These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena: Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 24
By Melissa Good
The sunlight was fading slowly, slanting across the river grass and staining it crimson, before spilling up along the defensive ramparts and gently highlighting the tall, somber form standing atop them. The birds had quieted, the camp behind her rustled with the sounds of soft clanks from the mess hall, and Xena allowed herself a moment of reflection as she contemplated the violence to come.
She could see the line of troops clearly now, a black line spreading out across the golden blanket of grass, glints of steel, and flashes of color from banners visible to her sharp eyesight. If she took a deep breath, she could almost smell them, a combination of leather and steel, animals and musk common to just about all the armies she’d ever known.
Save the Amazons, perhaps. Xena’s lips quirked. Slightly different smell, there.
A scraping sound caught her attention, and she half turned, to see Toris climbing up onto the walls next to her. He was wearing a full set of scuffed, but well maintained armor, and now he tugged his helmet off, and wiped a muddy forearm across his forehead, smearing brown tinted sweat across it. "Well, I think we’re ready."
"I doubt it. No one ever really is ready for war." Xena told him, folding her arms. "But that’s all right." She caught a whiff of something nice smelling cooking below, and her stomach reminded her it’d been a very long time since lunch.
Or had it been breakfast? Xena shook her head, and wondered how Gabrielle was faring.. hoping her soulmate was snug and warm in the secondary camp. She was getting a fuzzy sense of apprehension from the bard, but that’d been true for a while now, and Xena suspected it would be until the war was over.
"Hey, Xena?" Toris hesitated, then perched on the edge of the wall.
"There’s… " Her brother looked uncomfortable. "Something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about but.. I…" He stopped, considering. "I know this is a weird time but, you know.. stuff could happen and.."
Xena sat down on the wall, and tucked one booted foot up over her knee, clasping it with both hands. "What’s up?" With any luck, this was her last loose end, and if she waited long enough, Toris would run the subject all out for her, and make it easy.
Long pause. "It’s about Dori."
Atta boy. "What about her?"
Toris studied his hands. "I’m not really sure how to start this… or even if I should." He drew a pensive breath. "But it’s been weighing on me."
"Spit it out then." His sister advised dryly. "But don’t’ take all night, Toris. I’m hungry, and we don’t have the time."
Blue eyes glanced up at her. "I know you and Gabrielle have had some rough times." He started, tentatively. "And I know Dori means a lot to you."
"Two true statements."
Toris nodded. "I was really… glad.. when Gabrielle asked me to..um… help out, you know, Xe? She’s a wonderful person, and I like her a lot."
"So.. .anyway, I was happy to… um… I was glad we got together, and I…" He fell silent again. "I was kinda surprised when you guys came back and she was..um… I mean I… it was great, but…"
"But you didn’t think it was that easy." Xena helped him out. "Right?"
"Well…" Toris scratched his ear, obviously very uncomfortable and embarrassed. "I mean.. I grew up here, Xe.. with cows and sheep and all, and I know it only takes one time, but I… always sort of thought you… um.. well, I thought… the man, at least has to… uh.. " He looked up at his sister pathetically.
Xena’s brows knit, then she realized what he was talking about. "And you didn’t?" She stated.
He blushed a dark red. "I guess I was nervous. I don’t know, or maybe… " His voice trailed off. "But.. I didn’t see how else.. I mean.. "
"You don’t think you’re Dori’s father." Xena supplied for him.
Toris peeked up at her. "You’re taking this a lot better than I thought you would."
Xena shifted a little. "Well… the fact is, Gabrielle and I talked about it."
Toris’ eyes widened in alarm. "She could tell?" His voice lifted into a squeak.
His sister gave him a look. "The night before we left, she was about to start her cycles." Xena told him. "The chances of you being the father were pretty slim anyway."
They were both quiet for a bit, the wind snapping the black and gold hawk’s banner overhead fitfully. "Oh." Toris finally said. "I’m sorry.. was there… " He eyed Xena’s calm features. "I guess that’s none of my business." He concluded softly.
Xena gazed out over the plain, acknowledging that he was right. It really was none of his business. However. "There was no other man, no." She stated.
"Oh." Toris said again, now looking deeply puzzled.
They stared at each other in silence. "Then…um…" He finally responded. "How… uh.. are you saying it was… " One finger pointed at her in question. "That’s kinda way out there, Xe."
Xena shrugged. "Tell me about it." She remarked wryly. "I basically had two choices. I could either believe that Gabrielle had lied to me, and coincidentally had relations with someone who just happened to produce a child who physically so closely resembles me, or…" The warrior sighed. "Come to grips with the fact that somehow… I was involved." She plucked at an armor buckle. "Given those two options, I chose the second… which I don’t think about too much, got me?"
"Wow." Toris scrubbed his face. "That’s.. pretty damn strange, sis." He paused. "But, if it’s any help, I think you picked the right option. She’s definitely made in your image."
Xena merely nodded.
"Maybe… " Toris tread warily. "Maybe it was.. a way, sorta, for the gods to give you back.. I mean.. " He broke off. "That was a damned stupid thing to say, I didn’t.. "
Surprisingly, his sister smiled. "It’s okay. The thought’s occurred to me on occasion." She admitted. "Though I usually consider her a gift to both of us."
"Oh." Toris said. "Yeah… I hadn’t thought of that." He produced a hesitant smile. "Congratulations?"
Xena chuckled. "Say that again when she goes through her changes." The warrior stood up, and nodded towards the mess tent. "C’mon. Let’s go get some dinner… I want to send out a few scouts as soon as it’s dark."
She started to climb down the wall, hopping from platform to platform, and carefully sidestepping the piles of arrows neatly stacked there. Toris clambered after her, and they both reached the ground at about the same time, squishing across the muddy ground with similarly long strides.
"She’s gonna be a handful, all right." Toris commented. "I remember you at that age." He rolled his eyes. "Poor Amphipolis."
Xena snorted. "Look who’s talking, Mr. ‘I didn’t know you shouldn’t feed the horses hot spices’."
Toris whistled innocently.
Something smelled like peas. Gabrielle slowly dragged herself up out of the darkness, and forced an eye open, blinking to clear her vision and wishing she hadn’t. Her back was on fire, again, and her whole body felt chilled, even under the heavy layer of furs that covered her as she rested mostly sprawled on her belly.
A medium height, sturdy form turned from the brazier in the tent and cocked it’s head at her. "Well, hello there."
Gabrielle didn’t recognize her, but that wasn’t surprising. "Hi."
The woman came over and crouched down. "My name is Setha. I’m from Cirron. They asked me to take care of you when you passed out."
Oh. Is that what happened? "Thank you." Gabrielle answered. "It’s been a tough couple of days." She had no desire to even lift her head. "What’s happening?" Outside, the bard could hear sounds of movement, and shouts as directions were given.
"Packing things up." Setha told her. "They’ve made a litter to carry you in." A pause as Gabrielle opened her mouth. "Please don’t argue… you really are both hurt, and sick, and trying to ride in your condition will just make it worse."
The bard closed her mouth, but managed a bit of a smile. "I know…" She admitted. "I feel pretty lousy. When do we have to leave?"
"One.. maybe two candlemarks." Setha replied. "I hope you feel a little better by then. I cleaned out and re-bandaged that cut on your back. My compliments to your last healer, though, they did a good job with it." She looked up as the tent flap moved, and nodded. "Hello."
Aslanta entered, and returned the nod. "Afternoon." She glanced at Gabrielle. "A word with you?"
"Sure." Gabrielle exhaled, as the other Amazon pulled up a small stool, and took a seat. "How have things been here?"
"Quiet." The tall blond woman answered. "We’ve been drilling, arguing with the guys, catching fish.. the usual. How are things up front?"
"Not good." The bard admitted. "We lost some good people." A pause. "Gillen’s gone."
Aslanta looked very surprised. "That old battle ax? I thought she’d survive anything. Fell in battle, huh?"
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "No." She twitched the furs. "She was working for Andreas. She tried to assassinate someone in the camp, and got.. " Several heartbeats passed. "She died in the process."
Shock colored Aslanta’s tone. "Son of a Bacchae… I can’t believe it." She murmured. "I never pegged her for that… I swear it." Her eyes lifted to Gabrielle’s face. "She go after Xena?"
A shake of her head. "Me." Gabrielle indicated herself. "That’s how I got hurt."
Aslanta got up and paced around the tent, visibly agitated. "I don’t understand it… how could she do that? She was smarter than that, Gabrielle.. she knew that bastard would only use her… I don’t get it." She turned. "We talked about it…after that whole scent with the kid.. she said, even if he offered twice that, it wouldn’t be worth it. Why did she change her mind?"
"I wish I knew."
"Was the fighting that bad?"
Gabrielle thought about that. "Well… the initial battles were involving the outposts.. and we did lose some Amazons… maybe she thought Xena was deliberately sacrificing them… I sort of got that impression from her." Carefully, she pushed herself upright, and tucked the furs around her, running slightly shaking fingers through her pale hair. She leaned forward with her other hand braced on the pallet edge, to take some of the pressure off her back, and swallowed down a distinct urge to throw up. "Gillen, I mean. But if Xena’s going to sacrifice anyone, it’d.." Gabrielle went quiet for a moment. "She’s always the first into the fight, and the last to leave it."
The other Amazon studied her. "Must be tough for you to be here, instead of there."
Mist green eyes lifted. "Very."
Setha padded quietly over, and offered Gabrielle a bowl of soup, setting it down on the rude bench next to the pallet. The bard eyed the thick, green substance and quickly looked away, wondering if her skin tone was changing to reflect it.
"I think you better lie down." The healer’s eyes widened.
Guess it was. "Yeah." Gabrielle slid down and curled up on her side. Her eyes felt very heavy, and she let her head rest on the pillow, fighting her rebellious stomach as it struggled to revolt. "Maybe I’ll just rest until it’s time to go."
Aslanta came over, and put a brief hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Rest easy, my sister… there’ll be time enough for action soon."
Yeah. Gabrielle let her eyes close in relief. Might as well take advantage of the quiet now. She let the soft crackle of the fire fade out, and left the pain behind, for a little while.
"Poor lass." Setha tensed her lips, as she straightened the furs about the limp form. "She took a bump to the head, as well…I hate to think of moving her all that way."
"No help for it." Aslanta remarked softly. "We’ll keep her safe, though, be sure of that." She gave the sleeping bard one last look, then left the tent, threading her way through the chaos towards a tall, furry form.
Jessan was standing next to his father, and two of Cirron’s soldiers as they faced a newly arrived messenger on horseback. Aslanta joined them just as the man was finishing his statement.
"So, as we said, we’ve got half the valley searching between here, and there, and no sign of her."
"No sign of who?" Aslanta asked, curiously. "Gabrielle? She’s here."
"Nah, lady." The man shook his head.
"Ye gods and tasty little squirrels." Lestan covered his eyes with one large hand. "We’re about to go to war, man… we don’t’ have time for this. How can you lose something that small?"
"Huh?" Aslanta tugged on Jessan’s fur. "Hey, fuzzbutt… who’s missing?"
Jessan sighed unhappily. "Dori."
"Dori?" Blond brows knit in puzzlement. "Isn’t that.. "
"Gabrielle and Xena’s daughter, yes." Jessan chewed the fur on his lower lip. "We have to find her."
"This is an army!" Lestan protested. "We don’t have time for babies!"
"We have time for this one." Jessan snapped back. "I’ll go." He strode off, dodging several moving wagons. Lestan sighed, and propped his one good fist against his hip.
"Should we tell Gabrielle?" Aslanta wondered. "She’s pretty sick as it is."
The mahogany eyes went very distant for a long moment. "No." Lestan decided. "Let my son handle this."
The first firebomb hit the ramparts just before moonrise. Xena heard the yell of alarm, and tucked the small book she'd been reading into her armor, before she bolted out of her tent and ran towards the wall. Torches were fluttering wildly in the breeze, and she could smell the scent of pitch on the wind as the darkness of the camp split open as fire spewed over the edge of the wall, trailing down the wall's interior surface.
"Be careful!" Xena yelled, her eyes widening. "That's Greek fire!"
Too late, one man found himself doused in it, and he rolled in agony as the substance burned through his skin and armor. The warrior reached him, yanking her cloak off and tossing it over his squirming form. "Wrap him up." She ordered a villager, who had been moving arrows up to the wall. "Don't try to put it ou with water! Dump mud on it!"
Grabbing a shovel, she demonstrated, scooping up a pile of dirt and tossing it on the burning spot, which smothered the flames. "Got it?"
"Got it!" Several of the men set to work putting out the fire and she leaped upward, pulling herself up onto the first platform to peer out the arrow slits.
It was dark outside, and even her excellent night vision, scanning from side to side, didn't detect even the slightest motion. She gave up on that, closing her eyes and cocking her head to one side, listening intently. Behind her she could clearly hear the river, and the sounds of her camp, but she cupped her hand around one ear and concentrated her attention outward, allowing the sounds around her to fade out of her consciousness.
Rustling. That was the grass, Xena knew. Soft sounds of nature she discarded, focusing in on the few noises remaining.
Creaking. Wood? Wheels? Leather? Rope. Xena nodded, as she recognized a catapult being cocked. She spread her nostrils and drew in a breath, catching the acrid scent of the fire, along with horses, and men, and the crushed green smell of the battered river grass they'd trampled. "They've got a siege engine out there." She yelled. "Watch out for more firebombs!"
"What is this stuff?" Toris gasped, thumping against the wall next to her.
"Keep it off the tents, and out of the hay." His sister replied tersely. "It's something that burns and burns.. you can't put it out." She heard the rising sound of the rope far off on the wind. "Get ready!!!"
Men and women ran back and forth, keeping clear of the open space behind the wall. "Get up against the platforms!" Xena instructed, standing up and motioning them close. "Hurry!"
Silence. Then a solid sound of wood hitting wood as the chocks were released, and the rumble and whoosh as the catapult released. "Here it comes!"
The firebomb hit the outside of the wall close by Xena's platform, and rolled back, setting the river grass alight outside the ramparts. With a satisifed hiss and crackle, the flames exploded upward, reaching eagerly for the thick foliage "Open the gate." Xena turned, and bolted for a small wagon set to one side, which had mud packed inside it to aid the bolstering of the walls. "Move it!"
Soldiers scrambled for the ropes, and worked the pulleys, moving the wall sections outward as their leader tossed a set of cart harness over one of the horses tethered nearby, and urged the animal over to the wagon. "Get some shovels… I need six people to come outside with me, and cover that damn grass!"
Six became a half legion, Xena swore, as she managed to get the horse attached to the cart and started leading him between the opening gates.
They'd just cleared the edges of them when her senses tingled, and she dropped the animals bridle, just in time to yank her sword from her sheath as two shadowy figures rose up directly in front of her, hands reaching for her in quicksilver motion.
"Any sign of Jessan?" Setha glanced up, replacing a cold cloth on Gabrielle's warm forehead. "We're going to have to move soon, and.. "
"I know." Aslanta glanced outside into the darkness, where the camp was already moving out, soldiers and supply people packed and ready. "How is she?"
Setha gazed down at the woman on the pallet. Gabrielle was resting on her side, her skin pale, save a flush around her cheeks. The pale hair appeared dull and her breathing was slightly labored, audible to the worried healer kneeling nearby. "Not good." She'd cleaned out the bard's wound again, and though the wicked slice appeared to be closing well, there was a dull red ring around the wound that had Setha very concerned indeed. "She's a tough kid, huh?"
Aslanta snorted softly. "Yeah." She exhaled. "I'll have them bring the wagon up here.. we'll carry her in that." She left, and Setha went back to her work, wiping off the bard's forehead gently.
What an odd mix, she mused silently, her eyes studying the bard's youthful face, with it's pale lashes, and cheeks still touched with a hint of childhood softness. She appeared barely an adult, but the hands resting on the bed were strong, and the body covered in warm furs showed evidence of hard, physical usage including a small scattering of thin, white scars.
She wondered if even half the stories she'd heard were true, about Gabrielle and her redoubtable partner Xena. "Hey." She gave the bard an encouraging smile, as the mist green eyes struggled open, to peer at her fuzzily. "How are you doing?"
The lashes closed, then flickered upward again. "Ow." Gabrielle murmured. "Wow, that hurts."
"I know." Setha agreed. "I have some herbs you can take now, since we have to move you soon. That'll help the pain."
"What is it?" The bard asked. "What kind of herbs?"
Setha named them promptly, surprised when Gabrielle nodded twice, then shook her head. "The first two are okay, I can't take the last one." She slowly pushed herself up onto an elbow. "I get sick from it." She pushed the pale hair back from her eyes. "Do you have any water?"
Setha handed it over, and watched as the bard sucked down fully three quarters of it's contents in slow, deliberate gulps. "You know the drill, I see."
Weary green eyes flicked to hers. "Oh yeah." Gabrielle let her hand drop with the waterskin to the pallet surface, and exhaled. "One of the first lessons I learned about healing… water counts." She smiled grimly. "On the inside, and on the outside."
The healer nodded. "You know your herbs too… where did you learn the craft?"
Setha looked very surprised. "Really?"
A nod. "She's a wonderful healer…. I've seen her save people you wouldn't think had a ghost of a chance." Gabrielle shifted a little, to get more comfortable, glad of a chance to speak about her partner's gentler side. "When I'm hurt, I know I'm all right as long as she's there."
"Did she take care of that wound of yours?"
Gabrielle nodded. "That really hurt.. but she said she wanted to make sure she cleaned it out really well." She winced, and touched the area. "Ow."
"It's pretty swollen." Setha murmured. "But she did a very good job.. I was really impressed. I had no idea it was Xena that did it.. I assumed…" She paused awkwardly. "I mean.."
"Most people do." The bard admitted. "I remember how surprised I was the first time…"
It had been barely a month after she'd started traveling with Xena. They'd made their way to the north, and were traveling through a sparsely wooded area with a lot of hills.
She'd been exhausted, and it had been late. She'd followed Argo's tall form with more guts than reason, forcing one foot ahead of the other until the footfalls had stopped and she'd almost crashed right into the now halted mare.
Xena had gotten down and started leading them off the trail, towards a spot she'd apparently picked, in utter silence.
Gabrielle had been far too tired to even care, it was a relief just to know that the warrior would stop moving soon, and that would give her an opportunity to sink down on the rock strewn ground and rest, while the evening's fire was being built.
Then she'd see what they had for dinner, but she always had those few minutes while Xena was collecting wood to recover her strength, and she'd learned to treasure the short times, wishing she could hoard them up for the long days traveling.
Tonight she'd been so grateful to see Xena dropping Argo's reins and starting off that she simply let her knees unlock, and thumped to the ground bonelessly.
Not realizing a broken limb was half hidden under the grass, with a sharp, hardened edge that rammed right through her thigh in a shock of pain that wrenched a scream from her, jerking her body violently.
She'd rolled half onto her side and grabbed the spot, her fingers encountering gnarled wood protruding from her flesh, the motion wringing another yelp.
Then a hand touched her shoulder. "What is it?" Xena's voice, low and impatient, as usual. "What did you do now?"
"I..I… " The pain was too much for her. Gabrielle found herself starting to cry, embarassed and ashamed, aware of the light sigh coming form her brusque companion. "My… leg, I .. "
"Hold still." Xena had gotten up and circled her, then knelt and moved aside the long, travel stained fabric of her skirt. Both dark eyebrows had lifted slightly at what she saw. "Damn….all right. Don't move."
Xena had gotten up, and walked away, leaving Gabrielle to wonder what she was going to do. She heard the scrape of metal on leather, and her heart had lurched, frightened that her unpredictable companion might use her big sword to do something drastic.
Like cut her leg off.
It had been getting dark, and Gabrielle had found herself shaking when she looked up to see Xena's tall, shadowy form moving towards her with menacing speed. "W… wh what are you going to d..do?"
The crunching footsteps stopped, and the warrior had dropped down to one knee, holding a leather bag in one hand, and her dagger in the other. She'd given Gabrielle a level stare. "Take that out of your leg… unless you'd rather I left it in."
"Oh." Gabrielle had murmured. "Is it going to hurt?"
Cold blue eyes regarded her. "Yes."
"Oh." Gabrielle had repeated, very softly, as her companion had opened up the bag, and dumped it's contents out. "What's that?"
"Never mind. Just roll over."
She had, but only partly, so she could watch Xena as she selected things, and fixed other things mysterious to the watching girls eyes. Then she'd felt a warmth along the back of her thigh, and had realized it was Xena's hand.
Her eyes had closed in reflex, a little surprised at the odd fluttering in her belly.
She'd felt a sharp jab, then her leg went numb.
She kept her eyes firmly closed, feeling only a sense of pressure, then a pulling. Xena had exhaled and shifted, leaning closer, and Gabrielle had cracked her lids open, to watch the sharp profile above her, the small muscles of her face moving as she concentrated. "What are you doing?"
Xena glared at her. "I thought I told you not to look."
"You said not to look at my leg.. you never said not to look at you."
Her lips had twitched, just a little. "I'm stitching up your leg."
"Really? I ddin't know you could do that." Beyond curiiosity, Gabrielle had craned her head to look, blinking when she'd seen the unbelieveable amount of blood covering her leg, her skirt, and Xena's long, powerful hands. "Oh… " She'd watched in fascination as Xena neatly sewed up the gash, feeling only tiny pricks as the slim bone needle pierced her flesh.
Then the warrior had put something on top of the spot, and covered it with a bandage. "Hold onto something."
"Why?" Gabrielle had asked.
Two jabs had been her answer, then her body had curled up in an agonized circle as the pain returned, wringing a helpless cry from her throat.
"Watch where you're sitting, next time." Xena told her roughly. "Here.. hold on to this and squeeze..it'll ease off in a minute."
She had, gripping tight as the jolts of pain slowly subsided to an aching burn, as she let her head rest against the leaves, her lungs full of the smell of blood, and rich earth. "Wow." She'd finally breathed. "That really hurt."
"I bet it did." Xena had remarked, dryly.
"Good thing you knew what to do… I didn't know you were a healer." Gabrielle had kept her eyes closed, aware of Xena's presence just behind her.
There had been a long silence. "When you've spent your whole life fighting… it pays to know how to sew yourself up." The warrior had finally said. "Don't do that again."
"Okay." Gabrielle had answered, chastened. "I'm sorry.. I know that must have seemed pretty stupid to you."
"Thanks for taking care of it." Gabrielle wondered briefly why Xena was still there. Normally the fidgety warrior wouldn't sit still for more than a few moments at a time. "I'll… crawl over and get some stuff out for dinner, if you want to go get the wood, I know you've got a lot of stuff to do."
"No, really… go on, Xena. I know I'm messing up your schedule."
Reluctantly, she'd looked up, over her shoulder to see shadowed, amused blue eyes looking back. "Yeah?"
A quirk. "You have to let go of my hand first."
Oh. Gabrielle had looked down where her fingers were still curled around the object she'd squeezed so hard, tucked against her breast, just over her heart. Embarassed, she unwound her grip hastily. "Sorry."
The hand slowly withdrew, pausing just for an instant to pat her shoulder, then Xena was gone, leaving a cold spot behind her.
Gabrielle smiled at the memory, then shook her head slightly. "Is it time to go?"
"They're bringing the wagon over, yes." Shalta nodded. "Do you think you can walk to it? If not, we'll get you carried."
The bard slowly swung her legs over the edge of the pallet and got up, reaching for her staff purely by reflex. The worn wood felt solid under her fingertips, and she leaned against the staff's support as she straightened her body a little at a time, finally standing upright. "I can make it." She told the healer. "Let's go." They moved out of the tent, Shalta holding onto Gabrielle's elbow lightly as they paused to let several large supply wagons move past them.
A shout rang through the motion, and Gabrielle's head snapped up, spotting the noises origin. "Aslanta!"
The Amazon Queen changed direction, and came loping over. "Gabrielle! It's good you're up. We've got some trouble.. that horse herder from Andreas' city finally showed her damn colors.. I knew she was no good. She took off with a string of the best horses… if she gets past the river.."
Gabrielle cursed, one of Xena's favorites that shocked both Healer and Amazon. "How long?"
Aslanta called over one of her warriors. "When did you discover the horsewoman gone?"
"Candlemark, maybe.. not longer." The woman replied, tersely. "Can't have gotten far, My Queen."
"We hope." Gabrielle ran a hand through her pale hair, shifting the strands into some order. " Take a hand of warriors, and find her, Eilion. Our best hope right now is surprise, and she has that in the palm of her hand."
"Which way do you think she went?" Aslanta wondered. "She'll make for the river, that's for sure. Alenas told me he overheard her bitching about how she wasn't getting her proper reward for those horses she brought."
Gabrielle thought hard, running over the local landscape she knew as well as the back of her hand. "The only place to ford the river on this side is Ares' Pass. " She pointed. "Otherwise it's ravines all the way down to Amphipolis. Send someone there.. and put out an alert to everyone to watch out for her."
"Yes, Queen Gabrielle." The Amazon saluted, then dashed off, calling over several of her mates.
Aslanta and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Where's Jessan?" The bard asked suddenly, feeling a prickle of unease.
Aslanta didn't answer.
The leaves closed over the momentary opening, and Dani pulled her head back, laying a hand over the nostrils of the stallion standing restlessly at her shoulder. She backed carefully, and started down a long path hidden from the road with the big horse at her side.
The mares followed him with out fuss, the sounds of their passing covered, and more than covered by the army's motion.
Dani chuckled softly. "C'mon, bucko… you and me are gonna make some money…all we gotta do is get over that damn river." She carefully lead the way downward, pausing from time to time to listen for followers, as she watched her horses' ears as they twitched from side to side.
"Stupid bastards… look what I did, hmm? I bring em five hundred horses.. do I even get a dinar? No.. all I get is being told what to do by a bunch of horny assed woman, and walking hairballs."
She shook her head in disgust.
Then she paused, and listened. A soft rustling was off to her right, and she froze, trying to figure out what it was.
Leaves, yes. A small animal, perhaps? It didn't sound large, and she relaxed, then patted her stallion's shoulder. "Wait here, bucko." She stepped silently off the path onto a pile of rocks, moving quickly over the surface on leather booted feet as she made her way between the trunks.
The sounds moved closer, now punctuated by small thuds, and the sharp crack of rock hitting rock, and her eyebrows creased, as she tried to figure out what animal could be making them. She got closer, and closer, moving among the leaves carefully, until she was outside a small cluster of bushes.
She put a hand out and moved the branches aside silently, poking her head into the clearing and glancing around.
The last thing she expected to see was a baby.
A very muddy baby, sitting in a pile of stripped leaves and having a wonderful time pulling apart a birds nest, scattering it's twigs over the ground and herself. "Bck."
"Hey." Dani snorted.
The baby's head turned, and pale green eyes peered curiously at her. A tiny finger pointed. "Guff!"
Dani smiled coldly. "Never mind horses… I just got me a lifetime meal ticket." She thrust her way through the leaves and approached the child. "C'mere, little rat… you and me are gonna be great friends."
The men were masked, and Xena could barely see the whites of their eyes behind the hoods as they came at her. She got her sword out and got the first blow blocked, shoving the man back. "Move the wagon behind me.!" She called out. "I'll hold em!" She heard the creak and felt the passage of the wooden vehicle at her back, as she swung her weapon in a wide arc, driving the shadowy figures before her. An ambush, of course, but she figured they didn't count on her to be the one leading the group out of the gate.
Six of them jumped on her, and she felt hands scrabbling over her armor, and the sharp jab as a dagger tried to find it's way under the thick leather plates. She slammed an elbow back and the pricking vanished. Another hand pulled at her chest armor, and she head butted in that direction, hearing a curse in response that brought a smile to her face.
Her legs shoved against the ground, and she powered upward, throwing off two more, then she got a hand on the persistent one, clinging to her back and trying…
She felt the cold metal touch her skin, with a ripple of dark desire that drove her, defenseless to her knees for a long moment. It reached out and took hold of her senses, letting loose the animal within her so quickly, she didn't have a chance to even try to prevent it. A roar burst from her chest, and she ripped around on one knee, the sword becoming an extention of her anger, cutting her assailant in half as a torrent of blood covered her upper torso.
And a curtain of the same red decended over her eyes, the scent of blood entering her lungs and ripping past the barriers of humanity that held her violence in check.
All she knew was the killing, and the smell of fear as her motions sped up, and her sword became a mere blur in the moonlight, decimating everything within her reach. Two shadowy figures tried to run, and she caught them with one hand, yanking them back and spitting them, then ripping their heads clean off their bodies and tossing them from her with a laugh.
It felt so wonderful. It was like being free, at last. Xena leaped forward, and searched for a new victim, finding it in three more figures who were heading towards the wagon. She pounced on them with glee, sheathing her sword and pulling her dagger instead, swiping her left hand in a vicious arc and letting the blade cleave it's way through flesh and bone. The man in her hands screamed, as she slashed across his face, then the noise ebbed into a gurgle as she used powerful fingers to yank the front of his throat, tearing his windbox out.
Another man tried to come to his rescue, stabbing at Xena with a long sword, but she merely batted it aside, and leaped for him, bearing him to the ground and landing atop his body, growling hidiously. He dropped his weapon and averted his face, as Xena's hands found his chest and tore his armor back, exposing flesh. She lifted her hands, and plunged the dagger downward, past his fluttering hands into a defenseless form, sending a spray of blood upward to spatter her liberally.
Mm. Xena licked her lips and laughed, then jerked the knife free and slashed his throat, just for the fun of it.
Yells interrupted her pleasure, and she looked up, annoyed, as the wagon crossed her vision, heading back to the gates. "It's out!" A voice called to her. "C'mon!"
Go back? Xena stood, her cloak swirling about her legs and let the wind drive against her face. No. It was a beautfiul night.. and there were lots of people out there yet left to kill.
She could smell them, just beyond the horizon.
She felt a weight around her neck, and knew it was Andreas gift, and the very thought stirred a deep, wordless pull that enticed her away from the river. Towards him.
Towards conquest. With Andreas and his army, she could take anything she wanted.
Xena took a step forward, away from the fort. Away from her home, and reached up to touch the gift.
Her fingers touched something else instead.
Smoothly faceted. Cool.
"Xena!" Toris yelled, from the gates. "C'mon!!!! Before they come back!!!"
Xena released the crystal, and put her hands on the necklace, feeling the gold links cold, and vibrant under her touch. Then she bent her head, and removed it, staring at it a long moment before opening her belt pouch, and putting it inside.
Her whole body was shaking.
Her whole world had just changed.
She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, before she reopened them, the red haze fading, and leaving her vision in a wash of silver and black, stark shadows under a round, wide eyed moon. She turned with great effort, strength leaving her like water shedding off her shoulders, and walked back towards the gates, passing between them and hearing the solid sound as they closed behind her.
"Xe!" Toris ran up and put a hand on her shoulder. "You all right? Thought they had you there for a minute… everything okay?"
Xena lifted her eyes and looked at her brother, his face and voice seemingly very far away. "I'm fine." She murmured. "I'll be right back." She edged away from him and somehow made it to her tent, letting the flap close behind her and leaving her in a barely candlelit darkness. Slowly, she went to her knees, and grabbed one of the basins she used for healing, and emptied her guts into it convulsively, only stopping when she was curled on her side in the dirt, her throat raw, and her hands white and trembling from gripping the basin.
She let it go, and slumped to the ground, staring dully ahead of her at the legs of the pallet, and the tiny grass tufts underneath it protected from the boots that flattened the rest of the tent's ground. "Gods." Wearily, she hauled herself to her feet and sat down on a small stool, resting her blood covered arms on her knees, and cradling her head in her hands.
"Get back here, you little…" Dani hissed, ducking under a branch and stumbling through a pile of loose rocks. "Hey!"
Dori ambled agilely through the underbrush, easily outpacing her larger follower due to the heavily overgrown foliage they were moving through. She turned and peeked through the leaves, giggling when she saw her new friend still chasing. "Goof!" She pointed, then toddled on, climbing over a rock, and sitting on it, then thumping to the ground and heading off towards the sound of water.
"Gods be damned to Hades and beyond." Dani cursed, as she loosened her overtunic from a thorn. "Little creep… get back here!" She was beginning to regret her decision to try and capture the tot, who had an almost unbelievable talent of escape. She'd left the horses on the path, and chased after her, sure she could grab the little monster in a few minutes.
That had turned into half a damn candlemark. Now, Dani wiped her brow with one arm, and peered through the leaves. She saw a flash of dusky skin, and groaned, then hurdled a low bush and headed for it.
Ah. Dori squirmed under a log, and investigated what she found there. Her fingers closed on a nice, fat worm, and she picked it up, peering at it with great interest. "Bck." She cocked her head, watching the worm curl up around her fingers. "Uggy." A tiny tongue poked out and she tossed the animal from her, then dug around in the leaf litter for a more appealing toy.
A rock. Dori considered this, then tossed it. A stick. She put that down quickly, since it had green things on it, and they smelled bad. "Uck." The leaves rustled nearby, and she looked up alertly, her eyes widening as a fuzzy object hopped closer to her. "Guff!"
The bunny, running from noises behind him, stopped short, and debated whether or not to approach the naked little noisy thing. The wind brought his twitching nostrils an acrid scent, though, and he decided to chance it. He hopped closer.
Dori waited, having learned the virtue of patience.
Another hop, and now the furry body was within her reach, and she made a grab for it, getting two handfuls of soft skin and fur and pulling hard. Ares usually lost handfuls of body hair at this point, but the bunny was far smaller than Dori, and found himself wrapped in a pair of strong, though small arms hearing weird, delighted gurgles in one cupped ear.
"Guff!" Dori squealed in delight, thrilled with her new toy. She scrambled unsteadily to her feet and looked around, spotting a tall body moving towards her, and ambled off in the other direction.
"I think you should go in the wagon." Shesta told Gabrielle, who was leaning on her staff, watching the last bit of packing. "You can't really help here."
"I think I"d better make sure Dani doesn’t get across the river." Gabrielle disagreed. "At this point, it could really mess things up… I can't take that chance." She held a hand up, and two soldiers trotted over. "Do you guys have a spare horse? I'd like to go out with the group hunting for Dani."
"Yes, ma'am." The younger of the two saluted respectfully. "I'll bring er up here for you."
"Gabrielle, you shouldn't be riding." The healer urged, insistently. "You're going to make that wound worse."
Green eyes pinned her. "If word gets across the river, my wound isn't going to matter." Gabrielle said, firmly, as she glanced up at the sky. The sun was setting, sending red tendrils of light through the leaves, which painted lurid spots on her own chest and the healer's shoulders. Most of the army had started down the valley, only a tiny guard were left, and her among them.
Gabrielle shifted, putting a little more weight on her staff as a jolt of pain wound it's way up her back to a spot between her shoulderblades, making her exhale in weary disgust. She pulled her hood up against the sharp, cold wind that had started blowing, and watched as the soldier returned, leading a gray mare, walking out of the mist left by the extinguished fires. He led a second horse on the other side, apparently his own by the tack.
The wagon looked so much more inviting. She cast an eye at it, then gathered her strength and started walking towards the horse, trying gingerly to stretch her sore back muscles out a little. It didn't do much good. "Thanks." She handed over her staff as she took the reins. "Hold this for a second, will you?"
"Sure." The soldier took the staff, with an almost reverent air, and studied it, his hands running up and down it's length as Gabrielle pulled herself up into the saddle, stifling a groan as her back touched the leather. With a tiny shake of her head, she settled her feet into the stirrups and gripped with her knees, taking some of the pressure off her tailbone. "Thank you." She reached a hand out for the staff, tucking it against her body in a comfortable, and familiar position.
"Glad to do it, ma'am.." The boy whispered, softly.
The bard leaned on her saddlebow. "Just Gabrielle, please?" She murmured. "What's your name?"
"Josh." He had dark, straight hair like Xena's, and even darker eyes. "Rest of the patrol's mounting up, ma…uh.. Gabrielle."
She gave him a smile, and his eyes dropped bashfully. "Thank you, Josh. Are you going with us?"
"Are you from Cirron?"
He shook his head.
"Y'know, I spent two whole years getting Xena to talk to me… I hope it doesn't take that long with you."
His head lifted, and he blinked at her, glancing around, then smiling. "Sorry… I'm a sheepherder.. we don’t' talk much." Josh explained, as he mounted his horse, a dun mare with an interesting white patch over one eye. "My parents were merchants.. they moved into Potadeia a year back."
Gabrielle's mood shifted. "Oh." She gazed at her saddlehorn. "I'm sorry."
"Me too." He agreed. "I was out with the sheep when the raiders came.. I ran back, but by the time I got into the town, things were over." His hands moved on the reins. "I'm real sorry about your pa… I know he was real fond of you."
Gabrielle was stunned into silence for a stretch of heartbeats. "Ah… thank you.. " Her tongue felt numb. "What makes you say he was, though?"
Josh nudged his horse closer. "He was talking with my folks… two.. three moons back, just after harvest started. They was asking him about Lila.. your sister?"
"You da was saying how she was a good sort, you know, nice and all, but that she didn't hold a patch on you." Josh spoke softly, casting a glance over his shoulder at the patrol that was closing in on them. "He said.. not many men had got to father heroes… and he was proud he'd been one that done that."
Gabrielle slowly let out a breath, aware of the harsh sting of tears in her eyes. "In his own way." She stated softly, after a few swallows. "He was a hero, too." A pause. "And in the end, I was proud of him."
"Gabrielle.. are you coming with us?" Aslanta queried, riding up next to her. "I thought you were heading out with the troops."
"I know the area the best." The bard cleared her throat, wiping at her eyes with the back of a gauntletted hand. "C'mon… I can take us through a shortcut to the river pass."
"You sure?" The Amazon Queen nudged closer. "Riding must hurt."
Gabrielle lifted her head, catching the last rays of the sun on her face. "I'll live… let's get moving." She paused, and peered around. "Aslanta, I've been trying to find Jessan.. did he go ahead with the troops?"
The bard's nape hairs lifted in pure response to the sudden tension around her. "Aslanta?" Her voice dropped an unconscious half octave, gaining a vibrance she'd learned to emulate from her soulmate.
"Um… let's get going.. I… " The Amazon glanced around, caught between not wanting to lie, and not wanting to tell the truth. "I think he's out scouting, or… something."
Gabrielle immediately straightened, and turned, shading her eyes. She sat up straight and took a deep breath, tensing her diaphram before yelling. "Lestan!"
"Lestan!" The bard repeated, her voice echoing powerfully. The tall forest dweller, already on the path down towards the river, pulled up and half turned, then spotted her. He called a command to the rider in front of him, then turned his mount and trotted back.
"Good to see you up and about, little sister." Lestan rumbled, handling his reins one handed, his crippled arm tucked neatly against his body. "Is there something amiss?"
"Where's Jess?" Gabrielle asked him directly, with a firm tone.
Lestan and Aslanta exchanged glances, and the Amazon lifted both hands in a helpless gesture. The forest dweller dropped his gaze, then exhaled. "He's out searching for Dori. She's missing." He replied crisply. "We got word that the wagon was attacked on the way to the valley.. they defeated the raiders, and killed.. or captured them, but when they… Gabrielle?"
The bard was staring straight ahead. "Oh gods."
"Gabrielle, he'll find her. He can sense her. You know that." Lestan told her gently.
"She wanted to come with me." Gabrielle whispered.
"Well then." Lestan rubbed his fanged jaw. "Perhaps she'll find you before he finds her."
"Gabrielle, why don't you stay here… and let us go after Dani?" Aslanta suggested. "I'm sure Jess will find her, and he'll bring her here.. back to you."
Xena had a habit. When she had no idea what to do, or if she had a hard decision to make, she'd turn her head and look out, away from whoever else was there, as though that gave her the space she needed to think in.
Gabrielle averted her gaze, and studied the dying sun, as the rocks nearby turned from crimson to purple with the twilight. Her mind knew finding and stopping Dani was the most important thing to do. Her heart was already out searching for her daughter.
Pity her head and her chest couldn’t belong to separate people. She looked back at Aslanta. "Let's get going. We find Dani, then I'm going to find my child." Her eyes shifted to Lestan. "If Jess comes back before I do, please have him wait here with Dori, okay?"
"All right, little sister." Lestan gave her a gentle look. "Take care… you are not well."
Gabrielle consciously set aside her darkest thoughts and, as she'd seen Xena do so many times before, ignored how she felt as she guided the patrol down a thickly overgrown path, ducking under the stiff branches, and pulling her cloak close about her body against the chill she could feel invading her bones.
"All right. You just hold still now." Dani panted, her hands wrapped around a squiggling, squirming, muddy, leaf covered body . "C'mon now."
"Bck!" Dori objected to the grip, and to the strange smell of the person who held her so roughly. She kicked out, and struggled, her brow contracting in anger. "Bad!"
"Shut up!" Dani shook her.
That made Dori really mad. She reached out tiny fists and struck at the horsewoman, twisting her body in Dani's grip and letting out a mad yell.
"Shh!" Dani let go with one hand and clapped her fingers over Dori's mouth, pulling them away a second later when the baby bit her. "Son of a Bacchae!" She drew her hand back and slapped Dori hard.
There was a moment of shocked silence, as big green eye blinked at her, then the tiny lungs inflated and Dori screamed at the top of her voice, producing a volume of sound incredible in such a small child.
Dani jumped, and dropped her in pure reflex, and the child tumbled to the ground, slamming against a branch and landing on the earth, briefly cutting off the sound and producing a harsh cough.
Dori lay there stunned for a moment, then started to cry in earnest, with tiny hiccups, obviously in pain.
"Stupid kid.. it's your own fault.." Dani glanced around then reached down, her fingers touching the child just as she heard a crack behind her.
Then a low, throaty, vicious growl.
She froze, then slowly turned her head, to see yellow eyes behind her, and the flash of very white teeth set in a solid black background. "Whoa…"
Ares lowered his head and growled again, moving forward stiff legged towards her. His lips writhed back from sharp fangs, and his ruff elevated, standing out from his skin like a porcupine's quills.
Dani lifted her hands and backed away. "Okay… okay.. look.. I'm not touching the little bastard…."
"Gworrll." Ares crouched, the volume of his snarls increasing along with Dori's crying.
"Will you two shut up!" Dani hissed, but she kept backing up. "You're gonna get us killed!"
Ares rushed her, and she turned, flailing her way through the trees and jumping over logs to escape. She kept running, sure she could hear the pounding of paws just behind her, until she turned a corner and paused to look back. "Damn." No wolf was there.
Relieved, she gave up her idea of kidnapping, and ran on, intending on circling back to where she'd left the horses and continuing on her way.
She never saw the hand that thrust itself from behind a tree, slamming into her throat and taking her down in a swirl of blackness, shot through with red.
Gabrielle heard the words, but it took long seconds for her brain to process them, and cause her to lift her head. "Yes?" She focused her eyes on Aslanta's face, and tried to feel alert. They'd been riding for over a candlemark, and it was now full dark as they approached the high river pass. "We're almost there."
"Do you think we'll find her here?"
Gabrielle leaned on her arms, her shoulders aching from bearing her weight during the ride. "I don't know… but if she's headed back the other way, I don't care… since she won't reach the lower road for at least a week… this will be over by then." She glanced over her shoulder. "And I know she can't be making for the Amphipolis ford… not unless she's scattered her marbles all over the Parthenon."
The Amazon nodded. "All right… we'll check the pass for traces.. then work our…. Gabrielle?" She shifted closer, squinting in the darkness. "Queen Gabrielle?"
The bard was sitting stock still, with a frozen expression on her face.
"Hold up!" Aslanta yelled, crowding her mare closer to their stricken leader. "Gabrielle!"
It was like having a wild animal crawl into her skull. Gabrielle clenched her fists on her saddle, bowing her head as a rush of dark energy swept through her. Helplessly, her body convulsed, and she toppled from the saddle, landing with a barely felt thump on the ground. She curled up into a ball and gasped, her fingers clutching at the ground with erratic twitches.
Josh and Aslanta threw themselves off their horses and dove for the fallen bard, grabbing hold of her and keeping her from thrashing around. "Good gods.. what's wrong with her!" Aslanta muttered. "She was just fine!"
Blood. Gabrielle could almost taste it. Her lungs filled with the stench, and she felt a deep, almost sexual pleasure rip through her as her hands closed around an invisible hilt, and her body twitched as she felt the hunger inside her rise up, demanding a kill.
She panicked, crying out and tucking her hands into her chest, wrapping her fingers into the cloak that covered her and grabbing at a sudden, heated weight in the hollow of her throat.
Her fingers touched crystal, and she knew where the darkness was coming from.
"Xena." Her throat shaped the word as though she were swallowing pebbles around it. She started to slide into hysteria, then hauled herself back into focus by an effort of pure will.
She needs me. Gabrielle went very still, and tightened her grip on the necklace, blocking out the fiery bloodlust . "Mine." Her mind whispered, between the thundering sounds of her own heartbeat. A breath.
Then, as though she'd snuffed a candle with her breath, it stopped.
The craving subsided. The need disspated, leaving her feeling sick, and empty, and shocked, a tendril of absolute horror stretching through the link she had with Xena, coming from the warrior, she realized numbly.
Her body relaxed, slumping to the ground as her rigid muscles loosened and left her shaking and weak in the dirt, trembling hands fluttering the leaves as her anxious companions crouched at her side.
"Gods." She breathed.
"Gabrielle… are you all right?" Aslanta's voice was sharp, and to the bard's sensitive ears, frightened.
She lifted her head very slowly, propping it up on one arm. "I think so."
"What happened?" Josh asked, wide eyed.
Gabrielle closed her eyes again, and timidly, sent a feeling of warmth in her partner's direction. She got back an echo of stark despair, that almost brought her to tears. "It's okay." The words leaked out. "Hold on… it's okay."
She wanted so badly to touch Xena. If she closed her eyes, she could form the image of her soulmate inside her mind, with it's dark hair, and haunted eyes. Instead of a touch, though, she sent what she could, given the painfully limited contact their link allowed.
The tent was dark and still.
Xena found herself unable to move, as she sat with her head in her hands, trying to absorb what had just happened to her.
Even sitting here, even with the necklace away from her, she could feel the pull.
Taste the blood on her tongue.
"No." She gasped softly, as a sob worked it's way up her throat. "No.. I'm not like that."
But the tears fell, because she knew it was a lie.
There had been no change. No atonement.
She felt the fires of Tartarus licking at her shoulders, and knew, in the depths of her soul, the truth of what she was.
She sat for a heartbeat, in perfect darkness. Outside, she heard the sounds of the catapult, starting up again, and dully she wondered why she should even care. Nothing she'd do would make a difference.. not for her, not for….
Xena's lips trembled. Her fingers shook as she reached up and curled them around the blood stained, dirt encrusted crystal still hanging from around her neck. She closed her eyes, though the darkness inside the tent made that superfluous, and through the stench of war a breath of clean air drifted.
A fingertip's brush against her cheek. The absolution of a kiss on her head, so real if she inhaled, she could taste Gabrielle's scent on the back of her tongue.
Her soul hung dangling.. suspended by the thinnest of white, glistening threads.
Ares snuffled at the noisy infant thrashing in the leaves. "Gwrof."
Dori ceased her screaming, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she caught her breath, Then she hiccuped, and started sobbing again, her whole body jerking with the sounds..
The wolf licked her face, cleaning the tears off, and making her splutter .
"Guff!" Dori clutched at the pink tongue and held it.
Ares whined. "Aoerf."
"Bad." Dori released her playmate's appendage and hiccuped. Ares resumed cleaning her off, licking her ears, then started down the chubby body.
"Mama." Dori warbled, forlornly. "Ow."
A loud noise made them look up. Ares whirled, and crouched over his charge, ruff bristling and fangs bared. "Ggrrrrrrwwwwww…."
"Grrwwrrrr." The tall, furry newcomer growled right back. "All right, fuzzy… just relax."
Dori blinked, and pointed. "Zusu!"
Jessan ambled forward cautiously, not wanting to get into a confrontation with the still bristling wolf. "Hey there, cute stuff…. You remember me, right?" The forest dweller eased to a sitting position, and extended a furry hand towards the baby. "Ares, don’t bite me, huh?"
"Growfl." The wolf reluctantly lowered his head, and sighed.
"Good boy." Jessan inched forward, and picked up Dori's battered and filthy form. "You know, you should have arranged for fur.. I think you hate clothes." He cradled the baby against one arm, and examined her anxiously. "Hey… what happened? Are you okay?"
Dori started crying softly.
"Oh." Jess's face tensed, his rounded, fur covered jaw shifting. "You're hurt." The baby had a large, mottled bruise spreading across her face, and an angry red mark along one arm. He touched the mark, and Dori howled, making Ares ruff stand straight on end. "Ooo… sorry." Jessan chewed his lower lip in consternation. "Okay… okay.. listen, I'm going to wrap you up, okay? Then I'm going to take you back to your mama."
The squeal cut off abruptly. "Mmm mama?" Dori hiccuped. "Go mama."
Jessan rocked her carefully in his huge arms. "Shh… yeah, we're gonna get you to mama… just take it easy, little one." Carefully, he removed the thick sack covering his crossbow's mechanism and gently eased it around Dori's body, moving her arm as little as possible. "You must be cold."
Dori seemed exhausted. Her cries had faded to fitful sobs, as she restlessly moved her head back and forth. "Mama."
"Soon." Jess tried to be soothing.
He smoothed the dark hair, and cradled Dori's head in one large palm as he let his eyes drift shut, and looked at her with Sight instead. Her silvery essesnce was muted, and he could just sense the pain the child was in, but stronger than that was the sadness that seemed to surround her. "C'mon, little one." He opened his golden eyes and stood, cradling her in the crook of one arm. "Time to go home."
The bushes across from them rustled, and he froze, then backed as three shadowy forms moved into the moonlight. Silver washed across the dark wood of raised crossbows, and the man closest to them casually thumbed the safety catch off the one he held pointed straight at Jessan's chest. "Put the child down."
The forest dweller let his lips part slightly, exposing his fangs. "No."
The crossbow fired, and he moved, not as fast as Xena would have, but fast enough to avoid the shaft that slid across the leather of his battlecoat and sunk itself into the tree behind him with an audible whack. His lips parted further, twitching up into a snarl. "One down."
"We don't want any argument with you, beast." The man told him softly. "Just put the child down, and you can go on your way…it's not much of a meal, after all."
Golden eyes shifted to Dori's face, then back to the man's. A tip of a crimson tongue appeared between Jess's teeth. "She's safer where she is….who are you?"
He moved further, and the moon revealed his surcoat. Jessan's eyes widened at the lion's head on his chest. Andreas men. He took a breath, and released it.
"That's not your affair… now, put the child down, or we'll take her, and you'll lose your life as well as your supper."
"All you see is an animal.. " Jessan breathed. "All right." Kneeling, he gently laid Dori on top of the leaves, and touched her head. "Be still, little one… and forgive me."
Then he turned, and lunged to his feet, spreading his arms wide and drawing in a rush of air, expelling it in a loud roar that shook the clearing The men jerked, raising their weapons, but he didn't give them a moments chance to use them. A leap, and his extended claws were sweeping across their bodies, the sharp edges catching in flesh and bone and ripping it apart as though they were well cooked rabbit.
He roared again, and his head darted sideways, to catch the leader's wrist in his teeth as the man tried to grab him. He closed his jaws and clamped them, feeling the bones crumple under the force. A wrench of his head pulled the hand from the arm, sending a spray of blood over his face.
The last of them screamed, and dropped his crossbow, bolting for the trees. Jessan pounced on him from behind and rode him to the earth, then grabbed his head and simply pulled backwards, snapping his neck and cutting off his yell in mid utterance.
Then it was quiet, save Dori's gurgles, and coughs.
Jessan stood up, flexing his hands and shaking them to get the shreds of flesh out from under his claws. "Ugh." Making a face, he spat a mouthful of bodyparts onto the ground and stuck his tongue out. "Hades.. I hate the taste of human." He sighed. "But this means Andreas has people over the river… and Xena has to know that." He wiped his hands on his dark blue trousers before he picked Dori up, gazing at her in concern. "You okay?"
"Bck." Dori poked her tongue out unhappily.
"Yeah." Jessan agreed. "I feel the same way." He tucked her safely between his elbow and ribs, and started off through the trees. Ares trotted after him, wrinkling his dark nose as he passed the three dead soldiers, stiffening in the moonlight.
Shesta eased a folded cloak under Gabrielle's head, as the bard was laid gently in the bed of the wagon. "Easy." She murmured to the soldier who had carried her over from the horse she'd been slung over. "What happened?"
"Damned if I know." Aslanta wiped her hands on her tunic. "No sign of that horsehandler, but as we got to the pass, the Queen had some kind of fit."
"A fit?" The healer looked up at her, sharply.
"Or something. She fell down off her horse and started convulsing… then she went out like a light." Aslanta gave the bard a worried look. "Is it that cut? I thought it was healing."
Shesta crawled up into the wagon. "Can you help me with this armor? I'm not sure how it comes off." The two women worked at the weathered buckles and eased the overlapping scales off Gabrielle's back, then the healer removed the bloodstained bandage underneath. "Hm."
The cut bisected Gabrielle's spine, neat, precise stitches holding it closed, allowing just a slight seepage to relieve the pressure inside. "Not as bad as it was." Shesta murmured, touching the skin with a finger. "That red ring is going down, also…no.. I don't think it was this."
Gabrielle stirred, perhaps feeling the touch, and her hands flexed weakly. "Umg."
"It's all right, Gabrielle." Aslanta put a hand on her shoulder. "You're safe here."
Her head felt like the inside of a burnt cooking pot. Gabrielle swallowed painfully, then raised herself a trifle and looked up. "Water?" A skin was handed to her, and she brought it to her lips with a shaky hand, sucking the moisture gratefully. Memories of what she'd felt such a short time ago lifted into her conscious mind, and she had to stop drinking, and swallow a few times to keep from throwing up. "How… long was I out?"
"Candlemark." Aslanta studied her. "Do you know what happened?"
Did she? Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. "I'm not sure." From Xena… she could only feel a dull quiet, as though the sheer intensity of their exchange had overloaded that sometimes fragile link they had between them. "Did we find Dani?"
"No." Aslanta shook her head. "I left a guard at the pass.. we wanted to get you back here. We didn't see any evidence of other traffic either." A shrug. "Maybe she headed out the back way… figured just to stay clear of trouble."
Gabrielle exhaled. "It's possible." She conceded, peering over the edge of the wagon. "Anyone hear from Jess?"
They were very quiet, and no one looked directly at her. The torches nearby fluttered fitfully, sending a wash of oil soot against her face. Gabrielle half turned and clutched the wagon side, her eyes searching the darkness around them with pained intensity.
"Gabrielle." Aslanta hesitated. "We need to get moving… the attack will have started on the river camp."
The bard rested her chin on the wood, feeling the rough texture against her skin, and smelling it's earthy scent. She knew Aslanta was right.
The greater good demanded that. She closed her eyes and wished she were someone else, in some other time, with nothing more critical to think about than where to find berries for dinner's dessert. "You go ahead." She spoke looking. "I'm going to wait here until Jess comes back."
"Just do it." Now the green eyes snapped open, visible in glints of ocher from the torchlight. "I'll catch up."
"You can't stay here by yourself." The Amazon Queen argued.
"I can't leave not knowing what happened to my daughter." Gabrielle answered back inflexibly, even though another impulse entirely was pulling her in the other direction, wanting so badly to find Xena.
Find out what happened, and make sure she was… Gabrielle inhaled. Safe. She sent a mental hug that way, then returned her eyes to the shadows, willing Jessan to walk out of them.
And so he did.
Between two trees, the darkness rippled and parted, torches sending flecks of light off golden toned fur spattered with something much more crimson.
The forest dweller came towards her, his eyes vibrant as they met hers, then shifted down to a small bundle carried in the crook of one arm. A tiny cry sounded. "Shh.." He crooned, as he came up next to them, Aslanta moving back to make room for him near the cart. "Here's your mama, little one."
Gabrielle forgot her back, and took the fitfully moving bundle. "Thank you, Jess."
"She's hurt." He told her. "Must have fallen, or something.. I can't tell. Her arm.. and.."
The bard had shifted, and one fo the soldiers brought a torch closer. "Oh…. " Her heart sank as she saw the ugly bruise covering one side of Dori's face. "Sweetie… what happened?"
"Mama." Dori blinked at her, through one swollen eye. "Mama…. " She started crying. "Mama…ow."
Gabrielle fell back into the straw, cradling Dori against her, curling up on her side and stroking her matted, and filthy hair gently. "It's okay…. "
Aslanta exhaled. "Let's get moving." She mounted her horse, and watched as Jessan climbed into the driver's seat of the wagon. "You fall into a mud pit?"
Wild, golden eyes flicked over her. "It's not mud." Jessan picked up the reins and slapped them over the cart horses backs, and the wagon moved out with a protesting creak as it followed the dimly seen ruts left in the army's path.
The wind blew over the river grass, bringing an acrid stench over the camp. A stretch before the ramparts was a smoking mass of mud, and for the time being, the catapult attacks had paused. Xena sat on the wall, staring out, her face expressionless and cold as she watched the most minute of shadows move in and out of the tiny slices of moonlight that peeked through gathering clouds.
She could hear the creak of harnesses, though. The soft footfalls of hoof muffled horses moving into position, preparing a cavalry charge against her forces.
She found it very hard to care.
"Yes." She kept looking out, her hands resting on the thick surface of the wall. Toris climbed up next to her, but she felt very remote even from him. "What do you want?"
Her brother rested his elbows on the wall. "You seem kinda quiet."
"Do I?" Xena murmured.
"Well, yeah." Toris straightened. "You okay?"
Xena turned her head and met his eyes, seeing him flinch as she did so. "They're going to attack. Probably in less than a quarter candlemark. See that everyone's ready."
"A… all right." Toris answered. "What kind of attack?"
"Horses." Xena told him shortly. "Probably flaming arrows. Keep everything wet. Keep mud ready."
He shifted, and started to turn, then paused, and put a hand on Xena's shoulder, on the thick armor plates with their ornate metalwork. "Be careful, sis."
Xena didn't respond. She merely stared at him until he removed his hand and started climbing down the wall. The moon came peeking out, splashing him with silver light, and he looked up, to see his sister's cloaked form standing menacingly over him.
Xena resumed her scan of the horizon. After a moment, her hackles pricked, and she stiffened, sensing a familiar presence behind her. "Hello, Ares." She felt him move closer.
"Well well." The low, lilting voice caressed her senses, touching chords in her that had been muted for years. "Now this is more likeit." A fingertip stroked the worked metal of her armor. "You look more like the Xena I remember."
I feel that way. Xena turned, and leaned against the wall, regarding him coolly. "What do you want?"
"You." The bearded lips tensed, then twitched into an appreciative smile. Their eyes met, then he indulged himself in a long, lingering exploration of her armor clad form. "Glad to see you got in touch with your inner animal, Xena."
"What do you want from me, Ares?" Her voice was low, and held a slight burr. She let herself return his lingering stare. "Getting bored with your little friend out there?" A hint of a smile. "Come to find the real thing?"
His eyes lit up from within, and he took a step closer, lifting a hand and brushing it's knuckles over her cheek. "I wonder if he has any idea what he's up against." Now it was Ares turn to smile. "He wants to own you, Xena… " The God of War tipped his head back and laughed. Xena joined him. Their tones matched as they shifted, and moved closer to each other.
"So." Xena let her chuckles peter out. "What's your game?"
Ares circled her, twitching her cloak straight, with an almost proprietary air. "He's not bad, Xena. Not in your league… but he's not bad."
"He wants to take Athens… I want him to take Athens.. he was doing a nice job of getting there.. until you stepped into the picture."
A dark brow cocked. "Sorry." Xena drawled softly.
"Oh.. that's all right." Ares caressed her cheek. "I was mad at first, but you know, Xena.. it's been so… " He waggled his fingers. "So satisfying for me to watching you tie him up in knots.. I"d forgotten just how good.. you really are.. when you put your mind to it."
"Mm." Xena reached out and played with a bit of his leather vest, watching him from under half lowered eyelids. "I had a good teacher."
Ares nostrils flared, and his eyes took on a flash of excitement. "You were my star pupil." He smiled.
Xena smiled back. "What do you want me to do?"
"Not that much." The tall god edged closer. "Just don't resist his army, Xena… let them win."
A brow lifted.
"Then.. once I kill him… we can meld his army, and yours… and head for Athens."
"Mm.. just you and me?" Xena asked, lightly. "Like the old days?"
Ares looked like he'd just won the keys to Zeus' private throne room on Mount Olympus. "That's it, Xena… c'mon. I felt it when you let go before… you want it. You know you do."
She did. Xena accepted that truth. With Andreas army, nothing could stop her. She could take it all, and as she breathed in that reality, it filled her with a buzzing pleasure. "That would work."
White teeth shone as Ares smiled. "So you'll do it?"
Xena smiled back, so close to him they could almost taste each other. "No." She puffed a breath at his chest, and stirred the dark, curling hairs.
"Great.. gre… what?" Ares frowned. "NO?"
A long finger poked him in the chest. "I don't roll over for anyone, Ares." Xena informed him. "Not even you."
Ares stepped back, and paced in a small circle, all he could on the tiny platform. "Don't be stupid, Xena… you can't win this war, you and I both know that." He told her.
"We'll see." Xena turned, and rested her hands on the wall, dismissing him.
The dark head nodded, just a little. "Good." Xena murmured. "It's about time."
He didn't know what to make of that. "You want to die?" He snorted. "And say goodbye forever to you little blond bimbo?"
Xena turned her head, and gazed levelly at him. "I'll take my chances."
Disgusted, he lifted his hands, and let them fall. "I don't get it, Xena. Why?"
The faintest smile crossed the ex warlord's face. "Because it's pissing you off." She turned, and her face took on a sad seriousness. "And because it's the right thing to do."
The God of War glared at her. "You're going to die by inches, Xena… no quick sword thrust for you. " He pointed at her. "And I'm going to make sure, before you die.. that you watch your precious bedmate skinned before your eyes." His hands moved in a blur, and she barely had time to dodge a fireball that flew over her right shoulder, licking against the mud malevolently. Then he sneered, and vanished with a popping sound, leaving behind the scent of crushed leaves and rusting armor.
Xena stared at the spot for a long time, before she allowed her body to lean back and relax, her hands shaking slightly as she reached up and tugged a small volume out from under her armor plates, finding a place in it, and turning the tan parchment page to the meager moonlight.
The moon moved in and out of the clouds, sending the wagon alternately into pools of light and shadow as they progressed steadily through the sparse trees. Jessan still drove the cart, his golden eyes roaming the path ahead, and his rounded ears swiveling back and forth. Aslanta and three other soldiers rode two and two on either side of the wagon, cloaks pulled around them to keep out the cold wind.
Gabrielle lay curled on her side, her head pillowed against a folded sack and one arm curled around Dori's body. She watched her daughter with half open eyes, glad the baby had finally fallen asleep. "Poor thing." The bard murmured, pushing a bit of dark hair out of the closed eyes. She'd carefully cleaned as much of the mud and dirt off Dori's body as she could, with Shesta's help, then the healer had examined the baby's injured arm and wrapped it in a neat bandage to hold it still.
It wasn't broken, she didn't think, but she wasn't sure. Gabrielle gazed at the visible bruising unhappily. "You think she fell?" She asked the healer softly.
Shesta had been unpacking something in her bags, and now she handed over a bit of waybread and cheese. "Here.. " She waited for Gabrielle to take the offering. "It's hard to say, your Majesty."
"Just Gabrielle, please." The bard interrupted her.
"Why?" Shesta asked.
The healer extended her body in the straw, and chewed on her own bread. "Why do you reject your rank like that?"
Gabrielle was silent for several heartbeats, a furrow appearing in the otherwise unlined skin of her forehead. "I don't know." She finally answered thoughtfully. "I just don't think of myself that way, I guess." She nibbled on the edge of the cheese. "I've never been comfortable with that kind of authority.. I leave that to Xena."
"Does she resent that? You're being the Queen?"
The bard paused, then shook her head back and forth a few times. "No." She took a sip of water, and wished the ride was over. "We don't compete with each other."
"Hm." The healer absorbed the answer, then changed the subject. "I'd say perhaps she hit herself against a rock.. or a tree, Gabrielle, to answer your question. I don't think falling would cause that bruise, especially.." Shesta put a careful fingertip against one of Dori's cheek. "See here? Almost looks like a handprint."
Gabrielle leaned over and studied the mark. "Handpr…" She started to say, puzzled, then her face tensed in anger. "Do you mean someone hit her?" She caught Aslanta moving closer out of the corner of her eye, the Amazon's head cocked in interest. "Jess?"
The forest dweller turned his head. "Hm?"
"Was she alone when you found her?" Gabrielle felt a sense of reluctant alertness stirring the dull fatigue that had settled over her.
"Ares was with her.. .but.. " Jess chewed his lower lip fur. "There were footsteps around… we've been tramping around through there, so I really didn't think about it." He continued. "I ran into three of Andreas soldiers just then. I was kinda busy."
Gabrielle sat up abruptly. "Andreas men? Here?"
"Not any more." Jess rasped quietly. "They looked like scouts… like they'd been living rough for a while." He made a face, his jaw shifting a little. "Hadn't had a bath recently."
The bard exhaled. "How many more are there?" She glanced out into the darkness, wishing the night were over. "Do you think they found the army?"
Jessan remained silent for a bit, then sighed. "They seemed more interested in the little one." He indicated Dori's sleeping form. "That's sort of cowardly, you know? What is it with you humans? My people would never target a child."
Dori stirred and her face scrunched up in discomfort. "Bck."
"Shh." Gabrielle tucked the soft cloth covering her in more snugly. "Go back to sleep, honey… it's okay." She really had no answer for Jessan, other than what she had learned of human nature over the years, of how taking advantage of weaknesses was a trait her race seemed to have developed, almost to an art form. After all, wasn't that what Xena herself was doing?
Would Xena target a child?
"Mama." Dori peered up at her unhappily. One hand lifted and pawed at her swollen face. "Ow."
Gabrielle caught the hand and held it. "No, honey… that'll just make it worse." She picked Dori up and cradled her as she started crying. "Shh… shh…. " The noise was loud in the darkness around them. "Here… you want a treat? Mommy has a honey ball for you."
She popped the sweet into Dori's mouth, and slid a hand under the rough fabric covering her, rubbing her belly gently.
"Gurk." Dori settled, seemingly comforted.
"Atta girl." The bard sighed, and leaned back, wincing herself as she straightened her cramped body. "How much longer?"
Aslanta stood in her stirrups, and grunted. "Candlemark and a half… that'll put our folks up just under the last ridge before the river valley." She sat back down. "Wonder how they're doing down there?"
I wonder too. Gabrielle continued her light rubbing, and watched her daughter's eyes droop. She'd discovered Dori's weak spot one night when the baby was more restless than usual, and in frustration, she'd tried the one thing that always worked on her much larger, often cranky and equally restless Boo.
Darned if it hadn't worked. Gabrielle stared moodily up at the clouds, which obscured the moon and threw her into darkness. Wish Xena were here now. Bet she could use a good belly rub.
"Get the archers on the ramparts!" Xena yelled, catching a flaming arrow and flinging it back in the other direction. She leaped from one platform to the next, dodging a thrown spear as she swung into position and grabbed a bow. She nocked an arrow and waited, seeing only flashes of fire in the night as the cavalry pounded by, sending fiery bolts their way. "Watch… "
The two soldiers next to her came close, their heavily armored bodies pressed against hers. "They've got a rhythm." Xena nodded her head in time with the running horse, barely seen in the fitful moonlight. "Baddabum…baddabum.. baddabum.. " She released the shaft, and it struck, a thwack they could hear, so close was the rider, and so powerful her draw. "Wait until they half stand to release the arrow - you can see the fire rise up."
"I get it." The taller of her two students nodded. "I see what you mean, genr'l."
"Good." Xena handed him the bow. "G'wan… stop those bastards."
"Yes, ma'am." The man agreed, moving to the edge of the wall. Xena leaped to the next platform, where two archers were already picking off attackers. She studied them, then turned and jumped off the wooden surface, flipping lazily before she landed on the muddy ground and strode through the rushing bodies crossing the area behind the wall. They were busy, yes.. but she sensed no panic, and no fear.
She turned, spotting the running figure coming for her. "What?"
"Toris says he thinks they've got a bunch trying to dig out near the west end… he can hear chopping." The man was one of Bennu's sergeants, a stolid, thickset man with grizzled red hair.
"Oh yeah?" Xena smiled. "All right." She circled him and broke into a run towards the spot, her cloak billowing out behind her. As the wall approached, she lengthened her stride and leaped, gaining a handhold on the squared end, where there was no platform to stand on. She scaled the inner wall and gained the top, then pulled herself up over the top and paused, peering into the murky darkness.
Ah. She could hear the sounds of chopping, and the mulchy scrape of a digging shovel. A dark shiver ran thorugh her, and she lifted herself up, vaulting over the wall and letting herself drop down to the ground in front of it.
No yells. No sound at all, save the whisper of steel against leather as she drew her sword and found her victims by instinct, a brush of hair against her hands giving her a neck to cleave being the first. The body slid out from under her and she took a short step forward, finding a second man there, unaware of her presence. Her dagger found his throat, releasing hot blood over her hands, and she stepped over his body as she found the main group of attackers, working steadily on the wall's surface. "Hi there, boys." Xena drawled, loud enough to carry over their furtive digging.
They jumped, and whirled, seeing only a menacing, caped shadow between them and safety. Xena lifted her blade, and the moonlight cooperated, flashing off it as she leaped forward and carved the closest one in half, sending an arm one way, and the head a second.
One man screamed.
The rest started running, trying to get away from her as she reached out and hauled them down, hacking and slashing her way through the confused group that stumbled into each other in pure, animal fear. "I don't like people messing up my walls…. " She lifted the last of them, and put his body up against the damp surface, glaring at him with feral intensity. "You got me?"
He messed himself, making her nose wrinkle. "You go back and tell them… anyone else tries this.. I'll rip their hearts out." With a grunt, Xena whirled and tossed him from her, over the bodies of his companions, and watched without compassion as he scrambled to his feet and ran blindly away.
Xena chuckled softly, then turned to examine the damage, touching the cuts in the wooden understructure. Satisified, she sheathed her sword and crouched, then leaped upwards and caught a scant handhold, just enough to allow her to swing a leg up and over the wall top, and lever herself over.
She dropped lightly to the ground on the other side, and brushed her hands off. "We need an archer platform there. "One hand grabbed a nearby soldier. "Get the supports up. I don't want that to happen again."
Toris appeared. "Did you get my message?"
"Alredy took care of it." Xena snapped back. "Get a revolving set of archers on the walls. They're doing this to wear us out… the frontal attack will come at dawn."
Her brother nodded and ran off.
Xena reviewed the defenses, as she wiped the drying blood off her hands and onto her cloak. She turned as her name was called again, this time from a different direction. Two of Bennu's men were coming her way, with a tall figure twisting between them, trying to get away. The warrior's eyebrows lifted as the torchlight neared, and she recognized the captive.
"What's going on?" She asked the closer of the two soldiers.
"We had word from the valley… this 'un'd decided to make tracks, with a couple of them horses." The man told her. "Found her trying to sneak out past the walls."
"I've had enough." Dani rasped. "I'm just trying to get outta here before I get killed." Her face was half covered with dried blood, and her eyes refused to meet Xena's colder ones. "That a crime?"
Xena studied her, analyzing the twitching hands, and the tic just to one side of her left eye. "Decided you don't like us, Dani?" The warrior asked, with deceptive mildness. A cheer went up from the walls, and she turned her head, to see a number of the archers pumping their fists in the air. She sent up a yell in answer, and they whistled back. She returned her attention to Dani and her captors. "Bring her inside." She motioned to the strategy tent nearby, it's flap hanging loosely and moving with the air.
Xena set the torch she'd picked up outside into it's sconce, and rounded the map table, now cleared of it's contents and presenting a nice flat surface. A wineskin hung on the support pole and she took it, uncapping the spout and taking a long swallow as the soldiers brought Dani inside, then braced to attention on either side of her.
The men obeyed without question, and Xena indulged herself in the sweetness of remembering how much she enjoyed that. She sucked another mouthful of the sweet wine, it's warmth hitting her empty stomach and starting a tingling fire almost immediately. "So."
Dani's eyes darted around the room.
"How much did you think he'd give you?"
"I don’t' know what you're talking about." Dani muttered.
"Sure you do." Xena perched on one corner of her table, letting an armored leg swing casually. "You figured to get over the river, and spill your guts to Andreas."
The horsewoman gave her a resentful look. "Not me. I just wanted out. I figured on getting rewarded by you for those horses, but all I got was a bunch of crap."
"You would have." Xena replied. "After the war."
Dani snorted. "Not good enough."
The warrior shrugged. "That's not my problem. " She got up and walked over, circling the other woman. "But you are a problem, aren't you? See, if you'd wanted to just get out.. you'd have run the other way, Dani… not towards the war.. away from it." Xena turned her back and went to a wooden press near the tent wall, working the puzzle lock in it's front and lifting the well made lid. She removed a bag from it, then let the top down again. "So, lemme ask you again. How much did you think you'd get?"
Dani folded her arms. "I dunno." Her eyes watched the armored form still turned away from her. "I didn't figure you'd be so relaxed about it." She went on, a curious note in her voice.
Xena tucked the bag under her armor and wandered back over to the table, perching on it's edge again and letting her hands rest on her thigh. "I'm a realist." A shrug. "I prefer not to buy my allegiences, but I'm not stupid enough to think I don't have to, sometimes." She let her eyes lift, and meet Dani's, releasing the reins on her personality a little. "He'd have killed you."
The tall, straw haired woman shifted. "Maybe." She managed a shrug.
"No maybe." Xena stood, and padded over to her. "He's not as… " White teeth flashed briefly. "Easygoing as I am." She tapped Dani's chest, and the woman jerked. "He'd remember who took those horses from him in the first place… and have you skinned alive."
Dani remained silent.
"So.. if all he lost was horses.. and I stood to lose the lives of a lot of people who mean a lot to me.. what should I do with you?" Xena asked softly. "To someone who'd sell out my soldiers for a few dinars."
With a flickering motion, the warrior caught her captive by the throat, and squeezed, smiling as Dani grabbed her wrist and tugged, to no avail. "Hmm?"
"Grrr." The tall woman wrenched her body back and forth, but it was like pulling on a tree, for all the effect it had on Xena's sturdy form. "Let me go!"
"No." Xena stepped forward, shoving her back and yanking her to one side, making her half stumble. "Why should I?"
"I can tell you stuff."
"You cant' tell me anything." Xena growled fiercely. "You've got nothing to buy your lousy life with."
Dani struggled frantically, but her throat was held in a grip of steel her fingers couldn't even budge. "Yeah? What bout your damned kid?"
Xena's demeanor went from fire to ice in a heartbeat. Her free hand flicked up and slammed a block in place, dropping Dani like a stone to the ground. She crouched next to her, and watched the woman struggle to breath, unable to move a muscle. "What about my kid?"
"L…let me go."
"Talk, or die." The warrior stated flatly. "You have thirty seconds."
Dani panted, and stared up at her, face writhing in fear. "Found her in the woods." She choked out.
"And?" Very soft words.
"Let me go!"
Cold blue eyes merely watched her.
"Stupid kid screamed so loud I left her."
A motion, and the block was released. Xena stood and walked to her table, leaning her fingers on it as her body started shaking in reaction. She listened to the gasps behind her and took several deep breaths, finding her newly black and white world suddenly full of slate grays. "Why was she screaming?" Xena turned, and pounced, lifting Dani up and throwing her across the tent. "What did you do to her?" Her voice dropped to a rough snarl, as she leaped on the woman, and pinned her to the ground.
"Nothing!" Dani screamed, her eyes bulging with fear.
"Liar." Xena leaned closer. "Tell me!"
Rapid panting breaths broke the silence for a moment. "I just slapped her around a little.. to get her to SHUT UP!" Dani howled. "Stupid little bitch!"
The blue eyes narrowed. "You hit my child?" She rasped.
"I'm sure it wasn't the first time." Dani spat, beyond caring. "She and that Amazon whore of yours must be used to it."
Xena slowly got to her feet, lifting the horse trainer with her. As though in a dream, she reached down and pulled her dagger from her boot, keeping her eyes on Dani's face, as the words filtered down through her conscious mind and spread their ugly understanding over her. "Did you kill her?"
"Wish I had." Dani laughed. "Smacked her against a tree, though… wanted to get her to shut up so I could take her over the river and get a good, good price."
Xena's arm slid forward, the dagger's blade penetrating her victim's stomach, and she jerked her hand right and left, cutting a gash in her body.
Then the warrior dropped the knife, and shifted her body violently, shoving her hand inside the cut. "Stupid." She wrenched upward with all her strength, breaking bones as her fingers severed veins and punctured the spongy tissue of Dani's lungs. The woman gasped, and choked, starting to shake as Xena's hand found her target.
And closed on it.
And squeezed, getting a grip and pulling back with a savage yank.
Dani collapsed with a grunt, her lifeless body falling at Xena's feet.
For a long moment the warrior stared dispassionately at her right hand, covered in crimson, that held a lump of flesh in it's palm.
The heart quivered, jerking slightly.
Xena let it fall soggily to rest on the body.
"Xena… " Toris brushed the flap aside and walked in, then froze in utter shock, staring at his sister with wide eyes. "Wh…" He took in Dani's bloody form, and Xena's equally bloody hands, and took a step back. "Dear gods… what in Hades is happening to you?"
Without a sound, Xena stepped over the dead body and walked past him, out of the tent and into the darkness beyond.
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, watching anxiously as Shesta changed the bandage on Dori's arm. They had reached the army's new position, and were now in the center of the camp, surrounded by tiny, smokeless fires over which troops hunkered, keeping voices low, and sharing rough travel rations.
"How is she?"
Shesta rewrapped the arm, and gave Dori's worried mother a smile. "She's going to be fine, Gabrielle… go get something hot to drink.. you look pretty wiped out."
"Mm." The bard eyed her sleepy daughter. "Okay… hey, sweetie..I'm going to get some dinner, you hungry?"
Dori sucked on a finger, and shifted restlessly.
Gabrielle sighed. "I'll be back." She turned and limped away from the hastily erected shelter the healers were clustered in, preparing herbs and bandages for the coming battle. She left the rich, spicy scent of their mixtures behind and moved through the flickering darkness, sensing the hundreds of forest dwellers, and Amazons, Centaurs, and soldiers around her.
She really had no intention of eating. Her stomach was balled up in a knot of such tension, even drinking water had been difficult, and her body ached with the strain of dealing with her injury, and the people around her, and the overwhelming worry gnawing at her guts regarding her soulmate.
Her name, called softly, caught her attention and she turned her head, to see Lestan approaching. She paused, and leaned on her staff as he came closer. "Hi."
The tall forest dweller put a hand on her shoulder. "I am glad that you are here, my friend. I was worried about you." He glanced over her shoulder. "And my son as well… I hear he fulfilled his task."
"Yes, he did." Gabrielle managed a smile. "We owe him a lot… I can't tell you how much."
The mahogany eyes twinkled gravely. "He will never think it's enough, no matter what." Lestan rumbled. "How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle gazed up at him tiredly. "Lousy." She admitted. "I'm really worried."
The bard nodded, her eyes heartsick. She put her free hand over her chest, and exhaled, trying to relieve some of the awful tension clamping down on her bones. "She's hurting."
Lestan pulled her into a hug. "I know." He murmured. "We all know." He could feel the strength under his hands, and wondered anew at this sometimes gentle, always courageous key to the fiery force leading them all. "Stay strong, little one… you hold the pieces in your hands."
Gabrielle exhaled, glad of his supporting arms. "Thanks." She gathered her strength and straightened up, pushing her hair back out of her eyes and stifling a yawn. "I was headed for some tea… would you like some?"
"Certainly." Lestan replied, padding along side her as they made their way towards the largest fire, where some of the support crew were ladling out mulled cider. "How is Dori?"
"She seems better." Gabrielle replied. "Though I… " Her head turned, and lifted, as a quiet sense of a familiar presence nudged her. She stopped walking, and searched the surrounding area, at last focusing her eyes on two large trees not very far away. "Ah… "
Lestan smiled, and patted her shoulder. "I did not expect this, but it is perhaps, a good thing." He turned and discretely left, leaving her to face that moonlight opening with a sense of pensive excitement.
Gabrielle moved towards the trees, and was halfway there before the light fractured, reflecting off a tall, cloaked form that paused on seeing her, and stopped, it's very body language showing a hesitance very uncharacteristic of her partner. "Xena?"
She saw the shoulders move, as though the warrior had taken a deep breath, then her soulmate walked to meet her. The bard knew something was very wrong, knew the waves of dark energy coming from Xena were dangerous, but she dropped her staff, and opened her arms, finding her way home regardless.
"Shh." Gabrielle followed her instincts. "Don't talk… don't think. Just let me hold onto you."
The heart under her ear was beating so fast, she couldn't distinguish the individual thumps. But after a moment, after Xena's arms had closed hesitantly over her and she'd leaned her weight against the warrior's sturdy form, the pounding started to slow a little. The armor moved under her cheek as Xena took a deep breath, then released it, warming the top of Gabrielle's head.
They stood like that while the moon slid back behind the clouds. "Thank you for coming." Gabrielle finally whispered. "I wanted to see you badly."
"Something's happened." The low voice murmured back. "Something horrible."
Gabrielle finally lifted her head and gazed up at the dimly seen features above her. She didn't know what she expected, feeling the darkness so close, and so pungent around her, but the planes and angles were familiar, and she winced a bit, to see the shadows under her soulmate's eyes. "To you?"
Xena's brows creased, then relaxed. "No.. it's Dori.. she never made it to the valley."
"I know." Gabrielle very gently pushed her soulmate towards a nearby boulder, in a small corner of the camp that was quiet, and almost private. "Sit down." Xena did, and she slid between the warrior's knees, lacing her fingers behind Xena's neck and allowing her thumbs to caress the soft skin of her cheek. "Jess found her."
Xena's eyes watched her intently. "Is…" The lips twitched.
"She's okay." Gabrielle told her, seeing the eyelids flutter closed, and feeling the sudden relaxation in the tense muscles under her wrists. "She's hurt.. we're not really sure what happened. She fell, or.."
"She was hit." Xena whispered. "And thrown against a tree."
Gabrielle sucked a breath in. "How do you know that, honey?"
Xena twitched at the endearment. "It was Dani. She told me."
The bard's nostrils flared, and her body stiffened. "Is she in your camp? Xena, I want to go there. I want.."
"She's dead." Xena's voice was flat. "I killed her."
They were both quiet after that. Gabrielle edged forward, and circled Xena's shoulders with both arms, feeling the warrior stiffen, then give in, and lean against her. She rubbed Xena's scalp, damp with the water she realized her partner had washed in before coming. Washing the blood off, the bard reasoned wanly, though she could still smell the scent of it on her cloak, and her leather armor. Oh Xena. Gabrielle felt warm fingers close on her knee, circling it and pulling her a tiny bit closer. "Well.. after I saw what Dori looked like,.. I might have too." She admitted. "The healer said she's all right.. but I'm really glad you're here, so you can make sure."
Xena exhaled shakily. "I don't think that's a good idea."
Gabrielle moved her touch down, starting a careful massage of the trembling neck muscles she felt under her fingertips. Xena was, she knew, on a razor's sharp edge. "They got to you, didn't they?" The faintest of nods answered her. "But you beat them."
The warrior shook her head. "You did." She spoke the words carefully.
Gabrielle accepted the statement, and bent her head, kissing the top of Xena's. "I always will." She said confidently. "Good is stronger than evil, Xena. Love is more powerful than hate…. I know it, you know it… they'll never defeat us."
Xena lifted her head, and their eyes met, searching each other intently. The warrior lifted a hand and pulled a small package out from under her armor, holding it out shakily. "Hold this."
Gabrielle accepted it, feeling the cold weight inside the soft fabric. "I felt them put this on you." She murmured. "Xena, let me come back there with you. There must be some other way to do this."
For a moment, she thought Xena was going to agree. The warrior let her head drop back against Gabrielle's chest and remained silent for a long time. Finally, she stirred. "The timing has to be perfect." Her hoarse voice hurt Gabrielle's ears. "And you're the only one I trust."
Gabrielle hugged her. "Come see Dori." She urged, seeing the start of a refusal. "You'd make me feel a lot better if you did… please?" She tipped Xena's chin up and wiped a bit of dust off the bridge of her nose. "We need you."
It seemed to be the right thing to say. Xena's expression softened, and a tiny glimmer of light appeared in the pale eyes.
But a profound sadness was there, as well. Gabrielle took her hand, and pulled, then wrapped an arm firmly around Xena's waist as the warrior stood up. She lead the way back to the healer's shelter, pushing the fabric aside as she slipped under, hearing Dori's fitful crying as she did so.
"Ah.. Gabrielle..I'm glad you came back." Shesta glanced at her, worriedly. "She's been very restless, I…." The healer's words trailed off as her eyes lifted past the bard's shoulder and she spotted the dark, menacing figure behind her. "Oh."
"Mama." Dori had spotted her, and reached out with her injured arm, her voice rising into a squeal as the pain increased. The torchlight made the bruises covering her face starkly evident, and Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of rage behind her, that almost perfectly matched her own feelings.
"Shh… honey, I'm here." She captured the baby's hands, and held them. "Don't move around, okay??" She felt a warmth behind her, then fingers clasped her shoulders as Xena peered over one of them. "Poor thing."
Dori hiccuped, then her eyes wandered up and spotted the newcomer. "Bbbbooo."
Gabrielle felt Xena's chest jerk and heard the slight click as her jaw muscles clamped down. She moved aside to let her partner closer. "See who's here to see you? Did you miss your Boo, huh?"
"Bbbbooo." Dori sniffled, then wriggled around on the linen, pulling a hand loose from her mother and reaching out for the warrior. "Gaboo."
Xena caught the small hand in hers, and held it. "Hey." She took a breath, then knelt, examining the baby's battered form Dori's left eye was almost swollen shut, and that side of her face was a dark purple. Xena could see the faint trail of rust from a tiny ear, and her heart sank as she touched the bandage on the baby's arm.
"Booo… " Dori plucked at Xena'a hand fitfully, and started to cry again. Gabrielle lifted her up, and deposited her in Xena's arms before the warrior could protest. "Xena, sit down over here for a few minutes.. maybe you can get her to go to sleep. I'll get you some meatrolls… go on."
"B…" Xena found herself being very gently, but persistently shoved backwards, and she managed to get her cloak out from under her feet before she felt a box hit her behind the knees, and sat down on it, Dori's warm body cradled in her grasp. "G…"
"Shh." Surprisingly, Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her on the lips. "I know you have to go. I'll be right back, I promise." She picked up her staff and limped out, motioning Shesta to follow her, and leaving Xena and the baby behind.
"Bck." Dori stopped crying, and nestled closer, grasping the hanging hood closure from Xena's cloak and putting it into her mouth. Her good eye watched the somber face above her, and she seemed to settle down, her restless kicking easing off as the warrior tickled her lightly. "Want Boo."
Xena felt the darkness fade a little. Her life had become a waking nightmare, but here, for a few minutes, she caught a glimmer of the recent past, which pushed aside the horrible knowledge she now had of what she was.
It didn't change the knowledge.
But her exhausted body craved a moment of peace, and the temptation to allow the present to slip a little was just too great. She focused her attention on Dori, and made a face at her, receiving a tiny smile in return.
"Is that safe?" Shesta asked, hesitatntly, as she kept pace with Gabrielle through the camp.
"Is what safe?" The bard was distracted, shocked at the condition her soulmate was in, and riffling through any possible ideas on what to do about it. "Walking in camp?"
"Leaving Dori with her."
Gabrielle stopped short, causing the healer to crash into her back. She turned and pinned Shesta with an angry look. "What exactly do you mean by that?"
Shesta took a step back. "No offense intended, Gabrielle. But that's a very small child, and she can get hurt very easily."
Pale green eyes stared at her. "Not in those hands, she can't."
"Gabrielle, forgive me, but is your judgement not clouded by your feelings?"
The bard straightened. "No." She turned, and limped on, her guts in turmoil.
Shesta watched the stiff back retreat, hesitating, then she turned and headed back the way she came, aiming her steps for the tent where her small patient was. As she reached the tent, she paused, hearing a sound within she wasn't expecting in the middle of an armed camp.
A low, very melodic voice shaped the words of an old herding song, accompanied by contented little gurgles. Curiously, Shesta eased her head inside the shelter, blinking in the torchlight before her eyes adjusted, and she could see the interior.
Xena was seated on the crate of supplies, armored legs pulled up cross-legged under her, with Dori cradled in her lap, both tiny hands clutched around the warrior's much larger one, little feet kicking out in idle contentment as she listened to the song. Her eyes were rivited on Xena's face, and the attention seemed to be reciprocated, since the warrior didn't as much as twitch on her entrance.
Stunned, she withdrew, settling on a rock outside the shelter to ponder, staying there until Gabrielle returned, with a skin slung over her shoulder and a packet tucked under one arm. By that time, the singing had faded, and she could only hear the soft flutter of the torch inside the shelter. "Gabrielle."
The younger woman stopped and eyed her.
Gabrielle studied her briefly. "No problem." She eased her sore body inside the shelter, and stopped, a smile crossing her face as she absorbed the scene before her. Xena was leaning back against the tree the tent shelter was tied to, with Dori cradled against her chest. The warrior's eyes were closed, and so were the infant's, both of them at peace, which Gabrielle was loath to disturb.
But Xena sensed her presence, and opened her eyes, blinking a dazed fogginess from them as they focused on the bard's face. "Hm. Didn't mean to do that."
"It's okay." Gabrielle rested both hands on her partner's knee. "You feeling a little better?"
Better? Xena considered the question. Certainly, she felt more… normal. "Yeah." She glanced down at Dori's slumbering form. "I"d better get back… I think we put them off for tonight, but… "
"Here." Gabrielle handed her a very large, still warm pocket of bread filled with sliced venison. "I've got some mulled cider in here, too." She handed over the skin, it's heated contents gurgling softly.
Xena accepted the sandwich, managing it with one hand while her other remained cradled around her daughter. She took a bite and chewed, then turned her attention to the woman standing next to her. "How's your back?"
"Eh." Gabrielle shrugged. "Hurts." She leaned on her staff. "Sitting hurts worse than standing, though."
"Mm." Xena took a sip of the hot cider, and washed her mouthful of venison down. Then she offered a bite of the sandwich to the bard. Neat, white teeth closed over the edge and severed it, as Gabrielle leaned against her shoulder. They shared the meal in silent companionship, only glancing up as Shesta reentered the shelter. Gabrielle fished in her pocket and produced a honey ball, which she popped into her partner's mouth, then drained the cider skin, putting it down and accepting Dori's sleeping body as Xena stood and flicked her cloak into place.
"Be careful." The warrior bent and kissed Dori's head, then lifted up a little and caught the bard's lips.
"You too." Gabrielle responded, giving her a smile as the warrior nodded in Shesta's direction, then ducked out the canvas flap and disappeared into the darkness.
Shesta watched the bard gently arrange the blanket around Dori, and noted the far more peaceful look about her, as she settled the baby into a small box they'd rigged up as a temporary cradle. "There's a pile of linens in the corner there, Gabrielle.. if you'd like to get a bit of sleep yourself."
Mm. Sleep. Gabrielle didn't argue. She picked up Dori's box and took it over to the spot, letting her tired body down into the thick linen and curling up on on side with her arm draped over Dori's bed. She put her head down, and tried to relax her body as much as she could.
Her thoughts followed Xena, though. Through the dark woods, and over the river, with half closed eyes she traveled at her soulmate's side, breathing the cold air and hearing the soft shift of Xena's armor as she rode. She could almost feel the warmth of the body ahead of her in the saddle, and the flutter of the heartbeat felt under the skin of her cheek.
Xena reentered the camp to find the activity muted, though the sentries were pacing nervously across the ramparts as they watched the long stretch of land before them. Soldiers were taking advantage of the quiet to snare what sleep they could, curled up under the platforms with weapons at hand, cloaks tucked over fully armored forms.
The sentries saluted her, stiffening into attention as she swept by, and she spared them a nod in return, and a wave of her hand. She made her way through the clusters of men to the her own tent, and ducked inside, stopping when she became aware of an occupant inside. "Toris."
Her brother was seated in front of the brazier, his drawn face tense in the meager light it provided. Xena took the other seat and wrapped her arms around her knees, returning his level stare. "Problem?"
"You tell me." Toris replied. "You're scaring the crap out of all of us, Xena."
"Am I?" A dark brow lifted. "This is a war, Toris. Not the harvest festival. What did you expect me to do, bake cookies for Andreas?"
Her brother scowled. "No,I don't expect that, but I do expect you to act like…" He hesitated.
"A human being?" Xena answered, very calmly.
Toris looked at the ground.
"You listen to me." Xena leaned forward. "I'm gonna do whatever I have to do to win this. If that means I act like a wild animal if it serves that purpose, then I will."
Blue eyes rose, and studied her intently. "Where were you?"
Xena blinked. "What?"
"Where were you? I looked for you for over two candlemarks… and I couldn't find you. Where did you go?"
The warrior rose, and removed her cloak, draping it over the pallet and fiddling with a bracer. "I went to check the valley forces."
Toris shifted, and audibly exhaled. "How's Gabrielle?"
"She's fine." Xena replied quietly.
Toris got up, then settled down on the pallet next to his sister. "You seem different now, since you came back."
For how long, Xena wondered. Until the next attack, when her instincts flared again, and the lure of her bloodlust took her over? The visit with her family had restored some of her balance, but she could feel the tiger padding about the edges of her senses, waiting. Her fingers twitched in reaction, curling their fingertips in search of a weapon. She settled her head in her hands, and scrubbed her temples. "Any sign of advance scouts?"
Toris accepted the change of subject. "No. We thought we saw a small force creeping up on the left hand side about a candlemark ago, but it turned out to be something else."
Xena rested her chin on her hands. "What?"
"We brought them inside the camp." Her brother advised. "No sense in letting lambchops run around on the battlefield for Andreas."
That got a brief smile from Xena. "Go get some rest, Toris."
He was silent for a beat. "Anything you need first?"
Xena shook her head.
Toris stood, and went to the tent opening, turning to look back at his sister. He opened his mouth to say something, then quietly closed it, and left.
For a few minutes, Xena just sat there. Then she straightened, and slid her boots out along the mud packed floor, gazing down at her leg armor with pensive eyes. Slowly, her hands lowered, and undid the straps under her knees, pulling the armor plates off and putting them to one side. She stripped of the rest of her armor and set it down, then stood up and removed her battle stained leathers, draping them over the edge of the pallet as she trudged over to the basin of cold water.
She flexed her hands, before she undid the buckles on her padded undershift, and removed it, letting the barely warmed air of the tent blow across her tired body. A piece of sea sponge rested next to the basin, which Xena lifted, and dunked in the cold water, then removed and started scrubbing the mud and worse off her skin. She added a bit of the spicy herbal soap and watched the water turn slowly from clear, to cloudy, to rust as she rinsed the sponge off repeatedly.
She stood for a moment before the brazier, letting the water dry against her skin before she pulled on her other undergarment, relishing the clean scent before she buckled the catches and slipped into her black leathers.
The heavy armor shifted into place, and she twitched at it, before she buckled down the straps that held it to her body, careful to position the back pad she'd added to cover the base of her spine.
One nightmare involving an injury rendering her helpless, and motionless had been more than enough. Xena fixed her shoulder strap, then sat down with her cleaning kit and pulled the first armor plate over, cleaning it meticulously and straightening an edge before she set it down and went on to the next. After the armor, she cleaned and sharpened her sword, putting a razor's edge on the double sided blade, then checking her scabbard, before going on to a careful polishing of the chakram, and the five daggers she wore into battle.
Then she packed up her kit, and tucked it into her saddlebag, and donned the armor.
Seated the weapons.
The cold metal warmed slowly against her body, and at last, all there was left to do was to sit, and wait. Xena settled in the chair closest to the brazier and stretched her legs out, smoothing the leather plates over her thighs absently. She let her hands rest in her lap, studying them in the low firelight. Tiny knicks and scrapes showed as dark lines against her skin and she turned the palms upward, examining the thick muscles covered with calluses. One fingertip traced a thin, almost invisible line across the opposite surface, stopping where the line stopped and pausing.
Xena curled both hands into fists, then pushed herself up out of the chair and stood, pacing around the interior of the small tent.
It was too quiet. She looked around. Too empty. Xena walked to the tent flap and edged out into the cold air. She didn't want to be alone. So she walked out across the churned, beaten ground, past curled figures whose eyes slitted open and followed her, to the defensive wall. She climbed up to the highest point, her profile breaking the skyline as she seated herself by the archer guard, who watched her with wide eyes.
Xena tucked her cloak around her and gave them a nod, before she leaned back and turned her face outward, waiting for the dawn.
Continued in Part 25