It was going to take a while for Jess and Amara to get the breakfast fire going and the pot of water for the porridge boiling, so Gabrielle decided to go with Xena while the warrior went to check on the soldiers posted by the destroyed bridge.
The bard suspected there wasnt any real urgency for Xena to visit them, but she knew her partner couldnt just sit by the warm fire like a normal person; the need to be always doing something driving her out into the morning chill. And she sure didn't mind; welcoming any opportunity to spend more time alone with the warrior.
As they strolled along the road together, the crunch of the stones loud under their feet, the bard could feel the heat radiating from the tall figure beside her and she unconsciously pressed closer as she searched the warrior's face.
"So, you going to tell me about what you did after you left the village?"
Xena shrugged as she glanced down and met the curious green eyes. "Not much to tell. Spent the first night in that cave with the spring we stayed in last year and moved on to Amphipolis the next day."
Knowing how strained Xena's relationship was with her mother, the bard was curious about Cyrene's reaction to Xena suddenly turning up for a visit. She debated whether or not she should ask, then decided, why not.
"What'd your mother say when you arrived on her doorstep?"
Little alarm bells started to go off as she felt her partner tense beside her and it was a moment before Xena's gruff voice responded. "Not much. My timing was bad. One of my cousins had just gotten married, so her inn was full. I spent the night in the stable."
Gabrielle stopped and stared as the warrior continued walking. "You're kidding, right? Your mother didn't really make you sleep in the stable, did she?"
Xena stopped and turned to wait for the bard to catch up.
"No big deal, Gabrielle. I volunteered. It seemed easier, somehow. Anyway, it was early the next morning when I overheard Kirilus men as they got ready to leave, so I followed one of them. Thats when I found out about their plans. The rest, as they say "
As they continued down the road, Gabrielle had moved around in front of Xena, but in order to keep her eyes fixed on her friend's face, she was now walking backwards down the road. "Wait a minute, back up here. You arrived at your mothers inn, with your side sliced open, and the only place she could find for you to sleep was in her stable?"
Xena tried to ignore her rising annoyance at the wide-eyed look of the bard. "She didnt know about that, Gabrielle. Okay? And besides, it was nothing; just a scratch."
The bard felt her own flash of annoyance now at her partner's cavalier attitude. "Xena, Ive just seen the scars, remember? That was no scratch." She came to a halt, forcing the warrior to do the same as her voice gentled, "What were you thinking? Why didnt you tell her?"
Xena started forward again, brushing past the bard's shoulder as her mouth set in a grim line. The small woman felt, rather than heard, the warning growl, "It never came up, Gabrielle, so lets just drop it."
Confused and stung by the edge in her partner's voice, Gabrielle stopped for a moment and just stared after the dark figure retreating up the road before giving her head a determined shake and hurrying to catch up with her. Panting as she drew up alongside the warrior, she laid her hand on the stiff arm, her voice tentative, unsure.
The warrior pulled to a halt and closed her eyes, letting her head drop for a moment so she wouldn't see the hurt, knowing she was the cause of it..
Way to go, idiot! She's just concerned and you bite her head off for no reason.
She took a deep breath then slowly released it as she opened her eyes and met the bard's worried look.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. Didnt mean to snap. I guess Im just tired."
Hesitating for just a moment, the bard's face brightened and she gave the warrior's arm a squeeze.
"I understand. No problem."
She knew something had happened at her mother's inn but now was obviously not the time to go into it.
So they resumed walking in silence as they covered the last few hundred meters to the site of the demolished bridge.
While Xena stood off to one side talking with the two soldiers, the bard wandered over and pretend to stare down into the river gorge, using the opportunity instead to quietly study her partner. She tried to imagine what might have gone wrong between Cyrene and her daughter but gave up as the staggering number of possibilities overwhelmed her.
Watching Xena finish up, she re-joined her friend for the stroll back, deciding to pick up past where they left off.
"So what happened after you left your mothers inn?"
Visibly relaxing as she gave the bard a grateful smile, Xena filled her in on the rest of the details as they walked back to the camp.
They arrived back just in time to join the others for breakfast.
The early morning sky was gray and overcast and the air was decidedly cooler than the previous day. The few hours interrupted sleep the previous night had only served to remind everyone of just how tired they all were. Aching hands wrapped themselves around shovel handles as they again headed back up the road.
Starting at the destroyed bridge, they began by digging deep trenches every ten paces between the two bridges, dumping the excavated dirt and gravel into the river gorge. An arm-length wide and half as deep, the gullies would be effective obstacle to any wheeled carts or wagons the invading army would have with them.
Working side-by-side with the others, the warrior and the bard would often find themselves working on the same stretch of road together, taking advantage of the opportunity to exchange a quick word or two over a shared waterskin.
It should have been hot, sweaty work but they were kept cool by the morning breeze that had turned into a stiff wind and was now blowing down the pass.
A small group of soldiers spent the morning using brute force and a little leverage to maneuver the large boulders knocked down from the side of the mountain the previous day into strategic spots along the roadway.
It was early afternoon when one of the Andorian soldiers posted at the destroyed bridge came running to report that a scouting party for Kirilus army had appeared on the other side of the river.
Gabrielle joined Xena and the others as they made their way up the road to stand by the edge of the chasm. The other side was deserted when they arrived but it wasnt long before the echo of horses' hooves filled the pass and a small man on a tall horse appeared at the head of a long column of troops. Beside him rode the commander of the army and Xenas eyes narrowed in recognition.
She turned to Andrus, a cold note now in her voice.
"Whats Pyrrhos doing here? Did you know he was leading their forces?"
The General looked uncomfortable as he met her stare. "Id heard rumors."
"And you didnt tell me because ?" Xena's eyebrow shot up.
"Would it have made any difference," he shrugged.
Cynara moved to stand on the other side of the General as she demanded, "Whos Pyrrhos?"
Andrus let his eyes stay locked with Xena's for just a moment longer before turning to address the Princess. "He used to serve in Xenas army with me years ago. She kicked him out when he got too full of himself."
Turning back, they all watched the front of the column draw to a halt as it came to within a few meters of the spot where the bridge had stood. The King dismounted, handing his reins over to one of his soldiers before approaching the edge of the gorge, General Pyrrhos doing the same and following just a few paces behind.
Gabrielle realized that the young King wasn't so much small as compact, the fine bones of his features at odds with the well-muscled body reflecting hours spent on the practice field. Shoulder-length blond hair fell around the collar of his green embroidered tunic and as the boy came to a halt, she watched him curl ringed fingers over the hilt of an ornate broadsword hung from his hip. She'd also noted a slight swagger as he'd approached; a walk that shes come to associate more with tavern bullies and braggarts than with kings.
Taking a moment to survey the spot where the bridge had stood, the King drew himself up before calling over to those on the other side.
"Whats the problem here? What's going on, Andrus?"
The General took a step forward, his hand on his own sword hilt, his deep voice rumbling up the pass. "Give it up, Kirilus, were on to you."
He watched as the King and Pyrrhos exchanged startled looks, his face breaking into a broad smile as he added, "Its over before it started: your little plot failed. Both King Doraclyse and Queen Ephiny are safe and on their way here with the combined strength of both our armies, so why dont you just take that pathetic excuse for a soldier beside you, turn around and go home."
General Pyrrhos pushed past the boy, glaring at those across the river.
As she watched the soldier slowly reach up and remove his helmet, Gabrielle decided he was probably one of the ugliest men she'd seen in a while. He appeared to be in his early forties, and a very skinny six feet tall, dressed in black leather from head to foot. His bony face was heavily lined with pockmarked skin, his black, greasy hair hanging just past his shoulders.
As the General now stood there and studied those across the river, his mind was racing. This unexpected delay didnt worry him. Hed built lots of flexibility into his plan and was prepared for anything, even a delay of a day or two in the pass.
Prepared for everything, that is, except for the she-bitch standing on the other side of the river beside Andrus. He had been assured by the King that Xena had been taken care of. Now, here she was, within swords throw and a complication that could ruin his plan before it got started.
But as his mind adjusted to the initial shock of seeing her there, he realized that with the hundreds of well trained mercenaries behind him, and the King's seemingly unlimited treasury, even she probably couldnt stop him now.
He relaxed and let a slow smile spread over his face.
"Well, well, if it isnt Xena and her lapdog, Andrus. Was that you my men reported seeing in the pass the other day, Xena?" He smirked. "Not like you to run like that, is it?"
The warrior kept her posture relaxed as her face broke into a broad grin, giving him the once-over before answering, her voice a lazy drawl. "Your men, Pyrrhos? You mean those pathetic excuses for scouts that I plowed through? I'm glad to hear they were at least able to find their way back to you. You know, I was a little worried about them."
Pyrrhos stiffened and took a step forward.
Feeling decidedly left out of the conversation, the boy-King grabbed the General's arm and held him back as he brought himself to his full height and addressed those on the other side of the river.
"Enough of this! Wheres your army, Andrus? You expect to stop almost one thousand heavily armed troops with this pathetic bunch?"
Andrus smiled, taking a moment to check one of his fingernails before looking back up and extending his arm out before him. "I think we just did."
Pyrrhos snorted as he looked over into the gorge. Glancing back up, his eyes narrowed. "Well have this bridge rebuilt before nightfall, Andrus. Why not surrender now and save us all a lot of trouble?"
Princess Cynara stepped forward and joined her General at his side, flashing eyes locked on the young King as she ignored the man standing next to him. "My father will never surrender to you. We defeated you two years ago and well do it again now."
The boy straightened as he fixed his glare on the Princess, snarling, "Well, well, if it isnt Cynara. Cant wait to see the look on your fathers face when I kill you, just like you Andorians killed my mother and sister."
Andrus laid a hand on Cynaras arm, stopping her response before she could get out her angry reply.
"That was an accident, Kirilus, and you know it. Walk away now and well forget this ever happened. Dont, and Ill make sure you dont live to threaten the royal family again."
"Go to Tartarus, Andrus," Pyrrhos shot back as he grabbed the Kings arm and pulled him back towards the still-mounted troops.
They watched as Kirilus stopped short and the two men turned and faced each other, exchanging heated words. It was only a moment before Pyrrhos turned and stalked back towards the mounted soldiers, the King following a few paces behind.
Now the two Amazon guards and several of Andrus soldiers appeared from the direction of the huts and took up positions behind the pile of timbers from the bridge. They carried with them armfuls of arrows, depositing them alongside several longbows each.
Those on this side of the river waited for a response and it didnt take long in coming. A group of archers were brought forward and ordered to take up a position alongside the river gorge. On Pyrrhos' command, a volley of arrows was released, arching up and over the river, heading for those standing on the other side.
"Head for cover!" Xena shouted as she pulled her sword and started to backup towards the rocks with the others, keeping herself between Gabrielle and the approaching projectiles. They reached the rocks before the arrows reached them, leaving the four archers behind, crouched behind the pile of wooden beams.
"What next?" the bard asked out of breath from the sprint to cover.
"It'll take them most of the night to rebuild the bridge. Theyre going to have to cut down new timber, shape it and then lay it. They probably wont have it rebuilt much before tomorrow morning. We'll finish tearing up the road then we'd better get started on the other bridge."
As the Metzovian troops nearest the dismantled bridge began to dismount, a shout of alarm was raised as arrows were loosed from behind the woodpile and mercenaries began to fall. Horses and riders scrambled for cover as those behind the logs ducked back down before the next volley from the archers on the other side of the river.
Now it became a cat and mouse game. As the soldiers began construction, those behind the barrier took their time to pick their targets, trying to conserve arrows while ducking the incoming.
The rest of the Andorian soldiers and Amazons returned to their tools but it wasnt long before a shout went up and the two Amazon guards appeared supporting one of the soldiers between them, an arrow lodged in his shoulder.
Tools were dropped as they clustered around, two of Andrus men relieving the Amazons of their burden. The women exchanged nods with the soldier before turning and heading back to the log barrier, on the run. The General tapped one of the on-looking soldiers on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow them back.
"What the Hades happened? I told you to keep your heads down." He watched as Xena examined the wound.
"Sorry sir. I...I guess I forgot to duck." The young soldier looked embarrassed as his comrades snickered.
"Get him to the infirmary." The General ordered angrily.
Xena and Gabrielle followed the three soldiers as Andrus turned back to the others. "Okay, shows over. Lets get back to work."
King Kirilus was furious. This wasnt supposed to be happening.
He'd been convinced when the mercenary had approached him with information about the forgotten pass and his plan to invade Andoria by way of the Amazon lands, that all their careful preparations were about to bear fruit. It had taken two years, and most of the kingdom's reserves, but they were finally ready.
And even when they'd found the other pass blocked two days ago, he'd allowed himself to be convinced that the General's plan still had a chance of working if they could just circle quickly enough around to the eastern pass and surprise the Andorians from there.
But his daddy didn't raise no fools and he couldn't ignore the obvious. Their advanced force had failed. The secret pass wasnt and his mighty army was effectively blocked by a ragtag handful of nobodies. History was in danger of repeating itself if he didn't do something about it, and fast.
As he waited impatiently for Pyrrhos to return from meeting with his battalion commanders, he stared across the river gorge and down the roadway, his face growing darker by the minute. He could see the Amazons and soldiers digging up the road and bringing down debris from the mountainside. The longer it took to cross the river, the more impassible the road became.
He was just working himself into a royal rage when Pyrrhos had the misfortune to return.
"Ive detailed men to cut new timbers. We should be ready to "
The boy's angry growl interrupted. "What good is that going to do, General? This was supposed to be a surprise. Do they look surprised to you?" He impatiently gestured towards the other side of the river.
No time for this now, Pyrrhos started to turn away but was stopped when a strong hand shot out and dug painfully into his arm, pinning him in place. He swung back but caught himself in time as the King's eyes locked with his in challenge.
And then he felt a shiver run down his spine at the cold look that bore into him.
Realizing he had nothing to gain in winning this battle, he took a deep breath before shrugging and turning in the direction of a shout from the river. "It doesnt matter, Kirilus. So were delayed here a day or two, thats not a problem." He reached down and slowly pried the King's painful grip loose from his arm. "Its going to take them at least three or four days for their armies to arrive. By then, well be through here and marching on the Andorian capital. This is just a minor set back."
"You call that a minor setback," the King yelled as he pointed to a litter party carrying away another one of his fallen soldiers.
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