the unknown visitor. "She'll never be yours again."
The flash of blue light lit up the room, the figure's passing extinguishing the candle and leaving the bard alone in the darkness.
"You're set on this course of action? There's nothing I can do to dissuade you?" Laera's slate coloured eyes searched those of the captain.
"You know as well as I do that we're running out of time and options. If we let him finish and use that battering ram, we've as good as lost. I don't know any other way to get us some more time," Kiran replied. She tossed her gloves onto the map table and took a seat on the bench, glad for the warmth of the kitchen and the chance to get off her feet. The weather had shifted again and, as much as it served her purposes, it was damn uncomfortable to work in. "The group is ready and they're just waiting for me to get back. I wanted to check in with you before I left though. Dalis will be acting as captain until my return. You can trust him, he's loyal and reliable. Good head on his shoulders." She pulled a mug of something hot and steaming toward her that a cook had offered and took several healthy swallows before she realised that Laera had yet to say anything.
"Councillor?" Kiran looked up to find the elderly woman giving her a disconcerting look, almost as if she had never seen the captain before. "Are you alright?" Had the strain of the siege finally become too much for her?
Laera waved off her question, reaching out instead to place her fingers beneath Kiran's chin, the better to direct the younger woman's gaze to meet her own. "You are not who you were," she stated cryptically.
"Huh?" Kiran blurted out, feeling as though she had just stepped into the middle of entirely different conversation.
"When Ilias was killed in the initial attack and his second with him, the militia collapsed and I came to the barracks begging for help. No one knew what to do and between the panic and the shouting, I could have sworn we were doomed. But do you remember what happened?"
Kiran remembered, but she could only stare at her, mute.
"A shy but determined recruit stood up and said into all that disarray ‘I have an idea' and ran out to the walls alone. One by one the others followed you out there to face the enemy and together you drove them back. Now they would likely follow no one else."
The heat in her cheeks was uncomfortable and she tried to look away. "I didn't do anything that anyone else wouldn't have done."
"I beg your pardon, captain, but that is so much horse shit."
Kiran's eyes popped wide open at the councillor's language, shocked at the unusual and completely uncharacteristic display of vulgarity. "I…I…"
"You are becoming one of the most effective leaders I've ever seen, and though I don't like your plan because of its inherent risk, I know it is a risk worth taking. I want you to know that I believe in you," Laera finished softly. "Just promise me that you'll take care of yourself, because Neapolis won't win this without you."
The captain laughed and grasped the hand still cupping her chin. "You've been listening to Mira too much, councillor."
Laera sat down next to her and smiled. "I could think of others with less wisdom and humour than her to seek advice from. Make sure to bring her back with you. I don't know how I would explain her loss to Kozani's temple otherwise."
"You needn't worry. She'll be as safe as I can make her since she isn't coming with me."
"What?" Laera exclaimed. "But… I would have thought she would be an asset."
Kiran shook her head and took another sip of her drink. "You don't have to do that. I already know about her ‘vision'. Whether it's true or not, I won't put her in danger. She'll stay here."
"You won't be swayed?"
"No." It was her decision to make and she refused to consider letting Laera argue her out of it. If the old woman kept after her long enough, she might even succeed. Her resolve was a tenuous thing, and she was afraid that her own sense of self-preservation might win out after all.
"You're a stubborn woman, captain."
"Likewise, councillor," Kiran returned the compliment with a wry smile. She downed the rest of her drink and felt the welcome warmth slide all the way down into her knotted stomach. As calm as she might appear on the outside, she was a nervous wreck on the inside. The plan was dangerous and although she had meant every word of her speech to the volunteers, she was as human as any one and terrified of dying. She was damned if she was going to show it, though. Xena sure as Hades didn't. Tough as boot leather and scarier than all of Stephicles' army put together, that was Xena. So that would be her too. Hopefully.
She set the mug back down on the table and took up her gloves again. "Unless you have any further instructions for me, I'd best be going. The others are waiting for me."
"Allow me to walk you over." Laera was already pulling a cloak around her shoulders before Kiran could protest, so the younger woman shrugged instead and gallantly inclined her head to permit the councillor to take the lead.
"Have you had a chance to see your father?" Laera asked quietly as they made their way through the corridors. The chaos of the initial catapult attack had diminished into a smaller, better-organised version of itself, and many of those first wounded had been moved to other locations. Now only the critically wounded were brought to the great hall.
"Papa's doing better. He's been moved into another family's home until after all this decided. The healers did a good job with his arm though, he should be able to use it again just fine in a few months," she told her, a touch of reluctant enthusiasm and tired sadness tingeing her voice. Generally, she tried to avoid thinking beyond the next couple of hours. It did her no good to distract herself with thoughts of a future she might not have in a day or two, but she had, in her own way, already made her goodbyes.
"That's wonderful news, Kiran." The older woman gave her a warm smile. "He's the leatherworker with the shop on Morningside, is he not? He makes toys for children in his spare time."
"Yes, he does," she confirmed, surprised. "He'll be touched that you know of him."
"More than that, I should hope. I made a few purchases for my grandchild at his store. There was this lovely piece designed as a horse…"
Kiran gave her half an ear as she nodded to one of her men lying on the floor awaiting care as they passed. Her mind analysed the extent of the injury and determined that, at a glance, the slice in his leg didn't look too serious. He would likely be back on the wall before the end of the day. The coldness with which she arrived at the conclusion made her stumble, and she felt the councillor's hand on her arm to steady her.
Laera's eyes looked her over, plainly concerned. "Are you unwell, captain?"
"No, no." She recovered herself. "Caught my boot on something. I'm fine." She waved Laera onward. "Let's go."
Had she changed so much more than she realised?
* * *
"Ma'am, are you certain that you don't want me out there with you?" Dalis asked.
Over his shoulder, Kiran watched the progress of two of her troops presently using crowbars to pry up the wooden planks laid across the drainage hole recently used for Xena's escape from the town. She also studiously ignored the dark brown crust of dried blood that had pooled and hardened, a grisly reminder of a lesson that she was only now learning to appreciate. You do what you must. Sometimes there are no good choices to make. But, I'll make whatever ones I think will get us out of this. She understood Xena's actions a lot better now than she did a few days ago. "Yeah, there's no one else I trust more to watch things while I'm gone," she told him and watched the slight clench of his jaw muscles and the blush that tinged the tips of his ears though the rest of his face remained still and controlled.
"Your counsel will be greatly appreciated," Laera added with a nod.
A sudden grunt and clang from the workers diverted their attention. They watched as the planks came up, abruptly followed by a fetid and rotten smell that assaulted the senses and prompted a slew of curses and comments from the people in the room.
"Councillor, you should probably leave. This is going to be pretty unpleasant," Kiran warned her.
The older woman wrinkled her nose in distaste and drew her cloak closer around herself. "I believe I shall. Lieutenant, please be certain to send me frequent reports as circumstances allow. I want to be kept abreast of the mission," she informed him before turning her attention back to Kiran. "Good luck, captain. I will see you later this evening." With a nod to the rest of the people in the room, she turned and left, closely followed by an escort at Kiran's gesture.
Trying to avoid taking too deep a breath, the captain came over and noticed that the underside of the wood was scorched black and deeply gouged. Great, ragged grooves showed where the weapons and fingers of the doomed had attempted to break through, and she was suddenly reminded of the ghastly, soul-chilling screams of the men burned to death beneath the stones she stood upon. With a convulsive swallow, she stepped forward towards the lip of the opening and looked down, the smell of burnt meat and rot making her feel nauseous and light-headed. Another of her volunteers, Thom, if she remembered rightly, came to stand besides her. "Them bodies are still down there, aren't they?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah," she replied. "I can't see Stephicles bothering to retrieve his dead and wounded. Something like that would require a sensitive side and I doubt he has one." The man chuckled and nodded in agreement.
"Captain!" A voice from the doorway of the warehouse caught her attention, and a soldier dripping with rain, ran into the room. "They've finished the ram and they've assembled their men."
"Numbers?" she asked in a clipped tone.
"Last count showed less than two dozen, but we think they're getting the catapults ready again."
"What about the ram?"
"They've put untreated hide along the top of the roof to protect it, and it's supported in a kind of rope cradle from what we've seen. The wall's holding up so far, but it won't take too much more damage, ma'am."
"Hopefully it won't have to. Is the gully clear?"
"Yes, ma'am. No one's been over there since Xena left. It stinks like holy Hades along that wall, but we're still patrolling just in case."
"Good," she said, beginning to pull on her gloves again. "I want our archers out of sight up on the wall over the gate, and a smaller contingent over the gully to give cover fire when we come back. Get another barrel of oil up there too if there isn't one already. Dalis will take it from there. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am." The man gave her a fist on heart salute and then took off at a dead run back out into the rain. She still wasn't used that added touch of respect, and probably never would be. Kiran just hoped she would earn the right to be worthy of it someday. In the meanwhile, she had a mission to complete.
"Ok, people, gather around," she called. "We need to get this started." Volunteers and soldiers alike drew around her in a circle, their faces showing varying degrees of disgust at the pervading smell. "This is your last chance to back out. After this you have to be totally committed or else you risk the lives of everyone in the group. I won't think the less of you if you can't do it, our chances are slim at best and those are pretty scary odds." She waited, watching as their eyes slid right and left looking for last minute dropouts. A long moment of silence offered no takers, and the captain released a breath that she wasn't even aware she had been holding.
"Alright then. We're going to cut the ram out of its ropes and disable it as best as we can before hightailing it back here under covering fire from the archers. Stay silent, in single file, and watch for orders from me. Does everyone have their gloves and weapons?" At the nods from the group she continued on. "Ok, the trip through the tunnel is going to be rough, but stick close and keep focused. Let's do this and get home in one piece."
She left them to their last minute adjustments and turned to Dalis, speaking to him in a low voice. "I want a couple of people here ready to plug up the hole again if we fail. Any questions? No? Good, get back to the wall as quick as you can." Kiran clapped him on the shoulder and then began checking her own weapons. It only took a moment, and then there was no more room for delay. Pursing her lips, she moved determinedly towards the hole in the floor and took hold of the rope ladder they had set up. With one last breath of relatively clear air, the captain began her descent into the darkness. Her stomach curled up somewhere near her heart wondering at what she would find, and she almost screamed when she felt her foot submerge into wetness. It's a sewer, moron, she chastised herself roughly. Of course there's water in here! The smell was worse down here and it was with a great deal of trepidation that she gestured for someone to lower a lantern to her. In the growing pool of steady light, Kiran felt her breathing whistle through her teeth and then, just as suddenly, stop.
The wan light revealed the blackened husks of bodies caught in grotesque caricatures of life. Faces burnt and peeling stared at her in sightless accusation, the gelatinous tear-like trails adding a sickening twist of colour to heat wasted features. Everywhere she looked, jaws hung open to unnatural angles, frozen with their maws gaping in silent screams. Limbs, bent and tangled, seemed to reach out for her with their bones peeking through the charred strips of mostly cooked flesh. The smell of death, overcooked meat, and raw sewage coated her mouth with the taste of it and, with barely enough warning, Kiran abruptly turned and vomited thick ropes of saliva and bile into the dark waters at her feet.
The sound of her retching brought worried calls from above, "Captain?"
She gasped and hung onto the rope ladder for balance, her insides knotting at the violence of her response. Being sick almost helped in a way, and she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, grimacing at the rancid taste in her mouth. "I'm fine. Everybody brace yourselves. It's pretty bad down here."
The gibberings in her mind chanted incessantly at her to just be somewhere else. Anywhere else but here where her skin recoiled inside of her clothing, not wanting to touch the bodies as she pushed through the cramped quarters of the tunnel. She heard the others behind her, someone else being sick, the sounds of gasps and moans. "C'mon," Kiran called back. "The sooner we get through here, the sooner it gets done."
For a long moment she thought no one would follow. Who in their right mind would? Someone behind her wept, and low murmuring voices echoed along the walls followed by slow, sloshing steps. Things crunched in the darkness and Kiran's mind shied away from attempting to guess what had caused it shortly after something snapped wetly under her own foot.
It was hard to tell how long it took to traverse the length of the tunnel. Her mind shut itself down, unable to take in the horror of the half consumed bodies, unable to deal with the feel of the dead as she pushed them aside enough to allow her and the person behind her to pass. I can't. I can't do this. Oh my gods, please… I can't… her mind babbled to itself in time to her choked breathing. Still, she took one step after another, unwilling to turn back because surely she was more than halfway now and who could bear to go back through all that?
The first gust of fresh air cut through and made her gasp as if she hadn't breathed the whole way through the tunnel. It cleared her mind a little, reasserting her purpose and relieving some of the horrendous terror clawing at the edges of her mind. The extent of the damage Xena had inflicted on their enemy was only now becoming clear and in some brutal and primal fashion, she was glad of it. Kiran slowed and stopped causing person behind her bump into her back. A tiny shriek echoed off the walls and the captain quickly shushed them.
"Douse the light!" Kiran hissed. The flame was quickly extinguished, leaving the defenders in complete darkness. "Single file, hands on each other's shoulders. Move slowly." The captain waited until she felt the hand of the person behind her on her shoulder before taking one cautious step at a time. The faint sounds of the ram's impact against the gate were now audible over the sound of falling rain, and a sense of urgency grew in the pit of her stomach. Seemingly out of the blackness, she could make out a dim light. A moment later, weak flickers of what she guessed were campfires became visible, and before she knew it, she was crouched at the end of the tunnel with the rank water seeping into her boots and pant legs. The sense of relief she felt then was greater than any she had ever known before in her life.
Kiran took a deep breath and settled her insides before taking a long look around. From what she could see, Stephicles had learned a lesson from his last encounter with this tunnel and pulled his forces back. No one appeared to be patrolling the far bank of the gully, and it looked as though they might get a break on this attack after all. About bloody time something went our way, she thought bitterly.
"What are we waiting for?" came a rough whisper over her shoulder.
"We'll keep watch for a while. See if anyone shows up. Now stay quiet and wait for my signal." The anticipation was building and she could feel time ticking away to the rapid beats of her heart. She leaned out of the tunnel, looked upwards, and gave a brief wave of her hand. At the motion, a shadow up above moved off and Kiran prepared herself for the next part of the plan.