Body Heart and Soul
Gabrielle very slowly allowed the world around her to fade in, the soft, pre dawn sounds of the army stirring waking her. She was alone in the hammock, but as she turned over and squirmed into a sitting position the flap of the shelter drew aside and Xena ducked her head to enter.
“Good morning.” Xena greeted her. “I’ve got Bennu getting the troops moving. Thought I’d let you get a half candlemark more rest.”
“Awww.” Gabrielle tugged the furs up around her and regarded her partner sleepily. “Thanks hon. It took me forever to get to sleep after that note last night. Holy sheeps.”
“Yeah.” Xena commiserated, coming over to the hammock and draping her forearms over the edge of it. “Figures our kid would go galavanting with her friends only to end up finding the goddess of love stuck in a frozen mud pit.”
“Only to end up rescuing the goddess of love.” Gabrielle corrected her. “But you know, I’m glad she ended up there. Hope she just hangs out in the valley until Herc and them get there.”
They both smiled wryly at each other. “Glad to just hear from them.” Xena admitted. “Good to know things are relatively calm back there.”
It was. Gabrielle admitted to herself. She could imagine her daughter riding at the head of her little pack of friends and it was almost heartwrenching to realize this new adventure was one she hadn’t gotten to witness.
“What a good story that’s gonna make.” Xena remarked, reading her mind. She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair and gave the hammock a shake. “C’mon, mama. Let’s get going.”
Gabrielle stifled a yawn, and complied, rolling out of the hammock and moving quickly over to one of the stools near the fire to sit down and pull her boots on. There was a bucket of gently steaming water near the fire, and she gladly used it to wash. “Thanks for this”
Xena chuckled. “Selfish on my part. I had one of the guard bring it over. Wasn’t in the mood to wash in snow slush myself this morning.”
“Be selfish anytime in that case.” Gabrielle dried herself off and got up, staying near the fire as she pulled on her heavy woolen overtunic and leggings while Xena stood over the folding table near the rock wall studying her notes.
“Is it still snowing?”
The warrior glanced up. “A little.”
“Yuk.” Gabrielle walked around the fire and went to the tent flap, drawing it aside and poking her head out.
The sun wasn’t yet up, it was still dark and gloomy in the camp safe where the firepits were. She could see shadowed bodies walking back and forth, and hear the sound of the horses being moved forward from where they’d sheltered them.
“Good morning, Gabrielle.” Cait greeted her, pushing her hood back. “Lovely, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle eyed the snow, then looked at her, one eyebrow hiking up. “You didn’t stand watch last night did you Cait?” She asked, in a mild tone. “I hope not, with all these soldiers around.”
Cait looked like she was going to deny it, then smiled. “Well, not the whole night.” She admitted. “I did watch a bit at the start since I just couldn’t get to sleep.”
“Me either.” Her queen smiled back.
Xena came up behind her and leaned out. “Tell Bennu to get that guard captain up on a horse, with his hands tied behind him. We’ll head for the gates with that. Let’s see where that gets us.”
“Right.” Cait trotted off.
“Do we look for Ares and Jessan?” Gabrielle asked. “I mean, don’t they sort of have to be around here? I get the feeling he couldn’t go far, and Hades didn’t give me the sense that he’d sent him far either.”
“No.” Xena answered crisply. “I’m glad Jessan’s out of it. I hope they’re up on the slopes of Olympus chasing sheep. I’ve been trying to work them into my plan this whole damn time and it’s gotten us nothing but in circles.”
“Was that maybe the point?” The bard mused. “You know, I just remembered something Hades said, Xe. About them not being able to affect the earth.”
“And?” Xena studied her with a sidelong look.
“Maybe that was him trying to tell us we were going the wrong way. Sending Ares away too.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe the whole point of it is that we do have to do it. We have to make the difference.”
Xena sighed audibly.
“Yeah, I know.” Her partner commiserated. “As in, again?”
“Ah, who knows.” The warrior ducked back inside the tent as several of the soldiers approached to strike it. She was fastening her cloak when the surface was removed, and then she lifted her saddlebags to her shoulder as it was folded away.
Through the misty gloom two golden horses appeared, led by a groom and she settled the bags on Argo’s back as Gabrielle came over with her own gear to Iolaus.
They mounted and rode at a walk through the thickness of the forest, coming up onto the road and turning to wait for the rest of the army to join them. Gabrielle handed over a meatroll, and they sat there munching together, fog roiling around the horses knees.
Bennu moved up out of the trees leading a second horse, with their captive roped into his saddle and in a dark mood due to it. He also had a gag in his mouth and he was shaking his head repeatedly trying to rid himself of it.
Kind of stupid. Gabrielle chewed her breakfast thoughtfully, chasing it down with a swig from her waterskin. But probably natural.
The rest of the army came up onto the road in good order, the six remaining supply wagons bringing up the rear, along with the spare horses. They were a third again less than they started, but still a reasonable force as Xena turned Argo and started leading them on.
The muffled sound of that many hooves made a soft rumble in the early dawn light, pale gray slowly easing the shadows of the trees on either side and as they cleared the edge of the forest the vast, empty plain spread out before them.
A thick layer of fog covered the ground, and as they moved through it plumes of it rolled off away from them and it seemed a bit like water as they crossed it.
The army spread out, again, across the road and to either side of it as the width of the track would not hold all of them save in four file across.
Crossing the open space, they had no need of scouts and so, though Cait and the Amazons rode to one side, and a score of Xena’s troops rode on the other, Xena and Gabrielle remained in the lead, hoods down, their hair ruffling briskly in the cold wind.
Xena looked to either side of her, then smiled briefly as her standard bearer edged up on her right hand side, her pennant firmly seated in his stirrup. In the gray and shadowed lands they were riding through, it was one fierce bit of color.
A loud caw overhead made her look up, and she spotted several ravens flying over them. The dark birds circled lazily, then angled off to the south. Higher overhead, mere spots against the clouds, were vultures.
Xena turned to her partner. “Yeees?”
Gabrielle drew breath to speak, then paused, and visibly changed tracks. “How about a story? Looks like it’s going to be a long ride.”
“Sure.” Xena eased her knees forward a little and relaxed her body. The city was, indeed, far ahead, in the early mist invisible to even her eyes. “Love to hear one.”
The surrounding riders eased in closer, as Gabrielle straightened up and readied herself, looking left and right to the prick eared riders, then glancing behind her as Bennu casually led their captive up closer.
No one had asked where Ares was. No one really had cared when she’d tried to sell him to them the previous day. So now they didn’t want to hear about gods, or about Olympus.
“So let me tell you all a story about a time, when a great darkness covered the land, and a small town militia rose up to meet it.” Gabrielle saw the smiles, at this, their most favorite of stories. “And about their leader.”
“Leaders.” Xena corrected instantly.
They kept on past midday, making good progress on the flatlands as the clouds got thicker overhead but the snow remained light.
Gabrielle was drinking some water, easing her throat after several candlemarks of storytelling, aware of the boosted mood of the troops around her. They had taken turns in moving up and back, giving as many a chance to listen as possible.
Good for her ego. Gabrielle smiled, and popped a honey ball into her mouth, looking around at the unbroken plain that stretched on either side of them to foothills in the distance.
The bard turned around in her saddle, to find their prisoner spitting rope strands out of his mouth, a moment before his head was struck by Bennu’s mace hilt. “Watch yer tongue.” The soldier warned.
Xena had dropped back and, having been the subject of the epithet, waited for the man to regain his balance. “Do what he says and you’ll get a drink.” She remarked.
“I did you no harm, only brought an honorable message.” The man said. “And you abuse me so. How would you feel if it were you? Should my master treat you this way?”
“Well.” Xena handed over a waterskin that had just been passed to her. “He could try that. Bennu, hold this for him.”
“Not worth the wet.” Bennu nevertheless opened the waterskin and offered it to the man. “You mind your manners or I’ll shove this down your throat.”
With a visible, internal struggle, he managed to keep silent, bending his head to suck at the waterskin with ill disguised relief. The gag itself had been a thick wad of linen, engorged with all the moisture of the man’s mouth along with the thick rope that had bound it.
“So.” Xena was leaning on her saddlebow. “Pinu sent you out here to find me. You and a dozen others who disappeared into the snow.”
The man cleared his throat. “He did.”
The man looked over at her. “I told you. He wants to meet with you. “
“Got that, but why?” Xena asked. “I’m going to kick his ass. Anyone around here would know that.” She added. “So what does he want to meet with me for?”
The man avoided looking at her. “Told you. Thinks there’s a misunderstanding.” He muttered. “You’ll see soon enough, though.”
Xena just laughed. “Pinu thinks he’s a big man?” She asked. “Figures to make friends?” She taunted him. “Put his gag back in, Benny.” She sobered up abruptly and nudged Argo forward to catch up with Gabrielle again.
They ambled along side by side for a minute, then Gabrielle edged closer. “You being a meanie for a reason, hon?”
“Maybe.” Xena looked up at the clouds, and then out at the horizon. “Depends what they do when they spot us.” She could see the outline, dimly, of the port city now. “We’re probably still blending into the background, since we’ve got armor and shields covered up, but that wont last more than another few candlemarks.
“We’re not going to get there by dark though.” Gabrielle was judging the distance. “Unless we speed up.”
“And end up there with tired troops and horses, right at dusk.” Her partner remarked, with a brief smile. “No, I’ve already figured we’re going to spend the night out here, and that’s going to be a long, dangerous time.”
‘You think they’re going to come out and attack us?” The bard scanned the horizon. “Or something is?”
“I think we’ll be a tempting target.”
Dark caught them still far out from the floodplains of the city, and Xena decided to keep on the march a while longer, until she caught sight of a string of growth, wiry and dead now, that marked to her eyes a water source.
It was a ways off the road, but she sent scouts to inspected it, hoping the flow was towards the city not away from it and they’d have a chance to get fresh water.
There was snow on the ground, but it seemed dark and soiled, and as they paused to wait for the scouts to return she slid off Argo’s back and took a torch from Solari’s hand. “Looks like something’s been here before us.”
Gabrielle got down from Iolaus and joined her, and a few of the soldiers did too as she moved past where the horses were gathered and inspected the ground.
The soil was churned up and the layer of snow was broken and stamped flat. Xena knelt on the ground and brought the torch closer, stripping her glove off and touching a rounded imprint in the dirt.
“Horses?” Bennu asked. “Lot of them whatever.”
“Horses.” Xena, now, close to the earth could smell the remnants of them, the cold air having obscured the scent until then. There was musk on the air and a faint acrid scent that could have been burned wood. “Check the area, Bennu. See if they made camp and left anything.”
“Hardly here, probly.” Bennu swung around in a half circle. “Spread out, lads. See if anything was left behind.”
Gabrielle waited for the space to clear a little and she took a step back, coming to stand in an empty spot just off the road. The clouds obscured the stars and moon and it was very dark, just the torches of the army spreading a dim ring of red gold across the ground.
She turned her head into the wind and listened, but the only sound she could hear aside from her companions was the wind, whistling over the empty ground.
There was no shelter for them, really. If the creek they’d found was good, they could stake out the horses, and make the best of what they had, but here she felt exposed and, from the prickling between her shoulderblades, watched.
Xena came over to stand next to her.
“Yeah, me too.” The warrior responded. “There’s something out there.”
Xena turned and faced the city, her pale eyes searching the silver shadows. “There.” Her ears twitched, catching sounds far off on the wind. “Way out there.”
The creek was mostly iced over, but after a solid bit of chopping they reached liquid water and were far enough from the sea for it to be clean, and fresh.
Xena stood over the edge of the bank and followed the dark silvered line back, seeing it disappear in a long arc into the foothills heading towards home and wondered just briefly if it had it’s root in her own mountains.
It could. The river that ran past Amphipolis did in fact split and curve towards Thrace and the idea made her smile briefly, sniffing and tasting the water again from the travel cup in her hands. “Fill the skins.” She said, stepping back.
The army was settled in a semi circle with their backs to the creek, the tangle of dead shrubs and brush giving them as much shelter as there was against the wind and light snow.
It wasn’t ideal but it was the best they could do and Xena drained her cup, then tied it at her belt and pulled her cloak hood up and fastened it. She moved through the soldiers heading the other direction and found the small knot of Amazons clustered to one side.
She joined them in time to hear Gabrielle utter a resounding “No.”
“But Gabrielle..” Cait protested.
“Cait, no.” The queen responded firmly. “No one’s going out there to scout around. It’s flatlands. No one can sneak up on us.”
“Right.” Xena agreed. “Besides, we already.. “ She paused, as she heard running steps. “Uh oh.”
“Xena.” Bennu had found her taller form and slowed up as he reached her. “T’bastard got out.”
“Men untied his hands to let him have a bit of bread, and he broke loose.” Her captain reported. “Ran off into the snow.” He paused. “You want us to bring him back?”
“No.” Xena said. “He’s got the message I want carried.” She said. “He already thinks he’s clever. Don’t ruin it.”
Bennu chuckled. “Will do, gen’rl.” He plodded off across the frozen ground towards the firepit. Here, this close to the city they had chopped a trench in the ground and set the fire in it, and the stores around so it wouldn’t reflect across the open plain.
Cait looked at Xena. “You want them to come find us, then?”
“Xena taught me.” Gabrielle spoke up, with a wry smile. “It’s sometimes better to let the other guy make the first move. You learn about them that way.”
Xena nodded. “It could end up a big mistake.” She admitted. “But we’re gambling anyway.” She said, then paused, pulling her hood down and turning her ears into the wind. “Ah.”
Gabrielle had been watching her closely. “Trouble?”
The warrior closed her eyes and focused. All the talking around them faded out as everyone became aware of the silent, tall figure in their midst and heads turned, then bodies did, waiting.
To Gabrielle’s ears, all she could hear was the wind, and the crackle of the dead branches nearby. But that would not have caught Xena’s attention so she watched and waited with the rest of them, putting a hand on her partner’s shoulder as she dropped to one knee and stripped her gloves off.
Everyone now went still as their leader put the palm of her hand flat on the ground.
“Get your gear ready.” Gabrielle uttered to the Amazons, who scattered without comment to their horses. “Xe?”
“Big force coming.” Xena said, after a moment. She stood up and put her gloves back on “Let’s get ready to fight.”
“Two candlemarks. Maybe three.” The warrior said. “Depends on if they keep riding fast.”
There was no panic, of course. This was an army, and the soldiers in it had fought under Xena’s leadership for seasons and as they wolfed down trail rations and tightened the straps on their armor there was just a sense of calm preparation.
The support staff had gotten the wagons braced and in a square pattern down next to the creek and most were busy sorting spare arrows and spears and laying them up on top for the soldiers to pick up, neatly bundled in dozens.
The healers still with them were getting out bandages and going to the creek for water, while the grooms readied the horses for battle, settling hide armor over their backs and checking their feet for cracks in their hooves.
Gabrielle went over to Iolaus’s side and gave him a pat on the shoulder, checking the fastenings of her staff and making sure her bags were tied down snugly. She removed her dagger from one of the bags and strapped it around her waist, already wearing her layered scale armor under her thick overshirt.
Despite the dark and the stormy skies, and mounting wind she felt no fear. In fact it was more a sense of relief relaxing her body, as the uncertainties of the situation faded back into irrelevance now that the fight was coming to them.
Xena appeared out of the gloom with a mug in each hand, and she handed one over. “Stew.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle gladly accepted it, and tilted her head back to slide a mouthful of the chunky substance onto her tongue. She chewed in silence and swallowed, watching Xena do the same. “Glad?”
“Yeah.” Xena said.
“You think they’re riding at night for the same reason we were? To be in place in the morning?”
Xena chewed up a bit of venison, glad of the warmth filling her belly. “No. With this open space – there’s no way to gain position. They know it. Those other soldiers must have made it back and told them where we were.”
“But they think we’re on the road.” Gabrielle objected. “You took us off the road here, for the last candlemark or so.”
“Our escaped friend will find them and lead them to us.”
“It’s not like Therma.” Xena said, after a short pause. “These men don’t know me, don’t have respect for what I’ve done.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle nodded. “So you have to kick their ass first.”
“But Pinu knows who you are, Xe. He put a price on your head.” The bard reminded her, then paused. “Unless who he thinks he put a price on was from some old stories.”
Xena gave her a thoughtful look. “Destroyer of Nations, you mean?” She shook her head. “That makes even less sense, hon.” She tapped the last of her mug into her mouth. “But we’ll find out sooner rather than later.”
Gabrielle took their mugs down to the creek to wash them out, leaving her soulmate to inspect and sharpen her sword. She knelt at the side of the creek on the wooden planks the men had laid down and quickly washed the cups out, listening to the casual conversation around her.
The soldiers were a little tired from traveling all day, but there was low laughter and to her right, someone describing Xena fighting with words she was pretty sure had originally come from her. She smiled and stood up, shaking the chill water from her hands and the cups and started to climb back up to the bank.
Halfway up she paused, as the shifting clouds overhead parted for just long enough for the moon to shine through them, and bath her in silver, highlighting the army and their surroundings for one brief moment.
It made everything look different, outlined men and horses and wagons with uncommon clarity as heads tilted to look up in some mild surprise.
Then they closed and the light was gone, but Gabrielle carried the picture in her head with her as she got back up on land and she ended up taking a seat next to Xena with it still there.
There was something in that scene in her head that was bothering her. Gabrielle let her elbows rest on her knees and she clasped her hands together, listening to the rhythmic scrape of the sharpening stone against metal and the soft, almost soundless humming under Xena’s breath.
So familiar. The song was an old herding tune she remembered from her childhood and one of Dori’s favorites, though her daughter had never spent time in the fields with a flock herself.
And, of course, neither had Xena. But she’d learned it somewhere and often sang it, the gentle, almost melancholy tune well suited for her voice.
Gabrielle leaned closer to hear it, while trying to puzzle out what she’d seen that hadn’t felt right but the scene was fading as earlier memories surfaced in it’s place, of long summer nights out in the hills, watching the sheep.
Waiting for moonrise, and the time to bring the flock home.
Her eyes went unfocused a little, remembering that silver flood of light. “Hey Xe?”
“Yeees?” Xena finished sharpening her sword and tucked the stone away in her belt pouch, wiping the edge of the blade down before she sheathed it.
“What quarter of the moon is it today?”
Xena sat back and reflected a moment. “First quarter.” She said. “Why?”
The warrior’s brow knit. “Am I sure?” She asked. “Yes, I’m sure. Even when I can’t see the moon I know what day it is. You know that, Gabrielle.”
“I know. You always know.” Gabrielle agreed. “You always know when my birthday is, when I’m supposed to cycle, when you’re supposed to cycle, when Dori’s birthday is… its like you keep a parchment in your head. “
She looked at her partner, who was looking back at her with both eyebrows lifted. “When the clouds parted just before? The moon was full.”
Xena’s eyes grew a trifle wider and rounder.
“So either I have to accept the fact that you suddenly lost that ability, or something’s not right.” Gabrielle concluded. “And you know, Xe, that’s a weird kind of thing for you to lose all of a sudden.”
“Yeah.” Xena responded softly, her eyes shifting off her partner and off into the near distance, where Argo was standing, chewing some hay the grooms had brought her. After a moment of silence she looked back. “No, it’s supposed to be the new moon.” She said. “Huh.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle repeated. “So what does that mean?”
Xena got up and shook herself to settle her armor. “I don’t know.” She admitted “Keep that in mind after the battle. I don’t suppose the moon’s going to play any part in that.”
“Hm.” The bard grunted softly. “Hope you’re right.”
“Okay, spread the archers here, and here.” Xena leaned over in the saddle and pointed at a roughly drawn sketch of the area they were in. “Get the mounted troops in the center.”
“Aye.” Redder nodded, taking his reins in hand and directing his horse down the line.
The soft rumble of the approaching troops could now be heard by the rest of them, and the scent of horses and pitch on the wind blowing into their faces was obvious.
Xena guided Argo to the front of the lines, pausing to check the ground just before them and then proceeding to her spot at the very center, amidst the wedge of troops that were the vanguard.
Horses eased aside to allow her forward, and as she took her position, she saw Iolaus cantering down the lines as Gabrielle came to join her.
The bard already had her staff out, and it was lying cross her saddle. She shifted it upright as she reached Xena, moving it so as not to hit either her partner or her horse. “Okay.”
“Okay. “ Xena checked her daggers, and removed her chakram from it’s pouch, letting it slide into it’s holder on her saddle before she untied her cloak and removed it, folding it neatly and lashing it behind her.
She let out a whistle, turning her head right and left so it would echo down the lines and from the gloom she could see animals and soldiers moving into position.
Gabrielle looked all around her, focusing on details that afterward would become bits of color in the story she’d tell about it. Then she took off her own cloak and folded it as Xena had, feeling now the pressure of the wind against her skin.
Two of the vanguard came forward and took up positions on either side of them, with torches seated in their stirrups, casting a reddish gold light into the gloom.
She shifted her grip on her staff, taking these last moments to prepare herself, watching Xena twist to either side to loosen up her own body, and flex her hands, removing her gauntlets and tucking them away.
The watch let out a whistle, and they all moved forward a step or so, as the soldiers seated their spears and untied maces. Gabrielle could feel the rising energy around her and from the brief glimpses of the eyes around her, she knew the army was looking forward to this fight.
Now she heard the shouts in the distance as they were spotted in their turn, and the rumble slowed, shadows growing into visibility bracketed by the torches they’d smelled now for candlemarks.
Xena made a hand gesture, and the vanguard moved forward at a calm walk, easing out in front of the army and crossing the frozen ground.
When she could see the advance lines of the opposing force, she lifted her hand and clenched her fist, and they stopped, watching as a swirl of motion in the gloom came towards them.
Outlined in torchlight, a dozen mounted figures rode towards them, and pulled up within a few horse lengths, the leader turning half sideways and studying them with an arrogantly uptilted head motion. “Who stands there!”
“Stay here.” Xena said, under her breath. “Please.” She glanced sidelong at Gabrielle, catching the faint smile on her face. She eased Argo’s reins and kneed her forward, as the mare carefully picked her way across the uneven ground.
When she was within a length of the man, she stopped, and met his eyes. He had a helmet on, and she couldn’t see most of his face, but there was nothing familiar there. “I’m Xena.” She announced, in a cordial tone. “And you are?”
Those eyes studied her hard for a minute, then he removed his helmet, revealing a fine, handsome face and curled red gold hair. “So you are Xena. “ He said. “I am Pinu.”
He looked past her at the waiting lines of the army. “You bring forces into my lands.”
“I have.” Xena agreed. “Wanna fight? We’re in the mood to.” She smiled at him, one hand dropping casually to rest on the chakram.
He looked quickly back at her. “My men say you are a demon.”
“I’ve been called worse.” Xena said. “But I’m as much a demon as anyone else is.” She moved Argo closer. “So what do you say? Can we get this started?”
Pinu studied her. “Are you so anxious for battle, Xena? I have a fine force behind me. It could end up ill for you.”
“It could.” The warrior met his eyes steadily. “I’ll take the chance and bet on my army. “ She smiled again. “And me.”
“Yes, well.” He shifted in his saddle. “I don’t wish to fight with you, or your army. My captain will have told you all I wish is to talk.” He exhaled. “It could be we have more in common than you think.”
Bummer. Xena lifted a hand and made a casual gesture, then whistled softly. The result was a shifting of bodies behind her and the sound of a single horse moving towards her. “All right.” She waited for Gabrielle to arrive. “Start talking.”
He looked at her then moved his eyes to Gabrielle. “And who is this? I only want talk with you.”
“I’m Gabrielle.” The bard supplied. “Do yourself a favor and just go with it.” She advised him. “Is this Pinu, Xe?”
“It is. He wants to talk.”
“He brings a whole army out in the middle of the night just to talk to you?”
Pinu settled his helmet on his saddlehorn. “I had no choice.” He said. “To travel in the midst of an army is the only safety in these parts to be had, as you no doubt have found yourself.”
“There seems to be a lot of people running around attacking and kidnapping people.” Gabrielle said. “Most everyone we talk to think that’s you.”
“Yes.” The bard said. “You can say it’s not you, but I’m telling you that people are saying it is. Including a bunch of people from Phillipi who came and asked us to come and find out why you think that’s okay.”
Pinu studied her, then glanced at Xena in question.
“I fight.” The warrior said. “She talks.”
The big man leaned forward a little. “You do not know the truth of this.”
“No. What we don’t know is your side of the story.” Gabrielle said, in a mild tone. “Whether it’s true or not remains to be seen.”
A loud whistle went up, and Xena’s hand shifted from her chakram to her sword. “Something’s coming.” She stood up her stirrups. “Something big.”
“Too late for talk.” Pinu shoved his helm back on his head. “You will get your fight, Xena. May you survive it.”
It was dark. Jessan pressed his back against the wall and panted for breath, the blasts of heat and stench washing over him.
He had no idea where he was, and he’d never been so frightened in his life. Every connection with the world he’d known was gone and even more terrifying, he could no longer sense Eleani, or his parents, or anyone else.
Not even Xena.
There were screaming noises all around him, and everywhere he looked there were figures in agony, being tortured, squalling at the top of their lungs.
The only bit of comfort he could find was that the creatures, and people, and whatever they were had been ignoring him as though he wasn’t there. No matter how close he stood to them, or got in front of them, they went past him with no indication they saw him.
He heard a loud bellow he thought he recognized, and he scooted around a stalactite protruding from the floor and ducked, as something big and winged flew over his head. He squeezed between two more protruding rocks and then paused, glimpsing between a crack in the wall a shadowy figure with their hands behind a huge rock, shoving upward.
He stopped. “Oh crap.”
With all the sound around him, it was odd to hear his own voice so loudly. It was the first thing he’d said since he’d found himself in mid step heading up a path one moment, and then being thrown against a hot, fetid wall the next, with no horse, no gear, and no companions.
The bellow was repeated, and he tore his attention from the figure pushing the rock uphill and went past a man tied to a piller, with snakes biting him to find the source of the yelling.
Then wished he hadn’t.
There against the wall, wrists and ankles encased in rock, was Ares. Stripped of his leather vest and pants, along with boots and wrist bands, the god of war was yelling in rage as a never ending blast of ice and fire bathed him.
Jessan stood frozen for a moment, almost not seeing the two shorter figures wielding the snake heads spewing the substances as he teetered on the edge of jerking himself into motion to go and…
Go and what?
He was in Hades realm. Jessan felt his throat close. He was in Hades realm and more than that, he was in Tartarus.
He leaned back into the shadows and felt the horror of it take him over, feeling his body start to shake.
His clawed fingers gripped the wall, feeling the warmth of it against the palms of his hands, rough and hard and unnervingly real.
He was in Hades realm.
“Stop it!” Ares was yelling. “Get Hades over here you little pipsqueaks!”
Jessan peeked out at him, watching him glare at the two, ignoring the fire and ice that licked his face from either side. The rock trapped his limbs, but he stood out as far as he could from it, his big and powerfully muscled body alternately bathed in red and blue.
Equally trapped in stone near his side was the Sword of War, the stones buried into it’s hilt pulsing softly with Ares breathing.
Almost like it was alive.
Then the blasting stopped and with a resounding thump the two were gone, leaving the snakes behind to slowly curl themselves up and study their prey.
Ares stared calmly at them, then turned his head towards Jessan. “Hey fuzzbutt. Get out here.”
With a wary eye on the snakes, Jessan edged into the half circle of stone. “Uh, hi.”
Ares gave him a droll look.
“Are we dead?” Jessan blurted out. “We’re in Tartarus, aren’t we?”
“Maybe, and yes.” The God of War said, impatiently. “But don’t shed your fur.”
Jessan took a step back and leaned against the wall, feeling his heart beating so fast it made him dizzy. “Maybe?”
“I’m not. But you have to be to be here.” Ares said. “Don’t’ worry about that now. I’ve got to get out of here.”
Don’t worry. Jessan felt the empty echo in his head, and he stared past Ares, suddenly getting an insight into Xena’s life he neither wanted nor appreciated. “So that’s what it’s like.” He said, in a bare whisper.
Jessan didn’t get to answer because at that moment, a hugely tall, cloaked, shadowy figure emerged from the wall, drifting across the floor to face Ares. “Nephew.”
“What was that?” Ares asked. “Who asked you to step into my game, uncle?”
“As if I needed someone to ask? It’s you who brought this lessening down around us, Ares. You know it, we all know it. You succored mortals, you pandered to them. You taught them our secrets.”
So that was Hades. Jessan slid down the wall and sat on the ground, the sounds of screaming all around them fading out. He sounded like a jerk. Ares sounded like a jerk.
He was caught in some argument he had nothing to do with. “I get it, Xena.” He exhaled. “I wish I’d gotten a chance to say goodbye.”
The two gods were ignoring him.
“I never taught any of them a damn thing. I got sacrifices! Just like you did!” Ares was yelling, yanking at his trapped arms. “I made them love war! I gave you millions of them before their time! Tell me that’s not true!”
Hades studied him.
“Tell me it’s not true, Uncle.” Ares repeated. “Tell me your precious army didn’t come to you through me.”
“Many have died for you.” Hades grudgingly agreed. “And I have used them. But you also raised her up. The dark one. Your spawn.”
No question who he was talking about. Jessan looked up to see Ares’ face, set and cold and hard and yet filled with a passion he halfway understood.
“Child of my heart.” Ares said, in a quiet voice. “But not of my loins, Hades. Wish she was. Only mortal ever who gets the fire like I do.”
“She teaches all of them not to worship us. Gives them something else to sacrifice too. Deny it.” The king of the underworld shot back. “She has no regard for us.”
“Not for you.” His nephew taunted him. “She couldn’t get out of here fast enough and you couldn’t stop her but we’ve got a deal, she and I.”
“You flatter yourself.”
“Do I? Wasn’t you or anyone else in the family hauling my ass out of being dead.” Ares tone was now rough with anger. “Screw all of you. Fade out. Be my guest.”
Hades raised his hands and a huge blast of fire, and heat, and flying rock exploded in the chamber, sending sharp pieces everywhere. Jessan threw his hands up to cover his face and felt the sting as the rocks hit him, jolts of pain that shook him.
He peeked between his fingers as the flames cleared, to see Ares still pinned, skin darkened by fire, and blood exuding from dozens of gashes in his body.
And yet he was still smiling, grimly, head up, defying Hades’ torments. “They wont forget me, Hades.” He said. “Mortals now have a piece of me, and Dite in them. Long as they spawn and live, so will we.”
“Survivor.” The God of War licked a bit of blood dripping down over his mouth. “G’wan. Do your worst, ya old has been.”
Jessan curled up in a ball as the room erupted in sound and chaos, feeling a pressure against his skin that nearly flayed it off. He heard a sound that pierced him to the quick, and then a moment later a blast followed and he blacked out.
Xena wheeled the army around as she sensed the approach in the darkness, blinking hard against the shadows as she sorted the moving figures out. She let out a whistle, then two more, then she got into the lead as the long line of horsemen wheeled at her command.
At least the figures heading their way looked human sized. Xena could see brief glints of armor, and the yells and she let loose a yell of her own, feeling the almost overwhelming surge of savage delight that flushed her skin warm under her armor.
She could see the line of troops heading right towards them and from the corner of her eye she saw Pinu trying to get his own soldiers turned around to fight.
“What are they?” Gabrielle was at her left side.
“Dunno.” Xena answered. “Get your staff ready and keep your head down.”
They closed fast with the enemy and Xena took aim at the front lines, driving a little slantwise into them and lifting her sword as Argo half reared and struck out with her front hooves.
She met a descending blade and sparks flew along the edge of hers as she turned it, dropping her reins as she picked up her chakram and backhanded it across the armor of the man attacking her just as she felt a disruption in the air behind her and heard arrows coming past.
One hit her adversary, and got him in the throat. He reached up for it and yanked at it, but she took the opportunity to topple him off his horse and give the animal a slap on the behind as it plunged past.
She heard her captains calling out and whistling commands, and then she concentrated on the big figure heading her way with a mace and a broadsword.
He was fast, and she ducked the mace at the last second, letting it come past her as she used her sword to deflect the dark metal blade coming at her.
Their bodies slammed together and she shoved off him, moving her head to one side just in time to miss a chop that fell against her shoulder and she hastily put her chakram back on it’s hook so she could get her free hand on the mace.
Gabrielle got her staff in between the man’s arm and his body and she simply shoved through, using her weight and Iolaus’ motion to yank his arm back and duck under his sword.
Xena took advantage of that and got her body around, shoving down on the mace while she drove the point of her sword thorugh the side of his neck between his armor and his helm.
He gargled in shock, his body jerking as she yanked the sword back out and he fell off the back of the horse as it bucked in surprise.
Xena moved past him and joined Gabrielle, going shoulder to shoulder with her as three enemy soldiers came at them, shifting shields to one arm as they couched spears with their other.
“Gonna be a long night.” Gabrielle called out. “Can you see how many of them there are?”
Xena stood up in her stirrups for a moment, then let out several whistled commands, watching as her cavalry came around and started driving from the side. “Three score.” She sat back down and removed her chakram, letting it loose as the foremost soldier reached her.
It slammed against his helm and he instinctively yanked his arm up to protect his face, and she caught the weapon as it circled back to her and pointed. “Get him there.”
“No problem.” Gabrielle rode forward with her staff couched against her ribs, thumping the end into the soldier’s gut and knocking him backwards in his saddle. Xena came past and wrapped her arm in his, and pulled him the rest of the way off, using her sword to deflect the spear of the second man.
A horn sounded.
Gabrielle let out a whistle and a wave of arrows came past them, as the Amazons advanced, tucked behind their horses and shooting over their backs.
Xena waited for the second wave, then she found a knot of men fighting on foot and recognized the hawkshead tabards. She aimed Argo for the bunch and circled them, raising her sword up and slamming it hilt down on the head of one of the enemy.
“Thanks Genr’l!” Redder shoved his dagger into the mans throat, sending a spray of copper darkness out that Xena could smell. He yanked the man past him and picked up the sword he’d dropped, engaging a second who was dodging past two fallen men.
Xena looked around and stood up, taking advantage of the lull to direct her troops. She put her fingers between her teeth and sounded three long and two short whistles, as Solari stepped up next to her and aimed her longbow over Argo’s neck.
She released the shaft and it nailed a rider in the side.
“Nice.” Xena complimented her. “Watch those guys.” She pointed at six soldiers riding hard at them, then half turned as she sensed motion to her right, which turned out to be Gabrielle arriving, catching her breath.
A horn sounded again, and the six men riding swerved, and curved in a circle, heading back the way they came as the enemy broke off.
In the shadows past them, Xena spotted a huge figure, seated on the back of what appeared to be an even more huge, antlered animal.
“I see it.”
The enemy soldiers broke off fighting and scrambled back, to form up behind this big, silent creature. Xena let out a whistle of command and her cavalry gathered around her, the ground between her and the creature littered with still forms.
“No.” Gabrielle responded in a low tone. “No way, Xe.”
The warrior sighed, and gave her an affectionate sidelong glance. “Wasn’t really talking to you.” She said. “Everyone else, stay here.” She repeated, turning her head right and left to make sure they’d all heard.
“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted in satisfaction, shifting her staff and curling her hand around it as she guided Iolaus after his mother.
“You’re a little nutty, y’know.” Paladia had ended up on her right hand side. “That thing’s bad news.”
“I know.” Gabrielle settled herself and waited for Xena to start forward. “But I am who I am, Paladia. I learned the hard way not to pretend anything else.”
Paladia nodded. “Yeah. You’re all right.”
Gabrielle had to smile at that and she did. She patted Paladia on the shoulder then she returned her hands to the reins and pressed her knees into Iolaus’ side, as he obediently moved forward after Argo’s golden hindquarters.
A minute later they were out in front of the army, the soldiers forming up in lines behind them and she could hear the flutter of fabric in the wind as they raised Xena’s standard up overhead.
They came to a standstill together and waited. Xena had sheathed her sword and hung up the chakram, her hands resting on her saddlebow, Argo’s reins clasped lightly in the fingers of her left hand.
This close, Gabrielle could feel the connection between them very strongly. She had stopped right even with her soulmate, and her knee was touching Xenas and she could feel the jumping tension in her leg despite her calm exterior.
The tall creature studied them, face indistinguishable inside it’s thick hood.
Was it Hades? Gabrielle tried to remember what his outline was, and this looked bigger. Some minion of his?
The animal he was riding moved forward a few steps and then halted, eyes glowing red as it regarded them. Argo and Iolaus’s ears pinned back in reaction to it, as a gust of wind brought them it’s odd, musky scent.
A soft sound echoed behind it, and then a flicker of motion happened as Xena’s right hand came up and caught an arrow in flight across her own body, and a breath later she released Argo’s reins and took up her chakram, sending it back in the opposite direction.
A brief cry rang out, then silence, save the hiss of the chakram as it came flying back from the darkness and ended in Xena’s ungloved hand.
“Dishonorable cowards.” Gabrielle spoke, filling her lungs and projecting her voice. “Who strike from the dark, from the shadows. We respected your request for truce. Have you no honor at all?”
Xena put the chakram back on it’s hook and then lifted the crossbow bolt in her hand an tightened her grip until it cracked. Her eyes remained on the tall mounted figure, and she tossed both of the ends away from her.
The tall figure glanced behind itself, then looked back at Xena. “There is no honor in war. You know this.”
“There is no honor in war.” Xena agreed. “Only in those who make it. “
“Do you claim honor now, Xena?” The figure seemed amused. “You should know better than most the uselessness of it, especially in war.”
The voice wasn’t familiar. The warrior shrugged, lifting both hands up and then putting them back down. “That all you have to say? Let’s get back to fighting.”
The figure moved forward again, putting a long separation between itself and them, and now they could see a vague outline of his face, stark and planed, and unfamiliar. “Every man you kill, comes back in my army, Xena. You cannot win this.”
Xena leaned a little on the front of her saddle. “Sometimes it’s not about winning.”
“It’s always about winning.”
Xena shook her head. “Sometimes it’s just about the fight.”
The figure backed a step and then drew a long, dark black blade from a scabbard on it’s back. “Do you so believe? Then you will fight with me, here. Now. It will be faster then for me to defeat just you, as your army will not then have the will to fight me.”
“Sure.” Xena agreed readily. “Just be careful what you ask for.” She drew her own sword, twirling it lazily around her hand and then gripping it. “Could be dangerous for you either way.”
It was the smack of a rock against his head that eventually woke him. Jessan jerked up into sitting position, holding his hands over his face as he blinked a blurry film out of his eyes.
Another rock hit his leg, and Jessan lowered his hands to see the cavern bathed in red glare, the floor covered in shards of the rock the walls were made of. He blinked again and things came into focus, and he could see Ares now, still trapped in the wall at the back.
One arm was free, though, and that’s what the god of war had been using to collect rocks to throw at him. He scrambled to his feet, wincing at the bruises all over his body. “Oh.”
Cautiously he moved the shards out of his path and walked over, his unshod feet making whispering clicks against the stone. “Is he gone?”
“For now.” Ares said. “I’m sure he’ll be back to kick us around more though so do yourself a favor and help me out here.”
Jessan looked around, hoping to find some kind of tool to use to pry the trapped god loose. He spotted the Sword of War instead, partially blasted free from the grip of the wall. “Can I get you that?”
Ares craned his head around, stretching against the grip of the wall as he moved far enough away from it to see what the forest dweller was pointing at. “Yeah.” He said, in a surprised kind of tone. “Maybe all that Olympian gas did me a favor. “
Jessan went over and cleared some of the rock away, getting his claws into cracks around the sword and pulling backwards.
Xena had once told him one way she got through some of the horrific things she had was to just focus on the moment.
So right now, he just focused on prying bits of rocks away from this metal thing, and put aside the knowledge that the rock was part of Hades and the metal was the Sword of War. It brought nothing to the situation.
‘Just grab it.” Ares suggested. “It won’t kill ya.”
Jessan looked over at him.
“More than you already are.” The god of war added, with a smirk.
With an exhale, Jessan flexed his hands, feeling the soreness in them before he grimaced and put his fingers around the hilts of the sword and leaned back, feeling the faintest motion as he tightened his muscles.
“Yank sideways.” Ares suggested helpfully. “Uncle chucklehead made a nice crack there.”
Jessan threw his weight to the right and then to the left, then he got a good grip with both hands and put his foot up on the rock, lifting himself up off the ground and pulling with all his strength.
Surprisingly, it held, then abruptly let loose with a queer screeching sound, sending him flying back into the rocky rubble with a painful grunt.
“Nice.” Ares said. “Gimme.” He held his free hand out with his fingers wiggling as Jessan climbed to his feet and limped over to him, gingerly reversing the sword and putting the hilt in the God of War’s grip.
Then he moved away and went to the back of the chamber, looking around at the destruction.
Ares shifted his grip on his sword and lifted it, then inspected his lower limbs before he smacked the blade against the rock trapping his left foot, rewarded with a chunk of stone rocketing off to one side.
At that, one of the two snakes lifted it’s head and hissed, sliding forwards towards him.
“Watch it, slime-o.” Ares lifted the sword again and cocked his wrist. “Or I’ll take your ugly head off.”
The snake attacked, and just as Ares was about to whack it, the head slipped under his sword and let out a blast of fire, it’s lower body striking the god’s arm with stunning force and sending the sword flying away.
Jessan watched as Ares got a grip on the snake with his one free hand and he started forward, only to be blocked by the second snake, who whirled around and reared back, hissing at him.
“Oh boy.” The forest dweller backed up, pressing his hands against the rock wall.
“Grrr.” Ares was growling as he tried to keep the snake away form him, closing his eyes as it blasted him with fire again.
Jessan swallowed, then took a step away from the wall and reached over his shoulder to draw his sword out of it’s sheath, wrapping both hands around the hilts and baring his fangs at the snake. “Grrrrwooool!!”
The snake lunged at him and he chopped at it, dodging to one side as it came past him and then turning to follow it and slam his blade against it’s neck.
To his surprise the blade penetrated the snake’s flesh, and it whirled around in rage, throwing itself against him, jaws extending wide to bite him. Jessan moved his head and then shoved himself forward, opening his own mouth and biting the snake just below it’s head.
It tasted like nothing. He clamped his jaws shut and felt his fangs penetrate the skin, and with a jerk of his head he tore the side of the snake’s neck out of it’s body and spit it out.
The snake dropped to the ground, writhing. “Yuk.” Jessan gagged, spitting the liquid remaining in his mouth out and then turning to see the other snake all over Ares, the god barely holding it’s mouth away from his neck.
Without over thinking it, he bolted over and whipped his sword around in a circle, cutting through the snake and then wished he hadn’t when it erupted into flame, sending him reeling backwards.
He fell to the ground, his sword slamming the ground.
The impact almost made him drop it, then he squinted his eyes open, feeling scorched. The chamber was full of fire, and as he watched the snake he’d bitten curled up and crisped into black cinders, the last bit it’s eyes going through a gamut of colors and ending up like bits of coal before the whole figure dissolved into dust.
He looked across at Ares, who had his free hand held up, repelling the flames from the cut in half fire snake with a layer of cool blue air. As he watched the god lifted his hand and let his eyes narrow and the fire began to fade.
He put his hand palm down and pressed it towards the floor, and as he did, the flames banked and dissipated, going from raging to mere licks until finally they just went out.
“Nice.” Ares said, after brief pause, opening his eyes. “Now gimme that whacker back. Next thing that’ll happen is Hades’ll come back and when he sees what we did to his pups he’s not gonna like it.”
Jessan got up and shook himself, then went over to the sword of war and carefully picked it up to return to it’s owner.
It was incredibly heavy. He put it back in Ares’ hand and stepped back, looking around the chamber at the destruction. Far off, he suddenly heard a howl, and when he looked back at Ares, the God of War was chopping rapidly at the stone holding him in place. “What was that?”
“Nothing you want to meet, fuzzbutt.” Ares got one leg free and then turned, putting his hand and foot against the rock and pulling hard against his other arm.
With a crack, the rock broke free and a minute later Ares was too, walking over and grabbing the sheath of his sword and covering the blade. “C’mon.” He headed for an arched opening. “I gotta start some trouble to distract him.”
There was, Jessan had to admit, a little bit of Xena in Ares. In the tone of his voice, and the steadfast arrogance and trust in self. He could imagine Xena here, with him, doing much the same thing, heading off across this sacred ground as though she owned it.
He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t even want to look around. He only hoped that, like it had been with Xena, he would end up with a chance to leave the underworld and go back where he belonged.
Xena picked her spot, tucking her hands under her arms to keep them warm as her opponent took his time getting off his strange steed, and coming over to meet her.
He was big. He towered over her and from the way he moved he had plenty of brawn to go with the narrowed, pale eyes she could see now that they were closer.
There was a ring of torches around them, casting a ruddy light across the circle they stood inside, with both armies clustering closely behind them.
Pinu’s men were on the right hand side, watching in silence. Xena’s own troops were on the left hand side standing with legs braced, heads lifted in confident stares.
Gabrielle had taken up a spot just to Xena’s left, slightly behind her, the bard’s staff grounded next to her and her hands wrapped around it.
It was time. Xena flexed her hands and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, watching her opponent as he drew out his sword and stepped forward.
“You bring your little friend to help you?” The man pointed his sword at Gabrielle.
“Yep.” Xena responded. “Since you had your little friends shooting arrows at me on a truce flag , I figured I”d bring someone to watch my back while we’re fighting.”
“Matters not.” He chuckled. “When I defeat you, Xena, your army will turn over it’s weapons to mine, and become our slaves. DO they know this?”
Xena smiled at him. “Defeat me first. Then you can discuss it with them.” She responded. “When I defeat you your army goes back where they came from and leaves us alone.”
The tall figure studied her in silence for a moment. “You truly do not understand what you face.”
“No. I truly don’t care.” Xena dusted her hands off. “Let’s get this party started.” She drew her own sword and did a little trick with it, tumbling it up one arm and across her neck and down the other, ending with the blade gripped in her right hand facing backwards
Then she waited, legs braced, weight balanced over the balls of her feet, breathing slow and even.
Her opponent took a breath himself, then flexed his hands and came at her.
Xena ducked past him as he came and circled around to the left, turning and raising her sword as he swung around to face her. Their swords crossed and glanced off, and she kept moving, rotating her weapon against his and deflecting it.
They circled each other. He whipped his sword around at her sideways and she turned and met it, the sound of metal meeting metal echoing harshly over the cold ground.
Then she moved forward and attacked, weaving a pattern in the air he had to deflect, taking short, digging steps that forced him backwards a little, her hands moving a little faster than his, her focus on him sharpening.
He broke off and circled her again. She turned to follow him and anticipated the sudden attack from the side, lashing sideways with her sword to deflect his and then taking a step, launching into the air and thumping him in the chest with both boots.
She shoved outwards, sending him backwards and herself as well, tumbling in mid air to land and then leap forward again, disarming him with a hard, fast chop before he could recover.
His sword flew across the ground and bounced. He staggered back wards and caught his balance, staring at her, shaking his hand from the sting.
She walked over and picked up his sword, throwing it to him and moving back to the center of their circle. As she crossed back, she let her gaze travel over the enemy force, giving them a smile and a wink.
Gabrielle stood quietly, also watching the enemy but in her case watching for motions that might mean an attack coming from someone in the shadows behind him, as she knew Xena’s troops were also looking closely for.
The fight itself, she let go past her. She could see Xena’s relaxed body posture in her peripheral vision and she was far more worried about the people around them than she was the big man in the hood.
He caught the sword and then came at her in earnest, clearly pissed off at the casual mastery he was facing. He used his greater weight and height to loom over her and slammed the sword down right at her head, intending on breaking her defenses.
Xena got her body set just in time, lifting her sword up and setting it crosswise to his just before his blade smashed down on hers.
He clearly expected to drive right through her.
Xena felt her knees bend a little, then her body straightened up and with an uncoiling of her thighs she shoved him back and twisted her hands to slant his sword off to one side, continuing the motion around as he swiped at her with his free hand.
Her blade hit his arm and she felt the crunch of bone as she put her weight behind the blow, sending his hand flying off in the other direction to smack one of his own soldiers in the chest.
She lifted her sword up in a lazy gesture, and her army let out a bellow that rang everyone’s ears including her own.
He staggered back and stared at the missing hand, blood spurting out of his wrist onto the ground. Then he looked up at Xena.
“Had enough, little man?” Xena asked, twirling the sword in her fingers
Pinu had ended up standing next to Redder, and now he expelled air from his lungs with an audible grunt.
Redder just looked at him, and chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest.
The big man suddenly let out a yell and bolted towards Xena, lifting his sword up and starting to cut and slash at her with amazing speed and energy. He was mad, beyond thought, and he moved with the uncaring force of the insane.
Xena stood her ground and deflected the attack, feeling a flush of warmth to her skin as the growling tiger inside her surfaced and with it came the energy to reject the fierce strikes again and again as he whacked wildly at her.
She took a step forward and moved from defense to offense, the point of her blade getting inside his guard and starting to slash at the front of his armor. He staggered back, his handless arm scraping at his side going for a dagger uselessly.
Xena slapped his sword aside and reached in, ducking gracefully against his counterstrike as she cut through the front of surcoat, exposing a thick layer of chain mail armor beneath. She ducked again and turned, dodging his swipe and delivering a roundhouse kick into his gut with all the momentum she could muster.
He hopped backwards from the force and stumbled, and she took advantage of that to leap up and kick him again, this time in the throat. He arched over backwards and she tumbled in the air, twisting and turning and landing over him to drive a knee into his chest as her other leg whipped out and pinned his sword arm to the ground.
Her sword tip settled at his throat.
The sound of the torches surrounding the circle was suddenly loud, as the wind rose and whipped the flames up, and the smell of pitch was pungent and thick on the air.
He twisted his body and surged upward, trying to knock her off, but Xena leaned forward and the point of her sword pierced his neck. “Don’t make me wobble.” She warned, quietly, reaching down and yanking his helm off to expose his face.
He was human looking enough. He had curly, dark hair and a face that belonged in Olympus, with even bones and a beautiful shape, marred now by twisting, angry lips that pursed themselves to spit at her.
Xena whacked him in the face with his own helmet. “Don’t.” She was aware of motion at her back, but knew it friendly as Gabrielle’s staff set down just behind her knee. “Now, you challenged me and you lost.”
The motion behind her became much more intense, and Xena looked around to see her army closing in on them, weapons bristling. She quickly looked back, but only saw the enemy forces standing there, expressionlessly watching .
“Kill me then.” The man said, in a raspy voice.
Xena stood up and backed away, kicking his sword off to the left into the ranks of her own troops. “So you can come back at me? You said yourself killing men would only build up Hades’ army.”
Hands touched her, and she felt Gabrielle press against her side, as the clouds suddenly parted, and the moon shone down on them to temper the red of the torches with a gentle silver glow.
And as the light touched them, the enemy disappeared into mist, the tall giant Xena had just bested dissolving into a dewy outline, then nothing.
Xena turned and looked at Pinu. “Did I pass the test?” She asked, smiling at his now wary look. She carefully wiped down her sword on the cloth Bennu held out to her and sheathed it. “We’ll escort you back to your gates.”
After a moment, he nodded. “It could be profitable for both of us to be allies, Xena.” He said. “What I heard about you was true.”
Xena whistled and made a hand gesture. “Make camp.” She told the troops. “No one else’s gonna die tonight.
Gabrielle bumped against her. “Showoff.”