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 25
By Melissa Good
The drumming came out of the fog, preceding the sunrise in a rush of wild yells.
"Steady." Xena boomed, from her position on the center platform of the defenses. The archers fidgeted, raising bows and peering into the mist, unable to see anything concrete enough to shoot at.
"They coming right for us?" Toris hissed, kneeling next to her.
It was eerie, and frightening, all that sound coming at them. Xena lifted her body up a little and cocked her head to one side. "All right! They'll be coming in a sweep!" She circled her sword arm in an arc. "Past the walls. Let em come, let em throw what they got, then fire… hear me!?"
"How do you know that?" Toris rasped.
Xena looked at him.
"The same way I know if you don't shut up I'm going to toss you over the wall."
Xena turned and concentrated, as the horses grew louder and louder, and she detected the faint hiss of arrows falling short of their target. "Here they come!" She tapped Toris' shoulder "I need six archers, to aim at the trenches."
"Okay." Her brother jumped to the next platform, and grabbed two shoulders. "With arrows?" He yelled back across to Xena.
"Flaming ones." The warrior replied, leaning over the wall and peering down through the fog at the dimly seen trenchworks dug in neat rows before the walls, to deny Andreas men footing, and provide a few surprises of their own. She shifted, and her hand flicked up, capturing an arrow in it's grasp. Curiously, she sniffed the tip. "Keep your heads down… they've got poison on the tips." She called out, nodding as she heard the warning passed down the ranks.
"Shoot now?" Toris asked.
"Not yet." Xena remained impassive, listening to the oncoming attack. Arrows bounced off the walls near her, sending pocks of mud to skip off her skin.
"Xena!" Toris ducked, as two arrows nearly spit him.
"Steady." The warrior lifted her hand, as the gray fog lightened with the coming sunrise. A large rock smacked into the wall next to her, and bounced off her leg. She ignored it. The missles came fast and furious now, pouring out of the mist in a frightening wave that bounded over the edge of the wall, and started doing real damage.
Xena rose up, and lifted her sword, eyes alight and watching, body moving with short, instictive motions to evade the hail of arrows and shot that pinpointed her. The thunder of hooves was deafening now, and suddenly, a fireball broke through, hitting the top of the wall and bouncing over, it's flame undimmed as it traveled it's way down the platforms, setting anything it touched ablaze.
One of the soldiers caught it, and screamed as his shirt caught fire, dropping the fireball. His nearest neighbor shoved him off the platform, into the muddy ground below, and yelled at him to roll in the stuff.
Xena waited. Parts of the wall started to crumble under the onslaught, but she remained still, now able to see the black forms of the horsemen rushing towards them.
Then a soft breeze puffed at her back, lifting her dark hair and brushing it across her eyes. "Now!" She swept her arm down, then sheathed her sword, picking up her bow and nocking an arrow. She held the tip in the torch nearby, then aimed at the nearest of the trenches, and fired.
Six others followed her lead, sending flaming arrows into the dirt, all down the walls. The trench ignited, and as they watched, a soft yellow haze began to rise up, mingling with the fog as the leading edge of the enemy riders reached them, and started their sweep across the front of the battlements.
The yellow smoke lifted, making the horses sneeze, then rear, and in the space of a moment, the orderly charge was thrown into disarray, as men threw their arms up, arrows going astray as they found their eyes filled with tears, and their lungs filled with something worse.
"Now." Xena yelled, picking her first target, and efficently placing an arrow in the center of his neck. She smiled, then pulled a second shaft from metal stand jammed near her right boot, and shot again. The twang of strings traveled down the walls, as the roughly three hundred archers shot through the misty air, aiming for the dark confusion barreling down on them.
Screams, of humans and horses sounded, then the front row barreled into the second set of trenches, and the screaming began in earnest.
Pointed sticks would have been too easy. Xena aimed and fired, and jerked her body to one side as a crossbowman returned the compliment. But long, twined ropes of dried river thorns, three inches long and tough and bone with barbs to rip open flesh worked well.
A horn sounded.
The fog roiled, dark forms emerging and disaapearing in a whirl of confusion as Xena's archers kept firing.
Then the drumming started again, this time in reverse, as the pounding hooves turned, and retreated, sending gusts of white and yellow air to mix in the wan, barely penetrating dawn light.
"Stand down!" Xena ordered, turning her head aside as a snatch of sulpherous air drifted past her. The cries faded, and she stood quietly, her hand wrapped around the solid, warm wood of her longbow as the sun gently nudged the thick fog aside, it's golden tinged white fading to reveal the now silent field before the wall.
What appeared at first like hummocks of mud resolved into the slumped bodies of men and horses, some struggling faintly, most lying still and outflung in death. Xena mentally counted, then turned, and leaped off her platform, landing in the mud and striding over to the gates. She motioined over a squad of waiting warriors. "Get two hitched sets of horses, and the reeving hooks, and follow me."
They obeyed in puzzled silence, as she led them to the gates, and signaled the two burly militia to open them. "We're gonna drag the bodies to the river… I don't want them stinking up the place." She ordered. "Wrap your shirts around your mouths.. don't breath the yellow stuff."
The gates opened, and Xena pointed at a second squad of warriors. "Come with me.. we'll stay on guard."
Backs stiffened in reflex. "Yes, ma'am." The fighters clustered around her eagerly, drawing their weapons as she strode out of the gates and moved cautiously onto the field of battle. They set to work dragging off the dead soldiers and their horses, while Xena examined the trenches. "Hold it." She hopped out of a trench, a longsword held gripped in one hand. "Take their weapons, and those damn surcoats."
Xena collected the cloth and steel from them. "All right… g'wan." She let them continue, then strode over to the wall, and took the first bloodstained surcoat, nailing it into the packed mud and wood with a salvaged dagger. It fluttered there forlornly, and she smiled at it before she moved onto the next one. When she was done, over a hundred surcoats decorated the wall, and she glanced alertly out across the grass, hearing the far off sound of motion. "Everyone inside!"
"Xena!" Toris was kneeling on the ground. "What about the wounded?"
Cold blue eyes regarded him. "They're not my wounded. Kill them."
"Xena… " Her brother stared.
"It's a kinder death than leaving them out here, Toris. Think about it." Xena replied, drawing her boot dagger. "Go inside."
Toris glanced down at the feebly moving man near his knee, and visibly drew a breath. Then he jerked his knife out and stabbed down quickly, and brutally, as the body seized in his grip, and shuddered, then relaxed.
He stood, and wiped his knife off, then turned and walked away, refusing to look at her.
"The battle started." Jessan was hunkered down near the soggy leaves, only his round ears swiveling to catch the slightest sound. All around him, the rest of the forest dwellers were doing the same, in an attitude of patient waiting.
"I know." Gabrielle was seated on a woven fletch, jammed between two closely grown trees that formed a protected shelter for her from the light mist. She could feel the dark excitement through her link with Xena, and the jolts of almost sexual thrill were making her slightly sick to her stomach. "I wish I could see what's happening."
"Well, that would kinda defeat the purpose." Jess reminded her, squeezing her foot gently. "How's Dori?"
The bard checked the basket resting at her side, liberated from some storeroom and lined with bits of scrounged cloth. Dori was tucked inside, sucking drowsily on her thumb. "Quieter, today… I gave her some of the stuff Xena gave me when I cracked my ribs.. I think it's helping her owie."
A russet eyebrow lifted. "Her what?"
Gabrielle rubbed her jaw. "Her arm…sorry. I get stuck in baby speak sometimes." She turned the baby's head to one side, and winced at the darkly visible bruising across Dori's face. "How could someone… " Then her voice fell away.
"How could any hit a bitty boo like that?" Jess murmured. "You humans… I don't understand you sometimes." A pause. "Okay, lots of times."
"I don't know." Gabrielle sighed. "There are so many times I wanted to ask my father that." She admitted. "Why." She played with Dori's toes, peeking out from under the blanket. "Xena told me once that when someone strong hurts someone so much weaker than they are, it's because they hate themselves, and this is their way of making themselves feel better."
Jessan thought about that. "Ew." He scrunched his face up. "But what does that have to do with your father?"
The bard rested her head against the nearby tree, and gazed down at her daughter. "At least the person who hit her, was a stranger." She smiled sadly at Dori, who blinked at her, and blew a bubble. "Not someone she trusted."
Jessan's golden eyes widened as he regarded his friend. "Oh."
Oh. Gabrielle felt the disquiet in her guts settle, and she spared quiet moment to remember a day months back.
"Dori!" She'd yelled, for the nth time as the toddler lived up to her title and toddled right into the low table she was trying to sort scrolls on. The rolled packages spilled off the surface, and Dori sat happily among them, shoving them around like toy horse carts. "Gods… Dori, stop that."
The door had opened, and Xena had slipped in, hanging her cape up and shaking her head to rid it of the thick, fragrant rain drops from the storm outside. "Hey you two."
"Ugh." Gabrielle had crawled across the floor, gathering in scrolls. "She's being very rambunctious this morning."
"Oh yeah?" Xena had dropped to the floor of the cabin, and stretched her legs out, holding her hands towards Dori. "C'mere, tiny terror tot."
"Boo!" Dori had immediately abandoned her scroll trucks and made a beeline for her favorite toy, ambling over and thumping into Xena, then starting to climb up her tunic with determined grunts. "Good!"
Xena had laughed, and leaned back, making the task easier, her arms wrapping around Dori protectively as the baby climbed. "Where're you going?"
"Bck." Dori had achieved her goal, and loosened one hand, whapping at Xena with it with gusto.
"Hey." The warrior caught the hand. "No hitting. That's bad."
Dori had scowled, and tried to tug her hand free. "Go!"
"Dori." Xena's voice had dropped in warning. "I said, no. That's bad."
Gabrielle had watched the two, Xena's intense eyes locked with her daughter no less vivid ones. "Xena, she's only a baby.. she doesn't understand."
"Sure she does." Xena had replied. "If someone had told me hitting was bad at her age, maybe I wouldn't have turned out the way I did." And then she'd looked up at Gabrielle. ""I want her to know there's always a better way." A slight pause. "Your way."
My way. Gabrielle sighed. I wish I had as clear an idea of what that is as you seem to, Xena. She looked up as footsteps approached, and recognized Aslanta's tall form approaching. The Amazon queen looked very grim, and her hands were flexing into fists as she ducked around Jessan's kneeling form and faced Gabrielle.
Uh oh. "What is it?" The bard felt her senses come alert, at the very visible tension.
"The guard we left at the pass… one of them just came crawling into camp. They are all dead." Aslanta took a breath. "Save the one. Slaughtered by a fierce warrior, dressed in black."
Gabrielle hauled herself to her feet. "We've got to get word to Xena." She decided, crisply. "I'll need a fast runner."
"Gabrielle.." The tall blond woman hesitated.
"Aslanta, she's got to know if someone's gotten back to Andreas."
"The survivor says the warrior came over the pass from Andreas army." Aslanta told her. "Heading this way." She lifted her hands. "But we don't know why."
Jessan slowly rose, and moved closer to Gabrielle and Dori. "I can guess why." The forest dweller rumbled. "I'll warn the guards.. Gabrielle, please stay here. I'll be right back." Ducking under a branch, he disappeared, leaving the two women facing each other.
Aslanta took a breath to speak.
And an arrow stopped it, sending a spurt of blood out over the grass and causing the Amazon to crumple to the ground in shock, her hands fluttering towards her throat as she died.
Gabrielle whirled, one hand going to her staff, the other to her belt dagger, as she put herself between the unseen attacker, and Dori. Her eyes searched the trees, and suddenly she froze, as two cool, gray spots met her gaze. With a ripple of motion, a lithe body dropped out of the trees, and padded towards her with an animal intentness, a faint smile playing over a pair of very handsome lips framed in a neat black beard.
Gabrielle moved her staff to a guard position, and decided on the better part of valor. She opened her mouth, sucked in a lungful of air and yelled at the top of her lungs.
The man lunged for her. He caught her staff and jerked it from her hands, tossing it to one side then reaching for her in a quick, angry motion.
"How many did we lose?" Andreas sat on a boulder, his hands folded in his lap. The lieutenant facing him licked his lips nervously, and shifted a little, moving back a step before he answered.
"I… I would think a.. a hundred, m'lord." The man got the words out in a rush. "It started out well, we got almost up to the walls in the fog, but…"
"But?" Andreas asked, gently.
"They set something afire, it got in our eyes." The soldier admitted. "It was so painful, we lost our bearings."
"Hm." Andreas stood up and dusted his fingers off. "Was it bluish?" He selected a dagger, and cleaned a fingernail.
"N..no. .Yellow." The man answered. "It stank."
"Like rotten hen's eggs?"
"Yes, yes, m'lord, Exactly." The soldier nodded. "Many of the men who came back, are sick from it."
"Interesting." Andreas mused. "How could she be sure it would not kill her men, as well, I wonder? Hmm?" He stuck his index finger in his mouth and held it up. "Ah… the wind has shifted.. it was calm earlier." He nodded slowly. "She must have waited for the dawn, and the air to move… chancing it would move in her favor."
The soldier blinked, clearly out of his league. "Yes, m'lord." He answered simply. Around them, orderly action bustled as the legions regrouped, and prepared for another assault. Two teams were guiding oxen, pulling large siege engines, and several mounted and armored squads were preparing to ride out.
"M'lord." A taller, older man approached, and saluted respectfully. "You asked to see me?"
"Devon." Andreas exhaled. "Tell me again what you saw?"
Devon braced, placing his hands carefully behind his armored back. "With the necklace, m'lord?"
A breath. "I saw Eldritch put it in her, sir."
"Aye, m'lord. Very sure." Devon nodded solemnly. "Because then, it was as though… " He hesitated. "She is formidible warrior, m'lord, but at that time, whole legions would have fallen to her."
"Hm." Andreas stroked his beard. "Why then is she still fighting me? It should have brought her out to us like a child unable to resist candy, so bad is the craving, and I know she feels it." His pale eyes narrowed. "I feel her."
Devon's heavy brow creased. "M'lord… perhaps it is the storyteller? Remember what the Amazon told us?"
"The storyteller." Andreas growled softly. "Why is it I am plagued with storytellers? I should have cut the tongue out of all I found." He stretched. "Perhaps. I have sent my Hound to remove that particular possibility, since we know now where their reserve force is."
"Tis but a small one."
"Mm… villagers and Amazons, yes." Andreas nodded. "No matter." He turned and gestured. "Let loose the catapults. I want those walls down before noon." Briskly, he walked over to the mounted troops. "Ride out to the pass, and secure it. Kill anyone you find."
"Yes, m'lord." The lead rider saluted briskly, and motioned his forces to get underway.
A creak caused Andreas to turn his head, observing as the catapult was slowly wound back. The foot soldiers shifted impatiently, eager to join the battle as they straightened neatly made armor, and honed well kept weapons.
Gabrielle twisted to one side, and ducked his grasp, then got her bearings and dodged, getting around behind him and giving him a shove. "Hey!"
The warrior turned with her, ignoring the push and closing the distance between them, pushing past her hands and grabbing her body. He slammed her against the nearest tree, then shoved her down and knelt over her, drawing a long knife.
Gabrielle blinked the stars from her eyes and tried to get up, but he was far too heavy for her to throw off. His knees shifted and pinned her arms down, and for a few heartbeats, they stared at each other, breathing puffs of vapor in the cold air.
Oh gods. Gabrielle could read her death in his eyes, as the knife lifted. She heard Dori cry out fitfully, and realized she'd never hear that sound again. It made her angry, and her instincts flared, bringing back flickering memories of her first years with Xena.
My way? Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "What are you doing?" She asked firmly, meeting his eyes with quiet courage.
The knife quivered, but paused. "Killing you." The man answered, his voice low and melodic, with a faint accent Gabrielle couldn't quite place.
He laughed. "Because my master wishes it." The knife moved downward. "I will be quick."
"Your master is Andreas?" Gabrielle felt her heartbeat start racing.
Another pause. "Of course." The knife touched her throat, cutting into it lightly. "Be still now."
The pain lanced through her. "Funny." The bard's voice went a little hoarse. "You don't look like the kind of man who bends his knee to a coward." She heard a faint sound behind her, and edged her eyes just past her attacker's shoulder, where furious gold ones glared back at her. She lifted a finger in warning, as the knife point sank deeper, thirsting after her jugular pumping hard against her skin.
The gray eyes glinted, but the blade slowed it's progress. "You mock him."
"I do." Gabrielle replied. "I despise anyone who sends dirty assasins to kill women and children." She kept her voice clear and firm, and refused to loose her eye lock on his. "Don't you?"
He shifted his hand on his weapon, watching the rich, red blood pool in the hollow of Gabrielle's throat. "You are no innocent."
"That's true." Came the ready admission. "But I didn't start this war." Gabrielle went on. "And all I want out of it is to watch my daughter grow up."
Dori let out a cry, and the basket she was in rocked a bit. A tiny fist waved over the edge of the woven side in visible protest.
"Andreas does not wish to kill children and mothers." The man told her softly. "He only wants to protect them." His grip on her cloak loosened slightly, and he tilted his head.
"Then what are you doing here, slitting my throat?" Gabrielle said.
"You are not…"
A fair brow tilted. "A woman?" Gabrielle glanced down at herself, then up at him, allowing the tiniest of smiles to pull her lips up. "If you pull off enough layers, I am." She watched his face shift. "Now, the way I see it, you've got two choices. You can either finish what you started, and butcher me in cold blood in front of my baby, or you can get off me, and we can talk."
"You do not understand what you ask." The warrior said.
"I understand that we all have to live with our choices." Gabrielle replied firmly. "And that no one can make them for us." She captured his eyes again. "So choose."
The knife point touched her skin again. "You tempt your fate."
"No. I just accept it." The bard said. "Your master thinks by killing me, he'll take out Xena. He's wrong. If you kill me, there's nothing in this world that will keep her from making him die in the slowest, most painful way imaginable." She saw the sudden look of wary alertness in his eyes. "So if you want to condemn Andreas to death, go ahead. Kill me."
And slowly, the knife backed off, ending up with it's cold hilt resting on her stomach, as her attacker studied her in silence. "Perhaps you are right."
They regarded each other for a few heartbeats. "Well." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I think that was a good choice."
He laughed faintly. "I'm sure that you do, for your sake."
The still pinned bard shook her head. "No. For yours." She lifted her gaze past his shoulder, then made a motion with her finger, aware of the movement behind her and to both sides as forest dwellers lifted up off the leafy ground, crossbows aimed firmly at her attacker's chest. "If you woudn't mind getting off.. my back's killing me."
The man's eyes widened in shock and horror as he faced the tall, furred, fanged and angry creatures now growling fiercely at him and closing in a smaller and smaller circle. With a jerk, he scrambled off Gabrielle's body and stumbled backwards, holding the knife up in pitiful defense.
"Let him alone." Gabrielle commanded. "Don't hurt him. Just make sure he doesn't hurt anyone else."
"If I rip his arms off, that would do it." Lestan growled.
Gabrielle gave him a look.
Lestan sighed. "You two, take his toothpick there, and tie him up."
Two of the forest dwellers closed in on the assassin. He backed away from them nervously. "What in the name of the gods are you?"
"Well fed badgers." Lestan replied, with a snap of his fangs. "In a really bad mood."
Jessan knelt at the bard's side, and gently helped her to sit up. "Good grief, Gabrielle… what'dja tell us to lay off for?He could have cut your throat open!" Anxiously, he touched his friend's skin, where blood was welling up. "Uck."
The crisis over, Gabrielle winced as the pain swept over her, making her gasp as she struggled erect. Jessan awkwardly got his arms around her and stood, lifting her up as her hands clenched in his fur. "Hey… take it easy…" He glanced down. "Your back's bleeding."
The bard took in several breaths, then lifted her head. "I bet… he slammed me into a tree." She admitted. "Gods, I wish I could just go home." She glanced down to where Dori was, the baby's eyes wide as she watched her mother swinging up over her head. "You okay, sweetie?"
"Mama." Dori held her good hand up, reaching for her. "Go bad!"
"I'm not going anywhere, honey." Gabrielle reassured her. "I promise." She reached down and caught the baby's fingers, squeezing them, then lifted her head to see her attacker being prodded over to her, his hands bound behind him, and rope shackles on his feet. She regarded him seriously. "What's your name?"
The gray eyes seemed much less frightening now. "You could have stopped me at any time."
"Mmhm." Gabrielle nodded. "But I'm glad I didn't have to." She wiggled a foot. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"
"I have no name." The warrior replied, straightening a little. "I am simply Andreas' Hound."
Gabrielle considered that thoughtfully. The man was tall, taller than Xena, and very well built, with a solder's strong shoulders and tapered, muscular body. He had a chiseled, handsome face, with dark hair and beard, and vaguely reminded her of Ares.
Just a little.
The God, of course, not her pet wolf, though the name certainly was suggestive. "Okay." Gabrielle sighed. "Put him in one of the supply wagons. "
"Should I give him some biscuits too?" The russet furred forest dweller who had hold of him inquired, with an amused wrinkle of his muzzle. "C'mon, poochie."
Gabrielle watched the man stumble off, his eyes on her until his captors took him behind some trees. She sighed. "Jess, you can put me down."
"Why? You got a problem with fur?" Jessan inquired. "Its not like you weigh anything. Just hang out until the healer gets here. Pop went for her." His head tilted. "You coulda just let us take that guy down, y'know."
"I know." Gabrielle felt a curious satisfaction settle in her guts. "But with all the killing going on, it feels good to know there's always another way."
Jessan regarded her quizzically, not really understanding the smile.
A thunderous crash made Xena flinch, as she yelled instructions in one soldier's ear. She glanced up to see the top of the wall shudder faintly, and heard the sound of a huge missile falling to earth on the other side. "Damn.. what in Hades are they pitching at us?"
A yell alerted her, and she threw herself against the inner wall as a second shot came over the top, and crashed to earth, exploding in a shower of sharp granite missiles, which pierced flesh and caught one man right in the throat, spilling his blood over the ground as he gurgled his last breath.
Xena threw her arm up and deflected several that bounced her way, then caught one on the rebound and examined it. "Don't touch them!" She yelled suddenly, urgency punching the volume on her voice. "They've got something on em!"
Soldiers hurriedly brushed flakes off their skin, and backed away from the piles, which glinted with a softly oiled glow, and smelled faintly acrid. Xena let her chip drop in disgust, and wiped her hand on her cloak, just as another bomb skimmed the wall top and thundered into a supply tent, collapsing it and falling to the ground unburst.
"Bastards." The warrior shook her head. "You there, on the platforms… get ready." She motioned a wagon forward, two soldiers tugging on the crosspiece. "Get those balls ready, and give some back to them!"
"Will they reach, genr'l? I think they're a bit far for us yet." One of the wall captains yelled back.
Xena scaled the wall and pulled her body up to the top, peering over, visible from her forehead up. She studied the troops facing them, then judged the wind. "Aim high." She dropped back down, and watched as the wall troops loaded the solidly lashed catapults up with bombs of their own. "Here." She walked over and picked up the one that had landed, then bounded up the platforms, handing it to two of the catapult operators. "Send this one back."
Another barrage crashed against the wall, and she almost toppled off the platform, catching her balance at just the last moment.
"Lost a section there, genr'l!" A scout hollered.
Another crash. Xena went to the wall, and looked over, eyeing the crumbled gap in the wall's surface.
The warning made her duck, and the entire battlement shivered as the catapults threw an even heavier load against the mud and wood surface. Xena let out a breath, peeking over the top to see Andreas troops starting to move forward, sensing a weakness. Part of the wall toppled, and now the movement became a definite thrust forward.
"All right… " Xena turned and projected her voice. "Here they come… mount up!"
"Xena.. what's the plan?" Toris was at her elbow. "We're not going to meet that charge… you can't be serious! They outnumber us. .. ooof!"
Xena batted him in the mouth, and sent him sprawling across the platform. Her eyes pinned him with an angry, feral glare. "If you're running out of guts now, then get going, Toris. The hills are thataway." She pointed over her shoulder with a thumb. "Remember the way?"
Toris stared at her, shame and anger written clearly across his face. "Haven't changed a bit, have you." He spat back at her, in clipped tones. "Same old Xena."
"Get out of here." Xena turned and dismissed him, leaning against the wall with both hands. "Fire!" She ordered her own catapults, feeling the jerk as the war engines cut loose, sending a hail of smaller bombs outward.
A fiery missle hit the wall near her, and stayed alight, and she focused on it, then suddenly grabbed a longbow from a nearby soldier, standing idle because the oncoming troops were still out of range. Xena quickly tore a piece of cloth off her cloak, then wrapped it around an arrow shaft, just back of the head. She dipped the cloth in the fire, and watched it burst alight with a crackle, then leaped to the top of the wall.
Arrows immediately headed her way, but she ignored them, even when one slammed into her leg armor and stuck. She drew the bow back to it's full extention, arm muscles holding steady and firm as she aimed carefully, then waited ..
A strong puff of air buffeted her back, and she released the shaft, as Andreas catapult traded her arrow for boulder, the machine's load slamming into the wall's surface almost at her feet. Xena leaped into the air as it struck, then landed lightly as the shudders stopped, letting a laugh ring out over the battlefield.
Her arrow had struck, and as she watched, men started running around reaching for sacks as the catapult itself caught fire, the almost translucent green flames licking eagerly up the edge of the wooden siege engine.
A wild yell went up from the wall, and the soldiers cheered, chanting Xena's name, despite the continued advance of Andreas men. Xena grinned, then hopped back down onto the platform, and plucked the arrow from her leather armor, tossing it down to the ground with a negligent flick.
It was captured as a prize, she noted, and stuffed into someone's surcoat. "Everyone on the walls… pour all the artillery we've got into them while they're coming." She ordered, setting herself against one of the uneven patches torn from the surface by the rocks.
Andreas troops were advancing now in earnest, shields up, weapons ready, moving in a determined line across the ground. Xena's archers began to find their range, and the twang of bowstrings rippled the air followed by the hiss and thump of shafts. Xena joined them, selecting her targets carefully, and putting shots into helmets she could barely make out.
Still, they came.
They'd abandoned their catapult, but slung between large, feathery legged horses was slung a well padded battering ram, and the lead legions carried huge battle axes, no doubt intended for use in attacking the wall's surface.
"Keep firing!" Xena signaled her catapult, and the machine slammed forward, releasing a cargo of missles. They impacted the front line of troops, and it wavered, but the soldiers locked arms and kept moving, now starting a low chant that rumbled through the sound of their passage.
"Mama…go owie." Dori warbled softly, from her warm cradle inside Gabrielle's arms. "Bck."
The bard opened her eyes wearily, and gazed down at her daughter. "I know, honey.. I'm sorry." She shifted a little on the roughly woven seat jammed between two branches, and rested her head against the rough bark. "Would you like to hear a story?"
Dori's good eye widened a little. "Boo."
"No, sweetie… Boo's not here. I wish she was, but she's really busy… right now." Gabrielle's jaw suddenly clamped down, and she paused, until the lump in her throat subsided. "Want me to tell you a story? How about the cow?"
Gabrielle blinked. "You're a little early for that, aren't you?" She smiled tiredly. "What about the one with gramma and the duckie?"
The bard sighed. "Dori."
"Boo." Dori repeated, stubbornly.
Gabrielle studied her thoughtfully. "How about if I tell you a story about Boo, hmm?"
Dori gurgled, and blew a bubble. "Guff."
"Okay." The bard ran through her admittedly extensive catalog of tales about her soulmate, and discarded most of them as unsuitable for Dori's tender ears. "How about if I tell you a story about Boo, and Ares?"
Curled at her feet, the wolf looked up puzzledly, hearing his name. "Gruff."
"That's right.. I'll tell you how Boo found Ares, and how he came to live with us, okay?" Gabrielle informed her. "Would you like to hear that?"
Gabrielle almost sneezed half a lung out of her ear, as she jerked her head down to blink at her suddenly loquacious daughter. "Uh…"
Then she heard a chuckle, and glanced up to see a cluster of forest dwellers tucked neatly around her feet, round, furry ears cocked alertly in her direction. "Oh.. that was you." She scrubbed her temples with one hand. "Gods… for a minute there…"
The forest dweller who'd spoken, voice softened and lifted in a childish imitation, smiled toothily at her. "I know… your eyeballs almost rolled out."
Gabrielle smiled back, a little less fang oriented. "Anyway… " She took a breath to start the story, then paused, as her senses picked up a dark rush traveling down the link she had with Xena. "Uh… think this'll have to wait." She told them, with a grim look. "We need to move out… and get into position."
Lestan appeared at her elbow, with Hectator at his side. "Did I hear that right, little sister? Is it time?"
The bard inhaled, unable to avoid the chill of fear that ran down her back. "It's time." She got to her feet, and put Dori down on the woven chair, then picked up her armor and slid it over her head, settling it and buckling the belt. Her back hurt, but there was no time for that now.
She was tired.
She was cold, and hungry, and sick to death of the fighting.
None of it mattered. Around her, she felt the troops stirring, rustles and motion in the thick underbrush. She ran her fingers through her muddy and sweaty hair, freeing it from her collar, then settled her cloak around her.
"Mama." Dori gazed up at her unhappily. "No go."
"It's okay." Gabrielle picked her up and, with gentle hands, slid her bruised and battered body inside a padded sack, carefully made from a half an old set of furs Jessan had with him. She made sure the baby's hands were nestled in the sack, then fastened the edges, allowing only her round face to show. She gave the tiny nose a kiss, then she put her arms through the straps on the sack and fastened it around her own body. "You're coming with me this time, Dori. How's that?"
Dori gurgled in surprised pleasure. "Go!"
Gabrielle smiled sadly, as she picked up her saddlebag and fastened it on Iolaus' back. "I can't fly, Dori. You have to wait for your Boo for that."
The bard laid her hands on the worn, but well cared for leather of her saddle, and studied the rich, warm surface between her outspread fingers. "Yes, honey. We're going to go find Boo."
"Glad you approve." Gabrielle murmured softly, as she hauled herself up into the saddle, wincing at the soreness along the inside of her legs as she moved them into place, her hands finding the reins automatically. "Everyone ready?"
Lestan raised a fist. Hectator fell into step next to him, along with the remaining leaders of Aslanta's people. They all turned to watch Gabrielle, tacitly acknowledging her leadership.
Gabrielle straightened her shoulders, and lifted her chin. "Let's move." She started Iolaus out, threading through the trees as quietly as she could, guiding her army towards the far off wisps of smoke, and the faintest of battle sounds past the horizon.
"They're still coming!"
The yell reached Xena's ears, as she steadily poured her arrows downward, and she glanced behind her, to where the rest of the troops were arming and mounting. Andreas men were closing on the walls, and she turned, leaping down to join the force they were going to send out against the first wave.
It wasn't as suicidal as it appeared. Xena had carefully constructed her walls at a bend in the river, where the natural topography of the land funneled any attack in towards the center of the gates, not allowing Andreas troops to spread out. She intended on pouring her mounted force out against his foot soldiers, knowing they couldn't stand before the horsemen, and hoping she could drive him back at little and make him regroup. "Ready?"
Five hundred voices rose in response, as the soldiers pulled out their weapons and raised them in her honor. Xena grinned, and headed for Argo, then paused, stiffening as a familiar presence made itself known at her back. She took a breath, and slowly turned only her head, regarding Ares with cool, remote eyes. "Yes?"
The soldiers had frozen, seeing the blue flash as the God of War appeared, and now there was an uneasy, frightened silence in the compound.
Ares came closer, then sauntered around Xena until they were face to face. "One last chance, Xena."
"I'll see you in Hades, Ares." The warrior replied simply. "Now, get out of my way." She deliberately avoided the leather clad form and continued towards Argo.
"Xena, would you please stop being so damned stubborn?" Ares yelled at her back in exasperation. "It's senseless!"
The warrior turned and put her hands on her hips. "No." She shook her head, very aware of the awestruck looks focused on her. "What's senseless is you supporting him, Ares. What's your percentage in that? He's out to remove the gods from Greece."
"I'm working on that with him." Ares flicked his fingers impatiently. "It's an.. annoying… detail, nothing more." The God of War folded his arms across his burly chest. "He's a fool, but he'll learn."
"You're the fool" Xena shot back. "You think he'll come to worship you, Ares? He's not the type. If you let him win, let him run over Greece, he'll make himself a god, and destroy any hope for you and the rest of them."
"Xena." Ares let his voice drop warningly.
"It's true, Ares." A long finger pointed at him. "And you know it." Xena turned, and mounted Argo, removing her cloak and tossing it aside, then shaking her hair loose, as she gathered reins in one hand. "Excuse me. I've got a battle to fight."
"To lose." He taunted.
"What do you care? It's not like you've ever gotten your hands bloody." Xena taunted right back. "If I die, I'll die a warrior… more than you can say, isn't it, Ares?"
The god's pale eyes darkened in anger. "Watch your mouth, Xena."
"Or?" Xena drew her sword, and glanced up along it's length, silver flashes dancing across her face in eager anticipation. "No wonder no one believes in you anymore… why should they?"
His dark beard bristled with electric power. Outside the walls, the rising sound of the attacking troops reverberated. Xena gave a signal, and settled her feet firmly in her stirrups. "Get ready! Start those gates opening!"
"Hold it!" Ares yelled.
Xena looked at him. "What?" She snapped, irritatedly.
For a moment, they gazed at each other.
"You want to help the gods, Ares?" Xena finally said, as the gates started to creak open. "You want to restablish your cult?"
He glared at her.
The tall warrior sidestepped her anxious mare over a few steps, and let loose with the full force of her personality, focusing intently on the glowering God of War. "Ride with me."
"Xena! The gate's moving!" A captain yelled.
"Ride with me." The warrior repeated, urgently. "Be on my side, Ares. Your sword, and mine… we've never fought together."
"Xena!" Toris' frantic yell.
"C'mon." Xena held a hand out invitingly.
The narrow nostrils flared, and a subtle, almost familiar glint entered Ares eyes. "Sorry. I don't seem to have a horse. Too bad."
Xena flashed him a wicked grin, and whistled shrilly. Out of the cluster of anxious horses behind them a dark figure appeared, snorting and bucking as he answered Xena's call, throwing his head up nervously as he stopped beside them. "Sure you do."
For a moment, the world simply stood still, and went very silent. Xena was aware of a sound of rushing water, but even the air had gone still, as Ares extended his powers, and gave himself space to think. Very slowly, his head lifted, and their eyes met.
"You and me, huh?" The corner of Ares mouth lifted.
Xena nodded. "Yeah."
"I've already given my support to Andreas, Xena."
"And?" The warrior drawled. "You always back the best warrior, Ares.. you saying he's better than I am?"
Ares regarded her in silence for a long set of heartbeats, then a grudging, knowing smile twisted his lips. "No."
Without another word, he mounted the black stallion's back, gentling the horse with automatic, supple motions. He snapped his fingers, and the world returned, the sound almost bowling Xena over as she heard the horns of attack just outside the gates.
The troops parted, as she and Ares paced to the front, waiting, as the teams strained on the ropes, and the wall opened before them, a flash of green, and blue, and army waiting for them as the foot soldiers charged forward.
"Heeyaahh!!" Xena set her heels to Argo's side, and lead the way, aware suddenly of Ares drawing the Sword of War at her side, making her arm hairs stand up on end. "Forward!!!!"
The men yelled behind them, and the sound of pounding hooves filled the space, as they launched out into the battlefield.
They stopped just short of the last rise before the land sloped down towards the river. Smoke rose over the horizon before them, and if Gabrielle concentrated, she could just hear the clash of steel. She leaned forward against Iolaus' neck and closed her eyes, then opened them, almost awash in the dark energy now pulsing unrestrained down her link with her partner.
Between them, and the battlefield was the river, of course, and to her eyes they were well on the wrong side of it. But Xena had been sure of her plan, and now that Gabrielle considered it, she wondered if the entire thing wasn't some grand scheme of her partner's to keep her relatively out of harms way.
No. Surely , Xena hadn't considered that.
"Mama." Dori tugged at her hair. "Hmm…"
Gabrielle retrieved a bit of sweet bread from a pocket and handed it to her daughter absently. "There you go, honey."
Jessan brought his mount up next to her, standing a little to get a view of the river, and it's beleagured fort. He sat back down with a sigh. "Sitting here while they're fighting really sucks."
"Mm." Gabrielle closed her eyes again, trying to fight off the unnerving craving in her guts. The closer they got to where Xena was battling, the worse the feeling was getting, and she found herself almost resenting it's seductive hunger.
"Gabrielle." Jessan put a hand on her arm, his voice tensing. "Look."
The bard's eyes snapped open, and she turned her head, focusing on what her friend had seen. "Son of a Bacchae." She felt her heart start to pound as she spotted the lines of soldiers, snaking down the valley, heading towards Amphipolis. "They're trying to sneak up from behind."
"Yeah." Jessan motioned behind him. Lestan and Hectator hurried up, and reviewed the newcomers. "We have company."
"Damn." Hectator growled. "Now what?"
Gabrielle sat very still, only her mist green eyes moving under pale lashes as she stared through the foliage. "Now we have to stop them." She murmured remotely. "Get the troops ready."
"We'll blow our cover." Lestan reminded her.
"I can't let them get across the river." Gabrielle responded. "C'mon." She carefully unslung Dori's bag, and kissed her head, then handed her down to the healer, who had come up to check the baby's injuries. "Hold onto her for a few minutes?"
Then she turned Iolaus' head, and released her staff from it's holders, letting it drop into her hand with a familiar feel of wood against flesh. Her discomfort vanished, and she urged her horse forward, between two close growing trees and down the barely seen path. A file of warriors followed her with careful steps, until the thick forest thinned out, and she could urge Iolaus forward, trying to pretend the bolt of excitement that rattled her body from sole to neckhairs wasn't for the oncoming battle.
Her heart started to thunder as she leaned forward, and Iolaus caught her tension, moving from a walk to a canter, then to a rolling gallop as she lead a mixed force of forest dwellers and human cavalry towards the cautiously moving enemy.
The enemy bound on attacking her soulmate.
She couldn't have that.
A yell bubbled up from her throat, as they cleared the trees and fanned out, barreling down the slope at full speed towards the enemy. Her hand flexed on her staff, and for a brief, chilling moment, her mind imagined those fingers closing on a very different surface, one of metal and wood, a weighted hilt that fit her hand.
The one she'd rejected, and left in the valley.
The enemy soldiers heard them now, and were turning, wheeling to meet them with evident surprise, not expecting to see a force the size of hers attacking them.
Then their eyes fell on the forest dwellers, and she was close enough to see shock and fear take them over. "Heeyyaah!" Gabrielle let out the yell that had been building, and was answered by a roar from her troops as she lead them into the fight, bracing her body for the impact just before she took the closest soldier off his horse with the end of her staff with a sound like a melon splitting.
The warrior twisted in her saddle, slashing downward to remove an arm drifting her way, Argo's body shifting in anxious circles in the surrounding melee of fighters, her forces holding a shaky line against Andreas far greater force by sheer brute skill.
Parts of the walls had been shattered by catapult shot, and her archers were taking cover where they could, while still peppering the enemy with long shafts.
"What?" Xena yelled back, ducking a thrown spear.
"They're starting to break through on the left!" Toris pointed with his sword.
"I know." Xena reviewed the lines, then stood in her stirrups and let out a yell. "Fall back!" She tapped several fighters ensconced stubbornly around her. "Hold that point!" She nudged Argo forward, taking a position forward as her fighters started a slow retreat.
"What's the matter, Xena? Giving up!??" Ares appeared at her side, his sword bloody. "C'mon… I just started to have fun!"
"Good. You can help me cover the retreat, then." Xena snapped back, freeing a boot and kicking a determined foot soldier back. "Or get out of my way, Ares."
"What the Hades are you doing, Xena? You're winning!" The God of War stared at her. "You can't retreat!"
"Help, or get out of the way." Xena pushed past him, swinging her sword under Argo's neck to halt an attack on the man next to her. "Pull back! Pull back! Across the river!!!"
"Sorry Xena. I don't hang round in a losing cause." Ares gave her a disgusted look, then snapped his fingers and disappeared.
Xena ignored him. She directed her small group into a wedge, and was briefly glad the close fighting was keeping Andreas archers from getting decent aims as an arrow thunked home in her shoulder armor. "Move it!" She could see Andreas' cadre moving closer, and she paused, half standing in her stirrups, then reaching for her chakram.
No. He was too far away yet.
Her forces were now backing through the shattered walls, and the enemy surged forward, sensing their weakness. A roar went up, and Andreas men went on the attack.
They barely had time to turn as the bard set her knees, and settled her staff against her hips, slamming into the hastily organizing cavalry with gut wrenching force. One man was swept right off his animal, the other, on her right hand side, caught the staff and tried to pull it from her hands, but she twisted with him, and yanked it free.
"Roaaar!" Jessan's bass voice erupted next to her, making two of the enemy's horses rear and scream in terror. His claws glinted in the sun, and he alternated powerful sword slashes
Gabrielle clamped her jaw grimly and fought on, ignoring the pain in her back, determined only to stop this threat to her soulmate. The enemy force had almost gotten to the back sections of Amphipolis, and by the torches they carried, she guessed the town would have been their first target on the way to ambushing Xena's army from behind.
Their forces were numerically equal, but Andreas men had to deal with the frightening appearance of the forest dwellers, and even Gabrielle couldn't find it in herself to pity them, as they scrambled away from the roaring, snarling fighters who were gleefully ripping them to pieces.
And that shocked her.
So much so, that she backed off, the roar of the battle rolling over her like thunder as she turned aside and brought her staff down, confused, and scared.
"Gabrielle!" Jessan barked, seeing her retreat. "What's wrong?"
"Everything." Gabrielle found herself whispering. She took in a breath to tell her troops to stop, give the enemy a chance to surrender, but as her chest expanded, the shout died on her lips.
A dying horses scream echoed.
Injured soldiers were staggering away, some crawling in fright across blood spattered leaves that filled the clearing, as forest dwellers and soldiers chased them down, making sure there were none left living.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. All right, Gabrielle. Get hold of yourself. You can't just lose it right here in the middle of a battle.
"Gabrielle?" Jessan's voice was much closer.
Slowly, she let her eyes open, and tried not to throw up. The smell of blood rose around her, and she was aware of her body shivering violently, her hands clenching so hard on her staff she could feel the grain in the wood imprinting itself on her skin.
"Are you okay?" Her friend asked, hesitantly. "We.. um… it's over here, let's get back to the main army, okay? I feel sorta exposed.. I don't know if these guys have any….um… Gabrielle?"
Her shoulders dropped, and she let her weapon lie across her thighs as she willed her heart to stop pounding and her mind to settle. "I… I'm all right, Jess."
"Are you?" The golden eyes gazed at her in concern.
Sheer determination let her regain control over her shattered composure. She straightened her back and lifted her chin, regarding the now quiet clearing with almost impassive eyes. "I'm fine… you're right. We'd better get back… I want to be ready when Xena calls. "
"Get moving!" Xena shoved the last of the troops through the hole in the wall, then turned, and watched the wall of enemy soldiers coming towards her. She lifted her sword and let her battle yell ring out over the ground, guarding the jagged opening as the first of them reached her. "Get back you bastards!" She disemboweled the man, then braced her legs out wide, and swung her weapon in a large circle, as the troops surged to either side and started to break their way through the walls.
"I said move it!" Xena yelled back furiously, as she ducked an arm, and drew her dagger, savagely slicing the man trying to hack at her with a half broken sword. A wave of enemy surged over her, and she went down under the weight of them, hands grasping for her weapons, her body, fists pounded into her flesh as she rolled and twisted, aware of a sharp, stabbing jolt near her ribs, beneath her metal armor.
Then her hands hit the ground, and she found some leverage, shoving against the ground and tossing two of her opponents off balance just enough to get her boots under her, and add her leg strength to the effort.
With a growl, she powered upward through the bodies, tossing them from her in a motion so powerful her feet left the earth, and she was able to get her sword free.
Instinct closed her hands in a double fist around the hilt as she chopped in short, savage arcs before her, carving flesh and bone and armor with equal efficiency. She took a step forward, driving back the line of soldiers shoving against her in the small space, stepping up on the fallen bodies and taking advantage of the added height to bring her arc up to head level.
"Xena! We're clear!" Toris hollered at the top of his voice.
And I was just getting warmed up. The warrior's eyes glinted, and she took a step back, throwing her enemies off balance as she locked her elbows and swiveled her body, bringing her sword around in a deadly circle that ripped through the closest five or six and sent them sprawling in a pile before her feet.
Then she launched herself backwards, through the opening and bounded forward, throwing her shoulder against the tilting surface and sending it over to close the gap, as she turned and broke into a run towards the river's edge.
The excitement was nerve wracking. Gabrielle stood quietly, her arms draped over Iolaus' neck with her back towards the army as she waited, feeling mostly numb inside and slightly sick to her stomach. Her guts were twisting in anxiety, and she'd moved past wondering what was going on with Xena into wishing with all her heart that the whole damn thing was just..
She was so tired of the hate, and the blood, and the fighting.
So tired of knowing that every minute of it, every battle took Xena further and further from her, driving the warrior deeper into her dark side and erasing all the peace she'd gained in the last year.
Even in victory, the'yd both lose so much.
Gabrielle let her cheek rest against the soft, prickly hairs on her stallion's neck and felt the warmth as a few tears escaped and ran down her face to dissapear into the golden coat. "It's not fair, Io." She whispered. "All she wanted was to.. just live a quiet life, and watch Dori grow up. Was that too much to ask?"
"For her? You bet, sweetheart." Ares dark voice battered her from behind.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle refused to turn around to look at him.
"It's almost over, blondie." The God of War circled Io, and leaned on his back, peering at her with a dark smile. "Are you the reserves? You'd better get moving, before theres nothing left."
"Not yet." Gabrielle told him softly.
"C'mon, bardiepoo." Ares snickered. "Or are you finally showing your true colors?"
Cold green eyes were leveled at him. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't you?" Ares leaned closer. "I know what she'd do for you, Gaaabriellle." He pointed a finger at her nose. "But you never really do come through for her, do ya?"
Gabrielle slowly took in a breath, and released it, refusing to allow him the pleasure of getting her upset. "All that I am." She murmured. "All I could ever be, forever, is hers." Now she leaned closer to him, over the stallion's golden back. "And that's the reason she'll never, ever go back to you, Ares." Gabrielle smiled, right into his glare. "You've lost." She touched his nose with a fingertip. "I've won."
He jerked his head back and narrowed his eyes. "Do you really believe that?"
"Yes." Gabrielle replied immediately. "And so do you, or you wouldn’t be here. What do you want, Ares?"
The cold blue ice chips watching her went hooded. "She's got something up her sleeve." He replied, surprisingly. "I want to know what it is." He held a finger up at her started response. "Don’t' be so hasty… wait till you hear what I'm ready to pay for it."
"No price of yours would be enough." Gabrielle told him.
"Xena's life enough?" Ares inquired, arching an eyebrow. "You tell me what I want to know, I'll make sure she survives the fight. Plain and simple, Gabrielle." He waited through the silence. "Otherwise, she's going to die before sundown."
Gabrielle felt as though she were standing in the cold wind, naked. "You'll make sure Andreas wins, then?"
"You bet." Ares agreed. "That's my plan, chickaboo. C'mon. I know you're a sucker for the baby blues.. you two can take off, and go find some other hole in the wall to raise your little snookums in."
His victim turned, and gazed off into the distance, past the shadowy forms bunkered down in the foliage, past the trees, and the arch of the mountains reaching for the sky. "You offered me her life the last time, too." Gabrielle murmured. "But it was at a different price." The image formed just behind her eyelids, of a desperate lunge, her arms wrapping around Hope, her weight taking both of them beyond the startled, outstretched grasp of Xena's fingers.
She remembered Xena's eyes, the silent pleading in them.
"Yeah… I'd have thought you'd jump at this one.. " Ares laughed. "You don’t' even need to get fireproof undies." He circled Iolaus and came up next to her, tugging a bit of her hair with wry impudence. "C'mon, Gabrielle…you don't want to watch her pyre tonight, do you?"
The mist green eyes clouded, then brightened with unshed tears. "No."
Sure of her now, he took her chin in one hand, and regarded her with almost gentleness. "Spill it."
The bard took a deep, deep breath,, and released it, her armor rustling softly as it settled against her skin. "She's going to let Andreas chase her across the river and towards the valley. We're just a diversion.. the main force is there." Her voice was very soft, and hoarse.
Ares leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, then lightly patted her cheek. "Good girl."
A snap, and a blue flash, and he was gone. Gabrielle slumped against Iolaus' side, and her eyelashes flickered, spilling large, heavy tears that darkened her leather armor. She sniffled, and rubbed her face, turning her body as she felt Jessan's presence at her side.
They regarded each other soberly.
"You lied to him." Jessan finally stated.
Gabrielle nodded in silence.
"He'll know that."
Another, tiny nod. "I know." Gabrielle let her eyes find the leafy floor, allowing herself a moment to understand the reality of knowing the consequences of her choice. It was the right one, she knew it, she felt it in her heart and soul, knowing the price Ares had asked was one her soulmate would never, ever have paid.
But the pain was like breathing fire. "Just once." She whispered to herself. "Just once I wish I was part of the greater good instead of the one sacrificing for it." She felt Jess's hand on her shoulder, the rough texture of his skin contrasting with the warmth. "How many times must I travel this road, Jessan?"
The touch turned into a hug, as her friend comforted her in wordless silence.
A gentleness brushed her senses then, cool and distant, and she straightened up, wiping her gauntlet across her eyes and taking a shaky breath. "Get the troops mounted up. It's almost time."
Overhead, the sun slanted through the trees, painting stripes beginning to take on a dusky gold, the shadows lengthening towards the inevitable day's ending.
"The walls are down!"
Xena heard the warning as she hit the bridge, turning her head to see part of the battlements collapse, spilling a crowd of yelling soldiers through the gaps. She bolted across the bridges surface, unhooking her chakram as she neared the end of it, then twisting her body to her right and letting it fly just as the first of the attackers reached the far side.
She felt the bridge give way under her boots, and she dove for the shore, grabbing hold of the support pylons and flipping herself over, lifting a hand to snatch the chakram as it returned from it's destructive journey. She turned, to see the end of the bridge collapsing in the river, and smiled at the cursing soldiers.
But only for a moment, as they headed for the ford, pouring down the embankment and launching themselves through the river's low, almost turbid waters.
A hail of arrows sped across the opening, and Xena ducked behind the end posts, surveying the opposing force. "Get back behind the culverts!" Xena yelled, watching her troops hastily dismount, and send their horses running, as they dove behind the sturdy defensive positions Xena had dug into this side of the river as well. Archers began to return fire, and she took the opportunity to rest for a few heartbeats, reviewing the field.
They'd done well. Xena's experienced eyes swept over Andreas forces, and she nodded, seeing a fifth of them gone, injured or killed by her force of a scant eight hundred fighters.
Not that they'd gone unscathed. Xena tried not to see the slumped figures dressed in her colors, or count the missing faces in the warriors around her.
Suddenly, the mass of Andreas men spilled over into the river, and his artillery pieces commenced firing loads of small shot over the river, driving her men back from the shore. So fierce was the attack, that fully a quarter of Andreas remaining men had traversed the ford before Xena's forces could return fire. The warrior bolted from her vantage point, and dove behind the nearest hillock. "Keep firing!"
"We've not enough arrows to get em all, Genr'l." The archer nearest her responded, taking careful aim and releasing. "Too many of the buggers."
Xena put a hand on his back, and nodded. "I know…. Get as many of the bastards as you can." She watched as Andreas forces poured through the ford, fighting their way through the water and up the near bank, keeping shields high as they came under her troops fire. The catapults flung loads across the river, though, keeping her people pinned firmly down.
Xena smiled. "That’s it… come to me, you bastard."
"Xena… if they come up that way, we're trapped." Toris hissed at her elbow, a gash on his forehead dripping thick, red blood. "We won't be able to retreat back towards the valley!"
'That's all right." Xena put her hands on the top of the barrel they were crouching behind, and vaulted over it, bolting for the middle of their line and diving over the edge of a sideways tipped wagon, tumbling over two men and stirring up a puff of dust as her boots hit the ground. "Sorry."
The first of them, an older man called Eldon, grinned at her. "No problem, Genr'l." He rested his crossbow on the wheel spoke, and his fingers surreptitiously brushed her leg armor, as though touching a talisman. "Tough buggers, aren't they?"
"Oh yeah." Xena peered over the wagon, and saw the first wave start to inch their way up over the embankment. "Hit em hard!" She lifted her voice. "Push them back into the river!"
A wild yell rang out over the bloody ground, and the air was suddenly thick with arrows, and the thunder of their own, smaller catapult answering back.
A small group of Andreas men formed a block, and rushed forward, and she could see the flicker of fire behind their shields. Xena took a breath, then drew her sword and put her free hand on the top of the wagon. "Keep your heads down." She vaulted back over the wagon, and broke into a run towards the advancing soldiers, hearing the sudden shout of her name rise up behind her.
Her troops, chanting. She picked up speed and used her sword to flick the arrows headed towards her neatly outo f the way, hearing the yells now of the enemy as they recognized her. One long stride, then she was airborne, tucking her knees up then lashing her boots out as she hit the first shield, her body weight stopping the advance in it's tracks and sending the men sprawling.
The Greek fire spilled out, and the ground ignited, singing her hair as she tumbled through the soldiers, and flipped upright, locking her hands on her hilts and whipping her sword around in a vicious figure eight that killed three of them before they could struggle up off their knees.
An arrow skimmed her shoulder, and she dove back through the flames, her blade slashing through a leg and sending a spurt of blood arcing out to spill on the ground. She crouched, and a blast of shale from the catapult thumped over her, several pieces smacking into her armor and bouncing off with a sodden rattle. She killed the remaining two soldiers, then lifted her sword as she stood in the eyes of the enemy, surrounded by flames, unharmed.
Then through the smoke, she found her eyes drawn across the lines, to the rise just on the other side of the river, where a man sat on horseback, watching.
Xena smiled, showing neat, white teeth as she met his gaze, through the blurring of the flames, and her sword's flickering as she turned back the wave of arrows speeding towards her. "You want me?" She chuckled. "Come and get me." She turned, and took two long strides, then launched herself up ward and over the embattlements, landing behind them and whirling as hands grabbed her, and patted her back, excitement running down the lines despite how long they'd been fighting, and the odds against them.
C'mon. Blue eyes emerged over the edge of the wood. Andreas forces were now pouring up over the river side and spreading outward, blocking the path leading out towards the valley, and swarming close to the outer walls of Amphipolis itself.
"Xena." Toris grabbed her arm. "What in the name of Hades are you doing?" He ignored her flashing eyes, and pulled harder. "You've boxed us in a corner, and they're coming right at us!"
Xena yanked him against the boxes, and moved her head close to his. "That's right."
"We can't hold them off!" Her brother hissed.
"I know." Xena replied. "I'm telling you now, Toris. If you're worried about dying, leave."
His face was sadly confused. "Why?" He asked softly.
"Just go." Xena heard the rush of troops behind her, as Andreas forces massed to charge. "G'wan.. you can get out the back there… go, Toris."
A moment's pause, then he shook his head, and shrugged her grip off. "Not this time." He cranked his crossbow, and turned, settling himself next to her and watching as the enemy advanced. "For Ly's sake."
Xena glance down for a beat, then lifted her sword up. "Now! Nail em with all you got!"
A blizzard of arrows answered her, thunking against the armor and shields of the enemy troops. Xena lifted a longbow and stood up behind the wagon, putting shaft after shaft into the steadily advancing soldiers. A wild yell emerged from her lips, and from sheer volume, the defense slowed them, then stopped them, as the lead soldiers dropped in their tracks and the ones behind stumbled over them.
Ares words of warning echoed in her memory.
A horn sounded.
The remaining troops and Andreas himself charged across the ford.
The assault moved forward again.
Xena closed her eyes, permitting herself a single moment of inner reflection, focusing on Gabrielle, and making a sad acknowledgement of the warmth that filled her, for just that one, small instant.
I love you.
Then the troops were rushing forward, and she was drawing her sword
A quiet, very somber profile lifted towards the westering sun. "Now." Gabrielle spoke the word steadily. She gathered her reins, and waited, as Jessan bowed his head, his lips moving slightly before he looked back up, turning Eris and lifting one huge, furred arm.
He tipped his head back, and roared, shaking the leaves above them, and making Iolaus jump between Gabrielle's knees.
The army moved, slipping through the trees until they emerged from the forest, and onto the slope that lead up to the slight ridge above Amphipolis. Gabrielle settled her knees, then urged Iolaus into a canter. The line of warriors spread out to either side of her, and soon the sounds of the valley were drowned out by the rumbling thunder of twelve hundred mounted troops that barreled up the slope, and crested the ridge, filling the horizon.
Gabrielle gazed down the opposite slope, her blood running cold as she saw the tiny, beleaguered band of her friends standing against the onrushing troops. Her voice rose in a yell before she could stop herself, and she saw heads turn her way, as Andreas captains tried vainly to turn their troops towards this new threat. Andreas himself had just come onto the near bank, and now he yelled and pointed, directing the legions still crossing towards them.
And then a rumble, low and dangerous, overrode the clash and clamor of war. It was a deep, angry sound that got louder, and louder, and slowly the fighters paused, and looked around…
A man pointed, and screamed.
The roar reached them, as a wall of water, and rocks, trees and debris surged down the banks of the river, it's leading edge appearing more as a huge congomerate creature, overrunning the sides of the river and smashing down across Andreas forces, blasting away the men still crossing the ford, and batting aside those closest to the banks as though they were dolls.
"Hold!" Gabrielle held a hand up, as they lined up on the ridge, safe from the water. Her troops shifted restlessly, growls running up and down the ranks, the forest dwellers eager for battle, smelling the advantage shifting.
Xena watched her troops line the ridge, watched the enemy scramble and die in the river, watched her own troops realize what had happened, and start to cheer. Andreas men frantically tried to recover their weapons in the rushing water, but as they neared the river, death came from another direction as arrows sped from the direction they came, from well hidden archers now using the defeated embattlements as cover from the other direction.
An Amazon yell echoed over the waters, and Ephiny raised a fist towards Xena, waving it back and forth.
They were trapped.
Xena whistled, standing and turning as Argo trotted up, and leaping aboard the mare, feeling a rush of dark energy, as her body realized what her mind had already acknowledged.
It had worked. She turned Argo in a tight circle, and lifted her sword, then turned and faced Andreas troops, who were suddenly disorganized, and afraid. Her battle yell echoed over the field. All that remained now, was the killing. She'd lead her troops down on Andreas, and trapped as they were between her forces, and the forest dwellers, and the river… he didn't have a chance, despite the fact that his numbers still slightly outsized hers.
A sense of exultation filled her, as she absorbed the sense of victory greedily, it's triumph filling a dark cavern in her gut in a way she'd tried her best to forget, over the last few years. But she never really had, and now she lifted her sword, welcoming the violence she knew was coming, eagerly wanting the rush as her troops responded to her signal and prepared to charge.
Nothing could stop her.
Just like the last time. Xena laughed. She'd take the world.
The smell of blood came to her, and she opened her mouth to give the order, feeling the surge as her army sensed it coming.
On the ridge above, in the very fore of the battle, a tousled, fair head dropped, unable to watch.
This was what she'd lived for, wasn't it? Dreamed about, all those years, all those battles ago. She'd taken a rag tag force, and through solid strategy and her own martial skills, she'd won the field. Now her body was craving the slaughter to come, her fingers twitching on her sword hilt as her darkest side rose up, stretching it's claws and enjoying the sunlight after far, far too long.
Yes. She let out a yell, and her army answered, wanting it as much as she did, the blood lust shaded only a trifle by a single, very thin grain, that just for an instant, made her pause. Surely there was nothing wrong with the Destroyer of Nations to live up to her reputation? Here, Andreas had brought his aggressive nation..she was just doing her job in destroying it, right?
The warrior exhaled. Except that she wasn't the Destroyer of Nations anymore. She wasn't fifteen anymore. Outraged, her dark side struggled hard, but a quiet, hard won strength held it down firmly. Xena's voice rang out over the field. "Lay down your arms."
Gabrielle looked up at her in wonder.
Everyone was still, as Argo galloped out to the clear space between the armies, sidestepping around the patches of still burning ground. The dark head lifted. "You've got one chance. " She told them. "Lay down your arms, and surrender, or I'll slaughter you all like sheep."
"Never!" Andreas started towards her.
"What guarantee do we have?" A closer voice asked, a mounted mercenary, watching her warily.
"My word." Xena replied, sitting still, and quiet on Argo's back.
"It doesn’t' end like this, Xena!" Andreas shoved men out of the way.
A thud, then several more. Swords hitting the earth, Shields dropping. Andreas army put down their arms, and surrendered, most of them looking relieved as Xena's troops circled them cautiously.
Andreas drew his sword. "You're not going to just take everything, Xena… no.. no, you're not." A mad glint filled his pale eyes. Archers raised their bows, and glanced at her in question. Xena lifted a hand, and waited.
"Hold it. Let him come." She didn't feel threatened by the sword in the least. "Better put that down before I make it part of your backbone."
They were a horse length apart now. Behind him, his troops were slowly sinking to the ground, exhausted. Above on the ridge, the line of warriors started moving, lead by a gleaming gold stallion which quickly outpaced the rest.
Xena folded her hands on her saddlebow. "You've lost, Andreas."
"No, no.. I can't have." The foxy beard bristled. "You don't understand." He drew even with her. "I was promised."
"Not my problem." Cold, blue eyes regarded him.
"You were supposed to turn.. to be with me." His hand reached out to her, touched her armor. "You must join with me, Xena… we can rule the world. Don’t you understand? " His hand gripped her wrist. "You can't have defeated me."
She felt the fire steal out and capture her, as his eyes bored into hers, and the darkness surrounding him expanded to suck her in, touching all her dark points, and stirring the bloodlust running so close now to the surface in her.
"That's it." His voice seemed deeper. "See? You didn't beat me, Xena, now did you?"
It was a wonderful swirl of feeling, very sexy and interesting. "No." The warrior replied softly.
Andreas smiled. "I knew all it would take was a few words."
Xena gazed at him dreamily. "I didn't defeat you."
"No… that's a good girl. You didn't." He moved a step closer.
Andreas' head tilted slightly. "What was that? Who is…"
A dull thud sounded over the battlefield, and Andreas slid slowly out of his saddle to the ground, his grip loosening on Xena's wrist as he slumped into the mud.
Iolaus skidded to a halt, bearing a hard breathing, sweating bard who glared at her partner with snapping, anxious green eyes, as the golden light of sunset bathed them both. "What in Hades were you doing?"
Xena shifted, and stretched in her saddle. "Waiting for you. Took you long enough to get down here."
A cheer rose, making speech impossible. The troops closed around them, swirling around the two mounted forms facing each other in the midst of chaos. "Tie him up." Xena tapped a battle captain on the shoulder. "I'll decide what to do with him later."
A chant started. Her name, a sound that vibrated against her skin as her army surrounded her, and reached out eagerly, carefully, just wanting to touch her armor, gazing up at her with an air of total adoration.
Gabrielle glanced at the sun, watching it's slow fade pensively.
"Xena!" Gabrielle dodged several running soldiers, and determinedly plowed through the cheering troops towards the tall figure tucked into their midst. After a very brief, though heartfelt hug, her partner had dismounted and started the process of settling the camp, accepting the claps on the back and congratulations eagerly.
She deserved it, Gabrielle acknowledged, but there were too many people with too many weapons around her, and the bard didn't trust most of them, despite the happy cheers. She looked over her shoulder, then ducked under an arm outstretched to hug her and latched on to the back of her partner's leathers, digging her heels in firmly and knowing, if nothing else, it would get Xena's attention.
"That's right.. bivouac everyone just past the… " Xena turned, as she felt Gabrielle's touch. "Hey."
"I need to talk to you." Gabrielle said, firmly.
"Okay." The warrior nodded. "Let me just.."
"No." The bard overrode her.
Xena glanced around, then down at her. "Gabrielle… wh.. c'mon, I've got.."
The bard stepped closer. "Xena!" She barked, sharply, getting a wary, defensive look in return. "Please."
The blood spattered chest lifted, and fell. "All right." Xena eyed the chaos they were standing in. "Where do you want to go?"
"Home." Gabrielle gave her a gentle nudge towards the cabin, the edge of which she could just barely see between the trees.
Another step closer. "Please?" The anxiety was building, and Gabrielle only wanted to get under cover, in safety, away from the hectic confusion in the midst of the army. She took another step towards the gates of Amphipolis, and felt Xena's body grudgingly give way, as the warrior turned to join her.
Every step was nerve wracking. Every suddenly moving body made her jump, and turn, until she felt a hand settle on her shoulder. She pushed the gates open and lead the way across the busy courtyard, filled with soldiers and the wounded. No villagers yet - it would take time for word to filter back to the valley, and even though Andreas army had meekly disarmed, the area still had a distinct scent of danger oozing through it.
Gabrielle held her breath until she entered their home, and waited as Xena passed in after her, then closed the door firmly behind them, and leaned against it.
Xena had paced into the room, and now she turned, and eyed Gabrielle uncertainly. "W… what's wrong?" The warrior finally asked. "We did great, Gabrielle…. " Her voice dropped a bit. "Didn't we? I mean.. I thought… ."
Gabrielle allowed herself the utter luxury of simply walking over, and laying her hands on Xena's chest, taking a deep breath as she leaned forward. Xena slowly lifted her arms and circled Gabrielle's shoulders, leaning her cheek against the bard's head as they just stood together in silence.
"Are you all right?" Xena finally murmured.
"I'm all right." Gabrielle exhaled. "Cmon… let's sit down here for a few minutes."
They sat next to each other on the low couch, in a somewhat awkward, slightly prickly quiet. Xena felt confused, unsure of what was going on with her soulmate, starkly aware of the intense strain that made her partner's face years older than her actual age. "Gab?"
A breath. "You must think I've lost it." The bard whispered. "I'm sorry… I.. um.." Gabrielle paused. "Could you just stay here with me for a little while, please?" Just a little while, she repeated silently, watching the golden light dripping through the window go a little more crimson.
Xena settled back against the cushions, stretching her legs out slowly as her battle high wore off, and the abuse she'd forced on her body started to surface. She didn't understand what Gabrielle was doing, but just sitting quietly wasn't a bad idea.
One hand plucked at a bent piece of armor plate on her knee. She thought she might be bleeding somewhere, under all the mud and gore, but she wasn't sure. "It worked, Gab."
A faint smile. "Yes, it did." The bard leaned against her, watching a ruddy line creep across the floor. The shadows within the cabin were lengthening, and she found herself searching for the first hints of the blue of twilight in the air.
Xena drew in a breath, and released it. "We won." She felt the bard's head nod against her arm. "Damn, I'm tired."
"Me too." She watched a bloody stripe inch across the floor, and an errant breeze brought her the scent of torches, along with the ring of axes and the yelled orders.
"How's your back?"
"Hurts." Gabrielle admitted softly. "Everything does."
Xena shifted, and put an arm around her. "Jess said the rest of your forces are coming up… so's Dori."
Another faint nod. Gabrielle patiently willed the creeping line to move faster. Every muscle in her body was twisted into a knot, and if she could, by force of will, get the planet to turn faster and bring on the dusk, she surely would have.
"Let me get you s.." Xena started to stand. "Wh.. " She found herself pulled back into place, and she dropped back into the cushions with a thump. "Gabrielle!"
"Please just sit still."
Dark brows knit in patent confusion. "Are you sure you're okay? Did you get hit in the head?" Now Xena started checking her partner's skull out carefully, sliding fingers through the sweat stiffened locks. "Sit back there… "
Gabrielle refused to turn her head, keeping her eyes focused on the fading sheen on the window ledge, staring fixedly at it until it's wood slowly went from burnished mahogany, to a rich purple, to a darkness shrouded in shadow.
The very last bit of the sun loosed it's grip on her life, and slipped away to slumber, freeing her to the future. Gabrielle felt the tension ebb out of her, and she slumped bonelessly against Xena's armored form, a few tired tears escaping from her eyes. After a moment of shocked stillness, a faintly shaking hand touched her face, removing the moisture and tracing her cheek in wordless anguish. The bard let her eyes open, meeting the worried ones looking back at her. Xena's face was outlined in twilight shadows, faint glints of light reflecting off her pupils. "It's over." Gabrielle whispered.
Xena stroked her face in hesitant comfort.
"Ares told me.. if I didn't tell him what our plan was, he'd let you die before sundown." Gabrielle whispered. "And I lied to him."
Xena's lips tensed, as she watched Gabrielle's eyes fill with tears again. "That's why you wanted to come here."
A nod. Gabrielle took a shaky breath, and pointed to the window. "It's after sundown, Xena." Now, finally, she touched her partner, running her hands over the battered form "And you're here."
So I am. Xena mused. Despite what Ares predicted.
Despite what I believed myself. She admitted in silence. I never expected to survive this. Xena exhaled, remembering her vivid nightmare, herself dying at the gates of Amphipolis, staring into the bloody eye of the setting sun.
But here she was, in darkness, at peace.
With a faint shrug, Xena pushed the matter off for later study. "Can I get up and get some tea now?" She asked her exhausted soulmate. "And take off this damned armor?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle slowly pushed herself to her feet, and fumbled with the belt that held her scale armor snug to her body, her hands almost too tired to release it. After a few heartbeats, her shaking fingers were warmed by a familiar touch and she felt the pressure around her stomach release, then a weight she'd hardly acknowledged lifted off her shoulders as the cool draft from the window blew against her sweaty undertunic, chilling her aching body. "Ugh."
Xena tossed the armor over the back of a chair, then knelt and unbuckled the protective belt wrapped around her partner's waist. Gabrielle kept her eyes closed and simply stood there, her arms slack at her sides as the armor was removed. She felt the laces loosen on her boots and stepped out of them, flexing her toes against the wood floor with a sense of relief.
"C'mon." Xena rose and took her hand, guiding her into the wash room and lighting the several bowl candles perched inside. She quickly stripped off her own armor, then carefully pulled off the bard's bloodstained undertunic, and turned her, to see her injury. "Damn." The word escaped her, as she saw the angry, swollen wound that now spread halfway across the small of the smaller woman's back. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle curled her hands around the edge of the wooden tub and leaned against it. "You know… I used to sit up at night and wonder how you stood all the pain you've been in. I never really understood what you meant when you said, 'you just get used to it' .. I really didn't, Xena." She exhaled. "Now I do… you really do just get used to it."
"Hold still." Xena locked the part of her that was hurting for both of them away, and focused on the practical. She pulled the stopper from the end of the aqueduct and let the water fill the tub, then helped Gabrielle get into it. "Kneel… it wont' take long."
Gabrielle started to shiver in the cool water, and she gripped the edge of the wood and rested her head on it, as gentle hands scrubbed her skin with a spicy scented soap that held an unnerving note of home to a mind slowly sliding into shock.
She was barely concious of being lifted out of the water, even less so of being dried off, though the fabric of the linen struck odd chords of warmth against the chill she felt from the inside out. Softness settled over her shoulders, then she felt the surface of the bed's mattress under her hands as Xena set her down, and rolled her onto her side. She closed her eyes and let her fingers clench on the slightly nubbly surface of the pillow, then sensed Xena leaving. "No!"
"Shh." A hand on her shoulder, feeling incredibly warm. "I'm just going to start a fire in the fireplace, Gabrielle…and get my kit."
"Don’t leave me." The bard begged softly.
""I'm not. I'll be right here, okay? Just relax for a minute." The wooden floorboards creaked under the warrior's weight as she moved away, and Gabrielle waited in numb fear for what seemed an eternity until her footsteps returned, bringing a touch and a coldness on her back as her shirt was raised.
More pain. Gabrielle was too tired to even cry. All she could do was lie there until Xena was finished, and the covers were being drawn up around her shoulders bringing meager warmth to her fever chilled body. Xena put a hand on her arm and squeezed it a bit. "I'm going to clean up. I'll be right over there, okay?"
Gabrielle gathered her strength and turned her head, opening her eyes to gaze up at the candelit face above her. "Thank you." She blinked slowly. "I don't think I'm very coherent right now."
"Your cut's giving you a fever." Xena told her. "Not to mention every thing else that's going on.. but just take it easy, okay? It's over, Gabrielle… we won. We did it." She brushed a bit of pale hair out of the bard's glazed eyes. "We stopped him."
"We?" Gabrielle breathed in response.
"Very much we." Xena knelt at her side, resting her elbows on the bed and folding her hands together. "Let me go wash off, and we can talk about it."
"Okay." The bard painfully rolled onto her other side, so she could keep her eyes on her partner, and watched her walk back to the tub, and pull off her padded underlayer. The warm candlelight did nothing to disguise the bruises and cuts that covered the warrior's tall form, and Gabrielle was shocked to see how thin her soulmate had gotten, the long, curved ribs were very visible, and her collarbone stood out under her skin.
Xena pulled on a rough, dun colored overshirt and a pair of thick leggings and returned to the bedside, kneeling down again and regarding her silent patient. "You gonna be okay if I go get some things?"
"No." Gabrielle answered helplessly. "I'll go with you." She started to get up, and found herself pinned to the bed. "Xena, please… "
"Sh. Okay." Hands rearranged her covers. "Sit tight." Xena stood and walked to the door, easing it open and poking only her head outside. The town was packed with soldiers, and it didn't take her long to catch one of their eyes. "Bennu!"
The tall captain slogged over, leaning tiredly on his general's porch. "Genr'l… the gods were with us all t'day, I'll be telling you that." His face creased into a smile. "Ye were brilliant."
Xena's lips tensed into a bit of a wistful smile, part of her wanting to be out among the troops, absorbing the wondering admiration, knowing in her heart that it was due her, and feeling quite proud of herself because of it. "Thanks… it was a hard road, but damned if we didn't make it all the way through."
Bennu nodded. "Aye… and d'ye know, his men talk sweeter on ye than even we do?"
As planned. "Yeah, well." But she couldn't help but grin. "Listen, can you send someone with a double of whatever rations we're getting out over here? And ask Ephiny and Jessan to c'mon over."
"Aye, genr'l." Bennu saluted easily, a bloodstained fist touching his chest, before he turned and headed off with proud purpose. The rest of the troops were setting up camp, having moved Andreas' soldiers into the empty fields just north of the town. Xena looked up, as a motion caught her eyes and saw her banner being raised over the gates of Amphipolis, a bit of gold and shadows caught in the firelight as the last bit of twilight faded.
It looked… very much like it belonged.
Xena ducked back into the cabin and shut the door. Then she crossed to her armor, tossed in a pile with Gabrielle's and straightened it out, hanging it carefully on the hooks she'd set in the wooden walls for it. The plates were sadly battered, and bent, but she patted them affectionately as she set her sword on the table, and put the chakram down next to it. She peered at Gabrielle, whose eyes were now closed, and her brows creased in worry.
The wound in her back was bad, yes, but that wasn't enough to explain Gabrielle's mental state. Xena crossed to the bed and dropped to a knee again, watching the green eyes flutter open in frightened alarm. "Hey." She crooned soothingly, reaching under the covers for Gabrielle's hand. "It's okay."
The bard gazed back at her from across a forlorn gulf.
A knock came at the door, and Xena sighed. "C'mon in."
The wooden panel creaked open, and Ephiny poked her head in. "Hey you two." The Amazon regent padded over, and knelt at Xena's side, giving her injured friend a big smile. "Boy, am I glad to see you."
This brought a smile to Gabrielle's face, and she reached out to tangle her fingers with Ephiny's. "Likewise." She murmured. "Thanks for sending that note through that you guys were okay.. I had a couple of sleepless nights there."
Ephiny snorted. "We had it easy.. once we let his army pass, we hassled the rear flanks by night until I thouht they were gonna go nuts. I never knew Pony was that creative… but we were really worried about you." Her eyes shifted to her left. "You too."
Xena nodded shortly. "You did a great job."
"No no.. you, my friend, did the great job." Ephiny disagreed, putting a hand on Xena's shoulder. "We crept up close to listen to their camp at night, and let me tell you - there were a lot of men in that army who were convinced they were on the wrong side."
"They were." Gabrielle rasped softly.
"After all that happened, we were a little surprised you offered them terms, though." Ephiny commented casually. "Given the circumstances, they really didn't have the right to expect it."
Xena felt both sets of eyes on her, and she realized Gabrielle hadn't expected her to do that either.
"I outgrew being a homicidal maniac, I guess." She enunciated the words carefully. "Sorry to dissapoint everyone."
Ephiny blinked. Gabrielle's hand wrapped itself around her partner's wrist, and tightened it's hold. "Xena, that's not what Eph meant… I mean, this was war, and these guys did some horrible things… remember that little boy?"
"So I should have killed them all?" Xena stood, breaking her hold and crossed to the window, staring out it and turning her back very deliberately on them. "Nice to know."
Ephiny gave Gabrielle a stricken look, her hazel eyes widening in helpless anguish.
Curiously, Gabrielle felt her swaying world stabliize, and she made a small gesture towards the door, and patted her friend's hand comforting. She watched Ephiny slip out, then she eased herself upright in bed and got to her feet unsteadily, making her way over to the still, angry form at the window and resting her hand on Xena's back.
Eyes wet with tears looked back at her, profoundly hurt.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle said, quietly and sincerely. "Watching those men surrender to you was one of the proudest moments of my life."
"You didn't expect it." Xena accused softly.
"No." Came the honest reply. "I'd given up on hoping for the best. I was just hoping for not to be the worst." She put her other hand on Xena's stomach. "I was so knotted up with thoughts of losing you, it never occurred to me to even care about what you did to Andreas and his men."
Xena closed her eyes, spilling round, bright tears down her face. "Funny. All I could think of when I did that was how much I've learned from you, and how much you've changed me."
Gabrielle stared at her in silence, unsure of what to say. Finally she sighed. "Xena… as much as it's a profound honor for me to think I… anyway, I honestly believe what you did today was because that's just who you are… and because it was the very right thing to do."
They gazed at each other as the quiet lengthened, absorbed in each other's eyes as the sounds outside faded to inconsequence. Only a light knock on the door broke it, and Xena pulled Gabrielle into a hug as she turned her head towards the sound. "Come in."
Jessan poked his head in, golden eyes finding them. "Got someone who wants to see you real bad." He slipped into the room and held up a squirming bundle. "We got word there's a group coming up from the valley, too."
"Mama." Dori had spotted her mother and wailed.
"Oof." Gabrielle turned and released her soulmate, taking her daughter in her arms and wincing as the motion jarred her back. "Hello, sweetheart… " Impulsively, she hugged Dori, and kissed her on the head. "It's okay… you're home now." She looked up. "Thanks, Jess… is Elani okay?"
"Right as rain… and really smug about her part in releasing the dam." Jessan told her. "Listen, you guys must be tired. Everything's going great, so just relax, okay?" He glanced from one friend to the other, sensing the tension, and sighing. "I'll be back later."
Then he was gone. Gabrielle turned back towards Xena, who had resumed staring out the window. "Xena?"
The shoulders shifted, but the warrior didn't turn.
Dori, however, stretched her uninjured hand out imperiously. "Boo!"
Blue eyes peeked sullenly through disordered bangs. Xena turned and walked over, offering a finger to her daughter, who grabbed it and tugged. "Good! Boo come." Dori warbled.
"Xena, can… " Gabrielle sucked in a breath as a jolt of pain arced up her back. "You take her I.. "
One arm curled around Dori, and the other slipped around her shoulders and held her upright. "Back to bed." Xena murmured, helping her over and easing her down onto the mattresses soft surface. She pulled the quilt up around Gabrielle's body and tucked her in.
The bard was shivering, and her fever seemed to have overcome her again. She held onto Xena's hand and brought it up to her lips, pressing them against the knuckles. "I love you." She uttered, feeling the bones and muscles shift under her grip and the edge of Xena's thumb brush gently across her mouth. She heard the door open, and Xena give quiet orders, then it shut again. The warrior left her side, then returned, and she could hear Dori's contented gurglings as Xena seated herself on the floor next to the bed with the baby in her lap.
Mist green eyes opened halfway, to see a biscuit spread with butter and honey being offered. She shook her head and let her eyes close again.
Xena pulled her hand back, and regarded the injured woman pensively. Her mind was still in turmoil. The pain and disillusionment she'd felt at Gabrielle's and Ephiny's words had cut deep, hurting her in places she scarcely knew existed before.
Right now, Gabrielle was injured, and she needed an emotional support Xena wasn't sure she was capable of at the moment. The darkness was still so close.
The bards hand slipped out from under the covers and curled around her biceps. The warrior exhaled, and nodded just a little, as she set aside her feelings. She stood, and walked around the other side of the bed, slipping into it and sliding over to where Gabrielle was curled on her side. Then she slid an arm around her partner as Dori snuggled up against her other side.
Gabrielle eased over onto her other side and reached out, wrapping her body around her partner's and craving the warmth to combat the chills racking her. Her painfully tense muscles very slowly started to relax as Xena's touch eased them and she buried her face into the rough fabric covering Xena's chest, finding at last the sweet comfort she sought as the warrior kissed her head, and hugged her closer.
She surrendered to it utterly.
Xena regarded the ceiling soberly, watching the flickering light of the fire paint shadows across the wooden beams.
Her eyes drifted to the strained, exhausted pair cuddled against her, and felt the fracturing inside her own soul. But at what cost?
A sigh. Well, Xena… you're here. They're here.
Work with what you've got.