Body Heart and Soul

Part 18

 

Xena sat quietly on a crate at the back of the stable, her cloak fastened around her and a thoughtful expression on her face.  There was a small fire in the brazier the troops had brought in for her, and outside the door a half dozen of them stood guard.

Gabrielle was outside talking to her Amazons, and Xena knew in a few minutes the bard would return, and they’d have a chance to talk.

Maybe have a chance to rest, but based on the activity she sensed around the barn, more than likely not.  She hiked one knee up and circled it with both arms, letting her eyes slowly scan around the space, the stalls having been swept clear of straw, and cleared for her use.

Not much better accommodations were to be found. The army had scattered amongst the small hovels and storerooms, and she could hear the soft clink of a hammer on an anvil and the nickers of horses nearby.

The door bumped open and Bennu and Redder entered, brushing the snow off their shoulders. “Found the water sluice into the city.”  Bennu said, with a brief smile.  “Tunneled off from the creek like, fore it gets brackish. “

“So we can dip into it before it hits that inner courtyard?” Xena pondered that. “We can water the horses off it at least. “

“And boil it for us.” Redder said.  “S’good, Genr’l.  We can stop her from getting to them if you have a mind to.”

“Mm.. not unless this siege lasts longer than I intend it to.”  Xena said. “I want us past the inner walls by sundown tomorrow. “

Both soldiers nodded. 

“Find some barrels full of grain.” Xena said. “And some logs.”

“Going to ram the gates?” Bennu said. “Them are stout, but enough banging will take em down.”

Xena smiled briefly. “We want to focus their attention on the gates”  She said. “Opens up other options.”   She rocked back a little. “Everyone settled in?”

“Aye.” Redder was warming his hands over the brazier. “Got a squad guarding the door to that .. ah… “ He glanced at Xena.  “Some of the healers were in to there. Brought some broth and such.” He went on. “Terrible thing, that.”

“It is.”  Xena agreed.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“Xena.”  Bennu came over and sat down on a crate next to hers. “What’s that all for? Never seen anything like that before.  Women having babies, sure. That?”

Redder sidled over and leaned against one of the stall partitions.  “Was what the men were askin.  Like Ben said, I seen that, and I see whore’s dens, but breeding like that?”

“Good question.”  Their leader agreed.  “They want the kids, but for what? Maybe they’re just breeding slaves. I’ve seen that.”

“Mm.” Bennu nodded a little.

“Be easier just to make older ones slaves, yeah? Got to wait for this lot to grow up.” Redder disagreed. “Plus take care of em.  Got me two at home, not an easy thing.”

Xena sighed. “No argument from me. I’ve only got one and if I had to take care of a dozen of her I’d have run screaming to insanity a while ago.”  She straightened up and hopped off the crate.  “Guess we’ll need to wait and find out what the deal is.”

The outer door opened again and Gabrielle slipped in, pushing her hood back as she entered and clapping her gloved hands together.   She crossed to the fire as the two men got up and made for the door.

Gabrielle waited for the door to close, and then she came over and joined Xena.  “No one can ever say you don’t have well trained troops, hon.”

Xena chuckled briefly. “Took me an entire career and half a lifetime to find men with tact.” She said. “So?”

“There’s a small closet near the edge of the wall that has a door.”  The bard said.  “Inside, there’s a tunnel, partially blocked.”

“Ah.”

“Just like Artemis said.” Gabrielle folded her arms. 

They regarded each other.  “Feel like a trap to you? It does to me.” The bard said, after a long pause. “Small tunnel, only big enough for a few people. Pop inside and rescue Poseidon’s daughter, get out.  Sounds easy.”

“Sounds like we’ll end up pushing a door open somewhere and walk into a spear to the face.”  Xena agreed.  “Perfectly set up to fit our usual mode of doing things, and matching our inclination to do things ourselves and spare the troops.”

“Mm.”

Xena sat back down on her box and waited, as Gabrielle came over and fit herself between her knees, settling her hands on the warrior’s shoulders.  “You know what I think?” The bard said.

“I’m about to.”  Xena’s pale eyes twinkled gently.

“I think it is a trap. But I think if we’re going to spring it – it has to be us that does it.”

Xena nodded. “She coming with us?”

“She wants to.”

Xena nodded again.  “She wants us to go now.”

“Yes.”

“No.”  Xena let her hands rest on Gabrielle’s hips. “Tell her no. I won’t go for it.  We’re going to attack with the army tomorrow morning.”  She met the grave, sea mist eyes watching her.  “And we will.  If we go down that tunnel we go down in a time of our choosing.”

“Your choosing.”  Gabrielle smiled gently. “You’re the brilliant military strategist in the family.”  She leaned forward and kissed Xena on the lips. “Artemis is going to be pissed.”

Xena shrugged.

Gabrielle put one hand against her partner’s cheek, feeling the surface under her fingertips move as the caress made Xena smile, and the gentle pressure as she leaned against the touch. 

She could hear people approaching but she ignored the sounds, rubbing the inside of her thumb against the skin over Xena’s cheekbone, a faint bit of roughness from the harsh weather there and leaned in again, tilting her head a bit as their lips touched.

It felt good.   She took a breath as Xena’s hand moved from her hip to her thigh and welcomed to the surge of passion that heated her skin and drove out the weariness and the chill.

To the side, in one of the horse stalls their hammock was hung.  But she was content to stay where they were and continue the contact even as voices outside started to gather and she could hear a conversation being forcefully held.

It was a little insane, to be in here kissing when something could be going on outside. But when Gabrielle pulled her head back a little and looked into Xena’s eyes, she saw a mischievous twinkle there.  “You’re gonna blow your image, sweetie.”

Those beautiful eyes went wide in mock hurt. “What image would that be, Gabrielle?” She asked. “I had a couple, y’know. Not all of them involved my skill with a sword.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, I know all about that image, darling.”

Xena started laughing.   “Hey.” She gently poked the bard in the stomach. “Given you snared me can you imagine what your image in that area might be by now?”

Gabrielle covered her eyes, just as a knock came at the barn door. “C’mon in.” She sighed, turning but unable to move away from Xena since the warrior immediately enveloped her with both arms and pulled her back. “Xe.”

“Relax. We’re married.” Xena said, dryly. “They all know.”

The door pushed open, and a half dozen figures came inside, agitation evident, and started towards them.  Gabrielle sighed, and leaned back, suspecting they were going no where near that hammock any time soon.

**

 “She is afraid.”  Artemis said, after Gabrielle finished her little spiel.

Gabrielle shook her head.  “She just has a different plan.” She said.  “She didn’t say it was a bad idea it’s just not on the schedule for now, or tomorrow. We have other goals.”

They were in the storeroom the Amazons had taken over.  It was small and cramped, but it had a defensible door and sturdy walls.  Pasi and Solari had cleared space and set up a small fire, and Solari was kneeling next to it, heating up some water.

Amazon gear was neatly stacked in all the corners, and sleeping hammocks were strung about.

“Freeing Lamia should be the only goal.” Artemis said. “Don’t you understand?  Nothing else matters.”

Gabrielle had her hands tucked under her arms and now she hitched herself up onto a shelf and folded them in her lap, tangling her fingers together.  “Nothing else might matter to you, but you’re not in charge of the army.”

“Maybe I should be.”

Behind her, Gabrielle saw Solari glance up, a wry grin on her face.    “Maybe pigs should fly, but unfortunately they can’t.  The army is loyal to Xena, because she’s loyal to them.  You couldn’t even be bothered to keep the Amazons out of a war they were going to die in.”

Artemis glowered at her.

“And we all, including this army, knows that.”  The bard said, unimpressed.  “Why would they, or us for that matter, trust you to lead us?”

Behind Artemis’ back Solari lifted one hand with her thumb pointed upward, and winked at Gabrielle.  She then got up and went over to their packs, retrieving a small bag and returning to the fire.  “Mint okay with you, your maj?”

“Always.”  The bard responded. “Only thing I’m not fond of is ginger.” She returned her attention to Artemis. “So.”

The mortal goddess was watching her. “We have never needed trust.”  She stated.  “That’s the difference in being a god.  If we must rely on you to trust us, what’s the point?”

Well, Gabrielle considered that.  She had a point, she supposed.  There never had been any talk ever of trusting the gods, not in her childhood, and not even in her early adulthood traveling and adventuring with Xena.

Xena never had trusted them.  Gabrielle, when crossing into maturity had learned the hard way that trust could lead to the kind of personal desecration she’d suffered and after that, trusting itself of anything had been hard.

The hardest thing of all had been learning to trust herself again.  Gabrielle exhaled silently.  “No, that’s a point.” She conceded.  “But we’re all too close to this, you know?  We’ve seen too much to say yes, I believe in you lightly.”

“Therein lies the impasse.”  Artemis mused, seeming now resigned.  “What Zeus said was true. He told us of the twilight, and how we couldn’t stop it for the ages. How other gods would steal the minds of men away from us.”

Solari was meticulously crushing mint into the cups near the fire and now she looked up. ‘Hey.”

Both Gabrielle and Artemis turned towards her. “Hey.”  Gabrielle responded, with a smile.

“So.” Solari lifted the pot off the fire and poured the boiling water over the leaves. “You think maybe being down here’s not so bad?” She addressed Artemis. “Cause, y’know, we don’t have to worry much about all this eternity stuff.”

The soft scent of mint filled the small space, carried on the wisps of steam from the cups.  Artemis sat down on a box and extended her legs out crossing them at the ankles and clasping her hands together. “You mean, live this time as a mortal, and then, as you mortals do, end it?”

Solari nodded.

“What would it be like to have an ending.” The dark haired goddess murmured.  “To not have to spend the endless ages descending into obscurity.  That might be appealing.”  She took the cup that Solari offered her, and sniffed it.  “But you do know this twilight means never more will you have many goddesses to pray to.”

“I remember the one god, and some others.” Gabrielle answered quietly.  “Amazons will go into that twilight with you.”  She took her cup and sipped from it.  “That’s why Xena wants to put a line in the sand here. She wants to take this place, and make the point that what they’re doing is wrong.”

“Her goals.”  Artemis said.

“Yes.”

The mortal goddess signed. “Have you heard the saying, win the battle and not the war? You will never win this war. Even in Olympus, we are not equal. Even Hera, who has more power than most, bends knee to Zeus.”

Gabrielle sipped her tea, her eyes going a little unfocused as she watched the fire pop and snap in the center of the space. “We’ll take the battles.”  She said, finally.  “Because if you don’t win them, there is no war.”

**

Xena walked quietly from stall to stall, the difference from earlier striking.  Most of the women were sleeping, but the ones awake were now obviously awake, scared, and very upset as the henbane potion faded and they began to understand where they were.

Her healers had done what they could. The chains holding them had been removed and most of the women bore bandages around their wrists and ankles. 

She attracted their attention at once.  Three of the women who had been near the back, in a line together came to meet her as she slowed to a halt. “Who are you?” The first one demanded, clutching a light blanket around her shoulders. “These men will tell us nothing.”

Xena studied her.  The woman was roughly her age, with thick, red hair and freckles.  “My name is Xena.”  She stated. “Most of these men have no more idea how you got here than you do.”

The woman took a step backward. “Xena.”  She repeated. “The warlord?”

“Retired warlord.” Xena replied in a mild tone. “Militia commander of Amphipolis now, and have been a few years.”

The other two women had clustered close behind her and were staring at Xena with wary, exhausted eyes.  They both had dark blond hair, hanging around them in dank locks and looked enough alike to be sisters.

“What’s your name?” Xena asked the red head.  “Where do you come from?”

“Racha.  I am from nowhere.  My family were traveling merchants.”  The woman said.  “We came here to market and then… “ She looked around, and then down at herself.  “Last I remember I was walking to the dock front with my brother Sev.  It was summer. “

“What happened to us??” One of the other women asked.  “I know of you.  My baby sister ran off to join the Amazons because she’d heard of you.”

Xena’s brows hiked up a little.  “You were brought to this place and then drugged.” She said, briefly.  “Some folks from Philippi came to us and asked us to help them fight back against soldiers from here who were demanding tribute from them.”

“Why this?” Racha said, indicating her pregnant stomach.  “Where are those that did this to us?”

“Good question.” Xena glanced behind her as the doors opened and some of her men appeared, carrying a trunk.   “We found some clothes you can use.  When we take the inner city, we can get you some answers to go with them.”

“Xena.”  A low male voice interrupted her.  Xena looked up and past the women to see one of her healers coming up from the sloping ramp that led further inside the building. “Found something you better see.”

That didn’t sound good. Xena circled the women and headed for the ramp, hoping Gabrielle was having a better time of it.

**

Gabrielle left the shelter and started across the space between the walls, her boots crunching softly on the snow covering the stones. 

As she passed the watch, they all saluted her, and she waved casually back with her free hand, the other curled firmly around her staff.

It was getting late, near mid watch and she could feel her energy draining out as she threaded her way through the streets towards the inner gates.

On either side of the road she could hear the army making preparations, and just ahead of her, on the roof of the ..   Gabrielle exhaled. The brood shed.  She grimaced as the words sounded inside her mind, but could not come up with a different way to describe it even to herself.

On the roof, troops were setting up boxes and shelter, settling down behind them and stacking cords of arrows, and as she watched one of them took a bolt out and put it in their crossbow, setting the muzzle on the edge of a crate and leaning to look through the sights.

Two soldiers moving in the opposite direction saluted her casually, then slowed. “Pardon, ma’am.”

“Really?” Gabrielle gave them a wry look.  “Ma’am?”

Both men smiled back at her. “Gabrielle.” The one who’d spoken corrected himself.  “We were just going past there, coming down the ladder and we heard a crying sound.  I think there’s someone in the corner there?” He indicated one side of the structure. “Maybe not feeling so good.”

“Oh.”  Gabrielle looked into the corner, but could see nothing but darkness. “Let me go check it out. Could be someone stayed behind.” She hefted her staff and started across the ice glazed cobblestones, glad she had thickly felted boots on.

The two soldiers trailed after her, staying within earshot, as she approached the side of the building and angled to one side.  The torchlight didn’t reach the area, but as she pulled her hood down and turned her head, she heard the soft sound of someone crying.

It pulled her forward at once, and she paused only to remove a fluttering torch from it’s cresset and take it with her. “Hello?”

The crying stopped, replaced with a shuddering sniffle. 

Gabrielle took a step closer, holding the torch higher. “Don’t be afraid.”  She said. ‘Where are you?”

“Leave me alone.” A voice whispered out of the darkest of the shadows.

It was a female voice, and it sounded young.  “Take it easy.”   The bard squinted, and just barely made out a huddled form wrapped in a blanket.  “Don’t you want to go inside? It’s freezing out here.”

She knelt carefully down, resting her staff against the wall and held a hand out. “I won’t hurt you.”

She could see the faintest glint of light off a pair of eyes now watching her.

“Who could hurt me more?” The voice rasped. “Just kill me. Put me out of my misery.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle rested one elbow on her knee. “It can’t be that bad. Are you hurt? Can I get one of our healers to look at you?” She had consciously gentled her voice, hearing the pain in the other woman’s. “What’s your name? I’m Gabrielle.”

The eyes stared at her.  “No one can help this thing in me.” She said. “Don’t even know where I am.”

Gabrielle moved closer and settled cross legged on the cold ground, pulling her boots up under her.  She wedged the torch into the corner of the steps to her right and squirmed back around to face the woman.  “Well, I can help you with that one. You’re in the port city called Abbas.”

There was no real recognition at the name. “Abbas.”

“Whats the last thing you remember, before coming here?” The bard asked. “Where are you from?”

“Didn’t have no name.” She responded. “Just a half dozen houses, a well, and a paddock we kept the goats in.”

“Goats.” Gabrielle mused.  “By any chance were they black goats with white feet?”

The girl stared at her, blinking. “What?”

“Never mind. What’s your name?”

“Gen.. why did you ask me about the goats? They took them all.” Gen said, obviously distracted. “They came and took everything.. and the last thing I remember was burning.. they were running… and… “ She paused and took a breath, scrubbing her face.  “I was supposed to be married that night.”

Gabrielle grimaced, a little. “Gen, I’m so sorry to hear that.”   She said. “We’ll make sure you get back there, though. Maybe we can find your people.”

“No.” The girl whispered. “They won’t want me like this.” She indicated her swathed body.  “Jerrol wont’ want me.”

“Don’t’ be too sure about that.” The bard gently disagreed.

“He paid Da extra for me a virgin.” Gen said, sadly.  “Doesn’t want this. Want me. And probably he’s worms anyway.”

Gabrielle fell silent.

Gen sniffled and wiped the back of her hand across her face. “How did you know about the goats? They were black with white feet. Did you see them?” She asked, then her eyes narrowed. “Did you steal them?”

“No.” The bard answered quietly. “One of our scouts brought a herd in, they found them by the old east road. It runs past where we live.” She paused.  “We’re from Amphipolis.”

The girl peered at her. “I heard of that.” She said. “Down the river from where my family lives… lived I guess. “ She fell silent. “I don’t even know what happened to them.”  She finally concluded, in a soft voice.

“Maybe they just took what they could.”  Gabrielle gentled her voice. “You never know… they could be out looking for you.”

Gen looked at her with bruised, disillusioned eyes. “They won’t look for me.” 

The bard drew in breath to answer, then paused as she heard familiar footsteps coming up behind her.  She held up her hand in a signal, but to her surprise, Xena ignored it and came over to kneel down next to her. “Hey hon.”

“Hey.” Xena put a hand on her shoulder. “Need you.”

Oh boy.  “Okay.”  Gabrielle said. “Gen, why not let them  take you back inside? It’s so cold out here.” She gathered herself to stand, then realized the girl was staring up at Xena, who had stood up ahead of her.  “Xe, this is Gen.  She comes from upriver of us.”

Xena nodded at the girl. “If you don’t want to go back in there, they’ll find some other place for you, but don’t stay out here.” She said. “Brock, make sure she’s okay.”

“Aye, genrl.” The short, stocky soldier sat down on the steps to wait, as Xena steered her partner away and back towards the opening of the building.

“What’s up?” Gabrielle asked as they approached the door.   “I felt bad for that kid, Xe.  She thinks she’s lost everything.”

“Mm.”  Xena exhaled. “They found a room at the back of this.”  She said, as they walked through, the women’s building now with a clean layer of straw on the floor and far better smelling.  “It’s not good, Gab.”

“Worse than this?”

“Yes.”

Oh, lovely.  Gabrielle sounded the words inside her head, but remained silent.  She followed Xena through a set of doors, and then through a cold barren hallway through another set of doors where she could see several figures standing.

Here, she smelt blood, it’s unmistakable copper scent getting into her nose and making her shiver a little.  She was about to cross the threshold when she felt Xena put her hand on her back, not to stop her, but in preparation.

In preparation for her sudden, shocked reaction as her eyes took in the two figures hanging from the ceiling, suspended from hooks buried in their skin, bodies covered in dried blood, bruises and scourge marks.

She drew in a breath, as the torches shifted and she could see their faces, and knew that she knew them. “Ugh.”

Two Amazons.   Alana’s consort, and one of her guard, two women they hadn’t liked, and one had attacked her, and still.  “Why , Xe?”

“Cut them down.”  Xena ordered two of her men, who where standing by in grave silence.  She stepped to the side to let them get at the bodies.   “Sometimes henbane doesn’t work on people.” She said, after a moment of silence.  ‘Maybe they took it out on them.”

The soldiers gently lowered the women to the ground, and removed the hooks.  One of them looked up at Xena and shook his head.  “ Suffered hard.  Remember these two from the town, had an attitude on them.”

“Yeah.”  Xena sighed. “But no attitude deserves that.”  She indicated the horrific damage.  The woman’s leathers were nothing but filthy strips hanging around their bodies, and by the blood between their legs she knew the damage had been internal as well.

“Aye.” The man agreed. “No lass does.”

Gabrielle went over and dropped to a knee beside the two still forms.  She reached out and put her palm against the ravaged face of the queen’s consort, almost unrecognizable from the arrogant strength she remembered. “I’m sorry this happened to you.” She said.  “As an Amazon, I promise you, whoever did this will pay for it.”

Xena watched in silence, seeing the nods of her men. 

‘And I’m glad your Queen was right about you.”  Gabrielle concluded. “You didn’t abandon her. You didn’t turn on her.  You died a warrior and I’ll make sure she  knows that.”

They waited respectfully as Gabrielle gently closed the two women’s eyes, and stood, turning towards Xena. 

Her partner took a bit of her cloak and wiped the tears from under her eyes, the both of them standing in silence together while the soldiers waited nearby.

“Change of plans?”  Gabrielle said, finally.

“Yeah.” Xena responded.  “Take them out and burn them.” She told the waiting men.  “Turn this place upside down to see if there’s any evidence of who did this.”

“Aye.”

They turned and left the carnage behind, walking together in silence through the breeding barn and back out into the courtyard.  The girl Gabrielle had been talking to was gone and now Xena stopped in the middle of the space, the wind puffing against her hair.

“We going down that tunnel, Xe?” 

“Yes. Get all your Amazons to go with us, and see if Artemis still wants to.” Xena replied. “I’m going to stand the watch and tell Bennu what the new plan is.” 

They separated and went off in two different directions, while the snow continued its drifting fall.

**

A candlemark later the small, cramped closet was full of women, preparing themselves for a fight.  Solari and Pasi were wrapping their forearms with hide protection against their bowstrings, bows laid by on a box along with quivers of arrows.

Cait and Paladia were nearest the rough piece of wood covering the opening they were going to go through folding their cloaks up and wedging them behind a dusty crate.

Artemis was perched on a bench in the back, just watching them. 

Gabrielle entered, and walked over to the opening, picking up the staff she’d left leaning next to it.  She leaned back against the wall and started adjusting the grip on one end, untying the gut holding it and starting the process of tightening the fit.

There was a sense of quiet intent in the room. Cait removed her sword from it’s sheath and applied her sharpening stone to it, the soft scraping rasp seeming quite loud.  

The door opened and they all looked up, but it was Xena who entered, unclasping the neck of her cloak as she moved over to Gabrielle’s side. 

She pulled the garment off and folded it, releasing the scent of brass and leather into the air.  “The army’s all in place.  They’ll wait for my signal.” She put the cloak on one of the boxes and set her gauntlets beside it.  “Gonna be a long night.”

 

For a few minutes she tightened up on the lacing of her armor, twisting to either side and moving her arms to make sure she had clearance and nothing was out of place.  

The chakram was already hooked at her hip, and she checked the several daggers at the small of her back and near her shoulderblades before removing her own sword and joining Cait in sharpening it.

“So you changed your mind.” Artemis spoke up, after a long silence.

“Situation changed.” Xena remarked.  She wiped down and sheathed her sword, and then she reached over and removed Gabrielle’s dagger, applying the stone to that.  “Circumstances change, so do plans.”

Cait finished her sharpening and tucked her stone away in her belt pouch, then, as Xena had, wiped down the edges of her sword before she slid it into the sheath fastened on her back. “Ready, Pally?”

“Sure.” Her partner agreed. “Like you could ever be ready to go yomping down a tunnel with nothing but trouble at the end of it but whatever.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly, as she finished re-wrapping her handhold and pushed off the wall, checking her belt pouch and adjusting the waterskin carried across her body.  She walked over to where Xena was standing and wrapped her hands around her staff and leaning on it.  “Ready, oh love of my life?”

From the corner of her eye, she caught the faint, wrinkle nose reactions from their companions, but her partner only smiled.  “Hey people.” The bard waggled a finger at them.  “If you got it, flaunt it.”

“What the duck does that mean?” Paladia asked.

“Hush.” Cait poked her hard in the side.

Xena put the dagger back in the sheath at her partner’s waist and dusted her hands off, putting the sharpening stone away.  Then she casually leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the lips, pulling back and lightly rubbing noses with her.  “Ready.”

Paladia rolled her eyes, then squinted down at Cait. “Don’t you get any ideas.”

Solari laughed, then stepped aside as Xena shook herself to settle her armor, and then pulled her hair back and fastened it.  “Ready as we’ll ever be, champ.  Go for it.”

“Okay.   Here’s the plan.” Xena moved over to the opening and removed the wooden cover, regarding the narrow entrance dourly.  “We go down it. Then we find out what’s at the other end.”

“What if what’s at the end is a crapload of pissed off guys with swords?” Solari asked. “They could know about this hole.”

“They could.” Xena agreed. “So we’ll end up fighting.”

The rest of the women were gathering at her back.  “And then?”  Artemis asked, as she slowly moved ot the rear of the line.  She had a borrowed sword at her side, and a small ax.  “What if the end is blocked? You assume I might be tricking you, but really, there’s no time for it.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are.”  Xena paused with one hand on the edge of the tunnel opening. “It doesn’t matter if they’re there.   We’re going to go through this and make them understand what they did to those women won’t lie unavenged.”

Artemis studied her briefly.  “To what end? Why would you bother, for them, who would not give you a single moment’s care? We must rescue Posiedon’s daughter. That, alone will make a difference. Don’t bother with your silly revenge.”

Xena shook her head. “You can run when get get to the end if you want to.  I’m going to settle that score first.”

“Yeah. We’ll distract em.” Solari said. “Take off if you want to.” She eyed the goddess. “Seems like you all do that anyway.” She shifted her waterskin and secured it. “Let’s go.”

Xena took a breath, then ducked inside the tunnel. “Stay close and be ready for anything.”

“Right.” Cait got in place behind Gabrielle, and Solari and Pasi got behind Paladia.  In silence, they disappeared into the dark opening, only the whisper of hide boots against the stone making any sound.

**

It was dark, and very close.  Xena forcefully put that out of her mind as she led the way forward, the faint light from the storeroom rapidly fading.   She kept one hand on the right hand side wall and moved steadily forward, placing her boots with silent care.

She wasn’t entirely sure where this was going to end up. But she found herself glad to be moving, glad to be taking the fight forward instead of waiting for the morning. 

It could, of course end with having her back against the wall and a thousand men chopping at her.  Xena paused to listen, then continued on.  The tunnel pitched downward slightly, and she felt the tension in her legs as her body compensated for that.

It could, and with a thousand men and who knows what else waiting it could end up a bad day, but where before she’d worry over that obsessively now she felt a sense of acceptance flood over her to whatever it was the fates had in store for them.

Why worry?  She was here by her own will, they all were, they had no one in the world to blame but themselves.

The tunnel started to narrow a little, and she turned her body a little sideways so the rough fabric covering her shoulders wouldn’t catch against the stone.   After a moment she felt a touch, then the familiar feel of Gabrielle’s hand against her hip.

Not wanting anything, just for comfort.   Xena smiled and continued on, taking a breath of the stuffy air in the space, bringing it in over her tongue and tasting woodsmoke and pitch on it, and at the edges, a mass of humanity.

It had it’s own stench.  She could detect, somewhere, something roasting and the pungent scent of hot wine, leaking down the tunnel which had now leveled out, the walls becoming more even and wider apart.

Far above, some opening let through torchlight, and it sent deep shadows along the tunnel.  She could see the outlines of the walls in the faintest glints of ochre.

They were under the wall, she decided.   To her right, she now heard the tinkle of water and she paused, and let the rest of the group come up even with her.  

Artemis edged cautiously forward.  “This is the water cistern.” She said, quietly.  “Ahead, there is a sacrificial font to Poseidon. To the left, entry into the palace.”

“Who made the palace? Not Pinu. He’s new here.”

“No.” The goddess inclined her head. “Abbas once was a place that Poseidon lived, against the agreement with Zeus and Hades.  He had this place built and lived here with a host of nymphs and mermen, taking tribute from all the mortals around.”

“Not recently.” Gabrielle said, after a moment.  “I’ve never heard that.”

Artemis smiled briefly.  “It was eons in your past, mortal.  In the times when those of your kind wore skins and could barely read.”  She said.  “Zeus and Hades came, with the Titans, and threw him and his people back into the sea, and then my father built a wall out in the water, to protect the city from him coming back.”

“I see.”

“For many years, none lived there.  Until your kind could build and care for the walls, then some were drawn here and have been ever since.”  Artemis concluded.  “For a time, they gave tribute to Poseidon.  Then one night a storm came, and killed many, and they blamed him for it.”

“Ah.” Xena grunted.

“You mortals are fickle.” The goddess commented.  “You have short memories, and only give us tribute when you want something.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Gabrielle shifted a little, leaning on her staff.  “That’s true.” She admitted.  “I guess that goes both ways.”

“It is.” Xena said. “But let’s save that for another time.” She pointed to the hallway on the left.  “Lets go.”  

**

The hallway stopped at a set of steep stairs and at the top of them was an ironclad door whose wood was ancient enough to come away easily at Xena’s touch.   She put her hands flat on the surface and closed her eyes, feeling vibrations through her palms.

They were out there.  She could hear them, and feel them and smell them, the sharp tang of sweat exuded fear easily recognizable.

“What are you waiting for?” Artemis asked, standing just behind her and next to Gabrielle.

Xena turned her head and smiled with no humor.  “Want to go first?”

Even mortal, there was flatness to Artemis’ eyes as she looked back at her. “I thought you were in charge. That’s what your little storyteller said.”

“She wasn’t asking you to take over.” Solari spoke up. “She just wanted you to put your puss out first if you’re so hot for it.”

Xena turned and leaned against the door. “There’s a force out there waiting for us.” She said.  “So here’s the plan.  You archers get back down the steps and use them as cover.  I’m going to cut a hole in them.”

She turned back around, aware of Gabrielle coming up next to her. “Ready?”

“As I ever am for these things.  Be careful, Xe.”  Gabrielle gave her a one armed hug.  “Don’t make it be one of those days.”

“Those days?”

“You know what I mean.”  Gabrielle leaned briefly against her. “With all the crap going on no telling where we’d end up this time and hon, I’m really just not in the mood.”

“Not in the mood?” Xena studied her partner’s profile, chilled and tired and visibly exasperated.

“Not in the mood to have my heart broken today.”  The bard said, simply. “I want to stay in this world and get through this mess and go home.”

“I get it.”  Xena returned the hug, aware of the watching eyes behind her and not giving a damn. “Stick with me. I think it’s gonna be rough out there.”

“Like a tick.” The bard promised. “Give em heck, Xe, and don’t take chances.”

“Do my best.”  Xena drew her sword and reversed it’s hold, triggering the latch and kicking the door open.  

She was at ground level.  There were hundreds of soldiers poised to attack.  The walls were full of archers.  A huge bonfire was burning in the center of the square open space and she could feel the pressure of sound as the enemy army took a breath to let out a yell.

She beat them to it.  With a resounding bellow she leaped out into the first rank of soldiers and got her sword in a two handed hold, meeting the first one and cutting the weapon right out of his hands.  “Die, ya little bastards!”

Gabrielle got herself out and in position as the men started to react, belatedly returning the yell and sending a horn call after it.

Though they were evidently waiting for them the reality of Xena appearing and charging into battle had caught them by surprise.   Gabrielle dodged a soldier reacting to her partner’s presence and shoved her staff into his gut, knocking him backwards.

Cait was behind her.   The young Amazon had a dagger in each hand and she used her youth and quickness to evade an attacker,  slashing him in the side as he turned with her a little too late.  He swung his mace back in the other direction and she dove for the ground, reaching up at the last moment to hamstring him before landing and rolling.

He pitched to one side and Xena kicked him out of her way, sending him sprawling back to Cait’s feet where he was gutted by her driving both blades into his side.

Paladia was warily engaging a soldier just to the right of Xena, whacking at him with the battle ax she’d picked up with workmanlike skill, making sure she kept out of the warrior’s way  as she guarded her flank.

Gabrielle could hear the steady twangs as Solari and Pasi fired their arrows, and the faint breeze as one came past her ear to stick in the chest armor of the man she was facing, and she parried his sword against her staff and then swung upward and knocked his helmet half off.

Solari didn’t waste the chance, and the man was dropping his sword and clawing at the arrow protruding from his neck an instant later.

Gabrielle swept his feet out from under him and ducked to the side, her nape prickling as she sensed movement behind her.  She took a step back and looked around, then realized where the movement had come from.

Artemis, now standing at the edge of the stairs, just staring at them.

No, Gabrielle reversed her thought. Staring at Xena.    She tried to figure out what the expression on the mortal goddess’s face meant, but had to turn around again as the battle swept towards her once more.

Xena was plowing through the troops, a dozen men already dead at her feet as she let out another booming yell and bashed a shield aside with her fist as she plunged her sword into the chest of the man she was fighting with.

They couldn’t keep up with her.  Gabrielle whacked another man stumbling back from her partner’s savage attack.  She moved too fast, and hit too hard, and though they were vastly outnumbered the space was just small enough that only a limited line could oppose them at one time.

Archers on the walls let loose, and she ducked, lashing out with her staff and knocking aside two arrows, but that was all that got through the flickering blur that was Xena’s sword, weaving back and forth in an intricate pattern that sent broken shafts in all directions.

A moment later, arrows came back in the opposite direction, low and gut level and two more of the enemy collapsed.

Xena laughed, and moved her sword in a fast, chopping motion, as three men lunged at her. 

Cait was holding up her end of the fight on Xena’s left, leaving her sword sheathed and taking up her daggers in the close in work, smaller and faster than the soldiers around her who were unable to get their shields down in time to block her strikes.

Gabrielle took advantage of a gap in the melee to get into position behind Xena, seeing the quick glance over her shoulder as her partner sensed her presence.   She ducked a pike and countered it,  catching motion in her peripheral vision. “Xe!”

“See him.”  Xena switched her sword from her right to left hand, as she watched Pinu appear on the wall, his sword in his hand.

His men yelled as they spotted him and let out a horn blast.  He was in full armor, a different set than he’d ridden in, this heavy chain and plate, meant to fight and not to be on  horseback in.

It would come to the two of them, of course.   Xena took advantage of the men being distracted by his presence to cut the head off one, and grab it by the hair as it flew off, leaning back and whipping her arm forwards to toss the head into the crowd. 

It bounced once and then went into the bonfire, spitting and crackling as it caught fire and sent brief bursts of burnt blood scent into the air.

She could see how angry Pinu was, and so she kicked one of his soldiers back and let out a whistle at him, waving him over with a casual motion. “C’mere, little man.  Come get your ass kicked.”

She was hoping he would take the bait.  It would make it easier on everyone.

Except Pinu, of course.  

The army was clearing space for their leader to come through them and the arrows stopped heading their way as he bolted forwards toward her and his men fell back in relief. 

“Good.” Paladia let her ax rest on the ground.  “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Artemis edged out into the open space, watching as the big male mortal bounded into the cleared area and attacked Xena with gusto.   He was bigger than his adversary, and he looked powerful and passionate, the embodiment of a warrior born.

He raised his sword over his head and swung at her, letting out a wild yell as he did and Xena met him with a rush of dark energy she could feel even mortal as she was.  The swords clashed and sent sparks flying and then they were facing off, trading swipes and blows in a deadly dance.

She had always admired the sword.  She had lost interest in the Amazons in fact, when they slowly moved from blade to bow, only the most hard core of them keeping to the art of it.   The rest of them hiding in trees and skulking along forest paths.

She had grown envious of Ares, with his armies and gallant warriors.  It had been easy to be glad to think he had gone to be with his mortals forever, leaving all those wonderful men to her.

She would have easily defeated Athena for the Sword of War and it would have been glorious.  Two for one! Ares dead and if Xena had taken the Sword Zeus would have decimated her – glorious.

But no.  That idiot mortal woman had spurned the honor, saved Ares, and then been the cause of her and  Athena’s utter humiliation.

Well.

Artemis tightened her grip on her borrowed blade as she waited, watching the two.

Ready to act.

Pinu was good, and skilled and unafraid.  She could see the strength in his arms, and he had youth and speed.

His sword came down on Xena’s in a motion calculated to force her back and down and instead the motion was stopped mid way,  Xena holding position just long enough to make the point she could and then she shoved him back instead, legs coiling and releasing like a beasts.

It surprised him.  Artemis watched intently as Xena followed that up with a frontal attack, her sword moving so fast it was nothing but blur and had to admit, it had surprised her too.  In an eternity of watching uncounted champions fight for her favor,  this was something new.

There was something different about how Xena moved. There was a sense of power, and a lack of fear there very uncommon in mortals and as she watched that planed face tensed into a smile as she forced Pinu back again, and again,  Artemis saw at last why she’d always held such a fascination for Ares.

Many mortals fought.  Most fought for money, for gain, or for their lives having no choice.  Ares godhood, though, centered around a sensual joy in battle, in bloodlust and  Xena had that, to a complete degree.

She was absolutely loving this fight.

Artemis slowly edged around until she was just behind the two fighters, all the rest having stepped back and formed a circle to watch.  She tightened her grip on the sword in her hand, knowing the men of Pinu wouldn’t know her from the rest of the Amazons.

Their eyes were fixed on the fight.   She looked past Xena and met Pinu’s eyes, then she gathered herself as he started working the battle towards where she was standing. 

It was going to work.  All it would take was one thrust.   But it had to be soon because it was obvious to her that ferociously as Pinu was fighting,  his opponent was merely having fun.

Relaxed and breathing easily, Xena was running him in circles, the sound of their swords scraping and clashing loud in the otherwise silent courtyard.  The torches around the edges lit the fight in fiery gold, the snow falling over them causing the occasional golden flicker.

The fight moved sideways,  Pinu working hard to angle his opponent around and then start the motion back towards the Amazon lines. 

Artemis waited, her breathing also even and relaxed, her eyes focused on the tall, dark haired woman whose back was moving closer and closer, not bothering to worry about those behind her she was sure of the loyalty of.

Mortals.  Artemis smiled.   She put one hand against the wall to brace herself and then she moved her sword back a little, twisting her body a little, ready to unleash, and swing, the brass and leather surface now even with her, and with a hiss, she moved and struck.

And the next moment, something smashed into her head with such force she heard a terrifying crack from it just before it all went black, and the stone hit her as she fell flat on it.

Xena watched Pinu’s eyes shift and then widen and she stepped forward, aware of the drama at her back as she took a step forward and then launched herself upward, half turning in mid air and kicking out to catch the man on the chest and send him stumbling backwards. 

She followed it up in a bound after she landed, kicking his sword out of his hand as he tried to get up onto his knees, sending it flying into the crowd.  

“Augh!” He grabbed his wrist, baring his teeth in pain.  “The gods take you!”

Xena sheathed her sword and bounded over to him, grabbing his leather surcoat with both hands ad hauling him up to his feet and then off them.  She shook him like a rabbit, then threw him away from her and into some of the men, who reacted at last surging forward with angry yells.

She drew her sword again and set herself, as Cait and Paladia came up on either side of her and the crowd rushed them, just as she heard the sound of boots at her back as the rest of the Amazons and their queen arrived at her back.

And then a horn sounded.   The Abbas soldiers jerked in reaction and turned as a figure mounted the steps behind them.   It was a woman, small, with auburn hair and dressed in a white toga with a dark belt of something that looked like seaweed.

She lifted her horn to her lips again and blew it.  “She waits!” She called out after the horn faded. “Men of Abbas, she calls you to bring her sacrifice!”

The men at the back turned and started rushing up the steps, abandoning the field as the rest hesitated, unsure of what to do.  Pinu got up and wiped the blood from his mouth, glancing past Xena and then starting to move away from her.  “Leave them.” He said. “We will come back after the sacrifice, and finish this.”

The archers let off one more volley, but most of the shafts went wide, and those that didn’t were knocked down by a casual swipe of Xena’s sword.   “Let’s go.” She turned and swept the area, as Gabrielle came up to her. “Heard you take her down,”

“She was about to stick that sword in you.”  Gabrielle said, with an angry look. “Stupid piece of..”

“Yeah, figured she had something going with Pinu.” Xena waved the rest of the forward. “Leave her. Let’s go see what this sacrifice is.”

Solari came up, having gathered handfuls of arrows and replenished her quiver.  “Nice, champ.” She glanced past Xena. “Got a half dozen of em.”

They were starting forward when the all stopped, hearing the sound of a baby screaming in fear splitting the air, followed by a roar of voices and the sound of that horn.

Xena paused.  “Cait, you and Paladia go open the gates.” She ordered. “We might need what’s on the other side.”  She said. “The rest of you come on. Let’s go find out what that was.”

“Why do I get the feeling I don’t wanna know?” Solari asked, pulling her sword out. 

“Yeah, me neither.” Gabrielle muttered.  She glanced behind her at Artemis’s still, silent form, then followed at Xena’s heels as they headed for the steps.

**

Jessan had to pull Eris to a halt and tuck behind a thick clump of dead brush, turning the stallion’s back to the wind as they both took a breather. 

The snow was coming down so hard it was impossible to see.  But Jessan had no trouble knowing which direction to go, his own innate senses clearly painting the way towards the city with it’s thundercloud of emotions.

But they needed a moment to catch their breaths, and clear the crusting of snow and ice off their faces.  

Jessan removed a cloth from his saddlebag and gently did just that for his horse, clearing the coating of snow off the Eris’s eyes and ears as the animal pushed his face into his battlecoat, breathing into his fur contentedly.

He could feel the pressure of the wind against his back and he was glad for his cloak, whose hood protected the back of his head from the driven snow, which was now like small pellets rather than the soft fluffy drift from earlier.

Jessan lifted his head and shaded his eyes, but he couldn’t see more than three or four bodylengths ahead of them, everything past that just a swirl of snow amidst steadily building banks of the same substance.

He pulled a roll of smoked meat from his saddle bag and chewed it, reaching a weathered apple forward for Eris’s inspection.

The big animal nibbled it from his palm without hesitation, crunching it as he blinked his eyes free of a few more flakes of snow.

It would be dark soon.  Jessan took a drink from his waterskin and washed his meatroll down, knowing they wouldn’t be stopping again likely until they reached the city however late that happened to be.

He let his hands rest on Erin’s saddle, gazing thoughtfully at the hilt of the Sword of War lashed to the side of his saddle.  It was plain, no more ornate than his own, the hilt heavy and balanced by two flaring guards on either end of the guard and a single gem in the pommel.

Impossible to really see what type of jewel it was, or even the color in the misty gray air but Jessan had a sense that it might glow when in the right hands,  or maybe it was something he was remembering from when they were in Hades realm.

Except he really didn’t want to remember that, or think about what might have happened to the Sword’s owner.   He touched the hilt with his finger, studying the metal of it, not silver or gold but something with grayish matte finish that showed no signs at all of wear.

He didn’t feel anything, touching it.  After a moment he finished up his snack and took another drink, then pulled himself back up into the saddle, settling his cloak around him and letting it drape over Eris before he guided the horse out from behind the brushy drifts and back out into the storm.

They were only traveling a few minutes though, before his ears caught galloping hooves coming at him from behind, and he drew his sword and turned Eris, letting out a growling roar of warning.

From the snow came a figure on horseback, right at him without any sign of stopping.  Jessan let out another bellow and leaned forward, tightening his knees on Eris’s sides as he felt his stallion rear up a little and prepare for battle.

He could see the outline of the rider, and a raised arm with what appeared to be an ax in it.  Jessan braced himself and angled his sword to meet the strike, feeling a shock as it impacted and the ax blade slid down his with a screaming grate.

He caught it at the guard and shoved back, sensing a dark and malevolent intent in the figure attacking him.  They closed again and exchanged strikes, and Eris swiveled as the figure passed, and struck out with both hind legs at the attacker’s horse.

The beast screamed in outrage, and bit at Eris’s shoulder, but Jessan whacked it in the head with his  sword hilt and as his enemy swung at him he released his reins and swiped across the figure’s body with his claws extended, catching on cloth and leather as he ripped past.

He heard the suddenly indrawn breath and then saw the hand coming back, reaching for the sword hilt strapped under his right knee.  He grabbed the reaching fingers and clamped his hand closed, at the same time shoving his sword hilt back towards the stranger and pushing him backwards

The stranger tried to yank himself loose, but Jessan clamped his knees down and resisted, suddenly pulling the arm closer to him and ducking his head to sink his fangs into the wrist of the hand he was holding.

His opponent let out a yell of surprise and tried to slam his ax on Jessan’s head but he was released too quickly and his blow overbalanced him on his horse, who plunged away as Eris reared and came down with his big hooves smacking the man’s leg.

Jessan spat out his mouthful of flesh and shifted his sword to his other hand, turning Eris and backhanding the weapon across his opponent’s neck as he struggled to regain his balance.

He felt the blade bite in, but the man shifted frantically and got away from it, then spurred his horse hard and headed back off into the storm.

Jessan debated chasing him, then decided getting a move on himself was a better idea.  He unhooked his waterskin and took a mouthful, swishing it around and then expelling it with a cough, ridding his tongue of the sharp copper taste of human blood – always richer and stickier than any other prey.

“Pah.”  He got Eris pointed towards the city again and urged him on.  “What in Ares’ codpiece was that, Er?” He asked the horse, who snorted.  “One dude? Just out here in a storm?” He shook his head and spat again.  “Of course I’m just one dude out here in a storm, right?”

Eris snorted again, and sped up, as the wind shoved hard at them from behind.

**

Xena vaulted to the top of the steps, sword ready, and swept her eyes around as she started to move down the other side into shallow space that extended towards the sea and a square pit surrounded by torches.

The city people were all clustered around the pit, the soldiers running full tilt towards a set of steps going downwards.  

Gabrielle caught up to her. “What’s going on?”

“Beats me.”  Xena hesitated, debating whether to follow the soldiers or not.   Even the archers had abandoned the walls, leaving them alone and unregarded.

Nuts. 

They heard a baby’s scream again, “That way.”  Xena pointed with her sword and they took off after the soldiers, towards the broad steps leading downward again into the entrance of what seemed to be a temple.

As they reached the top of the steps the door at the bottom opened, and the soldiers running stopped and scrambled out of the way as Pinu appeared, a bundle in his arms.  “Make way…  I’m coming!”

“What the Hades?”  Solari peered past Xena’s elbow. “Does he have  kid there?”

Pinu was bolting up the steps, ignoring the presence of the women, ignoring the soldiers, focused on the path to the pit where now there was  white clad figure and beside her, a tall man also in white carrying a horn.

Behind them, the pit yawned, and after a moment they heard an animal sound come from it, screaalling and wild and unfamiliar. 

“What was that?”  Gabrielle asked.

Xena bolted forward. “Don’t know but I think  he’s gonna pitch that kid into whatever it is mouth.”   She jumped from the edge of the square plateau onto the steps, and lunged after Pinu who was almost at the pit.

“Stop her!” The soldiers now realized what was in their midst and they turned and started to get in the way.  “Quickly!”

The women charged through the crowd, battling their way through the first line of soldiers who were turning to stop them while the front lines closed around their leader.  

Pinu rushed up the wide steps as the man standing near the pit blew the horn again, and as he did, a greenish light lit up the depths of it, and out of that came a long, sinuous, speckled tentacle.

Xena yanked her chakram from her hip and took two steps, then leaped up into the air and while airborne and elevated above the crowd let loose of it, sending it spinning towards the pit.  It sliced through the tentacle and curved back around.

A high pitched keening immediately sounded, making Xena grimace and most of the crowd reach hesitantly for their ears.   Pinu stumbled to a halt and looked down into the pit, then raised the bundle he had in his hands over his head. 

The chakram, curving tightly, struck him in the chest as he was about to let go and sent him tumbling backwards, it’s sharp edge embedded in his chest. 

The woman in white screamed.  The man with the horn turned, and then scrambled back as another tentacle emerged and writhed towards him.  The keening turned to an angry scream and now the crowd started to panic, running and jostling each other.

It gave Xena and her team a chance to move forward and they did, the warrior reaching Pinu and his squalling bundle at the same time as the tentacle whipped towards them, turning it’s underside over and exposing heavy, sharp spikes.

“Xena!”

“Got it.”  Xena leaped over Pinu and brought her sword down on the appendage, feeling the shock as her blade struck the creature and turning her head as she cut through it and it released a burst of foul liquid that splattered across the stone floor, drenching the woman in white.

She screamed in pain, a sound that got louder and louder and more frantic as the seconds passed.

Xena landed and rolled to one side to avoid the creature, coming back up onto her feet and bolting in the other direction back towards the Amazons.  She paused only long enough to grab the bundle that had fallen from Pinu’s hands and kept going, hearing terrorized screams now all around her

Gabrielle was, predictably, yelling her name.   

The Amazons were kneeling and shooting past her and when Xena got to them and vaulted over their heads, somersaulting and twisting in mid air to come down facing the pit she knew why.

The creature, for it was a creature, had poked a large, liquid eye over the edge of the pit and was glaring around, one tentacle wrapped around the woman in white, who was now limp and unresponsive.

‘That stuff get on you?”  Gabrielle asked, checking her over.

“No.”  Xena hastily sheathed her sword and opened the bundle, finding an infant inside, tiny and squalling, with a pale cap of hair and sturdy fists.   “He was going to sacrifice this kid to that thing.”

They heard running boots behind them and Xena turned to see her army bolting up over the steps and onto the plateau. 

“Xe.” Gabrielle said, abruptly.  “Did I just put this together right? They’re breeding those women for this?”

Xena handed her the infant. “Hold onto this for a minute. I’m going to… “ She stopped, as the creature reared itself up and a gap opened in it’s front, a beak really. 

The city people started running away, but as they did the creature spit up a wave of black liquid at them, and the scent of sharp acid rose as it splattered everywhere.

Those it touched went down in agonized thrashing and it started spreading outwards, rolling over the ground like a sludgy fog.

“Get back.”  Xena ordered, tapping Solari on the shoulder. “Everyone back! Back to the gates!”

The creature hauled itself up again and spat, this time up into the air and in a half circle as it thrashed back and forth.   As the liquid touched the stone it started withering, and as Xena and the army escaped across the plateau and down the opposite stairs, it flowed after them and also down the steps where Pinu had come up from.

The stone itself was dissolving.

“Xe..” Gabrielle glanced behind them. “it’s going down there.”

“Can’t help that.” Xena put her hand on the bard’s back.  “Run, babe.  We can’t stop this.”

They reached the gates and then went through them, and up the slope to the outer wall.  The army slammed the gates as they went past, and on the upper slope they stopped and looked behind them.

“Xena, the lassies.”  Bennu gasped, coming to a halt next to his leader. “Can we get them?”

Xena drew a breath in, as Gabrielle reached out ot her and heads turned to focus on her intently.  She looked at the oncoming sludge, and the slope, and the door and took a mental moment to just stop, and understand that the only reason she was getting that question was because these people had come to expect that of her.

Not so much because of Gabrielle’s stories, or because of her building an army, but because over the years she had truly become something different from what she’d started out to be.  “Move fast.”  She directed them. “We don’t have much time.”

Two dozen soldiers bolted for the room where the women had been chained.  Another dozen support people were getting places in the wagons ready while they all watched the walls start to crumble under the acid’s assault.

“Xe.” Gabrielle pointed.

A dark bulk was rising up over the wall, it’s beak foremost as tentacles curled around the buildings and decimated them.

“Oh, that’s not good.” 

‘Neither’s that.” Gabrielle grabbed her and turned her, pointing to one side of the slop leading up to where they were.  In the falling snow there was a limp figure near the wall, right in the path of the creeping black goo and the creature that was making it.  “Xe we can’t let her die like that.”

No, no they really couldn’t.   Xena sighed and ducked her head, kissing her partner on the lips. “Wish me luck.”  She said, just as she exploded into motion, coming up to full speed as she headed for Artemis’ still body.

Could already be dead, she told herself as she ran, gauging the advance of the goo and the tentacles that were now writhing towards her as the big empty eye spotted her.  The beak opened and a spurt of sludge flew through the air, but this close the clumps were large and she could avoid them.

But the creature now sped up, slithering over the top of the rise and through the gates and starting down the slope at a frightening speed.  The tentacles raised up and stiffened and the spikes appeared heading right towards her.

She heard a yell behind her, and then the sound of running boots.  “Gabrielle, stay back!”  She returned the yell. “Don’t make me have to carry both of you!”

Spikes.

Goo.

Xena reached Artemis a half step ahead of the sludge.  She reached down and grabbed the mortal goddess and jerked her body up and onto her shoulders and then leaped up as the acid poured where she had been lying.

She reached the wall and kicked off from it, uncoiling up and away and sensing the closeness of the creature as she twisted and turned in mid air, coming through the coil of a tentacle as it started to close around her.

Damn it.  Xena clasped Artemis’ hands in one of hers and drew her sword with her other hand, placing herself in time and space as she slashed out and back and cut through the coil just as the points of the spikes touched her.

Then she was through and turning and tumbling and cutting as she went down, wrenching herself savagely upright and looking down to make sure she was going to land on snow covered rock and not black goo.

A flash of color came into her peripheral vision and she landed, almost going sprawling as the snow left her slipping and sliding forward through a cluster of women all working hard to get between her and what was behind her.

“Shoot!” Solari was bending bow herself, aiming at the creature’s big round eye. 

Bennu and Redder caught Xena out of her slide and kept her upright. “Take the woman,  Jax! Quick like, get ‘er on the wagon.”  He patted Xena on the shoulder.  “Think we should get out, Genr’l.  There’s no good here.”

The Amazons were backing away from the creature, who was squalling and lashing out with it’s tentacles, save the one that had been cut in half and the end of which was flopping around on the ground spurting fluid.

“We got all the women?”  Xena asked, wiping her sword down, as she started walking backwards. “Amazons!  Back up!”

“Don’t got to tell me twice.” Paladia’s eyes were large as duck eggs, and she had hold of Cait’s cloak as she joined Xena in retreating.  “C’mon, nutcase!”

The troops and wagons were already on their way out, and the scouts formed up around Xena as they acted as a rear guard.   The creature slid down the first part of the slope after them but then halted, spitting up a huge blob of good that struck the ground and, if it had been less covered in snow, would have spattered all of them.

As it was, it just steamed through the ice and started eating through the stone, and they slammed the outer doors shut and started away from the city as fast as they could travel.

For just a minute, before the guard started sounding their horns, and whistles lifted up, in  a shrill frantic tone.

“Xena, troops ahead!”  Redder came riding back to where Xena and Gabrielle were mounting up.  “Looks like those darkies again.”

Xena sighed and urged Argo forwards, with Iolaus right behind her “Gonna be a long ass night.”  She shook her head.  “Son of a bitch.”

“Maybe we can chase them off again.”

“Maybe Hades has another kid out there.”

**

Continued in Part 19