Body Heart and Soul
They heard the army approaching long before they saw them. Xena was seated comfortably on Argo’s back, hands resting in front of her as the approaching clatter of hooves and wheels on the road grew louder.
“Don’t care who knows they’re here, huh?” Gabrielle had her gloved hands tucked under her arms to keep them warm, and she had her cloak wrapped around her.
“They assume theyre bigger than anyone out there. Not sure they got a good look at how many troops we had.” Xena responded.
“Can’t we just go kill them?” Ares asked, from the back of his inky dark steed, who was steadfastly ignoring the weather as though it wasn’t there. “We’re wasting time.”
“Wont’ have long to wait.” Xena lifted her hand, and watched her signal sent forward, from the captain who was seated just in view, observing her like a hawk. “Here they come.”
There was an almost silent shiver of motion around them, as the army prepared themselves to move. Xena glued her eyes on the edge of the road at the horizon, and she left her hand up, fingers outstretched.
Motion at the horizon line, and then the vanguard of the opposing troops came into sight, a wedge of riders spanning the road, oblivious to the silent, waiting warriors waiting down the slope for them.
“Don’t they see us?” Ares asked, in a low tone as he leaned towards Xena.
“Snow on the road is blinding them. We’re in the shadows.” The warrior answered, in the same low tone. “That’s why I had them clear as much snow as possible from the ground.”
“Mmph.” Ares studied the ground around them, trampled into mud by many hooved feet, then he glanced back at Xena, seeing the tall body stiffen and her center of balance move forward over her knees. “Now?”
Xena watched the first mounted troops hit a slightly narrower part of the road, and she closed her fingers into a fist, then took a deep breath and let out a battle yell so loud it made Iolaus put back his ears.
They charged forward, voices picking up her call and a rising tide of noise rushed the road as Xena’s army thundered up the slope and into the enemy troops, overpowering the late reacting and suddenly turning men who suddenly found themselves at war.
Xena had her sword out and she circled to her left as Argo got to the road and she headed right into the front ranks, aware of Ares at her right and Gabrielle a horse length behind her.
It was dark. The clouds made it even darker but there was a hint of dull gray light in the east and Xena could see perfectly well anyway. She backhanded her sword at the first enemy soldier she came on and powered right through his hastily raised blade and bit deep into his shoulder.
She heard the sound of bows releasing, and fast after that, screams of horses going down.
Two men came at her, as a blaze of torchlight outlined her form and she engaged one of them, watching the other go down as he was cut in half by the Sword of War, hearing a deep, happy chuckle from Ares as he shoved the man out of his saddle and watched the bodyparts clatter down the slope.
A flash of motion came past her, and then she heard the distinctive sound of Gabrielle’s staff connecting, instinct making her pull Argo around in a tight circle only to watch an enemy body tumble out of his saddle as his horse galloped along up the road.
A brief look at Gabrielle’s face, and widened eyes made her whirl around again, ducking as a spear nearly caught her in the throat. She let the shaft of it slide over her shoulder and readied her sword as the man holding it came up against her and tried to pull it back to sweep her off Argo’s back.
Too fast for her to spit him. She quickly reversed the sword in her hand and slammed the hilt against his armored chest, adding the impact of her shoulder as they came together.
He coughed and let go of the spear, grabbing for her instead with both hands, but she was already past him and driving her backward facing blade into his spine and then wrenching it sideways as he came past.
Another solid whack and she moved on, a line of her troops shoving the enemy soldiers down the other side of the road and fighting with them as the Amazons coolly sat tight in their rocky hiding spots and carefully aimed and fired.
To their credit the enemy soldiers in the second and third ranks had hauled their horses off the far side of the road and scrambled off them, aiming back at the hidden archers on Xena’s side. They were hampered though, by the mounted men who were hauling around to head back up the road, getting away from their attackers and yelling for the wagons and support behind them to turn around.
“C’mon.” Xena pointed with her sword. “That’s the guy in charge.” She kneed Argo off the side of the road and circled the hand to hand battles, with Ares and Gabrielle tight at her heels. They circled the archers as fast as they could, ducking to avoid the arrows as the fighters turned to aim at them.
It was just too dark for them to see. The leader sensed them catching up and he turned, putting his back to the trees and raising his sword as they came at him.
Xena didn’t hesitate. She guided Argo right at him and lifted her own sword, at the last minute leaping free of her saddle and slamming into his armored form as her momentum took him out of his saddle and them both into the bushes behind him.
He grunted as they hit and rolled free, coming up to his feet and swinging at her. Xena reached up to release her cloak as it caught on the branches and felt it pull free as she intercepted his swing and drove the blade up and past her.
This close and he could see her. He took a sudden step back. “A woman?” He blurted, in a tone of disbelief.
“More of one than you can handle.” Xena replied, switching her sword from her right hand to her left and planting a roundhouse punch to the side of his face. He was thrown back in utter surprise and stumbled into the snow covered bush, flailing his arms.
Xena went after him, as he came back at her with a hastily pulled dagger, displaying a pit fighter’s skills as they closed and his arm moved with flickering speed towards her.
It made Xena smile, hearing that edge to that voice. She stopped in mid motion and sent herself skyward, rolling over the captain’s head and landing on her feet as he lunged, aiming a kick at his rear and booting him forward towards Ares, who picked him up and tossed him back at her.
He rolled up to his feet and slashed at her, and she went with the motion, then she reversed course and rolled her sword over her wrist, bringing the point down to chop into the fingers he had clutched around the dagger, cutting his hand through.
His mouth opened with shock, and he stumbled back into the bushes again losing his balance and falling onto his back, his other hand fumbling and finding his sword to raise it.
Jessan was there, then, with two other forest dwellers and six of Xena’s troops, forming a circle around the bush as Xena leaped over the man’s sprawled legs and grabbed hold of his armor, hauling him upright as she kicked his sword out of his hand.
Using the momentum she shoved him against the thickest part of the bush, then drew one hand back and applied a nerve block to his neck in a rapid move. “Okay.” She said. “You’ve got thirty seconds to tell me what your mission is, and where you’re going or you’re going to die.”
The man’s face was already turning red, and his hands twitched violently. “Who are you?” He gasped out.
Ares came over and rested his elbow on Xena’s shoulder. “She’s Xena. I’d cough up the info if I were you or I’ll make you only wish you were going to die.” He smiled at the man and wiggled the fingers of one hand, which let off a distinct blue sparkle, which extended to his eyes , making the side of Xena’s face faintly glow from it.
He stared. “Who are you?”
Xena had to give him points for guts. “He’s Ares, son of Zeus. The God of War” She said in a dry tone. “If I were you I wouldn’t get him pissed off either.”
“Aw, Xena. That’s the nicest thing you ever said about me.” Ares knuckles brushed her cheek and he winked at her.
Gabrielle was standing to one side, her staff at ready, her cloak hanging back off her shoulders and her hood down. She saw the man’s expression change as he realized who Ares was and he dropped to his knees, hands grasping at his throat frantically. “I think he got it, hon.”
“I think you’re right.” Xena reached over and released him “Tell your men to put their weapons down.”
He sucked in a breath without even hesitating. “Yield!” He coughed out. “Yield! All of you! I command it!”
“Aw.” Ares sighed. “Does that mean the fight’s over?”
The sound of fighting slowly faded and Xena could hear weapons dropping to the icy ground. “Maybe.” She answered Ares. “Depends on what else this guy tells us.”
The sky was slowly growing lighter, and Xena’s men took advantage of that in picking up the dropped weapons, and dragging bodies off the road into the ditch on the other side.
Gabrielle let out a whistle of her own, and lifted her staff, hearing the sounds of pebbles skittering down as the Amazons left their perches and headed her way, dodging around the troop captains, now unarmed, who were being hustled over to where Xena was.
Redden came over, sheathing his sword. “All accounted for, Genr’l.” He said. “We’ll round em all up and sit em down for ya.” He gave Ares a brief look, and a polite salute, which made the God of War chuckle deep in his throat.
“Thanks.” Xena said.
“What’s your name?” Xena asked the captain.
He glowered at her. “Heraldas.”
“All right, Heraldas.” Xena went over and retrieved her cloak, thrusting her sword into the snow and then wiping it down on the cloth before she reseated the blade in her sheath. “Your shield says you’re from the port city. You work for some guy called Pinu?”
“Xena, we’re going to go up the road a bit.” Jessan gently interrupted her. “My guys hear something.”
“Go.” Xena said. “Be careful.”
Jessan grinned. “You too Ch… “ He paused and furtively glanced at Ares. “Xena. Bye.” He trotted off, motioning the rest of the forest dwellers to follow him which they immediately did.
“Now.” Ares stepped closer to the man, putting his hands on his hips. “What’s your scam, mortal.” He said. “Your buddy there think he’s something special?”
Heraldas swallowed visibly. “I don’t know what you mean, oh great one.” He said. “We were sent out to subdue some renegades, is all. They sent threats to our city.” He added. “We were just heading back home when you attacked us.”
This, he directed at Xena, who smiled at him.
“All right.” Ares said. “Who cares?” He said. “So tell me something I’m really interested in. I’m looking for two chicks.”
Heraldas peeked up at him furtively. “Women, great one?”
“Yeah.” Ares said. “I like women, if you didn’t get that from the company I keep.” He said. “So I want two more. Two that some of your friends might have kidnapped.”
Heraldas turned dead white. “We steal no women.” He protested. “All we have come with us willingly. These are hard times, and we take them to a better place.”
“Which is?” Ares said.
The man looked right and left, then up at him. “I know not, great one. I am an army captain. We don’t have any contact with the.. “ He paused.
“Foragers?” Gabrielle suggested.
Heraldas eyed her, then turned away dismissively. “Great one, you should go to our city. I know many there would worship you.” His voice turned wheedling “Travel with my army. We are men, who understand and bend knee to you.”
Ares regarded him. “Where are the closest bunch of those foragers to here?” He asked, with quiet seriousness. “I know there’s some nearby.”
He nodded. “Three leagues, perhaps. We passed them on our way. But they had no women.” He said. “Only some boys, and a few animals.”
“You’re lying.” Gabrielle said. “We know there were at least a few women with them.”
He didn’t even look at her this time. Gabrielle dropped her staff down to a horizontal position and whipped the end of it at him, catching him in the side of the head and splitting his ear. A splash of blood hit the white, churned and frosty ground as he fell sideways in shock.
“Good hit, your Maj.” Solari said. “Buddy, we aint gods but you better answer our Queen or you’re gonna get your man’s parts ripped off if you don’t.”
But he shook his head. “There were no women.” He said. “And thank the gods, none like you.”
Ares turned towards Gabrielle. “He’s lying?” He asked her, cocking up one eyebrow. “C’mon Gabrielle. You’ve always had a finger on the pulse. Or whatever that stupid mortal saying is.”
“He’s lying.” Gabrielle repeated. “I heard two of his men talking about how we were uppity like the ones they had nearby.”
Ares patted her cheek. Then he turned, and with a casual, throw away gesture extended his fingers towards the man and in a moment, he was twitching and then silent and still on the ground. “Let’s go find those two men, huh? Maybe they’ll have a better attitude.
Cait crawled up onto the ridge, carefully placing her boots on the icy surface as she got her head over the skyline and peered over it.
It was dark and snowing. Hard to say if anything was down there, but as she stood there a bit indecisive the wind shifted a little and she caught the scent of wood smoke.
Ah. She turned and motioned her companions forward, and after a moment and a curse or two Nala, Hercules and Iolaus were up next to her. “Smell their fire.” She whispered. “Over there, see? Under that rock bit.”
Hercules shaded his eyes and blinked. “No I d.. oh. A couple of sparks, yeah.” He said. “You think that’s them?”
Cait shrugged. “It’s really impossible to tell you know. It’s someone.” She prepared to edge over the ridge and go down the other side. “Let me go see.”
Hercules reached out a hand but she was already gone, wrapping her cloak around her and making her way through the drifting snow towards the dimly seen fire. “Wish she wouldn’t do that.”
“Might as well wish you were a fish.” Nala stated. “Should we go after her? If she falls into that camp hard to say who’ll it will end up worse for.”
“We should.” Iolaus said, as he pulled his hood up and went after Cait, his profile breaking the skyline briefly before he disappeared.
“Guess that’s that.” Hercules sighed. “Hope the horses’ll be okay.” He lifted his big frame over the snow covered hilltop, keeping to his feet as he made his way down with Nala right behind him. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“Maybe we will.”
Cait wished, somewhat vainly, that the ground wasn’t covered with quite so much snow. She was crawling slowly closer to her target, the fire now close enough for her to hear the snaps and smell the heat of it.
Not quite close enough to feel the heat though, it was tightly made, and the wind was blowing to the side, away from where Cait was.
She paused and waited, listening intently.
Shift of skin against cloth, and a sigh.
Then, a voice. “We’re gunna have to hunt tomorra.”
“Shh.” Another voice answered. “Don’t wake them all up. Don’t want to hear em whining.”
Cait edged a bit closer.
“Cut cross country, we should. Get back to the city fast.” The first voice responded. “Get these to the block, get our money.”
“No sense trying to find more now. Too much going on.” The second said. “Damned soldiers. Coulda taken us with im.”
Cait could feel the snow melting under her, and she grimaced a little, as it soaked into the front of her shirt. Her fingers were beginning to numb, and she flexed her hands, putting her dagger down for a moment as she rubbed her fingertips together.
“Yeh, bastards.” The first one said. “We got enough water? Creek’s about frozen over. Let me get another bucket.” He got up with surprising rapidity and started out right towards Cait, a bucket swinging from one hand.
“Bother.” Cait muttered to herself, glancing to either side and then quickly moving herself over against a fallen log mostly covered in snow.
More cold, more wet. But her dark cloak hid her and he passed by without even a sideways glance, only to freeze in mid motion at a muffled sneeze not far away.
“Joh? That you?” The man turned and looked over his shoulder back at the fire. “That you just sneeze?”
“Me? No.” The other man stood up. “You hear something? Wasn’t from that lot in the wagon Ida heard em. Someone out there?”
“Let me look.” The first man came back over and picked up a wrapped torch, thrusting the end of it into the fire and waiting for it to catch.
Cait took advantage of that to slide over to the other side of the log, then move into the trees and get behind a pile of rocks opposite where the noise had come from. She figured the rest of her group was doing the same, then blinked in surprise when Iolaus simply strolled out and walked over to them, waving in the friendliest of manners. “Hoh.” She let out a grunt under her breath. “What’s he doing?”
“Evening there, gents.” Iolaus said. “I’m lost. You have any idea where the road is?”
The men had froze on seeing him, now both moved between him and the dimly seen wagon, standing shoulder to shoulder. “Who’re you?”
“My names Iolaus.” He cheerfully supplied. “I’m an itinerant storyteller. Most of the time I wander around Macedonia but I just came through the pass back there and now I’m lost.”
He had stopped just shy of the fire, and had his hands hitched in his belt, his cloak draped over his body. He had no obvious weapons showing, and just a small dagger at his belt as most men traveling would wear.
“We can’t help you.” The closer of the men said. “Be on with ya.”
Iolaus cocked his head to one side. “So you’re lost too?” He asked. “Hey, maybe we can be lost together.. “ He started forward again, until he was close enough to the fire to have it reflect off his skin. “Can you at least tell me where I am?”
Cait caught motion from the corner of her eye, and she focused on it, her eyes picking out Hercules’s tall, muscular form easing behind the rocks where the men were camped, and she nodded a little, approving of the strategy. “Right.”
Turning her head slowly, she spotted Nala behind her, tucked up against the fallen trees as she was. After a moment she carefully eased herself up onto a piece of the log she was near, getting herself up off the ground and out of the snow.
“We’re in west Thrace.” The man gruffly answered Iolaus. “Road’s just a bit through the trees there. No space here for anyone else. Sorry.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of intruding.” Iolaus smiled knowingly at them. “I can see you two are cozy there. I’ll just warm my hands up a minute, then be on my way.” He held his hands out while the two of them slowly turned over his words.
“Hey. What you mean there?” One said, indignantly. “What did you just say we were?”
Iolaus smiled at them, and started to back away. “Now now.. no harm done lads. I’ve had it said of me in the past too. It’s all one under Zeus’s eye.”
The two men started after him, drawing swords. “I”ll teach you to say things like that.” The leader said, as they circled the fire and advanced on Iolaus.
“Hey, c’mon guys!” Iolaus started moving faster. “I won’t tell anyone! Honest!”
He was quite good. Cait had to admit to herself. He’d drawn the two guards away from the fire and given Hercules a chance to slip past them and climb up onto the wagon to inspect it’s contents. She saw his profile briefly raise up over edge of the buckboard, then he disappeared.
Cait wasn’t sure what, if anything, he expected her and Nala to do, so she decided to do nothing, just keep hidden and ready in case her sword or knife were needed.
And then it all changed, when tall, armored figures suddenly appeared around the wagon and a call rang out. “Intruder!”
“Oh bother.” Cait said, getting ready to stand up. “I knew it was too good to be true.”
Iolaus dodged around the two men and started for the wagon, and as they chased after him Cait and Nala jumped up and engaged with them, the silence of the night broken abruptly by the ring of steel on steel and yells of rage.
Cait had just dodged a knife at her face when she caught sight of Hercules up on top of the wagon again, and then, as the moon slid briefly out from behind the clouds she heard an arrow release and then saw him jerk in mid air.
“Herc!” Iolaus saw it to, reaching the wagon and vaulting on top of it, grabbing for his friend as torches flared and the sound of crossbows cocking rang out loud and clear across the snowy ground.
“Enemies be still or you will be spitted.” A man’s voice yelled. “We have you surrounded!”
Cait looked around and found it was true. Men were stepping out from the trees and they had longbows and crossbows, all of them pointed at her, and Nala, and the two men up on the wagon. She looked up and Nala looked right back at her, understanding clear in the encounter.
Cait lowered her sword.
One of the soldiers brought a torch close. “It’s a woman.” He said, in a tone of surprise.
“Two of them.” Nala also put her sword down, edging over to get next to Cait. “Who were doing no harm to anyone.”
“Consorting with gods? You do no good for anyone.” The man said. “Get that one in chains.” He pointed at Iolaus with his sword. “Put these chits in the wagon with the rest, and get moving. You’re lucky we found you.”
Nala and Cait exchanged glances, as Cait shifted her grip on her sword and felt her body tense up.
What should she do?
What would Xena do?
Cait had no question in her mind what her idol would do, and it would involve quite a lot of blood and various bits and pieces of the soldiers around her being scattered about the snow staining it crimson. There was no way…
The soldiers moved towards her and Nala, ignoring the fact they were armed, leering at them a bit. Cait drew in a breath and sheathed her blade, remembering an image once of her holding a rope and Xena being led by it, hands bound.
“C’mon ya bit of a thing.” She didn’t resist when one of the men poked her with the end of his spear. “Into the wagon with ya. Any luck and they’ll feed ya some in there.”
Nala was watching her closely. Cait met her eyes, and very briefly, winked, getting a rapid eye roll back, as the other Amazon meekly submitted to the shove herself towards the wagon.
On top, two men were grabbing hold of Iolaus, whose whole focus was on the limp form of Hercules lying across the back of the wagon, legs draped over the edge of it.
“Good thing that’un left us them dark arrows.” The captain of the troops stated, with a sense of satisfaction. “Got that Hercules right off. We’ll get good money for him at the gates, that’s for sure.”
Xena stood quietly, arms folded, as she watched the dawn light outline a landscape in black and silver and white, a stiff wind starting to pick up and blow branches against each other and dump snow on the ground underneath them.
The army was getting ready to move, their wagons already up on the road. The enemy soldiers were seated on the ground, stripped of their weapons and apparently completely cowed by Ares nearby presence.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked.
“What makes you think something is?” Her partner eyed her, the faintest of smiles appearing on her face.
“Oh, Xena please. Like I’ve never traveled with you before and don’t know that look on your face.” The bard retorted. “Is it the fact they surrendered before you got a really good fight in?”
Xena put her hands on her hips as she half turned to face Gabrielle.
The bard’s eyes twinkled at her. After a moment of that, Xena poked the tip of her tongue out and then turned all the way around and scanned the horizon again. “I wish I knew what was wrong.” She admitted. “I feel like eyeballs are glued to my back.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle got serious, since that was nothing to make jokes about. Xena’s odd, weird, sometimes mystical and occasionally completely self made up feelings more often than not ended them up into trouble and always had.
Sometimes, she just knew. Other times, she convinced herself that she just knew, but in the end it didn’t matter because it was what it was. “These guys seemed to give up pretty easy.” She remarked. “Even with Ares here.”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “Get behind me, willya?”
Gabrielle did, bringing her staff up crossways across her body as she took up position between Xena and the nearest tree, having the tree at her back, and her watching Xena’s. Watching her partner she could see the muscles of the side of her face twitching and the edges of her ears moving and she knew if she could see her profile her nostrils would be flaring out to catch the wind blowing in both their faces.
Now she could smell the wax coating of Xena’s cloak and the wool, and as the warrior turned slightly she moved also seeing the fabric shift as Xena straightened up and her body stiffened.
The area looked normal. The army was moving about their various tasks, and they were stowing the bundles of arrows taken from the enemy into wagons as two of the wagon leaders loaded on waterskins from the nearby creek they’d cut ice on that morning.
There was nothing that seemed out of place, and yet, Xena’s hand had lifted and shifted her cloak to clear the hilt of her sword, and she could see the curve of her hand as it rested on the chakram at her belt.
Ares appeared from just past the fire, spotting Xena and angling his steps towards her.
Gabrielle could see the warrior’s eyes focus on him, then slip past and then she heard the sudden intake of breath as Xena let out a yell of warning and lunged into motion.
Gabrielle waited just a split second until she saw Xena’s hand come down from her sword and start to reach out and she looked at her angle and pointed into the trees beyond the creek. “There!” She let out a yell of her own as the army started to react. “We’re being attacked!”
Instantly, Solari was at her side, bow out, arrow nocked. She drew her arm back and without hesitation let fly in the direction Gabrielle was pointing just as a wave of enemy soldiers swept out of the trees and arrows came flying back in the other direction.
One larger than the rest, and heading right at Ares who had stopped in reaction to Xena’s motion and turned towards her.
He seemed a perfect target, all in black, outlined against the silver and white. The arrow was straight and true and the length of the head of it away from the God of War’s chest when it was grabbed from mid air by Xena’s hand.
Next instant, she crashed full into him and took them both the ground as the rest of the Amazons joined Gabrielle behind a fallen tree and fired over it.
She saw a figure in dark gray leap over the edge of the camp, as the enemy they had subdubed got up and joined the fight, and she saw where he was aiming and without a lot of thought she was up and jumping over the log.
He had his bow out and was already aiming and she reached him through a cloud of arrows that peppered her on every side as she brought her staff around and he sensed her presence.
He turned his head and glared at her. “Stop!”
Gabrielle didn’t even pause. She got the end of her staff and smashed it against the crossbow he was carrying, feeling a heavy sting in her hands at the impact. Then she was up right against him and slammed her elbow against his head as he scrambled to react, obviously shocked at the attack.
He dropped the bow and pulled a dagger out and she was too close to use her staff so she ducked to one side, but he anticipated her and the blade was moving too fast for her to get out of it’s way.
Then he was being picked up and moved and was gone, and she caught her balance and followed, whacking him on the back as Xena slammed him against a rock and the dagger went spinning away.
The warrior continued her motion and yanked the bowman back towards her, then tossed him against the stone again, backhanding him across the face as he reached out for her.
He thumped against the rack and stared at her. “Xena!”
She smiled grimly and grabbed the hand clasping at her. “Have we met?” She asked, having a good idea who he was regardless.
“No.” He said, staring past her. “Why did you stop me?” He snarled. “He’s not your friend.”
“No.” Xena felt it go a little quiet around her. “Neither are you.”
“You wont stop us.” He responded, in all that quiet. “It’s the end. Join us.”
Xena knew if she looked around, the figures would be still, as her opponent took them for a moment out of time.
“He’ll just use you.” The man said. “You know it.”
She could sense Gabrielle behind her, could sense Ares not far away, and knew he was watching her. She took a breath and bore down, closing her eyes and wanting the noise back and in that breath it was. “It doesn’t matter.” She said, raising a fist and smashing it against his face.
He was too surprised to stop her and he bounced back against the stone, reeling off balance and falling to one side, the snow absorbing his fall for an instant, and then, seemingly, absorbing him as well.
Xena turned as Gabrielle collided with her, the bard’s pale eyes wide and startled “Hey!”
“Oh.” Gabrielle said. “That was weird.. I thought for a minute..”
“Yeah. Later.” The warrior told her. “Right now let’s not get clobbered.”
The army was now at their backs and repelling the attack, heavy fighters coming over and going toe to toe with the bowmen who had come out of the trees. There was no yells, and no sound save the crunch of boots on the dead branches and the dull thunks and clangs of weapons in flight.
Gabrielle heard the sound of Xena drawing her sword, that distinctive whoosh and ting as the blade cleared the scabbard and she got herself around two fighting men and behind her partner as she engaged a third.
The man in gray was gone, she realized, and she looked down as her foot encountered an obstacle, finding herself standing on the crossbow he’d dropped in the fight. She kept her weight on it and swung her staff against the head of the man fighting next to her, sending him to the ground and freeing up Redder from the battle.
“Thank ya!” The captain saluted her briefly with his sword, before he swung it at an enemy soldier who had gotten up and was trying to take a spear from one of their own. “Smarmy bastards!”
Gabrielle felt a touch on her side and she glanced over to see Xena there, her head sweeping side to side to view the battle.
Two whistles, then three short ones,. “Kill them all!” The warrior added in a bellow. “Coward’s deserve it!”
The army roared in response, and now a second wave of Xena’s troops charged the attackers, moving past their general and driving the enemy back towards the trees.
Xena hopped up onto the rock to watch, her sword in her hand. They outnumbered the enemy significantly, and she could see the bowmen already retreating, their weapons clutched in one hand as they ducked through the trees with Xena’s forces chasing them.
There were bodies all over the ground where she was. A few hers, mostly theirs, many of the troops they’d captured having fallen as they tried to get re-armed.
The Amazons gathered around them, bright eyed, and pleased. Pasi was going from body to body retrieving arrows and Solari was cleaning her sword off on her cloak before resheathing it. “Y’know, one thing about this cold stuff.” She remarked. “Got something to wash the gunk off and something to wipe it down yeah?”
“Yeah.” Pasi agreed. “Good fight. Don’t know what they were thinking trying to jump us.”
Xena sheathed her own sword, unblooded in the fight, as Ares came up to stand next to her. “That was..”
“Yeah.” The God of War cut her off. “Thanks.” He added, grudgingly. “Didn’t want to go through that nursey nursey thing of yours again.”
Xena nodded. “Move out!” She ordered the army. “Lets get after them!” She glanced at Jessan, who had come up dusting his hands off on his battlecoat. “Don’t leave anyone living here.”
“You got it, Chosen.” Jessan said, firmly. “There’s a lot of scummy stuff going on with these guys. They were drawing the rest of them in.”
“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “It’s becoming a little clearer who’s on what side.”
They were all shoved into one wagon, as it turned out, with only one little boy inside it. He scrambled back away from the when they entered, eyes wide, and huddled at the back of the dirty space as the soldiers threw in first the bleeding Hercules, then Iolaus, then the two Amazons.
The hatch slammed behind them.
Inside the wagon had a thin layer of straw on the bottom and a bucket in the corner that stank.
Iolaus exhaled. “Not how I wanted today to end up.”
“I saw in the other wagon before they put me in this one.” Cait said, in a quiet voice. “I think they’re in there.”
“Doesn’t really help now.” Iolaus knelt beside the unconscious Hercules, examining the arrow sticking out of him. “This is from Hade’s realm.”
Cait edged closer, looking briefly over at the boy and giving him a smile. “It’s all right. We’re not going to hurt you.”
“The arrow is?” Nala asked, ignoring the kid.
“Yeah.” Iolaus exhaled. “It’ll keep going inside him until he fades out.”
“Fades out?” Nala frowned. “Is that like..”
“Something like that.” Iolaus cut her off. “We’ve got to get it out of him.” He looked around the inside of the wagon. “Anyone got a bit of candle?”
Cait fished in her belt pouch, which she’d been left along with her belt knife and, to her befuddlement her sword. “Here you are.” She handed over a hand span long wax candle. “Got that just before we left. Most if its there.”
Nala had been left her weapons as well, though Iolaus and Hercules had been completely stripped of theirs.
Made no sense, really. Cait pulled out her flint and striker and offered that as well. “Or I could do it for you.” She said.
“Would you mind?” Iolaus held the candle out and put a bit of his waxed cloak under it to keep the sparks from the straw. “Gotta be careful. Wouldn’t take much to make this gunk go up in flames.”
“Too right.” Cait carefully struck sparks at the candle, and the third one hit the cup and wick and it started to burn. She cupped her hand around it as it caught and the inside of the wagon grew in clarity from the dim gray light coming in through cracks in the boards.
There was a lot of blood on Hercules’s chest. Nala pulled out her waterskin and uncapped it. “Hope someone kind finds those horses.” She commented, with a sigh. “Glad we didn’t tie them.”
Iolaus put the candle on a bare area of the wood, dripping a few drops of wax first to hold it in place. Then he held his hands out to Nala and took a little water into his cupped hands scrubbing them briskly. “Got a.. ah.”
Cait handed over her dagger. “Had that done to me once.” She said, in a mild tone. “Here.” She pulled aside her thick overtunic, exposing a long healed scar. “They had to burn it closed.”
“Whoa.” Nala’s eyes widened.
“Mm.” The younger Amazon agreed. “Xena did it. I only just remember it hurting and Gabrielle taking hold of me.”
Iolaus gave her a respectful glance, before he started running the blade through the fire, balancing carefully as the wagon started to move. “Nice.”
“They’re in a hurry.”
“G’oin to Pinu.” The boy spoke up, suddenly. “Gonna eatcha.”
“Not hardly.” Nala said. “I’ll cut his tongue out if he tries.” She shifted around and started clearing the cloth off from around the arrow. “That’s wicked looking.”
“It is.” Cait had dribbled water from her skin around the shaft protruding from the demigod’s chest, the surface moving faintly but steadily. “Is it metal?”
“Forged in Hade’s hearth.” Iolaus examined the knife, then shifted around, to let the light fall on the arrow. “Stupid bastard. I know how Xena feels now.”
They watched as he took a deep breath, and, with a pained grimace, gently started cutting around the arrow shaft protruding from Hercules’ chest. Blood spurted from the cut and started to roll down to the straw, but not even a twitch moved his face as he lay there still.
Cait tried to imagine what had been like, when she’d undergone the same process. She’d been unconscious, but in a faint echoy way she seemed to remember hearing voices and the pressure of hands against her flesh.
Xena’s voice, quiet and calm, and Gabrielle’s, full of compassion. And Ephiny’s, since she’d been with them escaping from the village capture.
Would Hercules remember hearing their voices? Cait reached over to gently clasp his hand with her own. “It’ll be all right.” She said, not entirely sure if she was talking to the injured man or to Iolaus, whose face was flinching at every cut he made. “After all, mine was.”
Outside they heard the drover’s yelling and felt the wagon moving faster. Iolaus crouched closer, lifting his elbows so the motion wouldn’t skew his aim. “Know what I wish?” He said, as he paused to dribble a bit more water on the wound.
“That Xena was here?” Cait guessed.
“We should have stayed with the army.” He obliquely answered. “Sure hope she’s moving fast.”
Xena pushed her hood down and studied the ground before them. The road stretched out in front of them, now angling downward towards the plains that would eventually end at the port city. To the right a branch of the road headed towards a thick woods, and on that road they could see some abandoned wagons and debris. “Redder, check that out.”
“Aye.” The captain wheeled his horse and whistled up a squad of cavalry, who followed him towards the wagons.
Xena whistled and pointed at the main road and the troops started moving that way. “Phillippi is down that road.” She said, to Gabrielle. “Don’t really have time to visit.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Wish we’d hooked up with Bennu and Cait, though.” She said. “I’m worried about them.”
“Me too.” Her partner responded. “But we could end up doing them a favor bypassing them.”
“True.” Xena shifted a little and removed her water skin from her saddle ring, taking a sip from it as they moved past the split in the road and started down the slope.
The road here was level with the ground and the army spread out on either side of it, almost a dozen abreast as they gave themselves more space, only the wagons sticking to the level surface of the old Roman roadway.
They would make good time now. Xena could see the snow thinning on the ground as well, though the icy cold bite of the air still brushed against her skin and made her pull her hood back up to cover her ears.
But at least it had stopped snowing, and with clear ground ahead of them the hoofbeats picked up and the last of the treeline went by them. “Keep a sharp look.” Xena called out. “We’re gonna be easy to spot.”
Ares was riding on her other side, once again visible only to her and Gabrielle. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” He commented.
“We are.” Xena had her map out and she was studying it, the parchment clasped in both hands, her reins draped untended across her saddlebow. “We should be in sight of the port city after dark.”
Ares nodded. “Then what?” He asked, giving her a sideways glance.
Now that was a good question. “Depends.” Xena deferred it. “I could just come up on them in the dark and go head on against them.” She looked back at Ares, who paused briefly, then grinned. “Thought you’d like that.”
“Get them before they have a chance to dig in?” Gabrielle commented. “Hope those walls aren’t as high as Therma’s were.”
Xena rolled up the map and put it back in it’s hide holder, tucking it away in her saddlebag. She looked up as Redder returned. “Anything?”
“Empty, genr’l.” The captain reported. “Just rags, and bits of boxes, tossed away.” He handed her a rolled up bit of fabric. “This is the only thing that was whole.”
She unrolled the ball and shook it out. It was a flag, of sorts. A pennant roughly the size of the one the cavalry was posting on a spear, but it had the emblem of a sun with an outline of a duck in front of it. “Huh.”
Gabrielle came closer. “You know that one?”
Xena shook her head. “Redder?”
She turned to her left. “You?”
Ares agreeably moved his black steed over and took the fabric, examining it. “What is this supposed to be?”
“City pennant, probably.” Xena said. “Seen it before?”
The God of War studied it with a frown. “Maybe.” He admitted. “Not on this.” He flapped the fabric. “On a shield.”
“Makes sense.” Xena said.
Ares looked at the sigil again, then handed it back. “Probably some war somewhere.” He said. “Any other piece of trash you want me to look at for you?”
Gabrielle half turned away as she adjusted a bit of her cloak, then she caught sight of Iolaus’s head as it came up, his nostrils flaring. “What’s up, big boy?” She patted him on the neck.
He shuffled his hooves a little, then threw his head up and snuffled hard at the air, his ears flicking backwards and forwards.
“I see him.” Xena sidestepped Argo over, studying the horse. “What’s got you all excited, boy?”
Iolaus suddenly let out a bugle, which startled the rest of the animals around him and would have risen on his hind legs if Xena hadn’t grabbed his bridge. “Hey!”
“What the heck?”
“He smells something.” Xena stood up in her stirrups and stared past the army, who had paused as she had and were milling around a little.
Iolaus let out another bugle.
“That’s a stallion call.” Xena said, eying him. “Mare in heat maybe?” She studied her own horse. Argo was facing in the same direction as her son, her ears pricked forward. Then she turned her own face into the wind, licking her lips and opening her mouth a little to allow the air to pass over her tongue.
Ares watched her. “What is she doing?”
“Trying to figure out what the horses are smelling.”
“Other horses?” The God of War ventured a guess. “As if it’s not surrounded by them??” He gestured around at the cavalry. “Hello?”
“No.” Xena sat down abruptly. “Guard!” She let out a yell. “To the left, along the path!” She guided Argo through the army as the edge of the woods beyond the wood shivered into motion, several running forms bursting into view and galloping towards them.
“Oh crap.” Gabrielle grabbed her own reins and released the eager Iolaus’s head. “Those are our horses.”
She waited for a wave of riders to get started ahead of her and then she went after Xena, the warrior rapidly getting into the forefront as they headed in the direction of the riderless animals coming in the other direction.
“Huh.” Ares gave his horse a slap on the rear. “C’mon Cherub, move your tail.”
The coal black steed gave him a droll look, then accelerated into a gallop that almost left his rider behind. “Hey!”
Xena was already ahead of the scouts, letting out a whistle as she closed in on the four horses heading their way. She recognized both Shadow, the gray in the lead, and the sorrel mare that Nala had ridden and behind them the white mare she knew was the human Iolaus’ with a big bay she remembered was Hercules.
Having them be running free in broad daylight with their tack in place meant nothing good. She let out another whistle and Shadow and the sorrel swerved and headed towards her. The other two kept galloping but after a minute they slowed.
“Cmere girl.” Argo caught up to Shadow and Xena leaned over, taking hold of the gray horses’ bridle and slowing them both to a halt. “What’s up with you huh?”
Iolaus had bugled again, and the two mares touched noses with him, as the vanguard of the army closed around Xena in a circle.
“Those are yours.” Jessan said. “I know that gray and the white one.”
Two of the other soldiers had caught the other horses and brought them over. Gabrielle had dismounted and she went over to Shadow’s saddle, opening the pouch there and peering inside. “Cait’s.”
“Yeah.” Xena was examining the white mare. “Iolaus’s gear.”
“What’s up?” Ares threaded his way into the circle. “Hey great. More horses.”
“From our scout group.” Xena said. “And your half brother and his friend.”
Ares chuckled. “I told him to stick with us. But no.” He said. “He had to go out and find his little buddy. Guess he did. Now they’re both probably stuck in some ice hole.”
“Let’s go find out.” Xena said. “Raj, take the four of them and put them with the spares. Take their tack off, and stow it in the wagons.”
“Aye.” One of Xena’s grooms had made his way up and was taking the reins. “Take care of them for ya, Xena.” He and another groom led the horses away and the troops started to form up.
Xena turned Argo around in a circle. “Redder, take the army and keep going down the road. I’ll keep the scouts with me, and we’ll see if we can find our people.” She glanced at Ares. “You can pick which one you want to go with.”
“I’ll stick with you.” The God of War said instantly.
Xena didn’t reply. She started Argo up the path the four horses had come down, a track in the snow, really, leading between the trees. As she closed in on the dark, dead branched line, she removed her sword from it’s sheath. “Careful.”
Gabrielle flexed her grip on her staff. She leaned forward a little as they entered the woods, having an uncanny sense of someone watching her as she ducked under a branch. “Xe?”
“Yeah.” Her partner also ducked. “I feel it.”
“Feel what?” Ares asked. He had guided his steed in just behind Gabrielle.
“Someone watching us.” Gabrielle told him. “Any idea who?” She asked. “One of your friends by any chance? If Xe has to be diving off Argo to catch arrows aimed at you it might be good to know.”
Ares frowned. “You mean Brunius?” He asked. “Hade’s pup? That’s who blue eyes popped in that last fight.”
Gabrielle blinked at him.
“Sent him back to daddy for a while. I saw him take a dive down.” Ares said. “C’mon, blondie. Clue in.” He bumped her aside and sped up to catch up Xena, who had dismounted and was now leading Argo through the heavy branches. “If old uncle wasn’t ticked off at your BFF before, he’ll sure be now.”
Ares lifted a hand and rotated his finger in a circle.
Xena ignored the banter, focusing on the trail left by the horses. She eased between the tree trunks and tracked the easily seen hoofprints in the snow, moving up the ridge as a handful of the scouts also dismounted and spread out on either side of her.
She could sense something in the air. There was an energy that made her nape hairs prickle and she found herself going slower, placing her boots more carefully, and pausing to let the air bring what it would to her ears and nose.
Woodsmoke, without question, and a hint on the air of human squalor.
“Genrl.” One of the scouts called out. “Found a camp here, seems like a big one.”
“And was a fight.” Another one said. “Blood in the snow.”
Motion in the shadows ahead of them, and the scouts were drawing sword and heading to engage, a dozen of them crossing in front of Xena, but pulling up as the motion resolved into a single man, wrapped in furs, staggering towards them.
“Bastards.” He coughed out as they caught up to him. “They ran off. I tried to stop them.. slavers!” He said. “They went that way.” He pointed back the way he came from, through the woods.
The scouts grabbed him and a moment later Xena and Gabrielle were there, and they were face to face.
The figure stared at them.
Gabrielle was the first one to speak. “Oh my gosh.” She said, with an indrawn breath. “Are you.. you’re Jacob, aren’t you?”
“I can’t get at it.” Iolaus finally said, in a tone of worried frustration. “Damn thing is fighting me.”
Cait got up on her knees and leaned over Hercules’s body to examine the arrow. “Let me see if I can help.” She said, as Nala came over to join her. She put her hand on the shaft and rested her wrist on the blood covered skin. “Right, now I”ll keep a steady pressure and you can work at it.”
Nala held the candle closer to give him a better view.
“Thanks.” Iolaus said after a moment, before he took a deep breath and dug deeper into his friend’s flesh.
There was no reaction from Hercules. His face was still and quiet, and his breathing, though light, was steady. It seemed very strange to Cait, since blood was now welling up and spilling over his chest, staining her hand.
Cait felt like the arrow was slowly moving, digging itself in deeper. She tightened her grip and strained against the motion, sure she was imagining the shaft growing colder against her skin.
“Bloody bastards.” Iolaus muttered. “He’s a god when it’s convenient for his enemies and mortal when its convenient for his family.” He carefully edged the sharp blade a little deeper, feeling the tip scrap against one of the barbs.
He had one knee upraised and was resting his wrist on it, to keep the irregular motion of the wagon from making him plunge the blade deeper than he meant to. He rinsed the shaft off with another small squirt of water, then leaned closer.
There was noise outside. “What’s up?”
Cait half turned her head to listen. “They’re upset about something.”
“Aren’t we all.” Iolaus went back to his grisly work. He could feel the wagon rock to a halt and took advantage of that to ease the point of the dagger under the tip. “Pull up a little wouldja Cait?”
“Absolutely.” Cait tensed her fingers and straightened, carefully pulling up on the shaft. It moved slightly, she felt it shift in her hands and reluctantly the tip of the barb Iolaus had just freed emerged. “Good job.”
The yelling outside got louder, and a moment later the wagon lurched into motion again and this time bounced along at a breakneck pace, throwing them off balance. “Damn it!” Iolaus yanked his hand back as he tumbled sideways. “Keep hold of that, Cait. Don’t let it go back in!”
Cait had been thrown forward, but kept her fingers tightly wound around the arrow. She could hear whips striking horseflesh just outside the wagon, and the thunder of hooves slowly fading to the rear.
The wagon kept moving at a headlong dash though, and with a great jar and booming sound it came off the rough track and onto a smoother surface, and sped up.
Iolaus took advantage of the easier motion and got back into position, gripping the roof of the wagon as he lowered himself down onto his knees. “Better get this done. Sounds like we’re running to somewhere.”
Nearby, someone screamed.
Iolaus bore down and dug into the second side of the arrowpoint, crouching over his friend’s body. “Put the candle a little closer?”
Nala did, braced with one hand on the overhead spar, and both knees planted firmly apart. “Easy.”
“Gosh.” Cait said, suddenly. “It’s really pulling isn’t it?” She took hold with both hands and leaned backwards, as the arrow sought to plunge itself back into Hercule’s body.
“Bastards.” Iolaus gritted his teeth. “No you’re not going to have him.” He added one hand to Cait’s in resisting the motion of the malevolent arrow, cutting hurriedly at the second barb. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“There were wagons here, gen’rl.” Redder came over to where Xena and Gabrielle were standing, giving the boy next to them a brief, dismissive look. “ Two big ones, see, made them tracks there.” He pointed. “Horses and this.” He held up a fistful of rags, which were stained in a dark rusty copper.
Xena took them. “Blood.”
“But nothing else.”
“No. No sign of anyone gen’rl, not the rotters, not our lot.” Redder said. “Not a bit of a weapon, or nothing but what was on them horses.”
“Damn it.” Xena walked past the road, to the rock overhang they’d found a campsite in. She pushed the ashes of the fire aside and went past it, ducking into the shelter they’d made.
It was rank. It stank of spoiled food and body stench, and her face twitched a little as she studied the ground, seeing some greasy bones there, and a cast off wooden cup.
She moved back out into the cold air and stood with the fire at her back, going over the ground carefully. There was a small slope up to a wooded area, and she could see some logs there, partly free of snow.
After a pause she crossed the icy ground to the logs and stood there, observing them. The snow was scraped off and behind the log, she found a spot that had snow melted in a body shaped area. With a grunt, she knelt, running her hands over the bark and stopping at one spot that showed a fresh gouge.
“What is it, Xe?” Gabrielle called out.
“Just looking.” Xena called back, running her thumb over the gouge, which was triangular in shape. She leaned closer to the log and checked the position of her belt dagger, then nodded and stood back up, dusting her hands and knees off. “Someone was watching them.”
She walked back over and stopped near them, looking at the ground. “More blood.”
‘There were some hurt men.” Jacob spoke up. “I saw them, and then I hid.. until I saw you.” He paused. “I thought I remembered you.”
“Well, you did.” Gabrielle smiled at him. “You said you were chasing the slavers?”
He nodded. “I think they took a friend of mine.” He said. “I was trying to follow them, to see where they were going. I thought I could help them.”
“Took them from where?” The bard asked. “I remember your sister coming to Amphipolis, and telling us you’d been taken.”
The boy eyed her uncertainly. “My sister? You mean Bekka? She came to where?”
“Amphipolis.” Gabrielle said. “That’s where Xena and I live.” She added. “It’s through the pass into Macedonia.”
“Oh right!” Jacob said. “Yeah, I don’t remember much about how I got to the town they took us to. It was okay, after a while.” He said. “They took Ruben somewhere else. He didn’t get along with people really well.”
His younger brother, Gabrielle remembered. A little tow headed boy who’d been saved from death by Xena’s heroism. “That’s too bad.” She finally answered. “It must have been hard for you, not having your family anymore.”
He half shrugged. “I got along okay. I did what they told me to, so they got to liking me.” He said. “One of the merchants took me as an apprentice and I did that until the slavers came.”
Xena had moved off with Redder and now she returned, Argo’s reins loosely caught around her fingers. “There were two big wagons.” She told Gabrielle. “Loaded down, no telling with what, but one of the scouts found this.” She held up an iron gray arrow. “Let’s get moving.”
“We’re not going to look for our people?” The bard asked, lowering her tone.
“They’re not here.” Xena told her. “My guess? They were here, and they’re with those wagons now.”
“That’s not good.”
“Maybe it is.” Xena leaned against her. “Depends on who else is in the wagon.”
“Mm. You have a point.”
Xena gave her a friendly scratch on the neck, then patted her shoulder. “We’ll find em.” She got up on Argo’s back, tucking the arrow away in one of her saddlebags. “If we pick up the pace maybe we’ll catch up with them before it gets dark.”
Gabrielle nodded, climbing up onto Iolaus’ back. “You want to come with us Jacob?” She offered. “We’re going to follow those wagons. Maybe your friend is with them? We think they’re slavers.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “I’d like to.” He said. “I thought I’d find them and help, but there’s a lot of them.” He turned. “But I thought they went that way?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “Towards the port city.” She gathered up Argo’s reins. “Redder, get him one of the spares.”
“Thanks.” Jacob said, meekly. He mounted the brown gelding one of the grooms brought him and settled himself, removing the small pack from his back and fastening it to his saddle. “I’m glad I ran into you guys.”
Gabrielle smiled at him. “Yeah, what a coincidence huh?” She said. “So tell me about your friend? Is it a he or a she?”
Jacob colored, a flush coming to his face. “It’s a girl.. “He admitted. “She’s my master’s daughter.”
“No one there wanted to go after her, even her father didn’t’ care.” Jacob warmed up to his story. “It was awful! So I ran away and ran after them, all the way down the river, and through the hills until we got here.”
‘Then I met these other people.” He said. “They said they were from Amph..what was it?”
“Amphipolis.” Gabrielle replied. “They said they were from here?”
He nodded. “Some soldiers and some women.” He paused. “Well, a woman and a girl.” He amended. “I sorta liked the girl but she was weird.”
The army got moving again, heading back up to the fork and onward across to the higher road that would lead down to the flatlands that fronted the port city. Gabrielle glanced around, noting Ares absence and caught her horse up to Xena’s as her partner worked her way up to the front.
“Yeees?” Xena slung her waterskin back on it’s ring. “You get the story out of that kid?”
“He met up with Cait and the gang.” Gabrielle said. “That part, I believe since he described her and Nala but some of the other stuff he’s told me… “She shook her head. “Something doesn’t ring true.”
“Storyteller instinct?” Xena’s eyes twinkled a little.
“Something like that.” Gabrielle glanced behind her, spotting Jacob riding amongst a group of the soldiers. He had been the oldest child in that family, and used to as much privilege as his background had allowed him, conscious of being the first born, and male, but now apparently having left that all behind.
Right? The bard frowned. Except there was something about him that just made her a little uneasy. Despite his youth and what she knew of his background, there was something in his eyes that wouldn’t let him meet hers for more than a second.
“You don’t like him.” Xena commented, relaxing into her saddle a little.
“No.. well.” Gabrielle made a face. “I liked his sister. I was sorry that group decided to move away and took her with them. I wonder where they ended up.” She shifted a little in her saddle, leaning forward and taking her weight off her back. “He reminds me of someone but I can’t think of who.”
Jessan joined them, and heard her last words. “Who? That kiddo?” He glanced behind him. “I get nothing from him. Which is weird.”
Gabrielle glanced back again herself, and saw him shift his eyes from the soldier he was riding next to and look slowly around, a faint smile on his face.
That smile. The bard frowned and turned forward again, searching her memory for where she’d seen that same sort of slightly self satisfied look.
‘He’s been out in the world a while.” Xena said, philosophically. “People change.”
Well, that was true. Gabrielle exhaled. “I’m worried about Cait and Nala.” She changed the subject. “It’s hard to believe they got themselves captured. I know Cait’s impulsive, but Nala’s a rock.”
Xena was about to answer, when a whistle rose up, and she looked forwards to see the vanguard scouts signaling. “Let’s go see what that is.” She put Argo into a canter, and they headed forward through the crowd.
“Hang on!” Nala yelled, as the wagon pitched hard to one side and she went tumbling off, juggling the candle in her hands with wide eyed frantic skill. “Holy sheep!”
Iolaus grabbed hold of Hercule’s body and lifted the dagger away just in time as they were slammed against the side of the wagon as it half turned on it’s side.
Cait refused to release her grip, and she felt herself flung to the side as the wagon teetered on the edge of rolling over, amidst frantic yells from outside and the sudden, surprising sound of rushing water.
The pungent scent of it blasted through the boards of the wagon, and then just as suddenly it righted itself with a lurch, sending Cait back across the middle of it with the arrow still gripped tightly in her hands.
The motion swung her half around and with a grinding rip that sent blood flying the arrow came unexpectedly loose from the demi-god’s body as Cait went reeling into a corner. “Oh!”
The wagon lurched upward and built up speed again and they were bouncing and rumbling on a rocky surface as Iolaus pounced on his friend’s form and held it down. “Did it all come out?” He yelled, with a touch of panic. “Cait! Look at it!”
A little stunned, Cait blinked and then held her hand up in front of her. “I can’t see it.” She said. “Nala, you have that bit of candle still?”
“Somehow.” Nala crawled over towards her and held the candle up. “This is nuts!”
Cait braced her legs against two of the wagon’s sides and wedged herself in the corner, getting the head of the arrow into the flickering light of the candle. She examined the edges. “What I am looking for?”
“Chip or break.. anything that could have been left inside him.” Iolaus took an uneven breath.”Might have been broken off.. all that moving.. or the knife…”
Cait turned the arrow in her hands. “I don’t think…”
“It’s fine.” Nala said. “But Great Hera. Look at those barbs.” She looked wide eyed at the double barbed arrowhead, wicked points coming backwards intended on gripping and slashing the body it entered. “Nasty.”
“Too right.” The younger Amazon agreed, inspecting it carefully. “But Nala’s right. Seems all right.”
Iolaus let out a long exhaled. “Lucky.”
Cait gingerly touched one of the barbs with her finger, swearing she could feel heat in the metal. It was night dark, and seemed to have no discernable surface, just edges and darkness, and a deep rust red coat.
Nasty. She took out a piece of hide from her belt pouch and carefully wrapped it around the arrowhead, tying it in place with a bit of gut. Then she put the arrow in the corner of the wagon with the barbs in the corner, and placed her boot on top of it to hold it down.
Iolaus was sopping up the blood now welling freely from Hercules chest spilling over his chest onto the floor of the wagon. “Should stop now.” He muttered. “Damn thing.”
Nala edged over and offered him a piece of cloth from her belt pouch. “Might help.”
“Thanks.” He took it and held it against the ugly wound.
The wagon rocked again, but they were all braced now and it just made them sway with the motion, as the sound of whip strikes echoed softly and the speed increased.
Then a clamor rose, many men yelling and then, the sounds of steel against steel and the screams of horses, and then a crashing sound so close outside it rattled the metal straps holding the boards together.
The wagon slowed abruptly, and then stopped, and they heard the driver jump off. “Shall we..” Cait looked at the hatch they’d been shoved through, pushing a tentative boot against it.
“Can’t move him.” Iolaus said. “And our horses are long gone..”
Cait grabbed hold of the roof spar and lifted herself up, swinging her body back and then slamming both boots against the hatch with surprising force. It cracked, and she kicked it again, knocking it open.
Outside was chaos. There were three or four dozen soldiers running around, and some were running back towards the river with buckets in their hands. The other wagon was on fire, the end of it shooting up flames and no one was watching theirs.
Without hesitating she jumped out, and hauled herself up on the wagon, and then onto the driver’s seat. She turned her head and saw all the soldiers around the other wagon, trying to salvage it’s contents, and she picked up the reins and gave the horses a slap.
They started off, gathering quickly into a run as a few of the soldiers caught the motion and started running after them. Cait kept her head down and slapped the reins again, then whistled sharply and the two stocky animals lumbered into a gallop, heading now downhill towards a line of trees far off the path they’d started on.
The arrow she’d wrapped up dropped out the back and bounced, flying up ito the face of the nearest follower, the hide dropping off as it powered itself into his gut. He grabbed at it and screamed, falling to the ground and tripping the soldier after him, hanging them up long enough for the wagon to gain ground.
The soldiers turned back and whistled for their horses, and mounted companions were already whipping their mounts into the chase, their yells echoing down the slope and casting back at them as they rode hard after the runaways, two of them readying flaming arrows to shoot.