Body Heart and Soul
The wound was too deep. Xena knew it. There were things inside that were damaged that she could barely keep blood clear enough to see to try and repair them.
She set the cup of water down and half turned, finding Gabrielle offering her a bit of gut and a bone needle in anticipation. “Thanks.” She took it. “You wanna go find out what’s going on?”
“Not really.” Her partner answered honestly. “I’d rather stay here with you.”
Xena smiled briefly and went back to her task, aware of the eyes watching her intently. The soldier holding her patient up shifted just a little, leaning back against the wall of the wagon. “Doing okay?” She asked him.
He smiled wanly. “Don’t like blood so much.”
Xena got her fingers into a big pool of it and grunted. “Might want to find a different job.” She got the big gash inside roughly sewn up and was starting on a second cut when she heard footsteps rapidly approaching them.
Gabrielle stood up immediately and turned, grabbing her staff and bringing it up crosswise to her body. She got in position before the Amazons around her could even react. “Get back a little” She warned. “I don’t want to hit anyone.”
Cait took a step to one side and drew her sword, and Paladia got around to the other side of the wagon, tall enough to rest her crossbow on the top and see over it.
“Where’s Xena?” A male bellow sounded.
“Here, Bennu!” Cait recognized the voice, feeling a sense of relief. “Over here!”
Bennu came hauling ass around the wagon and skidded to a halt, seeing Xena’s kneeling figure. “Xena, it’s a trap!”
“No, really?” The warrior said, turning briefly. “Glad to see ya. Which is the trap? Phillipi or the city?” She went back to her task, as her patient started to move around and moan. “Hold her still.” She said. “Solari, give a hand.”
“You bet.” Solari knelt next to Xena and got her hands on Athena’s hands, holding them still. “Think she’s coming round, champ.”
“Not a good idea.” Xena reached up and applied a pressure point, and Athena slumped back again, unconscious.
Bennu knelt on her other side. “We got back to Phillipi, Xena. People there’s gone nuts. They took up the men were with us, and killed them. Near killed us, but we did like you taught us and ran off.”
“They’ve got some dark things with em.” He said. “Took over, and they’re heading this way, scouring as they go.”
“What kind of dark things?” Xena asked. “Gab, can you wash this off? I can’t let this gut go.”
Gabrielle picked up the cup and dunked it in the bucket, letting it run across her soulmate’s hands, covered in deep red gore. “This cold’s not helping.”
“No.” Xena said. “What dark things, Bennu?” She asked again.
Bennu was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. “Beasts, some like. Skeleton birds.”
“The minions of Hades.” Ares spoke up. He was seated on the other side of the wagon, his hands clasped around his knees. “He called them up from his realm.”
Bennu looked over at him.
“Hi.” He waved a hand. “You’re lucky they didn’t bite you. When they do, you turn into one of them.” He added casually. “Then you’re one of his.”
“What?” Gabrielle paused in mid motion.
“Sure.” Ares said, giving her a humorless smile. “Hey, you morts end up in Hades’ realm anyway. Whats the diff?”
“You might have mentioned that before.” Xena glared at him.
He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Artemis said. “It’s too late.”
Ares looked at her. “Giving up?”
Artemis looked right back at him. “It was you caused this. Pitu’s army heard you were in the field, and called on Hades.” She said. “Idiot.”
Xena shook her head and went back to what she was doing. “Tell the rest of the army what’s coming.” She told Bennu. “Pass along the warning about the teeth.”
“Genr’l.” Bennu said, sounding unhappy. “Hope ye cut my head off if it happens to me. Yeah?” He eyed Xena. “Don’t want to be on the other side of it.”
The horror of the potential suddenly made Xena’s hands go still. Up until that moment she’d let the danger roll past her as she usually did, but now she stopped and thought about it.
She looked up and then looked over at Bennu, then her head turned slightly as she regarded her soulmate.
“Even you, blondie.” Ares commented. “Bet he’d love to get a fang in you.”
“In me.” Gabrielle repeated.
“Sure.” The God of War said. “That’s his gig, you know? The more morts he knocks off, the bigger his army gets.”
Xena stopped what she was doing and turned to stare at him. “You knew he’d come after us.”
“I figured.” Ares said, in a reasonable tone. “After you started steamrolling those other guys. He wanted to use them first.”
“And then he heard you were fighting.” Artemis repeated. “You, Ares. The Sword of War. He would have let the mortals fight to the end save that.” She said. “You changed the game.”
There was a brief, total silence. “You stupid jerk.” Gabrielle finally said. “We were trying to help you.”
Ares lifted his hands then let them drop. “Doesn’t matter. Would have come to this anyway. I just cut to the chase.” He said. “Those city morts wouldn’t have beat ya. We all know it.”
Xena glanced at her partner. She had no need to ask Gabrielle what she thought. It was written explicitly on her face. “Go get Bennu.” She said. “Get the army turned around and ready to run.”
Gabrielle put a silent hand on her arm, just that one touch, before she got up and shoved her way out of the circle and broke into a run.
“What do you mean?” Ares said. “You’re gonna fight those guys right?”
“No.” Xena redoubled her speed, her hands moving quickly to sew up the last of the gaping wound, not without a the faintest of trembling in them. “All bets are off. I’m not giving up my troops, my friends and my family to Hades on your behalf.”
She could already hear the shifting of bodies and the sound of horns behind her, one the ox horn she’d carved for Bennu during the last winter. It had a piercing, almost wild note to it, and as she exhaled, she felt that inner sense of sureness. “I”ll finish this. You want to come with us, you can. You want to stay and face Hades? You can do that too.”
“You’re a coward.”
Xena looked up at him, not even insulted, a faint smile on her face. “Always glad to be that, in a good cause.”
Ares was staring at her, as though he was seeing her for the first time. “You’re really going to run?” He sounded honestly surprised. “Really?”
“Absolutely.” Xena finished tying the last knot and picked up the cup, washing off the wound that was now a long, angry, bitter looking line across Athena’s skin. She reached up and released the pressure points, but the woman remained limp. “Two of you take her back to one of our wagons. This one’s no good.”
She stood up and rolled her healer’s kit up only then looking up over the collapsed wagon, to see the army in motion, and the bright golden flash that was Gabrielle on Iolaus leading Argo to her. She put her fingers between her teeth and whistled. “Let’s go people.”
Redder had joined the soldier in the wagon and they were carrying Athena between them, with urgent gentleness, leaving Ares and Artemis inside.
Xena looked at them “Coming?”
Artemis didn’t wait for Ares. She scrambled out of the wagon and stood with as much dignity as she could muster, her head even with Xena’s, eyes fastened on her face. “I”ll go with you.” She said. “If you have a spare cloak.. “ She paused. “I’d appreciate it.”
“We have one.” Xena smiled briefly. “Cait, can you get her a cloak and a horse?”
“Right.” Cait gestured with respect to the mortal goddess. “Would you come with me, please?” She said. “My friend Pally might have a tunic you could use too.”
Artemis studied her. “You’re’ an Amazon.”
“Sort of.” Cait said. “It’s all a bit difficult.” She added, as she led the mortal goddess off towards a small huddle of Amazons.
Gabrielle arrived, releasing Argo’s reins. “The scouts are already heading back up the road.” She said. “We’ve got Athena settled in the healer’s wagon, with Hercules.” She added. “Xe, let’s go.”
Xena nodded, and since Gabrielle was close enough, winked at her. “We’ll run all the way back to the valley if we have to.” She agreed. “We might even end up fighting at the gates of Amphipolis.”
The bard nodded, and they both exchanged, quiet, knowing looks. “Stay close.”
“Like a tick.” Xena crouched slightly then leaped up into Argo’s saddle, before she turned back to Ares, still seated on the wagon. “There’s no win in this Ares.”
“I shouldn’t have told you about the gnorps.” Ares sighed. “Shoulda kept my mouth shut. Would have been a cool fight.”
“Would have been the last thing you didn’t tell me.” Xena let her hands rest on her saddle, and studied him. “You’ve got your sisters back. I upheld my end of that bargain. Losing everything else wasn’t part of it.”
Ares stood up. “Hades still wins.” He said. “Only challenge we could have brought was you.” He looked around, then snapped his fingers. “He couldn’t have turned ya.”
“Why not you?” Xena asked, as the black horse came galloping over to him. “Raise your own army. Fight him. You’re the God of War, right?”
He looked over at her, with a curious expression. “I could take yours.” He mused. “It’s a nice army.”
Xena smiled. “You could try.”
He rolled his eyes. “Run from Hades, but talk crap to me. Nice, Xena.” He sighed. “Stupid army probably woudnt want to get loose of your tit anyway.” He looked around. “They believe in you, not me. Isn’t that a kick in the ass?”
Xena thought about that, and understood in that moment, that it was true and the envy she heard in his voice was also true. “Why is that?” She asked, suddenly. “I’m just some by blow bastard, Ares.” She paused. “Of whose I’ve always wondered.”
Ares was on the horses back and now he came up against her, and everything got quiet around them, even the wind dying down. He held up his hand, and the world halted for him. “Listen.” He looked around then ducked his head closer to her.
Xena took a breath and felt the air prickling all around her, raising goosebumps on her skin. “Was it you?”
Only the briefest of smiles appeared on the angular, cruel face so close to hers. “Baby I’d love to claim you.” He said. “You got no idea how much. “
She lifted one eyebrow.
“Can’t.” He said. “None of us can. You’re not one of us.”
He hauled the horses head around and clenched a fist, and the world rushed in again. “S’why Daddy wanted you to stay up there. Aint’ often we find something we don’t know about.” He smiled again. “Though he can’t convince Hera of that.”
Xena knew a moment of utter bewilderment. “What?”
“No time, babe.” Ares said. “Guess I lost this round anyway. Might as well run away with the rest of you.” He turned and cantered off leaving her there on Argo, with Gabrielle just as still and just as stunned next to her.
The last of the army was moving past them, but they just stood there for a moment, ignoring the blowing, icy wind, and the falling snow, and staring at each other.
“Son of a bitch.” Xena finally said.
“Let’s go.” Gabrielle concluded, with a shake of her head. “We can figure it all out later, Xe. If we get out of here in time.”
“Son of a bitch.” Her partner repeated, but got herself settled and they started out after the troops, getting to the road as a cadre of Amazons fell in around them, and Jessan came in on Eris next to Argo.
They gained the shelter of the forest before anyone turned around, and Xena turned herself right back forward as her eyes caught motion in the darkness behind them. A gust of wind brought that scent of decay to her again and now she realized what it was.
She felt like an idiot, being played by Ares yet again. Would she ever learn? Would any of them? The thought of her own army being cut down and joining Hade’s made her so sick to her stomach she stopped chewing the trail roll she was consuming and closed her eyes.
She’d known they were heading into something wrong.
Son of a bitch. That was exactly and precisely what Ares was, and now.. Xena drew in a careful breath. Now any sense of loyalty to him had disappeared, ground to dust in the knowledge of what he’d led them to.
What she’d let him lead her to. She growled under her breath.
“We’ll end up fighting anyway won’t we?” Gabrielle spoke up, wrapped in her cloak, and hooded against the snow. “We can’t outrun them forever.” She also glanced behind them, and then to her right, where the clouds were showing a faint hint of lightening.
“Probably.” Xena dusted her fingers off. “Lets get as far away from the port city as we can first.”
“This sucks.” The bard said, succinctly.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry.” Her partner sighed. “We should have stayed out of it.”
“Xe.” Gabrielle chuckled a little, wryly. “Never in a million years would we have stayed out of it. Don’t kick yourself. We’ll get through it.” She reached over and patted her partner on the knee. “Somehow.”
It was noontime before they reached the rocky escarpment they’d camped by and Xena called a halt for them to rest and regroup. “Better for us to take a break in daylight.” She told Bennu, who firmly nodded in agreement. “What a damn mess.”
“Aye.” Her russet haired captain agreed wryly. “Least no one’s behind us.” He pointed out. “Guard came through, roads all clear back.”
“Yet.” Xena exhaled. “If we’d have kept going towards the city, would have been a different day.” She felt a touch relieved at having a moment to get her act together and she stood briefly in the center of the camp, hands on hips.
“We staying long enough for soup?” Gabrielle came up to her, bumping her gently.
Xena looked around the camp, studying the army, the horses, and the support people hurrying back and forth with sacks. “Yes.” She said, after a brief pause. “Might as well, while we can.” She exhaled. “I’m going over to the healer’s wagon.”
Gabrielle gave her a brief one armed hug, then she patted her on the back as she started off towards where the support groups had halted the supply wagons and were rubbing down the horses drawing them.
She watched her partner trudge across the frozen ground for a minute, then she went back to the sheltered rock overhang where wood was being collected waiting for her to come back to say to start a fire with. “Go on.” She instructed the waiting soldiers. “We’ll get something hot at least.”
The soldiers smiled and went back to work, stacking the fire while two of them brought over one of the big cook pots and the iron grate it would sit on, the pot already full of clean snow packed down well.
There were two other gatherings and at the whistles from Gabrielles group, they also went into motion, everyone’s spirits picking up a little.
“Let’s get everything in there.” Gabrielle put her back to one of the trees and folded her arms across her chest under her cloak, glad to be standing still.
Jessan came over and stood next to her, conveniently blocking the wind nicely. “Whoa.”
“Whoa.” Gabrielle agreed wryly. “What a day.” She looked around to see if Ares was loitering but saw no sign of the god. “I felt there was something wrong with where we were going. Just wasn’t right, all that stuff, all those armies… felt like a..”
“Like a setup?” Jessan asked.
“No, actually.” The bard said. “It felt like a play. You know? Like someone was writing us into a place we couldn’t get out of.” She added. “Just like it wasn’t real.”
“And, we did what we came for.” Gabrielle went on. “We got the sisters. Have no clue what we’re going to do with them, but we got them, and they’re not captives anymore.”
Jessan grunted. “Can you make em not mortal?”
“Me?” Wide, green eyes studied him. “Honestly not even Xe could do that. I hope if we all back off and get out of this craziness, then stuff will work out so they can go back where they came from.”
The forest dweller looked skeptical. “We don’t get off that easy.” He suggested. “I sent two of my guys back along the trail to find out what’s heading this way. They’ll send a message when they see anything.”
“Hope they don’t.” The bard muttered. “I get the creeps every time I think about one of those things taking a peck at me.”
Jessan watched her profile, seeing the twitch of the muscles across her jaw. “Little sister.” He said. “I don’t believe there’s anything on either side of this life that could make you do something against your will. Even Hades.”
Gabrielle eyed him, then after a pause, she smiled, just a little. “I don’t want to take that chance, Jess. I’ve been on the line too many times for that.”
He put a clawed hand on her shoulder. “Xena won’t let anything happen to you. We both know that.” He said. “She won’t let anything happen to you, or to her or to us.”
No, that was more that likely true enough. Gabrielle covered his hand with her own and squeezed it. “We’ll get through it.” She said. “There’s just too much god stuff in this even for me.”
Jessan chortled softly, under his breath.
“I just don’t see any good coming from this.” The bard admitted. “What’s a good ending for us? They survive? They don’t?” She exhaled. “But I am glad we found them.”
Jessan leaned against the tree, watching the fire build. “They’re glad too.” He said, after a long pause. “But they’ll never say so.”
“No.” Gabrielle gently pushed herself off from the tree and headed towards the campfire, wanting to feel the warmth against her skin after the long, cold, bitter ride. She dodged the two women who had come over to the pot, dumping dried vegetables and meats into it. “That’s gonna taste good.”
The nearer woman smiled at her. “Anything, in this cold.” She said. “Glad we stopped to take a rest. Those in the healer’s wagon coulda used it. Rough road.”
“I know.” Gabrielle went over to the saddlebags someone had brought over for them and fished in hers, bringing out a small sack she unrolled as she walked back over. She sorted through the herbs and added a handful to the pot, watching them disperse across the surface of the already melted snow in it.
Voices were echoing a little in her hearing and she knew a short nap would do her good, as she could feel the ache of too much riding, and too much cold in her bones.
She took a step back and found another tree to lean against, letting her body relax and her mind finally, finally to think about that frantic retreat, and the words she’d heard in it.
Ares had been telling the truth. She could see the chagrin in his face, and that look of arrogant envy in his eyes when he told Xena she was no making of his.
Wow. Gabrielle had to smile. That had been a surprise. To Xena, and to her, because if she’d had to pick any of them, it would have been him. Xena even resembled him, a little, with that angular face and the height.
And the eyes.
That had even made him a little safe, to her. Made her harbor an affection for him, even unacknowledged because at the root of him she’d always sensed there was part of him that had that same unacknowledged affection not for her, but for Xena.
She remembered him saving Iolaus’ life, because Xena had asked him.
She remembered saving his life, with Xena, because it had been the right thing to do.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure how she felt now. She spotted Ares moving through the mist, his boots stirring the fog coming off the ground that he was walking across. He saw her and angled his steps towards her, coming up next to her and parking himself against her tree. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He had his cloak on, and the hood of it up and it framed his face with inky darkness. “Bad scene in there.” He indicated the healer’s wagon. “Depressing.”
“Being hurt is no fun.” The bard agreed. “And it’s no fun when someone you care about is hurting either. I know I hate it when Xe’s injured”
“Why?” The God of War asked. “Its not your blood.”
Gabrielle turned towards him, resting her shoulder against the tree. “But it is, Ares. When Xe gets cut, I bleed.”
“No you don’t.”
“I do.” She touched her chest. “I hurt in here for her. It brings me to tears, every time.”
Ares’s brows creased and he stared at her. “You’re so weird.”
“Maybe I am.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “I even felt bad for you, when you were telling us about your sisters messing with your stuff.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I’ve got soup to make.” She returned to the fire, and sniffed the steam starting to come off the water.
He followed her over, and peered into the pot, as one of the grooms came over and offered Gabrielle a small bag. “What’s that?”
Gabrielle peeked inside. “Ah nice. Dried onions.” She emptied the bag in and took the bark stripped branch handed to her and stirred the liquid. “Anyone got any meat?”
“Here.” Jessan came over and offered up a bloody, furry bundle. “Fresh caught.”
“Glad Dori’s not here.” Gabrielle loosened the field dressed rabbits and eased the contents into the pot, sensing the men and women around her relaxing. “Did I tell you she decided she didn’t like eating animals before we left?”
Jessan made a face at her. “Does that mean she’s starving, back by us?” He asked mournfully. “We don’t do much in the way of salads.”
“She got over it before we left, mostly.” Gabrielle said. “But it’ll come up again I’m sure. She was in a snare class up in the village and Xe explained to her what they were for.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle took comfort in the casual talk, and in thinking about her daughter. “She’s so funny somemtimes.”
The Amazons appeared, and drifted over to her, carefully easing around Ares’ silent form. Solari cleared her throat a little and offered her queen the contents of a leather sack. “Salt?”
“Always.” Gabrielle took a pinch and added it. “Everyone doing okay?”
Solari put her sack away. “If you want, I’ll keep stirring this. Maybe you should go check out the stuff in the wagon.”
Uh oh. “Okay..” Gabrielle handed the stick off. “If anything else is offered, just add it. Two handfuls of stuff, a pinch of salt. Okay?”
The bard dusted her hands off and headed past the gathering crowd, moving between the frozen trees towards where the support wagons had been clustered, with soldiers resting all around them. She passed more cookfires, and pushed her hood back as the heat of them worked to remove the utter chill from the air.
The biggest of the fires was built near the center of the wagons, most of them opened to allow the getting to of supplies and tools. There were a group of soldiers, and two of the army’s healers standing next to the biggest of the wagons and they turned with looks of relief when Gabrielle arrived.
“Hey.” She paused. “Everything all right?”
One of the healers had just put a bucket of water near the fire to heat. “Somes feeling poorly in there, Gabrielle.” He said. “Xena’s working on them.”
Xena being the most experienced healer they had. Gabrielle eased past them and ducked her head to peer into the healer’s wagon, where there were six patients receiving her soulmate’s regard. “Hey.”
Xena looked up and around at her. “Glad you’re here.”
Now, that was a bit confusing. Gabrielle moved into the space and settled next to Xena’s kneeling form. Hercules was lying in front of her, and she saw the re-opened wound, and the blood and Iolaus’s face and she understood.
Understood because she’d been there, had seen Xena slipping away from her, and knew that sickness in the gut that showed clearly on Iolaus’ face. “What happened?”
“I tried to kill him.” Artemis said, from her spot in the straw. “You should’ve let me. It’s his fault were all like this.”
“No it isn’t.” Gabrielle objected. “I was there. You lost a bet. Zeus made you like this.” She paused. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s yours. Or his.” She glanced at Xena, who was mixing up a paste in the small mortar and pestle she carried.
“Not that.” Artemis shook her head, voice surprisingly mild. “It’s his fault, because he’s a mongrel, and he lives and that’s what made people start thinking they had no need for the Gods.”
Gabrielle studied Hercules’s long form, then she looked over at Athena. “Hey listen.” She said. “I realize I’m a shepherd’s kid from the sticks, but even I know babies don’t retroactively cause themselves to be born.”
Xena smiled briefly, but kept silent.
“I had no choice who my parents were.” The bard clarified. “Neither did he.”
“That’s true.” Artemis surprisingly agreed. “But he had a choice given to him, and he chose to stay here, stay with mortals, and that, Gabrielle, was in his control.”
Well, that was true.
“And he did it, to make this happen. To make mortals understand that the gods weren’t so different from them.” Artemis concluded. “So that is why I want him to die, to spill his blood out on the ground and show that he is, in fact, no god. He’s mortal. Not one of us.”
“But what would that achieve?” Gabrielle asked. “We all know the truth.”
“It will give me satisfaction.” Artemis said, in a very serious voice. “And after watching my sister be gutted and penetrated by laughing mortals, I’ll take that.”
Oh, ugh. One glance at Xena’s profile told her the goddess was telling the truth, and now she had to wonder where that all left them. “Wow.”
Xena gently spread the paste she’d finished grinding over the wound in Hercules’ chest, then she picked up a fresh piece of gut already threaded through the end of her bone needle. The gash, which had been on it’s way to slowly closing had been ripped open by Artemis, her fingernails up to the task of cutting through her stitches and tearing his flesh further.
His skin tone was fading, turning a dull, slightly grayish color and his breathing had shortened and shallowed, as though the attack itself had damaged him more than the physical injury.
Which it well may have. Xena was struck at that moment with the essential futility of their situation, where nothing and no one seemed poised to win in any sense.
Had they lost? What did that really mean now?
She felt the sudden warmth of Gabrielle’s hand on her back, just resting there near her spine. With a sigh, she went back to her work, shaking her head.
Athena had never regained consciousness. The badly injured goddess was against the wall of the wagon, on the other side of her sister. The other injured soldiers were on the far side of the wagon and visibly glad to be there.
The goddess was fading. Hercules was fading.
Xena finished her suture and tied it off, running the edge of her armor knife against the end and then sheathing it. She put more paste over the top of the wound, and then she swiveled around and sat down in the straw, leaning back against the wagon wall as Gabrielle eased in next to her.
Moments later, Ares appeared, and perched on the edge of the wagon, his cloak wrapped around him and his hood up covering his head.
“So what happens now?” Gabrielle asked, after they all looked at each other in silence long enough.
When there was no answer, and not even a comment, the bard turned her head and looked at her partner. “Xe?”
“Yes?” Xena looked back at her. “You going to ask me what the plan is?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “You’re the one in charge.”
True. Xena had to admit to herself. She was, in fact, the one in charge because it had been her idea to come out here, and it was her army. The problem was, she really didn’t know what the next step was and aside from avoiding running into Hades’ army she didn’t have a plan.
She suspected strongly that Gabrielle knew that. She also knew that the bard really didn’t mean to put her on the spot, or embarrass her, she just wanted Xena to either say point blank they had a clean slate or come up with some plan they at least could say they were following.
She pondered their options in silence for a few minutes while everyone else waited for her to answer. What really would achieve anything useful for them? “Let me ask this.” She said, looking over at Ares. “What actually was your plan?”
“You got me to take my army out to find your sisters.” Xena said, catching the look of surprise on Artemis’ face from the corner of her eye. “You knew about Hades. You knew what was going on. What was the plan?”
“Ares, c’mon.” Xena prodded him. “What were you hoping to get out of all of this?”
“That’s a different question.” The God of War said. “I was hoping you and your minions would kick Hades’ ass and I could take credit for it.” He responded straightforwardly. “Keeps the morts in our camp, gets rid of old uncle, makes points with the rents, it’s all good.”
“You’re such a scumbag.” Artemis said.
“Look who’s talking?” Her brother retorted. “Look who sold her follower’s down the river and let that get out in front of the biggest mortal mouth in all eternity?” He pointed at Gabrielle. “Know how many people know about all that now? About blondie here kicking your ass in front of half of Therma?”
“Don’t start with me, Ares.”
“Guys, c’mon.” Gabrielle said. “Can we just say everyone made some bad choices, and move on?” She leaned against Xena. “Let’s not fight. Let’s find a way out of this that makes sense.”
Everyone looked at her with veritable cornucopia of skeptical expressions, with the exception of Xena who merely smiled. “So Gabrielle.” She regarded her soulmate. “What’s the plan?”
Gabrielle took a breath and circled one upraised knee with both arms. “Okay. This is what I think we should do.” She paused.
“This should be good.” Ares muttered. “Probably involves puppies.”
“Look.” Gabrielle said, after a pause. “It really comes down to making people want to support you.” She rested her forearm across Xena’s thigh. “Because when they realize they don’t have to, when they realize they have a choice, you have to give them a reason to choose the way you want them too.”
“Mortals must worship. They have no choice.” Artemis shook her head.
“No, really we don’t.” Gabrielle disagreed. “You can learn that from your family, but there’s nothing forcing us to believe in something, not when you’re grown up and you know better.”
“That’s not always true, hon.” Xena objected. “Depends on the person. I’ve known people who blindly believe and would never consider anything else, and so have you.”
“Most mortals are too stupid to know better.” Ares spoke up.
“Then why is this an issue?” Gabrielle turned on him. “If it’s only us few who can make a choice, why is it a problem? Why doesn’t the belief of all the rest of us make up for it?”
The gods and mortal facimilies of gods remained quiet for a few minutes, watching each other and the rest of the wagon with thoughtful looks.
“Good question.” Xena finally said.
“Why would Pinu showing you two off to the port city cause them to stop believing?” Gabrielle took another angle at it. “Why? I have to work my butt off just to get people to see a different viewpoint in a story that’s real and that I’ve actually lived through.”
Ares shifted a little, and folded his arms over his chest. “We saw it happening.” He said, slowly. “Zeus and Hera saw it. They stopped being able to do things.” He snapped his fingers. “We stopped. You saw it.” He looked at Xena.
Xena wiped the last of the water off her hands, rubbing tiny shreds of dried blood off her skin. “Was that because people down here stopped believing or.. “
“Or you stopped believing.” Gabrielle finished her sentence for her.
Another long silence, even Iolaus looked thoughtful, one hand clasped around Hercules’ shoulder resting near his knee.
“Anyway.” The bard said. “Maybe your problem is also that people here, us mortals.” She produced a wry smile. “We also have kind of a ‘what have you done for me lately’ thing going. You know?”
Now, both Ares and Artemis snorted briefly, under their breaths.
“So a lot of the stories I’ve heard about the gods.. they’re from a long long time ago.” Gabrielle said. “It’s kind of like the stories you hear about Xena, from way back when.” She patted her soulmate’s knee. “I made new stories about her, and that changed a lot of minds.”
Xena nodded thoughtfully. “That’s true.” She said. “But sometimes those old stories come in handy.”
“When you want to scare the pants off of everyone yes.” Her partner said. “But maybe what you guys need is some new stories – new things for people who are alive right now to start telling.”
Ares just laughed. He got up off the edge of the wagon and left, disappearing around the corner towards where the fire was now well up and crackling. Artemis rolled her eyes, then after a moment she eased out after him, and stretched gingerly, leaving them behind.
“Good thought.” Xena told her companion. “Not your fault they’re jerks.”
“You know.” Gabrielle exhaled. “They’ve been around so long and they don’t get it. We want to believe in something. Just give us a hand, huh?” She let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder. “What are we going to do, Xe?”
“We back to my plan again?” Her partner chuckled wryly. “I like your idea better. Get you up on a stage, and let you go and make them as crazy ass wonderful as you do me.”
“No stage and no audience, hon.”
That was true. Xena let her head rest on the wagon wall and pondered her choices, which were few and bad and dwindling every minute.
Or were they?
Bennu came over and offered her a steaming mug. “Genr’l?”
She took it, warming her hands with it. “Benny, those dark forces you saw.”
“Sure they were heading for us?” Xena lifted her eyes and met his. “What’s the chance they were heading for the port city instead?”
Bennu perched on the edge of the wagon. “Was chasing us.” He said. “Came through Phillipi, like, and then we ran from em, and they came after us.”
“But did they?” His war leader asked. “Or were you just going in the same direction?”
Bennu thought about that, sipping from a wooden mug gripped in one big hand.
“Was there some point they stopped chasing you?” Xena changed the angle a little. “Where you got ahead of them? Saw us?”
Slowly, he nodded. “Now’s you say that, Xena, we came out the trees, and saw the road, and when we done that, we… “ He paused. “Didn’t stop to look behind me but got the sense they hauled up.” He added. “Thought maybe they saw t’army.”
“They could have.” Xena agreed. “With all the torches and the running horses – you knew it was us?” She glanced at his nodding head. “In the dark?”
“Could tell by the ranks. Circled the camp, like.” Bennu said. “And there were torches, could see your banner. I know that one.”
“Go find Jessan for me, wouldja?” Xena asked. “Let’s see what the deal is with Hades’ forces. Where are they, and what’s their target.”
Bennu saluted her with his mug then he strode off into the camp.
“You think he’s going for the city?” Gabrielle asked. “What does that mean? We have a free run home?”
“We might have.” Her partner answered, thoughtfully sipping the hot wine in her cup, then offering it to Gabrielle. “But you might have given me an idea, depending on what we find out.”
“You mean about the stories?”
“About creating new stories.” Xena answered. “But it might be a risk.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “When isn’t it?” She looked over at Iolaus, and then reached out to clasp his hand. “Hang in there.”
He looked at Hercules, then looked at her, with the knowledge in his eyes she knew in intimate, aching detail.
“Hang in there.” She repeated. “It’s never over until it is.”
The atmosphere around the camp had changed. Xena, though she was not exactly sensitive to other people’s feelings, realized that as she crossed back from where they’d put their gear down towards the healer’s wagon.
She’d given the orders to fully set up the camp, and the scouts had come back, happy to report they weren’t being followed. Now soldiers were seated around the campfires, with cups in their hands, waiting for the stew pots to finish.
Voices were drifting over the cold ground, the occasional laugh echoing softly. Off to one side, past the curve of the rock she could hear the stamp of horses’ hooves, and the soft nickers as the animals were fed and cared for.
The weather even seemed a bit better, the snow dispersing, and the clouds thinning overhead, allowing isolated slices of sunlight to come through and dust them with unexpected golden beams.
“Get some rest.” She called out as she wound her way through them. “While you can.”
“Genr’l.” They smiled at her. “You as well, eh?”
Jessan intercepted her as she neared her goal. “You were right.” He said, without preamble. “I mean, you usually are right, but everyone figured we’d be running from them so..”
“They went the other way.” Xena concluded. “We weren’t the target.”
“They went the other way.” Jessan agreed. “They’re surrounding the port city. We lucked out.” He added. “My guys figure they’ll move on them at dusk.” He pondered. “Sort of the same plan we had when we were camped out there.”
“They laying up in the daylight? “
“They took over that forest we were in.” Jessan said. “Glad we’re not in it. Those guys were seriously creeptastic.” He rubbed his ears a little. “Sort of like hearing angry bees, y’know?”
“No, I don’t.” Xena was grateful for that. “But I wonder if we were being drawn to that spot because they were.”
“Why?” The forest dweller asked. “Still don’t get what the deal was. There’s more sides to this than a twelve legged table.”
Xena’s face scrunched up onto a wry grin. “True. I thought the port city was working with Hades. Now? Not so sure.”
Jessan regarded her. “We going to go find out?”
“Maybe.” Xena eyed him. “I might have to find a plan.” She waggled an eyebrow at him, before she climbed back up into the wagon and settled back onto the straw.
Gabrielle had seated herself next to Iolaus, with a warm, wet piece of linen in her hand, wiping Hercules’s face as they sat there with him. She exchanged looks with Xena as the warrior slid past her. “Hey.”
Xena set down the small pot she’d been carrying, and several bowls. “Here.” She said. “Might as well get some food while we can.” She edged past them and went to Athena’s side, laying down her healer’s kit and pushing her sleeves up as she studied her patient.
The goddess had been very ill handled. Aside from the gash in her side, which was swollen and hot to the touch, she had bruises across her body and one side of her face was dark purple and red. Xena settled herself cross legged on the straw and rested her elbows on her knees.
Then she sighed and pulled the bucket of water over closer to her and dipped in a fresh piece of linen, gently washing the long, red line under her ribs.
A hand touched her arm, and she only just kept from reacting as she looked up to see Athena looking back at her. “Don’t move around.” She warned. “You’ll make it worse.”
Those eyes, ancient and almost colorless studied her, and there was a dark irony in there that Xena acknowledged with a tilt of her head. “Yeah I know. Worse is relative.”
Athena’s lips twitched, very briefly. She glanced past Xena at the three figures behind her and then shifted her eyes back. “Where’s my brother?”
Xena rinsed off her linen and started combining some of the herbs in her kit. “He’s with Artemis, near the Amazon’s camp.”
“I wish to speak with him.”
Xena mixed the herbs into a paste. “When I’m done here, I’ll bring him over.” She said. “We all need to talk anyway.” She spread the paste over the injury, focusing on getting the substance to completely cover the lurid gash.
She knew it had to be painful, knew, in fact from personal memory. “I’ll be done soon.”
“I have learned what pain is.” Athena remarked softly. “Is this something you know?”
Xena smiled wryly. “Better than most.” She admitted. “When you live by the sword, as I do, you get cut by it more often than not.”
“Yes, mortals live such short, violent lives.”
Xena glanced up at her, but the tone was reflective, and not sarcastic. She studied the woman’s face, then went back to her task. “Why’d they cut you?” She asked, as she wiped her hands off and started mixing more herbs into a tisane.
“The man who defiled me did it.” The goddess said, briefly. “After took hold of a piece of wood and crushed the parts he did it with.”
Xena exhaled. “Good job.” She finally said. “Sorry it went down that way.” She looked up into Athena’s eyes and whatever the goddess saw there, brought a change of expression. “Glad you took a piece of him for it.”
“I wanted to kill him.”
“I would have.” The warrior acknowledged, aware of Gabrielle’s intent attention behind her. “In fact I think one of my troops did kill him if he was in the back of that wagon when we caught you.”
Xena offered her the herbs, after she doused them from the wineskin hanging on the side of the wagon. “This’ll help the pain”
The goddess sipped from the cup held to her lips by Xena’s steady hand. She was propped up a little on a thick pile of straw and she relaxed back onto it when she finished, staring all the while at her attendants face. ‘Why not just let me suffer? It’s no secret your feelings for us, Xena.”
Xena rinsed the cup out in the bucket. “Maybe because I know what it feels like.” She remarked. “Don’t wish that on anyone, really.”
Gabrielle’s hand circled her elbow and gently squeezed, and she turned to find her partner looking at her. ‘Anything you can do here, Xe?”
Xena shifted around so she was seated next to the bard, regarding Hercules’ still quiet form. She laced her fingers together and took a moment to consider her words.
“He’s fading.” Iolaus said, quietly.
“Xe.” Gabrielle shifted a little closer. “I remember when you took the arrow out of Ares. He healed up right away.”
“He’s a full god.” Iolaus remarked. “Makes a difference, probably.”
“It does.” Athena spoke up from her corner. “If even a sliver remained, it will take him.” She shifted a little, grimacing. “And those heads are meant to shatter inside.”
Xena turned and looked at her.
“Hades is my uncle.” Athena said. “I studied his methods in his realm. His hearth brings forth weapons meant to do damage to his own.” She glanced at Xena. “My sister’s attack was ill done, if that’s worth anything to you.”
Xena studied the wound thoughtfully. “Maybe not.” She got up and went to the edge of the wagon again. “Bresus, get me a fresh bucket of hot water, and a torch.”
“Aye.” Her soldier ran to do her bidding.
“What are you going to do?” Iolaus said, nervously. “We got the whole arrow out, Xena. I was there.” He paused. “I mean, I’m pretty sure we did. It was crazy, and we were bouncing around but you know, your Cait has a pretty steady hand and she was helping me.”
“Want me to get Cait?” Gabrielle was already scrambling to her feet. “And Nala was there too.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Xena said. “There was too much going on.” She looked out over the camp, seeing the campfires, the banners. Her soldiers. Gabrielle’s Amazons.
A nascent plan was forming. But she had yet to decide if she wanted to execute that plan, and risk all those soldiers, and her soulmate, and herself in the doing of it. What really was the greater good in all this?
Was there even one?
Gabrielle came over to stand next to her on the back of the wagon, letting her hand rest on her shoulder.
“Got anything on your mind?” Xena asked, watching her men coming back with a steaming bucket.
“Only how much I love you.” Gabrielle answered, straightforwardly. “And how I really appreciate every heartbeat that goes by that I’m with you.”
Xena grunted softly and leaned over, giving her a kiss. “Nothing more I could ask for is there?”
“Nope.” The bard replied.
They stood there in silence together, faint gusts of wind blowing their intermingled hair back off their faces as one of the patches of sunlight found them.
Unexpectedly poetic. They blinked into the golden light, and Gabrielle held her hand up to cup some of it, faint dust motes settling into her palm.
“Go find Ares and Artemis.” Xena said, finally, as the soldiers came up with the hot water. “Start talking them around to where they realize they need to stand up.”
Gabrielle nodded. “They have to do this.”
“They have to do this.” Her partner confirmed. “I’m going to see if I can find a shred of that arrow.”
“I’ll be right back. I want to be there for Iolaus.” Gabrielle patted her on the back and jumped off the wagon, the soldiers parting to let her pass as she walked across the camp, heading for the gathered Amazons on the other side.
Xena hefted the bucket up onto the wagon and set it inside, then she pulled out her armor knife, running it’s blade through the torch flames until it’s surface was heated enough to reflect a dull red back at her.
First things first.
Gabrielle eased herself into the campsite, spotting Ares and his sister sitting together on a log in the back of it. She deferred transferring her attention to them and focused on her own sisters instead, picking up a bowl and joining Pasi and Solari on a nearby log. “Hey folks.”
“Hey your maj.” Solari responded, her bowl resting on her knees. “How long you think we’re staying here?”
“Depends.” Gabrielle extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles. “Xe’s got to get those wounded people stabilized, then we need to decide what we’re going to do.”
“We going back home?” Pasi asked. “We could take all of them back with us. Them being all wounded and all.”
“Eventually, sure. But we found out that we’re not being pursued. I think Xe wants to maybe see what’s going to happen with the port city.”
Cait wandered over, her ears visibly pricking. “Does that mean we might end up fighting after all?” She asked in a hopeful voice. “Seems such a shame to have come all the way out here and end up without that.”
“Nutcase.” Paladia had taken a seat on rock behind them.
“Well.” Gabrielle straightened up a little, projecting her voice. “I don’t know about that, Cait. Seems to me like there’s no one really to fight for, you know? The port city seem like they’re bad guys, and those other guys we saw definitely seemed like bad guys, so really – how do we win in all that?”
“I mean, think about it.” Gabrielle was aware of some of the soldiers drifting closer, and all the Amazons were gathered around her listening. “We were going to try and see what we could do about bad guys kidnapping people, right?”
“Right.” Solari agreed. “Seemed like a good thing to do.”
“Right.” Her queen said. “And then there was our other task, those people we were looking for.” She said. “So we’ve done that part, and it looks like those other guys are going to go after the port city – so – why should we?”
The Amazons nodded around her.
“But.” Cait sat down on the edge of the log, her boots tucked up under her. “What about the other people around here? They’ve had a terrible time.”
“We can tell them to come back into our area.” Gabrielle suggested. “There’s really not much here, you know? Even in good weather, there’s so little ground to crop.”
“That’s true.” Solari agreed. “It’s a lot better by us.”
“What if whoever wins that scrap comes after us then?” Nala asked. “I”d rather fight them out here, then have them show up on Amph’s doorstep.”
“Too right.” Cait agreed.
Gabrielle took a moment to get down a few spoonfuls of the stew. “Well, that’s kind of why Xe wants to see what happens.” She said. “She doesn’t like to take those kinds of chances, and I admit I agree that I’d rather not have yet another army show up at the town gates. That’s getting kinda old.”
Now everyone was nodding in agreement.
“Let them fight it out, then we’ll wale on them.” Solari suggested. “Or then if they just move on like across the water, go home.”
“That might not be bad, but I sure wish it was better weather.” Nala said, mournfully. “It’s getting colder again.”
“Yeah, my staff keeps getting caught in the hems of this thing.” Their queen admitted, then put her attention on her bowl, and the others did too as silence fell again.
They could hear the fire snapping loudly, as the wind had dropped down, and the thumps of horses stamping in the near distance.
“Gabrielle.” Cait said, after a moment. “Should we go help the port city? If those other people were kind of awful?”
Gabrielle chewed her stew thoughtfully, as everyone waited for her to answer. “Relative evil, you mean?” She finally said, a faint twinkle in her eyes. “As in, Xena’s army bearing down on you being the lesser of the two?”
“Well, sort of.” Cait looked embarrassed. “I was just wondering.”
“Well.” The bard took a swallow from her waterskin. “That would certainly win points with those guys in the city here, wouldn’t it?” She mused. “They’d be grateful to us, and probably they would stop thinking of doing silly things like offering a bounty on Xena.”
“Crazy nutters.” Paladia shook her head.
The Amazons chuckled. “They got like no idea what they’re asking for.” Solari said.“Big X could just go in there and take over the city. Boot those guys out. They’d never know what hit em.”
“She could.” Gabrielle agreed. “But she hates repeating herself and we just did that, didn’t we?” She smiled herself at the laughter. “But you know, Xe really doesn’t need brownie points anymore.”
“That’s true.” Nala said. “Maybe if the port city were good guys.”
“Yeah.” The Amazons nodded.
“What we really need is to get all the other..” Gabrielle lifted one finger and made a circle with it, glancing behind her at the two gods. “Things settled, and everyone back to normal, you know? I don’t think us just attacking anyone is going to do that.”
‘Yeah, but how?” Nala asked. “All due props to Xena and all that.”
“Now that’s a very good question.” Gabrielle mopped up her bowl with a piece of flatbread. “If Xe could just snap her fingers and make people believe again, she would.” She bit off a smile. “But you know, though I love her with all my heart, I know she doesn’t really understand why people invest all they are in her. And they do.”
“Well.” Cait spoke up after a brief, almost uncomfortable pause. “We know she’s on our side.”
Solari looked thoughtful. “Huh.”
It was a complicated question, and Gabrielle knew it, because she knew some of the people listening to her knew some of the history and knew there had been times when trusting Xena had been a very frightening thing.
She was one of them. She remembered crossing that line again and baring her soul and the mixture of pain and fear and relief it had been. “What I’ve learned in my life with her is this.” She said. “Sometimes you believe in people, and in things, because you don’t know any better.” She glanced up at the group around her. “And then when you do know better, you believe in people and in things, because that’s a conscious choice you want to make.”
“Not because someone tells you to. You want to.” Nala clarified. “I get it.”
A loud whistle sounded, abrupt and bright in the chill air.
Then they all looked up at the sound of approaching hoofbeats. The soldiers standing around dropped their bowls and drew their weapons, moving quickly up onto the slope that led to the road. Gabrielle set her bowl down and grabbed for her staff, and joined the Amazons as they got into position, letting out a whistle as the hoofbeats multiplied and it was obvious they were being approached by more than one person.
“Never gets boring.” Solari said, bracing her arm against a tree trunk and nocking an arrow into her bow.
A handful of horsemen rounded the bend and came towards them, already hauling up when they spotted the army camp and yanking weapons out.
“Stop!” Gabrielle let out a yell. “Don’t be stupid!”
The man in the lead half turned sideways and pointed his sword at her. “Who speaks!”
In a breath, the men were surrounded by troops, all with crossbows out and loaded, or bows drawn. He glanced around and then back at Gabrielle who had taken a few steps forward and grounded her staff.
“I think you really should be answering the questions.” The bard suggested. “But since you asked, my name is Gabrielle.” She stated.
He stared at her, and the sword lowered to his thigh. “Gabrielle the bard?”
Well, that was an encouraging sign. “Yes.” Gabrielle was aware of her partner’s presence behind her, but far enough into the trees that she was unseen. “Who’s asking?”
The man sheathed his weapon and got off his horse, moving in a stiff, weary way. “Then this must be the army of Xena of Amphipolis.” He said, exhaling. “And by some miracle of the gods I’ve found you.”
“It is.” Gabrielle started moving forward, only getting two steps in before the presence at her back grew to a prickling rush that ended with Xena’s hand on her back. “Matter of fact, I think Xena’s here too.”
The man looked over her shoulder and the expression on his face was nothing short of utter relief. “It’s true then. You did come.”
“We did.” Xena agreed. “What’s your story?”
The rest of the riders had also gotten off their horses, and were just standing their quietly, having put away their weapons, content to wait.
“My name is Alan.” He said. “My brother Carolous came to you for help, from Philippi.”
“He did.” Xena said, as Bennu came up to her side. “We sent some people back with him. They barely escaped alive.”
He was already nodding. “We know. We lost most of our own soldiers, our homes, and our families. They came down on us at night, no questions asked. They heard we went for help.”
Cait made a face. “Sorry I asked that bit, about helping them.” She muttered.
“Hold on.” Bennu objected. “Men in that city came after us. Killed your own folk.”
“From the port city.” Alan nodded. “They heard Carolous coming back and just took of their armor and put on the clothes of the dead. He didn’t realize..”
“Where were you?” Xena asked. “That you lived?”
“I was with these men, we were fishing.” Alan explained. “We came back and it was all over. They were cleaning the town out.”
Xena studied him. “Then what?”
“They took everything.” He said. “We followed them long enough to know where they went, then a bunch of their soldiers met up with them, and we heard about you.”
Xena took a step back and signaled her troops to stand down. “Back to camp.” She indicated their own shelter. “You all that’s left?” She asked. “Tuck, take their horses”
“Aye, Gen’rl.” The groom collected their assorted reins and led the animals off.
The man matched her strides and his fellows followed them. “Handful left, they managed to crawl away in the trees. Half froze. We set up a few shelters before we headed out, left our healer there with them.”
Xena indicated one of the fallen logs and took a seat herself on one of the camp stools the men had brung over. A glance to her right told her that Ares and his sister had disappeared, and she slowly looked around, until she spotted the two of them in the next clearing, talking to Jessan.
“So you said you heard about us?” Gabrielle gently took over the questioning. “From the port city army? We ran into some of them over the past couple days.”
“We heard.” Alan smiled grimly. “We heard them tell their buddies about getting slaughtered by an army on the move, fighters like demons. They laughed at them at first, then one of them showed them something… couldn’t see what, and it scared em. They all moved off fast.”
‘Heading for the port city?”
He nodded. “Big road, yeah? Port city’s not so far off past the big forest.” He stretched his booted legs out gingerly. “We knew you all had to be up this way so we rode off to try and find you. Thank the gods we did.”
Xena motioned one of the quartermasters over, who was hovering in her peripheral vision with a jug of hot wine and a big platter of oddiments. As she did, she felt a touch on her leg and found Gabrielle leaning close to her. “Hey.”
“How’s Hercules?” The bard said, softly.
“Found the sliver.” Xena responded. “But it was deep. Almost at his heart.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes in reaction.
“Didn’t have time to really finish.” Her partner said
Xena took a breath to protest, then saw the steady gaze looking at her intently. “Okay.” She nodded. “After I stop and have a word with someone.” As the quartermaster came over with his platter, and another with a tray of cups she stood up. “Be right back.”
There was a dagger edge brittleness to the situation and she could feel it. She took a meandering route towards the other campsite, using the time to consider what to do – what to say really as she tried to mentally gather the tenuous threads she could sense drifting past her.
This was a crossroads. To walk through it was a choice and the choice lay with her and she felt the weight of it as she made it.
Her steps eventually took her to where Ares and Artemis were now standing alone together, to one side of the campfire, watching her approach. Their faces were unusually serious, and the men around them were walking past with no notice of either of them.
Xena felt the faintest of prickles against her skin as she came up, and wondered briefly if she too were now invisible. She looked past the two Olympians and caught the eye of one of the grooms, and he smiled at her, lifting one hand in greeting.
So then not. “Okay.” She addressed Ares. “I have an idea.”
“Other than running away?”
“Ares, if you’re going to be an ass, I’ll do just that.” Xena said, with a touch of impatience. “Grow up.”
His eyebrows shot up. Artemis, for the first time, smiled at her, with a complete and utter lack of sarcasm, then she looked away, brushing her boot lightly against the cold ground and crossing her arms over her chest.
“This is what we can do.” Xena continued, after a brief silence. “If Hade’s army is showing themselves, then he thinks it’s time to make his play for worship. He thinks he’s won. Right?”
“Right.” Artemis was the one who answered. “Those city mortals raped my sister. He knows it. We all felt it. The man knew what he was about – someone had told him who we were.”
Xena nodded. “So the only play you can make now is what Gabrielle was hinting at. Hades’ army threatens the city, you show up as their champions and ruin his pitch.” She said. “Then the story spreads.”
“So now you say we fight the ghools?” Ares asked. “Weren’t you the one who said you weren’t going to risk it?”
“It’s not a fight. He doesn’t want to destroy the city. He wants worshippers.” Xena said. “You want worshippers. We have to give them the better deal.”
They both studied her in silence for a moment. “What’s the catch?” Ares said then. “Cause I know you have one.”
Xena smiled. “You’re the catch. You’re the one whole, true god we’ve got with us, Ares. You have to act the part. You have to sell yourself and make them want you over Hades.” His bewildered stare almost made her laugh. “This has to be your army. Not mine.”
“So.” Gabrielle shared out the platter and took Xena’s seat, tucking her boots up under her. The Amazons settled around the camp, but Cait moved over past her, and took up a guard position just behind and to the right of her. “Your brother wanted us to come help you against these guys. Sounds like they got a lot bigger and more aggressive than he figured.”
Alan nodded, stuffing his mouth with the venison jerky and flatbread. “My pardon. It’s been a day and a half for us with no food.” He said, after he swallowed. “Nothing to stop and hunt for in this weather. Worse I’ve ever seen.”
Gabrielle nudged the platter closer, and handed over a cup of wine. “I know the feeling.”
The other men, busy with their meal, smiled at her. “Thank ye, ma’am.” The youngest of then said. “It’s so good to see a friendly face.”
“Not like them.” Alan shook his head. “Like they were driven.” He added. “Aggressive, like you said.. like wolves.” He took a sip from the wine cup. ‘Terrible.”
Gabrielle leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “You are sure they were from the port city?” She asked. “I mean, when things are crazy and hard, sometimes people do strange things and blame someone else for them.”
Alan chewed and studied her in silence. “The men on the road? Surely. They said they were, and they were heading back there. Who else would they be?”
“Well, we ran into another bunch of soldiers.”
The men all looked surprised. “Really?”
“We were wondering if you had, too. They had dark cloaks, and were into crossbows with black iron arrows.” Gabrielle was watching them from the corner of her eye, judging body posture and motion with the eye of an expert.
There were so many angles in this, after all. But the unconscious reaction, the twitching of brows and slight movements of heads told their own story.
Alan shook his head. “There could have been anything out in this weather, but for me, no – I saw nothing like that. “ He turned to his companions. “Was there anything said?”
The youngest frowned. “I saw nothing like that, but when we saw the wagons meeting up with those soldiers, I could hear them talking.” He said. “I thought surely they were talking about this army here, Alan, but they did say something of a banner yeh? Gray on black.”
All eyes shifted to the war banner lashed to a nearby spear, tucked against a winter black tree. “Not that one.” Alan said, thoughtfully. “And Pinu’s is not like that either.” He looked at Gabrielle. “Who were these others then?”
Now that was a complicated question. “We’re not sure.” Gabrielle said, honestly. “But have you heard anything being said about the gods?”
The uneasiness then was palpable. “The gods, ma’am?” The youngest one asked. He was thin and tall, and straw haired, and he had big hands that now shifted uncomfortably around his cup. “We hear what is always said about them.”
Ah hah. “Nothing new then?” The bard pressed. “Nothing like, for instance, rumors that some had come down amongst us, or anything like that?”
They all looked at each other, then at Alan. He slowly put his cup down. “Rumors.” He repeated. “That we have heard some.”
“Tell me about them.”