Body, Heart and Soul

Part 13

They made it right to the edge of the last patch of forest, beyond which there was nothing but open ground before the port city.   

It seemed empty, but there were so few details visible aside from a thick blanket of snow it was hard to really tell. 

It was very dark, and the clouds had returned to cover the stars and moon, blanketing the army in a cloak of shadows as they camped among the trees, busy with rubbing down horses, and getting a meal together after a long hard ride.

It was cold, and the wind had swung around to come from the south, and everyone was glad of the break that the trees provided, and the thick cover they likewise afforded.

Xena was standing just inside the treeline looking out over the sloping earth covered in snow, worn down in spots to reveal tufts of dead salt marsh grasses.  The wind was blowing now into her face and she could smell the city already, the stink of humanity carried on the sea tinged air.

She could smell death, too.  Not overpowering, but just on the fringes as though there was a foxes cache somewhere nearby.  Instinctively she tipped her head back and searched the clouds over head for the telltale outline of vultures, but the sky was a empty of birds as the land was of animals past the forest she was in.

Odd.

The steady pocking of a cantering horse made her look around, as Jessan slowed his mount to a halt next to her and dismounted. “Any luck?” She asked, glad to turn her attention from the slope for a minute.

“Nothing.”  Jessan shook his furry head.  “I can see where they went off the road, but its like they disappeared. Track just stops.” He lifted one clawed hand.  “I could smell them, Xena.  There were women there, human women.”

“Could be any women.”  Xena suggested. 

“Could be.” Her friend agreed. “But I smelled blood too.”

Blood.  Almost nothing about that would be good unless the blood was a woman’s cycles.  Xena exhaled. She felt like things were slipping through her fingers, and now her fairly cut and dried plan was giving her a big dose of self doubt.

Should she have gone to Phillipi instead?  Picked up allies or at least, gotten the local scoop?

“Now that we’re here, though, they won’t get past us on the road.”  Jessan said. “My guys are heading down to the end of the trees there, to make sure there’s no way to double back on us.”

“Thanks.” Xena folded her arms.  “It’s a long stretch of empty to the city.” She said. “We’ll camp here and maybe stay the day through.  Hit them at the new moon.”

 “Should we keep going?” Jessan asked. “If we ride hard, we can get there before dawn.”

“No.” Xena tipped her head back and regarded the sky briefly.  “We’re not going to hit them full on.” She said. “We don’t have siege gear with us, and that’s a damn sturdy wall they’ve got. I think I want to send a scouting party in first.”

“Undercover?”

Xena nodded. “Too many unknowns.” She said. “I want to see what the deal is in there before I go riding up with an army at my back.”

“Xena.”  One of the cavalry captains came riding up, fast.   “Got a lot of troops coming up the road heading for the city, behind us.”

“How many?”  The warrior asked.  “It that same bunch we ran into?”

“Hard to say.” The captain frowned. “Might be the same, it’s too dark to see that much. I’d say they’re ten score, or so, mounted mostly.”

“I think your plan just went pffft.”  The forest dweller said, in a commiserating tone.  “I hate it when that happens.”

The warrior sighed.  “Okay, get everyone ready for them when they hit the edge of the forest. We’ll take them down.” She ordered.  “Lets hope we don’t end up between them and a force coming out of the city.”

“Right. Bout a candlemark, scout says.” The soldier nodded and turned, riding back down the line. 

Jessan peered past the treeline at the city on the far edge of the plains, just visible as a smudge against the clouds. “Seems weird there’s no people between then and here.”  He said. “Just a lot of open space.”

Xena abandoned the ridge and started back through the forest where the army was now assembling and making ready for battle.  “At least we’re far enough away that they won’t hear the fight.” She told Jessan as he paced next to her, his horse Aris ambling behind him.

Gabrielle was kneeling beside a small, shielded campfire and she looked up when Xena came up next to her, then stood up. “We moving out?”

“They’re coming to us.”  Her partner said. “Looks like a force of them is running home and they’ll come right past us.”  She stood next to Gabrielle.  “Too damn bad. I was looking forward to resting everyone tonight.”

“I’ll call in the hunters.”  Jessan said. “At least we can get a snack in.”

“Thanks Jess.” Xena peered past her partner. “Is that tea?”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle leaned against her, then found herself wrapped in Xena’s cloak, their body heat conjoining.  “Xe this all doesn’t feel right.”

“No.”

“I’m not sure what’s going on.”

“Me either.”  Xena admitted. “I thought I had a pretty good handle on what we were going to do, but now.. I’m not sure.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle absorbed that. “You think we’re being played?”

“Maybe.”

“By who though?”

“Now that’s the gooooood question.” Xena rested her chin on the top of her partner’s head.  “Hades? Ares? Zeus? Pinu? The bootheads from Phillippi?” She exhaled. “So many depths of a cows bunghole possibilities.”

Gabrielle started silently laughing, burying her face against Xena’s shoulder.

“So what are we doing now?” Ares’ voice interrupted them, as he slid between two snow covered trees and came over to them. “You stopping  to screw around with each other?”  He asked, with an incredulous tone.

“Sure.”  Xena answered, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle and stretching luxuriously.  “Best thing I can think of doing right now.”

The God of War glowered at her.

“Since we’re waiting for a big bunch of enemy soldiers to come riding into my ambush.” The warrior continued, in a mild tone. “So have a seat and relax for a while.”

Xena’s captains had gathered around and were standing up nearby, wolfing down trail rations as they waited for the scouts to report.   One of them came over with a wooden mug, and offered it to her. “Cider?”

“Aye.” The man said. “Heated up some.”

“Thanks.”  She took a sip, glad of the warm, cinnamon tinged sweetness as it filled her belly.  Then she offered the lip of the cup to her partner, who took several gulps, before she unwound herself from Xena’s embrace and went over to their baggage.

“Strange to have em moving in the dark like that.” Redder commented, as he chewed some trail bread.  “Lots of odd stuff eh genr’l?”

Xena nodded. “Maybe we can capture some of this bunch and find out what’s going on. That attack before didn’t make sense.”

Gabrielle removed some dried venison from her saddlebag, and unwrapped two rounds of trail bread to wrap around it. There would be no hot food tonight,  not until after the fighting and even then there was no guarantee. 

So she added a handful of dried berries and a pinch of her carefully hoarded spice mix into the pocket sandwich before she returned to Xena’s side and handed her one, keeping the other for herself. That, and the hot cider would have to suffice.

She wished the other army would have found some place to sleep for the night. She was tired, and she wanted some rest, and as she nibbled a bit of the venison from her sandwich she had to wonder if they’d ever catch up to their quarry with all the distractions.

And they were, she felt, distractions.  “Ares.” She went over and sat down next to the God of War, who was seated on a log, his long and leather clad legs sprawled out in front of him.  “Can I ask you something?”

“Can I stop you?” He rolled his head to one side and gave her a droll look.

“No, not really.” Gabrielle tore off a chunk of the sandwich and offered it to him.  “I was just curious. What is the end game for Hades?  If everyone is backing off from believing, why does he think he can reverse that?”

Ares thoughtfully chewed her offering.  “Thinks he can do it right.”  He finally said.  “That’s what the deal is, according to what Apollo told me.”  He glanced around. “Before he cut out and went poof.” He snapped his fingers.  “We figured he ducked out to try and win the prize before the rest of us.”

“We?”

Dite and me.”  Ares said, briefly.  “She stuck around upstairs to keep the rents calm.”

Gabrielle could see that.  She was quiet for a bit, ingesting her food. “This really sucks.” She said, after she swallowed.  “I don’t want Hades to take over.  What kind of world would it be ruled over by death?”

He remained silent himself for a while.  “I don’t know.” He said, his head cocking slightly to one side. “I didn’t much like being dead.”

“No, me either.”  Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees, watching Xena lounging around nearby keeping as close an eye on her.  “I just don’t know, Ares. I think there’s something about us, about mortals, when we worship you gods. It makes us act better than we would have otherwise.”

Ares mimicked her pose.  “Why?”

“I don’t know.  We’re scared, I guess. We want you to help us and we want to end up in a nice place when we’re dead.”

“You know better.”

“I do.”  Gabrielle agreed. “I didn’t mean me. Or Xe.  But most other people.

 “Sure.” Ares said. “Otherwise what’s the point?  Dirt grubbers grub dirt and you end up with what?  Dirt.  Nothing.”  He said. “If morts didn’t think they’d go on to some place better they’d just all croak themselves.  No fun in that.”

Gabrielle stared past him. “So you give us something to strive for, so this mortal time has meaning.”

The God of War smiled, an odd, unusual for him, gentle smile that even had a hint of – if not compassion – understanding in it. “What’s the alternative, Gabrielle?  Live a miserable, short life and be worm food? You need us.”

“Just like you need us.”  The bard answer, in a quiet tone.  She turned and looked at him. “What happens to you, if this all goes bad, Ares? You’re immortal.”

He studied her for a long moment in silence, his lips pursing a little in the dim, red firelight. “I don’t know.” He finally admitted.  “Let’s not find out, huh?”

One of the watch came over. “Xena, there’s someone coming.”

“The army. We know.” 

He shook his head. “No, we think it’s a wagon. Ahead of them, and alone.”

Xena put her cup down and dusted her fingers off, swallowing hastily. “C’mon boys.  Let’s find out what’s on the way.”   She got her cloak arranged to clear her sword. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Soldiers mounted up all around her as she whistled Argo over, and  a moment later she was guiding the cavalry out and up the slope to the road that stretched long and empty behind them. 

It was a solid inky dark, but as Xena got past the trees she heard the sounds that had alerted the watch, the rumble of wagons wheels and the heavy, lumbering clatter of horse hooves on the icy ground.

A wagon. And they had lost a wagon, and they  knew it was possible a wagon might contain captured people going to be sold into slavery in the city.   

“Xena!” Jessan rode up on her. “The soldiers are right behind them!”  He pointed. “We’re going to ride into the teeth of them!”

That felt right.  Xena took her sword off. “Let’s go!”  She waited for Gabrielle on Iolaus to catch up to her, and saw Ares and his black horse at her heels.  “If that army is chasing that wagon, we probably want whats in it.”

Ares drew the Sword of War. “Go baby go.” 

They were all thundering down the road in the next minutes,  spreading out across it, and across the ground to either side, hundreds of mounted riders in the dark shadows of the night as they left the support groups behind, sheltered in the forest.

Xena got to the front, and she had Gabrielle at her left hand, and Ares at her right, forest dwellers on either side of them and her hand trained cavalry spreading out to either side.  There was no sound but the thunder of hooves.

There was enough light to see the snowy ground and the bare outline of the road.  Xena lifted herself up a little in the saddle and peered ahead, seeing the vague outline of the oncoming wagon, behind a team of two big horses.

Behind them?  A huge cloud of dark riders, yelling.

Enemies?  Xena didn’t think she had any friends in the area.  She was aware of Ares riding at her right, and there was a ripple of energy she could feel coming from him, as ghostly blue flames chased up and down his sword.

And yet, she was in the lead.  Xena didn’t deny the prickle that thought raised in her, every nerve waking as she tucked her cloak back and got ready to fight.  She could see torches now in the mass of troops behind the wagon and she drew in a breath to let out a yell.

The driver of the wagon caught sight of them as the clouds broke a little, and silvery moonlight flooded through them to outline the road – the horses picked up speed and as Xena’s battle yell rose up over the snowy landscape, it was answered.

Solari, riding fast on her horse and with Gabrielle her target let out a yell of her own and they all split across the road to let the wagon through just as the chasing troops caught up with it.

It bolted past them and then they were plowing into the other army, the spearpoint of their own two tall and dark haired figures who seemed to be calling down lightning from the sky overhead.

**

It dark and wild and deadly, as torchlight flickered as the sky lit up overhead with silver and shadows.  Xena found herself in the middle of a melee, and she dropped her reins to give Argo her head as she used weapons in both hands.

Gabrielle was behind her, staying close.   All around them was the sound of horses and their riders fighting, and Xena could hear the twang of bows, her ears acutely recognizing the sound as Amazon longbows.

The Amazons were just behind Gabrielle, surrounding her in a wedge, and Xena had to smile to herself as she knocked aside a pike, slashing the hand that held it with the edge of her chakram as she deflected a blade coming at her head from the other direction.

This was a dogfight.  The two forces had come together in a crush of bodies and the momentum had shoved horses into each other, and some were rearing and kicking in instinctive response.

Argo was snapping at one of the enemy horses, baring her teeth and she moved forward at a nudge of Xena’s knees into a more open space between three or four fighting enemy soldiers.   Xena quickly looked around to check where her partner was, and then she engaged one of the riders who had come sideways at her.

He swept his sword at her and she ducked it, then lunged forward and plunged her blade into his side, the sharp steel penetrating his scale armor as Argo slammed against his horse, trapping his leg in it’s stirrup as he tried to escape.

His sword dropped to the ground and he grabbed for his side, his other hand scrabbling for his dagger as he tried to return the attack.

A sword came from the other direction and took his head off, sending it flying into Xena’s chest where it bounced off and dropped, along with the man’s body, to the ground.

Ares chuckled, and moved on, heading for three soldiers who had regrouped and were coming back for another attack.   Xena went with him and they took the charge head on, both Argo and the black horse turning to their left as their riders engaged the enemy.

Xena let loose with the chakram as she went hilt to hilt with the nearest soldier, catching a second that was coming up on them in the throat.   The weapon spun off in a spray of blood and curved back, coming back to rest in her palm and she turned her wrist to the side and brought it back to slash the soldier’s sword hand.

A prickle of instinct, and she ducked just as she heard Gabrielle’s warning yell, feeling something come over her back and hearing the thounk sound as an arrow buried itself into neck of the enemy soldier’s horse. 

It screamed in pain and reared, and the man reeled backwards.  

Xena turned her head to find the archer and pulled Argo to one side behind two fighting men. She let out two short whistles and pointed her sword, feeling compression at her back and turning to see the Amazons lining up, bows raised.

Then she was turning to find another group rushing at her,  and seeing the blue flare of the Sword of War nearby.  “Ares!” She let out a yell, and a moment later he appeared, black horse snorting and making an odd chuckling noise.  “That way!” 

The soldiers nearby had heard her, and heads turned, and eyes suddenly widened as Ares raised his sword and laughed, visible now as he and Xena headed towards the enemy lines together.

Gabrielle sent her horse after them, readying her staff and sliding her hand hold on it a little lower as she rested it across Iolaus’ neck.   She watched the enemy line stir in turmoil, then in a visible desperation join up and return the charge, ten of them gathering in a wedge to meet Xena’s troops.

She got up cross of them and then a flicker of motion caught her eye and she turned to see a dark, cloaked figure jump up onto a rock and draw his bow back.

No time to even yell.  Gabrielle dropped her reins and clamped her knees down, sending Iolaus barreling forward through two other engaged soldiers as she lifted her staff up and turned half sideways to swipe it through the air.

The tip smacked into the black arrow in flight, knocking it off it’s path and then she was bringing it back around as the cloaked figure jumped off the rock and headed right for her.   Gabrielle could see the knife in his hand as he aimed for her horse and without much real thought she swung her self off his back and hit the ground as he reached her.

A swipe of her staff and the knife was flying through the air and a breath later the return stroke smacked against his head.

He grabbed the end of it and yanked, not expecting Gabrielle to go with the motion and use the momentum to slam into him and take them both to the ground. 

Then three other bodies came barreling in and pinned him, knees on his arms and a thick wooden club against his throat. 

“Tie him up.” Gabrielle ordered, getting ot her feet and whistling for Iolaus.  I”ll be back.”

“Yes, my queen.”  “We will.”

**

Cait finally got the horses to stop and she jumped off the wagon, racing back to open the door up.  “Sorry about that!” She gasped. “We’re all right now.”

Nala came tumbling out and shook herself, staring around. “Where’d they..  “ She looked down the road and saw the fighting. “What…” She paused. “I heard Amazon calls.”

“Yes.”  Cait peered anxiously inside. “Are you all right?” She asked Iolaus.

“Beat up.”  Iolaus coughed. “I think he stopped bleeding though. Good sign.”  He stuck his head out. “What’d we run into?”  He looked around. “Where’d… wait, I thought I heard like a couple hundred horses.”

“You did.” Cait swung the back of the wagon open.  “They came right past us, and a good thing too.”

“Friends, then.” Nala looked relieved. “Was it..

“Xena and the army.” Cait advised them.  “ Didn’t you hear her? They’re fighting off that other lot.” She pointed behind them.  “Lovely charge, terribly sorry you had to miss it.”

“Phew. That’s luck.”  Iolaus looked relieved.  “I thought for sure those guys were going to catch up to us.  This wagon wasn’t going that fast.”

“Yes.”  Cait said. “Something’s not quite right about that.” She looked ahead, and saw torches approaching, but a moment later she relaxed as she recognized the hawk’s head tabard on the foremost man holding one.  “Hello.”

The man peered at her. “Ah, Cait.” He smiled. “Glad it was you then, the genr’l went out to battle for.” He peered into the wagon. “Hello, there. Is it Iolaus? We finally catch up with ye?” He lifted his torch. “Got someone hurt then? I’ll get the healers.”

He turned and put his fingers between his teeth, letting out a loud, strident tone, then a handful of shorter ones. 

Xena’s whistle language,  taught to all the army, and most of the rest of Amphipolis as well.  It was a rare night when the calls weren’t heard echoing between the watch posts and the fields.

“Brennan, is it quite all right if I leave this here with you?” Cait said. “And may I borrow a horse? There’s fighting to be done.”

“Aye, sure. We’ve got your gray lady.”  He pointed back to the camp. “Got all your horses, in fact.  Xena was fair worried about the lot of you – we’ve been looking after you now a day.”

Cait exhaled in relief.  She hadn’t been looking forward to telling Xena she’d lost one of her carefully bred horses.  “That’s great.”   She turned. “Nala, will you stay with them please?  I’m going to go see what the queen is up to.”

Nala hesitated, then she nodded. “Better that.” She was holding her elbow. “Cracked my arm on one of those bumps. I’d be a mess with a sword right now.” She admitted.

“Sorry about that.” Cait apologized. “That ground was a mess.”

“Good thing you met up with us gal.”  Brennan said. “My bones tell me we’re in for weather again, and that ground past there.. its cold and empty.” He pointed past the trees. “Glad the genr’l decided to make camp in there. We’d just been a candlemark when the likes of you came riding up to us.”

“Glad we found you.” Iolaus eased out of the wagon and straightened, grimacing as his back popped. “We thought this was a good idea, finding out what they were up to. Turns out not so much.” He looked past the wagon at the barely seen battle, yells and the sounds of horses in distress floating back on the wind to them. 

“Right. I’ll just go sort out my horse and get a move on then.”  Cait said. “I’m sure we’ll have this all settled in a bit.” 

“Be careful.” Nala told her. “That sounded like a lot of soldiers chasing us.”

“No worries.”  Cait got her cloak tied and started for the camp only to haul up when two horses emerged from the trees and headed in their direction and a brief lightning flash identified the lead rider to her. 

Ah.  She broke into a run, bouncing over the frozen ground as the lightning flashed overhead, bringing a chill moistness to the air as clouds started to steadily lower over them.  “Hello there.” She greeted the rider as she reached them. 

Here.  Paladia handed off the reins of the gray mare to her. “I figured you’d want to go kick some ass.”  She shifted her arm, moving a crossbow over to rest on her knee. “Sounds like a mess.” She added. “There’s some cranks back there watching the road.”

“Oh Pally.”  Cait pulled herself up onto Shadow, giving the mare a pat.  Then she nudged the mare up against the horse her partner was riding and reached over to get a grip on her arm, pulling her over and giving her a kiss.   “Glad you all found us.”

“I think you found us, nutcase.”  Paladia seemed pleased with the greeting though.  Cmon, I got some of those chobos on me. Let’s go give em some help.”  She held up one of the clubs.

“Right.”  Cait grinned. “Just keep your eyes open. There’s a lot of that bunch with bows.”

“No kidding. You should have seen Xena catch one of those big black arrows and saved Mr Poobah from it.” Paladia advised her. “Pretty freak show.”

“Oh bother. I am sorry I missed it.” Cait frowned.  “Let’s go then before we miss something else.”

A group of the support workers were coming out past them, heading for the wagon, two of them carrying a stretcher.   Satisfied that her companions were going to be well taken care of, Cait settle her knees and swept her cloak off her shoulders, pressing the mare into a canter.

Paladia was right behind her on a brown gelding, her tall frame overtopping Caits by a good measure.  She rode competently, as Cait did, but neither were born riders and as they approached the battle neither had any intention of letting go of their reins.  

The ground was already churned up, and there were bodies flung over it, some human and some equine, and as they worked their way through the debris the sounds of battle got incrementally louder.

Cait picked a likely target and drew her sword, remembering the man she was charging at as one of the ones who had captured them. 

She smiled without any humor at all, and went for him, seeing his eyes widen as he got close enough to see her face.    Her sword hit his and then they closed and she got her arm through his and wrenched sideways, slamming her shoulder into his chest.

“Why you little…”

Cait punched him in the throat, barking her knuckles on the rim of his chest armor, but knocking his head backwards.  She drew her sword arm back again and shoved off him, just as an arrow came over her shoulder and took him in the chest.

“Hey nutcase! Keep moving!” Paladia called out, making Cait turn to see her partner holding up the bow.  “I got  this down.”

Cait grinned and waved her sword at her , then she turned and as the lightning flashed overhead, she spotted Xena fighting up on a slight rise over the road.  “Ah.” She pointed with the sword. “That’s where we want to go.”

“Sure.” Paladia followed her with a shake of her head. “Where all the really dangerous people are.”  She sighed. “Cant we fight down here?”

“Pally, c’mon.”

**

Xena got up to the high ground and turned Argo in a tight circle, momentarily free of enemy soldiers taking a whack at her.  She scanned the battle, the gray and silver shadows resolving for her eyes and she nodded, seeing her forces gaining ground everywhere.

The battle was almost over.   There were now pockets of fighting, but the greater part of the field was cleared, and she could see her men starting to gather up and check the fallen.

A moment later, and Ares was next to her,  looking around. “What’s next?”

“We’re winning.” She told him.  “We need to take out that bunch there, and they’re gonna run like chickens.”    She  searched the ground, relaxing when she spotted Gabrielle making her way over, and let out two sets of complex whistles.

The enemy heard the sound, though and a group of the mounted soldiers headed her way, two of them with torches that lit the rise with garish orange shadows, yelling as they spotted her and Argo’s golden coat against the dead trees behind them.

An arrow arched her way, and Xena knocked it aside with her sword.  Then she gathered herself to meet the attack,  half raising up in her stirrups and letting out a battle yell that echoed across the frozen ground.

A squad of her soldiers interrupted her though, bolting up the rise and driving against the enemy soldiers, getting between them and their leader with wild yells of their own, slashing and cutting with blades that briefly reflected the torchlight in silver and crimson.

 Xena pulled up and observed instead, as Gabrielle joined her, unhooking her waterskin and taking a swallow from it. “Almost over.” She greeted her soulmate. 

“Xe.”  The bard put a hand on her thigh.   “The guy with the bow and arrow from Hades.” She pointed with her staff. “We’ve got him tied up down there.”

Ares sidled his horse over. “Did I hear that right? You’ve got Hades’s pup tied up?”   He asked with interest.

But Gabrielle shook her head. “Not him.. just some guy who has those same arrows. I knocked one down.” She pulled the arrow out and showed it to them.  “The Amazons got him under control down there. He had a dozen of these on him.”

Xena took it and studied it, then turned and handed it across to Ares. “Looks the same as I pulled out of you.”

Ares reached over and took the arrow, inspecting it carefully.   “Huh.” He turned it in his fingers. “Let’s go see this guy.” He said. “This could get interesting.”

“Did he get them from Hades?” Gabrielle asked.

“They’re from Hades.” Ares answered. “Where he got them?  Lets go find out.”

Xena sidestepped Argo over and surveyed the field, seeing the tide rapidly turning and the battle fading out, just as snow started falling again over them.  She let out a whistle, and it was responded to, and torches started to spring up everywhere.

Where the battle had been, the ground was dark, snow churned up and removed or covered in blood and as they started down the slope they had to skirt around fallen men and horses, some dressed in Xena’s colors.

Redder rode up. “Pack of em took off through the trees there, Xena. Looks like they’re trying to head back past the camp.”

“Stop them.”  Xena said. “I don’t want any of our people hurt there.” She said. “Get our wounded back to camp, give the dead a pyre.” 

“Not to many of that. “ Redder said. “Dozen, maybe.”

“Good to hear.” Xena’s eyes swept the field. “Damned lucky, in all this.  Don’t know who was crazier us or them mixing it up in the dark.”

“They started it.”

“They did.”  The warrior agreed. “And we finished it.”

“Aye.”  Redder rode off, circling his arm and letting out a call for men to join him. 

They continued down to the road, where the Amazons were all gathered, including two Xena hadn’t expected.   “Cait.”

“Hello.” Cait came right over as they approached. “Sorry we stirred up all this bother.” She said, as Xena dismounted and gave her a hug, followed by Gabrielle. 

“Everyone accounted for?” Gabrielle asked, as Solari finished sheathing her sword.  

Eyup.”  Solari said. “We stayed on the skirts, mostly.  Got some good shots in.” She said. “Glad to see you back, Cait. Nala with you?”

“She’s back in camp.” Cait said. “We’ve got Iolaus and Hercules with us too.” She looked at Xena. “Hercules is hurt. He was shot with one of those arrows.” She pointed at the one in Ares hands, then looked warily up at him. “Hello.”

Fully visible, the God of War was gently tapping the arrow against his hand.  He studied the Amazons, who were watching him back in somewhat awed silence, their cloaks and skin liberally covered in the gore of battle.

“Y’know something?”  He said, finally. “You chicks were wasted on my sister.”   He winked at them. “Now show me who coughed up this thing?”

“This way.” Pasi said, shyly, pointing at a fallen tree just off the road. “We’ve got him tied up.”

“Ah huh.” The God of War strolled past her, jerking his head at her to follow. “Better make sure he’s not enjoying it. C’mon.”

Xena cleaned her blade off and sheathed it, then put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders as they went after him. “C’mon.” She repeated Ares order. “Lets go get this over with so we can go back to camp.”

Several of the Amazons followed, and after a moment, the rest of them trailed along.

**

They gathered around the ramble of fallen tree trunks,  as the army sorted itself out behind them, and a trail of horseback riders started back towards the camp. 

One of Xena’s men picked up the trussed figure and hauled him to his feet, pulling his hood off and turning him for his general to examine him.  A second man thrust a torch close, illuminating them all in russet highlights.

He was a scruffy man with thinning brown hair, and a prominent adams apple. His eyes were indistinguishable, but very dark and there was a long scar across his face that only narrowly missed his mouth.

He was glaring at them, especially at Xena and Gabrielle when they pulled their own hoods down, exposing dark and pale heads to get a better look. 

“Anyone you  know, hon?”  Gabrielle asked after a moment.

“No.” Xena was aware of Ares standing just behind her, watching in silence. “Who are you?” She addressed the man, who promptly spit at her.

The soldier holding him cuffed him across the face. “You respect our genr’l or I’ll cut your tongue out.” He told the man. “Answer, or you’ll wish you did.”

“I’ll wish?” The man said. “When my master gets here, you’ll wish you never laid hand on me, dog.”

“Who’s your master?” Gabrielle asked.  Pinu, or Hades?”

The snow started to fall harder, as though in commentary at her question but the man just briefly glanced at her and then looked away. 

“His master’s who offers him the biggest bowl of dog food.” Ares spoke up, moving forward to take up a position next to Xena’s, one boot propped up on a log, the arrow clasped lightly in his fingers. “He probably stole those arrows, the little punk.”

The man twisted in the soldiers’ grip, as apparently Ares became visible to him. “You.” He growled. “I’ll get you the next time.”

“No you won’t.”  The God of War told him. “Ain’t gonna be a next time.”  He straightened and moved closer, one hand going to the sword on his back.

Ares, wait.”  Gabrielle slid in front of Xena and touched his arm. “Can you explain who he is, before you cut his head off?”

The man stared at her, as though she’d suddenly grown another head herself, and stopped struggling, going still and quiet for a moment. 

Xena decided to keep silent and just watch, realizing there were things going on and people’s histories being exposed she had no real knowledge of.  

“He’s Cupid’s grandson.”  Ares supplied promptly.  “Never really went in for that side of the family. He was a hanger on of Posiedon’s for a while but now I guess he switched sides. Again.”  He studied the cloaked figure. “What did the old uncle offer you, little man?  He going to make your face pretty again?”

“Bastard.” The man growled.

Ares chuckled. “One thing I’m not, scrubbie.  Unlike you or your mother.”

The man lunged out of the hands of the soldiers only to be caught by the throat by Ares free hand as he dropped the arrow on the frozen ground.  “Ah ah ah.”

“Let me go!” The man gasped out, his face turning purple.  “You’ve no right to touch me! “

“Don’t I?”  Ares said, squeezing harder. “When you decided to come squirming out here you brought the rulebook with you, little man.  You shoot at me, you open yourself up to me shooting back. Don’t you know that?”

The man’s tongue poked out, already purplish black.

“Neither of us is safe.” Ares whispered.  “Nothing’s by the rules down here you little fool.”

Ares, don’t kill him.” Gabrielle said, in a quiet, urgent tone. “We’ve got his bow and arrows.  Let him go.”

“Think he wont get more?” Ares turned his head and looked at her. “I thought Xena taught you better than that.”

The bard exhaled. “She did. But sometimes violence really isn’t the answer.” She squeezed his wrist gently. “Let him go, please?”

Everyone was still around them, just watching.  Even Xena remained quiet, her hands folded in front of her, snow settling on her dark hair.   Even the archer had stopped struggling, his chest only moving slightly, convulsively as he tried to intake air.

Ares turned around and looked at Xena, both his eyebrows hiking.  When he got no response at all, he turned back around and released the man, watching him fall to the ground, twitching. With a shrug, he walked away, shaking his head.

Gabrielle knelt next to the man and got a fold of her cloak under his head and a moment later Xena dropped down to one knee beside her. “Give me a hand here, hon.”

Xena helped her turn him over on his back.   “We better get everyone to camp. It’s going to dump.” She remarked. “Winds already coming up.”

The man looked up at them. “You shouldn’t have done that.” He rasped, licking still purple lips. “He’s right. I”ll get more arrows and eventually I’ll put one in him.”

“Someone already did.”  Xena told him, resting her forearms on her knee. “I took it out.”

He studied her avidly. “You’re a healer.” He said, after a long pause.

“I am.”  She agreed. “You really want to kill him?”

“I do.”  The man said. “And you should too. You all should.  How else are you going to be set free from them? You of all people, Xena.  You know best of their tyranny.”

“Trading one god for another?” Gabrielle said. “Can you stand up? You’ll freeze if you stay there.”  She rocked back and stood up, then offered him a hand.  “How can you say some other tyranny won’t be worse?  What’s the difference really?”

The man took her hand and let her pull him upright. “You said yourself, Gabrielle, that Zeus and his family have brought nothing but grief to you. Isn’t it better to at least see what someone else would bring?”

“How about seeing what no one else would bring.” Gabrielle answered, with a faint smile. “What about no gods?”

He took a step back from her and held his bound hands in front of him. “You need gods.  Set me free, and I’ll prove it to you.”

Xena shook her head. “Your army lost.” She motioned one of the soldiers to take hold of him. “Put him with the rest of the captives. We’ll ransom them back to the city.”

He took another step back and as the soldier was about to grab him, he let out a shrill cry, then faded out to nothing, leaving behind only a faint gray stain on the snow.  

“Gosh.” Cait had been standing to one side. “That was creepy.”   She was just finishing resheathing her daggers and she came over next to Gabrielle. “But you  know, it might be nice not to have to worry about that lot.”

“Why’d you do that?”  One of the soldiers asked Gabrielle curiously. “He wanted killing.”

They started back to where three of the grooms were holding the reins of their horses. “Why did I do that.  Gabrielle mused. “Because, honestly,  sometimes killing isnt’ the answer.”

“Hm.” The man just grunted.

“And also, now he owes us one.”  The bard continued, with a smile.  “When you’re dealing with gods and their families, sometimes that counts.”

“Ah.”  The soldier’s face shifted and he nodded a bit.  “That’s sense.”

Gabrielle felt Xena’s arm settle over her shoulders and she glanced up at her partner, seeing the faint smile on her face.  “Was it?” She muttered under her breath. “Or should I have let it go?”

“No, that was the right thing.” Xena answered instantly.  “In fact….”

They reached the horses. “In fact what?” Gabrielle asked.

“Let’s talk back at camp.”  Xena pulled herself up into her saddle and waited for Gabrielle to do the same, then they started back towards the forest at a fast trot .

**

“Can’t even tell it’s day.”  Gabrielle settled into their hammock, tucked under the thick hide covering of the tent, as she watched a heavy snowfall outside. “Xena, I’ve never seen this much snow in my whole life. Have you?”

“No… well, there was that winter we got caught up in the mountains.”  Xena said. “That was about this thick wasn’t it?”

“Not all at once.”

No, it hadn’t been.  They had worked their way through a high pass and found themselves trapped in what was already a white wasteland.  There had been snow after that, but not like this. “No, that’s true.” The warrior concluded. “I asked Ares. He said he didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know or doesn’t want to tell.” The bard said, shrewdly.  “I thought that storm we had, when we were at home for our joining wasn’t really right.”

“Wasn’t him. Wasn’t them. I’d have known.” Her partner responded. “This isn’t them.”

Gabrielle remained quiet, watching the tall figure as it slowly paced.  Xena was still in her armor, though her sword was hanging on one of the branches that formed the support for their makeshift shelter. 

The torchlight inside, it’s smoky residue gathering at the vent in the side of the roof outlined her, picking up little highlights off the brass and outlining the distinct planes of her face.  “But it could be someone else.” She guessed. “Or something else.”

Xena came over and settled into the hammock next to her, sitting sideways and gently pushing them back and forth with her heels. “Could be.” She agreed.  “Anyway, we need to wait this out a little anyway.  Even using it as cover to approach the city I’ll end up losing troops and supplies.”

Gabrielle considered that.  She had a cup of hot wine in her hands and she sipped it thoughtfully.  “What if they’re using this as a way to sneak up on us?” She asked. “That’s a lot of open space to cross for both of us.”

“We’re watching.”  Xena replied simply. “I talked to Cait. She’s convinced those guys chasing them could have caught them if they’d wanted to. She said they kept just close enough to keep her full out.”

“Huh.” Gabrielle grunted “Distraction?” She guessed, looking over at Xena, watching her head nod. “Keep us from finding the sisters?”

Xena nodded again. “But right now we can’t do anything about that.  The only tracker that might find them in this is me.”

“You are not going out there alone Xe.”

The warrior smiled. “No, I’m not.” She agreed.  “But I think something wants that. They want my ego driving me to find those women and save them.”

Well.  Gabrielle got up off the hammock and went over to the tent flap to pull it aside and look out.  It was almost a solid dark gray, the trees and ground covered in snow, and more falling thickly even through the branches.

She could see troops, vaguely, cloaked forms under rigged hides, on watch nearby.  Just on the other side of the tree nearest her was the healer’s shelter, where Hercules was resting in well warmed woolen blankets, the gash in his chest very slowly closing.

Too slowly,  Iolaus had told her, visibly worried, watching Xena examine the wound with equal concern. 

Too slowly, but still making progress.  The other reason Xena had decided to keep the army in camp, along with the other wounded who had some time to heal up.

She turned and regarded the hammock, where Xena was seated with her hands folded over her stomach, thumbs tapping lightly against each other.  As they looked into each other’s eyes, Gabrielle got the sense that they were thinking the exact same thing.  “It’s a game.”

A faint smile appeared on Xena’s face.  Then she held her hand out and wiggled her fingers. “C’mere.” She said. “Game or no game, snow or no snow, gods or none, we should get some rest.”

Yes, it was true.  The bard came back over and as she rolled herself back into the hammock Xena swung her long legs up into it and they ended up together in the middle.   “Xena.”

“Mm?”

Gabrielle took a breath, then shook her head slightly “Why did we wait so long to use these damn things?” She poked the hammock.  “I mean, sheesh!”

Xena chuckled, accepting the subject change.  “Because if we’d gotten used to them I’d have had to find two damn trees close enough every time we camped, and staying in town wouldn’t have been such fun the times we did.”

And that, the bard had to admit, was also true.   You had to know the worst of life before the best of it really could be savored didn’t you?  If her life had taught her anything, it had taught her that.  “I should have known you’d have an answer for that.”

“Rather than the fact we were just self suffering morons for all those years?  Sure.”  Xena stretched herself out and exhaled in contentment. “You know I can revise history with the best of them.”  She felt Gabrielle start to laugh, her body shaking with it.  “Besides I had you to teach me.”

Gabrielle laughed harder, her chuckles becoming audible.

“I remember the first time I happened to be passing by an inn window and heard you telling some story in there and going.. WHAT?”  Xena reminisced.  “I thought you’d gotten into the spiced mushrooms again.”

“Ah Xe.”  Gabrielle snuggled up to her and exhaled.  “I love you.” She said. “That’s not something I ever made up or exaggerated.”

No, Xena smiled, as she tugged the furs over both of them, booted and armored as they were.  That love had always been steadfast and true and honestly given and returned.

No strings attached. Even when it had caused them both soul searing pain and driven them to the extremes of grief.

She let her eyes close.  

**

 Cait carefully climbed up the side of the small rock escarpment,  her face wrapped in dark cloth, hands covered in the same.  She got up high enough to gain visibility over it and peered into the darkness.

The flat plains before the city were still empty.  The road was covered and obscured with snow, but the fall had slowed, and now was mostly just flurries that dusted her skin.

Behind her, the army was packing and getting ready to move, to advance across the open space and within range of the city gates. 

It felt strange to be looking forward to the darkness for battle.   Cait had gotten some rest, and she was feeling all right, but that big, empty wasteland before them seemed vast and somewhat threatening.

“What are you looking at?”

Cait turned to find Paladia standing on the ground, looking up at her. “Where we’re going.” She said. “It’s almost stopped snowing.”

Paladia climbed up next to her and thumped herself into place against the rocks.  She folded her arms on the top of the rocks and studied the ground in front of them, issuing a disgruntled grunt deep in her throat.  “Nuts.”

“To fight in the dark?”

“This whole thing is nuts.” Paladia said. “Guys with arrows, gods, other gods, people running around.  Makes no sense.”

Cait leaned next to her. “How do you feel about the gods?”

Her partner pondered a minute, then shrugged.  “Never did anyone any good that I knew about.”  She said. “I remember them killing the last of the lambs, one year, for some sacrifice to one of them.  All that ended up being was a waste of meat.”

“I never learned about them.”  Cait admitted. “I don’t remember which ones my parents worshipped or if they did even .” She paused. “I don’t even really remember them.”

Paladia shifted a little. “You didn’t miss anything. Mine sucked.”  She said. “People that aint gods have done more for me than any of them did.”

“Well.”  Cait cleared her throat a bit. “There’s Xena.”

Paladia, predictably, rolled her eyes.

“Stop that.” Cait nudged her. “It’s not her fault.”

Paladia rolled her eyes again. “So what’s the deal now? We going to march up to the gates of that stupid city and knock on them?”

Cait returned her attention to the darkening slope, straightening a little as she suddenly caught a brief flash of motion. “Hello, what’s that?”

“What’s what?”  Paladia shaded her eyes and peered into the distance. “Something out there?”

“It’s a wagon.” Cait turned and leaped down from the rocks. “Stay there and watch it Pally!” She dodged through the trees and broke into a run, heading for the center of the cavalry, where she could see Xena’s tall form already mounted.

Halfway there she felt a prickle of warning and something made her duck to one side, half sliding down the slope as hands were outstretched to grab her.  She let out a yell of warning, then grabbed a passing tree branch and whipped herself around in mid air.

A body, cloaked, coming at her. She uncoiled her legs and hit the oncoming figure in the chest with both feet, kicking out as hard as she could as she heard a rush of clawed feet approaching and a bass roar along with it.

She let go of the branch and unsheathed a dagger, then remembered her original task and turned around. “Got that bad bit?” She asked, the forest dweller who’d come rushing over. “I’ve got to get to Xena.”

“Got em.” The furry warrior said. “Go on!”

Cait started running again, only to haul up once more when she spotted Argo’s distinctive figure coming at her.  “Xena!”

They coming?  Xena yelled back.

“A wagon!  Alone, heading to the city!”  Cait called back. “I think it’s the one we were with!”

Xena let out a long and two short whistles, and from no where literally Ares appeared next to her on his black horse.  “Let’s go!  See if we can catch up to them!”

Cait ran for Shadow as the rest of the army swirled into motion and streamed past, not even pausing to wonder who it was who tried to grab her.

Later, for that.

**

The vanguard gathered briefly at the crest of the ridge and surrounded Xena.  “Try to cut them off.” She instructed the dozen chosen men. “We’ll start the march towards the port city walls.”

“Genr’l.” The vanguard captain saluted, then gathered his troops and started down the road at a flat gallop, with the rest of them at his heels.

Xena half turned “Get in formation. Let’s head down the road.”   She called out. “Keep watch. Could be anything including booby traps on the route.”

The army started moving, the cavalry fanning out over the frozen ground, with archers running along side, armed with spears they swept in front of them. 

“You think it’s them?”  Gabrielle asked, getting herself settled as they prepared to start off.

Dunno.” Xena turned to Ares. “Is it?”  She asked.

Ares studied the distant target, and then, reluctantly, he pursed his lips and shrugged. “I can’t tell.” He admitted. ‘They’re morts. They don’t light up.”

“Great.”  Xena exhaled. “Well, no harm in chasing them down anyway.” She settled her knees and they started forward as the body of the army did, the soft rumble of wagon wheels behind them as the support group brought up the rear. 

After a moment, Cait wormed her way up beside them, and the Amazons joined them just to the rear.   “Xena.”

“Yeah?”  Xena had just furled her map up and put it in her saddlebag. “Good catch on the wagon.”

“Yes, thanks.” Cait said. “But coming back to find you, someone took a grab at me.  One of the fuzzies stopped them.”

Xena turned and looked behind her. “What?” She spotted Jessan and whistled, motioning him forward.  “Someone took a grab at you?”

“Yes.”  Cait said. “I think they were trying to stop me telling you.”

“That’s a good sign.” Ares commented. “Probably was one of Hade’s troops. Last thing he wants is me to find those chicks.”

“Why?”  Gabrielle asked. “Why does he care if you do? I’m not really getting all the motives in this thing.”

“Welcome to Olympus.”  The God of War said, drolly.  “Nothing’s what it looks like.”  He stood up a little in his stirrups. “They’re catching those guys.”

Jessan came riding up. “Yo, boss.” He said. “Glad we’re on the move. I was getting creeps in that forest.”   He said. “You need something?”

“One of your guys grabbed someone who tried to grab Cait.” Xena said. “Who was it?”

Jessan stared at her, then turned to look behind him. “Let me go find out.”  He said, turning Eris and galloping back along the lines.

“That’s all we need is a viper in the camp.”  Solari had been listening, from her spot just a half horse length behind Gabrielle.  “Maybe it was that kid.”

“Good gracious is he back?”  Cait asked, in an astonished tone. “Really?”

“What kid?” Gabrielle asked. “You don’t mean Jacob?”

Cait focused on her queen. “He called himself Jake when he met up with us before. He’s a bad lot, if it’s the same person.” She said, in a serious tone. “There’s something not right with him.”

“Ah.. I talked to Nala.” Solari grinned. “I think he was stuck on you.”

Cait gave her a withering look. “He’s a rotter.”

“Wait, we know him.”  Gabrielle said. “He was one of a family we ran into when I was pregnant with Dori, in that village..

“Oh crap.” Solari’s eyes widened “That family? Those weirdos with the sheep?  Who dissed women?  Those guys?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yes, it was him, and his brother and sister. I was surprised to see him… and there was something he did the other day that made me think of someone else… “ Gabrielle stopped talking and went silent, her eyes going internal.

Xena looked right and left, measuring the alignment of her troops, feeling a sense of satisfaction as they moved at a good pace, eyes alert, and hands on weapons.   There was uncertainty in the air she could feel, and a certain potential for things to happen that they needed to be ready for.

She didn’t like it. 

Jessan was coming back along the lines, and he pulled up next to her. “Okay, my guys did get hold of this human who was making a grab.  Beddus is bringing him up now.” He indicated a fast moving forest dweller, mounted, with a slight figure in front of him.

“Xena.”

“Yeah, hold on a sec, hon.” Xena peered through the twilight gloom at the captive. “Damn.  Cait was right. It’s that kid.”

“Xe, don’t let him near Ares.” Gabrielle said suddenly, reaching out to grip her partner’s arm.  “I just remembered who he reminded me of yesterday.  When he smirked.”

Ares heard his name and came closer. “What’s up?”

“Who?” Xena put her hand on her sword, glancing between Gabrielle and the oncoming captive.   “He’s just a kid.”

“That look reminded me of Seraphim.”

Xena drew her sword within a breath of hearing the words, and she let out a yell of warning. “Get around them!” She pointed at Gabrielle and Ares, and she started forward to intercept the forest dweller.

“What the heck’s going on?” Jessan asked, in a bewildered tone.

“No telling.” Cait answered him as she got in front of Gabrielle and pulled her own blade, as the army slowed and moved into a swirl of confusion.

Xena sent Argo through the rapidly parting troops, none of which understood her intent but knew enough to get out of her way.  “Stop!” She got sideways to the forest dweller, who had pulled his horse to a halt in front of her.

She kept her sword out and side stepped over and three soldiers came over with torches, throwing them all into golden relief, and shadows behind them.  “Explain why you went after Cait.”  She could see his face, pale and a little desperate, opposite her.

“I…” He said.

“Don’t lie.” The warrior warned him. “We’re in the middle of battle, and I don’t have time to play games.”

He took a breath, and released it. “You won’t catch them.” He said. “”We’ll get our pay.”

Xena studied him. “You work for Pinu.”

He nodded, defiantly.  “Only person ever who took care of me.  Tried to get the rest of them to the hunters, but that little bitch warned em all off.”

With a flickering motion ,Xena brought her sword around and smacked him across the face with the flat of it, the sharp sound echoing across the snowy ground.  “Count yourself lucky you didn’t.” She shifted the blade into reverse and moved closer, watching him flinch backwards, eyes tearing from the blow.  “Have any idea who they got in that other wagon?”

He stared at her. “Half dozen nice, fruity wenches. Ripe for Pinu’s harem.” He said, licking a bit of blood from a split lip.  “He’ll know I’m out here.  Then you’ll get yours.”

 “Tie him up. “ She told the forest dweller, who hadn’t stirred an inch.  “Tight.”

“Sure, Chosen.”  The furry head nodded. “I’ll take care of him. Put him over the back of that stock horse over there. Head down.”

Xena let out a whistle and turned around, sheathing her sword. “Move out.”  She got the troops moving again and then went riding back over to where the Amazons, Gabrielle, and Ares were still waiting. 

“What’s his story?” Gabrielle asked.  “I couldn’t hear him.” She glanced around. “And my little posse here wouldn’t let me get closer.”

“Snake in the grass.” Xena said. “But not the hydra I thought for a minute.”  She shook her head. “He’s with the slavers.  Apparently they adopted him.”

“Ugh.” Cait frowned. “I  knew he was a rotter. I said so.”

“More idiocy.” Ares had already started riding ahead. “Neverending.”

“Sorry.”  Gabrielle glanced back at the retreating forest dweller. “I just had such a bad feeling about him.”   She felt a faint sense of relief though. “I guess they gave him a home when he didn’t have any.”

Xena eyed her. “I’ll trust your feelings any time, love.” She said. “I had  a feeling myself when he tried to convince us the wagon went the other way.  It’s just…  She paused, and shook her head. “Something’s not right.”

No something wasn’t.  Gabrielle leaned forward and shifted her staff, as they moved into a canter along the road.  Ahead of them, far ahead, she could faintly see the torches that had gone with the vanguard, and she wondered.

She just wondered. That look of sly knowing in Jacob’s eyes that had reminded her so strongly of the same look, the same faint, almost smile she remembered in her old friend turned path to her soul’s desecration.

Too late, of course, when experience had revealed to her what she’d been looking at, removed in time to allow her the perspective to see it.

So he was a party to the slavers.  Raw and unkind as that was, did it really give her the prickle up her spine that remembering Seraphim did?

Xena half stood in her stirrups to look at head of them, and as the moon very briefly broke through the clouds and lit the road, they could see a single rider heading back their way, riding hard.  “Now what?”

Redder let out a whistle and a moment later it echoed back. “One of the guard.” He called out to Xena “Maybe they caught em?”

A few moments later the rider was up on them and pulling up as the front of the army reached him.  “Xena!” The man called out. “We’ve got em.  Need a healer! Bad!”

“Oh, that’s not good.” Gabrielle exhaled.

The army thundered forward,  heading now to the circle of torches that were no longer moving, but still, staked out around a wooden structure and now, as they all approached the bodies circling it parted and drew their horses aside, sides still heaving.

It was a dark patch in a dark plain in the echoing emptiness before the city.  They were still a long distance off, long enough to be unable to even see any lights from the walls, but out in the open here it felt exposed.

Xena hauled herself off Argo and felt the hardness of the frozen ground in the impact against her boots.   “What do we have?”

The horses in the wagon traces were exhausted, steam coming off their bodies visible in the torchlight.  One of them was on his knees, and as they dismounted, he keeled over onto his side with a pitiful whinny.

“Get that horse out of that rig.” Xena ordered, before anything else. “Jessan, put your scouts out around us. I don’t want any surprises.”

“Right.”  Jessan let out a low bark, and the forest dwellers circled around him.

Xena pulled off her gloves and walked over to the wagon, stepping over the body of what had, apparently, been the driver.

“Wouldn’t stop.” The vanguard captain caught up with her.  “Had to shoot him.” He indicated the crossbow shaft.

Gabrielle caught up with her along with a handful of the Amazons as they walked around to the back of the wagon and stepped up next to the soldiers clustered there.

Xena could already smell the blood.   She eased between the soldiers and put her hand on the top of the wagon, which was thrown open.  Inside, one of the soldiers was kneeling down, and had a woman’s torso cradled against his chest.

He looked up in relief on seeing her. “Genr’l, these people are sore hurt.”

Xena took a breath and knelt herself as two of the soldiers brought their torches closer so she could see the interior of the conveyance.

It was filthy.  There were tattered blankets and dirty straw, and in the back, small barrels were lashed, with a dark stain around their edges.  There were four bodies in the straw, three plus the one in the soldiers arms.

“This one’s the worse, I think.” The soldier told her.

Athena, no question.   Xena felt Ares presence in back of her, but she steeled herself and moved aside the dirty sacking covering the woman.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and then Gabrielle was kneeling next to her, unrolling her kit out on the wooden edge.   Cait’s bringing some water.”

There seemed to be no awareness at all in the woman, her arms were sprawled out, hands upmost, her body criss crossed with lurid bruises.  But the blood was from a gut wound, deep and triangular, made from a long, heavy hilted dagger that was lying on the straw next to her. “Ah.”

Gabrielle looked around. “Who did that?” She asked. “Was it the driver?”

The soldier shook his head. “Was two, three that jumped off and ran, ma’am.” He said.  “Captain kept us on the wagon, said let em go.”

“Good decision.”  Xena said, quietly.   “Gabrielle tell them to get over here and get a fire started. I’ll need some cloths.”

“I’ll go.” Solari said, giving her queen a tap on the shoulder. “Think it’s gonna dump again.”

“Figures.” The bard exhaled.  “Xena is..

“Don’t ask me that yet.”  Her partner said.  “How are the others?”  She glanced aside as Ares eased between the soldiers and knelt at her side. “Bad cut.”

The God of War’s face was still. “Bad like mine was.”  He said, briefly. 

“Yes.”

He nodded, then looked into the back of the wagon.  One of the other women had stirred and lifted her head and their eyes met.

“You.” She hissed. 

Ares stared stonily at her, then lifted his finger to his lips.

She ignored him. “It’s too late.”

Cait ran up and put down a folding camp bucket of water, and removed a thickly folded pile of cloth.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Xena nudged Ares’ knee. “Go over there and talk if you want to I need some space.” She muttered under her breath.  “I don’t know how much time we have here.”

He moved aside and went to the other corner of the wagon, without comment.    Xena plunged her hands in the bucket and washed them, then got the cloth good and wet and started cleaning the wound Athena’s belly.

It was bleeding freely, and she reached to her kit, pausing when Gabrielle forestalled her and put the collapsing cup in her hand.  “Thanks.”

“I’m going to.. “Gabrielle started to speak, then went silent as Redder and three other soldiers unfolded a large, square skin and set it over them, using spears driven into the ground to hold it up.  She went back to the kit instead and got out the gut and bone needles, starting to thread one through the other to get them ready when Xena needed them.

The other two women were slumped in the straw, but they seemed to be unmarked.   “Redder.” Gabrielle half turned. “Can you get two or three men here, to get thes other two and move them back to the support wagons?”

“Aye, surely” The captain agreed.  “Be coming up the road, yeah? No place here to set up anywhere.” He looked around. “Riders tell me they’re hearing yells, from up ahead. “

Xena exhaled. “Can’t move right now.” She said. “Set the troops in a circle cadre, with the wagons in the center and let’s hope we don’t have half of Hades coming down on top of us.”

The soldier nodded and trotted off, and Xena went back to her task.

“You’re gonna regret suggesting that.” Ares spoke up, after a period of silence. “Might want to sew faster.”

Xena looked up at him, then over at Artemis’ baleful stare.  Then she went back to her tending, using the cup to wash the wound clear over and over again. “Not sure it’s going to matter.”

They could hear running, and yells, and the sounds of horses galloping.

“Get your arms ready.” Gabrielle told the Amazons, quietly.  “Give her as much time as you can.”

**

Continued in Part 14