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by: Wolfgang McCollough
Xena and Gabrielle entered Sigmot just as the sun set behind the mountain in whose shadow the village was nestled. They headed toward the inn, which had a sign painted with a green dragon that breathed fire at the round, ruddy sun. Gabrielle stopped to admire the boldness of the painter’s work, with his vivid colors such as she had never seen before.
"I wonder where he got such an idea," Gabrielle wondered aloud.
"It’s no great mystery; just look around you," a voice not Xena’s answered. Gabrielle whirled to face the voice’s owner. A woman, slender and well-dressed, stood before her; she gazed steadily at Gabrielle and didn’t flinch despite the suddenness of the bard’s response. Instead, she raised an arm and gestured toward the sky. Indeed, the sky seemed ablaze with dragon-fire: the sun itself shimmered in the intensity of it; in all the sky around them the red was unbroken except for the greenness of the mountain, rising in a perfectly contoured mound behind which the sun seemed to be falling, blown away by the burning sky.
"Children of Sigmot are often told of the dragon who in ancient times battled the sun itself; Sigmot rests at the slumbering dragon’s tail now, but nature reminds us of that fiery conflict each summer evening."
Gabrielle mentally filed away the story for later; when she spoke, she was more friendly.
"Sorry if I scared you; I must be tired."
The woman shook her head lightly. "No, I wasn’t frightened. Please go in; your friend is already inside."
Gabrielle looked around and realized that Xena was nowhere to be found; she hurried into the inn. Inside, there were a handful of men eating noisily, but no Xena.
Gabrielle walked over to the bartender, a tall and skinny man with owlish eyes and a shiny bald spot squeezed round by the light brown hair that surrounded it, like bushes upon a hill top.
"Excuse me, have you seen a tall dark-haired woman; I think she may have just stepped in."
The man’s adam’s apple bobbled busily as he spoke; Gabrielle caught herself watching its rapid movements.
"I’m sorry; would you repeat that? I didn’t catch all of what you said."
The man was about to oblige when Gabrielle felt a familiar hand upon her shoulder.
"Never mind; thank you." Gabrielle walked over to a table with Xena.
"I just saw to Argo; what kept you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Nothing really; I got into a conversation with a woman about that gorgeous sign hanging over the door. Did you notice that that mountain looks kind of like a dragon’s back; and that as the sun sets, the whole thing looks quite strikingly like the sign outside—only larger and much, much better..." Gabrielle left off as she noticed Xena’s eyes move off her face and become set in that expression that Gabrielle labeled as the "watchful" look—when Xena was listening to and sensing and smelling and tasting, even, everything around her as she stared intently straight ahead to get a full picture of what was around her, and always when that uncanny sixth sense of hers warned her that danger was coming.
Gabrielle began to scan the room herself, hoping to see what Xena was probably registering with all five senses, plus some extra ones only Xena knew of. She saw the same men sitting at the same tables, only now they were standing up, having finished their meals; she also the woman who had spoken to her outside the inn. As her mind was a bit occupied by what such a woman was doing alone in an inn and without any visible weapon, she didn’t quite see how the fight began. The next thing she knew, Xena’s war yell was ripping through the room and the blur of Xena’s body in motion sent men flying like debris in the path of a tornado.
Gabrielle grabbed her stick and was getting to her feet when she felt the wind knocked out of her and her legs kicked out from under her; she hit the table with a thud, face first, and felt two strong hands pin her down from behind.
Xena saw Gabrielle go down in the periphery of her field of vision.
As Gabrielle chattered away happily, Xena had listened to her with the beginning of a smile on her lips. However, her attention had been drawn away by the sudden cessation of the voices of the men seated behind her; she was very familiar with a determined silence such as the one that had assaulted her. When the attack came, she was already tensed in anticipation and she sprang at her attackers with the energy of a tightly coiled tiger. When Gabrielle was struck by one of the soldiers, Xena roared terrifically and ran headlong through the outflung and grasping arms of several soldiers, ripping through as shears through wool. But more arms were on the other side of these soldiers, and there were arms at her back. Even Xena’s fierce momentum was slowed, checked, and reversed, and Xena found herself pinned by many hands to another table top near the one against which Gabrielle was being held. Where did all these soldiers come from? There was no way that Xena could have misjudged so grossly. Unless it was a trap. But who laid it down? The question burned in Xena’s head as she struggled in vain to free herself.
A man walked toward Xena, removing his helmet. He revealed a head of snow-white hair but a face too young to match it. He brought the helmet to rest in the crook of his arm and stood over Xena, face impassive.
Xena glared at him. "You must have a death wish," she growled at him, and despite the situation, it was neither ridiculous nor bravado-laden; it was so matter-of-fact as to be frankly intimidating.
"Enough, Lander." Lander turned away from Xena and bowed briefly.
Gabrielle was surprised newly in recognizing the voice as belonging to the woman who had told her the story of the Sigmot dragon outside the inn.
Xena saw Gabrielle’s eyes widen. She fastened her hard stare upon the dark-haired woman and spoke, her voice dripping hostility, "I don’t know who you are, but this was the worst mistake of your life."
The woman nodded her head and Lander turned.
"Release the warrior princess and her companion." The soldiers obeyed, releasing the two women; they stepped back and stood at attention without moving further. When Gabrielle’s captor released her, Xena jumped off the table and laid him low with a swift kick to the head. She helped Gabrielle to her feet. Then deliberately, Xena turned and sized up the woman who was obviously in charge.
"Warrior princess, forgive the manner in which I have made myself known to you; I had to be sure that your reputation was not exaggerated. I am reassured."
Gabrielle muttered under her breath, "That makes one of us."
"Lander, attend to the injured man. Withdraw with the rest of your men and leave me to speak with the warrior princess."
For the first time, something flickered in Lander’s impassive eyes; Xena saw that it was doubt. The woman saw it also: she turned to him and placed her hand upon the other’s arm. "Don’t be afraid for me; I don’t believe that this is the same woman in your nightmares." Then in a tone more gentle than before, "Go, my friend. Trust me a little further." For a second, Lander seemed undecided; then just as suddenly, his jaw tensed and he ordered his men out.
Gabrielle was forced to admire the woman’s fearlessness; very few would have been
willing to face Xena alone after having attacked her. She saw that Xena was also
surprised by the boldness that this woman possessed, and although she couldn’t be sure—so well-placed was Xena’s stony visage—Gabrielle sensed that the tall warrior also
grudgingly admired her for it.
When the three women were alone, an almost audible sigh passed through the dark-haired woman’s lips.
"My name is Siemona. This kingdom through which you are passing is Zindahle, ruled by King Tetrosus the Wise."
Xena interrupted. "The only Tetrosus of Zindahle I know is not called wise; he is called Tetrosus the Terrible. And you’re wasting your breath; I don’t get involved with people who attack me and my friends without cause; nor do I work with those who would call a murdering butcher ‘wise.’"
Siemona regarded Xena without expression. Then a kind of sadness entered her eyes, softening their iron gray.
"Warrior Princess, what I did I did out of necessity; you of all people must understand the heaviness of the alloy that forms the links in the chains of necessity...and responsibility. I am sorry that I tested you; but I would do it again, for it was necessary. Now," and the gray eyes hardened within that white face, "I must speak, and perhaps bind you with the chains that constrain me. Two days’ journey from here there lies a castle; in it hide the peaceful farming people of the kingdom of Chagos. They are besieged, and will fall before the moon passes into its dark phase, in perhaps a fortnight -- maybe less. Help me to rescue them; be my champion."
Gabrielle burst out impatiently, "You want Xena to go against an entire besieging army?
Are you mad?"
"There are those who would follow you, fight under your banner. I have a core guard of loyal men who would fight bravely with you. The enemy army is restless; they have been laying siege to the castle for many months, and my spies tell me that they have grown sloppy; not a few are sick of fighting, and it would not be too difficult to subdue them."
"Whose army lays siege to the castle of Chagos?" Xena’s eyes were piercing.
Without any hesitation, Siemona answered, "King Tetrosus’ army lays siege."
Xena’s eyes narrowed; something like a humphing sound emanated from her throat.
"Why do you want me?"
Siemona looked straight into Xena’s eyes, knowing that the question demanded more than a simple answer: it required a proof of character. "I need a warlord with the strength and heart of a lion; I also need a warlord who understands compassion. We attack the opposing army only to defend and deliver the people of Chagos. I want no bloodbath on my head, or on the heads of my men and the people of this kingdom. I would spare every ounce of blood, but freedom is costly. I tested you, Warrior, to confirm more than just your formidable skills as a fighter. You were free to escape; my men were commanded only to bar your way to your friend. But you did not escape, " and a smile spread across Siemona’s face. "You could not abandon her, and risked your life to try to save her. Only you will serve, Xena, Warrior Princess; I can depend on only you to lay down your sword after the siege has been broken, and resist the temptation to kill King Tetrosus and take the crown of Zindahle for yourself. I can count on you alone to help establish peace for both Chagos and Zindahle."
"You mean so that you can make yourself queen; why not speak candidly?" Gabrielle growled, her face set in a deep frown.
Siemona shook her head; the faintest shadow of amusement played across her face as she spoke. "No, suspicious bard; I said peace, I mean peace. I can have no part in the business between the two kingdoms after the siege has been broken. That is why I depend so heavily on the Warrior Princess and the sincerity of her change."
Gabrielle and Siemona regarded each other, and Gabrielle’s annoyance grew as she realized that her suspicions were arousing distinct amusement in the other woman. She was just about to say something when Xena’s deep voice cut her off.
"Whether you are telling the truth or not doesn’t matter. No deal: I don’t lead armies anymore, even as a warlord under a peace-keeping’ mission." The sarcasm was too biting to be missed.
Xena had steeled herself for Siemona’s response; she didn’t think that she and Gabrielle would come under another attack, but she couldn’t figure this strange woman out, and was ready for it anyway. She was not, however, prepared for the look of disappointment and defeat that entered Siemona’s eyes; she wasn’t prepared for the voice that whispered in her head that the disappointment in the other woman’s eyes came from discovering that she, Siemona, had misjudged her, Xena, and that the misjudgment was of overestimating the warrior somehow. She was not prepared to find herself bothered by this knowledge.
And just as surely as the disappointment and despair had been in those eyes, so they were gone in the next instant. Siemona smiled a small, pained smile, and said, "Thank you for your quick answer. I am sorry for interrupting your meal; had I known what I know now, I would not have disturbed you. Accept these as my sincere apologies," and with a clap of her hands, a feast was brought in and set upon the tables.
When neither Xena nor Gabrielle moved even after the meal had been set and the three were once again alone, Siemona smiled again, this time, a genuine smile free of any other emotion.
"Please, eat. I make my parting greeting now." With slight lowering of the head, Siemona bowed, and the grace and beauty of the simple gesture spoke no ulterior motive. She began to walk out when Xena stopped her.
"That’s it? You’ll just leave us to eat?"
Siemona paused a moment to meet the taller woman’s clear blue eyes; again, Xena saw clearly the confusion and then the disappointment play across Siemona’s face, and she was conscious of Siemona mentally shaking herself, as if to force herself to accept what had already been decided in her head. "I only break bread with friends." It was as firm a closing as anything the Warrior Princess had ever heard.
Within Xena’s head, the voice of conscience warned her that this parting was not right. It would not be silent even as Xena watched the figure of Siemona pass lightly across the floor of the inn and through the door. It was the same voice that had warned her not to hand Callisto over to the mob, the same voice that spoke through Hercules and Gabrielle, the same voice that told her that it was not her time to die; it was the voice she had obeyed ever since she began her new life. She could not disobey it now.
"Siemona! Why do you war against your own father?" The receding figure stopped.
Slowly, Siemona turned, her face seemingly paralyzed in an expression of rigid shock.
She reentered the room in complete silence.
For a second, the room was so still, its occupants like statues rather than women.
Siemona seemed to awaken; the expression she leveled at Xena was sharp and inscrutable. With measured and deliberate thought, she replied, "I do not war against my father."
Just as deliberately, Xena countered, "You’re lying."
A flush arose in Siemona’s cheeks and her flinty eyes seemed to spark. "I do not lie."
"You are Siemona, daughter of Tetrosus the Terrible." Xena’s tone dared her to deny it.
Siemona raised herself to her fullest height and declared, cold as ice, "I am the daughter of Tetrosus the Wise. When I fight to free Chagos, I do not fight against him, but for him."
Gabrielle’s head was all muddled. "You speak in riddles."
"Riddles? No, there is no riddle in my speech, only in the source of the enchantment that binds my father." Siemona’s voice was broken and harsh. "Only in the sorcery that controls him and forces him to do...terrible things...." Her gray eyes when raised held a haunted, almost fearful, look. "If Chagos were to fall and its people enslaved, I know that my father, were he to awaken from the spell that holds him, would not be able to bear the guilt; he would destroy himself first. No, I do not war against my father; when I struggle on behalf of Chagos, I fight for the only way to preserve his soul."
"Have you considered the possibility that it has already been lost, irretrievably and irreparably?" Xena had heard the stories of Tetrosus the Terrible, and her heart was pained for the proud princess who remained so fiercely loyal to someone who might have ceased to exist.
Siemona flinched under Xena’s words, though they were spoken with a gentleness that one would never have expected from the warrior princess. "Irretrievably lost? Irreparably, Warrior Princess?" She appeared as if she would say more, but her strength to utter it seemed to fail. Gabrielle was just as glad that Siemona stopped there; any more words in that direction and she might grow to hate the daughter of Tetrosus.
Sorrow had its grip upon Siemona; in a low voice, Siemona said, "Life crushes men; and men speed the process, grinding each other into the dust from whence they came. The past evil done is remembered over the hundred noble acts of today; the evil that men do erases all memory of a thousand past graces. My father ruled Zindahle in peace for forty years; he was loved for his justice and mercy. The enchantment has held my father prisoner for five years, but it did not require more than one to erase from the minds of men the forty years of good. But I have not forgotten; my father will ever be Tetrosus the Wise."
"Nevertheless, to defeat this army, I don’t need you."
"Perhaps; then again, you may be wrong. When my father was himself, he would always admit that he knew of no man in his kingdom or in any kingdom who was a better strategist than I."
"So you step in, make peace, and bow out?" Gabrielle didn’t bother to hide her incredulity.
"You won’t even stay to help with the peace-making afterwards?"
"Excuse me for asking, but why?"
"I have not spent the past five years idly: I tried to help my father to see reason, but every word I said caused him to grow more and more angry; he exiled me from Zandahle six months ago." Siemona’s eyes were fixedly staring at the stones of the inn’s chimney, and the flames seemed to glide across the moist surface of her eyes. "Peace may be found more easily without me." The pain that Xena saw in her: she knew that it had had to force its way out into view, through the tight discipline under which she had seen Siemona hold her emotions throughout their interview. She would not believe that such pain was not genuine.
"When will your men be prepared to march?"
Siemona turned sharply and gazed intently at Xena. She seemed to find satisfaction in Xena’s expressionless face. With a surprising swiftness Siemona strode over to the table and picked up a loaf of bread. Picking up a knife, she gazed once more at Xena, then at Gabrielle; then she deftly sliced the bread into three equal portions and held out a portion to each one, solemnity in her face and soaring joy in her eyes. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks before accepting what Siemona offered.
"We march at dawn."
Xena, Gabrielle, Siemona and Lander were standing in a village square; people began to fill the area, summoned by the pealing of the community bell. Men carrying the tools of their trade—the farmer with his hoe, the blacksmith wearing his apron and soot, the shepherds with their staffs—and women holding or being held by their children came, some with looks of curiosity and others with looks of annoyance.
Xena stepped forward, holding her hand above her head as a sign to listen to her.
"Men and women of Avigdon, hear my words. My name is Xena; some of you know me, while others of you know of me. When last I visited your village, you had just withstood a raid by the warlord Pretacles; I had a small part in the battle that was won that day."
Shouts went up among the gathered townspeople, "No small part, Xena," "You saved us," "We owe our lives to you."
Xena again raised up her hands; the voices died down. "You experienced that day the power of a people unified to preserve the common good; you defeated Pretacles and sent a message to bullying warlords that Avigdon would not remain passive against injustice. You were brave. I need your courage today."
Immediately, a buzz rushed through the crowd; Xena watched the people talk amongst themselves. Finally, a man, obviously the designated spokesman, asked, "What is that you ask of us, Warrior Princess? Ask it, and if it is within our power, we will not hesitate to carry it out."
Xena couldn’t help but smile. "You have heard of the siege against Chagos?" A sea of undulating heads nodding spread out before her. "I ask that those of your fighting men who are willing may join me to break the siege."
A different man shouted, "We are farmers, not soldiers; it is one thing to defend our village in a desperate last stand, but it is an altogether different matter to march out and attack a professional army."
"Keep quiet, Aedol," commanded a large bear of a man. "Xena, Warrior Princess, would not call upon us without having already considered what you suggest; she would not ask if we could not do it. Yet even if it could not be done, I would hope that someone would fight for us should we find ourselves in the crisis that grips Chagos; and," raising his voice as a challenge, "that there would be no one so yellow and rodent-hearted as to be afraid to die to repay what we owe the Warrior Princess for her laboring for the sake of our village."
"I am glad to see you as strong and stouthearted as ever, Jonas," and Xena’s words caused a crimson flush of pleasure to spread over the face of the bear-like Jonas, and the crowd burst out into laughter. "But I don’t doubt that Aedol is just as brave as you are. Those who join me must do so of their own choice; there is no shame in refusing to join." When Jonas let out a grumbling, "No shame for cowards," Xena repeated rebukingly, "No shame." This time, the flush that colored Jonas’ face had a different cause. "Those who would rescue Chagos, come with me; those who would stay to defend this village, remain here. Today we require both."
About thirty fighting men joined Xena that day. Already word was spreading that the Warrior Princess was calling for able-bodied fighting men to rally around her in the hill country on the western border of Chagos, and Xena spoke in several more villages. By the end of the fourth day since the agreement at the inn, Xena and Siemona found themselves in command of an army numbering over a thousand. In addition, provisions had been sent and often delivered by women who wanted to participate.
In the midst of the ceaseless demands upon her time and energy, Xena pushed aside her feelings of wonder at the outpouring of support that this gathered army represented.
However, on the night that the army was camped within a day’s march from the hills and river that marked the western border of Chagos, Xena found a quiet moment under the night sky. Gabrielle, who was sitting in front of the fire, noticed her friend break away from the group, and going a little further, sit down by herself in the damp grass with her face lifted up to the stars. Gabrielle stood up and dusted herself off; slowly she walked over to where Xena sat awash in moonlight. Not wanting to disrupt the quiet mood that possessed her friend, Gabrielle stopped a few feet behind and waited.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena’s low voice was heavy with the meditative night.
"What are you thinking about?"
Xena was silent; she merely patted the ground beside her, welcoming Gabrielle to sit down next to her. Gabrielle knelt in the high grass, resting her head on her arms as they grasped her staff. She had never seen Xena so relaxed as she was that night, leaning back on her hands with her legs extended out in front of her, surrounded by blue grass and silver moonlight and the flickering of lightning bugs as they danced through the hemp.
Xena was thinking about how, in her warlord days, she had been wont to prowl restlessly around her camp on the nights before a battle, attacked by insomnia and goaded by demons until she felt quite mad, like a great cat trapped in a circus cage. She was thinking about how she had stood countless times before cowering people, some weeping, others looking ahead at nothing with glazed eyes, all trembling in fear; and how she had rammed her challenge down their throats—stay afraid or die. And then she remembered Jonas’ face as he marched, when he had winked at her as she rode by. She remembered Aedol when she had reassured him that she respected his decision to remain in the village, and how he had straightened up from his work in the grain field to quietly mark the army as it went by. And she was drawn upward toward the dark sky which was deep and velvety like a king’s cloak, the reflections of millions of stars like so many jewels scattered like seed outflung from a liberal hand.
Xena said simply, "You ought to get some sleep, Gabrielle; it will be a long march tomorrow."
Gabrielle laid her staff down in the grass and sat back in the grass alongside Xena.
Someone had fashioned a war banner for the army: it was a dark blue, almost royal, and a river of painted stars weaved its way from one corner to the other in a zig-zagging diagonal course; Xena had an idea that Gabrielle had a big part in its design.
A makeshift tent had been erected as a headquarters; Xena, Gabrielle, and Siemona were inside, looking over a map that had been constructed from the reports brought back by scouts concerning geography, terrain, and enemy positions.
Siemona was pointing to several land markers which would help in orienting the other two women. "Here is the river Veti Levu; this is Mount Tempano northeast of us; this is the castle. We are here," pointing to an area just within the boundary as defined by the river, "or will be as soon as the entire army finishes fording the river. Our best estimate is that the bulk of the opposing army lies outside the western wall of the castle, which gives us a clear path to their backs. I sent word to the nomad people who live in the peaks of Mount Tempano that those who would fight to free Chagos under the banner of Xena should gather within the forests that dot the eastern perimeter of the castle in order to block off a direct retreat; by last report, about a hundred men have come. Now, as for our strategy of attack, our primary goal is to draw the besieging army away from the castle; this would require that we encourage their attack, anticipating it and planning our battle plan around it. I have received confirmation that Laodicius is commander of King Tetrosus’ army. Laodicius fights hard, but he is predictable; the essence of his battle strategy is, ‘Hey diddle, diddle; straight up the middle.’ We will form a rectangle: you and my guard will form the front line; the second line is to be kept about 100 yards back to allow for the front line to fall back; the most seasoned fighters among the volunteers will form the sides of the rectangle. Laodicius will send in groups of soldiers, perhaps a hundred or two hundred at a time, who will march to directly engage the front line; allow yourselves to be engaged only by the enemy front line so that they may stand between you and the rest of their men; then fall back in v-formation into the rectangle; do this repeatedly until the sides of our rectangle can close in behind Laodicius’ men, like a lid on a container, and become the new front line as well. Those who used to be front line will form the second line, second line will regroup to form the sides, and the rectangle is recycled. Laodicius’ men who are trapped in the rectangle should be subdued quickly. If all goes as planned, Laodicius will realize that the battle is lost and will sound a retreat. The siege will be broken, our primary goal accomplished. However, a secondary goal is to contain King Tetrosus’ army within Chagos so as to prevent the fighting from spilling over into neighboring kingdoms; this is where our nomad friends at the eastern perimeter will become key: they will serve as the final lid upon our rectangle by cutting off those in retreat; we will use cavalry to head off any other route of retreat except for that directly east. Xena, you must be responsible for an orderly pursuit of retreating Zindahlan forces." Siemona had looked up frequently from the map to watch Xena’s responses; Xena seemed to be half-smiling, and at Siemona’s last remark, the half-smile became a full smile. "I expect that many of the men in the opposing army will surrender when they see the battle go to us; tell the men to take as many prisoners as possible—What are you smiling at?"
Xena shook her head, but could not stop smiling. "It’s just that in all my years of fighting, I have never known war to be so neat, with your rectangles and v-formations." The smile diappeared. "It almost makes you forget that this is life and death, in all its bloody and violent business."
Siemona leaned against the table, holding her hand to her head wearily. For a second, she remained in this position, letting the tiredness wash over her; then, she swallowed once, closed her eyes even more tightly, and, exhaling, straightened up and put aside her bone-weariness. "Do you believe that it can work?"
Xena placed a hand on Siemona’s shoulder. "Victory will come in some form of your plan, with life-like messiness and less-than-geometrically-perfect execution; it will, because it must, and for now, there is no use to thinking of anything except victory. We must win the battle before fighting."
Suddenly, Lander burst into the tent. He knelt before Siemona, his right arm in salute across his chest armor.
"Your highness, there is terrible news."
"What is it?" Siemona’s eyes were wide with concern; Lander was a man of understatement, in that respect, very similar to Zena. For him to call anything "terrible" meant that something most unnatural must have happened.
"Your highness, King Tetrosus has executed his sister for high treason against the kingdom; the king of Chagos who has been King Tetrosus’ prisoner for the past year has been tortured and killed. Both were accused of conspiring with forces hostile to Zindahle."
"He means us, of course." As Siemona spoke the words, she sounded winded, as after a race. Then in a low, anguished voice, she sobbed, "O, Father!"
Then for the second time, Lander’s unquestioning obedience wavered. "Your highness, that man is not your father. You have done more than a daughter’s duty demands. But if that madman resumes the throne, the bloodshed will never end. You must take the throne."
Weakly, Siemona answered, "I cannot; any claim I have is illegitimate as long as my father lives."
Lander answered, almost furiously, "I and my men serve you; we would uphold your claim as legitimate."
"Sir, you serve the king; as long as my father lives, you serve him." The steel had come back into Siemona’s voice and bearing, and her words came down upon Lander like molten iron.
"Then why have I followed you these past months; why have we all followed you, going against the very king you say I serve?" Lander’s eyes were welling up with pain in a way that hurt Gabrielle to see; Xena was looking at Siemona and didn’t seem to see Lander. Siemona saw, but remained merciless.
"You serve my father’s spirit within me; but this never precludes the hope that my father will be restored to his original spirit and to the full legitimacy of his throne. If you have lost that hope—whoever has forgotten that hope—your service is no longer desired by me." The glare that she leveled at the occupants of the tent was withering, and poor Lander had no other response than to wither quietly: he bowed and left the tent, but not without murmuring, "I obey, your highness." It might as well have been, "I love, your highness."
Almost defiantly, Siemona declared, "The plan remains unchanged, Warrior Princess."
The unfinished question in the air was, "Are you?"
Xena chose to answer the unfinished one, recognizing it as the heart of the matter. "I have not changed, either, Siemona."
"Nor have I," chirped in Gabrielle.
The two answers seemed to calm the storm within Siemona. "Good. Inform the commanders of the details of the plan; we will meet again after the entire army has crossed over the river and regrouped."
Gabrielle passed by Siemona, but the other woman had already turned her back. Gabrielle stopped in front of Xena and gave her a questioning look; Xena indicated for her to go on ahead. Gabrielle exited the tent.
Xena had seen the fraying of Siemona’s spirit and nerves as each passing day brought her closer and closer to the day of battle. She had noted the tiredness grow as the nightmares began. Siemona’s explosive display of anger was not just at Lander, but at the truth that she recognized in his honest assessment of the crisis that was growing more and more inevitable.
"You were dismissed."
Xena brushed off the remark. "Siemona, we will fight your father’s army tomorrow; put aside the concerns for what will follow the battle until after the battle has been won. The necessity for fighting has not changed: concentrate on Chagos."
"I have not got your infamous detachmentment."
"Will you shut up and listen to what I am saying? This has nothing to do with me; you are the one who wanted to form this army, you are the one who wanted to fight your father to save him—never forget that! Every man here, including Lander, is putting his life at risk because he believes that this battle was worth fighting. If you were not certain that you believed this, you should have thought twice and remained in exile. Now, there can be no turning back; this is no longer just your battle. You must focus on the task at hand; as it is, you seem intent to destroy those who love you and love those who would destroy you."
Siemona had not moved at all as Xena rebuked her. Xena had deliberately chosen to speak harshly, hoping that her words would snap the suffering woman back out of the guilty reverie that consumed her and into the reality of the here-and-now. Xena had believed that the woman was tough enough to endure it. Now, watching Siemona’s motionless body, Xena suddenly realized how frail and soft she appeared against the rough and rugged look of the tent and everything around her. Remorse filled her heart, as she remembered that Siemona, for all her toughness, was a young woman who had grown up knowing and caring for little outside her peaceful kingdom and her father’s love, and that the toughness in the woman was probably very new, a product of five years of watching her father descend into madness.
With a voice softened by compassion and remorse, Xena said, "Siemona, you call me your champion and trust me to act as you would. You have planned and organized this army; now leave the fighting to your champion. Choose not to fight and I will respect you for it; no one in this army will be forced to fight against his conscience."
This time, Siemona did move; she turned to look at Xena, tears flowing down her face.
"My conscience is clear, Warrior Princess; it is my heart that I am fighting. I weep because I love my father, and my heart fails within me."
Xena’s blue eyes grew impossibly soft. She walked to stand directly in front of Siemona. "Remember your own words: by freeing Chagos, you do not fight against your father, but for him; hold on to that."
Suddenly a soldier from Lander’s guard appeared at the entrance to the tent; Xena heard him and said without turning, "Yes?"
"The fording of the river has been completed: the entire army stands on the west bank and awaits further orders."
Siemona wiped the tears from her eyes and said briskly, "Go, Xena; I will follow you."
After Xena had finished instructing the soldier, she stopped momentarily to look back at Siemona.
"Thank you," Siemona said, and Xena smiled and left the tent.
Xena ran to help Gabrielle who was struggling with two soldiers, but before she got there, Lander had already leaped upon the two men: they seemed to melt before the fury of the man as he roared with his white hair wild around his head and swung his sword in wide arcs before him; sometime during the battle, Lander had had his helmet ripped off.
Xena yelled, "Fall back!" They had already fallen back five times; this time, Laodicius’ men suddenly found themselves enclosed and under heavy attack on all sides. Realization was quickly followed by desperation and chaos in the ranks; it was not long before they began to throw down their swords and stand with their hands in the air. They were quickly gathered and sent behind the lines to the camp where they were placed under guard.
"Quickly, move to new positions," Xena ordered, and she and Gabrielle and Lander, as well as the rest of the field commanders ran to direct the men to their places.
The sun was now beginning its descent from the dizzying height of noonday; the battle had been locked for several hours and even Xena was beginning to feel light-headed. Already the blue grass was stained deep red in places, and there were many fallen bodies. Gabrielle was already showing signs of fatigue, and Xena was deliberately staying close by her. She quickly disarmed the man that stood against her and knocked him flat with the heavy hilt of her sword. As she knew Siemona would have wanted, she had kept the blood she shed to a minimum, knocking unconscious most of the soldiers she fought. The front line had already been recycled several times over, and Xena had been in the position to draw the attacking army into the waiting rectangle three times. Each time, fresh troops had come to join those who had been tried and survived, and replace those who had been tried and died. Xena knew that Laodicius would be sounding the retreat soon.
Suddenly, there was a break in the formation of the front line under a particularly heavy assault by Laodicius’ men, and there was a danger that the line would be divided, allowing the opposing army to split the rectangle in half. Xena was in the side of the rectangle when she saw it and she began to scream for her men to plug the gap. She herself plunged into the fighting, beating back soldiers with every powerful swing of her sword; she used the flat of her sword as often as she remembered to do so, but she also made ugly swipes through the bodies of several men, leaving them to writhe in the grass with gaping tears through which blood flowed freely. Her face was splattered with the blood that spewed out of the men she faced, and her eyes flashed wildly as she rushed headlong into the tangle of bodies. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lander, his white hair now flecked with blood both his and not his, teeth bared like a lion; he was bleeding freely over his right eye. Perhaps it was the blood that temporarily blinded him to the attack, or perhaps he was tired and became sloppy; but when a soldier rushed at him with his sword extended in front of him by both hands, Lander did not see him until it was too late. Though he deflected the sword off its course to impale him through his neck, he could not break completely the momentum with which it came at him; instead of through his neck, the sword pierced into his chest near his left shoulder. The soldier had rushed with such force that the sword drove downward and inward, almost severing his arm from his torso, and continued to penetrate into his lungs, which filled with air and blood from his pierced heart. With a stunned look upon his face, Lander staggered on his feet for a few seconds before falling to his knees, the sword sticking out of his bleeding body at a grotesque angle.
"Lander!" The scream ripped out of Xena as she disengaged herself from the men who attacked her, almost decapitating one of them, and ran to where Lander now lay dying, sputtering and breathing with loud and racking sounds, drowning in his own blood. Xena hesitated for a moment as she moved to free Lander from the sword’s deadly embrace. Then, murmuring a quick prayer, she grabbed the hilt of the sword. But Lander’s eyes suddenly focused on her face with an intensity that drained away all the strength in her hands and left her feeling weak and shaken.
The violent sound of bellows increased as Lander summoned up his breath to speak. His words were broken by gurgling, and he spit up blood that flew to dot Xena’s already blood-stained face; each syllable was spoken with all of his dying breath, and it was as if his spirit, as it poured out of his body, rushed out through his larynx where it could brush the vocal cords as it passed, since the air in his lungs was so lacking in grace as to refuse to comply with his dying wish. Xena held Lander’s white head and gently closed his eyes. His last words had been, "Protect her."
Already Gabrielle and several others had gathered around the two; Xena grabbed the sword and drew it out of Lander’s body. Then she stood up. "Carry his body back to camp. Don’t let the princess see it." Two men carried the body off the battle field.
"Xena," was all Gabrielle could manage to say before the whirlwind of battle danced over to once again include them.
Xena found herself battling almost numbly at first; when her mind reawoke, it was because of the discovery that there were no more fresh assaults. Laodicius had finally sounded the retreat; she saw only the backs of men as they fled pell-mell away from her and her army.
Xena revived instantly. She ran to communicate the news of Laodicius’ retreat to the rest of the army and to send out the cavalry. The horns sounded the signal; even before the last note had been carried away by the wind, the ground began to shake and the air reverberate with a sound like thunder. Xena ordered the men to narrow the rectangle to allow the horsemen passage around the foot soldiers. She swept the ranks with her eyes until they came to land upon the flowing red hair of the bard. Satisfied that Gabrielle was safe, Xena then whistled sharply. She ran out to the edge of the rectangle and jumped upon Argo’s back as the horse momentarily slowed but didn’t stop its run; then with Xena urging her on, the bay flew off like an arrow in pursuit of the retreating army of Tetrosus. At the sight of Xena speeding like a blazing comet on Argo’s back, a shout went up from her men, and they began to run after her. The second phase had begun.
Siemona was standing on a hill within the camp, watching the battle and scanning the prisoners and wounded as they were brought into the camp. Already the reports were coming in from the field commanders of the complete and thorough rout of the besieging army. Yet she waited. She watched as the cavalry leaped into action, responding to a call that she could not hear from that great distance. Still she waited. She was buffeted by the strong winds that blasted across the hilltop, and snatches of a collective shout reached even her, though long after the collective masses of men had already begun its pursuit of the retreating army, the sound coming as if from a distant and faded past, like a half-forgotten memory, from men who were no longer there, having moved on since giving up that shout. Even then she waited. She was waiting for a message from Lander. As the sun set, it removed its warmth from the earth, and the winds that blew were quickly chilled without it. Siemona’s hair whipped around her face and a shiver ran through her. Only then did she descend from the hill and retire into her tent.
When Xena returned to the camp, she immediately sought out Gabrielle. The two embraced each other tightly. Rapidly, Xena looked Gabrielle over for any wounds, but other than several black and blue bruises and a big shiner around her left eye, the bard was unharmed, and her spirits were damaged not a mite. Affectionately, Xena tucked a strand of her red hair behind her ear; it didn’t really help much, the bard’s hair was in complete disarray, but Xena couldn’t think of another way to express her relief to see the bard well.
Gabrielle’s dancing eyes grew grave. "She knows, Xena."
"Where is she?"
"In her tent."
Xena turned to go, but not before Gabrielle grabbed her once more and gave her a parting squeeze. "I’m so happy that you’re all right." Xena knew that her friend was speaking of more than her physical well-being.
When Xena entered the tent, it took her awhile to get used to the darkness inside. When she could finally make out the figure of Siemona through the semi-gloom, she took a step to the side of the entrance and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Almost an hour passed this way, and Xena, exhausted from her exertions that day, was beginning to nod off when Siemona spoke.
"Where is Lander’s body? I didn’t see it brought into the camp." Her voice was even and clear.
"I instructed the men to bring it into the camp so that you would not see it. It seemed best."
Xena’s eyes had grown used to the dark and she saw Siemona slowly nod her head.
"Do you wish to see it now?"
"No; I would see him a little longer as I remember him. Tomorrow, I will be ready to see his body without his essence within it."
This time Xena nodded.
"Did he say...anything....?" The first hint of tears.
"He said, ‘Protect her.’"
She saw Siemona turn away, her body shaken with the weeping that finally came to her.
Xena had to look away.
Finally, Siemona spoke again, "Sleep, my champion. Thank you." Xena rose and left Siemona to grieve. She found Gabrielle already laid out by the fire, her own bed roll spread out for her. Xena moved it closer to the bard and lay down next to her, her back to Gabrielle and the fire, her eyes able to look out into the night sky. The sky was dark, the moon having entered into its dark phase.
"Will she be all right?"
Xena contemplated the hooded sky. "I think so." She did not say, "For now." She only thought it.
From early the next morning, the troops began filing back. And the work of identifying and burying the dead began. Siemona bent down and placed her hand on Lander’s cold flesh. Then she removed her hood and cloak and wrapped it around the body. She had a bier erected and placed the torch upon the wood herself, Lander’s body still wrapped in her cloak. As it went up in flames, the men who had swords raised them high, and did not lower them until the flames began to go down, beaten by the swirling winds.
There was no word about what had happened to the king. The soldiers had seen nothing. It was as if King Tetrosus had dropped off the face of the earth. Siemona remained in her tent; although she made no sound, sadness hung low and close to that tent, like morning mist.
The sadness of the princess seemed to infect the soldiers: they moved around her tent practically on tiptoe; the exuberance which had lit through them like a fire when they saw that the battle had been won was dampened and then extinguished, replaced by an almost gloomy depression; they acted like an army that had been defeated, not one that had won a stunning victory.
Throughout the day, Xena saw this with growing concern. But she didn’t know what to do about it.
She had just decided to discuss the situation with Gabrielle when there was a disturbance at one of the guard posts at the north side of the camp. She walked over to find out what was the matter; along the way, Gabrielle ran over and walked in step with her to the guard.
"What’s the problem?"
The guard had a man pinned to the ground, his armor in a clanking, jangling mess around him, which was the source of the noise that had caught Xena’s attention.
"Joxer." The guard looked at Xena with a question on his face, but he released the unfortunate man. Joxer immediately scrambled noisily to his feet; he quickly adjusted his helmet which was turned around to cover his face.
"I told you I knew Xena." Xena grimaced as she heard the familiar whine that was Joxer’s voice.
Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. "You look even worse than usual, Joxer; what did you do, fall down a mountain?"
"No, Gabrielle; I’ll have you know that I ran into a bunch of warriors on horseback, and believe you me, they won’t be forgetting the name of "Joxer the Mighty" any time soon.
Xena grabbed Joxer by the round tin disc that was supposed to be his breastplate. "Did you say warriors?"
"Yea-ah. They said they were messengers on some important mission for some Duke Balloo or something...."
"Balor." Xena turned at the sound of Siemona’s voice. "My uncle."
Xena and Gabrielle were seated on some furs in Siemona’s tent. Siemona was lightly pacing the small clear area of the tent as she spoke; she rubbed her left wrist nervously.
"The Duke, my uncle, cannot be coming with a good purpose. He’s a violent, ignorant man; he often caused trouble for my father, though even he knew to stay out of sight when my father changed. What could he want?"
"The crown?" Gabrielle volunteered.
"He knows I would never hand it over to him. While my father bore with him, I’ve always hated him, and made my feelings very clear."
"Well, he wouldn’t dare try to take it by force, not with this army behind you." Xena stood up. "I suggest we all get some sleep; from what Joxer says, he won’t be here until tomorrow morning, and we can deal with him then."
Siemona stopped her. "Xena, still no news about my father?"
"Why do you ask this now?"
"That man would not come without a reason; I can’t help but fear that he has found my father and intends to use him as a bargaining tool."
Xena covered Siemona’s hand where it lay on her arm. "We don’t know that, and won’t know until he arrives; sleep tonight, and let tomorrow worry about itself."
She gave Siemona’s hand a final pat and walked out of the tent.
Scouts reported that about twenty horsemen were riding toward the camp. As they rode into view, Xena saw that most bore the signs and marks of hired warriors; however, there were two men who bore no weapons. Xena figured that one of them must be Balor.
She felt the faintest pressure against her elbow; turning, she saw that Siemona was standing behind her, her white face even paler than usual. She probably didn’t sleep at all last night, Xena thought.
Siemona was staring intently at the horsemen. As the thicker-set of the two unarmed men swung down from his horse, Xena heard Siemona whisper, "Balor."
Balor was a giant man: standing almost 7 feet tall, he was as round and stout as a barrel; his face and neck were of equal thickness, and his most striking features were the full, red lips and the glinting green eyes that dominated the sea of light brown hair that covered his face. Balor was a hairy man: from his prolific head to his thick eyebrows to the lawn that sprouted on his face. Gabrielle, who was standing at Xena’s side, disliked him immediately.
Xena watched him as he dismounted and stood looking through the ring of soldiers that had quickly surrounded him and his men. Despite his massive size, Xena had to admit that he didn’t appear at all awkward; he moved with a heavy assuredness, like an elephant on two legs—a dangerous opponent. Xena turned to see a shiver pass through Siemona; she realized that the slim woman was collecting herself. Xena was about to grab Siemona to hold her in place, but stopped when she saw the look in Siemona’s eyes. It was the look she had seen long ago at the inn; having seen the frailty and the sorrow that surely must have been with her always, even at the inn, something—a respect for the fearsome strength of the frail flower—kept her from stopping Siemona as she passed out through the mass of people into the center of the ring to face the giant Balor; indeed, as the men opened a way for her, it was as if they, too, felt what passed faster than lightning through Xena’s mind.
Siemona stood facing Balor, and the wind caught the edges of her long gown and the rough horseman’s cloak that was hung from her thin shoulders, blowing them around her; her hair, loosely held back from her face, fluttered lightly around her pale face, and appeared to absorb the golden morning light.
As the silent minutes passed, Balor grew visibly angry. Finally, he half-shouted, "What, girl, no greeting?"
Siemona’s face was beginning to reflect the rising sun’s rays which lent the illusion of color. When she spoke, her words were clear in the early silence—a silence created by the vacuum of absence—of any other living creature save for the men who had labored and bled to create it. There was an unearthly quality to everything.
"No greeting. Go home; there is nothing for you here."
Balor’s full lips suddenly opened and he let out a bellow of laughter. With one sidelong glance at Siemona, he turned and walked in his purposeful way to the other unarmed horseman that Xena had noticed. Roughly, Balor grabbed the man and pulled him bodily from his horse. He half-dragged the man along until he was standing where he had stood before; with one fluid movement of his enormous arm, he forced the man to a standing position beside him.
This time, Balor’s eyes were leering at Siemona, dancing in their enjoyment. And Siemona raised her head in a slow movement of dawning, her ice-cold gray eyes flickering, then losing their fierceness.
"Are you sure that you have nothing to say to me?"
Gabrielle turned her eyes away; she couldn’t watch Siemona stand—just a wisp of dust and breath—before that brute, without any defense or recourse; there was no mistaking the taunt in Balor’s voice. With her eyes tightly closed, Gabrielle began to pray for intercession.
"Perhaps you have something to say to this!" With a sharp gesture, Balor ripped the helmet off the man’s head, freeing the black hair streaked with gray, and pushed the man onto his hands and knees before him. In the same instant, Xena ran forward from her place in the crowd and grasped Siemona around the waist, forcing her to stay upright. A whisper flew through the ranks, echoing the princess’s own: "Father."
Xena’s voice silenced it. "I’ve heard all I want out of you." She unsheathed her sword and many followed suit, approaching Balor menacingly.
"Fools! Look at him! Look at this creature. This...thing is not a king over me or anyone; he is not even the king over himself! Look at him! Do you see a king before you? I see only a madman!" And as if to prove Balor’s point, the man began to tremble violently on all fours. "Worse yet! He trembles like a dog. I am no dog, to be ruled over by dogs!" Balor took a step back from the shivering figure on the ground. "You!" spreading his arms out in front and around him to take in all the men who stood, riveted. "Some of you are not from Zindahle; return to your homes, and leave us to the tragic task at hand. This is none of it your responsibility or problem. The rest of you: how many of you have forgotten how your lands were confiscated, your livestock seized, your men imprisoned, all to feed the ambition and avarice of the beast you see kneeling before you; how many of you haven’t had cause to curse the mongrel’s very existence? Look upon him carefully and consider: his lunacy was then only in its infancy while now it has reached its fullest form. Look hard; then step forward, any man who sees a sovereign in this groveling dog." No one moved.
Balor nodded his head approvingly. "I was the only brother to what this creature has ceased to be, and because of him, I am without brother or sister now; despite my hard words, I also honor the nation he once served. I have not come today to destroy your spirits with this spectacle. I have come to declare myself king in the spirit with which my brother once ruled, and to demand your fealty."
"No!" Siemona screamed. All the fire had returned within her, and she gazed with loathing at Balor. "You will have to stain your throne with my blood as well as my father’s before I let you steal his kingdom."
Balor didn’t appear surprised at Siemona’s revival; he even smiled, as if he had anticipated exactly this. "And who would you have fill it? You? Her?" Pointing at Xena.
Siemona faltered for the second time. "No...I..."
"Surely you don’t expect us to be ruled by a madman."
"He is not a madman!"
Balor laughed again. "No? Perhaps you are the one who is mad? Or made pitifully blind by a foolish devotion. Perhaps at another time, we would have the leisure to admire filial duty. But for now, we must be serious. We will never again tolerate the rule of Tetrosus the Terrible, Tetrosus the Mad. If not I, then who shall rule? Who?"
Siemona could not speak; she found that every way led down the same trap—to take the throne silently, allowing the blackening of her father’s name and life; or to allow Balor to win—and take the throne. The thought of what her country would suffer under Balor made her ill, yet she wasn’t sure that she could live knowing that her father was regarded as a monster; even more fundamentally, she could not allow her father’s principles and spirit to be trampled upon—they were the supports of her conscience, and identity. And yet, even then, her eyes were drawn against her will to the shivering figure that sat in a fetal position upon the ground, arms wrapped around the now dirty cloak, and red-shot eyes wild.
Suddenly, an aged man stepped out of the crowd. He pulled off his hat as he looked at Siemona with earnest eyes. "Princess, I beg leave to speak. Princess, we all mourn with you—you who were ever kind to us, even when the king took a bad turn, and who, being young, will have cause to mourn yet. It is not because we don’t mourn with you, for some of us are old enough to remember your father in better days. It isn’t that which makes us ask. It’s just that we’re sick of blood, you see; we’re tired of not knowing whether we’re coming or going with these new laws and taxes and muscle men. We only ask for the breathing space to build again, to go back to our farming and forging and weaving and shepherding; to go back our families, and to have our families sent back to us. We don’t want to forget your father; we want to have back a little of what he once gave us, see? Couldn’t you find it in you to take the crown, and mourn, too?"
As the old man spoke, Siemona had grown quiet, but steadier. Xena placed herself so that Balor could clearly see her—and think twice before trying anything rash.
"What is your name, grandfather?"
"I am Archelaus."
At Archelaus’ answer Siemona grew unexpectedly thoughtful. "Archelaus....Of Allia?"
"The same, Princess."
"We’ve met before today, haven’t we?"
"Yes, Princess; as a young man, I came as the representative of my village to bring our problems, requests, and gifts. I met you when you were just a little girl, only so high." Archelaus indicated a height measured off his hip.
Siemona smiled, and her face radiated with an internal light that it had been missing.
"Thank you, Archelaus. You have served me as you served my father. Thank you."
Then she turned in a graceful movement to fix her eyes upon Balor, who was beginning to fidget under Xena’s glare. She spoke with authority and decision. "Balor, for the wrong you have done to the person of my father the king, I should have you killed as you stand. But you are my father’s brother, and he always tolerated you. Therefore, hear me now, and listen well: I, Siemona, daughter of Tetrosus, princess of Zindahle, hereby take the crown of my father in his name and with his spirit, and do declare this day that those who desire peace and a chance to rebuild what has been lost should kneel in fealty to no one ever again."
Both Xena and Gabrielle were startled; they couldn’t possibly have heard right....
Siemona couldn’t stop her smile. "Zindahle was never truly a kingdom under Tetrosus the Wise; his wisdom was to govern with the advice, not of councillors and royal advisors, but of a council of confederated towns and villages, whose members were selected by their own village and townspeople to be their voices—members like elder Archelaus," Siemona’s eyes came to rest fondly upon the name’s bearer. "My father believed that the people he ruled were wiser than he about the needs of the kingdom; though his council often quarreled, he knew that time and patience would fashion out a plan. I am my father’s daughter; in his spirit, I complete what my father began, and establish a kingdom where each man is a king, bearing not only a responsibility to himself and his family, but to his neighbor as well, and to his nation above all. Today, I give you freedom and I take it away: I free you from bondage to one king, only to bind you with the invisible links of responsibility that irreversibly bind each man to his fellow man. This is my father’s spirit that speaks through me, and it lends me its legitimacy that no one can argue." And with these words, Siemona fastened another hard stare at Balor. This time, it was Balor who stood without recourse; as the shouts of "Long live Siemona! Long live Zindahle!" grew deafening, Balor, in anger, turned to mount his horse.
He turned, instead, to discover that his way was blocked by Xena, her sword out and her smile flashing as she waved her index finger at him in a mock-reprimand—it was hard to know which was more menacing.
"I am not finished with you yet, Balor." Siemona’s voice was that of a cat toying with a mouse. When Balor reluctantly turned to face Siemona again, she continued, "I said I would not kill you; I did not say you would go unpunished."
"Exile me or put me in prison; do what you will, but I will find a way to destroy you and your ‘nation,’ just as I destroyed your father."
Siemona’s eyes widened. "What do you know about my father?" When Siemona began to advance on him, Balor prepared to knock her down—only to find his arms suddenly bound to his sides. He looked around wildly and saw that Xena had lassoed him from behind so that he could not move them. With a violent scream, Balor broke free, only to be bound by several more ropes; even before he had summoned the breath to scream once more and free himself, more ropes lassoed around him until he was half-cocooned in ropes—almost lacking the room to breathe. After several further useless struggles resulted in more ropes and even less room to expand his barrel chest, Balor sank to his knees, breathless and dripping with sweat off his hairy face that now lay in dark-stained mats all over his huge head. All around him were men and women, who each held only a single rope out of the dozens that had conquered him.
Siemona dropped to one knee before him. With cold murder in her eyes, she demanded, "Tell me what you know about my father!"
Balor lifted his head, still breathing heavily; his eyes were shot through with hatred as he spat out, "I made Tetrosus what he is; I bought the enchantment from the old witch; I made him mad with blood-lust; I cast the spell that ate away at his feeble mind and made him the mad dog you see now. I did it! And only I can undo it! Give me the crown, bitch, or your father remains a dog, shivering before his own shadow, and never, never knowing your face again!" He was quaking with hatred and rage, and looked so possessed that he seemed almost able to break through the many ropes that bound him.
Xena had come to stand alongside Siemona, to be close in case Siemona was endangered. Siemona suddenly pulled the chakram from its place at Xena’s side and with a speed that Xena had not expected and before she could react quickly enough to stop her, Siemona ran the razor-sharp edge with a lunging swipe across Balor’s exposed neck; the next second, Balor’s head was hanging at a weird angle from the rest of his body and there was blood everywhere. Only then did Xena grab Siemona’s wrist. She would have wrested the chakram from her hand except that Siemona had already let it fall to the ground. She was covered in Balor’s blood.
The brown earth and green grass mixed with the red blood, and became something different. It was hard, fallow ground; the entire plain across which most of the heavy fighting had been done was fallow ground.
Siemona was watching the man who had been her father pace restlessly across the room in which she had been forced to confine him; she watched through a small window fashioned in the door, complete with bars.
Gabrielle walked down the castle hallway to where Siemona stood. She looked in briefly, then turned away.
Siemona’s eyes never came off the frenzied activity of the man behind the door, but she noticed the swiftness with which Gabrielle had averted her gaze. In a quiet voice, she said, "You see a madman. The tragedy is that I do, too. Eyes are really the cruelest of all the senses: they force us to see only the appearance of things. It’s only when I close them that the memories can come back, and remind me of who my father really is." She looked at the red-haired woman with sad affection.
"Tell me some of what you remember." Gabrielle placed a friendly hand on Siemona’s arm.
Siemona closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wooden door for a second. "My mother died when I was born; my father loved her for his entire life, and never remarried, although Ba—Balor tried to convince him that he needed a son to be his heir.
Instead, my father raised me to read and write, taught me statesmanship, and hired the
best teachers to instruct me in language, history, philosophy, literature, rhetoric, and
strategy. He instilled in me a belief in my own worth, and taught me to rest my self-esteem upon no man. He wanted me to marry; but I couldn’t. How could I, when I was
so free and happy as my father’s daughter, and knowing that no husband would ever treat me as an equal as my father did. We became each other’s heart, although only my father could express it well; there was no one who could speak as beautifully as my father." Her reverie was broken by a screech from inside the room.
"Your father sounds wonderful."
"Gabrielle, you must send me a story about our adventure someday, you write so well."
"I will. I promise."
Siemona glanced again at Gabrielle. "Does Xena want to see me?" Gabrielle nodded. "I’m ready." Together the two walked back up the hallway by which Gabrielle had come, leaving the noises and scuffling behind them.
Xena was waiting for them in the main war room that had been converted into a state chambers for the town and village representatives. Usually, the room rang with many voices; but after months of fashioning out an agreement among the representatives upon the guiding principles of their new nation, the members had departed to their hometowns, each with a copy of the "constitution" as some chose to call the document that they hoped would guide them for all generations, and a royal messenger—who was now no longer retained by a king and so had to fend for himself in the town to which he was being sent.
Xena was standing next to the fire, since it was winter now. When she heard the footsteps of the other women, she turned and smiled.
"I have good news: already Sigmot and Allia send word that the people have heard and agree to the constitution. Archelaus sends you his warmest greetings. Although we have no word yet from the rest of the towns, with Sigmot and Allia, the two largest towns, in agreement, that of the others are sure to follow, especially with the winter upon us."
"Besides, how could they reject such an offer? Winter provisions from the royal granaries and storerooms; the power to write laws, establish courts, and declare war; ownership of lands settled by three generations past; plus the right to set taxes and levy them as seen fit by a majority vote—you’d have to be crazy not to accept." And just as soon as Gabrielle said that last part, she wanted to bite her tongue off, such was her regret.
Siemona didn’t seem to notice. "Good; I need to make provisions to leave within the fortnight." She smiled at the women who had stayed on to be her surest supports for the last half-year. "Thank you so much for your help and friendship; I can’t adequately express how much I am indebted to you both. There is no way that I could have survived these long months without you."
Xena’s face was grim. "I still think that you should reconsider leaving this castle to care for your father alone. All the delegates agreed that you should remain here as your father did to guide and lead the council; it was only your strong objection that caused the motion to be tabled."
"And the objection remains strong."
"But why?" Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. "This is your home; all your memories are here. And you need help to care for your father."
Siemona shook her head firmly. "We’ve already discussed this on numerous occasions. I am no longer a princess as my father is no longer a king. We will be together as we always were; I want to care for him as he raised and cared for me. My father is a faithful man; he deserves a faithful daughter when he is most in need of love and help. Who knows? Perhaps someone will have mercy on us both, and restore to me the father I love dearly, and awaken him to the daughter who still loves him. Xena, Gabrielle, I am determined to leave. Though I love you dearly, you cannot change my mind."
Xena smiled ever so slightly, while Gabrielle laughed outright; it had been worth a last shot, whatever the outcome. Despite her protests, Xena couldn’t help but feel in a deep part of her mind that Siemona would be fine.
The fortnight came and went; the constitution had been ratified and the conferation forged. Xena and Gabrielle had said their goodbyes to Siemona, who had driven the horse and cart westward across the snow-covered fields toward a small farm that was kept by friends of Archelaus—a solitary figure upon that stark winter’s landscape; her father had been sleeping relatively peacefully under the canopy of the wagon. Xena was not too fond of good-byes, and neither was Siemona; but Gabrielle found words and tears for all three of them. Now as the two were headed in the direction of Corinth, which was said to be suffering from raids by several warlords, Gabrielle was telling Xena the new story she had written about Xena, warrior princess, Gabrielle, travelling bard, and their friend, Siemona of Zindahle.
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