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Chapter 45 - 47By M. Parnell
Few people knew that Teremon and Drusander had gone missing; fewer still knew that Xena had gone into the heart of the enemy camp to bring the boy home. Only Salmoneus and Tarimides knew, as the first stirrings of castle life were heard, that she had not yet returned. They worried now, in perfect synchronicity, arriving at the same conclusions at about the same time.
"It's important that no one know she's missing," Salmoneus began, and Tarimides completed his thought, "Until it's impossible to keep it quiet any longer. She's so visible, she'll be missed."
"I'll have to get word to Gabrielle," Salmoneus said, not wanting to alarm the girl, but not wanting her to hear that Xena's whereabouts were unknown from anyone else. He wondered, not for the first time, why Gabrielle had not stayed here, in Xena's quarters that night.
"Xena told me you had instructions to be carried out, if anything happened to her," Tarimides said.
"I do," Salmoneus assured him. "Sheaves of scrolls, proclamations, decrees; she's been a very busy woman," he said with undisguised admiration. "But I'm to hold them, if possible for forty-eight hours. During which time," he said with confidence, "I'm sure the monarch-in-question will return. You know, Tarimides, somehow, she makes everything come out all right in the end."
Tarimides nodded, wanting to believe. "Until she comes back, we put on a good show. What's our story?"
"She's busy. Matter of top secrecy. We'll just go with that, as long as it holds them.'
"Then we get creative."
Glaucon frowned at the window, at the gaping space where bars had been. He had expected the grate to be open, had waited for hours at the other end of the drainage pipe for the warrior-bitch to fall into his hands; instead he had slogged through the pipe to find that an alternate escape route had been taken, one he hadn't thought possible. Not for a woman saddled with a child. Now the child was gone, and the woman lay here alone. A puzzle. The cost to his guards had been high, and mutterings against him were being heard in the ranks. He was more concerned about Radec's reaction to the setback. He needn't have been. Radec was almost ecstatic. He cared not at all that the boy was gone. At his feet lay his greatest prize: the usurper, Xena. He nudged her insensate body with his foot, determined not to repeat his earlier mistake with her. She would be given no chance to turn the tables this time, no chance to move.
Callisto had not returned to her usual stable with Teremon, but to one less used, which housed the ceremonial carriage of the Prestian royal family, and little else. No livestock were currently in residence. An occasional soldier might use the place as shelter for a short nap, but Callisto had managed to lock the doors securely, and feared no intrusions.
"Teremon. Here, look. I have breakfast." The little boy had slept fitfully the night before, exhausted, and unwilling to think anymore about what had happened. Callisto had refused to take him back to the castle, and that had scared him. He turned to the sound of her voice now, and shook his head. "I'm not hungry. Please can I go to my father now?"
"No. Not yet. Things are too upset around here; it's dangerous. I don't know who else might try to snatch you. Here you're safe." She put as much assurance as she could in her tone, but the dirty face remained sullen. "Cheer up," she demanded. "I got you away from Radec, you're safe," she repeated.
"Will you go back for Drusander?" he ventured, fighting against the instinct that told him Drusander would not be returning.
"Drusander is - " she began, then changed directions, unwilling to see him cry yet again. "We'll see," she finished.
"And Xena - "
"What about Xena?" she asked with rising exasperation. "Isn't it enough that I rescued you?"
"Xena helped," he pointed out. "Why did you hurt her?"
"Look, that's how Xena and I are. She hurts me, I hurt her. She kills my family, she kills me and I have to do something about that! Okay? So I hurt her. She'll live. A bit the worse for wear maybe," she snickered. "Now, I went to a lot of trouble to get this food," she opened a cloth full of bread and dried fruits. "You'd better eat some." Real annoyance sounded in her voice now, and Teremon reached to where he could smell the food, afraid to make his sister more angry.
"Nothing fancy. Simple, effective, painful. I guarantee she won't escape from that." Xena heard the words and gave her silent assent. She had come to consciousness without revealing that fact to her captors, hoping she could learn something useful before they realized she was listening, something which might help her find Gabrielle. It would also delay the violence she knew would be directed toward her. She needed time before they began their assault. Callisto's betrayal shouldn't have been a shock, but it was; the news that Gabrielle was in Radec's hands was as big a shock, and she needed to think about both things before her attention was taken by pain.
She wondered what Callisto had done with Teremon. It was unlikely she'd returned him to Cletus, that would be too straightforward. Callisto thought as a bee flies, she mused, always with a purpose, but the ultimate destination was anyone's guess; she had too many stops along the way. So Teremon would be counted as lost until Callisto was ready to reveal him. It was hard to be certain what that might mean; Radec could do serious damage in the interim.
Gabrielle. She was here, in this building; Xena had heard truth in Callisto's voice, her reaction to being deceived. Yet there had been little deception; the last time she'd seen Callisto she hadn't even known Gabrielle had stayed behind. It didn't matter. Gabrielle was here, and what mattered was getting her out. Radec might not harm her, she was Amazon royalty after all...She reproached herself for self-deception. Radec had nothing but contempt for Amazons. Glaucon would still be smarting about Amphipolis. They would see Gabrielle as the perfect club to hold over Xena's head, a way to ensure compliance with their demands. Gabrielle was in serious trouble. Her mind froze at the thought that she could do nothing about it, for the moment.
Even without moving to test her bonds she knew they presented a challenge. She lay face down on the floor, naked; her hands were fastened together behind her back by a chain of very few links, between heavy manacles. Her ankles were fettered by means of manacles joined by a short, stout iron bar, which allowed no flexible movement. She had heard the discussion as an iron ball was fastened to the bar, to serve as an anchor. She also knew that a rope from the chain which bound her hands was threaded through an iron ring in the ceiling. When the rope was pulled, she would be hoisted up, arms wrenched behind her back. In that position, she would be defenseless, and escape impossible. She hated that word; maybe the time would come when something was truly not possible, but this could not be the time. Too much was at stake. She set to finding a solution to the problem, considered that at some point, she would be released for some reason, and that would be -
She was startled out of her thoughts by a vicious kick in the back. "Wake up, Your Majesty." The voice was gruff, the man smelly. Xena readied herself. The fun was about to start.
"I thought it only fitting that the Security Forces should have a taste of revenge, as you've taken such a toll on them. Majesty." Radec looked up, directly into the blue eyes, then surveyed the damage with satisfaction. She was suspended by the rope, arms stretched up behind her back, feet barely touching the floor. Brown-shirts with wooden truncheons had been at work, inflicting more pain than damage. Her face and head hadn't been touched. Still, her expression was defiant as she replied: "I knew there must be something they were good at."
Radec smiled. He could take his time, teaching her lessons in respect, humility, and finally, contrition, before the end. No one would be coming to rescue her. He held out his hand for a truncheon. "Oh, Xena, you have so much to learn, and you shall find me an indefatigable master." The truncheon came across her face, near the left eye.
"What is it you want, Radec?" she asked, when her head had cleared.
"I have what I want, Xena: you at my mercy. Understand, this isn't about bargaining, or coercion. I have captured the queen, and the game is over. You are no more now than one of the spoils of war. This isn't the dungeon in the castle, Xena, and your father doesn't make policy here." Every other word was accompanied by a blow from a club, on her back, on her legs, on her ribs and buttocks. He avoided her face and head only because that would render her unconscious, and he didn't want that - yet. "Clever bitch. My Queen," he sneered. "The barbarian should have stayed in the wilderness of Thrace." He paused, winded from unaccustomed exertion. He took the opportunity to raise her head by the hair and turn it to him. "Look at me, Xena. I'm not a stupid warlord, with a ragtag army. You'll never be remembered as anything else." He backhanded her across the face. She let her head hang limp, eyes closed. If he thought she was unconscious, he would leave her alone for a just a few moments. Or at least dash water in her face. That would help a lot. It worked. He gestured for the rope to be released, and she fell to the floor, arms finally relieved, until the next session.
If she had allowed herself to admit it, Xena would have known that she was very much afraid.
Salmoneus was beginning to feel the pressure. At every turn he was accosted by someone who wanted, needed, to speak with Xena. Immediately. Nothing was not urgent. How did she stand it, he thought, as he replayed the lies he was telling, anxious to keep them all straight. Now Tarimides had returned, and the look on his face did not presage good news.
"Gabrielle is nowhere to be found."
Salmoneus groaned, then suggested: "Maybe she's heard that Xena is missing, and has gone to look for her?"
"No. It appears she wasn't at the infirmary at all since the night before last. No one's seen her."
"Great. Teremon, Drusander, Xena, now Gabrielle. What's happening around here?"
"Here's another name for your list: Arcus." Salmoneus remembered the laconic soldier for whom Xena held much respect. "His mate Barrus, tells me that he and Arcus planned a private foray to fetch in Arcus' brother and sister from the town. Barrus couldn't go, in the end. Arcus apparently went anyway. He hasn't been seen since. I don't know if there's a connection. I've sent a troop with Barrus to follow the route Arcus was to have taken. Maybe something will turn up."
The beleaguered minister sighed. "Let's hope so. I can't deal with too many problems at a time. How are things with the troops?"
"Morale is still high. The Citizen's Council has sent us casks of wine from an advisor's private cellar. It's by way of appreciation. Some Advisors are coming by to toast the queen's health tomorrow evening."
Salmoneus looked at him with concern. "Don't worry," Tarimides continued, "there isn't enough to make them drunk and useless. They have wine with supper anyway, this will just be a better grade of wine." He paused. "Maybe tomorrow we'll have something to celebrate," he ended hopefully.
"Radec is well pleased." It was cool in Syton's cellar, and dark, but in the dim candlelight he saw enough of the man's features to recognize the greed that moved him, a greed Glaucon shared. The assassin held a sack of gold, payment for services rendered, and good faith money for services yet to come. The delivery of Teremon had resulted in an unexpected coup, and Syton could now help them exploit the breach. His instructions were clear; the rewards for success or the penalty for failure would be enormous. Glaucon stepped into the shadows to hide while Syton summoned soldiers to load the casks of Syton's finest wine for transport to the barracks.
This was to be a replay of the first session, Xena realized very soon. Nothing creative, just more of the same. She knew the purpose, had employed it herself. Over days the beatings would take a toll, and the deprivation of food and water would exacerbate the suffering. At last the beatings would halt, she would be fed and given water, and her body would rest, for a day, maybe two. She would last longer that way, and the brief respite would allow her mental defenses to relax. The renewal of the battering would be sudden, calculated to catch her while her guard was down. It would be exhausting to build her defenses a second time. After several repetitions of this cycle, Radec would get creative, employing the subtler, yet effective means of torture. Glaucon had been in earlier, with two brown-shirts. The sadist had asked her some questions relevant to nothing as a pretext for inflicting certain pain on her. More minor injuries. She exhaled slowly, noting the pains in her chest and sides that spoke of damage to the breastbone and ribs. More disturbing was the fact that no one had mentioned Gabrielle. At this moment she would endure any torture to ensure the bard's safety. As Radec had pointed out, however, she was in no position to bargain.
She had been hoisted as far as her knees, and Radec had a guard hold her by the hair in order to see her face. The club jabbed into her thigh wound, then traced the monogram Callisto had seared there. Radec noted her pain with pleasure, and jabbed again, before inquiring: "Would this be the mark of Callisto?" She made no reply, just stared ahead, unwilling to give him so much as a glance. He brought the club against her mouth. "Need your tongue loosened, bitch?" He gestured for her to be hoisted higher, then waited before speaking into her face. "You still don't get it, do you? Let me tell you what's been happening in your realm while you've been my guest. Your rescue of Teremon was only half successful. Who was your accomplice? Callisto? You shouldn't have trusted her; the boy was never delivered to the palace. In fact, it's been suggested that you killed him. It will all seem plausible once Drusander's body is found. Glaucon tells me the river should deliver him to the banks behind the castle very soon. His swollen carcass might already have been hauled ashore." She had guessed all this; it was easy to make no reaction. "Already," he continued, warming to his tale of triumph, "the Council of Advisors is clamoring for you to appear before them and explain yourself. Your minister is struggling gamely to put them off, but old reputations are hard to kill. 'Cirra', is on everyone's lips."
Certainly on Syton's she thought grimly.
"Soon, the Council will turn to a new heir, the only possible choice: Krykon. Next to you, even he will look like a noble hero." She swallowed, an involuntary reaction to blood pooling in her mouth. He took it as a sign of fear. "You should be afraid, Xena. Tarimides has held the army together, and will work to oppose Krykon, as you expect; but they won't be available. Yes," he crooned, "deception and cunning prove once again to be far more effective than the warrior arts."
He stepped back to peruse her face, annoyed by her composure. He had one more arrow in his quiver. "Oh, I'm forgetting about your friend." Her pulse raced at his words. "I had hoped she could join us; but she's not as tough as you. She didn't last long." Her face froze, even before he finished. "She died hard."
"Now, if you ask me very nicely, I won't hit you for a while." She gathered all her bloody saliva and spewed it in the man's face.
The rest of Radec's time with her passed in an anguished haze. The blows seemed far removed from her, and her thoughts became unreasonably clear. Long after he had broken off his assault she waited for the reaction she had expected. It wouldn't come. Sadness was there in the abstract; the piercing pain she expected, had known in the temple at Thessaly, was absent. There was only a hole where the feeling should be. She reflected on that, recalling how the pain at her separation from the bard had suddenly ended on the road from Dracatha, never to return, no matter how much she missed her. She was in a kind of mourning now, yet it was incomplete, and she shuddered, wondering what she had become that she couldn't weep over the gentle woman's death. 'She died hard'. Those words alone brought a visceral reaction from her, as a coldness gripped her heart, and all else faded into insignificance.
Drusander's body had not been formally identified before a delegation from the Council of Advisors demanded to see Queen Xena. Salmoneus gave them the standard line, that Xena was on a mission of military significance, and would see them upon her return. It was no lie, he consoled himself, wondering, not for the first time how he would fare if Xena never showed up. He was then 'requested' to visit Cletus. How does one say 'no' to a king, even an ex-king he asked himself, as he hurried along the palace corridors, composing a bluff for the king. In the event, no bluff was necessary. Cletus greeted him with a sad smile. Word of Drusander's death had just reached him, and he expected at any moment for word to arrive that Xena and Teremon had also been found dead. In that event, he wondered what role, if any he would play in the new government. "Who is to be monarch?" he asked. Salmoneus was taken aback. The old man was clearly shaken by events, his eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and yet he was concerned about who would wear the crown. Cletus saw his surprise. "Salmoneus, don't think me heartless; I grieve for my children, even as I hope they are found. Yet I understand my obligations; if I am needed, however briefly, to finish the work Xena began, I am ready to serve. Surely, she left instructions."
"She did," Salmoneus told him, with new understanding. He hadn't read the instructions, yet, but wondered now whether Xena had included Cletus in her plans.
"Cletus, I appreciate your cooperation here, but I think we're being premature. Xena has never failed me." He worked to make his face as optimistic as his words.
Cletus smiled in turn. "Salmoneus, you have been a good servant to my daughter, and I thank you. I too have hopes that Xena will return and finish her job." He spoke with conviction; in his mind he saw a certain tapestry, that helped him believe.
He found Tarimides and Arcus waiting in his quarters. The old king's officer seemed uncomfortable next to Xena's hand-picked general. He had helped train this young man, and now he had to confess to an astonishing lapse in judgement. When he had repeated his story to Salmoneus the minister of the crown rubbed a hand through graying hair. "So Radec's got Gabrielle, and Teremon, and Xena." He looked at the two soldiers. "Any ideas would be welcome about now."
"It's almost forty-eight hours , Salmoneus," Tarimides observed. "then we learn Xena's contingency plan." Salmoneus nodded, mouth dry at the thought of what it would mean to try and hold things together without Xena. He was about to find out. A messenger came from the Advisory Council: in special session they had voted to re-examine the claim of Krykon, next in line to the throne. Queen Xena was urged to contact them without delay to make her objections known, and to answer certain questions they had concerning the death of Drusander and the disappearance of Teremon.
"They have no right," Tarimides erupted. "They are for advisement only; they do not dictate the succession. Radec is behind this. The traitor."
"Tarimides, at this point the succession would by law go to Krykon if Xena doesn't show up. How long before the law says she's considered to be dead?"
"Years," was his reply. "We can't wait that long for this thing to be resolved. Radec won't wait that long." His jaw jutted forward in resolve. "The army supports whatever instructions Xena has left us." He wondered how long his tiny garrison could hold out against the brown-shirts.
Radec's reaction to the Council's message was not happy. "I had hoped for something stronger," he told Syton. It was a measure of the times that Syton was now bold enough to appear at Radec's headquarters, with no fear of being seen. The Council had moved to the official position that they were seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis; that required the free movement of Advisors between the opposing camps.
"This was the most they would agree to, Lord Radec. They have great reservations about Krykon. They were surprised he had dared to remain in the kingdom."
"I gave him no choice," Radec growled.
"Very far-seeing," Syton bowed, prepared to grovel if that's what was required. "There is but another way to move this thing to a climax," Syton offered. Radec's head inclined, waiting. "I'm sure you are familiar with the Law of Challenge."
Radec waved him off. "No. The bitch stays below, fettered and under guard. I won't risk allowing her freedom."
"I understand your concern," Syton assured him, "but surely, after a stay under your supervision, even the Warrior Princess can be rendered harmless. You must remember that Krykon is not well regarded. It would boost his reputation if he wins the crown in a fair fight.
"Fair?" Radec laughed. "She's a mess."
"Well, not quite fair," Syton conceded, "but a fight is immediate, solves the legal hassles, and this crisis ends. We don't yet know how the troops on the border feel. Word is slow to reach them. If they decide to act, to march in support of Xena, it won't matter to either of us who succeeds her as monarch. We won't live to see it."
Radec considered. Syton spoke much truth. The challenge could be the answer. It had not been used in centuries, but that was no problem. He admitted his chief objection: she would not die a lingering death at his hands. He weighed that against the alternative: a public humiliation, exposed as the utterly defeated one, her body left to rot in the street, carrion for the birds. That would effectively blot out any fond reminiscences of her short reign.
"Issue the challenge. They'll meet at the earliest opportunity."
Glaucon was summoned and informed. His was almost violent in his reaction. "this is a mistake; Xena cannot be given the chance to fight!"
"You seem frightened," was Syton's snide comment.
"You still believe she returned from Tartarus?" Radec asked. "You think she can't be killed?"
"Not by Krykon, she can't! She can do more damage than any single human being alive. Against warriors! Krykon's a - a - common cheat; he's no warrior!"
"Xena won't be appearing at her best, Glaucon. You've seen her. Do you think she's a threat right now?"
"Yes," he insisted, "she can undo everything, given the slightest chance. Why risk it, Radec, bide your time while the Council decides, or kill her and then propose Krykon. Don't let her fight," he implored.
Syton chuckled. "I do believe you've been listening to her speeches, Glaucon. 'The blood of Pres Prima flowing through her veins,' and so forth. I think it's time the blood in her veins watered the ground of Prestia."
"I agree," Radec said after a long pause. Glaucon had been very persuasive, and he wasn't one to start at shadows. "If you think she's still so dangerous, then pay her a visit. Reduce the threat."
"Radec, you can't send a cripple to face Krykon, the people will see it as butchery. Krykon will begin his reign as a bad joke. The people will despise him."
"I don't care what the people think," Radec reminded him. "Krykon's reign will be almost as brief as hers."
"You're determined?" Glaucon asked at last.
"Yes," Radec replied sternly, unused to such opposition.
"So, I hurt her further, without killing her, of course. How will you explain her condition?"
"She was found with evidence tying her to Teremon's disappearance," he shrugged. "she was injured while resisting lawful arrest. "That will suffice. The fools won't have time to ask questions before the challenge, when she's dead they won't be able to ask."
"The army will be neutralized; The Internal Security Forces will flood the castle grounds at first light. Xena will arrive, the challenge will commence, we will toast the new king over breakfast." Glaucon nodded, wondering how best to handicap the warrior.
"And Glaucon: kill the woman, Gabrielle," Radec added. "Right away."
Glaucon frowned. "She may yet come in handy. Xena - "
"Xena already has been told of her death. She made no more reaction than if she'd been told I felled a tree. The bitch has no heart. I want the Amazon dead. Now." Glaucon nodded, hiding his regret. He wanted the same time with the bard that Glaucon had with Xena, time enough to make her pay. He smiled darkly. Radec need never know that he had it.
"Challenge?" Salmoneus felt his stomach drop. "Xena's not here to accept the challenge," he said waving Syton away.
"I know. She's in um, negotiations with Radec. She will return in the morning to meet the challenger."
Tarimides and Salmoneus exchanged uneasy glances. They were relieved to know that Xena was still alive, but no challenge would be offered if Xena was even remotely capable of winning.
"She has ironed out some details with Radec, which I am instructed to give you now." Syton suppressed more than a polite smile, hiding his pleasure at the discomfiture he'd created. They had no choice but to go along with the challenge, as Xena had no choice; to refuse was to renounce the throne.
When he was gone, Salmoneus set aside the scrolls he'd been on the point of opening.
"Does that constitute hearing from Xena," he asked the general. "It's not quite forty-eight hours, and it doesn't seem likely the plans will have relevance after the morning anyway."
Tarimides nodded his agreement. "I need to ready the troops. When the gate is open for the challenge, we'll be prepared." He too, left and Salmoneus sat alone in the dark, wondering why he felt no panic, no urgent need to flee. Then it came to him: he didn't want to let Xena down. Smiling at himself, he settled down on a divan for what he knew would be a fitful night.
The town they thought they'd left so few days before seemed utterly foreign to them now, eerily quiet, wearing it's battle-scars proudly, like a town founded by Pres Prima would.
The vacant streets made it easy for them to move undetected, and they found easy shelter for themselves and their horses in a quiet section of the city, well-tended cottages and fragrant courtyards provided a too-pleasant backdrop for the grim task they faced.
Hela and Eponin had ridden hard ahead of them all, and spent the day scouting the town, gathering information and puzzling through some unexpected factors. They sat with Ephiny and Solari now, presenting a concise report.
"It seems the castle gate is opened every morning for the folks inside to gather at the fountain, a sort of normal moment, and a statement to Radec that he doesn't control the town."
"Thumb to the nose," Solari said with appreciation at Xena's style.
"Yeah," Hela smiled, then continued: "It wasn't hard fitting in with the population. I think some of them might have figured me for an Amazon, but they said nothing. Things don't look good," she said somberly. "Xena hasn't been seen for almost two days; the people are starting to worry. It's even longer since they've seen Teremon, and earlier today Drusander's body was fished out of the river behind the castle." Gloom had settled over the room. "No one seems to know anything, but everyone has a theory. Some say Xena killed Drusander, and Teremon, but more seem to feel that Radec's behind it all. The big worry is that Xena will float out of the river next, and Radec will be back in control."
They absorbed the news silently, then Solari asked: "Any word of Gabrielle?"
Hela hesitated before answering. "She directs the infirmary. One woman who works there said she hasn't been around in a couple of days. I don't know what that might mean," she said in apology.
"Is there any encouraging news?" Ephiny asked.
"Not from me," Eponin responded. "I worked through the castle. I was hoping to speak with whoever is commanding the army, but," she shook her head, still puzzled. "It's as if a sleeping-spell has been cast on them all, the barracks were so quiet, and the barrack precincts so empty. There were a few guards about, but they seemed to be jailers more than anything."
"So, whatever Xena managed to do here seems to have come undone in her absence," Ephiny commented.
"Not quite," Eponin observed, "but it's on the verge. It should all be settled tomorrow, one way or the other." They looked at her sharply.
"What happens tomorrow," Solari asked.
"Get this," she began and allowed herself a wry grin. "Salmoneus is Xena's civilian advisor. Her Minister-without-portfolio. I was hoping to see him, but he was pretty busy. A civilian official was with him, and an officer, named Tarimides. Even before the meeting was over these were being plastered around the castle grounds." She held out a piece of parchment. "You'll see them throughout the town as well." Solari snatched it and read aloud.
"A challenge? We're not the only ones who keep that custom," Ephiny remarked with some surprise. "Well, that tells us a few things: Xena's alive, Radec's got her, and he'll see to it that she's in no shape to fight."
"It tells us nothing about Teremon or Gabrielle," Eponin said. "But it's safe to assume Radec's got them as well. That building won't be easy," Eponin thought aloud.
"No, it won't," Ephiny agreed, "and we don't have much time. Forty Amazons, less Agrana who'll stand ready to deal with casualties. We'll have to split up, " she began, and wondered at the ease with which her mind began to sort out the bits and pieces of what needed to be done. 'Good leaders grow into their duties', Xena had told her once. We'll see how good I am, she acknowledged silently.
Black leather concealed the sinewy warrior as she edged along the barrack roof. She had been foraging for supper; listening to the news of the day from two unsuspecting soldiers, who enjoyed their wine by the fire.
Xena had not returned yet; that surprised her. The bitch always found a way out of trouble. Maybe she'd been killed in the fall? Impossible, she decided, but she may have been badly hurt, and captured by Radec. That put a smile on her face. If not for Teremon she'd go over and watch for a bit; but Teremon was there, fretting and crying when he thought she couldn't hear. He was becoming a bore, she admitted, more trouble than her time was worth. Maybe tomorrow she'd return him to Cletus. She scanned the campsites to determine if there was anything worth eating, anything that might please Teremon. Most of the soldiers had chosen to eat inside the barracks tonight, she realized. That was odd. It was also odd that the wine ration was not visible outside. Maybe there was a connection? She wondered why the two chatty soldiers had grown quiet, and looked at them closely. They were asleep. Or not asleep, passed out, but they hadn't appeared to be drunk. She descended from her perch and approached them, to sniff the dregs of the cups. Drugged. Some army, Xena. Now no one's minding the store. Teremon forgotten, she set off to discover what else might be unraveling in Xena's grand scheme.
Glaucon left her cell less worried than when he had entered, but not by much. There was something uncanny about the woman. She endured his latest brutalities without so much as a whimper, seemed almost to be observing the scene from a space apart. She had been known to live outside her body, or inhabit the body of others. He shuddered, imagining her spirit leaping into the body of another and yet another, hounding him for the rest of his days. He tossed the bloody pincers and truncheon against the far wall. Gods, he wished he'd never heard of her.
Gabrielle heard the noise from another corridor and listened as the booted-footsteps receded. Something had been happening at intervals for a long time. She had lost track of time in the dim cell, knew only day and night. The one meal she was given each day was at dawn; then she was left alone until the next dawn. She felt fortunate in that; the poor devil who was getting so much attention was to be pitied. Glaucon wasn't the sort to show mercy. She shuddered and reminded herself that Xena was out there somewhere, and sooner or later, she would end this nightmare.
Morning found banners throughout Prestia snapped to attention by a strong wind blowing in from the river. Sunlight streamed through the few high clouds to wake the people for the climactic scene in the drama they were living. In the castle, early risers crept from make-shift living quarters in stables and sheds, to scan the sky for auguries.
Salmoneus had slept little, and on rising had sent a messenger for Tarimides. The messenger never returned, and Tarimides never arrived. Arcus, who was assigned to the king's household guard, had had tried to visit the barracks, gotten near enough to know that something was wrong, that there was no sign of life, save for an oddly out-of-place group of guards. So. No Tarimides for support, Salmoneus acknowledged bitterly. Everything seemed to be going wrong at once.
Callisto returned from her early morning scouring of the compound empty handed. It was all right; Teremon could breakfast at the palace today. "Wake up, little brother," she called to him, "time to go home. Your precious Xena's putting on a show for us today. Don't want to miss that," she added, grinning with anticipation.
The massive stone walls which sheltered the brown-shirts and their master seemed especially oppressive to the Amazons, who lived in light and air. The place seemed to pour brown-shirts into the streets on this morning. They marched or rode away in high spirits, joking and laughing with an alarming swagger. There was a period of inactivity, then a small group came out, centered by two men supporting a woman between them. Ephiny swallowed hard, knowing before she saw her features that it would be Xena. The limp form was half-dragged across the ground and dumped unceremoniously in a waiting cart, to the ribald comments and laughter of a small circle of waiting men. Solari's face mirrored the murderous rage Ephiny felt, but they waited, motionless, hidden in the canopy of trees until cart had rolled away, and the area was clear.
Together they moved silently through the building, accompanied by four other warriors. They expected, and met, little opposition. Brown-shirts they met did not live to regret it.
They went directly to the dungeons, Gabrielle and Teremon the objects of their search.
Gabrielle never heard the Amazon approach, only knew something was different because the guard pacing his rounds never completed the circuit. The heavy boot-steps stopped, and that was all, until her cell door swung open, and Solari's face appeared, a finger to her lips. She looked at Gabrielle carefully, smiled her relief that she was well, and raced down the corridor, not stopping until they were clear of the building, in the shelter of the trees. At last they rested and Solari was free to speak. "They didn't hurt you?"
The bard shook her head, dumbfounded at this unexpected rescuer. "You were able to read my scroll?" she guessed at last.
"Eventually," Solari said, eyes peeled for the return of her comrades. "None too soon."
"How did you know I was here?" Gabrielle asked, then, without waiting for an answer: "Where's Xena?"
Solari found herself unusually tongue-tied. "It's a long story, Gabrielle. I take it you haven't seen her?"
"No. I've been locked in the dungeon here for - " She paused, mind reeling. "Has Xena been here, too?"
"Yeah," Solari replied.
"We've got to get her out," Gabrielle exclaimed, making a sudden move toward the building.
"She just left," the Amazon said through tight lips. "I don't suppose you saw Teremon?"
"Teremon? No," she answered, confused. "Is Xena all right?" She persisted, voice quavering, certain now that the wretch who had been shown all the recent attention was Xena.
"They hurt her," Solari admitted, then paused, listening. A faint dove-call sounded, and shortly three men exited the building. Radec, Glaucon and Krykon. Radec was speaking, punctuating the air with short, rapid jabs. At one point he poked Krykon in the chest with a long gloved finger; then their horses were brought around and they rode off together, a troop of brown-shirts at their heels. Still they waited, silently now, while the search for Teremon continued. One-by-one the five other Amazons emerged, and found their way to the hidden spot, to greet Gabrielle with tight smiles, and report that Teremon was nowhere to be found.
"Ephiny, what is going on?" Gabrielle demanded. "Where's Xena been taken?"
"To the castle, Gabrielle; that's where we're going, and there's no time for explanations."
The castle gate was ordered open by the Council of Advisors, Syton in command, barking orders at guards who no longer knew who to obey. No morning relief had arrived, no officers were in sight to counter the orders. They looked to Salmoneus who nodded uncertain agreement, and the gate opened. Why not, he shrugged mentally, Xena was out there somewhere, and nothing much mattered if she couldn't defeat Krykon. His palms were sweaty. What condition must she be in if they'd trust Krykon to fight her? The arrangements had been dictated to him: Xena would be delivered this morning. Delivered? What that meant he didn't want to know.
The people knew what was to happen. Overnight, scrolls had been posted throughout the castle, alerting them that an end to the crisis was at hand. They filtered out of the castle now, as on any other morning, but this time they were not gathering around the fountain, and no troops stood ready to defend them. A few drifted in from the town; he hadn't realized so many folk had chosen to stay outside the walls. They milled around on the packed earth, some wearing cloaks against the chill in the morning air.
A small cart rumbled in front of the castle gate, and stopped near Salmoneus. Three soldiers rode in back, swords drawn, and waited vigilantly while the driver came to the rear of the cart, a heavy ring of keys in hand. He climbed in back and worked for a few moments; the clank of manacles was heard as she was unbound. Then he gestured to one of the soldiers for aid in lifting her.
She was dumped on the hard earth between the castle gate and the public square, a canvas bag clanged down beside her. The ring of onlookers peered cautiously at the woman, deciding whether she was alive or dead. Salmoneus stepped forward and knelt in the dust. He had heard her grunt as she hit the ground, and knew, unlikely as it seemed, that she was still breathing. He lifted her head gently and cradled it in his lap. He wasn't sure she was conscious; then her swollen lips moved soundlessly.
"Could we have some water," he demanded, and a bucket was filled at the nearby fountain and placed next to him by a young girl. He knew the girl's face. Laepita. She stripped off her head scarf and dipped it in the buckets. "I'll get more cloths," she told him, and rushed away. He cupped his hand and held it to Xena's mouth, allowing some to dribble inside. He did it again, and once more, then began to dab at her face with the sopping cloth, he didn't know if he was hurting her, at some point, he felt, pain must be so overwhelming that a gentle touch would make little difference. He had minimal direct knowledge of pain, he thanked the gods, but watched the battered face respond to the cool water, and hoped he was doing more good than harm.
"Xena." He began to speak to her gently, wanting to know what he should do for her. Her body was one massive bruise, purple, black and red against a gray pallor. Her left eye was swollen shut; blood seeped from the corners. A steady stream of blood flowed from her nostrils. He doubted she could stand, let alone fight. Her sword hand was twice its normal size, the skin over the fingers tight and shiny. She was barefoot. The toes of her right foot ended in red, as if painted. He looked closer. The nails had been ripped out. Her shallow breathing suggested rib injuries. She was to fight for the throne? She couldn't defeat Teremon, like this, he thought with a pang. Laepita returned with more rags and joined him in cleaning her wounds.
"Are we hurting you, Xena?" he asked. The soft reply sounded like a 'no'. A little better, he thought. He didn't have much time, and began to speak urgently, close to the warrior's ear, while Laepita bathed her.
"Xena, are you with me? Can you try to wake up?" She opened the one eye she could, and looked at him from the depths of Tartarus. "Better," he sighed. "Who did this Xena? Radec?"
"Sure. I wouldn't...," her words ended inaudibly, but there was pride in the soft voice. Laepita brought fresh water in a dipper, and held it for her. "Drink, Majesty," she said gently. Xena moved her head to look for the voice, so sweet, yet it couldn't be.
"Gabrielle?" she asked hopefully.
"No Majesty, your most loyal subject, Laepita."
A strangled sound came from her throat; Salmoneus feared she was choking and lifted her slightly to help her breathe. His bulky form shielded her face from the onlookers. Only he and Laepita saw the sudden spasm cross her face
"Gabrielle," she murmured. "Dead...Radec..."
She waited for him to say it wasn't so. He was silent. It made sense now that Gabrielle hadn't been seen. He was only comforted to think that the warrior's agony would end soon enough. Would that she had done enough good to merit the Elysian Fields. "You'll be together again," he promised, trusting the mercy of Hades. Her eye stared at something he couldn't see, and a chill touched him.
Oh boy, he thought, as if this wasn't hard enough. "Xena. Stay with me, I know it's hard, but you've gotta rally here." The eye focused on the face so near her own now, listening to the urgency in the man's tone. "Can you defend yourself?" he asked, wondering if she could even comprehend what he had to say. "You've got to fight in a few minutes Xena; I don't know how, but it's all coming down to this."
"Fight." She raised herself on one elbow. "Radec?" she guessed.
"Not Radec," he told her, relieved that she was able to move that far. "It's a challenge for the throne."
Her mind worked for a moment. "Callisto."
"No, Xena: Krykon. Gods, they haven't told you anything." Just woke her up and dumped her here.
"I can take that piss-pant," she said with a breathy chuckle.
"Yeah," he said keeping the doubt from his voice, "well, you'd better; otherwise Radec will have the run of this place again."
Incredulous, Salmoneus felt that she grew stronger by the minute, as each new piece of information was fed her. This last piece triggered alarm in what he could read of her face. "The army?" she asked, recalling vaguely something Radec had said.
"Gods only know, Xena. I think they've been drugged. Or poisoned. There was something of a party around the barracks. This morning only a few soldiers are up and visible, and I don't think those few are on our side. The army's still with you, Xena, but not much use right now." He paused, assessing the injuries visible under the blood and dirt Laepita had cleaned away.
"The people?" Xena asked next.
"I don't know. So many rumors have circulated, they can't know what to think anymore."
"Drusander's body was found in the river. The word is that you killed him and the boy."
"No," she protested feebly, forcing her body to sit fully upright. "Callisto..."
"She killed him?"
"She had Teremon," she remembered.
"That doesn't help us. Radec used his disappearance to make you the villain. Not everyone buys it - "
"I didn't, " Laepita put in. "Few of the people believe it."
"But the Citizen Advisors seemed to. Or maybe it was threats. Or bribes." He shook his head, uncertainly. "I wasn't there, but they agreed to consider Krykon's claim. Next thing I hear, there's a challenge. Some old custom that hasn't been used in centuries. Krykon tests his sword against yours." He snorted his contempt for a contest so skewed. Xena only nodded her understanding.
"Radec. Save myself so much trouble if I kill them the first time. Gabrielle never liked that," she said bleakly.
Laepita spoke up. "Tell us what to do, Xena. Most of the people are still with you."
"Do?" Xena echoed. As if I knew, she thought, disturbed by the loss of control she felt. She thought she'd covered all the bases, yet she was on the verge of being undone... Her mind would work no further. The eye closed and she lay back.
"No time for resting, Xena," Salmoneus said, but allowed her to be still. Her breastplate and leathers accoutrements lay in a heap next to her. "Clean these, please," he said to Laepita. Then: "Xena? How well can you see?"
"Well enough," she said after a moment. In truth, she saw a half-field of vision, and that was made blurry by matter. "My eye, Salmoneus," she said. With clumsy fingers she took the cloth he held to dab at it.
"Can you stand?"
For the first time, she allowed herself to acknowledge the pain she had kept apart from herself. Her breath caught now as it flooded in. "Not much broken," she decided after a while. She knew the feeling of weakness from blood loss, and the coldness it caused. What had bled so much, she couldn't tell. She moved her shoulders, and winced, grateful they had not been dislocated by the constant twisting pressure of the past few days. They'd do, she decided. They'd have to do. Most disturbing was the wound she'd received on that awful day returning from Dracatha. Can't leave me alone, can you? she swore at it. "Help me up," she demanded, and they helped her, first to her knees, where she paused, to breathe and gauge her capabilities; at her word, they lifted her to a standing position, and supported her for a moment. "Not too bad," she had declared, when a wave of dizziness struck. They supported much of her weight while she let it sweep over her, all the while fighting the urge to be sick. At last it passed, and she worked circulation back into her limbs, and flexed muscles cramped from disuse and constraint. She would have asked to have her ribs strapped if there was time, but there wasn't. "Not the best shape of my life," she conceded, understanding now the reason for Glaucon's late night visit. It had been more about damage than pain.
"Have you ever been in worse shape?" Salmoneus asked, while he mopped fresh blood from her nose.
She fixed the one eye on him. "Salmoneus, I've been dead, remember? I'll last long enough to do this job," she rasped, savagery evident in the smile that twisted over her misshapen lips. Kill Radec. Glaucon. Krykon. Who else? "Sorry Gabrielle," she murmured.
Salmoneus looked up. "What?"
Laepita's swift fingers affixed the breastplate. On the left arm she slipped the bracer and armband. The right arm was too swollen, from fingertips to elbow for the armband. The laces on the bracer were loosened enough to allow it to slip on, then pulled tight, splint-like. No boots, Laepita decided, looking at the raw toes. Xena sat heavily. "Boots," she asked, and took her breast dagger from it's sheath to rip away the front of her right boot, before handing it back to Laepita for help in pulling it on; greaves followed. She asked for her sheathed sword to be strapped on.
"Wouldn't it be easier if you didn't have to draw the sword?" Salmoneus suggested, noting the effort it was for her to move her shoulders.
"No," was the unequivocal reply.
"Okay," he agreed, and it was done. "They didn't send the chakram," he observed.
"Callisto has it," she told him.
They sat on their heels and looked at her. Cleaner, but still streaked with blood and grime. They couldn't even guess what lay beneath the battledress. "Xena, you know I've always been proud to know you, but never more than at this moment." Salmoneus spoke from a heart swollen so large it threatened to choke him. She tried to grin, but gave it up and said instead: "I'll still get you that deal on sturgeon eggs. But if something should go wrong, save yourself. Take Argo. And Laepita, if she'll leave."
"Nothing's going wrong, My Queen." Laepita moved behind her, knowing what Xena's pride would demand before facing her people. She had no comb, but coaxed tangles from the thick, dark hair with deft fingers. Being careful to avoid the bruises she felt on her scalp, she worked a simple plait into the tresses. "It will keep it out of your eyes," she said, sitting back to admire her work. Xena remembered the fingers of the bard performing the same cherished task, and missed the soft kiss that invariably followed. "Thanks." She grabbed the girl's hand for a moment, and squeezed; both were alarmed by the lack of strength in her hand. And that's the good hand, Xena thought with disgust.
"Salmoneus. When I win," she asked, "what's to stop the brown-shirts from reneging?"
"One thing at a time, Xena," he said, holding the dipper to her lips again, wishing he had an answer for her question.
Laepita disappeared for a bit, then produced a small jar. "She scooped two fingers inside and held a dripping, golden mass to Xena's mouth. "Honey. Quick energy." Xena took it gratefully, unable to recall when she'd last eaten, certainly not while in Radec's custody. His memory made something burn within her. His twisted face saying the words: 'She died hard', drifted across her consciousness. That would be paid for. Laepita fed her honey, Salmoneus gave her more water, and she made peace with her body while the three waited for the call to battle.
At last a mercenary stood over her, shook his head at her condition, and said to Salmoneus, "It's time. Can she appear?"
As if responding to a dare she stood, shrugging off the waiting hands of Salmoneus and Laepita. "Where does Krykon want to die," she asked him defiantly; he couldn't know that the world began to darken before her eyes as she spoke. He began to lead the way. Before taking a step she said: "Salmoneus, I need a walking-stick." He looked about, flummoxed, disheartened. She couldn't even stand unaided. Laepita advanced toward the crowd, ignoring the hostile motions of the brown-shirts, heartened by the bits of lavender and ribbon that still adorned many shirts. "Our queen needs support," she told them, asking for so much more than a length of wood. They shuffled and whispered in reply, but a fine stick was produced, crooked at the top to fit under her armpit.
She waited patiently in the sun, leaning on the sturdy stick, happy for the warmth that kept the chill at bay. Each deep breath caused a sharp pain in the center of her chest, and a wheezing sound, that sounded loud to her in the quiet space. The mass of people around her made little sound; they were certainly not cheering now. Many faces were turned away, or shielded by cloaks, unwilling to view the macabre spectacle she'd become. She caught sight of movement above: a bird circled lazily, riding currents of warm air. Eagle, she guessed, unable to focus sharply enough to make out its identifying features. It was joined then by its brethren. Had to be vultures; eagles soar alone. Sorry Gabrielle, she thought, believing the little bard could hear her: not owls.
She grimaced, and tried to still the pain that shot once more through her thigh. She caught the groan that threatened to escape and harnessed the sound, producing a hum, which became a melody she recalled from home, a song employed by the women as they worked the fields. I could be there, she thought, tying sheaves, passing on the village gossip; crazily, the thought made her laugh, then she recalled her destiny. I was always meant to stand in this spot, waiting for this moment, the chosen of Ares. She remembered his cool laugh, the sensuous play of his fingers on her skin, the full lips that had offered her the world if she would but call his name. "Ares," she called now, although the crowd couldn't be sure what she had said. 'Super mortal' strength, that's what he called it; her lips twisted in wry amusement, knowing now the source of the strength, the power that had fueled her dark excesses. She would summon that strength now, if she could, she would welcome him as a partner in the destruction she meant to cause this day. "Sorry, Gabrielle," she muttered once again, and repeated the name: "Ares. If you still want me, I'm yours." Nothing. She shook her head at the irony. Here, in Prestia, where she needed him, Ares was unable to act, unable to help his chosen at the end.
So I find my own strength, she told herself, and conjured up the face of the gentle bard who had trusted her fortunes to the warrior. "I do love you, Gabrielle," she thought aloud.
She set the face in her mind like a beacon, and waited.
A murmur rose from the crowd, as Krykon rode onto the field, flanked by Glaucon and Radec. My brother, she reminded herself. He was dressed more for a banquet than a battle, Xena noted with contempt. His coronation banquet. "Well, its not gonna happen," she thought aloud, and eyes turned to her, wondering what it meant that she spoke, hummed, and laughed to herself at such a time. Had she lost her reason? Her eyes moved passed Krykon to the wizened thing that held his chain, that had taken her beloved. With sudden clarity, she saw the world reduced to one burning issue: Radec must die, which meant she must prevail.
Krykon regarded his opponent with a smirk. This half-dead woman was his to slaughter, in view of his soon-to-be subjects. She would pay for the humiliations she had visited on him. Glaucon surveyed the crowd, looking for someone, trying to sense the mood of the throng. He wondered at Radec's judgement. She had won these people, and though they were silent now, they could not be happy to see her die this way. Krykon would be an illegitimate, despised monarch from the first instant. Still, his reign would be short, and the brown-shirts ringing the field would stifle any protest.
Radec saw only Xena. He smiled in smug satisfaction at the fall of the usurper-bitch, yet felt a chill as the sun caught the brilliant blue of her open eye, it's relentless stare fixed on him. "Make it quick," he said to Krykon." Krykon had other plans.
In that moment, Salmoneus could almost feel the force emanating from her. Against all odds, he suddenly had no doubt she would prevail. Hades wouldn't get her yet. Laepita grabbed his hand and squeezed hard, "Xena!" she cried softly.
Krykon advanced toward her. Sword drawn, making small circles before him. Xena waited motionless, until he was a sword's length away.
"I didn't know the sword was your weapon, Krykon. How do you fit it up your sleeve?" she drawled, speaking slowly to make herself understood through the swollen lips. It hurt her chest to achieve volume, but it was worth the effort she decided, as the crowd heard her words and chuckled, remembering the cheat dumped in the road outside the Inn of the Four Gardens. And remembering the innkeeper who had paid so high a price for his hospitality to this woman. And recalling the role of Radec's brown-shirts in the affair.
Krykon heard the laughter. "Draw your sword, bitch," he said furiously.
"You in such a hurry to die, Krykon?" she asked. Languorously she threw the stick aside, and braced the screaming leg beneath her. Her abused shoulder muscles protested as she reached overhead to draw her sword, but they did her biding. She forced the swollen fingers to close around the hilt, and immediately brought it before her, for the left hand to share the task. So far, so good. The sword seemed to weigh ten times more than usual, but the strength to bear it came from somewhere.
Krykon's blade smacked hard against her own; he was surprised that she held on, and slashed again at the unwavering steel. "Finish her," Radec commanded. It should be easy to bring her down. She could not sustain a defense against a mobile attack, could not follow if he stayed out of reach. Hard beats against her blade would loosen her grip, and she would be disarmed. It could all be so easy, but Krykon had made the mistake of looking at her face, and the cool resolve there unnerved him. His next beat was hard enough to threaten her grip, but she held on and surprised him a lunge that ripped the silk of his robe and she laughed. He stepped back, knowing she couldn't follow, and moved to her left, where her vision was reduced. She turned her head to follow him, unwilling to give up the precarious foothold she had established with the injured leg, and watched his face, waiting for the next attack. It was obvious the sword was not his weapon; he began to drop long before his sword moved, telling her that he would strike at her knees. She caught his blade and dropped low to give with it, then disengaged and slashed her own blade across his face. Her reeled back and caught a handful of dirt which he flung in her face, blinding her altogether. As he scrambled to his feet she took her sword solely in her left hand, slashing wildly to keep him at bay, while she rubbed furiously at her eye with her clumsy right hand; before her vision was clear he had lunged at her, slicing into her left forearm. She flexed her arm with relief, no muscles had been harmed.
Salmoneus flinched when the blood appeared. "She's still there," he exclaimed as she regained her stance, and blinked the last of the dirt away. He heard the noise from the crowd, and realized that they mirrored his feelings.
First blood had been drawn by each side, and now the thing took on a new urgency, Krykon disturbed at the thought that she should be long dead, yet had managed to cut him, Xena understanding how hard it would be to battle for long, shaking her head in tiny movements to clear the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her. Each sought an early end as Krykon advanced again. He had decided on a sweeping encounter, to bring him behind her before she could turn. He had no doubt she would come around to allow his final thrust to be in her belly rather than her back, but she would not have time to raise her blade in defense. That settled, he began his wide path toward her, but again she guessed his move, and committed herself to a full pivot even as he began the feint which was supposed to keep her off-balance. Damn, he swore, knowing she would be prepared for the encounter, and he swerved out of the way, when his luck seemed to turn. The left leg, which had immobilized her throughout the fight had rebelled, daggers of pain making it impossible for her to will it to move. She fell to one knee, and gripped the sword with both hands, looking for Krykon out of the edge of her vision.
That was how Gabrielle first saw the scene, as Ephiny galloped through the ring of onlookers, startling them all with the loud "Yeaaahs!" to her mount. All eyes were drawn to the commotion, save Xena's, who focused on her opponent. Then a voice came to her through the cacophony. "Xena!" She shook her head, wondering if this was madness. Then again it sounded, nearer, and she risked a glance. If this was madness, she would embrace it. The honey-haired blonde mounted behind the familiar Amazon waved and called again, and Xena began to believe that Radec had lied. For whatever reason, he had lied. "Look out! " the two mounted women cried with one voice, as Krykon renewed his attack.
Xena rolled out of the way, sword at arm's length, to keep him away while she regained her battle-sense.
Gabrielle not dead. She absorbed the knowledge, letting it infuse every fiber. Pain was still there, but it receded a bit, except for the killer-pain, which seemed miraculously to have vanished. She would still be slow, but she could move. A chilling laugh came from some dark recess of her soul. "You missed your chance Krykon; you only get one. Now it's my turn," she snarled. She summoned strength from some deep well within her, and released the pent-up frustration of days in a full-throated cry that froze Krykon in his tracks. He watched her fly over his head in a somersault that landed her behind him. He turned to meet her and lunged at the battered woman in whose swollen face he read hatred and contempt. No shred of pity was in that cold eye as she side-stepped his lunge and drove her own sword into his chest with both hands. With a booted foot she pushed against his body to dislodge it, then turned with single-minded purpose to the next target. Gabrielle was alive, but Radec still owed a heavy debt. Oblivious to the cheers which had begun from the circling crowd, she advanced toward Radec, who had no doubt of her intentions. He cast a glance at Glaucon who was busy with his own problems. The brown-shirts on the perimeter had turned to silence the crowd, but the crowd would not be silenced. At several spots he saw pitched battles begin as she-demons with swords fought back. It seemed impossible, but as cloaks were discarded he knew the brief, colorful garb belonged to Amazons. The people grabbed discarded weapons as brown-shirts fell, and suddenly Glaucon felt the tables had turned. Again. How did the bitch do it? He saw her approach Radec, saw Radec turn to ride off, and she left her feet once more, landing behind Radec on the horse, sword quickly sheathed. She only would be content to do this one way. When killing a rat, she thought...Her fingers wrapped around his neck and felt for his windpipe. The horse moved in a circle, given no clear directions by either rider, and Gabrielle ran to her, calling her name again: "Xena, no, please, don't, you promised." Xena continued the pressure, grinning, even as she tried to recall the promise. She felt Radec go limp, and threw him to the side. One more, she thought, and Glaucon knew her thoughts. As she sought to survey the field with her limited sight he launched a dagger at her, and charged after. It came straight for her blind side and as she swerved to avoid it, Radec's horse reared, took the blade in his shoulder, and stumbled. Xena fell clear, but the horse continued to earth, landing on her before regaining his feet and cantering away blindly.
Gabrielle had watched the scene in horror, as she ran across the littered space, eyes fixed on the dark-haired warrior. Xena attempted to rise, collapsed and lay still, her reserves spent at last, new injuries heaped on top of the old. Glaucon reached her first, realizing he would have to dismount to stick her with his sword. Gabrielle saw all this as in slow motion; her cry stuck in her throat, all energy now focused on reaching Xena. She stopped only to seize the first weapon that came to hand, a sword that she held high above her with both hands as she narrowed the gap between them. Glaucon's back was to her, as he raised his sword, prepared to drive it home. "No!" she cried and he spun around to meet her, landing a kick that sent her reeling. He paused to regard her with amused contempt, then turned back for the final blow, glad she would be there to see it; but Gabrielle had scrambled to her knees and swung the sword, striking his upper thigh. Blood spilled over her, yet still he was not done, determined to dispatch the bitch-warrior before he left this field. Gabrielle followed her blade, aware that he was undeterred, and prepared to strike again, this time to kill. She raised the sword, seeing nothing but his broad back, when his head exploded in blood. She started, spattered again in the warm, sticky liquid, and the sword fell from her hands. The chakram stuck from his skull, low, where it met his neck. He had died in an instant. He could spend Tartarus wondering how the bard had managed to thwart him yet again, but Gabrielle's head shot around to find the only person who could have thrown the weapon. Callisto was barely visible in the tumult. She pursed her lips, as if annoyed, shrugged, and walked off , picking her way through the pitched battle.
Then Gabrielle was on her knees beside Xena, who lay face down in the trampled dirt. Ephiny shielded them while the battle raged. Salmoneus joined them, looked from Xena to Gabrielle, and said "She's a pretty tough lady, Gabrielle; but I'm glad you showed up when you did."
"Salmoneus, we have to help her," she said through tears.
"Yeah, well, let me get something organized here." In minutes four stout men had been pulled from the battle and lifted the fallen warrior onto a heavy blanket. Thus cradled, she was carried into the castle, Gabrielle and Salmoneus at her side. Laepita trailing behind.
Noise came from a new quarter now, as the troops, newly released from their barracks by the Amazons, flooded the field, whaling into brown-shirts with ferocity. The mercenaries had seen their paymaster fall; they abandoned the battle, hoping to take their pay in kind as they left the kingdom. Brown-shirts were in full retreat now, pursued by the eager troops. In the field before the castle, townsfolk, soldiers, and Amazons joined hands over a sea of brown. Overhead, the flock of vultures watched with interest.