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DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny etc. are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
All other characters and the story itself belong to the author and may not be used without permission. The lyrics to the song "Indian Strings" by Suede and "Leave" by R.E.M. are used without permission and again, no copyright infringement is intended.
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: There are vague references to sexual violence in this story, but nothing graphic.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts love/sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same sex. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.
AUTHORīS NOTES: This story can be said to take place at the end of the fourth season, but have practically nothing to do with any events of that season and therefore stands on its own. Iīve shamelessly messed up Greek history and geography with my own imagination to use for my own personal benefit, but since the show does that constantly, I guess itīs all right. I want to thank, MyWarrior, for all the time and patience sheīs invested in this project. Her encouragement and comments have been invaluable. This is my first attempt at fan fiction and I hope youīll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. Comments/feedback are more than welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This oneīs for Susan, whoīs always in my heart.
The Amazonsī Boy
Copyright © 1999 by Day.
"Iīm a healer, Your Majesty. I donīt take lives or sentence people to death."
"So itīs life then?"
Gabrielle looked at the woman beside her, "Callias?"
Although the Captain was clearly uncomfortable, she returned Gabrielleīs gaze without wavering.
If Gabrielle was surprised she didnīt show it, but instead turned to look at Erinya.
The weapons master looked down at the table for a moment, before looking back up at her Queen.
"What!" The outrage in Zeleiīs voice was clear. "Erinya, how can you say that after all whatīs happened. I would expect this from Kelife," she gave the healer a sharp glance, "but not from you. Have you forgotten Leda already?"
"No, Zelei. I havenīt forgotten Leda and I never will," the weapons masterīs voice was quiet but firm, "but killing those three soldiers wonīt bring her back, nothing will. Besides, the only crime these men have committed is that they fought in a war. We donīt prosecute our soldiers for that, do we?"
"Itīs hardly the same," Zeleiīs voice was practically dripping with venom. "They attacked us and killed off half the village. They deserve to die! We need them to die to recover from this!"
Erinya just shook her head, "Perhaps, but people die in war and we attacked them first."
"That was self-defence!"
"True, but how would weīve reacted if theyīd taken prisoners and later executed them for nothing more than fighting on the other side."
"But thatīs what warīs all about!" Zelei exasperated. "The victor makes the rules! Itīs that simple! In the end it doesnīt matter whoīs right or wrong. Itīs who won thatīs important."
"Okay, thatīs enough you two!" Gabrielle cut through, giving both her subjects a stern look. "Youīre not helping."
Zelei gave Erinya one last hostile glance before looking at her Queen, a vicious smile on her face.
"I guess itīs up to you then, my...Queen. You decide whether they live or die."
"Iīm well aware of that, Zelei." Gabrielleīs voice was cold. "And Iīd appreciate it if you didnīt use that tone with me, or I might have to find somebody else to lead the regular army."
Surprised showed on the Captainīs face, but only for a second.
"Yes, Your Majesty." She bowed her head slightly, "I apologize."
Gabrielle continued to stare at her Captain until Zelei looked away, then she turned her attention back to the three other people in the room.
"If youīd all leave me alone, I have to think this over. Come back after an hour and Iīll inform you of my decision."
They all rose and left the hut, except Callias who lingered at the door."
Gabrielle turned to look at the Captain, "Yes?"
"Iīm sorry if my decision disappointed you, but I had to do what I thought was right."
Gabrielle gave the Amazon a tired smile, "I wouldnīt expect anything less from you, Callias."
The Captain nodded to herself, relief evident on her face. She started to leave, but paused again.
"If...if you need anything or anybody to talk to... Well, I just want you to know that Iīm here that is...if you need or want...to talk or anything."
"Thank you, Callias." Gabrielle gave her a warm smile. "I might just hold you to that."
The Captain smiled briefly then hurried out of the hut, leaving Gabrielle alone. Gabrielle rose from her chair and walked over to the window. She drew the curtains back and looked outside. It was late afternoon and already the village was painted in shades of orange and red.
Autumnīs coming fast.
To her dismay she noticed that Zelei and Erinya had continued their argument outside and that several Amazons contributed eagerly to the debate. A small crowd was beginning to gather in front of the hut, all waiting to hear their Queenīs decision.
What I am going to do? Should the men live or die? Iīd wish Xena was here, she... No! I have to decide this for myself, for my people. They rely on me and trust me to do the right thing. But whatīs the right thing?
She sighed and moved away from the window and sat down on a chair.
Erinyaīs right, but in some way, so is Zelei. They killed so many...but it was war. They attacked us and we attacked them. I donīt want to decide this, I donīt want to be the one who sentences them to die. If I do, Iīll be just as responsible for their deaths as the executioner. Actually, Iīll be even more responsible, their blood will be on my hands.
She absently tapped her fingers on the table.
I have to think of what my people need, what they want. This isnīt about me, itīs about them. I have to be strong... They need me to be strong.
She leaned forward and rested her head on her arms.
But I donīt feel strong.
She stayed in the same position and didnīt move till she heard a knock on the door.
The four council members stepped inside, all looking expectantly at their Queen.
"Iīll tell you outside."
They nodded and moved aside to let Gabrielle out. The moment the Queen stepped outside all voices silenced and all eyes turned to her. It was almost dark now and several fires were lit. The air was heavy with tension and suspense, and Gabrielle swallowed involuntarily. She felt a presence at her side and turned to look at Callias whoīd come to stand beside her. The Captainīs face was expressionless, but Gabrielle was none the less grateful for her silent support. She turned back to face her people.
"I, as the ruling Queen of the Amazon Nation and with the authority bestowed on me, have decided to sentence the three captive soldiers to death. The execution is to take place immediately."
A roar of voices filled the square and several Amazons were hugging each other, tears running down their cheeks. Gabrielleīs face was blank as she turned to Callias.
"Captain, see to that itīs done and do it in private. I donīt want a public execution."
Zelei snorted, but a glance from the Queen silenced her instantly. Callias saluted and turned to the Royal Guards standing at the hut.
"Areia, Pellene. Come with me."
The three soldiers left in direction of the prison and silence fell once again. Hushed voices whispered and glances darted from the Queen to the prison and back again. Suddenly Callias emerged from the darkness, but without her soldiers. She walked over to her Queen and kneeled down.
"It has been done."
Cheering and shouting obscured any reply Gabrielle might have had and she only nodded in acknowledgement. A soldier in the regular army suddenly stepped forward and kneeled down and then, one by one, every Amazon in the village kneeled down before their Queen. Gabrielle took in the display before her, a strange smile on her face. Then she slowly walked through the lines of kneeling Amazons, gently touching each of them on the shoulder, before continuing towards the Royal hut and without looking back, disappeared inside.
"Seeing something interesting?"
"Nah, not really."
Lykeas closed the door behind him and stepped over to Xena who was standing at the window looking out at the city. The sun had set hours ago and only a few flickering lights from the houses below were visible. They stood side by side for a while, enjoying the cool air and the gentle breeze that made the flames in the fireplace join into a slow, alluring dance with the shadows on the walls. Then Lykeas walked away from the window and sat down on the bed. He began to roll his head back and forth to loosen up his muscles and Xena turned her head slightly to look at him.
Lykeas grinned, "Please."
With a quiet sigh she moved over to Lykeas who scrambled to the middle of the bed, before lying down on his stomach. Xena straddled his hips and began kneading the stiff muscles.
"Youīll never learn, will you?"
"And miss this? No."
Xena smiled to herself and continued her task. Her mind began to wander and she couldnīt help but wonder how many times sheīd done this before.
"So what do you think?" Lykeas interrupted her thoughts and she paused for a moment.
"I think itīs too much of a coincidence."
"Uhm, me too."
Their talk with the King had been interesting to say the least. Much to Lykeasī surprise, Xena hadnīt had any scruples about telling the King everything that had happened and consequently why they were here. Polyidos had listened in silence, only interrupting a few times to ask for a clarification of one thing or another. He had paid particular attention when Xena mentioned the brown uniforms the soldiers had been wearing.
"Brown uniforms? With a small black insignia just above the heart?"
"Yes. Have you seen them?"
"Yes, I have. Several times actually. Three months ago, I heard rumours of a warlord crossing my kingdom and together with my army I went out to meet him. However, instead of attacking, he avoided us the whole time until he had left the territory. That was the first time I saw the brown uniforms. I didnīt think much about it until four weeks ago, I heard that another warlord was coming through. Again they avoided us and again, they wore the brown uniforms."
"Couldnīt they have been from the same army and perhaps been delayed, trying to catch up?"
"I thought so too, but about two weeks ago it happened again. Although this time it wasnīt a real army. It was several small groups of men, all heading in the same direction with no apparent connection, except the uniforms."
"Did the men look they were coming from battle?"
"Now that you mention it, yes they did."
"Have you heard anything about them since?"
"I was going to send a message to King Simmias to inquire, but when I heard that Xena, the Warrior Princess was in my Kingdom, I decided to wait."
"Did you think I was with them?"
"Forgive me. I suppose, I shouldīve known better, but I have my people to think of and I take no chances when it comes to them."
"Donīt apologize, itīs not more than a few years ago, youīd have been right to be worried."
"I know, but letīs not talk about that. Instead I wanted to ask you, if you would consider bringing my message to Simmias since youīll be travelling through his kingdom, and I know this is of great interest to you as well."
Without hesitation, Xena had agreed.
She moved away from Lykeas and went over to the fireplace to stir up the fire. Lykeas reluctantly resumed his former position, sitting on the bed. Xena remained standing at the fireplace unconsciously still holding the poker, staring straight into the flames. Then abruptly she turned to look directly at him.
"Iīve done something very stupid."
"Oh," was all Lykeas managed to say, slightly unnerved by the look in her eyes.
"But Iīm willing to take the consequences," She continued, as if she hadnīt heard him. "I have to."
"I see," Lykeas replied, but in truth he didnīt have a clue about what she was referring to.
Then a thought struck, "Ohhh."
She smiled weakly at him, "Yes, ohhh."
He scratched his chin thoughtfully and watched as Xena began pacing the floor.
"Well, I think..." He paused, having no idea what to say. "I think, I should get some sleep. Itīs gonna be an early start tomorrow."
Xena stopped her pacing, "Yeah, youīre right. I should do that as well.," but she knew she wouldnīt be able to fall asleep.
Lykeas got up from the bed and opened the door, then on a second thought, he looked back into the room. Xena was standing at the window again, staring out at the darkness.
She didnīt look at him. "Uh huh?"
"You know Iīm awful, when it comes to stuff like...like that." He swallowed. "But if you ever... Well, Iīm willing...willing to try, and at least...I can always listen."
A smile showed on Xenaīs face, but the night was the only witness.
"Iīll keep that in mind."
He nodded to himself and closed the door behind him.
Three people stood in the castleīs courtyard which was bathed in the grey light of dawn. The King stifled a yawn and smiled apologetically at the two warriors.
"Iīm afraid itīs been a while since I last was up at this hour."
Xena grinned, "Well, there has to be some advantages to being a king."
The King pulled out a scroll from a pocket in his white robe. "Hereīs the message I want you to bring to Simmias." He paused for a minute and looked at them in a thoughtful manner, before continuing. "King Simmias is one of the nicest men Iīve ever met, but when it comes to politics..."
The expression on Polyidosī face indicated heīd just made a decision.
"Simmias is greatly loved by his subjects, but itīs no secret among them that in reality he has little involvement in the affairs of the kingdom. Therefore, Iīll advise you to speak to his wife, Queen Phillinna, about these matters. For years sheīs been the rightful ruler of the kingdom in anything but name, but under no circumstances treat Simmias with disrespect. Heīs not stupid, he just doesnīt... Well, itīs hard for him to remain focused for a longer period of time."
Xena nodded, "Thank you for the advice, weīll make sure to follow it."
She accepted the scroll the King handed her and placed it safely in Argoīs saddlebag. She hesitated for a moment before pulling out two scrolls of her own.
"Iīd be grateful if you would see to that these two scrolls are delivered to the Amazons. Will that be possible?"
"But of course, Iīll send a messenger right away, it shouldnīt-."
The King was interrupted by the sound of hooves on the cobble and Charmidesī voice, protesting loudly. They turned to see Alexias coming towards them, dressed in armour and leathers, leading a horse behind him. Charmides was wringing his hands and kept dancing around in small circles, while still managing to keep up with the Prince.
"But, Your Highness, you havenīt thought this through. It could be dangerous, what would His Majesty think if... Ah, Your Majesty! Iīm so relieved to see you. His Highness is determined to accompany the warriors and wonīt listen to reason."
The King frowned and left Lykeas and Xena. He led his son out of hearing range and an animated debate began. Xena gave Lykeas an amused smile, but his attention was on the scrolls in her hands.
"Whatīs in the scrolls?"
"This one informs them of all what weīve learned so far and what our future plans are."
"And that one?" Lykeas pointed at the slightly smaller scroll in the warriorīs other hand.
When she didnīt answer, he reached out and took it out of her hand. Xenaīs eyes narrowed for a second, but then her face was a mask again. Lykeas ignored her expression and opened the scroll. He read the short text and then without a word, rolled it together again and fastened the string around it. He handed it back to her and their eyes met. The blue eyes didnīt show any emotion, while the black ones had a speculating and searching look to them.
They both turned to look at Polyidos who was standing next to his son.
"Alexias has set his heart on going with you to see Simmias. I am not happy with his decision, but heīs old enough to decide for himself, so I wonīt stand in his way. Of course, it all depends on whether youīre willing to let him accompany you." He gave them a faint smile, "Donīt feel obligated to agree. Whatever you decide, it wonīt change my opinion about you or lessen the gratefulness I feel."
Lykeas released a quiet sigh and looked at Xena, who only shrugged, obviously letting the decision up to him. He turned to look at Alexias, who was regarding him with both anticipation and badly hidden eagerness.
"How old are you?"
"You look younger."
"I know." There was a defiant edge to the Princeīs voice, but Lykeas paid it no attention.
"Can you fight?"
"Yes, Iīve been leading the-."
Lykeas raised his hand to silence the Prince.
"Ever killed anybody?"
Alexias nodded, but when noticing the warriorīs expression, hurried to give a more oral confirmation. "Yes, yes I have."
"The finest," the King interrupted proudly and put an arm around his sonīs shoulder.
Lykeasī gaze went from the King to Alexias and then back again.
He mounted Rarjan and looked at Xena who was already sitting on Argo.
The King gave his son a warm hug and Alexias endured it for a moment, before easing himself out of the embrace. He mounted his own horse and looked down at the King.
"Iīll make you proud, father."
"Iīm proud of you already, Alexias... Be careful."
"I will." The Prince turned to look at Charmides, who was fighting tears. "Donīt worry, my friend. Iīll be back before you now it."
The chubby man blew his nose and gave the Prince a heartfelt smile.
"Iīm counting on it, Your Highness."
Without further delay, the three riders left the castle.
It was three days after the execution and the Queen still hadnīt left her hut. Sheīd had her meals brought, but most had been sent back without being touched. Kelife had paid her a visit, but the Queen had assured her that she was all right and just needed to be alone. The Amazons had respected her wish, but as the third day turned into night, Callias decided she wasnīt going to play along anymore. She knocked on the Queenīs door and without waiting for an answer steeped inside. Gabrielle was sitting on the bed surrounded by scrolls and looked up from the scroll she was writing in.
"What is it, I said... Oh, Callias, itīs you. Look, Iīm sorry, but I donīt feel like having company tonight."
The Captain just closed the door and stepped over to the bed.
"Youīre gonna stop doing this to yourself."
"Do what?" Gabrielleīs voice was annoyed.
"Feel guilty. You did what you had to do and thereīs absolutely nobody in this village, or the entire Nation for that matter, who think you made the wrong decision. They saw a strong and just Queen in a difficult situation, but you handled it with the firmness needed without betraying your heart, and they all respect you and love you that much more for it. Youīre not afraid of showing doubt or weakness, but youīre not afraid of showing strength and resolution either when itīs required, and three days ago, it was."
The Amazon paused from her passionate speech to take a breath.
"Then why is it I canīt sleep at night." Gabrielleīs voice was barely a whisper.
Callias pushed a scroll aside and sat down on the bed. She reached out and took the quill from the Queenīs shaking hand.
The Queen smiled at hearing her name from the Captainīs lips for the first time.
"Iīve been a warrior all my life, and I canīt say that I understand all the things you must be feeling right now, but I do know that sometimes in life weīre faced with problems that forces us to react in a certain manner. We may not like it or approve it, but itīs not gonna prevent these things from happening from time to time, and as with all things beyond our control, weīll have to compromise and adjust. The life you lived ten years ago is not the life you live today, and the person you were ten years ago is not the person you are today. The world around us changes and because we live in that world, we change with it."
Gabrielle smiled at the Amazon, "For a warrior, you certainly have a way with words." She sighed, "I appreciate what youīre trying to say, Callias. I really do, and I guess that some part of me agrees, but the thing is..."
"I made a promise to myself once never to take a life or to fight again. I may not have fought, but Iīve taken lives. Three defenceless men died because of me."
The Captain reached out and took the Queenīs hand. "You were a different person when you made that promise and in a different situation. Itīs impossible to go through life without altering or revising your beliefs and priorities. Your priority this time was the Amazons and you acted accordingly. You began the healing of the emotional scars we all carry. You saw what we needed and gave it to us and if the time comes, weīll do the same for you and thatīs how it should be, because youīre our Queen and weīre your people."
"But what am I worth if I canīt stay true to myself?" Tears were slowly running down Gabrielleīs cheeks.
"You wouldnīt be feeling this way if you werenīt."
And with that, the Amazon pulled her Queen into a tight embrace. Gabrielle rested her head against the soldierīs shoulder and cried quietly. Callias moved her hand in small soothing circles on the Queenīs back, while whispering soft words of comfort. Most of her words didnīt make much sense or were impossible to make out, but it all worked to calm the woman in her arms and soon the sobs subsided.
Gabrielle moved away and regarded the blond Amazon with a small smile. "Thank you, I needed that."
Callias smiled in return, "Itīs all part of a Captainīs duty. Whether itīs fighting off soldiers or offering a shoulder to cry on, Iīm here to assist."
"I was hoping you were here as my friend and not as my Captain." Her words were playful, but her expression serious.
"Oh, I..." The Amazon hesitated, then grinned. "Letīs say Iīm here as your friend and Captain."
"Works with me, "Gabrielle grinned in return, "but letīs not have anymore of those my Queens or Your Majestys, I never pull rank among friends."
"Well, I donīt know..."
"Almost never." The Queen interrupted, giving Callias a poor attempt of a menacing glare.
The Captain smiled, "Letīs compromise. Iīll continue to address you with your rightful title in public, but in private Iīll call you whatever you want me to. Is that a deal?"
"Deal." Gabrielle shook the soldierīs hand, "But you wonīt have to call me anything but Gabrielle, although..." She adopted a sober expression, "I probably could get used to a couple of "as you wish, woman who outshines the beauty of Aphrodite," and "yes, you the most skilful of bards," or what about, "if you say so, my Queen of light and wisdom," wouldnīt that be appropriate?"
"Letīs not get carried away, shall we?" The Captain smirked, "I begin to think, youīve been inside this hut for too long."
Gabrielle just smiled and for a while they sat in silence. Then Callias gestured to one of the scrolls on the bed.
"Care to tell me a story?"
The Queenīs eyes lit up, "Iīd love too. I havenīt been able to tell my tales for quite a while now."
She moved over so Callias could lean against the headboard beside her.
"Anything particular youīd like to hear?"
The Captain thought for a moment, " Iīm sure theyīre all excellent, so why donīt you just tell me one of your favourites."
"Okay," Gabrielle looked at the scrolls before her. She reached out for one, but stopped herself. "I donīt need the scrolls to remember this story."
She gathered the scrolls and carefully put them on the floor beside the bed, before returning to her position at the headboard. She took a deep breath and her eyes took on a distant and faraway expression.
"It was winter and the weather was freezing. Weīd been travelling for almost a week, when suddenly a group of..." She faltered.
Callias whoīd closed her eyes when Gabrielle began to speak, opened them again to look at her questioningly.
The Queen gave her a quick smile that didnīt quite reach the green eyes, "I think, Iīll tell a different story instead."
The Captainīs eyes searched her face, "Okay..."
"I sing the song of Narcissus, the river godīs son and Echo, the nymph who loved him..."
Gabrielleīs voice carried softly through the dark night.
Slowly, a thought penetrated the heavy layers of sleep and made itīs way into Gabrielleīs mind.
She was about to sink under again when her consciousness made another attempt.
How can that be?
Reluctantly she opened her eyes.
The Captain was lying on her stomach, facing away, but with one arm over Gabrielleīs waist. Gabrielleīs face was practically touching the Amazonīs shoulder and her arm had taken a disturbingly possessive hold around the Captainīs lower back.
She eased herself away from the still sleeping woman and got to her feet. She had told several stories the night before and every time sheīd wanted to stop, Callias had encouraged her to continue and the bard in her had willingly obliged, in spite of her exhaustion. Eventually they must have fallen asleep. She tried to stifle a yawn without success.
Apparently that wasnīt too long ago.
She studied the Captain for a moment and smiled to herself. The passionate and persuasive speech the Amazon had given her last night had done wonders. She knew she would never be comfortable with the role she had played in the three menīs death, but her feeling of guilt and frustration had, if not disappeared, subsided to a small ache she could learn to live with.
I did what I had to do. What they wanted me to do. I donīt like it one bit, but nobodyīs ever said itīs fun to be Queen. I just hope, I wonīt have to make another decision like that for a long time...preferably never again.
She sighed and wondered if it would be considered improper if she climbed back into bed beside the Captain and slept for a few more hours.
Hades, itīs not like Iīm gonna tell anybody.
Her musings were abruptly interrupted by a loud knocking on the door and for the second night in a row, an Amazon entered the Queenīs hut without waiting for permission.
"Your Majesty, I wonīt accept this any longer, I-." Zelei stopped in her tracks and a mocking smile showed on her face. "I see itīs true what they say about, "out of sight, out of mind." That didnīt take you long, did it?"
Callias whoīd been woken up by the noise, leapt off the bed and approached the brown-haired Amazon dangerously.
Zelei crossed her arms defiantly, but did take a few steps back.
"Getting ambitious are we, Callias? Trying to sleep your way to the top, eh? Too bad it wonīt do you any good as she wonīt be Queen for much longer."
Gabrielle reached out and held back the fuming Captain. "What do you mean, Zelei?" Her voice was demanding and cold. "Is there a problem?"
"Yes, you!" The Amazon spat out. "Iīm going to do something that should have been done for a long time ago."
"And that is?"
Zelei pulled out a dagger and threw it at the floor where it embedded itself only inches away from Gabrielleīs foot.
"I hereby challenge you for the right of Queen. Meet me at the practice field in two hours and if you donīt, Iīll see that as a surrendering of your authority as will the Amazon Nation."
Zeleiīs eyes narrowed, "And if you do show up, itīll be a fight to the death. Donīt expect anything else, Iīve no scruples when it comes to killing."
Gabrielleīs green eyes locked onto the Amazonīs brown. "Iīll be there, Zelei and now get the Tartarus out of here before I let Callias throw you out with your head first."
The Captain took a step forward, but Zelei raised her hands in contempt. "Donīt worry, Iīll leave now, after all, I wouldnīt want to spoil your last moments together, and I mean last."
She walked out and closed the door behind her. Then they heard her shout from outside, "Two hours, Gabrielle, I hope you enjoy!"
Gabrielle slumped down on the bed, an overwhelming sense of tiredness settling heavily in her body.
"Gods, how I donīt need this right now."
She gave the worried soldier a faint smile, "At least she had the courtesy to let me sleep a few hours before barging in here."
"My Queen... I donīt know what to say."
"Itīs Gabrielle in private, remember? And you donīt have to say anything." She patted the bed and Callias sat down beside her. "We both know that I canīt decline the challenge, I wonīt decline. Zelei as Queen would be just as bad as..." She stopped herself, not wanting to relive that particular memory.
"But, Gabrielle, she will try to kill you. I know Zelei and sheīs not kidding. She will kill you!"
"Only if she defeats me." The Queen smiled weakly, "As the challenged, Iīve the right to choose weapons and Iīve seen her fight with a staff, Iīm better than she is."
"A staff? You want to fight with a staff?" The Captain said incredulously.
"Itīs the only weapon I know how to use."
They were silent for a long time.
"You could appoint a Champion..."
Gabrielle looked away for a moment, "I already have, but sheīs not here."
"I see... Then you have to fight for yourself."
Gabrielle nodded, "I know, the Queen can only appoint a new Champion if her present one dies or freely renounces the privilege."
"Perhaps if Zelei would be willing to wait, we could send a messenger and-."
"No, Callias, we both know Zelei wonīt agree to that and even if she did... I have to do this on my own."
"Gabrielle," the Captain looked at her with solemn blue eyes, "I swear, if...if she kills you, Iīll challenge her the moment youīve drawn your last breath."
Gabrielle took the Amazonīs hand, "Callias, I-."
"I mean it, Gabrielle," she interrupted, "either she will die or I."
"If you do challenge her, I want you to promise me one thing."
Gabrielle looked into the soldierīs eyes, "Promise me youīll challenge her for the Nation, not for me. I donīt want your death on my conscience too."
Callias placed a gentle kiss on the Queenīs hand.
"Get down from there!"
The warrior scrambled down from his horse, almost losing his balance when his feet hit the ground. He swallowed nervously as the dark man stepped closer and stopped only inches away.
"Did you deliver my message?"
The warrior nodded, "Yes, sir."
The messenger swallowed again, but the lump in his throat didnīt want to go away.
Black eyes narrowed, "Refused?"
"Yes, they said they would rather die than surrender."
"Really..."A hand smoothed out a black eyebrow. "Did you tell them what would happen if they didnīt"
"Yes, yes I did, sir. But I donīt think they believed me."
"Is that so..."
The dark man turned to the man standing on his left, "Orestes, get the prisoners."
The warrior nodded and disappeared in direction of the cages. The messenger wondered whether he was allowed to leave, but one look at the dark eyes told him he was not. The sound of hooves caused the two men to turn and their gazes followed the fast approaching rider. The black horse came to an abrupt halt before them. The rider looked at the messenger, "Ageon, leave us."
The man hurried away, and in spite of his burning curiosity didnīt dare look back.
The woman on the horse and the man on the ground, eyed each other intensely.
"What do you think youīre doing, Lykeas?"
"Iīm going to make them surrender."
"By using the prisoners?"
"Didnīt I tell you no?"
The dark warrior only shrugged and blue eyes turned colder.
"I wonīt tolerate disobedience."
"I thought you might change your mind. Hades knows youīve done that a lot lately."
They both turned to look at Orestes.
"The prisoners..." The warrior faltered when he saw the look in the blue eyes. "The prisoners have been prepared."
"Take them back."
"But, Lykeas said-."
"Take them back!"
"Yes, Princess!" The man left immediately.
The two warriors stared at each other in silence. The wind brought with it the smell of smoke, horses and blood, and distant shouting and laughter could be heard blending in with occasional screams of pain, but neither paid it any attention.
"I donīt understand you, Xena. What is it you want?"
She didnīt answer.
"Whatīs wrong with you? Itīs like I donīt know you anymore. What the fuckīs going on in your head?"
Her eyes snapped open and she shook her head to clear her mind.
"Where did you go?"
She shifted in the saddle and looked at Lykeas riding beside her.
"Did you fall asleep?"
She gave him a sheepish grin, "I think so. Gods, I canīt remember the last time, I fell asleep in the saddle."
"You really are getting old."
"Watch it, Lykeas. I can still take you on any day."
He returned her grin, "Only you, Xena. Only you."
He dug his heels into Rarjan and the horse galloped forward to catch up with Alexias who was riding further down the road. Xena took out a water skin and poured some of the water over her head, she didnīt want to risk falling asleep again.
"Are you coming?"
Lykeas had turned in the saddle and was looking back at her.
Without answering, she ushered Argo forward and joined the men ahead.
In spite of the practice field being surrounded by people it was eerily quiet, not even whispering was heard and all eyes were on the path leading to the village. Suddenly, like one being, the crowd parted to make room for their Queen as she approached the field, casually holding a staff in her right hand. Small smiles of encouragement followed her on the way, but nobody spoke and the silence seemed even thicker than before. Gabrielleīs eyes met Calliasī for just a second and she gave the Captain a reassuring smile. The Captain tried to return it, but failed miserably. Zelei was waiting impatiently on the field, a malicious smirk on her face. She had been informed of the Queenīs choice of weapon and was holding her own staff in a tight grip. It wasnīt her preferred weapon, nor was it the best weapon for a quick kill, but she had no doubt sheīd find a way to end this soon. The Queen seemed to inspire that in her. Gabrielle walked out on the field, but stopped a few yards away from Zelei and turned to face her people.
"Amazons, today I was challenged for the right of Queen by Zelei and Iīve accepted the challenge. I donīt have to tell you about the rules of this ritual or the consequences if I lose."
She paused, trying to find a way to express her feelings.
"No matter what happens today, I want you all to know how proud I am of having been able to call myself your Queen. Your courage, strength and love have made me a stronger and better person and for that Iīll be eternally grateful. You accepted a stranger, a simple village girl as your Queen and offered your support, help and guidance whenever I was faced with problems or challenges...including getting into this." She gestured at her Amazon attire.
Her last remark, earned her several warm smiles and Gabrielle smiled in return. She wanted to say something more, but couldnīt find the words, so instead she looked at Erinya who nodded and walked out on the field.
"This is a fight for the right of Queen. It will continue till one of the participants have either surrendered, is incapable of fighting or have been killed. The chosen weapon is the staff and no other weapons may be used, nor may any other person interfere or assist in the fight, and the result cannot be disputed. The victor will be acknowledged as Queen of the Amazons."
She turned to look at first Gabrielle then Zelei.
"Are you both ready?"
"Very well then. Let the fight begin!"
Slowly the two combatants began circling each other. Gabrielle trusted her skills with the staff, but she was worried about Zeleiīs greater strength and endurance. She wasnīt sure whether the Amazon wanted to end the fight as fast as possible or have a little fun playing with her. A powerful blow forced her to take a few steps back.
I guess that answers the question.
Zelei pressed her advantage and delivered a hit to Gabrielleīs knee. She managed to bring her staff down and block, but the force of the blow made her own staff slam against her leg and she cried out in pain. Zelei moved a few feet back and regarded her coldly.
"Itīs not too late to give up."
Gabrielle gave her a challenging smile.
"That goes either way."
The Captainīs eyes narrowed and she charged again, this time going after the Queenīs head. Gabrielle ducked and thrust the tip of her staff into Zeleiīs stomach. The Amazon groaned and staggered, but didnīt halt her attack. She aimed at Gabrielleīs head again, but as the bard brought her staff up, she changed direction and hit her hard in the chest.
God dammit, Gabrielle! You saw that coming a mile away, why didnīt you block it?
She didnīt have time to speculate as Zelei ducked under her staff and went for the kill. The bard barely succeeded in getting out of the way, and both felt and heard the staff as it passed only inches from her throat.
She wants to smash my windpipe.
Already the staff was getting heavy and Gabrielleīs skin was glistening with sweat, and she knew she had to stop being on the receiving end. The continuous blocking of the Amazonīs blows were tiring her too fast, and preventing her from finding her own rhythm. At the next blow, instead of blocking, she moved swiftly to the left and for a second, the Amazonīs entire right side was unprotected. Again she delivered at direct hit to Zeleiīs stomach and this time all the air was knocked out of the Amazon. Gabrielle followed up with a blow to the Captainīs left hand and Zelei momentarily had to let go of the staff. However, within seconds she had recovered and the brown eyes darkened dangerously. She ran forward and, before the bard managed to react, used her superior weight to bring them both to the ground. The Amazonīs body landed heavily on Gabrielle and she heard her right wrist crack as it was caught between her back and the ground. Tears of pain came to her eyes and then she felt Zeleiīs hands close around her throat.
"You should have given up when you had the chance, Gabrielle." The Captain hissed, "Thereīll be no mercy now."
The pressured increased and the bard began struggling for breath.
"Why didnīt you choose another weapon? A sword wouldīve been so much faster."
I donīt wanna die. Not like this.
Her vision blackened and her lungs burned.
She wrestled her left arm, which had been trapped between their bodies, free and with all her strength plunged her fingers into Zeleiīs right eye. The Amazon screamed and immediately let go off her throat to cover her eye with her hands. Gabrielle pushed the Captainīs writhing body away and got to her feet. She swayed for a moment as the world began to spin, but managed to keep her balance. Zelei was rolling around on the ground, still covering her eye with her hands. Without a second thought, Gabrielle grabbed the staff in her left hand and stepped over to the Amazon. She planted her foot solidly on the Captainīs windpipe and Zeleiīs body went still.
"Do you surrender!"
The Amazonīs face was contorted in hatred and pain.
"Do you surrender!"
Gabrielle pressed down harder on her throat and Zeleiīs eyes bulged.
"Do you surrender!"
Still the Amazon didnīt reply.
She doesnīt think Iīll kill her.
The Captainīs well eye stared defiantly at her.
And sheīs right.
Gabrielle unconsciously ceased some of the pressure and a smile began to form on Zeleiīs lips.
But I have to end this...
She swung her staff and delivered a direct hit against the Amazonīs temple, knocking her unconscious. The last of her strength left her body and Gabrielle fell down on her knees. Far, far away, she heard the cheering cries of her subjects. She dimly saw Kelife rush to Zeleiīs side and barely acknowledged Erinya declaring the fight to be over with her as the victor. The only sensation she managed to focus on was the strong arms of Callias, as the Captain lifted her up and carried her back to the village.
"Nah, Iīm full."
"No, thank you, I canīt eat another bite."
Xena smiled to herself as she reached out and took the last piece of meat, she wasnīt used to be the one who ate the most.
They had camped away from the road, taking cover behind a particularly nasty hawthorn thicket, and Lykeas had complained for twenty minutes about the thorns, which seemed to have been extra bend on getting themselves stuck into exactly his body. Needless to say, Xena had found the entire thing hilarious that is, till her hair was caught on a branch. However, the entire episode had helped to break the ice and Alexias was visible more at ease with the warriors, and had begun to actually talk to them.
"Are we gonna keep watch?"
Xena looked up from the meat at the Prince, "Yeah, Iīll take the first couple of hours and Lykeas will take the rest."
"What about me?" The indignant tone was not to be mistaken.
"Donīt worry, Alexias. Youīll get your share of watches. Just not tonight, okay?"
The Prince relented and moved closer to the fire. To be honest he was tired, and he knew that Xena must have been able to see it on his face. They had been travelling fast all day, hardly taking time to rest and he wasnīt used to that. It was only a couple of months ago, heīd managed to talk his father out of having Charmides accompany him whenever he went hunting or riding. Alexias prided himself of his skills as both rider and swordsman, and heīd also had the opportunity to prove himself on a few occasions, but he knew his experiences didnīt even come close to what the two warriors across him had been subjected to. Like everybody in Greece, heīd heard the stories of the Warrior Princess and he was dying to ask her about it, but somehow he knew it would be a bad idea. He also had to admit to himself that he was fascinated by the dark man, whoīd rescued his life. It was obvious Lykeas and Xena were old friends and he couldnīt help but wonder about the nature of the relationship they shared or had shared in the past. Had Lykeas been one of her men? A soldier in her army? A lover...? Had they been friends even then, and if, how had he reacted when she began to change and ultimately left? These were questions he would like to ask as well, but again he sensed heīd overstep invisible boundaries. Besides they didnīt really know each other that well yet, but perhaps some day he would find the courage to ask and perhaps, just perhaps, they would answer.
He raised his gaze from the fire and noticed that they were both looking at him with slightly amused expressions. He could feel himself blush and he thanked the Gods for the darkness. They would never see him as anything but a boy if he kept blushing every other minute. Both Lykeas and Xena noticed the blush, but neither mentioned it, Xena finding it rather cute while Lykeas wasnīt sure he wanted to know the reason.
"Youīre better known in these parts than we are. When do you think weīll reach King Simmiasī kingdom?"
Alexias took a sip of water before looking at Lykeas, "Well, if we keep up the pace, Iīd think we should get there in two, maybe two and a half days."
"Will we been travelling through your fatherīs territory the entire way?"
"Yes, well sort of. Thereīs a small piece of land between the two kingdoms that officially has no owner, but itīs only a mile or so."
"And unofficially?" Lykeas absently traced a long scratch on his left arm with his finger.
Alexias smiled, "The area is known for itīs exquisite yellow roses and since King Simmias loves roses..."
"So thereīs never been any trouble between your kingdoms?" Xena inquired.
The Princeīs smile vanished, "No, weīve never had any quarrels with Simmias, but..."
"King Kassander has on more than one occasion violated both ours and Simmiasī borders. Of course he has a perfect excuse every time and always retreats willingly."
The young man shrugged, "But both father and I think Kassanderīs only waiting for an opportunity to attack. These provocations are meant to test us and see how far weīre prepared to let him go. I suppose he wants it to look like we made the first move so if a war starts, heīll appear to be the oneīs been wronged and consequently justified to invade."
"So youīve never been engaged in an actual conflict with Kassander?" Lykeas asked, inwardly deciding that King Kassander was a man he could relate to.
Alexias was silent for a long time and Xena exchanged a quick glance with Lykeas, then the Prince spoke again, his voice loaded with emotion, but which exactly was impossible to distinguish.
"He murdered my brothers."
Xena looked at the young man in surprise and Lykeas did a fairly good imitation of a raised eyebrow. However, before they managed to ask any questions Alexias continued, this time his voice was unmistakably harsh.
"Of course, nobodyīs willing to say it out loud, but I know...I know he had them killed."
He paused, but then spoke again, almost stumbling over the words, "Three years ago my brothers were out hunting close to the border between Simmiasī and Kassanderīs kingdoms. Simmias has no children and he has always allowed us to use his hunting grounds whenever we wanted to, as long as we didnīt step on his flowers."
A pale smile followed the last remark, then faded. "When Polyidos and Natolemos didnīt return when they were supposed to, Simmias sent out a search party... My brothers had been beaten to death and then hung up in a tree. Kassander later claimed that a warlord had crossed his territories and must have been the one responsible, but we never heard or saw anything of any warlord."
"Iīm sorry," Xena said quietly. "I know how it is to lose a brother."
She fiddled with her chakram for a few seconds, before getting up, "Iīll go check the perimeter."
"Why would Kassander have your brothers killed?" Lykeasī voice portrayed genuine curiosity.
The Prince looked into the fire, "I...I donīt know. Thatīs why nobody believes me, they donīt see a motive."
Lykeas studied Alexias until the young man looked up and met his eyes.
Lykeas held his gaze for a while then leaned back down on the bedroll, an intrigued smile playing on his lips.
"Nothing... Just wondering."
"Itīs healing nicely, my Queen."
Kelife wrapped a fresh bandage around Gabrielleīs wrist, "Donīt strain it too much or try not to use it at all, and it should be fine in a week or two."
She finished wrapping and leaned closer to take a look at the Queenīs throat.
"Any problems swallowing?"
"No," Gabrielle shook her head.
"It takes more than that to stop Gabr... I mean, Her Majesty speaking." Callias smirked and promptly received a slap on her thigh.
Gabrielle smiled innocently before turning her attention back to Kelife, "I havenīt had any problems with my throat, Zelei didnīt manage to do any real damage."
"Thatīs only because you stopped her before she got the chance," The Captain muttered under her breath, but Gabrielle heard her anyway.
"Exactly, Callias. I stopped her." She smiled at the soldier. "Donīt forget that."
The healer waited patiently for the moment to pass before clearing her throat, "Okay, Callias lay down." She gestured to the pallet beside her.
The Captain frowned, "Why, I wasnīt in a fight."
"No," Kelife replied, patting the pallet, "but I need to check your stitches. I want to make sure you didnīt tear any while carrying the Queen the other day. And speaking of that, didnīt I tell you not to do anything strenuous till after I had removed the stitches?"
"Well, " Callias reluctantly lay down on the pallet, a small grin on her face, "if Iīd known Her Majesty would be that heavy, I might have thought twice about it."
"Hah, hah. I glad you both find that so amusing," Gabrielle said, giving the two smiling faces a stern look. "If youīre not careful, I may issue a law where Iīm to be carried around all the time, and guess whoīll get the honour?"
The healer only smiled and lifted up Calliasī tunic to look at her wound. Gabrielle noticed a faint blush on the Captainīs cheeks and casually looked away to study the wall of the hut instead. The wall was covered by small bundles of herbs and dried flowers. The herbs drying to be used later for medicine and the flowers used to freshen the air, and drive out the smell of death that still seemed to linger in the healerīs hut. Gabrielle shuddered at the memory of the last time sheīd been there. It had been the second day after the battle and she had just arrived after a few hours of sleep to resume her work, when Kelife had stopped her at the door. There had been no use for her help, none of the wounded had survived the night. Gabrielle shook her head, the image of the dead Amazons in the hut was something sheīd never forget. She wondered how Kelife dealt with it.
"Okay, they look fine, but no more carrying around Queens, is that clear?"
Callias grinned, "I promise."
The healer gave the Captain a meaningful look, "Yeah right."
Gabrielle wasnīt quite sure how she should perceive Kelifeīs remark and decided to change the subject.
"Yes," the healer absently replied while washing her hands in a bowl, "what about her?"
"How is she doing?"
"Oh," Kelife sighed, "sheīs fine. Sheīs a pain in the arse and never listens to my advise, but else sheīs doing just fine."
"Iīm shocked, Kelife," Callias grinned, "I thought you loved all your patients."
"Well, believe me when I say that some of them are more loveable than others... Okay, get out of here so I can get back to my herbs."
She ushered her patients outside, but then just before they were about to leave, put a hand on Gabrielleīs shoulder.
"My Queen, thereīs a possibility that Zelei will never regain her sight on the right eye."
Gabrielleīs face paled, "But you said-."
"I said sheīs fine and she is, but I donīt think her eyesight will return." The healer gave the Queenīs shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Iīm telling you this because Iīve already informed Zelei, and I didnīt want you to be unprepared if she...well, we all know what she can be like."
Gabrielle swallowed and looked down for a moment, before raising her head and looking the healer straight in the eye, "I had no choice, Kelife. I know, what you as a healer must think, but if I had to do it all over again, I would."
"Oh no, my Queen, you misunderstand me. Iīm not blaming you or anything. Actually, strictly between you and me," she leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, "I think sheīs had it coming for years."
Gabrielleīs mouth opened, then closed, then opened again.
"Oh," she finally managed to say, but by then Kelife had already gone back inside, the thin straw wall only slightly muffling her melodic laughter.
"Close your mouth, Gabrielle," Callias grinned and began to lead her Queen away, "youīll attract flies."
They stopped and turned to see Areia approach them, two scrolls under her arm. She bowed for the Queen and gave her Captain a small nod before handing over the scrolls.
"A man reached our border today. He said he was sent out by King Polyidos four days ago to deliver these scrolls to the Queen of the Amazons."
"Whereīs the man now?"
"I take it heīs on his way back, my Queen. Apparently, he wasnīt expected to bring back a reply."
"Polyidos," Callias thought out loud, "isnīt his kingdom somewhere North from here?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, looking intensely at the scrolls in her hands. "Xena said theyīd have to pass it to get through to Ister."
"I see. You may go, Areia."
The Amazon saluted and headed back towards the forest. Callias regarded the Queen questioningly, who still hadnīt made any attempt to open the scrolls.
"Arenīt you going to read them?"
The Queen didnīt respond.
"Oh, sorry. I was thinking about something."
She unrolled the largest scroll and quickly read the text, before giving it to Callias.
"It seems that everythingīs going according to plan," the Captain said after a few minutes and returned the scroll. "Itīs nice of them to keep us informed, I didnīt think theyīd do that."
"No, neither did I." The green eyes were distant.
Callias looked thoughtfully at the smaller scroll and bit her lip, "Well, Iīd better get going. I got some things to do."
Gabrielle gave her a somewhat poignant smile, "Iīll see you later then."
The Captain nodded and swiftly walked away. The Queen lingered for a moment before slowly making her way back to the Royal hut. Inside she sat down on the bed and for a while just looked at the scroll in her hand. Then, without conscious thought, she took a deep breath and unrolled the parchment.
I hereby renounce all privileges and duties as Champion of the present Amazon Queen, Gabrielle of Poteidaia.
I no longer feel capable of providing the protection and support that is required when holding such a position, and have therefore no other choice but to take the consequences and retire.
I do this freely and have neither been pressured nor influenced to do so by a third party.
As my successor I recommend, Callias, Captain of the Royal Guard, who trough her courage and loyalty have shown herself more than worthy for the post.
From the moment this document has been delivered to the Queen, I consider my responsibilities as Champion to be over.
Xena of Amphipolis.
Night had fallen and the first stars appeared, before the Queen moved from the bed and walked outside.
In the last minute the horse managed to stop just before it would have run down a man walking on the road. They had just rounded a corner and out of nowhere an elderly man had appeared, walking in the middle of the road, oblivious to everything around him. Lykeas had some difficulties in getting Rarjan to stand still, the sudden halt having frightened the horse, and Rarjan danced nervously before slowly calming down.
"What in Tartarus do you think youīre doing? You could have gotten yourself killed or worse, injured my horse." Xenaīs voice was harsh and it was clear she didīt really gave a damn if the man had been hurt, but that Argoīs faith was an entirely different matter.
The man was dressed in a perfectly white tunic and sandals. He looked up at her with blue-grey eyes that shone almost as much as his bald head in the afternoon sun. He gave her a warm and friendly smile and pointed at a white flower lying on the dusty road.
"I lost her, the wind took her right out of my hand." He bent down and tenderly picked up the flower, "Iīm so glad I found you again," he whispered affectionately, before putting it into a small pouch hanging from his belt.
"Look, sir, Iīm sure-." But before Xena could finish her sentence, Alexias has jumped down from his horse and enveloped the man into a warm embrace.
"My Lord, itīs so nice to see you again."
Xena stared at Lykeas who only shrugged.
"Ah, Alexias, my dear boy. Itīs nice to see you too. What have you been up to lately? Itīs been so long since you last came for a visit."
The Prince moved away from the embrace, but kept his hands on the manīs upper arms. "I know, sir. Iīve been busy with my studies and training," he noticed the puzzled looks from the two warriors, still on their horses. "But where are my manners, My Lord, may I introduce you to two of the finest warriors Iīve ever met, Xena and Lykeas and this," he gestured towards the little man, "this is His Majesty King Simmias IV."
The King gave them a dazzling smile, "Itīs so very nice to meet you. Youīre friends of Alexias?"
Before the warriors could respond, the Prince cut in, "They saved my life, sir. If it hadnīt been for them Iīd have been dead."
The smiling expression on the Kingīs face disappeared and was replaced by one of sorrow. He put his own hands on Alexiasī and looked intensely at the young man, "Iīm so glad you didnīt die, I donīt think I couldīve taken it, if youīd be gone too."
His sorrowful look vanished as quickly as it had appeared and he gave the two warriors another brilliant smile. "Letīs get going, Iīm late already and Phil will be worried."
He began walking down the road humming for himself, occasionally stopping to pick up a flower or study a colourful stone. Lykeas looked at Alexias as the Prince returned to the saddle.
"Thatīs King Simmias?"
The young man nodded, "Yes, got a problem with that?" His voice was slightly defensive.
Lykeas looked down the road a huge grin on his face, "Nope, canīt say that I have."
He urged Rarjan forward and quickly caught up with the King. Alexias glanced at Xena, but the warrior was lost in thought as she stared at the retreating back of Simmias. Then she turned to look at the Prince.
"Is Queen Phillinna by any chance like her husband?"
Alexias gave her a reassuring smile, "No, they are quite different."
They joined the men ahead of them and began the slow journey to Simmias castle, constantly being delayed by an enthusiastic King searching for flowers in the ditch along the road or running off somewhere, chasing butterflies. Soon Xena was at the end of her tether and her mood wasnīt improved by the fact that Lykeas found the entire thing highly amusing, and even, much to Simmiasī delight, pointed out several flowers that the King might find interesting. Finally she shot him a look that if possible would have killed him right on the spot. Lykeas only gave her a pleasant smile in return and else ignored her for the rest of the trip. It was late evening before they reached the castle, and they were met in the courtyard by a servant, who gently but firmly, took the King by the arm and led him away. Another servant showed them to their quarters and announced that Queen Phillinna had asked the two warriors to join her in the garden later for tea, and until then, dinner would be brought to their rooms. After the meal, Alexias excused himself and went out in search of an old friend, and Xena and Lykeas found themselves alone in the room.
"I wonder what Phillinnaīs like?"
Xena let out a long breath, "Me too, Lykeas. Me too."
And then they both broke down laughing.
A warm spicy, intoxicating scent lingered in the air and Xena paused for a moment, trying to pin down what it was. It was roses, no doubt about it. The sweet scent had reached her nostrils even before sheīd entered the garden, but there was something else as well. Something...comforting. She frowned, not sure where that had come from, but it was true. The scent was full of the last warm rays of the evening sun, it whispered of days long gone and spoke of joys yet to come.
Okay, get a grip, girl!
The warrior shook her head, deciding sheīd been out in the sun too long. She followed the path between the green hedges towering over her, feeling like she was entering another world. The path circled and turned constantly and when once she looked back, the castle had disappeared from her view. The gravel under her feet and the voice of a single bird singing was all she heard, and for just a second, she felt very alone. Then she rounded another corner and the path opened up and came to a halt in a round circle of grass. She noticed other paths ending and leading away from the circle as well, and wondered briefly where they led, before focusing on the woman, sitting on a white bench in the centre of the circle. The woman was dressed in a simple white dress with elegantly woven patterns around sleeves and neck. Her long blond hair hung loosely down her back, making a golden contrast to her pale skin. She looked up from the book she was reading, and dark green eyes found blue. A slow smile spread on her face and she gestured for the warrior to come nearer. Xena, suddenly feeling very self-consciousness, tentatively stepped closer. The green grass was soft under her feet and she didnīt make a sound as she closed the distance and sat down on the edge of the bench. The smile hadnīt left the womanīs face as she reached out touch the warriorīs arm.
"Iīm so glad you could join me."
The simple touch on her arm, sent a wave of electricity through Xenaīs body, and it was a while before she could answer.
"We have things to discuss." To her surprise her voice sounded hoarse, and she cleared her throat, before continuing. "We have a message from King Polyidos."
The woman leaned back and gracefully crossed her legs, and Xena noticed for the first time that the Queen wasnīt wearing any sandals, the pale skin seeming even whiter against the grass.
"I know." She spoke softly and looked at the warrior patiently. Xena mentally slapped her head and gave the scroll to the Queen. Phillinna read it in silence, her face showing no emotion, except a small nibbling on her lower lip, which Xena found almost too endearing. When finished, she folded the scroll again and put it down on the grass.
"I take it, weīre expecting another guest as well."
"Guest? Oh yeah, Lykeas should be here any minute."
Xena found she couldnīt hold the Queenīs gaze and let her eyes roam the hedges surrounding them, efficiently shielding them from prying eyes and ears. The sun had partly disappeared behind the high walls of green and the circle of grass was bathed in a glowing red light.
"Are we far from the castle?" Xena heard herself inquire.
"No, but the gardenīs been designed the way that the castle isnīt visible from here." The Queen smiled, "Sometimes itīs nice to get away without really being away."
The warrior kept staring at the various paths leading away, keenly aware of the Queenīs eyes on her.
"Thank you for escorting Simmias home."
Xena turned to look at the woman, her brow furrowed. "Your Majesty, I mean no disrespect, but I think itīs a tad irresponsible of you to let your husband run around alone outside the castle," she hesitated slightly.
With a gentle nod the Queen urged her to continue.
"His Majesty seems to be a...a kind and caring man, and I wouldnīt want any harm to come to him."
Almost imperceptibly Phillinnaīs features mellowed and her eyes took on a faraway look.
"Youīre right, my husband is a kind and caring man, and I wouldnīt want anything bad for him to happen either, but..." She smiled and green eyes focused on the warrior, "I want him to be happy also and nothing makes him happier than searching the countryside for flowers."
Xena nodded, "I understand that, Your Majesty, but you shouldnīt let him leave unescorted."
"Ah, but he isnīt or usually he isnīt." She gave the warrior another smile, "Simmias sneaked out before dawn this morning, and weīd been searching for him all day when you brought him back."
A question burned on Xenaīs tongue, but she wasnīt sure if she should phrase it. The Queen raised an eyebrow and silently asked a question of her own.
The warrior smiled a bit sheepishly, "I was wondering how... I mean, what does the people of this kingdom think about King Simmias and his...little hobby?"
"Xena," a warm shiver ran down the warriorīs back when she heard her name spoken from the pink lips, "my husband has been King for almost forty-five years and in all that time, people have never spoken one bad word against him. They know he loves them and that he cares about their sorrows and joys, so at the end of the day, it doesnīt matter whether he talks to his roses or not."
Xena thought she could see the trace of sad smile on the Queenīs face, but then it was gone.
"Has he...has he always been like that?"
"As long as Iīve known him."
The warrior studied the woman beside her. She didnīt seemed to be much older than her late thirties, and after Xenaīs impression of the King that would make her almost thirty years younger than her husband.
A if guessing her thoughts Phillinna said, "Iīm his second wife, his first wife, my sister, died ten years ago."
"Your sister?" Xena arched an eyebrow.
"Yes, my sister." This time a sad smile was clearly visible on the pale features. "Esther was a frail woman, but Simmias loved her very much. When she became ill and the healers said nothing could be done, she made me promise to look after him. She was afraid heīd fall apart without her."
"Yes, but marry him?" Xena couldnīt help but think that that was quite a request Phillinnaīs sister had made. "Did you love him?" The blunt question was out before the warrior could stop herself.
"Heīs a sweet man and he loves me dearly. What more could I ask for?"
Xena found there were several things she could think of asking for, but remained silent. She looked at the Queen, but noticed the green eyes had gone pass her and was looking at something behind her. Embraced by, and almost hidden in the fast expanding shadows was Lykeas.
"Come sit down."
Lykeas stepped forward then hesitated for a moment before sitting down on the grass in front of them.
"Will you be comfortable there?" Phillinna asked. "I can have a chair brought?"
"No, no. Iīm fine."
The Queen let her eyes rest on one, then another warrior, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Then her posture changed and she suddenly seemed both taller and more authoritative.
"So, what are your plans?"
"That depends on what you can tell us?" Lykeas cut in before Xena had the chance to speak.
The blond womanīs countenance softened and she smiled at him. "Why donīt you ask and Iīll do my best to answer. Then afterwards we can discuss any further plans."
"Okay," Lykeas replied, throwing a quick glance at Xena before looking back at the Queen. "The men in brown uniforms, have you seen them?"
"Yes, not personally though, but Iīve heard several rumours of large bands of men crossing the kingdom, all dressed in brown uniforms."
"Have you had any trouble with them," Xena inquired, deciding it was time for her join in.
"No, they have always avoided the populated areas. It seemed like they were only intend on crossing the territory."
"They headed North?" Both warriors asked at the same time, and the Queen gave them an amused smile, before turning serious again.
"Yes, they all headed toward the border between our and King Kassanderīs kingdom."
"So they left your territory and entered Kassanderīs?"
Phillinna nodded, "Yes."
This time, Xena was faster than Lykeas, "Have you heard anything about this from Kassander?"
"No," the Queenīs face was very serious now, "and that worries me. Kassanderīs not the kind of man, whoīd allow a warlord in his kingdom not even if they only meant to cross it."
"My impression exactly." Xena looked at Lykeas and he nodded his agreement, but before he could speak, a servant appeared from one of the paths, carrying a tray with three steaming cups. He bowed for the Queen and left the tray on the bench between the women, before disappearing down another path than the one heīd come from.
"Ah, tea." Phillinna took a small sip from her cup and closed her eyes. "Delicious."
The warriors did the same, and even Lykeas, who wasnīt too fond of tea, had to admit that the sweet, almost fruity taste was quite becoming. They drank their tea in a comfortable silence, both warriors noticing, but not responding to the sometimes curious, sometimes pondering looks from the blond woman. After a while, Phillinna put her cup back down on the tray, and relaxed back against the bench.
"So, now you know all I do. What are your plans?"
"I think we should take a little look around Kassanderīs kingdom, probably check out the castle as well."
"Yes," Lykeas agreed, "I think so too. Alexias and I will leave tomorrow."
"What?" Xena drawled, looking at him, "What do you mean, you and Alexias will leave? What makes you think Iīm gonna stay here?"
The dark man looked into her eyes, "Xena, you canīt travel through Kassanderīs kingdom without being detected and subsequently hunted down. Our best chance to learn if the Kingīs up to something or not, is for us to come and go as quiet as possible, and we both know that he still has a price on your head." He held out a hand to stop her from arguing, "You would be noticed, Kassanderīs neither a forgiving nor forgetting man."
He got to his feet and gave a small nod to the Queen, "Iīll inform Alexias of our plans."
He turned to leave, but hesitated and gave Phillinna an embarrassed look.
"That way," she smiled and indicated a path, "itīll take you directly to the wing where the guest chambers are."
The warrior in question growled something unintelligible in return, and Lykeas left, a small grin on his face. The Queen hid an amused smile and straightened out a fold in her dress. She let her hand rest on the smooth fabric for a moment before looking back at the warrior.
"Can I ask you something?"
Xena tensed before leaning back, an almost defensive expression on her face that wasnīt lost on the Queen.
Phillinna gave the warrior a faint smile as if to reassure her that she didnīt bite.
"Itīs just, when I heard whoīd arrived I was surprised."
Brows furrowed, "Why?"
"I always thought...well, after what Iīve heard, I though you travelled with a bard and not another warrior. I mean, with all those stories about your deeds, I was certain that a bard had to be following you around."
The blue eyes studied the Queen for a long time, and for the first time in her life, the Queen suddenly felt the need to shift in her seat and look away, but she valiantly returned the gaze without blinking. Then the warrior ended the contact, and to Phillinna it felt like an almost physical connection between them had been broken.
"A bard did use to travel with me, but not anymore."
"Oh," the Queen tried to see Xenaīs face, but the warrior refused to look up.
Silence, then Xena slowly looked up and gave Phillinna a bittersweet smile.
She rose from the bench and without hesitation disappeared down one of the paths.
"I surrender, my Queen! I surrender!"
Gabrielle stepped away from the panting Amazon on the ground.
"Oh, Iīm sorry, Erinya. I guess I got carried away for a moment there."
"Uh huh," the weapons master grinned in spite of her sore ribs, "Iīd say so too."
Gabrielle reached down with her left hand and pulled the Amazon to her feet, Erinya looking at her with admiration in the eyes.
"I knew you were good with the staff, my Queen. You proved that when you fought Zelei, but I didnīt know youīre also capable of fighting practically only using one hand."
The blond woman looked at her wrist still wrapped in a bandage and then at the weapons master, "I have many skills. Besides," she grinned, "Kelife would kill me if I strained it."
Erinya rolled her eyes knowingly, "Tell me about it."
They left the practice field and returned to the village, stopping in front of the Amazonīs hut.
"Are you going to have your ribs checked?" Gabrielle asked, when she noticed Erinya wince slightly.
"I think Iīll wait and see. They donīt feel too bad."
"Youīre afraid sheīs going to confine you to bed?" the Queen teased.
"Exactly," The Amazon replied. "Personally, I think Kelife would prefer if she could all the warriors in this village to lie down on their backs and stay there."
An unbidden image came to Gabrielleīs mind and she couldnīt help but grin. Erinya looked at her blankly, then realization hit, "I didnīt mean it quite the way it sounded," she blushed.
"I know," The Queen smiled and started to walk away, "Iīll see you tomorrow morning."
The weapons master disappeared inside her hut and Gabrielle continued her walk through the quiet village. It was dark already and most of the Amazons had retired for the night, but the air was still warm and Gabrielle didnīt feel like sleeping.
Gabrielle froze for a second, then turned.
The Captain was standing only a few feet away, a dark leather patch over her right eye, the left staring at her intensely. The Amazon stepped closer and Gabrielle instinctively tightened her grip around the staff. To her great surprise, Zelei kneeled down.
"I want to apologize, my Queen."
"For what, Zelei?" The distrust in the Queenīs voice clear.
"For doubting you. You proved beyond doubt that youīre the rightful ruler of the Nation."
She rose and looked into the green eyes. The sceptical look on Gabrielleīs face didnīt disappear, but nonetheless she reached out and briefly shook the Captainīs hand.
"Iīm glad you feel that way. Iīm just sorry it had to come to this," she looked at the leather patch.
"Oh that," the Amazon nonchalantly replied, "I consider that a small memento of a great fight. A badge of honour you could say... Something Iīll never forget."
Two green eyes focused on one pale brown, then Gabrielle nodded, "Goodnight, Captain."
"Goodnight, Your Majesty."
Lost in thought, she watched the Amazon disappear into the night.
"You canīt trust her."
"I know," Gabrielle turned and smiled at the sight of Callias leaning against a hut, looking decidedly sleepy. "But I have to give her a chance, she deserves that and who knows, she may surprise us."
"Thatīs what Iīm afraid of." Callias stepped closer and came to stand beside the Queen. "Just be careful, okay?"
The Captain stifled a yawn and Gabrielle smiled again, "Arenīt we getting enough sleep, Captain?"
"Nah," the Amazon smirked, "the Queen keeps me awake all night." She suddenly blushed and looked around, "I mean, with talking...when you tell your stories, I donīt mean-."
"I know what you mean, Callias. I know." Gabrielle laughed at the sight of the embarrassed soldier. "Donīt worry, if anybody heard you, Iīm sure they are all green with envy by now."
The Captain smiled, "Youīre probably right, every Amazon in this village would envy me."
"Oh no," Gabrielle said quietly, "I mean, they would envy me."
Callias opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again. Her eyes searched the Queenīs face, confusion evident on her own. Gabrielle returned the gaze without wavering, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. She wasnīt sure what she wanted to happen or not to happen, she was only aware of the small sting of disappointment she felt when the Captain turned to walk away.
The Amazon stopped, but didnīt turn around to face her.
Gabrielleīs mouth was suddenly dry and she had to moisten her tongue before continuing, "Please turn around."
"I...I want to see your face."
The Captain stood motionless for what felt like an eternity, then she resolutely turned around, the blue eyes surprisingly calm. Gabrielle searched the Amazonīs face and found what she was looking for. She stepped a bit closer.
"Would you like to spend the night with me?"
Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have been horrified by her frankness, but right now she didnīt care. She knew Callias would never make the first move and she also knew that for some reason, she desperately didnīt want to be alone tonight. The soldier swallowed and looked away, "I think you know the answer to that."
As response, Gabrielle reached out and Callias hesitantly took her hand. Without a word she led the Captain to her hut and they disappeared inside.
"Yep, they have definitely passed here."
Alexias dismounted and kneeled down beside Lykeas, "How many?"
"Hmm, too many for my liking."
Lykeas rose and studied their surroundings.
They were on small road cutting through a thick, dense forest, the trees so close it would be practically impossible to leave the road and take cover. It made Lykeas rather uncomfortable and edgy, but the road was the most direct route to Kassanderīs castle, and it was also the route the foreign warriors had taken, so they didnīt really have a choice. They had left Simmias kingdom a couple of hours ago and had been travelling in Kassanderīs ever since. As Lykeas had expected, guards had been posted at the border, but they hadnīt had any difficulties in avoiding them. Clearly they werenīt expecting any trouble and were more busy playing dice and talking than looking out for strangers.
Or perhaps, theyīve become used to strangers by now, with all those soldiers crossing the border.
Lykeas looked ahead, the road seemed to go on forever and when he looked back, it was the same.
Alexias studied the dark warrior lost in thought in front of him. It had been an experience, to say the least, to travel with him. In the almost twelve hours they had been on the road, Lykeas had hardly said more then ten words. All attempts by Alexias to start a conversation had either been ignored or cut short by the warrior. Not that Lykeasī behavior had been gruff or hostile, heīd just been...distant. Xena had been pretty much the same on their way to Simmias, and the Prince could clearly picture the roaring silence there must have been around any campfire that Xena and Lykeas had shared. The thought brought a smile to his lips and he decided to make it a challenge to himself to see, whether he could get Lykeas to have an actually conversation with him before they returned to Simmias. The dark warrior turned and noticed the smile on the young manīs face. He frowned, but didnīt say anything. Instead he got back in the saddle and waited for Alexias to do the same.
"Itīll be dark soon. Weīll keep moving until we find a place to make camp. If you see somewhere suitable say so."
"Yes, sir!" In spite of the annoyance the Prince felt about being ordered around, he couldnīt help but grin at Lykeasī surprised expression.
The warrior looked at Alexias for a long time, then the first smile of the day showed on his face.
"Letīs just get going, shall we?"
Almost two hours passed before the forest became less dense and they could, although with difficulty, leave the road to dive in between the trees, leading two less than enthusiastic horses behind them. They were all covered by scratches and spruce needles by the time they found an acceptable place to camp.
"Not much room." Alexias announced and looked around.
The clearing they had found was less than small, and already the horses took up so much space that there wouldnīt been room for a fire and for them to sleep, at least not a the same time.
"Gotta take what we can get," Lykeas replied with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
"Oh, Iīm not complaining." Alexias hurried to say.
They removed the saddles from their horses and laid out the bedrolls. The Prince noticed they would be sleeping very close together that night, and somehow that made him feel both warm and cold inside. Lykeas sat down and rummaged through a saddlebag. With a sigh, he pulled out the dry meat he had brought with him from King Simmias, and handed some to Alexias who had come to sit down in front of him, their knees almost touching. They ate in silence since the Prince didnīt know what, if anything, to say and Lykeas seemed to be quite content with not saying anything at all.
"Want something to drink?" The warrior suddenly asked, almost startling the young man.
"Oh no, Iīm fine."
Lykeas shrugged and took a sip from the water skin himself, before lying down on the bedroll. Alexias hesitated, then did the same. They werenīt exactly touching, but the Prince was sure he felt heat radiating from the man beside him.
"Will the horses be all right?"
Lykeas shifted to lie on his stomach, facing away from Alexias, "Yeah, theyīll be fine. Theyīll go hungry tonight, but weīll make it up to them tomorrow."
He closed his eyes and let out a small sigh and it was clear to the young man that the warrior was about to fall asleep.
Lykeas managed to remain still with closed eyes for almost two minutes, before he gave up.
"Alexias, will you please stop staring at me. I canīt sleep if you do that."
He turned his head to look at the Prince, who was indeed staring at him, a faint blush colouring his cheeks.
"Just go to sleep, okay?"
Alexias nodded and looked up at the sky instead, hands under his head. Lykeas made himself comfortable again and closed his eyes. He was tired and wanted to sleep. Although the journey that day hadnīt been particularly exhausting, the lack of cover had made it impossible for him to relax and heīd been constantly on edge, never letting his senses rest.
"Youīre doing it again."
Lykeas sighed and turned to look at the young man.
"What is it? Is there something you want to ask? Are you worried about being here?"
"No." Alexias replied, the brown eyes looking slightly nervous.
"Well, what is it?"
"I...I just like to look at you."
"Oh..." Lykeasī eyes darted away from the Princeīs face. "Well donīt. Not when Iīm trying to sleep."
Then he resolutely resumed his former position, facing away.
And the dark warrior could swear Alexias was smiling.
"I donīt think Iīve ever seen so many roses before in my life."
The Queen smiled at the warriorīs remark, "Simmias is nothing if not dedicated to his hobby."
They were walking down a narrow path, surrounded by red roses on both sides. The air was heavy with the sweet smelling flowers, and if it hadnīt been for the light breeze, the scent would have been uncomfortable. The Queen was barefoot again and Xena had noticed that Phillinna hardly ever wore shoes or sandals. When she had asked why, the Queen had replied it kept her grounded to feel the earth under her feet.
"Phil! Phil! Come and see!"
Simmias suddenly burst out from the bushes and was gesturing wildly for them to come nearer. When he was certain they had seen him, he disappeared back into the green and red ocean. Without the slightest hint of surprise Phillinna dived in between the bushes after her husband. Xena looked sceptically at the roses and especially the thorns for a moment, then she sighed and followed the Queen.
It`s not like I got anything else to do.
To her surprise it only took her a few steps to walk trough the bushes and she found herself at the edge of a wide lawn. A few yards in the King and Queen was looking at something on the ground.
Do I really want to know what theyīre looking at?
In spite of herself Xena walked out on the grass towards the eagerly gesturing Simmias, and the patiently listening Phillinna.
Gods! Why am I doing this?
The Queen looked up when she heard the warrior approach, and gave Xena an inscrutable smile.
"Look, Xena. Simmias has found a four-leaf clover."
Lykeas, youīre gonna pay for this!
"Is that so?" She leaned down and tried to show a bit of enthusiasm for the Kingīs discovery. Not that any more enthusiasm was needed, Simmias had more than enough of that for all of them.
"Ah, isnīt she a beauty, Phil? Isnīt she?"
"Very beautiful, dear. Youīve found a real treasure this time."
The King beamed, but then his expression changed, "Oh, I have to see to the white roses. I didnīt get to see them yesterday."
He turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him and disappeared in between the bushes again. Phillinna looked after her husband with an affectionate smile, but Xena thought she could detect something else in the Queenīs eyes as well. They resumed walking, this time toward the centre of the lawn where a small lake could be seen. Without any ceremony Phillinna sat down on the bank, close enough to the water for her feet to touch. Xena sat down beside her and after a moments hesitation pulled off her boots and lowered her feet down into the water.
"Are you bored, warrior?"
Xena turned to look at the blond woman, whoīd lifted her face towards the sun, eyes closed.
"Is it that obvious."
The Queen chuckled, "Yes."
"Iīm not really use to being inactive like this, I donīt like it."
"No, I could imagine. You seem to have been on the move for most of your life."
Phillinna opened her eyes and studied the warrior.
"Where do you see yourself in ten years?"
"Oh," Xena looked surprised, "I donīt know. I usually donīt think that far ahead, I prefer to live one day at a time."
"In your line of business, I suppose thatīs a wise philosophy."
The warrior smiled, "Yeah, you could say so."
The Queen sighed and leaned back to lie down on the grass, "Sometimes Iīd wish, I wasnīt queen."
"Donīt get me wrong," Phillinna squinted up at the woman beside her, "I love being able to do something for people, I love making this kingdom a better place to be, but sometimes... I donīt know, itīs like somethingīs missing."
Xena lay down beside her, "What do you think is missing?"
"I donīt know...no, thatīs not true, I know whatīs missing in my life."
"Passion," the Queen looked directly at the warrior, "passion is whatīs missing in my life."
Xena looked into the green eyes for a long time, then she gave Phillinna a small smile, "I hope you find it one day."
An ambiguous smile briefly showed on the blond womanīs face, then she looked away, "So do I, warrior. So do I."
Xena closed her eyes and relaxed against the grass. The feel of the sun on her skin and the warm water around her feet made her drift off, and it wasnīt long before she was asleep, her dreams invaded by another blond woman with gentle green eyes.
Gabrielle ran a tired hand through her hair and looked at the healer.
Kelife nodded, "Yes, we still need eighty people to reach the same number as before the attack, but Iīve heard that Amazons from all over the nation have offered to come and live here."
"Thatīs true," Gabrielle gestured towards the scrolls on the table. "The moment they receive an affirmative reply, they should be on their way."
"Itīll be nice to have a full village again."
The Queen smiled at Kelife, "I couldnīt agree more. Okay, back to business. Callias, how many soldiers do you need for the Royal Guard?"
The Captain looked up from the piece of parchment she had been studying, "I need at least twenty-five warriors, preferably more, to fill out the vacant posts."
Gabrielle nodded, "I see. Zelei?"
"I need all the warriors I can get, my Queen. The regular army has been reduced to almost a third of its original size."
The council members fell silent for a moment, all remembering the lives who had been lost in the battle. Then the Queen cleared her throat, "Erinya, how is it going with the training? How soon will your pupils be ready."
The weapons master bit her lip, "Three of them are almost ready to assume duty, but as for the rest Iīm afraid itīll be at least two more months before theyīre qualified as warriors."
"Okay," Gabrielle gathered the scrolls on the table. "Erinya, continue your training as usual, but if possible try to speed it up a bit. Callias, youīll get the first pick when the new warriors arrive, and the rest will be under your command, Zelei."
She looked around, "Any questions?"
They all shook their heads.
"Well, letīs call it a day then."
The council members rose and left the hut, except Kelife who walked around the table to stand beside the Queen.
"Let me see your wrist."
Gabrielle sighed, but willingly held out her hand, "Itīs fine, Kelife. You really donīt have to worry about it anymore."
"I know," the healer replied, ignoring the Queenīs exasperated tone, "thatīs why Iīm going to remove the bandage."
Kelife unwrapped the wrist and nodded to herself, "Nice work, if I should say so myself." She gave Gabrielle a small pat on the back, "Try to stay out of trouble from now on, my Queen."
"Iīll do my best," Gabrielle grinned and the healer turned in the door, a pensive look in the grey eyes.
"Iīm sure you will."
Gabrielle collected the scrolls and carried them to the hut used for storing documents, then she made her way towards the memorial grounds. She walked pass several small vases with flowers, before stopping in front of a newly planted olive tree. She kneeled down and with her hands removed the weed around the tiny sprout, then sat back on her heels, her eyes moist with unshed tears.
I miss you, Ephiny. Why did you have to die? I feel so empty inside, so alone.
She remained sitting for a long time, staring at the sprout as if it would supply her with the answers she needed. Only when her legs began to hurt, did she rise and, with one final look at the vases around her, leave the memorial grounds. She washed her hands in the bowl outside, and began to walk towards her hut, acknowledging the greetings of her subjects with nods and smiles. Outside the hut, she paused and let her eyes run over the village, a sense of peace engulfing her body.
Itīs going to be all right now. Somehow, everythingīs going to be all right.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her with a quiet sigh, it had been a long day. She kicked off her boots and was about to unlace her top, when she felt warm hands on her hips.
"Iīve missed you."
She smiled and turned around, "Iīve missed you, too."
Without further words, Callias lifted her up and carried her to the bed.
The guard shook his head again, trying to rid himself of the sleepiness threatening to claim his body. He was tempted to just close his eyes and lean against the tree beside him, but he knew that not even a couple hours of sleep was worth the punishment he would receive if he was caught sleeping on duty. He sent an angry stare at the dark sky above him. Why did he always end up with the graveyard shift? Besides, in his opinion it was a waste of time keeping watch with all the soldiers stationed in and around the castle. A man would have to be both stupid and tired of life to try and get near the castle walls. He had to hand it to the Persians, although they were acting both superior and contemptuous toward him and his fellow Greeks, they most certainly knew how to secure an area and fight a battle. They had emerged from every conflict as the victor, except of course, the soldier snickered to himself, they hadnīt been able to defeat the harlots down South. It had been an unforeseen defeat and Kassander had been furious, but in spite of the plans that had needed changing and the heavy drills all the soldiers had been subjected to as punishment, there hadnīt been a single Greek in Kassanderīs army who wasnīt secretly pleased with the Persians débâcle. After all, it was Persians. They could be tolerated as long as they served the means of the King, but the moment the conquest had been completed, they would be expandable. A small voice in the guardīs head pointed out that it might not be so easy to get rid of the Persians when everything was over, but he pushed it away. King Kassander would make sure things went according to plan. He had no love for the King, but he trusted him to be able to control the foreign soldiers. Kassander was not a man who liked to share, whether it was gold, women or land, he considered it his rightful property and may the Gods have mercy on any man who thought differently. The guard yawned again and tried to occupy himself with counting the tents scattered all over the plain in front of the Kingīs castle. He had counted ninety-seven before his chin fell down to his chest, and his body slumped against the tree.
Dark eyes watched the soldier slowly slide down the trunk of the tree, to end up sitting on the ground, the spear, having fallen out of his hand, lying a few feet away. Then the eyes left the reclining guard and searched the plain in front of him.
Fifty-three campfires. At least a hundred tents, and then there are the soldiers inside the castle. I guess that answers the question if Kassanderīs up to something or not. Heīs been hiding Persian soldiers on his lands for weeks. Thatīs why we didnīt hear about any major troops movements. There havenīt been any. They split the army up in smaller bands and travelled the country as warlords and thugs instead of professional soldiers. I wonder for how long this has been going on? And does he expects further reinforcements from Persia?
A dark figure emerged from the shadows of the forest and came to a halt before the sleeping guard. A cold, calculating stare ran over the soldierīs body.
Will he be missed?
Lykeas stepped closer and pulled out a dagger.
No matter, he wonīt be found.
A soft voice broke the silence.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Gabrielle lifted her head to look into the Captainīs blue eyes, "Iīm sorry, Callias. I didnīt mean to wake you."
The Amazon reached out and traced a tear with her finger, "You have been crying."
When she didnīt get a reply, she hesitantly began to move away from the Queen, but Gabrielle tightened her grip around the other woman, "Please stay."
Although insecure, the Captain complied and carefully wrapped her arms around the young Queen again.
"Have...have I done something wrong?"
Gabrielle lifted her head from the Amazonīs shoulder, "No, no, Callias. Itīs me, Iīm...itīs just..."
"You miss her?"
It was more a statement than a question.
"Sheīs not coming back, I knew it all along. Sheīs not coming back." The tears were flowing again.
Callias swallowed and tried to ignore the ache in her heart, "You donīt know that."
"Then why should she renounce her championship?" The green eyes were both pleading and apprehensive, waiting for an answer.
"I didnīt know she had."
"Nobody does. I havenīt told anybody yet."
The Captain closed her eyes for a second, feeling every sob from the Queen cut deep into her soul. She didnīt know what to say. She was afraid that if she said something it would be wrong, but she was also afraid what would happen if she didnīt. She could feel Gabrielle snuggle closer and she instinctively tightened her hold around the slender body. They lay together in silence for a long time, both relishing the closeness. The room was bathed in darkness and the only sound was the quiet, rhythmical breathing of the two women. The crying had subsided and Callias suddenly felt a tentatively hand caressing her stomach. Her entire body tensed, but she didnīt move away. The hand travelled higher, but just before it reached its destination, another hand came down and gently pulled it away.
Gabrielle raised her head and tried to see the Amazonīs face, but the Captain was looking away.
"Gabrielle, I think, I should leave."
"I donīt want you to leave."
Callias gently, but firmly eased herself away from the Queen and out of the bed. Gabrielle sat up and watched the Amazon as she searched for her clothes in the darkness. She finally managed to find her tunic and dressed, before turning around to face the Queen. She could barely make out the graceful figure of the woman sitting on the bed, the green eyes studying her intensely.
"I donīt want you to leave."
"I have to."
"No." The figure rose from the bed and stepped down on the floor. "No, you donīt."
"Gabrielle," Callias began, unconsciously taking a step back, "youīre hurting and confused. I donīt-."
"Yes, Iīm hurting, Callias." The young woman stepped closer, "But Iīm not confused." She stopped in front of the Captain, their bodies almost touching. Gabrielle reached down and took the Amazonīs hand, placing it over her own heart.
"Can you feel that, Callias? Can you...? Do you still think you have to go?"
The Captain felt the furiuosly pounding heart just beneath the smooth, warm skin. She began to speak, but was silenced with a finger on her lips.
"Donīt you want me, Callias?"
"Yes, Gods, I want you so much." The voice was raw with passion and Gabrielle felt every word rekindle the fire in her loins. She let a single finger trace the Captainīs lips a few times, before reaching down to pull the tunic over Calliasī head. She slid her armīs around the Amazonīs neck and drew her down for a kiss. Just before their lips met, the Captain hesitated.
"I donīt want you to hate me in the morning."
Gabrille leaned closer and whispered into Calliasī mouth, "I could never hate you, Callias. Never."
Their lips met and all further conversation was forgotten.
TO BE CONTINUED...