Body Heart and Soul

Part 19

Xena got the army in place and ready in a rush of thundering hooves and soldiers yells,  putting the wagons up front and getting every archer behind them. 

The dark army was about on top of them when they heard, behind them, a thundering boom and as Xena turned, she saw the walls of the city shatter into chunks, the burning fluid rapidly making mush of them as it poured out towards them.

Biting off a curse she sent whistles up, changing her plan as she ordered the center of the army to split and turn back on either side, rapidly opening up the center. “Move move!” She let out two shrill blasts and bolted for the far side of the lines, where Gabrielle was herding the Amazons.

Men were running now, hauling on reins as they got out of the way, order turning to chaos as arrows started to fly,  coming in waves from the onrushing shades, all dark gray shafts, with glittering arrowheads and black feathers starting to land on the ground, in wagon sides, and sometimes in bodies.

The dark army came thundering through the hole in the center of the lines, bowling over the few stragglers and started to turn and engage them, not realizing the dark ooze was anything to worry about until they hit it.

The screams of the horses lanced through Xena as she watched them stumble and go down as the substance ate their hooves out from under them.

It was painful to watch, and so she turned and directed the troops instead, making sure her own men and horses were well clear of it. 

“Xena!”

She whirled Argo in place, the mare rising up on her hind legs and turning in her own length.   The enemy army was flailing and stumbling in place and the creature reared up and threw itself forward, landing on two score of them amidst screams of terror from men and beasts.

“Keep moving!”  She stood up in her stirrups and bellowed. “Move! Move! Bennu! Take the right half and move north! Get behind them! I’ll take this half!”

Bennu signaled with his fist then their army bolted, streaming away from the city on either side, Xena’s half of the troops moving headlong back towards the river they knew was somewhere out there in the snowy dark.

But then the creature retreated, and the dark shades got themselves under control and split apart, leaving behind the port city and going after Xena and her troops. 

Behind them, they left a plateau of horror,  and broken stone as the creature slithered back up the slope in an anxious hurry,  and as Xena turned her troops to meet the attack, keeping control of men and beasts by sheer will the clouds broke apart.

Through the hills due east a layer of pearly fog was suddenly visible as behind the cloud cover there was a glimpse of light, and the air went from black to gray as dawn came abruptly to the scene.

The dark forces dissipated just as abruptly, fading into the mist as the snow lessened, and with a thunk of hooves against cold, hard ground, Xena’s troops came to a standstill, there on the plateau now looking desolate and horror struck.

The city walls were silent.  They were crumbled and broken, the buildings inside were likewise.  No living thing was seen anywhere, save themselves.

The wind was blowing at their backs and Xena was glad. She could see the lumps of fading flesh that once were horses, their riders escaping back into Hades’ realm untouched but leaving them behind. 

The black goo settled, seeping into the rock and staining the ground before the walls, the last flapping of the creature’s limbs echoing back softly as it went back to where it had come from.

From across the ground, Xena saw Bennu starting to lead his portion of the troops back towards them, carefully skirting the stained ground as the sun rose from behind the far hills, revealing a dull gray sky, and shell shocked faces.

**

The army was scared, and Xena knew it.  She’d kept everyone moving towards the river, but between the storm overhead and the long night without sleep the edges were starting to show.  The one bright spot was that the horses were rested, having just been hobbled after they got into the city earlier the preceeding night.

Soon she’d have to decide if they would stop, or keep them going, marching back along the plateau to the woods and beyond, before the sun fell below the horizon again.

Ugh.

She could see Gabrielle with her hood up and her staff in her grip as she guided Iolaus around the struggling support staff, all of them bundled up and with hands on the wagons, helping to move them.

Then there was Artemis int here, somewhere.

It was one of the few times in her life that Xena felt utterly at a loss, really unsure  of how to direct her army and where she should lead them.

Go home?  The idea was highly appealing.  She could feel the sense of relief in her guts when she thought about it,  imagining them riding through the pass and onto the old east road that would take them first to Jessan’s valley…

And here she stopped.

Now she had to imagine going back there to get her daughter, and having to explain to the tribe, and to Elaini that she’d left Jessan behind.

NO matter that she had no piece in his disappearance.  No matter she had no idea where he’d gone, or where he was now, or even if he’d been transported somewere else entirely.

Was he even alive, or did they take him someplace else, maybe even up to Mount Olympus as she and Gabrielle had been brought by Zeus’s whim.

“Xe.”  Gabrielle had ridded over and was now at her side, reaching over to touch her knee through the heavy leggings she was wearing.  “Here, you look chilled.  Put your gloves on.”

Xena smiled to herself and obeyed, taking her gauntlets out and pulling them on, the warm fur lining easing the chill in her knuckles.  “Gab.” She shifted a little in her saddle, leaning closer to her soulmate. “I think we should keep heading home.”

“No argument from me, WP.”  The bard responded instantly.  “But? What’s the catch?”

“Does there have to be a catch?”

“Xena. I have known you all the years of my adulthood and there is no person in the world, not my family, not my daughter, that I love more than I love you.  You know that.”

“I do.”

“You have never in all the time I have know you run from something. You’re not going to run from this.”

Xena smiled faintly.  “No.” She agreed. “If for no other reason than I need to find out what happened to Jess.” She said.  “So I’d like to send Bennu home with the army, and you and me and the Amazons will see if we can figure it all out.”

“And the Amazons?”

“I want them with us. I think it’s important.”  Xena said, in a quiet voice. “And Artemis if we can make her stay.”

Gabrielle eyed her.  “Really.”

“Really.”

“Why?” Gabrielle asked, in a mild, straightforward tone of voice. “What’s the point of that, Xe?”

There had been times in their lives together when the question would have frustrated Xena to the point of stomping off, not ready to allow another person to question her judgement.

Long, long past water gone under the bridge on that these days.  “No reason. No point.” Xena answered honestly.  “Just what my gut’s telling me to do.”

Gabrielle thought about that as their horses matched paces, the cold air buffeting them.  “I think we should all go home.” She finally said, after the silence had started to become a little uncomfortable. “I know where you’re coming from, I just don’t think it’ the right move this time.”

The wind whistled around them as Xena thought that over, her eyes scanning the path they were on, in a random, restless motion.

“That’s what my guts telling me.”  Gabrielle added, after a few minutes.  “I will follow you to Tartarus and beyond, Xena.   But I think we’re on the wrong path here. This isn’t our fight.” She paused a moment more. “We need to get out of it.”

She glanced over at her partner’s profile as she said it, and watched Xena’s jaw shift, and the muscles of her face tense, and the posture of her body alter.   It told it’s own story.   “Let’s go with them.” She said. “Then at the forest we can stop, and go see if we can find Jess. “

Xena turned and regarded her, both hands leaning on the front of her saddle.  “All right.”

Gabrielle smiled wryly, understanding everything in the tone of that voice. “Besides, sweetheart, do you really think that army’s going to march off and leave you behind?”

Xena sighed. “Not really no.” She admitted “You know what the problem is, Gabrielle? I’m starting to want to act they way you write me in your scrolls.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Oh please.  You were acting like that when we met.  I didn’t make you out to be anything you really aren’t so give it a rest.”

Xena drew breath to protest, then just grunted.  She really didn’t think that was true, but she also really didn’t think having this argument at this moment with this woman was going to be helpful in any way to either of them.

She let out a long, loud whistle, and then waited, as Bennu and Redder and Jax wheeled their horses around and headed in her direction.     The three soldiers were watching all around as they came over, and even when they settled in at her side, their eyes were roving.

“Xena, d’ya know what that thing was there?” Redder asked. “Never seen anything like it.”

“Matter of fact, I’ve seen one before.  When I was out at sea.”  Xena told them unexpectedly.  “It’s a creature that lives in the depths.  A giant squid.”

Everyone stared at her.  “Is that what that was?” Gabrielle said, after a moment. “I remember someone telling me a story about one.. that it dragged a whole ship down under the water off Crete.”

“Yes.”  Xena said. “But that’s not what I called you over for.  Let’s start curving back towards the road. I want good traveling.” She told Bennu.  “Sooner we get out of Thrace, the better.  That squid can’t come after us, but there’s no telling what else’s in there, and that thing did what we came to do.”

Bennu nodded.  “Men’ll be glad to hear it.” He said bluntly. “Jax, get em moving round – wagon’s will do better up on t’road.”

“Aye.” Jax looked profoundly relieved.  “Heard there was some caves up just over the ridge past the forest like – we make them for night we’ll have shelter and can defend it.”

“Send the scouts ahead.”  Xena nodded. “Let’s get moving.”

Jax turned his horse and sent it galloping down the lines and as he passed the word, Xena could almost see the morale perking up in his path.     She eased her boots in her stirrups and turned towards Gabrielle, who was frowning.

“What’s up?”

Gabrielle took up her reins. “Which wagon did they put Artemis in?”  She asked Bennu.  “I have to ask her a question.”

“I’ll take ya, little hawk.”  Bennu said. “Redder, set them scouts to be ready to split off for  t’caves.”

They all rode off, leaving Xena to bring up the rear by herself.   She turned in her saddle and looked behind her,  to see the snow falling so hard between them and the city she could no longer make out the outline of it.

Was leaving it behind really right?  Xena thought about the squid, and it’s beak, and it’s acid effluent that killed everything it touched.  

She turned back around. “What in the Hades was I thinking?”  She uttered audibly.  “Gabrielle’s gonna get more than nutbread for that.”

**

The caves were there, on the far side of the forest, tucked back in a outcropping of stone and they’d reached them just before sundown much to everyone’s relief.   

Now they were tucked inside, away from the screaming wind and the snow, with the wagons blocking the entrance to the caves and the space inside more than big enough to accommodate all of them.

In a corner of one of them a fire was crackling, and two soldiers had hauled in a large stack of dead wood, damp now,  but already drying nearby.  

There was  hum of conversation, as the soldiers dried out their gear and sorted out provisions and the sense of lightening and relief was palpable.  

Cait and Pasi returned casual waves as they moved past the campsite and headed for the watch stations by the wagons outside.  “That was pretty cool.” Pasi was saying. “That tunnel and all, those guy’s faces when Xena hauled out of that door and started whacking on them.”

“It was. “ Cait agreed. “Until that creature started in, and all that.  Didn’t like that much.”

“No me neither.”  The young warrior said. “You cant win on something like that – arrows weren’t doing squat.”

“No.”  Cait pulled her hood up as they moved across the brief slice of open space and then entered the sheltered area of the wagons. 

They had gotten them lashed up together, and the lower parts solidly blocked with crates, a lashing of hides on the inside edge providing escape from the weather to the watchers.   More crates had been set out to sit and work on, and most of the soldiers there were sharpening weapons and picking locations carefully that they could watch from.

“Good thing to be under cover. “ One man was saying, as he settled his crossbow on a wagon hitch and sighted down it.  “Made a good pick, Xena did.  No sense keeping at it.”

“Got sense she does.”  The man next to him agreed. “Though it was a good fight before, and them going in to pop those gates. Like that, I did.”

The first man chuckled, turning and giving Cait and Pasi a wave as they arrived. “Her climbing up that wall and jumping over?  No way they expected it.”

“We didn’t expect it.” Cait remarked.  “It was quite lovely though.  Wish I’d been other side to see their faces.”

Both men laughed.  “Ah, but it’s good to be heading back.”  The first man said. “Xena proved her point.  Don’t think the port’s going to be heading our way any time soon.”

‘Strue.”  One of the other of the watch said. “Just hope they keep them monsters to themselves.  Horrible thing, that was.”

They took up their positions behind the wagons,  putting waterskins on wooden pegs pounded into the side of the wagons, empty now of their cargo of supplies and the women they’d rescued from the city now tucked inside one of the caves.

The snow was still coming down, and the tracks they’d made coming into the caverns were well and truly covered deep, no sign of their passing on the empty stretch of land now between them and the road.

Cait took a seat on one of the buckboards and laid down her bow, her feet swinging off the ground.   She was glad of the hide shelter and the thick wood blocking the wind and behind them she could hear the stew being dished out and knew she’d have some soon.

She nodded a little and braced her elbows on the wagon, pulling her hood more forward to block out the light and let her eyes adjust to the darkness.   It took about a quarter candlemark but then she could see across the plain, and sort out the faint gray shadows.

Only to realize one of them was moving.

Towards them.

Fast.

**

Xena was seated on a rock ledge,  her legs extended out in front of her, and her arms stretched out along the uneven stone wall behind her.  Across from her Gabrielle was talking to Solari, the bard having doffed her cloak since the fire between them had created enough warmth to.

They had, she figured,  a fifty fifty chance of getting some rest.  The other option was being attacked by Hades’ forces, but so far they hadn’t seen any sign of them.

She stretched her body out and resettled herself with a sigh, mentally plotting the route back to the pass and wondering if they could make it back by daylight if they went by forced march.

The army would be in favor of that, she knew. 

A scuff of boots against sand made her look up, to find Artemis entering,  One whole side of her face was bruised and she paused to give Gabrielle a dour glare as she moved past.

Gabrielle half turned to face her. “Glad you’re up and about. I have something I need to ask you.” She followed Artemis over to where Xena was.  “About Posiedon’s daughter.”

“Yes I have recovered myself. No help from you.” Artemis said.  “Since I am told it was you as put me in such a down state.”

“I did.” The bard agreed. “You were going to stab Xena, you scum sucking little piece of trash.”

Behind her Xena’s eyes widened.

Artemis stopped walking and stared at Gabrielle.  “You forget who I am.”

“No. I just don’t care who you are. I’m out of omigosh right now.”

“You’re lucky, actually” Xena let her head rest against the stone.  “If she hadn’t clocked you, and I’d caught you coming up behind me I’d have probably cut your head off.”

Artemis sat down on the rock. “Would you really have?”  She asked. “I was only looking to disable you and take over the fight.  Become the city’s patron.”

Xena rolled her head to the side and regarded her. “I would have.  When you’re in battle and everythings in motion,  you don’t stop to consider motive when someone’s coming at you  with a knife.”

“I had a pact with Pinu. Now I suppose he’s dead, and it’s all for nothing.” Artemis said  “Fools the lot of you.”

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips.  “So when exactly were you going to tell us that creature was the chick we were supposed to be rescuing?”

Xena’s eyes popped wide open again. “What?” She said. “That was Poseidon’s daughter?”

“I’m glad one of us reads scrolls.”  Gabrielle said. “Once you told me it was a squid I figured it out.  She demands child sacrifice, by the way.” She sat down next to Xena and leaned back against her. “Those poor women were raped and forced to bear children that they were going to throw into that thing’s maw.”

“Really?”  Xena whispered in her ear.

“Really.”  The bard assented.  “Ask her.”  She looked over at Artemis. “That’s why they were kidnapping women of bearing age. Not to be slaves.”

Artemis shrugged. “And?” She said.  “Yes, that was Poseidon’s child, born in the depths of the sea. He loves her greatly.”

‘And we were supposed to rescue her?”  Xena’s voice lifted.

“No. I was supposed to rescue her.” Artemis chuckled dryly. “Wasn’t it your idea that we act godly?  Win back our adherents? I know how to defeat her and send her back into the sea.  They would worship me for that.”

“And we would end up… ?” Gabrielle’s brows rose.

“You were attacking their city. Not only would I have saved them, I would have defeated you as well, and in agreement with my uncle, the city would be a temple once more.”  Artemis’ smile held no humor.

“Feel free to go back there and give that a go if you want.” Xena closed her eyes and folded her hands over her stomach.  “If there’s anything left.”

“Now which one of us is arrogant?”

Xena opened one eyeball and regarded her.  “Nothing arrogant about it. I’m done here. We’re going home. If you want to go back there and salvage the city, have at it.”  She crossed her ankles.

“Do you not wish to know how she can be defeated?” Artemis just seemed amused.  “You who know everything?”

“Nope.”  Xena closed her eye and twiddled her thumbs. “All yours.”

They were all quiet for a brief time, then Artemis stood up just as a loud whistle pierced the air bringing both Xena and Gabrielle to their feet and heading for the entrance to the cave before the goddess could take a step.

Xena was a step ahead of her partner as they bolted between the cave and the line of wagons, seeing archers pouring out of the cavern behind them heading the same direction.  

They ducked under the hide in a bunch and the archers went to the line while Gabrielle and Xena swerved and went to where Cait was standing, motioning them over. “What’s up?” Xena hopped up onto the buckboard next to her.

“There.” Cait didn’t waste time, she just pointed.

Xena leaned past her a little, scanning the open space on the other side of the caverns. “Oh.”  She exhaled in relief.   “Why didn’t you just say it was Jess?

Cait peered into the shadows, then back at Xena.  “Is that who it is?” She asked in surprise. “All I can see is a dark blob moving. My gosh you’ve got eyes.”

“It’s Jess?” Gabrielle grabbed onto Xena’s armor and hauled herself up.  “Really?!”

Xena could clearly see the outline of their friend in the dark gray shadows and silver highlights, his size and Eris’s shagginess very evident.  She felt a sense of relief flood through her, and it felt like the weight of the world lifted off her shoulders.  “Jess!” She let out a yell, then followed that with a whistle.

Immediately, a whistle came back, and then a flurry of motion started around Xena as the soldiers started to pivot one of the wagons around to let Jessan through. 

Xena felt Gabrielle throw her arms around her and hug her, making a little, happy grunting noise as she squeezed.

Best moment she’d had for sevendays.   Xena hopped down and stepped back, as the wagon moved and Eris came barreling through, slowing up as soon as he came inside the lines. 

The soldiers quickly shoved the wagon back in place and the guard got back to guarding as Cait scrambled back and took hold of Eris’ bridle as his rider dismounted.

“Jess!”  Gabrielle bounded over to him.  “Are we ever glad to see you!”

The forest dweller pushed his hood back and exhaled.  “Right back at you guys, but hold up a sec because you might end up changing your mind.” He glanced behind them. “Can we talk somewhere quieter?”

“Uh oh.”

Xena took him by the arm and pointed at the rear cavern.  “Want a drink?”

Jessan made a groaning noise.

“Wine’s mulling.”  Gabrielle caught him up on the other side and they crossed from the front lines and into the shelter of solid stone.

**

Gabrielle poured Jessan a mug of mulled wine and handed it over as he took a breath from his storytelling and accepted it with a wry grin.  “Hey.” She grinned back. “I’ve been there. I’m glad you didn’t have to deal with that for long.”

Xena was standing a few steps away, arms folded, staring at the cloth wrapped bundle leaning against the rock.  “What am I supposed to do with this?”  She finally asked, half turning and eying Jessan. “What did he say?”

“Not so much.” Jessan took a mouthful of his wine and savored the heat and the spice of it as he swallowed.  It was one of the mountain reds, brought by the last wagon train with some of the harvest herbs steeped in it.  “We were running through .. uh…  down there.” He said. “Next thing I know Ares went to go fight with something making a lot of noise and he handed it to me and said to get it to you.”

“To me.”

Jessan nodded. “I didn’t argue.” He said.  “I was so scared I was shedding. He pointed me to the way out and I went.” He looked around.  “I missed a lot, huh? “

“Why didn’t he just come with you?” Gabrielle asked. “Then he could wield his own sword.  Not have Xe do it for him? I don’t get it.”

“Me either.”  Xena said. “I don’t want this thing.  We’re heading home.  The port city’s infested with … “ She looked at Gabrielle. “You wanna tell him?”

Gabrielle sat down, picking up a bowl of soup and handing it over. “Where do I start.” She muttered. “I guess I’ll start when you disappeared.”

“I thought you disappeared.” Jessan said, mournfully. “Then I realized where I ended up.” He paused, staring into the fire. “Not a really cool moment.”

Gabrielle reached over and put her hand on his arm, her expression altering to one of compassion. “No, I know.” She said. “It’s so hard, when you think you’ve crossed that line.  I’ve just been lucky enough to have gotten past that a few times.”

“Yeah. Really just sucks you know?”

“I do.”  The bard answered, quietly.  “We both do.” She reached out and felt Xena clasp her hand.

Jessan regarded her somberly. “Gabrielle, I don’t want to live your life, y’know?  I figured that out in there.” He took another sip of the wine.  “Anyway, Ares didn’t come back with me because some things came after us, and instead of running with me he gave me that thing and went to fight them without it.”

Both Xena and Gabrielle were silent.

“I heard him screaming.”  Jessan added, after a moment. “Kind of made me glad I’m one of his believers.” He said. “I wasn’t so sure up to them. He was doing some kinda… um..”

“Jerky things?”

Jessan made a face. “Yeah. But this wasn’t, you know? He was all right.”

Gabrielle patted his arm “He’s got his moments.”  She admitted. “But you know, he is a god.” She said. “So I’m sure he ended up okay.” She passed over one of the bowls of soup to Xena.   “After you left, we went up to the top of the ridge there, and we found an opening to Hades.”

Jessan nodded. “Pretty sure that’s where I came out. Eris was right down that path, pretty much.” He explained. “No sign of Ares’ horse though.”

“Horse probably went back to Hades realm where he came from.” Xena commented. “Ares said he stole him from there.”

Jessan nodded. “He was sorta creepy.”

“Xe and I kinda meandered around, and decided we really didn’t want to go in there.”  The bard went on.  “So we were going to leave, and then Hades showed up .”

“Showed up after you said you wanted to talk to him.” Xena was slurping her soup, trying hard to ignore the tall, doublehanded broadsword leaning on the wall next to her.  “We were going to leave, but no. “

“Hush.” Gabrielle poked her. “So we talked to him. It was weird. He told us that one of Poseidon’s daughters was being held hostage in the city, and we should rescue them.  He said he was on Zeus’s side and all that stuff.”

“So where were you then?” Jessan asked. “Still up on the mountain?”

Xena nodded.  “Just Hades was there, and Cereberus.”

The forest dweller grunted.

“So after that, he just left, said he had to go back to his wife inside.”  Gabrielle said.  “Did you see him in there?”

“Ah, yeah.”  Jessan exhaled. “He came in and yelled at us.”  He said. “There were snakes.” He paused. “I killed one when it was attacking Ares.”

“I’m sure he appreciated that.”  Xena said,  in a dry tone.

“He did.” He agreed.  “He was stuck in a wall.  He was pissed.  I helped chop him out of the rock after the snakes left and he told me I wasn’t really dead after that.” He paused, then glanced at Xena.. “Kind of made my day.”

Gabrielle patted his arm again.  “Sorry, Jess.”

He took a sip of his wine. “That part was kinda okay.”  He admitted. “I mean, you don’t get to fight at the side of the god of War all the time, you know?”

“Mm.”

“So what happened in the city? “ The forest dweller changed the subject.  “You’re heading back home now? For real? It sure sounded to me like Ares thought you’d need that. “ He studied Xena. “Aren’t you going to rescue that princess?”

“Yeah well, we found Posiedon’s daughter.”  Gabrielle said.  “Not.. quite the princess.”

“Oh?”

“Turned out to be a giant squid who killed everything around her with caustic goo.” 

“What?”

“Yeah, and took infants in sacrifice.”  Xena chimed in.  “We found them breeding women so they could pitch them at the thing.  Not a good scene all around.”

“Uh…What??”

“We were all invested in rescuing the princess. We were going to liberate the captive, with an all woman force to prove a point.”  Gabrielle sighed.  “The only point was the one on the top of our heads. Scam all the way. Took us like newborns.”

Jessan looked from one of them to the other. 

Xena had her chin resting on her fist.  “Yeah. So if anyone expects me to take this thing and go liberate that freak show sorry, ain’t happening.”  She said. “We’re done. We’re going home.  I’ll keep this and hand it back to him soon as he shows up again. “

Jessan’s brows creased. “This is really screwed up.”

‘This is really screwed up.” Gabrielle confirmed. “This is about as screwed up a situation that we’ve ever been in, I think.”

“No think. Is.”  Her partner mournfully agreed. “There is no win. I don’t think there’s even a draw.  I don’t even know what losing would look like at this point.  So we’re going back. Take you home. Pick up our kid.”

“Go get some of mom’s beer.”   Gabrielle concluded. “We’ll just deal with whatever the fallout is. It’s less dangerous than mixing it up with pissed off gods and that squid.”

“Right.” Xena drained her soup bowl and put it down. “My one hang up was trying to find you, so thanks for making it easy.”

She stood up and went to the Sword of War, clasping it below the hilts on the sheath and lifting it.  It came away from the stone easily and felt to her lighter than it should. 

This was the Sword of War, after all.   A weapon that was more than a weapon,  being the focus of Ares godhood and something that had rippled around her mortal life on more than one occasion.  The last time she’d touched it was on the rim of the valley of her nightmares, and it had left a mark on her palm that been a very long time fading.

She uncovered the hilt and examined it, aware of the other two in the room watching her.

It was a beautiful thing.  There was a deeply colored stone in the hilt that she could faintly see her own reflection in, and as she looked into it, she thought she saw a sapphire light ignite in the center. 

It called to her, but that was natural.  This was the very symbol of war, and she was, without a doubt, a person who understood what that was at a very deep, very gut level.

Called to her yes, but Xena found she had no real urge to draw it.

After a moment she covered the hilt up again and turned, pausing when footsteps sounded and Artemis came in, halting in shock as she saw what Xena was holding.

“Where did you get that!”  The goddess barked.  “Give it to me.” She held out her hand imperiously, and advanced on Xena.

Gabrielle reached for her staff but Xena made a hand signal to her, and then easily extended her arm cradling the sword, offering it hilt first. “Take it.”

**

Jessan was caught in mid motion, inhaling in shock as he could only watch as Artemis strode forward and reached out, grabbing the hilt and drawing the Sword of War from the sheath tucked along Xena’s forearm and braced against her ribs.

He could feel the ripple of power, and the excruciating, reverberating emotional scream he wasn’t sure of the source of as the weapon flashed into brilliant light, and then dropped to the ground as Artemis uttered a verbal scream to go with it.

She thumped to the rocky surface, unable to keep hold of the hilt as it smashed violently against the bones of her hand, crushing them with an audible crunch.

Xena knelt and slid the sheath back over the blade and lifted it up, standing and letting the sword slide the last bit into it’s holder.  “I don’t think it’s likes you.”

Slowly Jessan removed his hands from his ears, where they’d flown in unconscious reaction as the audible and inaudible screams faded, and his Sight flared instead, washing out the cavern in tints of silver and gold.

He took a stuttering breath, almost a hiccup in his chest. 

Gabrielle moved, and the buttery gold energy he always associated with her moved as well, meshing with the shadowed silver of Xena’s, rippling together and matching the brilliance surrounding the longsword now once again cradled against the warrior’s body.

Artemis was still on the ground, but he could see nothing around her. No energy. No aura he could detect and as he watched the woman writhing in pain he suddenly wondered what that really meant.

Then he closed his eyes and consciously suppressed his Sight, as the light faded and Xena’s voice replaced it, it’s resonant undertones making the bones of his ears itch.

He was afraid, suddenly.   Afraid of being so long past his ability and involved in so much more than he knew what to do with that it made him just as suddenly ashamed. 

“Ares sent this to Xena.”  Gabrielle’s lighter voice cut through the wash of emotion.  “And that must have been for a reason because he wouldn’t have let it leave his hands otherwise.”

“You know nothing.”  Artemis gasped, cradling her broken hand in her other one. “That is not for her. Not for you.  You are no Olympian.” She glared at Xena.  “I am a daughter of Zeus – that should be mine. He should have sent it to me!”

Xena regarded the sword.  “I was kinda hoping he had.” She sighed. “Jess, did he say anything else about it?” She turned to look at Jessan.

The forest dweller hesitated, then shook his head. “He just said.. “ He cleared his throat.  “Get it to her. She’s going to need it.”

Gabrielle turned and studied him intently. “He didn’t say Xe’s name?”

“No.. but he didn’t need to.” Jessan replied. “I knew who he meant. I… “ He looked quickly at Artemis, and then away. “I felt what he meant.” He looked over at Xena, licking his lips suddenly dry.  “There’s a.. uh.. “

“Connection between them?” Gabrielle offered, gently.

He exhaled a little. “Yes.”

“You are no blood of ours.” Artemis said, in a bitter tone. “He’s said it himself. He swore it, to Zeus.”

Xena went over and put the sword down on the rock ledge, then she sat down next to it and rested her elbows on her knees, exhaling in wry resignation.  “Yeah.  I was hoping you grabbing that thing would pop you back upstairs and get you all out of our lives.”

Artemis went quiet, studying Xena’s angular profile.

“Anyway.  Let me get my kit and put a bandage on that hand.”  Xena started to get back up again, then stopped when the alarm whistles sounded once more. “Ah crap.”  She picked up the Sword of War and tucked it under her arm. “Let’s go see what’s going on now.”

Ares the wolf came bounding in, screeching to a halt when he almost crashed into Xena,  frisking around her boots as she stepped over him and continued out into the night. 

Gabrielle sighed, then picked up her staff and started after her, shaking her head with an insistent, frustrated motion.

Jessan and Artemis were left there, unexpectedly and awkwardly alone together.  “Sorry about your hand.” He said, after a long pause.  “I should go help them.” He got up and gingerly skirted around the seated goddess, who was looking down at her crushed fingers. 

Surprisingly, Artemis was crying, though she didn’t seem to realize it.  Tears were dripping down off her expressionless face, splashing her skin with erratic droplets.   As he was moving past she looked up at him.  “He truly gave it up to her?”

After a moment of hesitation, Jessan nodded. Then he hurried past her and chased out into the dark and storming night, moving into a nervous crush of human bodies all clustering behind the wagons and trying ot look past him.   “What is it?” He asked.

“Water.” One of the soldiers told him. “It’s rising.” He added. “From the city.”

“Posiden’s rising.”  Artemis had followed him out into the crowd and was standing next to him, cradling her arm under her cloak.  “He breaks the rule. He’s challenging Zeus.”

Jessan looked at her. “Why doesn’t he come and stop it?”

“He can’t.  It’s told. We were supposed to champion him in this, the battle renewed.” Artemis said, after a sigh.  “We cannot. He is hoisted on his own standard.  He made my sister and I mortal.  Hercules is turned from him.  Ares is held by Hades. “ She paused. “Aprhodite is of no use in this. Apollo has turned.  We are lost.”

A motion ahead drew Jessan’s eyes and he saw Xena vault to the top of the wagons, a brief flash of torchlight showing the double profile of two swords slung at her back, one much longer and wider than the other.

With a curse, he started to push his way through the troops, understanding a little too late a little too much.

**

She could hear the roar on the horizon, like a thousand surfs crashing against a lonely shore.  Stepping ahead of the torches she put her hand up over her eyes and focused her ears, trying to reconcile the noise and the shadows into reality.

She could see motion out there, and sucking in breath she caught the strong smell of salt and iron, seeing the white plains darkening as the sound and the rush headed their way.  The hills were on a rise, but with the speed the water was coming that was no protection.

Not good. 

Xena started to take a step back, then paused as she heard motion behind her, and looked around to find Gabrielle scrambling up onto the top of the wagon, with Jessan a moment behind her.  The bard turned as she stood up and held her hand out, and someone below threw her staff up for her to catch it.

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked, as she came up next to Xena and looked out.  “What’s out there? Sounds like water.”

“It is.”  Xena agreed, leaning her elbow on the bard’s shoulder. “It’s the ocean rising and coming after us.”

Gabrielle was silent for a moment. “Oh crap. Like those waves?”

“Sorta.”

“Xena.” Jessan had gotten to the top and joined them. “Artemis was saying it was Poseidon.” He said, glancing past her. “Is it…. Oh.” He could hear the rush, and smell the salt.   “What is that out there?

“It’s bad news.”  Xena said. “Looks like he’s flooding the plains.”

“Why?”

They stared out into the shadows as several more troops and some of the Amazons climbed up with them, and the wind started rising, pushing against their bodies.

Xena focused her vision into the distance and sorted through the shifting motion to something on the horizon that was erratic, blocking other barely seen shapes.  “Squids need water.”  She finally remarked.

Oh crap.  “Should we get moving?” Gabrielle asked.

“We can’t outrun the water.”  Xena pointed.  “Look.” 

They all looked at her in question. “At what?” Paladia asked. “The big black blob or the little black blobs?”

Xena exhaled.  “There’s water rising across the plains and the edge is past us already. Only reason it hasn’t caught up to us is we’re on a rise.” She said. “We need to start seeing if there’s   a way out in those caverns.” She raised her voice on that last sentence.  “Scouts!”

“Heading that way.” Cait went to the edge of the wagon and simply leaped out into space.

“Oh crap.” Paladia rambled after her. “Hey nutcase!  You’re not Xena!”

“Get ready to move.” Xena ordered.  “Get as far back and far up as you can!”

The army burst into motion and Xena watched for a moment, then she turned back and looked back into the darkness. 

Gabrielle came up next to her.  She could now see the leading edge of the water and understood what Xena had long before.  “We can’t outrun this Xe.”

“I know.”

“Do we have a plan?”

Did she have a plan?  Xena was aware of the crossroads she was in the middle of.  The water would be here soon, and on it’s heels that damn creature who would spit up caustic gunk on everything around her unless something stopped it.

Unless someone stopped it. 

“Xe.”

She could hear the knowledge in Gabrielle’s voice, a husky rasp on the fringes of it she knew down to the last note.  “I think I have to use this thing to stop it.” She finally said.  “I can’t let everyone here die the way those horses did.”

“What does that mean, if you use it?” Gabrielle took hold of her arm.  “What will that do to you? Artemis couldn’t even lift it.”

“I’ve picked it up before.”

They were both silent for a long moment.  

“I don’t know what’s going to happen” Xena finally said. “But he sent me this thing and told Jess he knew I’d need it.”

“He does things for his own reasons, Xena You know that as well as I do.”  Gabrielle said, forcefully.  “And he has never, ever denied those reasons included getting you away from me and to his side.”

Xena turned and put her hands on her partner’s shoulders. “That is true, my love.” She said. “But this thing’s coming after us, and I can choose to do nothing, or choose to use my own weapons, or use the Sword of War.  You tell me what’s likely to make a difference to all of us?”

They stared at each other in tense silence, all the activity going on behind them and all the noise and shouting whipped away by the wind. 

“What should I do, Gab? “ Xena asked, gently.  “They put me in a place where only I can do something. I know it’s a trap, you know it’s a trap but they haven’t left me a way out.”

“Damn all of them.”  Gabrielle uttered bitterly.  “Xena this could take you somewhere I can’t go.”

Xena sighed, leaning forward and touching her head to Gabrielle’s.  “Should we just stand here and let it take us together?”  She asked, finally.  “Tell me, hon.  I’ll do it if you want me to.  Just let this be the end for all of us.”

“Oh Xe.” Gabrielle answered softly, on a shaky, indrawn breath. “We can’t do that.”

Xena exhaled.

“Please don’t leave me.”

Xena put her arms around her partner and hugged her close. “Never.”  She enunciated the word carefully.  “Let me just go do the best I can, sweetheart. Trust me. We’ll get through this.”   

“Be careful.”  Gabrielle returned the hug and they parted slightly, then kissed.  “Be good.”

Xena kissed her again, blocking out the howling wind, and the roar of the oncoming surf and the knowledge of what was coming behind it.  She ignored the weight of the sword of war on her back and the sound of the army in motion.

All that mattered to her in that moment was the two of them, and the connection they had to each other, and the understanding that this was the most important thing in her life.

She would take that knowledge and use it.  Believe it. Cloak herself in it. 

They reluctantly separated, and walked to the edge of the wagon together, standing there hand in hand, facing the wind as a blast of lightning shot through the clouds and they could briefly see to the horizon clearly.

Black waters and whitecaps were rushing toward them, and there in the back, arms stretching up, was the creature. 

“Here we go.”  Xena released her and took a step to one side to clear some space.  The creature let out a scream as it spotted them, and in a flash the water surged their way and hurled itself at the wagons.  “Get everyone back.” She yelled.

Gabrielle looked behind her and found the army filing into the caverns, and climbing the walls and then she turned back around and braced herself, jamming her staff into a block behind the traces and tightening her hands around it. 

Xena focused on the water and reached over her head to take hold of one of the two hilts behind her head.  She knew by touch which one her fingers curled around, and she felt the powerful jolt as she drew it out of the sheath.

Lightning flashed again as she lifted the Sword of War easily over her head, and sucked in a breath, about to release a battle yell when something, somewhere, inside her spoke quietly and clearly and she knew.

“Xena!”  Jessan had scrambled back up oto the wagon and he dove across the top of it just as the waters reached them.  He grabbed Xena’s leg and rolled over as she looked down at him, a glimmer of light from the hilt of the sword reflecting in her face.  “You’re his Chosen.” He said.

“And now his Champion.”  Xena answered, with a wry smile.  “Let me go an get down, Jess.  It’ll be what it is.”

Jessan released her and rolled away, ducking past Gabrielle and letting himself drop off the wagon to help carry the wounded up past the edge of the cavern where froth was already lapping.   He splashed through it and into the cave, putting his burden down as he turned then to help Benny push crates in the entrance. “Won’t stop it.”

“Nah.” Bennu said. “She will.”  He said, confidently.   “Tis no doubt, now.”

He turned and picked up a sack of supplies and started up the path into the cavern’s interior.  Jessan paused to watch the wagons, which started to shift and move as the water roiled past them, and then he heard Xena’s voice in a clear bellow of challenge.

With a moment’s more pause only, he put his hands on the top of the crates and vaulted over them, racing back through the foam towards the oncoming force.

**

Xena could feel the power of the sword, it made her palms tingle and there was an itchy sensation reaching down her forearms to her shoulders.   “For Olympus!”  She yelled, as the creature neared her. “For Ares!”

The water rumbled and rushed at her, and as it did, she took a deep breath, then swept the sword down and pointed it at the waves, willing them to stop.

It was the most frightening, most exhilarating thing she’d ever felt, the sudden explosion of sensation and sound as her will focused the power and directed it with only bare instinct to lead her.

A flare of light emitted from the sword and arched towards the surf, striking it and freezing it into immobility as she swept from one side to the other, turning the green to white and the roar to a high, musical tinkling.

The creature screamed.  

Xena hopped from the wagon to the ice,  holding the sword before her as she advanced towards the squid, it’s long, barbed arms extending several times her height into the sky.    It saw her coming and lashed it’s arms forward, whipping towards her as she leaped up into the air and swung the sword across her body.

Had the sword laughed?  Xena thought it had, as she sliced through the limb trying to impale her and felt it part before the weapon as though it was nothing but air.

It struck at her, screaming in outrage, and she ducked and slashed again, feeling an overwhelming backwash of energy as the sword caught her ferocious spirit and reflected it.

Behind the creature, she could see suddenly ships of war, with men on the rails coming towards them but all she could feel was exultation as the sword carved through the creature, the water freezing around them as she willed it so and reflecting back at her the unlimited power of the passion of war.

She let out a wordless battle yell, and the creature screamed back at her, and from behind her she heard suddenly the raised voice of her own army responding to her call.

The great single eye of the creature curved and craned down at her, it’s beak opening up to spill death over her.

This time, she did hear the sword laugh.

**

Gabrielle felt like she was being set on fire.  She had both hands wrapped around her staff and was barely standing upright, overwhelmed by the sheer force of what she was sharing through her connection to Xena.

She could feel the chill of the ice shoved up against the wagons,  and it was almost even hard to breathe as she blinked hard to keep Xena’s figure in focus, the normal fighting passion amped up almost past bearing as she fought to understand what her partner was doing.

Xena had always done things just that much out of the ordinary, but this was different. This was her wielding power in the way a god would, and yet, with the cool mental focus that was very much her own.

She could feel the connection between them, very solid.  It was Xena out there, not some crazed being under the spell of that sword and she spared a moment to be proud of her soulmate.  Proud of her strength and the intent will that would hopefully win the day.

And then?

Gabrielle refused to think about then.   She pulled herself upright and moved stiffly to the front of the wagon, then she went to step onto the ice, as she saw the creature rise up over Xena’s body and behind her, heard the roar of the army swarming back over the wagons in response to the warrior’s yell.

She jumped onto the ice and followed, helpless to resist the call as they ran over the shifting, restless ice crackling and popping under their boots.

Archers and spearmen skidded to a halt and launched their weapons, striking the squid as it started forward to attack the woman standing in front of it.  It’s beak opened and the black liquid gushed out, but Xena lifted the Sword of War over her head and pointed it at the flood,  a blast of energy coming out of the tip.

It hit the liquid and exploded it back into the creature’s face, and it screamed, lashing out at Xena with four of the six legs that held it up.

Xena kept the defense up but released one hand off the sword, and drew her own as the legs came flying at her, using it’s sharp edge to repel the creature’s flailing.   Chunks of squid flesh went flying and then the army was there, thrusting swords and spears into the creature’s side.

She sheathed her own sword and leaned forward, then unclipped her chakram and let it fly right at the eye of the creature.  It hit square on, and without warning, the eye exploded, sending a wash of gore to rain down on all of them.

Xena turned the Sword of War sideways and swept it over her head, projecting in her mind the idea of a shield above them just barely in time to have it become real, sizzling the gore into mist, feeling the ice shift under her as creature flailed and fell over, collapsing onto the ice edge in a watery lump of bleeding flesh.

The water surged up and came at Xena in a wall, and she clasped the sword and pointed it, willing it to part as it came at her. She closed her eyes and held her breath, sensing the approach of it and reconciling herself to feel the chill and the wet.

Posdeidon, she was sure, wanting to take revenge. 

She remembered what Hades had said, about power.  And how neither he nor Posdeidon held sway on mortal Earth because it wasn’t their place.

Wasn’t Zeus’s place.

But it was Xena’s place.  She let out a wordless yell and thought hard about how the water didn’t belong.  How Posiedon’s place was the sea, and how his power should remain there, not here.  She bore down as she felt the cold rush coming over her, the roar of the water blocking out all else.

Then she was falling as the ice vanished, and the ground was coming up fast.  She bent her knees and caught her balance, as the water rolled itself back and away, taking the ships and the men and the creature’s carcass with it.

Xena sucked in a breath and looked around, the light still shining from the sword lighting the faces of men and women picking themselves up off the ground and turning to face her,  letting out a yell of triumph that made her skin prickle.

Slowly she lowered the sword as she spotted Gabrielle dodging through the soldiers.  She put the Sword back into its sheath as her partner arrived next to her and grabbed her. 

“You okay?”

Xena felt her knees start to shake. “No.”

“Oh sheeps, Xe.”

“I feel like I could eat a sheep right now.”  Xena wanly admitted, as the army surged around her, getting up from the ground and chanting her name.  “Gimme that damn staff.”

Gabrielle got her arm around her partner’s waist, feeling the faint vibration as she pressed her skin against the sheathed Sword of War.  She pulled Xena’s arm over her shoulders and felt the exhale as she leaned against her.

“Xena! That was totally amazing!”  Cait came running up, with the rest of the Amazons at her heels.  “My goodness!  That ice! And the black stuff exploding!”

Xena literally felt like she was going to just fall down.  However, with the army chanting her name around her she really felt that would not be good form, and so she stood quietly, lifting a hand in acknowledgement until her body stopped shaking.

“No doubt, genr’l!”  Bennu was soaked, and shivering, but happy.  “Y’done squashed em!”  He said. “We got the stock all back in the shelter there, now that’s gone.  It’ll be back?”

Xena felt cold and suddenly exhausted.  “Dunno. Let’s go back and get some rest if we can.” She said. “Hope Poseidon got the message.” 

“Me too.”  Gabrielle looked past them, out into the darkness.  It was dark and very empty now. She could no longer smell the sea, or hear it’s sounds and it was hard to believe really that what they’d just seen had really happened.

She looked up at Xena, and after a moment, Xena looked back at her, with an expression of overwhelmed wonder.   “Good job, hon.”

“I did that.” Xena said, in a low tone.

“You did. I saw you.”  Gabrielle responded.  “C’mon.” She started forward as the rest of the army did, everyone talking about how amazing Xena had been, and how there was nothing their general couldn’t do.

And that now was true. Xena did have that power. She’d wielded the Sword of War as Ares might have, and spurned Poseidon and his spawn, forcing him to retreat.  What really did that mean?

“Here’s one good thing..”  Jax was there, with Redder, holding a crate. “Genr’l, y’scared the fish out of the water, yah? We’ll eat good tonight.” They displayed the box, which was in fact full of fish. “Got a dozen more, to the side there.”

The men started whooping in delight. 

Xena finally felt like normal sensation was coming back into her body.  She wasn’t shaking anymore, and her steps felt steady.   She was, however, starving. “Damn good thing.” She said. “Save some for me.”

“Some?  Genr’l, first and biggest plates yours!”

**

It was a strange euphoria.   Gabrielle carefully turned the fish she’d prepared, and listened to the almost giddy chatter of voices coming from the caverns around theirs. 

It felt like anything could happen.  If she turned her head slightly, she could see the Amazons standing guard in her peripheral vision, bodies stiff with pride.  Even Paladia, who was busy hunched over a parchment, sparing brief glances at the inside of the cavern as she sketched.

“Hey Gab?”

She looked over her other shoulder. “Yeees?”

Xena was watching her intently. “Those things have to be cooked all the way thorugh?”

“Honey.”

“I already ate two trail bars. I’m starving.” The warrior complained.

“Just hang onto your boots a minute. “ Gabrielle turned and pulled the fish off onto a wooden platter, then she stood up, adding some trail bread and two baked tubers she’d grabbed from the central bin and brought it all over to where her soulmate was sitting.

They’d put down a set of furs on the rock and with the large fire it was warm enough for them to take off their cloaks and Xena her armor.  She had a long sleeved woolen shirt on and leggings, and both her sword and the Sword of War were laying on the rock ledge behind her head, polished and sheathed.

“Doesn’t need sharpening.” Xena indicated the Sword.  “Damned glad with that blade.”

Gabrielle put one of the fish and a tuber in front of her. “Here, starving thing you.”  She picked up the two mugs of tea she’d made and set them down on the rock as well, as Ares the wolf came over and sat down expectantly. “I don’t think you’re getting any of mommy Xena’s fish today, buddy.”

Xena picked up a piece of the trail bread and bisected her fish with her dagger, scooping up some of it and depositing it onto the flat surface.  She then folded it over and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully.  “Should I worry about where these fish came from?”

“A little late for that, hon.”  Gabrielle took a cautious bite of her own. “Tastes fine.”

“You cooked it.”

Gabrielle smiled, watching from the corner of her eye as her partner wolfed down her food.  “Feeling better now?” She leaned back against the stone, casually laying her hand on Xena’s knee.  Where earlier she’d felt a rolling tension in her, now she seemed relaxed, and she could feel no agitation under her hand.

“Yeah.”

“Xena.”  Cait had come in a step. “Excellent news. The snow’s stopped.”

Xena lifted a hand and gave her a thumbs up, since her mouth was full of fish.  She swallowed and then washed the mouthful down with the tea.  “That is good news.”  She said.   “Hope that holds so we can make good time home tomorrow.”

Cait returned the thumbs up and then went back to her guard post.

“You don’t think they’ll be back?” Gabrielle asked, after a moment. “I mean, I think you probably pissed off Poseidon and all that.”

Xena leaned back and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles.  “After that?” She asked giving her partner a wry look  “No clue what happen next. That’s why I want to start heading back at least into ground we know.”

“Could be a downside to that.”  Gabrielle chewed her fish, and swallowed it.  “We bring all this back home with us.”

Xena sighed.

“Yeah, I know.” 

“I want to get rid of that thing.” Xena said, suddenly.  “That’s not coming home with us.”

Gabrielle regarded her in slight surprise. “Did it hurt, to do that?” She asked. “You seemed okay.”

Xena looked at her. “Didn’t hurt at all.  I just don’t want to get used to it.” She said, in a calm tone. “That’s not where our future is.”  She carefully folded more fish into her travel bread and started to chew it, in a somewhat mechanical way.

“Ah.”

Really, there didn’t seem to be more to add to that.  Gabrielle had felt what that felt like, and she understood what Xena was telling her.  “Glad you’ve grown so sensitive and self aware in your old age,  hon.”

That brought a smile to Xena’s face.  She drained her tea and stood up, dusting the crumbs off her tunic before she went over to the fire, and warmed her hands with it.   After a moment she turned them over and inspected the palms, finding pale, unmarked skin. 

Not like the last time.    She clenched her hands lightly then shook herself and walked to the entrance of the cavern and beyond, emerging into the open air that was now quiet, and wind free.   The sky had cleared and overhead she could see stars.

She walked to the wagons and looked past them, aware of the excited pleasure of the guards on either side of her.  “Finally got some good weather, huh?”

“Thanks to you, ma’am.” The soldier on her right said.  He was a youngster, and didn’t flinch at Xena’s sharply raised eyebrow.  “Never seen the like of that.  My da told me give up on the gods, yeah? They just didn’t do nothing. But that was something.”

“I’m no god.”  Xena said.  “I just borrowed that from a real one.”

The boy looked at her, with a little smile on his face.  “As you say, gen’rl.” He replied mildly, then moved past her,  and hauled himself up on the wagon, walking to the front of it to look out. 

Xena sighed, then felt a presence next to her and turned to find Jessan there. “Glad you stuck around.” She said. “Bet youre not.”

“Bet you’re wrong.”  Jessan smiled, showing his fangs.  

Xena sighed again.  She put her hands on the top of the wagon buckboard and pushed herself up onto it, getting to her feet and walking over to the front of the wagon.   She turned her head from side to side as she felt Jessan coming up behind her and listened intently into the darkness.

It was very quiet.  She could almost hear the stars twinkling overhead and just ahead of the torches that outlined their guard post she could see bare ground, scoured by water and as yet untouched by more snow.

She could remember what it felt like to turn all that water into ice.  Remember the flow of power across her skin and that moment of insight into what it was to be a god and wield that force and how she now sort of understood just a little what that Sword meant to Ares.

She turned her head. “Tell me again what happened before you left Hades?”

**

Gabrielle had no real idea if they were going to end up getting to rest, but she got out their hammock and found two cracks in the rock wall to hang it up between, tugging on it to make sure it was secure.  Then she lined it with their set of double furs and patted them with affection, finally letting the exhaustion of a very long day affect her.

Too much exertion. Too much emotion.   She picked up her second cup of tea and went to the hammock, sitting down in it sideways and rocking herself back and forth a little.

Above her, on the ledge, the Sword of War rested quietly and in solitary splendor.  Xena had thrown her sheath belt over her shoulder before she’d wandered out, with her own sword snugged against her back. 

Curiously, Gabrielle lifted her free hand up and touched the hilt, running her fingers over it.  The metal felt cool and smooth and she could see no responding light in the big pommel jewel nor did she expect one.

But the sword didn’t scream either, it passively accepted her touch.  Gabrielle wondered if that was because the weapon knew she had no designs on it or whether it recognized her relationship with it’s current wielder.

Then she wondered if it wasn’t a little out there to be ascribing sentient thoughts to a sword.  She gave it a little pat, then withdrew her hand, looking up as she heard toenails and saw Ares the wolf entering the cavern.

The animal trotted over and hopped up into the hammock, turning around twice before he settled down next to Gabrielle, laying his jaw along her thigh.  She stroked his head, then scratched him around his ears, which twitched as his yellow gold eyes angled to watch her.  “Hey boy.”

“Grooo.”

“Hey your maj.”  Solari entered, carefully carrying a pot swinging from her hands, which were gauntleted.  “Got some mulled wine here. Thought you’d like some.”

“I would.”  Her queen agreed. “Some day, huh?”

Solari settled the pot on the hook over the brazier, then pulled off her gauntlets and set them aside. “Well.  Yeah.”  She said.  “Plenty of weird.”  She removed a ladle from the pot and dipped some wine into one of the two cups nearby. “The whole thing with the water was freaky.”

Gabrielle accepted the cup, then waited for Solari to get her own and take a seat on the rock ledge. “Yeah, it was.”  She agreed quietly. 

They both took a sip, then paused, as footsteps from further in the caverns came to their ears, and a moment later two of Xena’s troops emerged. “Ma’am.” One greeted Gabrielle. “Got some really strange noises coming from inside there.”

“Uh oh.” Gabrielle handed Solari her cup, then got out of the hammock and retrieved her staff. “Let’s go check it out.” 

Solari put her own cup down and followed at her heels,  motioning Pasi to come with her as the other Amazon rounded the corner.   “Trouble.”

“Nothing but on this trip.” Pasi checked her dagger and grabbed one of the crossbows on the ledge as they entered the inner cave where most of the army was taking shelter.

It was crowded and dusty, and a little smoky inside, pungent with the scent of roasting fish.   Gabrielle followed the soldiers through the crowd, catching sight of the small area where the injured were and spotting the cloak shrouded form of Artemis on one side, hand cradled in a sling.

The goddess spotted her as well, and for a moment their eyes met.  Then she turned her head deliberately away and didn’t watch them as they went by.

Hm. “What kind of sounds?” She asked the soldiers.

The closer of them just shook his head. “Not like some we’d heard before, little hawk” He admitted. “Bennu said to see if Xena would come listen”

“She’s out at the outer guard.” Gabrielle sighed “But she’ll come if we need her. Let’s see what we got first.”

“Hope it ain’t a bear.” Solari muttered. “I like that rug you got but not that much.”

“Mm.”

**

Continued in Part 20