Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: Set sometime late in 4th season, I figure. One of my characters, Mendices, is mentioned in "History Cast in Amber" (the very first story I ever wrote) and he's seen in more detail in "Compelling Associations" another of my general fiction stories.
If Memory Serves
(c) January 1999
E-Mail LZClotho at email@example.com
On horseback, Ares leaped through throngs of Romans, cutting down everything within reach. On horseback, fully armored and swinging a battle-axe, a Roman soldier pulled up his mount within a hairs- breadth of Ares. His wild swing made the god duck. Even as the Ares dropped from the saddle, he executed a flip and cut through the Roman's leather-padded armor, through his chest, spilling his entrails.
As the Roman fell his helmet tumbled free. His head lolled for a long moment. Ares moved in, sword high above his head. He was thunderstruck a moment later as boots flew into his chest, throwing him back. His head jostled, he tasted blood. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand Ares realized his teeth had cut through his bottom lip. Damn. Angry and circling, sword still in hand, Ares studied his opponent and parried strike for strike as he amazingly toned his attack level down in an effort to catch his breath.
He stumbled. Looking down he saw his boot heel had caught in the entrance to a rabbit warren. The God of War hated rabbits. Soft furry creatures useless except for food, rabbits were children's pets when tamed and when wild, a stupid bit of fluff preyed on by everything in the forest that had the slightest inkling for fresh meat.
He felt a sword press through the air and instinctively raised his sword to counter the blow. Damn, he thought disturbed, and slid his sword through the soldier's defensive maneuvers, sliding his weapon finally home in the mortal's stomach. He cursed as the young man fell. Sloppy work. His mind wandering was becoming really a shitty habit. It had been getting steadily worse he realized over the last week.
He pulled his sword free, saluted the soldier half-heartedly and turned a full circle, surveying the fighting.
Down in the valley now, the god realized he was really in the thick of it. Unlike the last fight, where he was surveying from the catapult position, this was no overarching view of the battle. His position was nearly completely socked in with trees. He saw men fighting here and there. His ears rang with the war cries and liberating yells of both Romans and Greeks. The air stank with the smell of death, and blood. He swiveled his head, smelling smoke.
An almost cheerful smile curled his lips as he saw a Roman soldier beaten back into a campsite fire. The Greek fighting him had a cudgel and swung it firmly. The sound of cracking bones reached the god's ears, widening his smile.
Only to have his smile falter when an axe crashed against his back. The weapon's edge wasn't toward him and that alone prevented a rent in his tunic and damage to his shoulder armor. But his muscles shook and his bones ached from the force of the blow. Howling reminiscent of a bull elephant, Ares spun on his heels and brought his sword to bear. Ducking the axe, he muscled his way inside the man's reach, and butted his head against the broad chest.
The two of them flew backward, thrown with the force of Ares' might.
Tumbling along the forest floor together, Ares and his opponent wrestled for control of the big battleaxe. Exchanging control repeatedly, first the god and then the mortal had the upper hand.
Both however were rattled when their fall abruptly stopped. Both heads smashed against a massively thick and rigid tree trunk. The pain skittered down the god's head and neck, snaking into his back and arms. As he gingerly rolled over, waiting for the scattered bits of light to fade from his vision, he noted his opponent lay still. Carefully leaning closer, holding himself and his throbbing head carefully immobile as he examined the silent face, Ares realized the man was dead. The soldier's neck had been broken by the same impact that had only rattled his wits. Now the eyes were startlingly open, pale blue staring up at the pre-dawn sky.
The god shivered as he closed the man's lids on the disturbing sight. Get a grip, Air, he chided himself. He started to shake his head but stopped as a splintering pain shot up his back and into the base of his skull. "Oh, gods, that ... shit..." He tried to rub his neck and stopped when another pain shot up his arm. "That hurts." His hand came away from his hairline coated with a thin film of sweat and blood. The pungent odor was not unpleasant, but he winced as the salty fluid slipped into a myriad of cuts on his face, upper arms and wrists. He winced at the mess of scrapes, scratches and gouges on his legs, now also slowly catching runnels of sweat.
He looked around the ground, trying to figure out what he had actually done to himself. Few things could make a god hurt. A rock of pure gold flung at high velocity or a nick from a Hephaestus-forged weapon.
Raising his hand, watching it shaking, the God of War tried to invoke a simple power: locating his weapon. A horrible ringing sounded in his ears, and he tried to pinpoint the direction even as he gripped his ears in an attempt to stifle the headache forming. Turning his head against the noise, which did seem to get louder as he moved clockwise, he finally spotted the hilt wedged in the exposed roots of a tree about five paces away.
Carefully leaning against the tree trunk, inching his way to a standing position, Ares scanned for the Warrior Princess as he moved to retrieve his sword. Squinting against the stabbing pain in his forehead and neck, Ares had no luck identifying the dark-haired warrior among the nearby combatants. She's probably headed for the city itself, he reasoned, and started in a westerly direction. When he broke free of the trees he could correct his path to bring him into the city.
His fierce grip on the heavy immortal
object made Ares' fingers throb, so he sheathed it slowly on his waist.
The momentary extended stretch revealed another ache... deep in the muscles
of his right bicep and shoulder. I've got to find Xena, he thought, knowing
if he was experiencing such pains, through their connection, the raven-haired
warrior might be experiencing far worse.
The Roman advance attack was formidable. Having sneaked into the outer edges of the Greek camp under cover of darkness, soldiers in Roman armor sprang up from every conceivable hiding place, attacking mounted and foot soldiers alike.
Xena dodged grasping hands and felled others with powerful swings of her sword. Hair flying wildly in the breeze, the warrior's battle cry ceaselessly filled the air. Dark hair whipped around, as she spun, flipped and leaped over and around Romans. She noticed movement off to the right and darted a glance in that direction, focusing despite the dim light and the chaos of nearby activity.
What in Hades' name? She growled. Standing on an outcropping and dancing through the air wielding her old crutch, the slave girl Gabrielle belted Romans right and left. Knocking many down, and still more simply into one another, she set up a chain reaction that had men falling down the incline, into Xena's path.
When her blade found the first belly, she let out a shout. The green eyes lifted to hers and even across the darkness, Xena could see the shrug... and faint smile. Dodging a blade unconsciously Xena turned sinking her sword once more into Roman flesh. Her victim howled in pain... and startled by the sound so close to her face, the raven-haired warrior, slammed her elbow into his jaw, knocking him unconscious as he fell.
Another Roman, his helmet falling askew, rolled down the hill away from the blonde and landed on his feet in front of Xena... She swung and he ducked. She pulled back on the return stroke, catching him across the shoulder as he was coming up.
"Ha!" she barked confidence dripping from her voice. "Gabrielle!" she called. "Get down here!"
While waiting for the blonde to heed her, Xena dealt fatal blows to three more Romans. She spun around, looking for the smaller woman, and spied a horse gathering its legs beneath its long body, leaping away over a small hedge. Dark hair lay cropped short against his head, unprotected by a helmet. His head swiveled, revealing a smooth, clean face wearing a calculating smirk. His dark eyes were narrowed beneath inky-black brows as he examined all around him. He laid his heels into his mount to clear another obstacle. Xena's heart leaped in her throat.
Caesar! The brunette warrior looked at the trees overhead and crouched briefly, arms swinging, she uncoiled, like a catapult, hurling herself into the treetops for pursuit. Below she heard Gabrielle's voice call her name. A shiver flowed over her body, but she ignored it, her gaze tracking instead the riding Roman monarch. She moved stealthily, unfailingly picking out a path through the trees above him.
She did not think what was the supposed Emperor of Rome doing leading a night raid. Only thinking she could fulfill her plan here, with no more waiting, she slipped along through the trees, silent as the big cats that liked to steal through them.
She was after the same thing as the wiry, wily big animals, she thought, a low growl curling her lip... Prey. Heat welled up in her chest, and her heart began to pound in time with her feet, as she moved from branch to branch, finding purchase, eyes always tracking her leaping, running quarry... waiting for an opening.
A moment to pounce, to capture... She paused against a tree trunk, leaning her forehead against the hard wood, her eyes following the Roman who found himself caught up in a melee between his men and her own. She almost laughed as she leapt heels over head from the tree to the ground, where she landed, just off to Caesar's left, looking up at his mounted form... half turned away from her. She raised her sword in silence, watching his horse dance to avoid a battle mace. Her lip curled in a silent snarl. To kill.
Fingers tensing, she brought her sword up, tip aimed for his exposed back. Her eyes tracked the horse's hooves over the rough terrain, noting the stone-strewn edge of an incline. Holding her breath, she waited for the inevitable.
Victory. Power. Destiny.
Yes, Xena thought in the span of the second it took for the Roman's mount to stumble, for Caesar to bobble and lose his balance. The startled war-horse danced right, into the pricking spike of a battle mace, snorted wildly, and reared on his hind legs. Bouncing to his front legs the horse kicked out the pain of the weapon but danced into the staggering path of a Greek soldier already knocked off balance by his human opponent. Startling once more, the horse's momentum tossed Caesar several body lengths into the air.
"Whoa!" he yelled, as the reins still fisted in his hands stopped his ascent and pulled him back down against the rising back. Xena saw the spurt of blood as his nose broke. Swinging her weapon in a narrow circle, she approached the rising man. "You're dead, Caesar," she intoned to his back. "I hold all the power now," she growled and kicked him in the back, raising the sword high above her head.
"No! Stop!" Xena spun taking in the sight of the small blonde running up swinging the wood crutch into the stomach of a Roman who thought to stand in her way. "Xena, you can't!"
Caesar rolled over on the ground, his thick arms flying out. His hands wrapped around Xena's booted ankles and yanked hard, throwing her full force into the ground. The air rushed from Xena's lungs. Stars clustered before her eyes as she struggled for a breath and leaped to her feet. She retained possession of her sword, and lifted it once more.
"Xena, please!" Gabrielle's shout did not sway her attention, but Caesar looked over, eyes widening in surprise, and that caused her to glance away from him to see what he had seen. He rolled away from her and sprang to his feet, grabbing a sword from the sheath on his horse's saddle.
"Listen to your little friend, Xena," he taunted her. The Greek warrior could hear it in his ugly Roman voice. She spun back, keeping her sword trained on his throat as he circled her. "Crassus should have paid more attention," he said. "You always listen to her, don't you?" he purred, returning her curled lip expression with a smirk.
"Caesar, I don't care what a little slave thinks." She saw in the sudden whiteness around his mouth that her words had startled him. Gabrielle's gasp behind her fell against unresponsive ears. I won't lose this chance, she told herself. We're not inside the city this time.
Xena's thought confused her and she paused a moment wondering what she was remembering. Wasn't this the first time since his betrayal that she'd seen Caesar? She had a sudden flash of soft white legs just before a hammer swung just on the periphery of her sight. She'd leapt up then bursting through the sod... Wh--
Caesar's blade swept in cutting off Xena's thought, clattering obscenely loudly against hers, brought up purely on instinct to block it.
Gabrielle's yell of alarm faded to silence as the warrior concentrated on beating back the broad blade repeatedly pounding against hers. The motion, and the constant pressure, drove the warrior to her knees. Her elbow brushed her chakram still loose in its catch on her weapon belt. Her forearm bled but she swept her hand down to retrieve the round weapon. She threw it up between her and Caesar's pressing body. The metal slammed into his chin, driving him backward until he fell on his rear in the rocky soil. The weapon kept rising, before rolling over, as if following a temple arch, and sliding home into Xena's outstretched right palm. She let the blade spin slightly and clamped her hand down, bringing the ring to a halt. She grimaced against a stinging pain in her right arm, but replaced the weapon on her hip. She felt her breathing catch for no reason, and looked down at her side where she had felt the muscle pull.
Caesar bolted during her momentary distraction. Xena was not fast enough to her feet to immediately pursue. As she did stand, Gabrielle leaped on her, bearing her back down to the earth. "Look out!" Rolling over beneath the surprisingly strong small woman, Xena looked to see what was going on. A Roman soldier had crept up, raising his weapon to bury it between her shoulder blades. Gabrielle's quick action prevented the blade from finding a home in either of them. She coiled her legs and kicked out, solidly driving her boot into his lower stomach. He howled.
Xena tossed the blonde aside, and thrust her sword to the hilt in the Roman's belly. As his body fell away from her, she turned on the smaller woman. "What in Tartarus do you think you're doing here?" She could not keep her voice down. Undefined emotion clamped down on her throat and sounded raw, even to her own ears.
The girl's green eyes were pleading with her. "I ... thought I'd come help."
Xena almost laughed. Almost. There was a glint of steel at the edges of Gabrielle's irises. And she realized it was a reflection of someone behind her.
Damn, what the hell happened to my focus? She lamented the disturbing change even as she spun and engaged the sneak-attacking Roman. "Get out of my way," she growled at the man. His eyes were gray-brown and peered from beneath his helmet. She got a good look up his nose, she thought, realizing he was a full head taller, and his shoulders three times as big around. His helmet barely concealed a head covered in honey hair. His face bore no smile, but his cheeks were taut as he took a controlled breath and waited to see what she would do.
In his own quiet way, Xena realized, this man was cocky, confident of his skill with the weapon he held and his ability to wield it. She jumped aside as a square-faced stone hammerhead--affixed to a handle as big around as both of her muscular arms put together--swung through the air, making a whistling sound.
The stone passed just inches away from her ears, making her wince slightly. Her opponent, reading her face expertly, noticed the change and could not resist bringing the weapon around full circle and swinging it at her again.
Fatal if it connects, she realized though frozen to the spot.
"Duck!" Xena looked up at the bass male voice and instinctively sprang into the air. The cudgel caught the side of her foot as she leapt out of reach.
Rolling heels over head in mid-air, Xena landed behind her attacker, drove her fingers into his throat, and tapped off the blood flow. Gasping like a landed fish and struggling for breath, he fell face-first toward the ground. "Where is Caesar going?" she demanded of the man, even as his face turned a startling blue around the edges.
"H... He goes... to find more men... to... kill you... Warrior Princess." The man spat, or at least tried. Spittle dribbled out of his lips and down his chin and his eyes closed from the pain. Only this time they would never open again.
Xena growled in frustration. "I have to track him into the city... damn, but that's crazy." She looked through the trees and caught a bit of the outline of Rome through the small piece of vision. She shrugged and started toward the city, her sword swinging in her left hand. Her blue eyes darted over everything coming in.
She looked around. Where had the
blonde girl gone?
Ares had made his way to where Xena fought, on instinct alone. It was like following a map he saw inside his head, no idea where it came from, or how he'd known. Just moving... always moving... He was heading west then turned around a large bluff and made his way northward on the battlefield. The god found his breathing was coming harder now, and he paused to collect himself, his arm wrapped around his ribs.
He saw her in the distance and pushed to his feet again. She was not far, he realized, but the distance suddenly seemed impossible. Every step was an agony. His ribs shifted with every step, making him realize several had to be broken. The last few steps, before he simply sank against a tree, were purely surreal. Ares wasn't even sure he was entirely present on the earthly plane any more. He'd tried twice to summon a bolt of energy for throwing against the Romans, and both times failed, leaving himself even weaker.
His surroundings however were horrifyingly solid. The tree behind him, were he drifting between planes, would not be scratching his arms. The scents of spring just coming to this part of the world assailed him, and the damp grass made his feet slip as he tried once more to stand.
Caught in the maelstrom of heightened sensations, Ares found Xena and used her presence as a point on which to focus. He saw the sneaking soldier, felt his body jerk as it registered a need for action yet could not obey, and one word exploded from his throat: "Duck!"
She looked up, her eyes unseeing, but she had heard him. With a yell she leaped straight up into the air and he squinted, watching her explode into action and hit the soldier on several pressure points. A small bit of strength seeped into his limbs, and he pushed himself to his hands and began unfolding his legs beneath him.
"Thank you for calling to Xena." A voice behind him caused his concentration to lapse and he fell against the tree again as the small form of a young woman entered his peripheral vision. He turned his head, furrowing his brow, recognizing the blonde bard. He could not even summon anger at her presence. The whole reason his existence had begun to travel such turmoil. But now he looked at her, and saw a tired wariness reflected in green eyes, remembering the edge of fear he had found there when he'd caught her watching Xena leave for Ch'in. "You probably saved her life."
Oh, damn, he thought. Now she's giving me gratitude. And he didn't have anything to hold over her this time. "Well, she's my commander. I'm not about to go work for a new one." His aim was for sarcasm, but from the tilt of her head, he realized she interpreted more. Gods be damned, save me from insightful bards.
She hovered over him, reaching down to help him to his feet. He withheld his hands, until her look became stubborn. "Mendices," she groaned, pulling at his arms. "Get up, so we can get back to camp."
"What about Xena?" He looked over to where they had both last seen the raven-haired warrior. She was gone. They both noticed the sunrise.
"I don't know her anymore. Would she retire to camp with the sun?" Gabrielle asked, grunting as she heaved, using her weight to lever him onto his feet. "Or move on through the rest of the battlefield toward Rome?"
In pain as he settled back against a tree, he was actually pleased his voice was not weak when he expelled forcefully, "How in Tartarus should I know?" He closed his eyes determined to search for her along his inner sense, and shivered with a very real, abiding fear. He couldn't sense Xena anymore. Alarm snapped his eyes open. He found Gabrielle's face inches from his because she had moved in to support him.
As if branded by fire, Ares pulled away from her. "Get the Hades away from me!" The sudden motion toppled his already precarious balance. "Why are you being so nice to me anyway?" he growled, even as he slammed into the earth and felt one of his cracked ribs finally break. "Oh damn." He reached for his sword, finding it not in his sheath. He arched his back and rotated his head carefully. "Where the hell is my sword?"
Must've dropped it, he thought. I find it, and I can fix all this, he determined, feeling a shred of hope as he hit the bottom of his options. Looking up at the blonde he bit his lip and lowered his eyebrows, trying to look grim as he demanded, "I need you to find my sword."
"You can't possibly wield it in your condition," she replied. "Here, use this... " She demonstrated, and Ares suddenly realized it was Xena's crutch. The one she'd been using up until yesterday. Several clues clicked into place. Xena's full healing... the sharp decline in his own ability to wield godly influence...
Ares shook his head disbelieving his own logical conclusions. I can't possibly have lost my godhead, he denied the obvious. His dark sweat-damped hair slapped lightly against his forehead and neck. "My sword will work better," he reasoned weakly. "It, it'll hold my weight better."
Probably from familiarity with Xena's own dependence on her weapons, Gabrielle accepted the argument and began looking for the sword among the grasses and bushes surrounding them. "Which direction did you come?" He pointed. She turned in the direction he indicated, scanning the ground for twenty paces before turning around. The change in vantagepoint was lucky. She spotted the sword half wedged under a bush. Caught in the root system, it probably had become trapped there as he moved through the tight underbrush.
Ares watched Gabrielle pull it free, feeling slight warmth still in its pommel as she hefted it. "Is this it?" she shouted. He blinked and closed his eyes against the realization as he watched the aura of power shift from the weapon to the girl's hands.
If the power hadn't left the sword, rendering him mortal and the bard's touch hadn't claimed the weapon's power? Then where in Tartarus, Olympus and the Fields was his godhead??
Groaning he felt another rib crack.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. A notion occurred to him, simultaneously reassuring
and unreasoningly frightening. Did Xena have it? He looked up at the bard,
brushing her own body free of a light sheen of sweat. If Xena does indeed
now possess the godhead, what will she do with it?
The battle was folding fast. The brunette warrior, though she stood out with her sword in one hand and her very non-Roman leathers, ran headlong toward the city gates. She'd lost Caesar's trail in a melee near the last ridge where a Roman contingent surrounded her and briefly held her at bay. With explosive force, she launched herself out from under their blades, receiving not a scratch in fact as weapons bounced off her body and armor.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" She screamed, turning into a whirling dervish. Her blade glimmered in the midday sunlight and Roman soldiers fell back, their bodies cleaved in half.
Her hair billowed about her face in the dancing winds of the plain, and her own precise, efficient movements that left everyone around her dead. The coppery patina of blood filled the air; an exultant cry escaped her lips and she raised her sword to the sky. "Death to Rome! Death to Caesar!" Victory was within her reach at last; she could feel it within her body, thrumming there, in wait of release.
A calculation set up in her mind. The warrior moved into the city, sneaking past Roman guards posting protective flanks as the mass of the Roman army retreated. She heard a crier calling all senators to the Senate floor, and hid herself in the shadows near a Roman centurion until the crier had passed. Once alone with the centurion she leaped on him and punched him unconscious, dragging his body deep into the shadows of the alley with her.
"Thanks," she told the now naked man lying bound and gagged propped against the wall. She adjusted the leather armor and pulled his helmet low over her eyes, securely hiding her hair within. She felt a surge of strength, like a second wind as her body readied itself for more battle. Disguised, she hoped to get inside the Senate, where Caesar undoubtedly was preparing to speak to the gathered leaders.
And prematurely claim his victory over her troops. At that moment, she pledged, he would die by her hand. She snatched up the small dagger that had fallen from the centurion's belt as she dragged him out of sight, and tucked it away.
Xena forcibly reminded herself she was disguised and there was no reason to cling to the shadows. She moved toward the stately structure, at the city center. Roman centurions and senators alike were moving in and out of its entrance. Ducking inside she searched the interior for signs of Caesar's whereabouts.
Hearing noises coming from an antechamber across from the entrance to the Senate main chamber, Xena proceeded up a staircase to an overhead balcony. No one else was on the mezzanine. From the shadows she looked out an opening down onto the floor of the large room where a group of Roman nobles in white brocade-edged togas mingled. Some were just throwing off cloaks to servants as they walked up to the others.
"Why the meeting?" He gave his robe to a slave who ran out of sight with it.
"Aurelius," another said.
"I heard it was Caius," said an older one with a fringe of gray hair surrounding his bald pate.
"Doesn't matter. I've had enough. This city is supposed to be impregnable. Caesar has a lot to answer for, letting that warrior woman's army breach the city so easily."
"Do we yet know the identity of the woman?" yet another voice asked.
"Xena, the Warrior Princess." All heads, including Xena's swiveled toward the door, where Julius Caesar, just now throwing off his cloak, stepped into the room. "I went out myself and saw her leading the heathens against our troops."
Xena bit her lip to prevent the enraged war cry from passing her lips. Caesar, she thought coldly. Finally.
"I thought you humiliated her enough last time in the arena," a new voice entered the room and Xena studied the curly dark haired newcomer in centurion leathers. "Good day to you, great Caesar."
"And to you, friend Brutus," the monarch inclined his head in greeting. "Now what has us gathered here this morning?"
"Tell us you will rout the warrior woman and her Greek heathen army, Caesar," a spare built Senator. "The people do not like having their lives uprooted like this."
"She will be dead shortly," Caesar said, his voice smacking of self-assurance. "I have an assassin hunting her out right now." A lie, Xena thought.
Somehow the rest of the room's listeners knew it too. She saw the glint of a dagger flash behind someone's back, then another. Then Brutus moved abruptly and Caesar was in a chokehold in Caius' arms. Metal flashed, Caius released his hold to avoid getting stabbed himself.
Julius Caesar spun, covered in blood from his throat to his stomach, grabbing for his former second. "Et tu, Brutei?" The diminutive friendly name fell on a hard, implacable visage.
"You have betrayed Rome, my friend," the dark-haired soldier said. "Rome shall live without you." Julius spun away from the crowd, clawing at the air as his body heaved with pain.
Xena stopped breathing as glazed eyes, fast quickening with death, looked up, piercing the balcony shadows, finding hers. As his breath expired, on his soundless lips, the Warrior Princess read, "Et tu, Xena?"
The body collapsed to the ground and the Senators fell back, all pulling off their robes to conceal the spattering of blood. A clamor of disbelief arose among the assassins and Xena leaned against the wall. By the gods, she thought. It's over. It's really over.
Shivers shook her body as rage focused on the now dead Caesar struggled for somewhere to go. Weakness invaded her limbs and she sagged harder. The senators fled the room, and she heard noises rise outside. "Caesar is dead," she translated mentally as the distinct words reached her. "The Great Emperor is dead."
She pushed to her feet and leaned hard on the balcony, looking down at the empty floor, save for the inert body of the dead Julius Caesar. Damn you to Hades' darkest realms, Caesar. Your death was supposed to be on my hands.
But his people got him first. She flung her fist out sideways taking away a solid chunk of the marble surface. Guess you had more enemies than just a madwoman from Greece, huh, Caesar? Gripping the marble railing, feeling it crumble under her fingers, Xena took only another moment to decide and vaulted over it, landing easily on the floor below, about ten paces from the body.
She looked around for the lantern that seemed to light the spot where he lay, and discovered from the shadow pattern that it came from somewhere very close. She studied her sword hilt for a long moment and realized it was reflecting light. Sunlight, from the sky window, she assessed. It was, after all just a tick or two beyond midday.
Crouching next to Caesar, Xena reached out a hand and set a finger in the pool of blood near his head. She splayed her fingers and thrust both palms into the rapidly congealing red mess. His blood on my hands, she thought fiercely. The triumph was hollow, but the feel of the blood of the one person she'd sworn dead since that terrifying night in a mountain healer's hut swept away a large portion of the disappointment. Still she could feel the anger welling, just as fierce now as on that day.
"A new Xena is born tonight. With a new purpose in life. Death." She shivered resolutely as M'Lila's blood seeped through her fingers and the Roman centurion sent to kill her aspirated his last breath.
She studied the inert face. "With your death, Caesar, I reclaim... myself." Now I can go home, claim my son, return to Amphipolis, and live out my true destiny. She pushed to her feet and turned toward the door. Noises outside kept her still. "I'd better wait until nightfall to leave the city," she decided, and slipped into the shadows of the Roman Senate chamber.
"That hurts, damn it!" Ares scowled at the blonde, who was busy tying off the first of several cloths to bind his broken ribs. He lay shirtless on a cot in his tent, bandages on his wrist, ribs and antiseptic burning nearly everywhere else. "Where in Tartarus did you learn to treat wounds?"
"I'm sorry it hurts," Gabrielle replied. "I'm trying to be quick."
"Well, just back off, little bard!"
Gabrielle paused in her act of adjusting the bandage across his wounded shoulder. "How... I only told Xena I was a bard..."
Ares groaned. To tell her that he knew, really knew, who she was... Damn but it was tempting to try and find a way to see her fear. Maybe the moment would give him some measure of humor back. After all, the whole situation really was beginning to suck pig toes. He groaned at the image of Hercules as a porcine specimen and tried very hard not to laugh since it made his ribs hurt too much.
Discomfort must have been revealed on his all-too-mortal face, because Gabrielle studied him. Her incredibly open expression told him she was genuinely concerned. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Why are you helping me? You should be out trailing after Xena," he demanded, finding anger gave him a comfortable distance from the disturbingly gentle green eyes.
"For reasons I haven't figured out yet," she answered plainly. "She cares about you. I'm not about to see that damaged."
"You're kidding right?"
"You said you've known Xena longer than anyone. Well, I'm not just a Greek who escaped Rome recently. Until a week ago I was traveling with Xena, back in Greece. She was a warrior who walked the country doing good, and I was her bard."
Ares grumbled. "Yeah, yeah. So what's new?" Gabrielle frowned. He realized he'd slipped and retreated into anger again. "I've been poked and prodded now for a full candlemark, meanwhile Xena is the gods only know where!" He grabbed her hand when she started reaching for his pants. "I'll take care of the damn leg." She looked up. A pair of green eyes swimming with barely restrained tears made him terse. "What the hell is your problem? I'm the one broken in a dozen places here."
Gabrielle steeled herself and Ares found himself admiring her ability to hold together in a crisis. "Must've been tough," he found himself saying.
"Yes, well. I don't know what happened... yet. I..." She looked away, toward Rome. "Something's wrong." She stood and dropped the cloth she'd been using to brush away dirt from the wounds. "I've got to find Xena."
The blonde's face took on such a sudden faraway look that the former immortal wondered if indeed some of his power had bled from the sword into her. The ability to sense a specific mortal was one he'd used on many occasions, not only to find Xena, but others of his warlords. Ares rubbed at his face, the itching of deep scrapes and cuts driving him nearly mad. His voice was breathy, but deep when he responded, trying to avoid shaking his head. "You can't!"
"You certainly can't." She indicated the arm he now cradled against his chest. "That's broken for sure and with the way you're moving, several ribs are too." Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. "Let's finish getting your ribs bound up. Then I'll set out." Tears slipped out of the corners of her eyes and down her cheeks. Ares felt as if the breath had been punched out of his chest. "Xena's a lot better at this than I am."
"Then go away and find her," he growled. Gabrielle's face took on a pained look, and Ares was put in mind of Hope and his ill-fated alliance with the calculating daughter of Dahak. Grim and fiercely determined to bring about her father's will, Hope had succumbed from time to time to similar looks. Until near the end of their alliance, Ares had often asked what was wrong, to which the woman's chin would firm up and the brimming tears would instantly dry up, replaced by a sudden burst of anger usually directed at her absent mother. "She's probably in the city hunting down Caesar."
Gabrielle nodded tiredly. "I know."
She sounded so damn sure. Ares frowned. "You know? Then why didn't you go after her in the first place?"
"Because you needed your wounds seen to." Gabrielle submerged another clean cloth in antiseptic and smoothed it over his cut up arms.
Desperate to understand the extent of what had transpired in the last hours, Ares pressed her with a question. "How do you know she's in the city?"
"Xena's always had a problem with Caesar. For a while, even when I knew her, it was an obsession. It... got us... in trouble a... couple of times." Gabrielle shook her head and tried to continue while coating his left arm with a salve. "She... had gotten over... it... I thought. But... when... her head... got rattled... I think she..." Gabrielle trailed off. "I should have guessed after that first conversation... But it took me seeing her take off into the trees to follow him to realize... She blames him for everything that she became..." Gabrielle's eyes drifted to Ares' dark brown ones. "I guess she doesn't yet see that despite everything she'd become a really good person."
Caught up in the young bard's struggle to put her thoughts into words, he didn't feel anything until a sensation skittered up his thigh and settled in his groin. It was then that he noticed her hand sliding along his thigh. He grabbed her hands again when she raised a knife to his leg. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I have to cut away your pants to tend your broken leg." He glared at her, and she backed off, putting down the knife. "I'll get the healer."
"Just go--find Xena." He took a deep breath. "If she's gone to kill Caesar, she'll never get out of Rome alive."
"Do you have a message for her?"
"Yeah. Tell her to get her ass back to camp. We're leaving."
Gabrielle looked at him askance. "I thought she was in charge of the army."
He shook his head. "At sunset there won't be an army to be in charge of." He waved a hand, trying to ignore the pain in his arms and chest as he did so. "Damn," he cursed as his mortal disguise didn't melt away. It wasn't a fluke. He really was powerless. "Just trust me on this. If she doesn't get back inside the perimeter before sunset and ... oh hell, just go find her before she does something stupid!"
Confusion ruled Gabrielle's expression, but something he'd said seemed to convince her, and she backed up quickly turning and running out the tent entrance. Laying his head back against the pillow, Ares sighed and wished the blonde all humanly possible speed.
A strange feeling in his gut was telling him she'd be far too late. "Why did I have to answer your prayers, Xena? And why in the name of all that resides in Olympus and the Fields did you have to be the answer to mine?" He was now coming to realize the exchange of power was almost two days old by now. In the clearing where he, as Mendices, had witnessed Xena praying and then come to her in her prayers as Ares, he'd given up his control over their bond. And in so doing, he'd now given up his own godhead in an effort to fulfill her impossible wish.
The Fates are laughing, he thought ruefully, wishing for an audience with the ageless trio. But mortals couldn't summon the Fates. Only gods could. Now instead of calling into play his bond with the Warrior Princess in order to cease her pursuit of Hope:
"The Fates have granted my request," he told Gabrielle. "They agreed I have the right to ask this."
"Yes," Clotho admitted.
"Ares has the right," Lachesis continued.
"--to ask," Atropos concluded.
"If Xena kills Hope, then the Warrior Princess will die," the three judged in unison. Atropos' shears hovered close to the thread feeding into the loom next to his.
Lying there on his cot, bones and spirit both broken, Ares now wished he had demanded they just sever his and Xena's link. Certainly it would have been enormously less painful. He might have even retained his godhead. But now that was all history. There was no going back.
Unless Xena gets back here by nightfall, he thought. I won't even have a chance to tell her I was wrong. He felt the pinch of bones against nerves and the feeling disappeared in his left leg. Now he wished he'd spent some time asking Xena about the one thing he had seen her practice but in his godly arrogance, never thought he should learn to use: pressure points.
It might have eased the pain, he
realized. He admitted the finality as his vision swam, blurring the sight
of the tent's cloth roof: So this is what it's like to die.
Gabrielle reached for the reins of a horse just unsaddled in the corral, and swung herself aboard. She'd make better time to Rome on horseback. No matter what her stomach said.
The horse broke immediately into a headlong run down the hillside and charged amid the remnants of fighters. Only his constant speed and agile moves kept her from the weapons swinging throughout the plain. She looked up and blinked against the mane hair stinging her eyes. The gates ahead were just beginning to swing shut. "Hold!" she yelled, getting the Roman soldiers' attentions. Her attire surprising, they must have thought though that she was a Roman citizen who had been caught outside. They held the gate and watched her charge through.
Her stomach lurched as the horse swerved around a Roman detachment and she struggled to bring the big boned bay under control as they plunged together into the heart of the city. Citizens yelled in pandemonium and curiosity prompted her to lean down, falling from the horse's back at the foot of a centurion. "What happened?" she asked, in abrupt Latin.
"Caesar is dead," the centurion replied. "Murdered."
Gabrielle struggled to her feet and looked around. Her horse was gone. "Where?" she asked the centurion as he took off his helmet, revealing a man with tawny brown hair.
"The Senate." Gabrielle staggered a few steps in that direction before the centurion's voice drew her up momentarily. "It's been cordoned off," he informed her.
Thinking quickly, Gabrielle answered, "My master is there."
Brown and green eyes met. Finally the centurion shrugged. "Long live Rome," he said by way of releasing her.
"Thank you," she answered breathless and broke into a run. Her mind tumbled over the thoughts. Xena has murdered Caesar. She really did it. But the cordoning off of the Senate building, and Xena not having yet returned to camp suggested only two reasons: she was trapped inside the building, or she was dead.
Gabrielle fell up the steps of the Roman Senate and moved quickly through the columns of the entrance. A guard stepped forward, hand raised. Falling on the story she'd told the other centurion, Gabrielle quickly breathed, "My master's wife seeks him."
The centurion frowned but nodded. "Be quick about it. Many of the Senators are in the north antechamber," he supplied helpfully.
Gabrielle did not respond, only continuing headlong into the building and searching down the corridors for an idea where Xena had gone. She noticed a commotion to the left and slowed, moving with as much quiet reserve as she could muster toward it. She edged her way through the milling crowd until she broke through on the other side. Several people she pushed past grunted their displeasure but none spoke. All eyes were on the same thing as hers.
Julius Caesar lay dead on the floor, robes and toga splayed about his person, and red blood pooling under it all. No one would walk near him, though several had crossed the room to gawk from the other side. Gabrielle tore her eyes from the morbid sight and almost instantly noticed the dark figure hidden well in the shadows of a cloakroom. Xena. The blonde held her breath and sidled toward that wall, but made no further move to enter the shadows.
Morbid fascination lasts only so long in a crowd. After a long time just standing there, the citizens and their senators began dispersing. A centurion guard detachment of six men entered from another direction, bearing a litter between them. Gabrielle identified their leader, remembering him as Pompey, the third member of the great Roman triumvirate. Crassus was dead, the bard knew painfully well recalling her role in that.
Now too was Julius Caesar dead. Suddenly Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. It was only a fleeting thought, and she almost discarded it, knowing Xena was entirely capable of the murder, but... Had Pompey been behind the murder instead? Gabrielle stepped back a bit in the shadows as Pompey led the litter-bearers carrying Caesar out. She remained still a while longer as the chamber fell silent.
The extended silence was one reason she nearly expired with surprise when a hand slid onto her shoulder. "Gabrielle?" The blonde spun and would have fallen backward if it had not been for Xena's quick hands securing her shoulders and holding her up.
"Xena! By the gods!" Gabrielle fell into the warrior's arms with relief, uneasily aware of the lack of hug in return. "We've got to get out of here," she went on, feeling her adrenaline rising sharply again, choking off her breath.
"They'll have the city locked down any minute. Caesar's dead."
The bard finally noticed Xena's attire. "A centurion? Gods, Xena, did you really? You killed him?"
The warrior stiffened in her arms and pulled the dagger from her belt. "I had it in my hand," she said, her voice distant as she stared at the blood staining the floor. "And then everything just... happened." Gabrielle felt an almost palpable wave of violence shudder through Xena's body as she stood straighter and looked hard at the fallen Roman monarch. "He. Should. Have. Been. Mine. " She stalked a step toward the body, Gabrielle grasping her forearm. "Get up you wretched piece of manhood. I'm going to kill you again!"
A fearsome glow rippled over the inert man. Gabrielle stepped back. Xena however remained still. "Xena!" The glow surrounding Caesar's body increased by measure.
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's bloody hands and pulled her back into the shadows of the cloakroom. The glow left Caesar's body abruptly and the bard hid her face against the warrior's thudding chest. She felt Xena's body, warmer than usual, and noticed they couldn't seem to shrink into the shadows deeply enough. There always seemed to be a light source catching them. Then she looked up into the warrior's face, seeing the familiar shining blue eyes...That glowed from within. A focused anger swept through the sharp expression and Gabrielle knew a deep fear. What in all of Olympus was going on? She'd seen only two other people with that glow: Velasca and Callisto... just as they became gods.
Whether or not Xena had killed Caesar, it appeared the situation was now totally different.
The Warrior Princess was now the Warrior Goddess.
"Um... Xena?" Gabrielle reached out. The warrior had sagged to the floor, holding her head between her knees. There was no reaction from the light touch she put on the bare shoulder, so she squeezed harder. "Xena?"
White-hot eyes raised to pin the bard in place. "What do you want?" Gabrielle's hand was shrugged off with a cool look. Gabrielle inched backward, until Xena, a strange, confused look crossing her face, grasped her wrist. "Where are you going?"
"I... thought... I'd find out if we can get out of here."
Xena stretched and flexed a hand. A small ball of light sparked to life in the palm of her hand. It wasn't flame, but had more of the qualities of a tiny sun, Gabrielle realized. "Heh," Xena chuckled. "Guess this is something Ares gave me, hmmm?" Before Gabrielle could open her mouth to say anything, experimentally Xena flung the ball from her hand, surprising herself and Gabrielle when it took a chunk out of the wall about the size of either woman's head.
Ducking the flying debris, Gabrielle found herself being shielded by a large warm body that quickly settled over hers. The bard's sense of self-preservation got caught in her throat as their legs intertwined, the warrior's knees and shin leathers rubbing against Gabrielle's calves. The bard felt the hardness of Xena's breastplate against her shoulder blades, and the soft skin of muscular arms against her shoulders, when the warrior shifted her weight on her hands. Gods this is insanity, the bard thought, as a sharp image of the two of them so recently on the floor of Xena's tent, cascaded through her mind, making her numb.
"Sorry about that." The warrior's whisper in her ear sent shivers down her spine in a raging course of new sensations.
Trying hard to ignore her body's reaction to Xena, Gabrielle shook her head. "Uh...um... no problem." Xena remained over her; it wasn't uncomfortable... in fact, it was far too comfortable, the same familiar curves fitting along one another like pieces of a child's puzzle. "Could I... get up now?"
Xena studied the blonde head next to hers before pushing herself onto her hands. Why did you come after me, kid? She felt like she'd asked the question a million times before. And the answer had always come back the same: because that's what friends do. But she and this girl had never had that conversation, or had they?
Taking a deep breath, and enjoying the brief purely sensual moment of deeper contact between their bodies, Xena finally moved from covering the blonde's back. "Yeah. I think the chips have stopped falling." She watched the girl back away from her again. "I wasn't really sure Ares could do it." She concentrated a moment, and watched another light ball form and then evaporate from her hand. "But I guess he did."
"Why would you ask anything of him?" The impertinent question brought Xena's eyes up quickly. "You hate him."
Xena corrected her. "I'm a warrior. The God of War is my patron god. Caesar I hated. Ares helped me make that happen."
"You're not serious?" The bard shook her head, her blonde hair shagging lightly around her shoulders. "You didn't kill Caesar. You said so yourself. You sneaked up here all alone, and you pulled yourself into the shadows. What did Ares do through all that?"
"I made it, didn't I? Me. A mortal warrior. I made it unscathed through throngs of Romans." Xena stood suddenly and slapped her chest. "How else could I do that except with his protection?"
Gabrielle got to her feet, looking around first to assure herself they were alone. From the scattered noises outside they might not be for long. "Xena, listen to me. If Ares did anything--which I strongly doubt--it wasn't for your good."
Xena remembered the night at the altar. The feelings of being complete. "You're wrong." Her voice dropped a single register. "He's my patron."
"Since when?" Gabrielle grabbed his arm. "Xena, listen! I realize you don't remember anything I'm about to tell you, but I swear it's the truth.
"It has been just barely a year," the bard began. "You went to Ch'in. To see Lao Ma." The tension in the young woman's voice drew Xena in quickly.
"How... how do you know about Lao Ma?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I... know... she meant a lot to you. You kept a book she wrote..." The bard swallowed past the pain in her chest from having to bring this up again. But she had to make Xena understand. Ares never did anything nice that didn't have a price.
"A book." Drawn in with fascination, in silence Xena listened. "Do I still have it somewhere?"
Gabrielle couldn't believe the Fates were making her go through this again. The Temple of Mnemosyne had allowed her to come to grips with her decisions, and Xena had learned the truth them. But now she had to trot it all out again, dust it off... see the disappointment, and pain in those blue eyes. "I... kept it for you... but... it's... gone. I lost all my things when I was dragged away from the road."
Cocking her head to the side as she reacted to some crowd noises outside, Xena drew Gabrielle deeper into the shadows. Then she shook her head. "I don't remember that. When did this happen?"
"Um, I... can explain?" Gabrielle went on. The warrior gave her a quizzical look. "My story?"
"Oh..." Xena started to sit back. Gabrielle found it hard to allow the distance. She needed the warrior's familiar touch, even if the warrior herself was unfamiliar with her. So she laid a hand on the warrior's thigh.
"You received a message from Lao Ma, saying 'The Green Dragon must be made small again.' You told me that I couldn't go with you, and told me the story of your first time in Ch'in as we traveled east to the boat." Gabrielle searched the curious, and slightly detached blue eyes. "That hurt... so much... you wouldn't tell me what you planned. But I knew... And I knew she was the reason you were abandoning me." A tear trickled down Gabrielle's cheek and she brushed it away with the back of her hand as she looked away from Xena to compose herself. "He... Ares... was there... And he... mocked you... me... yes... and my feelings for you. 'Hurts doesn't it?' he said. 'That she'd leave you for this unknown person. After everything you've given her. I know the feeling'..." Gabrielle's voice trailed away. "I wanted so badly to stop you from killing Ming T'ien... but more, I wanted to see this Lao Ma for myself. Who she was that she could end what we had for three years with a simple note by messenger..."
Xena's voice was hollow, pained. "Did you?"
"See her? No. But Ares... he just snapped me there... when I asked... and I then owed him. Owed him everything. If Lao Ma really wasn't the architect of the end of our trust, Xena... that was. That I owed him... caused so much trouble. So many lives lost because I kept secrets. From you." Gabrielle's tears were flowing freely now. To her surprise, the warrior found herself cradling the blonde against her chest, the woman's tears falling on her skin.
"Lao Ma, dead?" Xena tried to wrap her mind around that. "I... You're saying we've known each other for three years? It's been ten years since I was in Ch'in?"
The blonde nodded solemnly. "Not all ten years." She shook her head. "I don't know everything you did from the time you and Borias left Ch'in, until I met you, but... it wasn't all spent in Ch'in. You..." Here the woman swallowed hard. "You had Solan while fighting the Centaurs."
"Solan?" Xena swallowed. "How do you know about him?" She bit off each word, in warning. "No. One. Knows. About. My son." Her voice broke on 'son', and Gabrielle watched her face darken with pain, crossed quickly with anger.
A threatening glow welled up in the palm of the warrior's right hand. Gabrielle reached for Xena's wrist, but the anger had come, and now it needed an outlet. Anger born of repressed fear and anxiety caused the ball to flash and flicker actively in turmoil. Gabrielle looked from the hand back up into tear-brimmed eyes.
"What do you know about him?" The lightning ball bounced in Xena's palm as she moved her hand away from Gabrielle, an expression of open distrust marring the beautiful blue eyes and high smooth cheeks.
"He's... um... dead." Gabrielle ducked as the energy flew over her head, impacting the wall directly behind her.
She felt the marble chips hitting her back as Xena's fisted hands seized up her tunic and the warrior dragged her upward as Xena sprang to her own. "That's not possible! Who attacked him? I'll kill them!"
Gabrielle's tears blinded her for a long moment and she grasped the warrior's arms, feeling the pulsating tension and the heat of the new immortal energies flowing within her body. She was miraculously saved from having to answer as the senate building was invaded... by stampeding Romans.
"There she is! There's the traitor! Look at the blood on their hands! Kill the murderers of the Great Caesar! Capture them! Kill them!" The mob was wild, filled with men, and women, carrying pitchforks, or staves, or fireplace irons. Xena's wild eyes registered the situation and she raised her hands to throw lightning bolts.
"No!" Gabrielle shook her head, drawing the wild eyes down to her. "There has to be another way out!" She folded herself out of the way of a pitchfork swinging for her head, watching Xena sidestep a soldier's pike, dragging her along.
For a split second their eyes met, green falling into blue. Xena's face shifted into a heinously familiar mixture of torturous pain, anger, and surprising calculation. "You're coming with me!" Xena threw a single energy ball, raising mostly dust and small chips of debris. But the distraction hid their escape.
Gabrielle felt the sensations accompanying the vanishing slip quickly over her body. Her breath stopped in mid-inhalation. Her sense of touch gone, she could no longer feel Xena's hands on her, or what must be a white-knuckle grip she had on the warrior. The blackness of the void was total, not even shifting in degrees of shadow. There were no familiar smells or aromas of any kind.
Just as she had when Ares sent her through the ether to Ch'in, the blonde bard felt the long suspended moments enveloping her with fear. But this time it wasn't a fear of what she would find when she emerged. It was fear that Xena, in her devastated state, wouldn't be able to pop them back out of the ether.
The Warrior Princess might now be
a goddess, but she was new at this. As the bard completed her thought,
light exploded out of the darkness, and Gabrielle could feel the sensations
of her muscles in her face opening her jaw to scream without sound.
It felt like a herd of untamed horses was galloping through the God of War's head. He opened his eyes to slits and studied the canopy of the tent where he lay, cut, bruised and broken.
And dying. Skin pale and dark brown hair lank from sweating as a fever took hold in his wounds Ares fisted his hands that lay limp across his stomach. "Some God of War," he murmured. His lips cracking through chips of dried blood. Mortal blood. He caught his reflection in the small glass atop a chest across the way. He thought hard again, trying to bring himself to his normal appearance.
It was useless. The mortal shell he had adopted to get close to Xena, this "Mendices"... the body was dying, tortured beyond endurance in battle, subjected to the emotional and physical battles of a secret alliance with the Warrior Princess.
"This is all Xena's fault!" he yelled, though the sound only came out as a whisper through his broken nose. Swallowing against the pain, he shook his head faintly. "No, no it isn't you fool. You chose to do it this way. Your choices. Your fault." His face burned, and on the edge of his awareness he realized from the light smell of salts that he was crying. "Damn." Commanding every muscle in his arms to obey, the dying man pushed at his eyes with uncooperative fists.
The former god groaned. "Yerkes."
A fat hand brushed over his ribs, forcing a short burst of noise from Ares. "What in Tartarus happened to you?"
"Gods, Yerkes," Ares paused every couple of words to regain his breath. "What didn't happen. Damn. Damn. I tried. I did. I gave up too much. Too much to her. It's gone, Yerkes. The godhead is gone."
The mystical portly healer bent his head over the broad chest, his ear pressed to the bloodstained leather, listening for something. "Maybe I can..."
"You can't do anything for me. Your power comes from me. Apollo taught you to heal, but I gave you immortality. Don't. Don't you understand? It's over. She's got it."
"Who has what, my lord?" Yerkes pushed Ares tunic apart, examining the cuts on the now delirious man's chest. Someone had attempted to bind the ribs, Yerkes noticed, seeing torn cloths half covering Ares' lower ribs. Pushing the mess aside, he pressed his palm against the largest gash, expecting the usual glow of healing. His hand remained cool, and nothing improved for his master.
"Xena has the godhead," Ares breathed, pushing the healer's hands away. "Just. Help me. Up." The immortal servant did as asked and wrapped his meaty arms around Ares' upper body, shifted and brought him upright. "Ah, Tartarus!" Ares exhaled the curse.
"What can I do?" Yerkes asked, as he reached for some medical aids. If immortal means wouldn't help, perhaps mortal ones would, the man thought reasonably. He had to do something.
"Outside. A god's death shouldn't go unwitnessed," came the resigned answer.
"Let me bind your ribs. Prepare a pain-relieving draught."
Ares was too weak to argue though he thought it was useless. Yerkes prayed he still remembered all his teachings. He'd become so used to his immortal powers of healing that he didn't seem to remember much more than pressure would stop the bleeding, and a casein plant ground into powder and drunk would relieve much pain. He could hear the broken ribs shifting inside Ares, and wondered why the god hadn't tried to change back into a god before his mortal form took this kind of damage. So, while his fingers worked binding ribs, he asked.
"Why didn't you change to true form when you realized you were taking such damage?"
Ares, who found his breathing easing slightly, answered in a voice full of regret. "It was the middle of battle. I wasn't thinking of much beyond my next strike, where the next hit might be coming from..."
There was a very long pause as Yerkes adjusted a binding. Finally, voice tired, the dying god went on.
"And her." Ares looked up, dark brown eyes meeting the almost golden ones of Yerkes. "Xena, I mean." He studied his stomach as Yerkes tied off the knot. "All right. Time to get out of here."
"Where do you want to go?" Acting the manservant now, Yerkes stood back as Ares pushed himself painfully slowly to his feet. "Shall I call Hermes?"
"Try it. But I doubt it will work."
"I'll get the flute." Yerkes moved quickly to the tent opening and disappeared before Ares could move further.
Alone, Ares studied his now upright body in the mirror. "Not a word out of you," he glared at his reflection, seeing the sour face and tired expression. "Now to find a place to watch it all go up in smoke," he added watching a water pitcher on the corner chest vanish.
One by one, things disappeared into the ether from which they had originally been made. Ares made his way, step by painful step, to the tent opening. Pulling the heavy fabric aside he looked out at the western sky, through the trees, back-lit in orange from the heavy globe of the setting sun. "Good night, Apollo," he murmured, and dragged his foot out of the tent, standing upright just as the tent vanished behind him.
I'll have to head out without Yerkes, Ares thought. "Don't find his kind of loyalty all the time," he acknowledged the immortal man's decades of service. "One in a god's lifetime, I guess." Backstabbing was the name of the business. Well, his old business anyway.
He turned his head to the right, watching campfires and men vanish. One walking toward the campfire to join buddies looked up and saw him just as he sat down. The salute he started to offer vanished into the ether with him. Formless beings are we, Ares thought, still filled with the knowledge his post had taught him. Created from dust, returned to dust.
Born of the ether for a god's crazy plan, each man of Xena's "army" vanished back to that void, to possess no more history, no present, and no future. "And it was a crazy plan," he said to another who stood before vanishing as Ares walked past. "To think that I could defy the inevitable." Sister Fates. He thought as more men vanished when he turned onto the path up the hillside. You have had my thread in your hands since the beginning of Time.
"Why cut it now?" The rocks and broken twigs along the path pushed at his bootheels, occasionally offsetting his already questionable balance. Each time it would throw him into this or that tree, where he caught his breath, pushed himself upright, and continued on his way. "Xena!" he yelled, his voice carrying only a few feet. He had a desperate thought. Perhaps he could go where everything started, and somehow find a way to say goodbye to the world as befit an Olympian.
There wasn't any strength left to fight. There wasn't really much purpose either. Gabrielle had said she was going to fetch Xena. But a newborn goddess isn't necessarily found easily, Ares thought. So, the bard failed. Why did that surprise him?
Because she manages to always do what she sets out to do, Ares admitted to himself as he stepped around a tree, emerging near the altar clearing.
The wide swath of green grass beckoned and Ares stumbled to his knees and then laid himself out on it, arms splayed and eyes skyward. He tried to remember what Zeus had said at the death of Cronos... but the words would not come to his now-fallible mortal memory. The act had committed the immortal's essence back to the heart of the cosmos, imprisoning it, so it would not return to any of the planes of existence.
The sky shifted color over the minutes he lay there, from light blue through violet to black. Stars were clean pinpoints in the sky's night robe. For I have given the warrior lust for battle, he thought, remembering his first war as God of War. And the darkness is streaked with blood, he went on, remembering the poem the Muses had written and Nike had presented to him.
For I have given the warrior lust for battle
And the darkness is streaked with crimson
I have touched tomorrow with the face of Death
And borne mortal heads on my sword
Victory is my companion
And the best of the battle imprinted on me...
I am the God of War.
Ares rolled over, staring at the altar. So many men had offered their souls to him over the ages. So many had wanted his blessing for victory. He offered a weary cocksure smile. Yeah, me, Xena. Bet you will never get used to that. Heady stuff. He pulled himself along the ground and though the altar no longer held sacrifices for him, he gripped the stone and levered himself up, to lean on the bloodstained surface. His human nose only smelled burnt animal, not particularly appealing, and he curled his lip at it. Then he closed his eyes, and remembered the pleasure of the smell when he had existed on the "other side" of that curtain.
Funny how we gods are so different, yet we so often want the same things mortals do. He knew his mind was wandering all over the issue, but shrugged against the pain. Somehow he was proud of the pain now. At least it meant he had accomplished something.
Xena was now Goddess of War. A destiny he had wanted for the dark-haired warrior since the day he first saw her, dancing through a drill high over a waterfall on a warm spring day. He had managed it, truly. Ares had spent time at her side, fighting with her, fighting against her, finding out her strengths, rooting out her weaknesses, making her better. And finally... making her his. Yes, in these last days, he had done what he had set out ten years ago to do: mold a young bold warrioress into his truest alter ego.
So successful that Xena now held the post in his place. The deposed god opened his eyes and traced a tired finger through the pool of congealed blood. Good luck, Xena. Hope you enjoy being a goddess. He rolled onto his shoulder so he could watch the stars overhead and caught a shooting star burst its way across the night's blanket, setting it ablaze for a brief instant. As an immortal Ares had never thought that life was short. Too bad I won't get to see it.
But he envisioned Xena, dancing on her parapet that day he first saw her. He smiled against the pain in his now all-too-mortal face. He had seen her, from action to inaction, growing from brash to bold, to smart and incredibly skilled.
His senses were drifting through memory, sifting the chaff from the prized moments, when the air crackled in the clearing and a burst of light formed in the space over the altar. Even as he turned around to view the phenomenon in detail, Ares felt the burn of the light against his eyes.
When he opened them, it was to see two forms fall from the split that opened up in the air. Dark hair and light tumbled together and arms and legs were mixed together as two bodies fell through. A scream, obviously interrupted at some point, keened out between the two, and Ares feebly slapped his hands over his ears to block the cacophony.
The dark one moved first and pushed her leather-clad form off of the other. When she turned in place, he drew breath at the sight of her.
"Xena? By the gods! It is you!"
She turned and fixed him with a studied gaze as Gabrielle gripped her hand in order to stand, dusting twigs and leaves from her hair and clothing. "Mendices? What in Tartarus happened to you?" She stepped toward him. "Where's the healer?"
Ares groaned, holding up a hand. "No. Wait."
Xena ignored his protest and Gabrielle right next to her did the same. Both women reached for his arms at the same time. Gabrielle's hands wrapped around his left bicep and Xena's around his right. One woman kept tugging; the other pulled back as if struck by lightning.
He looked up into azure eyes rapidly darkening to midnight. "Ares!"
To say he was a little surprised by what happened next was an understatement. Xena grabbed him in a painful embrace, her cheek rubbing his as her eyes lightened again, and she smiled. "So it was you who helped me!"
The blonde bard's reaction was more expected. Gabrielle pulled away from the pair and stumbled backward. "Ares?"
From within the warrior's grateful embrace, Ares groaned as he heard another of his bones break. "Yeah, it's me," he offered in painful confirmation. "Sort of."
Gabrielle leaned against a tree. Her expression grew more morose every moment the quiet murmuring went on between the two people on the ground in the middle of the clearing. Rubbing her shoulder against the rough bark constantly reminded her this situation bordering on nightmare was reality, so she pulled away from the tree. She turned around though and found her vision filled with Xena leaning over Ares. The bard found it hard to believe that bloodied, groaning man was the God of War.
Gone were his typical brunette shoulder-length curls, dark blue eyes and olive complexion slashed with a black beard and moustache. This being had rust brown hair, cropped high on the nape of his neck, and chocolate brown eyes almost swollen shut by bruises and caked blood. A gash split his lip from midline to mid-cheek. His chest heaved like rusty bellows trying to draw air into lungs in a chest tucked behind ripped soft brown bronze-studded pounded leather, and his broken left leg was easily visible through the long tear splitting his tan breeches.
He was trying to keep Xena's hands off his chest, where she kept prodding into his wound. "Damn, there is nothing you can do! So, would you just lay off!"
"There has to be something," the brunette warrior murmured back, concentrating and generating a glowing ball of energy in her right palm.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena clearly sounded annoyed.
She walked up to the warrior and bent close, looking over Ares' condition. "I think he's lost his last battle, Xena."
"Hey, watch it, bard," the he in question groused.
The brunette's jaw set hard; stubbornness, which Gabrielle knew to be a well-documented trait of the Warrior Princess, reared its head again, tenfold. "No." There was a wealth of promise in that one word. "He won't die."
Gabrielle tried to fathom what could have really attached Xena to Ares, even without her memories. "Why?" She fought down the tracings of exasperation creeping into her voice. "What has he ever done for you?"
"I've done lots of things," Ares defended. Then he shrugged slightly. "Most of which she doesn't remember right now," he smiled ingratiatingly at Xena through his pain.
Gabrielle stepped close and challenged him. "You're lucky she doesn't remember, Ares! But I do! It would be just like you to be the one behind her memory loss!"
"Not my fault!" he gasped, getting a smile and a light brush of his hair from his face by Xena. Gabrielle's face grew angrier. "Honest," he rallied. "But I was there for her." He looked from Xena to Gabrielle. "Where were you?"
"I was in a blasted boat being brought here to be a slave!" Gabrielle's voice slipped into the hysteria she'd tried to avoid.
Xena stood. "Ares, Gabrielle. Shut up." The warrior's voice was low, vibrating through the clearing like a roll of thunder. She waved the two down with a gruff gesture and shot each an angry glare. "They're coming."
"Yes, word spread through the city about the army camped here, and the whole city practically is marching out here, right now."
"You can hear that?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Of course you can hear that." She shot Ares another look, thinking this is your fault. "Let's get out of here then."
"No, not yet." Xena unsheathed her sword; Gabrielle noticed the glow around the hilt from the warrior-goddess' hand slide up to encompass the whole shaft. Then the warrior reached for her chakram, caressing its curved shape with her long fingers. "I think I'll put on a demonstration."
Ares wrestled his uncooperative body to a sitting position. "I gotta see this."
"You should stay here," Xena warned. "It's safe." She paused, and a grim smile pulled at her lips. "After this I'll get you back to Olympus to see what Zeus can do." Xena leaped into the tree branches overhead to get a clear view of the open fields below.
"Please, Xena. Let's just go. You can blink us out of here. Save yourself the trouble."
But the warrior was not listening to Gabrielle's pleas. The glow of Xena's sword slowly began to slide up her arm, brightening her deeply tanned skin and burnishing it in golden hues. "Oh, it won't be any trouble." A smile played across the warrior's lips as she reveled in the coursing of power when it suffused her face, bringing distinct red flush to her cheeks and the light took on a pulsating variance as it shimmered around, and through, Xena's body. Gabrielle had to turn her head aside at the brightness until she saw it subside slightly through the corner of her vision.
The warrior, goddess now, flung herself out of the tree, snatching her sword out of the wood and snapping her chakram out of the air as it returned. She landed on her feet on the ground and leaped away again, distancing herself from the two remaining in the clearing. Her mind on the battle, the flavor of the blood to flow already made her mouth water.
"Xena! You can't stand against an entire army!" Gabrielle darted after her, coming up against a tree trunk before the hillside fell away under her feet.
"I don't intend to stand, Gabrielle!" There was a laugh behind the strong words, and Gabrielle turned on Ares.
"Damn you to Hades, Ares! They're going to kill her!"
"She can't die, Gabrielle! She's immortal!" The energy he used to defend Xena's choice racked his body with more pain and he sagged against the altar, knuckles going white from the strain of holding himself up.
"But this will kill her soul!" the bard replied. "You never did understand that about her..." She felt her own energies slide toward violence and fought it down with pure will. "You never did!" She remembered the conversation a long time ago that she had with him about Xena when they needed to find her to help resolve the problem with Aphrodite's enchanted scroll. "All she ever was, was a tool to you!"
Ares thought that the funniest thing he had ever heard. Laughter choked him as it loosened blood in his chest and clogged his lungs. "Gabrielle, oh gods, Gabrielle." Laughter cut off his breath for another long moment. He controlled it and the explanation burst forth, "None of this would have happened if I hadn't... fallen in love with her!" He lurched up to grab at the blonde's leg.
Gabrielle jumped out of reach, obviously sickened at the thought of being touched by him. "In love with her?" She turned on him. "She's out there killing everything she's worked so hard for the last three years to become, and you profess love?"
Ares gasped, and sighed, falling back against the altar. "I didn't plan it." He no longer had the energy to argue about it. "Do you really think I would have planned to give her the godhead and die at the same time?"
Gabrielle looked in the direction Xena had disappeared, already hearing the sounds of the battle. Then she looked back on Ares. "You're clever, Ares. You had to have planned this. I bet you're not even dying." She pulled at the cloths over his wounds. The clang and clash of metal drew her away from his side. Rushing to the edge of the tree ring, she peered through the foliage, down toward the plains between their position and Rome's gates. "By the gods, there's a swarm of people!" she gasped.
Xena dropped from the sky, arms and legs spread to "catch the wind" as she drifted into the center of the mob. Her battle cry drifted back to Gabrielle leaning hard into a tree, and fighting the tears that rolled down her cheeks. She's enjoying it, the bard thought. She promised she wouldn't. "She promised," the blonde's whisper broke on choked emotion. "I can't believe she promised."
The rustle of dry leaves and shuffling sound made Gabrielle turn to see Ares dragging himself from the altar. Only a few body lengths away, he dragged his uncooperative frame over the ground, finally pulling himself up against a tree next to the bard. He studied the foliage and tried to see Xena in action.
"I can't believe she likes you," Gabrielle bemoaned. "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything to her."
Ares rubbed his broken ribs, and dug pained fingers into his mangled thigh. "I only wish I was. I might not have been this stupid."
"Stupid? You just got exactly what you want. What are you complaining about?"
The broad arm limply gestured across his body. "I'm kind of contrary to dying," he said, his voice halfway between a groan and a growl. He started sagging against the tree. Gabrielle fought her instinct to help and just watched him fall to the ground. "I honestly did not take away her memories. If I had, when I lost the godhead I would have lost control over the ability to block them."
"How can I believe you?" Her voice was full of pain as she watched Xena. Far below, the warrior-goddess carved a path through the Roman army, sword flashing and chakram flying.
Ares studied the same view and Gabrielle could see his smile. "Believe... me... I would... have loved to live to see this day," he replied slowly, pure admiration lacing his halting words. Gasping for breath, Ares closed his eyes, and fought to open them again. "Gods, she really is incredible, isn't she?"
"I can't believe I helped you," Gabrielle sighed, leaning hard against the tree, pondering Xena's actions far below.
"You treated me because you said Xena cared for me," he reminded her. "So there." He watched the pale face grow red around the ears and couldn't resist a smile. Gotcha, he thought. She hit him on his near leg. "With all the other damage I've got, you'll have to try harder to get noticed," he said.
"God, I wish Xena would believe me about you!"
"You've got to get her memories back to do that." He smirked. "I'm on my way out. Even Xena's, formerly my, power, can't even heal the mess I've made of this body. Same thing I learned when I first made her mine."
"Why couldn't you just leave her alone?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "She's just another favored warrior, Ares. You've had lots of those over the years."
Ares sagged and shook his head. "Oh, no. Not like Xena. Xena wasn't just a favored warrior. Gabrielle, she's my Chosen. My other half."
"But a Chosen can't break the bond between herself and the god patron." The bard queried her knowledge of the songs and verses concerning the issue.
He nodded affirmatively, then said ruefully, "She left it in tatters. Couldn't believe it myself when it happened." He sighed. "The link is like a cloth of two colors woven together. When she left, she tore her half and took it with her."
The bard winced as she heard the nearby animals startled from the battle coming closer. "And you..."
"Couldn't have picked another one. Not until she was dead." Gabrielle shivered at his matter-of-fact tone. "Oh, have no fear of that. That's all an academic matter now. Seems Xena is destined to be the exception to every rule. Outliving her own patron." He sagged his chin against his chest, and coughed, trying to brush away the evidence of the blood.
The blonde bard traced her finger through the mess, mesmerized by the red congealing mixture of phlegm and blood. "You really are dying," she said quietly. "And there's nothing anyone can do."
He nodded. "Even Zeus can't stop this." He looked up at Gabrielle and caught a strange, almost sad look in her eyes. "You should be happy about that, Gabrielle. She'll finally be yours. No competition from me, or my evil influences." She looked surprised. "Well, isn't that how you always thought of me?"
"When you die, what's going to happen to Xena?"
He laughed, a short barking laugh
that keeled him over onto his stomach in the dirt. "Xena? Tartarus! Don't
worry about her. She's got the godhead, Gabrielle. Nothing will ever harm
Xena leaped and soared among the Roman legions, slicing deep gouges into flesh and dismantling the core of the formation in the span of a breath. She released her chakram toward the right division, and didn't even look back as she launched herself heels over head in an arc twice as high as any time before. "Rome falls to the power of the Goddess of War!" she hollered, just before taking the entrails out of three men with a single arcing swipe of her sword. On the return arc, she took out the four who had been standing at the ready behind them.
"She's crazed!" someone shouted. Xena balled a fist, forming a blast of energy and simply released it. The resulting explosion threw twenty men in the air, dead before they hit the earth again.
There was a sudden surge and then recession in her energies and instinctively, Xena looked toward the hills where she had left Ares and Gabrielle. "No more time!" she growled. Sheathing her sword, she caught her chakram when it returned and raised both hands to the sky, fingers extended. With a thought, she cascaded lightning around the battlefield. Men's hearts burst in their chests from the explosive power of that much energy coursing through their bodies. They keeled over and fell from horses only staggered from the force of the blast.
A goddess is nothing if not selective of her victims, Xena thought, her smile creasing the corners of her eyes as the riderless horses turned and ran for their stables inside the city gates.
Her strides were long and measured as she walked proudly through the carnage. Xena, Warrior Goddess, departed the first of what would likely be many battlefields, victory and death in her wake. With a wave of her hand, she vanished the blood from her leathers and brought a burnished shine to her brass fittings. That brought Ares, bloodied and disabled, back to mind.
Xena closed her eyes and envisioned the altar clearing, as she had when she took Gabrielle from within the city. She experienced a moment's disorientation, and opened her eyes while in the ether.
A bright glowing nothingness surrounded her. The air was biting cold, a fact of which she was aware, but unaffected. Curiosity encouraged her to look around. The light was pervasive and formless. She searched the knowledge that had come part and parcel with the godhead. "Well, so this is the between planes. Wouldn't want to live here." She had a vision of Olympus, obviously a power manifesting, instead of a memory, since she herself had never visited--as far as she remembered. This lack of memory was beginning to annoy her just a bit, despite all the positive turns of recent events.
That reminder brought her back to the moment, where she was, who she was, and what she had been trying to do. She pushed herself out of the ether. This time instead of falling onto the grass of the clearing, she simply parted it like a misty curtain.
She stepped out to see the forms of Gabrielle and Ares who had moved away from the altar next to which she now stood. Ares, as her sense had suspected, was unconscious, having strained the last of his energy probably to move away from the altar to watch her down on the field. Gabrielle sagged against a tree, crying into the bark.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena asked, turning on Gabrielle before returning her attention to Ares, who had fallen sprawled across the ground. He rolled onto his stomach, and she settled his limbs so he lay on his side, dark eyes on both her and the girl. "Are you all right?"
"Funny," he said, his voice sounding very far away to her ears. "I spend... more than... ten... years trying... to make you my premiere warrior. Now... here I am... seeing my wish come true... and it happens to be... with my last breaths." She grasped his hand in her own, and leveled her gaze with his. "Magical blue eyes," he smiled. "Always thought you had the most incredible blue eyes..." He coughed and gasped, his hand falling from hers onto her bent knee. "Strong body too." Gabrielle came close; he could see the blonde fall of her hair just beyond Xena's left shoulder. "So you whipped up on the Romans, huh?"
Xena nodded. "A little flash and only the hardened warriors were left. I... It was... kind of easy."
Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's shoulder. Ares focused on those slender pale fingers sliding over Xena's dark leathers and brass fittings. "Tell me..." He paused for a breath. "Did it make you... happy?"
Crystal blue eyes aligned with dark brown, and he squared his jaw awaiting her response. She pursed her lips and questioned back, "What do you mean?"
"It didn't." He sounded resigned.
"I didn't say that."
He saw the consternated look cross her face. "Well, I'm sorry then." His voice faded to a whisper and his eyes drifted closed. "Sorry." He coughed and sighed, "If I'd asked, would you have ever just said 'yes'?"
Xena felt his grip on her hand go slack. She squeezed the fingers once. And closed her eyes once to concentrate, moving a palm over his chest. "I don't know," she murmured her answer, uncertain where all the pieces fit yet.
"Shh. He's not dead. Not yet." The warrior goddess gestured the bard quiet.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle's hand closed tighter over her shoulder.
Xena opened her eyes and studied her hand as the glow dimmed. "Damn." Nothing had changed in Ares' body; the former god was still unconscious. "I can see all the damage..." she growled.
"But you can't fix it," Gabrielle finished for her. "He said that was a limitation of the godhead."
"God of War is a god of destruction," Xena recited as if from a manual. "No healing powers included." She looked up at Gabrielle. "So how is it he healed me?" She stepped up to the blonde bard and made to touch her, her eyes luminous and intense.
Instead of smiling, Gabrielle pulled away. "Don't touch me." The bard's voice was acrimonious.
Xena's blood still sang with the power of her victory, with the rush of energy from using her powers on that battlefield. Her nostrils still flared from the joyous smell of blood, but now they only inhaled the soft scent of honey blonde hair and woman's tender skin. She grasped Gabrielle's arm and pulled the younger woman full against her body; she roughly pressed her lips to the shivering mouth, and pressed a hand down the slender back, fitting their bodies together.
Xena expected many things. Gratitude for ending the Roman threat or a return of the heat from their earlier encounter in Xena's command tent. Perhaps even a crying jag of relief from a grateful friend that she was safe. Gabrielle's reaction was none of these.
The goddess became first aware of the struggle. Then there was a "supposed-to-hurt" kick of Gabrielle's boot to her shin. But the effect was only mild annoyance. She let the bard's mouth go and pulled back, amusement playing in her shiny blue eyes as the blonde pushed against her chest, finally winning her freedom, only because Xena decided to take her restraining arm from the smaller woman's lower back.
"We can go now," Xena said, watching a myriad of emotions cross the piquant face. "Time to get ourselves back to Greece."
Gabrielle leaned against another tree and fixed her gaze on the field of carnage. "I can't believe it, Xena. You did that. I can't..." Her voice trailed away as she felt the tears welling in her eyes. "I'm not going with you." She turned pained green eyes on the warrior-goddess and shook her head. "I can't watch you do this."
Xena shook her head in disbelief. "I've got to get Ares back to Zeus."
"You don't need my help to do that," Gabrielle replied. "You want this for yourself." She gestured to encompass the carnage below. "This isn't you Xena. This is something he did to you." She now gestured to the man at their feet whose chest barely moved with breath. "Why do you owe him anything?"
Xena fisted her hands on her hips and squared her jaw. "He's given me my dreams. I have the power to do anything now."
"You told me once you wanted nothing more to do with power. Just you, your sword, and me to remind you why," Gabrielle whispered. "You promised," she finished on a whisper, backing up as Xena stepped forward.
Xena captivated the bard's gaze, blue eyes boring into green, and suddenly she had a crystal-clear memory of another conversation. "Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you."
"We are not going to be separated again, Gabrielle," the warrior-goddess promised. She grabbed up Ares' body and slung it over her left shoulder before grabbing Gabrielle's shoulders and turning the woman's back against her right side in the same blink of an eye. Then in another blink, she shifted the three of them through the ether.
Her goal was the coastline and a harbored ship. She intended to return to Greece as befit the Goddess of War... at the head of a loyal army. Ares would teach her how to manifest the warriors and she would arrive in the island of her mortal birth, heralded as its immortal liberator. Her benefactor, Ares, would be restored, and Gabrielle would be her first subject. "Forever," she murmured in the bard's ear, the only sound in the seemingly infinite nothingness of the ether.
Again, Gabrielle opened her mouth to scream. This time a firm hand clamped over it, silencing the pleas she would have uttered.
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