Timeline: Around the second season
Thanks to: Ann, BlindzonElyzon, Cath, Claudia, Fruitbat44, JLynn, Leslie Ann Miller, Mary Morgan, MyWarrior, Nancy, Power Chakram, Stacia, Temora and all the members of the Tavern Wall and the Bardic Circle. Two places I can still be proud to call home.
Written under the influence of several bards but always Melissa Good, DJWP, and the woman I love.
Further disclaimers in Part I
In the Heart of the Siege
Your men were not crazy, your men were not mad
Your men were not deep in dispair-o
I deluded your sailors as well as your self
Im a maiden again on the shore, shore shore
Im a maiden again on the shore
-A Maiden Alone On The Shore
Day 42: Before Sunrise
Autolycus looked back towards the mob of crazed and enraged soldiers riding full bore after them, and then at the cloud of dust ahead that was all he could see of Xena now. "Stop that? Stop them by ourselves? Is this a test or something?"
Gabrielle put her palms to her temples to try to clear her mind. "This whole thing has been a test. And I am not gonna blow it all now." She tried to concentrate again on the lessons shed been given while traveling with Xena, and not on the unstable cracking of the floorboards as the cart had another bad bounce. Or especially on the rapidly growing distance between herself and her partner.
"When you need a quick plan, first check out what assets and supplies you have around you and on hand."
She reopened her eyes and looked about. "Okay. We have one big asset." All of their eyes were drawn to the gunny sack bouncing about in the centre of the wagon. "We have a king up our sleeve."
"Or a General in a bag?" Autolycus asked.
He returned to trying to spur the horses to increase the insufficient gap between them and the army hounding them, and the other three hurriedly undid the sack, and pulled the gag out of the Generals mouth. All the while, Gabrielle tried to explain the situation in as few words as possible. "General, your men are being led into a trap; theyre all going to die unless you call them off."
Rukcal glared at the girl and snickered. "Id letem all die rather than help you, bitch," and spat into Gabrielles face.
Salmakis growled deep in his throat and she managed to stop him from smashing a burly fist into the generals face. "He shouldna done that," the big man muttered.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and paused to think, then shrugged. "Hey, ignore the pansy. Hes just upset that a little girl took him out."
Rukcals eyes bulged in anger. "WHAT? You struck me when my back was turned, you lying she-snake!"
The little girl flexed her entwined fingers casually. "I just saved some time, and you from looking even more stupid." Then she added for good measure, "Porky."
She wasnt surprised when a hand pulled her aside and Autolycus shouted into her ear. "Gabrielle, Im sure what youre doing makes perfect sense for some future part of The Plan, but could we try just surviving until then?" he pointed to the walls which loomed directly ahead.
Behind them Rukcal had begun to struggle with his bonds, all while mouthing a series of obscenities aimed at Gabrielle and this time Salmakis did not hesitate.
The generals head recoiled with the impact, and then lolled over, unconscious.
Gabrielle looked at Salmakis accusingly. The giant rubbed his knuckles, and mumbled, "Sorry, Gabrielle."
Not ready to let the man off, she said "If I want you to hit someone, Ill tell you, okay?"
The massive soldier grunted and nodded. "I gotcha."
The last of Xenas forces had passed through the walls by now, and Xena was not slowing or looking back as she headed for the gates as well. Well, I wanted her to have confidence in me... Gabrielle sighed to herself, before turning to her men. "Okay! Now what are we going to do, guys? Xenas planned something to take out this whole force, and its probably gonna happen outside the city. So we can guess that we dont want to be here for very long. We need to be inside the gates before whatever it is happens."
Then the smell struck them all. They were close to the city now, and the scorched ground whizzing beneath them seemed to glisten in the moonlight. The scent was very familiar to Gabrielle.
Alcohol and... the mine smelter!
"By the Gods..."
Ikaros became more worried as he saw her complexion pale. "What is it?"
One of the wheels caught and then released, throwing them across the cart. Grabbing hold to a support, Gabrielle tried to explain. "The ground smells like its soaked with the runoff from the smelter and mixed with pure alcohol. Theyre going to close the gates, trapping those guys out here and throw torches on it. Itll light like Greek fire, but Ill bet when that stuff from the smelter burns, itll probably have even more of a kick."
"This is the stuff they were going to make Xena drink that rots your brains?"
Gabrielle was staring about wide eyed. "Yup."
Auto looked to see the army closing in on them from the rear. "And we have to stay out here??"
"Were not drinking it, so I dont think itll be poisonous, but lets not hang around too long. I could use some help, guys. Ideas? Any ideas? Now??"
Seeing blank faces surrounding her, she began to think outloud. "Okay. Now, we need a general, because this one doesnt seem to work. We dont have time to strip him of his clothes..."
"Hows about I hold him up, wave his arms?" Salmakis contributed.
"Do you know the command signals?" she asked.
The giant nodded.
"Okay, he may have to yell some orders too... Auto?"
"Lying she-snake!" he called over his shoulder in a fair imitation of Rukcals accent and speech
Ikaros raised his hand. "If they close the gates... will Xena make sure we can get in the doors even if we can stop them?" Both of the other men looked at him suspiciously. Gabrielle was nodding however.
"Ikaros is right. Xena wants at least a few hundred to get through the walls and shes going to be too busy inside with them to stand about waiting for us. Someones gotta get to the door and make sure they hold it open for us."
Auto said, diplomatically, "Gabrielle? Maybe you should be the one to do that?"
They hit another rise and for a second, the cart seemed about to overturn. When it settled they were all breathing heavily. Gabrielle shook her head "Hes still the fastest and I trust him. Hes proved himself, right?" There was a fast exchange of assents. She stumbled over to the runner. "Soon as we stop, you get to those gates, and you wedge yourself in there, and do NOT let them close those doors until we get through. Alright?" Ikaros eyes were gleaming as he gave his oath and she almost grinned at that. "Anyway," she continued, "a commander is supposed to stay with her men, isnt she?"
Salmakis swallowed before declaring: "Only the best ones do."
Gabrielle had only been joking when shed called herself the commander, but Salmakis tone and the looks of the other two men shone with sincerity. Cursing her complexion for making her blush so visible, she ignored the compliment and plowed on. "Okay! Sounds like a plan. We stand him up and give the command to pursue until they accept us as the command vehicle. Then as soon as theres any kind of a break or gap in the charge, we tell the rest of them to halt and to draw back. We can do this?"
Salmakis nodded with a grin. Gabrielle shook her clenched her fists in delight .Her enthusiasm had again caught them all. And with the four hundred soldiers bearing down on them, trapped in a wash of deadly poisons about to be set ablaze, they all locked forearms and the girl shouted exuberantly, "Lets do it!"
Auto reined in the horses, Ikaros jumped off, and raced towards the open gates while the three left behind prepared for the approaching onslaught.
Gabrielle had been correct. As much as it tore at her, Xena had been forced to trust that the bard would figure out her own escape from the trap she had set for Rukcals men.
The main gate led to a horseshoe shaped inner courtyard surrounded by walls as high and as thick as those on the exterior of the walled city. There was only one passage out from it, and once she and her men had used it, it was firmly closed behind them. Xena had barely enough time to issue orders ensuring that their booty from the raid was being distributed and stored, before the first of Rukcals raiders streamed through the gates.
They mindlessly charged through in a retaliatory fury, powered by the thrill of finally entering their prize after a moon of fruitless attempts to breach this citadel. Their exhilarated whoops of victory were quickly stilled when they found themselves in an enclosed area surrounded by hundreds of archers on the walls above them. The attempt to disengage was futile; the continuing flow of more of their numbers through the doors made escape by that way impossible. As their mounts sensed the growing panic of their riders, the courtyard became a pit of confused and frightened men and horseflesh, especially when the great doors began to close. It was at this point that the archers were supposed to annihilate the men below at the moment of their greatest confusion, and then light the exterior wash to massacre and drive off any support. The bowmen waited for an order that didnt come.
Xena had taken this first opportunity to race to the top of the walls, heartsick at what she might see.
To her enormous relief, and not a little pride, she saw that someone in the cart was giving orders to the remaining columns of the attack force who were withdrawing beyond the ground that had been covered with the incendiary broth.
Her comfort was short lived when she noticed that the cart was making a rather uneven course towards the gates, and that the passengers were weaving and waving in the back. The fumes, Dammit, how long have they been breathing them?
But she wasnt alone in her focus. Agathes arrived moments afterwards, his eyes wild with hostility. "Why havent you given the command to fire?" he demanded. "Why are those men withdrawing?" Then his eyes fell upon Gabrielle in the wagon as it neared them, and it was suddenly clear to him. "Its that girl! You couldnt do it, could you? So much for your so called sacred honour!"
It was strange, Xena thought. She could almost identify with his disappointment. In one raid she would have halved her opposition, destroyed their morale, and provided enough food to hold a celebration feast amongst her own people. In one single stroke she had completely overturned the momentum of the siege. That hundreds would have died did not cause her any anguish. They were soldiers and she had simply out thought them in order for her side to prevail. Not too long ago she would have found great pleasure in that. She preferred winning to say the least.
All it required was that she not care about what one particular person thought about her, and that was suddenly too high a price for her to pay.
Right now she had to deal with a nearly out of control Agathes. She tried to calm the politician. "Gabrielles not our enemy. Shes coming in here to solve this mess."
Agathes let out a barking laugh. "Not our enemy? Since when? Shes certainly mine, and as long as I lead..."
Xena didnt need to hear anymore and she cut him off. "You lead nothing. Im in command, and I say she enters in safety, and theres nothing you can do about it."
"Oh, I can do one thing." He backed up several feet and snatched a burning torch, and moved to the edge of the wall to drop it onto the flammable ground below. He stayed there, one arm holding it, dangling it carelessly. Xena found herself unable to breathe, or even think. Gabrielle and her men were still minutes from reaching the safety of the gate, their disorientation slowing them down.
"Whos in charge now, Xena? What are you going to do? Throw your chakram? Make it rain? You come even one step closer Ill drop this. Once I do, shes dead. Now give the order to kill the men in the courtyard."
"What dont you understand, Xena?"
"You dont understand. Gabrielle wouldnt trade her life for two hundred others and I wont make that decision for her. So you might as well give me the torch." She moved towards him slightly, but he held the torch out further until she stopped.
"You dont want to do this, Agathes." she threatened. "Whatever Gabrielle has planned will be whats best for everyone involved. It will save the lives of your people." She again moved stealthily towards him, growling, "and you dont want to have to face me afterwards."
Again Agathes laughed, still holding the torch out over the walls. Xena halted again, drawing on all of her discipline to not let her mounting fear show in her eyes.
Agathes shook his head, while continuing to grin maniacally. "Face you? Face YOU? I face you every day Xena. I KNOW who you are. The almost unbeaten warlord, until you met up with this chit.. Do you really think I care about people? I dont delude myself. No, I AM you. Selfish and without any scruples as long as what I plan will work. Thats what I learned from your record as a warlord. You never worried about another soul in your career, and thats what made you a success. Once you started to, it destroyed you. Im not that foolish or self defeating. Ill do whats best for me, for ME. And killing that little bitch is what I want to do right now. Shes your weakness, not mine. She has to die and you cant stop me." And he dropped the torch over the walls.
As her horror stricken eyes watched the small ball of fire drift and float towards the sleek and oily ground, saw Gabrielle still in the centre of what would be an inferno in seconds, she hesitated not a instant. She hauled up Agathes, not giving him even the time to cry out, and threw him as hard as she could after the torch, hoping that its light weight and resistance to the air would slow it down.
It hit the earth first, and immediately a flame leapt from the ground about it, when Agathes body landed on top, smothering both flame and torch instantly.
Gabrielle and her wagon continued on without noticing, and Xena slumped her shoulders. She didnt even look up when she felt an itching sensation about her neck. "Ares?" she ground out.
The God of War was lounging in the crenellation. He gave a moments glance downward to the broken body below and grinned, "Gee. Looks like he snuffed it."
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 42: Sunrise
All Xena wanted was to race to the gate where Gabrielle and her men were arriving, but she knew that Ares was a potential obstacle to any solution Gabrielle might have. So she fought the urge, and asked almost casually, "Youre in a good mood. Somebody set fire to an orphanage nearby?"
The God of War dramatically clutched his chest. "Oh, Im hurt."
Xena didnt take her eyes off the cart that was still weaving about in the general direction of the gate. "Look, Im a little busy right now. Unless you have something you wanted to say...?"
"I admit Im a bit curious.. Didnt you just break your word?" he said, pointing to the corpse below.
Xena was dismissive. "The moment Agathes said he was out for himself, and that he didnt care about Gabrielles peace plan, he became an enemy of the City."
Ares shrugged. "Well, I just thought I should drop by and tell you how I misjudged your little partner there. I especially like the present she has for you."
"A gift wrapped General Rukcal. Couldnt have done better myself. Cant wait to see what she gets you for Solstice. Now all you have to do is jump down there, challenge him to the usual, swish, plop, his men are yours, and you... you have two pretty well intact armies under your command."
She stood and faced him directly. "Im not interested in going to war."
Ares waved his hand confidently. "Oh Im sure you dont want to. But have you spoken to Polybus about this lately? Cause I think he definitely has some plans along those lines. And last I checked, you were on opposite sides."
"Youre skipping ahead as usual, Ares. Agathes wasnt entirely stupid. The oath he made me swear was that until I saw that Rukcal was defeated completely, I would fight all their enemies. He didnt want me taking any short cuts like slipping past the blockade at night and personally killing the General. So if that was all, I think were done here." She turned away from the God and began to make her way to the courtyard gate.
Ares called after her. "Why do things get so complicated with you? At least Im not the only one who misunderstood. Blondie is going to be so disappointed that you dont want to kill her gift."
Xena called back, "You still dont get her, do you? She knows. If theres one thing Gabrielle doesnt misunderstand, its words." And as she spoke, she realised exactly what Gabrielle might have in mind, and her heart trembled for a moment, and her feet picked up speed.
Gabrielle was feeling just great. Sure the blurred vision was a little irritating, but she and Autolycus and the boys were having a fine old time. Maybe there had been a bit of a tussle at the gate, but Ikaros had kept his promise and they were able to ride in, cart and all, singing this great song about eating oysters that the men seemed to think was hilarious. They had just finished the song as they rode blissfully unaware into the tension and silence that was the potential slaughter house. Unconcerned, her eyes swept the upper walls looking for a certain leather clad figure.
She whistled. "Honey? Im hoooooome." She was vaguely aware of the reaction she was getting from both the archers in the parapets and the men trapped on the ground with her. She gave them all a brilliant smile and said, "Why...? Are you all so... tense?" She looked at her guys for comprehension, but they were gaping inanely at something directly behind her.
She felt the presence, even before the hand was placed on her shoulder.
She turned around unsteadily to look into the concerned blue eyes and almost giggled. Xena took one hand and carefully tilted the head back to look at the bards dilated pupils, but the girl pulled away drunkenly. "Hey sweetie, that can wait. Look what I got!" She reached over and tried to haul the still groggy general to his feet, tugged a few more times unsuccessfully and muttered, "Maybe I should have gotten it in a small." This drew a laugh from her team as they clumsily disembarked from the wagon, which was slowly being encroached.
Though Gabrielle was completely unaware of the strain all around her, Xena wasnt. She barked out to the soldiers, "The first man who moves any closer, just moves one more footstep this way, will have a dozen arrows sticking out of his chest. Got me?" They backed away immediately and Xena again tried to examine her partner, her manner a complete contrast. "Gabrielle, how are you feeling, are you okay?"
There was a familiarity about how Gabrielle felt, and she tried to chase it through the haze in her mind. "You know, I feel just like when, you remember... Hey! You promised youd kill me if you ever saw me take any more drugs."
"And I may still do that, Gabrielle. I think you had a plan, Remember?"
"Oh yeah.... by the Gods. That stuff outside, Im really woozy..."She swayed slightly, and Xena guided her to a sitting position. "Im sorry, Xena."
"No, Im sorry."
It was the dual apologies that finally brought it home to the warrior. What was she doing? This was a critical moment with hundreds of lives in the balance. Somewhere Ares skulking about, two armies outside waiting for a signal to begin an assault on the city, and she was standing right in the middle of enemy soldiers who had nothing to lose by attacking her. Yet all she wanted to do was wrap this one woman in a blanket of lambs wool and coddle her until she was alright again. She didnt have the time for this! And in a further bout of irrationality, she decided instead to make some.
She scanned the crowd, satisfied when they all eventually succumbed to her most intimidating glare, and called to her assistants. "Andronicus. Arrian. Our guests look a little uncomfortable with all those weapons on. I want twenty men, now, to help with their surrender."
She moved to the front of the broken down cart, though considering her poise and attitude, it might as well have been the podium at the Coliseum, and addressed the men about her.
"If you hadnt already figured it out, we could have killed you all the moment you rode in. Instead, youre getting one chance to honorably surrender and live. Dismount, and drop your weapons. And remember every archer on the wall above you is a hired marksman."
She looked through the crowd, looking for any resistance, but once the first weapons belts were unstrapped, and her men were there to segregate the men and their mounts, it was clear things were under control. She had bought her interval and was free to devote her attention once more to where she admitted she wanted it to be.
"Come on, " she urged as she pulled the bard upright again. "Time to sober up."
There was a soft sigh that Xena felt run through her. "Xena?"
"Remember when I told you that you were beautiful?"
Her face fought the grin that threatened to spread over it. "Uh huh. But you were as doped up then as you are now."
There was an insulted harumph. "My opinion didnt come from the henbane. Just the nerve to tell you." Gabrielle glanced up quickly and was rewarded by seeing another rare blush. Unlike Xena, she didnt bother to hide her delight. Heh. I can do that. Amazing.
"Gabrielle? This really isnt the time." And Xena saw the bright eyes nearly fill with tears
"It never is."
Rolling her eyes and resisting the urge to yank some of her own hair out, she said, "Well talk later, I promise. But right now, you and I have got to focus."
Gabrielle leaned into the warrior, resting her head against the breast plate. "Could we put that off for a day or two? I mean, we have a while before Polybus arrives, right?"
Xena fought the urge to kiss the top of the head nestled against her and pushed her partner back gently to speak directly to her. "Gabrielle. If Polybus told everyone he could be here in four days, it means he could do it in three, maybe less. If he just brought cavalry he could be on the outskirts right now. And Rukcals men arent going to wait outside for much longer either."
That caught hold. The girl shook her head to try to clear it, and when it seemed to work, gave her partner a grim smile. "Then I better sober up, get this show on the road, right?"
Though surprised by the quick recovery, the warrior nodded and yelled across the courtyard. "Water, lots of fresh water. Now."
Most of Rukcals soldiers were now against the far walls, and their horses were being led into the vault to be taken to the stables. So a soldier was free to fill a bucket and haul it over. She reached over the sides of the cart and splashed some on Gabrielles face before offering her some to drink.
The green eyes seemed to further clear, and the bard stretched her shoulders experimentally before taking the bucket herself and dumping the rest of the contents on the still comatose Rukcal. He spluttered a few times but subsided upon seeing Xena.
"Youre going to fight Rukcal yourself." Xena stated flatly.
Gabrielle didnt back down. "You okay with that?"
"Nope. Not at all."
"You going to stop me? Or are you going to cheer for me?"
There was no answer.
Rukcal was still staring at Xena with wide eyes. Gabrielle picked up her staff and tapped him on the shoulder. "Dont look at her, Porky. This is between you and me. You were talking some pretty nasty talk earlier on, so its time to see if you can back it up. Shes just here to observe with her men, right, Xena?"
Xena had been lost in her memories of a younger Gabrielle crocked on henbane, and was startled by the sudden retransformation into this serious woman who was prepared to kill for her. The change in manner was so abrupt that it was painful in a way that Xena wasnt prepared for.
When Xena didnt respond to her question, Gabrielle turned, and looked up into her eyes, shocked to see the anguish in her partners face. Knowing from experience that a simple whats wrong? would never get any answer from her, she tried to analyse what could be disturbing her first before asking anything. She was relaxed and smiling in the midst of all the tension, and that hasnt changed, but when I got down to business all of sudden she... Oh. She directed Auto and Ikaros to revive the General and pulled the stiff dark woman aside.
"Xena?" she whispered. She cocked her head slightly and waited until she had all of the warriors attention. "Im not that addled kid anymore. And Im good with that."
Xenas response was just as quiet, but there was a melancholy in it as well. "I know."
There was this speech that Gabrielle had practiced in her head night after night, waiting for the perfect moment that never seemed to come. And here was her chance to say it, and once again it wasnt appropriate. But her frustration had grown with time, and possibly with the fumes still in her brain she decided to Tartarus with their audience. She was aware of the crowds and tried to strip it to the essentials. Would Xena understand?
Strangely enough despite the situation, or maybe because of their being the centre of all that attention, Gabrielle felt as though her heart was beating in sync with Xenas.
As if to confirm her instincts, the sunrise chose that moment to peek over the walls, and it occurred to her, that just as the sun rose in brilliant glory, it was time to acknowledge a dawning truth.
Drawing a deep breath, she began, "We... we have a job to do." and not just here and now... she tried to say with her eyes.
In the same manner, Xena muttered, "I didnt... I dont want this... for you." And she also saw that Gabrielle understood. That she was not referring to this fight, but who Gabrielle was and what their relationship was becoming.
Afraid to touch her in public, Gabrielle barely brushed the older womans knuckles with her own, saying, "I chose this. And I dont regret it." But she could see that wasnt enough, so she continued. "Its...important." And Gabrielle spread her hands out to convey more than just the immediate situation, or the people around them. Or even what they felt or who they were, and what they were now becoming.
Xena only saw those green eyes, glowing with a fierce pride, and she could feel their combined strength in that moment. A force that was greater than all of the soldiers in this courtyard. Even greater than every conceivable death that might be waiting for the two of them.
Gabrielle saw the jumble of the emotions passing through the warrior; her acceptance, finally, that there would be no Academy of Bards, no handsome farmer boy and happy children for Gabrielle, and that conflicting knowledge was more then even the hardened warlord could handle. But it didnt matter because they also felt the joy and power that was certainly no less then the danger that lay ahead of them.
If only for that instant they knew without any doubt what it was they had suspected separately for some time; that they had found what each had been searching for. For the battered warlord; a reason to rise each morning. And for the changeling daughter from Potadaia, a place she finally belonged.
There was no need for an outward acknowledgment, but Xena needed more. So ignoring all that was about her, Xena held the bard in her arms for one sweet moment before they separated. The warlords mask took a moment to pull back on, but Xena managed, it, and then they addressed each other somewhat more professionally.
"Your show, Gabrielle."
"So lets do it."
There was a slight nod, and Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and strode the few feet between her and where the general was still calmly waiting. She chose her favorite Xena grin to give to him.
"So, you want a piece of me?"
Rukcal lay back, seemingly comfortable. "You think Im going to fight you like some bear in a circus?"
"No. I dont think youre going to lie there while your men watch. I think youre going to stand and try to show your men that you can swat me like a fly." She prodded him in the crotch with her staff. "And then Im gonna swat you."
Only then did the General become aware of the expressions on his own troops; many wore mixed emotions and disconcerted faces. Under their stares he raised himself up and drew his sword. Gabrielle shifted her shoulders and gripped her staff. Without looking about she ordered, "Everybody out of the cart, except for him and me." She felt the shift in weight as Ikaros and Auto followed her order, but Xena remained on board. Gabrielle turned slightly, keeping one eye on the general and was prepared to begin to lecture her partner when she saw her expression. One she remembered from not too long ago. The same one Xena had worn when a little girl had rushed to stand between her and the mob from her hometown gathered to stone her. Knowing that the general would never move against her while Xena was in the cart, she escorted her gently towards the ramp.
"Shush. Well talk later, Im...busy. You know how it is, right?"
"Yeah," the warrior smiled sadly. "I do."
"You watch with your men, otherwise you might want to get involved. Thats against the rules, right?"
Another grim smile. "Still looking out for my honour, arent you? I told Ares you would never be confused about words."
"Nope. Words are almost as important to me as deeds."
Gabrielle watched as the walls went up, the face and stature straightened, and the Warrior Princess left her alone with her opponent.
Now she and her antagonist were alone in the battered wooden cart, the remaining side railings splintered and broken. Exactly as though they were on stage, in the centre of the yard.
The general began moving towards her, and in the small confines of the cart Gabrielle had no where to go.
Xena took a seat above the court and tried her best to judge the two opponents stances impartially. She noted that her partner was waiting as always for the first strike, but clearly the general was unsure of exactly what to expect and was also waiting.
His own inaction under the eyes of his men obviously was getting to him, and he waved his sword with menace and blustered to fill the silence. "Im going to skin you, girl, you know that?"
Gabrielle twirled her staff to force him back a foot, and said "Nope. I dont know that. I do know that I already fooled you at least, what... Twice?" Rukcal growled and raised his sword, testing her boundaries.
"Did you know..." Gabrielle was speaking to the crowd now, "that he wouldnt stop his own men from riding into this trap? Why was that, General?"
Gabrielle was finally rewarded with a ponderous forward thrust which she countered easily, almost disarming the general in that first stroke. Now Rukcal resembled a bull pawing on the ground, so eager was he to tear into the girl in front of him.
"Ive been playing him like a puppet." Gabrielle continued speaking to the crowd, goading him further. "In fact, when he refused to save his guys, we had to knock him out and he WAS a puppet. Proving anybody can be useful."
Another mindless lunge, and again she slipped past.
She laughed and that brought the general into action. The girl dropped low and heard the hiss of the sword above her, and then the curse as she slammed her staff into his ribs. Instead of making him cautious, he spun about and tried a downward slicing motion which would have been effective if the bard had been still standing there. Somehow she had squirted up beside him and as he tried to switch hands, she centred her grip on her stave and chopped down on his loosened grip, and then reversed to strike his skull. Stunned, he dropped his sword, and staggering, rushed her again, hoping to use his weight and the confining space to knock her over. Once more, she evaded him, and when he tried to spin to follow her, she tripped him up and he fell heavily. She wasnt even winded, he thought, as she stood over him, eyes flashing, one foot and her staff keeping him where he was.
Gabrielle was disappointed. It had been easy. Too easy, and it wouldnt be enough to convince the men surrounding her to follow her, she knew. Angry at the man for not making it more of a contest, she snarled, "Do you concede to me?"
There was only an angry rumble in response, until the staff pressed deeper into his throat. "Im not going to kill you, General. But I will keep making you suffer until you concede. How long that will take is up to you."
There was finally a furious swallow, and a grunted, "You will pay for this."
Gabrielle used one of Xenas favorite lines, and was happy that she wasnt there to hear it come from her peaceloving bard.
"Get in line."
High above, Xena was waiting for the concession from Rukcal, but even as he spoke the words, Xena had become aware that Ares was nearby. Using his power to influence... not her this time, but someone... As the General began to stutter out the words that might give Gabrielle command, Xena saw Ares motioning and whispering behind several archers. Who, to her horror, began to lower their bows to point at the bard and Rukcal.
Then she realised she was frozen in place. Paralyzed. As if every muscle in her body was fighting itself.
Smiling, Ares appeared beside her. "Sorry Princess, but I decided I better do something to get things back on track here. It was too good a chance to miss."
Somehow she was able to force words out of her mouth. "Dont do this, Ares." If he wanted her to beg, she would. "Please."
For a moment she saw that her plea had affected him, but he shook his head instead. "Sorry Xena. But shes served her purpose. It just works too well for me. With both her and Rukcal dead, this place will break out into complete pandemonium. Youll have to stop it. Youll have to take command of both armies. And you were right about Polybus, Hes just about ready to launch his attack. Youll have no time to think about anything except defending against him or all these people will die. And any anger or hatred you feel against me, I can take. As long as I have my Chosen back." He paused. "Or of course, you could..."
She would have shaken her head, but that was beyond her, but she put as much force into her words as she was capable of doing. "NO. I will never go back to you."
"Just say the words, Xena, and the little bard can live. Say youll come back to me..."
"No, Ares. I promised."
The God of War shrugged. "Then you made a promise to a dead girl. Either way, I get you back."
She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on just moving her hand. Tried to inch it slowly towards her chakram. She had moved her arm barely an inch when she heard the arrows release, and cinching her eyes even tighter, heard the distinctive sound of them entering two human bodies.
Concluded in Part VII
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