Conqueror And Amazon: Echoes of Darkness - part III
For disclaimers see part I
Chapter Seven: Aftermath
About one and a half candlemark after sunset, Xena was slowly approaching the small hut that over the past few days somehow had become her home. Even from the distance, she could see light pouring out of the window. Gabrielle must be waiting for her. In an effort to get rid of the dark energy that had settled in her soul during the fight with Dagnine’s men and was still cursing strongly through her veins she consciously recalled the day’s events.
Everything and everyone was in place and ready about two and half candlemarks before noon. The placement of the giant crossbow had been carefully chosen to make sure that it wasn’t easily visible. The Amazon archers were hidden at either side of the battlefield on top and behind the great boulders forming its natural enclosure. The Centaur archers were waiting just inside the tree line, everyone of them having prepared his own escape route should things not work out as planned. They were under orders to fall back to the village to give the remaining part of the army more leverage. The rest of her troops also was at the copse of trees bisecting the pasture, half of them in full view of the approaching enemy, half of them hidden behind the tree trunks or in the tree tops. The scouts in regular intervals brought news of the enemy’s progress -- all that was left to do was to wait.
Xena hated waiting, always had and always would -- but she also was very good at it. She never got careless or overconfident, fidgety or angry. She was the picture of calm confidence, a confidence soon mirrored by the army though they were awaiting a fight with an enemy more than three times their number.
Dagnine’s men finally took their stand at the other side of the pasture. They stretched out over the whole width of the field, foot-soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, some of them menacingly waving their weapons at them. They didn’t make any attempt to attack or even get in any kind of battle formation. It was more as if they were out to enjoy a good show. The scouts reported that the cavalry was holding back for now. They obviously were ready, the horses saddled, the riders armed but not on horseback. They were standing five lines deep about five candledrops away from the battlefield, just holding position. So far, everything was working out as planned.
Suddenly the enemy soldiers fell silent, their line parted in the middle. A Centaur galloped onto the field, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. He was larger than average, from hooves to hair about ten feet. He was straight in line, just where they needed him -- but the crossbow had been planned with someone much bigger in mind. To get a good and sure shot he had to come nearer and they had to adjust the aim. Xena exchanged worried glances with Kaleipus, gave her orders to the smithies and archers, jumped on Argo’s back, and rode out to somehow delay him, the one-eyed Centaur at her side.
Surprisingly it had worked. She taunted him and got him to talk. He was brandishing Borias’ sword and once again bragged that it was him who had killed ‘the traitor’. An Amazon bird call told her that the crossbow was ready. She stayed in front of the raging Centaur with Dagnine’s disfigured face for as long as she dared. Another bird call and she dropped to the ground. The crossbow bolt swirled over her head, reflecting the midday sun. Xena saw the expression of disbelief and surprise on the face of her former lieutenant when the pointed tip crushed his rib cage and pierced his heart. He was dead before his body hit the ground.
The raven haired warrior picked up Borias’ weapon but before she could store it in her scabbard the fight was on. Outraged at their leader’s death Dagnine’s men attacked -- and ran into Xena’s trap. Amazon and Centaur archers combined silently reduced their numbers before they came in range of the other fighters. Eponin and Queen Melosa were at Xena’s right while Tyldus and Kaleipus were fighting at her left side, taking care of the lucky few who got past her. The tall warrior was fighting like someone obsessed by the spirit of war, using two swords, her own and Borias’, as if they were one. The blades were moving too fast to discern one from the other, cutting down everyone unfortunate enough to get in range.
No, these memories certainly weren’t fit to calm down her blood lust. Xena forced herself to think of something else but still the scent of blood was in her nose.
Pushing it in the back of her mind, she somehow had managed to tend to the injured, send out the scouts, instruct the perimeter watch, and even get something to eat. Her assessment had been right. The enemy’s mounted forces hadn’t intervened, Dagnine’s second in command had been conspicuously absent the whole day. Later she learned that he and two thirds of his forces had tested the village’s defences. They had triggered some of the traps and ran into a volley of arrows. Of the foot soldiers only about four scores had made it from the battle field on their own feet. More than two hundred against 32 dead and 25 injured on their side. Not bad for a day.
No, Xena sternly ordered herself, don’t even think about it. Take a deep breath and calm down. Gabrielle is waiting for you, a staff meeting is scheduled the first thing tomorrow. You need to get some sleep.
Sleep, however, wasn’t an option. The dark energy was driving her to do something, anything to get rid of it, to tame it. A few candlemarks of drilling should do the trick. By now she had reached the secluded hut, and had already half turned around when a voice let her freeze in midstep.
“Where do you think you’re going, Xena?”
She didn’t move but answered in a quiet voice. “To the practice field.”
“Xena, you spent the whole day fighting and soon you’ll have to do it again. Come to bed, my love.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena’s voice was deeper than usual but without the sensual undertone the blonde loved so much. To the younger woman there definitively was an undercurrent of fear audible, “please, don’t tempt me. Don’t!”
“Xena, turn around. Please, look at me. Trust me!”
The younger woman’s hand touched her right shoulder but instead of triggering her honed reflexes, it somehow sent a light straight to her soul. She slowly turned around. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, my love. I trust you. Please, trust yourself.”
Gabrielle gently took the taller warrior’s hand in her own, let her to the hut, and in front of the brightly burning fireplace next to a large wash basin. Without saying a word she began to unclasp Xena’s breast and back plates, took off her upper arm bands and her bracers, taking the time to tease the sensitive skin at the inside of the raven head’s arms.
The shin protectors were taken care of with the same quiet efficiency, and before the former Conqueror knew how, her naked body was illuminated by the flickering flames. She automatically stepped into the wash basin, and Gabrielle began to wash away the last remnants of today’s battle, revealing only two insignificant nicks to her dark, smooth skin.
The bard had started her ministrations at Xena’s back and when she finally came into view and attended to the front, her dark green tunic was gone and all she was wearing was the water soaked sponge she was holding in her right hand. The warrior caught a glimpse of her lover’s eyes. The were sparkling with desire, with hunger.
A low growl came from Xena and the order. “Step back and turn around, legs further apart. Give me the sponge and bend over, grab your ankles.”
Gabrielle felt the taller woman’s fingers on her firm buttocks, retracing their curves in a slow circular movement. Heat already contentrating between her thighs.
“Hmm, how beautiful -- and all mine. Isn’t it?” Her only answer was a sensuous moan and the wriggling of a small ass trying to gain more contact with her hand. “Oh no, you don’t. Don’t move! Unless you want me to stop.” The wriggling stopped immediately and a low frustrated growl came from the smaller woman.
Xena smiled. Her dark side was delighted with the blonde’s obedience and another part of her marvelled at her inner strength enabling her to let herself be treated like nothing more but a slave. She squeezed the sponge gently, letting a few drops fall on Gabrielle’s smooth skin. Instantly, there were goose bumps covering her. The first drops were reaching her hair line and she couldn’t help but arch towards the next drop. Gabrielle heard skin impact with skin, warmth and pain were equally engulfing her behind and more. This definitively had been more than a friendly slap and certainly would leave a hand print on her ass cheeks. She lost her precarious balance and fell to her knees. She made a half turn offering her pert nipples to Xena’s inspection and searched the stormy eyes.
There was no conscious thinking involved when Xena’s self control was shot right to Hades, and she roughly yanked the blonde to her feet and carried her towards the bed. Gabrielle held on for dear life when strong arms tried to throw her on the mattress. So, they both fell and landed in a tangle of arms and legs, with Gabrielle’s legs only letting go of the warrior’s waist when a tongue was demanding entrance into her mouth. Soon, warrior and bard alike were lost in the sensation. Fingers, skin, mouth, and eyes mapping out very familiar territory and at the same time exploring as if it were for the first time.
Xena’s hands were far from gentle. She kneaded the firm buttocks while her mouth sucked the breast that still bore the faint traces of her teeth. Gabrielle felt the hard pull and arched into the touch, her own hands seeking purchase on Xena’s smooth skin. When she felt the pressure at her nipple increasing and a hand fondling her sex, the young woman instinctively stretched her hands above her head.
The suckling intensified, a thumb was slowly grazing her clit while two fingers were inside of her, touching the centre of her pleasure with rhythmical intensity. The young woman followed her body’s commands, her legs opened wide, and her arms also spread, her eyes were dilated, her breathing ragged.
Suddenly the hand was withdrawn from the younger woman’s centre. She whimpered in disappointment but immediately was silenced by the mouth of her lover on her lips. She eagerly invited the other woman in, their tongues duelling, their hearts pounding. Her hips were bucking upwards, seeking contact with Xena’s skin. Her first attempt was successful; her second try, however, only hit thin air.
“No, you’re mine, your body’s mine, your pleasure’s mine. Mine alone.” The dark haired woman whispered in Gabrielle’s ear, though it sounded very much like the growl of a hungry predator. She abruptly sat up, straddling the younger woman at her waist.
Her eyes were as hard, cold, and distant as the last time. The blonde knew that she had every reason to be afraid of this stranger inhibiting the body of her lover but instead a wave of excitement rushed through her from head to toe, concentrating at her centre. Unblinking she looked up. Her voice was hoarse when she whispered. “Yours alone, my proud warrior.”
Xena’s pupils widened when she found arousal instead of fear in Gabrielle’s eyes, when she found acceptance instead of disgust. She was ready to drown in these green orbs. Her hands roamed over the smaller woman’s body, once again settling on the proudly erect breasts. She knew Gabrielle was close to the edge but she didn’t want her to come just yet. So, she maintained a steady rhythm, not really gentle but also without hurting her lover, and thus also holding her at the edge.
“Do with me as you please, my lord.” The younger woman almost inaudibly said.
Xena shot back, her eyes widened, a low keening sound came from her throat. She scrambled backwards ‘til her back hit the wall. Her head was darting to the left and right as if searching for an escape route. Her whole body was trembling, when she slid down the wall. She first looked at her hands, then her arms closed around her upraised knees and her shoulders slumped in defeat.
Gabrielle had difficulties coming down from her sensual high and understanding what just had happened. Never before had she seen her lover in such a state, not even when she had had to coax her out of her shell after the incident with the abused Amazon children more than a moon ago, when she learned about the abuse Xena had suffered herself at the hands of the village’s smith. She stood up and knelt next to Xena.
“Please, look at me, Xena.” No reaction at all. “I’m sorry, Xena. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please, look at me. Forgive me.”
The taller woman slowly raised her head. Her eyes were full of pain, and when she opened her mouth it was so soft, Gabrielle had to strain her hearing to understand.
“It is me who should ask for forgiveness but I can’t. What I am can’t be forgiven. A selfish monster that should be kept under lock and key. I should be punished the way I punished Darphus, yes, that’s what I have to do.”
Before Gabrielle had a chance to react the distressed woman was on her feet and next to her discarded armour. A heartbeat later she held the breast dagger in her hand and lowered it towards her sex, intend on cutting off her clit. “Xena, stop it, immediately.”
Surprisingly, she stopped in mid-motion. “I won’t let you do this. I won’t let you maim yourself.”
Xena’s eyes were still fixed on the dagger. “Don’t you understand. It’s the only way. I have to be punished for what I did, today and the other night. It’s the only punishment adequate for rapists, this way they no longer can hurt anyone, and they will have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. It’s the right thing to do.”
There was so much self hatred oozing out of Xena’s voice, Gabrielle couldn’t stand it any longer. She closed her right hand around the taller woman’s bigger one while her left hand gently touched Xena’s cheek. “I love you, Xena. I can’t let you hurt yourself. You didn’t hurt me, and you’re not a rapist. I can’t let you do it. It would hurt me if you did, probably more than it’d hurt you.”
The warrior’s eyes found Gabrielle’s. She didn’t know what she had been expecting but she found concern, love, and a quiet determination in these green orbs. The dagger fell from her hand. “I still have to be punished. I need to be punished. Try to understand, I have to talk to Queen Melosa.”
The blond woman closed her eyes for the fraction of a heartbeat, and then took a deep breath. The expression in her eyes suddenly grew cold. “Are you sure that this is what you want, my love?”
Xena slowly was regaining her confidence and self-control. “I know, you can’t understand, but I have to get it out of my system. Queen Melosa will know what to do without doing any permanent harm. It’s for the best.”
Gabrielle took two steps back. Her face was stern, and her posture spoke of innate authority. ”I already told you, I don’t want the Amazons involved. This is only between you and me. If you insist on being punished, I will be the one doing it. Do you understand, Xena?”
“Yes, I understand.” The woman warrior swallowed hard. “I accept any punishment you deem fit.”
“You may not like what I have in mind.”
“That’s the nature of punishment, Gabrielle. It’s not meant to be a walk in the garden, and it’s not meant to be pleasant.”
“Go to the bed, lay down, no, not on your back. Hold on to the headrest, don’t let go.” Xena did as she was told. Gabrielle followed quickly and straddled her firm buttocks. She took a small vial from the night stand, and let a certain amount of the creamy liquid drop in one of her palms. She warmed it with both hands, and began to massage Xena’s well muscled back, with practised moves easing the tension, loosening the knots, and leaving the tall woman with a pleasantly tingling sensation.
“Hmm, this feels so good. Gabrielle, you should make me suffer, not enjoy.”
“Patience, my love. Tonight you will be mine, all mine. You will learn that you belong to me, just as much as I belong to you. You’re not allowed to touch me, you’re not allowed to even move a muscle without my permission. Tonight, your will doesn’t count. It may seem easy at the moment, a little like it was at the beginning, when I wasn’t sure of myself. But believe me, what I have in mind will be much harder. Tonight, you will learn a lesson, you will learn how to let go, how to lose control, my proud warrior.”
Gabrielle put another dollop of oil on Xena’s skin and resumed her gentle ministrations. When all the muscles were relaxed, she began to let her hands roam in intricate patterns over the whole glistening surface of the warrior’s back, building up an entirely different kind of tension. The hands were withdrawn and the younger woman resettled her weight to Xena’s thighs.
The warrior moaned at the loss. “Oh, Gab, Gabrielle, please...“
”Oh no, my warrior. You’re not allowed to beg, you’re not allowed to utter a single word, you’re not even allowed to moan.”
Xena answered with a low growl that sent shivers down Gabrielle’s spine. More oil was applied, and two small hands now concentrated on the lower back and firm buttocks. She revelled in the feeling of smooth, soft skin covering steely muscles, and poured every ounce of her training as a body slave in her ministrations, sending the taller woman in a sensual haze that made her burning with arousal but at the same time too limp to act on it.
After what seemed like an eternity, Gabrielle ordered her to turn around and close her eyes. Her fingers of their own accord once again grabbed the bars of the head rest. Oily hands cupped her breasts and gently squeezed them, carefully avoiding contact with the aureole and the nipples. When Xena arched her back into the touch, the hands stopped until she stilled her movement with a frustrated growl. She felt Gabrielle’s body shift and a low voice was whispering in her right ear.
“Remember, you are mine, mine to play with, mine to torture, mine to bring fulfilment.”
The squeezing and kneading resumed, setting her whole front on fire though Gabrielle only was touching a small part of it. The younger woman was still breathing steadily while her own was getting ragged, her heart beating a staccato rhythm in her chest as if it wanted to pop out at any moment. The hands changed their rhythm, accelerating until it matched her frantic heart beat, becoming one with it. And then her heart beat began to slow down in sync with the decreasing rhythm of Gabrielle’s hands but she heard the other woman murmur. “Yes, that’s a good girl.”
All the energy seemed to leave Xena’s upper body and concentrated between her thighs. Her clit was pulsing with a rhythm of its own, creating a throbbing ache she was utterly defenceless against. Once again, all she could do was moan. Suddenly, Gabrielle grabbed her already hard nipples between thumb and index finger, and twisted them. Her whole skin became alive, her hips bucked, and she almost shouted. “Oh gods, do it, do it now, fuck me. I can’t stand it, fu…”
Gabrielle’s left hand with snake like speed and precision jabbed a pressure point under Xena’s ear and behind her jaw line. Her jaw was effectively blocked with her mouth standing slightly open, she no longer was able to speak. A tiny part of the warrior’s brain applauded the accuracy of the move she herself had taught to her lover some moons ago. Her right nipple was harshly twisted.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk! What did I tell you about speaking without permission, moving without permission?! Tell me what to do now. Use restraints?” The tall woman vigorously shock her head. “All right, you’ll get another chance. Close your eyes, and don’t even think of opening them before I tell you to.”
Fresh oil was applied to her skin, and it began again. A slow and steady squeezing that made her heart beat run a league a minute, the kneading and squeezing rhythm picked up, gradually bringing her heartbeat down and finally brought another burst of arousal at her centre. This time, she didn’t try to move but abandoned herself to the sensation. She opened herself to Gabrielle’s mastery.
Then the hands were gone, and the smaller woman left the bed. She was tempted to open her eyes, and she felt the bard between her thighs. “Lift your hips up, Xena. Hold position.”
Xena felt leather straps fastened around her waist and between her thighs, the leather harness, and judging by its weight with the ivory phallus attached. The fit was perfect, without even the slightest slack. Her spread legs were guided back together, leather straps were fastened at her ankles and the bed posts, effectively keeping her feet shoulder wide apart, with a third strap between them to guarantee that they stayed this way. Gabrielle seemed to be playing with the phallus. The woman warrior imagined the still oily hands sliding up and down the shaft, lubricating it before mounting her and the phallus.
The blonde impaled herself, and then sat absolutely still, waiting for Xena to take stock of her situation. Yes, she wore the harness, but the small nubs inside to stimulate her clit were gone.
Gabrielle bent forward, and whispered into her ear while she undid the pressure point. “Remember what you said about the nature of punishment: It’s not meant to be a walk in the garden, it’s not meant to be pleasant. I know you had other things in mind but I don’t want to hurt you. However, for you to learn your lesson, you’ll have to suffer for a while.”
To her surprise, there was no growl of protest but only a small nod. “Open your eyes!”
Xena was greeted by the sight of Gabrielle’s gloriously erect nipples. Her arms tensed for a moment but instantly relaxed when she found her lover’s eyes. The green orbs were dotted with golden sparkles, showing the same desire she knew her own eyes were filled with. Their gazes remained locked when Gabrielle began to move her hips in almost imperceptible circles. Her hands went to her breasts and mirrored the movement around her aureoles while her tongue slowly was retracing the contours of her lips. The tall woman was mesmerised by the show but surprisingly and though her own arousal was hitched up another notch she didn’t feel any desire to participate and disobey the younger woman’s orders.
The grinding motion became more pronounced, Gabrielle’s wetness dripping down the apex of the taller woman’s thighs and mingling with her own juices. She added an up-and-down movement that was becoming faster and faster with every heartbeat. Her dilated eyes told Xena that she was at the brink of orgasm, only held back by the conscious effort needed to keep her balance. And she was close to falling when warm hands closed around her waist and steadied her. For a moment she was startled but when Xena didn’t try to do anything more the rhythm resumed.
Gabrielle now could bend forwards and caress the prone woman’s luscious globes. It didn’t take long for her to reach the peek, her inner muscles clenched around the phallus, she cried out her lover’s name and sank down on Xena’s chest, catching her breath. The tall woman could feel the tremors still running through Gabrielle’s body when she cautiously removed her hands from the slender waistline and put them back where she felt they belonged, over her head, her fingers grabbing the headrest.
Gabrielle recovered from one of the most forceful orgasms she could remember, her mind still intoxicated by the power she visibly had over the stronger woman.
Yes, they had played games like this before, and more than once, but then Xena had consciously held her reactions in check. Her surrender then had been a question of mind over matter. And at the beginning of their relationship, the taller woman’s willingness to put aside her own pleasure was what she had needed to overcome her fear and bolster her self esteem but there always had been a lot of tension running through her body.
Today had been different. For the first time, Xena’s mind and her body seemed to be in harmony, that’s why she made the chance decision to go a step further.
The blonde woman pushed herself up and forward, letting go of the phallus with a small plop. She crawled towards Xena’s face and straddled her. “Clean me up, my love.”
Without hesitation a tongue found a trail of wetness at her right thigh, leaving her skin tingling with renewed arousal. The skilled woman was clearly doing more than just a clean-up job but Gabrielle didn’t mind. She closed her eyes in bliss and concentrated on her breathing. But she didn’t want to come just yet, so she tried to distract her lover.
“I’m proud of you, Xena. You’re more beautiful than ever. You did really good, except for this one little slip that kept me from tumbling over. You even resumed your position without being told… Oh, gods, sweet Artemis, stop.” The blonde’s hands grabbed the head rest and she took a few calming breaths. “Remember, you’re not allowed to come until I tell you to. Put your hands on my hips, help me to keep my balance. You now will make me come but take your time. You’ll have to make me last for at least five candledrops.”
Xena still felt the weight of the phallus pressing down on her swollen centre. She wasn’t aware of having consciously listened to her lover’s orders but still she obeyed. Gabrielle’s scent was mesmerising, intoxicating; the temptation to send her to Cythera growing with every breath she took. She tried to clear her mind but there were the blond curls wet with sweet juices just in front of her eyes. The restraints kept her from closing her legs to try and ease at least some of the throbbing.
The tall woman eagerly lapped at Gabrielle’s opening, gently suckling one nether lip after the other with only her lips and tongue. She inadvertently buried her nose in the enticing folds and had to jerk back her head, almost hitting the head rest, not to be totally overwhelmed. Three shuddering breaths later she resumed her task, caressing Gabrielle with the tip of her tongue, circling the younger woman’s clit without really touching it while at the same time trying to keep as much distance as possible between them.
Gabrielle by now was way beyond reasoning, having abandoned herself to the sensations and the overpowering feeling of safety, else she would at least have smiled at her lover’s predicament. As it was, she was too busy to moan, whisper and shout Xena’s name.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she gave the order. Xena reaffirmed her hold and dove directly for the clit. She flattened her tongue and the first stroke brought her lover over the edge. She stayed without moving until the waves coursing through the small body had subsided. Before any kind of afterglow relaxation could set in, her front teeth grazed the sensitive nub and she began to suckle. Gabrielle instinctively rocked her hips and despite Xena’s best efforts almost toppled over when the next wave of orgasm hit.
Trying to catch her breath she somehow ended lying next to the taller woman, one of Xena’s arms pinned beneath her, the other one still resting on her hip. A quarter of a candlemark passed by without either of them moving or trying to talk. Gabrielle then let herself roll to the left. Sitting, she guided the warrior’s hands back over her head and to the metal bars of the head board. She knew Xena was ready to explode and almost succumbed to her pleading eyes, now a very dark blue with a hint of silver at the edge of the irises.
“Close your eyes, my brave warrior.” Kissing both eyelids she slowly stood and freed her lover from the restraints. She unfastened the harness, careful not to touch the oversensitive skin. Avoiding to even look at Xena’s engorged clit, she turned to the now cold water next to the wash basin and cleaned the phallus of her juices. Taking it back to the bed she nudged long legs further apart and settled down between them. Her earlier resolve to take it slowly and push her lover further almost forgotten. The musky, yet sweet scent of arousal was too much to take. She had to do more, she had to taste it, she had to taste her now.
Gabrielle began with small kisses to the taller woman’s nether region, barely touching the skin. The dark woman’s hips rose to greet her, and instead of reprimanding her for the forbidden movement, Gabrielle accepted the invitation. The tip of her tongue sneaked deeply in her lover’s centre, as deep as she could. She felt powerful inner muscles clenching and quickly withdrew, her breath accidentally touching Xena’s unhooded nub; she bucked in response, and the blonde began to eagerly lap up the increased flow.
Exhaling, she directed her breath purposely on her lover’s clit, the tall woman began to undulate seductively. Only then did she concentrate on it, grazing the hyper sensitive skin with the tip of her tongue only. She could feel it twitching, and Xena’s sensual moan sent bolts of lightening in her own centre. She gently circled the nub. The moaning intensified. Gabrielle forced herself to sit up. One moment longer, and they both would have embarked towards Cythera.
She hit another pressure point directly under Xena’s rib cage, close to the solar plexus -- one the dark haired woman hadn’t taught her. Hips sank back to the mattress, now unable to move of their own accord while the rest of the warrior’s body visibly tensed but still she held fast to the head board and still her eyes were closed.
“It’s all right, my love,” Gabrielle said while caressing her sides, “I just had to ease up on the tension there for a bit. We still have half of the night.”
The muscles in Xena’s arms relaxed, her breathing steadied and a tentative smile crept on her face. “I know you ache for release but remember, my love. This is supposed to be a punishment, so we will take our time. I have a few questions I want you to answer. Keep your eyes shut. Concentrate on my voice and on my hands.”
She now gently massaged the prone woman’s shoulders. “That’s it, relax. Tell me: What’s your name?”
“Xena Itone, daughter of Cyrene.”
“Itone? You never said that you have a second name. What does it mean?” Gabrielle knew the questions were distracting her lover -- and that’s what she wanted to do, taking her mind off of the needs of her body, focusing her attention on her voice while maintaining the level of arousal with her touch. The difficult part was not to lose control herself.
“I don’t know for sure. I never used it. It has something to do with a period of draught the year I was born. When my mother went into labour, it began to rain for the first time in almost three seasons, and I was told that the rain only stopped when I took my first free breath more than sixteen candlemarks later. It is said to commemorate the day Athena granted the village’s plea for rain.”
“Xena Itone, I like it -- Does Toris also have a second name?”
“No, I was the only one in the whole village but everyone soon learned that it wasn’t wise to make fun of it.” The tall woman answered with a hint of a growl to her voice, and Gabrielle decided that it was time for a change of topic.
“Do you love me, Xena?”
“Yes, I love you, all of you.”
“Do you believe that I love you?”
“I can see your love in your eyes, even when by all rights you should be afraid of me. Though I don’t deserve your love, I know that you love me.”
Gabrielle didn’t take the bait and continued with her questioning. “Are you in love with me Xena?”
“Yes, Gabrielle, I’m in love with you. For the first time in my life, my body, my heart, my mind, and my soul feel the same.
“From the moment I heard these slavers talk about this unruly slave, I knew I had to find you. When I saw your bloodied body in the barn, I knew I had to take you to safety.
“In the healer’s hut I could feel your will to survive and when you first opened your eyes I drowned. I fell in love with you -- and when one day we will sit on our porch and see our great-grandchildren play in the back, I’ll still be in love with you.” The prone woman answered between gasps.
The younger woman was close to being lost in the hypnotising voice.
“I’m yours, Gabrielle. Do with me as you please.”
That’s what the green-eyed woman had wanted to hear from the beginning and where her questions ultimately would have led them. She knew there had been no pretence in Xena’s words, and so she finally acted on her heart’s desire.
While interrogating she had adjusted the harness to fit her own body and put it on. She positioned herself on top of her lover, the tip of the phallus just touching her opening, her own weight resting on her left arm only. She undid the pressure point and at the same moment buried the whole length of the phallus in Xena’s centre. The tall woman’s hips jerked but she held her ground. She didn’t say anything and she didn’t move. Xena’s mouth opened as if to say something but then only her lips were moving. “I’m yours, Gabrielle. Please, take me.”
Xena’s orgasm was so forceful that she lost consciousness, a definitive first she thought wryly when she later held a sleeping bard in her arms, a summer blanket draped over their sweaty bodies, without any memory of what had happened after Gabrielle had begun to grind her hips to her own motions, after the moment she had been told to open her eyes and to let go.
The torches had long burned out, and the flames in the fire place were reduced to ashes. The tall warrior knew she should get some sleep or at least think about more pressing problems, but her head was still puzzling about the night’s events and her reaction to it. She replayed every single step in her mind’s eyes.
A punishment it definitively hadn’t been, but it certainly was the most extraordinary experience in her life. Even the time spent with Lao Ma or Queen Cyane hadn’t been this intense. She always had tenuously held on to at least a tiny bit of control.
This time, she consciously had abandoned all control and had given herself over to Gabrielle. Never before had she felt so free and so safe. Almost from the very beginning, she had known that she belonged to Gabrielle, body, heart, and soul -- but this night, for the first time she also had felt it. The young bard was more than a lover, she was a part of her, as she herself was a part of Gabrielle.
“Good morning, my love. Thank you for last night.” Xena said when the young blonde opened her eyes to the first rays of sun.
“I have to thank you. Last night was very special to me. I love you.”
“Love you too, Gabrielle. What I said last night, I really meant it. I’m yours, now and forever. I can’t wait to declare my love in front of the whole Amazon nation. I just wish, I could give you more than my heart.”
“Oh, my big dumb warrior. I don’t need promises or official declarations. Your feelings for me are in your eyes whenever you look at me -- and if I hadn’t known before, last night would have told me all I ever needed to know. Last night was a gift I can’t thank you enough for.” Gabrielle answered softly.
“I still think, that I should be punished for what I did a few nights ago but now I see your point. My head and my heart always knew but now…” Xena sought Gabrielle’s eyes. “Last night, I learned something very important. My whole adult life I spent keeping my distance from people, and the one time I didn’t, I was betrayed and ended up on a cross. My body learned to trust no one, to let no one in -- until last night.”
The young woman tried to say something but Xena put her index finger on the other’s lips. “No, please, let me speak my mind. -- My body’s reactions have become automatic, almost natural. I grew accustomed to always being on my guard. You were the first person ever for whom I wanted to change this, but I always had to keep control of my body, my reactions. Last night, this changed. Last night, for the first time in I don’t know how long I felt free and safe. I never said this to anyone, Gabrielle, but I’m yours, and I hope I always will be.”
The smaller woman looked at her in astonishment, for once out of words, so she did what came natural to her, she kissed Xena, and she put all the love she felt for her in this one kiss. Their kiss broke and became more. With the last of Xena’s barriers gone, they not only made love, they celebrated the joining of their souls. There always had been a connection between them, from the very beginning. But now, it was more than that; it was as if their connection suddenly had become visible.
Chapter Eight: Fighting against the odds
Though Gabrielle officially wasn’t part of the war council she didn’t let go of Xena’s hand when they entered the council’s hut to attend the staff meeting -- and no one challenged her presence.
“Good morning,” Xena said. “Yesterday, we all fought bravely and we were victorious, on the battle field as well as here at the village. The Great Centaur was defeated and never will rise again. We all have every reason to be proud of what we accomplished. However, this war is far from over. We still have to face an army of two times three hundred fighters with a highly trained cavalry and some impressive siege engines.
“We also have to take into account that our enemy now probably has a new weapon. Dagnine wasn’t big enough. He didn’t benefit from the whole power of the Ixion stone. The lore keeper of the Centaurs will later tell us what to expect. For now we will prepare to destroy their machinery and to keep their reinforcements from clearing the pass. Do you have the lists with qualified volunteers ready?”
Only a few heads nodded while most of the others found something interesting on the ground. An awkward silence was about to settle on the assembly when Philiades found his voice.
“We don’t have anyone experienced with mining. I know you also asked for people experienced with rockslides. However we have never had a need to create one before now. If the sketch you made is correct, the possibility of all the rocks coming down on our side and not on theirs is more than big.”
“Philiades, I respect your concern for the safety of your men but I won’t leave this to chance. I intend to control where these rocks are going to fall. That is if all the things I asked for have been found.” She answered.
“Yes, we did, thanks to one of the wagon drivers that came with the Amazons. It was all pretty straight forward but we had some problems with the last item. Never heard of it before. Shirin told us what exactly to look for.” The one-eyed Centaur said.
Xena refused herself to dwell on the possibilities this statement opened up, especially because there only were a few. She now had to focus on the problems at hand, she chided herself. So she put her concerns in the back of her mind and answered.
“That’s good to hear. I’ll take care of it as soon as possible. Where did you put the supplies?”
“I had them transported to the hut I first offered you, one and half candlemarks ride west of the village -- away from prying eyes and at a safe distance, just as you wanted. I have a couple of my fighters keeping watch.” Kaleipus said. “Since yesterday evening we were able to release another four patients from the infirmary. They’re fit to do light duty and thus should be deployed to the central village. All in all, we can rely on about 210 warriors, two scores of them are only fit for limited duties.”
“Very good. I want the volunteers ready at a moment’s notice; timing is crucial. And now we’ll have to decide on how to deal with the bigger problem: Dagnine’s second and the rest of the Ixion stone solution probably in his position. -- Venerable elder, what does the book of wisdom say? If I’m not mistaken there are a quite a few possi…”
Xena was interrupted by one of the scouts. “I’m sorry to disturb but there are about thirty Amazons heading straight for the village, with their weapons at the ready. They’ll be here in about two candlemarks.”
Before Queen Melosa could answer, Xena took charge. “This meeting is adjourned until further notice. Please direct them to the encampment of Queen Melosa’s Amazons. Solari take some of the guards and see to it that there’s no trouble.”
The captain of the royal guards hesitated for a heart beat until Queen Melosa confirmed Xena’s order with a subtle nod.
Xena wanted to change into her Amazon leathers to take her place as the Queen’s slave as tradition demanded but Melosa would hear nothing of it.
“Xena, though you wear the collar of a slave, every member of my tribe has learned to see you as one of our own, a warrior and a friend. I can’t change the rules when we have to deal with official business or religious rituals, then you have to play the part but this is an entirely different situation.
“You are the official leader of our combined forces, and this is the role my Amazon sisters will have to accept you in. When they make their entrance, you will stand behind me, together with the weapons’ master and the captain of the royal guard. And that’s an order.”
“Thank you, Queen Melosa.”
“My pleasure. Please see that Tyldus and Kaleipus are also attending. I want to make a clear statement that we’re allies.”
The belligerent tension the arrival of the new warriors created could have been cut with a knife. The newcomers had their weapons out and guarded themselves against their escort of Centaurs, men and Melosa’s Amazons. So, instead of the formal greetings she had hoped for the Queen first had to get their attention.
“What by Hades do you think you’re doing? Stand down! Put your weapons away, we’re among friends. The Centaurs are not the enemy we have to fight. We are here to fulfil the mutual defence agreement that is part of the peace treaty with our neighbours. Who is your leader?” She said, her voice ringing out throughout the compound.
The women slowly and with a lot of murmuring complied, and finally a young redhead about Gabrielle’s height stepped out of their midst and knelt in front of the Queen.
“Greetings to you Melosa, Queen of the Amazons. My name is Carani, daughter of regent Calliope of the northern tribe. My sisters and I have come to assist you in your time of need, just as you requested, my Queen. I apologise for our behaviour, we misjudged the situation. On the way here, about three candlemarks of fast walk away, we found the remnants of a battlefield. There weren’t any dead but arrows with Amazon markings, feathers, and other things that made us believe that you and yours are in danger from the Centaurs and their male allies. I’m sorry.” She said with her eyes fixed firmly on the ground.
“The field you passed was yesterdays battlefield and we came out victorious but it’s far from being over yet. Apology accepted, Carani. I appreciate that you all followed my call for arms. Please, stand up. Eponin, Solari, show them were they can make camp. Xena and I will fill Carani and her second in command in on what’s going on. Please follow me to my tent.”
The young Amazon hesitated but when none of the others made a move to join her she turned around and followed her queen. Xena cast a long pensive look at the back of the slowly retreating group, shook her head, and followed as well after whispering to Eponin to keep an eye on them, just in case.
Queen Melosa was well into explaining the situation to the young woman who nervously stood near the entrance her backpack at her feet when Xena entered the tent. She visibly shrank back towards the Queen when she caught sight of the tall warrior and almost fell over her own gear. Then she saw the slave collar around Xena’s neck. “In our village slaves are not allowed to handle weapons or wear clothes. Are you really the Conqueror?”
“Yes, she was. She’s Xena and she leads our combined armies. But I don’t appreciate being interrupted. As I said….”
The redhead instantly was on her knees in front of Melosa, handing her the leather strap that had been hanging from her belt. “Please accept my apology, my Queen, and punish your undeserving servant.”
The dark haired Queen looked at her as if she had spoken in a foreign language and contemplated how to react when Xena told her to have a look at the woman’s back. So she did and couldn’t hold back a gasp. Her whole back was a mass of angry red welts, some of them oozing blood. “Xena, there’s a healer’s kit in my saddlebag, right on top. Anara insisted. -- Who did this to you, Carani? Why?”
“It’s all right. I disobeyed. I had to be punished. Usually her punishments aren’t this hard but I deserved what I got.”
“It was done with a whip… with five tails… with knots at the end… no, something sharp, metal bits, I think. The lash marks should have healed by now if not for the back pack. I think it was done about a quarter moon ago.” Xena said while gently cleaning the younger woman’s back and applying some disinfectant and painkiller. “Thirty lash marks, none of them need stitches. There was a real expert at work, designed to give a lot of pain but not to leave any permanent marks. Even with the pack reopening some of them, it should leave no scars.”
“This isn’t a punishment fitting for disobedience. I only would order something like this for repeated dishonourable behaviour.” The Queen mused.
“It’s dishonourable to oppose the Regent’s decisions, my Queen. She was in her right but I still had to follow my own judgement.”
“So that’s why there are only very young fighters with you?”
“What are you talking about, Xena?”
“They are all very young, Queen Melosa. Just out of their second apprenticeship, I presume. The seasoned warriors probably applauded the Regent’s decision not to follow your call for arms. They will be in a lot of trouble when they get back.”
“Is Xena right, Carani?”
“Yes, my Queen. I’m ready to accept every punishment you and your Regent will see fit. I know I will have to serve a few years as a slave for inciting this riot against Artemis’ representative among the northern village.” The young woman once again was on her knees.
“She’s talking about her mother, the Regent, Queen Melosa. A few days before we left the village, Gabrielle told me about an ancient scroll she found in the library. It said that the leader of an Amazon settlement, regardless of its size, has to be respected as the representative of the Goddess of the Hunt and the sole executioner of the Goddess’ will. Disobeying even the slightest order is frowned upon as dishonourable and can even be seen as treason…”
“Of course, I remember,” the Queen answered while slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand, “I also read about it while learning about Amazon history. The Goddess herself had to intervene because some of the Regents and Queens tended to abuse their power. I suppose they weren’t strong enough to withstand the temptation of absolute power. Now, if an Amazon decides that her conscience doesn’t allow her to follow an order and she is within the law, not even the Goddess herself can force her to obey. She has the right to go and follow her heart, and if the council decides that her disobedience didn’t endanger the village she will not be punished for being true to herself. The Regent had no right to punish you or anyone else for following the orders of your Queen.”
Before the young woman could answer an Amazon scout came in and knelt before the Queen. “My Queen, there are more reinforcements coming. We counted twenty-two heads. They are wearing masks, are heavily armed, and are marching in battle formation. They’ll be here in about one and half candlemark if they keep up their current speed.”
“Great, just what I needed. -- Xena see that they are escorted in; this just became official. I have to change.”
“Yes, Queen Melosa. Pollana, go to the hut I share with Gabrielle. My saddlebags are on a chair next to the fireplace. Open the left one and bring my Amazon leathers back here. Carani, come with me, you and your sisters have to be present.”
A heartbeat later, Xena was on her way to find the young Amazons. She located them at the centre of the Amazon encampment, gathered around an impromptu lunch. She sent Eponin and two scores of warriors to escort the newcomers to the Queen. Solari was to assemble the complete royal guard and see that there was a dais prepared for the Queen to greet them according to Amazon tradition. If these Amazons wanted to play by the old rules, then that’s what they would get, she thought grimly.
After having made all the arrangements with the Amazons, especially reminding them of wearing their masks, she found Tyldus and Palemon to tell them not to interfere in what was about to happen. It was an internal Amazon affair they had to sort out alone. To say that Gabrielle wasn’t thrilled to hear about the upcoming problems and the role Xena once again would have to play, kneeling at the left side of the Queen, would have been a great exaggeration but after a few kisses she calmed down enough to understand the necessity.
Finally she found Terreis and helped her to put on her own set of Amazon leathers, feathers, and beads though the younger woman said that she looked ridiculous with her middle still wrapped in bandages. Her own leathers fit like a second skin, the only concessions she made to the potentially hostile situation were to keep on her arm bracers, upper arm protectors, and boots.
Xena took her place next to Queen Melosa who looked untouchable in her full Amazon regalia. Terreis was standing to the right of her sister as befitting an Amazon princess.
The Amazons stormed in, completely ignoring their also armed escort. The woman in the lead pushed up her mask when entering the three sided square lined with the rest of the Amazon army. Calliope was in her early forties, a few white strands streaking her red hair, very well muscled, and about half a head taller than her daughter, a fighter projecting aggressiveness with every breath she took. The kneeling warrior couldn’t help but think that being named after the muse of epic writing in her case was highly ironic.
The Regent didn’t even acknowledge the Queen’s presence but concentrated on the young warriors assembled to the left of the dais. “You all are guilty of disobedience and dishonourable conduct, collect your gear and prepare to be punished as soon as we are back at the village. Carani, you are their leader and thus were also found guilty of inciting revolt. You will learn to obey your elders while serving the village as a slave for the next two summers. Step forward and strip, you are not worthy of wearing Amazon leathers.”
The woman’s booming voice held the whole assembly captured and Carani hesitantly made a step forward. Then another voice arose, just loud enough to be heard by everyone, and as cold as ice. “I, Xena of Amphipolis, personal slave to Melosa, Queen of all Amazons, high priestess of Artemis, challenge your right to issue punishments of any kind. Someone who disrespects her superior as blatantly as you just did isn’t worth of giving orders or being obeyed.”
“Keep your toy out of this, Melosa!” Though there was a lot of disdain discernible in the woman’s voice, it wasn’t entirely convincing -- as if she were playing a role she didn’t really believe in. “This is an internal affair of my village and has nothing to do with you and your traitorous decisions.”
Everyone could see that the Queen was hard pressed not to jump up and take the woman to task herself but she was honour bound to follow tradition, once again surprised at the depths of Xena’s knowledge about Amazon customs and history. She turned her head towards the still kneeling warrior at her side.
“Do you know that you won’t be allowed to use any weapons, Xena?” The tall woman just nodded and Melosa stood. “I trust Xena, I trust my slave. So, Calliope, regent of the northern village, do you really challenge my authority? This is your last chance to mend your ways.”
“Yes, Melosa, daughter of Hippolyta, you are not worthy of leading the Amazon nation. Yes, I challenge your right to rule.” The Regent answered with an almost regretful side glance to one of the women of her retinue.
Xena fluidly stood and jumped from the dais when Carani ran forward and knelt in front of the Queen. “Please, my Queen, don’t let this happen. I accept my punishment. I don’t want th… your slave to die. The Regent is the best fighter our village has.”
The tall warrior answered in the Queen’s stead. “Carani, please return to your sisters. I’m sure the Queen appreciates your offer but this no longer has anything to do with you. Your mother challenged for the Queen’s mask, and I will answer the challenge for she is not worthy of being fought by the Queen herself. I know, Queen Melosa would prefer to fight this battle without any interference from me or anybody else and I also have no doubt about the outcome but by not greeting the Queen properly, by not paying her the due respect your mother disregarded the rules she usually has no problems using to her own advantage.” Her words were not only meant for the young warrior but foremost for the other Amazons. “Someone who wants to be treated as Artemis’ representative at least should show some respect to the high priestess of the goddess.”
Xena then turned her attention to the older woman. “Are you ready or do you need a couple of candlemarks’ rest after your long march? I don’t want to overtax your stamina, Regent Calliope.”
“Oh, I’m ready. This will be over soon -- and then I will teach you some manners, slave, that is if you survive.”
Before Xena was able to discern if her words were really meant in earnest, Calliope unsheathed the two swords hanging from her hips and immediately attacked. Though the dark haired woman topped her by a few inches she obviously intended to overpower her with her bulkier form and her weapons. Xena easily side stepped, and for the next few candledrops continued to simply hop out of the way of the other woman’s increasingly powerful sweeps and thrusts.
To the two groups of newcomers it looked like the older woman was getting closer and closer to her prey with every move. Queen Melosa’s warriors knew better, having all spent at least a few candlemarks on the training grounds with the former Conqueror. Xena was playing -- and she visibly was enjoying herself, though she didn’t try and taunt her adversary with disparaging words as she usually did in similar situations. Another near miss brought a glint in her opponent’s eyes, indicating that she now thought sheknew how to anticipate her reactions.
The taller warrior had to fight a grin. The next attack was even fiercer than the ones before. Xena waited until she was committed to the move but instead of trying to avoid it, this time she ducked under the woman’s defences. The heel of her hand connected with Calliope’s right wrist. She lost the grip of her sword but before it hit the ground Xena snatched it and negligently tossed it towards the Queen’s feet. Though Amazon law gave her the right to use any weapon she could take from her opponent to her advantage. She rolled out of the way and waited for the redhead to get her bearing.
Calliope turned around, facing the unarmed woman in a more defensive stance. For the first time she studied her evenly muscled opponent and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. She began to move her weapon in varying figure-eights, creating some sort of shield with her blade, and slowly advanced towards Xena. The ravenhead just stood and smiled, seemingly unconcerned with this impressive display of skill.
The Regent was good but not good enough. Xena saw every minuscule hole in her defences and a few mayor ones, ready to be exploited. At the first opportunity she exploded into motion. Her hand grabbed a wrist, effectively immobilising the weapon but the woman’s body didn’t stop moving and she cut her other arm with her own sword. A pressure point opened her hand and the second weapon was tossed at Melosa’s feet.
Xena once again put some distance between the two of them and said. “Don’t you think that it’s time to give up and pay your respects to your Queen, Regent Calliope?”
“You were just lucky, slave. Let’s see what you can do against a spear.” One of her companions tossed her a sturdy spear, she immediately was on the move again. When Xena was surprised to see her use the spear as one would a staff she didn’t show it. Her feral smile broadened and her eyes grew colder.
She jumped, blocked the weapon with her bracers, and even after a quarter of a candlemark wasn’t the slightest bit out of breath. In contrast, her opponent’s face was beet red with exertion or anger or both.
The tall warrior decided to end this game, she was having fun but it was close to midday and she still had a battle to plan and some siege engines to destroy. There also was a small voice telling her that it wouldn’t be wise to humiliate the older woman in front of her sisters.
She somersaulted over her opponent, immediately whirled around, took the other woman’s legs out and wrenched the spear out of her hands, dislodging Calliope’s left shoulder with the force of her jerk. She landed on her back and before she could get up the tip of her spear was at her throat. “Surrender! I don’t want to kill you. The Queen needs fighters like you in the upcoming battle.”
The woman didn’t answer.
“Please, mother, end this fight honourably.”
There was a slight switch but she didn’t even turn her head at her daughter’s plea.
“Kal, please. We knew from the beginning that we took a chance by not telling them the truth.”
The woman with the spear now said, the insignia she wore identified her as the weapons’ master. Like the majority of the other women she had a bow tucked over her shoulder with the quiver at her side not her back. She was about the Regent’s height but less heavily muscled and about ten summers younger, with auburn hair and shining eyes of the same colour.
“The Conqueror is the best fighter the world has ever seen. You said so yourself not too long ago, it’s no shame to lose against her.”
The two women locked eyes and finally the older one almost imperceptibly nodded. “I surrender. You put up a very good fight. Help me to my feet, slave.” This time there was no harshness in her voice. Xena took her uninjured arm and helped her to stand. She made a few steps towards the dais and knelt in front of Queen Melosa.
“Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, High Priestess of Artemis, I, Calliope, daughter of Caberia, former Regent of the northern village, swear allegiance to you as the rightful ruler of the Amazon nation. I apologise for my behaviour and will submit to every punishment you deem fit, I just beg to let my companions go free.”
“I, Melosa, accept your apology and your oath.” The Queen answered, and having closely observed the slightly older woman’s body language and the glances she cast towards her younger sisters she continued. “As for your punishment: you will continue to serve the nation as the Regent of the northern village. If I’m not mistaken only the concern for your sisters’ safety prompted you to act this way. Report to my tent after the healer has seen to your injuries. This meeting is adjourned.”
Only half a candlemark later, Calliope, her weapons’ master, and Carani entered the Queen’s tent. Melosa had changed back into her more comfortable fighting leathers and Xena was back in her leather dress and armour with her sword and chakram solidly attached. The older redhead had her arm in a sling, she knelt in front of Melosa and without looking up asked. “How did you know, my Queen?”
“Please, get up and take a seat, Calliope. I don’t know but there’s something in your eyes that I couldn’t ignore, and then there also is what your weapons’ master, beg your pardon, your bond mate said.” Melosa corrected herself when she became aware of the matching joining bracelets both women were wearing. “Care to enlighten me?”
Still not sure what to make of the former Conqueror turned slave but wearing weapons the Regent concentrated her attention on her Queen only.
“It may sound superstitious but about half a moon ago I had dream. I was outside of Amazon territory checking on our border patrols. I had the dream only once but I couldn’t forget it nor ignore it. The warriors left to fight and the village was destroyed. No one survived. That’s why I ordered everyone not to follow your call for arms. Before coming after my daughter and her friends I sent the elders and children to our emergency shelter, I hope that all we will lose are a few huts.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, mother?”
“The safety of the village is my responsibility, Carani. But when you and the others decided to fight we had to follow. None of you has ever seen battle. We couldn’t let you face this alone. And when we found the remnants of the battle field it was obvious that the Queen and the Centaurs were fighting against a much bigger force. They’re fighting against the odds -- and the only thing I wanted to do was to get you all back to the safety of the village.” The redhead turned her head towards the Queen. “I overreacted, my Queen. The warriors of the northern village will gladly support you in your fight. Thank your slave for getting me back on track by kicking my butt.”
The Queen nodded and motioned for Xena to continue the conversation. “Your help is very much appreciated, Regent Calliope. And you’re welcome. This dream, you said you had it outside of Amazon territory? Did it come back during your journey here?”
“I think this no longer is of any importance but if you insist, Conqueror. As I said I only had the dream once but it was always on my mind. No, it didn’t come back, nor any other dream of this kind.”
“Please use my name. I’m no longer comfortable with the title. Did you see how the village was destroyed or did you only see the results?”
“The results. -- Queen Melosa, I really don’t see what this questioning is all about. I think there are more important things to deal with.”
“Xena is leading the combined army of Centaurs and Amazons. I’m sure she has a perfectly good reason for her line of questioning. Just answer as best as you can.”
“Did you see a red-blue light sometime during the dream?”
“No, not that I… yes, now that I think about it; the whole dream had a frame of red-blue light. I found it rather strange at first but then I totally forgot about it.” Calliope answered, visibly puzzled.
“What does your village specialise in? What are your warriors best at?”
The older warrior once again looked at Queen Melosa but answered hesitantly. “Our craftswomen are famous for their earthenware and our warriors for their accuracy with a bow. But I’d really like to know what these questions are all about.”
“It’s hard to explain but I’m sure that your dream wasn’t a premonition. Your village isn’t in danger, never was. I think it rather was a vision, planted in your mind by the God of War. Red-blue light is his signature. He counted on me staying at the main village and he wanted you to stay at yours. This could help us to anticipate our enemy’s next move.”
Xena cast one look at the older woman and then explained. “I know at the moment I don’t make much sense. I know you’re not inclined to trust me, you have no reason to, but please at least try. Queen Melosa will explain to you the situation we’re in. Meanwhile I’d like to see what your warriors can do with their bows and I’d like to have a short training’s session with the other parts of the army. Care to give me a demonstration, weapons’ master?”
The auburn haired woman cast a questioning glance at the Regent who shrugged her shoulders and nodded. She now was committed to fighting at the side of her Queen and would do everything necessary to come out alive -- even if it meant to follow the orders of a slave. She still couldn’t really wrap her mind around it and so her first questions aimed to solve this mystery.
There were about thirty children at the clearing just outside of the Amazon village. Eight of them facing the rest with Thania and Lyceus right in front of the smaller group. The larger group consisted of orphans, led by a boy with short cropped brown hair, about thirteen or fourteen summers old. While once again shouting “Are not!” Thania tried to understand how a friendly game of hide-and-seek could possibly have gone downhill this fast.
Lyceus and she had done what Eponin wanted them to do, make the orphans welcome and have some fun together -- and surprisingly it had been working. There were a lot of games to play and a lot of things to talk about. They had fun until about five candledrops ago, when this bone headed dork began to insult her people.
He said that the Amazons only agreed to the peace treaty because they knew they didn’t stand a chance against the Conqueror’s First Order. He said that they were weak and would be better off in a fortified city being protected by real men.
They rapidly grew past exchanging arguments and now were at the brink of trading insults.
A quick glance to her left and to her right told her that there also were a few orphans in her group, and she knew she had to do something to stop this whole mess. They all would be in a wagon load full of trouble if any of the adults caught wind of their shouting feast.
She once again tried to reason with him but she also was beyond angry and so it didn’t quite come out as she wanted.
“Xena is a woman. Are you really stupid enough to think that she’s weak?”
Big mistake, she thought when he jumped her and they both landed on the hard ground. Thania desperately tried to remember what she had been taught about hand to hand combat and fighting a bigger opponent but before she came up with something there was the distinct sound of bone meeting bone and his body tilted to the left, setting her free.
She scrambled to her feet and saw Lyceus trying to pin the taller boy down. She whistled and both of them immediately stopped their tussle.
“We’re not supposed to fight each other. At this very moment my sisters and Xena’s soldiers probably are fighting side by side. What will they think when they come back and see that we don’t get along?”
The older boy stood and dusted his pants off. “I’m not stupid but you are right, the Conqueror is not weak. And yet… I listened to the adults and I don’t understand. She could be ruling the whole world by now but instead she’s living as a slave. Why?”
“I don’t know for sure. I didn’t really understand her answer when I asked this question but I’ll tell you what she said.
“She said that ruling is more than giving orders and making sure that they are obeyed. She said that there are two ways to rule, one is through fear and that this was how her reign began. The other way is through loyalty. She said that’s the way of the Amazons.
Xena said that when she looked into the eyes of her subjects she saw fear not loyalty -- and that’s why she gave it all up.”
The girl looked into his eyes and knew that he wasn’t convinced yet but she also saw that she got him to think about it. So she continued. “It’s almost midday, why don’t we go and get something to eat?”
A couple of candlemarks later, the so abruptly interrupted council session was resumed. Introductions were made and the uneasy apprehension that had begun taking hold of the villagers on behalf of the Amazons thus was dispelled.
Xena first complimented the Regent on the proficiency of her archers. They were not mounted archers but able to hit a moving target with great accuracy while moving themselves. She considered them a great asset for the combined army.
“Now, venerable elder," Xena now directed her attention towards the white haired Centaur with the Great Book of Wisdom held carefully in his hands, “what do you think Dagnine’s second will do with the Ixion stone liquid? With the stone itself gone, we no longer have to fear the most dangerous use he could have made of it but it still could be very dangerous.”
“You’re right. He could have used the stone itself to control people’s minds, to take away their free will. That’s no longer possible. There still are a number of possibilities.” A white haired Centaur answered. “Creating another Great Centaur is one but it’s not likely. Judging from the strength and size of Dagnine, he’s in possession of about a third of the liquid. A new one would only be slightly taller than one of us. The attack he led against the village spoke of someone very concerned with his men and his resources. It may be farfetched but I think he will use the power of Ixion’s wicked creation to make his soldiers invulnerable, or at least almost so. Diluted in water and mixed with grounded stone it can be applied like a salve that can make the skin impenetrable to arrows or swords. The third he took would be enough for the riders and the surviving foot soldiers.”
“Would a god have any use for the solution?”
“Not to my knowledge. Ixion’s power only can affect mortals, at least the Book of Wisdom doesn’t mention anything in this regard. Why?”
„Ares, he has taken a very personal interest in this war. He warned me to go back to the Amazon village before we came here. He tried to keep Regent Calliope from joining troops with us. Ares never does anything for the benefit of mortals. He’s always following his own agenda. So, what does he hope to gain from destroying first the Centaurs and then the Amazons? If the Ixion stone doesn’t give him additional power, what else does he want?”
“Perhaps he just wants to see a great fight.” Regent Kallipe’s bond mate said.
“From what Xena told me and what I read about the god of War, he loves a good fight but he even more enjoys to play with mortals as if they were puppets on a string.” Gabrielle answered. “Amazon loyalties are to Artemis alone and the Centaurs worship Demeter and Athena. Even when their conflict was at his heights none of them abandoned their own gods. Perhaps this is about revenge?”
“Gabrielle may have a point but how does it help to anticipate our enemy’s next move? Making this army almost invincible may be a goal of the God of War in itself. A few hundred men could conquer the whole world in his name, rule in his name.” Kaleipus commented.
‘So he’d finally get what I always denied him. I thwarted his plans with the Persians and I also will this time.’ Xena thought but answered.
“Not invincible but very difficult to defeat. They don’t become better fighters by using the liquid. Though their skin would be very hard to penetrate; they still can be killed by aiming for their eyes or mouth.
“That’s where you and your archers come in, Regent Calliope. They’ll be a decisive element in this fight, probably just the edge we need against them. In any case it will be a rather bloody battle and we’ll need every advantage we can get.
“The sword fighters should sharpen their weapons and get in an extra round of drills, concentrate on their throats. It should be their most vulnerable point. Anyone familiar with a battle mace should also go for their throats. It may not be elegant but a crushed windpipe is as effective in taking out an enemy as a blade through the heart.
“Still, our best bet are the archers.”
“Then I’d better go and organise another drill. We’re trained to attack from above or at eye level with the enemy. To stand a chance against men on horseback we’ll have to adjust our aim. With your permission, my Queen…”
“You have a point here, weapons’ master. Get going and have a look at the other archers, please, some of them are at a skill level equal to your own if you give them some pointers. Etare will introduce you.” Xena said while a wicked smile crept on her face. “And we’ll go and even the odds a bit after I’ve prepared the surprise for his other army. I need a score of volunteers, experienced horsemen and -women, able to move without a sound, one hour before sunset.”
“What do you have in mind, Xena?”
“Oh, it’s quite easy, Queen Melosa. We’re going to try and take away their horses. Even if we don’t get all of them, it will certainly interfere with his plans and he’ll have to rethink his battle strategy. This meeting is adjourned.”
While Xena was riding towards the hut where Tyldus at her request had stored the supplies, Cyrene and Toris were sitting on a bench next to the river. Having filled his mother in on his time in Britannia and more extensively on the last moon, living with his sister and the Amazons, the subject naturally turned to Xena.
“She has changed so much. It’s as if my little sister finally came back and the cold hearted warlord disappeared for good. She’s as fun and caring as when she still was a child.”
“You’re as bewitched by her as everyone else. She didn’t change. She’s as selfish and cruel as ever. Not two days ago she threatened to kill me should I ever ‘upset’ her slave again.”
“Xena doesn’t do threats, Cyrene. Never has and never will.” Theano said almost incidentally while coming towards them from the right. “Whatever she said, it rather was a promise or a statement of fact. She is very protective of Gabrielle. And if you were insensitive enough to call her a slave, frankly you don’t deserve any better. So stop your bitching.”
“How dare you! First you almost get her killed during this trial and now you’re taking her side, Theano. By the way, how dare you hurting my child with this blasted whip of yours!” Cyrene angrily retorted.
Theano couldn’t help but laugh and even Toris was unable to hold his snicker. “Oh Cy, first you accuse Xena to threaten your life and the next moment you get your skirts all in a wad about someone hurting her. Don’t you think that’s a tad inconsequential?” The Amazon lawyer answered after having recovered from her laughing fit but broke in a new round of laughter when her friend blushed deeply.
“I’m a mother, I’m allowed to change my mind.” She said pouting but held her position right in the other woman’s face. “And you’re not off the hook, Amazon. You could have convinced them to find another punishment than these stupid whippings. I know you’re no champion for corporal punishment. Why didn’t you stop this?”
“It follows Amazon law and traditions, Cy, and it’s what your daughter needed. She gained a lot of respect by submitting to the whip among my sisters. But more important: She needed closure.
“It won’t take away the guilt she feels over what she did. Nothing ever will but it will allow her to begin a new chapter in her life. And Gabrielle has everything to do with this desire. My little one’s heart was locked away until she met her and now she once again is free, free to finally become the woman she was meant to be from the beginning.”
“I really wish I had your faith in her, Theano.” The innkeeper answered and regained her seat, surprised to find her son gone. “I’m so confused. During the journey here, all the things I learned about her, about what she did and how she cares for her men and the orphans and all. I almost was convinced that I got it all wrong, that all these summers I misjudged her. And then the other day, I speak to her for the first time in almost three years, and she, she…”
“Tell me what happened, please.“
“I had words with Gabrielle, angry words about Xena. She told me that I’m a heartless bitch who doesn’t know anything about her own child. Then she stormed away. Later I found her talking with Xena. She told Gabrielle that I had every right to be angry at her for what happened to Lyceus. I was surprised to hear the sadness and mourning in her voice even after all these years.” Cyrene answered, every once in a while searching for words.
“So, I told her that I no longer hold her responsible for his death, and for the fraction of a heartbeat her eyes were filled with wonder. I don’t know why I did it but I continued talking. I told her that by making Greece a safer place to live, she also made all of us into slaves. Then Gabrielle jumped from Xena’s lap, shouted and burst into tears. Xena calmed her down. I never saw her this gentle with anyone. Then she turned around and her eyes were as cold as the morning air at winter solstice. She told me that if I ever again upset her lover she would see to it that I wouldn’t be around to do it a third time.”
“As I said, she’s very, very protective of Gabrielle. And I’m sure, she only wanted to say that she intends to make sure that you won’t hurt Gabrielle again just by keeping an eye out that you’re nowhere near her.
“This young woman has a strength of heart I rarely have seen before. She has overcome incredible odds but somehow was able to salvage her soul, her humanity. She’s still very sensitive about slavery and as far as I know was more than angry with Xena for accepting the slave collar of the Amazons. But she also has a protective streak as wide as mount Olympus is high when it comes to your daughter. You know she even attacked me during the trial. She launched herself out of her wheelchair and tackled me.”
A few candledrops before sunset Xena returned to the core of the village that at her orders was now in the process of being shut off against their enemy. She just had spend the last couple of candlemarks in the supply hut and now was ready to take on the other half of the enemy army. They only had to wait for the new commander to dispatch a messenger to his reinforcement and siege engines to march out.
Instead of the twenty volunteers she had asked for, the central area was filled with almost three score of people, half of the First Order soldiers, ten of Melosa’s Amazons among them Eponin and her black stallion, about a score of men and women from the Centaur village with Terreis leading them. There even were a few Centaurs, together with Calliope and Carani. It was out of the question to take all of them and she didn’t have the time to sort out the most skilled but she also didn’t want to offend them by simply issuing an order.
She sat atop of Argo, the proud war horse picking up on the air of anticipation pervading the central square.
“Listen up! I’m honoured by your eagerness to participate in our little venture but I can’t take more then twenty to twenty-five volunteers.” She slowly dismounted. “If we want to pull this off successfully we’re depending on speed and stealth. Time is of essence, so, please don’t be offended when this time I’ll rely on people whose skills I know from experience. Palemon get twelve of your men ready. Eponin, take eight of your best riders.”
There were surprisingly few protests but Xena had a hard time to convince Terreis to stay at the village. Yes, she was the best choice for a scout but she wasn’t fully healed yet and the tall warrior didn’t want to risk her health. The former Amazon only gave in when Phantes pleaded with her.
“Xena, I know we’re no real horse people but both Carani and I can handle a horse. My warriors are now committed to this fight and I want to see what we’re up against with my own eyes.”
“And you want to find out if I’m a leader worth following.” Xena answered and got a sheepish smile in return. “Somehow I owe you, Regent Calliope. You’re welcome to ride at my side.”
The square by now was empty, except for the raiding party and the young Centaur Duinos. “I’m sorry, Duinos, but horses tend to get very nervous in the presence of Centaurs.”
“Let me show you something, General.” He turned around and went straight towards one of her soldiers and his horse. Instead of shying away the animal interestedly sniffed his outstretched hand and even took a step towards him. “For some reason horses feel comfortable with me and I’m good at taking care of them. It’s a gift that has come in handy more than once. Please, I owe you for our stupid attack.”
“You’re in, Duinos.“
Xena kissed Gabrielle good-bye, mounted Argo and was off with her group of horses-thieves-to-be. They would be gone for the better part of the night if everything worked out, if not they would try to lead the pursuing enemy away from the village. In any case the remaining fighters had to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
Gabrielle was pacing the ramparts, too nervous to sit with the others in the dining hall. From time to time she stood and looked out in the enemy’s direction whose camp fires were faintly visible at the horizon. “Everything will work out just fine, Gabrielle. I’m sure.”
The young woman was startled by the voice at her shoulder and quickly turned around. “Solan?! What are you doing here? You should be sleeping.”
“Few people are. They’re too nervous about the fight to come. But I know everything will be all right. Do you know why I’m so sure? I’m sure because I just found her and the Gods won’t allow that I lose her without getting to know her better.”
The blonde lay her arms around the boy’s shoulders. “Your mother is a very special person, Solan. Tell me about the time you spent together. She only told me the bare details. Please! Perhaps it will keep me from worrying.”
“I didn’t believe it when Dagnine said that she is my mother. I didn’t want to believe him, not even when he proudly declared that he had killed my father. But then we spent the night in a tree and she held me in her arms to make me more comfortable and she sang. Her voice is so pure, it simply swept all my doubts away. And when she carried me through the forest, I felt so safe and protected like never before.”
“I know the feeling. That’s how I feel when I curl up in her arms at night. That’s what I feel when I can sense her eyes on me, even from the other side of a room.
“I’m sorry I didn’t want to interrupt. You know I plan on writing down the story of this war, so every detail is very important to me. It will make for a better story. I’m sure you’ll be a better source of information than she is.”
A few candlemarks ride from the village turned fortress, Xena was up in a tree just inside the horses’ corral, reviewing her preparations and waiting for the right moment to strike. A short reconnaissance trip had shown her that Dagnine’s former second knew more about warfare and strategy than his late commander ever did.
The horses were held in a corral behind the encampment and next to a part of the forest thick with underbrush and dense foliage. Additionally, he had several guards posted around the perimeter. For an average opponent this alone would have prevented any tempering with the precious animals. But he wasn’t facing an average opponent. Far from it.
A feral smile crept on her face when she felt her excitement slowly growing. The raven haired warrior was confident to achieve her goals. She planned on taking the horses from right under his nose and in the process create as much havoc in the army camp as possible. Her plan was simple and rather risky but if it worked out it would serve more than one purpose.
The sentries already had been taken care of, they were either dead or securely bound. Getting the horses to move, and in the direction she wanted them to, would be a far more difficult task. The attack on the village the day before and the reports of the scouts had her convinced that the animals were highly battle trained and thus unlikely to panic confronted with noise, the scent of blood, or even fire. Xena, however, also knew that even the most highly trained animals usually were dependent on their masters. A knowledge she had based her plan on.
They had left their own horses behind and now were either up in the treetops or just behind the tree line, waiting for the perfect moment.
The lead stallion was about fifty paces away, a magnificent beast, at least two hands taller than even Argo, with a gleaming dark grey coat and a silver mane. His head was turned in Xena’s direction. She soundlessly opened the bottle she had held at the ready, letting a few drops of the clear liquid fall on the ground. His interest almost instantly was picked; he smelled a mare in heat.
Thirty paces, twenty paces, Xena readied a simple leather halter; fifteen paces, she bent her knees; ten paces, she held her breath, sensing his anticipation and nervousness. He turned his head rapidly up and down, left and right; only a few more steps.
Xena jumped, landed next to his left shoulder, and before he had a chance to shy away from her had slipped the halter over his head. He tried to rear but suddenly felt an unfamiliar weight on his bare back. Her legs clamped around his sides, one hand entangled in his mane, the other caressing a sensitive spot behind his left ear.
Now the difficult part began.
The stallion reared again and Xena held tight, still stroking him but without making any attempt to hold him back by using the reigns. Obviously and luckily the men stationed next to the corral didn’t pay his behaviour any attention. Shows of strength towards his fellow stallions seemed to be the rule with him. The soldiers didn’t even turn their heads.
One problem out of the way, the tall warrior thought. A few candledrops passed with him still violently trying to get rid of his burden. When his front hooves touched the ground for more than a fraction of a heartbeat, the woman warrior grabbed the reigns, and finally managed to calm him down.
This was the signal for the rest of her men and half of the Amazons to get on the backs of some of the other horses. The cry of a barn owlet was the signal for the rest of the Amazons to shoot smoking arrows at the forest edge of the corral.
There were small pouches bound to the tips, on impact with the ground they produced a thick smoke reminiscent of a big forest fire but smelling like rotten eggs. Xena knew there would have been an easier way but still… The forest patches were an important protective measure for the Centaurs’ fields and she didn’t want to risk them.
Some of the animals were getting excited and nervous. The new riders encouraged the others to also follow their instincts. Xena urged the grey stallion forward when burning arrows embedded themselves along both sides of the corral. He easily jumped the fence, inciting the others to follow. And follow they did.
More arrows flew towards the tents, setting them ablaze, and creating a pathway through which the horses ran, right through the middle of the enemy’s camp, trampling down everything in its path, fireplaces, tents, and men alike. Xena’s plans were working out, better than she ever would have thought possible. A very quiet voice in the back corner of her mind told her that it simply was too easy. And she was right.
The moment she thought herself home-free, a shrill whistle reached her ears. She had to fight to stay on the stallion’s back as he reared once again and attempted to follow the call of his master. Having noticed the bloody spur marks at his flanks and the scars left by some sort of whip, Xena held on tight, stroked his neck, and whispered shooting words to him. She only could hope that it would work.
Of course she had a backup plan but she really didn’t want to use it. It called for her to kill the horse and let Duinos’ considerable skill with horses help to lead the others out. However, they were lucky.
Though the lead stallion came to a halt, the other horses didn’t slow down, not even by a fraction. They now were running full out. Her own mount didn’t any longer try to throw her off but he still was reluctant to leave the compound. Xena could feel some of the soldiers around her regaining their wits and knew she had to somehow get the animal going. But all she could think of at the moment was to continue her soothing words and caresses. She literally could feel his tension, the fight between what he painfully had been taught to do and what he longed to do.
A crossbow bolt flew past her head. The next was aimed for the stallions throat. She caught it inches before its intended goal. The horse now began to run. She could hear the distinctive sound of close to a dozen crossbows releasing almost at the same time and braced herself. She knew she neither could catch nor avoid all of them; surprisingly not one found their target.
Xena finally turned around. The enemy camp was in flames, and from the intensity of the fires she presumed that the Amazons’ arrows had struck at least one of the supply tents and a few balls of hay. There still were horses behind her, some of them being recaptured by the other soldiers. Behind her she also found Duinos and two women on horseback. The Centaur had a bolt protruding through his right shoulder and Regent Calliope pressed one of her palms tightly against her left side. Yes, her plan had worked but apparently not without paying a price. She also knew that by shielding her from the crossbow bolts these three probably had saved her life.
When they rejoined with their own horses, Xena opted to stay on the back of the stallion instead of returning to Argo. She made sure that all members of her raiding party were present and they rode on for another candlemark, not directly returning to the village but keeping their distance while ostensibly having lost their heads and running away acephalously. Only then she was sure that they hadn’t been followed. She dismounted to care for her companions.
“I owe you, Regent.“
“From what I saw today, I’d follow you in more than one battle. -- And the other point: well, you kicked my butt, I saved yours. We’re even.”
Calliope answered while clenching her teeth at the pain in her side. Xena understood the tougher-than-leather attitude of the Amazons, perhaps better than anyone else. Still, Calliope’s wound had to be tended to, as well as Duino’s. That was one of the main reasons why she’d called the stop in the first place.
The young Centaur was equally stubborn; he simply told her that this was the least he could do to make up for his initial behaviour. She cared for both of them as best as she could and turned her raiding party with their prey in a wide arc back to the Centaur village; eager to get this mission over with.
To be on the safe side, she doubled the rear guards and made sure that only the best of the scouts were monitoring their enemy’s actions. For now, there were no threats -- and she hoped that there wouldn’t be any.
They arrived at the village compound about four candlemarks before sunrise. She already had given orders on what to do with the abducted animals and let the stallion run with the rest of his herd. Xena felt deadly tired and at the same time strangely elated. All she longed to do was to crawl in bed and close her arms around Gabrielle, but her mind was still working furiously.
Her plan had gone off without a hitch. Her opponent had lost three quarters of his horses, along with his own personal mount, his camp was in ruins, and the raiding party undoubtedly had had an effect on the morals of his soldiers.
On the one hand, they now were angry, and like a wounded animal, more dangerous for it. On the other hand, they at the same time were probably demoralised for being bested so easily by only a handful of opponents.
Apart from Calliope and Duinos they only had had two more injured: an Amazon with a sword’s slash at her arm and one of her soldiers with slight burns. They really had been lucky.
And so Xena decided to do something she hadn’t done in years, not since she took Athens without a fight. She easily found the small shrine of Athena in the southern corner of the compound. There were freshly cut flowers in front of the wooden statue. She lowered herself to a knee and thanked the Goddess.
From the stories her mother and Theano had told her as a child, she knew that Athena wasn’t one of those gods thriving on their constant interference in mortals’ lives. So her prayer wasn’t to thank the Goddess of Wisdom and the Art of War for her help but more for giving all of them the brain to come up with this plan and the courage to see it through.
It only was a short prayer and when she rose she felt eyes on her. Two of them belonged to Gabrielle who was standing in the doorway, and two were her mother’s who turned her back when she left the small structure.
About one candlemark after sunrise there was a firm knock on the door to the hut Xena shared with her young lover. A male voice told her that there was news from the scouts and that they were awaiting her orders. She answered that she would be there in a half a candlemark.
She knew she should get up but instead opted to spare a few candledrops to reminiscence about the welcome she got from Gabrielle. The blonde had almost dragged her towards their hut and was quick in getting her out of her armour and leather dress.
At first, Xena wanted to protest she was far too tired to do anything else than sleep right now. But then Gabrielle’s behaviour wasn’t one of an all too eager lover; the expression in her eyes and the earnest set of her jaw spoke more of determination and something close to anxiety. She looked at her taller lover and touched her cheek, her arms, the scars on her back -- and finally Xena understood and let her lover patiently finish her thorough examination. This was no time for words but when they finally found their customary spots in each others arms, she whispered.
“I love you and I missed you too, my Gabrielle.”
A contended sigh was her only answer and she found Morpheus’ realm with a smile on her face.
Xena and Gabrielle arrived almost on time. They grabbed a mug of tea and Xena went to stand next to Tyldus and Melosa while listening to the scout’s report. A messenger had been send towards Dragon’s pass, at the same time another one went out to the east. And while the first one was not to be messed with, Silea who had been in charge at the time had ordered the other one intercepted and brought back for questioning. When Xena saw the frowns on some of the older council members’ faces she complimented the young Amazon for her quick thinking and initiative.
“Kaleipus, Queen Melosa, please assemble all the villagers and soldiers, I want to speak to them. The volunteers should be ready to go by then, only the names on the list and three scores of warriors: soldiers, Centaurs, and Amazons. Regent Calliope, you and your Amazons stay with the defensive forces here at the village. Your archers are our best weapon. Queen Melosa, Palemon, Tyldus, you three will have joint command of the rest of our forces. I count on Dagnine’s former army to attack tomorrow at dawn, so you all should try and get some rest. Could you now please give me a few candledrops with Gabrielle.”
The room emptied quickly and the shorter woman flew in Xena’s arms. They didn’t speak but the warrior could feel the fear radiating from her lover.
“Please, take me with you, Xena. I can’t stand not to know what’s happening to you. I don’t want to lose you.”
“I’ll come back to you, my love. Everything will be all right. I promise.” Xena answered, stroking the other woman’s hair. “I love you. I need to know you’re safe. If I let you come with me, all I’ll do is worry about you. Please, Gabr…”
The young woman closed her lover’s lips with one of her fingers. “I had to try, Xena. I understand your reasons, believe me, but I don’t have to like it. Please try to come back unharmed, my love.”
“I will, baby. Keep an eye on Solan and Terreis for me, would you?”
Gabrielle just nodded and snuggled deeper in the raven head’s arms, burying her head in Xena’s cleavage. She felt the taller woman’s lips on top of her head and decided to give her something to come back to. Her tongue sneaked out and she licked her way up to her lover’s throat.
The reaction was almost immediate. Xena’s heartbeat accelerated and got really fast when Gabrielle expertly sought out her lips. Her left hand sneaked under the warrior’s battle dress, stroking her most sensitive spot. Her lover moaned.
“Gabrielle, do you know what you’re doing to me?”
“Oh, yes, my darling warrior.” The blonde answered while continuing with her caresses. “See it as an incentive to come back to me, then we will finish this. And that’s a promise.”
“I love you, my bard. Take care.”
Chapter Nine: Memories And Dreams
Xena’s fighters and volunteers reached the pass about two candlemarks before sunset. The army at the other side obviously was in the process of breaking up their long time camp but experience told the seasoned warriors among them that they wouldn’t be ready to march out before late morning the next day.
“Xena, don’t you think that now would be a good time to tell us about your all so secret plan? It was hard work to carry all this stuff up here. What are we to do with it? Whatever it is.”
Philiades’ question had an obviously provocative undercurrent to it Xena didn’t like at all. She tried to keep her calm but only barely succeeded.
“It should be obvious, Philly. We’ll create a rock slide that will destroy the siege engines and hopefully the better part of this army.”
Before the man had a chance to question her, Eponin stepped forward and muttered. “Sounds like a lot of work, we should get going then.”
“You’re right, Ep. -- I want you, Meleager, and Kaleipus to take the fighters and keep our friends busy. Don’t take any risks but let them know that we’re here and that we mean business. It’s not important to do great damage, just keep them busy and off-balance. Think you can do that?”
“Piece of cake, Xena, it will be fun. I was afraid all we would have to do is to sit around and wait all night for you guys to finish.”
“Send a few scouts along the crest for prudence sake, okay?” Seeing the uneasiness on the villagers faces she added. “And before you ask, Philiades, we won’t be able to muffle all the noises we make while preparing our rock slide.
“We’ll drill holes in the rocks with hammer and chisel, big enough to put the pouches in I prepared yesterday. I had you wrap the hammer heads with pieces of fur to keep the noises down but it won’t be enough. I’ll tell you where exactly I need them. If they’re not positioned as they have to be, the pass will not collapse the way I want it to.
“As soon as we’ve finished, you and your men will hurry back to the village, the Centaurs will be your escort. With luck, you’ll all be back before the fighting starts. Now, get your tools, we’ve got lots of work to do.”
“What’s in the pouches?” One of the men asked.
“Something I learned about in Chin more than ten years ago. It’s a powder they call Huo-pau and use for entertainment, mostly. I also saw it used to destroy a big two story stone house and to cauterise a gaping wound.
As soon as the holes are ready, I’ll pack the pouches in and connect them with a cord soaked in oil I also prepared. When our friends down there are at least half way up with their machinery, I’ll set fire to the cord which in turn will react with the powder. We’ll hear a sound like very loud thunder and a lightning bold combined and Dragon’s pass will no longer exist.”
“We know what the powder consists of but how do you mix all these ingredients? It would be helpful if we ever need to do something like this again.” Philiades wanted to know.
“You mix them with great care.” Xena answered with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
She didn’t like the greedy glint in his eyes, and she had a promise to keep. She had asked for far more ingredients then were really necessary to create the powder, so it was more than unlikely that anyone at the village would be able to reproduce it. She also had made sure to carefully count every single packet of powder, while putting them in the saddle bags, while unloading them and a last time while attaching the quick match.
“I promised to let nobody know how to make it, it’s too dangerous and too tempting, and I never break my word.”
She also had promised that she never would use it to attack but only in defence and hoped that this would count as such. Her mind was tempted to wander and dwell on the past but with an effort she concentrated on the task at hand.
“All right, folks. The sooner we start, the sooner you can get back to the village.”
Two candlemarks after the fighters had begun to harass the enemy from the front and from the sides, they sent a small scouting party to find out what was going on. They didn’t return. Xena’s chakram killed three in one swipe, cutting their throats before they knew what happened, Carani’s arrows took out the remaining two. They didn’t make any other attempts.
The work was finished shortly after midnight and Xena sent her workers and the Centaurs back to the village. She spent the next couple of candlemarks patiently and meticulously connecting her stacks of Huo-pau, of black powder, to the priming line. Then all that was left to do was to wait. She ordered the remaining fighters to feign a retreat and get some rest while she and a few others were keeping watch. This time she didn’t stop her mind from wandering.
In the middle of the night Xena limped along one of the corridors of the big palace, her night once again having been cut short by an only dimly remembered nightmare. It was hard to keep her balance on her crooked legs without the help of her short crutch but LaoMa insisted that she at least tried. She had told her that her mind needed the crutch more than her body and that it was the coward’s way out.
No one else would have said something like this to her and have survived but coming from the maddeningly calm Chinese woman Xena took it as a challenge.
Every step hurt but she kept going, exploring the palace. Even a fortnight after being hunted by MingTsu’s dogs, she hadn’t seen all of it. She was ready to turn back to her room when she saw an unusual shadow at one of the fabric covered walls of the corridor, a concealed door, now standing slightly ajar.
She cautiously manoeuvred the stairwell obviously leading to a lower level, there was a faint light coming from below. She followed a scarcely illuminated corridor and finally came to a big room with numerous barrels and bamboo poles. LaoMa was standing at a low table, mixing something. She didn’t look up but she knew that Xena was observing her, as Xena knew she would. She told her to come closer.
“What are you doing? This smells awful.”
“I just received word that not far from here the entrance of one of our mines collapsed. A lot of workers are trapped inside and it would take too long to remove the stones by hand. What exactly do you smell?” She asked while continuing to work.
“Charcoal, sulphur, and there’s something else I don’t recognise.”
“I don’t know your word for it. It’s called Siao Si. It’s occasionally found at cellars, barns, and stables but with some patience it can also be made artificially.” LaoMa answered while carefully closing the upper end of a thin piece of bamboo. “Do you want to come with me and see how it works?” She put it in a satchel together with two similar containers and a coil of strangely gleaming rope.
Having not had any opportunity to leave the palace since her arrival, Xena didn’t need a second invitation.
She resigned herself to use one of these confining, litter like carriages and was pleasantly surprised when horses were waiting for them. Only then did she realise that the older woman wasn’t wearing one of her habitual flowing gowns but pants and a long sleeved shirt falling to mid-thigh.
“I told you, time is of the essence, Xena.”
They were riding for almost four candlemarks at full speed, the sun was slowly creeping over the horizon. As soon as they came into view of the accident site all work ceased and people prostrated themselves on the ground. They were told to stand up and step aside.
While LaoMa prepared the powder charges she explained to Xena what she was doing and why. She put the end of a torch to the nitric saturated rope and shortly after the whole mountain seemed to shake with a sound loud enough to wake the dead in far away Greece. When the smoke had dispersed, the almost man-sized boulders blocking the entrance had been reduced to rubble and the trapped miners were easily freed.
The way back to the palace was taken at a more leisurely pace. Giving the warrior woman time to think about what she had just seen. They rode in silence for the first candlemark.
“Will you teach me how to make this Huo-pau?”
“Yes, I will, if you give me your word that you’ll never use it as a means of attack. Give me your word that you never will use it for the sake of killing. Use it only for the good of mankind. And you have to promise that you never will teach anyone else how to make it.”
"But LaoMa, with this stuff in your possession the whole world could be yours, why don’t you use it?”
“You know why, Xena.”
“Yeah, to conquer others… yadda, yadda… I know, there doesn’t a day go by you don’t say it.” The young woman said with the face of a scolded, pouting child.
“You hear the words but you still don’t understand. Try to see it this way.
“Would you want to live in a world where warlords could kill the supporters and soldiers of their enemy without even unsheathing their sword, a world where victory is not for the strong and cunning but for those who have more of the black powder? You can kill hundreds of people at once with its help, without making a difference between friend and foe.” The Chinese woman with the compassionate eyes fell silent to let her words sink in. “Would such a world be worth living in?”
“That’s where you’re wrong, life isn’t worth living. It’s to be taken and beaten and wrestled and formed into your image. That’s where the meaning lies, in what you can twist life into. For those who just endure life, yeah, it’s a nasty joke but for those who form it with their will, the joke is on those who get in the way. The world is nothing but a playground for the strong.”
“Strong words, but they don’t sound sincere out of your mouth.”
LaoMa had been right, these weren’t her words, not by a long shot. It had been something Ares had said to her whenever she began to doubt her self assigned mission of protecting Amphipolis from other warlords and marauders. However, she wasn’t ready to admit to it just now. “Given you were right, where would this place you, now?”
“I don’t understand your question.”
“If my actions were fuelled by what you just said, where would you be?”
“I would be in Tartarus by now, ripped to pieces by a pair of blood hounds.” Xena said after another period of silence. She half turned in the saddle. “I, Xena of Amphipolis, give you my word that I will not use the secret of the black powder as a means of attack. I give you my word that I will never use it for the sake of killing but only in defence. I give you my word that I will never share the secret with someone else.”
Suddenly, a white fox crossed their path from the right. LaoMa’s horse shied, one of his legs got caught in a root sticking out of the ground. The Chinese ruler would have fallen, had Xena not dragged her over to her own horse where she stayed for the rest of their journey -- thus beginning another stage in their relationship.
No, these thoughts were certainly not the best a few candlemarks before breaking her promise and using the black powder to kill.
Yes, it was imperative to destroy the siege engines but taking out the soldiers was almost as important. At least half of them had to be killed by her man-made rock slide -- else the combined army of Amazons and Centaurs wouldn’t stand a chance.
Just before dawn, when the night is at its coldest and darkest, Xena ordered the Amazons to take a stand in the tree tops and her men to hide behind the trunks. She supposed that their enemy first would send another scouting party to make sure that the pass still was safe, and they would find nothing amiss. She even had camouflaged the priming cord.
They came with the first rays of the sun and carefully tested the solidity of the rock walls to their left and right. They even ventured down to the tree line, peering in the forest without noticing even one of the forty pairs of eyes observing them.
Back at the pass, they signalled the men below and the long column of men, horses, supply wagons and siege engines was set in march. After the random attacks had ceased, they obviously had spent the rest of the night to completely break camp.
Xena was flat on her stomach on top of the left side of the pass, her flints at the ready next to the end of the priming cord. Eponin held the same position at the other side, waiting for her signal. The first group of about sixty soldiers reached the pass when the siege engines were just starting their long climb up. The men continued on to the tree line. A third of them took guarding positions while the rest began to cut a path for the wagons. Whenever a sentry ventured out of sight of his comrades, he quietly and effectively was taken out of the equation thanks to a well placed arrow or the silent hiss of knife.
A second group on horseback crested the pass. They dismounted. Every fourth of them stayed with the horses, holding the reigns of the nervous animals. Their skittish behaviour should have clued their riders in on the fact that something wasn’t right -- and that they were not as alone as they believed to be. But they were oblivious; they just stood there, waiting for the main part of the army to bring the siege engines up. Xena listened in on their self satisfied conversation.
“Hawk was right: Mars is with us. It will be a child’s play to take the village, judging on the pathetic display last night.”
“That’s General Hawk for you, you moron. But what did you expect. The Centaurs really are nothing but farmers and the Amazons… I always knew that their reputation was all smoke without a fire. I’m really looking forward to teach them were a woman really belongs, between the legs of a real man.”
“A real man. Thanks for the compliment, ‘cause you’re certainly not speaking of yourself, youngster.”
With them bragging and bantering half a candlemark passed. Xena tried to tune out their mindless chatter and concentrated on the advancing column of wagons.
There was a battering ram, a thickly shielded tower, three big, sturdy catapults able to hurl rocks the size of a goat, a wagon with ladders, another with smaller items she couldn’t discern clearly. The last wagon held a few barrels that sure as the river Styx didn’t contain water or wine.
Though still two candlemarks until midday, it was almost time to act, another thirty paces to make sure to get a maximum effect.
A hunting hawk’s cry was the signal for Eponin to light her end of the oil soaked cord and to run as soon as she was sure that it was burning. She sent a prayer to Athena and Gaia and did the same on her end. It was also the signal for her soldiers to attack the woodcutter detail. Xena ran towards the tree line. She heard the explosion and was propelled forwards. She lost her footing and tumbled down the hillside, almost losing orientation.
Stopped by a fallen tree, she regained her composure just as an axe was trying to split her head in two. The tall warrior instinctively rolled out of the way and reached for her sword. She heard a distinctive thump, an arrow was protruding her enemy’s chest, and he sank to the ground with the triumph of an easy kill still etched on his face.
Carani was running towards her with another arrow already notched and ready. Xena dropped back to the ground, the young woman let the arrow fly and a second opponent was down.
“Thanks, Carani. Didn’t you tell me that the bow isn’t your favourite weapon?”
The small redhead grinned sheepishly. “Yes, but I never said that I couldn’t handle it almost as well as any other of my sisters, Con… Xena. -- What are we going to do now?”
“Let’s first make sure… Ahh, there comes Meleager. I presume the men in the forest are taken care of?” It wasn’t really a question; she didn’t expect anything else from him or any other of her men.
“As we speak, their bodies are taken care of. We had a few insignificant injuries that are being treated. I told everyone to report back to you in a quarter candlemark for new orders.”
“Good. Get everyone ready to move out towards the village. I suppose the battle is already in full swing. Every sword and every bow will count. Hurry to get there. I need a few volunteers to make sure that everything worked out at the pass, not more than six. Send them up as soon as you’re ready.”
She didn’t wait for an answer but began to walk up the incline she just had stumbled down.
Xena felt a presence at her side and stopped. “What do you think you’re doing, Carani?”
“Staying with you. I’m volunteering.“ The archer said with a stubborn shrug of her shoulders.
“No, you’re not. You don’t know what will wait for us at the other side. And I don’t want you to know.”
“I know what we’ll probably have to do, Xena. I’m not this naïve. I was well trained.”
“Trained to be a killer? I don’t think so, that’s not what Amazons are about. Knowing is one thing, seeing it is harder to do, and doing it can cost your very soul. Killing someone in battle is hard enough, making sure that not one of this army will be able to follow us, is not something I want you involved in.
“Going back to the village is riding into battle, I don’t want your soul tainted by murder before you have to defend your sisters and the children at the village fortress. Turn back.”
Xena wasn’t sure if her words had had any impact but there was a thoughtful expression on the young woman’s face. Finally she answered. “My mother told me that there probably would come a moment when you’d send me back. She told me to obey your orders and that’s what I’ll do. I don’t have to like it, though.” She bowed slightly, turned around, and went back to where the horses were already waiting.
Half a candlemark later, Xena found Eponin on top of what once had been Dragon’s pass.
“You sent the youngster back to the village?”
“Good. I ordered Silea to keep an eye on her. She wasn’t happy.”
“Good choice. It’s better this way, Eponin. They both have killed but they still are innocents. They don’t know the calling of darkness.”
The Amazon only nodded and grimly turned her mind to the problems at hand. “Looks like your Huo-whatever did a thorough job. The siege engines are nothing but splinters and it looks like only a few of the men were able to get away. I suppose less than twenty.”
“That’s good news.“ Xena answered without any joy in her voice. “We’ll still have to make sure.”
“Help’s just coming up.” The weapons’ master replied with a shake of her head. Two senior members of the Royal Guard hurried up the hill side, flanked by Meleager and two other former members of the First Order. They didn’t need any orders. Everyone knew what had to be done.
Gabrielle had been restless since the moment she no longer was able to see her lover’s group of warriors and craftsmen at the horizon. She nervously paced the ramparts until Queen Melosa put her to work; she was helping with some of the traps, preparing shafts to make more arrows, carrying boulders to be placed next to the small catapult the Centaur smith had improvised out of the giant crossbow with the help of his Amazon counter-part.
When evening approached she evaded the company of the others, having had enough of being told that everything would be all right and that she should stop worrying. She finally had returned to their hut and buried her nose in Xena’s sleep shirt, inhaling the familiar and comforting scent of her warrior. She spent a sleepless night -- and it was showing in the set of her shoulders as well as the bags under her eyes.
The craftsmen and Centaurs returned a couple of candlemarks before sunrise. They told her that everything was working out fine and that ‘these bastards’ didn’t stand a chance. This, however, didn’t reassure her and it did even less to calm her down.
So, when the first rays of dawn appeared at the horizon she sought the calm and quiet of Athena’s shrine. Gabrielle silently knelt in front of the altar, imploring every god willing to listen to bring Xena back, alive and unharmed. Running out of unspoken words, she turned around and found Xena’s mother sitting in a corner, her face and front bathed in tears.
The sensitive young woman sat down next to her and put her arm around the slightly taller woman’s shoulder. Cyrene reacted to the touch and pulled her other hand between her own, obviously seeking additional comfort. Candledrops passed, the sun already touched the top of the wooden statue, and still none of them spoke.
Some time later, Gabrielle finally couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “Tell me.” She said almost imploringly.
“Today I will loose my daughter to Hades.”
The moment the words left her mouth she knew she shouldn’t have said them.
“You disowned her, more than once.”
“Not in my heart.“
The answer was completely without the aggressiveness Gabrielle had come to associate with the older woman. She slightly turned and found Cyrene’s hazel eyes, so completely different from her lover’s.
“She promised to come back to me.”
“She will die on the battle field, just outside these walls. If she goes out there and fights Ares’ army she will die.”
Gabrielle was silent. This was what she had been afraid of all along but still she refused to give in to her fears: Xena wouldn’t want her to. She had to be strong but couldn’t keep her voice from trembling. “How do you know?”
“I had a dream, last night. I came here to ask for answers but Athena doesn’t speak to me.” The older woman said with despair. “She can’t let her die.”
In a surprisingly fast and fluid movement Cyrene pushed herself to her feet. She made two steps towards the centre of the sanctuary and raised her face to the ceiling.
“You can’t let her die, Goddess. It’s your duty to protect her. I will never forgive you, if you don’t. I will no longer believe in you.” Then she turned and left the room without another glance to her flabbergasted public.
Gabrielle was still sitting on the ground, trying to make head and tail out of this scene but couldn’t. She hadn’t been the only witness. Theano sat down next to her, instinctively knowing that her old friend had a lot of conflicting emotions to deal with and now more than anything else needed to be alone. The confused blonde, however, didn’t. “Do you think her insane threatening a god?”
“I don’t know what to think, Theano. What does she expect to achieve with her words? The gods never answered my prayers outright but they brought me to where I was supposed to be to be found by the other half of my soul. -- I don’t want Xena to die.”
The older Amazon was thoughtfully silent for a moment. She closed her eyes for a moment, cast a short glance towards the statue of the goddess, and said.
“I’ll tell you a story even Xena doesn’t know.” This got her a surprised look. “There once was the daughter of an innkeeper in a trading town named Amphipolis. She was the only child, a younger brother having died a few days after his birth, joining their mother already waiting in the Elysian Fields. In her sixth summer a fever killed almost half of the inhabitants of the village, especially elders and young children. She also fell ill but survived. To thank the Goddess her father dedicated her life to Athena, the patron goddess of Amphipolis. She was to be a priestess.
“Every day, she went to the temple and studied under the guidance of the head priestess. She eagerly learned everything Athena invented, except for one thing. She refused to learn the Art of War. She was punished for her refusal but stayed firm to her beliefs.
“With her first blood she had a vision of Athena and began to study the healing arts on her own, guided by an old healer living reclusively in the forest nearby. She spent her youth learning to be a priestess and a healer and in the evenings she served at the inn.
“Her initiation was to be at her twentieth birthday. It was only a few moons to this much anticipated day when her eyes fell on one of the customers of the inn, a tall warrior with long black hair and striking blue eyes. She fell in love.
“She didn’t have any experience with men or even with compliments given to her. In the village everyone respected and treated her as a future priestess. The warrior, the village knew him under the name of Atrius; he stayed at the inn and helped to organise a militia. She more than once skipped her duties to stand at the edge of the training ground and watch him; the same way you love observing Xena.
“They got closer every day. What had started out as mutual attraction soon became more. Cyrene was torn between her duty to the goddess and the village and her deep love and passion for the warrior who purchased a strip of land with a small hut. She sought answer in prayer and Athena officially released her from her vows of chastity. She even send a new priestess to take her place and the head priestess assured the village elders that Cyrene still held the goddess’ favour.
“For a few moons, they happily lived together. But then Atrius had to leave, returning to his duties as a warrior. He came back as often as he could but shortly after Xena was born he disappeared never to return. Cyrene returned to the village and slowly took over the management of the inn.
“When asked about her warrior she answered that Athena had told her that he had to go away to let her children grow up as happily and as protected as possible. They didn’t ask any further.
“Cyrene continued to pray to Athena and taught her children a lot of the things she had learned serving the Goddess. She never wavered in her faith, not during the incident with the smith, not when Xena took up the sword to defend her village, not when her youngest son was killed, not when her daughter became a warlord or the Conqueror, not when Xena had one of her childhood friends crucified for trying to kill her, not when she had to give up the inn and live in Corinth. This is the first time.”
Gabrielle looked at the Amazon with wide eyes. “She really loves Xena.”
“Yes, she does, little one. But she never would admit to it. They both are too damn stubborn.” Before the young woman was able to find an answer, the great horn of the Amazons sounded, calling everyone to take their places and get ready to fight.
Terreis was in charge of the defence of the eastern half of the rampart, the side not protected by the highly trapped streets of the outer part of the village where the bigger part of their army was currently taking up their hiding places. As an element of surprise Calliope’s archers were positioned on the rooftops to possibly quickly repel the first wave of assault.
Xena had been convinced that their enemy then would try to directly attack the fortress with his remaining horses while at the same time a second wave would once again go for the outer village. Strategically it would have been sounder to wait for the reinforcement and the siege engines but, as the former Conqueror had patiently explained to the war council, in fights like this it was important to break the spirit of the besieged as quickly as possible and to keep up a steady stream of attacks to make sure that the soldiers behind the fortified walls didn’t get any rest.
The sun was well over its midday point when her words became reality, at the same time far off in the north where the mountain tops were only dimly visible a thick column of smoke was slowly rising towards the sky.
Having insisted on taking an active part in the defence effort, Gabrielle was standing next to the Amazon princess who to her annoyance still was forced to wear tightly wrapped bandages. The young blonde held her staff and was ready to carry Terreis’ orders to the other end of walkway if need arose.
The first charge had cost their enemy heavily but it soon became obvious that none of the victims had any kind of special protection. Luckily, the archers first had tried to take them out the conventional way, aiming for the throat and the heart. They were simple foot soldiers, sent in to test their defences.
Everyone knew the battle was only just beginning. The tension on the ramparts grew. It was only a question of time. The sound of galloping horses announced their coming, a single straight line as long as the fortress was wide. The Centaur archers were readying their bows and crossbows. Standing at the lower part of the defensive wall under the wooden walkway, they were taking aim through slim embrasures, eye to eye with the attacking riders. Before they got into range the enemy’s line quickly parted and revealed foot soldiers, also marching in a straight line, unhurriedly.
The former Amazon ordered Gabrielle and Ephiny, her other runner, to make sure that the sidelines were specially protected. The first two rows of foot soldiers also parted shortly out of striking distance of the archers. Men armed with Roman shields appeared, forming a protective line, hard to penetrate. The other soldiers closed ranks behind them. The riders stayed back. Terreis sent Ephiny to the outer village, giving a short report to Kaleipus and Queen Melosa, recommending that they kept their attention where it was. This display of strength and cunning probably was nothing but an elaborate diversion.
She was only half right. About eighty paces from the wall the shield bearers turned sideways and retreated. The foot soldiers began a running attack, not even flinching when a Centaur’s arrow felled one of their companions. They were reduced to half their original number before they were close enough to throw their heavy javelins thus presenting more of their only lightly armed bodies as a target. Everyone not mortally wounded tried to get back on his feet, some advanced on their knees, others dragged themselves forward using their hands only.
They didn’t make a sound, no battle cry and no cry of pain. It was weird and spooky and didn’t make any sense. It was completely against any battle strategy Terreis had ever heard of, and if there was one thing she had learned from the former Conqueror it was that even bad battle strategists did everything for a reason.
Before she could think of any kind of answer, one of the heavy spears flew past her, only inches away from her right shoulder. Terreis stepped left and found herself face to face with another one. The instant she knew that it would bury itself right in her heart, a brown line traversed her peripheral vision, she heard wood hitting metal and felt something piercing her leg, felt it grazing her thighbone, and sank to the ground. She looked up.
Gabrielle stood in front of her, swirling her staff in complex patterns and warding off other threats. The young woman shouted for shields to be brought over from the other side and put in front of the fallen Amazon. She ordered the archers to concentrate on the spear throwers only and ducked behind the shield to care for Terreis.
The blonde knelt next to her and pressed both hands on the abundantly bleeding wound. One of the main arteries must have been severed, she was losing too much blood. Gabrielle yelled for a healer while improvising a tourniquet with her belt and a discarded arrow. The defenders on the walkway no longer concentrated on their enemies but their injured leader, the more seasoned among them knowing that her chances of survival were slim at best.
She saw Cyrene and Akyra hurrying up the steps when a hand touched her own. She turned her head towards Terreis pain filled eyes. “You tried to save me.” The still bleeding woman said haltingly.
“Don’t speak. Try to safe your strength.” Gabrielle almost whispered.
"What you did only one Amazon would do for another Amazon.” She felt Akyra kneeling next to her while Cyrene began to clean out the wound. “Venerable elder, be my witness. I, Terreis, daughter of Hippolyta, sister of Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, give my right of caste to Gabrielle. So be it.” She continued with waning strength.
“So be it, in the name of Artemis. I will see that your decision will be reported to Queen Melosa, and now stay still. We’re not ready to let you die just yet, little sprout. Close your eyes. Try to concentrate on your breathing, breathe, nice and slow, in, out, in, out, in, out. Nothing else is important. Listen to my voice. In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out. My voice and your breathing, there’s nothing else. In, out....“
The silver haired Amazon continued with her soothing words for another two candledrops that to Gabrielle appeared like two big chunks of eternity. Finally, she nodded and the former innkeeper proceeded with a thorough examination of the injury. She took a knife out of her belt and carefully unwrapped the blade protected by a thin layer of silk. As she began to cut away parts of the bleeding flesh, Gabrielle’s stomach started to rebel and she wanted to stop her.
“Trust me, Gabrielle. This has to be done. There was some kind of acid on the spear head, don’t you smell it? It gets worse with water, I can’t just clean it out. I have to cut away as much as I can or this wound will never properly heal.”
Gabrielle swallowed the bile rising in her throat and nodded. Her world was reduced to the three women next to her. After what certainly was another eternity, Cyrene ordered her to open the tourniquet and to close it again shortly after. The amount of blood on the ground should have her worried but she was mesmerised by the older woman’s precise and graceful movements, reminding her very much of her lover.
Suddenly a blow rocked the shields protecting them. The blonde woman looked up and saw a big, bearded man swinging a battle mace, aiming for Cyrene’s head. She acted on instinct alone. Her right hand found another discarded arrow, she jumped up and almost flew towards him. He had both hands at the base of his weapon, his eyes firmly on his target, prematurely discarding the small woman as no threat to his heavy bulk. The tip of the arrow went right through his neck, driven in by the weight of Gabrielle’s whole body, piercing the jugular vein and crushing his windpipe. They both fell to the ground, one with surprise in his eyes, the other one with a mixture of fear and determination.
Gabrielle scrambled back to her feet and looked around. About a dozen of their enemies already were on the walkways, locked in hand-to-hand combat with the defenders. They obviously had used the distraction of Terreis’ injury to their advantage. She picked up the mace of the dead man, from the ground up it came almost to her hip. She shouldn’t have been able to lift it up, much less swing it effectively -- but she did. She saw another one of the Amazons go down, swirled around as if she still had her staff in her hands and smashed the spiked end of the weapon against the head of her opponent. For a moment she saw nothing but blood and grey chunks of … something. The force of the blow caused her to loose her balance and she let go of the mace before toppling over the wall herself.
Next she picked up a javelin and used it as a staff as she had seen the Amazon Regent do it. Her blows became more forceful with every heartbeat, and at the same time she felt herself getting calmer. Her breathing slowed considerably. The blunt end of the weapon knocked one of the enemy soldiers unconscious, she felt someone coming from behind, heard the hiss of a sword, and thrust the weapon backwards. She heard the sickening sound of metal crushing bones, the cracking of ribs when she tried to clear the weapon. He was already dead when he hit the dirt outside of the fortress. The remaining two of their attackers were dispatched by three men of the village. She threw the spear with every ounce of energy she had left and it embedded itself only two paces from the leader of their enemy sitting regally on a white stallion.
She stared at him, his silver helmet gleaming in the sun, and turned her attention back to Terreis who now was lying on one of the shields ready to be carried to the infirmary. She was sleeping or unconscious, her face deadly pale.
“Will she live?“ To Gabrielle her voice sounded as if it came from very far away but none of the others seemed to find anything amiss.
“All we can do is hope and pray. She is strong but she has lost a lot of bloo…” The older woman suddenly fell silent. Her face was ashen white and her gaze was fixed on the enemy leader. She whispered. “Ares’ helmet.“
This time Gabrielle looked more thoroughly at the man. His helmet had a skull on top and a double pair of wings. “Ares’ helmet?”
“So, Ares’ Chosen will kill my daughter.“ Cyrene said tonelessly.
“What are you talking about?”
“It is said that the God of War gifts his Chosen with a special helmet, forged by Hephaestus himself. It is said that whoever wears it has the power to inspire the soldiers under his command and drive them forward no matter what, against the odds, against reason, against good sense -- as if they had no will of their own. They still have their strength and all their cunning but are unable to go against the will of the helmet’s bearer.”
“So, this is what happened today. Ares won’t win. She will not be taken from me, not now, not ever.” Gabrielle’s voice not only spoke of determination, it was tinted with a hint of steel. Her usually friendly green eyes were as cold as ice. She looked fierce, that was the only word the older woman could think of. But she still managed to maintain an outer veneer of civility. She forced a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “You’d better go back to the infirmary. I’m sure they’ll need you down there, Cyrene.”
Just as Xena had predicted, for the following candlemarks they had to fight off random attacks, meant more to keep them busy and unbalanced than to do any harm. They came close to the walls but there was no other attempt to climb them.
The sun slowly was going down and Gabrielle was getting more nervous every passing candledrop. When Ephiny came with a new status report she made her decision. “Eph, my friend, please take my place here. I need a change of scenery.”
Her words were as soft spoken as always but having come to know the young woman quiet well over the past moons, the curly haired Amazon felt that something wasn’t right with her friend. She obviously needed someone to talk to but in the middle of a battle really wasn’t the right time and place. She also knew about the right of caste, and following Amazon law she had to obey the younger woman’s orders.
“Yes, Princess Gabrielle."
"Princess ? I’m no princess. I’m not even an Amazon.“
“You’re wrong. You always were one of us in your heart but now everything has changed. Terreis gave you her right of caste. You’re now Queen Melosa’s heir -- at least until her daughters are old enough to be initiated into the tribe. When we return to the village, you’ll take her place at Queen Melosa’s side.”
“Terreis will survive. There’s no need to make any fuss about this now.”
“It will not change what she did, Gabrielle. Nothing could.”
“I don’t understand, Ephiny.”
“There are two things that never can be taken back in an Amazon’s life: joining with your bond mate and giving away your right of caste.”
“Eph, I know this is important but not now. I have to be out there. Xena needs me.”
The blond Amazon didn’t understand, not by a long shot, but she was well aware of the earnest in Gabrielle’s voice, and though the unusual coldness of ther eyes was confusing and somewhat scary she couldn’t think of any reason to deny her request. So, she bowed her head and nodded but before she’d finished her formal bow the younger woman was gone.
Argo was running full out. The distance between Xena and her companions was steadily growing though they also moved as fast as their mounts would go.
They’d descended the other side of the pass and checked on the fallen enemies. Fortunately most of them already had been dead. They’d only found a few survivors -- and everyone of them had been past saving. The next step had been to get rid of the bodies, and once again luck had been on their side. The barrels from the last wagon were undamaged. So, they’d used them and their contents of Greek fire to burn the gathered corpses in order to keep the scavengers away and avoid any threat of spreading diseases.
The bigger part of her mind had been detached from her bloody task but Xena had been surprised to find a tiny part of her conscience regretting their deaths, the necessity of their deaths. This had never happened before; she even remembered a time when combing through a battlefield had been one of the things she particularly enjoyed, putting to death the already doomed.
Xena shook herself forcibly back to reality. The sounds of battle now were easy to discern. Argo’s legs were rhythmically eating up the ground, obeying the strange and conflicting impulses coming from her mistress, urged on by a feeling of dread she wasn’t able to push in the back of her mind.
When the tall warrior soon after rode onto the battlefield, the fighting was in full swing. Centaurs and Amazons were trying to break the ranks of Hawk’s riders but the men were disciplined and protected by the Ixion stone solution. Arrows that should have been fatal were dropping to the ground without doing any harm. Their heads were encased in helmets, making it extremely difficult to hit them in the eyes, even for the superior skills of Calliope’s archers. Otherwise they were equally matched, the slightly higher number of defenders outbalanced by the magical protection and the force coming from Ares’ helmet.
Xena came from the left and took them by surprise. Before they really knew what hit them, she had taken three heads off. She had to put all of her strength behind her blows to succeed but the allied forces regained their confidence by her example and attacked with renewed vigour -- but not without paying a high price. The archers intensified their offensive, aiming for the mouth instead of the eyes but the brunt of the fighting was on the sword and axe wielders. It was a slow and gruesome process, and for every two dead soldiers one of them at least got injured. Candlemarks passed.
The warrior woman cut a path through the dwindling lines of the enemy, taking a few hits herself but paying them no heed. Coming closer and closer to the centre she suddenly saw Gabrielle in the thick of the fighting, sitting on the back of a tall Centaur she was wielding a spear, with a feral smile on her face. Her field of vision narrowed, Xena forgot about the fight, overpowered by the need to grab her blond lover and take her away from the battlefield. She urged Argo on, thrusting her weapon almost negligently in the enemy’s eyes or mouths.
Ten paces before she reached her goal, a battle maze slammed into her back, a second blow struck the base of her neck and she dropped on the ground. Argo was doing her best to protect her fallen mistress and soon had help from Gabrielle, Ephiny and Calliope’s bond mate, Raneria.
Xena saw the ground coming closer and the next moment she found herself standing in the middle of a great hall, without her armour and weapons but still wearing her leather dress and bracers. She was surrounded by armed men, fallen enemies. They attacked as soon as they became aware of her presence. She started to defend herself, kicking a sword out of a hand ready to strike. Now, once again armed she tried to fight her way out of this hall but whenever the weapon sliced through one of her opponents, the wound immediately closed and he kept on fighting. She quickly understood that all she could do was to try and keep them at bay.
They made no sound, not even the swords hitting hers made a sound but Xena could hear her own breathing, faster than usual from the exertion but still regular and strong. Kicking one of them in the groin while taking a head off she tried to find out where she was. Part of her was convinced that she was dead and in Tartarus, dammed to spent eternity fighting off enemies she had sent there herself. She could feel her heart beating in her chest and a dull ache where the mace had hit her. Another part, however, insisted that she was still alive and shouldn’t be in this place and that she had to return to Gabrielle as soon as possible.
In her peripheral vision she saw a big man walking through the wall to her left as if it didn’t exist. She couldn’t see his face yet but when he touched the ghostly fighters they literally froze as if petrified. Snippets of a story she once had heard flipped through her mind: Hades, the hall of judgement where only the dead came whose fate wasn’t decided yet, the soul being weighted against a feather. No, she was mixing things up, but Xena knew she should be in Tartarus, back on the cross, just like the last time. When the God of the underworld had reached her, she threw the weapon away and lowered herself to her right knee, ready to be judged.
“You shouldn’t be here, Xena. Your time has not yet come. Stand up and let me look at you.“ She found herself eye to eye with the dark god. “No, you’re not dead. You came close but no permanent harm was done. Why are you here?”
Xena didn’t get the chance to tell him that she didn’t know because Ares suddenly appeared in a cloud of red and blue light. “The maze should have broken her neck. She should be dead. She should be mine by now, mine to command. I claim her soul.”
“My soul is mine and I’d rather rot in Tartarus for this eternity and the next than give it to you.” Xena snarled and instinctively took a defensive stance.
Hades didn’t pay her any attention. “Ares, you know that you have to base such a claim on solid ground. Your father is a great defender of mortal independence, even you should take his will into account.”
“Xena is my Chosen. My darkness is in her blood. She is mine.”
“I never have and I never will swear allegiance to you, Ares.” Once again she was ignored.
“There is darkness in Xena, I won’t deny you that but I also know that Xena is a special case. And even if she were not, even gods have to follow the law and every one of us is only entitled to one Chosen at a time. And your Chosen, Ares, is still out there trying to kill Artemis’ Amazons. He’s wearing your helmet and his men will continue to fill my hall of justice as long as he holds them under the helmet’s spell.”
“I insist. Xena is mine, uncle.”
“The council will have to decide, nephew -- and it has to be done now. Xena is loosing her life force when she stays in my realm without being dead. Let’s go.”
Xena felt something akin to disorientation and suddenly found herself in a colonnaded temple with the columns touching the sky. There were a lot of comfortable looking armchairs in a half circle. The whole Pantheon was present, including Zeus himself but with the exception of Poseidon. Ares repeated his claim on Xena’s soul and was met by a moment of stunned silence. The God of War sensed his chance.
“If no one contests my claim, I’ll take her with me now.” He put is hand on Xena’s upper arm.
“I contest your right to Xena, little brother. I claim this mortal as my own.” Athena said, stepping in front of Ares. “Xena’s darkness is not yours, her darkness is due to me and me alone. I’m ready to fight for my claim on her. I’ll even let you bind one of my hands on my back, just like last time.” The Goddess of Wisdom moved as if to unsheathe her sword.
“Father, you can’t let her do this. You know, I don’t stand a chance.”
“Oh, stop whining, little brother.“
“Stop it, both of you. This is my soul you’re talking about and I’m ready to fight for it.” Xena yelled at the top of her lungs.
“Xena is right, father. The darkness in her soul could well be mine or yours or Hades’.” Artemis joined the discussion, among others motivated by the desire to distract her brother from Athena’s almost reckless choice of words. “We all have it and we all know that Xena is fighting it. Under Ares’ influence all the progress she made would be annihilated. Let her fight for herself.”
“Oh, Arty, get real. She’s a mortal; she’s a spirited fighter, I give you that but she’s still a mortal. She doesn’t stand a chance. Everything she knows, she learned from me. That’s ridiculous.”
“Don’t be too sure of yourself, little brother. Don’t forget you were not the only teacher she had.” Athena countered.
“Quiet! I won’t have you two bickering. This is far too serious a matter.“ The father of the gods bellowed, effectively silencing everyone in the big room. “Xena is under the protection of Gaia. She has a right to defend her soul and her future -- and I personally will make sure that it’s a fair fight. Athena, do you maintain your claim?”
“Xena will be allowed to defend herself?“ Zeus nodded. "No, father. I only made the claim to keep her out of Ares’ clutches. I’m looking forward to seeing her do it herself.“
“Ares, my son, this is your last chance. Do you also withdraw your claim?”
“Of course not. Xena is mine and when this ridiculous charade is over no one will ever come between me and her. I choose the sword as my weapon.”
“So be it. Artemis, Athena, you’ll come with us. I need witnesses. Brother would you also do me the honour?”
Once again Xena felt slightly disorientated and was standing in a very large room. It was richly decorated but also had a slightly dilapidated flair. With a quick glance she took in three ornate thrones sitting behind a large sacrificial altar with a set of manacles at both ends. At the other side two rows of flagpoles were horizontally embedded in the high wall, long strips of colourful fabric hanging down from them. “Where are we?”
“It used to be a temple of the Furies, Xena. They abandoned it because it’s too far away from their mortal worshippers. It’s perfect for what we need. Ares will not be able to use any of his godly powers, no fire bolts, no unexpected disappearances. It will even the odds.” Zeus answered the tall warrior’s question. “Let’s get going,”
“I’ll need my sword.”
“Take mine!” Athena said, unsheathing her weapon and giving it to Xena. “I think you’ll find it well balanced.”
“Thank you, Goddess.” Xena made a few practice swings. “Wow, it’s perfect, as if it were my own.” The raven head missed the tiny smile on the face of the equally dark haired goddess.
“Let’s get this over with. I’m anxious to put the future Empress of the Known World to work. Defend yourself, Xena.”
Ares drew his blade and tried to overpower her with heavy overhead blows. She blocked everyone of them but it put a lot of strain on her arm muscles, so she countered with short vicious jabs, taking advantage of his wide swings and breaking his defences almost too easily. He lost his striking rhythm, her right leg hit his left thigh but he held his ground and tried to take her feet out with an underhanded stroke. She jumped out of the way, redirecting her momentum to a few back flips that brought her under the first row of flag poles.
The warrior woman jumped upwards and propelled herself to the upper level. Ares followed quickly behind. Balancing themselves on the thin but obviously very sturdy metal bars of the poles, they ran at each other, their swords collided with a bang and for a short time they traded blows, neither of them giving ground. A round house kick of Xena found the god’s chin, she then blocked his counter attack with her left arm. They once again concentrated on the swords.
Ares ducked under a swing, his left foot kicked her weapon out of her hand. Xena did a back somersault and caught the weapon neatly at the hilt. This time they didn’t run, they just jumped at each other as if flying through the air. Their blades met in a shower of sparks, leaving their audience rather impressed. They did it again, without either of them giving in an inch. He ran towards her, reaching the other end of the flagpole row; before their weapons once again made contact, Xena was airborne, driving him back with powerful kicks to his chest.
The god fell but managed to grab one of the colourful banners and propelled himself back on top of the pole. Now, it was Ares turn to drive her backwards. Their swords clashed against each other, they traded kicks and blows. Xena’s left backhanded him, at the same time his right foot kicked out. They both lost their balance and their swords but saved themselves from falling by grabbing one of the poles. Once again they searched contact.
Ares kicked the tall woman in the stomach, she answered with a combination of kicks to his thighs and chest. She then quickly closed both legs around his waist, her hands on his shoulders, and head-butted him with such might that Ares lost his hold on the poles both dropping to the lower row of flagpoles.
Xena landed on her back, close to her weapon. She turned around and picked it up; rising she repelled Ares by kicking backwards, sending him flying. He attacked once again. Xena anticipated his moves. The moment his right foot was about to hit the next flagpole she cut it through with a single stroke of Athena’s sword. It hit the ground and the God of War only barely managed to maintain his balance.
She jumped back to the ground, deliberately turning her back to him. He followed, flying through the air with his weapon stretched out in front of him. Xena whirled around, the flat of her blade descended on his hand. His sword hit the ground and he landed in one of the thrones on the dais.
Before he could catch his breath, the tip of his own sword was at his throat. Her eyes were silvery cold with blood lust and she growled. “Yield!”
“You win, Xena.“
“You withdraw your claim and will cease to interfere in my life?”
“You win, this time, warrior princess.” He answered through clenched teeth.
“Wrong answer, leather boy.“ Xena put a tiny bit of pressure on the blade, drawing blood.
“Okay, okay. I withdraw my claim. Your soul is yours.”
„And I’ll stop interfering in your life.“
“Zeus, did you hear everything?“
“Everything I needed to, Xena. Ares, go back to your own temple. I don’t want to see your meddling nose for the next fortnight.” Ares disappeared without his usual flourish.
“I’ll better go and make sure that he ends up where he’s supposed to be.” The God of the Underworld stated and disappeared.
“Artemis, Athena, you’ve got five candledrops. Xena needs to go back.”
“Thank you, father. -- Xena, you did good. To end this battle you’ll have to defeat their leader. He’s a decent fighter and doesn’t concern himself with fairness, especially when he’s with his back to the wall. So, you better take care.”
“Why did you try to help me, Athena?”
“Sorry, I can’t tell you, at least not all of it. I did it because I think that you deserve a second chance. I saw the slow change in your soul from the moment LaoMa touched you with her wisdom and how you changed the way you did things after Solan was born. I also did it because I owe your mother.”
“I don’t pretend to understand what my mother, a simple innkeeper has to do with the Goddess of Wisdom but I suppose you won’t answer this question either.”
“One day the truth will be revealed, warrior.” Artemis took over the conversation. “We’ll send you back now but there’s one thing you should know. It’s about Gabrielle.”
„She lost her blood innocence, I know, I saw her at the battlefield. I wanted to get her out of there when the mace hit me. I can only hope that I’ll have the strength to help her through her blood lust.” The tall warrior answered.
“One day she will be my Chosen, warrior. In order to help Gabrielle, when this day’s fighting is over you’ll be free of your own blood lust. Are you ready?” The Goddess of the Hunt asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be. Thank you, the both of you.“ Xena quietly said and closed her eyes.
The first thing Xena became aware of was the smell of blood close to her nostrils. She opened her eyes to a scene of carnage. An enemy soldier was only inches from her on the ground, blood pouring from his open mouth. She blinked. The tip of a javelin still stuck in his throat. Without moving she cautiously looked around, painfully aware of the dull ache at her neck and the bleeding punctures from the spikes of the mace at her back, just where her back armour plates ended. Her eyes found the end of Gabrielle’s weapon, half of the tip was missing.
Extending her senses, she suddenly jumped on her feet and threw her chakram to intercept two crossbow bolts directed towards her lover and take out the man shooting them. The weapon easily sliced his throat. Gabrielle turned her head, there was a hint of relief in her face but then she grimly returned to her own fighting. With the tall warrior’s help the cluster of enemies surrounding them was quickly dispelled.
There still were a few pockets where the fighting was going on but for all intends and purposes the allied army had come out victorious. Xena almost gave the order to retreat behind the walls of the fortified village, there were not enough of them left to pose a serious threat but then she remembered Athena’s words. ‘To end this battle you have to defeat their leader.’ And what she hadn’t said Xena knew. ‘Defeat him and Ares’ protection will be withdrawn.’
She had no choice but to let the killing go on on both sides and whistle for Argo to take on the man still wearing Ares’ helmet. The mare ran as if she knew where to go. She found him at the end of the battlefield as far away from the thick of the fighting as he could be without appearing to be a coward. He was locked in single combat with Phantes who had a hard time to block his thrusts.
“He’s mine, Phantes. Get out of here and take Gabrielle with you. Knock her out if you have to.” She said while already testing her enemy’s strength.
Yes, he was a decent enough swordsman but his skills were no match for hers and he seemed to know it. After only a few strokes he directed his attack on Argo and suddenly found himself with his backside on the ground, thrown by the white stallion he had been riding on. The horse put a score of paces distance between them and waited.
Xena dismounted Argo. “Go, girl, and show him where his friends are.”
She then turned her attention to her still dumbfounded and motionlessly sitting opponent. “Get back on your feet or do you want to die like the coward you are?!”
His eyes still followed the retreating horses but the tension in his body told her that her words had done the trick. He jumped back to his feet and attacked without thinking. He was as tall as Xena and half again her weight with muscles rippling his bulky frame.
As Ares had done before he tried to overpower her with mighty strokes but this time she didn’t bother to block them. She simply stepped out of the way, once, twice, three times, increasing the anger now burning in his eyes. Smiling at him all the time.
Hawk changed tactics, now trying to break through her defences by mirroring her own movements, waiting for his chance. Xena knew that she had to get the helmet off his head in order to free the fighters held by its spell, compelled to fight without a choice of their own. So, she gave him the opening he was waiting for. She felt the tip of his weapon drawing a line of fire at the inner side of her sword arm but used the moment of distraction to cut the leather strip holding the silvery helmet in place. It fell and disappeared before even hitting the ground. She elegantly danced out of reach and waited for his reaction.
A sane man would have counted his losses and tried to get away from her. All around him, the two or three score of his fighters still standing were throwing down their weapons and surrendering to the defenders, now that the spell was broken. “I don’t need any god’s protection to kill you, Conqueror.”
Xena exuded an air of relaxed calmness, the tip of her sword pointing towards the ground, her other hand resting lightly on her hip. “You’re welcome to try, Hawk.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Instead of another mindless barrage of blows he threw a knife at her and drew a Roman short sword he obviously had more experience with than the longer, heavier Greek weapon he had been using.
"You will die. You will end up in front of me, on your knees, begging for mercy. Divide and conquer, and in the end I will conquer you.” He panted while constantly attacking.
In the past Xena would have continued to play with him and enjoyed to beat the arrogance out of him before sending him to Hades -- but to her own surprise she didn’t feel the slightest need to do so. All she wanted was to get this all over with. She jumped over his head and while he whirled around to face her she plunged her sword in his right ear. It went in at an angle, coming out at the other side just under his jaw, severing the jugular vein. His heart kept on pumping blood but his eyes already were vacant and lifeless when he hit the blood soaked earth.
Xena had a hard time freeing her weapon and cleaned it superficially on his clothing. Her mind already on the next order of business: gathering their injured, counting their losses, seeing to the basic needs of the surviving enemy, burning their dead and preparing the funeral fires for their own dead, organising a ceremony to purify the battle field from the blood, caring for the wounded, celebrating their victory…. Her mind was reeling -- for all she really wanted to do was to take care of Gabrielle, her gentle lover, now in the grip of battle lust.
Fortunately, Kaleipus, Tyldus, Queen Melosa, and Regent Calliope were good, experienced battle leaders in their own right and already in the midst of organising everything when Xena arrived back at camp.
While washing up and gruffly letting Anara care for her puncture wounds and the still bleeding scratch at her arm she heard about Gabrielle’s heroic defence of Terreis, the right of caste, and the younger woman’s part in battle, how she had led them with her example as well as with her words until Xena herself gave the exhausted defenders the much needed second wind.
She also heard about the hard time they all had had at getting her away from the battlefield. That she couldn’t stop killing when the enemy finally surrendered and really had to be knocked out, and that now she was locked up in their cabin with the door bolted from the outside.
“She almost took my head off when I grabbed her shoulder to lead her away. I’m damn lucky that I didn’t get hit.” Phantes concluded.
Author’s comment to Chapter Nine:
The duel between Xena and Ares is based on the fight between these two as it takes place in “The Furies“, at the beginning of season three. I changed the beginning and the end of the fight but otherwise tried to stay as close to the show as possible. I hope you liked it.