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Chapters 21 - 22
Dracatha. Its name was as forbidding as its craggy shoreline. Xena held her position by the rail, admiring the skill of the captain in maneuvering among the rocks that guarded the harbor. Arcus was right, it was a good, obedient little ship, with a good captain. Xena had spent the long day at sea getting to know the boat, climbing every inch of the rigging, rimming sails with the crew, taking soundings when they neared shallow waters. They had been at sea all day, fighting a stiff headwind, and arrived at ebb tide.
"We'll set here till high tide in the morning, and float in past the breakers," the captain reported, intrigued by this woman who knew ships.
"We'll take the longboat ashore tonight," Xena countered. "No point spending a night aboard, when we can get ashore, take care of business, and leave on the morning tide." No point riding the green waves, so like her Gabrielle's eyes, longer than necessary. A half-dozen times she had carefully wrapped the bard in velvet, and tried to lose her in the deep.
"It can't be done that fast, Xena," Arcus said, supported by the strong nods of Barrus. "There's arrangements to be made, good-byes to be said---"
"You've met Teremon?" she asked.
"We have. King Cletus likely sent us with you because we know him. He knows us."
"It's more likely because you're the only people in his whole bloody kingdom he can trust." She gripped the rail, impatient to be in action. "Do you think Teremon will hang around saying good-byes when he knows he's being summoned to Prestia to be appointed heir?"
"I'm sure it won't make a deal of difference to him Xena---"
"What in Tartarus does that mean?" she demanded, suddenly wondering what happened with Solon if Teremon declined the honor. "It makes a deal of difference to me," she glared. She rousted a lounging sailor and instructed him to launch the longboat. "I'm going ashore now, and he's coming back if I have to knock him cold and throw him over my shoulder."
The stoic soldiers had grown used to her foul mood, and climbed after her into the boat without comment.
The shoreline climbed steadily uphill from a rocky beach to a flat, scrubby plain. The trees had been mastered by a stiff easterly wind, which even now commanded them to bow before it. Arcus and Barrus led the way, to the rambling fieldstone house they had visited twice before. Xena trudged along behind, silent except for her boots crunching against the stones underfoot. It was dusk when they entered the shelter of the trees which surrounded the enclave. A strong wall served as added protection, both from the cruel wind and the threat of sea-raiders. Xena suppressed a snort. She had been a sea raider, and saw no enticement, then or now in a barren rock like Dracatha. It was not difficult to understand why Cletus would want his chosen one in such a place, safe from the greed of warlords.
"Hallo!" Barrus hailed, at the prodding of Arcus. "Hallo!" he cried again, only to have his voice carried away by the wind. Xena sighed with impatience, and indicated a small bell which hung from a post by the gate. "That's new," Barrus said with surprise, and pulled the bell rope. Within minutes a stout woman opened a small door in the gate and peered into the darkness. She frowned at Xena, then beamed as Arcus and Barrus came to view.
"My brave lads, come back to see our Teremon?" she said, as the gate squealed open on rusty hinges.
"And to get a taste of your cooking," Arcus winked. "We've brought a friend," he told her, before the woman could voice the suspicions that appeared in her eyes at the sight of the grim warrior. "Well, all welcome," she said uncertainly, as she backed through the courtyard before them, happy to keep her eyes on the tall woman. They stopped before the door to the house and Arcus and Barrus paused to wipe their boots. Xena followed suit. They removed their sheathed swords and lay them aside as they entered. Arcus watched Xena, hoping she would take the hint. She ignored his interest and stepped over the threshold, fully armed.
"Sorry, Miss," the heavy woman said quietly, "no weapons in the house."
"Fine," Xena replied, her blue eyes passing over the woman with no interest as she turned to the door again.
"Xena," Arcus called after her. "It's perfectly safe here. They'll be right inside the door," he said, indicating his own sword.
"Mine will be right outside the door, on my back," she responded. "Tell Teremon to hurry up, or I'll come in to move things along." She closed the door behind her with a bang.
"Lovely," the woman said, watching sourly. She waved them into a small hall, made cozy by the blazing hearth fire, and the low-hung tapestries that festooned the walls. "They're up in the study, we weren't expecting you," she explained. "I'll fetch them." Even as she turned, a tall, fair man descended the stairs, long hair hanging around his broad shoulders. He smiled a greeting, but his eyes were anxious as he regarded the two soldiers. "Cletus?"
"The king is fine, Gods save him," Barrus replied.
Arcus concurred with a nod, then said solemnly: "He's ready to name an heir."
"Aye. Is he about?"
"You've come for him? Just like that," said the woman lurking in the corner.
"Grindl, it's always to have been this way," Arcus reminded her. "We have a ship ready to leave with the tide. We should get aboard now," he hesitated, remembering Xena's demand, "but if you need until morning..."
"I do. We all do," she affirmed, and stormed to her kitchen, planning to fix a farewell feast as best she could on short notice.
"It's so urgent?" the blond man asked.
"There is some urgency," Arcus confirmed, but a night here in the house doesn't seem a bad idea. The thing is, we're not alone. Cletus sent a warrior with us, Drusander." He shook his head as Drusander scanned the room for the warrior. "She wouldn't lay her weapons aside to enter the house. She's waiting in the courtyard, expects us to turn right around and go."
"Cletus has a woman warrior in his employ?" Drusander asked, head cocked to one side.
"Not in his employ; never in the employ of anyone, I should think. She's doing a sort of favor, I suppose. She's not like any warrior you've ever seen, Drusander."
"You know how I feel about warriors," he said with distaste. "What does she know of Teremon?"
"Nothing but the name." He scuffed a booted foot against the plank floor. "She's not communicative, you might say. Makes it hard to say things, sometimes."
"I think I'd better have a word with her."
She was lounging in a corner of the wall, sheltered from the wind, and hidden by the gathering dark when he approached, and she waited until he was feet away before she spoke.
"Looking for someone?"
He started at the low voice which came from the shadows, then composed himself and replied. "Yes. Arcus said you preferred waiting in the cold to putting your weapons aside." She looked at him steadily; discomfited, he continued. "It will be a long wait then, because we don't break that rule. Ever." His husky voice held an unmistakable note of emphasis.
"Are you Teremon?" she asked, not caring about the warm house, or the rule about weapons.
"My name is Drusander." He was aware of the warm smell of leather, and strained to see the woman.
"A pleasure to meet you, Drusander," she said cooly. "Didn't Arcus make it clear we're leaving here tonight? Now if you'll tell Teremon to move a little faster-"
A blur shot out of the door, and through the courtyard. A small child stopped for a minute, head to the side, as if listening, and veered to the corner where Xena and Drusander stood.
"Uncle, Grindl said there's a woman warrior here. I want to meet her." A sturdy dark-haired boy looked toward his uncle, then turned to face the warrior, teeth showing in a broad grin.
"Do you carry one sword or two?" he inquired, then remembering his manners, he added: "Welcome to our home. I'm Teremon." A small hand was thrust at her, slightly off the mark. She took the hand, and he changed his stance slightly adjusting to her actual position.
"Well?" he prompted.
She remembered his question. "I carry one sword, Teremon." My younger brother. "I'm Xena."
Drusander's face changed. "Teremon, go back inside," he ordered. "It's cold."
"It's no worse than usual, Uncle Dru, and Grindl said the warrior isn't welcome in the house. I'm sorry," he said aware of a slight change in the grip of the hand he still held.
"Go inside Teremon," he repeated in a voice that did not invite argument.
Still the little boy turned to Xena as he left, asking: "Please, won't you put your weapons down? Then you could join us for supper." He touched the wall as if to get his bearings, then headed confidently back to the house. Drusander looked at Xena, waited for the customary comment on Teremon's blindness, or some apology for expecting the boy to be readied to leave right away.
"How long to pack his things?" she asked instead.
His voice rose in indignation. "You don't get it, do you? He's blind, he's six years old, and he's not leaving this house tonight."
"Yeah, I got all that" she countered. "Now you get this: we're sailing on the tide, and Teremon's sailing with us. If he sleeps here tonight, he just rises that much earlier."
"I know your reputation, Xena," Drusander said contemptuously. "I don't much like warriors, especially murderous thugs like you."
She pursed her lips in wry amusement. "I can't pretend that bothers me. Just have him aboard in time to sail." She pushed past him and disappeared in the darkness.
Drusander touched his shoulder where she had brushed him aside; it burned, from heat, not fire, through the heavy blue shirt he wore. Gods, is she a witch? he wondered. The words of Arcus came back to mind '...like no warrior you've ever seen.' And he had not yet seen her, he realized with a regret that surprised him.
Xena circled the house, staying in the shadows, avoiding the light that escaped from the shuttered windows. Inside was the little boy whose safety she must guarantee to ensure that of her own son. Cletus might have told her that Teremon was a child. Yet it seemed a fitting addition to the story of Cletus, the selfish king, who ordered the lives of all he touched for his own purposes. Xena felt helpless before him; she didn't like that. As one who had known power, she keenly felt its absence. Unthinking, she touched the hilt of the sword that hung at her back.
She emerged from the wind into the comparative warmth of a cozy stable, occupied by three horses and a small donkey. She rubbed the muzzle of the nearest horse as she went by, and eyed the ladder to the loft. Seemed like an alright place to spend a night. It beat sitting in a house where her name was anathema. Better a nightmare here, than in the confines of a house full of strangers. She hoped Arcus and Barrus didn't carry their comradeship thing so far as to sleep in the stable. She settled down in the thick layer of hay in the loft, lay her weapons to hand, put her armor aside, and stretched out long limbs. She wasn't tired, it wasn't late, yet her battle with the night had to begin sometime. She began her nightly ritual of distancing herself from memory of Gabrielle. The wind still blew; she wondered if it ever ceased it's howling. When it lulled there came from the house the intermittent sounds of laughter, and singing. Someone played the lute. The crying wind, like some great beast in pain, more suited her mood, and she welcomed its return. Tonight she tossed her velvet bundle to the sweeping wind, and let Gabrielle be carried off to the far reaches of the world. That done, she closed her eyes and slept.
The elevation had begun. Her body went rigid in the straw as the cross was raised swiftly, then just as suddenly, she was awake, and holding her sword, the point of it before her, where she had detected a whisper of noise in the hay. She shuddered slightly in reaction to the abrupt change, and peered into the darkness. A face loomed before her and she thrust the sword forward, dropping it as she realized it touched the throat of the boy, Teremon. As the sword crunched against the hay she grabbed the boy by the shoulders and said, shakily, "What are you doing here? Don't you ever startle me!"
The boy was shaken now. "Warrior, let go, you're hurting me!"
She realized how tightly she gripped his small shoulders and let go, backing up before him, pulling her sword out of his way. "Teremon, why are you here?"
"You didn't come to supper. I wanted to see you." He looked around now, trying to locate her. Satisfied, he began to move forward, on all fours, to 'see' her. Without asking leave, he knelt before her and began a tactile exploration of the woman. He began with her strong face, tracing the features with quick fingers, and moved down her body, stopping to caress the leather, his face showing puzzlement for a moment as he wondered about the absence of armor. He brightened suddenly as he understood: "You wouldn't sleep in it," he said aloud. Xena watched fascinated as the boy worked, not moving, barely breathing. When he sat back, it was with a pleased smile.
"I've never met a warrior before," he told her. He considered. "Don't mention that to Arcus and Barrus," he asked. "they might feel bad. I know they're soldiers of King Cletus, but they're not real warriors, you know. Promise," he pleaded.
"I promise. Teremon, no one knows you're here?" He shook his head. "And you should be in bed."
"They think I am, but I wanted to see you."
"You could have waited until tomorrow," she pointed out. "We'll all be leaving together, you know."
He ducked his head, "I know. I'm to be the little boy of a king," he said. "Maybe my uncle won't let me near you," he explained. "He doesn't like warriors."
"He'd like you if he knew you," he went on, "but he doesn't like warriors," he repeated in a small voice. "Warriors killed my mother."
She nodded to herself. "Drusander is her brother?" she asked.
Teremon nodded, but already he was sniffing the air, as if trying to locate something.
"What are you looking for?"
"I'm sure you have armor," he said eagerly. "I heard it clanking in the courtyard."
"I didn't know my armor clanked," she said, amused despite herself.
"Maybe a chinkle, here and there," he corrected himself. "Can I see it? Please?"
She rolled over in the hay to retrieve her breastplate, along with her bracers and greaves. He traced design that swirled through the armor with a light and happy touch. "It's almost like the insides of a rose," he said in appreciation. "Did you design it?"
"I had a friend who wore that design..." Her voice faltered. I told the armorer how to make it."
"It's grand," he declared, but still wasn't through. "May I touch your sword?" She knew the question was coming and held the hilt toward him. He could not hold it by himself, so she steadied the blade while he performed his careful examination of the finely crafted weapon. "Has this killed a lot of people?"
"I've used it to kill a lot of people," she replied grimly. His fingers brushed her lips quickly.
"That makes you sad, warrior."
"My name is Xena," she reminded him. "I'm not happy to have killed so many," she reminded herself.
"There's something, here," he said, finding the place where her chakram hung. "Do you carry a knife here?"
"Something better than a knife," she told him, placing the flat, round, flying disc in his hand. "It's called a chakram. I throw it, and it comes back to me." Doing a lot of damage in between trips, she thought.
He moved his fingers around the smooth surface and smiled dreamily. I would love to see it fly," he said aloud.
"I would love for you to see that," she said sincerely. In appearance he was quite unlike Solon, so dark, despite the light eyes. They were blue. Maybe. She couldn't tell in the dark. Except for the moon, there was no light here. In spirit he was like Solon, Teremon's nephew, she realized. And like Lyceus, although he shared no blood with Lyceus. He and Lyceus shared a sister, and that made them some sort of kin, she decided. Can I keep this one safe, Lyceus? she asked the dark. He placed the chakram aside and leaned his weight against her, circling her waist with his arms. She swore an oath under her breath, yet placed her own arms around the boy and held him as he drifted off. She had not done this with her own son, held him as he slept, since he was a newborn. Her own fault, she knew, yet it intruded on her thoughts, and she held him for a long time, held them all, Teremon, Solon and Lyceus.
At last she stirred, and carried the little boy from the loft back to the main house. She knocked softly, trying not to wake him. Grindl opened the door, and was brushed aside as the tall warrior brought her tiny bundle into the warmth of the room.
"Here, you put him down," Grindl sputtered, finding her voice.
Xena ignored her, saw Drusander rising from his seat by the fire and directed her words to him. "He paid me a visit in the stable," she said. "Where does he belong?"
"I'll take him," Drusander said, recovering from a surprise for a second time that night.
"I've got him," she said firmly. "Where does he belong?" she repeated. Something in her narrowed blue eyes held them all motionless as she moved to the stairs. At last, getting no response she inclined her head and arched an eyebrow.
"I'll show you," Drusander said, preceding her up the short length of stairs. She lay him on a downy mattress, and pulled a fluffy comforter to his chin. Drusander watched from the doorway, intrigued by the leather clad woman tucking the boy into bed. When she turned to the door, he caught a glimpse of the blue eyes, and spoke, wanting her to stay for a moment. "Thank you. I'm sorry he bothered you."
She looked at his long form and examined his face before answering. His slate-gray eyes carried a real apology, but she wasn't interested. "Keep a closer eye on him," she warned.
What she had missed on the way in, she took in as she retraced her steps to the door. The most striking feature of the room were the elaborate tapestries, with weave so prominent it might be read with the fingers, she realized. Made for Teremon, she guessed. She wanted to stay and read them, but quickened her pace so that the room was behind her, the door shut on whatever they might want to say about the incident.
She woke when the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and realized she had slept through the night. The aborted nightmare had been all the dreaming she remembered. That was a good augury. Maybe this would be a good day, she considered guardedly. She trusted Arcus and Barrus to have the boy prepared in time to sail on the tide. She took a quick trip to the nearby woods, and found a bucket by the well for her ablutions. She was hungry; that would find its remedy on the ship, she hoped.
They made their farewells in the courtyard, Teremon and Drusander accepting full hugs and warm kisses from the distressed Grindl, Xena pacing impatiently outside the gate, casting frequent glances at the sun. She had caught a glimpse of Drusander, wearing a cloak. She hadn't expected him along, yet supposed it couldn't be otherwise. She wondered about his sister and the potent Cletus. Another casual encounter, or something more. Cletus' wife would have still been alive, she realized. Poor woman; Xena couldn't help but feel she knew of her husband's indiscretions, maybe knew of the children. Since the dead hear when the living think of them, Xena was certain the woman knew now.
At last they set out, Arcus, Barrus and Drusander taking turns carrying Teremon, for the sake of speed, Xena keeping her distance, far ahead. The ship rode high in the water, the tide still coming in, when the longboat was pushed off shore, and set bounding away from Dracatha. Teremon was right about Drusander, he never let him approach Xena, turning the day's voyage into something of a lesson, about the sea and ships. It suited Xena, who kept her own company, in the rigging, or at the rail again.
They slept that night aboard the ship, a quiet night, disturbed only by a muffled noise, as if a sleeper cried out in pain.
It was exhilarating to be on the road once more, Argo under her, green flashing past, Prestia coming closer with each mile. She wished only that the little band traveling with her could move faster. Arcus and Barrus flanked Drusander, who rode with Teremon in front of him in the saddle. The little boy held a good seat, and Xena was certain better time could be made, but Drusander was cautious, and she suspected, not much more than adequate as a horseman.
She watched them now from a small ridge ahead; herself appointed job was to scout the territory around them, assuring no unwelcome company. She had left it to Arcus to explain to Drusander the harsh realities of the dangers that might await Teremon in Prestia, and the possibility of danger on the road. So much hung on unknown factors: had Radec bought her 'escape' from Prestia, or did he guess that it was contrived? Did he know of Teremon? Could he figure that she had been dispatched to bring the little prince to Prestia? He had known too much all along for Xena's taste. It bothered her to consider how Cletus had let all initiative slip away from him. Zeus, what sort of king lets a minister establish a private army? She shook her head in wonder. If she was monarch-she caught herself. That was a dangerous thought to entertain. The last thing in the world she wanted was to be ruler of anything. Maybe Argo, she smiled as she patted the golden mare's neck. It occurred to her that Argo chose to let her be ruler. "Thank you," she said gently, as she spurred her down the slope to the others. Time for lunch, time for a break, time to touch base with Arcus and Barrus.
They made frequent stops, for Teremon's sake. She had argued against that, but Drusander couldn't get the concept that speed was of the essence, and a demanding ride wiser, and safer than a slow pace which gave the enemy more time to respond. His tactic was simple: when he felt the need, he pulled his horse to the side and dismounted. Her impulse was to take the boy and continue alone. It was hard to face the combined opposition of Arcus and Barrus, who reluctantly gave their support to Drusander. That had left a strain Xena and the soldiers. Now, as she approached, Arcus paid her close attention, and raised a hand in greeting, an unspoken offering of peace.
"There's a spring about mile ahead, good spot to take a break," she said, indicating with a shake of her head. She reined Argo in next to Arcus, and the two rode ahead in quiet conversation. Neither had seen any signs of trouble, no ominous markers on the trail; yet it was their job to anticipate trouble and Xena wanted to know now whether Drusander could be trusted with Teremon in the saddle. "If we had to get away from trouble, fast, could Drusander do the job?"
Arcus twisted his lips, considering-for a long time. That was all the answer she needed.
"Who carries him, then?"
"You'd be the best choice, Xena," Arcus replied, admiring the war-horse, and recalling how Teremon had asked several times whether he could ride with the warrior-woman.
Xena shook her head. "I don't want him, Drusander wouldn't go for it, and I'm scout, remember?"
"Barrus has a good horse," he said.
"Then Barrus carries him," she determined. She looked Arcus in the eye. "That's the decision. If Drusander doesn't like it, that's his problem." Her eyes told him that she expected his support on this.
"Xena, you have to understand about Drusander. He's not used to violence, or warriors, but he does love Teremon."
"Good for him," she snapped. "I just don't want his love to get Teremon killed."
"Yeah, I think he'd find it hard to believe he'd ever be the cause of harm to the boy. He's been like mother and father to the lad since Teremon's mother died."
"How did that happen," Xena asked despite herself. She hoped she wouldn't hear that she'd caused that tragedy.
"The woman's name was Salana. A maiden. When Drusander knew his sister had borne a child out of wedlock, he went to Prestia to challenge the old man; gutsy for a bard, I thought."
Arcus paused as Xena's eyes darkened. "Go on," she urged him.
"The King sent her with money enough to resettle away from the disgrace of...you know, being an unwed mother." A lot easier being an unwed father, Xena thought. Another tawdry little adventure. Arcus read the sneer on Xena's lips as criticism of Cletus. Loyalty prevented his agreement, but he couldn't disagree. "Anyway, she went to Gaul, to a section that been pacified by the Romans; it seemed a reasonable choice, but a local disturbance was put down by a ruthless commander-" He paused. Xena's face had gone rigid. He kept his eyes on her as he said the name: "Julius Caesar. A lot of ordinary folk died. Salana was one of them. Drusander found Teremon being cared for by a neighbor. A fever had swept though the village in the days after the battle-slaughter-, and Teremon had it bad. When he recovered he was blind. Drusander took him to Dracatha, with the blessing of the king-"
"Very generous," she snorted.
Arcus, bit his tongue. "Anyway, Drusander is sort of overprotective. None of his tales ever touch on warriors or conquests."
"Great training for a king in this part of the world," she commented caustically. "Why then, are those tapestries there for Teremon to read?"
"You noticed them?" he asked with surprise. "If you had a close look, you'd find yourself there. They record the history of Prestia."
"Oh." It was her turn to be surprised. "Am I a warlord or an itinerant penitent?" she inquired.
"Look for yourself and see, someday, Xena." He rode back to alert the others to the coming stop.
So they went on for two days of hard travel, pushing through the day, setting up a guarded camp at night. Arcus wished for more soldiers, even though he knew their smaller numbers made them less noticeable. Xena slept very little, bearing most of the watch at night. He knew she didn't sleep well, and made no comment when she took her bedroll far from the others. Drusander commented, though never to her; he said he was reflecting Teremon's wishes to have her close. "I don't want him stealing off in the night to find her again," he said, watching her leave the light of the campfire, unable to turn away.
Xena had stayed away from Teremon, although she often caught the small face turned towards her, as if tracking her scent and the distinctive noise her armor made when she moved. On the second evening she approached him before she moved off for the night. Drusander looked up from the story he told, something about a Cyclops, she thought.
"Good-night, Teremon," she said. "You know I don't sleep around the fire. I need to make sure we're alone. You understand?" The boy nodded. "It won't make my job easier if you don't stay put."
"I never see you, Xena, " he protested, as much for his uncle's sake as for hers. "Can I ride with you tomorrow?" he asked, all innocence. A little manipulator, like his father, she acknowledged. She looked to Drusander, and received a silent nod of approval.
"Yeah, Teremon. Tomorrow you can ride with me, for a little while. Now get some sleep."
It was the third morning, and Teremon was ready to collect his prize. He attached himself to Xena as soon as breakfast was done.
"Your horse is golden," he told her. "Arcus said so; and her name is Argo."
"Yeah, Teremon that's right." She lifted him into the saddle, and mounted behind him.
"I'll bet you never let anyone else ride her," he said proudly.
"Not anymore," she answered in an odd voice.
They made better time that morning, Xena moved fast on Argo, even carrying the boy. Arcus performed the scouting duties, and Barrus stayed with Drusander, who moved much faster without Teremon in his saddle. They stopped only once, near a wide stream. While Barrus kept guard, Arcus set to building a fire, and Xena took the boy fishing. He was good at standing still, and his uncanny hearing found a useful purpose, once Xena had demonstrated how to find a fish. He squealed with delight, briefly, when the first fish was plucked from its habitat by the sure-handed woman. Xena reminded him of the need for quiet, and he made no sounds for the rest of the exercise, merely indicating with a pointed finger where a fish lurked. In that way, he found enough fish for lunch.
"Uncle, I can hear the fish," he enthused as he rubbed his muddy feet on coarse grass.
"Xena," he asked. "am I the only one you fish with?"
"Yeah. Now." She dried her own feet on the grass, and began to pull on her boots. Drusander stood next to her, and coughed to get her attention. She merely raised an eyebrow, a bare invitation to speak.
"I wanted to thank you for taking that time with Teremon," he said with a tentative smile.
"No need for thanks. He's a nice little boy. He's been a good soldier."
"Good soldier? Does everything need a military reference?" he asked with distaste.
She turned back to her boots. "Have I made any others?" she asked. "Or is my presence alone a 'military reference'. Can't help that. My skills are more or less martial. That's why I'm here," her words were clipped, her tone heated. She stood to leave. He placed a strong hand on her arm.
"I'm sorry-" he began, before she pulled her arm away and focused cold blue eyes on his own.
"Just until Prestia," she breathed. "then you'll be rid of me."
She found Arcus, cleaning fish. "I'm going to check out the area" she said.
She shrugged. "Maybe I'll get some rabbits for supper." She took a step away, then turned back. "Keep an eye on Teremon," she said, knowing the warning was unnecessary.
She backtracked first to make certain no one was following them, then began a wide arcing movement on either side of the road. Anyone interested in doing them harm wouldn't need to stay on the road, they could find hunter's trails through the woods and come on them in ambush. These woods looked undisturbed, the woodland animals made the expected amount of noise; no one had disturbed them recently. She figured to ride past the camp, testing Barrus' vigilance, then doing a forward reconnoiter. It was while she approached, in smelling distance of the campfire, that the hackles on the back of her neck stood on edge. The three mounts went thundering past her, a pasty Arcus, blood masking one side of his face, in pursuit. Xena wheeled Argo around and ran the nearest steed down. She returned to Arcus, and asked while he mounted: "What's happened?"
"A mounted group of men, stormed through camp. They grabbed Teremon, shooed the horses. Barrus has an arrow in his shoulder." He didn't mention the gash in his own head.
"How long ago?"
"I don't know; I was out for a bit." Should still be out, by the looks of him, she thought. Forward reconnoiter first, she scolded herself. Damn!
"Maybe a dozen."
"I'm going after him, Arcus."
"I'm with you Xena," he declared, as he swayed in his saddle, staying aboard by grasping the saddle horn.
"Get back to camp."
"You can't take on-"
"I don't need to be worrying about you at my back. Get back to camp, " she said in a voice that let him know it was a command.
She didn't know how much start they had, but knew they would be expecting pursuit. They were not hard to follow through the woodland, that many horses leave a well-trampled wake. There was no sign that they had stopped, and they had not split up. That meant they were too stupid to take the simple precaution of making their pursuers make decisions, or they knew, she recognized without vanity, that the Warrior Princess rode after them.
It was impossible to be quiet, impossible to pussy-foot around, trying to avoid the ambush they surely had planned. They probably had only a small head start, but she didn't know their intentions, and could only plunge headlong down the narrow trail, trusting Argo to keep her footing, and her own skills when she encountered them. Still, it needn't be a complete surprise... She caught sight of light at the end of the dark leafy canyon she rode through. A clearing, maybe not the right clearing, but she wouldn't take any unnecessary chances. She silently urged Argo over the underbrush on the side of the trail and traveled the last fifty yards to the clearing on a track parallel to the trail.
She had guessed right. As she broke through the brush she took them all in, maybe a dozen men, two on foot, on either side of the trail, where a length of rope waited expectantly to trip her steed. Whatever they expected, it sure wouldn't be this, she noted with grim satisfaction, as she sliced at an angle toward them, chakram in hand, a full throated cry chilling them before her. She let the round missile fly, striking one of the rope tenders full force in the side of the head, and hurtling on to bury itself in the skull of his mate. She had meant that throw, as she meant it now when she turned Argo in a tight circle and faced the remaining forces. Teremon was seated on the saddle in front of a tall soldier. The boys hands were tied to the saddle horn, and his face turned toward the sound of her voice as she said coldly "Give up the boy. Or you all die here."
The reply from the tall man was a laugh. His knife was at Teremon's throat now, and his words were what she expected. "I don't care if he dies here and now. You have a decision to make. Throw down your sword and I'll let him live a bit longer."
"You would have killed him already if that was the plan," she guessed. "You're to return him to Prestia. Another pawn in the game. You wouldn't dare kill him, and you can't kill me. I s'pose that leaves you." She smiled unnervingly, and spurred Argo forward.
"Get her," he yelled to his troops, but even as they charged at the war horse she left her seat and flipped through the air, to land on the rump of the tall man's horse. She chopped at his neck viciously with the edge of a stiff hand and threw his body to the ground. She withdrew a dagger from her boot and slit Teremon's bonds, before the others registered what had happened. As they turned to face the she-demon in their midst she whistled for Argo and met the nearest man with the tip of her sword. That gave the others pause, and in the moment's hesitation, waiting for the next eager hero to step forward, she transferred the boy to the back of the big mare. Her next whistle was a command the horse knew well, and she plunged past the startled men, her cargo holding tightly to the reins. A horse was pulled around to follow; safer going after the boy than facing the warrior, he reasoned, wrongly. Before he had gone ten yards the dagger was impaled in his back.
The dark-haired warrior laughed now, swinging the sword overhead in a complex pattern, her eyes defying them to take her. The bravado was only half real. She wanted to be at the boy's back, seeing him safely to camp; she wanted to have her chakram at her belt. She also wanted these men before her to be dead, one more threat to Teremon, and Solon eliminated. The last desire she could do something about, and a smile in battle is something men fear more than a scowl, she had learned long ago.
"Come on boys," she called, maneuvering her new mount to place her between them and the trail. "Who wants to be first on Charon's boat?" Prefer to board all at once, she thought as they accepted her challenge and came at her in a rush. They came from two sides, so that she met two at a time, the first man falling to a high slash to the neck, before the sword sliced in a lower arc to met a second man's belly. He watched in horror as his entrails spilled over the ground. She established a new position a few yards away, and waited for the next onslaught, reveling in the heat of battle. Her horse stamped his hooves in excitement, tramping around in a small circle. She opened her mouth to egg the bastards on, eager to finish this skirmish, when she suddenly pitched forward. She kept her seat, but knew that beneath her the horse had probably broken a leg. He toppled over now, and she managed to jump clear as he rolled onto his side. Suddenly feeling favored by some god, the remaining men charged at the horse-less warrior.
Xena's eyes blazed bright blue, and her jaw set with fierce determination. Six mounted men. They could easily surround her...only as they charged, she was suddenly no longer there, was flying beyond them, and stuck one in the side as he rode. Five, she nodded, lips curling in a wicked grin once more. A brave-or foolish-soul tried a lone charge; she evaded him with a leap that allowed her unimpeded access to his thick neck. He hit the ground before she did, yet even as she landed, a searing pain shot through her thigh, high, where it met the hip. Without looking she knew a sharp blade had imbedded itself in the bone. Her left leg buckled as she hit the ground, and with an effort she braced herself, forcing the leg to support her, as she waited one last time for an attack in which finally, the four men might have a bare advantage. "Let's go," she whispered, "before I pass out."
They smelled victory as the wounded warrior swung her blade once more, and they spurred forward with new confidence.
Suddenly, inexplicably, one of them was hanging sideways from his horse, the chakram wedged between the vertebrae in his neck. Xena stared uncomprehending as a second horseman fell over, a knife jutting from his back. A flash of black and gold flew through the air, and she was no longer alone. Callisto was beside her, taking the time to show her teeth in a playful grin before turning back to the two remaining attackers. One chose to try his luck with Xena; she gave at his attack, and as he pressed his advantage, she disengaged, dropped low on her injured side, and skewered him as he followed. Callisto shrieked as she flipped over the head of the last man, landing her booted feet on his back, sending him out of the saddle. He scrabbled quickly away, realizing that a plea for mercy was useless before this woman, who laughed as her sword drove home.
The field was still, save for the rider-less horses that bolted aimlessly, until one took the lead and found a trail that led away from the scene of carnage. Xena's injured mount brayed in pain and desperation as it struggled, still, to regain it's footing.
Xena had risen from the ground, and held a fighting posture as best she could, although, to conserve strength, her sword arm hung at her side. After all this, Callisto, she told herself with resignation. She wondered vaguely why the woman had shown up here, then dismissed the thought to deal with the new threat. Callisto sauntered close to Xena, and sighed with regret.
"We can't seem to get together on this; last time I saw you, you were blind. Today..." She indicated the blood flowing steadily down Xena's leg, pooling on the ground beneath her. She made eye contact briefly, then sheathed her sword. "Don't worry, dear. You know I don't want to butcher you. Not today, anyway. You'd better take care of that before you bleed to death."
Xena moved her eyes slowly from the blonde woman, and leaned on her sword to lower herself to the ground. "Painful, huh?" Callisto asked, with satisfaction. "Good thing I showed up when I did, or Xena would have died out here, alone, unsung by any little bards..."
Xena scowled. "Yeah, Callisto, thanks a lot, but I think I would have taken them."
"Oh. Of course, dear. I forgot. You're invincible." She smirked. Xena was fumbling under her leather, looking for the hilt of the knife that stuck in her. "Lucky your skirt was flipped up when that struck. Saves a lot of mending. Leather can be such a bother, don't you think? You were really enjoying that fight; they were hardly a match for you, but it sure fired your blood to slaughter them," she observed. "That was quite a flip, by the way; a lot of height. How did you like mine?" she asked. "Of course it wasn't as spectacular as our little escapade to get up the cliffside. What a team," she enthused. "Oh, don't bother to answer, I know you're busy."
Xena only half heard, alert for any sign of danger from the woman, yet more concerned about dealing with the wound. She was losing a lot of blood, and the blade had painfully injured nerve, muscle and bone. She caught up with the last of Callisto's words. "We are so similar it's uncanny. Anyone would think we're sisters," she snickered.
Xena flickered an eye at her, then turned back to the wound as she found the dagger, more blade than hilt. Her fingers sought a grip, but they were slippery with blood, and losing strength quickly. Callisto watched for a moment, then pushed her hand away, gripped the hilt, and pulled it out in one quick move. She felt it rasp against bone as it moved. Xena lay back as the nerve ending sent new waves of pain through her body.
"Nasty hole in your breeches," Callisto sympathized. "Let's see that wound." Xena made a move in protest, but Callisto pushed her back with surprising ease, and began to pull down her short breeches. "Nothing you've got that I haven't seen, Xena." She sat back on her haunches and probed the wound, not bothering to be gentle. "The wound isn't big, but you didn't do it any good jumping around on it. It needs to be closed. Got your sewing kit?" she asked flatly. Xena shook her head. "Then I'll have to cauterize it. Of course that means building a fire; we'll be here a while, I'm afraid."
"Don't bother," Xena said, struggling to sit upright. "It'll stop."
"Going to apply a tourniquet around your waist? Don't be thick. Lie down and shut up. You're not the only healer in the family, you know," she spat.
She tossed the dagger in the dirt beside Xena, and disappeared into the woods for a few minutes, returning on a chestnut steed, with an armload of firewood. Xena had picked up her discarded breeches and held them pressed against the wound, admitting to herself that something needed to be done to staunch the flow, and puzzling over Callisto's last words. She watched as Callisto struck flint against steel to spark a fire, blowing it into a steady flame. She heaped wood against it, and sat back waiting for it to get hot.
A horse whinnied in the background. Xena propped herself on one elbow. "Callisto. That horse needs to be put down."
Callisto gave her a disbelieving look. "Is that suppose to demonstrate your compassion? Try again, with someone who doesn't know you." Xena rolled over onto one knee, and reached for her sword. Callisto stopped her with a booted foot on her hand. "If you don't lie still, you'll leave all your blood in this field, and I'll never get to live out my fantasy," she scolded.
"Callisto, if there's ever going to be a moment for you to kill me, I think this is it," Xena told her.
"No dear, we've been through this. I want you well, and I want an audience. The little bard for preference." She watched with interest as Xena's eyes darted away from her stare. "Even if you've tired of her, she still cares for you. "When you go, you break her heart." The black-clad warrior paused to let Xena ponder that last bit. She unsheathed her sword and walked over to the horse, to finish him. "Feel better?" she asked on her return. "Too bad you don't have a similar respect for human life."
Xena lay back, rubbing a tongue over dry lips, fighting the temptation to ask the question.
Callisto was enjoying this. The warrior's face did not betray her struggle, but Callisto pretended otherwise. "I can see that you're dying to hear about my meeting with Gabrielle, but you hate to pry, so I'll volunteer the information," she offered sweetly. "I didn't hurt her, if that's what you're fearing, I left her safe in the good hands of the Amazons. They're working her hard, by the way, out in the fields, hoe in hand. No one would guess she's an Amazon princess, and a bard. Still, she looked fit, hard, tanned. Miss her? For obvious reasons, yes," she leered, "but you've really made a wise choice. She can't be trusted. Keeps secrets from you. Not to mention the buff young Amazon sharing her hut. What was her name? Hela, I think. " She rolled her eyes, her back to Xena. "So if there's anyone you've got your eye on Xena, don't hold back out of some misplaced loyalty to the widow of Perdicus. She's beaten you to it."
Xena didn't believe her; it had been a matter of days since she had left Amazonia, Gabrielle would not have found a new love that fast. Unless she, too, just wanted the nights to pass. She recalled a Hela in the village... She caught at bile rising in her throat. She had once been sick in front of Callisto. She was determined it would not happen again. "That blond fellow in camp; he seems a likely match for you. Do you really occupy separate bed rolls at night? Unseemly to do it in front of the little crown prince? Or does it bother you to do it in front of little brother?"
Xena watched as Callisto thrust her sword into the fire. Callisto's presence here was suddenly explained: she wanted to hurt Xena through Teremon. Would it never end? "Callisto, Teremon doesn't deserve to be punished for what I've done. The accident that we share blood---"
"Xena, Xena, you've got me all wrong. I didn't come here to kill Teremon, I came to kill you. What I learned today was an eye-opener. So he's the little heir to the throne. And I thought you were the only competition." She paused and considered this, absently turning her blade in the fire. "I'm not sure I have this all straight," she confided.
"Callisto, are you working for Radec?" Xena asked weakly. Her lips were without color, and she trembled slightly, from shock and blood loss.
"Radec? No, I don't know him," she said firmly. "Glaucon, he's my contact, and I think we need to have a serious chat. I've been deceived. Here he's sent me to kill you, leading me to believe you're my only competition for the throne. When really, I'll have to kill Teremon, too." She pulled away the balled-up breeches which had been sopping up blood from the wound. Xena sat awkwardly to look at it, then looked at the sword, glowing red in Callisto's hand.
"Callisto," Xena asked, confused by the woman. "what claim do you have to the throne of Prestia?" She steeled herself for the touch of hot metal.
"You're not his only daughter, Sis," she grinned, as she pressed the metal against the hole. The blood sizzled against the blade, and Xena grabbed onto a tuft of grass on one side, Callisto's boot on the other as the heat did its job. She felt the blade lift, and she was pleased not to have passed out before her enemy, then, unexpectedly, it touched her skin once more.
She had passed out, she realized a short while later, as a dash of cold water in her face brought her around. "I don't have a proper dressing Xena, but that old rag might do, if you can manage it." She threw a rough cloth onto Xena's legs, gave her a smile that was odd, even for Callisto. "I'm afraid I left a scar. Couldn't resist," she confessed.
Xena raised her head with an effort, and looked down her body to the wound. She saw not one sear mark, but three, forming a crude representation of Callisto's initial. "Just so you don't forget me Xena," she grinned, enjoying the horror on the injured woman's face.
Suddenly Xena grinned back, "I should thank you Callisto," she said bitterly. "This will be a lasting reminder of things I sometimes forget, about trusting people." Her eyes suddenly narrowed. "Wait. You said something before---" She recalled her last words and looked at her intently, the last of her color draining from her cheeks. "Cletus?" she asked, a useless question, less than useless, as it invited Callisto to expound on the topic.
"Yes, Xena, it appears that your mother is not the only one to have fallen for the blandishments of the good monarch. You'll have to ask her what she saw in him one day; I'd ask my mother, but, oops! You killed her." She shrugged off-handedly.
Xena seemed not to be paying attention. "We're sisters, " she said aloud, as if trying to understand what it meant.
"Yeah, Xena, it stinks doesn't it?" she said sincerely. "I have to kill one sister to avenge the other's death." She watched Xena's face closely, uncertain what was reaction to the news, and what to the injury. She was, at least, satisfied that she'd surprised the warrior. Odd that Gabrielle should know, when Xena didn't. "There isn't really much family resemblance," she said examining Xena's face, as if for the first time. "Not in appearance, anyway. In other ways we are so much alike. Both excel in the warrior arts, both fond of spilling blood; we must get that from Cletus. And here I've been, blaming your mother for not raising you properly. My mother never had a chance with me," she reminded Xena. "I'm glad you got the blue eyes," she said. "You can be reminded you're a bastard every time you pass a looking glass."
Xena regarded her silently, wanting to know it was a lie, but feeling that somehow the brown eyes told the truth. Impulsively she reached out to grab her arm and pulled her close, for a long search of the features she had grown to despise, the body she had once occupied. "Did I take you by surprise? Sis," Callisto said, pulling away. "Gosh, here I thought you were keeping a secret from me. It doesn't make much sense that Gabrielle knows, and you don't."
"Gabrielle?" Xena had to work to moisten her mouth enough to speak. She wanted to rest, but her mind raced, trying to sort through Callisto's words, separate the truth from her usual quota of lies. "Gabrielle didn't know anything about that," she said with as much conviction as she could muster.
"Sorry, Xena," Callisto said quietly. "She wasn't at all surprised; just upset that I knew. Maybe she knew that a little deception was about to be revealed?"
"How could she know?" Xena asked, surprised that she had voiced her thoughts.
"I don't know Xena. Who could have told her" She pressed a finger to her head, to mime thought, and listed the suspects: "Could be Cletus. Glaucon, or that man you mentioned, Radec? No matter, she knows."
"It does matter," Xena said harshly, and stopped immediately, anxious to be alone. "Callisto," she growled, "you've done your work, you've left your mark, now thank you and good-bye."
"Not so fast, Xena," Callisto replied in the same tone. "I have some questions." She positioned herself near Xena's head, and stared at the blue eyes, which threatened to close. This was not as much fun as Callisto had imagined. Xena was distracted by pain, weakened from blood loss, and about to fall asleep. So much for my surprise, she thought glumly.
"So. I gather Cletus really isn't naming you heir?"
A fading Xena rallied, astonished at the question. "Get real Callisto. You see anything in my background to suggest I could be trusted with that much power?" Her eyes shut. "I could use some water."
"And that kid stands between me and the throne," she affirmed.
"Callisto, pay attention. You're not a contender. Killing Teremon will not make you crown princess of Prestia. So leave him alone." It was a direct command.
"Are you going to be one of those bossy older sisters?" she asked, with feigned weariness. "I was an older sister. I was bossy too when I wasn't chasing my sister away..." Her eyes grew hard. "I tried to save her, that night..." Xena knew the night she meant, could almost smell the burning flesh. "I can hear it now. She was afraid, Xena, like you've never been; yet. And I couldn't save her from you." Xena's eyes were on her; she was thinking of Lyceus. "I've never been a little sister, Xena, and I'm not used to taking orders."
"You're also a older sister again, Callisto." Xena was sure there was more to her thought, but she couldn't recall it now.
Callisto's lips curled in defiance. "Where were we? Oh. Little brother Teremon. Father's favorite, the little prince. After him, who else is there?" Callisto asked.
"I don't know," Xena admitted, her voice hoarse. "Who knows how many more there are where we came from? But if there is no one else, I think he'd hold a national lottery to fill the throne before he'd give it to either of us, even if we'd take the screwy job." She smiled, a smile made ghastly by the lack of color in her face. "Look on the bright side. Being queen wouldn't leave you much time to torment me." Callisto acknowledged her with a vague nod. It occurred to Xena that she seemed hurt, almost sorrowful. "What are you thinking Callisto?" she asked.
"There's someone I have to see, Xena. Take good care of yourself, Sis." She mounted, and tossed her waterskin at Xena's supine form. "I want you to know this doesn't change anything, Xena. We do share a sort of bond now, having both been royally screwed in a manner of speaking, by that lusty monarch out to sow his oats; but I still hate you, as I hate no other thing on earth. Someday I will kill you," she promised, before she rode away.
"Damn!" Xena swore, at the pain, at her inability to do anything about Callisto, at the whole situation.