Xena reclined on the pillows, her face pale, drenched in sweat, and yet somehow radiant even with the eyes closed. I touched her shoulder, and she opened her eyes and gave me a faint smile.
"Here you are," I said softly, laying the baby down on her breast - a baby girl, all cleaned up, with soft brown fuzz on her head and beautiful, deep brown eyes. "Your daughter."
She cradled the infant in her arms, smiling, as though listening to some divine music that only she could hear. Then she turned her head toward Ares. He was kneeling by the bed, and I suddenly realized that I had seen that look on his face before: on Olympus, when she came up to him right after he had given up his godhood to heal Eve and me - and to save Xena. He was waiting for what she would say or do next, looking so nervous, so completely ... I rummaged for a word and then realized what a funny word it was to apply to the God of War: defenseless.
She handed him the child, and I thought his lips quivered a little. He nestled the baby in the crook of an arm, stroking her silken skin, running the tip of one finger over her face, her chest, her arm, her tiny hand; she was quite a big baby really, and yet she looked absurdly, preciously small in those powerful arms of his. Mentally, I conjured up the image of the dark god we knew and loved to hate - the metal-studded leathers, the magnificent gauntlets, the grand sword at his side. I didn't know whether to cry or giggle.
Xena reached out, put her hand over his and breathed, "Ares... Our child..."
He looked at her, his lips parted, and his face glowed with such quiet joy that tears did spring to my eyes. Cyrene tugged on my sleeve, but before she could usher Eve and me out, I heard Xena say in a barely audible voice, "I love you"; I also heard a sound that was something in between a gasp and a choked sob, and couldn't help stealing a backward glance to see him with his face buried in her hair, his shoulders shaking as she stroked the back of his head.
"You know, Gabrielle," Xena observed one morning as she sat in the courtyard breast-feeding Ariana (the name was her pick) and basking in the sun, "it's nice to do this without being chased around by paranoid gods and assassins with poisoned swords and what not."
"It is?" I chuckled, munching on an apple. "I would have thought you'd miss the excitement."
"Oh, I'm sure I will eventually." She patted Ariana's dark curls. "Or maybe this one will provide all the excitement I'll need for a while." She began to hum a lullaby, then suddenly stopped and added, "Some things never change, of course. I still have Ares getting on my nerves."
I shot her a quick look, but she was smiling.
"It's all right," she said in response to my unspoken question. "We're fine. It's all behind us. I'm not sure how or why... maybe just because, whatever has happened between us, it couldn't have been all bad because ... we created this." She bent down to brush her lips against Ari's forehead.
I shook my head. "Ares as a doting daddy. I still can't quite believe it. You know, sometimes I think that any minute now I'm going to wake up and see Ares, God of War laughing in my face and saying, 'Well! How did you like this game, little girl? Huh?'“
"Gods, Gabrielle." She shivered. "Don't even joke like that." Xena glanced at me with a spark of mischief in her eyes. "You know, I just might tell him about this idea of yours. He can get into his leathers and sneak up on you while you're sleeping and give you a nasty surprise."
"Xena!" I almost choked on the apple. "Just let him try and I promise you I'll find some really nasty way to find out if he can bleed or not."
Ares as a doting daddy... He made a show of protesting utter ignorance of, and indifference to, all things having to do with babies; but it was obvious that he adored his daughter. Watching them, I sometimes wondered how many other children he had fathered all over the known world, and how many of them he had actually seen, let alone rocked to sleep on his chest.
He was still Ares, of course. When Xena finally felt confident enough to try on her warrior outfit again and five-month-old Ari quickly made a grab for the chakram on her belt, I waited for the inevitable "That's my girl," and he didn't fail to deliver. He clapped and laughed and bounced her so high in the air that Cyrene and I, though not Xena, gave him nervous looks.
"Ari, love, that's mommy's favorite toy," he guffawed, putting Ariana down on his knee while she squirmed and squealed with pure delight. "You can't have it until you're - what, Xena? When do little girls get started on chakrams - four, five?"
"Seven and not a day sooner," Xena shot back, arching her neck and looking herself over rather critically. "Can't we start with something simple like the staff?"
"She doesn't have to be a warrior, you know," Cyrene chimed in.
"Certainly not." He chuckled as the child gurgled in his lap, tugging on his finger with her chubby little hands. "I'd be perfectly happy if she became a, a - help me out here, girls. What else do people do?"
"How about a teacher," I ventured.
"Yeah! A teacher. Terrific. Of course, you would have to do some detective work to find out who her real father is."
They were about as happy as two very headstrong people could ever be living together; but they were also getting restless. More and more often, Xena accompanied Ares to the combat training sessions, but it wasn't much of an outlet. Truth be told, I, too, missed our old life on the road in some ways.
For Ariana's first birthday, we got a dog, a beautiful thing with silky black fur and amber eyes. Ares, surprising us yet again, took to her even more than Ari did. Xena ribbed him once about having found someone to worship him - to which he retorted, "My dear, all I need to do is walk past Gabrielle with my shirt off," momentarily leaving me flushed and feeling like a schoolgirl. With his usual dark humor, or perhaps to show how completely over his past he was, he half-seriously proposed naming the pup Discord ("A perfect name for a bitch in black"). He probably knew that Xena would veto this morbid idea, considering the rather grisly demise the real Discord had met at her hands - not that long ago, really, even though it now seemed like another life. We eventually agreed on "Arrow."
It was shortly afterwards that we heard from Varia, the new leader of the Amazons. My presence was wanted at an emergency meeting of the high council, with an invitation for Xena to appear as well. It was nice of them to remember occasionally that I was a member of the royal line, but this was clearly more than a formality. I said I would go alone. Xena, however, was clearly mulling it over. After putting Ariana to bed, she came knocking on my door.
"I'm coming with you, Gabrielle. It sounds like they really need help."
"And you need some action."
With a wry little smile, Xena sat down on my bed. "Well, all right. I am getting a little stir-crazy."
"What about Ari?"
"Mom can take care of her for a few weeks. Besides ... she's got her daddy."
"You think he'll stay here when we may get a chance to kick some ass? What do you plan to do, Xena, tie him down?"
She chuckled huskily. "My, my, Gabrielle - I didn't know you were so kinky."
"Xena..." I rolled my eyes. "You scare me sometimes. You're beginning to sound more and more like him."
Ares, sure enough, wouldn't hear of staying behind. The "girls only" argument didn't wash; he informed Xena that in the old days many Amazon tribes considered him their honorary husband, and she could do little except playfully cuff him upside the head and ask if he intended to do the honors. Nor was it any use reminding Ares that during his last contact with Varia's Amazons, his army was laying waste to their forests and villages. And when Xena deadpanned, "Well, nice to see that you're so excited about a chance to serve the greater good," he kissed the palm of her hand and purred, "Ooh, I love it when you talk dirty."
So Xena sent word to Eve, asking her to come home for a couple of months and help out with Ari, and we got ready to leave.
That morning, Ares came downstairs in full uniform; even the silver earring was back for a return engagement. All of a sudden, it was hard to believe that he had ever looked any different. Ari, who was sitting on her mother's knee and tracing the pattern of gold on her breastplate with deep concentration, took a look at him and stared intently, knitting her little brow and even puckering her mouth as if about to cry - then beamed suddenly and clapped her hands as she broke out in bubbly laughter.
"She loves it!" Ares exclaimed, lifting her up. "Who's my girl? Huh? See, Ari, this is what daddy looks like when he doesn't have to blend in among foolish mortals with no sense of style."
Xena had to tease him, of course, telling him he was getting too fat for those pants; but as she looked at him, there was something special about the twinkle in her eye and the ways her lips parted in just a hint of a sensuous smile. It suddenly occurred to me that while Xena loved the mortal Ares in a way she could not have loved - or let herself love - Ares the god, what drew her to him had a great deal to do with the deadly splendor of the God of War. Even living side by side with them, I thought, I would never truly understand this relationship. Of course, neither would they.
Xena came up to Ares and leaned against his shoulder, stroking Ari's hair and kissing her glowing face. "Mommy has to go to work, baby," she whispered. "I'll see you soon. I miss you already." Ares let her take the girl from him and then gathered them both into his arms, and they stood in silence for a while - two warriors dressed to kill, and the child they had brought into the world - until Ari began to squirm and coo, and Ares looked down at her and gave her a light pop on the nose.
"All right," he said. "Now, don't be a good little girl, okay?"
The Amazons, indeed, had bad news: they had attracted the attention of Alaric, the Dacian prince who was terrorizing the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Alaric had taken a liking to women warriors, which was not the custom of his land, and his idea of recruitment was to raid Amazon villages, kidnap the women, and give them the choice of either serving in his army or servicing his men. The scattered Amazon tribes were too weak to take him on in open warfare. Alaric had over a thousand Amazons in captivity, and one escapee had brought back terrible tales of what had happened to those of whom he'd chosen to make an example.
When Xena and I returned from the council meeting and briefed Ares, he frowned.
"Alaric... There's a blast from the past," he said thoughtfully, sprawled on the rugs in our tent.
"You've had dealings with him?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, it was - " he propped himself up on his elbow, shot a nervous glance at her and fidgeted a little, and I wondered with a shock whether Alaric actually scared him.
"Well, what?" Xena pressed.
"It was - " he cleared his throat - "five years ago when he had a run-in with the Roman Army and got his tail whipped."
So that's why he was nervous talking about it to Xena; at the time, of course, the Roman Army would have been led by Livia - the former and future Eve - with Ares as her mentor, and more. Glancing at Xena, I knew that she got it too, but she let it pass.
"Would he know you face to face?"
"And I would imagine he's pretty pissed off at you."
"Well," he chuckled, "I'd be, if I were him."
Xena got up and paced around the tent.
"So if he gets his hands on you now that you're mortal..."
"I'm sure it'll be exceptionally nasty."
She stopped. "You shouldn't go, then."
"Are you kidding? And miss a chance to fight with you? Besides," he drawled, "I've got my woman to protect me."
Xena chuckled bitterly. "Ares, we have Amazons to rescue. The last thing I need is to have to rescue you as well."
"Your confidence in me just blows me away."
"Look," I interrupted, "I don't think either of you should be going. Xena, this one sounds really dangerous."
She fixed me with a glare. "And your point is - ?"
"My point is that you have a young child," I snapped.
"Gabrielle." Xena sat down next to me on a pillow, reached out and took my hands. "Some of the Amazons who were kidnapped have young children too."
"Xena, that doesn't mean you have to do this. Varia and I will go - we'll manage..."
"No, Gabrielle." She was silent for a few moments, struggling with something. "We have to clean up the mess we helped make."
"What are you talking about? Who's 'we'?"
"Ares and I, in this case."
He sat up abruptly. "Excuse me?"
She turned to him, her gaze heavy. "Ares... the main reason the Amazons can't stand up to this maniac is because a few years ago, they were devastated by raids led by - my daughter... whom you goaded on ... and I stopped them from seeking justice because I had to protect Eve. And then, you and your army did some more damage when you were looking for ambrosia... and that only happened because you'd given up your godhood for me."
He rolled his eyes. "How does this work, Xena?"
"How does what work?"
"The guilt complex. If you didn't do anything, you still have to figure out some way that it's your fault."
"There were other things... I killed Cyane..." she swallowed hard. "I killed Artemis, their patron goddess..."
He looked down, the corner of his mouth twitching a little.
"Xena," I spoke up. "I don't think anyone, mortal or god, has done more for the Amazons than you have. Please, let Varia and me handle this."
"Artemis wasn't doing much to protect them anyway," Ares said grimly. "She had her favorites but she didn't give a damn anymore about what happened to the Amazon nation. Anyway - you did what you had to do."
"And now, I have to do this," she replied in a tone of absolute finality.
He got up, came up behind her and put his arms around her waist.
"Xena... I'm not going to pretend that I understand this atonement business. But... remember something I said to you once, when I was still a god?"
Xena jerked her head upward. "Are you sure it's something you want me to remember?"
"I told you I'd give up my immortality if I could spend the rest of my life fighting side by side with you." His voice was low as he flattened his palm against her collarbone and began rubbing her neck in a slow circular motion. I averted my eyes. "And you said something like, 'I fight against scum like you.'“
I heard her soft chuckle. "Oh yeah, that was back when I had my head on straight."
"And I said, 'Then I'll fight with you...'“
"... 'a fight is a fight no matter which side you're on,'" she finished, almost in a whisper.
"You do remember! Xena... whatever you're fighting for or against ... my place is with you."
Her breathing quickened. I got up and said I had to go and talk to Varia; I don't know if they heard me or not.
"So you want to fight for me."
The man before us was as tall as Ares, and quite imposing - with slightly reddish blond hair cascading down his shoulders and setting off the deep black of his fur mantle, and a rich beard that came down to his chest. His features were surprisingly fine for a barbarian chieftain, marred only by a ragged, raised purple scar that ran down his left cheek, from the corner of a pale gray eye to the thin mouth.
"We have heard that the abilities of women on the battlefield impress you, my lord Alaric," said Xena.
This was the plan: Xena and I would get into Alaric's camp and work from the inside - find out where the captive Amazons were kept and how they could be freed - while Ares and Varia would provide reinforcement and distraction at key moments. The arrangement did not appeal to Ares much, but he had no answer when Xena pointed out that of the four of us, she and I were the only two that neither Alaric nor any of his lieutenants had seen. And now we stood in the throne room in the castle of the Dacian prince.
Alaric came down the steps of his throne, a hand resting on the handle of his sword, simple steel with an ornamental pattern carved into it.
"You have done well fighting my men," he said, looking us over and clearly appraising more than our fighting abilities. "Leandra and - Medora, is it?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I have one more test for you." He gestured to someone in the back of the room, and some of the officers who stood on both sides of the rugged throne room craned their necks. Four soldiers came in dragging a woman in Amazon garb with manacled hands and feet. I suppressed a gasp; she looked vaguely familiar, and it was likely that she had seen us around Varia's camp. Would she, however inadvertently, give us away?
"This is one of my trophies," Alaric said with a sneer, "from the lands of the Amazons. They are famous, I'm told, for their prowess with weaponry." He gestured, and the woman's manacles were removed. "You," he nodded toward Xena, "will fight her and finish her off - if you win. And you, Amazon... maybe you need more of an incentive to entertain me. Let's see..." He stroked his beard. "If you win, you are free to leave."
The young woman's eyes flashed as one of the soldiers handed her a sword. I glanced at Xena; if she let herself lose, surely Alaric would get suspicious.
"Very well, my lord Alaric." Xena's face was inscrutable.
Alaric mounted the steps of his throne, sat down and gave the signal.
The whirlwind of leaps, kicks, and wild swings had already raged for a few minutes, and both women were already bleeding from a few nicks when I saw Xena's sword fly from her hand and clatter to the floor. Before the Amazon could make a move, though, Xena tackled her, knocking her down and gripping her right wrist. They rolled over each other like wrestlers, panting, grunting, growling, a tangle of arms and legs and hair; pinned down for a moment, Xena finally threw her opponent off with a ferocious effort, then slid across the floor and picked up her sword.
Alaric watched, resting his chin on his fist; his face looked impassive, except for the slight flare of the thin nostrils. The combat went on until it was the Amazon who lost her sword and went down hard, and Xena's arm went up.
"Do it," Alaric commanded in a quiet voice that would clearly brook no objections.
I held my breath as Xena's sword came down.
In the next second, the prone Amazon kicked Xena's legs out from under her, spun around to get her weapon, and it was Xena who found herself on the floor with the tip of a sword at her throat and a foot planted on her chest.
It had to be planned, I thought, wondering if Alaric would catch on.
"That's enough," he ordered, clapping his hands once. The Amazon stepped aside, breathing heavily and casting suspicious sideways glances at him, her hand still convulsively clutching the sword.
"You may get up, Leandra," Alaric said. "You are good - excellent - but you need to watch for surprises when you think you've won. And you, Amazon - I hate to lose the chance to have a warrior of such quality in my army, but I am a man of my word; you're free to go. Euric," he motioned to one of his officers, "take her down to the stables and give her a horse."
As the Amazon was led away, Alaric shifted his eyes back to us.
"I like your style," he said thoughtfully. "We march in a month. In the meantime, you'll have your quarters here in the castle, with my command. And I've got a job for you. Those Amazons are a stubborn lot; see if you can persuade some of them that fighting for me has its benefits. Of course, refusing to fight for me has its price, but they already know that."
It was working perfectly.
As we walked down the dank corridor, I looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot, and asked Xena what that had been all about.
She chuckled slightly. "I've met Arsinoe at Varia's camp. Smart girl. All I had to do was say a few words to her."
It dawned on me. "While you were wrestling - !"
"So when you lost your sword and grappled with her, that was on purpose... Of course - you had to show Alaric that you were loyal - ready to kill her. Good job."
"Good for Arsinoe, too."
We came out into the courtyard just as Arsinoe rode out of the stables on a roan horse. For just a second, her eyes met mine, and then she headed toward the castle gate, raised open to let her through.
At the same moment that my mind registered a low whistle, Arsinoe sagged forward in the saddle and then crumpled like a rag doll as the horse bucked and neighed in fright. The Amazon lay face down in the dust, a plumed arrow protruding between her shoulder blades. Xena's fingers tightened on mine.
Two soldiers came up to Arsinoe's body, picked her up by the arms and dragged her off, while a third led away the startled animal. I looked up; Alaric stood on a battlement of the castle, bow in hand, mouth twisted sardonically.
"I told her she was free to leave!" he called out, catching my stare. "I never promised she'd make it past the gate alive."
However much Arsinoe's fate haunted us, we knew that there was nothing we could have done differently. If it was any comfort, we seemed close to our goal. The Amazons were being held in two barracks on opposite sides of the camp. Under the guise of trying to brainwash them into joining Alaric, we got a few opportunities to talk to them alone, prepare the escape plan, and smuggle in some instruments for cutting their chains.
The perfect occasion presented itself two weeks after we arrived. Alaric had a big celebration planned for the anniversary of one of his victories; orders had been given to roll out barrels of wine, mead and beer for all the men - which would surely make our task a lot easier. A few days ahead of time, Xena managed to sneak out and alert Ares and Varia; they would take one barrack, Xena and I the other.
That evening, we had to attend Alaric's feast in the castle and behave so as to give no suspicion while drinking as little as possible. We were the only women there. Such celebrations were for warriors only; the ladies, including the prince's wife Clothilda, whom we had seen once - a gaunt, weary-looking woman whose russet tresses already showed streaks of gray even though she wasn't that old - stayed in their quarters. The festivities went on late, but they were finally over; a couple of hours before dawn, everything went quiet except for two or three drunken soldiers singing themselves hoarse in the camp.
The guards outside the Amazons' barrack were easy to handle.
"All right - come on, we're ready," Xena whispered once we were inside.
"So are we," said a male voice.
Flashes of torchlight suddenly exploded the darkness - and, instead of the captive Amazons, we were facing a barrack full of Alaric's soldiers, sober, armed, and fully prepared for battle.
We managed to fight our way to the doors only to see more soldiers outside, throngs of them. Alaric came at a gallop, his fur mantle and his locks flying behind him; he reined in his horse a few feet away from us, kicking up clouds of dust in the flickering light of the torches. I saw Xena's hand go toward the chakram on her belt - and saw her lurch as a glistening blade jutted out of the back of her neck. An instant later she lay at my feet, her lips moving as she tried to say something, reaching out toward me. I dropped my sais and was just able to take her hand before the darkness closed in. I heard a scream, and dimly knew it was my own.
When I opened my eyes again, it was dark, and I was lying on something cold and hard. I sat up; my head was splitting, and my wrists felt heavy and sore. Lifting my hands, I heard a clanging sound and realized I was manacled; my feet were chained, too. As my eyes got used to the near-darkness, I saw metal bars; I was in a dungeon, with a small window outside the cell the only source of light.
Then I remembered, and couldn't breathe. Xena was dead.
For a long time, I screamed and rattled the bars of my cage; either no one heard me, or no one paid attention. My throat was sore from the screaming; I found a jug of water in one corner of the cell, and took a few painful gulps. I wept too, curled up on a pallet of damp straw by the wall. Her voice echoed in my head: Even in death, Gabrielle, I shall never leave you. And now she had left me, or I had left her. A part of me hoped that there was still some way to bring her back again. But how many times could one mortal be allowed to cheat death? Our world was different now; the gods were gone with their ambrosia, Eli was gone too, and the archangels who had given her the power to slay gods seemed to have lost all interest in her after she'd done their dirty work for them.
The thought of Eli led me, in a most unpleasant connection, to think of Ares. What had become of him and Varia? Suddenly I found myself hoping that he was dead too; better that than to learn that the woman for whom he had quite literally given up the world was gone, and to fall into the clutches of an old foe as vicious as Alaric.
Then, finally, there was a noise - clanging doors, stamping feet. A few of Alaric's soldiers were coming down the narrow passageway toward my cell, two of them dragging a man who seemed unconscious, his head hanging limply. I knew who it was, of course.
"You got company, bitch."
The door of the cell was opened and Ares was flung inside, with no more consideration than one would show an animal carcass.
When they left, I crawled over to him - I didn't think I could stand up - and tried to get a look at his injuries; my eyes were getting used to the semi-darkness. Ares had not gone down without a fight. There was a ragged gash over his badly bruised left eye, and a puncture wound in the left thigh, probably from an arrow; examining him further, I saw that his right hand was bleeding and mangled. Like me, he was in chains.
I wondered if I should pull him over to the straw pallet, but it was much too small for his frame, and hardly likely to make him more comfortable. Finally, I sank down on the floor next to him trying not think - above all, not to think of what I would have to tell him when he regained consciousness.
The hoarse whisper made me open my eyes with a start.
"Ares. It's Gabrielle."
He opened his right eye - the left one was swollen shut - and licked his lips, caked with dried blood.
"Let me get you some water."
I held his head up while he took a few sips.
"Where is she?"
"Oh Ares..." My throat clenched and I couldn't say a word.
"What? What is it?" He struggled to sit up, groaning when he inadvertently leaned on his injured hand.
"Ares... I think she's dead."
"You think? What do you mean?" With his left hand, he grabbed my shoulder and shook me. "What happened to her?"
I started sobbing.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, what happened?"
"I, I, I..." - my teeth were chattering - "I saw her get run through with a sword ... through her neck... and she fell and..."
I couldn't say another word.
When I dared to look at him again, he was silent, his fingers touching the dagger-shaped pendant. I suddenly wondered if he had a stash of poison in there.
Before he could say anything, there was a clatter again, then many footsteps, and torchlight. I looked up and found myself staring at Alaric, with five or six soldiers standing behind him.
"Well, well, well. The guest of honor."
He motioned to his men; the door of the cell was opened, and two soldiers dragged Ares out and pushed him down on his knees in front of the Dacian prince.
"Fancy meeting like this, Ares. Look at me when I'm talking to you." He took his sword out of the scabbard and pushed the tip of the blade against Ares' throat, forcing him to lift his head. I was grateful that I couldn't see his face; seeing the glee on Alaric's face was bad enough.
"Just think," Alaric continued, "last time we met, your little girlfriend, the Bitch of Rome, left me a souvenir." His left hand went up to his face, touching the scar. "But right now you don't look so hot yourself. And pretty soon you'll look a lot worse." He paused, savoring his words. "I started hearing all these rumors a couple of years ago - Ares, the God of War, is now a mere mortal. Didn't think it could be true. Guess I was wrong, eh? You know something, without those powers, you're not even much of a warrior."
I kept waiting for Ares to make a sarcastic remark and for Alaric to wreak more havoc on him; but either he was too crushed by the news I had given him to defend himself even verbally, or he had decided to bear all of the taunts in silence.
"So." Alaric began pacing back and forth. "These two broads show up at my castle wanting to fight in my army. Great. And then..." he started laughing. "Guess what - this old advisor of mine, generally pretty useless but I keep him around because he was one of my father's favorite generals - he tells me that the tall dark one is Xena, Warrior Princess, the one who vanished nearly thirty years ago and then showed up again looking not a day older. So I'm thinking: what's Xena doing in my camp calling herself Leandra? Then I find out Xena has a girlfriend who's some kind of Amazon princess, and it all falls into place." He turned to me. "Nice of you to walk so obligingly into my trap! True, my men are disappointed that they didn't get all the booze I promised last night - but they'll get plenty when we have the real celebration. And you'll make such a good bonus."
He paused again. In the silence, I heard Ares' ragged breathing.
"Well, little did I know I was in for an even more special treat. Ares, in person. And mortal." With a tinny laugh, the prince extended his hand toward the prisoner's face, and Ares flinched back with a harsh gasp; Alaric had obviously jabbed at the cut over his eye, to remind the fallen god just how vulnerable he was. "Say, I hear Xena used to be your special favorite. Well, I think this will interest you."
He motioned to his men again, and they pulled Ares up to his feet and shoved him toward the small window.
The sound I heard was like the howl of an animal.
Oh gods, I thought. She is still alive and they are doing something to her...
"And you take a look too," Alaric said calmly, turning to me.
Two soldiers dragged me out of the cell; I was too dazed to resist, trying to prepare myself for whatever it was I would see outside that window.
What I saw was her face, quite dead - so white, so frozen that it looked more like a statue than the real thing. A statue of which only the head remained, mounted on top of a pole.
I opened my mouth to scream but my voice was paralyzed.
The sickening smell of burning flesh hit my nostrils, and I saw the small fire nearby in which, I realized, the rest of her body was being consumed. Violent spasms ripped through my stomach and throat; I would have thrown up if I had eaten anything recently.
Ares was slumped against the hands of the soldiers who held him, his head hanging down, breathing in strange, shallow rasps; I thought he might have passed out again - but just then, he suddenly stirred, lifted his head and looked straight at Alaric.
"When this is over," he said in a hoarse but steady voice, "I'm going to destroy you and all of yours... I'll destroy your castle... your soldiers... your spawn... and I'm going to skin you alive."
For a second, Alaric seemed slightly taken aback by this threat, and by the intensity in his prisoner's one good eye; then, the familiar mockery returned to his face.
"Very impressive. You can still talk the talk, Ares, but I don't see much action. In fact, right now, you couldn't even hold a sword, could you." He reached over and squeezed Ares' injured hand; Ares drew in his breath sharply, ground his teeth, and then, a few agonizing seconds later, cried out. "Ain't mortality a bitch? Well, that's just a taste of things to come."
He waved, indicating that we should be taken back to the cell, and started to leave but then turned around again. "You know, I hear your girlfriend over there killed the Olympian gods. So ... if she took out the gods and I took her out, that puts me pretty high up in the food chain, right? And now I get to take out another god - an ex-god, to be sure, but still... feels pretty good."
As the footsteps and the torches faded away, I turned to Ares, who lay face down on the floor where Alaric's soldiers had dumped him. Every breath he took sounded like a stifled groan. I couldn't think of anything better to say than, "Are you in a lot of pain?"
He turned his head and actually attempted something like a sarcastic snort. "No, I'm faking it." Then he added, almost inaudibly, "But that's not the worst …"
"Ares..." I felt the tears coming on again. "She - she didn't suffer - it was quick. And ... she died like a true warrior, doing what she wanted to do..."
"Gabrielle, stop babbling." He groaned. "Help me sit up."
With my assistance, he dragged himself over to the wall and leaned against it. Then he reached for the pendant again and struggled to pull its top off with just his left hand.
So he does have poison there, I thought. Was there any earthly reason for me to stop him?
I swallowed hard. "Do you have - enough for two?"
His lips twitched into something that vaguely resembled a smile. "Gabrielle, I didn't know you were so ambitious."
I blinked uncomprehendingly. "What - ?"
Wincing, he poured out the contents of the hollowed-out pendant onto his right palm. The familiar crimson shimmer made me gasp.
"Ares, it's - “
"How did you - “
"From my sister." He saw my questioning look. "I don't have that many sisters left. Your pal, Aphrodite."
"Almost two years ago... it was just before I came over to Amphipolis looking for..." his voice trailed off.
This time my tears flowed freely. "You had ambrosia all this time - and you stayed mortal to be with her... Oh, Ares..."
"And if I hadn't, I could have saved her now," he snapped, a savage note creeping into his voice. "Dammit, Gabrielle, I don't need your sniveling. Now ... better close your eyes."
Even with my eyelids shut, the flash of light was searing. Then I heard a clang - Ares' chains falling to the floor.
I knew what I would see when I opened my eyes again, but it still made me dizzy. He stood before me with no trace of injury, not one rip in his leathers, the sword back on his belt. There was another flash of blue light as two bolts of energy shattered the steel bars. Ares looked at his hands and muttered, "Still works."
He turned to me, snapped my manacles with a single touch of a finger, and said, "Hang on."
There was a whirl of light and sparks, and the next instant we were in an inner courtyard of the castle - the one, I realized immediately, where Alaric had mounted that grotesque display of his latest trophy. Ares raised his hand, and when I dared to look up, the - the thing at the top of the pole was gone.
The soldiers who sat around the yard, about twenty of them, drinking and laughing it up, didn't immediately realize they had company; not that it would have made much of a difference.
"Hey!" shouted one man, leaping to his feet.
Ares came toward them slowly, his hand resting on the handle of his still-sheathed sword. I didn't think they knew that they were facing the God of War, and yet there was fear in their faces as they yelled "Stay back!", pointing spears, swords and crossbows at him. When he was just an arm's length away, a tall, broad-shouldered soldier finally shot him in the chest with a crossbow. Then, the shooter's eyes bulged and his lips blanched and trembled. Ares' left hand came down on the man's shoulder while the right hand gripped his throat and jerked upward. A scarlet geyser jetted up, and something dark and round flew through the air, landing a few feet away from me. It took me a few seconds to realize what I had just seen; my hand closed over my mouth and my knees buckled.
When I mustered the courage to look at Ares again, I didn't see him - only a black tornado sweeping through the yard, mowing down the terrified men as they tried to run. In a minute or two, it was finished.
I remembered something, got up gingerly and walked to the fire, which had burned out with only a few embers still glowing.
"What are you doing?"
"Her ashes... I want to - “
He handed me a black leather pouch which, I was sure, had appeared out of nowhere. Kneeling down, I scooped up a few handfuls of ashes - all that remained of the woman we had both loved - and then tied the pouch to my belt.
Ares was breathing hard; the sword in his hand was dripping, and there was blood smeared on his face where he must have wiped his hand.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked, forcing my voice to stay level.
He grunted. "What do you think? Go see an old friend and have a chat about the food chain."
"Ares, wait! The Amazons - “
Ares scowled. "What about the Amazons?"
"Ares, we have to get them out, it's the reason we came here - if we don't get them out, then it will all have been for nothing - “
"And if we do get them out, then everything's peachy and it was all worth it? Her life for theirs?"
I backed up and almost stumbled into the remnants of the fire. The cold fury in his eyes forced back a memory I'd done my best to suppress since we'd gotten all friendly: how Ares murdered Eli and, afterwards, nearly lopped my head off when I challenged him.
"Ares... please... it's what she would have wanted..."
He grimaced a little and closed his eyes for a second.