Disclaimers in Part I
In the Heart of the Siege
Have her make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without no seam nor fine needle work
And then she'll be a true love of mine
Day 40: Noon
The pounding in her head was almost enough to make her ignore her abrupt awakening. Barely conscious one moment, the next lifted in strange arms and dragged through some corridor. Despite all of that she somehow managed to keep from groaning and remained limp. It was only when they passed through a doorway and were outside that she realised that something had gone seriously wrong with her plan.
Through her closed eyelids she could see sunlight, and she knew that shed been unconscious for hours.
Oh Gods! What will this change?
As she peeked through the slits of her eyes, she recognised that they were in the town square. It had once been a grand open space, but now it was filled with shacks and shelters for all those who had lived outside the walls and now had no refuge or family. Here the stench of starvation and illness was the most obvious, and it redoubled her desire to do something to help.
She opened her eyes enough to note with relief that she was being taken towards the mine entrance, and that as always there were three tall men on guard. Three large, very familiar looking men, despite their bodies and faces being almost entirely covered by armour and helmets.
At a quick order, her body was roughly transferred to two of them, and the entrance was opened. With one leading ahead of Agathes, and followed by the two holding her, they entered the mine.
If it was possible to drag someone gently, Ikaros and Salmakis were trying to manage it. She opened her eyes in the flickering torchlight to see Agathes back just ahead of her with the soldier she knew to be Autolycus proceeding him.
What will she say? Gabrielle thought as the anticipation rose in her. "No thank you. Not Xena. Maybe just that crooked smile and feigned boredom. Took you long enough? she laughed to herself.
When they stopped and Agathes moved to unlock the door, the men released her. The politician turned, saying, "Throw her in there..." and stopped, stunned to see the girl standing free with a somehow familiar smile curling around her lips which said, "I dont think you quite understand the situation here."
But a "Gabrielle!" from Autolycus froze that expression, and she followed his eyes to the interior of the barred chamber.
The cell was empty.
Except for her own Amazon staff.
With an intensity that shocked even her, she was on the small man in a flash, knocking him down and pulling the dagger out of his sheath and holding it to his throat
"Where is she?" she demanded harshly
Agathes was almost too stunned to respond, so the knife point had to prick the sensitive skin below his ear before he began to babble. "She broke. She finally broke. She agreed to work with us... when I told her we had captured you. But only if you were placed somewhere you would be safe. This was the safest place I could think of!"
Gabrielle froze for a moment, not even breathing. She didnt... believe in me. In the end, I was still... just... Damn Her! And it hurt. Deeper than she had ever imagined any emotion could. She let go of the scalp she had been gripping and bowed her head. A sickly chuckle escaped her lips and taking a deep breath, she looked into her prisoners eyes.
"She gave her oath?" she asked quietly.
"What were the words? The exact words."
Nervously, he answered. "That until she saw that Rukcal was defeated completely, she would fight for us against all our enemies."
Still holding the knife, Gabrielle rose, and walked away to face the wall.
The others looked at her with concern but waited until Autolycus went to her and asked, "Gabrielle? Im not big on introspection normally, and this really isnt the time for it."
The girl turned to look at him from some place far away and then her eyes partially cleared. "Im fine. And were still getting out of here." She cleared her throat and instructed the giant. "Tell him what will happen if we dont leave here unharmed."
Salmakis smiled and picked up Agathes like a baby and crooned to his ear, "Were leaving this place, and yer not gonna make even the littlest squeak except to order them to back off. You got me? Cause you want to be alive after this is over, right? It wouldnt matter how many arrows I get in me, this knifell be ripping into yer spine like you was a fish bein cleaned." and then flung the man to the ground. Autolycus pursed his mouth and commented appreciatively. "That was a good threat."
The giant grinned. "I always wanted to be a bard."
"We may need one," Autolycus said, looking to the silent Gabrielle, before approaching her again. He placed a hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. "Gabrielle. I can take over, but I need to know... are we talking about leaving the mine, or the city? We have to stick around to get a message to Xena, dont we?"
She spun around and he was shocked to see the anger burning in her eyes.
"Dont you get it, Auto? XENAs the enemy now. Xena gave her word! Dont you know what that MEANS?" The thief backed away in surprise. Gabrielle raised the knife and waved it in frustration towards the prisoner still lying on the floor. "Look at Agathes. He broke his word to capture her. Now hes not... He cant sign a contract, swear an oath, be a judge or part of his family any more. Legally hes nothing. And Xena? Xena believes all she has is her word, its all she holds onto some nights. She could no more break her word then I could..."
Auto caught the hand that held the knife. "Kill someone?"
Gabrielle stared at the blade, and let him take it from her.
"Then we get out while we can? Use him as a hostage to get out of the gates?"
Gabrielle laughed but there was no humour in it. "With Xena in charge? Shed have 10 plans to stop us before we got anywhere near the gates. No, we get out of the mine, but not the city."
"But she wouldnt..."
"Auto, didnt you hear him? All of their enemies. What would you call someone holding their leader hostage?"
Planning requires flexibility, Gabrielle. Plenty of time to react and a mind that is capable of adapting to the changed conditions.
"We need time, and a place to hide and think."
She put her foot upon his ship
No mariners could she behold
But the sails were o the taffetie
And the masts o the beaten gold
They had not sailed a league a league
A league but barely three
Until she espied his cloven foot
And she wept right bitterlie
-The Demon Lover
Day 40: Sunset
The soldier raised his arm to salute, then stopped. "Yes Maam." Xena smiled grimly at that and returned to her lists. Considering that shed been held in a cell for several days she felt just great. If it werent for the one nagging worry... "Gabrielle."
"NO! NO! NO!" The voice behind her was adamant. She didnt have to turn to know the speaker.
The God of War strolled over and glanced at the papers Xena was studying. "I see youve tightened the guard and given orders to have anyone trying to leave the city killed. Good idea."
"Thanks. What do you want?"
The God ignored her question. "After all, its vital that no one finds out whos really in charge now." He materialized a chair behind him and slipped into it gracefully. "We both know youre the best, and news like that would change everyones calculations." As she continued to ignore him, he placed one boot on the table, and then the other. "The very best."
Giving up any pretense at avoiding this conversation she glared at him across the table. "I should have known anything this messed up, had to have you involved somewhere."
Ares shook his head. "Nope, Im completely innocent." He paused and grinned. "Well, maybe not about some things, but you mortals managed this one all by yourselves. But I must admit I like the way its working out."
"Admit it, Xena. You missed this. A command of your own? Despite all the nasty suspicions and bad memories these people have of you, in just a few hours youre already getting those gratifying looks of fear and respect. I love it! And so do you. You feed on that."
"I used to."
"Oh yes, before your conversion. My brother and a little girl tamed the great warrior... yadda yadda." he abandoned the derisive tone and spoke evenly. "They found a weakness and built on it. Havent you asked yourself why it was so easy for you to be captured by these idiots? You must know why."
"No, Ares. Why dont you tell me"
"Because... youd listened to too many stories told by that irritating blonde, and you... you actually began to believe them. You listened to fairy tales about this hero Xena, and that wonderful strategic mind turned to mush. Weakness, Xena, thats all this whole conversion has been about."
Ares stood and put his hands on her shoulders, staring directly into her eyes. "Now youve been handed another chance. A once in a lifetime chance, Xena. Theres a leadership vacuum here waiting to be filled. Three armies are about to clash head on, and when its over, someone is going to hold the richest silver mine in Greece, and the largest fortress on the continent. And with the Corinthian army in tatters, Corinth will be naked. Corinth, Xena. The one blemish on your record, just waiting for you to walk in.
"I hate to see talent, real talent going to waste."
There was one last seductive whisper right by her ear. "This is who you are, this is where you are supposed to be." And with that he vanished.
As always, his gibes unsettled her more than she cared to admit. Was he right? Her usual rule of thumb was that whenever Ares was in favour of something, she only had to take a long look at it before finding the rot underneath.
But why had she ridden into a camp of enemies?
She remembered the first time she had heard Gabrielle tell one of her, one of THEIR adventures. How could she not be affected? Watching that callow though occasionally articulate bard describe her as a champion back then had been a jolting experience, something she had tried to laugh off as a product of too much hero worship. But as their relationship had deepened, as she had learned to respect the young girl, as she had begun to imagine that maybe, just maybe, she was using her sword for a better cause... It had changed her view of herself. That the joy she felt in fighting the smug and powerful was different from the savage glee she had once taken in crushing the same people her new adversaries were oppressing.
But Ares was correct in one detail. Command was intoxicating. It drew on so many of her talents. It was what she did best. There was no indecision, no worry about consequences other than what benefited her plans. It still felt... right.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of tramping feet and Agathes burst into her room followed by his military aides. She glared at him without attempting to conceal her distaste for him or his interruption. A leadership vacuum, she thought. Ares had that one right.
"What do you want now, Agathes?"
The politicians face was flushed and his robes were in disarray as well. "What do I want?" he shouted. "I want the head of that little bard!"
Xena showed her most derisive grin. "Whats she done to upset you? Good one, whatever it is, Gabrielle.
"Whats she DONE? Her whole capture was a ruse! It was all a trick to free you!"
With a sinking heart, Xena looked to the aides. One of them took the lead. "Two of the northern lookouts were overpowered during the attack tonight. Somehow it was done with no alarm being raised. While the girl was being brought in, three soldiers infiltrated and took the place of the guards at the mine. When she was taken to your former cell they accompanied our.. leader, and he was overpowered by..." he paused for effect "...the girl."
Agathes stormed about the room ignoring the smirks of his assistant. "She was in charge! She held me down and put a knife to my throat. LOOK!" He tilted his head back and showed the trivial cut.
"Id say you were lucky it wasnt me holding the knife," Xena said.
At this Agathes smiled. "Yes, you werent there, were you? And that fact seemed to upset her quite a bit."
Though the truth of her mistake was tearing at her insides, guilt was a intimate friend to Xena and she managed to remain outwardly cool. "Where are they now?"
Agathes stopped and pointed his finger at the warrior. "Thats not my responsibility, thats yours now, isnt it? I want a house to house search initiated immediately. Or is the word of the Warrior Princess worth so little?"
He never saw anything move that quickly before. It seemed as though one minute the woman was several feet away, and the next she was twisting his arm behind him, forcing him up onto his toes. Whispering into his ear with dark menace, "Youre walking a very thin line here, Agathes, and if you keep it up, Ill extend the one Gabrielle began on your throat. You got me?"
She dropped him to the ground, and spoke in a more normal tone. "We can announce that were looking for some spies, and what the consequences will be if anyone should help them. Weve already made sure they cant leave the city. But I am not going to waste men and resources and destroy morale just to find... how many?" She looked over to the soldier whod spoken before.
"Four including the girl."
"Four people. Just like the rest of us, theyre trapped here, in enemy territory, with no one who will lend them a hand as long as we dont provoke anything."
Agathes raised himself and sputtered defiantly. "So youll do nothing? And what if they are captured, what will you do then? They are OUR enemies."
There was no passion in that stolid face now. "And thats how theyll be treated if and when we find them."
continued in part IV
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