Into the Night Tales

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02/22/2021 06:05 PM 

Sweet Retribution, Bitter Reward (Part 1)

This is our one and only Xena story, which ran for 216 posts during 2017-2019.  It starts in Part 1, bounces back and forth between Parts 1 and 2 (sorry about that) and then finishes with an epic battle involving sister Goddesses/Empresses, dragons, and armies of the dead.  It’s quite the fun ride and we thank all the role players who participated.  Sorry it got deleted, but here it is again in all its glory!  It reads from top to bottom.

Sweet Retribution, Bitter Reward

“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.” 
― Heinrich Heine


They say karma comes back around to bite those who have bitten others.  It may be soon, it may be later.  It might not even happen in this lifetime.  But it happens.   Not a matter of if, but when and what form it takes.  Warriors accumulate karma like corpses collect maggots.  It’s inevitable, even if it’s not intentional.  People die, people are killed, leaving others behind - the grieving, the heartbroken.  The killing might very well have been justified – self-defense, for the greater good, sure, but it still leaves a dark stain of karma.  And that’s where this story begins, with Xena the Warrior Princess and her on-again, off-again lover Borias, both hauling around invisible chains of dark karma like Jacob Marley’s ghost dragging his endless chain of burden through Ebenezer Scrooge’s candle-lit, cold and lonely bedroom on a dark Christmas Eve. 

  

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Borias

     Crimson light from the full, blood moon bathed the barren steppe landscape in warrior tones, as if the entire world had bled today.  With his back to the encampment of mercenaries, Borias pissed off the precipice into the canyon abyss below, emptying a bladder filled by too much dark ale.  Behind him, Xena and their fellow warriors celebrated their glorious victory and slaughter of the Mongol hordes over the last three days.  Their band of 60 warriors had taken down more than 500 of the horde’s best men, and only lost eight in the process.  Another three were bloodied and gravely injured and would almost certainly die.  Still, well worth the cost, because the spoils of Darkhan go to the victorious.  They’d come away with crates of gold, silver, and jewels.  The men had taken of other spoils as well – the women and girls had been ravaged.  Xena objected, but in the end, the men had their way with them.  It is the way of war.

     Borias shook off the remnants and put it back in his pants, buttoning up the fly, then turned and tramped back to the celebration.  It was mostly men, but there were a few camp followers who had been with them for the duration.  Women were needed for more than sex, too.  They did the cooking, mended the torn clothing and tents, and helped with the horses.  Then there were the women who had been taken from Darkhan.  Those looked like scared alley dogs, slinking into dark corners, hoping not to be beaten and abused.  But they would adjust in time.  Most of them. The others would be left behind in the steppes. Fodder for the wolves and the mountain tigers. 

     A bonfire raged in the center of the encampment, over which a pig, impaled on two long spears, was roasting.  The fat from the hindquarters was sputtering and the smoky, delightful aromas arising from the carcass made Borias’ mouth water. One of the warriors was playing a lyre, another was on flute.  One of the women, her voice not much better than oxen farts on a muggy day, sang along, lilting ballad of a King who, although ruled with an iron fist, provided for his people, and those people and the land prospered and their influence spread across the known world.  As it should be, the King’s mighty imperial armies showed no mercy, obliterating the weak and making slaves of the strong.

     Borias found Xena with a pint of ale in one hand, and the red-orange flickering light from the fire illuminating her lovely yet fierce face.  She had been the hero in the battle.  Borias had her back through much of it, but she was a force of nature, spinning and twirling, three or four men going down for every swing of her broadsword, her warrior cries echoing across the battlefield, firing up her fellow warriors to put their lives on the line, while putting the fear of the Gods and Goddesses into the hearts of the enemy.  It had been a slaughter.  Not even a contest.  The archers had taken down probably 150 of the Mongols before the first swords clashed.  Borias had never really liked archers.  It almost seemed unfair and cowardly.  Killing from afar.  A man should have to face his enemy with sword in hand, or wrestle it out with daggers. But archers are the way these battles are done.  So be it.

     He slid his hand over Xena’s muscular, yet feminine shoulder.  Her eyes were still full of fire from the day’s battle. “Tonight we feast and indulge our passions.  Tomorrow we take the fight to Karakorum, and after that to Hovd and Chiobalsan until the entire Mongol world begs at our feet for mercy!” 

Xena

Adventure, it was surely a thing that Xena wanted more in her life. Like most things, however, a certain amount of doubt came with the things one was granted if they wished hard enough for it. Even as she entered the inner areas of the encampment that night to wait for her beloved Borias, something about the way the victorious charges looked at her spoke to the idea that they knew about her troubled upbringing and blamed her for it. Her brothers' deaths always weighed on her mind. One of the only things that helped her feel better was the thrill of a battle. Since their victory over the large group of Mongrels, she had drowned herself in enough ale to kill a horse. That was little to no exaggeration. Her head swam as she took in the sight of her love and gave his lips the softest peck, in fear that if she opened her mouth too wide she would be sick.


Amphipolis was always her home, born and raised all her life she lived in the same village. Everyone knew one another in town but nothing new ever occurred. Ever since she was a child, the young warrior would visit the blacksmith forge in town in order to do what other women did not; learn all about weapons and armor. Memories of the man known as father raising a battleax in a high arch over his head, with her little girl frame as the target was more than enough to send shivers down her spine, even to this day. That was the real reason she had taken up all types of combat. Fighting seemed to be some sort of taboo and a woman seen doing anything as bold such as combat training was deemed ‘dangerous’ and people began to think it would mess with their minds and that women in this time and age had no business of doing such a thing. Xena was a rare creature as it is, considering she had been told multiple times that she shouldn't have existed. Not only did she not care what everyone around her thought and stayed true to her beliefs - expanding your mind and gaining knowledge was the key to success - and those words she stood by; thus she decided to become a warrior and do all she could to protect her fellow townsfolk.


As her love proclaimed their plans for all things love and war which would begin tomorrow, she pivoted to face him directly and managed a small smile. "You were great today," She said at last, her eyes catching the faint reflection of dried blood that had clung to his usual armor. The fur pelt that was draped around his shoulders was enough to shield any further evidence of their evil deeds together. She nearly cuddled into his muscular frame, when the sound of footsteps fast approaching could be heard. She raised herself upwards, her mind still swimming as the man came into view. A raise of her hand caused him to halt just before the two of them.


"Please, allow me to explain. . ." He began, just before two of the more trusted guards rounded the corner and came barreling over, kicking up dirt and debris as they went. The man's eyes were filled with an emotion she wasn't sure she had seen since they had begun their adventure to destroy the Mongrels. Regret, Karma. Something had definitely sent this man reeling into their private quarters of the camp. His clothing was stained with blood as well, which could be expected. It wasn't until she saw the hilt of one of her daggers that had gone missing that her mind began to work to place the pieces of the puzzle together. "Please! I didn’t mean to steal it but the men said that if I could just get the slightest bit of your blood, it would help them. . ." The man exclaimed as his eyes traced her gaze to his waist.

Borias

    The ale, mead, feasting, and celebrations heaped on top of the day’s battle were beginning to take their toll on Borias.  Neither possessing Xena’s superpowers nor her extraordinary endurance, he looked forward to going down to the hot springs with her, washing off the filth and blood, making love to her there, then sleeping blissfully well into the morning before they began the trek to Karakorum.  Borias always slept well after a day like this, especially with Xena in his arms under toasty warm skins of bear and dire wolf.  He would not dream of the battle or of killing.  Nor of the battle to come tomorrow.  He would only admit this to Xena, but after a day like today, his dreams would take him to peaceful places beyond the chaos and loss of war.  And yes, battles always come with a cost, no matter how sweet the victory and no matter how rich the spoils.  He and Xena had lost friends and companions today, and more would die tomorrow.

     In his dreams, he and Xena halted their nomadic lifestyle and settled in somewhere with their friends.  A small town they had conquered, someplace perhaps in the hills or mountains, with clean cool air, abundant game, fruit trees, and verdant fields of grain.  Someplace easily defended.  There would be family and children. Borias would teach his sons and daughters equally the way of war, how to swing a broadsword, when to show mercy and when to be ruthless.  He dreamed of community, which for a battle-hardened warrior was an odd thing to contemplate.  But in his waking world, he knew the truth, that his life would always be a bloody struggle, that today’s battle would be followed by one tomorrow, and the one after that, ad infinitum.  And at some point, probably not in the too distant future, Borias’ luck would run out.  A long life wasn’t in the cards for someone in his line of work.  

     But Xena’s proclamation that he had been ‘great today’ buoyed his spirits.  Praise from her was better than the fire-roasted wild boar that filled his stomach and the dark ale of which he’d imbibed too much.  For her praise was not handed out lightly.  When it came to war, Xena always meant exactly what she said.  He was about to suggest they take a walk to the hot springs when a man quickly approached, flanked by two of their most trusted guard. The man was clearly one of their own warriors, but more bedraggled than most – his clothes torn and blood-stained, his countenance weasely and suspicious.  From the looks of it, he’d taken a sword blade deep into his shoulder, but the bleeding had been staunched with a make-shift, now heavily bloodied bandage.  Borias couldn’t recall the man’s name, but in his dirty left hand, he held one of Xena’s two daggers that usually resided in sheaths that crisscrossed her back.  He was blabbering something about how Xena’s blood would help the other men.  Did he expect to find her blood on that dagger?  How did he get it?  Xena would not have voluntarily handed it over to one such as him.  This weasel of a man was a thief, but something else was dangerously wrong here, and it glinted darkly in his eyes.  Borias stood, towering over the smaller man.  Grasping him by a bundle of his rough tunic, the man yelped because it strained the material over his wound.  Borias pulled him close, the weasel man’s eyes now wild and feral with fear.  “If you want to live through this night tell me truthfully why you wanted Xena’s blood!” Borias’s voice was laced with anger and his words slashed at the man menacingly.  In response, he sputtered, “I, I… there was a woman, in camp this morning.  She said her name, but…” he looked away, a frown creasing his brow, “I don’t recall… it doesn’t matter, she said there’s magic in Xena’s blood.  Blood magic.  Warrior magic.  If she could get just a little, only one drop, she could make everyone here invincible.  None of us would have to die, and we would always be victorious, we would all be heroes, she said.  Only one single drop of the Warrior Princess’s blood and she would make it come true for us. Please believe me, sir, I meant well!” 

     Borias tightened his grip on the man’s tunic, took Xena’s dagger from him, and held the business side to his scrawny, thin neck.  The razor-sharp edge bit into the man’s skin, causing a bead of viscous red to dribble down onto his sunken, hairless chest.  “What did the woman look like?  Is she part of our group?  And what is her name?  You tell me these things, all of them this very moment or your head will be at the top of a pike at the edge of camp when the sun rises.”  

     Borias suspected witchcraft, and witches were never on their side.  Never.   

Xena

The warrior princess had wanted nothing more than to relax. Of course, as luck would have it, she would need to once more fight for her continued existence before she could indulge in such things. Her muscles ached though she refused to wince each time she moved, like some other women would. She didn’t blame them but her position was much too influential and the last thing she wanted was doubt cast in the minds of the men she and her lover commanded. The way her body was protesting to the rigorous activities she put it through was enough to cause her to react irrationally. Borias had moved to position the man in such a way that he could be easily dismantled by either one of them. The thought caused her smile to widen as she watched the procession taking place in front of her. When the man mentioned a woman, Xena immediately knew who he must have been speaking of. She kept her calm, though her entire body felt as if it had just been set alight. Thanks to a rather sordid past, she knew what the flames of an enchanted spell felt like. Not wanting to relive such an experience, the warrior stood and gently placed a hand on the shoulder of her lover, a silent signal they had developed to let the other person know that it was okay to let their potential victim go. This, however, didn’t mean he was going to get away that easily, either.


“You will be dismissed to the stables tonight. You will also be watched by one of our most trusted guards for the rest of the night. If you attempt an escape, your life will end. That was not a threat but a matter of fact.” Xena explained and paused to shrug her shoulders as if the thought of ending his life meant very little to her - which in fact it did. Dozens of men had already lost their lives on this day thanks to the formidable duo and one more wouldn’t make much of a difference. The only problem with allowing Borias to cut the life from within him was that they would be lacking a guide back to where the woman resided, which was the goal Xena had in mind by allowing him to live. She took a step to the side and ran her fingertips along a faint white mark on the man’s ribcage. He had survived previous attacks, which meant he must have been working as a sellsword for a while. If she were smart, and she was, she would use this knowledge to her advantage.


“Now, my love is a bit different than I am. He will prolong the experience much more than I would. You see, he doesn’t tire of his playthings after a short while. . .” Her voice trailed off and was carried away on the night air as she stole a glance at Borias, admiring the view of his jawline from the side. The fear in the man’s eyes was enough to cause a light giggle from within her. She would show no fear at the prospect of hunting her most vile of known enemies. In fact, she would tackle the task head-on as she and her lover did with everything else, especially the Mongrels. With her command being issued, a guard had appeared beside the trio. She nodded as he wrapped a thick leather cufflink around the man’s right wrist and then his left, effectively binding his hands together in front of him. As the guard turned to lead him in the direction of the stables, Xena snapped her fingers. A whip was brought to her and the hilt was placed in her palm. She cleared her throat, signaling for the guard to turn the man back around. When he did so and a loud gulp of trepidation was heard from him, Xena raised a brow and offered him a nearly seductive glance. “Go, and do not bother either of us for the rest of the night.”

************XENA AND BORIAS MOVE TO PART 2*************   

AFTER THINGS PROGRESS IN PART 2, CASSANDRA AND BORIAS RETURN HERE

Cassandra

Cassandra's back was to the man's figure but she could feel his blade was pointing straight at her neck. She was naked of course so she did not have a weapon on her and the only weapons she had were attached to her armor. Which was a few feet away from the male. She took in a deep breath and she slowly turned around in the water to face the male. He was tall and dark-haired. He had to be Borias, Xena's lover. She slowly raised her arms and looked him directly in the eyes. "As you can see I am unarmed so if you would please lower your sword that would be a great way to start this conversation." She was of course above the water so her breasts were fully exposed and yet she did not care. She waited for him to lower his weapon before she would answer any of his questions.

Borias

     “Unarmed…”  Borias stared at the girl’s high, firm and full breasts.  The nipples were taught in the cool waters.  “Indeed.  I can readily see that.”  And much more.  He’d known not that Cassandra was so comely.  She had always just been the enemy, another warrior that needed to be taken down; her feminine parts hidden behind layers of armor and a ferocious warrior countenance. 

     Borias sat down on a log at the edge of the lake, and laid the sword on the ground.  He was bone tired, separated from Xena, Gabrielle, and his other warrior friends, and his army had been defeated.  By Cassandra and Callisto.  Most of his friends lay dead on the battlefield.  He knew not what had befallen Gabrielle, and Xena had been magically whisked away to somewhere beyond his comprehension.

     He leaned down and cupped water into his hands, using it to wash off his face and to splash water on his hair.  “I am defeated.  I should be dead,” he said to Cassandra.  Nodding towards the battlefield, he continued “out there among the others, my companions, my friends.”  Borias truly believed that.  It was dishonorable to be here, alive, when so many had died.  Others would accuse him of running to save his hide when it was clear the battle had been lost.  How else could he have survived? He glared at Cassandra, “You killed us all.  The spirit of my people, our band of mercenaries, has been extinguished.” He added sarcastically, “Congratulations on your victory.”

     But he knew he still had a purpose, and maybe that is why the Gods had arranged for him to be knocked out, appearing to be dead, and thus surviving the battle.  His purpose was to find Xena and save her from whatever fate had befallen her.  “I will only ask once more.  What do you know of Xena and Callisto’s disappearance?  It was the monk, the Druid, whatever he was.  He cast a spell.  Tell me what you know!”

     The melodious song of a night bird, a nightingale thrush, pierced the dark emptiness of Borias’ soul from across the lake.  Its simple beauty belied the harsh and cruel reality of the moment, and inexplicably ignited a tiny, vulnerable flame of hope within Borias’ chest.

Callisto

Cassandra remained in the water as Borias just stood on the shoreline of the lake looking at her. She saw that he was checking out her naked body and she did not mind in the least. For she was a very passionate woman as well as a skilled fighter. She watched him intentively for she did not want him to pull a fast one on her. 


Then she watched as he sat down on the log at the edge of the lake. He had put down his sword and this made Cassandra just a little bit more at ease. She slowly rose out of the water and continued to watch him as she walked out of the water. She was starting to get really cold and she wanted her under armor. "I am just getting my under armor from by the tree. I will keep my front to you so you know I will not pull a fast one." She then listened to his words and her heart jumped a little bit at his words of being defeated by her and Callisto. Naturally, she would be thrilled about this. But when he spoke of his companions and how he was still alive when they are dead it made her heart sank just a bit. She lowered down to the ground and grabbed her under armor and began to put it on. The whole time her front was to him never did she turn her back on him. She then heard the sarcasm in his voice when he congratulated her on her victory. 


Slowly walking back over to him she heard him ask the question that she knew he would ask once again. She took a deep breath and she sat upon the other end of the log far from his reach. "Borias I tell you the truth when I say this. I was only here for one purpose and one purpose only. To help Callisto defeat yours and Xena's army and then take Callisto back to Ares. He has plans for her. Do not ask what those plans are for I do not know. And as for that druid or monk whatever he is I have never seen him in my life so I can not tell you what his part in this tale is. And that is the truth. I know you have no reason to trust me but to my enemies I will be honest to them until I kill them." 


Cassandra began to squeeze the water out of her hair and it dripped upon her leg. It was chilly now and her body was shaking. The wind began to pick up slightly and she looked over at him. "I plan to find Callisto whatever means necessary. Ares wants her and I intend on bringing her to him. I assume you are wanting to go after your beloved Warrior Princess. So it seems we have a common foe and a common quest. What are your ideas?"

 Borias

     Cassandra was flaunting her beauty, her sexuality in front of him.  She possessed those things in raw, spectacular abundance, and she knew it.  No doubt she wielded her beauty and allure as a weapon when she believed she needed it.  Borias was certainly not immune to her charms.  And although he was exhausted, dirty, bloody, and he knew he stank of death from the battlefield and stale sweat, he was surprised to find himself responding to the girl.  An arousal.  As Cassandra was getting back into her under armor, Borias shed his outer armor and boots, and then plunged into the lake – clothed in his tunic and pants.  They were as dirty as he was and needed as much cleaning.  And the water was as warm as the air was chilly.  He’d forgotten there was a warm spring at the bottom of this lake.  The water on his wounds stung, but he knew the lake would cleanse them and lessen the chance of infection. 

     As he treaded water and brushed his clothes, skin, and hair clean with his hands, he listened to what Cassandra had to say.  She claimed that Ares had a need for Callisto.  Of course, he did.  That was not something Borias would question. She also said she knew not of the Druid monk.  That also rang true.  Borias was pretty good at reading people, and he believed all that she said, including that she would be honest with her enemies, right up to the point at which she dispatched them.  That was an honorable position, one that Borias admired.  He immediately thought better of Cassandra. Lies are tools of the weak.  Feinting a blow from one side and then striking from the other is a form of deception, and one that is acceptable in battle.  It is a strategy, not a lie.  But if one needs lies to defeat an enemy, then you’ve stooped to their level and are no better than them. 

     “Yes, we have a common foe and quest.  Perhaps we can work together to achieve our goals and vanquish that foe.” Whoever that might be.  But he would be cautious around this girl, sleep with a dagger in his hand and one eye half-open.  Yes, he believed they could work together, but no, he did not trust her.  Not yet, and perhaps never.  Trust is something that develops over time, that is tested in battle, but also in the course of everyday occurrences and events.  And he would test her whenever the opportunity arose, as he suspected she would test him.

     “My beloved warrior princess.  Yes, I do love her and the bigger-than-life persona into which she has grown.  But you should know she is not mine in the sense you believe her to be.  We are not together in that way.  She has found another.  Gabrielle.”  This change in the nature of his relationship with Xena had come swiftly and caught him off guard.  But he felt no ill will to either of them.  In fact, he wished them well.  That he was not Xena’s lover did not mean he was any less devoted to her and her mission.  He would follow her to the depths of hell, and he’d die for her – over and over again if she asked him and it was allowed by the gods.

     He climbed back out of the lake, and removed his tunic to squeeze as much water from it as possible. “If we can find the Druid, I believe we will find Xena and Cassandra.”  He pointed to cliffs up above the lake.  “In a cave up there lives a witch.  I believe she can tell us about this Druid, help us find him.”  He slipped back into his wet tunic.  “But I need rest for what remains of the night.”  In his current condition of exhaustion, he could sleep right here on the ground, even soaking wet.   

Cassandra

While Cassandra finished putting on her under armor she listened to Borias. His words touched her in a way she did not think possible. She only loved one man and that was her father. She did not think it possible that her heart could beat for anyone else. But with the fact that Borias and Xena were not lovers made it possible for her think otherwise. 


"This witch she sounds powerful. How do you know that she will help us?" It was a good question. Because anyone that lived in a cave away from the troubles and company of others tended to keep it that way. they did not like visitors and would see to such to keep it that way. "I mean to be honest if I was this witch and lived alone I would not help anyone that came knocking on my door." 


Her eyes then drifted along his wet body. His tunic was becoming soaked once again. She smiled a bit and then grabbed her bow and arrow. "Rest awhile. I am going to go hunt for dinner. There is bound to be some rabbit or small creatures in these woods. Oh and just to let you know I am approaching I will whistle." 


She then began to walk into the forest without even putting on her boots. She hunted like this all the time. Better chances of catching something that way. While she was walking her mind drifted to the image of Borias. She shook her head. "What is the matter with you Cassandra? He is the enemy. Ares would not approve." Almost on cue, Ares appeared in front of her. "Yes, you are right Cassandra. I would not approve. Why did you not kill him while he was in the lake?" Cassandra cleared her throat "You know my rules Ares. I do not kill an unarmed man. It is not honorable." Ares walked up to her. "I mean to have Callisto in my possession. For that is the swiftest way to gain Xena's trust. You can easily find Callisto on your own. Kill Borias before he becomes a distraction to you! If he hasn't already." He caressed her cheek and then disappeared. Cassandra's heart sank. She then heard the swift running of a rabbit. She took aim and shot the creature right through its head before it could dart into its hole. She then walked over to it and picked it up. 



Walking back to the campsite her mind thought on what Ares had said to her in the forest. She sighed and then took in a deep breath. She then whistled. He would not like this at all. He would be angry with her for alerting him that she had returned. But she had a plan and he did not need to worry about it. She whistled again to let Borias know that she was approaching.
  
Borias

     Before she went on her rabbit hunt, Borias replied to Cassandra’s question about the witch.  “She owes me a favor.” He grinned in a unilateral conspiratorial way that revealed nothing of his relationship with the witch.  “We go back a ways.  She is not as powerful as you might think.  Cagey with an adequate knowledge of magic.  But she keeps her ear to the ground.  If anything magical is going down, she’ll know about it.  And she would not lie to me.  She knows all too well the consequences of deceiving me.” 

     His newfound ally, of sorts, took her bow and stalked off into the forest after something to eat.  Said she would whistle when she returned.  Which was a good thing, because Borias was still an enemy survivor amidst the conquering army.  Almost anyone he encountered here would have been fighting on the other side on this day, and would almost certainly be his enemy.  Was Cassandra his enemy?  Borias seemed to think not, but he wasn’t going to take any chances, either. 

     He sprawled into the wet grass at the edge of the lake.  An owl hooted its lonesome call from a copse of trees to his left while the reflected light of the moon splintered into dancing shards across the unsettled dark waters that spread out before him.  Borias had intended to simply slumber, to rest his muscles while staying alert enough to detect approaching danger.  But weariness quickly overcame him and he fell into the deep, dreamless sleep that his body demanded.  When the first of Cassandra’s whistles came, it failed to penetrate to his inactive subconsciousness.  The second whistle, though, awoke him with a start.  He must have been snoring because he sputtered and coughed himself awake.  It was indeed Cassandra, and she was carrying a large, bloody rabbit by the ears. Embarrassed a little that he’d allowed himself to be vulnerable, to lose awareness of his surroundings, he quickly got to his feet and congratulated the hunter.  “Excellent quarry!  A fat hare.”  He pointed to a large boulder back from the shoreline.  “I’ll build a modest cooking fire in the lee of that stone, hiding us from prying eyes.”  He didn’t need soldiers from Callisto’s or Cassandra’s army investigating a bonfire on the shoreline.

     Using his flint and knife, Borias quickly ignited a handful of dried moss, to which he added small twigs, then branches and a log.  He deftly constructed a crude spit suspended by two forked sticks that they used to roast the skinned and cleaned rabbit.  Within half an hour they both were enjoying the taste of fire-roasted hare.  Borias tore off a chunk of the savory meat with his teeth and commented, “I needed this more than rest.  I’m beginning to feel revived.”  His gaze drifted to the cliffs above.  He caught the tiniest hint of flickering yellow light up there.  The witch was awake, and Borias wagered she knew he was close by.  A glow on the western horizon was already beginning to subdue the twinkling stars.  It would be morning soon.

Cassandra

Cassandra bit off a chunk of meat that she was scarfing on. She wiped her mouth because some of the grease from the meat was dripping down her cheek. The hare was really juicy and not all dried out from the fire. She looked over at Borias who was enjoying his dinner as well. She then smirked when he said that he felt his body being renewed from it. She then tucked back her hair and she had to smile just a little bit. "Well I am glad you are gaining your strength back. Just don't decide to kill me when you have it fully back. Okay?" She then tore off another chunk of meat and chewed and then swallowed. She was beginning to get a little thirsty. She remembered that she had a buckskin full of red wine in her nap sack. She got up from the stone that she was sitting upon and she walked over to her horse. She grabbed the wine from her bag. 


The wind was blowing just a little bit and she caught a scent of dried blood. Her eyes darted from side to side and she listened hard. But she could not hear anything. The birds have gone silent. Her eyes darted to the ground where another hare sprang out of the bushes. She laughed a bit and thought she was being paranoid. But of course, she had one of the enemy as a dinner guest so she was inclined to be a little paranoid. 


She then heard more rustling in the bushes beside the horses. She reached for her dagger but she was too slow. "Don't even think about it!" It was one of Xena's men, one of Borias's men. She thought they were all dead or at least they ran off when the battle was lost. "Stand up straight. Borias you alright?" Cassandra's eyes darted to the side as she looked back at Borias. "You tricked me! All that talk on getting Xena and Callisto back that was all just a lie. I knew I couldn't trust you." The warrior had the dagger at her neck as he was searching her body for more weapons. He reached down and grabbed the ankle dagger and tossed it to the ground. "Not so brave without your father's Army are you Cassandra? Borias what shall we do with her. Send her head on a silver platter to her father?" He laughed. "My father will have your guts for garders you pathetic meat sack." She spat at his feet. The warrior just laughed.    

Posted on Feb 22nd 2021 - 6:28 PM

Into the Night Tales

 

 Borias

     The rabbit was excellent.  Juicy and roasted brown.  “This is the best meal I’ve had in weeks, Cassandra.”  That was a true statement, too.  Before they attacked Callisto’s army, they’d run low on supplies.  They’d had to ration, which is never a good thing going into a battle.  Last night one of the men had killed a big Roe deer buck, but even that hadn’t been enough for everyone to get their fill. 

     After Cassandra said ‘just don’t kill me after you get your strength back’, Borias shrugged, then laughed.  It was not an answer or commitment one way or another, but so far it seemed as though he had more in common with this former enemy than he would have ever thought.  Strange thing about sharing a meal with the enemy.  You discover they’re not so mongrel alien after all.  Humans all have common needs and desires.  It was an odd thing for a warrior to contemplate, but perhaps if people talked more with each other there might be fewer wars.  Of course, that would mean that Borias would be out of a job.  Besides, he was a man of action; words were not his forte.
 
     The movement in the brush took him by surprise, but a warrior is always ready.  Borias was on his feet with a battle-ax in his hand in less than a heartbeat.  One of his men – Altan, a Captain of the Guard - had Cassandra by the throat.  She was spitting fire, believing Borias had betrayed her. With the battle-ax still raised, Borias spoke in a slow, measured tone, “Altan, I command you to put your weapon down and release Cassandra.  I have forged a new alliance on this night with the daughter of Ares.  I know it sounds absurd, but our Army is defeated and Xena has been captured.  Callisto has also disappeared.  The mission you and I fought for this morning is no longer viable.  I am now on a search with Cassandra for both Xena and Callisto. You are welcome to join us.” 

     The man was not releasing the Princess.  In fact, his grip tightened and a bead of blood traced its way down Cassandra’s throat.  Altan questioned Borias’ state of mind, suggesting he was under a spell, likely cast by the girl.  He said they could use Cassandra as a bargaining chip with Ares and Callisto.  For her safety, they could in return receive land and riches, perhaps a castle in the highlands.  Borias repeated the command.  And he would repeat it only once, “Release Cassandra, Altan.  I command it!”  Altan seemed to capitulate, but then spoke his flat denial, “No.” 

     The throwing dagger appeared in Borias’ hand quicker than lightning.  An instant later it was embedded to the hilt in Altan’s forehead and the man who had just hours earlier been one of Borias’ most trusted warriors fell away from Cassandra and crumpled to the ground. 

     “Damn.”

Cassandra

Cassandra struggled in the man that was called Altan's grip. She looked from him to Borias as he spoke to him. He spoke of the alliance he had formed with her to find Xena and Callisto. So maybe deep down in Cassandra's heart she felt that Borias had not betrayed her after all. Her eyes then darted back to his man and she cleared her throat. "My father will not give you a thing for my safety. I know I'd die first." Altan laughed and put the dagger closer to her neck and he smiled. "That can be arranged." 


His eyes then darted over to Borias who had given his command to let Cassandra go. Twice she heard Borias command this and Altan still flat out refused. Suddenly she felt the grip around her neck loosen and then she looked down at Borias's once trusted man and she could not believe what he had done or why. 


She rubbed her neck and she walked over to him. For a moment his back was turned to her and she kept her gaze upon him. "W-Why did you do that? He was one of your men. Your trusted. And I am but your enemy. Why would you choose me over your own?" 


Meanwhile up on top of the hill the witch was watching the whole thing. She but laughed a bit. She had the real Altan tied up in her cafe. That was a mere doppleganger and the witch fell back laughing "Oh this is too much. Should I tell them or just let them believe that Altan here is really dead. Oh but that would be cruel of me. Oh well who said I had to play nice. I will just let them believe that he is dead. For the time being. See how this friendship of theirs strengthens as they make their journey up to my home." She waved her hand to make the image of them disappear and then she went back into the cave. 


Since Cassandra felt she was not going to get an answer from Borias right away she went to the lake to wash her neck. She had a small wound upon it from Altan's dagger and it needed to be cleaned and bandaged up. It was nearly dawn and Cassandra yawned a bit. She had not gotten any sleep. It was going to be a long day that was for sure. She tucked back her hair as she bent down to the water and scooped some up and began to wash the small wound. The cool water felt good upon it. Even though it was early the morning was already hot. She cleared her throat. "Its going to be a hot day. Better get some of this cold water for the road." She said to more to herself than to the company.

Borias

     So very angry with himself, Altan, and this situation, Borias couldn’t answer Cassandra’s question.  Not immediately, he needed to cool down.  Altan had been a good man, a brave warrior.  Loyal to Xena and secondarily to Borias.  He now lay dead with a dagger embedded in his forehead.  Borias gazed towards the waning starlight above him, starlight that was being subjugated by the growing glow on the western sky.  The sun was king, no doubt about that.  The stars in their glorious multitude, and the moon could only shine in the sun’s absence.  Dominance, it was the way of the world.  The strong rule this realm.  The rest slink about in the shadows.  Borias felt like one of those stars, slowly fading away with the wash of morning light.

     Cassandra was down at the lake again, attending to her knife wound.  She said they should gather some of the cool water for the day ahead.  She was right.  Borias collected three leather water pouches and brought them down to the shore.  As he filled them, he explained his action against Altan.  “Make no mistake about this Cassandra.  I killed Altan not to save you.  I killed him because he disobeyed a direct order.  An order I gave him twice, and which he denied.  I’m sure you are aware that without order and chain of command, there is only chaos on the battlefield.  Chaos is the Goddess of failure.” 

     Of course, Borias and Xena had already failed.  They had lost the battle and Xena had been captured.  So did it really matter at this point whether Altan obeyed Borias’ commands?  The answer was yes, at least to Borias.  Although truth be told, he believed a bond was forming between himself and Cassandra, the daughter of Ares.  What would Xena think of that?

     After filling his water pouches, he gazed towards the cliff and the cave where the witch resided.  Isabelle.  He had portrayed her to Cassandra as an ally, as someone who would help them find Xena and Callisto.  Was that really true?  She did owe Borias a debt.  But would that make any difference?  He’d not met up with Isabelle for a year or more.  Could her powers have grown?  Might she even be in league with the Druid who removed Xena and Callisto from the battlefield?  Anything was possible.  But at this point, Borias had nothing to lose.  He still had his life, but it had little value if he was just a lone warrior in hostile territory, and the warrior princess was lost.

     “Come along, Cassandra, time is a wasting.”  He led the way around the edge of the lake, then began the climb up the rock face towards the cave.  In a few minutes they would be face to face with Isabelle the Witch.   

Belle

Magic was typically frowned upon by mortals. Isabelle had made her home in the caverns to practice in private. Enchanted torches burning eternally lit the mouth. Candles that never burned out adorned the walls and rooms of the chambers. The main area contained a table and chair. There was a hearth for a fire that provided warmth and cooking. A cabinet contained dishes and supplies. A few roots dangled from strings drying. Lambskin books with leather covers stacked throughout. The space was decorated with fabric for a table cloth and animal skin on the floor. A broom lay propped against the wall.

The other chambers were for her personal use. One was a bedroom with all the typical amenities. There was a storage room with rows of shelving for her provisions. It included more items drying and bottles of freshly ground ingredients. Several more books lined the rows. The final compartment housed a running stream. A crack in the ceiling provided natural light. This was her bathroom. The water washed away impurities. There was a pool that allowed her to bath in the moonlight.

She heard the echo of stone scrapping underfoot. Someone was coming. “Come in. Come in,” she called to the intruders beckoning them to make their presence known.

Cassandra

Cassandra did not think he did kill his lead commander to save her. That was far from her mind. She knew Altan disobeyed a direct order and in the same situation she would have killed her own man. Brought back to the present by him saying it was time to press on she cleared her throat. She dared the words that she was about to say. But then she second-guessed herself. Instead, she said this "Borias you are right and I would have done the same thing if you were in my position and I was in yours. For I do not stand for disobedience." 


Walking around the bank of the lake she tucked back her hair. The sun was very warm and she was already sweating. She stood at the bottom of the cliff and she watched as he began to climb. For a strong warrior such as herself she did not like heights. But she had to buck up. So she reached out and she grabbed hold of the rock and began to climb up. She grunted a little bit because it was not an easy task. 


Not much was spoken between them as they made the treacherous climb up the cliff. There had to be extreme concentration. They finally made it up and she heard the witch from inside the cave. " You go first since she is your friend."       

Borias

      Cassandra urged him to go first, which he did.  But she had called Isabelle his friend.  The witch had never been his friend, per se.  But they had an arrangement, a relationship of mutual benefit.  He warned the Princess, “Isabelle is dangerous and impetuous.  Do not make any threatening moves.  For it will only bring danger down upon yourself in spades.”
 
     They walked into the cave, which was much more than a cavern in the cliff face.  But then Borias would not expect Isabelle to live like a rat in a hole.  The space into which they walked was warm and well-appointed with sensible and comfortable furniture – not of a sort that one might see in a house of royalty, but more than adequate. And there were books and witchy items suspended from strings – roots and other things.  Perhaps parts from small animals.  Perhaps parts from other creatures.  Borias would not ask, and in truth, had no desire to know. 

     “Isabelle, it has been many months since our paths last crossed.  Too many.  May I present Princess Cassandra, daughter of Ares and High Commander of Ares’ army. She and I have formed an unlikely alliance.  We seek your help in locating Callisto and Xena the Warrior Princess, who we believe were magically removed from the battlefield today.”  He smiled because he knew Isabelle owed him a favor.  There had been a certain town many leagues to the west, a place where Isabelle had settled for a while.  As was her fashion, she preyed upon the populace in many small ways, discretely taking what she needed while performing minor acts of magic for the townsfolk – removing blight from someone’s garden, curing a goat of consumption, even bringing rain once during a drought.  But she had taken too much from one of power, and that one had come for her head.  Borias had engineered Isabelle’s escape and ensured her safety. 

Isabelle

Isabelle bowed her head respectfully to Cassandra. She was an associate of Boris then it earned her a modicum of respect. “It has been some time since your presence has graced my door,” she watched the two visitors like a hawk. She stood back against the wall her hands behind her back.

“Your assertions are correct,” she stepped away from her perch. She was consistently monitoring her surrounding environment. Imploring a multitude of techniques to keep her abreast. Crystals were used liked windows to the outside world. She saw through the eyes of a raven.  Implements allowed her to read greater details. “Sit,” she motioned for them to take a seat around her table.

“I need to consult my stones,” she took a satchel off her hip. She took a seat at the head of the table. Then poured the rocks onto the wooden surface. “As I thought. They are in the castle in the Strega Empire. Erwen servant of Queen Giada whisked them there. But you would be foolish to attempt to rescue them. Giada is powerful. She shares a connection to Ares,” she scooped up her charms. 

Borias

     “Ares?”  Borias glanced at Cassandra.  “What sort of connection?”  He felt as if something had just circled back around on him.  As if a snake he’d just beheaded and left for dead grew two more heads and was coming up the path behind him to even the score.

     The Strega and Queen Giada.  The witch and queen of the reapers.  This was not good news.  She was not a god, but she had the full and awesome powers of a deity.  The Strega was two days ride from here, and across treacherous country.  They would have to cross the Swamps of Ragnar, a stinking bog infested with all manner of foul vermin and predators, a place that had consumed many a man who tried to cross its watery, muddy depths.  With his hand on the hilt of his sword, Borias stated flatly, “It may very well be a fool’s folly, but it doesn’t matter, Isabelle.  I lost everything in the battle yesterday.  If there’s any chance to rescue Xena, I have to take it.”  He glanced at Cassandra, “And I believe the Princess feels the same about Callisto.”

     He took a seat at the table and watched as Isabelle further examined the magical stones in front of her.  “What does Giada want with Xena and Callisto?  You say she is connected to Ares, but having Callisto captive, would that not bring the wrath of Ares down upon her?  I don’t understand.”  This was obviously more complicated than he could have imagined.  Xena was a magical being herself, imbued with powers, though she herself was human.  Did Giada want those powers for herself?  Was she powerful enough to steal them from Xena?  Or could she bend Xena’s will to her purposes, whatever those purposes might be?

     “You need to tell me more about what motivates Queen Giada.  What are her plans?  And Cassandra and I need a way to get to Xena and Callisto.  Can you provide us with some sort of spell or charm or something that would help us elude detection, that might provide us some immunity against Giada’s powers?”  

Cassandra

If this woman this Giada really did have a connection with her father Cassandra know nothing about it. When she was only 8 years old there was a woman that came to Ares for a favor but many women came to Ares for favors and Cassandra thought nothing of it. When Borias looked over at her and she spoke finally. "Ares has many connections. This one I know nothing about. Unless she is the same woman that came to him when I was 8 years old. This woman asked my father for a favor and they talked for a very long time. Then the woman left and we never saw her again." 


Borias continued to speak with the witch. He spoke of the wrath of Ares because this queen had Callisto as well. Cassandra's orders were to help her defeat Xena's army that day and she was to bring Callisto to Ares for some reason or another she did not know. Only that Ares wanted her alive. "My father wants Callisto for some reason and I am supposed to bring her to him. Yes, I very much want her returned. Or it's quite literally my head." 


She kept her hand on the hilt of her sword and she remained standing when Borias took a seat in the chair. She wasn't much for sitting unless it was at night and she was calm as a cucumber. But here she was very much on edge and she did not want to become "comfortable" she glanced at Borias then at the witch. "The journey to this Queen is very dangerous and long. We don't have the time or the weapons to go on this journey. Yes is there a powerful enough spell to whisk us to her land and maybe a cloaking spell so we can just waltz right in and take Callisto and Xena?"

Belle

Borias was close to overstepping his bounds. She found him very demanding. “I do not know her intentions. It would heed you best not to meddle in them,” she scooped up her stones and returned them to her bag. “Your friends forget them,” she considered it a passing piece of advice for the foolish.  “The princess is wise to question the danger. I believe she realizes the seriousness of this task,” she smirked.

“You on the other hand Borias,” she stood up turning her back to them. The pouch she returned to her hip. She realized he would not give up his pursuits. This could play to her advantage. The pair could do her dirty work. Her dark grin widened as a plan unfolded in her mind.

Her expression grew cold. She turned to address her guests. “Giada is cruel. She has tried to push my kind from the world. We are forced to live in hiding. For this reason, I will assist you,” she held a finger motioning for them to hold their position. Then drifted from the room.

She returned with an item in her arms wrapped in a heavy cloth. She pulled back the fabric to reveal a sword.  “It has great power. Perhaps enough to destroy Giada. It is enchanted and must only be wielded by a woman,” she presented the hilt to Cassandra.  The weapon would burn the flesh of a man. “You must never touch it,” she wagged a finger.  

“I do however have a gift for you,” she unveiled a second weapon. An ornate dagger with a jewel encrusted handle. “They say it can even cut through rock,” she handed him the knife. “Consider my debt to you is repaid.”

Borias

     The dagger was long and wicked, its blade undoubtedly made from some rare metal. Certainly not iron or bronze.  It was the color of white silver, and it gleamed even in the relative darkness of Isabelle’s cavern.  The jewels on the hilt looked to be rubies and sapphires.  Borias didn’t care much for jeweled hilts, they were not part of a weapon’s utility or function.  But he could overlook that one flaw, and perhaps the jewels could be plucked from the hilt to purchase supplies.  Slipping the dagger through the belt on his tunic, Borias glanced at the sword that had been bestowed upon Cassandra.  Now that was a weapon of glory.  He felt a pang of jealousy, that he should have gotten the enchanted sword.  But he quickly dismissed the feeling, for he knew Cassandra was daughter to a God.  He himself was just a commoner.  Just a man.  He had to earn his place in this world, which he had done.  Cassandra deserved the sword, not him.

     Borias was accustomed to playing second fiddle to powerful women. It seemed to be his curse. He had been Xena’s consort before Gabrielle.  The blond was doing her best to turn Xena from her warrior ways, to make her some sort of champion of the downtrodden.  When he and Xena were together, they had defeated armies, brought down warlords, and taken spoils from those they conquered.  It was the way of a warrior, and he hoped it would be his way once again. In this world you are either the conqueror or the conquered.  He wasn’t sure what Xena was trying to do now, but he hoped to be able to ask of her to her face sometime soon.

     The connection between Giada and Ares was still troubling, and Cassandra had not been able to shed further light on the mystery.  It was possible they were swimming in a pool of power plays among the Gods and the Godlike.  If that was the case, then he and Cassandra could be pawns playing roles scripted by the Gods.  It was known to happen to mortals.  But if that was the case, there was nothing that could be done.  He and Cassandra needed to do what they believed was best.  If it happened to be what Ares or Giada or someone else of power wanted, so be it.  

     “Alright then, Isabelle your debt is repaid and we are even now.  But I consider you a friend, and if our paths cross once again in the future, perhaps we will have an opportunity to work together for mutual gain.”  He bowed slightly, “May you prosper and never want for the things you need.”  He looked to Cassandra.  “Let us get on the road, Princess.  We have many treacherous leagues of travel ahead of us.”  First order of business would be to steal some horses. 
 
Cassandra

Cassandra was looking at the blade that was bestowed upon her. It was a wonderful blade to be sure. Her own father would be jealous of it. She looked over at Borias and he was clearly jealous about the blade that was bestowed upon her and not him. All he was given was a dagger. But she was sure that it too had a purpose. He would just have to find out what that purpose was. She then tucked back her hair and she put the sword back into its carrying sheath and swung it over her shoulder. "Thank you Isabelle I will take good care of it." 


Looking over at Borias when he said it was time to leave she lowered her head a bit. Then she looked back up at him. "Alright but I already have my horse remember. We left him down the cliff. We will have to steal a horse for you." There had to be a horse nearby that was grazing from the battle yesterday. They could just simply take one of them. As they made their way out of the cave Cassandra's mind kept on racing. What kind of plan was her father and this Giada had in mind. It was simply driving her crazy. She simply could not push the thought out of her mind and as she was making her way down the hill she slipped a couple of times. There was a voice in her head and it was her father's. "I do not see him dead Cassandra. Why are you stalling? Kill him and bring me Callisto. Or suffer the consequences." Cassandra cleared her throat and simply showed him in her mind that she needed Borias's help to retrieve Callisto. She could not do it on her own. And then she showed an image of Giada. "Who is this woman and what does she mean to you." She asked telepathically. Ares saw the image of the woman in his daughter's head and he shakes his own head. "Nothing. She means nothing to me. Now get back to the task at hand. You bring me Callisto and if you need Borias's help to do that then so be it. But whatever you do not fall in love with him. Remember you are mine." Cassandra dismissed that last comment and she planted her feet on firm ground. "There just ahead is a horse for you Borias. And look it even has a saddle on it. What luck." She smiled and walked over to her own horse who was tied up by a tree and grazing on some grass. "So what is our route that we should take. I think we should find the fast way to Giada's land. Do you know where that is?"

Borias

     Borias was no seer or wizard, but he could see that Cassandra was somewhere else.  In fact, her full lips moved just a little, as if she were speaking with someone.  The look in her eyes was far away, focused on something beyond the farthest hills, perhaps on the other side of the world.  But then she was the daughter of a God.  She would have special powers that a mortal such as Borias would not comprehend.  Except he did comprehend.  A little.  Because he had associated with Xena, and because of her, he’d met Hercules and crossed paths with Hades, Morpheus, and Triton.  He knew how unpredictable the powerful could be, how arrogant and petty.  He had not seen such behavior in Cassandra, but Ares had a reputation, and she was his daughter.  Time would tell about this woman whose fate seemed inexplicably tied to his.

     Cassandra pointed out a horse, suggesting he should ride it.  It was a big stallion, 15 or 16 hands tall and no older than three years.  The stallion was watching him, its tail held high, its eyes bright.  Borias held his hand out and spoke reassuringly to the animal.  He could tell it was high-spirited.  It would be a sprinter, but it would take some work to fully control it.  Borias walked calmly towards the animal, yet it cantered backward, away from him.  He spoke soothingly, “You are a King of horses, a magnificent creature that I promise to cherish, feed, and water.  If you are faithful to me, so shall I be faithful to you.”  He meant those words.  It was easy to say such things to horses.  Not so to women.

   It took a few minutes, but he swung himself up into the saddle and joined Cassandra.  “A fine steed.  It has all the looks of Mongolian royalty.  The results of hundreds of years of breeding.”  He nodded towards the horizon, “Come along, Princess, our route is over those hills then we follow a river valley for many leagues.  Unfortunately it leads to the Swamps of Ragnar.  We must cross those foul wetlands, and legend has it that creatures live there, in the mud and the stinking water.  Creatures out of time, Cassandra.  Things that left the rest of this world long ago.  The way is treacherous, but we have no other alternative.”
 
     They began their journey across the hills, which were pretty in the afternoon light.  The green grasses rippled in the westward breeze.  “Cassandra, what can you tell me of your father?  Is he likely to intercede in our mission?  Can you speculate as to his relationship with Giada?  At this point, Ares injects considerable uncertainty into our voyage.  I wish to reduce that potential source of chaos.”

Cassandra

Cassandra listened to the route that they must take. She had read about those treacherous wetlands in her study's. She had to be taught all the lands of the world. And her father made her lead many enemy armies to their deaths in those swamps. So she knew them quite well. "I know those wetlands quite well. I even know of a quick way through them. But yes we are still going to be bombarded by creatures of old. That we cannot avoid." 


As Borias road ahead she kept pace with him from behind. When she heard his questions she had to think for a moment or two. Her thoughts went back to that moment when she was little. She saw her father and Giada. But then they disappeared into his throne room and she was not allowed in there when he had guests. She was unable to learn what he was doing with her. She then turned her attention back to Borias and cleared her throat "I do not know what their dealings were Borias. For he went into his throne room with her and I was not allowed to go in there when I was little. And as for him intruding in our journey, well he is a God and I can't really control his actions. I may be able to create a barrier around us so he won't be able to see us. But the trouble is my barrier will only shield us from his gaze. It will not shield us from other peering eyes. So if he realizes I have gone missing he will send my Uncle Strife to find me or even one of my Aunts. But I will do my best to keep my family out of our hair." 

She looked ahead and wondered how far the river was. Because their horses would have to stop and rest eventually. She then looked up at the sky and the sun was high and hot. They would need to cross over the hill quickly for there was no shade to be found. "We must hurry Borias for I fear we will not have any cloud cover to shield us from that dreadful sun." She lightly kicked her horse and he began his canter up the hilltop.

Borias

     Borias listened with interest to Cassandra’s take on her father’s relationship with Giada.  He found it troubling.  Alone in the Throne Room, she’d said.  Cassandra was disallowed from going into that room.  Queen Giada was known for her allure, which went beyond her not insignificant physical beauty.  Some say she had considerable power over men, and probably women, too.  A sexual power that bordered on that of a succubus.  Might Giada and Ares have been romantically involved?  Borias couldn’t say, as he had never seen the pair together and almost certainly never would.  It was all just speculation and rumor at this point, and there was no value in pursuing it any further.  However, there had been something between those two, and it might affect what Borias and Cassandra were trying to accomplish. 

     Cassandra said she could create a barrier of invisibility that would shield them from Ares’ view.  “Yes, that would be of value.  Please set the barrier in place.  The less attention we can draw to ourselves, the better off we will be.”

     The hilltop was exposed and hot.  So they hurried down into the bottomlands amidst the Oaks, Cyprus, and spreading Ash trees.  But they provided only limited shade.  These specimens were stunted and appeared tortured – twisted and half dead, their limbs reaching skyward like the hands of skeletons.  The condition of the trees only deteriorated as they neared the Swamps of Ragnar.  From a viewpoint above those foul wetlands, Borias and Cassandra stopped to examine potential routes.  None were clearly visible, as the swamp was covered in a low-lying fog that obscured their view.  The place stank of wet death and decay. “You said you knew ways through this treacherous quagmire.  I will let you lead the way, Cassandra.”  A flock of large black birds – not crows and not ravens – arose from the fog and circled deeper into the bog.  They had enormous curved beaks and long tails.  It was a species with which Borias had never encountered and was not familiar.  He expected there to be many other creatures in the Swamps of Ragnar that he had not, and would rather not come face to face with.  Something howled out there, a long ululation similar to that of a wolf, but it was clearly not a wolf.  Its voice was joined by another of its kind, and then a third. “Let’s get moving.  We need to get through the swamps before the sun goes down.”
 

Posted on Feb 22nd 2021 - 6:20 PM

Into the Night Tales

 

Cassandra

When Borias said he would want less attention drawn to them Cassandra immediately started chanting her spell. She saw the shield instantly appear and along with the shield she shielded her thoughts from her father. That way when she thought of Borias her father would not be able to intercept her thoughts with his image. 


The heat was beginning to get unbearable and so she grabbed her water skin and she splashed the water upon her chest and neck. The howling of the creature was getting louder and that meant that they were traveling right into its path. "Borias we need to change our course or we are going to be lunch for this beast." There was great alarm in her voice. 


But unfortunately it was too late. The creature appeared slowly out from behind a bush. It's eyes glowing red and his lips had fresh blood all around them. He had just fed but it seems he was still hungry. It snarled at them and Cassandra's eyes became wide. She reached back for the sword on her back. The creature snarled as it watched her. "Don't move a muscle Borias. I have dealt with this creature before. Someday I will show you the scar." The creature snarled again because he knew who she was. She smirked at him and tossed back her hair. "Hey there Castro. I see that wound on your eye has healed quiet nicely. Ready to lose your other eye? Let us pass in peace and I won't have to leave you here blind as a bat." 

The wolf-like creature growled and he crouched low to the ground. This meant he was not taking her offer. She didn't even have time to react. He lunged himself at her and she drew the sword as quick as she could. The witch was right the blade pierced the creature with hardly any effort at all. But when he pounced at her she was knocked off her horse and he bolted out of fright. She was on the ground, the blade was lodged into Castro's chest and his weight was crushing hers. 

She glanced over at Borias and she struggled to get Castro off of her chest herself. But she could not do it. "Borias get this thing off me! He is crushing my lungs." She was having a hard time breathing and if Borias did not get Castro off her in the next 5 mins her rib cage would pierce her heart and she would die from eternal bleeding.      
          
Borias

     The spell that Cassandra chanted was in a language Borias failed to recognize.  The air around the Princess shimmered just a little as well.  Interesting.  Just how skilled a magician was this woman?  What other surprises did she harbor?  The trail into the swamp descended between two low-lying hills that were covered in a half-dead scrub brush and some wiry, coarse variety of bunchgrass.  Cassandra suggested they take a different route to avoid whatever was howling - a feral, angry sound that was getting closer, and less recognizable as either beast or human.  Borias knew not what to think of it, or what the creature might be.  As for taking a different route, there appeared to be none that was suitable for man or horse.  The brush was, for the most part, impenetrable. 

     And then a creature appeared out of the mists, creeping into the view before halting 20 or 25 feet in front of Cassandra’s horse.  It was neither man nor beast, but rather some crude hybrid.  It possessed claws, teeth, fur, and the brawn of a wolf, although it must be ten times the size and weight of a Steppe Wolf, but its face was strangely human, and it sat back on its haunches as if it was capable and comfortable walking or fighting on its enlarged hind legs.  Was this one of the Were creatures of which Borias had heard tales told? 

     Cassandra spoke to it, called it by name, and it listened to her as if it understood her words.  She said she’d fought this creature once before, and the tangle of scar tissue over the place where its right eye should have been was apparently her doing.  She said, ‘don’t move a muscle’, but Borias withdrew the jeweled dagger that Isabelle had given him.  It glowed with a white light that radiated from the blade’s odd, white metal.  The creature glanced at it for just a moment.  Apparently undeterred by the magic or Cassandra, it leaped on the girl, driving her from her horse to the ground.  The horse was almost taken down as well, but managed to avoid the beast’s claws and teeth. 

     Cassandra’s magical sword had skewered Castro, the tip protruding from the creature’s back.  Its feet and hands were twitching in some sort of death dance, like hogs with their throats cut for the slaughter.  Castro was dead, but didn’t quite accept it yet.  But he was on top of poor Cassandra.  She was pinned beneath the huge creature.  Borias jumped down from his horse to assist her.  He pulled on one of the beast’s arms, trying to pull it off her.  As he did, it began to transform, and the body of the creature shrunk and lost some of its wildness.  As it did, it was easier to roll it off of the Princess and help her to her feet.  As the last of the death throes ran its course, the creature Castro had turned into a dead man – naked but for a mane of wild hair and a long beard. 

     “A Werewolf!  Cassandra, did the creature bite you?  Are you injured?”  If she’d been bitten, the Were curse would infect her within a fortnight.    

Cassandra

     Being pulled up off the ground with the help of Borias, Cassandra brushed off the twigs and leaves that were all over her midsection. She felt a leaf in her hair and she quickly pulled it out. She then looked down at Castro. She had heard Borias but did not acknowledge him for a moment. She walked around Castro and she kicked his arm. "You  lost your fighting spirit Castro and you look like you haven't bathed in weeks or maybe a month." She then quickly looked around her body to make sure there were not cuts or wounds that Borias was so worried about. "Nope not a scratch. Come we better press on. We are losing daylight." 


What little daylight they had was quickly fading away and soon they would not be able to see the path in front of them let alone 10 paces in front of them. 

     Walking ahead Cassandra kept her eyes peeled for anything else that might decided to creep up on them. She stopped because there was a decision to be made. Either they went left or they went right. She cleared her mind to think which way it was they had to go. She then opened her eyes and she tilted her head to the left and continued on. 

     Suddenly she felt a pain in her right side and she closed her eyes tight as she fell upon the ground. She gripped her side and she hollered in pain. "Borias! Help me get my armor off! Quickly!" The pain was unbearable. Apparently, she had been wounded by Castro but because of her armor she did not see it. Her head fell back as she closed her eyes tight. The pain went up her entire arm and then back down her leg. She was quickly trying to get her armor off of her.

Borias

     Thank the Gods and Goddesses, Cassandra had not been injured by the werewolf, Castro.  Borias was not well versed in magic and sorcery, he was a warrior.  But the legends tell that if a person is infected with the werewolf curse, that person will become a wolf on the first night of the full moon, and for two nights after.  The legends spoke not of a cure, except death.  Borias glanced back to the dead man, who no doubt was cursed through no fault of his own.  But Castro’s days of transforming into a wolf were over.  The man was at peace.  And within a few days, the jackals, crows, vultures, and whatever else foul beasts lived in this place would reduce his carcass to bleached bones.  Such is the way of things. 

     And so they rode on into the depths of the Swamps of Ragnar.  The trail descended into the stinking wetlands where a cold fog lingered in wait, painting the landscape into various shadings of gray.  The ground was wet, and snakes, frogs, and other things were hauled out of the dark waters onto the somewhat drier trail.  As Borias and Cassandra approached, those creatures slipped or hopped back into the safety of the watery depths.  Dead, drowned trees that reached skyward with bone-white bleached limbs provided evidence that this had not always been a swamp.  Something larger than a frog or snake splashed away from the approaching riders, but the fog concealed it, and in any case, it moved away from Borias and Cassandra, not towards them. 

   Suddenly Cassandra cried out, yelling to Borias for help with her armor.  Borias lifted her off her horse and set her down on the wet ground, then untied the straps that held the iron plates around her torso.  When those plates were removed, a bloody wound was revealed.  Cassandra was cringing, holding a place on her side.  Borias’ heart sank, because he knew what this meant.  “Please, Princess, let me see.  Let me tend to your injury.”  He gently pulled her hand away, revealing a pair of puncture wounds.  Were they fang marks?  Claw punctures?  No telling, but for certain they were inflicted by the werewolf Castro.  The girl was infected and would become a wolf in 13 days hence. 

     Not knowing what to say, Borias went to his horse and removed a wool sash from his saddlebag.  He ripped a strip from it and wrapped it around Cassandra’s waist, tying it off in the back.  “I know it hurts, but that should keep the infection down.”  Borias gazed into the eyes of this woman who had once been his mortal enemy, but was now a friend, if not something more.  He brushed a lock of chestnut hair out of her eyes.  “Princess, we must continue on.  We need to get through these swamps.  It is not safe here.  As far as your… infection.  We will find a solution.”  A pang of guilt followed that reassurance, because he believed there was no solution.     

Cassandra

The ground was cold and hard as he laid her upon it. When he told her to move her hand away she did not. She held her hand upon her wound which was stinging. It was like it was on fire and she closed her eyes tight. But then he had gently pulled her hand away and the cold air made it sting even more. She quickly pulled her hand away from his and placed it back on her wound. She looked up into his eyes and then he went to his saddlebag and he grabbed something from it. He came back and he was wrapping something around her waist. The stinging had subsided and she cleared her throat. 

     "I think I can move but it hurts really bad. Borias I don't want to become like him. I don't want to become a Werewolf." She hissed a little bit because some cold air had managed to get to her wound once again.

     "Damn this really hurts." She takes in a deep breath and she tries to stand on her own because she knew he was right. They had to get through the swamps and it was now dark. 

     "Borias we won't be able to see where we are going and there are no dry branches for us to light the way. Do you have some dry cloth in your saddlebag maybe we can light that up." She got to her feet but it was difficult because she was in so much pain. She kept her hand on her wound and she walked over to her own saddlebag and she was rummaging through it trying to find something they could use to light their way through the wet marshlands. 

Erwen

Erwen had found Borias and Cassandra weeks ago.  An unlikely duo, he knew they were traveling towards the Strega Empire where they believed Xena and Callisto were being held captive.  He was able to scry for them periodically, to keep track of them, but as they were moving in the direction he wished them to move, he was not terribly concerned that they would elude him. 

No, Erwen’s focus had been on Xena’s companion and new lover – Gabrielle.  In actuality, Queen Giada had not asked for him to bring Cassandra to the Empire.  Shad had wanted Borias and Gabrielle – Xena’s chief advisors in her now tattered and mostly dead army.  Erwen had searched the bloody battlefield where he last spied Gabrielle fighting back to back with Xena.  He’d talked to survivors and crisscrossed the countryside searching for the girl.  No one had witnessed her die in the battle, but no one had seen her since the battle, either.  She could easily have fallen, particularly after Erwen magically removed Xena from the fray.  Without the warrior princess there, Gabrielle would have had an uphill climb to just escape with her life.  And most of Xena’s warriors had died on that battlefield. 

But he didn’t want to fail his Queen, so persevered, continued the search long after most men would have called it quits.  He met a man who had something once owned by Gabrielle.  A small dagger.  Erwen used his magic, a spell he cast on the blade, to trace a path back to its former owner.  And a trail of thin, ghostly gray thread spun out of the blade, shooting westward.  Erwen followed it for three leagues before it just stopped and turned to dust.  He was at the foot of a cliff where water trickled down from high above.  There was no sign of the girl. No sign of anyone.  Had the spell failed?  Or perhaps the girl had died here, and the buzzards and jackals had cleaned up the mess. 

Admitting defeat, he rode back to where he knew he would find Borias and Cassandra.  They were right where he expected them to be.  He brought his horse to a dead stop, directly in front of them.  The stallion rose up on its back hooves and whinnied in protest.  Erwin ascertained the situation immediately.  “That wound.  It’s from a werewolf.  You will turn come the next full moon.  I am a wizard but I cannot reverse the spell.”  His horse was biting at its bit and shuffled back and forth.  It wanted to run.  “You will come with me.  Queen Giada insists that you come before her.”  He paused before adding as an incentive, “The Queen may be able to heal you.  Quickly now, Xena and Callisto are with the Queen as well.”    

Borias

     Borias drew his sword at the approach of the Druid.  Of course, he recognized the man from the battlefield.  It had been this very man, this wizard, who had removed Xena and Callisto from the battle.  Without Xena there, the Warrior Princess’s army lost focus and resolve.  And so it was this man who had led to the downfall of Xena’s army.  This man was responsible for the death of scores of Borias’ friends and allies. 

     But at the same time, the man said he would take them to Xena and Callisto.  And to Queen Giada.  Which is where Borias and Cassandra were headed.  The Druid also quickly ascertained Cassandra’s problem – bitten by a werewolf.  He said Giada may be able to heal her.  So Borias found himself in another situation where he was being asked to put his trust in an enemy.  He glanced at Cassandra, who had once been his mortal enemy but was now a close ally.  That hadn’t worked out too badly.  But this, the Druid, Borias was certain this was a different matter entirely.  The Druid was a tool of Queen Giada, a pawn and very likely under her direct control.  In fact, Borias wouldn’t be surprised if Giada had the power to look through the Druid’s eyes and direct his speech.  Legends told of such powers. 

     So Borias kept his sword at ready.  “I am a warrior, a simple man with loyalties to the Warrior Princess.  You and your Queen are holding Xena against her will, which makes you and I enemies.”  He wasn’t going to speak for Cassandra, but he added, “I suspect the Princess here feels similarly about her allegiance to Callisto.  All that said, you say you will take us to Giada.  You should know that we do not come in peace.  It is our intent to free both Xena and Callisto, and we will kill anyone, including you, who gets in our way.”  Bold words from a simple soldier.  Bold, and this Druid would probably think foolish.  So Borias added, “We travel alone, but we are merely the vanguard of a much greater force.  A force that includes the powers of the Gods.  No doubt you have heard of the God Ares?  Well behold Cassandra, the daughter of Ares.”  Borias bowed to the Princess.  Of course, it was partially a bluff.  As yet they’d had no contact with Ares and no indication that the God of War would assist them in freeing Xena or Callisto.     

Erwen

Erwen was a wizard of considerable skill and power.  However, he had never taken an interest in politics or who was rising to power as a king or queen, or what escapades were being played out by the Gods and Goddesses.  Neither was he interested in rumors nor innuendo.  He served his Queen – Giada, and whatever he needed to know to serve her, she would tell him.  Beyond that, Erwen was practicing magic, inventing new spells and potions, and teaching his apprentices – he was much too busy with those activities to keep up with the political machinations of the realm, or whom was begeted by what God.  So when Borias told him that the girl was the daughter of a God, and the God of War, no less, Erwen knew not what to think.  Except that this was a delicate matter, indeed.   If she was who Borias said she was, then she must be treated as Royalty.  As the daughter of Ares, she could, quite easily have some Godlike powers.  She probably did, if she was in fact Ares’ daughter. 

So the safe and prudent course of action was to presume Cassandra was a child of a God.  If she wasn’t, and was just some peasant girl Borias had picked up somewhere, then no harm, no foul.  But if she was the daughter of Ares, and Erwen treated her like a prisoner, he might not live to see the next sunrise, and he could put Giada in danger.  The Queen was powerful – almost omnipotent in this realm - but Erwen doubted that she would prevail against the Almighty Ares. 

So he bowed to Cassandra, “I am honored, Miss Cassandra, Daughter of Ares.  As Royalty of the Gods, perhaps I was wrong about the werewolf bite.  You may not be affected as mere mortals would be.  In any case, if it worries you, I’m sure Queen Giada can help you.”  Erwen’s horse, a nervous stallion, whinnied and danced around on its forehooves.  “Our missions run parallel.  We both wish to get to the Strega Empire.  So please, let us not waste any further time.  I realize it is late, but the Swamps of Ragnar are no place to linger.  And this night is strange.”  Some creature howled off in the distance, and it was joined by another of its kind in a malevolent duet.  “We must ride, and ride fast.  If you follow my lead, we can be at the southern boundary of the Strega Empire by mid-morning.  My Queen awaits us.”  

Cassandra               

Cassandra used to the bowing. Back at the temple the soldiers and servants would bow to her all the time. She did not know at the moment that this Druid could be trusted. And her wound was not going to get better on its own. If anything it was only going to get worse. She takes in a deep breath keeping her hand upon her wound. "I don't need the red carpet treatment all I want is Callisto returned to me unharmed. My father has plans for her." She would not speak of the plan for it was none of the Druid's business. She simply tucked back her hair and her horse Celtic gave a warning whinny. She rubbed the side of his neck and then looked to the Druid. "Yes, we must set off. Night is quickly upon us." 


Cassandra winked a bit as Celtic began to move on ahead behind the Druid's horse. She glanced back at Borias and she cleared her throat. She then made a movement with her fingers to her eyes and then pointed her fingers behind him. "Watch our backside. I don't trust that he is not alone. He seemed way pleasant. If you ask me." She said in but a whisper and she hoped that Borias heard her.

Borias

     The Druid said they must ride fast.  Indeed.  He’d said they could get to the southern boundary of the Strega Empire by mid-morning.  It was Borias’ calculation that it would take them at least two days.  What Borias wasn’t figuring into his estimate was that Erwen would use magic to speed up their progress.  As they were leaving, Cassandra turned in her saddle, intent on warning Borias that the Druid appeared not to be completely honest, that he was likely accompanied by others.  But as they rode, they encountered no one.  And as Erwen had suggested, they rode fast. 

     The landscape appeared to go by in a blur.  The horses were not working any harder, but they were traveling four or five times the distance with each stride as they should be.  Colored sparks – blue, yellow, and silver - flew from their hoof falls as the three of them sped across the dry steppe landscape.  The moon was still but a sliver, but its light cast long moving shadows to the left of the horses and riders, and those shadows seemed to move of their own accord, independent of Borias, Cassandra, and Erwen.  Borias glanced down at his own unallied and seemingly autonomous shadow.  Shadow Borias wore his hair free, whereas the other Borias had his long hair tied at the back of his head.  Shadow Borias held his sword high, but the other had his sword sheathed at his waist.  Which was real and which was an illusion?

     The Druid did not appear to be capable of long rides.  He was fat and obviously not war-trained, but he persevered through the night and into the morning, surprising Borias, who himself was relieved when they finally stopped at a watering hole not far from the southern boundary of the Strega.  Borias dismounted and stretched.  He drank water from his flask and shared dried yak meat with Cassandra.  “How long before we reach the Queen’s palace, Druid?  I wish to bring this voyage to an end.  It has been much too long, and it has worn upon me.”  Borias was also deeply concerned for Cassandra’s affliction.  Erwen had said the Queen could cure the werewolf virus.  But at what cost?  And then what of Xena?  Borias was deeply concerned for her wellbeing.  Was she being held captive?  What was her status?  And what had befallen Callisto?  Erwen had not been forthcoming on the topic of either Xena or Callisto.   

Cassandra

     Cassandra could see that the landscape was changing very dramatically and it sort of made her uneasy. She kept glancing down at her wound that was on her side. She could feel that it was getting worse. When they stop she would change the bandage on it. It had been days she imagined since she last changed it. Celtic did not like being controlled by magic. It made him slightly aggressive. He jerked his head from side to side. Cassandra reached down and she patted the side of his neck. “Easy boy it will all be over soon.” She then sat straight up which tore at her stitches on her wound. The wound began to bleed through her leather undergarment. “We need to stop!”

     But they already were stopping and Cassandra gingerly slid out of her saddle. She held her side and she closed her eyes tight. She then looked to Borias and she cleared her throat. “I need to go down to the river and patch this up. Alone!” She did not take the dried yak meat she was offered for she was more concerned about the wound than filling her stomach. She walked a bit slowly and she looked up at the moon. It was not full yet so she still had time. Suddenly her vision became very blurry. She began to feel warm to the touch. She reached out for something to grasp onto but there was nothing and she fell upon the ground. The injury has taken its toll on the Princess.


     Celtic was with the other horses and he began to think that his owner had been gone for far too long. He became restless and he twitched his head from side to side. He finally pulled free from the tree that bound him and he took off running to find his owner. He did not care if anyone followed him. His only concern was to find his owner. Which ultimately he did! She had been laying there for quite a while it seemed. He knelt down his head and nuzzled her. She did not move. He whinnied as loud as he could for someone to hear him.

Borias

     The moon was chasing down the last of the night sky in the west as the morning light spread from the eastern horizon.  That moon was still a day or two away from being full, but from Borias’ perspective, the phases of the moon were progressing much too quickly.  Yes, it appeared they would enter the Strega Empire before mid-day and probably make the Empress’s Palace before nightfall.  But they were cutting it close.  Werewolves transformed for three nights around the full moon – a night before, the night of the full moon, and the night after.  Another night without some sort of resolution, a cure from Giada, and Cassandra would turn.  From what Borias knew of the legends, once the transition occurred, it was probably irreversible.  Not that he was a magician or knew much about werewolves.  These things were outside his expertise as a warrior, but it was his belief that once they reached the Palace, addressing this situation with Giada should be their first priority. 

     The water hole presented an opportunity to water and care for the horses.  The left rear hoof on Borias’ horse had a split.  The animal had probably stepped on a sharp rock.  In these times, horses were not equipped with metal shoes.  That was still centuries away.  So when such a problem occurred, the hoof had to be shaven and sanded down with tools made for such things.  It would take half an hour or more.  So Borias set to work as the Princess went to tend to her wound.  Occupied with his task, Borias did not notice that she had been gone longer than it should take to redress a wound.  Her horse, a loyal steed, wandered off down the path in her direction.  Having mostly completed the work needed on his own horse, Borias followed Celtic.  And found Cassandra unconscious on the ground, her wound apparently worse. 

     “Erwen!  I need your assistance!  The Princess has taken ill!”  The Druid came bumbling along, lines of worry wrinkling his brow.  “Are you a healer as well as a magician?” Borias asked.  “Normally I would request that we rest for the day here, and let the girl recover.  We can bind her wound, at least staunch the flow of blood.  But we must not linger, we cannot spend another night on the trail.”  Borias traded looks with the Druid, “We both know what will happen if we do.”  Then gazing back at the girl, Borias said, “Help me finish binding her wound, then we have to get her back on her horse, even if we have to tie her on.  We must not delay in getting to the Queen’s Palace before nightfall!” 

Erwen, Borias, and Cassandra Move to Part 2

   Aurora

Just as Giada has the ability to reap souls, Aurora has the counter-balancing power to resurrect the dead.  And so it was between the sisters.  And so it was that Aurora resurrected the Battle Bard, Gabrielle.  The poor girl had been killed on that battlefield by Cassandra’s warriors.  Run through a dozen times by swords, her body tossed aside into the mud where it was trampled and defiled, left for the buzzards and insect scavengers.  After two weeks there wasn’t much left but broken bones and gristle.  But Aurora knew that Gabrielle had a role to play in future events.  She was the lover of Xena, and Xena was now the commander of Giada’s burgeoning army.  That army would soon threaten Aurora’s Great Seljuk Empire, which couldn’t be allowed.  Gabrielle would be able to coerce the Warrior Princess, make her see the error of her ways.  So Aurora brought Gabrielle back from the dead and sent her to Xena.  One part of her plan was set into motion.

Another aspect of that plan involved another resurrection – a Druid most loyal to his Empress Giada – Erwen.  He had been most brutally taken down by the mad warrior girl, Callisto.  She was no friend of Xena, and by association, no friend to Giada.  There might still be a use for her, so Aurora kept watch over her, and contemplated her role in the coming battle. 

Erwen, now cleaned up and whole, stood before Aurora, who sat in her throne of branches and brambles.  Unlike her sister, Aurora was a creature of simplicity.  Magic and compassion.  Love and power.  Material possessions meant nothing to her.  The welfare of her people meant everything to her.  She feared for them in a battle with Giada. 

“Erwen.  Welcome to the Great Seljuk Empire.  You may have heard of me.  I am the sister to your Great Empress, Giada. I am Aurora, the Light in the Darkness.” She smiled and it was if the room and the world around her brightened.  As if the sun came out from behind a dark cloud.  “There is a war brewing.  It will serve no one, and both the Seljuk and the Strega will suffer horrendous loss.  You will help me stop this war.  You will return to the Strega, to your Empress.  You will gather information about her battle readiness, about the strength of her army, the resolve and loyalty of her soldiers.  You will be my eyes and ears inside the Strega.”  She leaned forward on her throne, her gaze intent upon the Druid, “Do you understand me, Erwen?”

Erwen

Erwen never for a moment thought he’d go to hell.  He considered himself a good man.  Loyal and trustworthy, no one would call him compassionate, but neither was he cruel.  Yes, he had killed in the service of his Empress Giada, but his justice was swift.  He had no reason or desire to inflict suffering.  His magic was rooted in darkness, but he only used it to advance the policies and aspirations of Empress Giada.  He would never use his powers for personal profit or gain, or to steal from others to benefit himself.  Empress Giada provided him with everything he needed, which wasn’t much. 

So when he was killed by Callisto and arrived on the threshold of Hell’s doorstep, he was confused and surprised.  Hell’s Gatekeeper showed him his ledger of good versus evil.  Erwen wasn’t even close to being a candidate for heaven.  And it was on account of the work he’d done for Empress Giada.  It wasn’t necessarily the individual deeds he’d done in her service, but rather the accumulated effects.  Those deeds were always part of a larger strategy, and often were key elements in the success of those big picture plans.  Plans that were always evil, always vicious and wicked. Thus, the ledger was weighted heavily with the plotting and scheming of Giada herself. 

Erwen was plunged into what he believed would be eternal torment.  His body burned without being consumed, his mind was accosted with all manner of horrors and his worst fears.  It seemed like a hundred years had passed in that malevolent torture chamber, but it was really just minutes before Aurora rescued him and restored his mind and body.  Now here he was, standing before the radiant and good sister of Empress Giada.  She asked him to do her bidding, to be a spy in the Strega Empire.  To betray Empress Giada. 

Her beauty was the opposite of Giada – glowing and bright, comforting and nurturing.  Unlike the beauty of Giada, which was darkly brooding and ominously dangerous.  Erwen answered quickly, without reservation.  “Of course, your Majesty.  I will serve you with all my abilities, all my energy, every muscle in this body, all my resolve.  No matter what the obstacles, no matter how difficult the task you assign to me.  For you are the Light of the World.”  He bowed deeply.

Aurora

Aurora smiled at Erwen, smiled at his response, and as she did, the room brightened, flowers blossomed outside, the polish on the slate tiles was renewed, and the paint on the walls was restored to its original vibrant colors. 

She blinked and a table of foods – a feast that could feed four men - appeared on a long table, along with the finest wines, ales, fruit juices, and crystalline mountain water.  There were broiled yak meats, fried fowl and smoked fish, heavy dark bread and sweet, creamy butter from the north, and caviar, exotic fruits, and sweetmeats from the south.  “Erwen, I know you are famished.  You have come a very long way.  Back from hell, in fact.”  She waved a delicate yet strong hand at the table, “Please, eat and drink to your heart’s desire.  In the morning we shall talk further.  I have very specific plans for you.  You will commit them to memory.  I also have magical implements for you.  Some are protection from my sister’s prying eyes, others will enhance your own magical abilities or add to those abilities. You will not go back to the Strega unprepared.  As I’ve said, you will be my eyes and my ears within the Strega Empire.  You will be the key to my success, the linchpin in a peace between the Strega and the Seljuk Empire, for I do not want war.  My sister wants war.  She believes I have betrayed her over and over again. But her mind is twisted, evil has corrupted her.”

Aurora sat back in her throne of branches, twigs, and twining vines, contemplating, grieving at what she’d just told Erwen.  For she truly wanted peace with her sister.  Her way was not the way of war, but of peace and harmony and beauty.  But she was fairly certain that Giada would not see the world that way.  Giada wanted a fight.  And if it came to that, Aurora would be more than ready.

She arose from her throne on bare feet.  “The guards will show you to your quarters after you are done feasting, Erwen.  We shall talk in the morning, but be ready to leave for the Strega no later than noon, tomorrow.”  Aurora vanished from the room.  

Erwen

And they did talk in the morning, but for the life of him, Erwen couldn’t remember what it was they talked about.  The dazzlingly beautiful and enchanting Aurora, Empress of the Great Seljuk Empire, had sent him on his way, though, back to the Strega.  He knew she’d given him a mission, and he wished he could remember what it was, but somehow, he was certain he would remember when the time was right.

Aurora’s means of sending him on his way was to magically teleport him to the village of Braemar, the place where he’d been killed by Callisto.  Now that he was there, he knew he was supposed to look for Callisto and Cassandra.  Would they still be here?  To Erwen it seemed like years since that fateful day when he died, but then time passes differently in hell.  Although he would do as he was instructed, he really didn’t want to incite further violence from the madwoman, Callisto.  If he spied her, then he would leave, hopefully unnoticed.  Aurora simply wanted to know if the woman was still in Braemer.  Aurora wanted to talk to Callisto, although for what reason, Erwen couldn’t possibly imagine.  As far as Cassandra goes, if he found her, he would speak with her.  Ask what she planned to do.  A war was coming, a war that would likely draw in all of the known world.  Cassandra would need to choose sides.  She needed to choose wisely. 

So he checked the tavern and even the rooms above the tavern where he’d been brutally killed.  He asked of the women’s whereabouts.  Both of them were not easy to miss, nor easily forgotten.  Several of those he interviewed remembered the women, but none had seen them in a few days.  One said they had fought.  Another said they had both died of their battle injuries.  Yet another said they had ridden off together to the south.  None of it was useful.  Aurora would not be happy.  But there was not much else Erwen could do.  So he reclaimed his horse from the stables and road north to the Strega Empire.  It would take him a full day in the saddle.  He’d purchased hardtack and ale at the tavern, which would hold him over until he got back to the palace.     

________ AURORA AND ERWEN MOVE TO PART 2_________
 

Posted on Feb 22nd 2021 - 6:14 PM

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