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I thank Ren Pic and all the initials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle. I promise not to send them on any trips to India or mention any Indian dieties in this story.
There is very little violence in this story. There is some sex between Xena and Gabrielle. They are mates however so Jerry Falwell can relax and go back to watching the teletubbies to make sure they behave.
Do I want feedback on this story? Yes please. I have part two written in my head but if everyone hates part one I won't write part two. I'll just sulk for awhile and then write something else. So when you finish please tell me what you thought of the story and cast your vote on whether you want to find out what happens to our heroes in Ashes On The Wind. A little encouragement goes a long way on those lonely nights in front of the PC when your fingers ache and your carpel tunnel is acting up. I can be reached at email@example.com
So, without further ado, this story happens about a year after Dreams Lost and Found, I hope you enjoy.
THE WILL OF THE LION (cont'd)
By Jim Kuntz
continues from here
Immediately after Xena's return from Ithaca Gabrielle called a Council meeting and announced her decision for war. The Warrior Princess presented her plan. Murise stood and brought up all the problems that Odyseus had forseen. The Lion did not get angry, they were valid points and she answered them the best she could. Finally Murise sat down. For all of her doubts there was no shortage of iron in the woman. It became obvious to all that she would rather fight with a flawed plan than not fight at all. Like the Princess, the Chief of Trikkala loved the idea of the Amazons and could not live without it. Her whole life had been lived on one Amazon principal. Death before dishonor. The whole Nation's death if neccesary. Her conviction did not waver now. The other Councilors, some reluctantly, placed their faith in the Queen and the Warleader. The vote in support of Gabrielle's decision was unanimous, war. After the bard adjourned the meeting and the Councilors left she gave her mate a hug and kiss and then went for a long moonlit walk down by the river. She found a log close to the bank and she sat and listened for a while to the sounds of life. Frogs croaking, crickets chirping, night birds singing, dragon flys humming, fish splashing as they lept out of the water after insects. Finally the bard put her face in her hands and wept. Wept bitterly for the women who would soon lose these sounds forever. 'If we are doomed to lose this war Artimis,' she prayed. 'Let the first death be mine. If I can't lead my people well in life then let me lead them in death.' Suddenly a strong arm wrapped around the bards shoulders. Without looking Gabrielle turned and buried her face in Xena's chest. Together the mates sat on the log all night, without a word spoken, Xena gently rocking Gabrielle, her chin on top of her head, till dawn found them with its promise of new life. The bard pulled back and the Lion put her hands to her cheeks and wiped the tears gently from her eyes with her thumbs.
"I've used up todays allotted time for crying." Gabrielle said quietly. She took one of her mates hands and kissed the palm. "Time to go to work."
The days of late summer went by quickly and slowly. Quickly for Xena, slowly for Gabrielle. The Lion travelled ceaselessly, from village to village, overseeing the training of the village companys with an iron hand. Building their strength and confidence while teaching them the tactics of the phalanx and how best to counter them. Seeing that every warrior understood how to properly use her unfamiliar hoplite shield and her role in the battle line. Several times she broke away from her training schedule to spend a couple of days checking on the progress of the engineers in building a servicable path from the mouth of the Akheloos river to the highway. Time seemed to fly by for her, her mind and body completely focused on her goal, victory. It was energizing to the Lion. She slept less and felt better than she had in years. Every day was a new mountain to climb and the Great Lion of Amphipolis was the greatest mountaineer in the world. She knew in her soul that she was created for challenges like this.
Gabrielle spent most of her time closeted with Lentilia in the royal quarters handling endless piles of scrolls that defined the economic life of the nation as she tried desperately to squeeze out the money or trade goods necessary to equip her warriors for modern warfare. She made trades with greedy arms suppliers that literally made her sick to her stomach knowing how outrageously unfair they were to her people but she was competing with all of Greece for weapons and armour as everyone responded to the Carthaginian threat. She made several trips to Athens and Corinth trying to fill gaps in her list of necessary supplies and always came back with less than she needed. The Nation was closing in on bankruptcy and the bard felt a rising sense of desperation. Sometimes she wondered if they could survive victory any better than they could defeat. Lentilia and Ephiny watched her lose weight and finally agreed that they would take turns being with Gabrielle at every meal, begging, urging and pestering her to eat. The days dragged by for the bard, and when Xena came home to train the Farsala company she always seemed to be away on her trips. Weeks went by without the mates seeing each other. Finally, as summer turned to autumn, they actually wound up in the same room together, by accident.
Xena decided to stay an extra day in Farsala to watch Ephinys' cavalry train in the great open meadow on the south side of the town. It was a throughly impressive and satisfactory display. The troopers wheeled and manuevered in perfect syncronization to Ephiny's every command. And the prideful arrogance that the troopers displayed was exactly what the Lion wanted to see. She wanted to see one hundred wolves ready to descend on the sheep and murder them without conscience or pity. Under Daria's glaring eye and harsh demanding voice she saw them. When Ephiny rode over and pulled up beside Xena, who was sitting on Argo, the Lion growled only one word. "Perfect." Ephinys face showed no reaction to Xena's appraisal but inside her heart swelled. Her pride in her accomplishment was complete. More than she even realized, she wanted the approval of Greece's greatest warrior for her work. She finally felt ready to lead her warriors into the inferno.
The Lion was packing her few personal possesions in the royal quarters, about to leave for Kalvia after reviewing Ephinys troop, along with most of Farsala, as it marched through the town to its encampment, when the door opened and Gabrielle, covered with a layer of dust from her trip with Lentilia to Corinth, walked in. Ephiny was behind her, having seen her pull up on her horse outside the Council Hall. The Princess always laughed to see the bard gingerly get on and off a horse. There was no time these days for walking and Ephiny had found her Queen a gentle gelding to ride but Gabrielle still did not trust horses.
The Lion looked up with surprise. "Beloved" she said with a broad smile only Gabrielle ever saw. The Princess was somewhat shocked to see how truly expressive of emotion the Warrior Princess' face could be when she let down her guard for a moment.
"You are still alive," Gabrielle exclaimed as she hurried over to her mate and wrapped her arms around her. "I was beginning to wonder beloved."
The Warrior Princess hugged her mate hard then pulled back and brushed some of the dusty hair out of the bards face and put her mouth on Gabrielle's. Ephiny went and sat down in a chair against the wall and tried to pretend she was not there. Finally the lovers pulled reluctantly apart. The bard stroked Xena's cheek.
"I'd almost forgotten what you taste like my love. You taste like life itself to me." she whispered.
Xena smiled and brushed her nose against her mates. "You are my life" she whispered back.
Gabrielle looked into Xena's face and her eyes clouded.
"You look tired beloved," she said. "You're not leaving again are you? You're going to stay awhile and rest right?"
The Lion was surprised at the bards words. She hardly felt tired. In fact she felt completely fit and ready for anything.
"Well, actually," she said slowly, "I should be in Kalvia right now. I stayed an extra day to see Ephiny's cavalry. I was just about to leave."
The bards shoulders slumped. Her face seemed to wilt.
"I thought you might need some rest" she said in resignation.
Xena looked at Gabrielle uncertain what to do or say. She was due in Kalvia. They would be wondering where she was.
"Xena does look tired, very tired." The Lion looked up to see Ephiny approaching. The look on her face said 'you're an idiot Warleader.'
"In fact," Ephiny continued. "I think she should take three or four days off and go to that fishing hole over by Trikkala we found last summer and get some real rest. I think the Queen should order her Warleader to do just that. Right now."
Xena's eyebrows beetled together with annoyance at the Princess but Ephiny glanced at the bard and then back to the Lion with a 'wake up stupid' look in her eye. Xena finally looked at her mates drawn, weary, dirt stained face and woke up.
"I am tired" she said. She smiled. "If the Queen orders me to go fishing I guess a loyal Amazon warrior could hardly refuse. Everything is in order in the Nation right now. I could take a few days off." Xena stroked the bards face and looked in her green eyes. "Of course I'll need someone to cook the fish. You know if I do it myself I'll just wind up sick."
"Oh Xena," the bard said, rubbing her cheek against the Lions hand, "would that be responsible, both of us being gone?"
"Hey," Ephiny said sharply. "A vote of confidence in the heir apparent by the Queen would be nice right now. You don't think I could handle things for a few days Gabrielle?"
The bard turned around and looked at Ephiny with true gratitude in her eyes.
"You know that's not what I meant. I just meant..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off and she turned back to her mate. "Could we Xena, could we get out of here for a few days?" The desperation in the bards voice shook the Warrior Princess. Had she lost her connection to Gabrielle so much in these last months that she did not realize how her mate was suffering? The Lion put her hand behind the bards head and pulled her to her breast.
"We're leaving at first light so pack what you need" she said. Then she grinned. "While you're packing I'm going to get the big tub filled and we're going to have a good soak and start out in the morning clean and fresh."
The bard put her arms around the Warrior Princess and held her tight, like she was the last tree in a raging flood and if she let go she would be swept away to oblivion.
Xena peeked from behind the tree trunk at the rider coming up the trail. As the horse passed beneath her she silently walked out on a branch and with perfect timing jumped off and landed behind the rider and wrapped her arms around her.
"So where have you been?" Gabrielle said. "I've been expecting you to ambush me for the last half a league. I was getting worried you didn't care anymore."
Xena snuggled her face in the bards fine redblonde hair then moved around and licked her ear.
"Ambush is all about surprise" she whispered. "I surprised you by not ambushing you sooner."
"Or you were too busy enjoying your fishing to worry about poor Gabrielle's hurt feelings that you hadn't come out earlier to waylay her" the bard said.
The Lion smiled. "Or that. You can pick either one."
Gabrielle grinned. "Once again Xena, that golden tongue of yours knows just the right words to pick me up out of my misery."
"I'm always here for you my friend" the Lion nipped her mates earlobe. "Always here." After a pause Xena asked, "How was the adoption ceremony?"
The bard took a deep breath and frowned at the memory.
"That was so embarrassing" she winced. "I totally forgot Trikkala's adoption ceremony was today. Thank the gods we showed up completely by accident at the right time. I love presiding over the yearly ceremony in each village. I would have never forgiven myself if I had missed this one. I think it's the most important thing I do as Queen. Sanctifying before the village and Nation the formation of new Amazon families. I love to see the look in the eyes of the women as they hold their children and repeat the oath of adoption. It always moves me deeply." The bard laughed. "Plus I get to hold all those kids and give them a kiss whether they want one or not. Some of them sure give me a funny look. I don't have a mustache or anything do I?"
Xena laughed. "Not hardly."
As Gabrielle's brown gelding walked along the narrow trail between the towering oaks and maples of the forest the Lion pulled the bards long hair to one side and began softly kissing the back of her neck. Xena's hand around the bards waist moved slowly up till it was over a breast pressing gently, feeling the nipple harden with excitement through the cloth of her blouse. The bard closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure. After moving over to the other breast and giving it a light squeeze the hand moved down Gabrielle's belly and began to worm its way with exquisite delicacy into her skirt. The bard put her hand over Xena's.
"Hey there lover," she whispered, "just how far do you intend to go? We'll be to the pond soon."
"We don't have to wait that long beautiful" the Lion whispered in Gabrielle's ear and then she ran her tongue around inside it. "I'll have you shivering right here in a moment."
The bard frowned with doubt. "I don't know beloved. I've never done this on a horse before. With my luck the animal will bolt in the middle of things and we'll both break our necks. As much as I love you Xena I'm not sure that's how I want to be found."
The Warrior Princess kissed the bards ear. "It'll be alright. Borius and I had sex on a horse all the time. In fact I think Solon was conceived on a horse."
"Oh that's good Xena. That's romantic," she said. "Bring up the acrobatic tricks you could do with your former lovers. I'm sure a warrior like Borius could do a lot of things I can't do."
"Maybe" Xena smiled. "Are you jealous?"
"Nooo," the bard said with a tinge of sarcasm, "what would I be jealous about? You mean the fact that you've had more lovers than a lion with her own pride while I've had two in my whole life, and one of those was just for one night. What would I be jealous about?"
The Lion hugged Gabrielle close and kissed her neck. After a moment of silence the bard took her mates hand from her waist and kissed it. She let out a little sigh.
"I do wonder sometimes Xena," the bard said, "if I... if I..."
"Satisfy me?" the Warrior Princess completed her mates sentence.
Xena put her cheek against the bards and moved her head up and down rubbing their skin gently together.
"Let me tell you something beautiful," she whispered with emotion. "No one has ever moved me the way you move me. No one has ever touched me the way you touch me. No one shares our bed Gabrielle. When I love you there's only you. I don't see anyone else. I don't feel anyone else. You fill up all my senses and my heart. My dreams have only you in them my beloved mate. Only you."
Gabrielle put her hand on the side of Xena's head and pressed their cheeks together.
"Love me Xena," she whispered. "On a horse, in a tree, on the bottom of the ocean, anywhere you want beloved. As long as it's you there's only ecstacy."
"Xena stop" the bard giggled. "Xena that tickles."
The Lion moved the little twig with a leaf at the end from between Gabrielle's round buttocks and up the small of her back. The bard wriggled her whole body as the leaf moved slowly forward.
"Xena that really tickles," she laughed.
When the leaf reached the nape of her neck the bard suddenly rolled over and grabbed the leaf in her teeth and pulled it from the twig.
"Hey, that's mine" Xena smiled. The Warrior Princess laid her naked body down on top of her mates and grabbed the leaf with her own teeth. For a moment they both laughed and pulled back and forth till the leaf tore in half. The Lion carefully took the leaf out of Gabrielle's mouth with her fingers and spit out her own half. Then she settled her lips on the bards and experienced again the pure pleasure that her mate gave her. The taste of her mouth and her excitement. The aroma of her breath. The smell of her passionate body. The feel of her soft skin. The sound of her breathing and the words of love she spoke as she reached release. And those eyes, those emerald green eyes that burned with desire and passion and set her own desire raging like a lightening strike in a dry forest. After so long, too long, the Lion felt Gabrielle's heart beating again beside hers. The sensation filled every empty space, every lonely gap of her soul. 'Odyseus was right' she thought as she pulled back and studied her beloved's features, her eyes closed and a smile of pure contentment on her face, 'you connect me to humanity, in your arms I'm whole.'
"Thank you Gabrielle," the Lion whispered.
The bard opened her eyes. "For what?" she asked, her green orbs still intense with passion.
"For loving me."
The bard smiled and wrapped her arms around her mate and pulled her down with all her might.
"Do you feel my heart beating beloved?" she whispered.
"Yes" Xena answered.
"My heart was created for you Xena. It's yours as much as mine. It was made to love you. It always will. And I always will. Thank you for loving me back."
"I do beautiful, "Xena whispered, pulling her head back so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes. "I do. Always know it. Always believe it. There's only you."
They kissed for a very long time. Finally Xena rolled off the bard and took a deep breath. Gabrielle snuggled into her arm.
"Gods I've missed you" the bard said in a low voice. "So much."
"And I you" Xena answered.
For a candle mark there was silence as the lovers rested in each others arms. Xena breathed deeply the smell of the pines that surrounded the beaver pond where they had spent the afternoon fishing,
talking and laughing together for the first time in months. A hardness and distance from others that had been building in the Lion these last weeks, a focus on the discipline of death that made the lives of others seem more like material to be manipulated and molded, pawns to be manuevered, instead of people of flesh and feeling, was all melted away by one evening with the bard. The miracle of Gabrielle had occured. The Warrior Princess was in touch again with the other half of her soul. As she absently ran her fingers up and down Gabrielle's arm as it lay across her chest, her cheek on top of the bards head, Xena found herself thinking only on the pleasure of life.
"Gabrielle," the Lion said quietly," when are we going to start a family?"
Xena felt the bard jerk with surprise.
"Xena, beloved," Gabrielle stammered as she pulled back and raised herself on an elbow to look at her mate. "you know I want to start one. Very much. But how can we think of that now?"
The Lion gazed into her lovers eyes and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand.
"Because we must" Xena whispered. "All this work and planning and training and worry, all focused on death. It's time for us to think of life again beloved. To plan a future for ourselves that has the promise of life. When we get back to Farsala will you go with me to the temple to put our names on the adoption list? Are you ready to think about life after this war?"
Gabrielle's face beamed, a sight as beautiful as any the Lion had ever seen, and she pulled herself on top of Xena and kissed her with passionate tenderness. "Yes Xena, I'll be beside you in the temple," she whispered, "I'll be beside you always."
The bard began kissing down Xena's neck and onto her chest. She moved slowly over till Xena's left nipple popped in her mouth. She nipped it and tickled it with her tongue as it hardened with excitement. The Lion laughed.
Gabrielle looked up with a questioning face. "What?"
"Always the left one, never the right" Xena smiled.
The bard looked at her mate through narrow eyes. "So what are you telling me? The other one is jealous?"
"Maybe" Xena replied.
Gabrielle grinned. "Well there's a reason for that." The bards left hand slid down Xena's stomach and between her legs. "I think I'm better with the left hand but," she started to pull her hand back but Xena's caught it and put it back in its place.
"No, no," the Lion laughed, "the right nipple will just have to stay jealous. Never mess with success."
Gabrielle giggled, then she sighed as she looked on the open, unguarded, dazzling smile and the soft blue eyes that gazed back at her. "You make me happy Xena," she whispered, then her eyes narrowed wickedly, "now lets see what I can do for you."
Soon the little forested valley echoed to the sounds of gasping and panting and laughing and the pleasure of love.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The sun was a quarter of the way through its journey when the Warleader was finally satisfied that everything was ready. She galloped Argo up to the front of the supply train where it stopped at the western edge of the village. She looked over at Herodotus sitting on the bench of his wagon, Cassandra beside him. The old farmers face was red, the way Gabrielle's face got when her temper was up, and he was glaring at the Lion. The warrior at his side seemed perfectly calm and content with the world. The Warrior Princess noticed that the load in the back of Herodotus wagon looked much better organized than it had been. She winked at the old man. He mouthed something that she was sure was obscene but that she did not quite catch. It might have had something to do with the marital status of her mother. Xena smiled to herself and looked down and scratched Argo in that special place behind her ears. Then the tall dark woman took a deep breath and the smile disappeared, replaced by the iron mask of the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess, the Great Lion of Amphipolis. She straightened in the saddle and flexed her powerful shoulders and adjusted her weapons till they were perfect. She gave Argo a tap with her heels and the warhorse stepped off with a steady loping stride down the dusty highway through Pyra. On the left were the carts and wagons of the supply train. On each sat two women, a driver and an assistant, who would help with the animals and loading and also become a litter bearer and aid to the healers when battle came. All young and strong, they were women who had not quite made the battle line of their village. As the Lion rode past the drivers and helpers sat up straighter, shoulders back and heads high, all of them feeling a thrill of pride race through them as they admired the incredible martial presence of their Warleader. Felt her dark, dangerous charisma, her promise of success.
On the right the women and children of the village were gathered along the road and between the huts. Some held babies against their shoulders, faces covered against the dust and sun. Many of the children waved as Xena passed, eyes wide with wonder at the sight of the legend their mothers had told them stories about before they slept. More than a few had mothers about to fight, and perhaps die, under her command. The Lion refused to think of such things. The upturned faces that she passed were just a blur. A Warleader had only one thought to focus on, victory. She had learned long ago the only thing sadder than a battle won was a battle lost. Her responsibility to these people was to win. The consequences and tragedies of that victory would have to be dealt with by others.
Xena came to the east edge of Pyra and in the empty, freshly harvested fields to the north and south of the highway were drawn up in company columns the Army of the Nation. The Lion pulled Argo up in front of Queen Gabrielle, who was standing patiently beside the road, a golden bronze helmet with a great green horsehair plume sticking from the top on her head, her staff in her hand at her side, but Xena noted sourly that she still had no breastplate. The bard had come up more than fifty breastplates short in equipping her army and she stubbornly refused to wear anything in the way of protection that all of her warriors did not have. Behind the Queen stood the Royal Bodyguard. Six warriors, one chosen for the great honor from each village by its Chief. They each had a red silk sash tied around their right arm to mark their special duty and status. None wore a breastplate, a gesture of respect and solidarity with the Queen that they had decided among themselves.
The Lion looked down at her mate.
"Queen of the Amazon Nation," she said with quiet intensity, "the Army is ready to march."
Gabrielle nodded and strode into the road followed, in two lines of three, by her Guard. Xena walked Argo down the highway as the bard looked over at four women holding great curled rams horn trumpets. She bowed slightly toward them. They put the instruments to their mouths and with a great gulp of air blew with all their might. The horns blared out together deep and resonant, calling the warriors of the Nation to their duty. Each warrior of the Amazon army carried a sword on her back and a shield strapped with a long leather strip over her left shoulder, each polished to a bright sheen. On her right hip rested a skin of water held by a strap over her neck. In a loose sack thrown over her right shoulder were two days marching rations. All wore a bronze helmet and all but fifty a bronze breastplate, more than forty pounds of battlegear. As the companys came to attention at the sound of the horns there was a distinctive rattling of metal and equipment that made the Warrior Princess' blood surge through her veins. It was the music of an army ready for battle. A music the Lion had not heard for a long time and that she had not realized until this moment how much she missed.
The Warleader nodded at Zoe, who with the death of her grandmother had been appointed by Gabrielle to lead the Farsala company until after the campaign when a new Chief would be chosen.
"Leeeeeft face!!" Zoe screamed.
The company smartly turned as one and faced left.
"Fooorward march!!" the young leader bellowed.
The company marched out of the field and onto the road.
"Halt!! Riiiiight face!!" Zoe commanded.
With a snap of bodies and a clinking and rustling of gear the company, in column three across and sixtyfive deep, faced west down the Corinth highway, ready to march to its destiny. The bellowed orders were repeated five more times as the Army formed on the road. The companys were in the Amazons traditional marching order, their place in line determined by their order of founding. After the Farsala company came Murise and Trikkala, then Chief Nita and Kalvia, Alexa and Lamia, Essenia and Larisa and finally Chief Ashita and the company of Pyra. A column of over a thousand warriors, nearly half a league long. At the head of each company, standing on either side of the Chief, were two drummergirls with a hide covered drum held under the arm and a single stick with a wooden ball at the end to beat the cadence of the march. Gabrielle turned from her place at the front of the Army and nodded at Zoe. The Chief looked at her two young drummers.
"Route march cadence" she commanded.
The two girls began a steady rythmic boom, boom, boom, that the other drummers along the line quickly picked up. The Queen put up her arm,.
"Army of the Nation," she commanded, "forward... march."
As she dropped her arm and stepped off the words "forward march" were shouted up and down the line. The column started forward with some jerks and starts and stops but quickly the warriors found the rythm of the drums and the tramping of their sandal clad feet became a percusive sound of its own that nearly drowned out the beating of the drummers. As the column entered the village Zoe sang out the traditional Amazon marching song. Almost immediatly a thousand voices were singing at the top of their lungs, the beat of the song matching the cadence of their feet. The women and children of Pyra watched mostly in silence as the warriors passed. A few called out greetings and encouragement to friends they recognized. Others repeated over and over in a loud voice "Artimus be with you all". Finally, at the end of the line, came Ashita and the warriors of Pyra. As they entered the village there was a stir in the crowd of onlookers. Women and children crowded close to the marching column to see a mate or parent, to look in their eyes and shout "I love you" or reach out and touch them for perhaps the last time. The dust kicked up by the marching feet became thicker and thicker but no one seemed to notice. Many of the women had tears muddying the dirt on their faces but the children were too caught up in the spectacle of it all to understand the emotions of the moment. They skipped along beside the warriors waving and shouting "goodbye mommy, goodbye".
At last the Army cleared the west edge of the village. The Warleader, who was trailing along on Argo at the end of the column, nodded at Cassandra as she passed the commander of the supply train. The old warrior stood and waved her arm once over her head and pointed forward.
"All right Herodotus," she said, "let's go."
"Hey, get up there!" the old farmer called and he chucked the reins. With a jerk the wagon started forward and he guided it onto the road. Slowly the supply train, one wagon at a time, followed him out onto the highway. The people of Pyra cleared back from the lane, mothers shouting for their children to come back and stay out of the way. Finally, after a dozen candle marks, the last wagon passed the edge of the village and the army slowly receded into the west till all that could be seen was a towering cloud of dust that lingered on the horizon well into the afternoon. Many women stood in the fields on the west edge of town, each wrapped in her own private thoughts and fears, watching till the cloud was completely gone. Then they slowly walked back to their huts to resume the daily routines of their lives, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening in their small village world. But in Pyra, and Kalvia and Trikkala and Lamia and Larisa and Farsala, people looked at one another and all shared the same terrible frightening feeling. It was like there was a shortage of oxygen in the air. Somehow it was difficult to breathe.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Xena stopped at the entrance to the Council Hall and used the knife from her boot to scrape off the clinging clay mud of the street from her shoes. It had been raining for two days but now in the deepening dusk the sky could be seen clearing and a few stars were finally visible. The Lion had just arrived from Kalvia where she had been putting the company through intense drilling, unsatisfied with the state of their readiness. But in the last couple of days, marching and practicing their battle skills in a driving storm, she had seen the improvement she wanted to see. Now, with Argo safely stabled and cared for, she hoped to share a hot meal and maybe a hot bath with her mate before she left again.
She finished cleaning her boots and the guards at the entrance came to attention as she opened one of the double doors and entered. Inside Xena found Gabrielle sitting on one of the green Councilor chairs, her back to the entrance, looking through a pile of scrolls on a large table that had been placed in the middle of the semicircle of chairs. The table was heaped high with parchments.
"Lentilia?" the bard said, annoyed. "Where is that report from Chief Nita on her surplus of draft horses. We could have her send them to Larisa and use less oxen that way. Oxen are so slow on the march."
The old Chief lighted the last torch in the room then looked over to answer her Queen. When she spotted Xena she smiled and started to speak but the Warrior Princess hushed her with a finger to her lips. The Lion tiptoed carefully up behind the bard and with a sudden jump wrapped her arms around her mate and kissed her on the neck.
The bard reacted with cool nonchalance.
"You're getting old lover," she said. "I heard you coming all the way."
Xena snorted, then moved her head around and kissed the other side of Gabrielle's neck.
"You wish," the Lion said. "It's just that my leathers are finally drying after two days and they're creaking. A good oiling will take care of that. Age has nothing to do with it."
The bard patted Xena's arm.
"Keep telling yourself that sweetheart," she said with a little smile, "keep telling yourself that." Then she took the Warrior Princess' hand and kissed it and pressed it to her cheek. "Welcome home beloved" she whispered.
"Glad to be home," the Lion whispered back. "How about after we eat we fill the bath with hot water and have a soak?"
Gabrielle kissed Xena's hand again and made a little growling noise in her throat. The intensity of it caught the Warrior Princess off guard and she laughed out loud, something she seldom did in front of anyone but family. Lentilia smiled to hear the sound of it. The old Chief cleared her throat to draw the attention of the Queen and Warleader.
"I think we've acomplished enough today don't you my Queen?" she said.
Gabrielle smiled at her friend.
"Yes, we've done a lot, let's call it a night and start fresh in the morning. Thank you Chief."
"You're welcome my Queen,'' Lentilia replied as she headed for the door. "It's good to see you Warleader,'' she smiled as she passed Xena.
"And you,'' the Warrior Princess nodded. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Lentilia opened the door and left.
Gabrielle pulled Xena down onto a chair beside her and turned so she could see her mate.
"You're training schedule is done now isn't it?" she said, more as a statement of fact than as a question.
"Yep," Xena answered, stretching and flexing her back and shoulders and neck. The dampness of the last few days, living in her wet leathers, had made her muscles tight and sore and her bones crackle. 'Perhaps I am getting old' she thought idly.
"Harvest will start as soon as the ground dries, all the warriors will be needed in the fields for the next three weeks," she said, "and when it's done..."
"The Carthaginians will come" Gabrielle interrupted with a sigh, her eyes downcast to the floor.
The Lion shrugged.
"That's what I've anticipated all along," she said matter of factly. "They'll want to sieze the ford before winter so they have it secured come spring when campaigning season starts. They don't want to have to try to guess when the Athenians and Spartans will march. They've waited this long because they want us to harvest our own crops before they come to steal them and feed themselves over the winter." The Lion smiled an ironic smile. ''One of the first rules of war beloved is 'let your enemy do as much of your work as possible.' As soon as the harvest is done they will march, before any freak late fall snowstorm can come along and make the highway impassable."
Gabrielle put her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. She looked at her mate with weary, serious green eyes.
"Are we ready Xena?" she asked quietly. "Have we done everything we can? What more can I do?"
The Lion took her mates other hand and squeezed it.
"You've done an incredible job Gabrielle,'' she said. "We're ready."
For a candlemark the mates sat quietly, looking into each others eyes, letting their hearts speak emotions that there are no words for. Finally the bard lifted Xena's hand and kissed it.
"At least you'll be here for a few weeks beloved," she said. "It'll be wonderful to have you next to me in bed for more than one night at a time. I've forgotten what that's like."
"That would be nice," the Lion said, "but I'm afraid I have to go again. Well before dawn in fact. I only have time tonight to share dinner and a bath and a little sleep, then I'll be gone, eight or nine days probably.''
Gabrielle let out a little shocked burst of air.
"Xena, where are you going that would take that long?" she asked, astonishment on her face.
"Well, it's time I did a recon of Vonitsa," the Lion said, as casually as if she were announcing she were going to the food hut to get a snak. "I need to get a troop count, see how far along their preparations are, see if they are trying to cook up any surprises for us, most of all I want to find out who their commander is going to be. Knowing your enemy is also one of the rules of war."
Gabrielle took in a short hard breath, like it was difficult to breathe. The lines around her eyes deepened and her face flushed hot with tension and emotion. Xena suddenly stood up and gave the bards arm a gentle pull.
"Come on beautiful," she said, ''let's go over to the food hut. I could smell pork cooking when I was tending Argo. Thessala will be cooking tonight." The Lion grinned. ''Let's eat until we explode."
Xena pulled again on Gabrielle's arm but the bard took her hand out of her mates. Her green eyes stared at the Warrior Princess dark, worried and intense.
"Xena," she said slowly, ''this mission, isn't there someone else you could send?"
The Lion looked at her mate.
"Gabrielle," she said soothingly, "I'll be fine. I've already done one recon there. I have it all planned out. It'll go without a hitch." The Lion smiled. ''And even if it doesn't I've never run into trouble I couldn't get out of, you know that. Now come on beloved, let's eat."
Xena took a few steps toward the door but the bard did not move. The Lion stopped and looked back at her mate with a questioning face. Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out.
"Xena," she said. "Surely there is someone else you could send on this mission? Someone else that could gather the information you need?"
The Lion's eyes narrowed a bit.
"Well of course," she said evenly. "There's always someone else. But this is an important mission that has to be done. The best person for the mission should go. In my judgement as Warleader I'm the best person. I know what I need and I'm better able to do the job than anyone else. I'm sure you would agreee with that wouldn't you?"
There was a moment of tense silence then Xena's eyes softened.
"You know I'm right Gabrielle," she said in an almost pleading voice, ''now let's not waste anymore time we could have together." The Lion put out her hand. "Let's go."
The bard put her arms at her side, forcing herself not to give in to her instinct to reach out and take that offered hand.
"Xena, beloved," she said tensely, "of course you're the best person for the job. But there's a larger issue here. You're the Warleader of the Nation. I've put the lives of the people in your hands. Only you can lead us through the battle that's coming. You're the indispensible person here. Not me, not Ephiny, you. The Nation can't survive without you." The bard took a breath. ''This mission is too dangerous Xena. We're risking more than we have to gain. You shouldn't go."
The Lion's eyes narrowed more this time and her voice had an edge.
"Perhaps in your judgement it's too risky, but not in mine," she said. "I've spent my entire life judging risks and so far I haven't been wrong. I'm still alive. I can accomplish this mission Gabrielle. I'm not going to send someone less able who'll just get themselves killed. Then we lose the warrior and the information. That's foolishness." The Lion paused for a moment and her jaw muscles worked the way they did when she was tense. "I should go on this mission. I think you should trust my judgement."
The bard forced herself to breathe. She felt like an elephant was standing on her chest. The color in her face deepened, but the green eyes never wavered as they stared into Xena's blue.
"I do trust your judgement," she said in a low, intense voice. "When it was just the two of us I was always content to follow your lead. But..." the bard hesitated and forced in a gulp of air, " but I'm a Queen now. I've accepted the responsibility. I decide what's best for the Nation. It's my judgement that matters here. The final decision, and the final responsibility, is mine alone. Xena, beloved,'' Gabrielle's eyes appealed to her mate as she whispered the words, ''the risk to your life and the Nation's is too much. You cannot go."
The Lion's eyes narrowed to ice blue slits. Her face became an iron, almost threatening, mask.
"Is that an order?" the Lion growled in her throat.
Gabrielle let out a little hard breath.
"Yes," she said with a nod.
Xena took a deep breath and the bard knew full well the volcano of anger her mate was struggling to control.
"Queen Gabrielle," the Lion rumbled finally, pronouncing each word carefully and forcefully, ''you're making a mistake. The intelligence I need from this mission is vital to us. I told you, I'm not going to lose this war. I'll do what I must to win it, with or without you. When I get back we'll talk about where we go from here."
The Lion turned on her heel and started for the door. Just as she reached it the bard said sharply, "Xena!"
The Warrior Princess stopped and looked back.
"If you leave this valley" Gabrielle said slowly, "don't come back. If you do I'll have you arrested and charged with disobeying a direct order. Under Amazon law the penalty is death. The law applies equally to all Xena. Even to the Great Lion of Amphipolis."
Xena took a hissing breath through her teeth and her eyes flashed like cold, hard, blue diamonds.
"Don't threaten me Gabrielle," she said in a barely controlled growl, an octave lower than the bard had ever heard before, ''don't ever threaten me."
The bards face turned a deeper red but the green eyes still did not waver.
"I'm not threatening you Xena," she said, raw emotion in her voice. "I'm informing an Amazon warrior, who took an oath of obedience to lawful authority, of the consequences of her actions."
There was a moment of awful silence, then in a hoarse whisper Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what are you going to do?"
"It's going to be a busy night, I have a lot to do" she replied coldly. "I'm going to go get something to eat."
And with that the Lion disappeared through the door and it slammed behind her. Gabrielle's entire body trembled at the sound.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
It was late afternoon when the army reached the base of the Zama ridge break. A small camp of tents was already set up in the open grassy field to the north of the highway. The Nations engineers were finishing up hacking out lanes in the forest on either side of the break for the Ithacan army to use in the Warleaders surprise for the Carthaginians. Gabrielle selected a large lonely oak tree growing beside the road at the bottom of the ridge as the place for the command tent to be raised. The tree would make an easy landmark to locate the Queen and Warleader. She stood in the road and directed the companys to the left and right as they arrived to set up their individual camps. With practiced discipline each company quickly established a little village, raising tents retrieved from the supply wagons in precise alignment and predetermined order. Nothing was done by whim or chance. Every warrior knew her task and hardly an order was issued. As the setting sun reached the top of the ridge and dusk began to gather Gabrielle walked each company encampment with quiet satisfaction, her bodyguard trailing behind her like a pack of faithful dogs. The warriors, four to a small tent, all sat crosslegged in front of their shelters eating their cold rations and talking and laughing. Most of the women she saw and talked to as she wandered along the company streets were only a few years younger than the young Queen of the Amazons, a few were older, but all seemed too young to Gabrielle's old eyes. As she squatted by a tent sampling some dried jerky she was offered, or stood in the middle of a street telling a story or bawdy joke to forty or fifty warriors that had gathered around, she found herself thinking of the prayer that she had offered to Artemis back beside the Ahkeloos river. 'If we are doomed to lose this war, let the first death be mine. If I can't lead the people well in life,then let me lead them in death.' The words played over and over again in her consciousness as she looked at these trusting young faces that were certain the Queen and Warleader would lead them to victory. As she moved among her warriors a new prayer to the goddess formed in her mind, 'Artemis I pray, don't let a single one of my women die because of some oversight of mine. Help me do all there is to do for them.'
As real darkness settled over the Amazon army orders came from the Warleader to each company to send a work party to the forests on each side of the break to remove the timber and brush cut by the engineers and burn it in company bonfires. The Lion had been inspecting the work and wanted the signs of their efforts to disappear just in case any curious Carthaginian scouts might be lurking about. Looked down on by a clear starry night and a orange harvest moon six great fires quickly flared up into the sky, spewing out glowing sparks that drifted lazily up into the still air till they faded away into the blackness. Soon drums began to sound from each camp and then songs. Each company had its own favorite and it quickly became a competition as each village tried to drown out the other with the sound of its own singing. Warriors began dancing around the fires, many of them naked, not wanting to stain with sweat the few clothes they had that were now hanging from tent poles and lines where they were placed to dry after the days dirt and sweat had been washed out in company wash tubs. The end of every song was acompanied by wild Amazon battlecrys and shouts from neighboring companys that their rivals sang like old grandmothers.
Gabrielle watched silently, an invisible wall around her that no one violated. Surrounded by people she was alone, and she felt it. These women were here, their lives and futures in danger, because of the decisions she had made. She could never truly share their experience, their emotion, at this moment. An Amazon Queen wore a mask for a reason. Because the human being behind it needed a place to hide herself and her fears and weaknesses and frail humanity. Her people must only see a Queen. She was with them, but not part of them. She must be the unbreakable rock they could cling to against the storm.
The bards last stop was the company of Pyra, where she joined in singing the companys favorite song, about two lovers separated by war who see each others eyes in the twinkling stars above, until suddenly one realizes that the stars truly are her lovers eyes, for she has died in battle and become the stars, always watching over her love till they can be reunited again in the sky. When the song was done there was a long moment of silence as the warriors of Pyra realized with a start that all the other companys had stopped their singing to listen. Suddenly the deep melancholy quiet was broken by a single warcry. A distinctive yiyiyi that only lungs of leather could have produced. Gabrielle smiled, because for an instant it felt like her mate was calling just for her, to break the lonely spell she was in, but then the bard threw up her arm and answered with her own warcry and instantly a thousand voices joined her. The sound became primitive and dangerous, young predators howling their defiance to the moon and the stars and the sky. Then the drums and the songs and the dancing began again wilder than before.
Gabrielle made her way to the command tent and found Xena sitting on a camp chair, leaning back against the trunk of the oak, whittling slowly on a stick she had found in the forest. A small fire burned in front of the tent, Tia squatting by it tending a spitted chicken that cooked over it. As the bard approached she rose and motioned with her hand for the Queen to eat.
"No thank you Tia," Gabrielle said quietly, "split it among my guard then go to bed. I won't need you again till morning."
The young aide bowed her head. "Yes my Queen."
Gabrielle walked past her and went to her mate. The Lion had on her warlord mask, her eyes intense and yet distant, all her energy turned inward. The bard knew the look, when her mate focused herself as no one else could, her entire mind and being concentrated on the problem at hand, no stray thought or sensation intruding as she considered every option, visualized every possiblity, planned every response to every eventuality. Over the years Gabrielle had come to understand how her lover could always be one step ahead of her enemies in every battle. It was because, during these moments of intense concentration, she had thought out her reaction to every situation and filed away the plan, to be pulled and acted on the moment it was needed. She had already done her thinking, while they were desperatly trying to do thiers. It was not instinct or luck that carried her through so much danger, but the superior weapon of her mind that dominated her foes.
Gabrielle silently sat down on the ground between her mates legs, her own crossed under her, and she put an arm over one of the Lions legs and laid her head on it. Xena quietly put her knife back in her boot and her whittle stick down and her hands began to absently stroke the bards long, fine, redblonde hair. Her concentration however never wavered. The silence between them was long as each was lost in her own thoughts. The singing and warcries continued unabated. The bard watched the dark silhouettes of her warriors as they danced in circles across the face of the bonfires, working themselves into a frenzy of violent emotion.
"Xena?" the Queen said finally. "Shouldn't we stop them? They're going to need some rest."
The Lion slowly came out of the reviere she was in and her eyes focused again on the world. She looked around at the scene her mate had been observing, then down at the bard. She ran her hand gently over Gabrielles head.
"No," she said quietly, "let'm go. There will be no battle tomorrow. They can sleep. Tonight they must find themselves as warriors. They've been scattered little villagers practicing their battle skills and playing at war. Now they must bind themselves to the army and each other. They must feel the special bond of warriors, a bond that will keep them in the battle line even as they're peeing down their legs in terror. The comradeship that will make running away and showing themselves a coward to their friends even more painful than death. Let them share this night together as long as it lasts. Let them feel the strength of their bodies and the courage in the hearts around them and in their own hearts. This night will have to carry them through the horror that's coming Gabrielle."
The bard sighed deeply and turned her head to kiss Xena's leg. The Lion bent over and kissed her mates ear. Then a silence settled over them as they watched the warriors of the Nation prepare their hearts and souls for war. The dancing and singing lasted long into the night but at last the great fires burned down and the singing died away as the Chiefs ordered their companies to bed and posted guards at the end of each lane of tents. In the quiet the mates could hear the lowing of oxen in their rope corral on the north side of the road while the draft horses of the supply train rustled nervously at times in their own corral to the south . As the white full moon rose in the east Xena and Gabrielle watched as the guard in front of the command tent was changed, two young warriors appearing out of the dark and changing places with the two already there, only a few quiet words of greeting exchanged. Finally the Lion leaned over as she stroked her mates hair and whispered.
"What are you thinking my love?"
The bard took in a deep breath and let it slowly out.
"I..." she hesitated. "I was thinking about my life beloved. How I came to this place, this moment. The journey I've taken, the lessons I've learned, the people I've met. The things that have made me happy and the things I regret."
Xena stared out into the darkness and let out a little sigh. "Regret," she whispered. "Yes, regret." Her gaze shifted to her mate.
"What do you regret most in your life beautiful?" the Lion asked.
"Perdicus," The bard answered immediatly, "I regret that my fear took his life."
Xena frowned deeply. "Gabrielle," she protested. "Callisto killed Perdicus. That crime is on her head."
"No," the Queen sighed. "Callisto was like a rabid dog. She was what she was. There is no use blaming a rabid dog for the people it bites. It can't help itself. It can only be put out of its misery. But Perdicus should never have been in the dog's way. He and Callisto should never have met. She was after you and I. To hurt us. And she killed Perdicus just for that reason. But I should never have married him. He shouldn't have been there when Callisto found me. Only my fear placed him in her way."
"Gabrielle," the Lion said soothingly, sympathetically, trying to ease her mates pain, "you loved Perdicus. He loved you. What else could..."
"Yes," the bard interrupted, her eyes dark and turned inward, remembering those days, her voice low. "I think he did love me. But I didn't love him Xena. I loved you. And that love frightened me, frightened me to my very soul. I knew it was more than the love of friendship. I wanted to be everything to you beloved, "Gabrielle hesitated and swallowed hard," and I didn't know where those emotions came from or how to express them or if I did, how you would feel. I didn't know if you would be amused or repelled or just dismiss it as foolishness. And even if I found some way to tell you of my feelings, I knew nothing Xena, nothing. Not how to hold you or love you or make you understand the depth of my passion. I was a bard without the words to tell you the deepest longings of my heart." Gabrielle stopped to wipe a tear that had formed in the corner of her eye. "I was just afraid. All the time afraid. Afraid of thinking the wrong thought, saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing and having my entire world crash down on me. One look from you Xena, a look that said all my feelings and hopes were built on sand, and I would have been devastated." The bard sighed. "You can't live every day with that much fear beloved. It's impossible. It was eating me alive. Then Perdicus came and said simply, marry me, and like a coward looking for a place to hide I said yes. Yes I'll marry you and we'll have children and live the life I was supposed to live, that everyone expected me to live, and I'll escape this terrible fear, I'll escape from myself. I'll be the someone everyone wants me to be and not me anymore. When we kissed and said goodbye after the wedding Xena, I wasn't running to Perdicus's bed, I was running away from yours. I was using that poor sweet boy to escape my fear and so he wound up spitted on Callisto's blade." The bard took some deep breathes to control herself. "He should be home in Potadia right now with a wife who adores him and his children around him. He was so loving and considerate of me on our one night together. He was a good boy becoming a good man and now he's dust because of my cowardice. Oh Xena," the bard whispered raggedly, "he's the shade that haunts me most."
There was a long silence as Gabrielle let the deep emotions she felt fade slowly back to their usual resting place while Xena stroked her long redblonde hair and massaged her neck. Finally the bard turned enough that she could look up at her mate.
"What is your deepest regret beloved?" she asked.
Xena took a deep breath and let it out
You would think," the Lion said with a slight, ironic smile, " that in a life filled with regrets it would be hard to pick out just one," her eyes shifted down to her mate's," but it's not. Solon, beloved, always Solon." The Warrior Princess closed her eyes as if she could not bear to see the memory shimmering before her. "I placed my precious son in the hands of a stranger and walked away from him. On that day I reached the bottom of the pit." The Lions lips curled in a sneer. "I told myself I was doing a noble thing, saving him from me and the people who hated me. But the truth is Gabrielle I did it out of pure, evil selfishness. I didn't want a baby dragging on my tit and slowing me down as I raced for the power and glory I knew was out there waiting for me. That Alti prophicied and Ares promised. On that terrible day, when I should have been walking away from my army with Borius' child in my arms, the child he died trying to save, for both of us, I discovered a new depth of selfhatred. I left behind the last human parts of me. I became the lion, an animal with nothing but an appetite. An appetite for conquest and fear. I lived as that animal for a long time, denying to myself that there was anything human left. But Solon was always there, in my dreams, in the shadows, looking at me with sad reproachful eyes. At last I realized I had to climb out of that awful place or perish. I had to be something more than an animal, for my son's sake if nothing else. I was trying, trying with all my strength, but the walls were steep and slippery and I know I would have fallen back but then a miracle occured. I came across a ladder. A sturdy ladder that bore me up and out of the pit." Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle. "Thank you for being my ladder" she whispered.
The bard put her hand behind Xena's head and pulled her back and they kissed a long time. When they finally parted Gabrielle looked at her mate with shining eyes.
"And what has made you happy, beloved?'' she asked
A little smile came to the Lions face and her eyes shone like the bards. Slowly she moved her hand up Gabrielle's right arm till it rested over the intricate marriage tattoo. She squeezed hard.
"Yes my beloved," Gabrielle whispered through a smile, "that was my happiest day, and night, too. On that day, for the first time, my life made sense to me. I knew with absolute certainty that I was in the right place doing the right thing. I felt awestruck by the simple, beautiful clarity of it." She leaned forward and pressed her forehead against her mates. ''That feeling is something I will treasure all my life Xena. Only you could have produced it in me."
"On that day Gabrielle," the Warrior Princess said as she put her hand behind the bards neck, "I found what I had been looking for my entire life without ever realizing it. I found my home. My soul was not doomed to blow aimlessly on the wind after all. The Lion had found her place in the world. What a gift you've given me beloved."
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her and their lips carressed for a very long time, two hearts connected to each other by flesh and by things more lasting than flesh.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The bard closed her eyes and all of the air escaped from her lungs. For a moment she did not think any oxygen would come back in but at last her chest expanded and she caught her breath. She stood a long time where she was, slowly breathing in and out, searching for some control over her raging emotions and trembling heart. Finally she made her way to the big green chair on the platform in the middle of the room. She sat down on the throne of the Amazon Queen, her posture rigid and perfect, and waited. The candle marks passed one after the other with agonizing slowness. Gabrielle did not move. She hardly breathed. Slowly one torch after another in the room used up its fuel and sputtered out. As the last one died, leaving the room in blackness, the Queen finally stirred herself. She found the back wall with her hand and walked along it to the door to her private rooms. She entered and fired with a click of flints some dry straw that waited in a earthen bowl on a table close to the door. She picked up a small oil lamp and lit the wick from the burning straw before it could flare out. As she walked through the sitting room and library, where she kept all the hundreds of scrolls that she loved to collect, to the bedroom she noticed that the flame kept wavering, despite her best efforts to hold the lamp steady. As she sat down on the edge of her bed she put the lamp on a small table and held her hands up before the light. They both vibrated like the delicate wings of a butterfly in a breeze. She rubbed them hard together then held them up again, trying with all her might to still them. They continued to tremble. The bard took a deep breath, then another. She felt as if she were floating, unconnected to the earth, a ghost. She forced herself to stand and remove her clothes, laying them carefully across the foot of the bed. She blew out the lamp and crawled under the single blanket. As she lay on her back staring into the darkness voices began to whisper around her. Voices she could not understand, soft voices, angry voices, frightened voices, accusing voices, demanding voices. The bard put her hands over her ears but the whispering continued. She pulled her hands down to her cheeks.
"Oh Xena, please help me," she said in a desperate whisper, "I'm breaking. Please help me."
"No you're not." a clear strong voice answered from the blackness.
Gabrielle jerked with shock and bolted upright. "Xena!"
A tall black shape materialized from the darkness and sat down next to the bard encircling her shoulders with an arm.
"You're not going to break" the Lion said quietly. "You're the strongest person I've ever known. Only the strongest hearts can give as much of themselves to others as you do. Only a will of iron can bridle a lion as you've done." Xena put her other arm around her mate and put her mouth close to her ear. '' You are Queen of the Amazon Nation," she whispered. "The steady rock at the center of your peoples lives. The rock that I cling to against the storms of my own soul. You are Gabrielle and your spirit is an unquenchable fire. Have faith my most beloved, have faith in yourself."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took long deep breathes. Her pounding heart began to slow. She put her hand on Xena's arm and laid her head on her shoulder. There was a long silence, finally broken when the bard asked in a hoarse voice
"Xena, where have you been?"
The Lion did not answer for a moment, an eternity it seemed to the bard. At last she cleared her throat.
"Well," she said. "I went and got something to eat. Then I saddled Argo and headed for Vonitsa. I don't take orders Gabrielle, I give them. I haven't done what I was told since I was ten years old and refused to clean up my room. Mother gave me a whipping but it wasn't picked up then and it's probably still a mess. She gave up trying to give me orders. My strength isn't in my arms or legs or brain, beloved, it's in my will. My life is a testament to the power and destructiveness of my will. But as I reached the edge of Farsala," Xena hesitated and swallowed hard against a rising tightness in her throat, "the awful, sterile, lonliness that has been so much of my life flooded over me again." She took a breath to steady herself. "I suddenly understood that I was cutting out my own heart to keep from cleaning up my room." Xena pulled Gabrielle tightly to her. "It's time I grew up beloved and stopped being that ten year old. I'm your mate Gabrielle and you're mine. I've pledged my life to you and it's the most meaningful thing I've ever done. I'll do anything I must to keep you, beautiful, including reining in my bloated ego. If I can't find some way to submit myself now and then to the person I love and trust most in this world then I'm lost beloved, I'm lost." Xena took a ragged breath through her teeth and sniffed and wiped her eye. "Anyway I woke up Ephiny and she woke up a hotblood named Keola that she swears by as a scout and clever operator. Keola is on her way right now to Vonitsa with my memorized list of information to be discovered. From that arrogant look of confidence I saw in her eyes she may just pull it off."
The bard rubbed her mates arm and relaxed her body against that strong shoulder. She stared into the darkness for a long time thinking.
"Xena," she said finally, "when this is over maybe we should do some traveling again. Ephiny is a wonderful leader and will be a great Queen of..."
"Shhhhh." the Warrior Princess hissed quietly as she put her finger over the bards mouth. "Don't say it Gabrielle. Don't even think it. You are Queen and you always will be. I've come to realize over the last two years that this is your destiny beloved. This is where you can do the most good. I know how important that is to you. You are going to become the greatest Queen of the Amazons. I'll never take that away from you Gabrielle, no one will, ever.''
The bard looked at her mate with glistening eyes and then laid back on the bed pulling Xena down on top of her. Their noses touching she softly stroked the Warrior Princess' cheek.
"I love you Great Lion of Amphipolis" she whispered.
"I love you Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation."
"There are five veteran Carthiginian phalanx's in Vonitsa" Keola said. "As of four days ago they had a strength of two thousand four hundred and eighty present for duty."
"And how do you know this?" Ephiny asked, sceptical about how she could come up with such a precise number.
"I read their weekly strength report. A Greek scribe is writing out their reports and he uses Greek numbers in the reports" the young Amazon scout replied matter of factly.
Ephiny looked over at Xena and Gabrielle and gave them an amazed little shrug. The three leaders were seated in their chairs in the great Council Hall listening to Keola's report. She had returned only candle marks ago after being gone nine days, taking time only to eat and bathe before coming to the Hall to report. The Amazon leaders could not help but notice the deep black and purple left eye their scout sported.
"There are six mercenary phalanx's," Keola continued. ''Counting tents and campfires I would estimate they number a little less than two thousand total. It's hard to tell for sure, mercenary phalanx's always vary so much in numbers. I also viewed their cavalry doing some drills." The Amazon scouts lip curled with amused contempt. "There are about four hundred of them and they're poorly trained, poorly mounted scum, more a danger to themselves than us.''
"Were you able to find out who their commander is?" Xena asked.
"I'm sorry Warleader,'' the scout answered with an apologetic frown, "I wasn't. There are a lot of rumors about who it might be but he had not arrived yet to take command and I heard a half a dozen possible names. No one I talked to really knew for sure. It is a main topic of conversation in Vonitsa right now." Keola took a breath and looked at Gabrielle. "They will be coming very soon my Queen. The fields around the city are almost completely harvested now and most of the grain is being loaded onto the wagons of the enemy supply train as it's picked. The Carthaginian captains have been ordered to have their phalanx's ready to march on a days notice. I just wish..." Keola hesitated and sighed.
"Continue scout" Ephiny said.
"Well, when I left two days ago there were eight new galleys pulling into the harbor. I was too far away to see who or what was on them and I had already been stopped and questioned by patrols in the city twice that day. They were getting very nervous and suspicious of everthing. I decided I better get out while I could and report what I had. But I sure would like to have known what was on those ships." Keola looked at the Warleader. "If you wish I could start back tonight and find out."
"No Keola," Xena answered. "You've given us an excellent report. Go back to your home village and take three days rest, then report to Princess' Ephiny for further orders."
The scouts eyebrows went up with surprise.
"Warleader, I don't need any rest, I can..."
"Keola!" Ephiny interrupted. "You have your orders. No one is interested in your opinion of them."
Looking very chastened the scout came to attention and made a slight bow. "With your permission?"
"Dismissed." Ephiny nodded.
As the scout turned and left Xena looked at the Amazon Princess and nodded her approval of her choice in scouts. Ephiny smiled and winked.
Two days later Ambassador Hashimi arrived. He handed to Gabrielle, without comment or explanation, a scroll with the seal of the Oliarch of Carthage attached. The bard broke the seal and opened the scroll as Xena and Ephiny watched. After reading she handed the parchment to Xena. It read.
|Due to the overriding strategic interests of the Carthaginian people and Empire, it is demanded that the Amazon Nation come to terms on a mutual defense treaty and that they aid the Empire in stopping any attempt by any Greek city state or tribe to march troops across Amazon land. Failure to come to immediate satisfactory terms will be viewed as a declaration of war.|
The next morning, as Hashimi waited outside the Council Hall on his horse with his small escort, Gabrielle gave Lentilia and Willa, who just happened to be in the capitol delivering a readiness report to the Warleader on the Pyra company, a hug.
"Confuse and delay them as long as you can" Gabrielle said. "You have my permission to say anything and promise anything you want. Whatever will buy us time for King Odyseus to complete his landings and come to our aid. One day could make all the difference."
"Can I seduce the Carthaginian commander?" Lentilia smiled. "He might have a thing for older women. You can never tell about men. He might have a mother fixation."
"Whatever works" the bard laughed, then she grabbed Lentilia's hand and squeezed it.
"Please be careful my friend, both of you, I want to see you back here soon."
"Always My Queen, always." the old Chief answered, her eyes shining with genuine affection for the young woman holding her hand.
She then shook arms with Xena and Ephiny and she and Willa went out and mounted their horses and the little troop of Ambassadors started for Vonitsa as the three leaders of the Amazon Nation stood in the dusty road and watched them go.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The sun had barely cleared the horizon as the Lion sat on Argo at the top of the Zama break, quietly dissecting and devouring an orange her father-in-law had thrown her as she was leaving camp. Oranges were her favorite food. She could live on them for days. The high thin vapor of dust on the western horizon she had been observing since first light drew steadily nearer.
She turned in the saddle when she heard the ram horns blare. At the bottom of the ridge the Amazon army had formed by company on the highway. On either side of the road she could see the six double lined squares formed by the tents of each company encampment, a great black dot visible in the center of each square, the black ash of the bonfires of two nights ago. Past the encampments were the corrals holding the horses and oxen of the supply train and then the wagons of the train parked in neat rows on both sides of the road, the wagoneers without tents, sheltering under their wagons so more room was left for supplys. Six wagons were pulled up at the rear of the army, barrells of water and medical supplies in each, to be brought to the top of the ridge for immediate access. Behind the wagons the women who were to act a water bearers and litter carriers for the warriors had formed in a ragged column.
Xena could see the tiny figure of Gabrielle at the head of the army, her bodyguard right behind. She was too far away to hear the shouted orders but she could hear the drums as they began to beat the march step. After a hesitation the companys started forward, the column flexing like a centipede stretching out into motion after a stop to rest. The Lion turned to the warrior standing beside her. The Lt. in charge of the dozen Amazons on picket duty on the ridge.
"Inform the Queen when she arrives that I've gone out to meet the approaching column" she said.
The Lt. came to attention. "Yes Warleader."
The Lion put her heels into Argo's ribs and they headed west down the ridge at a steady trot.
Two leagues from the ridge Xena guided Argo off the road into the high grass and pulled her up to a stop. The head of the Amazon cavalry column began to pass her at a steady, unhurried walk. The horses were covered with sweat and dirt and their heads drooped with exhaustion. The troopers riding them looked the same. Half a dozen warriors rode double, two because their mounts were dead, the other four had bloodsoaked, dirty bandages wrapped around an arm or leg and a friend sitting behind them with an arm around their waists in case they lost consciousness. As they passed, two at a time, their march discipline still firmly intact Xena noted, hardly any of the women looked at the Warleader. They stared straight ahead with black, hollow eyes. Weary, angry, disheartened eyes. As the last pair went by the Warrior Princess looked down the road, through the cloud of dust, for Daria and Ephiny. At last through the mist of earth the Princess appeared on her black stallion. The horse looked more grayish brown with its coat of dirt however and so did Ephiny. Her left arm near the shoulder was wrapped with a crude dressing. A large spot of black dried blood stained the bandage and little riverlets of dried blood ran down her arm. As she pulled her mount up beside Xena the Lion handed her a full waterskin. She painfully pulled off her helmet with her left hand and hung it on her saddlehorn. She put the skin up to her mouth and took a long drink then poured the cool water over her head and face until every drop was gone. The soil ran down her neck in little muddy rivers till at last her tan face reappeared. She handed the skin back to Xena and shook her head, water flying, and rubbed her bloodshot, stinging eyes. She let out an exhausted sigh.
"Thank you Xena," she said. "I truly needed that."
The Lion nodded and hung the skin back on her saddlehorn.
"Report Ephiny," she said quietly.
The Princess looked at her commander with disgust and anger in her eyes.
"The bastards stole a march on us Xena" she spit. "We never made it to the Isoles to contest the ford there. We were about seven leagues from the river when we ran into their cavalry, three hundred and fifty or so." Ephiny's lips curled with contempt. ''Keola was right, a poorly mounted, poorly armed, poorly led rabble. We formed column and charged. They scattered like geese before the fox. We killed a dozen and captured three. That's the last we've seen of their cavalry." The Princess rubbed her sore eyes again. "Two leagues down the road we came on the main army. At the front of the column was a company of archers."
Ephiny reached down and pulled the feathered half of an arrow from the strap that held her shin guard and handed it to Xena. The Lion looked at it a moment and then at the Princess.
"Baleric bowmen" she said matter of factly.
Ephiny nodded. "It must have been their ships Keola saw in the harbor the day she left. Best damn archers in the world. There's about four hundred and fifty, five hundred of them. They were scattered in companies of fifty up and down the line. In this flat country they could see us coming two leagues away. Wherever we attacked along the column a couple of companies would be waiting. On these horses we were just big targets. They could hardly miss. We could never get close enough to force the infantry to halt and face us. They just kept marching. We tried to attack four different times yesterday and never stopped them once. Finally I seriously considered digging in across the road and forcing them to destroy us."
Ephiny looked down a moment, then up, searching the Lion's eyes for understanding.
"Xena, they're our best warriors,'' she said, almost imploring. "There was no guarantee we would buy enough time to make a difference. To lose them all for nothing, I just couldn't do it."
The Lion's face was an iron mask, her blue eyes intense but emotionless. Ephiny could guess at nothing of the thoughts behind those eyes. She let out a short hard breath.
"Anyway, the last two nights we've been harrassing tartarus out of them. Prowling around making noise, killing some of their picketts, keeping them as awake and nervous as possible. But Xena," Ephiny looked down the road, the dust from the Amazon cavalry had settled now and the dust of the approaching enemy was clearly visible, in fact the Princess thought she could see the first glints of sunlight on armor through the haze, "they're only two leagues behind us. At the rate they're marching they'll be to the ridge by early afternoon. They could attack today if they want. Are the Ithacans here?"
"No" the Warrior Princess said calmly. "We've had no word of them since you left two days ago. I don't know when they'll be here."
Ephiny closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For a moment there was that trembling feeling of panic in her stomach. But when she opened her eyes the Lion was watching her with such complete, impassive, iron self control that it was impossible not to feel her strength. It radiated from Xena like light from the sun. The trembling moment faded quickly away.
"You said you had prisoners?" the Lion asked. "I didn't see any."
Ephiny's eyes hardened.
"I had no warriors to waste guarding prisoners," she said coldly. "After interrogation they had an unfortunate accident. Their heads fell off their shoulders when I passed my blade through their necks. We couldn't figure out how to fix them so we left them in the road for their friends to find. Maybe they'll have better luck."
"Did they have anything of interest to say?" the Lion asked, showing no reaction at all to Ephinys words.
"No." the Princess shrugged. "They were just ignorant mercenary scum out to kill a few strangers to put dinars in their pockets. Except for one thing. We now know who the Carthiginian commander is. A Roman mercenary named Publius Varras. He arrived from Egypt six days ago with two Lts. to take command. Have you heard of him?"
Xena made a face like she had bit into something sour. She turned her head and spit.
"Yes, I've heard of him" she said, her voice dripping with contempt. "He's from a noble patrician family who was a rising star in the legions till he picked the wrong side in the civil war between Ceasar and Pompey. He commanded the left wing of the warlord Parmenon at the battle of Lexus eight years ago. I smashed the right wing and killed Parmenon and thought I would destroy the whole army but Varrus led his men with skill and courage and got them off the field in one piece. A few months later I invited him to my camp and tried to recruit him as my top Lt. Good commanders are hard to find. He declined. He said he was done being anyone's Lt. He's built quite a reputation as a general for hire. He's already started well in this campaign. He won't make any mistakes." Xena paused and her eyes were dark. "But I'll tell you something Ephiny, as a human being he's a loathsome pig."
After a few moments of silence the Lion turned in the saddle and looked at the receding line of Amazon cavalry.
"I'm going to need your warriors to rejoin their village companys in the line after they wash and eat. Not much time to rest I'm afraid" she said. "What were your casualties?"
"Seven horses killed," Ephiny answered tonelessly, like she were reading from a list. "Many warriors with minor injuries, four with serious wounds and..." the Princess stopped. Xena turned back to look at her. Ephiny shook her head and her jaw worked like she was trying to get words out of her mouth but they would not come. Finally she took a breath. "and I lost Daria. During the third attack yesterday. She ran into a flight of arrows, because she was too far out in front!" Ephiny said the last words loudly and angrily, like Daria was in front of her and she was dressing her down for her mistake. Then she sighed. "Horse and rider were both killed. I didn't try to recover her. The horses were too worn out as it was to risk anyone's life hauling a dead body around, although I had no shortage of volunteers who would have tried to retrieve her."
"You don't have to explain a decision like that to me" Xena said.
Ephiny looked at her Warleader. "I know," she said quietly. "I guess I'm still trying to explain it to myself. Daria had a mate and a child. Now they will have no body to cremate. No ashes to sprinkle over the sacred fire in the temple of her village. No urn to place over the door so Daria can watch over her loved ones as they grow. Sometimes..." Ephinys voice trailed off.
"I know." the Lion said. "Sometimes you make all the right decisions and still your people are dead and everything is wrong. War does that to you Princess."
"How... how do you live with that Xena?" Ephiny asked, her eyes imploring the Warleader for some magic word or thought that would take away the pain she was feeling right now.
"I'll tell you an ugly thing Princess" the Lion answered in a low growl, her face becoming dark, her eyes seeming to change their color to black right before Ephinys astonished gaze. "I have no trouble living with it." Xena looked back at her warriors, their tiny figures forming a battleline on the ridge, then at the approaching army of Carthaginians and finally back at her cavalry commander. "I love all this Ephiny. I love it more than my life. I only pray I don't love it more than I love Gabrielle." Xena pulled Argo around. "Now let's get back. We have things to do."
As the two leaders reached the bottom of the long slope up to the top of the ridge Xena watched as a rider was let through the human wall of the Amazon battleline that now was formed from treeline to treeline across the Zama break. Xena studied the figure for a moment as it approached then she turned to Ephiny.
"That's the King" she said, her voice calm but a slight smile crossing her face. "Come on."
She put her heals into Argo and Ephiny did likewise with her stallion and quickly the three leaders met halfway up the ridge. The King, a magnificent horseman on a large gray warhorse, was wearing a silver helmet and intricately embossed silver breastplate and silver grieves over his shins, he had no sword but a mace with a heavy metal head and finely carved hard oak handle dangled from a loop on the back of his saddle. As the man brought his mount to a stop between Xena and Ephiny the Warrior Princess could see in her friends face that he was tired but the eyes were sparkling and intelligent as always and obviously glad to see her.
"Odyseus," Xena smiled broadly as she took his offered arm and squeezed it hard, ''you are a welcome sight. I think you're getting better looking in your old age."
"You don't have to fawn over me now Xena, I'm here" the King smiled back. "But if you want to go ahead."
The two friends laughed and for a moment just enjoyed the sight of each other, then Xena looked over at Ephiny and the man followed her gaze.
"This is Princess Ephiny,'' Xena said with a nod. "Heir to the Amazon throne and my second in command. Princess, this is Odyseus, King of Ithaca."
The King offered his arm to Ephiny. After a slight hesitation she took it. Despite her exhaustion she felt a tremor of giddyness. She was clasping arms with the only living person in Greece whose legend could rival Xena's. The Conqueror of Troy, of the Cyclops, the man who faced thirty warriors in his reception hall alone and killed them all. She had heard all the stories of his twenty year odyssey from Ithaca to Troy and back and now those black, intense, captivating eyes were boring into her as she shook his arm.
"It's a great honor to meet you King Odyseus" she said.
"The pleasure is mine beautiful Princess" the King replied as he glanced at Ephinys right shoulder.
"Xena,'' he said without looking at her or releasing Ephiny's arm. "No tattoo. Do you think my chances are any better?"
The Lion shook her head and smirked.
"I never interfere in the personal lives of my friends" she said with a smile.
"Ahhh, you must be a very impressive woman" Odyseus rumbled in his deep voice as his hand slid down Ephinys arm till it gently grasped hers, "for the Great Lion to call you friend. It's a title worthy of attaining." The King brought Ephinys hand up and kissed it. "I hope at a better time that we might meet and talk of the pleasures of friendship."
Ephiny felt her face grow hot. The mans charisma was as powerful as Xena's, but different. Hers was dark and intimidating, a person you could not take your eyes off of but always from the safety of a distance. Odyseus' was inviting, a man whose friend you desperately wanted to be. The Princess prayed she was not blushing.
"In better times perhaps we might." Ephiny replied, suppressing the stupidist desire to giggle.
Odyseus' perfect white teeth appeared through the salt of his beard. "I hope that time is soon Princess." He released her hand. "But now more pressing business confronts us I'm afraid."
The King looked out at the approaching cloud of dust for a few moments, judging the situation.
"Today?" he asked.
Xena let out a little burst of air. "Late this afternoon most likely. He hasn't been force marching this hard to waste all afternoon sitting on his ass at the bottom of the ridge doing nothing."
"Do you know who it is?" the King asked
The King grimaced and he turned his head and spit. "Varrus." He said the word like it was a curse.
Odyseus leaned back in his saddle and sighed.
"I don't bring good news Xena" his gaze shifted to his friend. "You know that narrow point on the trail where it bends around the mountain over the river."
The Lion nodded.
"It collapsed yersterday as we marched. I lost two men drowned in the river and it took my engineers all afternoon into the night to shore it up. Telemechus won't be here with the army till after moonrise tonight." The King blew air out through his teeth. "If Varrus attacks this afternoon you'll face him alone Xena. Perhaps Great Lion we took too long a chance this time. I'm sorry."
The Lion's face showed no emotion. She looked back to the west and then at Odyseus.
"I'm not done yet my friend" she said quietly. "You forget, the Lion always wins, one way or another." She looked at Ephiny. "Princess, I'm calling an officers meeting at the command tent. We have decisions to make and I want it done without the army watching our every move. Assign some troopers to round up the Chiefs and first Lt's. and bring them to the tent. Do it as quickly as possible. I'll bring Gabrielle myself and meet you there soon. Understood."
Ephiny nodded. "A great pleasure King Odyseus" she said and she sank her heals into her mount and galloped up the ridge.
Odyseus watched her go then turned to Xena. "A beautiful and charming woman." he said. "Do you think I'm too old ?"
"Of course you're too old you old goat" she said with a frown. Then she smiled. "That's not going to stop you though is it?"
The mans eyes sparkled. "Nope." Then his face turned serious. "Do you have any ideas Lion?"
Xena's face became dark. "I always have ideas, some better than others." She looked at her friend. "You'll be there to see how they come out won't you?"
"I haven't been in a real battle Xena since I cleaned those leaches out of my house thirteen years ago" Odyseus answered. Then a wolfish, predator smile spread across his face. "I wouldn't miss this one for the world."
The smile on Xena's face matched the Kings. "It should be one to remember my friend."
For a moment there was a charged silence as two predators shared the anticipation of the coming fight. Then Xena said quietly, "Come on, I want you with me at the officers call." and the two legends of Greece rode side by side up the slope.
Ephiny came out of the command tent sucking on an orange she had found on a table as Xena, Gabrielle and Odyseus rode up.
"Sister" the bard called with relief as she jumped down from behind Xena and rushed over to the Princess and hugged her. When she stepped back she frowned as she examined the dirty, bloody length of cloth still wrapped around Ephinys arm. She started to touch it but the Princess pulled her arm away.
"That's nothing" Ephiny said, annoyed. "Don't worry about it Gabrielle."
"I'm Queen here Sister," the bard answered sharply grabbing Ephinys arm. "I decide what's nothing and what's not. Tia!"
The young aid appeared instantly from inside the tent.
"Water and a clean bandage, hurry" the Queen commanded.
Xena and Odyseus joined the sisters.
"Have you explained the situation to the Queen?" Ephiny asked Xena.
"Yes, I know everything" Gabrielle answered for her mate. "What do you think Sister?"
"You know what I think Gabrielle" Ephiny replied, her brown eyes intense. "We fight. This is our land, our Nation. We don't give it up without a fight."
Tia came out of the tent with a clay bowl of water and several clean strips of cloth over her arm. Gabrielle took a cloth and soaked it with water and began daubing it over the bandage to loosen it. Ephiny ignored the whole process, focusing on the riders that were arriving with the Chiefs of the six villages and their second in commands. When all had gathered Xena made a quick introduction of the King. The wide eyes he saw comfirmed that his fame had proceeded him. She then explained why she had called them together.
Gabrielle finished soaking the bandage. She took the knife from Ephinys belt and cut it, then whispered "this will hurt."
"More than likely" the Princess answered.
The bard ripped the bandage with a hard jerk from Ephinys arm. The Princess registered no reaction. The ugly slice from an arrow began to bleed. Gabrielle massaged the wound to be sure the flowing blood removed all the dirt. Then she quickly daubed it with the rag and expertly wrapped and tied the new clean dressing over the wound. After a moment the bleeding stopped. Sister moved her arm around in a small circle.
"You do that well Gabrielle" Ephiny said with a small smile of appreciation.
"To much practice" the bard answered. "Now let's go see what the leaders of the Nation have to say about our situation."
The Chief's and their Lt's. had gathered in a semicircle in the open space beside the command tent. Unconsciously arranging themselves exactly as they did in the Council Hall. Gabrielle took her accustomed position at the bottom of the half circle with Xena and Ephiny at her sides. Odyseus stood a few paces behind the Lion, close enough to hear but not be a part of the deliberations.
Most of the Chiefs quickly made their feelings known that they were ready to fight. Murise loudest of all. The Chief of Trikkala insisting there was no other choice but to fight, whatever the odds. However Chief Nita, always cautious and level headed, supported by Ashita, was not so enthusiastic.
"There's still time to throw up a barricade" she said pointedly. "We can still force them to go south and that would give us time to evacuate the valley. Perhaps we could concentrate on defending the west side of the ford till the Athenians arrive. With King Odyseus' help couldn't we make a fight of it there and still be sure our people were safely across the river?"
"No," Xena answered, speaking what she knew the King was thinking. "We can't fight with the river to our backs. If we were defeated it would become an instant slaughter. We can't ask the Ithacans to take such a risk. If we evacuate the valley we'll just have to hope the Athenians and Spartans can force the ford. If not we become landless refugee's and the orphans of Greece. It will be the end of us as a society."
Gabrielle turned to her mate.
"What do you think Warleader?" she asked. "Do we have any reasonable chance of holding the ridge till nightfall? If not then we'll evacuate."
"What??!!" Murise burst out, her face reddening with emotion. Her anger had been growing while Nita had asked her questions but now this was too much.
Gabrielle looked at the Chief of Trikkala and her own cheeks began to color.
"We've heard your opinion Murise," she said sharply, "I'm talking to the Warleader now."
"About what!!" Murise growled. "We're not evacuating anything. No Amazon army has ever retreated in the face of the enemy and we're not giving up our land." The Amazon warrior looked around at her fellow Chiefs. "There's nothing to talk about here!"
The bards face had become scarlette as Murise spoke.
"By the Gods," she yelled. "I'm not going to preside over some mass suicide for the sake of your pride Murise. If we can't win this battle then we're evacuating. I'm Queen here. I make the decisions. Now shut up!!"
With the words 'shut up' a dozen things happened all in the time it takes to blink twice. Chief Murise grabbed the hilt of her sword and started to pull it, her eyes blazing with anger and offended honor. Ephiny stepped in front of Gabrielle, her sword appearing instantly in her hand. Xena pulled her chakram from its hook on her belt, her eyes flashing a cold, merciless blue light. Gabrielle's hand grabbed her mates wrist and at the same instant Circa, Murise's Lt., best friend and sometime lover for twenty years, who had been standing beside the Chief, wrapped her friend in a desperate bearhug to keep her from pulling her sword all the way out. The Lion snapped her wrist down to break the bards grip and she brought her arm up across her chest to fling the chakram with her favorite backhand motion and cut Murise's throat but before she could complete the throw Gabrielle threw herself in front of the Warrior Princess and hugged her tight, pinning her arm to her chest.
"Please Xena please!!" the bard implored in a frightened whisper, looking up at her mate, "please don't do it. I beg you, please don't!"
The Lion let out a breath that was more a low growl, but she could see that Circa, a short powerful, barrel chested woman with tattoo's like her friends down both arms, had Murise under control for the moment. Her immediate instinct to kill passed. She relaxed enough that Gabrielle loosened her grip. Still the violence of the moment hung like electricity in the charged air. Murise's fierce eyes were fixed on Gabrielle, a panther ready to spring. Circa looked around desperately at the other Amazon warriors. They had all backed away from Murise and several had their weapons in their hands. It was obvious to the Lt. from Trikkala that her Chief had no supporters in this act of rebellion. Her friends life was forfiet at any moment if she could not think of something to save her. But how?
"The Chief of Trikkala" a deep voice rumbled, "has lost her composure in this stressful moment in the history of her people. I'm sure she deeply regrets her actions now that she has had a moment to think." Odyseus was standing by Gabrielle, a small dagger in his hand, his body, along with Ephinys, between Murise and the Queen. "The mercy and compassion of the great Queen of the Amazons is well known to all." The King looked directly at Circa as he said this.
The Lt. took a sudden breath, then she threw herself down on both knees, her head bowed so low her chin almost touched her chest.
"Queen Gabrielle" Circa began in a pleading supplicants voice, "my Chief has acted inexcuseably and deserves the harshest punishment. If you order it I will execute her myself. But in the name of all the people of Trikkala I beg you to consider mercy for Chief Murise. She has been a good and loyal Amazon Chief for many years and I pray that this one moment of rash temper can be forgiven by a Queen whose greatness is measured as much by the compassion of her heart as it is by the
wisdom of her decisions. I know that Chief Murise regrets her action and asks mercy as well."
Murise sucked in a slow breath and looked each of her fellow Chiefs in the eye. She finally understood, she was alone. She slowly, painfully lowered her head.
"I ask the Queen's mercy" she whispered hoarsly.
The bard sighed with relief. She had been praying furiously to Artemis for some way out of this mess without anyone dying. However reluctantly Murise was giving her the way and she gratefully took it.
"The Chief has acted most rashly," Gabrielle said, her voice controlled and commanding. "But these are stressful times and they can cause rash actions. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided now my Chiefs. Too much depends on us." The bard looked at Murise. "I grant the Chief of Trikkala mercy but also I warn her that my mercy has a limit. It will not be extended again."
Murise made a slight, ungrateful bow of acceptance. With a deep sigh of thankfulness Circa got up and stood again by her friend and Chief.
"Now,'' Gabrielle said forcefully, "we still have not heard from the Warleader. Xena, what is your judgement on our chances of holding the ridge?"
The Chiefs and Lt.s moved back into their semicircle as Odyseus took a few steps back and Xena took a step forward so all could see and hear her. She took a moment to calm her temper and collect her thoughts as she re-hooked her chakram, while every eye followed her expectantly. She took a deep breath.
"Do I think we can hold till dark?" she said slowly, letting her intense eyes meet the eyes of everyone in her audience. "Yes!!" she yelled the word. "We will because we must! Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans died at Thermopoly to their everlasting glory, but they lost. The Theban Sacred Band fought to the last man at Platae and their courage will live for eternity in our legends but they lost too. The Lion has no interest in being remembered by history as a glorious loser. I intend to survive this day with the blood of my enemies on my blade. Not mine on theirs. They've been marching three days. They've gotten little sleep thanks to Princess Ephiny and her cavalry. They intend to attack without rest and half of them are mercenarys who never fight to the death if they can help it. Corpses don't collect any pay. We on the other hand are fresh and rested and fighting for our homes and loved ones. The greatest weapon on any battlefield is the will of the warrior to fight. That will belongs to us." Xena unhooked her chakram and raised it over her head. "The Lion always wins" she growled. "The Warleader says....FIGHT!!! YIYIYIYIYIY!!!"
As Xena howled her warcry the Chiefs and warriors of the nation, whose eyes had grown hotter and more focused with each word she spoke, joined with their own screams for blood. Gabrielle looked at her Chiefs and knew her decision had been made for her. And it occured to her that maybe this decision had been made months ago, by Xena, when she said that the Amazons time on this earth had not yet ended. The will of the Lion was that Gabrielle would always have her throne. It was her place in the world.
'It is Xena's gift to me. The Lion's will that I keep my place' the bard thought. She looked up at the ridge where she could see the tiny figure's of the women of the Amazon Nation kneeling in their battleline waiting for the enemy. 'But is it worth the price beloved. Is Gabrielle's place in the world worth this? Oh Artemis, if we are doomed to lose this battle, let the first death be mine. If I can't lead the people well in life let me lead them in death.'
Gabrielle walked over to her mate and put her arm around her waist and raised her arm and joined the wild crys for war.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
"Your orders are simple," Xena said as she looked with intense blue eyes around the half circle of Chiefs and Lt's. "maintain your battleline at all costs. You are not to advance or retreat without a direct order from me, Princess Ephiny or," Xena paused and looked back at King Odyseus, he made a questioning face, "the King of Ithaca, if he will accept the position of commander of the left three companies of our army, with the Queens permission of course."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena then looked at Odyseus and smiled. "It would be a great honor for the Nation if the King of Ithaca would fight with us today."
Odyseus took a surprised breath. Then his eyes focused on the bard. He bowed formally from the waist.
"The honor would be all mine to command the brave warriors of the Amazon Nation and serve the great Queen Gabrielle" Odyseus said in his deep voice. "I humbly accept her generous offer."
"Excellent" the Lion said with obvious satisfaction. She turned back to the Chiefs. "The Princess will command the right three companies. Remember, you don't move from your line without a direct order from one of us. Maintain the battleline no matter what. Understood?"
The Amazon Chiefs nodded or said "understood."
"Then back to your companies" the Lion commanded. "Prepare them for what's coming. Go"
The Warriors broke up and hurried to the horses and troopers who had been waiting in a group some yards away to transport them back to top of the ridge. Ephiny and Odyseus walked to their horses tied to the oak beside the command tent. The Warrior Princess let out a whistle then shouted "Argo!". The great warhorse looked up from her grazing a hundred yards away and broke into a gallop to answer her mistresses call. When the Palimino arrived Xena adjusted her saddle then turned to help Gabrielle up, but the bard stood motionless staring at her mate. The Lion looked back with a question in her eyes, but the question quickly disappeared as she was engulfed in those green sparkling emeralds. She brought her hand up and carressed her mates cheek. Gabrielle put her fingers around Xena's wrist and turned her face into Xena's hand and kissed the palm.
"Beloved, "the bard whispered. "We may not have another chance today." She looked into Xena's soft blue eyes. ''I want to tell you that I love you Xena. You are the stars and the moon and the sun and the sky to me. You make my life worth living."
"Gabrielle'' Xena whispered back as her hand moved slowly over the bards face, feeling the cool softness of her skin. "My life belongs to you. You'll never know how much pleasure it gives me to say that." The Lion brought her face close and she kissed her mate deeply and tenderly. "I love you." she said as she kissed.
Ephiny watched her sisters kiss for a moment then looked over at Odyseus. The King was looking at his two friends with a sadness in his black eyes the Princess could not miss. Then those dark eyes shifted to Ephiny. After a moment they brightened and his perfect teeth appeared in the middle of his beard.
"So when shall we take that dinner that you promised me?" he boomed.
"Well uh," the Princess said hesitantly. "I don't believe I promised you dinner. I think I said we might have dinner."
"Come come.'' the King frowned. "You are an Amazon warrior. A woman of honor. You wouldn't go back on your word."
"I uh." Ephiny shifted in her saddle. "I believe sir you are trying to take some advantage of me."
Odyseus' frown became a thunderstorm on his face. "Princess," he rumbled. "I am a King and a gentleman. I have never taken advantage of any woman."
Ephiny bit her lip nervously, unsure if she had truly offended Odyseus or not. Then the teeth appeared again in the beard.
"However a few women have taken advantage of me." The King reached out and took Ephinys hand. His eyes bored deep into hers. "Come friend of the Great Lion. You impress me as a woman of strength and intelligence. The greatest qualities any woman can have. Give an old man something to look forward too after the trials and labors of this day are done. Tell me you will sit at table with me so we can share the pleasure of discovering each other?"
"Well uh, yes," Ephiny said finally with a slight smile. "I accept your invitation to dinner."
Odyseus raised the Princess' hand and kissed it. His eyes sparkled and his face beamed. "I look forward to it with the greatest anticipation." he smiled. Then he looked at Xena and Gabrielle who were mounted on Argo watching them. He looked back at Ephiny with a serious face. "I think the day awaits us Ephiny, may Apollo shield you from your enemies."
"May Artimus put her arm around your shoulders today King Odyseus" Ephiny answered and together they joined the two mates in galloping up Corinth highway to the ridge.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The King walked behind the battleline of his three companies, straightening, adjusting, learning the names of his officers as he went, his alert mind having no trouble remembering them once introduced. Ephiny did the same at her end of the line, checking equipment and alignment.
The Lion rode along on Argo reminding her warriors in a loud voice of the battle techniques they had been practicing for weeks.
"First line" she bellowed. "Stay low with your shields. Force the pikes up when they hit. Take away their momentum. Second line. Keep the gaps covered. Don't let the pikes penetrate. Third line. Use your shoulders in your shields. Help the warriors in front of you stay on their feet at impact. Be ready to step into any gaps if someone goes down. Keep your heads up and your eyes open. Use your brains. You know what to do. Do it!!"
Xena spotted Cassandra talking to two of her litter bearers and rode quickly up to her.
"Cassandra," the old warrior came to attention, "fear and effort produce a terrible thirst. I want you to personally go up and down the entire line checking that every warrior has a full waterskin. Do it now."
Xena put her heels to Argo and they trotted further along the line, the Warrior Princess glancing over her warriors at the Carthaginians at the bottom of the ridge. Their battle phalanx was slowly taking shape as units turned left and right off the road and marched parallel to the Amazon position, their line beginning to match their enemies in length. Suddenly the Lion spotted a familiar figure ahead, one she did not want to see.
"Herodotus," she barked as the old farmer turned from the battleline, his buckets empty from filling waterskins, "what are you doing here?"
"Following that old crow's orders" he said calmly. ''Just like you told me too. I have the best team of horses here and she wanted to use my wagon to haul water. I go where my wagon goes."
Xena pulled Argo up beside her father-in-law.
"Dammit, I didn't want you here" she said with disgust, looking down at him. "Only trained warriors should be here." Her eyes stared intensly at him. "When the battle starts old man I want you back at your wagon. I don't want to see you near this battleline. If I do I'll knock you out myself and have you dragged back. Your lack of training might get one of my people hurt. I won't tolerate that, understood."
Herodotus looked up at those eyes that were blazing and yet cold and nodded. "Understood" he said quietly. Then he put down his two buckets and put his arm slowly up to Xena. As he looked at her a little chill went down his spine. It was Xena he saw and yet it was someone unknown as well. She seemed bigger, as if she had expanded with the responsibility and pressure that was on her shoulders. Her voice, her movements, everything about her seemed exaggerated. There was an aura of power and energy around her that was palpable, almost visible. As the Lion grasped his arm the hair on the old farmers body stood up from the electricity that crackled around her.
"Good luck today daughter" he said, looking her in the eyes.
The Lion grinned her wolfish grin. "To Tarturus with luck old man" she said. ''We don't need any damn luck. We're better than them. And I'm better at this than him. Don't you know Herodotus," Xena released his arm and straightened and winked. "The Lion always wins. And I'm the Lion."
Herodotus shook his head and smiled at his daughter-in-law. 'How can we lose' he thought. 'Xena will never allow it. She is the Lion.' The old man picked up his buckets as the Warrior Princess rode away down the line. "What a remarkable person my Gabrielle is, that a woman like that would love her above all else" he said to himself. "May the Gods protect my children today." He looked around at all the young warriors preparing themselves for the test that was coming. "May they protect all these children."
Xena looked out over her battleline at the enemy and noticed three riders slowly walking up the Corinth highway toward the top of the ridge. She stopped Argo and studied them. The polished armour and tall plumes of rank on their helmets said they were not scouts. As they steadily approached it became obvious that they intended to initiate some sort of meeting.
"Make a space," Xena commanded quietly.
Warriors crowded together enough to allow Argo passage through the line. The Lion let the great warhorse amble over to the highway and then down it toward the approaching officers. As the distance closed Xena finally recognized the man leading the way. Varrus. Her eyes narrowed at the sight. Suddenly there was the sound of galloping hoofs behind her and then Ephiny pulled her black up beside her.
"You weren't thinking of having this meeting alone were you?'' the Princess asked.
"Guess not" the Lion answered with a slight smile. Then she growled, "that's Varrus."
Ephiny squinted through the lowering afternoon sun at the man. Erect and broadshouldered, he sat his big bay warhorse like a born horseman. The reins in his right hand and his left fist resting on his hip with his elbow out, his head back and cocked slightly to one side, he was the picture of arrogant Roman aristocracy. An aquiline nose dominated his face, along with a seemingly permanent sneering curl in his thin lips. A patrician barely able to tolerate the lesser mortals that he was forced to deal with. His eyes were gray and along with his curved nose he had the appearance of an eagle ready to strike. An aid rode at either side of him. The one on the left was large and round and older, with gray in his dark brown beard. The one on the right was young and cleanshaven and had a nervous twitching of the eyes and head and a sharp face like a ferret.
When the riders were a few yards apart, about a hundred yards from the Amazon battleline, they stopped and eyed each other for a moment.
"Hello Xena," Varrus said in a high cutting voice. "It's been eight years since we met last."
"Yep,'' the Lion answered. "Have you been counting the days? I haven't."
The Romans eyes narrowed as he stared into Xena's. The Lion stared back, unblinking.
"I'm here at the order of the Oliarch of Carthage" he said evenly. "I'm to offer you one last chance to sign a treaty before it's too late and we are forced to attack."
Xena snorted in her throat.
"Sending back the heads of our ambassadors was an interesting way for the Oliarch to start negotiations" she said.
"Well," Varrus said with a slight smile, "the Oliarch doesn't exactly know about that. That was a little message of my own Xena. I wanted to be sure you didn't have a change of heart and decide to surrender after all." The smile turned to a sneer. "The old one died well. But the younger one, she put up a fight. I think she was afraid. It took three men to hold her. Fear will make you strong like that."
The color rose in Ephiny's face but otherwise she showed no reaction. Xena's iron mask did not change.
"I hear you've married the Queen of the Amazons" Varrus continued as his horse nervously pawed the ground. "You must be getting soft Xena. The Lion I knew would have slit her throat in the night by now and made herself Queen."
The Warrior Princess rested her hands on her saddle horn, her eyes never leaving the Romans. '' I found a person stronger than me Varrus. A little piece of advice, one warrior to another, always make people stronger than you an ally, not an enemy."
Varrus' eyes narrowed even more. For a moment his gaze shifted to the Amazon battleline, then back to Xena. "It's been ten years since the last Centaur war Xena. Most of those bitches up there have never been in battle. They're virgins to the art to war." The Roman sneered again. "Well, my Carthiginian veterans will show them the in and out of it soon enough."
The young aide beside Varrus grinned and gave a little chuckle in his throat.
"Tell your monkey," Xena said evenly, her eyes rivited on Varrus ''to take that monkey grin off his face or I'll take it off for him."
The young man's face clouded with shocked anger and he reached for his sword but Varrus grabbed his arm. "Don't be a fool." he hissed.
It was Xena's turn to curl her lip in a sneer.
"I'm surprised you took this job Varrus" she said. "The Amazons are all women, no little boys for you to abuse." Her face turned to pure contempt. "I still remember that slave boy you brought to my camp. How old was he, seven, eight? I asked him how he could stand being used by a grown man like you. He explained it to me."
Xena raised one hand off her saddle horn with the little finger extended. Princess Ephiny turned her head in disgust and spit.
The Romans face reddened slightly.
"Both of you get back to your commands" he said out of the side of his mouth.
Varrus' two aides turned their horses and trotted off.
"Go on back Princess" Xena said quietly.
"Go on Ephiny, I'll be there shortly"
The Amazon warrior reluctantly pulled her horses' head around and headed back to her battleline. When she was gone Varrus shifted and straightened in his saddle.
"I hear you killed Parmenon and his three aides yourself?" he said.
The Lion nodded.
"One of those aides was my younger brother."
Xena snorted. "Is that what this is all about? How pathetic. I thought you were more professional than to hold a grudge over something like that. My low opinion of you just got lower."
"No Xena, I don't care anything about Graccus. He was never anything but a burden to me. You did me a favor that day. No Lion, the thing that sticks in my craw about Lexus is that's the only battle I've ever lost. It's the blemish on an otherwise spotless record. I've waited eight years to remove that stain. Now the day is here." The Romans face became an ugly scowl. "When your bitches start to run and the slaughter begins, I'm going to come looking for you Xena. Don't make me look too hard."
"I'll make it easy for you Varrus" the Lion growled. "I'll find you."
The Roman nodded. Then he pulled on the reins of his mount and the horse backed straight back so Varrus could keep his eyes on Xena. After a dozen yards he let the horse turn.
"Varrus!" Xena roared.
The Roman turned his head toward her.
"Something for you to think about" Xena yanked on Argos reins and pulled her sword. "The Lion always wins, and I'm the Lion!"
The great warhorse reared high up on her back legs and pawed the air as Xena waved her sword. Then turning the horse she took off at a breakneck gallop to the north end of her battleline. Her warriors watched in awe as she spun Argo in a tight circle at the end of the line then galloped along in front of it screaming her warcry and waving her sword. The warriors of the Nation answered her in full throat, waving their own swords and banging on their shields with them. At the south end of the line the Lion again whirled Argo around as Ephiny, who was watching from behind the line on her horse, marveled at the horsemanship of it, and she raced back to the center of the line, pulling Argo up in a spray of dirt and grass. She stood up in her stirups and waved her sword, screaming her warcry. In front of her, half a league away, the drums sounded the march step and the first phalanx of the Carthaginian army started up the slope, a moving wall of pikes headed straight for her.