Body Heart and Soul
Gabrielle crawled into the healer’s wagon, the dusk closing fast behind her. Inside, Hercules was still out, his head and shoulders resting in Iolaus’ lap. “How’s it going?”
“Better.” Iolaus looked profoundly relieved. “He turned his normal color again, and the cuts closing.” He lifted a herb soaked pad off the demi-god’s chest, revealing what had been a hand long gash that was now barely two finger widths.
“That’s awesome.” Gabrielle said, handing him over one of the cups of soup she’d been carrying. “Lots of things going on out there.”
“I can hear. We getting ready to move?”
Gabrielle glanced over at the other injured, her eyes lingering on Athena’s still, silent form. “Xe’s sending you all back to the valley, with an escort.” She said, after a pause. “The army’s moving towards the port city again.”
Iolaus looked at her for a bit then exhaled. “I’m staying with him.”
“Of course.” The bard smiled gently. “The forest dweller valley is a safe place. They’ll take care of you there.”
“I thought you were running from Hades.” He said, after another pause. “What changed your mind?”
Gabrielle leaned back against the wagon wall, and drew up one knee, extending her other leg out straight in front of her. “We thought of a way, maybe, to turn this around.” She said. “We’ll see. Depends on what Hades does.”
“Could be dangerous.”
“War’s always dangerous.” Gabrielle’s eyes went a little unfocused. “But you know, I think it’s worth the risk because I don’t want to live in a world where everyone’s busy worshipping death.”
One of the other healers climbed into the wagon, with a bundle under one arm. He crawled across to the back of the space and started spreading out bandages. “Going to get these folks ready to travel.” He explained. “Xena said to make sure they were padded up good.”
He very gently lifted Athena’s head and cradled it in thickly wadded cloth, layering straw under her upper body before letting her back down again. “Cold, this one is.” He scrambled over to the edge of the wagon. “Bresi, warm me up some stones, from the river, yah? Get em good and warm.”
“Yah.” One of the quartermasters trotted off.
Gabrielle leaned over and touched Athena’s arm, and grunted. “He’s right.” She pulled the heavy wool cloak over the woman, and tucked it around her. “I’m glad you all are going to head back.”
“Me too.” Iolaus said, in a quiet voice. “Wish you guys were coming with us.”
Gabrielle paused to think about that. “I wish I was too, especially since my little girl’s there in the valley. I miss her.” She said. “But for the same reason I know we’ve got to take care of things out here, so that she can grow up without all this hanging over her.”
Iolaus smiled and reached over to pat her on the leg. “You’re a corking mom, you know that, Gabrielle? Dori’s a lucky kid.”
Gabrielle returned the smile. “I think she’ll think so, but not until she’s older. Right now I’m sure she wishes her pesky parents would spend less time meddling with everyone else and more time catching fishes with her.”
The healer went back to his work, changing the dressing on an ugly leg wound on the man to the other side of Athena, while he waited for the heated stones to arrive. “Glad the genr’ls sending back a good lot of soldiers with us.” He said. “Tough roads back home.”
Gabrielle nodded. “We want to make sure you all are safe, and Jessans folks get home. They don’t have a part in this. It’s making them really upset to be here.” She said. “In the valley, they’ll be fine and you all will have the best of care.”
“Could go all the way back to Amphipolis.” The man said, glancing over his shoulder at the bard. “Got some troops left there too.”
“Rather have you all in the valley.” Gabrielle gently insisted. “Especially with the weather.”
The man smiled at her. “As you say, ma’am.” He returned to his work, and Gabrielle relaxed back against the wall, apparently content to just sit quietly alongside Iolaus and watch the preparations.
“Xena.” Jessan followed her over to where Argo was standing. “C’mon now. I’m not just leaving you here in the middle of an ice ball facing Hades.”
The warrior was packing her things in her saddlebag, and she paused to regard him over Argo’s saddle. “You’re not. You’re escorting Hercules and Athena to safety. You don’t think that’s important?”
“I do.” The forest dweller rested his clawed hands on the opposite side of the horse. “My guys can watch them. I’m not going back.”
Xena sighed. “Jess, you’ve got your family back there.”
“And you don’t?”
The warrior sighed again.
“Xena, I’m not leaving you.” Jess said, in a very serious tone. “From the first time I saw you, I knew our fates were intertwined, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn my back on that just because it’s weird and goddish now.”
Xena rested her hands together, her fingers laced.
“I’m not.” He repeated, softly.
“Okay.” She said, after a long pause. “But the rest of your troops go home.”
“Okay.” He grinned briefly, looking relieved. “Thanks.”
“Save that for when we’re done.” Xena warned, lacing up her saddlebags. “Tell your guys when they get back to the valley, send word of what’s going on up to Amphipolis.”
“You want them all to show up here? “ He asked, eyes widening in mock astonishment. “Your mother’ll be at the head of them with that frypan of hers.” He lifted a hand and backed off, then turned and headed towards where his fellows were gathered, all heads turned watching him.
“You’re not going to send us back are you?”
Xena turned to find Cait there. “No.” She said. “It’s not my place to. Gabrielle might.” She warned. “The last thing she wants, and me either, is to have something happen to you all.”
“Xena.” Cait took a step closer. “Please don’t let her do that. We want to stay. We want to fight.” She stood up as tall as she could, her head still only barely reaching Xena’s shoulder. “I’ve talked to all our lot.”
“They send you to talk to me?” The blue eyes twinkled a little.
“Not to Gabrielle? She’s your queen.” Xena finished up her packing and turned to face Cait, fastening her cloak as she studied the young Amazon. “I respect that.”
“I know.” Cait said. “I do too. I think the world of the queen.” She said. “But if there’s going to be fighting, we want to be with you in it.”
Xena smiled. “I said I wouldn’t ask you to leave. I don’t think Gabrielle will either, unless she and I decide it’s best for all of us that we have as few women with us as possible.” She said, seriously. “A bad things happened Cait. A thing I don’t know if we can reverse, and if we can’t, it might end up not so good for us.”
“With the goddess.”
Xena nodded. “We could end up between two sets of gods and lose everything.” She rested her elbow on Argo’s hip. “But we could do that even if we go back home. At least here..” She flexed her hand. “We’ll be a part of it.”
“Exactly how we feel.” Cait said. “We want to be a part of it.”
The warrior held out her hand palm up, and Cait covered it with her own, and they clasped hands like equals. “Get your gang ready to go.” Xena said. “We need to move closer to the fighting.”
Cait grinned wholeheartedly and released her, turning and trotting off towards where the Amazons were clustered.
Bennu came up next to her, leading his horse. He settled his cloak around him and reached for the hammered metal helm her troops wore. “Always a fight with you around, Xena.” He commented. “Glad we’re stayin in the field though. This all aint set right with me.”
“No, me either.” Xena said. “Gather the troops around the road there I want to talk to all of them.”
Xena stood there as the soldier started to move, aware from the corner of her eye that Gabrielle was heading her way leading the equine Iolaus.
The bard had her hood up, and her staff in her free hand, and she stopped next to Argo, wrapping her hand around the big stick and leaning on it. “Ah, Xe.”
So much exchanged with so few words, and just the tone. Iolaus swung his head over and nudged his mother, who spared him a look as she sidestepped over a bit.
Without further speech they both mounted, and Gabrielle spent a moment securing her staff along Iolaus’ golden side She picked up her reins and settled herself in the saddle, as Xena did the same, checking her chakram, and making sure all her saddlebags were tied down.
Ares appeared on his black horse, with Artemis behind him on one of the spares they’d brought with them. The mortal goddess was silent, and withdrawn in her borrowed cloak, as they both joined the two women on the slight rise before the road.
Ares looked, atypically, a bit nervous. Artemis’s expression could best be described as bemused.
Xena pulled on her gloves. “Here’s what we’re going to do.” She said. “I’m going to lay the plan out for the army. Then Gabrielle’s going to explain to them what we hope we’re going to get out of all of this and who’s going to be leading us.”
Gabrielle grunted under her breath, as Ares chuckled dryly.
“Then we’re gonna move the troops up into position behind the forest, and wait to see what Hades is going to do.”
“Why wait?” Artemis asked, but in a mild voice.
“Because in order for you to get the most impact out of coming to the rescue, there has to be something we’re rescuing them from.” Gabrielle supplied. “So we need to wait for them to attack or there’s no point.”
“You truly think you can defeat Hades’ forces?” The goddess asked. “Truly?”
“Yes.” It was Xena who responded, with a smile. “Don’t you?”
Artemis stared at her uncertainly, but remained silent, as Ares nudged her aside and fussed with his cloak edge.
“You sure they’ll attack at night?” Xena asked him.
“Yes.” Ares responded. “Night’s his gig. You should remember. You were in Tartarus.” He reminded her. “Wasn’t no fluffy clouds or sunshine down there now were there?”
“No.” Xena said, briefly. “Let’s go.” She kneed Argo and released the reins, as the horse started forward, and they joined the stream of troops heading for the road and the meetup being orchestrated by Bennu and his captains.
Artemis pulled her horse around Ares and came up next to Xena matching Argo’s pace. “What will happen to my sister?”
Xena shifted a little in her saddle and cleared her throat. “I don’t know.” She answered honestly. “The healer I’m sending back with her is good. But whether she’ll survive or not is up to her.”
Artemis studied her thoughtfully. “You realize we have absolutely no idea what that means.”
“Surviving.” The goddess remarked. “Alive, dead, survive, live… means nothing to us.”
Xena looked at her. “Your brother understands.”
“Is that why you’re doing this for him?” Artemis asked. ‘Because he knows what it’s like to be one of you?”
“No.” Xena steered Argo around the bulk of the troops, up to the head of them clustered up at the road. The sun behind the clouds was setting and it was a gray and misty twilight, the moisture in the air coating her skin to an unpleasant clamminess. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
Artemis laughed dryly. “Another mortal concept.” She said. “Right and wrong, good and bad.”
“So is everything just neutral nothing in Olympus?” Gabrielle eased herself into the conversation. “I thought that’s why you spent all your time tormenting us. Nothing else to do up there.”
Artemis shot her a sideways, angry look. “I haven’t forgotten you, mortal.”
“Hope not.” Gabrielle was settling her gloves onto her hands. “Since this whole scheme working might depend on me.” She rolled her head around to loosen up her neck muscles and turned her focus away from Artemis, starting the process of sorting through what she needed to express.
Artemis fell silent herself, and they all moved around to the front of the army, where Xena halted and turned Argo around so that she was facing the troops.
They all fastened their attention on her, the intensity of their eyes an almost physical thing, and the wind started to come up, catching Xena’s hair as she dropped her hood back and straightened up. “All right.”
They waited in silence, the troops, and the Amazons, and near Cait, Jessan’s tall and solitary form. Behind them, the healer’s wagon was trundling off, surrounded by a quarter of the troops, and the forest dwellers, most of whom were turned in their saddles, watching as they went.
Mixed feelings, there. Gabrielle could see it. On one hand there was a certain sense of relief at heading home. On the other, they wanted to stay with Xena, to some measure disappointed at being the ones sent away.
She, of course, really had no mixed feelings. She missed Dori, but her daughter would get both her mothers back or neither.
“Here’s the plan.” Xena lifted her voice. “We move out. We need to move fast. I want to be in position near the forest as soon as we can.”
Bennu was in the front of the troops, hands resting on his saddlebow. “Aye.” He lifted his own voice, answering for them.
“Hades, the God of the Underworld has decided to let loose his minions on us mortals.” Xena said. “He rides for the port city.”
The soldiers remained silent.
“Two enemies don’t make a friend.” Their general concluded. “It’s up to us to make sure death stays where it belongs, and doesn’t follow us home.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat a little, and straightened her back, ready to continue the game, to put the somewhat unpalatable facts before the troops and in the end, introduce the banner and the body they’d be following into war.
She only hoped it sounded more reasonable and confident to them than it did to her in the privacy of her own head.
“So this is how that happened. “ Gabrielle paused to take a swallow of water. “You know we set out with two missions from home. One was to find out who was doing evil things and stop them. The other was to seek out two women we had reason to believe had been kidnapped by these same people and rescue them.”
It all sounded so noble. Xena sighed internally.
“Why would we do this.” Gabrielle went on, her voice echoing softly over the twilight shadowed ground. “We did this because that’s who we are, Xena and I. And we brought you with us because we thought having an army would make all that easier than if we’d did it ourselves.” She paused. “For a change.”
A soft chuckle trickled back to her.
“You think I’m joking.” The bard smiled at them. “I’m not. There are possibly two big armies out there and it would not have been the first time I’d have gone chasing after Xena riding out herself to stop them.”
“No thought of that, little hawk.” Bennu said, with a smile. “I seen it myself, Xena holding the gates against an army outside standing on a pile of bodies taller than me.”
Ares sidled over to her. “How’d I miss that one?” He asked, leaning towards her. He was still invisible to the army, waiting for Gabrielle to announce his big entrance. “Sounds like a blast.”
“And that’s true.” Gabrielle agreed. “But this time, we wanted you with us, and now that we’re here, it seems the goals have changed.” She maneuvered Iolaus closer to the front of the lines. “That happens, in war.”
“Aye, it does.” Redder agreed, from his position to the right of Bennu.
“So now we find out that though those people in the port city are bad, and they do bad things, that something even worse is going to attack them.” The bard said. “Smart people would just walk away from that, right? They’d let the bad guys destroy the less bad guys and call it a day.”
And here came the complicated part. Xena didn’t envy her soulmate.
“So why would we interfere.” Gabrielle drew in breath and sat straighter up in her saddle. “Now we cross from the world of self interest into something we call the greater good.”
“Blah blah.” Ares rolled his eyes.
“Listen to her.” Xena said, under her breath.
“ I think many of you have long believed that Xena and I have a special connection with the Gods.” Gabrielle shifted on her horse, swinging her leg over and sitting down sideways in her saddle, resting one hand on the saddlebow and the other on Iolaus’ rump.
The troops were moving closer, unconsciously, drifting in to hear her words as they closed in together blocking the rising wind.
“There is truth to that.” Gabrielle said, in to all that quiet. “Xena doesn’t blow her own horn.” She paused, and smiled. “That’s why she has me, after all.”
Bennu and Jessan smiled gently back at her, the forest dweller having edged his way up to the front, perched on Eris.
“So there have been stories spread all over about her skills as a fighter. As a warrior. And as a leader of armies in a long string of successes and victories that some of you have been there in witness and a part of.”
“Aye.” Bennu said. “Us that follows, she earned.”
“And those stories I told, because I was there for them. I lived them.” Gabrielle responded. “I came to understand along the way that the gods played a special role in our lives. Sometimes that was a good thing, and sometimes it wasn’t, but there were times when we needed their help and they gave it.”
Ares shifted a little, and glanced at Xena.
“Sometimes they needed our help, and we gave it.” The bard said. “This is one of those times.”
A prickle of expectation traveled over the troops and Gabrielle could feel it. She got a sense that these people, these men and women they’d led here to this dark and cold place already knew what she was going to say, and were just waiting for her to say it, and get past it, and get on with it.
She imagined Cait telling her she really didn’t need to explain all that, because to them, to her, it didn’t matter because there was an in held belief in her, and in Xena, that made the reasons irrelevant.
In a way, wasn’t that what they were supposed to give to the gods?
Nala leaned forward on her horse. “ My queen.” She said, in firm, but respectful tone. “For so many years we sacrificed to the gods, left them tribute. Prayed to them, and worshipped them, and when we were in our worst straits they never answered.”
Nods and murmurs of agreement rose up around her. “Tis true.” Bennu said.
“Even when other gods beset us.” Nala said. “It was no one we prayed to that came to help us.”
And that too of course was true. Gabrielle acknowledged it with a nod, and a lifted hand. “That’s what we have a chance to change here.” She said. “Because it’s not true that the gods don’t pay attention to us.”
Xena snorted softly.
“What is the point of all this?” Ares asked her, for once just honestly puzzled. “She’s making it worse.” He glanced around. “Make her stop talking and let’s just go do something.”
“And though sometimes you all didn’t know it, the gods have been part of all of your lives because they’ve made themselves part of ours.” Gabrielle concluded. “So Xena and I have decided to help them not because they’ve done so much good for the two of us, but because we do know them, and there’s such a thing as the lesser of two evils.”
“Shh.” Xena told him.
“So we’re heading out to see what we can do about this other army, and when we do, we’ll show them, and everyone else what our gods can do if they put their minds to it. Because the Sword of War rides with us.”
Xena slapped Ares on the knee, and he reluctantly faded into view.
Hard to really say what the reaction was. Gabrielle studied her audience and came to the conclusion that her pitch wasn’t being bought, but not entirely in a bad way. “So let’s get going.” She said, turning Iolaus and giving her partner a faint shrug.
Xena’s face was impassive, but her eyebrows were doing the little twitch thing that meant discomfort. She lifted one hand and made a circling gesture and then turned Argo and they started off down the road, as the twilight started to fade.
It was cold. Gabrielle felt a few small, hard bits of snow start to hit her skin and the wind thumped against the back of her head and as she turned to look at Xena, she saw exactly what she was feeling reflected back at her.
“Got a bad feeling about this.” Xena said, mournfully.
“Shoulda stayed in that hammock.”
It was midnight, and very dark when Xena signaled the army to stop. They were just short of the forest and she stood in her stirrups, listening to the wind blowing back over them.
The silence was almost deafening. Xena sighed and sat down. “You, you and you. Come with me.” She indicated Jessan, Gabrielle and Ares. “The rest of you stay here and keep ready.”
Bennu nodded, and made a hand gesture, and the troops stood down, reaching for waterskins.
“Don’t build fires.” Xena cautioned, as she led her small group out and around the scouts. She steered Argo off the road and through the newly snow covered ground to the left of it.
“Where are we going?” Ares asked.
“To see what’s going on.” Gabrielle answered. “Shh.”
‘This is just a crock.” The God of War replied, shaking his head.
Xena stuck to the line of trees that were just off the road, Argo plowing stolidly thorugh the hock high drifts that were starting to accumulate.
This close, and she should have been able to hear, and smell battle if there was one. But there wasn’t a hint of human or animal on the wind, and she was starting to get the idea that if anyone was being played it was probably her.
Ahead she could see the long forest that covered up the road, where theyd’ camped and the run from Hades troops, and in fact, she could see lumps under the snow where the port city soldiers lay still, the body of one horse even sending stiff and dead legs up into grotesque view.
Too cold to allow for decay. One small advantage of battling in winter.
But beyond that, all was still. Xena slowed her pace, listening intently as she passed dead and barren trees, peering between them for any sign of motion. She let her mouth open a little, drawing in air over her tongue and tasting it.
“Where does Hades keep his army?”
“When they’re not here. Where do they go?” Xena asked, with remarkable patience.
Ares thought about that for a bit. “I don’t think there is a place.” He said. “I think when he needs em, he just calls em up and lets em loose.”
Ares opened his eyes in mock exasperation. “Hades’ realm?”
“I think Xena means, where does he get them from? From Tartarus? Elysia?” Gabrielle asked. “The in between that I’ve seen a few times now?” She considered. “Can’t be from Elysia, right? They’re up there just to service Olympus.”
Jessan had been listening, turning his head from one to the other, as his eyes slowly widened.
“Not sure they’d willingly fight for him from Tartarus.” Xena remarked.
“Does it matter?” Ares sighed.
“Xena.” Jessan spoke up. “I’m not getting anything from that place up there.” He indicated the forest. “Except a few rabbits and a fox.”
“Were you sensing anything from them before?” Xena countered. “Would you see dead things?”
Jessan pondered that. “Gosh.” He said. “I think I was too busy fighting to notice.” He admitted. “I just remember what those guys were saying about some dark stuff coming after them.”
“Ah huh.” Xena nodded. She released her own senses and felt them reach out, listening and smelling whatever came back to her on the breeze as the snow started falling more heavily, dropping an unexpected flake on her tongue.
“What if they’re not there?” Gabrielle asked. “Could they already have taken the city?”
Xena spotted a small path through the trees and unexpectedly took it, easing Argo through the stark, dead branches and ducking to clear her head under them. She could see two horse lengths ahead of her, where the ground was level and starting to be snow free.
Why turn down the path? Xena smiled a little to herself, as she acknowledged that internal, infernal woodpecker of hers. Here amidst the trees she felt her shoulders relax, the sense of eyes on her easing as they moved almost silently along.
Then they were on hard ground and deep among the line of the forest that led up to that thick patch of it, the wind now cut and the only sound the soft thunking of their horses hooves on the ground and the faint click of dead branches overhead.
The path was narrow and as such they were going single file. Xena was in the lead, Gabrielle was behind her, with Ares and then Jessan following them.
The ground was sloping upward, and they leaned forward a little as the horses climbed, Xena keeping her back arched as she searched the path ahead of them, one hand on her saddle with Argo’s reins tangled in her fingers and the other hand free, cocked expectantly to go for her sword.
There was something ahead of them. She couldn’t see it, or smell it, but her senses prickled and she felt her breathing increase and Argo lifted her head, nostrils flaring. “Watch out.” She called back softly.
“Hon.” Gabrielle’s voice was dryly amused. “The only thing I can watch right now is Argo’s butt and yours. Everything else is pitch black.”
“Fine. If they both start moving fast, follow them.” The warrior retorted. “There’s something up ahead.”
“Ares, you know what that is up there?” Xena turned her head, then cursed. “Son of a..”
Gabrielle quickly looked, surprised to find absolutely nothing behind them. No Ares, no Jessan, and no horses. “What the heck?”
They both halted, and Xena stood up in her stirrups again, peering past Gabrielle at the now very empty path behind them. “Ugh.” She sat back down with a grunt. “This is just getting worse every damned minute.”
Gabrielle exhaled then put both hands on her saddlebow. “Well, hon. Just to hold up my part of our deal, at least we’re alone together.”
Xena eyed her. “That the silver lining?” She ventured.
“Yup.” The bard studied her. “So now what? Do we go back to the army, or keep going and find out what’s up there?”
“Smart people would go back to the army.” Xena turned Argo and headed her back up hill with Gabrielle right at her heels. “But then we’d lose out on the chance to be alone together and where’s the fun in that?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Hey Xe?”
“I love you.”
“Talk about silver linings. That’s certainly been that for me.” Xena focused again on the top of the ridge, and dismissed her now missing companions. There was nothing really she could do about vanishing gods, and she hoped at least that Ares would make sure that Jessan was safe.
Now without them there, she suddenly realized she felt less anxious, and as they came to a slightly wider part of the path Gabrielle came up next to her and they moved along side by side.
“What do you think’s up there?” Gabrielle asked, after a few quiet moments.
“Something watching.” Xena said, as she reached over her shoulder and removed her sword from it’s sheath, the sound of the metal rasping against leather making Argo’s ears twitch. “Get your staff out.”
Gabrielle did. It was becoming almost breathless in the midst of the dead forest, and she felt herself getting tense, unable to see past her partner so relying on watching Xena to know how to react.
As they climbed up past a stand of fallen trees, the breeze came down the path and they both jerked a little, as a rancid, rotten scent came with it. “Ugh.” Gabrielle uttered. “That’s nothing good.” She added, as she felt Iolaus twitch under her, his ears going flat against his head.
“No.” Xena pulled Argo up on the flat section and dismounted. “Let’s leave them here.” She gave both horses a signal as Gabrielle got down. She shifted her sword in her hand and let the blade face backwards, then she put her other hand on her partner’s shoulder as they continued their climb.
Now the wind died, and the surrounding trees went still, and the soft rasp of leather boots against the rocky ground unnaturally loud. Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff and brought it up across her body, tested the grip of her hands inside their gloves as they started up the last part of the slope.
At the top of it, there was a granite outcropping thrusting up towards the dark, cloud filled skies and the trees separated. They reached the high point and paused, and Xena edged in front of Gabrielle.
Of course. There were some constants always in their life together.
Xena then took a visible breath and moved forward, her body tensing as she walked towards the outcropping, where something was making her senses jangle. She could see a darkness on the side of it and as she moved closer, the darkness seemed to expand.
She felt like it’s attention was on her now, and she rolled her sword up over her wrist so that it’s blade was in front of her and then, as she took another step, she realized the darkness wasn’t a creature, it was an opening.
“Cave.” Gabrielle whispered. “Not the good kind.”
“No.” Xena moved past it, and studied the rocks, noting that the ridge moved across and past the road, and arched up just this same way on the other side. She turned and went back to where Gabrielle was standing and they looked at the hole in the rock.
It was stained dark, and it stank.
“So now what?” Gabrielle asked, after a long pause. “Is this an entrance to Hades’s Realm, Xe?”
Xena went over to a nearby fallen log and sat down on it, bracing her sword between her knees, with her hands wrapped around the hilt.
Gabrielle went over and sat down next to her. “What do we do now?”
“Good question.” Her partner answered. “Damned good question.”
The snow was getting heavier as they sat there, regarding the dank opening in the rock. Gabrielle reached up to dust the flakes off her face and cleared her throat. “So what are our choices.”
Xena had her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands. “Really, we have no choices.” She straightened up then stood. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle had no real idea of where she was going on to, but she stood up and shook herself, getting ready to follow Xena into.. whatever. She wished she had a strong feeling about whatever but if she was honest with herself she really didn’t
What she really wanted to do was find a much nicer cave, with maybe a sand floor, and a place for a fire, and Xena coming for her smiling and naked.
She felt her partners arm descend on her shoulder and then she realized they were heading back down the path.
“Going in that hole gets us nothing.” Xena said, conveniently reading her mind. “I have to keep reminding myself this isn’t about us.”
“You mean, if we solve whatever this all is, we lose, because we’re really trying to pump up the Olympians.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “Screw it. Let’s go back to the army and find a place to camp. Sort it out when it gets light tomorrow.”
“Sounds good.” Gabrielle could see the solid outlines of the horses ahead of them. “Someone’s watching us from up there, aren’t they?”
“You going to turn around?”
Gabrielle kept her eyes forward, but as they reached the horses she stepped around behind Iolaus and peered past him up the slope.
Pitch dark. Gabrielle sighed. “I kind of hoped we’d bump into Hades, so we could talk to him.” She hauled herself up on the stallion. “We’re going around in circles here. I”d like to hear his side of this.”
Gabrielle gathered her reins and turned, to see Xena still at Argo’s side, and a tall, dark, cloaked figure blocking their way. “Ah.”
The figure moved closer, and brought it’s own flickering starlight with it. He was all shifting shadows, but they could see pinpoints of light, watching them. “You are bold beyond measure, mortal.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed. “Sorry. Story of my life.”
Xena removed her arm and sidled in front of her partner, standing squarely between the tall figure and Gabrielle, leaning back a little against Iolaus’ side and the bard’s leg.
The figure regarded them. “I sent away my nephew and his minion so that we can speak in private.” He walked over to a rock outcropping and sat down on it. “Because it is my belief that you really don’t understand what you are involved in.”
Xena walked over and resumed her seat on the log across from him and after a moment Gabrielle dismounted and led Iolaus over to join her. “Wouldn’t be the first time.” She sighed as she sat down.
“You’re probably right.” Xena told Hades. “I haven’t really understood what was going on in all this since I was up on Mount Olympus.” She rested her elbows on her knees. “So could you explain to us what’s really going on?” She asked, respectfully. “Please?”
It was surreal in the utmost. But Xena didn’t figure pulling her rude pit fighter attitude on the ruler of the underworld was going to get them anywhere. So maybe being nice might.
Hades regarded them from inside his mantle, no real sense of a planed face but just the pinprick eyes moving visibly. “I had heard you went to visit my brother.”
“Not voluntarily.” Gabrielle muttered.
“No, mortals never do go of their own volition.” Hades agreed. “I will educate you on the politics of the gods if you answer me two questions.”
“Shoot.” Xena said.
“Sure. Why not?” Gabrielle leaned against her partner.
“Firstly, Xena, how did you escape my realm of Tartarus?” Hades asked. “If you reveal this to me, I will reward you.”
Xena shrugged. “I’d tell you if I could. I just had something I had to do, and I focused on that until it all just faded out.”
Hades sat in silence for a moment. “So you did not bribe anyone, or do some trick to remove yourself?” His voice sounded surprised.
“Can I ask you a question?” Gabrielle spoke up. “Why do you need to ask her that? Aren’t you a god? Isn’t the whole point of being a god to be able to know everything with out being told?”
“You who have known the gods as you have need to ask me that?”
“Hmph.” Gabrielle grunted.
“The second question.” Hades said. “Is to you, storyteller. Do you in fact believe in the gods?”
It seemed an odd question. “I.. “ Gabrielle paused to think. “Do I believe you exist? Of course I do. I’ve seen gods, and talked to gods, and been kidnapped by gods all my adult life. How could I not believe you exist?”
“That is not what I asked.”
Gabrielle pondered that, aware of Xena’s silent, supportive presence at her side. “Do you mean, do I believe with my heart in you, that you will shape my life, and dictate my future? That I can call on you, and sacrifice for your favors to gain good things in my life? Is that what you’re asking?”
“No.” Hades repeated thoughtfully.
“I know the gods too well for that.” The bard said, quietly.
“And you?” He turned and looked at Xena.
She chuckled wryly. “Good or bad I’ve made my own future for a long time now.” She said. “The last time I prayed to the gods it was for her soul, and I found out long after it wasn’t theirs to save.”
“Long after?” The bard leaned against her. “Hades – I think there’s a place for gods in our world.”
“Kind of you.”
Gabrielle ignored the sarcasm. “People need something to believe in, because our lives are so short and so painful, it would be hard to get through them without you.” She paused, watching the snow as it fell, holding out her hand to catch a few flakes. “Sometimes we go to such a dark place inside ourselves, the only way back is to imagine there’s a being of the light out there watching over us.”
Hades looked thoughtful, again. “You are such strange creatures.” He said. “Always concerned with what you are doing in that moment.”
“Because we have so few of them.” Xena said. “We don’t know what it’s like to know our lives are unlimited.”
The God of the Underworld fell silent for a moment as he shifted those pinpoints between the two of them. “I can offer a kind of such unlimited existence.” He said. “But you were in Tartarus, so you know this.”
“And yet, you escaped.” Hades stared hard at Xena. “And say you know not how.”
Xena shrugged, faintly.
“I know how.” Gabrielle spoke up. “She just decided she could.”
“Xena, I know you.” Her partner said, seriously. “You’re the most focused person I’ve ever met and the strength of your will is unbelievable. You left there because you decided that’s what you were going to do.”
Xena took a breath to answer, then paused, thinking fully back for the first time about that moment in Tartarus, when her soul had opened, and she felt all of Gabrielle’s grief and despair and all the fire and torment had suddenly seemed trivial in comparison.
That need had changed her. In that moment of memory she could feel it happening all over again, the faint echo, and the shifting of her own consciousness in how she thought of herself when her focus had turned outward from inward.
She’d forgotten about her past, in that moment. Forgotten about everything she’d done, and all the people she’d hurt and killed, and realized what mattered to her more than anything else in that moment was responding to that need.
That moment had been her redemption.
The breath trickled out of her. “She’s right.” She finally said, on the end of it. “I did what I did because nothing told me I couldn’t.”
Hades stood. “That I believe now.” He said. “But you will never walk that path again.” He half turned, then looked at them again. “Lest you teach others the same trick.” His eyes drifted to Gabrielle, then away again.
Gabrielle stood up. “What do you want?” She asked. “What’s your angle in all this? Are you really going to attack the port city? Why? Don’t you get enough dead souls from us?”
Hades regarded her dourly.
Xena studied him back. “You’re trying to do the same thing Zeus is.” She said “It’s not about fighting against him, or taking his place. You’re in cahoots with him.”
They got the sense that his shadowed face smiled. “Partially true. All souls come to me, after all. I do not need mortal supplicants.” He admitted. “As you have discovered, there is a truth to us that goes outside the bounds of belief.”
He walked back over to them, and Xena stood up as he did, putting her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder in unconscious reflex. “But this is the twilight of the gods. It has been foretold to us. Zeus knows it. I know it.”
Gabrielle nodded a little.
“You, yourselves have been a part of it.” Hades said, almost as an afterthought. “But you had no choice about that.”
Xena shifted, lifting her free hand and letting it drop. “Then what are we doing here? What’s the end game, Hades?”
He stood there for a long moment. Then he folded his hands inside his cloak, and as he did, faint sounds started to emit from the dark hole in the rock behind them. “Our endgame? What do you suppose it would be like to exist forever, and be forgotten?”
The sound of wings fluttered overhead, and they all looked up to see a vulture settling on the branch of a tree nearby.
“Did you ever consider how it might be a better thing to be mortal?” Hades asked. “Or that on occasion, we might envy you?”
“It did.” Gabrielle said, in a very quiet voice. “When I was on Mount Olympus and I realized how little there was for them to do other than torment us.”
Hades gave the impression of smiling again. “So now we face an unending future with not even that amusement, unless we find else to do.”
There was motion behind him and after a moment a large creature emerged from the hole, massive, four legged, and red eyed. A mass of wriggling surrounded his head, but his ears were small, and cupped and familiar.
It had three heads, and as it arrived as his knee, Hades let one hand rest on the closest of them. “This is Cerberus.” He glanced down. “He is sent to me by my beloved wife, I think. She comes to me only in the winter.” He stared intently at them. “You asked what the game was?”
“Pinu pretends himself one of us.” Hades said. “He captured one of Poseidon’s daughters and keeps her as his concubine and he couples with her in public view to prove the incontinence of the gods.” He glanced around and then back at him. “With Athena’s desecration, his reputation rises – it was well done to rescue Artemis.”
“Why doesn’t Posdeidon help her? Why don’t you? Why doesn’t Zeus?” Gabrielle asked. “Why are we even involved in this?”
The snow started falling faster, and heavier, making the air between them seem indistinct. Hades took a step backwards. “We have no power here outside our realms. “ He said. “Only those of earth, can alter earth.”
“Wait.” Xena started to follow him. “What are you saying?”
“No time. Must go.” Hades was disappearing into the dark space beyond. “Persephone calls. Good luck.”
He disappeared, with Cereberus padding after him an as they cleared the edge of the rock it sealed behind them leaving only a cold granite surface.
The scent dissipated. The vulture flapped off, disconsolately.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. “Now what?” The bard asked, in a fit of exasperation. “Xena, what the heck is going on!”
“Don’t know. But I think we should get back to the troops.” Xena pulled herself up on Argo. “I’ve got a feeling we’re missing something.”
“Son of a bitch.” Gabrielle exhaled, shaking her head. “This is nuts.”
They rode through the gathering snow and at the base of the path they found now ankle deep drifts. Xena guided Argo carefully through them back to the road and once on it, she urged the mare into a canter with Iolaus right behind her.
There was no army for them to find going further. There was only the forest, and ahead of that, the plains and the port city, and once again she had to figure out what all that meant to them.
They had just told the army they were doing one thing. Now? Xena felt a ball of frustration building in her guts as they moved with the storm, the wind coming at their backs as they headed up the empty, dark space.
They came up over a ridge and the swirling snow parted briefly to expose a group of figures ahead of them in the middle of a violent struggle.
Of course. Gabrielle reached for her staff. “Xena!”
“I see em.” The warrior was reaching for her sword. “Lets see who they are.”
The snow muffled the sound of the two horses and so they came up on the group unnoticed and as they did Xena let out a loud yell.
The nearest dark figure turned, and point blank let off a crossbow at her. Xena ducked to one side and let the shaft go past her shoulder, then she assumed this was an enemy and swung her sword around to land heavily on the hand around the bow closest to her.
She let out a whistle, the wind carrying it down the road and at the periphery of her vision she saw motion and torches coming round a curve and heading their way.
Too dark to tell who her antagonists were, so Xena used kicks and punches on them, hearing the resounding whack of Gabrielle’s staff hitting something hard.
Someone grabbed her and tried to haul her backwards, but she let her body go limp and her knees unlock and it threw them offbalance insetead. She went to a crouch then uncoiled and slammed her shoulder against the midriff of the figure grappling with her and they both went flying, to drop into the snow just past Argo’s dancing hooves.
She dropped her sword and yanked her dagger out as she felt her opponent twist around, but before she could stab him she sensed Gabrielle’s close presence and from long experience she dropped to the ground flat.
She heard the staff connect, and felt the faint thump as her partner’s booted foot came down just shy of her head and the brush of her cloak as she reversed her attack and knocked the figure she’d been fighting with back on their ass.
Then the army was on them, and she got to her feet as Bennu and Redder grabbed the figure on the ground and the others backed off, torches now lighting the ground and making an odd glare against the falling snow.
The others in the group were getting up, now revealed to be four of Gabrielle’s Amazons.
Xena dusted her hands off, then went over and picked up her sword, wiping it down on her cloak before she sheathed it. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
The figure between her soldiers stiffened and reared his head up, staring at her. “Are you Xena?” He asked, in a loud tone. “I was sent to find you.” He added. “As the emissary of Pinu the magnificent.”
“Great.” Gabrielle got her cloak tied and her hood back up. “Just what we needed.”
“No kidding. Let’s get back to camp.” Xena pointed back down the road. “Bring this guy. Good thing I didn’t gut him.”
They sheltered in the big curve of rock outcroppings below the edge of the dark forest, breaking out the tents and tarps against the thickly falling snow.
Xena had camp stools brought to her snug overhang and their dubious guest was installed on one of them, holding his hands out to the neatly made fire in the center of the space.
He was tall, taller than Xena was, and had broad, fighters shoulders made to seem even larger by armor and the thick cloak draped over them. In the firelight his hair showed a deep russet, and he had a freckled face and pale green eyes almost the color of Gabrielle’s.
Bennu entered with a heavy copper pot and set it down on the grate in the fire, shrugging off a wineskin off his shoulder. “Genr’l.”
“Thanks Bennu.” Xena took it and set it down on the folding table next to her. “Siddown and join us.”
Bennu looked pleased at that, and took a seat on one of the stools, extending his long legs out before him, looking around as Solari came in past the flap, carrying Gabrielle’s saddlebag.
“So.” Xena settled herself on one of the seats, braced against the rock wall allowing her to lean back against it’s support with some comfort. “You are Jaxus, captain of the guard of the port city.”
“I am.” He agreed. “I was born in Phillipi, and my family moved to the city when I was young. My father served the prince before Pinu came.”
“And I came to manhood and joined the princes guard.” Jaxus supplied promptly. “When Pinu came, the guard sword fealty to him and he selected me as his captain.”
“So then he sent you out alone in a snowstorm to find us?” Gabrielle took the seat next to Xena. “By yourself?”
Jaxus shook his head. “We started out a dozen.” He said. “Two of our patrols came back and said they had been set up on by a large force, one brought down on us by traitors from my hometown.”
“From Phillipi?” Xena hiked up one knee and folded her hands around it.
“Yes.” He nodded. “We had an agreement with them, for mutual protection. We found out two sevendays ago that they had broken the agreement and sent to entice your army to come and attack us.”
“Uh huh.” Xena nodded back. “Wasn’t exactly how they saw it, but essentially yes. They told us you were threatening them, and asked us to come have a look.”
“Threatening them?” Jaxus looked shocked.
“They had a point.” Gabrielle spoke up. “All the people we’ve met so far from the port city have either been kidnapping people to sell as slaves, or attacking us.”
“Aye, seen that for sure.” Bennu agreed.
“We were not kidnapping anyone.” Jaxus stated, firmly. “That’s the story sent around, and we’ve heard it. We only offered shelter to those dying from the weather, and the crop failure. You cannot fault us for that.”
“At what cost?” Xena asked. “For the shelter?”
He spread his hands. “Of course, the customary arrangement. That they would work for us. We gave them houseroom, and food. Do not tell me it is not the same where you are from?”
“You’re saying they had a choice.”
“Of course.” Jexus said. “No one was forced.”
“Except the women in the wagons we found.” Gabrielle said. “And the woman we rescued in the woods near what was left of her burnt out village. And the guys who hid from you and escaped through the pass.”
Jaxus studied her.
“One of our scouts was captured by your patrol. Luckily, they didn’t take her seriously and left her weapons with her.” The bard concluded.
The man was shaking his head. “It was not our people.” He said.
“So, you’re not soliciting slaves?” Xena asked. “Not paying good coin for them?”
He looked uncomfortable. “The trade exists in the city, of course.” He said. “As in many others, but our troops, our men – no. We have nothing to do with that.”
Solari had taken up a spot just to the rear of where Gabrielle was seated, and turned her head in greeting as Cait came in and joined her, moving past to take up her position on Xena’s other side.
“Cait, describe the people who held you at the wagon.” Gabrielle asked.
“Certainly.” The Amazon replied. “They were soldiers. Dressed like this one is, with armor and surcoats with the same picture on them.”
All the eyes shifted to Jaxus.
“And, of course, they said they were troops from the city.” Cait added. “So I think you just lied to us quite thoroughly.” She glanced at Xena. “Shall I kill him? He was sneaking into the camp when we found him.”
“I wasn’t sneaking anywhere.” Jaxus glowered at her. “We split up and were searching the edge of the forest and we became separated. I was just looking for my comrades.”
He was younger than he’d seemed at first, Xena reckoned. “So what does Pinu want?” She changed the subject.
He returned his attention to her. “He wishes to clear up what must be some misunderstanding.” He said. “He doesn’t hold you to be an enemy, and in fact, would like to extend a hand in friendship to you.”
“Really.” Xena drawled. “So that ten thousand dinar price he put on my head was just an invitation?” She inquired. “Or is he, like you, just a lying sack of square marbles?”
Jaxus stood up abruptly and reached for his dagger, his sword sheath empty as they’d taken his weapon after his capture.
“You don’t want to do that.” Gabrielle had remained where she was, boots extended, hands folded over her stomach. “Or, hey, maybe you do. Maybe this is your fast track to Hades.” She added, aware of the sinuous, animal motion in the body next to her.
“I do not take such insults from anyone.” Jaxus said. “So stand up then, and we’ll see who’s lying.”
“Dying here won’t get your master’s message returned.” Xena remarked. “So I’d sit back down if I were you.” She got up anyway, and stretched, unclasping her cloak and letting it drop to the ground to cover her seat.
She’d taken her sword off, and it was resting on the ledge just past Cait, but she didn’t even glance that way as she sauntered over to Jaxus, as everyone else just calmly sat or stood and watched.
As she came within reach, she spread her hands out , wiggling her fingers at him. “C’mon, kid. Bring it.” She smiled at him, eyes twinkling faintly in the torchlight.
He took a step back, then suddenly reversed his course, lunging forward and sweeping his arm around in a tight, powerful arc right at her chest.
Xena waited for him to commit, then she stepped past him as he came at her, sliding to one side and keeping her balance neatly as she avoided the strike, then booting him in the ass as he tried to recover.
He turned and came back at her, and she waited again, then as the dagger came at her she reached over it and grabbed his wrist, contracting her fingers as she got him on the chin with her other elbow, feeling the solid crack as bone hit bone and his head rocked back.
She pulled his arm out and backwards and turned, a lazy motion that brought his arm up behind his back as he clawed behind him to try and grab her. “If I break your arm, or pull it out of it’s socket you’re gonna have a long winter.”
He struggled against her hold and tried to throw himself against her, but Xena stood like a rock, immovable. At last he turned his head and looked over his shoulder at her, and their eyes met. “You’re a demon.” He rasped. “No woman has your strength.”
“You’d be surprised.” Xena told him. “I’m going to have you put somewhere safe now. Tomorrow you’d gonna go back to your city and tell your friend Pinu if he wants to clear up any misunderstandings I’m up for that.”
“I will tell him all that I’ve seen.” Jaxas ground out, grunting with pain as Xena increased the tension on his arm. “So that he will not be fooled as I was.”
Xena swung him around and shoved him against the rock wall, and Bennu got up to grab him as he stumbled backwards. “Tie him up, Benny. I don’t want to lose him before we use him.”
“Aye.” Bennu let out a soft whistle, and three soldiers entered, all of them taking hold of the big man as Xena went over and picked up the dagger he’d dropped to examine it.
“Quite the jerk.” Gabrielle got up and went over to her. “And I wonder where those other 11 guys are?”
“The guards will find them if they’re fluffing around in the snow like this one was.” Cait said. “Something’s not quite right about that though. Why would you split up like that in this weather? Why would you even be hunting at all?”
“If they ever existed.” Xena handed the dagger over to Cait. “If he wasn’t lying about that like everything else.” She regarded the rest of them. “We’ve been relying on things everyone’s been telling us. Those peasants, the soldiers, the gods.”
“Hades.” Gabrielle grunted.
“Time to start making our own truth.” Xena said, putting her hands on her hips. “There are too many sides to this to make any sense out of it. “
“Now that.” Cait said. “Is absolutely true.”
The camp settled down to get some rest, and at last all the guards and friends and thoughtful watchers disappeared and they were alone in their little shelter together.
Xena was seated on one of the camp stools with her boots extended out in front of her, and her elbows resting on her thighs. She looked up as Gabrielle came over, the bard circling her and coming around behind her to drape her arms over her partner’s shoulders.
“I was thinking.” Xena said, as she leaned back against Gabrielle’s body. ‘Wanna hear what I was thinking about?”
“Silly question.” Gabrielle kissed her on the top of her head. “I’ve always wanted to know what you were thinking, hon.”
“Mm.” The warrior looked up through her dark and disheveled bangs. “I think you’re sexy and I want to take you to bed.”
Gabrielle started laughing softly.
“You think that’s funny????”
“No, it just makes me feel so amazing when you say stuff like that and that makes me laugh.” Gabrielle hugged her. “And because it’s been so frustrating all day and all night with all this stuff going on and these gods and people and I’m just so glad to be here with you alone right now.”
Aww. Xena was glad enough to focus on them for a time, setting aside the puzzle that only seemed to get more puzzling every time she turned around. “Back atcha.” She rested her head against Gabrielle’s chest, closing her eyes as the bard gently scratched her around her ears.
“So many loose ends.” Gabrielle said after a few minutes of silence. “Where do we go from here, Xe? To the port city really?”
“Mm.” Xena nodded a little. “Ever since I decided to go call this guy out, everything falls out of the sky to distract us. If an Athenean unicycle rider showed up with a monkey on his head at this point I wouldn’t even blink.”
Gabrielle chuckled soundlessly, wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck again and resting her head against her partner’s.
“Why?” The warrior asked. “Right up to Hades telling us about Poseidon’s daughter and all that. What did that mean? Makes no sense.”
“I’m going to go back to my original plan. Go to the city. See what’s really going on there.” Xena told her. “Pirate sends a nitwit out to find me? Fine. He found me.”
“He really was a nitwit.”
“We have to change plans anyway. Ares vanished.” Xena said, practically. “I just hope he ended up somewhere safe.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted, then dropped. “Because he had Jess with him.”
“What do you think the end game really is in all this, Xe? You think it really is the twilight of the gods?”
Xena didn’t answer for a long time, her eyes slightly unfocused as she sat there enfolded in Gabrielle’s arms, the soft pop of the fire loud and close against the softer, vaguer sounds of the army outside their tent.
To one side, their hammock was waiting, outside the edges of the protection of the tent there were guards, sheltering under their own hides and keeping anyone approaching at bay.
“I’m not sure it’s as much of a twilight as a crossroads.” Xena finally said, in a very thoughtful tone. “When Hades was talking to us, I finally clearly remembered when I was there, in Tartarus. You were right.”
“Now I have to wonder how much of Tartarus or even Elysia is inside our own minds?” Xena mused. “I was there. I felt like I belonged there. That I deserved all that torment.” She reached up casually and touched Gabrielle’s lips with a fingertip, feeling the motion as her partner inhaled to protest. “And then I heard your heart breaking.”
Gabrielle went very still.
“The pain of that made what I felt around me irrelevant, Gab. It wasn’t real. I walked away from it because it lost it’s hold on me.” Xena’s tone held a tinge of wonder. “Now I can remember. It was like a sound that just faded away.”
“Oh Xe.” Gabrielle whispered.
‘That changed me.”
“Yeah, it changed me too.” The bard exhaled, tightening her hold. “I never really realized how much I needed you until you were gone. All I kept thinking about were all the things I never said, all the things I never shared with you.”
Xena half turned and put her arms around her partner to return the hug. “What do you want to do, Gab? You want to just go home and get Dori and screw all this? Does it really matter if we go see this guy?”
Gabrielle exhaled, her eyes closing as she let her head rest against her soulmates. “In the long term I don’t really think it does matter.” She admitted. “I think whatever’s going to happen is going to no matter what you and I do.”
Xena started gently, silently laughing.
“Rescuing Poseidon’s daughter would make for a pretty cool story.”
“Yeah, it would.” Xena let her chuckles wind down. “And we can’t leave this guy out here raping and pillaging. We gotta do something so what the Hades. Let’s just do what we do.”
“Be who we are.”
Xena stood up, draping her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Lets’ talk to our little friend Jacob in the morning. I have a feeling he might know a few things we should hear.”
Despite the shelter, it was cold. They curled up together in their hammock, glad to be off the ground and sharing body heat under the thick furs covering them. Xena had put one set in the hammock itself, so they were surrounded by the soft hide and after a few minutes they both relaxed as it got warm and cozy.
The sounds around them had faded, save the occasional crunch of boots on the icy ground, and the thrum of the wind against the edge of the hide shelter.
Xena heard a few thumps from the nearby makeshift corral, and then, at the very edge of her hearing, a soft patter of running feet, too light to be human, to fast to be one of the goats or sheep that would call the area home. “Huh.”
“Huh what?” Gabrielle was savoring being completely warm at last, for the first time that day.
“Huh I think we’re about to have a visitor.”
“Oh crap no.” The bard covered her eyes with one hand. “I just got comfortable finally.’
“It’s okay.” Xena lifted her head as the flaps to their shelter shivered and parted, and a black figure entered, trotting across the floor and leaping up, to put paws on the side of the hammock.
“Oh! Hey Ares.” Gabrielle poked her nose out at him, and reached a hand out to pat his paw. “You caught up with us?”
Xena reached out and felt around the wolf’s neck, feeling a string there. She fished the small wooden capsule out and removed it, then opened it and unfolded the thin, rolled piece of parchment. “I hope this isn’t bad news.”
Ares hopped down, then went over to their saddlebags and curled up against them with a satisfied sigh.
Gabrielle took the parchment and unfolded it, and they put their heads together to read it as she tilted it towards the torchlight.
Then they paused, and looked at each other with simultaneous, identical sighs.