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By L. Fox
Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and backstory are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright property was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
This story contains descriptions of violence, some profanity, and mild references to a sexual relationship between the two main characters.
Note: This tale is a follow up, of sorts, to the two stories, "The Cage of Elysis" and "A Bardís Faith". Again, while is not necessary to read those to gain a comprehension of the following, the reader should be aware that some characters and events from those stories are referred to here without much clarification.
Xena rose up in Argoís stirrups and cast her eyes down on the huge forest sprawing before them. Even from her vantage point on the hill the end of it was not visible. Itís perfect, she thought. She turned to Draco and pointed to the low plain next to the forest. "Weíll camp there," she said. "Send out patrols tonight. We can expect contact with Darinius any day now."
That night Xena finally relented and played the role of lustful warrioress with Draco. She had the sense he was losing interest in this operation and wanted to go off raiding like the bandit he was. She could not allow that to happen.
She had not made love to a man in a long time and now she found it revolting to her. Maybe it was just Draco, she wasnít sure. He pawed her and grunted like a pig and Xena felt for someone with such a reputation as a ladies man he was just about the most ham-handed thing she had ever seen.
Or maybe it was because of Gabrielle. It was now almost three months since the two of them had made love but to Xena the feelings evoked by those sweet memories were as vivid as if they had just occured. Memories that, for the first time in many moons, brought a smile to the face of the Warrior Princess. Yes, Gabrielle too was clumsy but in a loving, gentle, eager to please sort of way. And still quite shy about it too. Save for their first time, it had been Xena whom intitiated it every single time. Xena didnít know if the little bard was afraid she would say no (she had to admit she was moody sometimes), or if it made her too uncomfortable to ask, or it she just felt it was Xenaís option. All she knew was not one time had Gabrielle offered even the slightest hint of resistance.
And each time was like Mount Olympus on earth.
But now Xena felt such wonderful times were a thing of the past forever.It seemed to her the Fates were comitted to making life miserable for her.First her happy teen years had been shattered by that bastard Cortese, then the long years of darkness that nearly destroyed her soul. Finally, a light broke through the darknessóHercules! Later that light magnified a thousand times by a wondrous lensóGabrielle!
She had even had a glimpse of inner peace. All those people she had actually helped. The friends she had made: Iolaus, Tyldus, the Amazons, Marmax, the goofy Joxer, Meg and Diana, Autolycus, Hippocrates, Darinius...Hercules. These people had accepted her for what she was not what she had been. Xena wondered what they thought of her now.
She remembered the warm glow she had felt inside after their successful return from Kathos, the pride she had felt in what they had done. How tough and brave her friends had been. The special new friend she had made. That glow had lasted right up to the day Gabrielle failed to return.
Gabrielle! What does one do when their heart has been ripped out? You die, like anyone else, though Xena. She sat up and allowed herself one final tear for the love of her life. Good bye, sweet bard. Soon it will be my turn.
Twenty leagues away, while Xena was pondering her life, Darinius was going over intelligence reports with his division commanders. The map of the area had been mounted on a makeshift easel and brought outside to allow Tyldus to join in.
"What do you make of that? asked Tyldus. "Why would they choose to squeeze themselves into those narrow roads in that forest? Why not just go around?
"They must be in one big hurry to get to Philippi," offered Tharses. "Darinius, do you think they want to hole up in the city and try to outwait us?"
"That would be my guess," said Darinius. However, he already knew the real reason. Xena wanted them to catch up.
It was now that they were joined by Gabrielle and Ephiny.
"Oh, Ephiny, good. Iím glad youíre here. I have got a job for you," said Darinius.
Ephiny never batted an eye. "What do you want me to do?"
Darinius ran his hand over the map. "See these woods? Our scouts tell us it looks like their army will be crossing through here as of tomorrow morning. What Iíd like for you to do is high tail it up there and and infiltrate those woods."
Ephiny merely nodded. Everyone there knew of the legendary Amazon prowness in forest warfare.
"There are only two passable roads that traverse the forest," continued Darinius, I want you to booby trap those roads in depth, erect roadblocks, anything you can think of. How you do it is up to you. Split your people into four groups, put two here," he pointed to two sections of road at the eastern end of the woods, "take the other two, bypass their army, move into their rear and do the same to the west end of the roads."
"Once they pass this group," Darinius pointed to the western end of the woods, put the cork in the bottle and shake it up a little. Nothing big, mind you, just enough to make the bottle fizz."
Even Ephiny had to smile at this. "Right. I understand."
Tharses stood there listening to this now farmer and sheep herder and could only shake his head in amazement. Already these people were willing to follow this guy into Tartarus, he thought. And I would be proud to go with him. Itís a shame the man has no ambition. This son of a bitch could have conquered half the known world by now.
Darinius put his hand on Ephinyís shoulder. "Now listen, you are not, repeat not to expose yourself at anytime or operate under any unnecessary risk. All you have to do is slow them down a little. Weíll come running as quickly as we can. I want to see your ass back here by noon day after tomorrow, understand?"
Realizing what he had just said he added sheepishly, "Iím sorry. I guess I got carried away."
With an amused sort of half grin Ephiny replied, "Itís okay, I want my ass to come back too. Umm, when do you want us to leave?"
"Uhh nowww, Ephiny."
All through this exchange Gabrielle had not spoken one word. As she turned to leave with Ephiny Darinius caught her arm. "Not so fast, Gabrielle.Youíre staying here."
"I donít think so," said Gabrielle. "If the Amazons are to risk their lives it is my place to go with them."
"Nuh uh, nothing doing. You donít have the skills to move through those woods.You would be caught before you got twenty paces."
"Heís right, Gabrielle," said Ephiny. "You should stay here."
Gabrielleís face began to redden and she turned to Ephiny. "If I am the queen it is my duty to go with you and not stay behind like some coward."
"Nobody thinks youíre a coward," said Ephiny quietly.
"Well Iím going."
Darinius gently caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face him.
"Gabrielle, you are under my command and if you continue to defy orders you will leave me no choice but to place you under arrest and confine you to your quartersónot to mention maybe giving you a good swat or two across your backside."
Ephiny thought Gabrielleís eyes were going to pop right out of her head. She had never seen her so angry. Gabrielleís rage was not assuaged by the guffaws of Dariniusí division commanders.
Gabrielle could not even form complete words. "Arre...your com...AAARRRGGGHH!"
She wrenched free and took a big roundhouse swing at her tormentor. He easily stepped aside, caught her, and from behind her back wrapped his arms around her.
He gently hugged her just enough to confine her while allowing her to continue to flail her arms.
"Calm down, Gabrielle."
"Darinius let me...let me go!"
"Calm down," he again whispered in her ear.
"You son of ..."
Finally he sensed her body ease its tension. "You okay?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded, "Iím okay. Ephiny, go on. Iíll see you when you get back."
Ephiny nodded her approval and vanished into the darkness.
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle. I couldnít take a chance on your being hurt."
She was not entirely convinced by this remark. "You werenít afraid I was going to run to Xena, were you?"
By midmorning Dracoís army was well inside the forest. They were jammed up on both roads that ran roughly parallel about two leagues apart. Xena could only shake her head at the fact, that despite having his force divided and bottled up on two narrow roads, Draco did not seem disturbed by it. He had not even sent people ahead to scout the area like their enemy had.
To be sure Xena had seen the scouts dogging their every move for the last few days. They knew their business and kept well hidden but every now and then Xena managed to get a glimpse of one.
She looked at the men around her in disgust. Men like these were very good at killing unarmed or poorly armed villagers. They excelled at looting, rape, or murder but stack them up against even a relatively small, well trained force with someone that knew his stuff to lead them and it was a recipe for disaster. She had learned that lesson the hard way. Now with no telling how many thousands moving to oppose them they would be sitting ducks. Xena knew this was not going to be a battle but a slaughter.
The Amazons were ready. All during the frantic hours of the previous night and into the morning for a stretch of half a league both on and immediately on either side of the roads they, and a couple of dozen men borrowed from Tharses, had feverishly worked digging concealed pits, setting up log traps, stringing ropes, felling trees, and preparing various other little surprises for their expected guests.
Now Ephiny released Tharsesí men back to their unit and prepared for the most difficult part of the operation. Leaving Tara in charge of eastern group, she took the others and began the delicate task on infiltrating past Dracoís army to the western part of the forest. Within an hour they ran into the lead elements of Dracoís column. She signaled her sisters to spread out into the woods while she took to a tree to get a better look.
Sure enough, riding at the head of the column with a man that could only be Draco was Xena. It hurt Ephiny to no end to see Xena with these men but she knew from experience how easily allegiances changed. Even among her own people this was so. She noted Xena did not seem to be interacting with the others at all.
As Xena neared Ephiny ever so subtly shifted her weight to ease her way down the tree causing the tree limb she was on to slightly shake. It was a very minute movement and only one with keen eyesight and the knowledge of what to look for would have seen it.
Xena saw it. Amazons! she thought. She lowered her head and smiled almost imperceptibly. So thatís it. Heís sent them in here to bottle us up. She knew that by now Amazons were probably already behind them sealing them off. She also knew there could not be more than a hundred or so of them but, in here, it would seem more like a thousand.
Xena was right, of course, the Amazons had successfully passed by the the army and, once well clear, were running like bats out of Hades to reach the west end of the forest. They wanted to make sure they had at least a good start on their traps before Dracoís spearhead hit their sisters on the other side. Their work was well underway when Ephiny caught up with them.
When Dracoís men were within five hundred paces of the first trap Tara ordered her women to take up their ambush positions.Ephiny had made it plain to her to make the attack just big enough to stir their enemy up and to be sure Xena was not to be harmed. Once the ambush was executed the Amazons were to withdraw to the prearranged rendezvous point.óa pair of small hills on the southern edge ot the forest.
Xena felt it would be any time now. It was getting to be late afternoon and Dracoís men were still blundering along the narrow roads oblivious to the peril around them. Draco reined his horse back to fall in with Xena when up ahead he saw a lithe figure dart across the road and appear to fall down.
He turned to the captain beside him and ordered, "Bring that person to me."
"Here we go," said Xena, under her breath.
The captain and two of his men thundered up the road after the figure and found there was, suddenly, no more road beneath them. The well disguised pit it the middle of the road had done its work well. Draco looked around for the woman but she seemed to have disappeared. At once a hail of arrows rained down on the head of the column from all sides. Some of the men foolishly rushed forward to hoping to bypass the pit and immediately fell into another one.
By now several of Dracoís men had fallen victim to well aimed arrows and a general sense of panic was becoming prevelant. The column turned on itself in order to retreat back down the road. Well behind the head of the column logs lashed to limbs high in the trees were cut loose to complete their deadly arc.
"AMBUSH! Get off the road," roared Draco.
His men were all too willing to obey but fell right into the Amazonsí hand for when they did they encountered sharp stakes protruding from the bushes, more small pits which broke down horses, and ropes strung through the forest to throw riders.
Even Xena was taken aback by the thoroughness of the ambush. To her mind the traps laid off the road were an especially nice touch. Before bending low over Argo to protect herself a quick look around revealed the terrible havoc wrought by Ephinyís Amazons. Fallen horses with broken legs lay screaming, soldiers with arrows in their chests gurgling blood, terrified men and animals crashing into the dense underbrush only to find new terrors awaiting them. The army was now a sea of confused and desparate men recklessly colliding with each other in their frenzy to escape that road of death.
The rear of the column saw the huge mass of their comrades bearing down on them, became caught up in the panic, and bolted for the west end of the woods. These men were granted but an illusion of safety for soon they ran straight into Ephinyís little surprise. Again the ambush was completely successful.
At all four ambush sites the plan went off without a hitch. The forest was filled with fleeing men and animals crashing into the thick underbrush, trees,and each other. Not one of them even was their assailants. The Amazons had simply melted into the forest. The sometimes passed within a few paces of Dracoís men as they withdrew but none were so much as glanced at. Just before nightfall the Amazons regrouped at the pair of small hills and, after a quick head count, Ephiny mounted a stump to address her sisters.
"Today," she began, "we have shown the world we are still a force to be reckoned with. I just want to say I am so proud of all of you." She raised her arm in the Amazon salute and added, "Well done, Amazons!"
All that evening and into the night Draco and his lieutenants worked to reorganize the army. Slowly but surely they managed to bring first individuals, then units back under control. For her part Xena simply tied Argo to a tree and sat there waiting for daylight. She didnít want to take the chance of having one of those idiots mistake her for an enemy. So she sat there munching on some dried beef and stale bread and marveled at how well the ambush had worked.
Ephiny, she thought, Iíve got to hand it to you. That was well done. She finished her rough supper and dusted the crumbs from her hands.
"Well, Darinius," she mumbled, "you got what you wanted. Thereís no way we will be in Philippi before you now." She allowed herself a slight smile and added, "If ever you see me again you ought to thank me."
Xena knew what she was talking about. Darinius, in fact, already had the lead elements of his army
( mostly Tyldusí centaurs) already between the forest and Philippi. His cavalry soon joined them and by late evening a battle line was formed. Darinius left it to Tyldusí judgement to choose some good ground on which to wait for Draco. He chose a ridge running northwest to southeast that was cut by the same two roads leading out of the forest. >From this point it was impossible for Draco to get around them and into the city.
By late afternoon advance columns of Tharsesí infantry linked up with the centaurs. They had been marching since midnight. Just before dark Marmax arrived with his division which was posted on the extreme left end of the battle line. By midnight the entire army had arrived and been placed into position.The next morning Darinius and his commanders were joined half way through their morning meeting by Ephiny.
"I am pleased to report our mission was a success," she said simply.
"Tharses rose to shake her hand. "That was one damn fine piece of
soldiering. Some of my boys were scouting up there and they heard them screaming all night in there. You really shook the bastards up."
"You did great, Ephiny," agreed Marmax.
"Just doing our part," offered Ephiny.
"Well you certainly did," said Darinius. "Iíd give you a medal if I had one"
Ephiny turned to face the voice behind her. It was Gabrielle.
"Did...did you...? You know..."
"Yes, I saw her," said Ephiny softly.
"Was she...all right?"
"She looked fine." The Amazon touched her queen on the arm and added, "We made sure she was not harmed, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle could only nod her thanks.
"By the gods! We must have been hit by a whole division, Xena."
"Uhh huhh. Well just be glad they didnít press their attack otherwise those fools would have trampled each other to death."
"Once we get out of this damn forest into the open country weíll be all right."
"Sure," replied Xena dryly. And out of the frying pan and into the fire, she thought.
That night the warrioress sat up all night in her tent. The last hours before dawn were spent thinking of what had been and what was to be. On the morrow or the day after at the latest the two armies would clash. The sooner the better, she thought. Then I wonít be able to hurt anyone anymore. Yes, the loss of Gabrielle was devastating but it was compounded by the realization of what she knew she would become.
Already she felt she had broken her promise to Gabrielle. Her encounter with the man in possession of Gabrielleís staff and the brief, but deadly, fight in the tavern convinced her she was soon destined to return to the old ways. She had enjoyed torturing the man in the road and had positively reveled in the death of the men in the tavern. To her way of thinking it was only a matter of time before she graduated to bigger and more horrible deeds. I canít let that happen, she told herself.
In her tortured brain the only way to prevent it was to cease to exist.She fingered the small, colorful, band of cloth, Gabrielleís hair band, and murmured, "Gabrielle, Iím so sorry I failed you."
"Theyíll be here by this evening, general." The young scout from Tharsesí division was a little nervous to be in the presence of all these great men but he made his report concise and accurate.
"They are still basically sticking to those two roads," he continued.
"Funny thing, I donít think they have any idea just how big our force is."
"Well they will know soon enough," said Marmax.
"Good report, son," said Darinius. "You can go now." He turned to his division commanders. "Well, this is it. Either tonight or tomorrow will fininsh it with Xena. You all know the plan. The main thing I want to emphasize is we must not let them escape. Above all else I want their path of retreat cut off. We cannot allow any of them to escape to join up with Paulus."
"I can assure if it comes to a fight the trap will be sprung," assured Tyldus.
"I know," nodded Darinius. "Everything is ready. All we can do now is wait. If you will excuse me I think Iím going to take a nap. Didnít sleep very well last night." In fact since sending Ephiny on her mission he had not slept at all.
He nodded to the men and left them to work out some minor details about communications and returned to his tent. Before entering, he turned to the young lieutenant, Marcus. "Iím going to try to get some rest. Wake me in a couple of hours."
Darinius looked at him and smiled. "Is this your first time away from the valley, son? You homesick?"
"Yes, sir. I miss my wife awfully bad."
"Well, the gods willing, weíll be back home before the summer solstice."
Marcus watched him disappear into the tent and it struck him then how much older his general looked. Power always bears more heavily on those that wield it for good than on those that use it for evil purposes, he decided. He shook his head in awe and returned to his duties.
To Darinius it seemed he had no more laid down his head before he felt Marcusí hand upon his chest.
"Sir. Sir? You wanted me to wake you, sir?"
"Right." He sat up and tried to focus his bleary eyes.
"Would you like something to eat, sir?"
The very thought of food made his stomach rebel. "Uhh, no. Thanks anyway."
The rustle of footsteps outside his tent and the low murmur of many voices caught his attention and he stepped outside to investigate. Forming a semi-circle around his tent were the leaders of all thirteen of the armyís contributors.
"What is all this?" asked Darinius.
"Well, we were wondering if you would like to review the mení said Marmax.
"I know, I know, youíre uncomfortable with this sort of thing. But it would mean a lot to the men to see you."
"Okay," sighed Darinius.
Marmax led the group down the lane formed by the officersí tents. Past them, in a large clearing, were eleven battalionsóone from each kingdom. The Amazons and the centaurs, being much smaller groups were represented by one hundred of each. The units were lined up in a long row with their banners streaming out in front to identify their origin.
As they neared Darinius saw the others stop.
"Arenít you going with me? he asked.
"No," said Tharses. "This is your honor alone."
"Is it not the generalís prerogative to choose a Warrior of Honor to accompany him on the review? reminded Darinius.
"This is so," agreed Tyldus.
"Well, since the Amazons are the only ones to have done any fighting I think you will all agree that the honor should go to Ephiny," said Darinius.
All the division commanders nodded their heads in approval.
"No," floated a voice from the back. It was Ephiny. "If you must honor an Amazon it must be Gabrielle. She is our rightful queen and the honor is hers."
"No, Ephiny...you, itís your honor," stammered Gabrielle. "You are the hero."
"Epiny smiled and touched her queenís shoulder. "No. It is your place to go. We will be honored for you to represent us."
Gabrielle lowered her head and nodded. "Okay, you win."
Ephiny walked her to Dariniusí side.
"What do I do," asked Gabrielle.
"Walk one step behind him and one step to the right," instructed Ephiny.
"Stay in step. If he stops, you stop. Thatís all there is to it."
Darinius gave Ephiny an amused smile and asked, "How did you know that?"
"Iíve been around," said Ephiny. I didnít come into town on a load of melons, you know. I have seen parade reviews before."
Darinius laughed and turned to Gabrielle. "You ready?"
The little bard gulped and nodded.
To calm her nerves he leaned over and whispered, "I must say that look certainly becomes you."
She was wearing the full regalia of an Amazon queen, all but the mask.
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she smiled thinly."Well, letís get this over with."
As they began their review the powerful reverberation of an Amazon drum
filled the air. Its cadence was timed to Gabrielleís footsteps, each beat being struck as her right foot hit the ground. A second drum sounded out three short, quick beats in between the other drumís main beat. Darinius had heard their war drums long ago when Queen Melosa was just beginning her reign. His thoughts drifted back to her briefly as he made his way down the line. She had been proud and noble woman dedicated to her race.
Itís a damn shame there arenít more like her, he thought. To him their war drums signified all that was good about them. Pride, defiance...strength. Although a soldier most of his adult life, he did not much care for the pomp and pageantry However the haunting beat of the Amazon war drum was one thing he allowed himself to enjoy. They were inspiring and even an old veteran like himself could feel the blood inside him racing.
When they passed each battalion, its banner was dipped and the honor captain drew his sword and raised the blade vertically in front of his face in salute. He set a good pace, fast enough to get it over with in a hurry but not too fast to show disrespect.
To Gabrielle it was an awesome display. She had never seen such power before. All those warlords she had seen Xena battle had referred to their forty or fifty men as an Ďarmyí and to a naive village girl from Poteidaia that had seemed like an army. By the gods how ludicrous that seemed now! The bard in her knew this was the stuff of an epic tale. If it werenít for Xena...
Oh, Xena I miss you. Please, Zeus, let this turn out all right.
"The review, itís over."
She had been so absorbed in her thoughts of Xena she had not noticed they had reached the end of the parade line. Only Dariniusís hand on her shoulder brought her back to reality.
"Iím sorry. I guess my mind was somewhere else."
"Gabrielle, Iím going to fix all this if I can. You have just got to trust me."
"Weíll camp here tonight, Draco. And have your men send out patrols. We donít want anymore surprises from that bastard Darinius."
"But, Xena, protested Draco, "there are still two good hours of daylight left. We could get even closer to them it we continue on."
Xena closed her eyes in exasperation and replied, "Draco that fiasco in the forest took a lot out of these men. We must stop now to allow the men to rest because by noon tomorrow we will be at war."
With the eve of battle at hand Draco began to get cold feet. "Do you... think we can win, Xena?"
"We wonít know that until tomorrow, now will we?"
"But if we lose... what are our options?"
"Options?" She eyed him as if he was some lower form of life. ""There are only two optionsóvictory or death. Now do as I say and get these men encamped."
Xena felt it was now time to take a ride. Without even bothering to tell Draco she headed west until she had cleared the rear of their army. She them made a wide loop to the south before turning to the northeast. Her destination was Dariniusí camp. She calculated her time and distance perfectly for she reached his first outpost just after dark. Along the way she encountered several patrols but, fortunately, there was considerable cover available to hide in.
She found a particularly secluded spot and there dismounted Argo. She reached into her saddlebag and retrieved half an apple she had been saving for her beloved Argo.
The horse gently took the apple from her open palm as Xena lovingly stroked her mane.
"Girl," she murmured, "in good times or bad, be I a hero or a demon, you have always been my friend."
The mare finished the apple and carefully touched her snout to her mistressí hand, looking for more.
"Iím sorry, girl," smiled Xena. "Thatís all I have. Gabrielle is the one who always...who..." To Xena the battle was coming none too soon.
She patted Argo on the nose and whispered, "Now donít make a sound while I am gone. We donít want somebody to find you, now do we?"
Argo nudged her in the ribs to signify her assent.
Silently she picked her way through the dense growth of the woods and by the time she reached open country it was completely dark. For one as experienced in night movement as she was it was easy to avoid the numerous patrols Darinius had thrown out. Half an hour later she mounted a hill and for the first time saw the full breathtaking spectacle of Dariniusí army.
As far as the eye could see there were burning campfires forming a great semi-circle. Their glow had been visible for quite some time to her and she knew it would be a big camp but even to her battle hardened eyes this was an awesome sight. She paused for just a moment to marvel at the power that lay before her before resuming her journey.
She neared the camp and began look for someone that suited her purpose. She soon saw her man. A sentry, covering an assigned patrol route, was just the right size. Five minutes later the sentry was unconscious and Xena was stripping off his clothes. Quickly she shed her things and donned the sentryís tunic and trousers. After a quick look around to make sure she had not been seen, Xena pulled the tunicís hood up over her head, hid her things in some bushes, and cautiously started for the center of the camp. She was not worried about the sentry being found for a good while yetóshe knew the watch had just been changed.
About a quarter leagueís walk later she began to look for tents with more than ususal amounts of activity around them, the more activity the higher the rank. Her height and bearing served her well because not once was she challenged during her movement throught the camp. At last she turned a corner and, standing out in front of a large tent and speaking to Marmax, was Darinius himself.
She eased back the way she came and looked for a safe place to wait for the campís activity to die down. A couple of hours later she again made her way to the corner and saw no one was around his tent. As quickly as she dared, she walked the short distance to his tent. After a quick look peek to make sure he was alone, Xena quietly entered.
He was sitting on a small stool, eyes closed, with his back against the rear of the tent. Xena was shocked by how tired he looked. Knowing no one would dare enter without announcing themselves, she was not worried about being discovered. She very carefully crossed the tent and sat on the side of the cot next to him.
"I thought you were asleep."
"Nah. Hypnos hasnít been too regular a visitor lately." He cocked his head to one side and waited.
"Darinius, Iíve come to say good bye. I figure I owe a friend such as you that much."
"Good bye? You mean youíre leaving?"
"You know what I mean," Xena said quietly.
"You have got it all planned out, donít you?" You think thereís going to be a big battle here tomorrow and the mighty Xena is going to die a warriorís death fighting against overwhelming odds. Am I right?"
"Something like that."
"You know, Xena, I know what itís like to lose someone you love so much you think you canít live anymore. Iíd like to have a dinar for everytime I comtemplated ramming my sword in my guts after Lycidia was killed. I didnít care about anybody or anything. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I was needed."
"Nobody needs me," said Xena bitterly. Nobody needs a killer with an unstable mind."
"Stop it!" From his seat he reached up and yanked her arm, pulling her down to him. "Now, damn it, you listen to me. Thereís nothing wrong with your mind and you are not a killer either. Youíre just hurting, thatís all."
He let go of her arm and pushed her away to stand up. "So, nobody needs you, huh?"
Quickly he stepped to the tent opening and stuck his head outside.
In a second the young lieutenant was there. He murmured something into the young manís ear and Marcus at once left to carry out the order. Darinius walked back over and sat down next to Xena.
"Did you think I was going to give you away?"
He turned from her and stared straight ahead. It was time. "Xena, Gabrielle is alive."
"Alive! Where? Is she all right?"
"Yes, sheís fine. She is right here. I sent Marcus to fetch her. She can tell you what happened later. Now listen to me, we donít have much time. Now, as you probably know, just about everyone of these kingdoms wants your head on a pike."
"Xena, Iíve got a plan to get you out of this unscathed but you have got to play along with me, understand?"
She narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I can get you off the hook with these people. But I want you to promise me you will never tell Gabrielle that what I say is not the truth."
"You mean youíre going to lie?"
Darinius bored his eyes into hers. "Iím going to tell them this was all part of your plan to deliver Draco to us. Iím going to say you came to me with this plan knowing I would be called upon to lead their army and we both agreed to keep it a secret. What I need to know is are you willing to go along?"
"I donít know."
"Xena, Gabrielle is going to be here any minute.You have got to decide. You two can still have your lives together or you can be torn apart by doubt and guilt. Xena, she does not need to know."
Xena merely blinked.
"Damn it. If you wonít do it to save yourself do it for her," He paused before adding, "and for me."
They heard footsteps approaching the tent.
"Xena, Iím begging you. Take Gabrielle and get out of here. Iíll take care of the rest but youíve got to promise me you wonít tell Gabrielle what I did."
Xena closed her eyes and sighed, "I wonít."
"Sir. Sir?" It was Marcus.
Darinius walked to the tent opening and stepped. "Thank you, lieutenant."
"Whatís this all about?" asked Gabrielle sleepily.
He merely jerked his head toward the tent. Gabrielle, looked at him, shrugged her shoulders and stepped inside. Standing in the corner was the love she had not seen in almost four months. At first she could not believe it. She thought maybe it was a hallucination or maybe she was still in her bed, dreaming.
The warrior didnít know what to do or say. But the little bard did. Gabrielle launched herself across the tent and into Xenaís arms.
Gabrielle laid her head on those breasts she knew so well and whispered triumphantly, "Oh, Xena, I knew you werenít in league with Draco. I knew it had to be one of your plans."
"Thatís right," said Darinius, staring intently at Xena. "It was her idea all along to gain Dracoís confidence and sucker him into bringing his army here instead of waiting to link up with Paulus, isnít that right, Xena?"
A faint "yes" was all Xena could muster.
"Iím sorry I didnít tell you Gabrielle but it was necessary that we keep this secret," said Darinius.
Oh gods, Gabrielle, you feel so good. It was like holding love itself, thought Xena. She was so warm...so close.
"Gabrielle, I thought you were dead so I had to do something to keep from going crazy. When I heard Draco was back in Greece with an army I knew what I had to do."
"Oh, Xena, Iím so proud of you. I knew you could do it."
Xena whispered ever so softly in Gabrielleís ear, "My precious little bard, I love you so."
She didnít want to cry in front of Darinius but the pressure of those loving arms around her was just too much. "Gabrielle, I missed you so much"
The bard did not reply but her sniffling and gently heaving chest told Xena all she wanted to hear.
"Well, uh, Xena, I uh... I think youíve done all you can do here," said Darinius."You just leave the rest to me. Tomorrow Iíll explain everthing to the others. Donít want them to think you were a bad girl, you know," he grinned.
Xena smiled faintly and silently mouthed the words, "Thank you."
He winked at her and said, "Címon, you can finish this mushy stuff later. I got a war to fight."
"Maybe I should..."
"No, Xena," he cut her off, "Youíve done enough. You just get out of here and we will take care of Draco," He paused before adding, "and Paulus too."
"Yeah. I just got word this evening that heís landed near Thessaloniki."
He walked over to the little table and began writing something on a piece of parchment. "Hereís a pass though our lines." He stretched out his hand. "Xena you did a great job. We would not have stood a chance to win if Draco had linked up with Paulus. Now itís too late for them."
He sincerely meant this for he knew Xena really had held up Dracoóeven if her motive for doing it was different. He shook hands first with the Warrior Princess and then with the little bard and said, "One of these days we are going to meet when there is actually no trouble around. Who knows, we might have a picnic."
"Yeah, right," said Xena dryly. "Good luck, you pest."
The two women turned to leave the tent.
He pointed to her trousers. "You make sure my man gets his pants back, okay? He is sure to need them."
"Will do," said Xena, simply.
Gabrielle suddenly put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, Ephiny..."
"Iíll tell her," assured Darinius.
And they were gone.
Inside an hour Xena and Gabrielle were mounted on Argo and riding south. To make sure they cleared all of both sidesí patrols they rode all night and well into the next morning.
To Gabrielle it was like waking up from a nightmare, Xena was not gone, she was not an evil warlord again. She was the same Xena she had fallen in love with.
For Xena it was not so easy. It would take time but eventually she would come to believe she had, once again, been given a new lease on life. The faith Gabrielle and Darinius had shown her was something she felt was undeserved. After all, until she saw Gabrielle, she had had every intention of carrying out her plan to die. It troubled her to know Darinius was laying his reputation on the line for her. Why did he do it? Even Gabrielle troubled her. Was her love become too unquestioning? She hoped the bardís sense of justice would never become biased by her love.
Why did these people go to such pains for her? Why did they care? Hercules had cared. He could have just killed her and been done with it and been lauded for doing it. Gabrielle had cared. In their early days Xena had been less than enthusiastic about the naive kid from Poteidaia but the girl had never wavered in her trust and friendship.
Finally, after many sleepless nights and much soul searching she came to the conclusion that all she could do was wipe the slate clean once more and try again.
For her part Gabrielle was ready to resume their relationship right where it left off but Xena was plagued by doubt. She wanted the little bard more than ever but somehow she just...couldnít.
Gabrielle was troubled by Xenaís abstension but she attributed it to her worrying about the great battle about to be fought in the north. She figured the warrior in her longed to be there.
Over the next few weeks Gabrielle lovingly tried to coax Xena out of her shell but it would take time and patienceóand a dreadful turn of events.
Draco woke up to find his army surrounded. After a frantic search Xena was not to be found. The bitch betrayed me, he thought. Outnumbered almost three to one and faced with Dariniusí ultimatum to surrender or no prisoners would be taken, Draco surrendered. Without Xena he knew he didnít stand a chance.
Four days later Darinius turned his army toward Thessaloniki to face Paulus.
Within three weeks of Xena and Gabrielleís departure all of Greece was electrified with news of the mammoth battle fought just southwest of Thessaloniki.
In two days of savage fighting the armies of Paulus and Darinius slammed into each other, broke apart, performed writhing, ghastly pirouettes, and then slammed into each other again.
Paulus was an exceptional general, well schooled in the art of war and his army was made up of veterans of may campaigns under his leadership. They were used to winning. He had heard of Darinius but he discounted his ability as a soldier. He felt the Greeks always tended to build their heroes up too much. Dracoís and Xenaís perceived treachery had vexed him greatly but he still felt capable of easily defeating anything the Greeks could throw at him.
The desparate struggle was marked by courage and determination on both sides but, by midafternoon of the second day, the tide had turned in favor of the Greeks. Paulusí left flank was crushed by a series of counterattacks brilliantly devised by Darinius and skillfully executed by Marmax and Tharses while the forces of Tyldus held the front door closed against Paulusí crushing attacks.
Eventually Paulusí line was rolled up by the hammerlike blows of Marmaxís and Tharsesí men. In the final hour of the titanic struggle Marmax and Tharses personally led their men forward and thus insured the victory. With no more than two hours of sun left in the sky Paulus and the remnants of his shattered army were compelled to surrender or be slaughtered. Fully one half his army was dead.
The historic battle guaranteed it would be a long time before the northern tribes would venture into Greece again. That guarantee, however, did not come without a price. A full one quarter of the Greek army lay dead. Tharses, the Spartan general, was killed by an arrow just minutes before the battle ended.Marmax received wounds to his left leg and shoulder but would recover fully. Marcus, the young lieutenant Darinius had grown very fond of, lost an eye but would live to hold his young wife again. The brave Ephiny survived without a scratch but thirty-seven of her sisters, a full one fifth their number, did not live to answer her roll call.
As Dariniusí massive, and ultimately successful, counterattack was being launched he had went to join Tyldus in order to insure their front line was not broken before the counterattack could wreck the havoc he knew it would. It was there he received two arrows; one in the leg and one in his abdomen. Despite Tyldusí vehement insistence, he refused to be borne from the field until the final outcome was known. Tyldus was the only senior commander able to accept Paulusísurrender.
That night a surgeon, trained by Hippocrates himself, cut out the arrows, dressed his wounds, and left the rest to the gods. After a week it was clear he was not improving so Lacos, his ranking countryman, decided if Darinius was to die it should be in his own bed. With Marcus walking beside the cart with him, the remnants of the Army of Mymalar bore their leader home. They had, indeed, proved to be soldiers he could be proud of and, as he lay on the bloody field, he had told Lacos so.
On the day of his departure the entire army lined both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see to honor the architect of their great victory. A lone Amazon drum, placed each quarter league, beat out a mournful cadence. As the cart passed her the stoic Ephiny felt her heart grow heavy and tears gently rolled down her cheeks. Even Tyldus, the grizzled old veteran of more battles than he could remember, felt a tear on his cheek. Like all the rest he thought Darinius was surely going to die.
Darinius returned home and for the next month lay in the misty region somewhere between life and death. His doctors were puzzled by it all. His wounds had sufficiently healed enough by now that he should be showing marked improvement but he was not. Why?
Xena knew why. As only someone that had borne the responsibility could understand, Xena knew. Darinius did not want to bear his burden any longer. He was tired of ordering men to their death. He was tired of being too skilled at a craft he hated. He was tired of carrying the perceived guilt for his beloved Lycidiaís death. He was just...tired.
Xena and Gabrielle once again retraced their earlier route to Mymalar and this time the encountered no trouble at the frontier. When they called on their friend they were stunned to learn he would not see them. In fact, the only visitor he had allowed in was Hercules, just recently returned from Egypt.
"But why?" asked Gabrielle in disbelief.
"He doesnít want us to see him this way," explained Xena. "Heís ashamed."
"Thatís just stupid," sobbed Gabrielle angrily. "Doesnít he know we...you know."
"Yeah, he knows what he means to us."
"So what do we do?" asked Gabrielle.
Without much conviction Xena replied, "We respect his wishes" "No! Xena youíve got to do something. Please, Iím begging you."
The Warrior Princess turned her gaze from Gabrielleís face to the house
and back again. Gabrielle is right, she thought. We canít let him just lay up there wallowing in self pity and die like some dog in a ditch. Already a plan was forming in her mind.
With a devilish smile she turned to Gabrielle. "Okay, hereís what we do. Tonight you..."
That night Xena made Gabrielle drink down a whole flask of wine. When she saw the size of the flask the little bardís eyes almost bugged out of her head.
"But why so much?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena sniffed the bottle. "This stuff is not very strong but itís all I could find.
Itís important that you positively reek of the stuff. To prove her point Xena even spilled some of it on Gabrielleís top. "We have to convince them youíre drunk.
"Hmph. After I drink all that I wonít have to pretendóI will be drunk."
"So much the better," smiled Xena dryly.
Gabrielle reluctantly took her first tentative sip of the bitter liquid and nearly gagged. "Ugh! Where did you get this stuff? The pit of Hades?"
"Close," smirked Xena. "Now drink."
Gabrielle sniffed the bottle again before turning it up and sighed, "The things I do for my friends."
Xena waited until all the lights in the house were out before she made her move.
The whole object of tonightís exercise was to create a diversion big enough to get whomever was occupying Dariniusí room with him to leave long enough for Xena to get in there for a few minutes.
"Okay, Gabrielle, get going."
By now poor Gabrielle was three sheets to the wind. As she teetered past Xena caught her arm.
"Now you do remember what to do, donít you?"
"Shhhuurrr. (hic) Whaddaya think I yam, an imbe.. (hic) an imbeci...(hic) a moron?"
"Okay, take off."
Gabrielle winked, made a circle with her thumb and index fingeróand headed out in the exact opposite direction of the house.
"No no, this way, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle tiptoed and looked down the length of Xenaís outstretched arm as if it was some sort of sighting device. "Right. Got it."
The poor girl rolled her eyes up at Xena and giggled, "Hiyo, sidekicks, away." And with that she wobbled down the orchard path that led to the house.
Xena could only shake her head.
Gabrielle weaved her way upon the portico and banged loudly on the front door with her staff. "Open up (hic). Open up in there I shhay."
Mageron open the door. "Oh, itís you again."
"Yeh, smee again. I wanna see Darin...(hic) Dar (hic)...your boss."
"As I told you before, heís not seeing anyone," said Mageron. "And what are you doing coming here smelling like a winery? Donít you have any respect?"
Gabrielle squinted at the three images in front of her and decided to address the middle one. "íSpect? Iíll show you Ďspect!"
Gabrielle wound up and heaved her wine bottle past Mageronís ear and smashed it on the far wall of the room. She held her arm up, flexed her muscles, and grinned. "Purdy good arm, huh?"
"Youíre drunk! shouted Margeron.
"No shit, Shhocrates," burped Gabrielle. The bard put her hand to her mouth and giggled. "Oops, donít tell my friend I said that. She donít like it when I say ob...(hic) when I say obscen...(hic) when I cuss.
"Get her out of here."
The entire household was downstairs gaping at the wild-eyed girl in the main room. One of them took her by the arm to lead her outside. Gabrielle stomped his toe and stumbled to the center of the room.
"Ha ha ha ha ha! Come on Mym..(hic) Mymal...(hic) you guys. Iíll take you all on shhingly or one at a time.
From her vantage point outside Dariniusí window, Xena heard the commotion downstairs and watched the young man posted in Dariniusí room leap up and run out of the room.
"Good work, Gabrielle," she whispered.
In an instant Xena was through the window and locking the door to the room.
She then quickly looked her friend over and noted how irregular his breathing was and how pale he looked.
She knelt down and put her lips to his ear. "Darinius, itís me, Xena. Now I know you can hear me. I donít have much time. Darinius, donít do this. Donít let yourself die.Fight! Your wounds arenít bad enough to kill you and you know it. But youíve got to want to live.
She put her ear to his lips and listened. Nothing. She decided to up the ante. She thumped him on the chest and hissed, "Darinius, damn you, you wouldnít let me die, do you think Iím going to let you lay here and rot away? Darinius, you son of a bitch, donít do this to me. Think of all the people that love you, that need you."
She felt the frustration building within her. "Darinus, I used to hate your guts. I prayed I would be there to watch you die. Well if you die on me now, you bastard, Iíll curse your name from now on."
Her first tear fell free and landed on her old enemyís cheek.
"You know, I can count on one hand the number of people that I care enough to die for and you, you son of a bitch, are one of Ďem."
Again she leaned over. Nothing.
Blinking back her tears she played her trump card. "If you wonít do it for me do it for Gabrielle. Damn it, itís going to break her heart to know you just quit like this. You never ducked a fight in your life, no matter what the odds were. Your whole life has been spent helping others. For Zeusí sake why donít you let us help you now?"
She lay her head down in despair on the bed for a moment but the now revitalized warrior spirit in her would not let her give up. She was losing and she didnít like to lose at anythingóeven word games with Gabrielle.
She stood up and looked down at him, sneering. "Darinius, do you know why you won those battles against me? Because I let you. I felt sorry for a pathetic, sod busting, bastard leading an army of filthy, underfed scarecrows armed with rusty swords and dull spears and I took pity on the fool.
Great general, my ass. You couldnít lead pigs to a mud hole. Finest archer in Greece. HAH! You couldnít hit water if you fell out of a boat. And let me tell you one more thing before I get the Tartarus out of here and let you wallow in your self pity. If ever by chance we meet in the afterlife Iím going to kick your ass seven ways to Sparta and make you like it. So, big hero, what do you say to that?"
It was her last bolt.
Xena silently stared at his blank face and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the barest, barest hint of a smile appeared at one corner of his mouth. Xena dropped to her knees and put an ear to his lips. A weak, hoarse, almost raspy whisper escaped.
"I say go to Hades, you arrogant, big mouthed, harlot."
A weak, but full, smile played across his lips and his eyes dreamily opened. Xena put her hand to her mouth and silently thanked the gods. "Why, Darinius, thatís the nicest thing you ever said to me," she sobbed.
The thumping of footsteps on the stairs told her it was time to go. She tenderly kissed him and whispered, "Iíve got to go. Gabrielle and I will come tomorrow, okay?"
He slowly blinked his assent and weakly jerked his thumb toward the window.
"Get out of here, troublemaker."
With a dazzling smile Xena darted through the window, and for a moment, waited outside.
The young man, merely thinking he had locked the door himself in his haste, was stunned to find Darinius conscious and trying to speak.
He bolted to the door. "Mageron! Mageron, come quickly. Heís awake!"
All attention to Gabrielle was dropped and the sound of the whole household bounding up the stairs was like a herd of thundering bulls.
Mageron burst into the room and rushed to his old commanderís bedside. Darinius opened his mouth and fought for the words, "Mageron...Mageron, tomorrow must see...must see Xeeena"
The old soldier nodded and answered, "Whatever you say."
From her hiding place Xena again beamed that beautiful smile and she was off to collect Gabrielle.
"Mmmm. Boy, this stuff is good, Gabrielle. If you ever need a recommendation as a cook just let me know." Darinius sat upright in his bed filling himself with Gabrielleís stew. In the three days since Xenaís little visit the little bard had spent almost every waking moment in his room.
He finished his stew and sat back. With a contented burp he said, "You know, a man could get used to all this attention."
"Well just donít tooo used to it," said Xena dryly. "In a couple of days Iím gonna haul your butt out of that bed and make fend for yourself."
"Ohhh, Xena, not so loud." Poor Gabrielle was still feeling the afteraffects of her bout with the bottle.
"Gabrielle, that was a brave thing you did, taking on all my guys like that," said Darinius.
"Well," she smiled, "itís a good thing I was drunk or I would have been scared."
"Yeah, sure." Darinius looked at each of them. "I want to thank you guys for bringing me to me senses. I realize now that it was a selfish thing to do on my part."
Gabrielle put her hand on his arm. "There arenít many like you and Xena in this world, Darinius. We need all of you we can get."
"Well, I learned my lesson. I know now I will able to live with the fact that my life is not my own. My job is to help people and Iím not going to run away from it anymore."
Xena looked out the window toward the distant mountains. "Gabrielle, youíve been cooped up in here for three days now. Why donít you get some fresh air?"
"Who me? No...Iím good. Iím..." Gabrielle finally got the hint. "Oh. Okay. I guess youíre right. Fresh air."
The two great warriors watched in amusement as their beloved little friend began muttering on her way out, "Donít have to tell me twice, no sir. I can take a hint. Nobody ever said Gabrielle..." and she was out of hearing.
"Xena, I really appreciate what you did for me."
"No more than I for what you did for me," said Xena.
"I guess weíre even then."
"Darinius, weíre as even as two people can be." She matched his gaze.
"Tell me, what if I had not came to your tent that night? Would you have really fought against me?" She still had not decided whether he would have or not.
With only the barest hint of a smile he said, "As we used to say when I was a kid, ĎThatís for me to know and you to find outí."
Xena held up her index fingers menacingly close to his neck. "You know I could make you talk."
"Aww," he grinned, "you wouldnít hit a man while he was down, would you?"
"I might not hit a manóbut I would hit you."
"Well, yuk, yuk, yuk. Hmph, you should be known as Xena:Warrior Comedian."
His grin faded and he added, "Xena, this was a very near thing. I donít think I could do that again. I would rather cut off my own arm than fight you again.You are like my own flesh and blood."
Her reply came straight from her heart. "Darinius, I swear by my brother Lyceusí grave I will never raise my hand against you again."
"And so do Ióby the grave of Lycidia."
Xena again looked out the window and watched Gabrielle stroll down the lane, hands gesturing...talking to herself. And so another beautiful story is born, she thought.
"Would you ever have believed, all those years ago, that one day weíd be sitting here, all misty eyed, making vows of peace?"
"Hardly", Xena grunted. She knew their vows were more than just promises. They were bonds between them that would be broken only when they were dust in the ground. A warriorís vow in every sense of the word. Warriors that understood each other as none else, not even Gabrielle, could.
Darinius saw Xena for the genius she wasóhowever misguided that genius might have been in the past. Though her struggle was far from over, she might yet achieve heights even he could only dream of.
Xena saw him as the supreme example of what a warrior ought to beófeared by his enemies, loved by his friends, respected by all.
In another life they might have been lovers. But not in this life. Xenaís love was Gabrielle...as was his. He knew the little bard would never be his but he was determined to not let it make him bitter or to mar how he felt toward the two of them. He was just happy to be her friend. Their friend. For life. Forever.
Xena turned from the window and faced her great enemy/friend and smiled to see his eyes droop and his head nod. Sleep, great warrior, she thought. Nobody deserves peace more than you. Silently she crept out of the room and went to join Gabrielle in the garden.
That night in the great home of their treasured friend, for the first time in almost five moons, the Warrior Princess and her precious little bard, at long last, filled themselves with each other and afterwards lay in the otherís arms in the peaceful slumber which blesses those hearts united by unconditional love and, for all we know, by destiny itself.
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