Gathered by the rocks at the side of the gorge, the Amazons and Andorians heard the shouts of alarm from the other side of the river and sent up a wild cheer when they saw the men scramble off the bridge just before it was swept away by the twisted mass of logs and planks.
Gabrielle joined in the cheer but fixed her eyes on a spot up the pass where, through the haze of the falling rain, she could just make out a large mob of soldiers gathered by the site of the first bridge. Now, as she watched with rising dread, the tall figure of Pyrrhos waded into the middle, tossing soldiers aside as he went.
Then, the wall of mercenaries parted, and the rest of the world ceased to exist as she became centered on the dark shape lying in the mud at the General's feet. It was too far away, and the rain too heavy, to make out much more than a rough formbut she knew.
Eponin came bouncing up, still focused on where the stone bridge had stood and not noticing the stricken look on the bard. "Well, she did it! C'mon, that should stop them for a day or two. Lets go back to the huts and celebrate; get out of this infernal ra..."
She'd glanced up at Gabrielle and then lunged to grab the bard's shoulders as the woman began to weave, all color now drained from her face.
"My Gods, Gabrielle! What's wrong?"
She tugged on the bard's arm, trying to get her to turn and face her, by Gabrielle resisted all her efforts with surprising strength and instead, kept her eyes locked on something up the road.
Beginning to feel the first waves of alarm, she followed the bard's stare and spotted the unmistakable form of Pyrrhos standing far up the pass. She could make out soldiers running all over the place but there was no obvious reason for the bard's reaction.
She turned back and gave her friend's shoulders a little shake. "Gabrielle, please, what's wrong?"
The others were beginning to notice that all was not right with the Amazon Queen, and Andrus was at her side in a moment. He took one look at Gabrielle and then he too started searching down the road for the source of the bard's obvious distress.
As they all focused on Pyrrhos, they saw him draw his leg back and kick at a shape on the ground in front of him several times before ordering two men over.
As he had drawn his boot back the first time, both Eponin and Andrus felt the bard stiffen. And when he began to swing his full weight into the kick, Gabrielle was already moving, letting out a strangled, "Xena!" and picking up speed as she headed for the edge of the river gorge.
Eponin and Andrus had just enough time to exchange startled glances before they were both off after her, coming up on either side of the bard and grabbing her arms; pulling her to a halt.
"Where do you think you're going?" Eponin grunted, as the two of them tried to hold the now struggling woman.
"Xena! We have to get to her." The bard was fighting with all her strength now, blind to everything but her injured partner.
"Get to her? Why? Where is she?" Andrus demanded, concerned eyes searching the frantic bard's face.
"Can't you see? Pyrrhos! He's...oh, Gods!"
They both spun to see what the bard was staring at and stiffened as they saw the dark shape on the ground unfolding into the limp body of the warrior. They watched in silence as two soldiers took an arm each and raised her just enough to drag her body across the muddy road; disappearing with her into a large tent.
"Let me go!" Gabrielle continued to struggle until Andrus swung her around and grabbed both her shoulders, shaking her until she was forced to look into his face.
"Gabrielle, stop it! There's nothing we can do right now. Even if we could get over there, we'd never make it past all those soldiers."
The bard glared at him, her green eyes blazing. "I thought you said you were her friend!"
Gentle brown eyes met hers, but his voice was firm. "I am her friend. And I'm yours, also. But rushing around like chickens without heads is a waste of valuable time and energy. We need to get a plan together if there is any hope of rescuing her."
"Of course there's hope!" She stood scowling at both of them before turning and letting her eyes search out the tent that Xena had been dragged into. She stood for a moment thinking furiously. They all watched as she took a deep breath, her shoulders shaking as she let it out in one long shuddering sight. Then she turned back to face them, the determination having replaced the fear in her eyes.
"You're right. We need a plan. Come on."
She spun around and headed back to the huts, Eponin and Andrus following on her heels. The rest pulled their hoods up and clutched their cloaks tighter against the sudden chill as they shuffled back to the shelter of the huts, the short-lived jubilation of a few minutes ago forgotten now.
Reaching the infirmary, Gabrielle gave her patients a quick check, allowing Eponin and Andrus a chance to shrug out of their cloaks before turning to pin them with hers.
"Okay, what's the plan?" She looked from Andrus to Eponin and back again, her heart beginning to sink as she met the uncomfortable looks.
"C'mon, you guys! We have to get across the river and rescue her. What's the problem here!"
Andrus spoke up. "The river's the problem, Gabrielle. There's no way to get across. It's what's keeping Kirilus on his side of the gorge. But it's also what's going to keep us on ours." He looked at the stricken look and he silently cursed Pyrrhos. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but there's nothing we can do right now."
Green eyes flashed and she was standing nose to chest with him, balled fists clutched at her side. "That's not good enough, General!"
They had argued long into the night; Gabrielle coming up with plan after plan and the two warriors sometimes patiently, often not, picking each one apart; pointing out one flaw after another until the bard threw up her hands in frustration and glared at them.
"Well, what are we going to do then? We're not just going to leave her there! She's hurt, for Artemis' sake!" Tears started welling in her eyes but she quickly shook them away. There was no time for that now.
Eponin exchanged a pained look with Andrus before taking a deep breath and pushing off from the table she'd been leaning against for the past candlemark, crossing the few paces to stand right in front of the bard. Taking the small shoulders in her hands and meeting the challenge in those green eyes, her voice was gentle but firm. "Gabrielle, don't you see? There is nothing we can do for her right now, honest; except watch and wait for an opportunity."
Jerking free, the young woman took a deep breath preparing to continue arguing but instead, she held it for a long moment before spinning on her heels and heading for the door. She tried to keep the shaking out of her voice as she headed out into the night.
"Fine. If that's the best we can do right now, then I'm going back to the bridge."
Eponin stepped forward, intending to go after her, but Andrus put a restraining hand on her shoulder and gave a small shake of his head.
"I'd leave her alone for now, if I were you. There's nothing we can do for her; as much as we want to help, she's going to have to deal with this herself. And, you and I need to figure out what our next move is going to be. Right now, it looks like Xena's done enough damage to delay them for at least a day, maybe two. But, we can't count on that. We'd better be prepared for anything."
Eponin stared at the door and the General could see the debate raging within the Amazon before the Weapons-Master finally gave a resigned sigh and turned to face Andrus.
"You're right, Andrus, there is nothing we can do. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
Okay, wait a minute, pain was good. That meant that she was still alive.
As she fought her way free of the heavy muslin shrouding her mind, she tried to assess her situation, ignoring the pain and just concentrating on what her senses were telling her. She knew she was lying on her side on the ground somewhere, her arms and legs pulled behind her. Shifting slightly as she tried to ease the strain on her shoulders, she quickly froze as a new pain lanced through her chest and she was reduced to breathing in quick pants for a few minutes while she got it under control.
Broken ribs. Great! What else?
She tried to shift her arms and legs but found they were bound behind her with something heavy and cold.
Chains? Now, if she could just remember what happened. Maybe if she could figure out where she was, that might help.
She strained to open her eyes and felt a brief moment of panic when she was unable to force her lids apart until she realized that there was something sticky covering her eyes and gluing her eyelashes together, and if she could just... She strained to lift her head but quickly dropped in back down as a wave of nausea rolled over her and she had to swallow down the bile that arose in her throat.
Whoa! That was fun. Concussion too. Perfect!
Deciding that just lying there was perhaps a good thing after all, she tried to get her muggy thoughts in order as she sorted through the brief fragments of what she remembered. She wasn't too worried, however, since she'd woken up in this condition more often than she cared to remember and knew it was a matter of time before it all came back.
Going through the drill, she first tried to remember who she was. Check. And the current year? Check again. Now for the trickier ones. What was the last thing she remembered clearly? A smile tugged at her mouth as she remembered the gray gob of oatmeal hanging off Eponin's eyebrow.
Wonder how long ago that was?
She tensed and froze as she heard several people enter the tent. She kept her breathing steady and pretended to still be unconscious as she heard them moving towards her. Then a sudden shock as a bucket of cold water was tossed over her.
She grunted at the sudden pain as her body reflexively jerked but she was at least able to open her eyes now. Or at least one of them. The other one seemed to be swollen shut.
"On your feet, bitch!"
As soon as she heard that voice, it all came flooding back; the pass, the army, the Amazons and Andorians. And, oh Gods, Gabrielle!
She couldn't help but let out a low grown as the soldiers bent down and unchained her ankles. Tossing the leg irons to one side, they grabbed her bound arms, pulling her up by the chains on her wrists and locking strong hands under each arm as they dragged her out of the tent.
But, she didn't care. The blinding pain from her ribs and the pounding in her head had already sent her back to the gray oblivion.
It was daybreak when Andrus went looking for her. He found her standing underneath a rocky overhang, overlooking the other side of the river. The rain had finally stopped and he noticed that the cold, fine mist that had replaced it had coated the outside of the bard's dark cloak with a thin sheen of silver.
He doubted she was even aware of his approach, suspecting that all of her attention had been fixed on the other side of the river, all of her senses focused on the tent, since she'd begun her vigil, candlemarks ago.
Coming up beside her, the soldier covered her small shoulder with his heavily callused hand as his eyes searched her face.
"Well, what's happening? Any sign of her?"
Gabrielle shook her head, and tried not to let the despair she'd been fighting all night take over, knowing she was lost if she did. Instead, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, meeting his concerned gaze directly.
"I know she's still alive, Andrus."
The General watched as the bard shifted her gaze back to the other side of the river. "I have no doubt, Gabrielle. She's too ornery to give Pyrrhos the satisfaction."
They both jumped as one of the soldiers came running over from where he'd been ordered to keep track of Kirilus' progress.
"Sir, theyve almost finished reconstructing the first bridge."
Andrus looked up the road and then turned back to face the bard. "We're going to have to order the archers back to the rocks, Gabrielle. It wont be long before they start working on this bridge as well."
The bard grabbed his arm, stopping him as he turned to go. "What? But I thought it was supposed to be at least another day before theyd find logs long enough to replace the bridge."
The General looked grim as he nodded towards the river. "They may not have to."
As her eyes shifted to the spot where the stone bridge had stood, her heart sank. She'd been so focused down the road that she hadn't noticed the state of the river.
The water had been steadily dropping since the rains stopped and now she could just make out the top of the stone column rising a handspan above the surface of the muddy water. The logs had knocked off the top meter or so but the rest of the column was still standing.
"It wont take them long to build that back up if we give them a chance. The one consolation is that they wont be able to use shields to protect their men working in the middle of the river."
She became aware this time as her arms were jerked above her head and she felt callused fingers begin to fumble at the chains on her wrists. She could feel the smooth wood pressed against the length of her spine as large hands wrapped around her waist, propping her up against it.
Then both sets of hands were suddenly removed and she grunted at the sharp pain in her arms and wrists as the chains took her full weight. She tried to muster enough strength to shift her legs under her, but the throbbing in her head left her too weak to do much more than let out a low groan.
A tangled hand in her hair and then her head was wrenched up, followed by a stinging slap to her cheek. She forced open her good eye and blinked several times, trying to clear it. Her vision blurred then focused on Pyrrhos' smirking face.
"Well, well. How the mighty have fallen, eh Xena. Looks like it's you that's going to be begging me for mercy this time."
The warrior swallowed down a wave of nausea and just glared at him.
"What's the matter, bitch? Cat got your tongue?"
He backhanded her across the face, watching her head jerk to the side before falling forward again. Reaching for the knife at his waist, he drew it out slowly as he let his eyes travel down her body. Cut, bloody and bruised, the side of her face distorted from the swelling, her breath coming in short, shallow wheezes and barley conscious, she was hardly an alluring picture.
But, this wasn't about sex; it was about revenge. Grabbing the warrior's hair and raising her face to meet his, he slapped her good cheek again to get her attention.
A blue eye opened and blinked slowly several times.
Pyrrhos leaned closer as he leered down at the half-conscious woman.
"I hope you're up for a little fun, Xena, 'cause my men have a little score to settle with you." He took his knife and began running the tip lightly over her skin, starting at her neck and working his way down; following the path of the blade with his eyes. "See, because of you, they've had to sit here the past two days, building up a lot of frustration as they watched their friends and comrades fall; slogging through the cold rain; and now, having to rebuild the same bridges over and over again. And all because of your interference, Xena. So, I've promised them that you'll help relieve some of the stress you've caused. Won't that be fun?"
As he was talking, he'd grabbed the left shoulder strap of her leathers and had begun to slip the knife beneath it but froze as he glanced up and his eyes came to rest on the blue eye that had locked on him with a contempt so profound that his palms began to sweat.
Startled, he jerked his hands away as his eyes subconsciously darted to check the warrior's chains before he swallowed and took a deep breath. His hands moved back to their task as he regained his courage, secure in the knowledge that there was nothing that she could do to stop him. As he slipped the knife back between the leather and the warrior's shoulder, he let a small smirk take over as it dawned on him that he was finally in control of her.
"Put it down, Pyrrhos."
He spun to see Kirilus standing in the mouth of the tent, his cape thrown back and his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Relaxing as he realized who it was, the General turned back; his eyes skimming down past the warrior's blood-clotted hair, coming to rest on her chest as his voice became a low growl. "This is none of your business, Kirilus. Get lost."
Then a whisper of steel and a blade was pressing against his neck, just breaking the skin as a tickle of blood ran down his throat. Caught off guard by the suddenness, he stilled as he was forced over backwards by the sharp metal slicing into his neck.
Furious, he managed to strangle out, "What the Hades do you think you're doing?"
But barely recognized the cold voice that answered from behind.
"I gave you an order. I expect it to be obeyed."
Reaching up and locking his hands over the boy's wrist, he struggled against the grip but settled for easing the pressure against his throat.
"You have no say in this, Kirilus. She owes me and my men for all the trouble she's caused and we're going to collect. So just stay out of it."
The boy's tone remained flat, almost conversational, as he pressed the blade closer. "When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed. Is that clear?"
Pyrrhos had stopped struggling when he realized that he wasn't going to be able to break free of the King's grip. Now he just stood there with his arms at his sides becoming angrier by the minute.
"Look, you put me in charge here, Kirilus, so what I say goes. Just release me and..."
"Not any more, Pyrrhos." The King relaxed his grip and because of the awkward position, the General lost his balance, and ended up sprawled on his back on the floor of the tent. Then the point of the King's blade was pressing against his throat, this time from the front.
But, that wasn't the only thing pinning him there. Cold, hard eyes locked with his. "From now on, I'm in charge. We're doing this my way, understand?"
The General swallowed hard as he started to protest, "Why you little..." but stopped as he felt the blade press closer.
Kirilus' face betrayed no emotion. "You little what, Pyrrhos?"
The General swallowed a couple more times as piercing, pale eyes locked with his and he felt a shudder run through him. His eyes widened in surprise as he realized that he was staring at a stranger. The boy wasn't the country bumpkin that he thought he was. His mind began to race as he tried to come up with a way to salvage the situation.
He held up his hands as his voice took on a conciliatory tone. "Okay, Kirilus. No problem. We're both reasonable men here. We can work something out."
The King sneered down at him; "The only thing we need to work out is if I kill you now. Or do it later."
The General swallowed nervously a couple of times before the boy dropped the sword point and Pyrrhos scrambled to his feet.
The King turned his attention to re-sheathing his sword. "Your only job now is to make sure that bridge is rebuilt by this afternoon or I will have your head. Do you understand me?"
The General took a step forward, his voice rising. "Now, wait just a minute..."
"No, you wait." The King casually looked around the General's tent and spotted a war-club hanging on the side of the tent wall. Striding over and grabbing it down, he returned with one hand firmly wrapped around the thick grip and bouncing the other end in the palm of his other hand, as if testing it's strength.
Coming to a halt in front of Pyrrhos, Xena's limp body hanging from the center tent pole to his right, he locked eyes with the General.
"I don't like it when people make me look foolish. I take it very personally." He took a step back and swung all his strength into the blow. Pyrrhos felt his stomach turn as he heard the sickening thud and the sharp crack of the bone followed by the loud grunt of pain from the woman.
Kirilus took a step forward and grabbed a handful of dark hair. Pulling back on it, one look at her face confirmed that she'd passed out again. Letting her unresisting head drop forward again, he turned to an ashen Pyrrhos.
"Now, what were you saying?"
The General took a step back and held up his hands. "Okay, Kirilus, it's your dinar; you call the shots."
Just as Andrus had predicted, by mid-morning they dragged the first of the logs close to the other side of the river. They all watched from behind the rocks as a rope was tied around the waist of one of the Metzovian soldiers and he lowered himself into the river upstream. Watching as he swam out to the middle, they observed the strong current catch him and carry him right to the column. But, as he pulled himself up from the water and scrambled over the stones, one of Andrus men let fly with an arrow, striking the man in the shoulder and knocking him back into the water with a cry.
His comrades on the other side used the rope to pull him back to the other bank.
They tried a second time, this time with a soldier who was wearing heavy armor but he almost drowned as soon as he was lowered into the muddy water.
Kirilus joined the General as they watched the soldiers pull the sputtering man out of the river.
"This is useless, Pyhrros. Youll never get that bridge rebuilt at this rate."
The General let his frustration get the better of him and he growled without thinking, "Shut up, you..."
Kirilus had the General by the throat now and pulled him so close that his face was right next to his. "You're useless, you know that?" Releasing his grip and pushing the man out of his way, he turned and strode up to the side of the river, ignoring the archers as he called over.
"Andrus, I want to talk to you."
Andrus took a step away from the cover of the rocks, wondering what the King was up to. "Ive got nothing to say to you, Kirilus."
"Yeah, well, maybe this will change your mind."
They watched as he turned and signaled. Two soldiers disappeared into a tent as a wagon pulled up in front. Their view of the soldiers as they emerged was blocked but they spent a minute with several other soldiers working at the side of the wagon before stepping back. The driver then gave the reins a toss, and it started rumbling down the road towards them. As it drew up, the driver pulled the horses around so that the wooden side was now facing the river.
"I believe you lost something."
It was a moment before what they were seeing registered with those on the other bank.
Xenas unconscious body had been tied to the side; her arms lashed around the posts extending up from the top rail of the wagon, effectively suspending her by her shoulders. The warrior's right leg was twisted at an odd angle under her.
"XENA!" Gabrielle yelled and exploded forward, but was grabbed and pulled back behind the rocks by Eponin and Jess, who wrapped strong arms around the struggling bard and just hung on.
"Whats this all about, Kirilus?" Andrus angry voice called across the river.
The King took a leisurely stroll over to the wagon, satisfied by their reaction. "Shes my insurance policy that youll leave my men alone until we finish re-building the bridge."
Andrus watched as the King came to a halt beside Xena's body. He knew he had to stall until he could figure out what Kirilus was up to so he stepped further away from the rocks and took a few paces closer to the river as he furiously went over his options.
He tried to keep his voice steady. "Insurance?"
The boy grabbed a handful of Xena's hair and jerked her head up, enjoying the outraged gasps from the other side as they saw the damage that had been done there.
"Yeah, I've decided that for every arrow you put into one of my men, I'm going to put one into her. Here, let me show you." Releasing the warrior's hair, he reached into the wagon, lifting up a crossbow from its bed. Stepping back several paces from the side of the wagon, he notched a bolt before lowering it to his side.
He let his cold eyes fix on Andrus. "A few minutes ago, one of your archers shot one of my men, so "
Raising the crossbow he let his eyes linger on the General for a moment and then turned and released the bolt. They watched in horror as it passed through Xenas shoulder, pinning the warrior to the side of the wagon.
"NO!" Came the strangled cry from Gabrielle as she renewed her struggle against the strong arms wrapped around her, her vision now blurred by tears. "No...please!"
"You son-of-a-Bacchae." Eponin spat under her breath.
Andrus bit back the rage, knowing that if he gave into it, Kirilus would have the advantage. He couldnt tell from where he stood if Xena was even still breathing. He had to stall.
"Kirilus, I swear by all the Gods on Olympus "
The King smirked as he returned the crossbow to the wagon. "Save it, Andrus. Theres nothing you can do now to stop me or my army. So call your men off or we start using her for target practice."
Andrus steeled himself for his reply.
The boy's eyebrows shot up as he straightened, his voice reflecting his surprise. "What?"
The General let all emotion drain from his face as his voice turned cold and deadly. "I said go ahead. Youre going to do it anyway. Here " Striding over and grabbing a longbow and arrow out of the hands of one of his archers, he quickly returned to his original spot. "Let me save you the trouble."
He face betrayed no emotion as he raised the bow and sighted along the shaft of the arrow.
Eponin and Jess were so stunned that Gabrielle managed to break free of their grip. She hurled herself at the General, but he had no trouble brushing her aside, his blow catching her in the chest and knocking the wind from her as she was struck to the ground.
He kept his attention focused on the boy, desperately trying to figure out how far he could push this.
"I might as well kill her now and put her out of her misery. Youre going to do it as soon as you dont need her as a hostage, anyway. This way, you cant use her against us."
He raised the bow again.
Kirilus thought furiously. He needed the woman alive if his plan was to work.
"Wait! Hold up there, Andrus! What if I make you a deal?" He watched as the General lowered the point of the arrow again. "I promise to let her go as soon as the bridge is rebuilt."
Andrus just smirked at him and raised the bow again. "I dont believe you."
Now the King almost shouted, "No, look Andrus, wait! I have nothing to gain from killing her; I just want you to leave my men alone. You do that and I promise, Ill send her back."
Andrus lowered his bow. "Okay. You have a deal. Ill leave your men alone. If you touch her again, however, our deal's off and Ill finish her myself. Understood?"
"Sure, General, whatever you say." The King nodded before turning and smiling to himself as he ordered his men back to work.
Andrus turned and strode back up the road, leaving Gabrielle and Eponin to stare after him.
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