“Eve, can you hear me?”
“Eve, if you can hear me; call out so I can find you!”
“Eve, where are you?”
Different voices called out the same pleas to the messenger of Eli as they searched through the forest across the river banks. Xena and Gabrielle were frantic with worry. The battle had died down hours ago and they still hadn’t found their daughter. Sarah and Rada were just equally as invested in the search with one difference: Sarah felt as if Eve’s disappearance was her fault. If they didn’t find her soon, or even worse found her dead, there would be a weight on Sarah’s shoulders that she didn’t know she could bear.
“Eve, please!” She shouted, and then said more quietly, “Please be ok.”
She let a single tear fall through the dirt and gore on her face, then covered her face as she leaned back against a tree. She then let her hands fall to her sides and laid her head back on the tree as well. She knew it had to be late afternoon, but it was hard to judge due to the clouds. It had been overcast since sunrise; when the fighting was at its climax. She heard the rain on the tree above her before the first drop hit her face; mixing with the tear, and blood, and dirt. It was a drizzle, nothing more, but it would prove to make the search that much harder.
How did this happen? She thought as she pushed herself away from the tree and trudged on. The rest of the group hadn’t even realized she had stopped; they were so spread out at this point.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was gonna stay here for a little bit, do my good deed, and go home. It was gonna be so god damn simple, but she couldn’t keep her do-gooder ass on that fucking boat.
It was supposed to be easy, but it wasn’t…
“Sarah!” The soaked young woman cried as she struggled to catch up. “Sarah, Rada, wait.”
They both turned in shock to see Eve rushing toward them like a wet cat chasing a mouse. Having not even reached the main road yet, they turned in surprise.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Sarah said. “What the hell is she doing?”
“Well it looks to me like she’s following us.” Rada deadpanned.
“I know that dipshit; I mean why is she following us? She should be on the boat to Greece.” Sarah said.
“She’ll be here soon enough, and then you can ask her yourself.”
Within seconds she was right in front of them, bending over to catch her breath once she was sure they wouldn’t continue on without her.
“What are you doing here?” Sarah asked.
“I want to help you.” She stood up and took one last deep breath. “You said you were going to help protect the women and children and I thought I might be useful.”
“Seriously?” Sarah asked as if she were waiting on Eve to come out with something else like ‘I left my prayer beads back at the palace and wanted to get them before all hell broke loose.’
“Why would I joke about something like this?” Eve asked.
“Eve-“ Sarah started to speak, but was stopped by a hand on her chest as Rada stepped forward.
“I got this one.” She moved closer to Eve and softly stroked her face with the back of her hand before continuing. “You see, beautiful, the battlefield isn’t a place for someone so delicate. We wouldn’t want your innocent eyes to have to look upon death and destruction. Plus how could you possibly help, huh? Praying in the middle of a fight will get you nothing more than a trip to the next life.”
Eve removed the hand from her face and walked right past Rada to speak to Sarah.
“Sarah I may have attacked a lot of villages in my day, but I’ve defended them as well. I know tactics and strategy much better than you. Plus you’re going to need someone to help the women and children retreat if need be. You can’t be fighting on the front lines and navigating an escape all at the same time.”
Sarah was quiet for a minute as she thought about what the messenger had just said. The problem was she was right.
“But why did you come back, Eve? This is a war, it’s the very thing you preach against and you’re about to participate in it. Whether you’re fighting or not it just seems to go against your morals. And I know you didn’t come here because of me.”
“Actually it is because of you.” Eve said. “It was something you said the other day about the difference in causing violence and just letting it happen. You were right. I don’t have to be a violent person, but I can’t just run from it all the time; not when I can do something to stop it. Plus, if Eli used my powers to make you immortal then you must be a very important instrument of good.”
Sarah rolled her eyes at all of this.
“Eve, first off, I am far from being someone that should give out ethical advice. My morals are for me and me alone. Hell, most of the time they only have a shelf life of a year or so, then I see something that completely throws my perception of the world off balance and I adjust my approach accordingly. Second, don’t consider for a second that I am special because of my new gift. I’m not sure why I have it, but I assure you it’s not because I’m meant to do something great, more than likely it’s because I’m supposed to screw something up. But either way, I’m no one’s tool, let alone a God I don’t believe in.”
“Yeah, I agree.” Rada piped in. “There’s no way she’s supposed to do something great. Her fighting is almost as embarrassing as the stuff that comes out of her mouth. Maybe your God made a mistake.”
Eve just glared at her and turned her attention back to Sarah.
“Either way, I’m here to help. Surely you’re not stupid enough to turn that down.” She said.
Sarah was about to agree with her by default, but before she’d even finished sighing in resignation a loud boom could be heard in the direction of the palace. It was followed by screams and shouts from the people inside. The three women stared transfixed as fire and smoke soon followed the deafening noise.
“Shit, it’s started.” Sarah said, turning back to Rada and Eve. “I’m already late, and no one is safe on the streets. You sure you want to go in there Rada? You’d be a lot safer with me and the villagers.”
“Aw, isn’t she sweet to care about my well being.” Rada said as she moved closer and squished Sarah’s cheeks together. “But believe me; I can take care of myself. Though I may join you after I’ve finished taking care of my business. Where are you going to be?”
“Across the north east bridge near the forest at the base of the mountain. Good luck.” Sarah said, putting her closed fist in the air.
“What is that?” Rada asked, leaving her hanging.
“It’s like a handshake, kind of a symbol of friendship. You just hit my fist with yours and it looks like we’re really tough.” Sarah explained.
“Oh.” Rada said, tapping her fist to Sarah’s. “I like that. If all goes well I’ll see you later.”
And with that she bolted in the direction of the castle, not wanting to waste a second that the prince may have to escape. Sarah turned and regarded Eve before she spoke.
“I guess you’re coming with me whether I like it or not.” She saw the look of triumph on Eve’s face and shook her head in worry. “Alright let’s go. We need to get there as fast as we can or they’ll leave without us. If Xena and Gabrielle are trying to find you they’ll just have to follow our tracks.”
“Cool.” Eve said and earned a strange look from Sarah. “What? I’ve heard you use that term quite a few times. Did I not use it in the right context?”
Rada was sputtering and coughing way before she could see the castle, but nothing would deter her from the speed she was traveling at. Once she had reached the exterior wall chaos was the only thing to greet her. Guards, nobles and peasants alike were running wild trying to figure out what was happening as dark smoke billowed from different areas of the fortress. With any luck they had scrambled to get the prince to a safe secluded area, before leaving him with but a few guards to protect him. The armory was her best guess as to his location. Structurally it was extremely sound, and there would be soldiers going in and out the entire time.
She pushed through the swarm of people and almost tripped over a dead palace guard lying on the ground. It looked like he was pummeled by some of the palace walls that had obviously exploded all over the place. An idea formed in her head and she quickly grabbed the corpse by the arms and drug inside and into a closet. Within minutes she emerged in full combat gear; an imperial sword attached to her hip. With any luck she’d be able to march through the entire castle undetected.
Her assumptions were right. Everyone was so busy either scrambling to a post, the infirmary or to safety that barely a look was afforded her. The doors to the armory were closed, but a soft check of the handle of the left one let her know it wasn’t locked. Rada walked in as if she owned the place. Inside she found things just as she had suspected: the prince was quivering in fear, and flanked by two soldiers. It was almost too easy.
“Soldier!” One of the armed men yelled at her. “What are you doing here? Your weapon is fine; you should be forming a defense of the palace with the others.”
Rada said nothing as she continued to move closer to her target. The headpiece she wore stopped them from seeing her entire face, but she could tell they were now catching on to the threat that she presented. She heard the swords being drawn before she actually saw them; her eyes had yet to leave the body of the prince.
Two war cries came closer and closer, but they didn’t scare her at all. She was not only a skilled warrior, but a determined one. Someone was about to pay for the last few years of her life, and that fact alone seemed to make the other men move slower and louder. As both swords swung at her midsection she flipped backward and drew her own. Within seconds she was dodging and deflecting the blows being directed at her until one of the men overshot his swing and tumbled to the floor with the force of it. Rada didn’t hesitate to use him as support for her sword as she plunged it into his chest and vaulted over him, landing two solid kicks on the other target.
The guard that was still standing was little more than a field mouse biting uselessly at the talons of an eagle. Within seconds Rada separated him from his weapon and in under a minute managed to use it together with her own in a scissor like motion on his neck. She was standing over his dead body when she heard the pitter patter of royal feet heading for the door. With impressive accuracy she threw both swords at the prince, pinning him by the sleeves of his robe to the closed side of the double doors.
Water trickled down Xena’s arms, causing her to slip in her first attempt to help Gabrielle onto the dock. The second attempt worked much better, and she put a hand on the bard’s shoulder in apology before they shot off into the night in search of Eve and the rest of their troublemaking crew.
“Rada was heading toward the palace; Sarah would at least have traveled with her to the main road, so from here we should just bear straight. After that we’ll have to watch the tracks and pray to the gods someone is willing to help us find them.” Xena said, through bated breath.
Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement and they both picked up the pace, resigning to silence until they found a stopping point. There were distinct tracks made by Eve due to the fact that she was wet when she was running after Sarah and Rada. The tracks would continue to stand out for quite a few more meters, but they would give out at some point and just mingle with the rest of the shoe marks. It was Sarah’s unique footprints that would truly help them out. They were deeply grooved in a way that no other footwear of the time was. Her shoes dug into the ground well, leaving a clear trail to where they headed throughout the dirt roads.
“Look, those have to be Sarah’s.” The bard pointed out. “They’ll last as long as she stayed on the dirt road and they’re right next to Eve’s. Surely they would have stayed together the whole way.”
“You’re absolutely right, Gabrielle. Lead the way.” Xena said.
“Oh no.” The bard said, pulling the warrior closer to her. “The last time you had me lead missions we ended up in quite the predicament. You’re leading, and I am at your side.”
For a second Xena was worried that the bard was taking a shot at her, but her fears were put to rest when she saw a mischievous smile perk up on the bards lips. Her partner had just made the first joke about their last adventure. That told her that they were on they’re way to putting it in the past, and that the bard was starting to trust her in battle again.
“Nicely put my bard.”
The village wasn’t in half as much chaos as they’d expected all the movement seemed to be coming from the palace. The only stragglers left behind were either grabbing belongings and heading for the river, or picking up makeshift weapons and following the same path.
“Word concerning the breakout obviously spread to the masses. Most of the houses look like they’ve been deserted for a while.” Gabrielle observed.
“Yeah, and it won’t take a whole lot longer for word to travel to the rest of the provinces either. They had to leave, any house standing near the palace is going to be leveled in the chaos whether it’s by the Emperor’s men or not.” Xena agreed. “One good thing for us is that it’s obvious where the safe ground is, you just follow the refugees. But it’s a double edged sword, because if it’s easy for us to see, then it’s easy for the enemy to see as well.”
“Sounds like the best thing we can do right now is get a head start.” The bard said.
It didn’t take long before Sarah and Eve ran into a decent amount of traffic heading in the same direction they were. Women were pushing their young children in carts, while older siblings were loaded down with whatever they were able to grab before leaving home. The two newcomers were able to travel a bit faster due to their lack of burden. Sarah had only her ruck-sack and Eve carried nothing more than a small cloth bag that held all the possessions she owned. After glancing at it, an idea popped into Sarah’s head.
“Eve, I need you to keep something for me. “ She said, digging through the inside pocket of her jacket and pulling out a pouch.
Eve took the offering and asked, “What is it?”
“It’s my way back home.” Sarah said soberly. “I’m going to be fighting and the last thing I need is for it to fall out of my jacket and get lost in the woods, or worse, get crushed by any number of blows I might take. You’ll be a lot safer than I will if things get rough, so I need you to take care of it.”
Eve nodded and turned so Sarah could place the pouch in one of the pockets on her bag, then tightened the strap around her shoulder.
“I’ll do my best to keep it safe.” She said.
Sarah nodded, and they continued on. By the time they made it across the bridge they started seeing what looked like militia members, though they seemed to be extremely young. As the time traveler approached a group of five of them she saw that they were indeed young. She guessed the average age to be about fifteen.
“Excuse me.” She interrupted. “My name is Sarah; I was sent by Liu Xiu to aide you in protecting the women and children. Who’s in charge here?”
“Li Fung.” One of them said and then pointed to a middle aged man in makeshift armor. “Over there.”
“Thanks.” Sarah said as she walked over to receive her orders. “Li Fung?” She said upon approach.
“Yes?” He said, turning to address her.
“My name is Sarah.” She said with a bow that was returned. “I was sent by Liu Xiu to…”
“…Yes, to take over my post. Good, you’re just in time.” He said, pulling out a map and moving a few steps away to set it on a fairly large rock.
“Um, I’m sorry,” she said as she followed him. “You’re confused about something. I’m just here to help out. There was no discussion about me being in charge.”
“And there’s not going to be one now either. I have to be at the Shung Hui pass to mount an attack against an imperial training camp. You can either listen to the plan I’ve worked out for your defense or I can get a head start on my way.”
“No, you don’t understand. There is absolutely no way I could lead these guys. And how old are they anyway, I haven’t seen one militia member other than yourself that looks to be over the age of seventeen.”
“There isn’t one at this post. And they’re about to be left with a clueless leader if you try to argue with me one more time. I have a very important job to do, girl, and you are keeping me from it.”
Sarah could do nothing but stare at him. She didn’t dare open her mouth, and risk being left there without an escape plan.
“Good.” Said Fung. “Now you have two exit strategies if the army decides to attack. You won’t want to use them until necessary because the people here need to rest through the night, otherwise they won’t be able to travel tomorrow when reinforcements arrive. Just make sure you only leave if absolutely necessary. For the first plan you will have to divide your men into two groups. One will stay here and delay the imperial troops; the other will escort the innocents to a safe point. If you travel far enough into the forest you will see that it is formed around a great deal of rock formations. If you travel quickly enough in the northwest direction you can move all the non-combatants through a small break in the formations. There is a path that leads directly to it and it’s marked on the map. There are large, loose rocks on the top of both sides of the formation. I’ve left you with a few decorative fireworks; if you shoot them off at a good angle they’ll hit the rocks. They should either land on the imperial troops or stop them in their tracks. From there you can hide in a small series of caves.”
Sarah just stared, dumbfounded. She was trying to process all of the information, and at the same time keep herself from begging the man to stay and lead the boys himself.
“Do you understand?” He asked as if she’d suddenly become an imbecile.
When she still didn’t answer Eve stepped in.
“What’s the second option?” She asked.
He looked the messenger over for a second. At first he was annoyed that his focus had shifted, but her self-assured tone somehow gave him a reassuring feeling.
“You can keep all of your men here and send the non-combatants west through the forest to hide in the swamps. They should have a good enough head start to elude the troop and even if they’re followed the soldiers won’t go past the borders of the forest and waste time in a swamp looking for women and children.”
“This plan works out better for the women and children,” Eve said. “But the ones left behind to fight will most likely die in the fight.”
“That is correct.” Fung said.
“And if we take the first option we risk losing everyone if we can’t move the women and children fast enough, but there is a chance that more of the militia fighters will survive.” The messenger continued.
“Exactly. Now it seems like you have a grasp of the situation, and I need to be on my way. Good luck to you both.” And just like that the man grabbed his gear and set off on his journey.
Sarah stared at the man’s back with her mouth partially open in shock. She felt Eve tugging at the sleeve of her coat, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of the man that was leaving her the responsibility of protecting all the people around her. It wasn’t until Eve said her name for the third time that she responded.
“What?” She asked.
“Do you understand what our options are?” Eve asked.
“Um yeah.” She looked back at their deserting leader one last time and gave up hope that he would turn around and relieve her of her post.
“Help! Someone help me! I’m down here.” The prince yelled.
Rada let out a rather loud chuckle as she finished attaching his chains to the wall.
“Do you really think anyone is going to come down here during a time like this? All of your men are either defending the palace, or guarding your father. Plus you of all people should know how hard it is to hear anything that goes on down here. You insulated it well enough so as not to disturb your guests.” The Slav said.
The look of fear on the prince’s face was becoming tempered with anger.
“So the animal can speak.” He said to her as he spit in her face.
Rada wiped her cheek then grabbed him by the throat.
“Oh I can talk pretty well actually, but there won’t be much need for words in a few moments. In fact I have only one thing to say to you before I slowly,” She squeezed harder on his throat for emphasis, “take your life. I want you to know that you did this. You stole me from my home, forced me to fight in your sick little tournaments, and used me for whatever else was too dirty for your guards and I did it. If you’d never asked me to kill those girls none of this would have ever happened. I’d still be your dog, and you’d still be waiting to rule your kingdom. But that’s all gone now, and it’s all your fault. The Empire will fall because of your pathetic plot.”
She finally let go and he sucked in the stale air of the dungeon. His eyes followed her over to a bag of weapons she’d stolen from the armory before they left. Once she’d settled on a knife she turned and started for him. He knew he was going to die tonight. How long it took depended on how angry he could get her. The only hope he harbored was that her rage would force her to take his life quickly.
“You were wrong about something, you know.” He said.
“Which part? The one where you die or the one where your empire falls?” She asked.
“The part where we stole you from your family.” He said; a grin starting to form on his face.
“What are you talking about?” she asked; her own grin starting to fall.
“Look around you, vermin. I want you to think about all the cell mates you had. Were any of them from outside of Chin?” He waited for a response only for a brief second before continuing. “Of course they weren’t. We don’t just go around stealing peasants from the north we kill them. You got here because you were a girl that could fight like a man, and that’s how your parents talked my men into buying you.”
She swung at him and it felt like a ton of bricks had been thrown at his face. He spit blood and teeth from his mouth to the floor and just tried to breathe through the pain.
“You’re lying.” She said.
“Don’t act like you’re so surprised, you must have known how much they wanted to get rid of you after they found out about your unnatural ways.” His smile was less complete this time, but it was still present. “You were cheap too; they must have tried it before but asked too much.”
“They would never do something like that.” She said. But her voice was faltering.
“That’s what my guards thought, but when they asked your parents why they wanted so little for you they said they couldn’t deal with the shame anymore. Soon all the people in town would fear that it would be you taking their daughters to bed instead of a respectable male suitor. My men paid less for you than they did for the chickens they brought back to breed, and your parents rejoiced in the burden being lifted from them.”
He felt a hand grab at the back of his neck right before sharp, piercing pain overtook his abdomen. In an instance he was retching blood and shaking from the shock that was no doubt setting in. His time was almost over, and with any luck the end would come soon.
Rada held strong to the knife that was buried in the prince’s stomach.
“After I kill you, I’m going to leave this place and join the fight against your army. And once we win I’ll find my family again. They are going to take me into their arms and call me a hero while you lie in ashes. That is if someone decides to take pity on you and properly put your body to rest.” She said.
“When you find them, and they turn you away, I want you to remember my laugh. The one that echoed in your ear whenever I beat you.” The prince said.
He smiled one last time before the breath was force from his body as Rada pounded the knife into his torso. Her hand was covered in blood and the knife was starting to slip, but she continued to pump it into his lifeless frame only stopping when tears started to blur her eyes and she couldn’t watch the life slip from him anymore. Once she let go his body slumped and the blood that had been pouring onto the floor started to slow its pace.
She wiped at her face and cleaned up the remnants of her pain.
“I swear when we find them I’m tying Eve and Sarah together and dragging them onto a boat.” Xena said as she trudged up the deserted road with Gabrielle. “I can’t believe that both of them were stupid enough to stay here.”
The response from Gabrielle was little more than a chuckle.
Xena noticed the small sound and looked toward the bard.
“What’s so funny?” She asked.
“You’re kind of cute when you’re being hypocritical.” The bard said.
“Excuse me?” Xena said, stopping in her tracks and crossing her arms. The bard stopped walking as well and explained herself.
“Come on, Xena, are you actually going to tell me that we haven’t done the same thing a hundred times before?” She asked and put a gentle hand on Xena’s shoulder. “Sarah feels bad for starting the war, so she wants to help keep innocent people alive. And Eve has this whole theory that Sarah is an instrument of Eli. She probably thinks it’s her duty to stay by her side. They’re brave and crazy. What makes this any different from an Innkeeper’s daughter standing up to a warlord, or a small town peasant leaving home to chase after a hero?”
Xena thought for a moment, and then gave Gabrielle a small smile.
“I’m not sure what the difference is, but I know there is one because I’m always right. And sadly, we’re going to have to end this conversation because there’s someone moving through the bushes in our direction.”
Xena drew her sword and Gabrielle pulled her Sais out of her boots in preparation for a fight. The fainted glint of armor was detected by both bard and warrior, which made them fear that a hostile soldier was headed their way instead of a friendly villager.
“We know you’re in there, you might as well come on out.” Gabrielle said as she tensed her muscles.
The armored form stepped out of the bushes and drew a freshly sharpened sword. Xena hated the fact that the Chinese soldiers sometimes wore helmets. Eye contact was a very big part of a fight sometimes. She twirled her sword and readied it for strike.
But in a surprise movement the soldier shoved the sword into the ground and reached up to remove the helmet. A dark head of sweaty hair was revealed along with the face of someone they hadn’t expected to see. The bard and warrior eased their stances and breathed easier.
“What, no hugs?” Rada asked.
“What are you doing in those clothes?” Gabrielle asked.
“Well I had to get into the palace and kill the prince somehow. And this armor is actually more comfortable than you would think. So, are you guys on your way to find Sarah and Eve?” The Slav asked and was answered with two nods in affirmation. “Me too. Wanna go together?”
“Why are you trying to find them? You already got the prince; I thought that was the end of the line for you.” Gabrielle asked.
“I guess the kindness Sarah showed me melted my cold heart a little bit.” She said; sarcasm evident in her tone. “She helped me out, and now I want to help her. Let’s not make a big deal about it ok?” She asked.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other in consideration of Rada’s offer of company.
“I brought lots of extra weapons.” The assassin said as she moved back in the bushes to grab her bag.
Xena nodded at Gabrielle then spoke.
“Ok, you can come with us, but you’re probably gonna want to lose the impirial adornments. You might be mistaken for the enemy once we reach the strong hold.”
“Oh fine.” Rada said as she shrugged out of the armor and re-attached the sword to her side. She then reached inside the bag for a quiver, which she attached to the opposite side of her belt, and a bow that she secured over her head and left shoulder.
“Are you any good with that thing?” Xena asked.
Within second Rada grabbed the bow and fired an arrow over Xena’s shoulder and into a piece of rotten fruit hanging in a tree that was quite a few paces away. The warrior and Bard both turned to marvel at the accuracy of the shot, then looked back at Rada.
“I’m good enough.” Rada said, and then explained her skill when she got no response from her two companions. “We had to hunt really small birds sometimes during the winter when I was a kid. If you didn’t shoot good and fast, you didn’t eat dinner. So, can we go now?”
Xena nodded then turned her head quickly to the right hand fork of the road. She could hear armor and horses marching in the same direction they were.
“There are quite a few soldiers headed in the same direction we are.” Xena said
“Should we try to run ahead of them, or meet them and fight them off?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena was quiet for a few seconds as she thought, then looked to Rada.
“You know, screwed isn’t even an adequate word for what we are.” Sarah said as she paced in front of Eve. “Fucked, is a much better expression. We are totally fucked.”
The words just turned to mumbles at that point and Eve watched Sarah form her own path in the ground with her steps. To say the young girl was not prepared to lead a contingency would have been a major understatement. But the mumbling wouldn’t get them anywhere and they had to set up a defense.
“Sarah.” Eve said, stepping into her path and halting her at the shoulders. “Ok, I know you’re pretty… freaked… right now.” Eve said, trying the word out on her tongue.
She had been doing that lately so that Sarah might feel some sort of connection to her. It was the second time she’d done it, and she couldn’t exactly tell if the word was used in the right context with the way Sarah was staring at her, but she continued.
“I know you’re not thrilled with the situation here, but that won’t stop the soldiers from coming and killing these people. We have to organize the few men we have and make a stand. But first you have to make a decision.” Eve asserted.
“Ha!” Sarah huffed. “I can’t make a decision involving burgers or pizza and you want me to choose one of two paths that leads to death for a number of people? Eve, I am not qualified to do this!”
“Well you lost the ability to walk away from this decision when you chose to stay instead of getting on that boat. What did you think would happen? That you would come here and everything would be easy? It’s a war, and if you bit off more than you can chew you’re just gonna have to swallow. You’re here right now, and you have to act.”
Eve’s last statement ran through Sarah’s head as she looked at the messenger’s bag. All she had to do was grab the stone out of the bag, say a few words and she would be back in the safety of her own home. This one battle would certainly not affect the entire war. She was disgusted with herself for even considering the option, but the truth was that the most appealing option did rest in that worn bag.
“Eve, I’m not a hero.” She said, looking her in the eye. “In all honesty, where I’m from, most people don’t even remember what a real hero is. I don’t know how to lead people, and I certainly don’t know how to lead them to their death. I have nothing to lose here, because I can’t die, but these people…” She looked around and swallowed hard. “Jesus Christ, half of my ‘men’ are just boys.”
“You don’t have to be a hero, Sarah. All you have to do is what’s in your heart.” She reached for the stone in her bag. “Is this what you want? I won’t fight you for it. You can have it right now. But even if you take it you’ve still made a decision that affects these people. You just won’t have to see the consequences.” She held out the stone and walked closer to the girl.
That goddamn green stone. Sarah thought as she looked into its emerald depths yet again, then she looked into Eve’s eyes and spoke with timidity.
“What’s it like to watch innocent people die right in front of you?”
It was said without even the tiniest bit of animosity. Eve could tell that, though Sarah may not have to worry about losing her life in this battle she still had a lot of innocence that was up for grabs.
“I wish I could give you a clear answer, Sarah, but mine is extremely muddled. Whenever I was at war the innocent people were usually dying under my orders. It’s when I look back on my past that the lives lost actually affect me, and that pain is mixed with guilt. All I can tell you is that you won’t be the same person if you decide to stay for this fight.”
Sarah took the stone in her hand, and with a deep breath turned Eve around. The messenger could feel a couple of tugs to her bag, and Sarah spoke again.
“Keep that safe. I’m gonna need a lot of expensive therapy after this and I’m pretty sure my insurance won’t cover me thousands of years before I’m even born.” She could tell Eve was completely confused by the joke. “I’m staying.”
Eve let a smile cross her face before nodding.
“I knew you would. And whether you believe it or not, that’s what makes you a hero.”
“Yeah, well let’s hope my sidekicks arrive soon because we’re gonna need them.” Sarah said. As she stepped back toward the map Eve followed. “I think that the best option is to stand and fight, then make a run for the caves. I know it’s a gamble, but if it works more people live. We’ll organize the....fighters near the bridge. It’ll serve to bottleneck anyone coming across the river, and we’ll get to fight fewer men at one time. That’s where I’ll be, and hopefully Rada, Xena and Gabrielle will be here to help me. I want you to get the women and children ready to move. I know they probably want to rest, but that’s not an option tonight. We have to be ready to get them out of here at a moment’s notice. As soon as I give the signal, you lead them to the caves and I’ll follow when we have to retreat. What do you think?” She asked the professional.
“I think you’re going to make a pretty good leader.” Eve said.
“Ugghh, you are way too cheesy to be a reformed warlord. Try to take it easy with the sentiment and tell me what you really think.” Sarah said.
Eve laughed at the honesty, and then spoke.
“If I were in charge I wouldn’t do anything differently. I think you’ve chosen a fine strategy.” She said with a purposefully detached voice.
“Ok, well let’s get everyone organized, and hope it works as well in practice as it seems to in theory.”
And with a nod from the messenger they separated to address their subordinates. As Sarah approached the rag tag attachment she’d been given to lead she fought the urge to tell them to just run for their lives. They had all stopped what they were doing and were looking right at her, awaiting some kind of guidance.
I wonder if you feel physical pain when you lose a part of your soul. She thought just before raising her arms to bring everyone closer to her.
“Ok, everybody this is what we’re going to do…”
As she spoke she looked into each and every set of eyes that searched her own. And while her mouth spouted out orders, her eyes projected the one thought she couldn’t exercise from her head.
The clank of armor was surprisingly loud as the soldiers marched through the forest. Their goal was to scout out any rebel camps, engage, and send for back up if needed. They were tired from having been woken about an hour into sleep, but they were also wary. Things were not looking good if the palace had already been taken. No one even knew if the Emperor was safe.
Different thoughts raced through their heads as they pushed forward, but they were halted with the gurgling sound made by one of the men in the back. The leader of the small group called everyone to a halt, and then walked around to see that the man was dead. An arrow was sticking straight through his neck.
Before the man could even turn toward the sound he noticed the sword sticking out of his gut, then retreating backward. He fell to his knees without ever having uttered an order to his troops. They drew their weapons valiantly and rushed the warrior. Two fell to the ground with arrows sticking out of their backs and Xena gave off a growl ash she twirled around, swinging her sword with precision.
Two more down, and the men proceeded with more caution.
They didn’t hear the silent bard stalking up behind them, Sais drawn. With a heavy hand she slammed the base of her sigh into the back of her primary target’s head. One of two things would happen once he became unconscious. Either more men would turn around and she could take some of the heat off of Xena, or no one would turn around and she could start the whole process over again. Three men turned and Gabrielle manipulated her Sais into the defensive position. Meanwhile arrows rained down on anyone they were too preoccupied to handle.
In the tree’s Rada was developing a familiar callus between her index and middle finger from the amount of arrows she was doling out. She had already used three quarters of her quiver. If the fight didn’t end soon she’d have to vacate the trees and help from a more cozy position. As she flew through her last few arrows she took in the spectacle that was Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle the Battling Bard of Potadeia. It was like a dance in some ways. The way they moved out of each other’s way, or took time from their own personal fight to stop a detrimental blow aimed at the other. Rada was sure it took practice, but it was also something that they seemed to fit into: like it had to be those exact two people for things to work out so well.
She fired the last arrow at a man coming up behind Xena with a sword posed to swing at her head. As the Slav pulled the arrow back to her cheek she breathed in heavily, then relaxed her fingers and let the breath go. The arrow hit its mark right between the man’s eyes and within seconds Rada had slipped down the tree to help with what was left of the fight. It was done before she even got there. Xena was grabbing a sash off one of the dead men to wipe the blood off of her sword and Gabrielle was putting her Sais back into her boots.
“Do any of them have arrows, cuz I’m out?” Rada asked.
“I saw a few with bows, so I’m sure you can stock up. Just look around. And see if you can find some lamp oil too. It’s dark out here and we may need some light later on.” The bard said, then turned to address Xena as Rada searched the corpses for arrows. “Do you think this is the only advance group they’ll send?” She asked.
“Yeah, and that gives us some advantage but not a huge one. They’ll notice by morning that this group didn’t return and they’ll probably send even more. This just bought us some time.”
“Well then let’s not waste any of it.” Rada said, suiting herself up with quite a few more quivers. She passed the lamp oil over to Gabrielle. “I’m ready.”
Xena chuckled a little at the girl’s spirit, and then nodded her head in agreement as she led the way. She never noticed the man that had hidden himself in the nearby bushes. This was mostly due to the fact that he had only just remembered to breathe once the three women walked away. Once he had broken away from his fellow soldiers he took cover, so he wouldn’t be hit by the arrows. It was dark out and even the light of the moon wasn’t enough for the archer in the trees to see him. He waited until he couldn’t hear them anymore and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Sarah looked on at the wall of young men that guarded her camp, then out to the forest that could have been hiding hundreds of enemies. Everything was so quiet it was hard to imagine anyone in the trees. The women and children had already bedded down for the most part, though she wondered if it was even possible for them to get any sleep under the circumstances. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Eve’s approach. She could tell it was her by the soft sound her shoes made on the ground. They were like slippers more than boots and allowed the messenger to tread lightly on the earth if she needed to.
“How are things on your end?” Sarah asked.
“Same as you it looks like. Everyone is pretty quiet. Of course I can’t imagine it would be otherwise, they’re all afraid they’re going to die.” The messenger said.
Sara chuckled lightly and crossed her arms.
“What was that about?” Eve asked.
Sarah shook her head. “Nothing important. Just that normally I’d say something like ‘I like proving people wrong’ but really I’m just as afraid as they are.”
Eve let a small grin creep up on one side of her face.
“Well don’t worry; I’m sure your cocky bravado will return with full force once this is all over. Obnoxious behavior like yours is really hard to lose.” The messenger said as if she were telling a blind person they would regain their sight in a couple of days.
It garnered the intended response. Sarah chuckled a little harder than she had before.
“You know, you’re actually kind of cool when you’re not such a lame religious zealot.” She fired back.
“Oh, I’m not a zealot. You have to have more followers for that.” Eve joked and finally got a full bodied laugh from Sarah. It was cut off quickly though by the sound of her lookout’s voice.
“Commander, there are strangers approaching!” He yelled and both women raced to the front line.
“Ready for action.” Sarah called out as she pulled her bat from the make shift sheath she had fashioned in the camp.
She scanned the forest, but it was really dark at this point. The moonlight only serving to illuminate the bases of the river and all the water in between.
“I can’t see shit, what’s he talking about?” She asked Eve as she squinted.
Eve looked hard, and her eyes caught the glint of something in the distance. Whoever it was they were headed straight for the bridge.
“There, you see that?” She said and pointed the flash out to Sarah. “It could be a sword or a piece of armor.
Sarah tensed as they waited to see more of the enemy. The glint Eve had originally seen was coming into view better and it started to take on the shape of a very familiar “round killing thing.”
“It’s Xena, it’s gotta be. That thing looks like her chakram.” Sarah said as she gave the order for the line to relax. Soon three women emerged from the forest and Sarah and Eve both ran to greet them.
Normally there would have been a round of hugs between mothers and daughter, but the look on Xena’s face told Eve that now may not be the best time. This did not, however, stop Sarah from nearly bowling Rada over.
“You came!” She said, as she backed off and clapped the Slav on the shoulder.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t really have anything else to do tonight.” Rada said sarcastically, and then remembered the hand gesture Sarah had taught her earlier. They bumped their fists together then looked at the tense situation developing between the other three women.
“Mother, Gabrielle.” Eve said in greeting. She was trying to sound like an accomplished adult, but ended up coming off more like an obstinate child.
Xena put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin out before she spoke.
“Eve I’m not even going to begin to tell you how stupid it was for you to get off that boat partially because I should be yelling at Sarah for not getting on it in the first place.” The warrior shot a steely glance at the time traveler, and then continued. “But I’ll save all of that for later, because Gabrielle said I shouldn’t yell at you now because I really don’t want our last words to each other before going into battle to be from a place of anger. So even though you made this incredibly stupid, selfish, arrogant, immature move that could…”
“We love you and we’re glad you’re ok.” Gabrielle said, shooting a look to Xena and moving in to hug Eve. The messenger gladly accepted the hug and closed her eyes as she embraced the bard. Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to Xena and used her head to beckon the warrior over. With a sigh the warrior moved closer and wrapped her arms around them both.
She kissed the top of the messenger’s head and whispered a soft ‘I love you.’
“Well it’s really touching to see you guys connecting like this and all, but we should probably get behind the line so I can let Xena in on the plan.”
“Luckily you won’t have to rush through it.” Xena said, breaking off from the embrace and addressing Sarah. “We happened upon an advance party on the way here and wiped them out. So we’ve got at least until morning to wait for an attack.”
“Are you serious?” Sarah asked and was answered by a nod by Gabrielle and Rada.
“Well that’s great!” she said. “We’ve got reinforcements coming in the morning to help escort the party. We’re totally saved! You guys rock!”
And at that point Sarah pummeled Xena and Gabrielle with hugs. Within seconds Eve joined in and Rada rolled her eyes.
She had no way of knowing that it would be the last feeling of elation to fill her heart with hope for the rest of their time in Chin. As Sarah thought back on it she almost laughed at her own naivety. They had been searching for Eve for almost an hour and there was still no sign of her. As she continued to trudge through the forest she thought about the moment when it all fell apart.
Xena and Gabrielle hadn’t even been in the camp for an hour before the lookout’s cry shattered their conversation about the possible evacuation plan. They scattered to see what the commotion was all about and it was at that point that they realized something had gone very wrong. The Emperor’s army had been tipped off about their position, and they were coming in force.
The cry came from above their heads and all eyes turned in its direction.
“Surely he’s mistaken.” Eve said.
“I thought you said that you took care of the advance crew; that we wouldn’t have any trouble until at least morning?” Sarah asked. She could feel her chest becoming tight with fear.
“We did, one of the bastards must’ve gotten away.” Xena said as she ran to the lookout station and the rest of the women followed.
As the warrior climbed to the post they all watched and waited hopefully for a mistake on the part of the lookout. But the look on Xena’s face after having squinted towards the woods was enough to tell them that the boy had a good eye.
“How much time do we have?” Gabrielle asked, not even bothering to ask if the soldiers were coming
“Five, ten minutes tops.” Xena said as she made her decent.
“How many men?” The bard asked before she even reached the ground.
As Xena turned to face her the features on her face were grave.
“Too many for this group to possibly handle.” She said.
“Well what should we do?” Sarah asked.
“What we planned to do anyway. Just expect more casualties.” Xena said before addressing the young men they had at their disposal. “Everybody listen up!” She yelled.
“Xena wait!” Sarah said, grabbing the arm of the warrior. “Look we had a plan B where everyone just runs and I think with the circumstances being what they are we should go with it.”
“I have an idea.” Eve interjected, but was overshadowed by her mother.
“We don’t have time for that, plus it was the weaker plan of the two anyway. It’d be nothing more than chaos and more people would end up dead. We have to stand and fight while the women and children make a run for it.”
“There might be another way.” The messenger tried again as Sarah piped back in.
“Xena they’re just kids, and they’re all probably gonna die here. There has to be another way!”
“Well there isn’t!” The warrior growled into Sarah’s face.
“Look, if we just…” Eve cut herself off and left the party as she realized she wasn’t getting anywhere.
Xena and Sarah only continued for a few more seconds before Gabrielle cut them off.
“Hey!” She said putting her hand on both of they’re shoulders. “While you two were arguing Eve snuck off and grabbed a few of the soldiers, they’re heading for the bridge.”
“What?” They both said in unison.
Not only had Eve dragged some of the boys along with her to the bridge she was talking to Rada about something on the way. The boys were grabbing all the skins of lamp oil on their way to the bridge and with a nod of her head the assassin headed up to the lookout tower. Xena, Gabrielle and Sarah ran down to see what was going on.
“Eve, what are you doing?” Gabrielle asked.
“I’m having them put the lamp oil on the bridge then we’re going to tie a bag full of those fireworks to the middle. Once the soldiers start to cross Rada will shoot flaming arrows at the bridge and the bag and the enemy won’t be able to cross. I tried to say something but you two were too busy arguing and we need to move fast. If we do this we may lose the reinforcements on our side of the river, but the imperial troops are going to have to fight them off.”
They were all simply staring at her surprised at such a violent initiative being instigated by the messenger of peace.
“Look I used to be pretty good at keeping my men alive and that’s what I’m trying to do here. It just seems like our best option.” Eve said looking down at the ground.
“It is.” Xena said with a half smile. “It’s a great plan sweetie.”
“So what do we do right now, wait until the guys come through and just light it up?” Sarah asked.
“Pretty much.” Eve answered. “I figured it would be a good idea to position our soldiers as if we were preparing to fight, just so things don’t look suspicious, but otherwise it should be a fairly simple process.”
Sarah felt like she could breathe again.
“Thank god. Ok, I’m gonna head up to the watchtower to keep a look out with Rada. I’ll give the signal when they’re about to approach and come down to help out just in case.” She gave Eve a light punch to her shoulder. “Nice one Peacemaker.”
As she left the three women Gabrielle and Xena looked to Eve quizzically.
“You two getting along better now?” The bard asked.
Rada was scanning the area and waiting for the first sign of encroachment when she heard someone climbing up to join her.
“How’s it looking?” Sarah asked as she made her way next to the dark assassin.
“Not bad, they’re finishing up with the oil and in a few minutes they’ll have tied off our little bag of tricks to hang underneath the bridge.” She answered.
“Awesome. Do you think you’ll be able to hit it? It seems pretty small from up here.”
Rada answered with a cocky statement, but Sarah didn’t hear her because as soon as she had squinted enough to really see the bag she realized that there may have been a terrible mistake about to happen.
“Shit!” She exclaimed before barreling down the ladder.
Rada just stood there at first, then called down to her friend.
“Fine don’t have faith in me. We’ll see what happens when I blow that bridge to hell.”
“Eve!” Sarah cried out as she ran over to the messenger.
“What? What’s wrong?” Eve asked, concerned. Xena and Gabrielle were organizing the boys and further explaining the plan.
“Whose bag is that hanging under the bridge?” She asked, breathing hard.
“Don’t worry it’s not yours, it’s mine. We needed something to put the fireworks in and I didn’t want to ask these poor people to give up anymore of their possessions. I just put all my stuff in with yours; I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Sarah put her hands on both of Eve’s shoulders.
“Eve, tell me you emptied all of the pockets on the bag!” She said it as if her life depended on it.
“Of course I did, I mean…” She trailed off as soon as she realized what had Sarah so spooked. “The pouch.” She said as her eyes grew wide.
“Yes, the pouch I needed you to take care of for me, tell me you took it out.” She was squeezing her shoulders harder, but as Eve’s eyes met hers she didn’t even have to wait for her answer.
“Oh god.” Sarah said as she turned to look at the bridge, before she even saw the troops coming she heard Rada sound off the warning.
She could see the arrow flying through the air every millisecond of its journey toward her most precious possession in this world. As the fiery igniter barreled through the night sky every hair on her body stood erect. For one small second she thought that maybe the assassin would miss her mark and she could cry out for the plan to halt. But she knew that if Rada was as skilled with that bow as she was with rest of her fighting skills there was no hope.
She not only saw the blast, but felt the heat from the flames and fell to her knees. She was screaming on the inside, but her open mouth didn’t make a single sound. The unfortunate men who had started to cross the bridge were screaming the way she could not. Their bodies either in agony from the fire, or in fear of the fall off the collapsing bridge. And just like that, the life she knew and longed to go back to was gone.
Shouts of victory were rising all around her and it all seemed to happen in slow motion. She could see Rada pumping her fist in the air and no doubt shouting obscenities at the fallen men. Xena and Gabrielle turned toward the cheering masses of women, children and young warriors; satisfied smiles on their faces. It was only when someone touched her on the shoulder that real time returned and Sarah found her voice again.
She knew it was Eve who had just dared to touch her, and she wasn’t having it at all. She rose off her knees and turned toward the messenger.
“Tell me you took it out.” She said as tears started to form in her eyes. She knew what the answer was going to be, but there was still a part of her that was hoping against all reasoning that the messenger had held on to her stone.
“Sarah, I’m so sorry.” Eve said, tears forming in her eyes as well.
“Tell me you took it out, Eve.” She raised her voice.
“I forgot that you gave it to me to take care of and I just didn’t check…” She said, shaking her head in shame.
Sarah grabbed her by the tunic and came within inches of her face.
“That stone was my family Eve, my fucking family! It was everything I knew and ever wanted to know and I trusted you with it. How could you do this? How could you be so god damn stupid?” She was screaming at this point as tears slowly fell down her face.
“I’m sorry, Sarah,” Eve said as her voice quivered. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
Sarah’s mouth curled in a growl and just before she could continue her verbal assault she noticed that the crowd had hushed and Rada’s voice could clearly be heard above the surrounding stillness.
“Retreat! Retreat!” She yelled. But it wasn’t in mockery as Sarah would have expected. The cry was serious and it was for the rebel forces. “They’re cutting down a tree to cross the river!”
Nothing could have possibly made this situation worse.
Sarah harshly shoved Eve to the ground, but her voice was eerily calm when she spoke.
“It didn’t even work. It was your plan and your mistake that ruined my life and it didn’t even work.” The last three words were dealt out slowly and deliberately like blows to the gut. “Gather up the women and children and see them to the caves. Hopefully you won’t screw up their lives as well.”
As she turned she heard Eve get up and address her one more time.
“Sarah please, I need you to know that I’m sorry.” She said with tears in her eyes.
She didn’t even turn around when she spoke.
“Eve I don’t need to know anything from you at this point. Honestly, I don’t even care if you’re breathing. Now take the women and children out of here or assign someone else the task. I have to go fight in the darkness beside boys who will die.”
She walked off not even caring if Eve was trying to talk to her again. She’d just lost everything and didn’t even have a second to mourn it. As Eve watched her receding back she allowed the tiniest sob to escape then moved to organize the escape party.
As Sarah approached Xena and Gabrielle she saw that they had already assembled the ranks and were giving instructions on how to best take advantage of the situation.
“Archers!” Gabrielle said. “Try to hit men that are standing close to one another. It will be hard enough to balance on the tree without someone knocking you off. Work on clusters to take out more men with fewer arrows.”
“Squad one!” Xena screamed. “Use the fact that they are bottlenecked to your advantage. Get in close and try to push them off of the ledge. Remember that we’re working under a lot of darkness so it’ll be easier for us to see them than them to see us. Use that knowledge when you fight.”
They’d barked out a few more orders before they even noticed Sarah had arrived. It was Gabrielle who saw her first.
“Are you ready?” The bard asked.
Sarah stared into the green eyes that mirrored Janice’s and swallowed hard to fight back tears.
“As ready as I could be at this moment.” She said with a crack in her voice.
“Ok, we’re putting you back with…” Gabrielle started, but was cut off.
“I’m going in front.” Sarah said.
“We can’t risk that. You might be immortal, but a fall like that will break every bone in your body, not to mention I don’t think you’d particularly enjoy drowning.”
At this point all Sarah could do was laugh and walk away from Gabrielle as the bard tried to call after her. Xena noticed the scene and walked over to the bard to see what’s going on.
“What’s she doing?” The warrior asked.
“Fighting at the front of the line apparently.” Gabrielle said with an exacerbated sigh. “I tried to tell her not to, but she wouldn’t listen.”
Xena was about to speak, but she heard the bare tree creak and moan on its way over to their side of the ravine. As soon as it hit the ground the soldiers started to cross.
“Well it looks like she’s going to get her way. There’s no time to stop her now. You take command of second squad and I’ll go up front and try to make sure she doesn’t do more harm than good.”
The faintest sound caught her attention as she made her way towards the mountainside. If she had been breathing any harder she wouldn’t have heard it. The sound was akin to a child’s whimper, but it was coming from one of the trees.
Oh god, I’m hallucinating. She thought as she walked closer to investigate.
It was a very large tree but solid from what she could see on her side. Then as she circled it she noticed the small rotted opening at the bottom.
“Hello?” She said.
The whimpering had stopped, but she could detect the heavy breathing brought on by fear.
“Hey it’s ok; I’m not going to hurt you. I’m one of the good guys.”
A small hand peeked out from the opening and it was soon followed by a head and a body. The boy couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. His eyes were wide with fright at her haggard appearance, but he still cautiously proceeded out of the tree.
“Did you come to help her?” He asked as he stood and looked up at her.
“Help who, sweetheart?” She said as she bent down to his level.
“The lady who saved me.” He said.
“Was it the lady who led everyone to the caves?” She asked intently.
“Yeah.” He said with a guilty expression on his face. “I got scared and then I got cut off from the group. She told us to stick together but I ran out here instead of with the others.”
“What happened to her?” Sarah asked. Not wanting the child’s story to take on any useless detail.
“She came out here looking for me, but there was a tiger. She told me to hide in here and then she led the tiger into the mountain.” He started to sniffle a bit before he continued. “She hasn’t come out yet.”
As he was finishing his story Sarah had moved her attention to focusing on her back pack. She searched through a few different pockets before finding what she needed. She put the silver, cylindrical object around the boy’s neck and began to instruct him on what to do.
“Ok, I’m gonna go in there and find the lady who saved you. I need you to take this thing,” She held up the device. “Put it in your mouth and breathe really hard into it.”
He looked at the camping whistle and did as she said. The loud obnoxious sound pierced through the silent forest.
“Ok good. Now keep doing that until you hear people coming this way. They should all be good guys at this point; we took care of the bad guys. Tell them what you just told me. If you see any other tigers stop whistling and hide in the tree again. Can you do that?” She asked.
He nodded and commenced with the whistling.
Sarah grabbed her bat and a light stick from the bag and headed toward what was most likely the tiger’s den.
My luck’s been pretty shitty all day long. Hopefully that will change before I get mauled by a tiger. She thought before cracking the light stick and walking slowly into the cave.
To Be Continued….
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