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Chapters 23 - 24
Flames of pain shot through her leg with every step. Nothing she hadn't felt before, one place or another; pain had been a longtime companion, but it was slowing her down, and that was a problem. The bedraggled woman had fashioned a walking stick from a broken tree limb, and she leaned on it now for support as she made slow progress back to the group she had left hours before. She wasn't sure how long she had slept, but any amount of time was too long, now that the arm of Radec had found them, Arcus and Barrus were wounded, and Callisto was part of the story.
She stayed on the apron of the road, ready to dash for cover if danger approached. She didn't like her chances if she were overtaken now. Blood loss and limited mobility tended to even the longest of odds. When she heard the hoof beats of a lone horse approach, she threw herself sideways into a thicket. Undeterred, the horse stopped in the road opposite the bushes, nearly dislodging its rider. Argo. Both horse and mistress knew the other was near.
"Whoa girl," she said unnecessarily, as the mare backed up in the road, refusing to be spurred on. Drusander heard the quiet voice and dismounted, peering into the underbrush, as Xena fought her way through the scratchy branches. He gave her a hand up, relieved to see her, and steadied her as she recovered her breath.
"Why the Hades are you here?" she said through clenched teeth. It was not the greeting he expected.
"Arcus told me to go after you," he said in an aggrieved tone.
"With Arcus and Barrus."
"He's all right?."
"Yes. Although why you sent a small boy alone on that horse-"
"Argo got him there?" she said, asking him to state the obvious.
"I knew she would. Why are you here? You should have stayed with Teremon," she scolded.
Drusander stopped the angry words which rushed to his tongue. The woman before him looked on the point of collapse, her left leg was a mass of dried blood, and sweat poured in sheets off her body. As she looked at him, her eyes were unfocused, and her mouth contorted when she moved, as if she stifled a groan of pain.
He responded gently. "Arcus said it had gone on too long. If you had been defeated, the others, whoever they were, would have been long gone. He thought it was more likely that you'd been the victor, and were injured, or at least without a horse. He said the danger to Teremon was over." He looked at her for approval. She was not yet swayed. "Besides, I was expendable. If they did come back, I wouldn't be much good. I might as well be sent to get the warrior." He shrugged, a self-deprecating smile on his face. She didn't exactly smile in return, but relaxed the scowl, and allowed him to take her arm for support while she approached her horse. Her half-lifted, half-held her as she pulled herself across the saddle, then he climbed aboard behind her.
"Arcus was right? You beat them? All of them?" he asked incredulous.
"They're dead," she gasped. No reason to mention Callisto-yet.
'Like no warrior you've ever seen,' came back to him as his arms encircled her waist and he urged Argo to carry them back to the little camp.
She hated this, being eyed with concern as she made her ungainly dismount. Drusander stood ready to help her, carry her, to a place by the fire if need be. She pushed him away irritably, and held onto Argo's saddle as she surveyed the scene. Barrus lay propped against a tree, his left shoulder bandaged, Arcus next to him, holding a bowl of something in his lap, his own head wrapped with white strips. Teremon, sat tucked into the crook of his arm, shaken, yet alert as he heard their approach.
"Xena?" he called. "Is that you?"
"It's me Teremon," she replied, keeping from her voice the anxiety she registered as she added up the afternoon's toll. Arcus, Barrus and herself all injured. From the looks of it, Barrus would do well to stay in a saddle. Arcus seemed capable of limited action. As for herself...she would do what had to be done. Somehow. Gods, she hoped she could do it from the back of Argo. Her leg had little strength. If she were not holding on to Argo, she'd be on the ground. An army of cripples.
She looked at Teremon. His open face had a worried look that hadn't been there before.
"You did well to get back to camp, Teremon. Did Argo give you a good ride?"
He brightened at her words. "I just held on. Argo's amazing."
"Mmm, she is, "Xena nodded, eyes beginning to close once more. The fire was out, and the long day finally looked about to end. "Drusander. Make a fire."
"I will," he said amiably, "and you sit down. I'd like to see that wound."
"It's been taken care of," she said a little testily. She remembered that she wore no breeches. They had been cut into strips to secure the little rag Callisto had given her to cover the wound. The bulky dressing made an odd bulge under her leather skirt. She realized for the first time how bad she must look. "It bled," she conceded, "I just need to clean up a bit." She prepared to take a step, all eyes watching, unable to feel her leg, uncertain whether it would support her. Reluctantly, she looked at Drusander, the only whole adult among them, and asked for help. "Could you give me a hand? Just to the water's edge?" What's the difference, she asked herself. He's already had to get me on the horse, half-hold me in the saddle.
"Sure," he said off-handedly, seeing how hard it had been for her to ask. "I have to fill the skins anyway."
"Xena? Are you hurt. Did they stab you?" Teremon asked.
"Just a knife wound, barely a scratch," she assured him.
"Warriors don't feel pain," he said with certainty.
"Yes we do, Teremon," she corrected him, weariness in her voice. "We just find ways to deal with it, if we can."
Drusander's strong arm supported her to a place where several low, flat rocks jutted out into the stream, making a broad table. The rocks were still warm from the sun, and the water there was almost tepid. She settled gratefully onto the ledge of rock, and began to remove her boots. Drusander was down beside her, and pushed her hands away.
"You've done enough work for one day," he told her. "I'll do the boot work," he said with a grin.
She gave a mental shrug, and leaned back, propped up on her elbows until her feet were bare. She stretched them into the water, and sighed audibly. Drusander touched her breastplate, where it fastened at the side. "No." Her voice rasped. "I'll do that."
He apologized, and she saw the puzzlement in his face. How to tell him that only Gabrielle did that for her? There was no Gabrielle anymore, not for her.
"I'll be back," he said, wondering at the new pain in her face.
She removed the breastplate and leather battledress, reminding herself that she'd never relied on anyone to dress her, or undress her, before Gabrielle. It was no big deal now, but she missed the smiling blonde, missed the gentle fingers which would have eased away the tensions in her shoulders, held her until the long struggles of the day were a distant memory... Her fingers fell away from her task for a moment, and she forced herself to focus as she tossed her bracers aside. She took hold of the little bard who was always a heartbeat away from her thoughts and prepared to consign her once more to a velvet oblivion. Her nerve failed her this time. She had been struck too many times today, by the knife, by the words of Callisto; she couldn't bring herself to pierce her heart one more time, as she had each night since...
She unwrapped the sloppy bandage, and traced a finger along the unsightly scar. At least Gabrielle would never see it, she consoled herself. Xena would look at it everyday for the rest of her life, and with it, she would think of Callisto. The scar ended her last, foggy hope that the encounter with the woman had been some malign dream. She had been real, and her message had been real. My sister Callisto, she mused, grimly. And Gabrielle had known. How long? Cletus must have told her, which meant that while she was in the dungeon, Cletus and Gabrielle had met and shared...what? One secret, at least. One more secret... Why this one, Gabrielle? Afraid I couldn't bear it? Or am I too wrapped up in the death of Perdicus for you to think of Callisto and me sharing blood?
The blood was dissolving now, and she scrubbed it gently with moss she plucked from the side of rocks on the bank. The area around the wound was red and swollen. There was little danger of infection, thanks to Callisto, but it was sore. She jabbed sharply at a point above the wound, and sighed gratefully as the leg lost all feeling. She covered the wound with her hand and massaged with a circular motion, a healing technique she'd learned long before. After a few minutes she stopped and readied herself. When she restored feeling to the anesthetized limb she would pay for the respite; it would hurt more that before. Pain was easier to deal with when you were used to it.
She jabbed, and grimaced as the nerve endings from hip to ankle came alive, reminding her brain that some insult had been perpetrated on her body, demanding rest and stillness.
She eased herself off the shallow water over the warm rocks and sank into deeper, cold water that helped relieve the pain. Gods, making such a fuss over a little stab wound, she berated herself, when there was still so much to be done.
She wondered whether Callisto had serious designs on the throne. If she did, the danger to Teremon was multiplied many-fold. Glaucon had told her of her parentage, which could only mean that someone planned to use Callisto. She shook her head as she remembered the results when Ares had tried to use Callisto; the God of War had stalked off, thwarted by the strong, if misguided, will of the blonde warrior. "My sister," Xena said aloud, as if trying to grasp the concept. Glaucon and Radec would never know what hit them. Neither would Cletus, or Teremon, she realized soberly, if Callisto decided to go after the throne. No point trying to guess Callisto's next move. She was as unpredictable as a whirlwind. She might seize on Teremon as a rival to be eliminated, or decide to embrace him as a new sibling to be protected. She had no illusions that a similar emotion would color Callisto's feelings towards her. In fact, it might be better if Callisto believed that Xena had no feeling for Teremon, or Cletus. About Cletus it was true enough; but despite her early intentions, she had grown fond of the little boy. He was brave and cheerful, confident despite his life of darkness. And he seemed to like her; hard not to like someone so eager to have even a crumb of your attention. Yet that attention could be dangerous for him, as it had been for Gabrielle, and her young husband. She would have to restore the distance between them, she decided. It wouldn't make him happy now, but it was for his own good; once they reached Prestia she would have said good-bye anyway.
There was still Cletus to think about. He had revealed to Xena only as much as she needed to know to do his bidding, yet someone else knew much more. Radec knew about Callisto, about Teremon, about Xena. She doubted that Cletus was aware of the depth of Radec's knowledge. If he was, why not share it with her? If he wasn't, he lived in the shadow of a noose, and seemed not to know it.
The sun was going down fast now and she could smell the scent of roasting rabbits, glad that Arcus had found them in Argo's bag. She was hungry, and the cold water was beginning to make her shiver now. She ducked her head under to rinse out the dust from the road, and shook out the excess water. One thing more to think about, before she rejoined the others, and that was the hardest topic of all: Gabrielle. It must have been hard for her to learn the truth about Callisto. A wave of anger swept through her. Cletus had no business telling Gabrielle. He had to know about Callisto's murder of Perdicus. Was he leaving Gabrielle the dirty work of passing the word along? How would Gabrielle feel now, having been visited by Callisto, no one to share the secret with, alone...or not. What had Callisto said about Hela? Xena remembered Hela. She was closer to Gabrielle's age than Xena, and rather sweet. She liked to sing. If Callisto was lying, she had found a plausible basis for the lie. If she wasn't, Gabrielle had found someone well-suited to herself. She bowed her head, and unexpected hot tears rushed to her eyes. Through a furious rushing noise in her ears she heard her voice called. She splashed cold water in her face one last time and mustered enough composure to face Drusander as he came tentatively up behind her.
"Xena, I brought a towel, and Arcus said this bag held some things you might need," she knew without looking that he blushed. He tossed the bag within her reach. "Call when you need a hand." He disappeared into the bushes. Concerned for my modesty, Xena thought wryly amused. How long had it been since she'd been concerned for it? Except out of respect for Gabrielle's sensibilities, and that had certainly changed over time. Gabrielle would be here now, toweling her off, fixing the new bandage, helping her with the awkward task of pulling breeches over the wound...but she wasn't. That thought hurt worse than the wound. She grimaced as the leather settled into place, and she rose to one knee. I'll take this pain any day, she acknowledged, by the gods, I'll take it forever, over that pain that floods the soul. She shoved the breastplate, bracers, greaves and boots into her bag. Good enough, she thought.
"Drusander." He didn't need calling twice.
"I wanted to thank you," he said, as she leaned on his arm for support. "You saved Teremon's life.
Her face was impassive as she answered. "It was a pleasure."
He looked at her uncertainly. "I'd hardly call it that," he ventured. "You had to face a dozen men to rescue Teremon; it must have been a ferocious battle."
She stopped and gave him an unwavering stare. "Drusander, you don't get it. I'm a warrior. For me, that was a pleasure. I enjoyed it." Something in her eyes told him she was in deadly earnest. "And you're right to keep Teremon away from me." She pulled her arm away and made her way back to camp alone, teeth gritted.
In another place, around another campfire, a company of women finished a lavish repast of freshly speared fish, surrounded by fragrantly seasoned vegetables and an array of fruits, all carted from the Amazon lands. Amazon-crafted wine was available, but Gabrielle declined the wine, as she had most of the meal. This was a procession of Amazon royalty, as much for to impress the locals whose land they traversed as for the comfort of the Amazon queen. Queens, she corrected herself, the reigning Queen Ephiny, and the Queen Emeritus, now Princess Gabrielle. They were accompanied by two dozen Amazons, scholars, and cooks, artists and royal guards, warriors all, regardless of their other tasks.
The procession of Amazon royalty would live in the lore the villages it passed through for generations. Old wags in the streets compared it now to the procession of Melosa, when Ephiny had been a very young girl. Certainly the grace of the horses and riders was as great as before, and the brief, ornate ceremonial dress, revealing the hard, tanned bodies, brought envious sighs from the village women, and other sighs from the men. The ceremonial masks were often raised, for comfort's sake, but as they neared a village, the masks were lowered into place, so that the villagers could see the finery, and only imagine the fierce scowls of the legendary warriors. Underneath the masks, the Amazons smiled, as other women clutched the hands of their children, and glared at their men.
Gabrielle noted each detail, and carried her ceremonial staff with pride. It was the first time she had wielded a staff since that night in Prestia, when Xena had hammered home the dangers of staff fighting - for the victim.
This was not like traveling with Xena. At night they would retire to one of the lavish tents which were set up each night, and pass the evening in comfort, on downy pallets. She would rather sleep naked, in a gravel pit, if Xena was beside her. Ephiny guessed her thoughts, at least that they were of Xena.
"Gabrielle, let's walk." Ephiny rose, waving her guards to remain seated. "Bad night?" she asked as they left the light of the fire.
"Is there any other kind?" the younger woman answered glumly.
Ephiny tilted her head in acknowledgement. "Right now, for you, I guess not."
"Xena and I spent a lot of time around campfires," Gabrielle went on. "I keep expecting her to walk out of a shadow. I know it won't happen... And then I wonder what she's doing tonight, whether she's all right." She held her elbows as she walked, as if trying to occupy empty arms. "Of course our campsites weren't like this, Xena would never have the luxury of a tent."
"Oh, I don't know. I think anyone with Xena's past has known campsites like this." She caught Gabrielle's puzzled look. "She was a warlord, Gabrielle," she explained. "Hundreds, maybe thousands of men waiting to do her bidding. I'd be very surprised if Xena, Warrior Princess spent many nights under the stars. You've seen the camps of warlords," she ended, looking for comprehension in the bard's face.
Gabrielle smiled at her own lack of perception. "Yeah, I have. Draco, Mezentius, Krykus.
I've even wondered if Xena missed any of it. Sometimes I think I don't have a good grasp of -I don't know- the totality of Xena's life then."
Ephiny was interested in this admission. "How do you see that Xena?"
"I see her dealing death with her sword, surrounded by corpses, laughing at her victims." She caught Ephiny's gaze. "It's how Xena speaks of herself, walking ankle deep in blood..." She shuddered at the images. "That's how I see that Xena." She bit her lower lip, suddenly struck by something. "Funny. It's like talking about two different people. The 'good' Xena, and the 'evil warlord Xena'. Yet one heart that beats for both of them." She stood motionless, pondering this paradox.
"Still?" It was not an idle question.
"I know she's still capable of evil, Ephiny. It's as if a beast is unleashed, and suddenly Xena isn't there anymore, its some other person, ferocious, savage..." She paused remembering. "It hurts me when people are afraid of her now, she tries so hard to be good; but I can understand why people hated her then. When she loses control, she can be terrifying..."
Ephiny blew out a long breath. "I've never seen her like that, hope I never do," she added sincerely, "but I'm sure she terrifies no one more than herself. Imagine waking up every day, wondering if this will be the day you lose it, the day the beast is let lose."
"Xena said something like that once," the bard said, remembering. "She said that she feels like the village drunk, who tries to stay sober, but put her near a tavern and she has to fight the urge to take a drink, everyday. Some days harder than others."
"I haven't known many Amazons to have problems like that with alcohol," Ephiny said, considering, "but as I recall, no matter how long they stay sober, some people can't help checking their breath as they pass by, sure they must have fallen. It's hard to lose that image," the Amazon queen said tersely.
Gabrielle stopped, and took hold of Ephiny's upper arm. "Do you think I'm like that? That I'm 'checking' Xena's breath?"
"No," the gentle monarch said quickly. "But I'm sure there must be people who do. Xena will never be allowed to forget her past."
"She'll never allow herself to forget it," Gabrielle said. "Ephiny. Do you think that now, while she's alone..."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. It won't make things easier, but I suspect Xena's a lot stronger than she used to be, thanks to you."
"Thanks to me, yeah," she said bitterly, "some thanks. Just leaves me, over some misunderstandings..."
They had arrived at a small clearing, where moonlight came in through the sparse cover of trees, leaving a lacy pattern on the ground. Ephiny couldn't make out the younger woman's features, but her heart ached at the sob she heard in her voice. "Gabrielle, if Xena is in Prestia, ask her what happened there; what happened to Xena that you don't know. Ask her, and make her answer. Then be ready to answer her questions."
The bard seemed to hear only half the words. "If, she's in Prestia? What do you mean?"
"Gabrielle, we don't know where she's been. We could arrive in Prestia and find she's already come and gone. Or decided not to return at all. I hope for both your sakes she's there."
Gabrielle knew she had heard these words before, heard them and chosen to ignore them. She chose to ignore them again. Xena would be there, the bard closed her eyes and willed it so, asked Aphrodite and Artemis to make it so. "She'll be there Ephiny," she said with cold certainty.
"She's cold." Drusander had trailed Xena back to camp and watched as she took a portion of rabbit to a place by the edge of the firelight. She ripped the flesh from bone with grim determination, seemingly oblivious to the heat which crackled the rabbit fat, or the presence of the others. Arcus turned his face away and pulled Drusander to a seat.
"It's a way of staying alive, Drusander. She's not a bard." There was a defensive tone in Arcus' voice that Drusander hadn't expected.
"What's the point of staying alive only to be so-so bloody minded."
"This afternoon the point was that she kept Teremon alive. Leave it at that."
"She killed men today, Arcus. She said she enjoyed it," his curled lip registered his disapproval. "You're a warrior; do you enjoy killing?"
Arcus shook his head. "I don't," he said simply. "I also couldn't have plucked Teremon from the midst of the enemy and beaten a dozen men by myself."
He left Drusander and crossed to the dark, solitary woman, wiping greasy fingers on a broad leaf. She was in obvious pain from her wound, but he read more in her face. Something had happened that afternoon, and it had shaken her badly. He sat on the ground next to her. "Feeling better?"
She nodded. "Yeah. We need to talk. Today was a complete dog's breakfast." There was all-encompassing reproach in her voice. "You know of Callisto?"
"I do," he said, suddenly afraid of what he had read in her face.
"She's been watching us," she said flatly.
"You said something was making you uneasy the other night." She gave him a withering stare. "Yeah, I said it, but I did damn all about it, like I did damn all this afternoon to find those raiders before they struck. Some scout," she sneered.
"You can't blame yourself for that; they were on this camp like a bolt of lightning. Unless you rode right in their path..."
"Don't make excuses for me," she shut him up. "It's my job to keep him safe, the only reason I'm here."
Arcus fell silent briefly, then: "All right, kick yourself, if it makes you feel any better, but you can't deny you made a nice recovery, against nasty odds."
"I got the job done. Barely. Callisto arrived at the end. She took out three of them. She treated this wound." She didn't mention how. The mortal conflict between the two women had become the stuff of legends. Arcus found his mouth hanging open. "Why?" was all he could manage. "I don't pretend to understand Callisto. The thing is, she has an interest in Teremon, and that makes her dangerous."
Arcus felt his eyes widen with alarm. "What interest?"
"She said she's his sister." The blue eyes were cast at the ground. Arcus knew that if she were Teremon's sister she would be Xena's sister as well. "Do you know if that's true?" she asked, lifting her eyes once more, hoping to find the response she needed from Arcus.
He rubbed his eyes, and let a rare oath escape him. "I'm sorry Xena, the old man doesn't share all his secrets with common soldiers. I knew of Teremon, because I could be of use there. I never knew of you, or Callisto. I thought he showed interest in both of you because of - " he brought himself up short.
"Cirra," she finished.
"How much do we tell Drusander?" he asked, anxious to move the discussion away from Cirra.
She shrugged. "Tell him everything. Not about me," she added quickly. "Callisto seems anxious to advertise her position. I'm not. She seems to think she might have a chance at the throne. Drusander should know."
"I'll fetch him."
"No!" Her quiet command held him to the spot. "Tell him yourself. I don't need to hear a blow-by-blow account of the life and times of Callisto, or me. I just want to sleep. Are you all right to stand first watch?"
"Right as rain," he lied.
"I'll relieve -"
"I know," he smiled.
"Would you get me something? In Argo's bag there's a sack, with a number of small pouches. They have healing herbs. If you heat some water, I think there are one or two that might do us all some good tonight."
So they slept, as Arcus watched over them, Xena on her back, unable to bend the leg at the hip. Drusander had one protective arm thrown around Teremon; he only stirred when a strangled cry pierced the air, and was cut short. Xena looked around the site, wincing at the sudden movement, shuddering from the nightmare. A hand flew to her mouth, then both hands brushed hair from her moist face. He pretended to sleep as she rose shakily to one leg, and limped away, her sheathed sword providing support. Not for the first time he puzzled over the woman. 'Like no warrior you've ever met.'
They had traveled many miles from the spot of the ambush, pushing hard, Arcus carrying Teremon on his horse, to make better time. If Drusander had objections, he didn't voice them. Xena was setting the pace, and her manner forestalled interference, discouraged most contact. They assumed it was connected to the painful wound, though she never commented on it. She changed her dressings away from their eyes, prepared her remedies without comment; her only visible concession to the pain was an occasional change of position in the saddle, hooking the right leg over the front of the saddle horn and trusting her seat to balance rather than grip. It reduced the strain, but as the days wore on she began to admit concerns to herself. She had remarkable recuperative powers, that had stood her in good stead over the years, seen her through many injuries. This was somehow different. The swelling was down, the bruising had faded, yet the awful pain remained, as if it had just happened. She had been a fool to let Callisto treat the wound. Why had she done that? She searched her memory for the answer, and finding none, put it down to confusion caused by pain and shock. The wound hadn't been properly cleaned, she decided in hindsight, and bone fragments may have been left behind. Nothing to do but gut it out until she had a chance to open it and do the job right. The scar couldn't be any worse. Or maybe the blade had cut too deeply, did more damage than she suspected...either way, she was hurting.
They rode together since the ambush, seldom, from their depleted ranks, sparing a rider to scout ahead. Drusander rode at her elbow now, telling a tale of Atlas, speaking loudly enough for Teremon, who rode with Arcus, to hear. The booming tones could be heard by Atlas Xena decided, as she urged Argo to ride ahead of the group, out of earshot.
"Don't like bards?" Drusander called after her, newly annoyed by the woman. She hadn't spoken to Teremon all day; the little boy had finally stopped trying to get her attention.
Barrus cleared his throat, and spoke softly: "She was very close to a bard. They were inseparable. Something happened. Recently." He wagged his head, and shrugged his shoulders. Drusander looked at her now, straight and tall in the saddle, despite her pain and weariness. Close to a bard? He couldn't see it, tried in vain to picture a bard who could break through that shell, even as he wondered vaguely what that might be like.
Toward late afternoon they passed a mountain ford, with a distinctive outcropping of rock. "Smell the sweet clover," Drusander asked Teremon. "If we crossed the river here, we'd be in Thrace, where the sheep and horses feed on sweet clover and lush grasses all day." Xena knew the scent well, knew the ford, longed to wade the shallow waters now, and be on the road home to Amphipolis. Instead they turned away from the ford, to take the long road that skirted Amazon territory. Don't go there, Xena, she warned herself, but found, to her surprise, that she could recall the scene with a certain detachment, wishing only for a spell in the soothing steam of the purifying-hut. That was all behind her, she reminded herself, Amazons receded into the recesses of memory, relics of an unexpected interlude in her life. She spurred on past the little group, anxious to manage a few more good miles before dark.
"Real Amazons are a shock to most people. We eat, drink, laugh and have many interests, just like everyone else. We just do it all with a certain panache." Solari tossed a bunch of grapes at Gabrielle, who managed to catch them without making grape juice.
"Got it Solari. What is your point?"
"My point is this: if you ride into Prestia tomorrow morning looking so glum, you'll set our image back ten generations."
"I'll be wearing a mask, Solari."
"Fine. Then keep the frown on your face, but sit straight," she demonstrated with an exaggerated posture, "hold your reins higher, and carry your staff more erect." Another demonstration.
"Solari, I'm not all that used to being on horseback; by myself, anyway." She fell silent, then roused herself with an effort and smiled at the circle of Amazons riding with her. "I'll try," she promised. "I know I'm being silly."
"It's not silly," Ephiny protested. "You love her and she's not with you. But this isn't only about Xena. I wouldn't uproot forty Amazons to undertake this trek for the sake of your broken heart, or to look out for Xena. Not that she isn't worth it," she demurred, seeing Gabrielle's eyes narrow. "But we have another mission. It's good for young Amazons to see the outside world, to know the respect and wonder people have about our people. I had the opportunity on a mission like this to Prestia with Queen Melosa; I have never forgotten that time," she said eyes far away as she remembered. "It makes us wiser, stronger, better able to understand the outsiders, whom we can't always avoid." She was aware that she had made this little speech, or variations of it several times before, and changed her tack now. "It also gives us the chance to negotiate trade agreements with Prestia, maybe the first of a series with our neighbors. Our new planting scheme should yield enough surplus to allow us to obtain the things we need that we cannot produce. The trade routes to Amazonia can be busy once more, making us stronger and more prosperous." She ended, and looked sheepishly around at her companions, aware that she had made another little speech. "Sorry, I've been excited about this since I talked about the old trade routes with Xena, she knew them well..." Her voice trailed off.
"Yeah, her army probably raided them," Gabrielle joked, a joke no one would have dared in her presence. "Don't stop, Ephiny. I'd like to hear what she had to say. I don't need you to remind me of her, you know. There isn't much I do, or see, or hear that doesn't bring her back to me."
Glaucon sat with his back to the wall, eyes fixed on his cup, for all the world indifferent to the door, not noticing each face that entered the small inn. Yet he had sat here for three nights, waiting for the door to open and admit a familiar face, one carrying word of success. He couldn't wait much longer, certain that one way or another, the thing had been decided. Either Teremon was dead, maybe Xena too, or he had another failure to explain to Radec. Damn. He should have done the thing himself, only there was Balceres to find, to coddle, to dupe. Maybe Radec would understand. It had been the chanciest thing, finding out that Xena was not a fugitive, but rode to collect the little heir. If Filxon hadn't escaped from that stupid guard and brought back word, they might never have guessed. By then, Callisto had already been put on Xena's trail. The other force was sent to be her back up, and to make sure that Teremon never reached Prestia. Too little, too late, he muttered to himself. He tossed some dinars on the table and went upstairs, choosing not to wake Balceres. He was so unpleasant when moody and so easy to fall into moods. He'd stay put, as long as Glaucon held the purse strings, beyond that, Glaucon would leave his handling to Radec.
Glaucon's room was at the end of the narrow corridor. A small room, reeking of kitchen odors that seeped up from the floor below. A bed, a table, a chair. His hand flashed to seize the dagger at his waist, too late, as the hilt of a second dagger drove into his wrist, causing the fingers to open in a spasm of pain. Then the form in the chair rose and took two strides to land a booted foot in his midsection. As he fell backward with a huff Callisto reclined on the bed. "Thought you'd never come up," she complained. "Waiting for someone? No point. He won't be coming. None of your little friends will be coming. My sister is good," she said with mock pride. "You'd need a lot more than twelve men to take care of her. Even," she smirked in self-deprecation, "if she did need a hand from little sister."
Glaucon started to his feet. "Stay there," she warned. He lay back, propped up on his elbows, and strained to see the blonde warrior in the dark room. "Xena lives?" he asked.
"Yes." He heard a tinge of regret. "For now. I know what you said, Glaucon - that was your name?" she asked, in an irritating lilt. "If I kill Xena, the throne of Prestia is open to me. Only I didn't count on two things: first, that I'd feel so much of a bond with my sister," she gushed. "I do believe I'm the little sister she always wanted. Then there's Teremon," she said flatly, "the boy-prince, he's the one who's getting the throne, isn't that right? You never mentioned him," she spat with venom. Her eyes seemed to glare at him through the black shadows of the room.
"Teremon wasn't part of this when I spoke to you," he managed through dry lips.
"You said Xena might have business in Dracatha," she countered, "looks like Teremon was that business."
"It was a hunch," he said keeping desperation from his voice. "Xena posed as a fugitive from Prestian justice." She snickered, imagining. "A messenger brought word of her real mission after our meeting. Teremon should have been taken care of by now," he added gratuitously.
"Well that's all too bad, for you," she cooed, "because little Callisto thinks you've tried to use her; and she hates being used."
Time for candor, he decided. "I was using you, Callisto, to eliminate Xena. Too bad you failed," he ventured, ready to risk her wrath.
"I didn't fail," she hissed through bared teeth, "I never tried."
"So she continues to Prestia, with the boy. How does that improve your chances?"
"Why do 'my chances' interest you, Glaucon? What's in it for you, and Radec, if I'm Queen? Maybe I'd decide to execute both of you," she ended speculatively.
"Would you light a candle?" he asked, looking for time to think, wondering how she'd learned of Radec. She must have spoken to Xena, yet they were mortal enemies, it made no sense.
"No candle," she replied with a pained expression. "Then I'd have to look at your face. Bad enough I have to put up with your stench. Explain to me," she persisted, "why you care about me being queen? And don't give me that story about sympathy for a survivor of Cirra." I think only one person in this world has real sympathy for me, she said to herself.
"Prestia needs a decent ruler," he began.
"Me?" she laughed. Xena knew how that would be, she conceded.
"Not for the petty details," he offered, "for the exercise of power -"
"Power is in the details," she observed. "I don't like your answer." Her blonde head shook, and metal clinked as she rose from the bed. "I don't like you, assassin. Who did you ever manage to kill, anyway? Old ladies leaving offerings at the temples? When their backs were turned." She threw her head back and laughed. That gave him an opening, as she knew it would. He lunged, and her knee caught him squarely in the face, crunching cartilage and bone together in a bloody mass. She took his head by the hair and held his face inches from the floor. "I'd finish you now, but I need you to take a message to Radec, little man. You tell that pus bag that nobody uses Callisto. And he'll be seeing me real soon."
The Amazons ferried across the River Pres in stages, horses stamping as they waited their turns. Ephiny left it to Solari and Eponin to deal with the logistics of the crossing, and waited in the shade with Gabrielle, until the last of the splendored women had reached the shore. It was still very early. the messengers who had been flying back and forth between the party of Amazons and Prestia had made it clear that they would be welcomed with flowers and wine. A good crowd was expected to attend their procession through the streets. Ephiny smiled at this. Prestia could still be counted on to lavish hospitality on welcome guests. The route they traveled was as well-kept and cheerful as she remembered. She hated to think of all this lost in a blood-letting over the throne. Her visit, her news of duplicity in the king's inner circle might make no difference. No matter, I'm doing what I can, she consoled herself.
The streets of Prestia, were full, most people in a holiday atmosphere, a few, in brown uniforms, unsmiling, watching the crowd. Street vendors hawked their wares, fishcakes, sweet pastries, meats skewered and roasted on sticks. The first riders cleared the path, alerting the townsfolk that royalty approached. Gabrielle remembered to ride as bidden, straight, as tall, and with as much confidence as she could muster. She focused on the faces nearby, trying to ignore the street-sights that she had first seen at Xena's side. The smell of baking bread, and the crisp air, with its taste of the cool river pulled her back to that morning when she had looked over Prestia from the Inn of the Four Gardens. That cursed spot, where she had first heard the news about Atrius. They were approaching the street it nestled in now, and she turned to watch its narrow, winding way.
"Gabrielle." Ephiny's voice brought her up sharp, and she turned around, straightened, and focused on the crowd. A broad, bearded face appeared for a second, and was lost again in the crowd. "Salmoneus," she asked aloud, smiling for the first time. She turned to an Amazon outrider, and spoke to her for a few moments. The rider took off, looking for a face in the crowd.
Near the center of town a council of merchants made a ceremony of giving Ephiny the key to the city gate. There was, of course, no wall around the city, just around the castle confines. Ephiny took the ornate, non-functional key with a gracious nod, reminding herself to explain to the younger Amazons why this strange society gave her a key for which there was no lock. Amazons tended to be rather literal. They had been on the road for several hours; a bath and a meal would be very welcome. One more stretch of maze- like streets and they would be at the castle gate.
King Cletus watched the approach with interest. From a high turret-room he could follow the flurry of activity that followed the troupe. He wished he could see them now, remembering Melosa's visit some years before. A fine looking woman, he recalled, he would have liked to father a child by her, he thought, then caught himself. Maybe you did enough of that, Cletus; maybe too much. His thoughts strayed to Teremon, somewhere, he hoped on the road with Xena; his eldest and youngest, coming together to keep his kingdom intact. He hoped this was the right thing to do, bringing the boy to a life of intrigue and strain. Why else did you want children, but to secure the succession? he asked himself, and hurried back to his observance of the Amazon procession to avoid an answer.
"Ephiny, I'd love to ride like that through Potadeia some day," Gabrielle, said with a grin. They walked side-by-side through a double row of guards, pikes at salute, to the entry of the castle. Gabrielle peered at the guards, hoping to see Woody, but he was not there. This was her first time to enter by the official entrance, she noted. She had come in through the guardroom (she shuddered at the thought), and through an entrance from the stables, that she doubted she could ever follow again. The venerable castle was like a rabbit warren. She shook her head, remembering how it had seemed so romantic, from a distance. Her own romance had started to die in these walls. She blinked back a tear, and opened her eyes again on the second bluest pair of eyes she had ever seen.
A page was announcing the presence of Cletus, reigning monarch of the Royal House of Prestia. He looked more impressive in his royal regalia. It did for him what her armor did for Xena. Not that Xena was ever less than impressive, she observed. She took a moment to conjure up that image, and press it to her heart. "My warrior," she breathed under her mask Even as she waited to greet the monarch, her peer, she cursed his role in the events which had been played out here.
They were in a large hall now, made cool by the thick stone and masonry walls. The king
spoke formally to Ephiny, then turned eagerly to the shorter woman, the Queen Emeritus at her side. "I welcome you back to Prestia, Gabrielle," he said warmly, setting protocol aside in order to embrace her. "Have you been well?"
Ephiny took this informality as a signal to remove her mask, and the other Amazons followed suit.
The look on Gabrielle's unconcealed face was his answer. He backed away and made a small statement of welcome, followed by the very practical announcement concerning accommodations and food. As they parted, Gabrielle took a small scroll from her waistband and pressed it on him. He accepted it with a nod, and the Amazon dignitaries were shown to their quarters.
To Be Continued...Chapter 25 - 26