Shadowdancer the Fifth

by gwendolyn_flight


This is a re-write of Shadowdance by Robin Wayne Bailey, although, if you've read the book, be warned that this version doesn't turn out the same. In case you're curious, Mr Bailey seems to prefer simple sentences and minimal description interspersed with vivid imagery, while I run to complex sentences, and believe that if one descriptor is good, then two or three must be better. :)

Everyone got recast, so here's a quick run-down on ages:
Mulder: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Krycek: 24(2nd half)
Spender: 28(1st half) 33(2nd half)
CSM: 46(1st half) 51(2nd half)
The Witch of Shanalane: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Skinner: 38(1st half) 43(2nd half)
Teena: 35(1st half)
William: 43(1st half) 48(2nd half)
Diana: 13(1st half) 18(2nd half)
Scully: 24(1st half) 29(2nd half)

In this chapter, some violence.


Shadowdancer
Second Half
Chapter Five

A TEPID NIGHT wind ruffled Mulder's short-cropped chestnut hair, and whispered over his bare shoulders. It played over his body, teased his berry-brown nipples. It caressed him with a lover's warmth, and he lifted his head higher as it kissed his throat, swirled down his chest and belly.

Pulling back on his reins, he brought his mount to a halt. Beside him, Alex did the same. "What's wrong?" his companion asked, his deep voice husky with the night.

Mulder stared ahead into the rich darkness. The horizon formed a gently rolling shadow upon the yawning starlit sky. His gaze trailed upward through the moonless heavens until he found the godsroad, the brilliant milky band that stretched from one end of the nighted earth to the other. He closed his eyes and listened, expecting stillness. The wind made a delicate rush in his ears.

"Nothing," he answered Alex. He drew a deep breath. The air smelled fresh, as it must have on the first night of the world. "I've missed Ispor."

"It's always good to come home," Alex said with a nod. He glanced back at their pack horse, eased himself to the ground in a quick slide and drop, and walked easily back to run a quick check on the animal, lifting its hooves and running one broad hand over each fetlock. Satisfied, he climbed upon the bare back of his own horse, settling in to grip with his knees as the mare whickered, and shifted impatiently.

They rode on. Mulder eyed the darkness, leading the way with a sureness that would have amazed a daydweller. That towering silhouette on his far left, that was Razor Mountain, so named for its sharp peaks and sheer walls. Passing it, they arrived after about an hour of steady travel at the bank of the River Semene, Ispor's longest river, which flowed from a spring in the more distant Akrotin Mountains. He smiled to himself as he steered his horse down a grassy slope and waded into its shallow black waters.

Alex spoke little as they rode, trusting Mulder unquestioningly to know the way, as Mulder had trusted his guidance in his homeland. His gaze swept from side to side as he kept pace beside Mulder, but sometimes it turned upward to study the blaze of stars.

Just beyond the river at the edge of the Plain of Kenay, Mulder stopped again. He sniffed, rode forward a few paces, stopped, and drank in the stilling breeze once more. Alex came quietly up on his left, tightly gripping his reins and the packhorse's lead line. The look on his face was question enough.

"Blood," Mulder answered softly, warily, peering ahead into the darkness.

"How can you smell blood?" his comrade asked, even as his right hand settled on the pommel of the sword he wore on his left hip.

"How can you not?" Mulder countered in a whisper as he searched the darkness ahead. "There's a lot of it."

They pushed on slowly. The night no longer seemed so friendly and welcoming. Despite the warmth of the wind, a chill crept up Mulder's spine. The smell of carrion death hung in the air, thick with rot and outhouse stench. Alex, too, began to notice it, and he wrinkled his nose.

"Stop," Mulder said abruptly. Alex obeyed without comment, green eyes warily searching the black road ahead. Mulder's gaze swept the ground. He swung a leg over his horse's head and slid down its sweat-slicked side, but he clung to its reins, hesitant. He touched Alex's right knee and passed the reins to him. Alone, he walked on.

He nearly tripped over the first body. Kneeling, he ran his hands over cold naked flesh, finding a sword still clenched in a lifeless fist. A few paces on, he found another body, then another, all naked. But the next one wore a breastplate of finely crafted leather, and upon its head was a helm of bronze.

Mulder straightened up as Alex rode up beside him, leading the horses. They exchanged looks, hazel eyes meeting wary green, but no more. His friend dismounted, and side by side they wandered over the plain. Corpses and weapons littered the ground. In some places, the dead lay piled like refuse, lolling in skeletal repose. Most were naked footmen, but here and there, they found an armored officer or nobleman.

Mulder picked up the shaft of a lance; the bronze point had broken away, the wooden shaft splintering raggedly perhaps a foot short of its former length. Leaning upon it, Mulder looked slowly around and let go a long sigh. Suddenly, he dropped the broken weapon and stared at his hands. A cold, viscous substance covered his palms. Blood, he knew, from some dead warrior. He wiped his hands on the front of his short kilt until they were white again. Yet the stickiness remained.

"Terrible," Mulder whispered.

"You've seen battle before," Alex reminded him curtly, his gaze sweeping the darkness.

It was true. There was little he hadn't seen in his travels, he sometimes thought. Small skirmishes, major conflicts, or tavern brawls and alley murders. Death came in many guises and for many reasons. He had learned that much in five years of wandering the earth. Still, this time it was different. This was his homeland. He rubbed his fingers together, wishing for water to wash them clean.

"Not in Ispor," he answered quietly. "These are my people." He bit his lip as he reclaimed the reins of his mount. Standing beside him, Alexei touched his shoulder with a quiet sympathy. "What's happened?" Mulder asked, unable to keep the note of pain from his voice. He shook his head once, before he swung a leg up over his horse's back. Leaning on the animal's withers, he shook his head again. "I've been gone too long."

Alexei also mounted. "Or maybe you've come home too soon," he said with an air of foreboding.

"None of your Osiri philosophy, Lexi," Mulder muttered. "Not now."

Alex shrugged and nudged his horse forward.

They left the battlefield behind and rode toward a low range of hills. The wind fell silent. A strange stillness hung over the land. Even the steady clip-clop of their horses' hooves was muted by the dust-thick grass. The smell of death hovered in the air, clung to their hair and clothing like a cheap and sickly incense, sweetly cloying. Mulder fixed his gaze on the low, dark peaks ahead and tried to ignore it.

Neither of them saw the men that suddenly leaped up at them from the ground. Two arms came out of the darkness and encircled Mulder's waist in a crushing hold, throwing him from his horse. He struck the earth and rolled, ending flat on his back, winded and numbed. Hands grabbed at him, pinned him down. A knee slammed into his chest, and a fist crashed against his face once, twice. He choked out a cry, and thrashed weakly under the weight of his attackers, trying to catch a glimpse of their faces through his blurred vision. A third time the fist smashed down, and Mulder went limp, barely clinging to consciousness.

A scream sounded close to his ear. The weight toppled from his chest, and he was free. He gulped for air and tried to sit up, grasping emptily at the bruise forming on his chest. The clang of clashing blades rattled through him like thunder. Prone on the ground beside him, a huge man groaned and stirred, and his eyes fluttered open. Mulder caught his lower lip between his teeth as he struggled to his knees, finally locking his hands together and slamming them into the man's nose. All the momentum of his body carried into the blow, snapping cartilage and starting a gush of black blood as the man flopped over onto his back with a shriek, and went still.

Mulder jumped up, feeling the ache in his bruised ribs like a fire beneath his breastbone as he spied out Alex in the melee of night-dark shadows. His friend lashed out with his short blade as Mulder watched, frozen, spraying blood from his foe's naked chest. Another figure ran up behind Alex and raised his own sword to strike. Mulder gave no shout of warning, but leaped and drove his sandaled feet into the attacker's ribs. They both toppled to the ground, the air leaving the other man in one great whoosh; the man struggled up to one knee just in time to catch Alex's sword across his face.

Mulder rolled to his feet and whirled in a tight circle, marking the placement of their foes. Too late, he saw the dim flash of a pommel as it rushed at his head. He flung up his arms to ward off the blow. Still, it grazed his skull, and he fell sideways, catching himself on his hands. A foot smashed into his belly, flipping him over to sprawl face downward on the ground, his mouth suddenly full of dirt and the acrid taste of his own vomit.

From the corner of one swelling eye he saw Alex go down under the weight of three men. One trapped the Osiri's arms from behind, while two more wrenched away his sword and caught his legs. Together, they wrestled his struggling figure to the ground, pinning him there in the dust as they pummeled him. Alex thrashed wildly, catching one across the face, kicking another in the knee cap, cursing and spitting wildly as they beat him without mercy. Finally, one of the men smashed an elbow into the side of his head, and he went limp. Unable to move, Mulder watched, horrified, as two of them then pulled Alex up and held him between them, while the third continued to fire punches into his battered midsection. Mulder let out a weak moan, the loudest he could muster, hoping to draw their attention, but the answering kick came from behind, from a foe he couldn't see. His chin snapped forward against his chest, and a red fire exploded behind his eyes, slowly fading to black.


Mulder awoke to a painful throbbing in his head. His face felt swollen twice its normal size, the skin stretched much too tightly. The sharp taste of blood yet lingered in his mouth, and one bicuspid wobbled dangerously when he touched it with his tongue. He reached to feel the injury with one finger, only then discovering that his hands were tied behind his back; once he was aware of them, the throbbing of limbs too-tightly tied penetrated his fogged brain. The ropes bit cruelly into his flesh, and there was little sensation left in his fingertips.

He opened his eyes and knew a moment of fear when nothing focused properly, but gradually his vision sharpened. Alex's face was a mere hand's breadth from his own. He winced as he saw the damage to his friend's features. Alex's eyelids were horribly swollen, and a red, crusty cut made a half-moon over one brow. His lower lip was puffy and blue. Streaks of blood had clotted in his tangled sable hair.

Mulder's eyes narrowed unconsciously as he fought his sudden anger, and his hands twisted desperately at their bonds. What was happening in Ispor? What had he led Alex into?

He squirmed painfully onto his back and surveyed his surroundings. A tent roof rose over him. A small campfire in the center of the dirt floor provided light and heat and shed smoke that rose through a hole in the roof. There was nothing else at all in the tent, no furnishings, no supplies, nothing to help him get loose.

He lay still for a moment and listened, chewing absently on his lower lip as he concentrated on the sounds beyond the confines of the tent. He could hear voices, different voices, some close, some muffled and distant. He couldn't distinguish many words, yet he grew sure he was in some kind of military encampment, rather than the smaller camp of a group of thieves; these sounds were complex, layered, and somewhat frightening. He remembered the battlefield he and Alex had crossed, and he cursed himself as he wondered which side he'd blundered into.

He drew his knees to his chest, muttering imprecations to his long legs and lanky frame as he worked his bound hands past his hips, down to his ankles and over his feet. He was still tied, but it was far easier to maneuver with his hands in front. He crawled to Alex's side, grinding his elbows in the dirt and pulling his legs as though it were daylight outside. "Lexi?" He kept his voice to a low whisper, assuming that there could be a guard close by. "Lexi?" he said again. The Osiri didn't move. Mulder wiggled closer still, and drew the flat of his tongue over the cut on his friend's brow. He winced at the copper tang of Alex's blood, no less bitter than his own, but he didn't stop until the wound was clean. A faint moan issued from Alex's throat, and Mulder paused his laving tongue to whisper his name again.

One jade eye peeled open. Its black pupil drifted slowly around until it settled on Mulder's face. It took another moment still for the glaze to lift and recognition to come.

"Alive?" Alex managed weakly, daring to crack a grin.

"Unless the underworld in an empty tent with a campfire," Mulder answered. He levered himself upright and, though his clumsy fingers tingled and trembled with the effort, he untied the ropes that bound Alex's wrists. His friend breathed a sigh of relief as his freed hands fell to his sides. Then the one eyes closed, and Alex went limp again. Mulder watched for long moments, full of worry. There was no more he could do for the Osiri, not now. At last, he moved into a corner away from the crackling fire and went to work on his own bonds, worrying at them with his teeth.

He was nearly free when Alex lifted his head from the dust and focused on him. "Let me," he said thickly, and he pressed himself up on his hands and knees and crawled to Mulder's side. Although there was little left to do, Mulder held out his hands while Alex fumbled over the last of the knots.

"What now?" he said when his wrists were free. He rubbed and massaged the raw chafings, easing his torn flesh only a little by licking his wounds, wetting them with his saliva, trying to ignore the sharp pain of blood returning to his fingertips.

Alex poked his head carefully through the tent flap and looked out. Quietly, he crawled back to Mulder. "We wait," he answered. "We're in the gods damned middle of an army camp. We can run for it and probably get cut down--"

"Or we can hang around here and find out what in all the hells is going on in Ispor these days," Mulder finished.

Outside, something rustled on the tent's crude fabric. Mulder made a grab at their discarded bonds as the entrance flap was peeled back. He shot a look at Alex and hid his hands behind his back. Alex did the same. He wiggled up against the tent wall, drew his knees close, and hoped their captors weren't too observant.

Three men in dirty, ragged kilts and tattered cloaks filed inside. Two grasped swords with short, leaf-shaped blades, which were badly nicked and scored. They positioned themselves on either side of the third man, a tall man with oddly pleasant features like a stone mask and eyes that glittered madly in the firelight. Mulder met his gaze defiantly, and shuddered. The man's hatred stung him like a tangible force. He feared suddenly for Alex and for himself.

"Get up," the man said, his voice growling over the words and chopping the consonants unpleasantly though he smiled with a mad joviality all the while.

Mulder obeyed with a deliberate awkwardness, using just his legs in direct opposite to his usual handicap, trying to maintain his charade. Alex rose more adroitly, with his natural grace, but he also carefully kept his hands hidden behind his back. "I am called Mulder, son of Lord Skinner," Mulder said slowly, measuring the effect of his words. He knew almost at once he'd made a mistake.

The man he faced glared at him. Then, his lips peeled back to reveal crooked, white teeth in a terrible, smirking grin. "Well then," he answered with an unnaturally silken purr, "when I am done with you, I'll know where to send the pieces."

Lexi stiffened. For a moment, Mulder feared his friend would do something stupid, and die just to protect him. He took a small step closer to the fire, at the same time putting himself in Lexi's path. "Who are you?" Mulder asked, trying to appear reasonable. "What do you want with us? Look, I've been gone a long time. Is Ispor at war?"

Bitter, mocking laughter shook the tent. "The spy dares to interrogate his captors, does he?" The two guards imitated their leader, adding their own laughter. "Then know that it is Robert of Modell who holds your life like a grape in his hands." He brought his nose right next to Mulder's, close enough to bite, and glared. "Too bad I don't like grapes," he hissed melodramatically. Stepping back, he turned to one of his men. "Drag them outside."

"You don't have to drag us," Mulder protested, giving up his pretense. He held out the thongs that had bound his wrists and dropped them in the fire. "We're not spies."

Modell's eyes went colder, and Mulder tensed, sensing the anger his words had sparked within the other man. Outwardly calm, Modell turned to one of his men and began to berate him in that honeyed-glass voice. "I told you to tie them tightly. Again you fail me, again and again. You should be dead and rotting out there on the field, and a man worth the air he breathes here in your place." As Modell continued, his voice growing more intense, louder with each word, the soldier began to sweat, his eyes rolling in panic, as he went to his knees, then fell onto his side. "Consider yourself warned," Modell growled, as the man rolled over weakly, still trying to scramble to his feet, afraid of his leader's palpable wrath. When he rose shakily to attention, his face was a pale mask.

Mulder shot a look of warning at Alex and put himself even more directly in his friend's path. It would be foolish, probably fatal to attack Modell in the middle of an armed camp, especially since the man seemed to be an untrained sorcerer. If he could indeed kill with only the power of his voice, they would have to be incredibly careful in their escape. 'Stay alive,' he thought. 'Wait for an opportunity to escape.' This, though, wasn't it. He turned his attention back to Modell and watched him warily, wondering what demons drove this man.

"You were wise not to attempt an escape," Modell purred, meeting Mulder's gaze. His eyes were clouded with deep shadow as he looked across the fire, and yet the black pupils caught and reflected the flicker of the flame. "I would have caught you and hamstrung you and hung you by your heels."

Mulder was beginning to feel an uncomfortable, burning, tearing sensation in his hamstrings, when Lexi began talking.

"Over hot coals to roast slowly, no doubt," Alex said suddenly, voice brazen in his created quiet. A smirk parted bruised lips ever so slightly as he stepped away from Mulder. "You're the type. No imagination."

Modell's eyes narrowed slightly, and his face went cold again. Apparently, he didn't like to be mocked. He looked back at Mulder. "So, it speaks. Good, there will be two voices to answer my questions, and if the answers don't agree we'll see if you can scream in harmony."

Alex spat into the fire. "It takes a brain to appreciate good harmony," he answered, rasping out his words in the voice that usually signaled danger.

Mulder shot his friend an appalled look, trying to warn him to silence. Alex ignored him, instead folding his arms and smirking at their captor with open amusement, running his gaze up and down Modell and shaking his head. "I've known men like you before," he continued with that over-enthusiastic sincerity he usually saved for talking them out of trouble, "on their backs with their feet fluttering in the air like birds."

Modell stiffened, clenching his fists in a sudden, physical sign of his anger; Mulder began to hope that he was losing control of his talent, as his lips drew into a thin red slash. He took a step towards Alex.

"Lexi!" Mulder hissed, trying to alert the Osiri as Modell lost control of his temper.

"Five copper selats a night they cost," Alex added. "What's your price, soldier?"

Mulder's breath caught in his throat as Modell faced Alex. The Isporan wasn't much taller or larger than his Osiri, but his eyes crackled with a terrible power he could no longer control. Mulder watched in apprehension as the two locked gazes, Alex still smirking slightly with his ingenuous green eyes. Modell finally broke, loosing the rein on his anger, and he lunged forward.

"No!" Mulder shouted.

Alex leaned aside ever so subtly, into the rush. His left hand came up, brushing Modell's descending right with just enough force to spin the other man around. Alex's fingers clamped on Modell's windpipe as he kicked the Isporan's ankles. Both men fell to the ground exactly where the Osiri intended, and his hand shot out toward the fire. An instant later, a flaming brand hovered near Modell's eyes. "Drop them!" he hissed to Modell's guards as they brandished their swords. So swiftly had their leader gone down, the two had barely moved. "Drop them! he ordered again, "or I'll roast this pig!"

One of the two, the man Modell had demonstrated his talent upon, looked ready to pay the price. He swung his sword up, his face a deep grimace, his teeth clenched angrily. But the second guard caught his wrist, jerked the blade from his hand, and tossed it to the ground beside his own.

Modell tore at the hand on his throat, desperate to speak. He raked his nails deliberately across Alex's unprotected flesh, drawing blood, but the Osiri only tightened his grip. Modell groaned and gurgled and tried to scream. Alex leaned all his weight onto his hand, shutting off even a whisper. Then he bent down and growled in Modell's face, "scratch me again, and I'll burn the gods-damned eyeballs out of their sockets! Understood?!"

Modell's face was purple with blood; the veins in his temples throbbed visibly under the skin, and his eyes bulged as he stared at the menacing brand. Gradually, he let go of Alex's wrist and lay perfectly still. Alex, in turn, eased off the Isporan's windpipe.

"Pick up their swords," he said to Mulder. Swiftly, Mulder scooped the weapons from the dirt and took a position behind the two guards. He pressed the bronze points hard against their spines. "Hells, what kind of a rag-tag army is this?" Alex muttered, looking up at his friend. "We've got to sneak out of here, and damned quick!"

"How?" Mulder said simply.

Alex frowned. "Don't look at me. I've done my part." He gestured at Modell with the brand. "It's your turn to think of something."

"Thanks," Mulder answered dryly. "I would rather have tried to talk our way out."

Alex held the brand a bit higher, spilling more light onto Modell's features. "Does this look like the face of a reasonable man?" He asked sarcastically.

Mulder raked his lower lip with his teeth, chewing thoughtfully. Then he tapped one of the two guardsmen on his bare shoulder with the flat of a sword. "All those bodies we found at the edge of the plain," he said. "It was some kind of battle? Is Ispor at war?"

The soldier looked to his leader for permission to answer, but Modell's face was swollen and screwed with pain as he sucked for the little air that Alex allowed him. At last, the soldier shrugged. "Civil war," he stated bluntly.

Mulder blinked. "Rebellion against Spender?" he said, curious. "Who would dare?"

"These days?" the soldier answered with a smirk. "Who wouldn't? The man can't scratch himself without making an enemy. And everybody seems to have an army. That battle? We don't know who they were. They just came at us, no banner, nothing. Everything's gone to hell."

"Mulder," Alex broke in impatiently. "Time to go."

Mulder drew a deep breath. He looked aside for an instant, then savagely smashed the pommel of his right-hand sword against the temple of the guard who had remained silent. That one fell with a groan face down in the dirt. He turned, ready to strike the second man, but the soldier held up his hand for mercy.

"I answered your questions, didn't I?" he said reasonably. "Suppose I just agree not to call out?"

"I trust you," Mulder said flatly, and he looked to Alex, who nodded. The soldier grinned as he lowered his hands, and Mulder hit him with all his strength. "Like hell, I trust you," he muttered, gazing down at the sprawled form. He gestured at Modell with the point of a sword. "What about him?"

A wicked smiled spread over Alex's face as he looked down into Modell's eyes. "Time to die," he whispered, and his fingers dug into the soft flesh around the windpipe. Modell's already bulging eyes widened with pure terror, and he made a faint gasping wheeze. Too late, he grabbed for Alex's wrist. In only a moment, he went limp.

"Dead?" Mulder asked.

Lexi shook his head. "Just out," he answered. "But I bet he'll be surprised to wake up in this world." He grinned unpleasantly. "He had that look in his eyes at the last minute, you know? His whole life flashed before him."

Mulder gave him one of the swords. "I think you enjoyed that."

Alex winked. "Take your pleasure where you find it."

"More philosophy," Mulder mumbled with mock distaste. "Spare me."

"I might." Alex answered, nudging Modell with a toe. "But he won't. I suggest we leave."

Carefully, they crept to the tent flap and peeked out. Alex hissed between his teeth. A dozen fires burned in a wide circle. Bare-chested, kilted warriors moved in twos and threes, talking in low voices, chuckling over unheard jokes. Beyond the immediate clearing, smaller fires burned, and tents dotted the dark landscape as far as could be seen.

"It's still your turn," Alex whispered. "Thought of anything yet?"

Mulder shrugged doubtfully. "Run?" he suggested.

Alex pursed his lips tightly. "Let's try the back way," he said. They lowered the tent flap, stepped over their unconscious former captors, and knelt down in the soft dirt. Mulder drew the edge of his sword through the thin canvass. "We're lucky someone didn't see our silhouettes through this stuff," he muttered. "That fire's bright enough to show everything we're doing in here." He tugged open the slit his blade had made and peered out. Tents and campfires surrounded them, but there were fewer men awake and no brightly lit clearing to cross.

"Run?" Mulder said again.

"Walk," Alex corrected. "Just like we belong here." They glanced at each other for a long moment. Alex's dark green eyes glimmered in the firelight, the sockets deeply shadowed by the red glow. Beads of sweat gleamed in the valleys of his throat and chest, and his lips parted slightly to sip the night air. Mulder could almost taste the tension his friend tried so hard to hide. 'Excitement,' Lexi would call it, and 'thrill.' And if they got out of this and lived, Mulder thought, he might even agree.

"What's wrong?" Alex husked. "You have a peculiar look."

"I was thinking about the horses," Mulder whispered in reply. "Especially the pack horse. I'll regret losing the contents of those bags." He forced a half-hearted smile that came out more a grimace, then crawled through the rip into the warm, open night. Alex followed, and they stood up together.

Side by side, they walked with their short blades pushed through their belts. They avoided the campfires that might have illuminated their faces and kept their sandaled tread as soft as possible on the dry, flattened grass. They muttered to each other in low voices, meaningless words, mostly, spoken for the benefit of the ragged men they passed, men whose kilts were little more than scraps tied around their loins, men without sandals, men whose ribs showed through their skin even in the dim firelight.

"These men are half-starved," Mulder murmured to Alex. "Farmers and shopkeepers. Not professional soldiers at all."

"Don't be fooled by their clothing," Alex advised quietly, all the while keeping a wary eye on the men they discussed. "Look at their weapons. And look at their eyes; they're full of anger. There's no love here for your King Jeffrey, and no man hates as much, or fights as hard, as a hungry man."

Suddenly, the shrill note of a horn rent the camp's silence. Shouts of alarm rose from the clearing and quickly spread among the tents. Mulder started, preparing to run, but Alex caught his arm in an iron grip. "No," he hissed. "They'll expect us to run, to panic. Move with purpose and authority, and draw your sword, as if you were hunting for escaped prisoners. Not all of these men could've seen our faces."

The camp came alive. Three men rushed toward Mulder and Alex, but Alex bent around the corner of a tent, pretending to search. "Not here!" he called, waving the soldiers on with his sword. "Try that way!"

Mulder watched the three disappear around another tent, then let go a breath and touched his friend's shoulder. "Let's get out of here."

Keeping up their pretense, they made it past the last row of tents. They had steered a course away from most of the searchers, until the open plain stretched before them. But far to the left, voices were drawing closer. "Now we run," Alex said, and he gave Mulder a push.

Mulder ran, sprinting for the open grass, and the wind rushing by his ears became a cry of desperation. His legs pistoned against the earth, and his arms flailed in a regular rhythm, tearing at the wind. He tucked his head forward determinedly, and sucked in great draughts of air. The pounding of his heart and the roar of his singing blood made a thunder in his ears, and the land rose and fell dizzily to meet his tread. It rolled beneath him, lifting him gently, dropping unexpectedly. Each step was a precarious balancing exercise in the darkness.

By his side, Alex ran easily, powerful legs propelling him into the stiff wind, the sweat-sheen igniting strangely on his bare chest, his arms, on his back and his pumping legs. The moon had come up, a thin slash in the black heavens, and he glowed in its faint light. Then Mulder's slightly longer legs had carried him ahead of his friend. He could hear Alex panting beside him, and tossed a glance over his shoulder, making sure that Lexi was still with him. And he ran.

Behind them, he could hear the pounding of horses' hooves and knew they had been spotted. Mulder poured all his will into his limbs, but the jagged edge of fatigue ripped at his chest, and his breath came in desperate gasps. A red film seeped around the bounds of his vision. Still, he didn't slow down, though he felt as if all his body were drawing into a smaller and smaller core, diminishing with every agonizing step. Run! The word beat through his brain in a punishing cadence, as he approached the closest he could ever get to flight. Run!

A pair of horse thundered by them, jerked into a rearing turn, and stopped short, cutting them off. Their riders leveled lances with polished, leaf-shaped points of bronze. Quickly, another pair of riders flanked them. Mulder spun about, frantically seeking a clear direction, but more of Modell's men surrounded them. He stumbled, fell, and the sword spun from his sweat-slick grasp.

He staggered to his feet and ran, dodging the lances of the two blocking his way as he darted unexpectedly between their horses. But he heard their taunts and shouts as they rode down on him. Something stung him sharply across the back, propelling him forcefully through a few clumsy strides. The flat of a blade, he realized through a haze of pain. He nearly fell again, but somehow kept his feet, running doggedly ahead.

'Lexi, where was Lexi?! He cast a glance around. A rider cornered past him, yanked his horse's head around and bore down on the reins. Mulder bounced off the shuddering animal's shoulder and struck the ground. Before he could move, a lance flashed down and embedded in the earth a bare hand's width from his groin.

Mulder scissored his legs and knocked the shaft into his hands as he rolled sideways and scrambled to his feet, using his momentum to swing upward with the blunt end. The blow caught a soldier under the chin. The man tumbled from his horse with a surprised grunt. Mulder didn't know if it was the same man who'd thrown the lance, and he didn't especially care. There were far too many to pick and choose his opponents. He whirled and struck again, but instead of finding a man, the bronze point bit deep into a horse's foam-flecked throat. The animal loosed a choked sound like a woman's scream and reared; its rider's frantic motions overbalanced them both, and the horse crashed to the ground, trapping the man's leg.

There was no time to finish that one off. Others were on him in the space of a breath. From the corner of his eye he saw Modell astride a massive dun stallion, directing his men with vehement gyrations of his arms. Mulder, however, could spare him no more attention.

The lance became a blur in his hands as he spun it end over end, deflecting a sword that whistled down at his head, and striking the kneecap of its wielder. Any scream was cut short as Mulder followed through with a blow that flung the man from his horse, crushing his unhelmeted skull.

Then something exploded in the top of Mulder's head. White hot stars blazed holes in his vision, and pain raced the length of his spine. His knees gave way, and the lance fell from hands suddenly unable to grip. A smaller explosion sent numbness crawling through the right side of his face and down his neck. A third between his shoulder blades blasted the air from his lungs in a choking gasp. The ground raced up at him with startling speed, and dirt and grass filled his gaping mouth.

Someone rolled him over, and he saw Modell once again. From his horse, the man barked a series of orders, words that Mulder couldn't quite understand through the ringing in his ears. Two soldiers approached from the right, dragging Alexi awkwardly between them. Mulder caught his breath, worry seizing him and forcing him up onto one elbow. Before he could do more, rough hands seized him and hauled him to his feet.

Modell slid down from his horse, ground-tying the reins. With a satisfied, superior smirk, he grabbed Alexi by a hank of hair and jerked his head up so that they were eye to eye. Alexi's face twisted in pain, and his low cry was a knife that stabbed Mulder's heart. Twice, then, Modell lashed out with the back of his hand, splitting Alex's lip and spattering blood down his bare, heaving chest. With an animal growl, the Osiri tried to kick Modell, but the enraged commander easily sidestepped the blow and threw a savage punch into Alexi's gut. "Hold him tighter!" he directed his two men.

Once Alex was forced to the ground, Modell bent over him, leering. "You should have killed me when you had the chance," he hissed. His hands locked around Alexi's throat. "Now I'm going to finish what you started, the way you started it."

Modell's fingers tightened slowly. Alexi struggled, his green eyes widening with fear. The guards held him with his arms outstretched, his back arched to the breaking point as Modell forced him backward.

"Stop!" Mulder cried. With the strength of desperation, he ripped free of the hands that held him. "You cowards!" He had no sword, no lance, no weapon at all, and Modell's guards were reaching for him already.

But they were killing Alex! "Damn you!" he screamed. "Damn you all!"

Before they could seize him, he flung his arms high and whirled, the toes of his right foot digging deep into the soft ground as he turned. "Bastards!" he muttered furiously. He swept his left leg high into a smooth arch, lunged his weight onto it, and sprang erect again, balanced on one leg, his left foot on his right knee. Tears began to trickle from his eyes, fear for what was about to happen, fear for Lexi and for himself. But they were angry tears, too. If Modell's power involved compulsion, then it was time for him to see what true compulsion really was.

The wind seemed suddenly to rise about him, its voice a terrible melody in his ears. He whirled, snapped his head to the right, and rolled a shoulder up, back, down. He paused, looked about, and knew he had them now. Modell's soldiers seemed frozen as they watched him dance. Mulder touched his palms together over his head and slid one hand seductively down the other arm, leaning far to the side as he did. The wind sang a new note, and a timpani joined it, the heartbeats, he realized with a horrible certainty, of the men around him. Even Modell's eyes were on him now. Mulder met his rapt gaze and poured hatred for the man into his dance.

Somewhere behind him, he heard a scream. A body fell across the corner of his vision. He gave it barely a glance, but saw the blood that poured from an ugly gash where once a throat had been. With an incoherent shout, another man jumped on the body and hacked it until the bronze blade of his sword bent at an angle and threatened to break. Someone dragged him off the mutilated corpse, but nearby two more men leaped at each other.

Mulder felt their quarrels in his very soul, but his pain was channeled into Lexi's need. Modell still had Alexi in his grip, that was all he could know. So he danced, danced, whirling, taunting with his body, drawing dark designs in the air with his arms, weaving intricate patterns with his hands and fingers, unleashing the power that, even yet, he didn't entirely comprehend, power that frightened and terrified him. Yet for Alexi's sake he didn't shirk away.

Slowly, a change rippled over Modell's features. His hands unclenched, and Lexi sagged unconscious into a heap at his tormentor's feet. With a snarl, Modell kicked him in the ribs and looked for an instant as if he intended to follow it with a second blow. Instead, he lifted trembling, fisted hands before his eyes, and stared at them with a look of utter, soul-deep loathing. Without warning, he threw back his head and howled a pitiful sound of such soul-wrenching intensity that it caused Mulder to freeze in midmovement. Stunned, he watched Modell fall to his knees, clutch his face in his hands, and weep out his despair.

It was the final crack in the dam of sanity, and chaos surged free. The rest of Modell's men turned on each other, and the air vibrated with screams and curses. Then came the clash of weapons. Some, though, would not fight; they fled, wailing, across the open field, pursued by their personal demons. One man simply drew his sword and pulled its sharpened edge across his wrists without a whisper; he sat down to watch his life flow away, a hideously sublime smile crossing his mobile features.

Mulder ran to Alex's side and cradled the sable head in his lap. A sob broke from him as he gazed around again and realized what he'd done. He'd had to, to save Lexi. But oh gods, the cost . . .

"What have you done?" The words were a snake-dry hiss of horrified realization in an emotion-choked voice. "What have you done?"

Mulder looked up into Modell's madding eyes. "What did you do to us?" he demanded again, through clenched teeth, his defeated sorcery battling its counterpart in his pounding head. He struggled to his feet and drew his sword. Tears brimmed from his eyes, and his face was a mask of grief and pain. He moved toward them, though, lifting each leg and setting it down ponderously as if his feet were huge stones.

Mulder looked around frantically and spied a blade in the grass not a foot away. He hugged Alex closer, shielding his friend with his body, and lifted the weapon high to ward off the expected blow.

A horn sounded from the direction of the camp. Then another and another. Modell hesitated. Beneath Mulder, the ground shook suddenly with the thunder of horses' hooves. A lot of horses, he realized. New screams and shouts of alarm drowned the horns. Mulder risked a glance over his shoulder as fire rose from the tents.

"Damn you!" Modell cursed, "I knew you were spies!"

"Forget us!" Mulder shouted back, his voice hoarse with exhaustion and guilt. "Save your damned camp if you can, or your own miserable hide!"

Modell gave a roar and rushed at Mulder, slamming his sword down. Mulder caught the blow on his own blade. Again, Modell struck, without skill or style, and again, Mulder blocked it, but the sheer force of the impact shivered down his arm and shoulder. When Modell raised to strike a third time, Mulder raked his edge over Modell's unprotected shin. The man leaped back with a sharp scream, cut to the bone, blood pouring down his leg.

"Get out of here!" Mulder shouted, sweat burning his eyes. "Save yourself! Where's your precious rebellion if you let yourself get caught!"

Modell shot a glance at his burning encampment. Then he looked back to Mulder. Gone were the tears; purest hatred burned in his gaze, and Mulder thought he would attack again. Instead, he turned and ran, but not toward the camp. Across the plain he sped, abandoning his troops to the mercies of whoever had attacked them.

Mulder dropped his sword, and drew his lower lip between his teeth, nibbling thoughtfully. Not one of Modell's men remained to threaten them. Some were little more than weeping wretches, hugging and rocking themselves on the ground, moaning words that made no sense. Most had simply run away.

"Wake up, Lexi," he urged, bending close to his friend's ear and shaking him gently. "Wake up. We've got to get away, too." But though his chest rose and fell with regular, if shallow breaths, Alexi didn't stir.

The flames in the distance made a beautiful glow as they reduced Modell's camp to ash. Silhouetted against the orange light, Mulder could make out a band of riders coming his way. He looked around forlornly. Even if there had been some place of concealment, it was too late to hide. In any case, there was no point in trying to run.

Mulder shut his eyes for a moment and gritted his teeth. He bitterly regretted what he had done, but Lexi was alive, and that was what mattered. Gently, he lowered his friend's head to the earth, rose, and picked up a lance from the grass. Standing over Lexi, he prepared to meet these new riders.

Wordlessly, they made a ring around him, nine in all. Mulder twirled the lance in the showiest pattern he knew, warning enough, he hoped. Then he set the butt on the ground between his feet and leaned on it. He raised an eyebrow questioningly, regarding each of them in turn.

One of the riders, a woman, was dressed differently than the others. She wore the same black kilt and green cloak, but over her this linen shirt she wore thick plates of gold that hung from a chain around her neck and waist. The helm that covered her face also appeared to be entirely gold, and a long horsehair crest flowed from its peak.

Mulder addressed her politely, but with his usual, unintimidated deference. "Neither I, nor my friend," he gestured toward Alex without looking away, "is part of Modell's army. We're travelers newly returned to Ispor. They mistook us for spies." He forced a wry smile. "We thank you for your intervention."

"I know well enough you're no spy." The woman in gold lifted off her helm with both hands. "Welcome home, Fox."

Mulder stared in disbelief. "Scully!"

On the ground, Alex raised up on one elbow, rubbed his neck as he gave Mulder a queer look, and muttered with a doubtful hint of amusement, "Fox?"



 

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to gwendolyn_flight