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Blood and Honor

by Kaiser

 

THE LEGAL STUFF:

   This is a work of fiction.  Any characters in this story that have ever appeared on XWP or HTLJ belong to MCA/Universal, Renaissance, and anyone else specified by their lawyers.  I only claim the characters I have created for my stories, and to the scenario itself.  Anyone who wants to borrow from the story is welcome to, just let me know. (This includes writers from the show, who may use it at no charge if they like it).

   Please send questions or comments to <dcogar@iolinc.net.  Feedback of any kind is always appreciated.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This story is set before the events of "The Deliverer".  Xena and Gabrielle have not suffered a complete massacre of their relationship yet, but they still have their differences.

NOTE: >>Text bracketed by arrows represents private thoughts<<.
 

*   *   *   *   *   * 

CHAPTER ONE

 

   The village of Phaeca was a smoldering ruin.  Muddy streets, which had been filled with people the previous day, were now filled with blood and bodies.  Mostly livestock, Ares noticed with disgust.  The villagers had fled before general Mardonius and his warriors could do much damage.  It was going to take all year to depopulate the valley at this rate.

   "Mardonius!" he roared.  "Where in Tartarus is your cavalry?  I gave you those horsemen so you could chase down civilians, not to have a parade!"

   A cluster of men at the edge of the village broke up and a tall, rugged-looking warrior left his place at the center to report to his master.  The weary warlord muttered something under his breath as he approached, but when he dropped to his knees before Ares his expression was of pure adoration.

   Ares sneered at him, seeing the act for what it was.  "Well?"

   Mardonius shrugged.  "The peasants fled into the forest again, lord Ares.  Cavalry isn't very effective when the riders are getting their brains knocked out by low branches, and the last time I sent troops in on foot I only got the heads back."

   "I'm sick of your excuses.  If these damned trees are such a problem then why don't you burn them, idiot?"  The god of war turned on his heel and glared into the woods, searching for a sign of life.  "It's not like you need the woods any more than you need those pathetic farmers."

   Mardonius cleared his throat.  "Actually, I was hoping to keep some of them alive, my lord.  After all, a conqueror with no subjects doesn't have much to brag about."

   "I didn't bring you here so you could lord it over the swineherds, fool.  I don't care about the trees, I don't care about the pigs, and I don't care about the people."  He turned to face his latest favorite, his eyes blazing with such fury that even the hardest of mercenaries backed away.

   "Let me tell you what I do want," he continued.  "I want blood from one end of this valley to the other.  I want the men, the women and the children dead!  I want their homes burned to ash!  I want their fields and crops turned to wasteland!"  He finally turned his attention to the hapless Mardonius.  "I expect you to give me the results I want within two months.  If you can't do it then I'll send a professional to finish the job and finish you."

   The warlord nodded and grunted a reply.  Satisfied, Ares vanished in a burst of flames.

   "Send a professional," Mardonius mocked as he got to his feet.  "You steal my idea, take over the whole operation, change all of my plans, and when they fall apart you blame me?  You can kiss my--"

   "General!"  one of his men snapped.  "You mustn't talk that way!  He's a god, he hears everything!"

   "I know what he is," the general snarled.  "Crazy, lazy and impatient.  He wants this valley leveled in two months? Then he had better send me an assistant."  He laughed.
 
   A gray-haired veteran stroked his beard as he thought about it.  "Might not be a bad idea, general."

   "What do you mean?"

   "Hire someone with different tactics and a more dangerous reputation.  Face it, we were the terror of Troy, but nobody in Thessaly shakes at the mention of your name.  Pay someone these pig-farmers are afraid of... and who knows something about fighting in these forests... to do the dirty work for you."

   Mardonius considered it for a moment.  "You have a point. It's not like I won't be able to afford it after Ares rewards me."

   "It's a good plan, general," the old warrior encouraged him.

   "All right, I'll do it.  Go talk to some local and find out who in all of Greece has the most murderous reputation.  Then arrange for them to come here.  Don't tell them anything specific, I'll work out the details with them later."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   "Tell me again why we're going to Thessaly," Gabrielle grumbled.  She marched along sullenly as Xena rode northward.  Xena sighed.  The bard had been griping ever since she heard the destination.  Apparently she hadn't yet forgiven the soldiers there for nearly killing her.

   "You read the letter to me, Gabrielle, remember?  Ares has sent one of his armies to Thessaly and has them destroying a populated valley.  Whoever wrote the letter said that they'd heard of my reputation and that they wanted my help.  They need to end the war quickly or theyíll be destroyed."

   They trudged along in silence.  "That's not very specific," Gabrielle muttered.  "They don't even tell you who is fighting whom over what."

   "As long as it isn't about sports or religion I don't care," Xena growled.  "No Thessalians were killed in that brawl at the Olympics, and I hear they've cleared up their religious problems with their neighbors.  Probably just some third-rate warlord looking to make a name for himself."

   Xena looked down at her companion, who was plodding along silently.  "Gabrielle, I know what you're thinking.  I'll be more careful this time-- we both will.  I won't let anything happen to you."

   The bard shivered slightly.  "Dying isn't something I like doing.  If we could skip that part this time I'd be really grateful."

   "You and me both."  The two travelers continued on up the coast road.  Neither spoke about their last experience in this ravaged kingdom.
 

CHAPTER TWO

   Xena and Gabrielle arrived in the small village of Pialia five days later.  The pleasant little farm town had become an armed camp, surrounded by a log stockade and guarded by men armed with pitchforks.  There were few women or children to be seen.  Everywhere they looked they sensed an aura of tension and fear.  A few of the older folk watcher her warily.

   The warrior got off her horse and walked into the village with Gabrielle at her side.  Armed men pointed at them and watched her closely.  Xena's face tightened.  Her army had passed through this valley once, years ago, while raiding for supplies. Old memories died hard.

   The two women followed a straight path toward the tavern, just as the letter had asked.  The farmers watched her pass.  She could feel their eyes on her, and she tensed up in case she felt that warning tingle that preceded a knife in the back.  Gabrielle was jumping at shadows, breathing fast, and obviously expecting the same.  Xena couldn't help but sympathize with her.  The girl wasn't used to facing death yet.

   Xena sat down at a corner table where she could watch for any attack and calmly ordered a drink.  The bard slid onto the bench beside her and did the same.  "Now we wait," the warrior told her, trying to sound confident.

   "What if this is a trap?" Gabrielle asked nervously.

   Xena shook her head.  "I doubt they'd go to all this trouble.  If they wanted us dead they would have tried something by now.  They're just testing us."  She took a sip of the slightly bitter local wine and thought about what they'd seen on the road.  Most of the valley was deserted when they passed through and about half of the villages were burned out ruins.  These people were obviously desperate, otherwise they never would have asked for her.

   After they had sat in silence for a few minutes with the eyes of the entire village on them, someone finally approached them.  Xena watched her calmly.  It was a small, middle-aged woman with blond hair and a fierce expression.  She stopped in front of the two travelers and glared down at them coldly.

   "Xena," she said bitterly.  "I had hoped never to see you here again."

   "Larissa," Xenaís eyes narrowed slightly.  "I take it that you sent the letter?"

   "My husband Phidon did," she replied tightly.  "He was killed shortly after the messenger left."

   Xena nodded.  She remembered Phidon and Larissa as the leaders who had stood up to her army years before.  Both of them had been strong and determined, and neither of them had been willing to submit while her men looted their town.  >>If Phidon was willing to ask for my help, things must be worse than I thought.<<

   The warrior princess gestured at the bench in front of her.  "Sit.  Tell us what's going on."  Larissa sank down stiffly and continued to glare.  Gabrielle tried to put her at ease, without much luck.

   The woman told them her story in clipped, angry tones.  Their valley had been home to peaceful farmers for generations.  With the exception of Xena's raid six years ago, no warlord had bothered them.  There was simply nothing worth stealing there.  There was nothing but goats, scrub and a few miserable sheep.

   Then, a few months ago, a poor farmer named Eticles had discovered gold while watering his goats at the head of the stream.  He had taken a few nuggets into the village and proceeded to drink them away, babbling about his discovery to anyone who would listen.  The valley folk were overjoyed at first, thinking that all of their problems were over.  Then word had gotten out of the valley, and news of the gold discovery brought Ares and his warlords into the picture.

   The tiny valley had been a battleground for weeks as rival bands fought over the gold.  The Thessalian army, still recovering from its own recent wars, wasnít willing to go against Ares directly.  That left the farmers on their own, and they were dying by the hundreds.

   "So we sent for you," Larissa finished.  Her eyes were fixed coldly on their old enemy.

   "You did the right thing," Gabrielle told her.

   "Lets hope so," she replied.  "The last thing we need is to bring in another killer."

   Xenaís lips tightened into a grim line.  Every time she thought the past was behind her someone slapped her in the face with it.  "I'm not the same person I was when I sacked your village.  I came here to save you if I can, not to destroy you."

   One of the men nodded hopefully.  "You came just in time then.  We've heard that General Mardonius is offering a reward to anyone who can wipe us out in his name.  The word is that Ares wants us out by the end of next month or he'll take over personally."

   "Why don't you just offer a bigger reward to collect an army of your own?" Gabrielle asked.  "With a gold mine, paying them shouldnít be much of a problem."

   "Two reasons.  First, any army we did call in would probably claim the gold mine themselves and turn us into slave labor.  Second, we have nothing to pay them with.  The mine is hidden, but Mardonius controls that part of the valley."  The villager spat.  "What little money we do have is taken by his soldiers in return for leaving this village standing.  How much longer they'll spare us I don't know."

   "When do you expect them to come next?" Xena asked thoughtfully.

   "Later today.  I hear theyíre meeting someone, but I donít know who."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   The streets were deserted by mid-afternoon.  The only activity was in the tavern, where Xena and Gabrielle waited with a dozen of the best fighters in the valley.  Except for a few village drunks, everyone else was safely hidden in the woods.

   Braxos and his men swaggered through the center of town with their usual arrogance, knocking over crates and helping themselves to whatever they liked.  When he was certain they'd impressed the villagers with their power he led them into the tavern.  They flung the door open with a crash and stomped in, looking at Xena and her nervous backers with amusement.

   Braxos sneered.  The sheep were going to stand up to the wolves.  And who was this new woman who led them?  "What's your name, pretty?"

   "Xena.  Perhaps you've heard of me?"  She planted the tip of her sword in the floorboards and leaned on it casually.  "This valley is under my protection.  You and your scum have three days to clear out.  After that I get nasty."

   Braxos laughed.  "Yeah, we've heard of you.  The last I heard, you were playing bodyguard to some discus thrower in Olympia.  Whatís the matter, did the warrior princess lose her nerve?"

   Xena smiled back at him.  "I didn't lose my nerve, I just prefer those small, intimate fights.  Unlike yourself, who seems to need twenty armed men at his back before he'll face a scared farmer.  Do you need them to hold your women down as well?"

   The mercenary's face twisted.  "Kill them!"  His gang surged forward.  The farmers split up and tried to go two on one against each of the soldiers while Xena and Gabrielle went into action alone.  The warrior princess drew her sword and launched an attack with a furious cry.  Gabrielle took the defensive approach, standing guard over the helpless drunks and flattening anyone who came into staff range.

   Xena went for the leader first off.  She'd dealt with their kind many times and knew that if he fell the fight would go out of the rest.  He was a skilled warrior and they traded kicks and sword blows for several minutes.  She sliced him along the ribs and he nicked her shoulder.  He kicked her in the side of the head, which stunned her for a moment, but she recovered quickly and smashed the back of her fist into his nose.  The farmers had taken down two of the soldiers, but they were taking a beating in the process.  Gabrielle was holding her position, keeping the drunks alive and guarding Xena's back.

   It wasn't Xena who struck the last blow.  She kicked her opponent back into the bar; he knocked Gabrielle aside and landing nearly on top of one of a snoring man dressed in black leather.  Drunk or not, he reacted like a well-oiled machine.  Without looking up he kicked the stool out from under the struggling brute, elbowed him in the groin and punched him once in the throat as he fell.  Braxos gagged and lay still.  The others, seeing their leader fall, broke and ran.

   Xena panted for breath as she looked around the bar.  Five soldiers were down and would fight no more.  Seven of the farmers were wounded or out cold.  She and Gabrielle had a collection of scrapes and bruises and the bard was bleeding from a nasty gash above her eye.  The drunken warrior had come out of the fight in the best condition.

   She pressed a cloth to her bleeding shoulder and walked over to him, careful to get his attention before she touched him.  "I don't know who you are, but thank you.  You're welcome at my back any time."

  "It wash nuthin'," he mumbled.  Xena frowned at the familiar voice.  Gabrielle's eyes widened.

   "Meleager?" she asked.  "Is that you?"

   The gray-haired man stumbled to his feet, wobbling unsteadily, and turned to face them.   After staring blearily at them for a few seconds he finally recognized them and grinned broadly.  "Gabirella!  Sheena!  Ish been a lawn time..." As the women stared, Meleager the Mighty took a slow step forward.  His eyes rolled back and he toppled straight forward into Xena's arms.

   Gabrielle looked at him with concern.  "Is he dead?"

   Xena gave her a disgusted look, wrinkling her nose at the strong smell of alcohol.  "Just dead drunk.  Again."
 

CHAPTER THREE

   The villagers tallied up their losses grimly.  Theyíd beaten five of the warlordís men at a cost of seven of their own.  There were at least four hundred men under Mardonius, but only a few dozen trained fighters living in the valley.  The odds didnít look promising.

   Xena wasnít willing to give up so easily.  Over the next few days she and Gabrielle began collecting men and women who showed any kind of fighting skill from all over the valley.  The former warlord was able to whip them into shape fairly quickly, and by the time another raiding party came to test them the village boasted a reasonably effective defense.  Outnumbered four to one, the mercenaries fled without much of a fight.  The raid cost Pialia six of her defenders, while Mardonius lost twelve good men and all their equipment.

   It was the equipment problem that really plagued them, and caused Xena and Gabrielle more than one sleepless night.  No matter how fast she could train them, it was still almost impossible for farmers with pitchforks to fight off heavily armed professional soldiers.  Xena had converted the forge to an armory and had the older villagers making leather armor as fast as they could, but she feared it would be too little or too late.

   "What we need are trained fighters," Xena growled one evening.  "Even a few would make a difference."  She propped her chin on her hands and stared into the fire.  Gabrielle sat down beside her and leaned comfortably against her friend.  Xena made no move, simply glaring into the fire.  The bard could swear that the flames brightened in a response to her friendís irritation.

   "The only way we can win this fight is if I can make each of our people fight like ten of theirs, and in just two months it isnít going to happen.  I wonder what Ares would do if I killed off his commander?"

   Gabrielle glanced at her with concern.  "Probably call in another warlord.  As much as I wish we could end this war with only one death, I donít think Ares would be stopped so easily.  Why does he care about this stupid gold mine, anyway?  What is a god going to spend money on?"

   "Troops.  Rewards for his faithful followers.  Horses and battle gear for a stronger army.  Anything that will help him realize his dream of an entire world under his rule."  Xena shook her head.  "He canít just wave his hands and make all that appear; Zeus wouldnít allow that kind of interference in the mortal world.  So he sends his armies to steal what he needs.  Zeus doesnít care how many mortals kill each other for the glory of the gods, as long as none of his children get their own hands bloody."

   Xenaís voice was bitter.  Over the years since she had left the war godís service she had begun to discover how his mind worked.  It still galled her to know that she had been manipulated to fulfil his insane plans.  Gabrielle stroked her shoulder sympathetically.
 
   "I canít afford to divide my forces.  I canít afford to send these farmers into a pitched battle.  I canít afford to just sit here and wait.  And youíre right, killing Mardonius himself probably wouldnít make a difference.  We need some kind of advantage, but I donít see any."

   Gabrielle pursed her lips thoughtfully.  "How about one warrior who fights like three hundred?"  She pointed over her shoulder to the snoring lump at the far end of the room.

   "Who, Meleager?"  Xena sounded less than enthusiastic.  In response to his name the old warrior belched and began to slowly slide out of his chair.  Xena watched him with one eyebrow raised.  Gabrielle, oblivious to the action behind her, leaned toward her friend with a hopeful expression.

   "Come on, Xena, even you have to admit that heís good.  Heís almost as good as you.  If we sober him up and get him into fighting condition youíll have Ares and Mardonius running scared."

   Meleager hit the floor with a thud.  He uttered a loud and nearly incoherent curse, then rolled over and began snoring again.  Xenaís eyebrow inched higher.  Gabrielle turned to see what the noise was.

   "If you think heís worth it, you give it your best shot.  Iíll think it over if you can keep him from getting staggering drunk until the end of the week."  The warrior woman looked at Meleager with pity and sad recognition.  She had battled her own addictions over the years.  She understood far better than Gabrielle did how hard it would be for him.

   Gabrielle nodded defiantly.  "We can do it.  Youíll see."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   The next morning, while Xena drilled her small band in the village center, Gabrielle was trying to get her idea into one warriorís fogged brain.  She was talking as slowly and plainly as she could while he wobbled in place.

   "I know you arenít feeling well right now, but itís important for you to listen.  This valley is under attack by a powerful warlord, and Xena and I canít defend it alone.  We need your help.  Is there anything we can do to clear your head faster?"  Gabrielle, never having been drunk in her life, was completely lost.

   Meleager squinted at the blurry figure in front of him.  "Do I know you?" he muttered.

   She sighed.  "Itís me, Gabrielle of Potiedaia.  Xenaís friend.  The bard?"  She began to look worried as he continued to shake his head slowly.

   "Shorry, I donít... sheem ta remember ya."  The older man didnít look healthy and was looking worse every moment.  Gabrielle recognized the sickly greenish tint in his face and started looking around for the bucket.

   He belched loudly.  "Iím fine.  Jush need some fresh air to shettle..." He belched again and his eyes began to water.  "Gimme the bucket."

   Gabrielle sighed and handed it over.  This is going to be harder than I thought.<<
 

CHAPTER FOUR

   The next day Meleager looked and felt more like his old self, though he claimed he didnít remember much of the previous week.  Xena wasnít surprised.  The barkeep said heíd ridden into town two days before she did and had been drinking as if his life depended on it ever since.  Still, they needed all the help they could get, and at the moment he was it.

   Xena escorted him out onto the training field where the villagers waited.  She couldnít suppress a smile as he flinched and squinted in the sunlight, which wasnít terribly bright that day.  He looked at the assembly rather wearily.  At least he could focus on it, she noticed.  That was a promising sign.

   Gabrielle whistled for attention, causing Meleager to moan softly.  "People of Pialia!  This is Meleager the Mighty, a famous warrior.  Heís going to help us fight the men who are threatening your village."  The bardís voice went into its most impressive tone, causing Meleager to wince and blink at every word.

   "This is the man who single-handedly killed three hundred and seventeen trained warriors at the Battle of Liguria.  With him on our side, Mardonius doesnít stand a chance."

   Meleager froze.  Xena caught his reaction and looked at him with concern.  "Whatís wrong?"

   He leaned closer and whispered to her.  "Did she just say you were fighting Mardonius?"

   "Yes.  Do you know him?"

   "Unfortunately."  He kicked savagely at a small pebble in the road.  "I knew I should have stayed drunk.  Iím not going to be fighting with you this time, Xena."

   She glanced at him in shock.  "What are you saying?  Heís a third-rate warlord.  What could you possibly have to be afraid of?"

   He looked at her sadly, his lips pressed into a grim line.  "Fear isnít the problem here, Xena."

   Gabrielle had finished working up the crowd and turned back to her friends with I triumphant smile.  "What do you say, Meleager?  Ready to go to work?"

   "Iím already working, Gabrielle.  For Mardonius."

   Gabrielle dropped her staff as the crowd erupted in shock and fear.  "What did you say?"

   "Mardonius sent me a letter a few weeks ago, asking for help to put down a rebellion in Thessaly.  He didnít say they were just farmers trying to protect themselves.  He also sent me ten thousand dinars to sweeten the deal."

   Xenaís eyes narrowed dangerously.  "Youíre going to slaughter a valley full of innocent civilians for ten thousand dinars?"  Her voice dripped with contempt.

   Meleager bristled.  "As I recall that was more your style, Xena.  I had a lot of old debts to settle.  Before I even left for Thessaly that money was already spent.  If I had known what he was really hiring me for I would have given it back to him, but now itís too late."

   "What does that have to do with anything?"  Gabrielle asked.  Her lip was quivering, and for a moment she looked like a child about to burst into tears.

   Meleager forced his expression to harden.  "It has to do with professional honor.  I took his money and spent it.  Now I owe him my services, at least until I can find some other way to pay him back."

   "Is your sense of honor worth that much to you?"

   "My honor is my life.  Without it Iím better off dead."  He began walking down the road toward the warlordís camp, past the angry crowd.  "I really am sorry about this, Xena.  My advice would be to move everyone out.  I donít want to kill these people or you. But I will if you stand in my way."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   "Hey general... youíre not going to believe this!"

   Mardonius grumbled as he put down the weapon he was polishing and poked his head out of the tent.  "What is it, another visit from Ares?  If thatís all then donít bother me."

   "No sir."  The sentry pointed.  "Look whoís coming down the road."

   The general squinted.  "Meleager?  That drunken fool has a lot of guts coming here after what he pulled."

   "Do you want us to kill him?"

   "Not yet.  Weíll let him apologize and beg for his life first."  Mardonius left his tent and walked into the center of the camp, where he waited with his guards.  Meleager walked into their camp without fear, stopping ten paces in front of the general.

   The warlord glared at him coldly.  "I hope you brought back my money you worthless sot."

   "The money is gone, but itís been well-spent.  Youíve bought yourself the services of Meleager the Mighty."

   Mardonius sneered.  "I donít need you any more.  Iíve already hired someone else. All I want from you is my ten thousand dinars, although I doubt weíll ever see it again."

   Meleager took a comfortable stance in the middle of the road.  "I donít care if you need me or not.  I owe you, and I always repay my debts.  Until I can return your money, youíll just have to use me.  Looks like youíve got yourself two warriors now."

   A deep, confident voice answered him.  "I donít work with drunken old washouts."

   Meleager turned slightly as the newcomer approached.  He was a young man, tall and muscular, looking grim as death itself in his black leather outfit.  There was a long sword slung at his hip, and the cord-wrapped hilt was worn with use.  Meleager sized him up carefully.  He looked dangerous, but he was youthful for a warlord.  Too young to have seen much action.

   Mardonius pointed at the dark warrior.  "This is the famous Eutropius of Megara.  Your replacement."  He smiled wickedly.

   The old veteran stared at the young man with a faint smirk.  "Eutropius?  Never heard of you."

   The dark man sneered back.  "Iíve heard of you.  You used to be quite a man, twenty years ago. I thought you died at the Battle of Liguria."

   "No, that was Marius the Magnificent.  Itís probably better that he died since people always got us confused.  Never liked him much anyway."

   Eutropius grinned and stalked down toward his rival.  The hardened warriors of Thessaly melted out of his path.  "You should have crawled back under your barstool and died years ago.  Youíre a disgrace to the profession."

   Meleager broadened his smirk as he watched the enemy advance.  "And just how good are you, boy?"

   "Iím as good with a sword as I hear you are with your jug."  There was a roar of laughter from the gathered soldiers behind him.  Meleagerís eyes narrowed at the insult.  The youngster's grin widened.  "Why donít I show you just how good I am before I go and put those farmers in their place?"

   "Why donít you?" the veteran growled.  Eutropius drew his sword and began to circle.  Meleager just turned in place and watched him, waiting for the opening.  He hadnít even drawn his blade yet.  His hand was wrapped loosely around its hilt as he waited patiently, looking absolutely relaxed.

   Eutropius ran out of patience first.  He raised his sword and began a flashy, spinning slash that would have taken Meleagerís head off.  Meleager whipped his sword out in a smooth motion of his own, slicing across his enemyís exposed belly and spinning out of the way as Eutropius stumbled forward.  The young man dropped to his knees in the dust, looking up at Meleager with a disbelieving stare.

   Meleager looked into his eyes, remorseless.  "I guess you arenít as good as you thought, boy."  Eutropius looked down at the ground and the spreading pool of blood as he wrapped his arms around his body, trying to hold himself together.  Meleager squelched his sense of pity.  The boy would have done worse to any villagers heíd caught, and done it with a smile.  The old warrior slashed him once across the throat, as a final mercy to a dying man, and wiped his sword clean on the fancy leathers.

   "Are you certain you donít need me? This boy seems to have lost his guts for the fight.."

   Mardonius looked up from the corpse and smiled savagely.  "I think you made the choice for me.  When can you start?"
 

CHAPTER FIVE

   "I canít believe Meleager turned against us like that!" Gabrielle snapped.  She was doing her staff practice as Xena watched, and pounding a large sandbag to dust as she swung angrily.  "After everything weíve done for him over the years, he goes over to the enemy!"

   Xena glanced at her calmly.  "Heís honoring his debts. You and I may not agree, but that doesnít make him wrong.  I doubt he likes it much himself."  She went back to polishing a nick out of her sword blade.

   "So heís going to fight the people who helped and sheltered him?"  Gabrielle hit her target once more and the sandbag burst, scattering grains all over the room.  "Iíve done some things I wasnít happy about because of my beliefs, true.  I never betrayed a friend because of them. If he meets you in battle heís going to try to kill you."

   Xena didnít reply.  She had already thought of that possibility and she didnít relish the thought of fighting him.  She wasnít even entirely certain that she would win.  Avoiding him and working around him seemed like a better plan.  Gabrielle went to bed a short time later.  Xena remained in the tavern for a while longer, staring into the fire and wondering what she would have to do.  A lot of the spirit she had instilled in her troops went out of them when they realized that Meleager would be fighting against them.  His reputation was as murderous as her own.
 

*     *     *     *     *

   The next few days were quiet all around the valley.  Xena wasnít sure whether to be relieved or to worry even more.  Meleager was devious, a warrior didnít get that old if he wasnít.  He could be planning anything.

   Xena and Gabrielle were dozing comfortably one morning after three sleepless nights waiting for the inevitable attack when Larissa burst into the room.  The woman gave a startled yelp as she ducked the chakram flying toward her head.

   "By the gods, Xena!"

   "Sorry.  I guess Iím a bit edgy these days."  The warrior rolled smoothly to her feet, dismissing her fatigue and giving the trembling villager a close inspection.  "Youíre not hurt, are you?"

   "No," she said tightly.  "Xena, come outside with me.  Thereís something you need to see."

   Xena frowned and followed the Larissa out into the street.  Gabrielle came out to join them a few minutes later, looking exhausted.  They went out into the fields along with a crowd of villagers.  Larissa pointed angrily at the irrigation ditches.

   Gabrielle looked, blinked slowly and looked again.  "Whereís the water?"

   "There isnít any," Larissa replied angrily.  "When we came out this morning to water the fields the stream was dry.  This is no natural drought.  That bastard Mardonius has done something to the river."

   Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look.  It hadnít rained in this valley for months.  The river and the irrigation system were all that kept these farms alive.  Two or three weeks of this and they would be ruined.  The villagers would have to leave or starve.

   Gabrielle rubbed her eyes.  "Why do I have a sick feeling that Meleager is behind all this?"

   "Because heís the only one out there whoíd think of it."  Xena looked off into the hills, not quite suppressing a grin of admiration. It was a brilliant plan.  He could destroy every farming community in the valley without killing a single person.  Meleagerís code of honor might be forcing him to fight this war, but he was fighting it in the cleanest way possible.

   "What are we going to do?" someone moaned.

   Xenaís expression hardened.  "We find the dam and destroy it.  Thatís all we can do."  And while weíre doing that we pray that he doesnít strike the villages while weíre gone.<<
 

*     *     *     *     *

   Miles to the west, Meleager examined his handiwork.  As hundreds of grumbling warriors labored with pick and shovel to shore up the dam, the stream now flowed off through a barren valley to the south.  The old warrior clenched his jaw as he looked down the now empty streambed toward Pialia.  It galled him to turn on the villagers like this after decades of defending the weak and the helpless, but his honor was the only thing he still valued.  His drinking had cost him everything else.  And now that honor bound him to a vicious warlord and a bloodthirsty god.

   And all because he had gotten drunk at a wedding.  It had started innocently, like it had before.  Just one mug of wine to toast the happy couple.  It would have been rude to refuse, wouldnít it?  And then one more to toast the brideís parents.  And another for the groomís parents.  He lost track of the toasts after that and just started pouring down the drinks like he always did.  That was how the messenger from Mardonius had found him, passed out in the stables.  A few words exchanged, a sack of gold changed hands, and off he went to Thessaly.  When he finally sobered enough to realize what he had gotten himself into he walked into the first tavern he saw and drank himself back to unconsciousness.

   He shook his head.  When am I gonna learn?<<

   Teleus, one of the soldiers, glared at their daydreaming commander with contempt.  "When are we going to fight?" he growled.  "I joined this army for the loot and the women, not to dig ditches!  If I wanted to be a laborer all my life I would have stayed on the farm!"

   "Keep your voice down!" his partner hissed.  "You saw what he did to that new kid.  Donít make him mad."

   "Yeah," someone else said.  "Iíve heard stories about Meleager since I was a boy.  Heís the toughest, meanest, smartest fighter south of... somewhere.  Heís just waiting for an excuse to kill someone, you can see it in his eyes."

   Teleus looked down the valley hungrily.  "Then letís go kill some farmers.  We donít need an excuse for that."

   The older soldier glanced at Meleager and shuddered.  "Heís killed more than two thousand men, boy.  Weíll do what he says, when he says it, and if you donít like it youíd best keep it to yourself."
 

CHAPTER SIX

   Back at the village, old Tyrethius threw up his hands in disgust.  "Thatís it," he snarled.  "The dogs have won.  We canít tear down their dam without fighting their entire army, and we canít stand against that!"

   "Then weíll have to get his army away from the dam, wonít we?" Xena replied calmly.

   "Sheís right," Larissa added.  "We canít just roll over for them after all theyíve done to us.  Weíve got to work this through."

   Tyrethius snorted and walked off, muttering angrily.  More than a few of the villagers went with him.  Gabrielle and Larissa looked to Xena for answers.  The warrior princess was lost in thought, pacing back and forth across the room.  She seemed calm, but her mind was working furiously.  The old man had a point.  Sending these half-trained farmers up against tested veterans on ground of their choosing was just a fast way to get them killed.  They needed a plan.  They needed to get most of Meleagerís men away from the dam he had built.  They couldnít spare a lot of people to do it, but it had to be something that would keep those soldiers distracted for a good long time.  Xena finally sat down and stared into the fire, waiting for inspiration.  Gabrielle sat down beside her.  Xena continued to stare into the flames.

   The bard grinned at her.  "I never knew you had such a fascination with fire."

   "I donít, itís--".  Xena stopped.  Her eyes widened and an unusually vicious smile crossed her face.  "Itís perfect!"  Mardonius had several supply depots on the other side of the river.  Mostly leather goods and fodder for the horses, but there were only a handful of guards.  Those troops at the dam would have to move when they started seeing smoke rising behind their lines.

   Larissa looked at Gabrielle, who was trying to figure out what her friend was thinking.

   Xena stood up with that disturbing grin still on her face.  "Gabrielle, thank you!  Sometimes you can be a real genius."  She hurried out of the room to make her preparations.

   Gabrielle blinked.  "We really need to work on our communication."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   Several hours after nightfall, Xena and twenty villagers gathered in the darkness near the grain silo.  Gabrielle had been left in Pialia with the rest of the defenders to protect the village from attack while the warrior princess took their best hunters and archers on the raid.  They were people she could trust to keep up with her in the darkness, and having spent a lifetime hunting game they would have no trouble sneaking past human sentries.

   Xena allowed herself a brief smile.  It had been a long time since sheíd done something like this.  She hated to admit it, but it still gave her a thrill that nothing else could match.  The warlord had only placed a dozen guards around the storage pits.  He obviously wasnít expecting a raid by the normally passive villagers.  Xena and her picked team moved among them like sharks cautiously circling their prey.  They could have eliminated the guards with ease using their bows, but Xena had another plan in mind.  She wanted to send Mardonius a very specific message, and it meant getting in and out without alerting or killing any of the guards.

   Only Xena went in.  The others were there mostly as backup in case her plan went awry; to kill any escaping guards before they could bring in reinforcements.  She watched them circle their fire carefully, searching for the pattern in their movements.  In the end she chose one man whose pace was slower and more predictable than the others and began circling in, using his shadow as cover.  Within a few moments she was slinking along silently only a few feet away from him.  The young sentry, inexperienced and obviously tired, never noticed her.

   She kept a careful eye on the other guards as well.  Most of them kept their eyes fixed on the ground so they wouldnít trip over stones in the darkness.  Others looked longingly toward the fire.  When she felt safe, Xena made a quick signal to the waiting hunters.  A chorus of wolf howls rose from the nearby woods in response.

   Mardoniusí guards nearly jumped out of their skins.  All eyes snapped up and began searching for the source of the noise.  Xena ducked out of sight and rolled inside the circle of men, using the howls to cover any noise she made.  A few men flinched and shied away from the dark shape that flashed by them, but it vanished into the darkness before anyone could see what it was.
 
   The howls faded as she watched tensely.  The guards muttered nervously among themselves and gathered together by the fire farthest from the sound.  This put them on the opposite side of the building, away from the doors and her hiding place.  Xena smiled.

   "Now, time to put the fear of the gods into them."

 The silo was stacked with bags of feed and shocks of hay, all dry and waiting for the slightest spark.  She reached into her pack for the message which Gabrielle had laboriously scratched onto a metal plate, placed it outside the doorway for all to see, and gave them that spark.  The building erupted in flames moments later, but Xena and her hunters were already long gone.
 

*     *     *     *     *

   "You wanted to see me, sir?" Meleager asked his boss.  He could hardly keep the smile from his face.  One of his soldiers had told him about the fire last night and he already suspected that Xena was involved.  Clever girl.<<

   Mardonius was furious.  He shoved a smoke-blackened metal plate into Meleagerís hands and pointed at the faint words scratched on it.  "This was left at the burnt silo last night," he fumed.  "Read it!"

   The old warrior squinted down at the plate, wishing once again that his eyes were younger or at least sharper than they were.  "Hope you like it hot.  Next time your place.  Xena."  He looked up and gave the warlord a silly grin.  It was an act he had perfected to irritate his father, and he loved needling Mardonius with it.  "What is this, a love letter?  Sounds like she has a real flaming passion for you."

   "Itís a threat you moron!" Mardonius snarled.  "Enough is enough.  I want her dead, now!  Summon the army and march at dawn.  I want Pialia erased!"

   Meleager frowned.  A bloodbath wasnít what he was looking for.  He knew Xena was training the villagers hard, but she couldnít have them ready to face trained troops yet.

   "Iím sure that erasing that village would fill your heart with joy, my lord," he began sarcastically.  "But what if Xena isnít there?  You kill all of those people and sheíll hunt you down like a dog.  Sheíll probably stick your head on a spear shaft and parade through the valley with it."

   Mardonius turned purple.  Meleager held up a hand to silence him.  "If my lord would permit, I think I can avenge this insult without sending Xena off the deep end."  His expression hardened.  "But I have to do things my way. That means no questions by anyone, including you.  Agreed?"

   Mardonius laughed at him.  "Donít be stupid!  This is my army!  It only bows to me, and I only bow to Ares!"

   Meleager shrugged.  "Itís your funeral.  And your head."  He cocked his head at the warlord.  "Youíre gonna look pretty funny with that spear up youró"

   Mardonius spat at him in disgust.  "All right.  The army is yours.  Do what you have to do, but I expect to see my troops in control of this valley by the end of the month.  Fail me and riding a lance will be ecstasy compared to what I do to you."
 

CHAPTER SEVEN

   Xena continued her raids for another two nights.  Each time she struck a different place, always slipping in unnoticed and leaving charred wreckage behind her.  So far, Meleager had left the bulk of the army camped at the dam.  Then, as she was returning to Pialia the morning of her third attack, she saw that the dam had been abandoned.  She rushed back to the village expecting the worst.

   Despite her fears, the town was still standing.  The people were milling around in the streets, talking excitedly.  Xena frowned, wondering what was going on.  She finally tracked down Larissa and asked what had happened.

   "Mardonius sent us a messenger this morning," she replied with a smile.  "I think heís afraid of you.  He wants to meet on neutral ground to talk this over."

   Xena frowned.  "That doesnít make any sense.  He should be attacking or packing his tents and leaving.  What does he want to talk about?"

   Larissa shrugged.  "Heís offering to trade some land north of the valley for the gold mine.  Weíve been hoping to expand into that area for years but there was never a chance before.  I donít know if the elders will go along with him or not, but theyíre going to the meeting the afternoon."

   Xena shook her head.  "Itís obviously a trap.  A man like Mardonius doesnít negotiate, heís just a butcher."

   Gabrielle was listening closely.  "Maybe we should give him a chance," she suggested.  "He knows you can get into his palace any time.  Maybe he just wants to end this before he gets himself killed."

   "Ares would kill him.  Heíd be dead either way, but I can only kill him once.  Ares can bring him back and do it all over again."  Xena shook her head.  "I donít buy it for a second.  Heís planning something."

   "I think itís a good idea," Tyrethius broke in.

   "You would," Xena snorted.  "Fine.  Go and talk to him, but donít come crying if he has you skinned alive for your trouble.  Iíll be busy tearing apart that dam.  Since Mardonius is such a nice man I donít suppose heíll mind me turning your water back on."  Xena left to collect some workers and fighters, still muttering under her breath.  Tyrethius and the others watched her go.  The old man made a few sarcastic comments before leaving to prepare for the meeting.  Larissa looked at Gabrielle nervously.

   "What if Xena is right?" she asked.

   "Donít worry," Gabrielle told her.  "Mardonius is your enemy, but Meleager is the man leading his army right now.  He has a good heart.  He doesnít want to hurt us."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   Four hours later, Meleager was staring grimly at the wreckage of Pialia.  The destruction was thorough.  He had followed his orders to the letter.  There wasnít a single house or building left standing.  Furniture and pottery had been smashed.  Livestock had been killed.  Fields had been burned.

   He had also made certain that the men followed his instructions precisely.  Pialia had only unarmed women and children to defend it.  Except for Gabrielle, everyone who could fight was off with Xena or protecting the village elders.  The villagers were gathered together in one of the fields under close guard.  Children were wailing in fear and more than a few adults were mourning the destruction of their homes or the slow death that awaited them.  Gabrielle was in that crowd somewhere.  Meleager could still feel her eyes burning into him.

   "Is it done?" the old warrior asked.

   Brennus nodded.  "Completely.  All thatís left is to divide up the booty."  He looked at the cluster of women with a leer, already choosing his favorites.

   Meleager turned to face him.  "This is a search and destroy mission, not a Ďbooty huntí.  The women are to be left alone. Weíve done enough already."

   The giant Gaul glared at him.  "What in Tarterus do you mean?  Taking the women is half the fun!  Woe to the conquered!"

   "Then I suggest you find a different way to get your thrills. As of now, These people to be under my protection.  Anyone who."

   Brennus growled threateningly.  "Perhaps I should give you a lesson in how to command."

   Meleagerís hand tightened on his sword hilt and a faintly eager expression came over his face.  "And perhaps youíd like to eat thisó"

   "Enough!  Forget I mentioned it."  The big Gaul went back to watching the women, this time with a disgusted expression.  "You Greeks donít know how to run a decent war."

   "If you donít like Greece then feel free to go terrorize the Romans," Meleager told him.  "This job is done.  Collect your men, mount up and lets ride before Xena comes back."
 

*     *     *     *     *

   The smoke rising in the east was Xenaís first hint that something was wrong.  The warriorís face twisted in fury and fear as she pushed her troops onward.  Visions of dead villagers and burning houses flashed through her mind.  The thought of Gabrielle lying dead on the ground hurt her more than anything else.  If anything had happened to her friend, she swore that Meleagerís death would be a nightmare come true.

   "Gabrielle!  Where are you?"  Xena screamed out her bardís name as she drove Argo through the smoke.  If anything had happened to the girl sheíd never be able to forgive herself.

   "Weíre over here, Xena!" someone screamed back.  Xena turned her horse toward the sound and rode as fast as she dared.  Any raiders who caught her sight wouldnít live long enough to regret it.

   As soon as she broke through the smoke she saw them.  The villagers were still milling around in the field as mothers tried to find their children.  A few were sifting through the embers that had once been their homes, trying to salvage what they could.  Xena only had eyes for one person, a blond figure in an Amazon outfit who was trying to keep the people together.  Xena vaulted off her mount and wrapped Gabrielle in a desperate embrace, lifting the smaller woman off the ground.

   "I thought Iíd lost you!" she choked.

   "No... Fine..." Gabrielle squeaked slightly, turning red from lack of air.  "Let go."  Xena looked at her face and quickly put her down, looking in embarrassment at the crowd of people staring at them.

   Gabrielle took a couple of deep breaths.  "Thatís better," she gasped.  She also looked around at the people staring at them.  "What?  Weíre friends, okay?  She was worried."

   Another figure was watching from the top of a nearby hill.  Meleager smiled slightly at their reunion before he turned to go.  This was the beginning of the end.  Xena wouldnít let him turn back now.
 

CHAPTER EIGHT

   "Meleager."  Xena growled the name like a curse.  "I was an idiot to put my faith in that drunken fool.  The next time I see him Iím going to carve him like a roast!"

   "Youíll do no such thing," Gabrielle replied stubbornly.  "Heís still doing everything he can not to hurt anyone.  Those soldiers would have killed everyone in the village if he hadnít held them back, and I saw him kill one of his own men who was trying to carry off a little girl.  Heís not a bad person."

   Xena laughed mockingly.  "And to think that a few days ago I was the one telling you he deserved a second chance.  Why did you wait until now to listen?."  She shook her head.  "There are only two choices that matter.  You can choose to do whatís right or you can choose to do whatís wrong.  Heís made his decision."

   "And youíll never convince me that torching our village was right," Larissa snapped bitterly.

   "He may have burned the houses, but at least he left the people alive.  I know a lot of warlords who donít have that much restraint."

   Xena stiffened.  "Thank you for that touching reminder, Gabrielle," she snarled.  The annihilation of Cirrha and most of its inhabitants was still a painful memory for her, even after all these years.  It was bad enough to have Callisto around without Gabrielle bringing it up again.

   "Youíre missing my point," the bard told her.  "Yes, you did a lot of bad things in your day, but you donít do it any more.  Youíve gone past that, and as long as I have anything to say about it you arenít going back.  You were able to change because at heart you were still a good person, and so is Meleager.  We just need to give him a way out."

   "What way out?"  Xena snapped.  "Heís already proven that his honor is more important to him than anything else.  He owes a debt to Mardonius, and he isnít going to quit until that debt is repaid."  The warrior princess returned to her brooding.

   "I give up," Gabrielle said.  As she turned to enter their tent she glanced back over her shoulder.  "Iím worried about you, Xena.  Youíve changed a lot since I first met you.  I donít want you to throw it all away over this."  She disappeared, leaving Xena alone with her thoughts.

   "Choices," she grunted.  How many choices does he have?  He either kills me or gets killed. Or switches sides, which I know he wonít do.  I never should have trusted him.<<  Xena got to her feet with a groan.  Time to get some rest.  She could work out her plan in the morning.
 

*     *     *     *     *

 The villagers were living in tents for the moment, so it was simple enough to move them into the forest.  Mardonius could send as many scouts as he liked; it would still take weeks to track them down.  This time there was no dispute over her orders.  Tyrethius had learned his lesson when he came back from the Ďpeace talksí to find his home in ashes.

   Except for a handful of their best hunters, the warriors of Pialia stayed behind to defend the camp.  They might not survive another attack, especially if Meleagerís gentle tactics convinced Mardonius to replace him with someone more lethal. They had already abandoned any thought of fighting Mardonius in his own camp.  It was protected far too heavily now.  Even this difficulty had presented an opportunity, since he no longer had enough troops to guard everything else.

   At moonrise, Xena and Gabrielle stood in the shadows outside another of the warlordís supply depots with twenty men.  The building had only half a dozen men to protect it.  Xena gave them a nasty smile.  They obviously werenít expecting an attack by a gang of villagers they had broken and terrorized.

   "You boys are in for a real treat tonight," she whispered.  The gleam of her eyes in the moonlight was as cold as the steel of her blade.  Gabrielle glanced at her, worried.

   "This is like the other times, right?  You sneak in, take what we need, no one gets hurt."

   "Wrong."  Xenaís tone was flat.  "I tried it your way and he didnít take the hint.  This time heís going to pay for his mistake."  She drew her sword silently and readied herself for combat, shutting out Gabrielleís concerned whispers.  Ordinarily she appreciated the bardís efforts to keep her on her new path, but this little war was getting ugly and she needed the old warrior princess right now.

   When she moved again she moved as a predator on the hunt.  The guard closest to her was nodding sleepily beside the fire.  He was new to the job, not yet twenty, and didnít live to regret his mistake.  His eyes widened slightly at the blur of motion and the faint hiss of a blade parting the air. Xena caught the body as it fell and lowered it quickly into its original position, then went to work without another thought.  Gabrielle watched in sick horror as her friend mixed a paste of blood and dust to darken her skin.  In a matter of seconds she had blended into the shadows, and she remained hidden as the roaming circle of guards finally appeared from the other side of the depot.

   One of the older men grunted and pointed at the boy.  "Looks like Pertinax is sleeping on the job again."  He chuckled softly and walked over to the body.  "On your feet!" he growled, giving the body a swift kick.  The corpse toppled straight into the fire.

   "By the blood of Ares!" the warrior gasped, fumbling with his sword.  "The boyís dead!"

   "So are you," Xena hissed as her sword bit through his armor.  The old soldier gurgled and fell where he stood, leaving his four companions gaping at the bloody figure in their midst.  Seconds later the last of them was staring up at her with dead eyes.  Xena smiled down at him.

   "I hope torching that village was worth it to you," she told him.  Then she raised her head and called in her men.  "Hurry up!  Break down the door and grab as much as you can carry.  We need armor, swords, and all the arrows you can find.  Lets make these pigs pay for Pialia!"  The hunters responded with a ragged cheer.  Gabrielle remained silent and stared at her accusingly.

   "Was it fun?" she finally asked.

   Xena shrugged.  "I didnít do it for fun, Gabrielle, I did it because it had to be done.  Mardonius wants those people dead.  He has to learn that killing this group of farmers will cost him."  Her thoughts darkened.  Not to mention what threatening you would cost him.  If youíd had been hurt in that raid...<<

   The warrior rubbed some of the filth off her skin.  "Iíll be down at the stream washing this off.  Just yell if you need me."
 

CHAPTER NINE

   "How many this time?" Mardonius spat.

   "A dozen men, my lord."  The messenger cowered, having never seen his master so enraged.

   "I donít care how many men she killed, fool!  How many horses did she steal?  How many swords and sets of armor did they get?  Thatís what is important here!"

   "Uh... another ten horses.  Two dozen swords, fifty spears, ten crossbows and five hundred arrows.  And ten sets of armor."

   Mardonius cursed and swept the papers from his table angrily.  He turned to Meleager with death in his eyes.  "You incompetent fool!  Do you have any idea how much these raids are costing me?  I want the bitch dead, and I want her head on a plate in my tent today!"

   Meleager rolled his eyes tiredly.  "Lovely image there, commander.  Care to tell me where she is so I can bring her in?"  The old warrior held up his hand to stop the expected reply.  He looked into his employerís eyes, frustration seething visibly beneath the surface.  "Let me remind you of the terms of our deal, Mardonius.  I agreed to drive the villagers out of this valley by the deadline Ares set.  You agreed to give me the troops and let me do it my way.  Now, the villagers have no homes.  They have no farms to support them.  They canít survive by foraging for more than a week because they have too many mouths to feed.  Mouths that you would have brought here as slaves to eat up our resources."

   Mardonius narrowed his eyes.  "Your way isnít working.  From now on we do things my way.  Any time you want out of the contract, just pay me back those ten thousand dinars.  Otherwise you shut your mouth and kill whomever I tell you to kill.  Understand?"

   The warlord turned his attention to a rough map of the valley with supply depots and other important buildings marked with pins.  "Xena and her rebels have hit three supply depots along the edge of the forest here, here and here.  Sheís obviously trying to arm that peasant rabble, for all the good it will do them.  Iíve moved two hundred horsemen into the cliffs above the fourth depot here under cover of darkness.  Sheís bound to attack it eventually, just like all the others, but this time youíll be waiting."

   Meleager met his gaze coldly.  "Does that mean you have me leading the attack?"

   Mardonius stared back just as coldly.  "It does.  Xena has been a bone in my throat for far too long.  I want her removed, now.  And since you are supposed to be the best warrior in all of Greece, you get the honor of hunting down the warrior princess."

   Meleager nodded, glaring down at the map.  He had been hoping to avoid a confrontation but instead found himself pushed to the front of the line.  As he stared down at the parchment he wondered if Xena and Gabrielle were doing any better.
 

*     *     *     *     *

   "Have you ever thought about taking prisoners?"  Gabrielle asked bitterly.  "I hear they do that in some civilized communities."

   "What would be the point, Gabrielle?" Xena snapped angrily.  Theyíd been arguing over the same issue for days now.  "What could we do with them?  And more importantly, what in Tarterus would we feed them?  We have people going hungry now; Iím not going to starve them just to spare some of those murdering pigs!"

   "Have you looked at yourself lately?  This is the same attitude you took when we faced the Horde.  It was wrong then and itís wrong now."

   "Iím killing a few dozen rapists, murderers and thieves to save hundreds of innocent people.  What exactly is wrong with that?  I donít know what scale youíre using, but the way I figure it this is very, very right."  Xena angrily went back to work on her sword.  Her last opponentís thick skull had played havoc with the edge.

   "How about the Ďall life has valueí scale.  Or is that not acceptable to the warrior princess?"

   Xena threw down her sword and stood up, glaring at her friend.  Blood trickled slowly where she had clenched her fist around the blade.  "Iíve had about enough of this, Gabrielle!  Iím sick of you bringing it up every five minutes!  Does all life matter?  I donít know.  All I know is that Iíve seen too many good people die at the hands of animals like these... and yes, oh Innocent One, I realize that I was no better.  The only difference is that I donít see any of the others converting, and until I find a better way to stop the slaughter Iíll kill as many of them as I need to!  Got it?!"

   Gabrielle stared back at her, unable to think of a reply.  Xenaís voice had been rising throughout her rant, and by the time she finished a small crowd had gathered.  The warrior glared at them with a vicious expression.  "What are you looking at?!"  The villagers broke up instantly.  Their volatile savior was making them more skittish every day.

   The bard stared directly into here eyes.  "The other day I asked some of those people who scared them more, you or Mardonius.  Youíre only behind by ten votes.  Does it make you proud?"  Gabrielle walked away without another word.

   Xena sat down tiredly and gave her sword a few more half-hearted swipes with the whetstone.  "I donít know anymore," she whispered to herself.  " Maybe it does.  Maybe I never should have come to this place.  Either way, this has got to end.  If only I could get Meleager back on our side."
 

CHAPTER TEN

   Two armies prepared for battle the next day.  The first, led by Meleager, consisted of over two hundred trained fighting men.  The second, led by Xena, consisted of fifty men and women driven to desperation.  Each leader had a goal in mind and each had their own idea of where the enemy would be.  Both knew what would happen if their guesses were wrong.

   Xena and Gabrielle moved ahead of their ragged army, scouting out any ambushes.  They had barely spoken to each other since the argument the night before.  Gabrielle had already said everything she needed to, and knew by now that it was too late to change her friendís mind.  Whatever was going to happen was going to happen.  The young girl just hoped they could both live with the aftermath.

   Xena had done a lot of thinking the night before.  Her warriorís instincts fought with the conscience sheíd recovered so recently.  More than anything else in life, she wanted to win.  That spirit had driven her for years to do the impossible.  If she were forced to face Meleager in battle, she would either find victory or death.  Surrender was an option her pride would not allow.  At the same time, she considered Meleager a friend.  Not as close as Gabrielle, but still valuable. Even if it destroyed the army he commanded, killing him would haunt her.

   The inspiration had come to her in the middle of the night.  Her idea was risky, and if she had misjudged Meleager it would be a disaster.  His honor was everything to him, heíd made that much clear.  She thought there was a way to let him save face and lives at the same time. Until the argument with Gabrielle last night it was an option she hadnít really considered.

   Gabrielle finally approached her, confused.  "Xena," she said slowly, "I thought you were going to try to capture that last weapons cache.  Isnít that across the river?"

   Xena smiled at her faintly.  "I think I have a better idea," she replied.  "Iím allowed to change my mind, arenít I?"

   "I guess..."

   "Donít worry, Gabrielle, Iím going to try playing nice first.  But if Meleager doesnít play along..." The expression on her face left no doubt about the alternative.

   Gabrielle sighed.  "I know.  Iím just sorry it has to be like this."

   Xena shrugged.  "You canít always make the world follow your rules, dear.  Whatever has to happen, happens.  Sometimes you just have to live with it."

   They traveled in silence for a short time with the villagers marching along behind them.  The ragged band marched deeper into the warlordís territory.  Their apprehension grew as Mardoniusí fort came into sight, turning to confusion as they left it behind them.  Gabrielle kept her eyes on Xena, trying to figure out what her friend had in mind.  The warrior rode on with a mysterious smile on her face, revealing nothing.

   The sun had risen high into the sky by the time another building appeared.  It was a small, plain wooden shed, guarded by only a few men.  Xenaís smile broadened.  When she had stumbled across it while scouting last week it had been protected far more heavily.  Mardonius must have called off most of his men for an attack elsewhere.  She slowed down and allowed the others to catch up, then pointed out the building with her sword.  "Thereís the target," she said.  "Letís take it."

   Gabrielle frowned.  "Whatís in there?"

   Xena flashed her a grin.  "Lots and lots of dinars.  Weíre going to hit Mardonius where it hurts the most."   She spurred Argo down onto the field with her battlecry echoing from the hills.  The villagers waved their weapons and charged after her, screaming with excitement as the handful of defenders stumbled to their feet and scrambled for their weapons.  Someone on the roof of the treasury began blowing a horn to summon reinforcements.  Gabrielle trooped down after them with a resigned sigh.

   The battle for the warlordís treasure was over almost before it began.  The five men left to guard it took a good look at the fifty enraged villagers bearing down on them, decided that they werenít being paid enough to die, and ran for the trees.  Xena let them go.  Her rage over Pialia had almost burned itself out anyway, and she was more interested in what was inside the building.  As she turned back from the fleeing soldiers she noticed a cloud of dust rising on a hillside about one mile away.  Meleager had heard the horns.

   "All right, people, letís get in there!  I want at least one wagon filled with silver before those troops get here."

   "If we gather that much we wonít have time to escape with it," someone shouted.

   "We wonít be taking it very far," she shouted back.  They piled silver coins and gold nuggets onto the wagons as fast as they could while she watched the dust cloud move closer and closer.  She gave the load a quick examination, nodded once and then ordered them to pull the wagon out into the open field.  Xena took a position between the wagon and Meleagerís troops and settled down to wait.  "The rest of you, take cover in the woods," she told them.  "If this works, you wonít need to risk your lives.  If it doesnít work, donít wait up for me."  The villagers began melting into the forest.  Gabrielle took up a comfortable position beside her.

   "You too, Gabrielle.  I want someone I trust back there to protect them in case this falls apart."

   The bard looked up at her friend with an indignant glare.  "Iím still your friend, Xena, even if I donít agree with you.  If this falls apart youíre going to need me here protecting you."  The warrior had a brief thought of herself, cowering fearfully on the ground while a heroic Gabrielle held off a hundred men with her whirling staff.  The image was so ludicrous that she nearly fell off her horse.  Gabrielle gave her that look that meant her dignity had been offended.  Xena made an effort to stifle her laughter.

   "Much as I appreciate the thought, if Meleager and I go at it I want you safe and out of the way.  If you got hurt Iíd never be able to forgive myself.  Please, go back and keep them safe for me.  If Iíve read this right, I wonít be fighting Meleager anyway."

   Gabrielle nodded warily.  "Iíll do it, but Iíll be watching.  If you look like youíre about to get killed I will be out here."  The bard backed slowly into the trees.  Xena turned to watch the enemy approach.

   Meleager and Mardonius were the first to arrive, their horses being considerably faster than the heavily loaded troops.  Even at a distance she could see the warlordís face twisting between rage at being robbed and satisfaction at having caught them in the act.  Meleagerís face was impassive.  If anything he seemed sad at having been dragged into the confrontation.

   Xena raised her voice and hailed them.  "Looks like youíve gotten ahead of your men.  Do you two want to talk while we wait for the troops to arrive?"  Meleager grinned faintly, shaking his head.  Mardonius stared at her as if sheíd gone mad.

   Xena moved Argo forward a few paces, keeping her hands well away from her weapons.  "Come on, boys.  Weíre all adults here.  Why act like children sulking in the corners?  Letís talk."

   Mardonius looked at his hired sword with a scowl.  "Go.  Talk.  Then rip her heart out."

   Meleager smirked at him.  "You have a charming way with words."  Still, he urged his horse closer until they could talk comfortably.  He shook his head sadly.  "You should have kept going, Xena.  I never wanted this fight."

   "Neither did I," she told him, no longer smiling.  "Sometimes we all have to do things weíd rather not.  I think we can both understand that. Maybe we can work something out."

   He sighed.  "Iíve already told you, Xena, my honor is all I have left.  I canít betray it.  I owe him and fighting you is the only way I have of paying him back.  Do you want to wait for the others or just do it now?  Even if one of us has to die maybe we can keep this from turning into a bloodbath."

   Xena smiled at him.  "And I thought Gabrielle was the only martyr in training around here.  I hope we never have to find out whoís better."  She turned slightly and gestured at the wagon the villagers had collected for her.  "I notice you had quite an ambush site picked out back there.  If we had been going for the weapons instead of the money you would have had us."

   He nodded.  "Iím a little surprised.  I thought you gave up looting and pillaging years ago."  The old warrior grinned.

   She shrugged, grinning back.  "I still have a few bad habits.  It was quite a haul."  She looked directly into his eyes.  "At least ten thousand dinars."

   He raised an eyebrow.  "Thatís a lot of money, if you live to spend it."

   "Then Iíll tell you what.  Since youíve always tried to be a good and honorable man, Iím going to surrender it to you.  All ten thousand dinars.  To pay off any debts you may have."  She offered a silent prayer that he would understand the offer.

   Meleagerís eyes brightened and he nodded quickly.  "Your gift is accepted.  And thank you."  He quickly turned and headed back toward Mardonius.

   The warlord was sputtering with rage.  "What are you waiting for?  I told you to kill her!" he roared.

   Meleager looked into his bulging eyes and gave him a smile of true satisfaction.  "My dear Mardonius, I have no intentions of killing this woman. She happens to be a friend, one of very few I still have.  You want to kill her, you do it."  He gestured at the wagon of loot, which Xena had backed her people away from.

   "Sorry if Iíve put you out at all, but Iím returning your money.  You can hire someone else.  Now, if you donít mind, I think Iíll join my friend."  He backed away from the spluttering warlord and rode back to Xena.
 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

   Xena watched him ride up with a half smile as Mardonius screamed curses and rode madly back toward his own men.  Meleager greeted her smile with one of his own.

   "Thanks for giving me a way out," he told her.  "I was afraid I was really going to have to fight you for a while."

   "So was I.  Then I finally realized what Gabrielle was talking about.  If I gave you another way to repay Mardonius I wouldn't have to fight you ."  She gripped his offered hand firmly.  "Itís good to have you back on the right side.  Now the odds are a little better."

   He nodded, grinning.  "Just the two of us against two hundred of them?  I wouldnít call that exactly fair.  Maybe you should leave your chakram behind?"

   She laughed once, then looked back at the rising cloud and her expression hardened.  "Seriously.  Do you think we can handle them all without involving the villagers?  Iíve given them what training I could, but there are going to be a lot of casualties if we have to call them in against experienced warriors."

   Meleager grunted.  "It wonít be easy, but I donít plan on getting any farmers killed because I couldnít do my job.  It will take a lifetime to repay them for what Iíve already done.  Donít worry though, Iíve already evened the odds.  I threw a little celebration for the boys last night.  The one benefit of being a lush is that I can hold my booze better than they can.  Most of them are so drunk they donít know which end of the horse theyíre facing."

   Xena nodded and drew her sword.  "Then lets find out what theyíre made of."  As the riders came closer she closed her eyes and began focusing herself for the battle ahead.  She was going to need a little of the old warrior princess to come through this alive.  For a moment her attention drifted to Gabrielle, who was back in the trees protecting the villagers and grinding her teeth.  Xena smiled.  Yes, she was going to need the warrior, but this time she was going to make certain she was in control.

   Meleager watched them come with cold resignation, as he had in hundreds of battles during his long career.  The old soldier stretched and flexed, muscles aching and joints cracking.  Those years of blood and terror had taken their toll on his body and his spirit.  He knew that one of these days, he wasnít going to return from the war.  Looking at the cloud bearing down on them, he wondered if this would be that day.

   "Itís as good a day as any I guess," he muttered to himself.

   "What was that?" Xena asked.

   "Never mind.  Here they come."

   The battle was fast and furious.  With their skill and experience, Meleager and Xena were able to dodge the clumsy attacks against them and give back lethal blows.  Their own numbers betrayed Mardonius and his men as warriors got in each otherís way or attacked each other in the dust and confusion.  The two heroes fighting on the ground were in more danger of being trampled than cut down.

   Xena fought with every weapon she had and all the fury she could drive herself with.  Her sword snaked out to find weak points in armor or a few inches of exposed flesh as men charged past her on horses.  Her chakram acted as a shield in her hand, catching or breaking weapons that slashed down at her.  Horses that came dangerously close were driven back with punches or kicks.  She knew that if she lost her footing or was knocked down, sheíd be crushed before she could ever get back up.

   Meleager fought without anger.  Instead he fought with cold, almost mechanical precision, not as fancy as Xena but just as deadly.  Any living thing that came within his reach died.  If there were no openings to get at the rider he went for the mount, and more than a few men found themselves trapped beneath their dying horses.  Animals maddened by pain plowed back through the ranks of charging warriors, adding to the chaos.

   Mardonius hadnít entered the battle and was watching from the rear.  His expression went from a triumphant smile to a disbelieving frown to sick horror as he watched his great army, his gift from Ares, dismembered before his eyes.  His calls for retreat went unheard over the screams of wounded and dying men.  From time to time a riderless horse would gallop out of the fray, but the choking dust obscured everything else.  As minutes passed the dust began to settle and the noise faded down to low moaning and crying.  A few of his men crawled or stumbled out of the haze.

   He smiled.  "I knew you wouldnít forsake me, Ares."  Mardonius patiently waited for the rest of his men to appear.  His smile vanished when Xena and Meleager wandered out of the cloud.

   They were alive, but leaned on their weapons for support.  Both left dripping trails of blood as they walked, although most of it belonged to others.  Xenaís left arm dangled limply at her side and Meleager had one arm pressed tightly against his ribs.  The pair left a scene of absolute carnage behind them.  Perhaps twenty of Mardoniusí two hundred men still lived, and none of them showed any interest in rallying around their leader.  The survivors were making for the cover of the trees as fast as they could, not daring to look back at the ragged pair who followed them out.

   Xena raised her head and glared straight at Mardonius, burning into him with her eyes.  "Itís over.  You lose.  Now get lost."

   Mardonius snarled and climbed off his mount.  A long spear had been dropped in the grass.  He picked it up and vaulted back onto his horse with the lance point wavering in the air more than ten feet in front of him.  "I can still win if I kill you.  Think you can put up a fight now?"  He drove his horse into a furious charge straight toward her.

   Xena cursed.  Her chakram was back in the mess behind them, lost in one of the bodies.  She shifted her weight to free up her sword and her wounded leg threatened to fold under her.  This is great.  Fighting a horseman while sitting on my ass in the middle of a field.  Thatís a wonderful image.<<

   Meleager stumbled in front of her.  "Iíve fought horsemen from the ground before.  Let me pay off my debt to you."  Xena nodded and backed off.

   Mardonius sneered and aimed his horse, lining up to impale them both on the long spear.  Meleager watched him come wearily.  When the lance tip was just a split second from impact he twisted aside with surprising speed and swatted it down with the flat of his sword.  The heavy lance point plowed into the ground and snapped.  Mardonius howled as the force of the impact lifted him bodily out of the saddle.  He crashed to the ground with a gasp.  Xena, bad leg or no, was on him in a second.

   The warlord bleated in terror as Xena pounced on him.  Her sword was an inch from his throat and there was no mercy in her eyes.  She looked down on him with pure hate.  This was the animal that had ordered the massacre of the entire village of Pialia.  Killing him would be a public service.

   "Too bad Gabrielle would never forgive me," she spat.  "But this Xena wonít be your judge, jury and executioner.  Weíll let the villagers decide what to do with you."  She gave him a chilling smile.  "Too bad for you.  I would have made it quick.  I think they have other plans."  She punched her fingers into the pressure points on his neck and watched him collapse like a wet rag.

 The villagers were beginning to come out of the trees now.  Xena couldnít help but grin as she saw Gabrielle being carried out, writhing like a fish on a line.  They had to hold her down to keep her out of the fight and away from her friends.  She turned her smile to Meleager.  "I can just imagine what sheís saying over there.  Weíd better go and show her that weíre okay."

   He gave her a rather sickly grin.  "Not exactly."  He pulled his arm away from his chest and bright red blood ran from his side.  Xenaís eyes widened and she scrambled toward him as quickly as she could.  The old warrior coughed and wiped reddish spray from his lips.  "This is the kind of thing I always hated about wars.  Somebody always gets hurt."  He slowly sank to his knees and then collapsed face first in the mud.
 

CHAPTER TWELVE

   Gabrielle tore herself out of Larissaís grip as soon as she saw Meleager fall and Xena rushing toward him.  She hadnít really doubted that Xena would survive the fight; she always did.  Meleager, on the other hand, was starting to slow down.  The bard grabbed her bag that held their supply of bandages and medicines.  She could only hope that things werenít as bad as they looked.  Most of the villagers werenít as concerned for his safety and a few muttered angrily as their protector tried to save the man who had destroyed their homes.

   Xena reached the fallen soldier seconds later and quickly tore away his jacket, her own wounds forgotten.  When she got a good look at the damage she hissed in shock and horror. The gash went deep into the lung, but that was something she had treated before.  He still had a chance.

   Gabrielle slid into place beside her and practically pushed the bag into her hands.  Xena barely looked up, concentrating on her work.  "Get me a hollow reed, a knife and the sewing kit," she snapped.  "And keep those people back.  Iím not going to save his life just to have them lynch him."

   "What do you think youíre doing?" Tyrethius snarled angrily.  "That savage destroyed our village!"

   "After I warned you not to leave it unprotected," Xena snapped, not looking up from her work.

   "This Ďsavageí also forced his men to spare our lives, and then fought against them at Xenaís side," Gabrielle bristled.  "I think you came out better in the deal, donít you?"

   "Sheís right, leave them alone," Larissa told him.  She turned to face the entire crowd.  "I lost my home too, but I saw this man face down one of his own warriors to save my daughter.  That means a lot more to me than that old wooden hut."  There was still grumbling in the crowd, but no one tried to interfere.

   Xena ignored them and concentrated on Meleager.  She worked quickly and patched him up as well as she could.  He still looked more dead than alive, but he wasnít getting any worse.  A few inches to the right and it would have missed him completely.  A handís width to the left and it would have killed him instantly.

   "I should have been watching him," she muttered.

   "What was that?" Gabrielle asked her.

   "Nothing."  The warrior struggled to her feet, wincing with pain.  "Heíll need time to heal, but I think heíll make it.  Heís lucky."

   Gabrielle was staring at her with wide eyes.  "Dear gods, what have you done to yourself!"  Gabrielle pressed a finger to her lips.  "Donít try to talk, just lie down and let me see that leg!  Youíre going to bleed to death!"  Xena sighed and dropped to the ground again. At least she isnít arguing with me anymore.<<
 

*     *     *     *     *

   "Iím sorry about the accident, Meleager," Xena told him later.  "Iím usually better at guarding my partnerís back.  I donít know what happened."

   He grunted.  "It could have been worse.  Iím willing to forgive you this time."  He grinned faintly.  "Besides, I donít want it brought up around Gabrielle.  Sheís been pretty touchy lately, and I donít want her accusing you of callous disregard for my life."

   Xena frowned and looked into the fire.  "I know.  She used to give me the benefit of the doubt, but lately..."

   "...the warrior-princess haze has been lifting," he finished for her.  "Iíve noticed that.  Youíve both changed a lot over the past year.  Sometimes Iím surprised to see you still together."

   Xena grinned slyly.  "I guess we have one of those Ďopposites attractí relationships."

   "Iíd call it hero worship.  She holds us both to some very high standards, and if we canít live up to them, look out.  It must be a lot harder on you than on me since sheís with you all the time."

   "You have no idea."  Xena hissed in exasperation.  "Iím trying to change, to make up for all the harm Iíve caused.  Mostly I do a good job, and when Iím thinking of chucking it all she inspires me to try harder.  Other times I feel like sheís against me at every turn.  Whenever it comes down to a fight and itís kill or be killed, we end up on opposite sides."

   "Because unlike us, sheíd rather die than kill.  Iíd hate to see her if she ever does take a life.  Itís bound to happen one day you know."

   "It would break her heart," Xena predicted gloomily.  "I donít think she would ever be the same."

The two warriors stared at the fire for a few minutes in silence.  A pair of Pialians stomped by, glaring at Meleager as they passed and muttering under their breath.  He ignored them patiently.  Xena watched them go with a frown.

   "Ungrateful dogs," she growled.  "Theyíd probably be dead if not for you and theyíre still griping about having to rebuild."

   He shrugged.  "They wonít be the first people to spit on me.  I wasnít always a hero.  I can rest up in Ithome until Iím back on my feet, they remember me more fondly there.  What about you and Gabrielle?  I understand you two are still the heroes of the hour around here."

   "I donít really feel like staying," she replied.  "If I hang around, sooner or later Ares will show up and start causing trouble, and theyíve had all they need for a while.  Iíve talked with one of the Thessalian generals, and heís agreed to provide a defense for the gold if the villagers agree to pay taxes.  Once they calm down and start working that gold mine they can build a new, better city and their own militia for defense.  It will be better if I just leave them alone."
 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

   The three friends stayed with the Pialians for another week until Meleager was strong enough to be moved, then traveled to Ithome.  Meleager was welcomed into the home of the local magistrate and Gabrielle and Xena left confident that he was being cared for.  It was a warm, sunny day when they set out again.  They had taken some time to talk over their disagreement and, with a lot of prodding from Meleager, had gotten their friendship back to normal.

   "Where shall we go this time?" Gabrielle asked.  "Any small wars or natural disasters to stop this week?"

   "Not that Iíve heard," Xena replied.  "I thought we might go to Potidaea for a while.  You havenít seen your family in almost a year, and I have old friends in Olynthus that I really should see."

   Gabrielle smiled gratefully.  "Thanks Xena.  I was really starting to miss Mother."  She was quiet for a moment.  "Also, I want to apologize for the way I acted earlier.  I didnít agree with what you were doing, but I didnít have to treat you like I did."

   Xena shook her head.  "Itís all right, Gabrielle.  I know youíre just doing what you think is best and I respect that.  You helped me to see another way out.  Just remember though, that there wonít always be a better way."

   The bard nodded.  "I know.  But that wonít keep me from looking."

   "I wouldnít have you any other way."

   They walked in silence for a few moments.  Gabrielle glanced at her friend thoughtfully.   "Are you ready to stop feeling guilty?"

   Xena froze.  "Guilty for what?"

   "For letting Meleager get hurt."

   Xena slumped in her saddle.  "I thought he didn't want to tell you."

   "He didn't.  I just noticed how upset you were after you had taken care of him. You act the same way whenever I get hurt helping you, so I figured that must have had something to do with it."

   "I couldn't see him through the dust," Xena replied sullenly.  "I couldnít do anything to stop it."

   Gabrielle raised her hands.  "Donít get defensive, Iím not accusing you of not watching out for him.  I know from experience that half of those cuts came from watching his back and not yours."

   Xena sighed.  "Gabrielle, Iím always going to feel guilty when I risk someone elseís life.  My brother died at my side because I didnít look out for him, and I donít want the same thing to happen to you."

   "Not everyone who fights at your side is going to die there.  You know, you treat me like a baby sometimes.  Iím afraid that one of these days youíre going to be worrying about me and get yourself killed.  I donít want to have to live with that fear."

   Xena felt a smile tugging at her lips.  "Gabrielle, I think youíre the first person Iíve met in almost ten years that actually worries about me getting hurt."
 

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

 

   The end.  I hope you enjoyed the story, and I would appreciate any comments or constructive criticism you care to send.  Please mail your response to dcogar@iolinc.net  Thank you.

Begun 11/13/1997. Complete 2/9/1998
 
 


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