"Fall back." Xena's voice was a low growl.
"No!" The General's tone let her know this was not an option.
Gabrielle and Eponin looked on as the two warriors stood toe-to-toe in the middle of the infirmary, their eyes locked.
Xena's dark look confirmed what the General still refused to admit.
"They'll be pouring across that bridge by the hundreds sometime tonight, Andrus. Anyone left here doesn't stand a chance."
The man met her glare; desperately arguing what he already knew deep inside was a lost cause. "We can't abandon the pass, Xena! We've got to hold it!"
The two continued to glare at each other for another few minutes before the General let out an explosive breath and his shoulders suddenly slumped. As much as he hated it, he finally had to admit to himself that they were beat. Then a sudden flash of anger as he clenched his fists and focused on the woman standing in front of him.
"You're right, you Tartarus be damned bitch! We've lost! You satisfied now!"
Gabrielle and Eponin tensed as Andrus glared at the warrior for a moment more, adjusting to the sudden change in perspective before taking a deep breath and straightening, meeting sympathetic blue eyes. He shrugged; and in one movement, apologized and let her know he was all right with this, before turning and heading for the door. "I'll get everyone ready to move out."
Letting out her held breath, Xena's eyes began to search out Gabrielle, jumping slightly when she heard a strained voice come directly from behind her.
"What about Philana and Cynara?"
Turning slowly around, she steeled herself against the look she knew she'd find there. She wasn't disappointed as the bard's frightened eyes met hers. She tried to ignore them, beginning to shut down her emotions, once again.
I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I don't know of any other way to get through this.
Her voice, when she found it, was all business. "We'll get Cynara ready to ride. It'll be painful with the bruised ribs, but she should be able to travel."
Gabrielle's hand shot out and gripped the warrior's arm, praying for any other answer than the one she knew was coming. "And Philana?"
Prying loose the bard's fingers, Xena knew she couldn't bear to look at her partner's face. She turned instead and pulled away, pausing for just a moment, before starting to move towards Philana's bed, tossing over her shoulder as she went, "She won't stand a chance if we move her now, Gabrielle; you know that. I'll stay behind with her and we'll catch up with you and the others in a couple of days."
In three short strides, Gabrielle was at the warrior's side, grabbing her arm and spinning her around to face her. "No! You're not staying here. You said it yourself. Anybody who stays behind doesn't stand a chance. You stay here and Kirilus will kill both of you. There has to be another way!"
Cold blue eyes met hers and Gabrielle was suddenly staring into the eyes of a stranger.
She didn't recognize the feral growl as strong hands closed around her shoulders. "What other way? Huh? You tell me. The only alternative I can think of is to save us all a lot of trouble and run her through myself right now."
Staggering slightly as her shoulders were released, the bard winced at the note of contempt in the warrior's voice. "It'd be a lot more humane than dragging her around the countryside, Gabrielle, and the result would be the same."
Shocked, the bard just stood there and watched as the warrior turned, grabbing up a cape but not bothering to put it on before disappearing out the door.
It took a moment for the stunned woman to realize exactly what Xena had just done and why. Then another to get past the overwhelming feeling of dread that hit her so hard it almost doubled her over.
Concerned by the sudden blanching of the bard's face, Eponin took a step forward but was brought up short by the determination in the green eyes that now lifted and locked onto hers.
"I'm staying here with Xena."
"NO!" The Amazon shouted, steeling herself for a fight. "The last thing we need is for them to get their hands on an Amazon Queen, Gabrielle. Think how they could use you against us!"
The Weapons-Master was deadly serious.
A lone figure, wrapped in a long hooded cape stood by the rocky outcrop staring at the men working across the river and thinking.
As Andrus approached, she didn't move or even acknowledge his presence, although he had no doubt she knew he was there.
"We should be ready to go within the candlemark." Pausing as he waited for a response, he shrugged before trying again. "It was a good try, Xena. Well retreat and join up with King Doraclyse and the rest of my men. Figure out what to do then."
Giving up as the silence stretched, he began to turn away but was stopped by a low growl as Xenas hand shot out and locked around his arm.
"Not so fast, Andrus. We may still have a chance."
Startled, his eyes shot up to the warrior's face and then followed her stare as it scanned the top of the gorge. With all the rain, an enormous volume of water had been channeled into the river in a short period, forcing the water level to rise until it was now very near the top of the gorge. They both watched for a few minutes as the black water splashed and slapped over the lip of the rocks.
He let himself begin to hope until his eyes wandered farther upstream and his heart sank again. He pointed to a spot on the bank, his voice again defeated. "Even if it floods, its not going to be much help. Look over there." He indicated a spot on the other side of the first wooden bridge where a wagon, piled high with logs, was just waiting.
"If the rain does wash the bridges away, it wont take them long to replace them. Maybe a couple of candlemarks."
She glanced back at the mercenaries slogging through the mud and her eyes held a twinkle. "Yeah, but if we take out that stone column in the middle of the river, theyll have to find much taller trees to replace them with, and this far up into the mountains, there arent any. It'll take them at least a day or two to come up with an alternative."
Only the top few hand-spans of the column were now visible as the black water surged around it.
Andrus shook his head in frustration. "Xena, talk sense! There's no way we can take out that column. We cant even reach it with Pyhrros archers protecting the banks."
Xena grinned at him. "Youre right Andrus, we cant. But the river can."
The General looked at his former commander as if shed lost her mind, his brows shooting up. "How?"
She turned back to scanning the opposite bank. "If the logs in that wagon, somehow ended up in the river "
He cut in, his voice excited now as he realized where she was going with this. "Theyd act like battering rams!"
"Exactly! Not only would they take out both bridges, but probably most of that column as well."
He began to scan the area, his voice taking on a speculative note. "Okay, but how do we get over there?"
The warrior cut in. "We don't. I do."
He spun on her, his budding smile now gone. "Youre out of you mind; you know that? Even if you do get across the river and past all those soldiers without being spotted, once you dump the wagon, they'll raise the alarm. Youll never make it back."
The warrior shrugged. "I wouldnt be too sure about that, Andrus."
He stared at her for a long moment before letting his voice drop into a question. "Why?"
Caught off guard, the warrior raised a eyebrow as she turned towards him. "Why what?"
His dark eyes bore into hers. "Why are you doing this? It isn't even your fight."
Turning her attention back to the river, she shrugged. "Because I can."
The General just shook his head. "Youve changed."
Turning back to face Andrus, she let out a snort before letting her eyes lock with her friend's.
"And I need you to do me a favor."
She paused for a moment, blue eyes now silently pleading with his. "I need you to explain to Gabrielle what's going on. I've got to get to the other side before they get the bridge finished. But she needs to know what's happening. Will you promise?"
The General's eyes met hers, and he nodded. "Of course."
"Needs to know what?"
They both swung around to see Gabrielle standing there, rain beading on the heavy cloak covering her.
Watching as the two women stood staring at each other, the General suddenly felt like he was intruding. He took a moment to clear his throat before speaking up. "Um...if you'll excuse me?" He nodded towards the warrior. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
He then turned and left the two women alone.
"Needs to know what?" the bard repeated, her eyes locking on the warrior's.
Xena was surprised and a bit concerned to see the calm reflected back. She paused for a minute, trying to figure out what was going on with her partner before replying, her brows dropping in a frown. "There may be a way to delay them, Gabrielle; buy us some more time."
The bard kept her voice light, not wanting the warrior to see how hard it was to swallow down the violent roiling that was tying her insides in knots.
"So, what's the plan?"
Xena shrugged, still very confused by the bard's reaction. "Cross the river and dump a load of their logs into the gorge. With the height of the water, they might just take out the two bridges."
Gabrielle's eyes searched the warrior's face. "But they'll just rebuild, won't they?"
Xena nodded, a small smile starting to curve her lips. "Yeah, but hopefully, not before Ephiny and Doraclyse get here."
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior's arm, trying hard to ignore the pounding in her head. "This sounds dangerous, Xena."
The blue eyes softened as they took in the worried face of her friend. "Tricky, but I think I can pull it off, Gabrielle."
The bard thought for a moment before letting out a long sigh and withdrawing her hand. "Okay."
The warrior's eyebrows shot up. "Okay?"
Gabrielle gave her companion a little shrug, knowing that wasn't the response her friend had expected. "Xena, there isn't much more I can say. I don't want you to do this. I want you here, safe, with me. But I know that's not possible right now. And Eponin has just spent the last half-candlemark explaining to me how I'm putting the whole Amazon nation in jeopardy if I try to go with you. So, you do what you have to, but I need you to promise me one thing."
Taking a moment to get over her surprise, the warrior's eyes sought out her partner's. "Anything, Gabrielle."
"I need you to promise that you'll be careful. And that you'll come back to me."
The warrior grinned as she brushed aside the pale bangs. "That's two things."
The strong hand shifted down to cup the bard's chin, as fierce blue eyes locked with Gabrielle's, the smile gone.
"I promise, my bard."
The rain had driven all the mercenaries who weren't working on the road or the bridge inside, under the protection of the tents pitched at the opposite end of the pass. Those poor souls detailed to work in the rain, cursed the Gods and anyone else they could think of as they pulled the hoods to their sodden cloaks tighter, trying to keep the incessant rain from running down into their eyes and blurring their vision as they worked.
They were all too busy, lost in their misery or concentrating on getting their jobs done as quickly as possible, to notice a figure separate from the shadows of the rocks on the other side of the river and take a running leap before launching itself high into the air to land in a splash of mud on their side; disappearing quickly back into the shadows again.
General Pyhrros paused for a moment beside the wind-whipped torches outside the command tent. Shaking off the rain, he took a deep breath before entering, knowing what he would find inside.
He wasnt disappointed when he brushed back the flap and was met with an accusing, "Well?"
Removing his cloak and hanging it on a peg, he turned to face Kirilus, who had sprung to his feet from his spot by the tent stove and was glaring at him, hands balled into fists.
"My men will have the bridge finished within the next quarter-candlemark."
The King took a step forward. "Youd better, Pyhrros. You swore by now wed be marching into the Andorian capital. Instead, were sitting in some Gods forsaken mountain pass held up by a handful of riff-raff." He glared at the General. "I swear, if you mess this up, Ill have your head."
Pyhrros tried to ignore the King as he brushed past him and poured himself a mug of mulled wine from the pot on top of the stove. Wrapping cold hands around the warm cup, he turned and threw himself into a chair before staring up at the angry monarch, his voice cold. "Dont threaten me, Kirilus. You need me more than I need you. You forget that these are my men. Not yours."
Stilling, all emotion draining from his face, the boy let his hand drop to the sword at his side before taking a step forward, "And it's my dinars that are paying for them." His pale eyes now bore into the General's. "How long do you think youd keep this army together if I stopped the money flowing?"
Leaping to his feet, Pyhrros took a step toward the King, coming within a few paces as his eyes blazed. "Look, without me theres no chance that your little dreams of conquering the Andorians and Amazons will ever happen. So just back off and let me do my job."
Kirilus didn't flinch as he met the General's glare. "Your job is to lead my army to victory. Im not getting a warm feeling here that you can even hold your own against a dozen ill-equipped soldiers. Youd better start doing a lot better than this or "
Pyhrros voice was cold. "Or what, Kirilus?"
The King didn't hesitate as he took another step forward, the two men now not more than a handspan apart. "Or maybe Ill find myself a new General."
General Pyhrros took a step back and threw the half-empty mug against the tent wall before looking towards the entrance. He seemed to pause for a moment before meeting the King's glare. "Dont worry, Kirilus, once were across that bridge, there's nothing that can stop me."
The King interrupted, his voice icy cold. "You mean us, don't you?"
Brushing past the boy, the General grabbed his cape, throwing it over his shoulders as he headed back out the door.
"Yeah, whatever. Im going to check on the road crews. Ill be back when were ready to cross the bridge."
He didnt really need to check on his men but he didnt want to spend any more time with that useless little puissant. Well, let the little boy-King rant all he wants. He needed his money right now, but once he and his army conquered the Andorian and Amazon nations, he didnt plan to keep him around long anyway.
What was worrying him now was the silence from the other side of the river. He knew that Xena had to be up to something. That bitch had been quiet for too long so he decided to do one more check to make sure that his men were prepared and the sentries alert.
He made his way down the road to the crew working on the bridge and stood there in the rain watching them for a while. The rising level of the water in the gorge worried him a little but the downpour was beginning to taper off and the river was still a few handspans from the bottom of the new bridge.
He turned and began to make his way back up the road, passing the flickering torches as teams of soldiers still worked at clearing the debris. He stopped to watch as several men struggled to secure ropes around a massive boulder before attaching them to a team of waiting horses. On command, the horses began to strain against the ropes as three of the men got behind and put their shoulders to the heavy stone. They had difficulty getting any traction in the slippery mud but eventually the rock began to move.
As he continued up the road towards the first bridge, he jumped the deep rain-filled trenches crossing the road every ten meters. They'd filled them earlier that day, but the constant downpour had washed the loose earth away and they would have to start again when the rain stopped. But, he wasnt concerned. It meant that the majority of the wagons would be delayed a half-day or so. But that wouldnt stop his mounted troops and foot-soldiers from crossing the bridge and securing the rest of the pass.
Hed reached the first bridge just as the last wagonload of logs rumbled across it, headed further down the road.
Now if he could just figure out what Xena and Andrus were up to.
Lost in thought, he paused half way across the bridge and absently noted that the water here was almost slapping at the bottom of the beams they had laid earlier. If the river rose much higher, there was a real danger that this bridge might get washed out. He was glad that hed ordered his men to fell the extra logs.
As he though of the wagon, he glanced up to check on it and noticed one of his men leading a team of horses towards it. He watched as the soldier in the long woolen cape backed them up to the wagons yoke and began to fasten the team in place.
He looked around for his battalion commander to find out why the wagon had been ordered moved and spotted him further down the road helping with the shifting of another particularly large boulder. Turning back towards the wagon, he noted that the horses were now hitched in place, but instead of moving the wagon forward, the soldier seemed to be backing it closer and closer to the lip of the gorge.
What was that idiot doing? If he wasnt careful, he was going to end up backing the whole thing right into the river!
He yelled to get the soldier's attention, and, while he attracted the attention of those around him, the soldier at the wagon seemed not to hear.
Was that guy deaf or what?
He began to move towards him, still yelling, but stopped when he noticed that several soldiers closer to the man had begun running as the wagon continued to backup towards the river.
He was about to turn away when he noticed that the first two mercenaries to reach the soldier, suddenly went flying back to land in the mud several meters away. Then he saw the hood of the cloak thrown back and the drawstrings released as the cloak dropped to the ground to reveal long dark hair and rain slicked leathers; a well-tanned arm reaching around and pulling a sword from her back.
He yelled the alarm and began to run towards her, dropping his own cape and pulling his sword.
Xena didnt waste any time as she backed off towards the rear of the horses, fighting off three more men who had now come running up. Reaching the yoke and the ropes holding the horses in place, she spared a moment to swing her sword in an arc, cutting the horses free before she was facing two more soldiers. Holding her sword in one hand to deflect their thrusts, she unhooked her chakram from her waist and released it, catching all five men across the throat.
As they dropped, lifeless, to the ground, she glanced up to see more soldiers running towards her from all directions now. Whirling around, she jammed her shoulder up against the front of the wagon, digging her feet into the mud and pushing.
It didnt move.
Swearing, she swung around and braced her back against the rough wood, her feet slipping under her as she tried to find firm purchase in the mud. She could feel the splinters stinging her flesh as she closed her eyes, focusing all of her strength. The wagon resisted for just a moment longer before her feet found solid ground and its axles began to rotate. The back wheels covered the last few handspans and then slipped over the edge of the gorge.
Almost falling as the wagon dropped away from beneath her, Xena quickly regained her balance and turned to see it teetering, the front wheels now caught on the edge of the rock. It rested half submerged in the water for just a few seconds as the raging river swirled around it before the weight of the load shifted and the rest of the wagon tumbled into the gorge.
Pyhrros didnt break stride but his gaze shifted from the warrior and the men now surrounding her to the mass of logs and broken planks being tossed along by the rain-swollen river. He watched with horror as the whole thing smash up against the side of the wooden bridge. There was a sudden groan and the soldiers running across it felt it shudder beneath their feet; diving for the other side as the river began to flood up and over the newly laid logs. Then they all heard several large cracks as the wooden timbers snapped against the force of the weight pushing against them.
In less than a minute, the whole thing had collapsed and been swept away.
He was forced to stop as his eyes followed the remains of the wagon, its load and now the timbers from the first bridge as well, being swept down the gorge towards the second bridge. Those working on that one had heard the yelling and had seen the first bridge disappear. Realizing what was coming at them down the river, the soldiers had just enough time to clear the bridge before the debris slammed into it and it too was swept away.
He stood for a moment, stunned, before the fury overtook him and he swung back to see Xenas head barely visible among the sea of soldiers that surrounded her. As he watched, more and more soldiers piled on until he lost sight of the warrior completely.
"I WANT HER ALIVE!" he screamed, running towards them.
Like a scene from one of her nightmares, she was swimming in a thick sea of bodies, unable to make any headway. Shed finally lost her sword and was swinging now with her bare fists, ignoring the blows pummeling her as more and more men pressed close. Shed tried to toss the nearest soldiers up and away, to give herself some room to flip clear, but it did no good. As fast as she threw the men off, others swarmed in to take their place.
A sword pommel connected with the back of her head and she stumbled forward and onto one knee as boots now joined the hands raining blows down on her. A burning pain seared her side forcing her body to buckle and her vision to dim. Driven to the ground, with no strength left to struggle, she instinctively brought her knees up, curling into a defensive ball as she fought to stay conscious, but knew it was a losing battle. Then one more sharp pain and she knew no more.
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