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by Gabrielle, Heroic Bard
(as translated by Phillip Howell)
"Deal With The Devil: Book Two" and
"Petricles - Goodby" -- all:
Copyright 1997 by Phillip Howell, Powder Springs, Georgia
Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and backstory used in 'Deal With The Devil' are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copywrite infringement through the writing of this work of fiction.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copywrite statement.
My story continues and a sad tale it becomes.
And so began the dark years of my friend's life. An emotionally wounded village girl became an enchanted Hero. A Hero for all to admire and emulate. But the deal she struck with the devil stood on the sidelines and cast a dark shadow over an otherwise rosy future. Could Xena live up to expectations? Could she handle the role thrust so rudely upon her young shoulders? Would she?
Only time would tell. But the darkness that lurked in the corners of her mind was strong and only a superhuman effort could keep it from overpowering her, to subsume her into its evil embrace. As many mortals have done, once touched by the Gods, Xena slowly forgot her pact with Ares. The agreement being so like Lyssius' crusade, Xena molded the two into one overwhelming incubus - a desire for revenge, a desire to kill Dorians and all who helped them.
My friend was still a young village girl in many respects without experience in the wide world beyond Amphipolis. Her coming of age had been one of intense personal pain and much bloodshed. While being the first acknowledged woman Hero, Xena really was not prepared for the demands placed upon her as protector and shield. Torn between conflicting emotions, my friend slowly began to loose the ability to distinguish the fine line between what was and what was not permissible and appropriate.
Lyssius' crusade was ever foremost in her mind. How to accomplish the destruction of the Dorians, the honorable way to rid the land of their presence, was the decision point with which my friend could not come to grips. Her predispositions led her forward and single mindedly she did the only thing that came easily to her mind - she killed Dorians. And soon, the grey areas began to fade, starkly becoming black and white. You were either on her side, or you were against her - and only Zeus could save you from her wraith.
The fine line that distinguishes reality from insanity blurred for my friend. Touched by the Gods took on a new and deadly meaning for Xena. My friend never really crossed that fine line, never truly embraced insanity - her personality splintering into a hateful duality, ever at odds with itself. No, my friend retained the ability to distinguish between her two halves, between the real and the not real. She just could not find the way to bring the two halves back together, to once more become the Xena from Amphipolis.
Like a bronze plate placed to close to a fire, she was warped by the fires that surrounded her. But the essential shape of that young woman from Amphipolis could still be discerned in the misshapen figure that the world saw and grew to despise. Inside this warped and misshapen figure the world knew as Xena Warrior Princess lay the phoenix that was the girl from Amphipolis waiting for the heat of the fires to burn away the misshapen outer crust, waiting for a chance to burst back into the world.
Xena and Petricles led their army northward, into the wake of the Dorian invasion of Thrace. Being a small band, they attacked the invader's supply lines and ambushed the inevitable camp followers that attend any invading army. Slowly over the remaining months of autumn, the army became stronger as survivors from massacred villages were recruited and trained in the unfamiliar arts of war and the sword. As early winter arrived, Xena and Petricles commanded a well trained group of over three hundred men and twenty women.
Petricles remained in command of the mounted men while Xena took command of the infantry. As before, she organized her unit along traditional lines. The spearmen formed the backbone of the battle line while bands of swordsmen and auxiliary protected the flanks. All in all, the two lovers commanded a small but formidable force.
And yes my friends were now lovers, with all of the joy and potential for disaster which that word conjures up. The events of the last six months weighed heavily on my friend, her outlook on life slowly changing into a darkness no one would have imagined in the spring. Xena became hardened, her soul burnt black by Lyssius' death and her deal with Ares. Her love for Petricles was the only refuge of peace and happiness she had in a world suddenly gone mad with war and bloodshed.
Xena watched Petricles through lowered lashes as he stoked the warming fire at the center of their tent. How handsome he is, she thought to herself as she watched him move about the tent, and I do love his soft cow-brown eyes. She sighed in pleasure, wiggling her toes as the warmth of the fire began to thaw her ice cold feet. "Come here, my friend.", Xena purred, sinking lower in the large camp chair. "Come and cuddle.", she said huskily, reaching out her hands to his as he approached.
"Of course.", Petricles replied as he wormed his way into the chair beside her, pulling the woolen blanket up over their lower bodies and settling his weight. "Borias and Manus will be here after they've had their supper."
"How long do you think?", she asked, snuggling up to his warmth and breathing into his neck.
"Oh, I'd say about two candlemarks.", he replied. "They have to see to the men and animals before they can eat. Why?"
"Two candlemarks, huh.", she said, her voice low in her throat. "Long enough for what I have planned.", she continued as she tugged at the lacing of his leather breeches. "Long enough for you to warm me up. I'm always warm when you're inside me.", she told him, reaching up to lick his lips.
"Xena.", he said, passion evident as he drew her name out into a sensuous cry. He picked her up in his strong arms and carried her to the large bed that sat in the tent's far corner, their blanket was left on the floor where it fell.
He always calls me Xena these days, she thought wistfully as they feverishly fought to be rid of their clothing, the chill bringing goose bumps to their exposed flesh. Especially when we're alone like this, she reflected, pulling him down onto the bed beside her. Xena and Petricles embraced passionately, settling under a pile of woolen blankets and sheepskin hides. For some time, the warm pile heaved as the two fought their secret battle.
Fortunately, Borias and Manus were longer than expected. As the two lieutenants made their presence known outside the tent's entrance, Xena finished pulling on her warm sheepskin and leather boots. Petricles called for Borias to enter as she turned to brushing her long raven black hair.
"Ah, Xena? Petricles? Sorry if we're interrupting but you said to come by after the troops were bedded for the night.", Borias said, embarrassment breaking out on his face as it became obvious what he had interrupted. "Xena, we can come back later if you'd like."
"No, Borias. You're not interrupting. Come on in, both of you.", she replied from where she sat by the bed, continuing to brush the tangles from her glistening black hair. "It is we who should apologize. Come on over and get warm.", she said, pointing to the chairs by the warming fire.
Borias always talks to me first never to Petricles, she thought as she watched the two men make themselves comfortable by the fire. I wonder why? Well he is MY lieutenant now, my infantry commander. Yeah, maybe that's it.
Petricles stood and approached the fire, giving each man a pat on the back in the way of greeting. "What of the scouts?", he asked, sitting down in a vacant chair.
"The two far riders found a Dorian supply caravan ten leagues to the north.", replied Manus, who now served as the cavalry commander. "And the short rider found two more destroyed villages just over the next hill. There are survivors."
"Good.", Xena said as she stood and walked over to the fire. "Send out the head scout in the morning and bring them in. They can add to our numbers."
"Right.", Manus replied. "I'll send Philemon. He's good at talking these scared villagers into wanting revenge. He'll bring them in, never fear, Xena."
"Very good. That's what I want.", Xena said, sitting down in the last vacant chair. "I want every one of our people to desire revenge against these northern pigs.", she growled, her voice suddenly filled with evil intent. "I want every survivor we find to join us. And, I want them to hate as I do. We need to let them know that if they don't stand with us, they stand against us.", she finished, slapping her thigh for emphasis.
Petricles frowned at this turn in the conversation and walked over to Xena's side, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. Without thinking about it, Xena placed her hands over his as her pulse settled and the flush left her face. You give me great comfort my friend, she thought, looking up into his face as he peered down at her.
"Right. Manus, have Philemon bring his catch and follow us.", Petricles told the other men. "We'll head out at dawn for that supply camp. We'll sweep it up and move on before the Dorians can mount a pursuit."
"And Borias, detail several men to accompany Philemon. I want every wagon still serviceable in those villages.", Xena said. "We need to start putting in caches of our own supplies. Manus, you set it up."
"Yes Xena.", Borias said. "Philemon can have the scouts look for caves and the like. We'll cache our supplies in any they find."
"What do we do next?", inquired Manus.
"We campaign all winter.", Xena said with finality, her hand making a chopping motion for emphasis. "We harry our enemy until spring. They won't be prepared for a winter campaign and we'll destroy enough of their supplies to really give them a problem by next spring. Then we move back south for a summer fight. I want to be prepared to hit them and hit them hard come summer."
"Petricles?", Manus asked for confirmation.
"Ah yes, that's what we'll do.", Petricles replied, a frown on his face. "All right. Now that it's settled, you should both be off to your tents and bed. We leave early."
"Right.", the two men said in unison as they rose to say their goodnights. Manus walked directly toward the entrance as Borias hesitated momentarily at Xena's side, reaching down to touch the shoulder opposite where Petricles' hand rested. Xena smiled up at him and gave him a friendly nod of dismissal before rising to stand beside Petricles.
"I saw that frown, my friend.", Xena said after her lieutenants had left. "You don't agree?"
"Xena, I don't know if a winter campaign is wise.", he replied to her question. "I think we should go into winter quarters and concentrate on training and recruitment. "I....".
"NO!", Xena exclaimed, suddenly angry as she began pacing furiously before him. "No, we WILL remain in the field. I will hunt these northern bastards down and kill them all.", she continued, shaking in rage and not from the cold. "We can't afford to wait for warm weather. Besides, these villagers we've been recruiting need to be hardened. No. We campaign this winter."
"Xena. Love.", Petricles said, attempting to halt her furious pacing with a comforting hand. "I....".
"NO!", she screamed at him. Shaking off his hand and grabbing her woolen cloak, Xena raced from the tent out into the cold night.
She's off to her pacing routine, Petricles sighed to himself as he sat down near the fire, staring into its mystery. I love this woman, he reflected, but she is so driven sometimes, so overcome by demons she won't speak about. She's already a better commander than I and better in a close-in fight. But this hard edge she's acquired really detracts from what drew me to her in the first place. Maybe by next summer, we can quit and ride off to better paying jobs.
The matter of pay caused him to sigh deeply. Payment my men have not received for sometime, he thought. She just doesn't realize that my men and I fight for pay - not glory or revenge. If I don't do something, I'll not have a man left come this time next year. Then it really will be her show, I'll not have a say.
Petricles rose and banked the warming fire for the night. Walking over to the bed, he began changing into his sleeping cloths. Knowing Xena would not calm down for sometime, Petricles settled back for a lonely wait until she returned to their bed.
Soon the quiet of the night overtook him and he dropped off into a light sleep. Sometime in the middle hours, he awoke to the sound of water being poured into a bucket. Rising up from his warm blankets, Petricles found Xena standing naked in the low light of the banked warming fire sponging off the sweat from her pacing. He watched quietly as she quickly dried herself with a linen towel and turned toward their bed. Seeing that her friend was awake, Xena stopped to stand beside the bed and gaze down into his soft brown eyes.
"I'm sorry I woke you.", she said, breaking eye contact and quickly getting into bed beside him, her chilled flesh causing his to rise in goose bumps.
"It's ok. I really wanted to be awake when you returned.", he replied, pulling her naked body up next to his under the comforting warmth of the blankets. "I'm sorry if I made you mad."
"No. It is I who should apologize, my friend.", Xena told him, kissing him lightly on the lips as she drew one of his legs up and across her thighs. "Something just takes over my mind at times and I go mad with hate and a desire for revenge."
"Well, maybe next year we can quit this country and just go off by ourselves.", Petricles said, gently caressing her breasts. "Maybe then we can ward off these demons that chase your heart."
"Yes, maybe next year.", Xena replied sleepily as he tightened his protective embrace. "Maybe next year."
It had snowed during the early morning hours and the warming sun of midday turned the ground into a slush covered wetness of mud and bracken. Xena and Borias knelt in the cold mess on the hill top as they watched the Dorian supply camp in the valley below them. Not having acquired a mounted arm, the invaders were at a disadvantage. It was easy to sneak up on them and ambush their camps. Without horsemen, only an outer guard stood to warn of an approaching enemy. The two continued to watch the enemy camp, waiting for Petricles' signal that he and his cavalry were behind the enemy and ready to block any retreat.
As the two commanders watched their prey, the infantry stood quietly behind them, just below the crest. The swordsmen had already moved off a short distance downhill, prepared to lead the charge when signaled. Suddenly, off in the distance on the other side of the valley, a mirror reflected the signal that Petricles was ready.
"All right, he's ready.", Xena told her lieutenant. "Borias, you lead the charge with the spearmen. I'll take the swordsmen. Remember, we need all the dray animals alive. And any greek captives you find. So have the men be careful. Ok?"
"As you say, Xena.", replied Borias, turning to look back at the waiting spearwall. "We'll charge through the camp and meet you on the other side."
"Let's do it.", commanded Xena as they rose from their crouch, turning aside to take their respective places. "Bowman, the signal!", she yelled.
Xena rapidly mounted her white horse as a flaming crossbow bolt was loosed downrange toward the enemy encampment. With a whooping war cry, she raced her horse downhill, the swordsmen at her back. Looking back to quickly watch the spearwall advance at the run, Xena drew her sword and entered the enemy camp.
Laying about with her sword, Xena fought her way toward the center of the encampment. Within a finger's breadth of time, she was before the enemy commander's tent. Pulling back hard on the reins, Xena brought her horse to heal and launched herself out of the saddle. Her forward flip easily brought her to within sword range of the startled Dorian commander. Before he could react to the sudden attack, Xena had run him through the stomach just below his iron cuirass. Turning, she spied a Dorian sneaking up on one of her swordsmen. Without a second thought, she loosed the chakram at him and was rewarded as the round killing device severed his head; as always, the weapon returned to its mistress after killing its target.
Soon the uneven fight was over and her men began rounding up the Dorian survivors and those greek captives that could easily be found. Xena stood in front of the enemy tent as Petricles rode up, his horse lathered in sweat.
"Xena. All's well?", he asked, dismounting to stand beside her.
"Yes, my friend. Another supply camp sent straight to Hades.", she replied, surveying the results. "What did you round up back there?"
"Well, we found some greeks trying to run away. No Dorians though, just greeks.", he replied to her question. "And it's strange. These men were more scared of us then I think they were of the Dorians."
"What?", she asked, turning toward him. Looking back the way he had come, she saw a dejected knot of men being herded toward them by Petricles' cavalry. "Why would these people fear us? What's going on here?", she said suspiciously.
"I don't know. Shall we ask?", Petricles said, remounting his horse as she mounted hers.
"Let's.", Xena replied as she spurred her horse forward.
As Xena and Petricles closed the distance to where the prisoners stood, it became obvious that they were indeed scared, very scared. She and Petricles quietly surveyed the ten men and one boy who quailed before them. "Who speaks for you?", Xena asked, remaining mounted to overawe the prisoners.
"I do.", replied one of the prisoners. "What are your intentions toward my men?"
"That depends.", Xena said. "Why do you and your men run from us? Why are you with this band of pigs?"
"Why shouldn't we run from you? We're merchants from north of here and you attacked our camp.", he replied. "Why shouldn't we....".
"MERCHANTS! Trading with the enemy?", she asked in a hard edged voice, her anger rising as the truth became obvious to her. "Bedding with the northern pigs no less!"
"That is our right!", the man replied indignantly, not yet understanding the rising fury that stood before him. "And who are you to say otherwise?"
"Your worst nightmare you bastard.", she told him quietly. For sometime, Xena sat and watched the men before her. As time passed, the prisoners became even more nervous, shuffling as if to attempt escape. Suddenly, Xena turned her horse with a furious jerk on the reins and yelled: "Lykus, hang the men. Spare the boy." And with a spur to her horses flank, she was off, back toward where the rest of her men were plundering the enemy camp.
Lykus quickly had the prisoners trussed up and began herding them toward the trees behind the encampment. Soon, ten lifeless bodies swung in the cool afternoon sun, the crows already beginning to wheel about overhead. Lykus did not notice as the boy sped off into the trees, quickly disappearing in the thick underbrush.
Meanwhile, Petricles had spurred his horse to follow Xena. As he arrived at her side, he grasped her arm and forced her around. "You can't do that.", he yelled at her in anger, pointing back toward where the prisoners had stood. "You can't just kill those men."
"I can and just have.", she replied quietly, not meeting his anger as she looked past his shoulder at the bodies in the trees. "It's done, my friend."
"But why?", he asked, confusion written large on his face. "Why kill our own people?"
"It's very simple. I'll not stand for traitors.", she told him. "They became the enemy the minute they began trading with the Dorians. We kill every Dorian we capture, so why not kill all traitors as well."
"PETRICLES! From now on our watch word will be 'death to ALL traitors in our midst'. Now get back to your men, DAMN YOU!", she shouted in anger, spurring her horse forward and leaving him in open mouthed shock.
Sometime later, Xena sat her horse and watched the rear guard bring the last of the plundered wagons up the road toward her. Off in the distance, she could see the fires of the enemy camp against the darkening clouds of sunset. Near the fire which consumed everything that could not be carried away, lay a pile of thirteen bodies, the bodies of those Dorians her men had captured during the fight. Turning her horse as the wagons passed her, Xena followed without looking back at the hanging bodies of ten greek men. Overcome by a sudden chill, Xena spurred her horse past the struggling wagons and galloped furiously for the main body. As snow began to fall, the racing woman feared she heard laughter echo across the valley.
Snow fell all night and the roof of the tent began to sag under the weight. Sometime after midnight, Petricles suddenly came awake from a deep sleep. Rolling to his side, he found he was alone in the large bed. Looking about for Xena, he found her sitting by the warming fire wrapped in a warm wool blanket. As he watched her back, he realized she was softly crying, her low sobbing but an echo against the snowfall outside. Not wanting to disturb or embarrass her, he feigned sleep as he surreptitiously continued his silent observation. Finally, Xena rose from her chair and wiped the tears from her red rimmed eyes. Glancing toward their bed, she saw that he was awake despite his attempt to appear otherwise.
"I'm getting into a nasty habit of waking you, my friend.", Xena said as she approached the bed and sat beside him. "I'm sorry."
"What's the matter, my love?," he asked, reaching up to sweep the tear dampened hair from her face. "Don't be concerned at waking me. I wish you'd wake me more often, let me help you."
"That's just it, I can't.", she said, looking down at him as a weak smile crossed her face. "But I wish you could, my friend. It's just that I can't explain what comes over me. Like today. I would do it again, and will if necessary, but I can't explain why I hung those men like they were just sheep for the slaughter. I don't mind killing Dorians. But our own people? I can't explain why the idea came to me and I hate myself that much more because I don't understand."
"We need to get away from all of this for a while. You know, take a road, any road, and just ride.", he said, moving his legs and sitting up beside her on the bad. "Solstice is coming up soon. Why don't we just ride away?"
"I wish we could. Could just - ride away - as you say.", she said, smiling at him. "But you know we can't. However, I do think we can stand down until after solstice. Yeah, you've a good idea there, my friend. We'll withdraw up into the hills and lay low. Have a solstice party."
"Great!", he exclaimed, bending forward to kiss her forehead. "I'll have Borias begin making arrangements tomorrow. Ok?"
"Let's do it!", she laughingly replied, ruffling his hair. "I do love you, you know. Even if you are an insufferable bore on occasions."
"Now Xena. I thought that was all behind us. Hey, I DO call you Xena these days. Don't I?", Petricles said, taking her hana onto the floor amidst the wreckage. Petricles broke into loud laughter at the look on Xena's face.
"You see! I told you, you were heavy.", he laughed at her, giving her a helping hand as she regained her feet.
"OH YOU!", Xena exclaimed, pushing him backward toward the stouter bed in the room's center. Petricles let her shove him backwards until his legs hit the bed frame. Grabbing her as she gave him one last push, they fell together unto the bed. The two lay side by side in companionable silence, staring up at the ceiling until finally Xena reached over and grabbed his arm, bringing them both to their feet.
"Now close your eyes.", she told him as they stood facing each other. "No peeeeking!"
"All right.", he said, closing his eyes tightly. "But I've seen you naked before."
"That's NOT why you shouldn't peek.", she laughed as she reached under the bed and drew out her saddlebags. "Now keep your eyes shut.", she reminded him, drawing out a wrapped box from the depths of the leather bags. Moving around to his front again, she held out her gift. "Happy solstice day, my friend.", she said, her throat tight with expectation.
"What have we here?", he said, sitting down on the bed as he began unwrapping her gift. Xena's expectations were met as she watched his eyes go wide, a look of pure pleasure coming to his face. "I.... It's..it's beautiful.", he stammered, holding the object up to the candlelight.
In his hands was a beautifully detailed figure of a horse carved from fine mahogany, polished to a brilliant brown finish. A small blue linen saddle blanket had been inlaid along the beast's back while the finely carved head sported tiny leather and copper tack. The horse had been captured in mid-stride, its tail streaming out behind it.
"Xena, it's beautiful. But where did you get it?", he asked, still in awe of her gift.
"Believe it or not, Lykus turns out to be quite a woodsmith.", she told him. "You should ask to see his collection sometime. And Borias did the tack."
"I didn't know.", he said, looking up at her. "Lykus has been with me since the beginning but I never thought he was an artist. Now Borias, that I believe without proof. A remarkable man, my friend Borias.", he finished, looking back down at the gift. Fortunately, Petricles did not see the look that came over the young woman's face at his mention of the worthy Borias.
Xena's face had returned to normal by the time Petricles looked back up at her. Standing, he gave her a tender kiss on the cheek. "Now it's my turn.", he told her. "Now you get to close YOUR eyes. And, you'd better sit down."
"What? Why?", she asked. "Oh come on, what could you give me that would require I sit?"
"Ok! Stand if you want, but I'm not going to catch you.", he told her. "You're too heavy to keep slinging around all night."
"Pah!", she exclaimed as she remained standing. "Do your worst."
"All right, here it comes. Close your eyes.", he said, drawing a small bundle from his tunic pocket. "Here. And, happy solstice day to you my love."
Xena nearly went to her knees as the impact of his gift hit home. Despite his words to the contrary, Petricles caught the woman as she nearly collapsed. For there in her hand, amidst the gay wrapping, was Cassy's wedding bracelet, its silver strands catching and reflecting the low candlelight perfectly.
"Now who's speechless.", he whispered into her ear as he helped her sit down on the bad. "I love you, my girl."
Reflexively, Xena responded in a hushed whisper: "The name's Xena, damn it.", their old joke startling her back to the present. She looked up into his soft brown eyes and pulled him down beside her. "Do you mean it?", she whispered.
"Xena, I may be many things to many people, but I would never toy with you. Yes, I mean it. Xena, will you marry me?", he asked huskily, his voice filled with emotion.
"Yes. Oh yes!", she cried into his hair as she grabbed him in a fierce embrace. "But I don't have a wedding bracelet for you, my friend."
"Never fear, Xena. I always come prepared.", he told her, breaking the embrace to take another small bundle from his tunic. "Here's mine. I'll even let you open it and give it to me.", he told her, pushing the little bundle into her hands.
In her hands, Xena discovered a discretely made man's bracelet done in linked copper and bronze strands. "But where did you get this?", she asked, holding the bracelet out to him. "It's beautiful."
"Well, I told you I would not be surprised at the artistry Borias could display when the moment hit him. ", he told her. "He made this for me last month. He thought I was jumping the gun, but I thought not."
"I guess that means everybody else already knows?", she asked, a scowl coming unbidden to her face. "Why is the woman always the last to know?"
"Come on, Xena. Everyone knows about us.", he said. "And besides, no one is going to laugh at you. Everyone in our outfit respects you. Hades, even my men are beginning to look to you as their commander. I'm almost unnecessary. Believe me, everyone will be happy for you. So don't be embarrassed."
"Embarrassed? I'm not embarrassed, I'm overcome with joy.", she whispered. "Yes, I'll marry you, you moronic lout. Beside, this'll make an honest woman of me. I was never known for modesty around home, but the way we've been carrying on even I blush sometimes at the thought."
"In that case, let me make you warm.", he said playfully, reaching over to touch the front of her tight bodice.
"Men!", she giggled as she began wrestling with him on the bed.
Sometime in the middle hours, they lay silently side by side, lost again in their own private thoughts. Xena snuggled against his chest, her leg thrown across his waist, shivers going up and down her spine as he gently drew patterns with his finger tips across her lower back.
"Xena, what do you want out of life?", he asked reflectively, looking down at her head resting on his shoulder.
"What?", she asked, looking up at his face, her breath sweet against his stubby three day old beard.
"You know. What do you want out of life?"
"I used to want children and a good home, like my mother had.", she told him wistfully. "But then again, Lyssius and I were always caught up in those tales we used to read. I used to fantasize about being a Hero, like Hercules or Achilles. That wasn't real though, since no one would believe a woman could be a Hero. But now that I AM a hero, I fantasize about having lots and lots of children. And grandchildren to keep me young in my old age. Right now? I'd settle for just living through the next year. And what about you, my friend? Do you like children?", she finished, snuggling closer to him, lowering her head to rest on his chest.
"I never really had a family.", he told her as he kissed the top of her head. "My uncle raised me to be a soldier. He too was a mercenary, so I grew up with a sword in my hand and thoughts of how to make the best possible deal dancing in my head. Until I met you, I figured I'd be happy with a wife who would stay behind and tend the farm while I went off to this war or that."
"Pretty boring for the wife.", she said, her breath tickling the hairs on his chest.
"Yeah, guess so.", he agreed. "But anyway, since I met you - well I guess I'd settle for a partner. A partner for either case."
"Either case? What do you mean?", she asked, raising her head up to look at his face.
"Bed and Battle, my love. Bed and battle.", he told her, meeting her look.
"You always speak in terms of battle.", she said, resting her chin on his shoulder.
"Well, as I told you, I was raised as a soldier.", he replied, looking up at the ceiling. "You're a good commander, Xena, even better than I. But you are not a soldier. Your eyes are on victory only, the manner in which you achieve it matters not as long as the method produces the least casualties. I'm sorry to say this, my love, but you are a killer."
"A killer.", she whispered as she quickly turned her face away from his so he would not see the tears that came to her eyes. He thought the shuddering of her body was caused by his fingers and not his words. Xena did not miss his failure to mention children and that lack of response saddened her. She was not really surprised by his calling her a killer, but she had hoped he liked children.
The couple lay entwined as the night slipped silently by until finally both fell into a light sleep.
The days following solstice were ones of joy and happiness for Xena and Petricles. Everyone now knew that their leaders were to be married. It would have been difficult not to since they both shamelessly showed off their bracelets to anyone and everyone they met. And, you could not miss the couple as they took their evening walks, hand in hand, out behind the mountain village. Even the moderate snowfall of the day after solstice did not deter the two from their walk. They were so happy that Xena decided the army would remain in the village for several weeks. The time would be well spent in local recruitment and weapons training. Petricles and Xena devoted their days to the growing army; the nights were their gift to each other.
And recruitment was good. Philemon and Lykus scoured the mountains surrounding the village and brought in fifteen itinerant shepherds and trappers who agreed to join the army as skirmishers and auxiliary. Elpinice, the senior woman auxiliary, was able to persuade four of the local girls to join her group, much to the dismay of the mothers. With close to four hundred men and women under arms, many of Xena's original following found themselves promoted to leader of small groups of infantry.
Manus took the mounted men and continued the search for additional wagons and places to establish supply caches. During their search, the cavalry reported the Dorians had all but disappeared from the neighboring valleys. Everyone attributed this fact to the worsening weather as snow continued to fall throughout the area. Soon, the mounted patrols and scouts became lax as danger receded and the warm fires of the village beckoned during the cold winter nights.
As infantry training became routine to the new recruits, Petricles asked his old second-in-command to turn the training over to his sergeants and undertake a mission for him. Borias agreed and was soon off to the north, to recruit more mercenary horsemen for Petricles' small contingent of mounted riders.
The smallness of his band troubled Petricles. Numbering only sixty, the contingent of men sworn to him was vastly outnumbered by those who had given their oath to his lover. Though he trusted her implicitly, he was afraid that someday he would find himself supplanted by Borias as the one Xena looked to the most for advice and assistance. No, he had to find a way to boost his standing within the army. Being a titular commander did not appeal to him one bit.
Xena, on the other hand, was up to her slim waist in matters of high politics and planning for the upcoming winter campaign. Almost every day, the scouts escorted another group of village elders from the surrounding area to see her. Despite the heavy snowfall, many made the difficult trek to see for themselves that fighting the invaders from the north WAS possible. Some came to offer food and clothing, others came to offer their young men to augment Xena's army. Most came to see HER, to see if the rumors were true - that a woman Hero did exist. They were not disappointed.
Xena stamped snow off her sheepskin and leather boots as she entered their headquarters building, once a small dry good shop. Walking over to the fireplace, she removed her worn leather gauntlets and woolen cloak. Turning her back to the fire, she flipped up the rear of her white leather and copper skirt to warm her backside.
"Now don't go burning yourself.", Petricles chuckled from his seat at the only desk in the room.
"By Zeus' fiery breath, I'm freezing.", she said, her voice quivering from the cold. "This outfit looked just great in the warmth of summer. But now? If I have to wear it one more time to impress another gaggle of old men, I'll scream. Besides, I can't get burned, I'm wearing protection."
Petricles laughed as Xena raised her skirt to waist level. Instead of the scarlet loincloth she had worn in the summer, she now sported a set of woolen drawers that reached mid- thigh, just short of the hem of her armored skirt. "Where on earth did you get those.", he said, giving her an appreciative whistle.
"One of the women made them for me.", she told him, dropping her skirt as she began rubbing life back into her cold- blotched legs. "THEY don't have to wear skirts and get their goodies frozen. They get to wear sensible leather breeches."
"Well, you DID want to be a Hero, so don't complain.", he told her.
"Yeah. Being a hero does have its moments. BUT NOT IN COLD WEATHER.", she shouted to no one in particular.
"Xena, you know I could come over there and help you get warm.", he said, his voice wolfish. "We could....".
"Stay right where you are!", she exclaimed, pointing a long finger in his direction, stamping her foot for emphasis. "You're distraction enough as it is. Do you know that the scouts have quit riding out as far as Manus ordered? And the infantry patrols! Those sods march out beyond the first hill and make camp. Security is frightful, my friend."
"I know.", he replied, getting up and joining her by the fire. "I spoke to Manus about it this morning. And I'll remind Borias when he returns."
"Help me get out of this rig, will you.", Xena asked, turning so that he could unlace the leather and bronze cuirass. Soon, he had her stripped down to her woolen drawers and the wool underblouse she wore beneath the scarlet tunic. Picking up her discarded armor, Xena padded toward the small room at the back of the shop to dress in more suitable clothing. Naturally, Petricles followed.
He stood in the open doorway and watched as she removed her wool underblouse. Her back muscles rippled as she retrieved the linen binding cloth from a bag and began winding it around her chest, tightly binding and flattening her breasts. Feeling his eyes on her, Xena turned and gave him a big wink. "What?', she asked, a smile on her face.
"Oh nothing. I just like to watch you dress.", he said, his eyes drinking in her athletic body. "Those hard muscles you've developed blend so perfectly with the rest of you, I just love to watch. When you practice, you're always fully clothed. It takes something away from your grace."
"Well, I could take to wearing just that scarlet loin cloth you love so much.", she told him playfully.
"No, no, that would be too distracting. The men would never learn to use those iron swords we gave them.", he laughed as he watched her unlace and remove her heavy boots.
Xena continued to dress for training, turning the act into a sensual dance as she felt him watching. Long thick leather breeches went on over her woolen drawers while a padded tunic covered the binding cloth. Finally, she put on her old leather 'breast' plates and arm guards. "Buckle me up.", she asked, walking over and turning her back to him so he could cinch the leather cuirass tight.
"Now you look like a proper killer.", he said, completing his task and kissing her hair. "My proper warrior."
Xena knew in her heart that his words were not mean to hurt, but she shuddered nonetheless at his calling her a killer. Quickly, she sat and pulled on her boots. Rising, she grabbed her cloak and shouldered past him out of the room.
She paused at the main entrance to the shop and looked back to where he still stood in the doorway of the small room. "I'm going to get my weapons. I'll meet you on the practice field in one candlemark.", she told him, turning to leave as she put on her thick leather gauntlets.
Petricles shivered as he watched her leave the shop. He was not sure if the shiver was caused by the gust of cold air let in by her departure or by the look on Xena's face as she left.
"All right boys, let's play", Xena told the group of half-trained recruits who shivered in the icy cold. "Pair off and let's practice lunging and backhand ripostes. Shall we?"
The twenty or so young men paired off as ordered and began the practice ritual. One would lung toward his mock opponent while the other would defend and try for a backhand swing, to get under the other's guard. The clangor of impacting swords was loud in the cold midday sun.
The snow stopped during the night and it took the recruits all morning to shovel the snow off the field where training took place. But then, shoveling helped strengthen young muscles as much as sword work. And, it helped everyone keep warm.
Xena stood back and observed her young trainees as they continued the practice ritual. You have to work it into their bones, she thought as she watched the struggling pairs. It has to become instinctive; repetition, repetition, repetition. It's boring but necessary and I hated it just as much as they do.
"No, not that way.", she told a recruit. "Point your tip at the ground and turn the wrist outward, then swing up and outward at chest level. Use your shoulder and back muscles to put force into the blow. Like this. You! Lung at me.", she ordered, as the second of the pair lunged at her on command.
The young man came in from waist level with a lung straight at her stomach. Xena took a step into his lung and with effortless ease swept his sword up and away. The force of her upward swing twirled the man around as his sword went sailing from his hand. As the youth's back came round, she smacked him on the back of his leather helmet with the flat of hunting dagger. "You're dead.", she told him as he flinched at the force of her blow. "Now try it again, both of you.", she ordered, turning and walking over to the next pair of would-be swordsmen.
Some time later, Xena grew board watching the sword play and decided to get in a little practice of her own. Maybe if they watch me they'll get the hang of it, she thought as she turned the practice session over the Pelius, one of her infantry sergeants. Trudging through unshoveled snow, Xena struggled to the small personal practice strip Lykus cleared for her every day. Removing her warm cloak, she began with a series of stretching exercises
As her muscles stretched out and the warm blood of heavy exercise drew off the cold air, Xena pulled her sword and hunting dagger and began her sword dance. For dance is what is was. Her sword play had become much more than turning and circling. It became a whirling display of sword and fast kicks, of slashing dagger and punching fists. Without thinking, Xena would launch herself into the air, vaulting higher than a tall man's shoulders. At the peak of her vault, the iron in her hands would reflect brilliant rays as she slashed at imaginary opponents.
Nor did she neglect a soldier's need to fight even when knocked to the ground. Throwing herself onto her back, she threw her legs outward and spun on her backside, sweeping the legs of her invisible opponent while her sword danced above her twirling form. Springing to her feet, she lashed out with a booted foot. Twisting around her center of gravity, she brought the other boot up as the first returned to the ground, turning the move into a dual kick as deadly as any sword.
As an ending to her killing dance, Xena suddenly whirled around and loosed the chakram, her dagger left to dangle from a lanyard around her wrist. The chakram sailed unerringly toward her intended target. The five straw dummies Lykus replaced daily were reduced to headless stumps as the killing weapon severed each mock head in turn. Reaching up effortlessly, Xena recaptured the chakram as it sailed back toward her. Her practice over, she sheathed her weapons, removing her helmet to wipe sweat from her forehead.
She was startled by the sound of clapping hands as she stopped to catch her breath. Looking toward where the sound came from, Xena saw Petricles sitting on a snow bank, her cloak folded neatly in his lap.
"Like I told you. A proper killing machine.", he said, approaching with her cloak opened wide, capturing her in its warm depths.
"You should practice more yourself.", she told him as she accepted the cloak, moving away several paces. "You're always saying how I'm better than you are. Maybe it's because you don't stay in form."
"Ah but you see, my dear. I'm a man and men such as I don't have to practice.", he laughed.
"YOU! ARE! A! PIG!", she suddenly hissed, emphasizing every word separately, her anger at his words evident. "I'll just see how good you REALLY are. DEFEND YOURSELF!," she screamed as her sword and dagger flashed into view, the cloak sailing off into the snow.
Petricles was completely caught by surprise at her sudden anger and furious expression. Back peddling, he struggled with his cloak, trying desperately to draw his own sword as the fury his words had unleashed advanced toward him. As her first strike drove its way toward his stomach, he successfully brought his sword up in time to parry the killing blow. Confused and still unprepared, Petricles felt his own anger begin to rise as Xena prepared for her next blow.
Finally getting his cloak out of the way, Petricles went into high guard. Stepping into her fresh assault, their swords clashed between them as the blow and counterblow met. Petricles was stunned when her left foot impacted his right knee and his leg went out from under him. Catching a flash out of the corner of his eye, he ducked as her dagger swept its way a finger's breadth from his face. Regaining his feet, Petricles was barely able to block a kick to his groin as he fought his way back into a guard position.
Soon, the fight degenerated into his defending against her unending attacks. As he defended himself as best he could, it began to dawn on him that this might not be practice, that she might REALLY be trying to kill him. As that unexpected revelation hit home, he momentarily lost track of her moves and she downed him. As he looked up into her enraged eyes, he did not see the woman that loved him. Instead, he saw his own death fast approaching as the fury raised her sword high for one last downward thrust into his unarmored chest.
The applause crashed against Xena's killing rage and she was stunned back to reality. The sudden realization of what she had been about to do hit her and she dropped the sword, her sword hand going up to muffle the scream of horror that rose from her throat. Looking around frantically, Xena saw that everyone on the practice field had been watching her fight with Petricles. Fortunately, they were at a distance and were not able to see her eyes and the expression that had captured her face during the battle. They merely saw it as a brilliant display of swordsmanship. Still stunned by her actions, Xena retrieved her sword and ran from the field, heading toward the stable and her horse.
Petricles watched her departing back in dismay. The crunch of snow startled him as Manus walked over to help him to his feet.
"Hey, Boss. Brilliant display of fighting skills.", Manus said dryly as he helped Petricles to his feet. "You looked like a sack of sheep shit. I know she's good, but could you keep up your image a little."
"Manus, I don't think she was playing.", a shaken Petricles told his lieutenant. "Somewhere along the line we stopped practicing."
"Nay, she just beat the stuffing out of you, that's all.", Manus replied. "But I wouldn't make her mad once you two get married. She might leave you a gelding some night.", he chuckled to take the sting out of his observation.
"I hope your wrong.", he said, looking back toward the stables as Xena raced her horse from the barn and down the road out of town. "Look, you make sure the patrols do their jobs better! She's noticed and I don't need her anymore upset than she already is! Ok?"
"Right.", Manus replied. "Lykus and I have taken the men in hand and given them a little talk about responsibilities and such. They'll do better."
"Good.", Petricles said. "I'll be at the dry good shop if you need me. And tell the patrols that Xena's outside of town riding. Have them inform me as soon as she returns."
"As you say.", Manus replied, turning and walking away after giving his old friend a comforting pat on the shoulder. "See you later."
Petricles waved absently, his attention centered on a fast disappearing Xena as she pounded up the switchback road to the mountains beyond the village. He continued watching until she disappeared from sight over the last rise. Picking up his sword and cloak, he walked over and retrieved hers. Folding it neatly, he sighed as he made his way through the snow toward the dry good store.
The sun had been down for some time before a scout brought word that Xena had returned to the village. Grabbing his cloak, Petricles left the store and made his way through gently falling snow to the stable where he knew she would still be taking care of her horse. Her gentle singing came to him as he reached the stable. Standing quietly in the open doorway, Petricles watched as the young woman groomed Argo. Her white mare, already brushed and clean of the sweat from their ride, nibbled oats in a nearby stall. He just stood and watched, Xena's soft lullaby telling him her mood.
Soon his presence was detected by the yearling filly. Argo shook her head in greeting, rattling the halter and alerting her mistress. Xena turned and gave Petricles a sheepish grin, motioning him forward. As he walked into the barn, she went back to her grooming, the lullaby continuing its sweet melody. Petricles stroked Argo's nose and throat as he watched Xena comb the filly's flanks and back.
"Well young lady, that about does it.", Xena told the filly as Argo poked Petricles in the chest with a wet nose. Xena walked around the horse and put away the curry comb and brush. Finished, she moved to Petricles' side and leaned against him, her head on his shoulder. Without saying a word, Petricles reached up and touched her head, stroking the sweat dampened mass of wind blown hair. Xena put her arm around his waist as they continued petting the filly's nose and throat.
After a while, Argo became restless for her dinner and Xena broke away from Petricles and took the filly back to her stall. Silently, Xena filled the young horse's feed bin and patted her goodnight. Walking back to where Petricles had remained standing, she took his hand and led him from the barn. As they walked together, hand in hand, toward their rooms, Petricles suddenly realized that at no time had Xena looked him in the eyes since her return.
As they approached their room, Petricles stopped and pulled her around to his front. Gently pulling up her chin so that he could see her face, he was startled by her expression and the look in her eyes. Staring back at him was a terrified child, a little girl confused as to who she was and what she might become. As the tears began to run down her haunted face, he pulled her to him, his arms pulling her tightly to his chest. Hesitantly, Xena raised her arms and returned his embrace. Fortunately, Petricles was used to her strength, her arms grasping him tightly as if to squeeze the life out of him. He just stood there and held her as she cried, her tears leaving dark patches on his leather jerkin.
"I am sorry, Xena.", he told her as he picked her up and carried her into their room. Unfortunately, he was not sure who he was most sorry for - her or himself.
Xena and Petricles never mentioned their deadly 'practice' battle and after a time she forgot all about the incident. He, however, did not. Petricles realized his friend was fast losing control, that her inner demons were beginning to take over her life. Being a young man himself, Petricles did not know how to break the hold her inner ghosts had on her soul. What he had discovered, what he suspected, he could not tell to any of the other men. If he did, Xena would lose all respect within their army and he would never do that to her. No matter how much emotional pain she suffered, he would guard her secret. Rather, he continued to show his love and respect for her at every occasion, hoping his love would be the remedy that cured her psyche.
Meanwhile, the days grew shorter and the nights colder as the army remained stationary. Recruit training went on continuously. The new spearmen had to be trained to maneuver their long spears with the rest of the spearwall. Daily, new boys and young men came to augment Xena's army, as promised by the village elders who had allied their villages with her cause. Lyssius' crusade had taken on a life of its own. To many, the Hero who led it was the protector the land so badly needed, the shield against the invaders from the north.
Every day, Xena could be found at her personal practice field, dancing her deadly sword dance. Or, she could be found practicing mounted warfare, she and her horse swooping through the area, the horse becoming as much a weapon as Xena's deadly iron.
Despite numerous attempts, Xena could not find a metalsmith with the skill or knowledge to replicate the chakram. The replicas produced never seemed to capture the same murderous intent of her round killing weapon. She located a trader who had traveled as far east as Bithynia. He told her stories of a people far to the east of the Hittite Empire who wielded a weapon much like hers, but he could not tell her how the gift of return was forged into the metal. The spinning balance that gave the round killing device its lethality and range remained the weapon's secret.
Despite all their collective attempts, despite Manus' harrying of his mounted men, despite Lykus' admonishments to the infantry, security remained lax. Yet, Xena felt rooted to this village they had occupied, could not summon the will to lead her army into a more secure encampment. The furious planning that went on every day, scheduled around 'dance practice' as the men called her sword play, kept her busy until the early evening. Petricles, as worried as she was about their situation, did nothing to persuade her that it was time to leave. He was just happy that they had the evenings to themselves. Instead, he took to joining the mounted patrols as if his presence would improve the cavalry's performance. In short, a deadly and dangerous lull had come over the army. Everyone knew it, no one knew how to break it.
The one ray of hope, the one active measure taken that proved successful, was the caching of supplies at strategic points throughout the surrounding area. The army's wagon train also grew and the allied villages sent an abundance of much needed supplies. And, precious metal as well. The mercenary horse received their back pay and their grumbling receded, for a while. Petricles remained concerned, he knew his men and the importance they placed on gold over a cause. His men needed battle to keep their minds off the pay situation. But no one seemed ready to act on that thought.
So, the army trained and ate and supported the local villages. Lackadaisical patrols went out every day and every night they returned, returned with negative reports of Dorian movement. All in all, things were very peaceful. If it would just last.
"All right ladies, I have a new weapon for us to try out.", Elpinice informed the thirty-five cold and shivering women auxiliary drawn up before her in neat ranks. "It's called a lariat. I know these northern buggerers don't have cavalry. But come spring they just might find some. So here's how we're going to use this lariat."
Swiftly, Elpinice grabbed the short spear strapped across her back and thrust it tip first into the hard frozen ground. Tying one end of the lariat to the spear shaft, she twirled the looped end around her head and launched it at the straw dummy several paces to her front. As the looped end landed around the dummy's neck, she braced her left foot against the spear's tip and pulled backwards on the shaft, drawing it to her armored chest. As she pulled hard on the spear shaft, the noose tightened around the dummy's neck.
"You see. If you plant your spear and hold on tight, you can bring down horse or rider as they charge past you.", she told her women. "Now, I want everyone to practice throwing the lariat first. I know most of you have a lot of experience with our throwing ropes. But this is different. Ok, everybody break up into your teams and let's get started.", she commanded.
The ladies did as ordered and soon the teams were trying desperately to 'catch' the dummies spread out around the training field. Elpinice heard snow crunch behind her and turned to see Xena struggling to make her way through the snow drifts. "Hi Xena.", she greeted her commander as Xena finally made it to her side.
"How goes training, Elpinice?", Xena asked as she surveyed the struggling teams of lariat throwers.
"The women will get the hang of this lariat thing pretty fast I suspect.", Elpinice replied. "It's so much like our throwing ropes I don't anticipate any problems. We'll be ready come spring. Where did you get the idea?"
"Sorry, the idea was not mine.", Xena said, a smile coming over her face. "Remember that trader from Bithynia who came through here awhile back. Well, he told me of this weapon used by the Hittites. I figured we could add it to the bag of tricks your ladies use."
"Right. Good thinking.", replied Elpinice. "If you don't mind, I need to practice some myself."
"Don't let me stand in your way. Go ahead.", Xena said, turning to take her leave.
"Oh, one last thing.", Elpinice said. "Lamia is going to teach the other women how to dress wounds and take care of the injured. She used to be a midwife and she's about all we've got in the way of a healer."
"Fine. I agree, train as many healers as you think necessary.", replied Xena as she walked away, leaving Elpinice to her lariat training.
Xena made her way carefully back through the deep snow, her feet already numb from the cold despite the sheepskin which lined her leather boots. Soon, she reached the dry goods shop and cleaning the snow and mud from her feet entered to find Petricles seated at the desk going over a stack of parchments piled before him.
"So, you CAN read. I had wondered.", she mocked him, her smile taking the sting out of the words as he looked up at her arrival. "Anything of interest?"
"Ha, ha. And yes there is.", he said, returning her smile. "Manus has laid in four more caches. That gives us seventeen all together. Oh, by the way, Philemon is bringing in another gaggle of village elders so you'd better get into your hero rig. They'll be here this afternoon."
"By the Gods, not again.", she wailed. "It's cold out there!"
"Well, I could arrange to have them meet you indoors.", he replied to her wail, his smile broadening. "If you're reeaall nice, that is."
"Anything, my lord, anything.", she replied theatrically, dropping to her knees in fake supplication.
He howled in laughter as she inched her way toward him on her knees, her cloak and gauntlets left unattended by the door. Finally, she reached his desk and removing her helmet began pounding her head against the wooden top.
"Ouch!", she squealed as she hit her head against the top one too many times. Looking up at his laughing face, she tossed her helmet at him. Petricles caught the helmet before it could hit him. Rising, he came around the desk and helped her to her feet. As her face came level with his, he kissed the tip of her nose and whirled her around, smacking her backside. "Now, go get dressed.", he told her as she walked toward the small room at the back.
Playfully, Xena looked back over her shoulder and seductively asked: "Aren't you going to watch?"
"Not this time.", he informed her as he resumed his place behind the desk. "I have things to do. I don't get to play hero and dress up in smart armor. I have to do all the paperwork.", he told her in mock surrender. "Fun comes with the night, my dear.", he finished as he looked down at the next parchment.
Petricles missed the horrified look she gave him and, therefore, failed to appreciate the impact his words 'my dear' had on her heart. He was merely startled by the loud noise as Xena slammed the door to her dressing room. Her mood swings ARE getting tedious, he thought to himself as he returned to Manus' figures.
Later in the day, Xena met Philemon and his gaggle of elders at the outskirts of the village. Graciously, Xena led the procession back to her headquarters where Petricles and their lieutenants awaited the group.
"I must say, young woman, we are impressed by your determination.", the oldest of the elders told her as they sat in front of the fire. "Our village was 'visited' by these Dorians of yours last spring. It has taken us this long to recover our loss. Our blacksmith's son, Draco, has organized the village youth and is prepared to lead them under your command come the spring."
"Thank you, elder. Draco and your sons will be an added strength to our army.", Xena assured the man. "We do need, however, continuing support from villages like yours in other areas. Can you supply us with food and metal for swords?"
"I am sorry, young woman, but that request we cannot honor.", he replied respectfully. "Our loss from the raids has been too great. The winter is hard north of here and we will barely be able to provide for ourselves. I am sorry."
"I understand.", Xena said, her disappointment showing in her voice. "Do what you can. All support, no matter how small, is a boon."
"We have some disturbing news, however.", the elder told her. "We have had reports that these Dorians have begun to garrison some of the villages they have taken. More disturbing, is the report that some villages welcome these men from the north. Have you heard any reports such as these?", he asked her.
Xena sat and stared at the man, her mind racing furiously back over his words. The elders blanched as her face flushed a deep scarlet and her eyes took on a look of great rage. Seeing Xena's reaction, Petricles quickly moved to her side and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Speaking rapidly to distract the elders, Petricles said: "No. We haven't heard any reports such as yours, elder."
The elders were startled by Petricles' voice as it interrupted; they did not hear his words, their collective eyes were still held by the furious woman who sat before them. Hurriedly, Petricles acted to end the discussion and spirit the elders from the room before his companion exploded into one of her now frequent bouts of uncontrolled rage. "Elders, I would like to give you a tour of our camp and let you see for yourselves what an Achaean army, trained to defend the land, looks like. Come, let us show you what you have purchased.", he told them as he rapidly brought them to their feet and into their warm cloaks.
The elders were forced to comply with his request, he and Philemon gave them no choice in the matter. Soon, the group was led from the store, out into the cold wind of late afternoon. Fortunately, Petricles was able to lead them far enough from the store that the sounds of a desk being systematically reduced to kindling could not be heard.
That night, Petricles and Xena slept peacefully, her anger of the afternoon retreating as quickly as it had appeared. The night was cold and the night riders rode their patrol areas in huddled silence, muffled against the cold wind that blew from the mountains behind the village. Philemon had left at dusk with an escort to see the visiting elders on their way back north. Petricles expected Borias to return the next day but had failed to alert the night riders to be on the lookout just in case he arrived early. It had been a trying and stressful day for all - sleep took them in its collective embrace.
Just before dawn, during those hours of the night when sentries are the most inattentive, Xena was roused sleepily by angry shouts and the sounds of swords clashing in the cold night air. Coming completely awake, her battle senses aroused to the fullest, she jumped from the bed and began pulling on her leather breeches. The sounds outside her window grew as she searched under the bed for her boots. Meanwhile, Petricles came awake as she slapped him on the face and yelled for him to get dressed. The unmistakable sounds of battle forced him to take quick action. As the two lovers hastily dressed, boots were heard pounding up the stairway. Xena and Petricles came to their feet as one and with weapons in hand waited to see who the boots belonged to.
"If it's the Dorians, you go out the window. I'll hold them off and join you later.", he told her as he ran to the door and stood to the side, better to surprise anyone entering the room.
"Right.", she replied, buckling her sword belt around her waist as she picked up her tunic. "Meet me at the store. We'll rally there, then figure out how to fight our way out of this mess."
Xena sheathed her sword as she struggled with her tunic. Before she could get it on, the door was delivered a thunderous blow, the wood splintering. "GO!", yelled Petricles as she instinctively dove for the window, her offending tunic left to fall on the floor. Crashing through the light boards and papyrus that protected the window during the winter months, Xena fell the two stories to the ground, landing on her side in the snow. Fortunately, the snow bank was deep and she was not hurt. But before the fight had even started, she was numbed by the cold as her unprotected upper body came into contact with the frozen snow. Shivering, she collected her wits and looked around. What she saw brought a lump to her throat.
Dorians were everywhere. The fires of several buildings illuminated the village streets in an erie half-light. At one end, she saw that a small band of spearmen were attempting to form a wall against the enemy, behind them a gaggle of swordsmen milled in confusion. As she watched, Pelius began to bring order in the ranks and the wall solidified, the swordsmen moving to protect the wall's flanks.
Down another street, she heard the soprano voices of the women as Elpinice and Larisa organized them for battle. As she watched, a group of Dorians stormed out of a nearby building and took the women in the flank, the whole group flying into disorganized chaos.
As she stood half naked in the light cast by the fires, she instantly became a target for every Dorian not otherwise occupied. Soon, her view of the battle was obscured by enemy swordsmen as they advanced to take her. Xena simply stood and watched as the group advanced in her direction, bidding her time. As the men's leering smirks at seeing a half naked woman became clear in the half-light, Xena began her dance.
The Dorians rapidly lost track of her in the poor light. First one then another would feel the bite of her sword and dagger. Soon, two were down with mortal stomach wounds. As the final three made an attempt at forming ranks against her fury, Xena vaulted over them and the chaos began again. Suddenly, only one remaining Dorian stood in her way. As he back peddled to put distance between them she launched a series of mock sword strokes to confuse the man. As he attempted to follow her sweeping sword, he missed the dagger coming at him as she suddenly went into a forward roll. Coming up under his guard, her dagger embedded itself to the hilt in his groin. Squealing in pain, the man did not feel the strike that neatly severed his head.
Covered in blood, Xena ran toward the spearwall. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw Petricles come sailing out of their window, to land in the same snow bank. He too was shirtless, but had not taken time to put on his boots as she had. She laughed madly as she watched him prance high footed across the chilling snow toward where the women where defending themselves in the next street over. Continuing on her way, she looked around as she ran. Her army was beginning to get organized. She could hear the familiar yells of Manus and Lykus as they led the cavalry, though without their horses, into the fray. Pelius had the infantry well in hand and she could tell by the high-pitched yell that Elpinice was still alive and kicking.
As she neared the spearwall, she slipped on a patch of ice and went down hard on her face, a cut opening up across her forehead, her nose broken. Pelius dashed from behind the spearwall and helped her regain her feet. Momentarily stunned, Xena thanked the man as they ran the remaining distance to the protective shield of the spears.
"Are you all right Xena?", Pelius asked as he looked her half naked body up and down.
"Yeah, all right.", she replied breathlessly, her voice a harsh croak. "The blood's not mine. What's going on?"
"They came out of nowhere", he told her. "The patrols gave no warning. The first thing I knew, the barracks were on fire and Dorians everywhere."
"Right. Well we've had our collective asses well and goodly surprised is what's happened.", she yelled at him over the din of battle. "Organize your men and counterattack down the street toward the front of the village. Keep the spearwall moving down street and have the swordsmen begin clearing the houses on the flanks. Oh, and detail a squad to assist the women."
"As you command.", Pelius replied, already 'volunteering' several infantrymen to go to the assistance of the women warriors. "Where's Petricles?"
"Last I saw, he was off with the women.", she replied, looking toward where the woman were battling for their lives against a growing number of Dorian infantry. "I just hope he got his pants on. I'd hate for him to embarrass himself in front of them.", she laughed.
"Yeah, that'd be terrible", agreed a laughing Pelius. "Oh Hades look - they've fired the stables.", he cursed, grabbing her arm and pointing back the other way toward the burning stable. "The horses!"
"Argo!", she cried as she shrugged off his hand and began blindly running toward the burning stable. Pelius let her go and turned to comply with her last commands.
"Argo!", she yelled as she ran furiously toward the stable. Already she could hear the thrashing and squeals of terror as the horses tried to bolt the burning building.
As she approached the front of the stable, several Dorians tried to intercept her. Once again, Xena danced with her enemy. Unfortunately, she forgot to take into account the head wound caused by her fall. The pain from her wound and the fact that she was not used to fighting with her breasts unbound made her feel awkward as she joined battle with her enemy. As she attempted a particularly difficult punch-kick combination, the unfamiliar balance caused her to fumble the move and she fell to the ground, stunned by her hard impact against the frozen ground.
Jumping to her feet, she almost missed the Dorian sword as it sliced downward at her chest. Only her quick reflexes kept her alive as she jumped back just enough to keep the blade from entering her chest, however it was not far enough. The blade sliced a nasty furrow down her front, between her exposed breasts to end at her belt buckle where the tip was finally deflected. Bellowing in pain and anger, Xena followed his blade downwards. Pushing off with her leg muscles, Xena sprang high into the air and kicked him in the bridge of the nose with her heel. The man was dead before he hit the ground as the cartilage and bone of his smashed nose entered his fore brain.
The remaining Dorians found flight a better bargain and disappeared around the side of the burning building. Regaining her composure, Xena sprinted into the building, heedless of the fiery sparks that stung her exposed flesh. Inside she found several of Petricles' men already leading the horses out the back. Looking around for Argo, she became frantic as the little filly was no where to be seen. Dashing toward where the men had gathered the remaining horses, Xena heard the filly give a welcoming squeal. There beside Manus was her little friend, scorch marks marring her soft flanks.
"Manus. Oh, thank you. Come here, girl.", Xena said as she ran the last few paces to the filly's side. Kneeling down she hugged the young horse to her, softly kissing the filly's neck. "Manus, thank you."
"No problem, Xena.", he told her as he averted his eyes from her naked and bloody breasts. "The little critter was what alerted us to the fire. She came running over to where we were fighting those pigs from Hades and brought us back here. Without her, all the older horses would have died from the smoke. As it is, we've lost ten."
"Oh, Argo. You're a hero!", she told the filly tearfully as the young horse nuzzled her with a cold nose. Suddenly, she realized she still had a battle to win. Rising to her feet, she began issuing orders. "Manus, leave your horseholders here. Take the remainder up the street to where Pelius has the spearwall organized. He knows the situation down there better than you, so let him take command. I've already given him a battle plan. Now go!.", she ordered.
"Right", replied Manus. "What about you?"
"I'll be ahead of you.", she told him. "I have to find Petricles."
"As you say, Xena.", Manus said as he left to organized his men for their counterattack.
Xena ran back toward where the spearwall had been before it began advancing down the street. The Dorian response to her army's sudden counter was one of confusion. They had been confident of an easy victory and the tables were easily turned on them as they milled about in the half-light. As the fight degenerated into a house to house sword fight of struggling men and women, Xena heard the voice of an unmistakable male bass singing a well know drinking song. It was soon apparent that the worthy Borias had returned. His band of twenty mounted men put paid to the Dorian attempt to overwhelm her army. As Borias led the final charge that broke the enemy infantry and ran them out of town, Xena spied a half naked and shivering Petricles helping tend the wounded women.
As Xena limped up to him, Petricles was overcome by the sight before his eyes. Frozen blood covered her chest and bloody icicles hung from her chin. What caught his attention most of all however, was not the blood of her wounds or her nudity. Rather, it was the calm he saw in her eyes that drew him in as he started to walk toward her. Thank the Gods, he thought, as he recovered and ran the last distance to her, hugging her in a fierce embrace.
Xena looked into his worried eyes with calm equanimity as she returned his embrace. Finally the pain of her chest wound made her pull away and they stood in silent contemplation. Reaching up, Xena gently wiped some of her slushy blood from his chin.
"Boy, do you two look a fright.", Borias said as he rode up to where the two lovers stood frozen, literally and figuratively. "Can't leave you alone for a minute."
Startled back to reality, Xena and Petricles smiled up at the man as he dismounted. Borias took pity on Xena's near nakedness and removed his cloak, capturing her inside its warmth.
"Hey, what about me?", a shivering Petricles cried as he began hoping from one frozen foot to another. "You're expendable, she's not.", Borias told him cryptically. "There's a blanket on my saddle you can use." Looking up into Xena's eyes, he asked quietly: "Are you all right Xena?"
"Yes. The wound's not deep, but I am cold.", she replied, her eyes fluttering as shock and cold began to claim her. "Petricles, attend to your mistress!", Borias commanded as he handed Xena off to the younger man. "I'll get things organized. You get her to somewhere warm. And yourself as well, boy.", he ordered, putting spurs to his horse and racing back across the street to where the infantry was reforming after returning from their pursuit of the fleeing Dorians.
Petricles did as he was told and supported, half-carried more like, his wounded friend back to the dry good shop. He managed to get inside and into the small room at the rear before she collapsed. He laid her on the floor and covered her with the cloak from her armor that stood unattended in the corner. Seeing she was breathing without pain, he left the room to start a fire in the fire place and tend to his frozen feet, already blue from the cold.
Later that day, Xena walked shakily back to their room to change cloths. Lamia had tended her chest wound and found that it was neither deep nor as threatening as first appearances promised. It would heal and leave only a trace of a scar. Her head wound and broken nose pounded as she quickly dressed and left the building to return to her headquarters and a difficult meeting with her lieutenants.
Fifteen men and seven women had been killed during the surprise attack, most in their sleep before the alarm was sounded by a tardy mounted patrol. Once aroused, however, her army had fought back skillfully and the final casualty figures were not bad, considering. The final tally came to thirty-one men and ten women killed or badly wounded. And, fifteen villagers had lost their lives as well. On the plus side, over one hundred Dorian bodies had been recovered so far. The fifteen captured during the pursuit were already dangling by their necks at the outskirts of the village. The Dorian raid had been a failure. But to the young woman who surveyed the bodies of her dead comrades it had been a brilliant victory.
As she turned away from the dead and continued her journey to the headquarters building, Xena's heart hardened. And she made a resolution, one she hated herself for making, making it nonetheless. She only hoped Petricles would understand. But the resolution would have to wait for night, for when they were alone. She hoped.
Standing outside the door to the dry good shop, Xena could hear an acrimonious argument going on inside the building. Even Elpinice and her sergeant, Larisa, were involved. Settling herself into a calm pose, Xena squared her shoulder and despite the pain in her head entered the shop. Immediately, a hush came over the assembled men and women.
"All right, let's get this over with.", Xena told the collective group in her best command voice. The room quickly came to order at her voice. "Manus, you first.", she ordered.
"They pure and simple got past our guards.", he told her. "As I told you this morning at the barn, they slipped past the mounted patrols and the standing guard and went for the buildings. Fortunately, us mercenaries are hardier folk then you village types. We were still at dice when the Dorians attacked. I sent a man immediately to rouse Lykus and Pelius. Then I headed for the horses. I told you about Argo.", he finished, not noticing the scowls on the faces of those men and women from villages he had insulted unintentionally.
"All right.", she replied. "Pelius, you next."
"Manus has the right of it.", he told her. "That's about it. His man came to me and I looked for Lykus. Couldn't find him so I figured you'd want the men organized in the largest open spot in the village. You found us there.", he finished, unaccustomed to talking in front of such a large group of superiors.
"Lykus?", ask Xena.
"I got hit immediately after being warned of the attack. Sorry Xena, I wasn't much help.", he told her, waving his bandaged arm.
"That's all right.", she told him. "Elpinice?"
"No one warned US!", she said, scowling at Manus. "Your man didn't see fit to warn my women. Xena, we took it bad. We barely got out of the burning barracks in time and once in the street we were at a disadvantage without swords. Petricles helped when he arrived, but we lost so many.", she said, giving Petricles a nod in thanks. "Larisa lost a couple of front teeth so don't ask HER what she thinks!"
"Ok. You did well.", Xena complimented the older woman. "I saw enough by the light of the fires to know that you weren't at quite the disadvantage you imagined. Larisa, I'm sorry about your teeth. Borias?"
"Xena, by the time we got here the show was almost over.", he told her, his eyes inspecting every inch of her. "We rounded up some prisoners out on the road and pretty much helped clean up the battlefield along with the infantry. By the way, I was able to contract for fifty new riders. They're good and well mounted. Makes up for some of our horse losses.", he told her.
"Right.", she said. Silently, she watched her lieutenants, giving each of them a quick glance. Finally, she walked over to Petricles and put her arms around him and kissed him on the lips, headless of the others who just stood and stared at this uncharacteristic public display of affection on her part. Xena did not let the kiss linger too long, breaking it off she turned and looked at the others.
"All right. We brought this on ourselves.", she told them, her eyes suddenly angry, her breath quickening. "We've all said that security was lax. But not one of us had the notion to do anything about it. And now we've a pile of dead boys and girls who looked to us for guidance and supervision. It ends here! Right here, right now!", she said, pausing to catch her breath. As she readied her next remark, she felt Petricles' hand touch her shoulder. His act of comfort deepened her anger and forced her hand. She had wanted to wait for night, to tell him when they were alone. Whirling around she backed away and pointed a long finger at him accusingly.
"YOU!, You are a distraction I do not need! WE do not need!", she exclaimed, her finger pointing dead at his heart. "This love of ours is in the way. It's killed our people just as surely as did those Dorian swords. You called me a killer once. Well, killer I am. And killing is what I'm going to do. We're through until this war is over. No more distraction from our mission.", she scolded him, pausing once more to catch her breath. Whirling back to face an open mouthed crowd of shocked lieutenants, Xena pointed her finger at each in turn. "We leave here as soon as possible and the wounded will allow. We're going into winter encampment in the mountains. Let the cold air keep you all company from now on. From here on out, this army attacks as often as possible and we move every other day. No more surprises. NO MORE!", she screamed. And with those words, Xena fled the room out into the cold, slamming the door behind her.
In the wake of her departure, the group stood and stared in stunned silence. Milling around, the various unit leaders gave orders to their sergeants for the withdrawal. Petricles stood in painful silence at the back of the room where he had retreated after Xena's outburst.
Borias took pity on his old commander and friend. Walking over to stand beside Petricles, Borias patted him on the shoulder. "You had better lay low for a while, boy.", he told Petricles. "Son, I know she loves you. No one could say otherwise. We all saw how she looked at you during solstice. Just lay low and she'll come around. But mark my words, boy, you'd better start soldiering again and quit acting like a love struck puppy. Don't forget she's as confused as you are. Be her soldier, not her lover, and she'll come back to you. You hear me, boy?", Borias told the younger man as he turned and walked off, to see to the arrangements for the new cavalry he had brought from the north.
That afternoon, as preparations for the army's departure were being made, Philemon returned from escort duties. A vigilant mounted patrol had met him a league outside of town and rode at his back as he entered the village. Smoke still lingered, drifting skyward from the burnt shells of the houses and buildings fired during the night attack. Already, the funeral pyres for the dead men and women of the army could be seen burning out beyond the practice fields. Philemon led his small band of cavalry up to the dry good shop. Dismounting he looked around for Xena. Instead, Petricles and Borias exited the shop to greet him.
"Tough night, looks like.", Philemon said as he shook hands with Borias and Petricles.
"Tell you about it later.", Petricles promised him. "How went your escort? Did you run into any Dorians along the way?"
"No. It was clear all the way.", replied Philemon. "But I did catch something interesting. We found this boy a few leagues from here heading north fast as he could run. One of my men said he was that boy who escaped during the last raid we pulled. Thought I'd bring him in, see what he knows."
"Good.", replied Borias. "Bring him up and let's take a look."
Philemon walked back to his mounted patrol and grabbed the reins of the last horse in the column. Leading it forward, he returned to where Borias and Petricles remained standing. On the large horse sat a pudgy twelve year old boy. Arms bound behind his back and a long rope looped around his neck, the boy was scared but sat tall in the saddle nonetheless. His look of hatred froze the men as they looked up at him.
"Who are you, boy?", Borias asked gently.
The boy remained silent, starring at his captors in undisguised loathing. A commotion behind the waiting cavalry patrol resolved into a furious Xena. Pushing her way through the tired horses, she stalked to where the men were questioning the truculent child.
"What's going on here?", she demanded as she reached the group. "Who's this boy and what's he doing here?"
"We're attempting to find that out, Xena.", replied Borias. "He won't tell us."
As Xena turned to get a better view of the boy, he recognized her. "You murderer!", he screamed at her. "You killed my father!"
"What are you saying?", demanded Xena as she looked up into the boy's face, recognition suddenly coming to her. "We killed your father for being an enemy of his people. It was necessary.", she said in a quiet voice, continuing to make eye contact. "I'm sorry."
"And I'm sorry the Dorians didn't kill you last night!", his word flew at her. "I wish they had beaten you."
"WHAT?", she yelled. "What's that you say, boy?"
"I led the Dorians into your camp last night to avenge my father's death!", he yelled back at her.
The boy's words brought paralyzed silence to the group. The men were opened mouthed with shock. Xena was not. Turning to Philemon, she slapped him on the back. "Hang him. Hang him out back with his friends.", she ordered in her clear quiet voice of command. Her orders given, Xena turned back around and walked away.
The silence lingered as Xena walked ten paces before whirling around. Seeing that her orders were not being carried out, she ran back and hauled the boy off the tall horse. The boy hit the ground hard but Xena swooped down and yanked him to his feet. Taking the rope that hung from his neck, she pulled him behind her as she walked across the street to the burned out husk of a house.
Stopping in front, she threw the rope over an exposed rafter on the charred roof. Forcing the boy to stand, she took the rope in both hands and began walking backwards. The boy's pudgy weight was no hinderance and he quickly rose to a man's height off the ground. Xena stood holding the rope and watched as the boy silently kicked out his last moments of life, spittle and blood running down his child's face as he bit through his tongue. As the boy died, Xena tied off the rope to the remains of the door frame.
Turning to inspect her shocked audience, Xena placed her hands on her hips. "That is how I expect my orders to be carried out from now on. Do you understand?", she told the group in a cool quiet voice. "Oh, and Philemon. Have his body burned with our dead. He showed courage at the end." Without another word, she turned and walked calmly up the street toward the stable.
And soldier he did. Petricles once again assumed the mantle of soldier mercenary as he realized Borias was right, that what Xena needed most from him was not his love but his ability to command men and win battles. He had mistakenly assumed that his heart could support and defend her from the insanity that lurked beneath her calm surface. He was wrong, it was battle - not bed, that would cement their love. So it was battle to which he turned, back to where his heart really lay. Comfort he would provide, but only when and where she desired it. Only at her request. So a soldier he became once more - a much matured seventeen year old soldier.
Petricles became the life of the army, harrying it as they shifted out of the comforts of the village and into the rigors of cold mountain encampments under canvas. He was everywhere and involved in every decision. Every patrol that rode forth carried out his orders. Every successful raid against the Dorians was stamped with his generalship. His careful administration kept the army supplied from the various caches. His ability to read the ground was stamped on every camp site. His leadership brought the army back to its feet and they were the better for it.
Xena, on the other hand, withdrew from active command. Surprised and happy with Petricles' return to his chosen profession, Xena let him have his way. She took the long view concerning the hard months ahead. She was just happy to be able to rest up and heal. Her head and chest wounds did not plague her greatly. But her broken nose did. The cold mountain air caused her much pain as her sinuses swelled. Though the fracture had not disfigured her beautiful face, it had damaged her sinuses and she was in constant pain from the resulting headaches. Fortunately, Petricles' best met Xena's every expectation. So she rested and contemplated their future - hers and Petricles'.
She was angry at herself for the outburst that put their wedding plans on hold, especially made as an unwarranted accusation in front of others. Her anger was always just skin deep these days, it did not take a great deal of stress to raise it to the surface. And when it did, she did and said things that astonished and embarrassed her. Somehow, she had to find a way to control it, to channel it where it would do the most good - against the Dorians. Unfortunately, she could not find a way to accomplish what was fast becoming an impossibility.
Seventeen years old, an army commander, a respected hero, and the protector of her people - it was just too much for her. She was constantly amazed that just last summer she was chasing little Flora across the field near Amphipolis. At least the nightmare of her brother's death had not returned. That would have been too much, would have destroyed her precarious equilibrium.
As the conflicting stresses of her young life pulled her, as she fought with herself over her love for Petricles, as she fought her silent war with her anger, as she did battle with her hated enemy, her agreement with Ares and the method he had used to ensnare her receded from her mind and she forgot. Her life became a focus for love and war. For fighting Lyssius' crusade and for loving her friend. With all of that throwing her constantly out of emotional alignment, Ares was merely an after thought. The long race she was running against her inner demons was rapidly approaching its end. The thing was, Xena wasn't at all sure who would win the race - she or the demons.
Times were bad for a while after the army returned to the field. The deep snow of the mountains was a constant plague that all had to contend with. Xena and Petricles were almost never alone for long. Every night one or the other of them became involved in night patrols or other security arrangements. Petricles felt they were growing apart, that their delayed wedding plans were fast becoming a distant goal he would never achieve. He had always hated long range plans, he was a man of the moment and the future often scared him silly. But after he realized that a delayed wedding was all he was going to receive, he settled down and hid his fear away in a dark corner of his heart.
At nights, when their duties allowed them, he would watch her sleep beside him, her pain racked face quiet and beautiful - peaceful in repose. He had always been a rogue when it came to women and it constantly surprised him that the sleeping woman beside him could have captured him so successfully. Mainly, he just held her, their tired bodies to stiff and cold for lovemaking. Held her and watched her sleep and loved her.
But the rot had already set in, like termites in a foundation. Xena's retaliation against greek traitors had made the rounds of the local villages. While she was a hero to most, they did not truly understand this crusade she always spoke about. Few knew of this Lyssius she was always quoting, none fully understood her deep hatred for the Dorians. She had not prepared her allies for the depths to which she expected them to support her and her cause. And in that, she made a costly and strategic mistake.
The mistake was glaringly apparent in the aftermath of her handling of the boy traitor she had executed. No one, except her own lieutenants, understood the depths of the boy's treason. Knowing her cause was just, Xena failed to make his crime known to all. Quickly the rumors of the boy's horrible death made the rounds. To Xena his crime was self-evident, to most villagers it was murder, judicial murder - the worst kind. All but her most ardent supporters began to wonder if their Hero, their protector, their shield against the invader, did not in fact have feet of clay. And, they began to slowly turn away from her. The rot was like termite damage - not readily apparent, but there nonetheless. Her loss of support amongst the local villages was a slow trickle at first. But as with a puncture wound, the slow trickle often masked the massive hemorrhage that lurked beneath the surface.
Xena and Borias crouched under the fur trees and watched the Dorian column march along the roadway below them. Evenly spaced out along the high cut, her men lay silently, prepared to advance down the steep bank and attack the enemy formation. Across the cut, Xena watched as Pelius organized the crossbowmen, while Elpinice readied her auxiliary and their slings.
Petricles had selected the ambush sight personally and a masterful selection it was. The roadway here about ran through deep cuts in the mountain side. Both sides of the road were steep and dense trees lined the tops. It would be child's play to ambush and destroy any formation caught unprepared in such terrain.
The men armed with crossbows would take one side of the cut and along with the women sling throwers attack the enemy column first. After they had disorganized the enemy's ranks, the swordsmen would enter the chaos from the enemy's rear. The final touch would be Manus and his cavalry. He and Petricles would lead separate bodies of mounted men from the front and rear to cutoff the enemy column. Encircled, all that would remain for the Dorians to do was die under the army's sword. Long rider patrols had assured Xena and Petricles that this column was alone, that no other group of Dorians followed it or had preceded it to interrupt their killing field.
Looking up from her cold crouch, Xena saw that the men and women across from her were ready. Raising up to give the signal, she suddenly grabbed her face in agony as her body shook. Trying desperately to ward off her sneeze, she buried her face in her thick cloak and held her breath. Borias, seeing Xena collapse in pain, rapidly came to his feet and gave the signal to start the ambush. As the battle began, Borias called for Lykus to take charge of the swordsmen as he pulled Xena back away from the line of battle, back to where their horses were being held by an assistant. Xena was in too much pain to resist Borias as he administered to her agonizing head. Behind her, she could her the angry shouts and grunts of pain as the ambush proceeded on its bloody course without her. Turning Xena over to the horseholder, Borias leaped on his horse and raced away through the trees to find Petricles.
The horseholder, a young boy, did not quite know what to do so he just sat there and held Xena as she leaned back against his young body. Handing her a rag he used to keep the noses of the horses dry, he watched as she used his gift to wipe the stream of greenish mucus that seeped from her nose before it could freeze on her face and lips. Xena's head pounded in agony as she tried to keep the disgusting ooze from freezing, blowing her nose into the rag whenever the pain receded a little.
As the sounds of battle rose to a finale, Xena attempted to stand and return to her men and women. As she got to her feet, a gut wrenching nausea and dizziness overwhelmed her and she emptied her stomach at the startled boy's feet. Retching against the heaving of her stomach and pain her head, Xena merely collapsed back down into the snow, lying in agonized silence as the boy stared in open mouthed shock. Not sure what to do with the messy woman that lay before him, the boy fled, fled to find someone to pass his burden off to.
Clamping down on her offending stomach, Xena fought her way to her feet and rested her body against the chilled flanks of her white mare. Slowly, so as not to give her nausea a reason to return, Xena slowly clawed her way into the saddle. Exhausted by her efforts, she stretched out along the horses neck and focused on just staying in the saddle.
Petricles and Borias found her like that as they rode up after the successful conclusion of the ambush. Getting in each other's way as they both sought to assist the young woman in the same manner, they eventually got her unconscious body off the horse and down onto a blanket laid out in the snow.
"Stay with your mistress, boy. I'll ride and get Manus to make a horselitter.", Borias told his young friend. Throwing himself back into the saddle, he furiously brought his horse around for a rapid departure to find help.
Petricles merely waved as his friend raced away through the trees, his attention inexorably drawn to his lover. He lay down beside her and drew the blanket over them as he tried to keep her warm against the frozen ground. Looking down at her swollen pain racked face, he used the sleeve of his heavy coat to wipe away the congealed mass of mucus and blood that had frozen around her nose and mouth.
Not a pretty sight my love, he thought, as he moved to wipe away a new trickle of blood and mucus as it ran from her nostrils. "My poor beautiful lady.", he told her silent face as he tipped her head back. As her breathing became ragged, he stuck a finger up her nose and broke away a clot of offending ooze. Doing the same for the other nostril, he watched as her breathing returned to normal, her nose free of the obstruction. He sat and watched her face, not feeling his own discomfort at the cold. Sat and watched her unconscious body as he held her and kept her warm.
After some time, her eye lids began to flutter and he helped her tip her head to a more comfortable position as she regained consciousness. "Oh look. It's the insufferable bore come to administer to his lovely bride.", she whispered to him in a harsh raspy voice, her mouth sore from the inevitable drainage that leaked down her throat. "How nice."
"And you my girl, look a fright.", he replied, kissing her on the forehead, carefully avoiding her nose and cheeks. He became concerned when she did not respond with the usual comeback. Pulling back an eyelid, he saw that her pupils were normal. Leaning back he gently shook her. "Xena?"
"'s al-right, my friend.", she stammered groggily. "I l've yo.."
Petricles did not have time to respond as he heard Borias and the litter team arrive. Gently, they placed her in the litter and walked the horses out along the ridge line to join the army as it withdrew back into the hills. Behind the retreating army, the bodies of twelve Dorian prisoners dangled in the trees by the roadway. A silent reminder to Xena's enemy that she and her army were still alive and well.
As the afternoon wore on, the army returned to its encampment. True to Xena's original instructions, the army shifted locations every other day. They had made camp in this particular spot the night before the ambush, so the army would remain for one more day and two nights.
Lamia took charge of Xena. The removal of the clots from Xena's nose helped to clear her head. The midwife mixed a potion her mother had taught her to use during difficult birthings. The potion would alleviate some of the pain caused by Xena's inflamed sinuses. It would also help her to sleep. Several fouled towels littered Xena's bedside as Lamia forced her, despite the severe pain, to blow her nose until all the accumulated mucus and bloody ooze had been cleared from her head. Gasping in agony, Xena did as she was told - and blew.
Petricles left with the mounted patrol that would sweep their route back from the ambush, to insure they had not been followed by any Dorians who might have escaped the ambush. He had to remain in motion, had to stay occupied. He did not want to think about Xena and her pain. Just soldier, he told himself over and over again as he led the patrol through the cold mountain woods. Just soldier.
Sometime during the early evening, Petricles returned with his patrol. Making his way through the beaten snow to the headquarters tent, he found Borias standing in the entrance way.
"How went the patrol, son?", Borias inquired as he greeted Petricles.
"No sign of anyone following.", Petricles replied as he entered the tent and walked to the central warming fire. Pulling off his cloak and heavy gloves, he shoved his hands into the fire's comforting warmth. Borias walked to his side and placed his hand on the young man's shoulder.
"She's fine, boy.", he told Petricles before sitting down in a chair beside the fire. "Lamia says she'll be fine. You helped her out a lot by clearing that shit from her nose. You did good, son.", the older man reassured him.
"I hope so.", Petricles replied, sitting down by his old friend and one-time mentor. "How do you do this - love a woman and follow her into battle? Both at the same time?"
"Don't know, never tried myself.", Borias told him. "But she's a prize worth catching. I know that much.", he continued, looking away so that Petricles would not see the look on his face. "You do whatever you can to keep her, boy. If you don't, I can assure you someone else will.". And with those words, Borias stood and left the tent, giving his young friend a pat on the back as he left.
Petricles sat and absorbed the fire's warmth, lost in thought. Soon, his stomach began to grumble for food and he walked over to the camp desk in the tent's far corner and picked up the dinner left for him by Borias. Sitting back down by the fire, Petricles quickly wolfed down the cooling meat and vegetables. As he finished and walked over to clean off his plate, he was startled as another person entered the tent. Turning, he found Lamia standing by the entrance.
"Lamia. Good. Come on in.", he said to the woman, waving the infantry sergeant to a place by the fire. "How is Xena doing?"
"She's resting.", Lamia told him, taking his proffered chair by the fire. "Her head seems to have cleared. I forced her to inhale saltwater and that broke the log jam in her head."
"Thank you.", Petricles said in a quiet whisper. "Thank you."
"Well, you should have seen the mess she blew from her head.", Lamia said, shaking her head. "I've never seen so much - so much - shit - come out of a head before.", she informed him, blushing at her profanity. "I think she'll recover quickly now that her head's clear."
"Sorry you had to clean up after her, but we do need her back in the saddle.", He said.
"Not to worry. What she blew was tame compared to afterbirth.", she informed him.
Petricles blushed at her words. "Thank you again, Lamia. Is she awake, do you think?"
"Probably. The potion I gave her should have worn off by now.", Lamia said, chuckling at his squeamishness over her mentioning afterbirth. "I've got to go. Wounded to tend to. From the ambush."
"Oh, right. Make sure they let you have dinner.", Petricles told her as he watched her walk toward the entrance. "I'll look in on Xena after while."
"You do that.", Lamia said as she exited the tent.
Petricles spent the remainder on the early evening cleaning up the paper work that had accumulated. They had suffered only five deaths during the ambush, one woman and four men. And only six had been badly wounded. The wounded would have to remain at the current location until they had recovered but the army would move as planned in one day. Enemy dead had been counted at forty-five, not including those that had been captured and then hung, to be left for the crows. Finally, the paperwork completed and the last parchment stowed, Petricles blew out the candle and exited the tent. Slowly, nervously, he walked through the snow the short distance to the tent he and Xena occupied. Standing in silence before the tent's entrance, Petricles heard a low melodious humming coming from their tent. The crystal clear contralto prepared him and boosted his courage as he moved to enter the tent.
The humming voice may have boosted his courage but it did not fully prepare him for what he found as he stood in the entrance, his mouth open in combined awe and astonishment.
Before him, seductively draped over the back of a camp chair, was a scarlet loincloth. Around the chair was strewn the remains of Xena's armor and her leather breeches. But what astounded him the most, what drew his attention ever forward was what awaited him on the bed. There, arranged amongst the heavy blankets, lounged a naked and fully aroused Xena. He stood rooted to his spot, speechless. Languidly, Xena motioned for him to come to her - and he did, slowly as if he were fighting his way through deep snow, afraid to go forward, not wanting to go back. As he finally made it to the bed, he almost went to his knees as she opened her legs in welcome.
"Hurry up you lout, it's cold in here!", Xena ordered in her best command voice.
Her bark of command broke his confusion and with a loud joyful whoop he began tearing at his cloths. Xena watched him, amused by his boyish haste. Leaning forward toward his straining body, she whispered in his ear. "Thank you for helping me this afternoon. You saved my life."
Petricles stumbled and fell on his backside as his concentration on getting his breeches off was shattered. Looking up in astonishment, he laughed as Xena sensuously crawled from the bed to lie beside him on the cold tent floor. "You had better hurry.", she whispered in his ear.
Jumping to his feet, he quickly and with some flourish completed disrobing. Standing before her naked, he was shocked once again as she broke out into peels of laughter.
"What?", he asked in renewed confusion, very much afraid to hear her reply.
"Your helmet, stupid! Take off your helmet!", she giggled, slapping his naked thigh. "Or do you plan to use that wicked crest on me?", she asked, her laughter growing loader as he fumbled to remove the offending helmet.
Recovering, he looked down at her and sweeping his hand along the horse hair bristle that adorned the helmet's crest told her: "I do think we might find someplace to put this."
Now it was Xena's turned to become flustered. "PETRICLES!", she squealed, a bright scarlet flush coming to her face and naked breasts. "Never tease a lady when she's this close to your 'vitals', boy.", she giggled gruffly, mimicking Borias.
Hearing his old friend's voice in hers, Petricles jumped to cover his 'vitals', afraid she might do something drastic.
Xena laughed hilariously as he jumped back and grabbed his groin. Rolling over on her back, she opened her legs and began running a foot up his leg toward his hands. "Don't be shy, boy. Remember, always seize your objective with speed and rapidity.", she continued to mock him, her foot creeping ever closer to his hands.
As her foot touched his hands, Petricles removed them and her foot inched forward the remaining distance to its objective. He stood there with his eyes closed and shivered as her foot played against his hot skin.
"I do think you're ready.", she giggled, removing her foot.
Petricles jumped at her words but recovered with 'speed and rapidity'. Reaching down, he picked her up and deposited her on the bed, her legs going wide as she hit the warm blankets.
He stood and contemplated the inviting battlefield that lay before him. As she seductively ran a hand up her thigh, the finger tips sensuously making patterns across her flushed skin, he was startled by her final bark of command.
"MOVE BOY, I'M GETTING COLD!"
And move he did. For a long time he moved and she moved with him. She was not cold now, he saw to that.
Sometime during their battle, he missed the slow trickle of blood that ran from her nose, to drip unnoticed on the blankets beneath them.
As the winter months passed, Xena's army continued its war against the Dorian rear area and supply camps. More and more however, she discovered that the opinions of the local people had shifted. These northern greeks, while not welcoming the invader had accommodated them, allowing the Dorians to use their villages as winter camps and supply bases. At each turn, Xena and Petricles were confronted with the dilemma of what to do about these traitors. Petricles argued for restraint. Xena did not. No, my friend pressed her motto 'death to all traitors in our midst' to its horrible conclusion. And, village after offending village felt her wraith. The crows feed well as winter slowly gave way to early spring.
Xena's head and sinuses may have cleared but her heart had not and the trickle soon became a seep - then a drip, and finally a stream. The local people began to turn away. The boys and young men and women who had flocked to her standard could not turn away; they were too intimately involved in her war. But their fathers and mothers could and did. Soon, whenever her army approached a village not yet under Dorian control, Xena found her army had to TAKE the supplies they needed. Support was no longer granted willingly.
As frustrating, she and Petricles were always at a loss about how to pay their mercenary cavalry. By spring, her only recourse was to force a levy on every village her army visited. Xena saw it as just payment for the protection her army offered against the invader. The offended villagers saw it as robbery and reacted accordingly.
As spring came, the metronome continued. Raid the Dorian camps, hang the inevitable greek traitors, take supplies from the next unoccupied village, raid the Dorian camps, hang the greek traitors, levy the next village for gold to pay the cavalry, raid the next Dorian camp - and so on in ever increasing violence.
But in early spring a surprise awaited Xena and Petricles. The inevitable greek traitors, crow bait as Borias called them, began to fight back. Against Xena, against her 'crusade', against her protection. Frequently, it was not the simple matter of riding into an unoccupied village and making requests. Now, they had to fight their way in and steal the supplies her army constantly needed to stay in the field. Fortunately for the villagers, Xena did not see them as traitors, merely as misguided souls. Her retribution, her guidance to them, was to kill only those who resisted whenever her army arrived with a 'request'.
"All right. Let's get this over with.", Xena ordered as she surveyed her lieutenants. "Borias, take the swordsmen and disperse that rabble. Lykus, you keep the wall here. Be prepared just in case a Dorian patrol is operating around nearby. Petricles, you and Manus go round back and cut off any attempts to flee. Let's do it!", she commanded.
Her lieutenants hurried away to carry out her orders. Xena walked back up the gentle slope and observed the nervous village militia formed up in front of her army's objective. From her place on the small hill, She could see the villagers had erected a sparse palisade of tall wooden stakes around the village. As if that'll keep me out, she thought as she pulled at her gauntlets. Reaching up to touch her helmet, Xena watched as the cavalry disappeared around the next hill, to make its way behind the village. Sniffling, she wiped a small trickle of blood from her nose.
Mounting her white mare, Xena walked it over to where Borias had formed the swordsmen in preparation for the assault. Looking around one last time to see if all of her orders had been carried out, she drew her sword and walked her horse to the front of her infantry. Standing tall in the saddle, Xena gave her final command.
"TAKE THE VILLAGE!", she screamed, spurring her mare forward, her swordsmen running after her as she raced down the slope.
Her infantry rapidly closed the distance between the hill and where the village militia stood its ground. As her swordsmen approached, the village militia broke and ran, ran for the presumed protection of the palisade wall. Not realizing that a running back is a better target than a stationary front, the village militia was decimated before it reached safety. Soon, her infantry had the militia surrounded and the fight went out of the villagers as they found that further resistance was futile.
"Borias!", Xena yelled over the noise as her men made prisoners of the remaining militia. "Find the elders and bring them to me. I'll be at the village square."
"Right.", Borias replied as he turned away, ordering his men to herd the prisoners back into the village.
Xena rode her white mare through an opening in the palisade. Looking about she found the village quiet now that the 'battle' was over. Funny, she thought as she rode in silence through the streets. No women and children. At least they have the sense to keep their loved ones out of the way, she thought as she brought her horse to heal at the center of the village.
As she stood her mount in the silence of an early spring morning, she took stock of the situation. Five villages, no six with this one, she reminded herself. Six villages we've had to take. These people are beginning to disgust me. Can't they see that Lyssius was right, that you can't oppose a righteous cause? She giggled as she thought of her little brother. Her giggles broke into laughter as she twisted Lyssius' dream into something she could live with. Yeah, little brother, you were right. A deed done with good intentions is always a good deed. No matter how you're forced to carry it out.
Her nervous laughter was interrupted as Petricles rode up the street toward her. "We found the women and children, Xena.", he informed her, bringing his horse to a halt next to hers. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, nothing. Just something Lyssius once told me.", she said as she desperately tried to still her annoying giggle. "Borias should have the elders here any minute."
"The usual?", he asked, a frown on his face as Xena continued her nervous giggling.
"Yes. We'll take only what we need, leave the rest to them.", she replied, her giggles finally mastered. The rapid blinking of her eyes continued, however, as did the far away stare.
Startled from his inspection of his friend, Petricles turned in the saddle as Borias and Lykus herded their prisoners into the village square. He and Xena watched as Borias cornered three of the oldest of the prisoners and frog marched them over to where Xena sat her horse.
Dismounting, Xena paced back and forth in front of the village elders and issued her 'request'.
"We'll take three wagon loads of food and fodder.", she informed the three men who nervously stood before her. "And any precious metal your blacksmiths may have hidden. You have four candlemarks to comply.", she ordered, turning her back on them and walking over to her horse.
As she approached her white mare, a commotion broke out behind her. Turning to see what had happened, she saw a young militiaman bowl over one of her swordsmen. Picking up the guard's weapon, the youth ran straight toward her. Without a second thought, Xena loosed the chakram at him. The man saw her throw and ducked as the round killing device flew past his head. Nonchalantly, Xena stepped sideways several paces. As the man began running toward her again, she smiled as the chakram spun around at the end of its forward journey and returned to its mistress. The man sprawled forward, already dead, as the chakram imbedded itself in the back of his head. Xena walked to his spasming body and retrieved the chakram, wiping blood and brains on the dead man's tunic.
Turning, Xena walked back to her horse and mounted. Nudging the horse forward, she rode over to where the elders and remaining militia huddled in fear. She sat there and watched their fear and nervousness mount. With a sigh, she turned her head and looked over to where Lykus stood, a sheepish look on his face.
"Oh, and Lykus. Next time, keep a better guard on your prisoners.", she told her lieutenant calmly. "Borias! Hang every fifth one.", she ordered quietly, starring down into the eyes of the oldest of the village elders. "And you - elder. Remember, from now on when you surrender to me, it's just that. Any resistance after the surrender, your people pay the price."
And with those words, spoken in a calm and rational voice, Xena spurred her horse and raced down the village street, back to where the spearwall was slowly advancing down hill toward the village.
"Lykus! Get'em rounded up. You know the drill.", ordered Borias as Petricles walked up behind him. Turning, Borias watched as his young friend looked back up the street at the fast-moving woman and her horse. "You had better go see to her, son.". Borias told his friend in a quiet voice. "You know how she gets after she's forced to hang someone."
"Yes, I know.", replied Petricles, his voice a soft whisper. "Borias, I can't do this anymore. She just doesn't understand how her actions are affecting us."
"Boy, we've done worse. You and I.", Borias told him. "Don't forget who your employer is. And she's got the right of it. These 'people' should support her, not fight her."
"Go boy!", Borias said harshly. "Attend your mistress." Turning his back on Petricles, Borias walked away to help Lykus round up those unfortunate enough to be the fifth person in line.
Soon, wails of grief were heard across the village square as the women and children ran toward the hanging bodies of their menfolk. Some tried to keep their fathers or brothers alive a little bit longer by supporting the dangling legs. But soon, their efforts became futile and the men were left to dangle in grim silence.
And so, the metronome continued. The trickle, the drip, the stream continued. Unnoticed, like dry rot, Xena's army began to change. The change was subtle, and crept slowly, but change it did. Soon, as the fourth moon of the new year approached, the hard eyed men, the men who before the Dorians were themselves the scourge of the land, began to quietly join her army. Seeking plunder, revenge, or just a straight meal, the murderers and thieves and cutthroats slipped in. The unscrupulous mercenaries joined. The one-time brigands and robbers joined. Before anyone noticed, the army's ranks swelled until, at over a thirteen-hundred strong, the original men and women who joined for the cause were outnumbered by those who joined for other less lofty reasons. Regardless, Xena and Petricles fought on against the Dorian rear area.
As spring settled in and the mountains came alive with new growth, rumors of a large Dorian army came to light. It was rumored that this army was moving north to put an end to the destruction wrought by Xena's army. The rumor became fact and Xena decided it was time to move south again, south to meet this new threat.
"Borias. You and Lykus get the infantry organized.", Xena ordered, looking up at her lieutenants grouped before her tent. Shifting in her chair, she looked up at Petricles who stood at her side.
"Manus. I want the cavalry out in front.", Petricles told the cavalry commander. "Stay at least two days march in front of us. Philemon, you take your scouts and skirt the route of march to the west and north. Make sure you stay a day's ride from the main column.", he ordered, looking down at Xena as she placed a hand on his belt.
"Pelius, I'm detailing you and a hundred swordsmen as wagon guards.", she said. "Keep the wagon teams moving at the best possible speed. I don't want to have to come get you, understand?", she ordered. "Elpinice, you and Larisa, keep the women with the spearwall. Borias will give you orders. Oh, and leave Lamia and ten of her healers with the wagon train. I'm afraid we're in for a stiff fight so I want them out of harms way until the battle's over."
"Right.", replied Elpinice and Pelius in unison.
"You! What's your name again?", Xena said, pointing at a well muscled dark skinned youth at the back of the group.
"Draco.", the young man replied. "We came in seven days ago."
"Right. I remember meeting your village elders a while back.", she acknowledged. "Place your men under Lykus. I know you don't use spears, but you can augment his swordsmen. Can your men use the crossbow?", she asked him.
"No, but we're willing to learn.", he replied.
"Good. That's what I like to hear - enthusiasm.", she told him. "Lykus, make sure they get instructions. Ok?"
"Yes, Xena.", Lykus replied.
"Anything else?", she asked, looking at each of her lieutenants in turn.
"No, Xena.", was the collective response from the group who stood before her chair.
"Let's do it, then.", she commanded, rising from her chair. "We have over one hundred leagues to cover in a short time. We leave in two days.", she finished. Turning away from the group as they prepared to depart on their tasks, she reached over and took Petricles' hand in hers. Looking back over her shoulder, Xena motioned for Borias to remain. She and the two men walked back into the tent. Releasing Petricles' hand, she took a seat behind a camp desk and looked up at her two friends standing to her front.
"Borias, I'm leaving you in command.", she told the older man.
"What?", Borias responded in confusion.
"Petricles and I are going to do a little scouting of our own.", she told him, looking up at her lover and giving him a smile. "You're in command - simple as that."
"May I ask what you and the boy intend to do on this scouting trip of yours?", inquired Borias, heatedly.
"You may.", Xena informed him as she looked over at him. "My friend and I are going to scout toward Amphipolis. Don't worry, we'll be safe.", she said, looking back up at Petricles.
"Is that where you plan to give battle?", Borias asked, not missing the interplay between the woman and his young friend.
"Ah, ah. No. It's not.", she replied, pulling her eyes away from Petricles and back toward Borias. "No, we'll give battle south of there. At Aroilus, I think. The women camped near there last summer. We'll do battle there.", she told him.
"As you wish, Xena. But I don't like it.", Borias responded, his face hard.
"You don't have to like it, Borias. Just do it.", Petricles told his old friend. "And don't tell anyone what we have planned. They'll know we're gone, but not in which direction."
"As you say, boy.", Borias replied as he turned and angrily left the tent to do their bidding.
"Xena! What are you planning?", Petricles asked as the woman came to her feet and kissed his cheek. "You have this most wicked look in your eyes, my love. What are you hiding?"
"Me?", she said mockingly. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Give damn it!", he scolded.
"Oh, all right. You're going to love it.", she smiled. "What we're going to do, you and I, is steal away in the night and ride away. Ride away as you've always wanted to do.", she told him mischievously.
"What? But, we can't just leave. Not before the battle.", he said in confusion, incredulity written large on his young face.
"No, you're right. But we can just head south alone.", she told him, laughing at his look. "Think of it. Six days to cover the distance between here and home. Six days without the prying eyes. It's spring, don't you feel it?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I believe I like it.", he replied, a silly smile breaking out on his face.
He looks like a child just given his first sweet, she thought as she kissed him again. "And if it's warm enough, I'll wear just that scarlet loincloth you love so much.", she whispered to him, a blush coming to her cheeks.
The army took the full two days to shake itself out for the long march south. Borias took his new command seriously and made sure all of the various arrangements were made without Xena or Petricles having to get involved. Manus led his cavalry south the night before the main body was to leave, while Philemon and the scouts headed out at the same time for the west. The morning of the third day after Xena had ordered the army south, it left its last encampment in the north. It was a sunny spring day as the infantry began the long march south.
But the army left without Xena and Petricles. They had departed the night the decision to head south was made. They headed south in the cool darkness, two pack animals and young Argo strung out behind their mounts. As they rode south side by side, Xena sang for the first time in many days. She sang to the cool night air and she sang to her lover who rode at her side. She sang because she was happy, at peace with herself for a time.
They rode through that first night and into the following day until by late afternoon they had put enough distance between them and the army that Manus and his cavalry would not interrupt them. And they made love, at every opportunity, at every stop. It was as if the entire world had been boiled down into that simple act of biology. True to her word, Xena shamelessly wore just her scarlet loincloth as Petricles rode along beside her in open admiration. Unfortunately, loincloths are not meant to be worn on horse back and the inevitable saddle sores soon forced Xena back into more modest attire. It had been fun while it lasted.
By the fourth day, their lusts satiated, they just rode along in companionable silence. They even took time out to begin the careful process of breaking a fast growing Argo to the saddle and bridle. The young filly balked at first, but the tender love Xena gave the filly soon broke the young horse's resolve and Argo surrendered. Xena took to riding her friend bareback at least two hours every day.
On the sixth day, Xena and Petricles stood silently and observed the fields around Aphetae. Walking hand in hand through the burned out village, they quietly relived the two battles they had fought at this sad place. Picking through the rubble, Xena spied a dull sliver of bronze. Picking it up, she realized it was a piece from Lyssius' armor, broken off when Kortese had rendered the armor after her brother's death. Tearfully, she placed the piece in a small hole she scraped in the dusty earth, covering it over with loose soil. As she rose, Xena gave a silent prayer to Artemis for her dead brother's soul. Startled by Petricles' touch as he walked up beside her, Xena cried out her grief on his shoulders. Petricles held her in his arms, his own tears joining hers.
That night, the two lovers arrived at the outskirts of Xena's old home. Not at all sure of her welcome, Xena decided that Petricles should remain behind. She left him and the horses and pack animals out by the river. Riding Argo, Xena headed toward the village. Keeping to her vow, she did not visit her old meadow and its hidden shrine. She only had two reasons for returning to Amphipolis. She wanted to see Cassy. To see how her oldest friend was holding up without her husband Argus. And she wanted to visit Lyssius.
Xena led Argo silently past the rear of her family's inn. The village was quiet, the inn and tavern without clientele. Good, she thought, no distractions. Coming up on the rear of Cassy's home, Xena tied Argo to the door frame and quietly knocked. Soon, a light could be seen through the chinks in the door. Xena waited breathlessly as the door opened and Cassy appeared in the doorway, a candle in her strong hands.
Cassy stood in shocked silence as she recognized who it was that had interrupted her this late at night. Xena's soft laugh broke her silence and in a flash they were in each other's arms.
"Xena!", Cassy cried in recognition, pulling her friend into the house and closing the door. "Xena. By the Gods, where did you come from?"
"From up north. My army's headed this way but I rode ahead to see you.", Xena told her as they hugged. "Sorry about coming at night but I wasn't sure how welcomed I'd be."
"Best you did.", Cassy told her as they walked over and took chairs by the fire place. "You're not well liked around here these days."
"What?", Xena asked in confusion. "I know mother doesn't want me around but why would anyone else be concerned if I came home!"
"Xena, we hear rumors. Bad rumors.", Cassy told her, looking away from her friend's face. "Tales from up north. Xena, have you really done what everyone is saying?", she asked, still avoiding Xena's eyes.
"What have they been saying? Cassy, I don't understand.", Xena said.
"That you hang people and rob their villages. That your army is nothing but a band of brigands and thieves.", Cassy told her, a tear coming to her eye. "That you kill innocent children. Xena, Why?"
"Cassy, those are lies given out by my enemies.", Xena tried to tell her. "Don't believe everything you hear. Besides, most of the things we've had to do were necessary."
"NECESSARY? Necessary - to kill innocent villagers, to hang children?", cried Cassy. "Lyssius would be ashamed!"
"DON'T BRING MY BROTHER INTO THIS!", Xena screamed, jumping to her feet. "My little brother gave his life to keep people like you safe. What I do. What I've been forced to do, I do to help people like you, Cassy."
"People like me don't want to see children die for any reason, Xena.", Cassy quietly told Xena, refusing to get angry at her friend's outburst. "People like me and Argus work for the greater good."
"What would you know of the GREATER GOOD?", Xena spit at her in anger. "What would you know of the things I've had to do, the things I've gone through this past year? You remain safe and at home while I have to do the killing. TO KEEP YOU SAFE!", she screamed.
"Then, the rumors ARE true.", Cassy said in a whisper, not flinching from Xena's anger. "You have become a killer.", she said looking up into her friends enraged face for the first time since Xena had entered her house.
Xena went white faced as Cassy's words hit home. Her anger receded as quickly as it had appeared. Looking down at her friend, Xena reached out to touch Cassy's shoulder. The other woman recoiled from Xena's touch.
"So! That's the way things are?", Xena calmly asked her friend.
"Xena, I once told you I would pray to Artemis for your safety.", Cassy told her. "I still do. But I also pray for our safety. That Artemis will keep us safe from you. You aren't the girl I grew up with, who I used to make things for. You've changed beyond reason."
"Cassy!", Xena cried, her voice thick with emotion at Cassy's words. Kneeling down, Xena reached forward and placed her hands on Cassy's knees. The other woman flinched but surrendered to the touch. "Things are not as bad as rumors would make of them. I....".
"I see that you wear my wedding bracelet.", Cassy interrupted, her eyes on the silver bracelet on Xena's wrist. "At least that's one thing I can be happy for in your life."
"Yes! See! Things aren't what they appear to be.", Xena told her. "You're still my friend. You can stand up with me when Petricles and I are wed. You....".
"I'm happy for you and Petricles. But Xena, you are no longer my friend.", Cassy interrupted. And without a further word she left Xena kneeling on the floor, walking from the room to return to her bed and her little girl.
For sometime, Xena knelt there in numbed shock, paralyzed by what had just occurred. And I so much wanted to show her Argo, she thought as she knelt in the front room of Cassy's home.
Then her anger hit. In a blinding rage, Xena fled the house and throwing herself into the saddle, spurred Argo into a furious gallop. Furiously, she spurred the little horse faster and faster as she fled Amphipolis. The little filly was not accustomed to such a fast pace and began to falter as they rode through the fields outside of the village. But Xena heedlessly forced her young horse to keep up the fast gallop. Reining in savagely as she approached where Petricles stood, Xena dismounted and ran to her white mare. Taking her sword, she ran over to a tall oak tree by the river and began systematically chopping at its bulk. Chips flew as Xena took her murderous rage out on the tree.
Petricles wisely stayed a good distance from her until finally her anger had boiled off and he could approach safely. He watched as Xena fell to the ground and began crying. Kneeling beside her, Petricles held her. Held her, as she cried for her lost childhood friend. He held her until she finally fell asleep in his arms.
"Not a good home coming, I fear.", he told the night as she slept in his arms.
Manus found them camped by the river three days later. The dusty tired cavalry erected their tents around hers. The army had made good progress and Philemon and his scouts kept the flanks free from what little interference the Dorians attempted. When the main body was one day from Amphipolis, Xena made the decision she had been hoping to ovoid. The supply situation was critical and her home was the only source immediately at hand. She hoped the people of Amphipolis would be reasonable and not cause trouble.
Xena led a large formation of Cavalry up the road toward the village. Petricles and Philemon had taken the remainder of the mounted men and circled around to the south of the village. As she approached Amphipolis, it became apparent that the village had been warned of her presence. Fortunately, the village had decided not to resist. Leading her cavalry up the main street, she found her mother and the village elders near the fountain. The fountain where Xena had performed Lyssius' death ritual the year before.
"Mother.", Xena said quietly, halting her white mare in front of the assembled group of scared villagers.
"Daughter.", replied her mother. "I assume you haven't come home to stay."
"No mother. Never fear, I'm only here to get what we need.", Xena told her mother. "Where's Toris?"
"Daughter, take what you want and leave.", her mother responded, not answering Xena's question. "The supplies are back of the tavern in the sheds. Take them and depart.", her mother told her. Turning her back on Xena, the older woman led the elders back to the family inn.
Xena sat in silence and watched her mother's retreating back. Deep inside her she felt a tiny little voice crying for the comfort of her mother's arms. Clamping down hard on her emotions, Xena led her men around the tavern to the shed where the supplies had already been broken up into small bundles. Xena remained silent as she helped her men load the supplies onto their horses and ride back out of the village, back to their encampment by the river to the north of Amphipolis.
Her visit to Lyssius' tomb would have to wait.
Borias stood before the spearwall and surveyed the valley stretched out before him. He had been watching the Dorians form their battle line for over four candlemarks and still they were not in position. Xena had been right as usual, he thought, when she resisted attacking while the enemy was surprised and milling about.
As Borias watched in silence, he tried to estimate the enemy's numbers. He quit counting at three thousand and still the Dorians seemed to multiply. If Xena's army had attacked while this herd was still braking camp it would have been overwhelmed by shear numbers. No, Xena had been right to wait. Borias knew that the discipline he and the others had pounded into the army would tell against the enemy's numbers, but only if kept well in hand. No, a well-planned assault was best, a melee would be disaster.
He could see four distinct enemy formations in the final stages of forming up across the wide sloping valley to the south. The largest formation was drawn up directly across from his. Not surprised, Borias took note that the Dorians had adopted a form of spearwall of their own. From this distance, it appeared their spears were much shorter than the twelve foot pikes employed by Xena's army. He hoped his surmise would hold up, the greater reach would allow his wall to make first contact. And, first contact was all that counted when it came to the wall.
A glint of metal caught his attention from off to the left. Turning and shielding his eyes from the early morning sun, Borias watched as a second smaller Dorian spearwall ponderously advanced to the top of a small knoll some distance from the main enemy battle line. These people are really stupid, he thought as he watched this new enemy formation halt at the top of the knoll and ground their heavy spears. They should have stayed behind that hill out of sight, Borias reflected, then surprised us from the flank. A stupid enemy is a dead enemy, he chuckled to himself. Another formation caught his eye as a unit of Dorian swordsmen appeared around the base of the small knoll and took up a position to the flank of the smaller Dorian spearwall. Real dumb, showing your hand ahead of time, he told himself as he watched the enemy complete their battle preparations.
Counting from left to right, Borias noticed that the Dorians now had six separate units formed up along the valley's floor. No, make that seven, he observed as he watched a gaggle of what could only be local militia forming up outside the palisade that had been hastily erected around the village. No problem there, he thought.
As he surveyed the Dorian line of battle, Borias' experienced eye caught another enemy mistake. Evidently these fools like to imitate, he thought as he observed two separate formations of what had to be greek auxiliary split equally on either side of the main Dorian spearwall. Never put 'allies' on your flanks, he reflected. Once again, he was amazed at Xena's ability to read their enemy's intentions. Somehow, she had anticipated that the Dorians would do just as they were doing.
Surveying again from left to right he saw sword formation, small spearwall, greek auxiliary, large spearwall, greek auxiliary, and a final Dorian sword formation with its left flank on the river to the west. The Dorian right flank was unprotected, especially now that they had given away the position of the smaller spearwall and its attendant swordsmen. A strong battle line, but one with glaring weaknesses.
Borias' quiet contemplation of the enemy battle line was interrupted as Lykus walked over and stood by his side. "Xena was right.", Lykus observed as he stood next to the older man.
"Yes she was.", replied Borias, patting the younger man on the shoulder. "They've given us a sterling opportunity by putting those greek traitors on the flanks of the main wall."
"I'm worried about the small spearwall on that knoll.", Lykus said, pointing off to where the Dorian spearmen could be seen standing next to their grounded weapons. "They're in a position to flank you as we attack down slope."
"Not to worry, son.", Borias assured the younger man. "Here's how it'll play out. And I'll bet you ten dinars that Xena's already figured it out. Our two walls attack down slope, mine goes for the main Dorian wall, while you hit those traitors on the left flank. My wall pins theirs and you and I pivot around to the east and back their wall into that knoll. Pelius can handle that sword formation down by the river. I'll just bet, Elpinice and her women can handle my flank and keep that smaller spearwall from causing me any trouble from that direction. Manus and Petricles can maneuver the cavalry around to the east and hit those bastards in the rear."
"Yeah, I see that. And I won't take your bet. Xena's already figured it out, I can feel it in my bones.", Lykus reflected. "And besides, there's still her little surprise."
"Yes there is.", agreed Borias. The two men looked off to the west toward a small hill on the opposite side of the river. "Philemon and Larisa will really shake them up."
Both men were partially correct. The battle plan had been Xena's, but with the flourish of Petricles' better trained mind. Xena had laid out how she expected the Dorians to form, but Petricles had explained to her the formula for beating a much larger army. Stick to basics, he had advised her. Stick to discipline and battle drill learned through repetition. Against a larger army you could not afford to improvise, he had told her. We fight as always, spearwall in the middle, swordsmen and auxiliary on the flanks. And the cavalry free to hit any weakness as the two armies collide. Do not allow a melee to occur and if it does - withdraw. Against three times their strength, Petricles knew the army had to stay compact and in formation.
But the surprise was hers and it was pure Xena. Larisa had reminded Xena about a ford just to the west and north of Aroilus. Though the locals knew of it, Larisa had convinced Xena that the Dorian commander did not. The west side of the river was thick with trees that grew all the way to the river's sloping banks giving good cover all the way to the ford. Xena gave Larisa command of a force of two hundred mixed cavalry, auxiliary and swordsmen. She and Philemon would take the small unit and hide across the river in the low hills. Xena left the matter of when to cross the ford and take the Dorian army in the rear up to Larisa and Philemon.
The promising Draco was given command of the swordsmen who would accompany Larisa's auxiliary since the men were mostly from his band of villagers. Xena knew the young man was not happy being placed under the command of a woman, but she had taken precautions against him causing trouble. Philemon and his short sword would take care of any problems Larisa could not handle.
So the plan of battle had been set in motion. All that remained was to see the day through to its conclusion. Borias continued observing the Dorians and their greek traitors as his spearwall stood in silence to his rear. Around him, stood ten swordsmen. Petricles had been correct about improvisation, but he and Xena had been persuaded to try Borias' idea. He and the ten swordsmen would attack under the protection of his spearwall's longer pikes and fight their way into the Dorian formation, spreading chaos within the enemy's packed ranks.
The pike did not allow the spearmen of the wall to fight back. Hand weapons become useless when you are struggling to balance a heavy unwieldy spear and thrust it at your opponent. Borias figured that eleven sword wielding men could completely destroy the integrity of the opposing wall. What the momentum of the charge did not accomplish the swordsmen would. Lykus would lead ten men in a similar fashion. Borias remembered the look of admiration in Xena's eyes as she approved his idea. The thought warmed his stomach.
Suddenly, Borias' thoughts were interrupted as a white horse and rider flashed across the gentle slope. He watched in open admiration as Xena raced her horse from the right flank, where Pelius' swordsmen were quietly waiting, toward a point down slope from the center. Xena's challenge was about to begin. He immediately noticed that she had left her long cloak and white leather helmet behind. Her beautiful long raven black hair flowed out behind her as she sped along the slope, reflecting a shimmer of iridescence under the early morning sun.
Behind him, Borias heard a low chant begin as the men of his spearwall saw their commander. Slowly at first, but quickly picked up by the other formations of the army, the chant grew louder until it became an unmistakable battle cry. The battle cry of Xena's army. XENA! XENA! XENA! Her men chanted to her as she raced her horse across the gentle slope toward the enemy battle line. The chant soon drowned out the growl coming from the Dorian ranks.
As he watched Xena bring her mount to a halt a spear's throw from the enemy's main spearwall, Borias smiled as she reared the horse onto its hind legs, forcing it to prance for several paces. Bringing the horse back under control, Xena rose in the saddle and unsheathed a shining bronze sword. Lyssius' sword. Borias watched as she raised the sword high in the air and in her calm quiet command voice began her challenge.
"Men of Doria!", he heard her strong voice ring across the valley. "I, Xena, Hero of Aphetae, challenge your Champion to single combat. Challenge him to come forth and meet me in battle. TO THE DEATH!"
He heard her voice clearly as she stood in her saddle and looked the enemy formation over from left to right, memorizing each separate formation in turn. As she had expected, no Dorian came forth. They had learned the last time not to send their Champion to cross swords with this she-demon, this greek fury. The Dorians stood their formation and growled in rage at being challenged by a woman, regardless of the fact that none had the courage to take up her challenge.
As it became apparent that no Champion was going to come forth, Borias watched as Xena vaulted from her horse's back and executing a flip high in the air landed on her feet facing the enemy. Borias chuckled as a flash of scarlet was seen as her armored skirt flew up at the apex of her vault. At least Petricles will be pleased, he chuckled. Raising Lyssius' sword high into the early morning air, he watched as Xena thrust it downward deep into the earth.
"Then you will die this day. BY THE BLOOD OF LYSSIUS - I SWEAR IT!", she ended the challenge.
Turning her back on her enemy, Borias watched as Xena effortlessly vaulted back into the saddle and spurred her horse directly up slope toward his location. As she approached, he saw a brilliant smile break out on her face as she waved to her men, acknowledging for the first time their battle chant. XENA! XENA! XENA!
Reining hard, Xena brought her horse to heal in front of Borias. Looking down at him, she gave him a hugh wink before dismounting and walking over to his side.
"Well done, Xena.", Borias complimented her as they shook hands in greeting. "As you can see, the Dorians formed up pretty much as you expected. Except for that small spearwall over on that knoll to the left."
"I saw it.", she replied, looking in the direction of his pointing finger. "Let Elpinice and Manus take care of them. You just head down slope toward the main wall.", her clear voice loud enough for all to hear over the continuing battle chant. "What?", she asked as Borias looked over to where Lykus stood and waved at the younger man.
"Oh, nothing. Just settling a bet I had with Lykus.", he told her.
"Right.", she said. "Let's just see how long those pigs can stand before their nervousness and battle lust force them to advance. Let them start the show, Borias. But as soon as their main wall moves - hit'em hard.", she commanded. Turning away she remounted her horse and spurred it forward. A slow canter took her along the line of battle as she proudly acknowledged the salute of each formation in turn.
Xena's ride ended on the right flank, near a stand of trees that overlooked the river. Entering the stand of trees, she walked her mount over to where Petricles and his cavalry commanders were in conference. She stood quietly and watched her lover give his final instruction. As the group of men broke up, Xena dismounted and walked over to Petricles, placing a hand on his armored shoulder.
Turning, Petricles watched as a dazzling smile broke out on her flushed face. Taking her in his arms, the two embraced. As he held her tightly in his arms he felt her breath on his ear. "I hope you saw that flash of scarlet, my love. It was meant for you.", she whispered, her tongue brushing lightly against his cheek.
"Oh, Xena.", he spoke quietly to her. "Be careful."
"Don't worry, my friend.", she assured him. "I feel alive as never before. They'll not take me this day."
"And yes I do think I saw a flash of red. You are shameless, you know that.", he told her, pulling her face around so that he could look into her eyes.
"Only for you, my love. Only for you.", she told him, her eyes looking deeply into his.
They broke apart as Xena walked back to her horse, mounting with a flourish that once again flashed scarlet. Xena looked down at Petricles and, with a hugh wink and a smile, blew him a kiss. Then she was off, back across the battle line to her place at the center.
Petricles watched his lover until she was out of sight. Pre-battle jitters getting the better of him, Petricles nervously ran his hands down his armor until he brushed against a hard lump below his sword belt. With a hugh sigh, he turned and walked back to where his cavalrymen sat to horse, waiting for the battle to begin.
Finally, the Dorian army began to move. Xena's army watched in silence as the main enemy spearwall retrieved its grounded spears and settled in for the long march to where her army stood. A loud clangor went up from the Dorian ranks as the swordsmen beat their swords against armored chests. The greek traitors were mostly silent, however, as they shook out their formations into loose skirmish lines on either flank of the main spearwall. As the main body began moving in ponderous formation, the Dorian right flank wheeled to the left, the new position placing it at right angles to their main battle line.
Xena's army reacted in kind. The spearwall settled its long pikes into position, the butts tucked firmly under the arm - the tip pointed slightly downward. The swordsmen returned the Dorian salute as they beat a tattoo against their armor.
On the left flank, Manus watched as the Dorian right flank moved out from around the small knoll, placing itself at a right angle to his horsemen waiting silently in the trees behind a small crest in the hill. Exposing its flank to his horse, Manus readied his men to charge into the enemy formation when the time was right. Hearing the jingle of heavy cavalry, Manus looked off to the right and saw that Petricles was bringing his unit of cavalry across the rear of the army to augment their left flank. Good, we'll ride the bastards down together, he thought as he acknowledged Petricles' wave.
Elpinice wiped sweaty palms against her armored chest. She too had seen the enemy's mistake. Looking down slope, she found a narrow brush covered draw in the gentle curvature of the slope. We'll head in that direction, she thought to herself. Once we're on the move, those pigs won't be able to see us until we hit the valley - and their flank. Looking over to the right, toward Borias' spearwall, Elpinice pantomimed her intentions as she caught Borias' attention. She turned back to her men and women after he waved his acknowledgement. Now let's get started, she thought. Quietly, she ordered her swordsmen and auxiliary forward at a brisk walk.
Pelius had already started his swordsmen forward by the time Elpinice's began advancing. Skirting to the right, he walked his formation forward to put some distance between himself and Lykus' spearwall to his left. At his rear, he noticed that Petricles had moved his cavalry out of the trees and was headed over to the left flank. Realizing he was on his own, Pelius continued moving his men to the right out toward the river bank.
Borias and Lykus waved at each other as they watched the Dorians' main spearwall advance slowly, awkwardly forward. Soon unfamiliarity with the pike began to show, the Dorian formation having difficulty keeping a closed front as they advanced. As the disorder in the enemy wall increased, Borias realized that the time had come. Waving at Lykus, he ordered the advance.
What began as a slow walk soon became a fast run as the phalanx of spearmen picked up momentum, the gentle slope giving them an advantage the Dorians did not have. Hard training showed as Xena's men kept their formation tight and compact. The walls met in a harsh crash of bloody screams and grunts of pain and anger at the base of the hill. The first rank of the Dorian wall went down en masse as the longer pikes of Borias' men struck home. As a hole appeared in the first rank, Borias sprinted forward, his ten swordsmen at his back. Entering the Dorian formation, he fought his way forward into the wall's heart. Stabbing with sword and dagger, Borias left a trail of dead and wounded Dorian spearmen. He and his men arrived as one at the rear of the Dorian wall.
As he fought clear of the last rank, Borias looked around and saw that the main Dorian formation had broken into two uneven pieces. His spearwall was rapidly overcoming its half of the fragmented enemy wall while across the way Lykus' spearmen were doing the same to the other fragment. Turning to fight his way back to his unit, Borias looked over and saw Lykus and seven men fight their way free of the other enemy wall. Waving to his friend, he reentered the enemy formation, once again cutting a bloody swath through the pinned and helpless enemy spearmen. As Lykus watched his friend wave, he heard the unmistakable sounds of cavalry heading for the gap that had appeared when the Dorian wall had fragmented under the combined weight of his and Borias' charge.
Petricles and Manus sat their horses and watched as the opposing walls collided in one gigantic mass of broken spears and dying men. As they watched, Manus pointed down slope. There at the end of his finger, the two men could see a gap form in the Dorian wall as it came apart under Borias' assault. Looking immediately to their front, the two men saw that the smaller Dorian wall had begun to advance toward Borias' exposed rear, taking the enemy sword formation at the bottom of the knoll with it.
Seeing advantage and eminent danger, Petricles motioned for Manus to charge the rear of the smaller spearwall while he took his cavalry and headed for the gap in the main enemy formation. Agreeing, Manus ordered his men forward, battle cries echoing through the warm spring air. As Manus charged the short distance to the enemy spearwall, Elpinice led her swordsmen and auxiliary out of their canceled position at the bottom the hill and hit the enemy sword formation in the flank. Soon, the entire Dorian right flank was in chaos, chaos as great as that suffered by the fragmented main spearwall in the center of the Dorian battle line.
Watching from her vantage point at what had been the center of her battle line, Xena saw her cavalry begin its charge laterally across the gentle slope, from left to right. Understanding immediately what her lover intended, Xena spurred her white mare forward and raced directly down slope for Petricles' side.
As he led his cavalry at a fast gallop directly toward the gap in the enemy battle line, Petricles saw a dazzling streak of white horse and white and bronze fury head in his direction. As Xena's battle cry sounded clearly above the cacophony of battle, Petricles flashed a hugh smile as his lover rode past him. And then, they were up to their necks in struggling Dorians as a small gaggle of swordsmen and auxiliary tried desperately to close the gap. And gaggle the small enemy band remained as Xena and Petricles led the cavalry nonstop through the gap. The gaggle was left behind as a bloody mass of dead and dying. Petricles' men spread out as they passed through the gap, taking the slowing disintegrating Dorian spearwall in the rear and flanks.
Xena fought her way clear of the gap and reined in hard. As she struggled to control her maddened mount, she looked around. To her left, she saw that Manus and Elpinice had broken the enemy's right flank. The ongoing struggle behind her was self evident. Off to her right, however she saw that Pelius had taken his men too far toward the river and a gap had formed. Sensing danger as she watched the Dorian left flank sword formation head toward the widening gap, she was heartened to see Larisa and Philemon bring their unit across the ford and rapidly maneuver to take the enemy in the rear. She smiled as Larisa and Draco led their infantry into the struggle for the gap.
Seeing that her lieutenants had everything well in hand, Xena looked behind her toward the village. There she saw the militia nervously awaiting orders that would never come. Enraged at the thought of greek fighting greek, Xena let out an angry battle cry and spurred her horse forward. Within the blink of an eye, she was racing full tilt toward the militia. The greek traitors watched in shock as the white and bronze fury launched herself at them, her battle cry unnerving even the most stout hearted. The sight of this one determined woman had them paralyzed.
As Xena raced toward the militia's disorganized formation, the chakram sang as she hurled it at the greek traitors who quailed before her. Heads, arms, and other body parts spurted blood as the deadly weapon wove its course through the militia's ranks. Knowing she would not need the round killing device, Xena did not wait for its return. Entering the militia's front rank, she swept her sword and dagger around her. All who came in contact with her deadly iron fell to the ground in dead and dying agony. Vaulting from her horse as she savagely reined it in, a piercing battle cry on her lips, Xena began her dance with the hated traitors. No one stood against her. Many backs sprouted bloody wounds as the militia fled from the murderous fury unleashed in their ranks, her maddened battle cry chasing them ever faster. Soon, before her battle rage had been completely satiated, reinforcements arrived as Philemon brought his small band of horsemen to her aid.
As the last of the militia broke and ran for the village and its protective palisade, Xena stalked from the chaotic results of her death dance and surveyed the field of battle. Whistling for her horse, she mounted and stood in the saddle for a better view. To the west, she watched as Pelius and Larisa drove the Dorian left flank into the river. Those Dorians not killed by the sword soon drowned as their heavy armor drug them down into the depths of the slow-moving river. In the center, a mound of enemy dead and dying could be seen over the heads of her victorious spearwall. The cavalry was fast rounding up those Dorians who had survived the murderous fighting in the center of the battle line.
Turning to the east, she was surprised when a small band of Dorians and greek traitors fought their way clear of Manus and Elpinice and headed for the village and the palisade. Deciding she alone could not stop them and with only Philemon and his small band close at hand, Xena allowed the remaining enemy formation to withdraw from the field, back into Aroilus.
Dismounting again, Xena stood and watched as Borias and Lykus brought their spearmen under control and began a slow march toward where she stood. Petricles and Manus where off somewhere, chasing disorganized remnants of the Dorians army. As she watched Borias and her army approach, Xena failed to keep a close eye on the dead and dying surrounding her.
Hearing a sound behind her, Xena turned in time to see a greek traitor thrust the blunt end of a heavy wooden stake into her stomach. She took the full force of the blow low across her pelvis, below the protection afforded by her bronze armor. Pain lanced through her as the buckle of her sword belt was driven into her groin by the force of the blow. And she went down hard, stunned by the impact with the hard ground. Instinctively, she thrust her sword forward and was rewarded when she felt the sword enter her opponent's chest as he drew back for one final blow to her head. The man fell dead beside her as the pain hit and she lost consciousness.
The slowly advancing spearwall faltered as they watched her fall. A growl of rage rose from her army as they watched their leader go down at the hands of a fellow greek. Maddened beyond reason, her army broke, the careful discipline cracked and her army surged forward. But not as a formation, rather it advanced as groups of two's and three's. The sack of Aroilus had begun.
What should have been remembered by every bard, sung by every minstrel, as a brilliant victory, as a magnificent display of generalship, was remembered by only those four words - The Sack of Aroilus. The unsavory elements of her army went wild. The reminder followed suit as the anger of seeing a greek traitor kill their commander boiled over.
Throughout what was left of the day and on into the night, Xena's army raged through the streets of Aroilus. Burning and looting, the army vented its rage on the villagers and remaining Dorians alike. Most of her men and women remembered her orders, that no women and children should ever be placed in danger. But not all. And the unsavory element, the hard eyed men of unbridled lust, raped and pillaged their way through the village. Soon, hasty gallows were erected and those greek men who had survived the battle found themselves kicking out the last moments of their lives at the end of a rope. Those Dorian survivors who had fled into the village were just killed, no one wanting to take time out from the sack to do anything else but kill them where they were found.
Borias and the rest of her lieutenants tried at first to stop the enraged men and women, but soon it became dangerous to even be found attempting to stop the pillaging and looting and burning. Wisely, they withdrew from the village back to where Xena had been taken from the field, back to the field hospital Lamia had set up on the hilltop to the north. At dusk, Petricles and Manus returned with their cavalry and stood in open mouthed shock by the field hospital as they watched events play out in the village below.
"Where's Xena?", Petricles yelled at Borias as he dismounted by the Hospital. "And what in Zeus' name is going on down there?"
"Hold, boy.", Borias said, placing a restraining hand on Petricles' arm as the young man tried to run past him. "Don't even think of trying to stop that rabble down there. Let'em get the anger out first. Tomorrow you and Manus can take the cavalry and break heads. Let'em be for now."
"But what of Xena! Don't tell me she's down there!", yelled Petricles, fighting Borias' hold.
"By Zeus' fiery breath, hold boy or I'll brain you myself.", Borias yelled back at the struggling Petricles. "Your mistress lives."
"What? Was she wounded? Tell me damn it!", Petricles demanded.
"As I said, son. She lives.", Borias relented, giving Petricles his arm as the young man staggered at his words. "She was struck from behind. That's what caused all of this. A greek traitor blind sided her and the army went crazy. Everyone except your cavalry saw it happen. We tried but it was no use, the army just broke and started destroying everything in its path. Go to your mistress, boy.", Borias told him, finally releasing Petricles.
Petricles ran into the tent erected as a hospital and waded through the wounded that lay about. Fortunately there were not many, at least not yet. But he knew that come morning and they could survey the battlefield, more would show up. Spying Lamia and her healers making the rounds at the rear of the tent, Petricles ran up and brutally grabbed Lamia's arm, twirling her around to face him.
"Xena! Where?", he yelled breathlessly at the startled woman.
"Get your hands off me, Petricles!", cried the astonished Lamia as she struggled with his brutal hold on her arm. "Let go or by the Gods, you'll sing soprano and Xena'll lose her favorite plaything."
Startled, Petricles looked down and saw a bloody dagger pointed directly at his 'vitals'. Jumping back and releasing the angry woman, Petricles just stood and looked at Lamia in supplication. "I'm sorry Lamia.", he told her sheepishly as she lowered her dagger to her side.
Taking pity on the anguished young man who stood before her, Lamia relented and pointed toward a curtained alcove further back in the tent's depth. "She's alive but in pain. Go on.", she told him, smacking Petricles on the backside as he ran past.
Pulling back the curtain that shielded Xena from the cries of the wounded, Petricles ducked as one of Lamia's assistant healers came through the opening with a large bowl of water in her upraised arms. Coming back to his feet, Petricles slowly approached the makeshift bed upon which Xena lay. Xena was laid out on her back, her armor on the far side of the bed. A blanket had been cut in two and draped across her chest and waist. In between the halves was a livid bruise where the blunt stake had hit her. The tiny puncture wounds caused by her belt buckle were almost lost in the lividity.
Kneeling beside her bed, he gently took her hand and kissed it tenderly. Feeling his kiss, Xena opened her eyes and looked over at him. "We always end up this way, don't we my friend. Me on my back and you on your knees.", she croaked, her mouth dry and parched. Coughing painfully, Xena watched as a look of great relief crossed his face.
"Well, I know you like it that way.", he smiled back at her.
"THAT'S not what I'm taking about, and you know it. Pig.", she laughed back at him, her face screwing up with the pain caused by the laugh. "I always end up wounded and you never get a scratch. Why is that?"
"I'm the better soldier.", he smiled down at her. "You're....".
"The better killer. I know, you've told me a thousand times.", she replied, her face smiling through the pain. "And you're still an insensitive pig."
"I know. That's why you love me so much.", he told her.
"Pah!", was her only reply as a fresh wave of pain hit her and she grimaced in agony. "It hurts!", she cried out to him.
"I'm sorry, my love.", was his only possible reply as he held her hand and watched the pain grip her in its steel claws. Petricles did not notice the tiny drop of blood in her right nostril.
The next morning, Petricles and Manus led the cavalry into the aftermath of the sack of Aroilus. They had to literally fight their way into the burned and ruined village. The horsemen were not gentle as they pried the infantry from its collected loot. Frequent fights broke out as the mounted men rounded up bands of spearmen and swordsmen. Many of the infantry found themselves on the mortal end of a cavalry sword. Petricles had told his men to kill anyone who opposed bringing order to the chaos that had engulfed the army. His men took him at his word. It took until midday before order was restored and the infantry forced out of Aroilus.
The battle of Aroilus was my friend's last battle as the Hero of Aphetae. What had started so promising at the first battle of Aphetae was no more. The hero had been transformed into something else. Only time would tell what 'something else' would be. Her army was destroyed as a 'crusading' army. Aroilus put the indelible stamp of brigandage and murder on it, her men and women losing their golden aura.
The bloody sack of Aroilus spelled the end for Lyssius' crusade, turned his dream into what would become a civil war. The Dorians no longer had to attack greek villages, just the mention of Xena's army being in the local area drove many villages into their arms willingly. Xena was still determined to destroy the Dorians, but she became just as determined to take retribution against those of her people who opposed her.
Her once proud army of young men and women had become a hard eyed monster, an army of soulless warriors. Warriors as hardened to blood and war's destruction as was their commander. After the sack of Aroilus, the drip, the seep, the stream flowed freely as those who could not live with the hard edge they had acquired deserted her standard and fled back home. If home still existed for them. Or just ran anywhere, away from the lives they had been forced to lead during their brief careers as a soldier. Those that remained became harder still.
Xena, the pain from her wounds receding to an ever present ache in her groin, was shaken by the destruction of Aroilus. And, she finally understood. Understood Cassy's reaction, understood Petricles' squeamishness, understood the look Borias sometimes gave her as her anger took hold. She understood that from this day onward she would be more feared than respected. The fairy tale crusade was over. Realizing the end had come, Xena knew she could no longer wear the full panoply of an Achaean Hero. The Hero of Aphetae was dead, as dead as Aroilus. Rather, Xena took to wearing the unadorned leather and bronze of a common foot soldier, of the mercenary she had become.
Xena walked slowly up to the table where Petricles, Manus and Borias sat. Using a broken pike for support, she carefully sat in the chair they had reserved for her. Before her, she saw long ranks of disheveled men and a few women shuffling in silence under the guard of Lykus and a group of cavalry. So these are my golden men and women, my trusty sword arms. Pah, she thought as she painfully stretched her long legs out in front of her.
Returning to her feet, Xena walked slowly up to the ordered ranks of prisoners. Leaning on her pike, she looked each man and woman in the eyes. Her eyes hardened as she recognized some of the prisoners who stood before her. Men and women who had been with her since the beginning, who knew better, whom she would now have to deal with. Shaking her head in sorrow, she turned her back on them, slowly making her way back to the table, her pike kicking up dust as she went. Xena turned and faced the prisoners once more as she reached the table.
"I won't give a speech since most of you won't live long enough to appreciate it. I can't hang all of you. Wish I could.", she told the prisoners in her cool calm rational voice of command. A shudder went through the ranks as her word that some would survive her wraith brought heart to a few. "No. I can't hang you all.", she said, letting the silence linger.
"Lykus, hang every third person. The gauntlet for the rest.", she ordered quietly. Turning, Xena painfully made her way back to her tent as the groans and pleas for mercy broke out behind her. Looking back over her shoulder, she watched as Lykus and the cavalry began separating out those unfortunates standing at every third place in the ranks. Shrugging off the chill the sight brought to her soul, Xena proceeded on her way back to her tent. Was it laughter she heard echoing through the cool afternoon air?
That evening, after a brilliant spring sunset, Xena and Petricles surveyed the grisly aftermath of her drumhead court- martial. Looking up they saw row upon row of swaying bodies, crows already picking at the dead eyes. Below the swaying corpses were piled the bodies of those men and women who had not survived the brutal beating meted out by their peers as they had stumbled blindly through the gauntlet. A tear came to Xena's eyes as she saw that Larisa was among the swaying bodies. Why is there always someone I know, she thought as the tears ran down her face. Petricles helped his lover walk back to their tent as moonlight began to spill across the ghastly scene of death.
As Petricles and Xena went about their business, one of the hard eyed men who had crept into her army nursed the wounds he had received from the gauntlet. Dagnon hated women in general and did not like being commanded by one. And he most assuredly did not like being beaten senseless at the orders of one. Dagnon nursed his wounds and vowed revenge, vowed that he would make Xena pay for his injuries, both real and imagined.
The army withdrew to Amphipolis, to lick its wounds. Fortunately, casualties had been few, most having been suffered by Pelius and the right flank. Unfortunately, the drip was now a hemorrhage. Every day, Xena was brought news that a few more of her original men and women had deserted her standard. And every day a few more of the hard eyed men stole their way into the depleted ranks, drawn by the blood of Aroilus. By the time the spring moon changed phases, Xena and Lamia were the only women left with the army. Elpinice had departed quietly one evening. Xena had silently watched the woman steal away in the night but was too surprised and saddened to stop her. Let her go, Xena thought, at least I won't have to kill her as I killed Larisa.
Xena remained depressed for days following the battle and sack. The court-martial and its bloody aftermath did not bother her - those caught in its murderous judgment deserved their fate. No, she cried silent tears for the dead women and children of the ruined village - and for the death of Lyssius' dream.
Xena was in constant pain for days following the battle. Not an unmanageable pain, rather a dull ache deep in her stomach and groin, as if a smoldering fire had been built and left to run its course. Bouts of nausea and dizziness afflicted her every morning and her nose constantly bleed for some unknown reason. All in all, she felt as if her life was fast running out, like sand in an hour glass.
Petricles, in between the many duties he and Borias had to perform while Xena recovered, left her alone and watched as the depression and nausea overwhelmed her. He was no longer able to reassure her that things would work out in the end. His inability to bring a smile to her haggard face affected him deeply and he drew back from her, leaving her alone at her most vulnerable time. As the days passed, he packed his things and left their tent, moving in with Borias and Manus - just like old times he told himself, not realizing the lie. As Petricles withdrew his love, Xena's nightmares returned with a vengeance.
Borias took Petricles' place. If the boy will not or cannot help her then I will, he told himself as he attended Xena whenever possible. Xena, at first embarrassed by his attention, soon began to look forward to Borias sitting by her side each evening as they watched the spring sun set in the west. Finally, she expected it as Petricles became more distant. She simply let it happen, not knowing how to rekindle the lost love of her friend. At night, instead of Petricles' comforting presence by her side, Xena found only the nightmares of Lyssius' death and the sack of Aroilus.
True to form, Borias took up sleeping on an old camp bed just outside her tent. Unknown to her, he would hold her as she fought her way through her dreams of death and blood. In the mornings, she did not know it was Borias who had cleaned up her sweat soaked body, who had wiped the blood from her face as she thrashed against the nightmares. She simply did not care anymore.
Borias came awake at the cry that echoed from Xena's tent. Hastily coming to his feet, he ran into the tent. This is not just another dream, he told himself as he ran to Xena's bedside. Coming to a halt beside her bed, he was shocked by the site of a blood soaked woman frantically looking around in paralyzed confusion and anguished pain.
"Oh, Petricles! It hurts!", Xena cried out, not seeing that it was Borias who stood beside her. "It hurts!" Clawing at her shift, Xena brought up bloody hands, leaving scarlet swipes across her face as she covered her mouth to still the moans of pain.
Going to his knees, Borias helped her pull up the shift. What met him constricted his throat. Xena was bloody from the waist down, a slow trickle continuing to seep from between her legs. Pulling her hands away from her face, Borias grabbed the ends of her blanket and put it in her hands, thrusting them between her legs. Despite her pain and confusion, Xena instinctively exerted pressure where the blood flowed. Rising quickly to his feet, Borias swept her up and ran, ran toward the hospital tent where the last of the wounded were still being attended by Lamia.
"Lamia, quickly! Xena's bleeding!", Borias yelled as he entered the tent.
Lamia came awake from where she sat dozing by the tent's entrance. Helping Borias get his bloody charge to a bed in a far corner, Lamia stripped the bloody shift off Xena. Seeing Xena's blood smeared hands thrust between her legs, Lamia knew in an instant what had happened. Turning back to Borias, she thrust him backwards, back toward the entrance to the tent.
"Out!", she yelled at him as he tried to fight his way around her, to return to Xena's side. "You can't help her. Now go find Petricles. Get that worthless snake over here. NOW GO!", she screamed, giving him one final push toward the entrance.
At Lamia's mention of his young friend, it suddenly dawned on Borias what he had seen, what had caused Xena's bloody agony. Turning, he ran for his tent, hoping Petricles was not out on night patrol with the cavalry.
Pausing to regain his composure before entering his tent, Borias was surprised that no one was already stirring inside. Maybe Xena's nightly screams are becoming so common no one take's notice anymore, he thought to himself as he entered the tent. Borias walked slowly to where Petricles slept. Kneeling down by the younger man's sleeping body, Borias gently shook his friend awake.
"Petricles. Wake up, boy.", Borias said gently as the younger man came awake with a start. "You awake?"
"Yeah. What's the matter?", Petricles replied groggily, not yet noticing the blood that covered Borias' hands and tunic. As the sanguine marks on his friend became apparent, Petricles bounded out of bed, grasping his friends arms. "WHAT'S HAPPENED?", he yelled as Borias' grip tightened.
"Calm, boy. It's Xena.", Borias told him quietly. "She's in a bad way. Lamia's got her now. She says - come quickly."
Borias held Petricles in a tight hold as he waited for the man to quit struggling. "Calmly, boy. You'll not help matters by thrashing about."
Petricles suddenly quit struggling and collapsed back on the bed. "You're right.", he told Borias, his voice finally calm. "You would think I'd be used to this by now. What happened?"
"I think I'd better let Lamia explain.", Borias replied. "You ready?"
"Yeah, let's go.", Petricles said, letting his friend help him to his feet.
Lamia met them at the entrance to the hospital tent. She had washed Xena's blood from her hands but telltale streaks still smudged her cheeks and tunic. "Petricles? Xena's all right. One of my assistants is cleaning her up. The bleeding's stopped. Didn't you know?", she asked him, her voice suddenly angry. "Did either of you?"
"Know what?", came a collective reply.
"Xena was pregnant you idiots! She just miscarried!", Lamia angrily told them. "Petricles? You mean you did not know! Borias - pick him up!", she said as Petricles collapsed in shock at her feet.
"Pregnant?", Petricles whispered harshly as Borias helped him back to feet. "How?"
"The same way horses get pregnant! Boy, Xena's right - you really are an ignorant lout. I saw this happening. Two children playing adult and the consequence is a dead baby.", Lamia said, shaking her head.
"Baby? Dead?", Petricles' shocked expression going back to confusion.
"By the Gods, what do you think happens when a woman miscarries. Yes, your baby's dead. Too early to tell what sex the poor thing was.", Lamia told him, regret deep in her voice.
"Why?", asked Borias calmly.
"Probably that blow she took to her waist during the battle. Maybe the stress of having two men love her at the same time. Hades, I don't know. I'm just a midwife. I clean up messes made by people like you two.", Lamia replied, throwing up her arms in disgust.
Borias, startled by Lamia's mention of two lovers, looked away as Petricles' head swivelled in his direction. "Don't look surprised, Petricles.", Lamia's voice arresting any response he had been going to make. "And you Borias, don't think no one hasn't noticed you sleeping outside her tent every night. Between the two of you, you've pretty much confused the hell out of that poor girl in there. Despite all the fancy armor and big muscles, that's just what she is - a girl. Borias, you get out of here. Petricles, if you're rational I'll let you in to see her."
Both men surrendered. Borias slowly walked away, his parting glance trying to see past the tent flap into the room beyond. Petricles merely hung his head and waited for Lamia to lead him into the tent, to his friend's side.
"How can I help?", he asked her softly as they entered the tent.
"Love her.", was the only possible reply.
The next morning found the army leaderless as its three strongest figures were overcome by the events of the night before. Borias, stunned that anyone had taken notice of his growing love for Xena, rode out of camp. His presence would only complicate matters and he was man enough to leave his friends alone in their sorrow. But deep down inside, though the thought almost made him physically ill, he hoped beyond reason that when he returned he would have her love to himself.
Petricles became the boy of seventeen, the soldier and hardened mercenary lost in the confusion and shock of finding out he had been a father, if only for a brief span of time. Confused and not really understanding what had happened, he entangled himself as only inexperienced youth can and in that entanglement spelled the final death knell of the love he and Xena had shared. An entanglement that would ensnare them both far into the future until the boy's death at a faraway time and place.
Xena, as only a woman can, knew the moment her baby had been conceived. It must have been the helmet, she thought to herself in mock frivolity. I was always so careful - except that one time. My poor baby, her inner voice wailed as her outward self tried to keep up appearances with Lamia and the other healers. Lamia was not taken in, she had seen Xena's brittle outward calm on many occasions. Poor girl, Lamia thought as she continued on her rounds.
"Oh, and Xena. I think you can go back to your own tent tonight.", Lamia told Xena as the healer tended to the remaining wounded. "You'll be more comfortable there."
"All right.", Xena replied, her voice distant. "Please have someone find Petricles for me. Have him meet me in our tent."
"I don't think that's wise, Xena.", Lamia told her.
"Have someone find him!", Xena warned the other woman, her voice suddenly hard. "He and I need to talk about this. I need to find out if we're still in love.", she told Lamia, her voice relenting somewhat.
"In lust more like.", Lamia said under her breath. "Yes, Xena.", she replied out loud to Xena's request.
Later that evening after a small meal, Xena and Petricles sat in their tent, sat apart like two strangers at their first meeting. The silence spanned a wide gap between them as they sat and looked everywhere but at each other. Finally, the silence grating on her soul, Xena stood and walked over to her friend. As he looked up at her, Xena gently sat down in his lap, placing her head on his shoulder.
"I lost our baby, Petricles. I'm so sorry.", Xena cried quietly into his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, my friend."
"Don't be sorry, my love.", he told her, stroking her cheek as she cried. "The poor thing's probably better off. We'd make terrible parents."
"What do you mean?", she asked timidly.
"Well, an army camp is no place to raise a child. Especially when both parents could die at any moment.", he replied, not seeing the look that came over her face. "It just wouldn't be right."
"But we can try again. Plan this time.", she said, hope in her voice. "I could go somewhere until the birth. You can lead the army as well as I."
"And after Aroilus where would you be safe without your army.", he told her, avoiding her as she tried to look into his face.
"What does that mean?", she asked, her eyes flashing at his words and his refusal to look at her.
"Come on Xena, you know you'd have to travel quite some distance in any direction to find safety.", he told her. "You've pretty much made yourself unwelcome. Besides, I just don't think children would be right."
"Well, you sure made me welcome in your bed.", she said, her voice unmistakably angry. "And what's this about not being right?", she asked. Then, she caught a glimpse of the look on his face, what she saw made her sick. There on his boyish face was not the love she had once expected to find. It had been replaced by a sullen look, a look that, while not outright contempt, came very close. It was simply avoidance, avoidance of her.
"SO! I'm good enough to bed! Good enough for a fast romp!", she screamed at him as she jumped to her feet, grabbing his tunic front and bringing up with her. "But not good enough to bear your children! YOU BASTARD!", she yelled, thrusting him away from her.
"No. That's not it.", he told her, trying to regain his composure and quell her anger. "Xena, I love you. It's just that you ....".
"SPIT IT OUT, BOY! I'm a KILLER!", she screamed. "That's what you're always throwing at me. Isn't that right, boy!"
Petricles' stood his ground as her words of hurt and anguish flowed over him. But as she called him 'boy', with the same inflection often used by Borias, his anger flared. It was enough that he felt outclassed by the older man, to discover that Borias was trying to steal a march on him when it came to Xena's affection. But to hear his old friend's voice in hers sent him beyond control, beyond reason.
"All Right! That's why!, he screamed back at her. "You are a killer. Oh, I've killed in battle, many times, but you Xena, you love it. You don't know when to stop. And, you don't know how to stop this war you've started. Children would just be in your way. They have no place in your life. Xena....".
Xena went white with shock at his words, at the wounds they carved deep within her soul. And then her anger came and with it a murderous rage. She hit him with all her strength, her arm at full extension upon impact. Fortunately, Petricles saw the blow coming and was able to deflect some of the force but not enough. The impact dropped him to the ground, blood spurting from the open wound to his cheek. He sat in pain, wiping blood from his face. Looking up he saw that her rage had disappeared, replaced by a look of terror, the terror he had seen once before so many nights ago.
Xena just stood paralyzed and watched as he mopped blood from his damaged cheek. We've both gone too far, she thought somehow through the anguish at what she had just done. We'll never repair the hurt our words have inflected. It was over. Turning, she fled from his presence, tears of mixed anguish, rage, and sorrow blinding her as she stumbled through the late spring night. As she ran, Xena brushed blood from her nose as it seeped onto her upper lip.
Several days later, Xena summoned the courage to complete the task she had come home to perform - she visited Lyssius. Since her final break with her friend, Xena had walked the camp in a daze. Everyone who knew the two lovers understood what had happened. Some were too afraid to console her, fearful of her anger. Most were just content to stand aside and let matters play to the inevitable conclusion. Petricles just made himself scarce, not fearful for his life - fearful for hers.
"Oh, little brother. I've made a frightful mess of things.", Xena spoke to Lyssius' sarcophagus, resting her head against the dusty stone head that looked so much like him. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she wiped the dust from the stone face, the tears making muddy patches in the lines. "I've driven everyone away. Mother, Cassy, even Petricles. It's like everything I touch turns to ash. Where did I go wrong? I just wanted to complete your crusade, little brother. Wanted to be the hero."
As she sat there and quietly cried her tears of grief, she heard a rustle of cloth and dusty feet behind her. Without even looking up from Lyssius' stone face, she knew it could only be her friend.
"Come on in, my friend. I won't bite.", she said softly to Petricles as he stood in silence at the door to the tomb. "The teeth have been drawn. I'm just an old worn out bitch with no pups."
"Oh, I don't know. You're not so old.", Petricles replied, attempting to be charming. "And you'll never be worn out."
"I'm sorry, my friend. As I once told you, your charm is lost on me. Maybe that's what went wrong.", she told him as he sat down at her side on the cold stone. "Maybe I should have let you charm me."
"You're wrong. Charm would never work with you. And, you would not be 'you' if it did. That - 'you' - is what I fell in love with." he told her.
His words were badly phrased but she understood the meaning behind them as they sat next to each other in silence. For a long time, these two very young people sat in silence remembering various things, neither wanting to reveal their thoughts to the other just in case further hurt was given unknowingly. Finally, Xena stood and pulled her one time lover to his feet beside her. Whispering in his ear, she left him standing alone as he watched her fleeing back.
"I loved you, my friend.", She had told him.
Tears came to Petricles' eyes as he caught a glimpse of silver at her wrist as she fled.
The next day Petricles returned to Lyssius' tomb to say his own goodby to his old friend. I did not toy with her love my friend, he silently told Lyssius' stone form. I did as you said and loved her dearly. But somewhere, it just wasn't enough for her. I couldn't give her what she wanted most.
"I still love her, my friend", Petricles told the silent tomb as he turned to leave for the last time.
As he walked past the brazier near the entrance, Petricles saw a bit a melted silver in the cold coals. Beside the silver was a burnt scrape of scarlet cloth, nearly blackened with soot.
That night Petricles left Xena's army, left his friend and departed. He had lost everything, his band of mercenaries, his long time friends, and the one person whom he had found to love with all his heart. Oh, his charming ways would return, with time. And, he would once again become the rogue with the ladies, his reputation untarnished. But he would not return to Xena. Never again would he be able to give of himself the way he had given to her. The understanding that his young life had come to a crossroads saddened him. It had been so much fun while it lasted, he thought. But then it came to him that its being 'fun' was just the point. Grow up boy, he told himself, hearing Borias in his thoughts.
As he rode along the road north of Amphipolis, Petricles' thoughts were interrupted by a male bass singing a well known riding song softly up ahead. Reining in, Petricles spied his old friend and mentor sitting by the side of the road, his horse grazing off to the side.
"Leaving without saying goodby, boy?', asked Borias as he stood to his feet. "You'll have a nice scar once your face heals.", he chuckled as the younger man blushed.
"No, I just thought you'd want a clear path without any trouble from me.", replied Petricles, looking off in the distance, the conversation already uncomfortable. "You won."
"Boy, that's the attitude that got you into this predicament.", Borias laughed. "You sometimes show your age, son. And it isn't a pretty sight."
"And I guess you can do better?", replied Petricles sullenly. "You'll get your chance."
"My only question boy, is: did you love her? Really love her?", Borias asked, his laughter gone as he became deadly serious.
"Yes, I loved her. Loved her more than anything I've ever loved before.", Petricles told the older man, looking him in the eyes for the first time since riding up. "I know what you think. That I'm still a boy. And I know what you think of my reputation as a charmer. But, Borias, I did love her."
"I'm sorry, son.", Borias said.
"Don't be. I tried and lost." Petricles replied. "But Borias, the woman is coming apart. I'd almost say she's possessed by the Gods. No, my old friend, I leave her in your hands. Love her if you can, but watch your back nonetheless. Maybe you can change her. You're almost old enough to be her father. Maybe that's what she needs to steady her."
"Makes no difference, boy.", Borias told the younger man. "I've fought all across this land. I've fought for Boeotia, I've fought for Aetolia, I've even fought for the Thessalians. But no where have I found a soul to match hers. She is a prize worth fighting for, worth dying for. I hate to say this, son, but you lost her simply because you're a boy and she's a girl. I'll not make that mistake."
"Well, just take good care of her - and her sanity.", Petricles replied.
"Don't worry, son. I will. Of both.", Borias said. "But don't come back. She'll kill you if you flaunt it at her."
"No. I'll not return.", Petricles said, an unbidden tear coming to his eye. "She made it very clear in what shape she'd leave me if our paths ever cross again. Goodby, Borias, old friend. Watch your back.", Petricles concluded as he turned his horse and rode it up the road.
"Never fear, son. I will.", replied Borias as he watched until his young friend was out of sight around the last bend.
The last bend on the road from Amphipolis.
And so my friends went their separate ways. One went to the heights of infamy, the other into obscurity. Though he regained an army, Petricles never again enjoyed conquest as much as he had when he rode at Xena's side. Oh, he enjoyed battle, he had been born and bred for its heady rush. But, the aftermath had forever lost its appeal to him. So no one remembers Petricles, except those who died at his hand in battle. He left no lasting mark on the world. Until the end that is, then his life came down to one last sacrifice, one last giving of himself for another - he saved my life.
And there at the end of his life, he and Xena had a reconciliation of sorts. Her epiphany came when she discovered he had kept, and prized, his wedding bracelet all those long years. Had kept alive, somewhere deep inside himself, his love for 'my girl'. There at the end, my oldest friend discovered something else. She discovered she still loved the roguish mercenary who rode into her young life and stole her heart so many years before.
With Petricles' departure, my friend found and captured the heart of the most important love of her life. She discovered the worthy Borias shining like a golden god amongst the shambles of her life. And she loved him, not as she loved Petricles - with wild abandon and girlish zest. No, Xena loved Borias, as we shall see, with almost matronly grace and maturity. For she had grown up, at least in the world of love, and was a better person for the experience. For a brief span of time.
Translator's note: Once again, I have found that our bard, Gabrielle, attached margin notes to her original manuscript. As before, it is my assumption that the bard wanted posterity to know Xena's reactions to the story just told.
"All right, Gabrielle. I admit it. I DID love Petricles.", Xena told her friend, laying aside the manuscript and sitting back in her chair. Xena's face became thoughtful as she waited for Gabrielle to respond.
"Now, doesn't that make you feel better.", Gabrielle replied, slyly looking at Xena out of the corner of her eye.
"Yes and No.", Xena said as she looked over at Gabrielle.
"As usual - a cryptic response.", Gabrielle replied, looking directly at Xena, her eyebrow raised in emphasis.
"Gabrielle!", Xena exclaimed. "You know what I mean."
"Do I? Come on Xena. Admit it, you treated the boy pretty shabbily. Now, didn't you?", Gabrielle told her friend, smiling as Xena began squirming in her chair.
"Well, I suppose I did. I....".
"CHOOSE XENA!", shouted Gabrielle, laughing as Xena jumped at her yell.
"All right! All right!", exclaimed Xena, fidgeting, her hands beating a nervous tattoo on the chair arm. "Don't yell. Yes, I did. But he was just as responsible."
"Yes, he was.", agreed Gabrielle, her face know serious.
"Thank you.", replied Xena, also serious. "When I lost our child, my love for him must have died along with that poor baby. He could make me so mad at times. At least Ares stayed out of it.", Xena told Gabrielle, looking away as a tear came to her strong face.
"You were a pretty mixed up little girl back then, weren't you?", Gabrielle observed.
"Gabrielle! I was NEVER a little girl!", Xena replied, her voice rising as she turned to look at Gabrielle.
"Born with a sword in your hands - were you?", asked Gabrielle innocently.
"No, mother's pelvis was too narrow. The sword came later.", Xena replied, a smile breaking out on her angry face. "But, I was never a little girl."
"Sure you were. Always flashing your scanties at the boys. Riding half naked in the spring air. Pretty girlish if you ask me.", Gabrielle chuckled, waiting for Xena's inevitable explosion.
"GABRIELLE!", Xena responded as expected.
"Admit it, Xena. You LOVED flashing old Petricles and the boys.", Gabrielle giggled, watching Xena's face as a bright blush broke out across the wide cheeks.
"GABRIELLE!", Xena yelled, bounding to her feet and pointing a long boned finger at her friend. "I AM NOT AN EXHIBITIONIST!", she yelled, stamping her foot to emphasize her anger.
"Sure you are. Admit it, Xena. You loved it!", laughed Gabrielle as Xena's blush deepened in forced acknowledgement.
"OH YOU!", Xena yelled, running from the room in embarrassed haste.
"Admit it, my girl. You loved him and you loved showing off for him.", Gabrielle told Xena's retreating back. Gabrielle giggled as crockery began to break in the next room.
As Xena's anger was released on their dishes, Gabrielle retrieved an old parchment from a stack at her side. Opening it, the bard re-read, for the thousandth time, the poem her friend had written following Petricles' death. The pain of the poem brought a tear to Gabrielle's eyes as she thought about her two friends - Xena and Petricles.
A mood I've often felt before.
Will it become disquietude?
Na - just a lonesome pensiveness,
From pain not dulled these past long years.
You can't sit still in this old
And not make waves, or take a stand;
Without a thought, I fell in love.
We joined as one for a brief
With hopes beyond our reach and years;
Our love ran free, our hearts grew near.
For a brief while you were my life,
Before our fates and time collide;
With love turned into burning ash
We parted ways with emptiness.
So now the lies can surely wait,
Suspected not or called upon,
For neither of us have the need.
To me it now seems so unreal,
Like scenes from a mysterious dream,
Of ghosts and tangled imagery.
I've travelled so much farther since
Known many places with different ways,
While in my heart I've kept no slaves,
But, oh, the loves I've filtered out.
What did I truly know of him?
I see with eyes the memory of you
Though which the lie and which the truth?
Here at the end what did I find
A comrade and trust - OH YES! - but then
No chance had I to say goodby.
Oh Zeus, who's so unreal to us,
A mask and shield to hide behind,
Be gentle to this man's remains -
He died before I made amends.
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