'Appointment in Eleutherae'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— Xena and Gabrielle plan and carry out an attack on a bandit's headquarters in the wooded hills north-east of the Fortress of Eleutherae in Attica, with the help of Gabrielle's Amazons.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and I have no rights to them.
"We have a, er, little problem in northern Attica, ladies. That, er, we thought you might be of some help with."
Senator Sylvus sat on his chair in the small ante-room of the Senate building in Athens facing the two women; he sweating slightly and feeling somewhat nervous, as who wouldn't with the Warrior Princess Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Potidaea, Queen of the Northern Amazons, both sitting glowering at you from the other side of what was clearly a very insubstantial table indeed.
"What sort'a problem?" Xena picked up the matter of the senator's words instantly. "A military problem?"
"What sort'a brigands?" This from the blonde young woman in the scanty clothing, green eyes glinting like jewels in the morning sun slanting through the windows.
"—er, to be exact, Aegisthes of Pagae."
"Huh, that moron." Gabriele was unimpressed. "He's just a low-grade horse-rustler; surely a cavalry squadron of hoplites would see him off in double-quick time?"
"Well, there are various political difficulties in the way of a mere up-front military attack, I'm afraid." Sylvus frowned as he addressed an unrolled scroll in front of him. "To begin with he has his headquarters in the foothills north of Eleusis, near the fortress of Eleutherae, to be exact."
"Near the fortress of Eleutherae?" Gabrielle showed her incredulity with widening eyes. "So, send a platoon of hoplites from there an' wipe him off the face of the earth. Where's the difficulty?"
Sylvus had been expecting this question from the start of the interview, and was still no nearer finding the right words to explain.
"It's complicated, very complicated." He frowned again, shrugging his ample shoulders; one bare, the other covered by his loose-fitting toga. "There's an election for Senatorial seats coming up in a couple of months. Various contenders, all powerful, are already making plans and exerting their influence. Two of these have quite a lot of personal influence over the Commander of the Fortress at Eleutherae; and they are firmly opposed to any military action being taken in the area, especially against Aegisthes."
"Why? Is the fool under their protection too, or what?"
"In a nutshell, yes." Sylvus nodded, glad to have reached the nub of the difficulty. "The Senators are rich, of old families, and exert great influence in the Senate. We, the moderates, cannot stand firm for military action against the outlaw—at least in present times. We must wait for better opportunities later in the year, if things go our way in the elections. But—"
"—but you can order an undercover operation against Aegisthes; without the knowledge of those in the Senate opposing your group, eh?" Xena growled disgustedly. "A right shambles, when the Senate of Athens can't act against a two-obol thief for fear of political reprisals."
"So you and your cronies decided to bring Xena and I into the whole sorry situation?" Gabrielle twisted her upper lip in a sarcastic grimace. "This headquarters of his, what does it consist of, and how many brigands are under his control at the moment?"
"Well, the Fortress of Eleutherae lies, as you know, in the wooded mountains close to the Boeotian border, midway between Eleusis in the south and Thebes in the north. It's built solidly of great granite blocks forming a wide walled square with towers, enclosing stone buildings inside; more or less completely impenetrable except by a siege army. However, the headquarters of the bandit Aegisthes lies only another couple of parasangs or so further north, in a densely wooded valley lined by encroaching mountains. On the northern side of this valley, surrounded by high trees, a flat terrace has been carved out and a large stone-built villa placed thereon. Whoever had originally built it the villa now belongs to the aforesaid rapacious Aegisthes of Pagae. Over the years he's built up a reputation for being perhaps the most greedy and voracious outlaw of recent times—at least in this third year of the honoured Emperor Claudius."
"So why doesn't the commander of the fortress use his troops to annihilate the pest?" Xena growing bored.
"Because the commander is in the pocket of Aegisthes." Sylvus made this statement in a cool calm tone, as if it were hardly worth considering. "Receiving a large gift, in drachmas, surreptitiously given on a regular basis every month. This for the commander to leave Aegisthes alone, or warn him of any encroaching military activity in the region. The aforesaid Senators, by the way, are also taking handouts from Aegisthes; which, as you can imagine, affects the way they look on him—"
"A goose layin' golden eggs, just for them, eh?" Xena had the sordid situation figured out.
"Yes, precisely." Sylvus nodded gloomily. "This Eleutheraen commander also being under the influential protection of the same Senators, we cannot impose authoritive measures without a widespread and nasty political disputation breaking out; which no-one wants at the present time."
"Got yourselves in a right pickle, eh?" This from an unimpressed Amazon.
"We thought you, and Xena, might help."
"You haven't answered my question—what forces does Aegisthes have at his command?" Gabrielle, still seeking the nitty-gritty. "And how defensible is this headquarters villa of his?"
"If you mean from the troops in the Fortress, very." Sylvus snorted, clearly offended by the situation. "The cohort of Greek hoplites occupying the fortress at the moment are mostly new recruits with no actual combat experience."
"Yes, Xena, quite." Sylvus had the grace to blush. "But, like all his kind, Aegisthes has finally gone too far; a raid on a small town recently got wholly out of control; a mediocre resistance from a few citizens escalated into a wholesale rampage and slaughter by Aegisthes' forces. This, eventually, reaching the ears of those in power in Athens it has been decided that appropriate action must be taken at once."
"By us?" Gabrielle gazing into the worried senator's face with no gleam of friendship. "Are you hinting I should use my Amazons in this affair—one army against another?"
"That about covers the situation, yes." Sylvus nodded, seeing the so-desired end of the embarrassing conversation in sight at last. "The Senate, or at least a certain portion of it, in secret session without the presence of the, er, opposing members, has acknowledged the weak character of the nearby forces in Eleutherae, the complete hopelessness of the Commander, known to be taking substantial bribes, and the necessity to do something quickly and with determination. Because, as I've told you, of these military as well as political necessities, the Senate has found it impossible to send other hoplite cavalry regiments to take the situation in hand; what needs doing needs doing in the greatest secrecy; wholly deniable by the Senate. And so we hatched this plan; necessitating your presence, Xena, and the Amazon forces of Gabrielle, Queen of the Northern Amazons."
"So, here we are?" Xena mused on this, scratching her chin with a forefinger.
"Yes, here we are." Sylvus apologetic, as well he might be.
"My Amazon forces, eh." Gabrielle already calculating the military strength required. "How many Amazons d'you think would be adequate to the situation?"
"Oh, around two thousand would be good, my commanders tell me."
"Ha, make it half that." Gabrielle's tone said it all. "I don't control every bloody Amazon in Greece, y'know. And even with those I do it ain't simply a case of just snappin' my fingers, and they all come running."
"Well, I suppose we better get to it, then?" Xena stood up, holding a hand out to her partner. "You eventually manage t'get everything together OK, gal, then?"
"Yeah, easy." The Amazon Queen nodded with an assured air. "Take me, oh, fourteen days or so. That alright, Sylvus?"
"Yes, yes; oh yes."
"Right, what are we hangin' around here for then, Princess? Let's get to it." Gabrielle, in full control.
"F-ck it, that hurt."
"Keep yer voice down, it's only a nettle."
"But right on my—"
"I know where it got ya; keep quiet, anyway."
The women lay at full-length in the tall grass on the verge of the stand of thick oak trees which covered the lower slopes of the heavily wooded valley. Some way below them, but in plain sight, lay the two-storey red-tile roofed villa of the brigand Aegisthes. Meanwhile, beside the women sprawled the lanky form of another Amazon.
"Bremusa, wha'd'ya think?" This from Gabrielle, lying between her Amazon consort and the Princess.
"Ain't much of a fortified place." Bremusa said this with a snort of contempt. "Just an ordinary villa, no apparent defensive measures at all, apart from those groups of brigands wandering around near it. Must think they're guards, or something; hopeless, we could crush the whole lot in one rush."
Bremusa, tall, when standing, flowing wavy red hair reaching to her collar-bones, and of a nervous brusque nature, shook her head in disgust.
"Thought y'brought me here for a fight, majesty; this's just gon'na be a formality. A few determined ten-year old gals could take that bunch of idiots any day."
"Stop callin' me majesty, for Athena's sake." Gabrielle growled in her turn. "Gabrielle's good enough for everyone else, so it's good enough for you, too."
"Yes, maj—er, Gabrielle."
"How many Amazons have you, scattered around up here, Gabs?"
"Seven hundred—four hundred and fifty of my Southern Chalcidice tribe, the others from up north, the Calessi tribe, with Bremusa, here."
"And how many brigands have our earlier scouting groups seen around Aegisthes' villa?"
"Around two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty, ma—er, Gabrielle."
"A nice majority." Gabrielle nodded, with a grim smile. "I like it when we're on the right side of a heavily outnumbered one-sided battle—less bloodshed and wounded for us that way."
"I don't see them puttin' up much resistance, Gabrielle." Bremusa peered through the long grass at the view of the villa's roof far below. "They're brigands, but without any true discipline, as far as we can see. When it comes to the rub I bet they turn tail an' flee like scared children. It's gon'na be a walk-over, for sure."
Both Xena and the Amazon Queen pursed their lips at this. Indeed, Gabrielle was thinking to herself, just the sort'a remark that'd have the Fates waking up an' taking notice, not to mention Nemesis herself looking down her nose and curling a sneering lip at the naive young Amazon. But they both remained silent, knowing this was just Bremusa's usual high spirits and lack of any sense of personal danger in these matters.
Meanwhile Bremusa wriggled into a more comfortable position where they lay; having her usual sagaris axe tied to her waist-belt in place of a sword: she generally also using a heavier labrys double-bladed battle-axe in full combat, which she had left at their hidden temporary camp further up the wooded slope.
"We've still got most of the afternoon, yet." Xena hunched up from her prone position to stare around through the long grass hiding them from any distant viewer. "We could take the place right now; your Amazons are already in position, ain't they? What's t'stop us?"
"Only the fact a good portion of his brigands are out on a raid, dear." Gabrielle sniffing censoriously at this question. "What's the point of falling on the moron like a dose of mandragora when half his buddies are off makin' hay? Nah, we wait till night, when they'll have returned, distributed their booty, and settled down to some serious carousing. Give 'em time to get comfortably sozzled, then we jump on 'em an' bash their brains out wholesale."
Xena glanced at her partner with a raised eyebrow.
"Not feelin' any too merciful, t'day, are we?"
"You heard what his men did to that town a few weeks ago." Gabrielle's voice was low and grating. "Never gave them a chance, after they tried to put up some resistance. Well, I'm making it my duty to bring him to the attention of Nemesis herself later tonight, that's all."
There was a half-moon which, coupled with a somewhat cloudy night sky, gave just enough light to see and move about but not enough to highlight their presence as the massed Amazons carefully and silently slipped through the wooded slopes towards their various battle positions. And if anyone could move silently through unknown terrain at night without causing the slightest sound those people were Amazon warriors.
Xena, in the circumstances, had happily taken second place to her paramour who was overseeing the whole raid. Gabrielle had placed three hundred of her warriors on the hill-slope above the villa; one hundred and fifty others were situated lower down, on each side of the trail leading through the woods to the villa. The other two hundred and fifty were strategically placed to either side of the villa, at a stadia or so's distance on each hand, well hidden amongst the close-growing trees and thick undergrowth. They would lend their assistance as required, depending on how the ensuing battle panned out; those brigands who lost heart and ran for it would find their supposed escape routes through the woods already sealed by waiting Amazons, none harbouring the milk of human kindness in their breasts.
"You've seen the open stone stair leading from the ground to the second floor, on the left side of the villa." Gabrielle was giving her last instructions before the action started. "No defensive measures at all round the villa; Aegisthes obviously wallowing in self-assurance that no-one'll have the brass neck t'attack him here. Well, we'll see about that. So, listen up, the plan is I take a group of Amazons up the stair to the second floor; you, Xena, take another group into the first, ground, floor. With the banquet that's goin' forward as we speak everyone'll be at least half-sea's over, and bloated with food. The remaining Amazons outside will fire flame-arrows into those massed tents outside, giving us the chance to hit the villa more or less unopposed. It's anyone's guess where Aegisthes himself may be; anyway, the object isn't simple capture, as much as total destruction. And I mean annihilation—in the end if you have t'cut everyone down well, that's their look-out; no-one escapes, got that?"
"Messy, an' not exactly what I'd call fair play. Only sayin'."
"Not tonight, Xena." Gabrielle tone left no place for argument. "Sometimes the only course is all-out war, burn an' destroy—this is that time. The only way I see Aegisthes leavin' this hill uncaptured is if his disembodied head rolls down the slope and bounces out on the trail down below."
"OK, everyone ready?" Gabrielle stood up from her crouching position, gladius in hand. "Right, let's go."
The villa stood on a wide level terrace cut out of the slope of the hill; there were extensive open spaces, grassy though barely lawns, surrounding the building on which the majority of Aegisthes' forces had their barracks; these being merely a higgledy-piggledy mass of canvas tents set in no particular military order wherever the owners thought they would be comfortable. Although the main banqueting was going on in the large hall of the villa a great deal of excess carousing had spilled out onto the lawns and amongst the tents, with groups of men staggering around with wineskins and handfuls of roast chicken or venison steaks; they all engaged in having what they took to be the time of their lives.
There were a few torches stuck on poles here and there, and a number of small campfires; but the overall effect of these limited points of light only served to make the surrounding woods and night darker still.
Gabrielle's whistle echoed, as only she could make it, across the whole hillside, like a banshee in agony. Instantly, from both sides, a mass of carefully aimed arrows laid waste to the crowds of merry banqueteers. A mixture of flame-arrows and steel-tipped arrows swept the tents and open spaces round the villa like a hailstorm in winter. For an instant the loud cries of laughter and singing halted, then all Tartarus broke loose.
Gabrielle's forces had already taken position close to the edge of the tents furthest out from the villa, these first flights of arrows sweeping over their heads as the Amazons now ran straight through the ensuing mayhem for the stair leading up to the second floor of the building. Reckless disoriented brigands, hardly knowing what was going on, ran in all directions, those who crossed the path of the Amazons being cut down in merciless silence by expert hands. An instant later Gabrielle stood by the stair and, after taking a swift glance around, noted Bremusa with her evil labrys in hand by her right side and the other Amazons close beside her, then she turned to the stair.
Xena, facing the front of the building, had chosen the main entrance as her target, leading a group of Amazons all with gladius's drawn. It was her intention to break through the central door and sweep on into the main hall, laying waste as she went—a classic opening move in such circumstances; then clear the rest of the ground-floor rooms at her leisure. However, the best of plans can be frustrated by unexpected events; in this case the fact that the villa's entrance hall was more of a narrow passage with less doors, and far less space to maneouvre, on either side than had been planned for. Instead of a swift route into the main hall where the revelers were soaking up wine and venison, Xena found herself trapped momentarily in a tight corridor packed with retreating disordered brigands and advancing angry Amazons—confusion, for the moment, reigned.
But for the mighty Warrior Princess this temporary set-back acted as bread and wine in her turn; baring her teeth in a classic snarl she gripped her chakram in one hand, darted a quick glance around to get her bearings, then let fly.
The circle of tempered steel, thrown by perhaps the best practioner of this weapon in the world, flashed along the corridor like a meteor from the sky, and with just about as much destructive power. Bouncing off a brigand's head, leaving a gaping wound, it ricocheted from the near wall, slashed the face of another sword-wielding bandit then flew on to tear slices across the arms of two more disoriented thugs. Another bounce from the opposite wall and, with renewed force, it curved delicately through the air taking out no less than four other defenders of the villa on it's way. A further rebound from the head of another unfortunate outlaw sent it onwards again until, cutting two fingers cleanly off the sword-hand of a nearby bandit on its way, Xena grabbed it from out of the air with a flick of a nonchalant wrist—job done.
Then, in two long strides, she led her forces through a rounded arch into the crowded noisy banqueting hall itself.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, darted up the outside stone staircase, reaching the second floor with Bremusa close by her side. Dashing through an open arch they found themselves in a long loggia, open to the sky on the left side; a stone wall with balustrade at hip height supporting thin pillars which in their turn held up the angled wooden roof of the long corridor running the full length of the second floor on this side. To the right were a series of doors—Gabrielle gestured towards the first one, with a meaning glance at her red-headed companion.
Without a word Bremusa raised her double-headed battleaxe over her head and swung at the planks of the door. There was an ear-splitting crunch and screech of tearing wood, then the door collapsed in ruins as Gabrielle led her forces through into the interior.
A couple of torches, placed on the stone walls, lit a small bare room occupied by what must have been a secondary night-shift of guards; there being present about seven men of all ages and states of physical well-being. Three breaths later, accompanied by only two faint gurgling screams, the room was host to a multitude of Amazons and seven dead bodies, the guards having guarded their last.
With Bremusa keeping pace a step behind, Gabrielle led the way along a narrow short corridor leading, via another round arch, into a further room twice as large as the last. Here too there were several men, perhaps twenty, banditos all, either lying on makeshift straw mattresses or struggling to their feet to see what the unexpected noise and commotion was about. Again the sudden influx of armed and eager Amazons literally caught them all off-guard and with their pants down, some literally so. To say the ensuing disturbance merited the title of a fight would be allowing too much; they being dispatched with clinical precision and expert ease by the flood of armed women. In fact Gabrielle was already marching through into the next room, unoccupied, while the last of the bloodshed was still taking place behind her.
"Bremusa, take half the warriors and clear the rooms on the right-hand side; I'll take the rest and do the same for the left-side. Meet you at the other end. Let's go."
Xena, in her element, ran into the wide long hall intent on what she did best of all. There were two long trestle tables placed down the centre of the brightly lit room, with several other smaller tables lining both walls, all bearing masses of food on silver and gold platters and dishes. Scattered around the hall were numerous couches and chairs where groups of bandits had been till a few moments ago enjoying themselves in wild abandon. There were only a handful women to be seen, many with less than a few clothes remaining, but a multitude of wineskins and empty pottery amphora, mostly broken in shards, strewn over the stone-flagged floor. The fact that most of the revelers had been drinking to excess for the last few hours only made the work of the invading Amazons all the easier, whilst making any defensive measures on the part of the massed thugs all the harder. What now followed was simple mayhem.
The Amazon warriors spread out as they entered the wide lengthy hall; the first to engage with the enemy being a group on Xena's far left. A tall blonde Amazon bent under the wild swing of a bandit's gladius, herself slicing across with her own weapon. The man's shirtfront turned crimson and, with a wild keening scream, he fell to the floor gushing blood from a torn belly. To the Princess's right hand another Amazon faced-off a bulky bear-like opponent, she stabbing him in the right side before he could come to grips with the rib-crushing hug he had been fondly imagining would take her down. Grunting, he stepped back, grasping for a long dagger in his belt, but his attacker was swifter—driving her own long-bladed weapon into the man's flesh once more she followed up with a driving uppercut to his chin with a mailed fist, the iron meshed steel plates of which broke his jaw with flawless ease. Taking the opportunity to lean over her subsiding adversary she calmly stuck her gladius point-first near his collar-bone and pushed down hard till most of the blade had disappeared, she using the impetus of his collapsing bulk to pull her gladius free once more before heading on to find another victim.
The Princess on her part now became personally embroiled in the matter at hand. From seemingly nowhere a bandit sprang up, slashing his gladius with abandon in wide arcs, clearly thinking this gave him an advantage. Xena, sneering the while, merely raised one booted leg and contemptuously kicked the weapon out of the man's hand before he realized what had occurred. But this was of no matter because Xena's fist now connected with the side of his head; the crunch of imploding bone being clearly heard above the surrounding ruckus. His head snapped to one side and his body fell gracefully to the floor, but Xena was already on her way deeper into the fray.
"What does the b-st-rd. look like?"
"Aegisthes. What does he look like?" Gabrielle paused at the end of the corridor bisecting the upper story of the villa, stained dripping gladius in hand. "I never thought to ask; I want to know when I catch up with him it's really him. So—?"
Bremusa stood by her leader's side, gasping for breath; wielding a double-headed labrys in anger never being a walkover.
"I don't know; never met the swine."
"Great Athena." The Amazon Queen shook her head in disgust, scanning up and down the corridor over the heads of the other warriors. "Nobody here does either, I bet. Gods, why's Xena always in the wrong place when you need her most?"
"I got'ta plan, maj—er, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, what?" Gabrielle turned to look at the tall red-headed woman with a raised eyebrow.
"Kill 'em all. Everyone in this dam' villa. No mercy, just wipe 'em all out."
"And that'd be the answer, y'think, dear?"
"Well, maj—er, Gabrielle, it'll solve the problem, surely?"
"What about all those who've already discovered their inner coward and are thereby literally headed for the hills and the woods all round us as we speak?" Gabrielle took her companion's arm and led her to the outside loggia balustrade. "See, down there? Shadows, amongst the burning tents, heading for the trees? We ain't gon'na get everyone who was here tonight, not by a long way—and any one of those fleeing cowards could be Aegisthes. See my problem?"
Bremusa considered the scene below them for a moment then shook her head.
"What about our sisters out there? Hundreds of Amazons; you can't tell me, uhh, Gabrielle, any shirkers from the villa will escape through the trees with scores of expert Amazons every-bloody-where? I mean to say."
Gabrielle shook her own head, before turning to retrace her steps.
"We've cleaned up this floor, lets get back down t'the ground an' lend Xena a hand." The blonde Queen managed a short grin as they reached the open staircase again. "Not that she'll thank us, knowing her, but it's the thought that counts. Guess what, gal?"
"Got it in one; you're learnin', sister."
In the banqueting hall what had started as mild mayhem had now reached the level of outright chaos. Trapped in the hall, it having only the one main arched entrance and a smaller kitchen door at the far end already guarded by massed Amazons, the former merry banqueteers had no option but to put up a fight; or, at least, a semblance of one. The fact they had started the evening in relaxed innocent consumer-of-earthly-delights mode hadn't helped, they having mostly left their larger weapons in their tents or rooms. Armed mainly with only light daggers or the odd gladius, property of the more deeply suspicious and ever-doubtful characters, the fight had quickly developed into single man-to-man, er, sorry, man-to-woman engagements. The fact that the brigands, by nature unruly and unruled by any semblance of real discipline, faced the most disciplined and merciless opposition currently available in Hellenistic Greece, to wit angry Amazons, also left them at a distinct disadvantage. The effect was wholesale and wholly awful to behold.
A large strongly-built lightly bearded man, dressed in well-used shirt and leather trousers in the Germanic manner, bared truly ghastly teeth, sneering at a young blonde Amazon a few paces from him. Jerking his dagger viciously sideways and back in front of him in swathing arcs at hip height to stave off a quick attack he lurched forward, sure of his victim. She on the other hand, having been well trained, jumped high in the air, twisting athletically as she swung towards her victim; opened her legs on contact, while still horizontal in the air above the flagstones, caught the man's neck in a scissor's-grip with both legs and again twisted in mid-air. She then came smoothly to the ground, making a back-flip to regain her feet, the broken-necked man lying before her, a spent force.
Xena, finding herself the central hub of a tight circle with seven knife-wielding men in orbit round her, grinned broadly; this horrifying sight in itself weakening the resolve of at least three of her opponents. A solid punch to the groin of one set his chances of fatherhood back several years; then a swift twirl, right booted leg extended to its full length, took a further three out sending them to the hard flags with a broken head and two snapped legs. Of the remaining three one leapt forward in what even he must have realised was a suicidal attack; though before he could carry out whatever crazed notion he may have considered Xena's chakram sliced half his head off, exposing to the world most of what had until then passed for his brains. Her dagger, in her left hand, sank hilt deep in the entrails of the man now in front of her; a vicious twist and further slicing motion as she ripped the blade out making sure that he took no further part in the widespread turmoil, except to fold on his knees trying to stop the surrounding bedlam from trampling on his now scattered and still glistening intestines. The last man, to the Princess's right hand, stood stock still, obviously paralysed by imminent destruction—Xena obliged. A slice to his throat with the edge of her hand, her dagger deep in his ribs, followed by a kick by her booted left leg which broke his right knee-cap, and the gurgling remnant of humanity slithered to the floor to spend the remaining few breaths of his life amongst the shards of empty amphora, pools of his companions' blood, and various unrecognisable pieces of internal organs now exposed to the light for the first time—his last thought no doubt being why he hadn't, all those years ago, taken his mother's advice and apprenticed himself to that nice cloth merchant back in Eleusis.
On the other side of the hall, near one of the long trestle tables burdened with all the culinary delights of Western Greece, two solid looking thugs stood regarding their own personal Nemesis—though they didn't yet realise this fact, they thinking the medium-sized woman in front of them was probably going to be an easy mark. Little did they know that Anaea, for it was she, had for several months previously been under the sharp fastidious eye of her military instructress who had more than once criticised her pupil's sadistic tendencies whilst practice fighting with other Amazon partners. Her hands being now, so to say, free, Anaea had presently resolved to enjoy herself.
As the first man stepped towards her grinning savagely, intent on skewering her on the point of his long-bladed dagger, Anaea took a single pace to her right, placed both booted feet together then launched herself horizontally at her opponent's legs. Her impetus on contact took him clean off his own feet, falling against her, which was just what she wanted. Her own dagger already waiting in her left hand stuck clean through the man's right eye socket up to the hilt, she sliding effortlessly to the side to avoid being trapped by the bulk of the dead body as it slipped, now unoccupied, to the ground. Another breath and she was back on her feet, coldly appraising her other opponent.
He, one would have thought, might have learned by his companion's swift demise; but being merely an animalistic moron, both normally highly sought after skills in his line of work, he breezed ahead regardless.
Having a shorter bladed dagger than his now horribly deceased partner he had obviously decided that close hand-to-hand work was required. Whatever move he thought useful, however, never saw the light of day; Anaea, baring her teeth in eager anticipation, stepped forward herself, caught the dagger's blade in the prongs of the sai grasped in her other hand, for she had observed and learned from those Amazons who had taught her, snapped her weapon sideways thereby disarming her opponent, then, bending slightly, stabbed him in the lower belly to the full extent of the three specially sharpened blades. Stepping quickly sideways she ripped the weapon backwards and forwards while still deeply embedded in the man's guts, then pulled it free and glared into the man's pale face with the satisfied expression of someone who knew they had done a good job and now merely wanted to stand back to enjoy their handiwork's outcome.
The man growled incoherently, subsiding into a low crouch as he did so, took his shocked gaze off his attacker to regard the blood and mess issuing from his lower body, gazed back aghast at Anaea uncomprehendingly, then finally sank to the floor to join his late friend in the last few breaths of a particularly painful death. Anaea meantime sucked her own breath in through tight lips, a quivering shudder passing through her body before she regained control and started off to find other victims to play with—Gods, this fighting killing thing was so much better than she had ever expected.
Gabrielle's first sight of the catastrophe going forward in the main hall came as a bit of a shock; then, regaining her equilibrium, she nodded to herself as she raced into the still writhing throng of Amazons and remnants of bandits. Of Xena there was no immediate sign but Gabrielle didn't let that minor detail hinder her principal purpose—killing, well disabling anyway, as many deadbeat dropouts as possible.
Although by this time the majority of the thugs had been dealt with there were numbers still standing intent on, if not actual escape, at least taking as many of their female attackers to Tartarus with them as possible. One of these survivors, already definitely physically somewhat the worse for wear having already met at least two Amazons with plans on his staggering circuit of the crowded room, hove up in front of the Amazon Queen still grasping his dagger at hip height, though his glazed expression left little doubt his mind if not body, shocked beyond belief by present events, was on the way out to pastures new, and altogether quieter. He gazed at the small blonde for a hair's-breadth then, summoning up what resolution remained, charged at her with a high whining scream.
At this point Gabrielle's habitual lack of overall clothing showed its limitations in a really heavy-going fight. She had dived sideways as her attacker made his head-on assault, but bumped against another Amazon engaged on her own purposes immediately to her left. This hindrance allowed the thug's knife to make glancing contact with her lower right chest, his blade sliding across a hand's-breadth of her ribcage before she managed to jerk herself out of harm's way. Seeing red with the unexpected pain of the light but stinging wound Gabrielle retaliated in kind, stabbing her own sharp-edged sai deep into the man's side; he being thrown sideways as she extricated her weapon with a twist of her wrist. Having finally had enough he sank groaning to the stone floor, a threat no longer.
Gabrielle paused long enough to ascertain her wound was nothing more than a light scratch, then headed on into the fray again; now with an evil emerald glitter flickering in the depths of her eyes.
The battle was almost over, except for a few literally die-hard remnants of the former band of renegades. One of these, having escaped the attention of most of the other Amazons, now had the bad luck—Nemesis having no doubt had him pin-pointed for her attention for some while past—to pop up immediately in front of the irate Queen. He again only being armed with a short-bladed dagger he obviously thought close-up work was the order of the day. Pursuing this daft purpose he came at the blonde woman with a snarl of contempt, waving his weapon like a flag on a Festival day. The expert Amazon Queen took little note of this wholly amateur assault; using her sais to offset and disarm him with what could only be called consummate ease she then stabbed him in the neck, twisted his free arm behind his back, hearing the satisfying crack as the shoulder dislocated, then finished the job by digging her elbow violently into his back, breaking at least two ribs in doing so. Gurgling in pain the bandit collapsed to the floor twitching in agony, leaving Gabrielle to push her way through the massed Amazons, now themselves in their own right Queens of all they surveyed, the fight being at last well and truly over.
The first to hove up by her side was her long-term partner in crime.
"Only a scratch, dearest. How'd it go? No, don't tell me, I've got eyes. Gods, y'really made a mess this time."
"Can't cook an omelette without doin' you-know-what, Gabs." The Princess shook her long dark locks in triumph—she being partial to a bit of triumph when the occasion called for such. "Y'sure that wou—"
"T'ain't nothing, where's Bremusa?"
"Here, maj—, er, Gabrielle."
These heart-felt ejaculations, and neither Gabrielle nor Xena were liable to ejaculations for little reason, were prompted by the state of their companion and fellow Amazon. Bremusa had obviously been in the wars, big-time. Her leather jerkin was covered in dark gleaming blood, her bare arms likewise; one leg looked as if it had been basted in the red liquid, and there were fragments of pieces of material sticking to her skirt and boots the exact nature of which it was probably better not to enquire into.
"Hades, are ya injured, gal?"
"No, lady, just knocked about a bit." Bremusa affected a sneer of contempt as she looked around at the numerous disheveled bodies lying on the flagstones, many still twitching. "These filthy boors die messy, is all."
"So, where's Aegisthes, then?"
Gabrielle was unimpressed by this reply. The two women were standing on the second-storey loggia looking out at the surrounding open grassy lawns beyond which the all-encompassing woods on the hillside loomed darkly in the moonlight.
"Oh, come on, y'must know the rat by sight, or at least have some idea of what he looks like. Is he one of all these dead bodies lying everywhere?"
"How should I know." The Princess sounded slightly irate at this continued interrogation. "Never met the b-st-rd, did I? We seem t'have dealt with pretty much everyone here, nonetheless."
"An' those we didn't catch our sisters in the woods will have disposed of, y're thinking?"
"Yep, job done, I'd say."
"No, not till I know for sure bloody Aegisthes is one of these bodies." Gabrielle was adamant. "We were co-opted to dispose of Aegisthes, an' till I have proof he's been, er, terminated we keep searching the hills and trails all round here till we know for certain. You take the hills towards Eleutherae, I'll go east, OK?"
"No, it ain't OK, not by a long way, Queen."
"Why? What's the problem, lover?"
"The problem is it's a mug's game, dearest." Xena frowned darkly not that, she well knew, this would have any effect. "If he has escaped—and I use the term loosely, you'll understand—there's parasangs of thickly wooded hills and country hereabouts he could already have lost himself in. It'd take weeks, maybe months, probably never, t'find him. Anyway, I say he's dead, here."
Gabrielle, Queen of the Northern Amazons, paused for a heartbeat of Time, then launched forth; her general irateness now having reached the level of full-on uncontrollable fury.
"Ahh, the Warrior Princess has spoken—the King is dead. What b-ll-cks. Y'just love yourself, don't you, Xena?" Now obviously wholly unchecked the blonde demoness let rip for real. "Just because you say so doesn't make a thing kosher. Just because you think it's the easiest way out doesn't make it the single highway to Rome, y'know. Just bec—"
Seeing strong measures were required in this emergency Xena, nothing loth, stepped bravely forward into the line of fire with the only possible defence capable of assuaging the Fury's rage. She took the slight frame of the blonde Amazon, clearly suffering from post-action shock, tightly in her arms and placed a long lingering kiss full on the Queen's luscious lips. This, at least, having the effect of quieting the Amazon in the short term.
"It's all over, Gabs, all over." Xena released her grip on her lover's bare shoulders to look into those wonderful sea-green eyes. "We'll find, eventually, he's one of these dam' corpses, right enough. Meanwhile, let's just relax an' take some time out. We all need some down-time. Look, your sisters are already making campfires here an' there. Let's go out t'one an' get a bit o' rest, OK?"
Abandoning her anger in the face of this barrage of pure Love Gabrielle allowed the taller woman to guide her, hand on shoulder, to the open stair leading back to ground level, Bremusa staying silent in their rear.
"The stars are out, Gabs, looks like it's gon'na be a fine night."
"We can get a bite t'eat, an' a swallow or two of wine at one o'these campfires, then wrap ourselves in our blankets for a few hours sleep—how's that sound, lady?"
"Suppose it'll do for now."
"It'll do, right enough, lover; I'll make it so, don't worry. Bremusa?"
"Get lost, there's a dear."
"Oh, ah, yes, of course, lady. Goodnight, ma—er, Gabrielle."
"Goodnight, Bremusa, thanks."
A short while later the two sat together by a fire all to themselves; Gabrielle, wrapped in a warm blanket, leaning quietly against the firm shoulder of her paramour and gazing into the flickering orange firelight.
"So, it's all over?"
"Yep, We did our duty, one less braggadocio brigand t'deal with, an' his useless accomplices. You feelin' OK?"
"Better'n better, actually." Gabrielle looked across into the deep blue eyes of the one she loved wholeheartedly. "Sorry if I was a little short with you earlier."
"Oh, it's nuthin', sweetie, nuthin'."
"Can't do it here, amongst all this crowd, but I'll make it up t'you later, back at our Inn in Athens—if y'know what I mean, lover."
"Ahh, yes, y'know, I think I do know what ya mean, lady. Till then, then, eh? Here, give me a goodnight kiss at least, will ya; I won't sleep otherwise, as ya well know, dearie."
"Oh, if you insist,—mmm."