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Deal With the Devil - Book One

by Philip Howell

Copyright Statement

'Deal With The Devil: Book One' and "Touched By Ares' Hand" -- all:

©Copyright 1997 by Phillip Howell, Powder Springs, Georgia

Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and backstory used in 'Deal With The Devil' are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.


by Gabrielle, Heroic Bard

As Translated by

Phillip Howell


This is the story of my best friend, Xena. A story I have not felt emboldened to tell until now. It has been many years since the events of this story occurred and the pain still haunts my friend in more ways than she will ever acknowledge. For those of you who have followed my chronicles of Xena the story that follows will come as no surprise, though you might not have imagined all I have to tell. For those of you who are new to the story of my friend - well just sit back and listen to a tale that is noble and heartbreaking, that is full of life and death, tragedy and hope.

This is the story of Xena and her coming of age. The story of how she lost the most important person in her life, her brother Lyssius. This is the story of how she battled her family to sing a Hero's death ritual for her little brother. It is the story of her battle against the men who killed him, how she overcame their might to win. The story of why she left Amphipolis to travel the world as a warrior.

It is also a love story, the story of my friend's first love. She would not agree for, despite the years, she has yet to understand her mixed emotions for Petricles. No, this is the story of how Xena and Petricles met and came to an understanding, to fall in love. Though the end of their love was tragic and empty, they started out with the best of intentions.

More importantly, this is the story of Xena's unfortunate deal with the devil, how the chains of deceit came to entangle her soul for many years to come.

This is the story of how Xena became the WARRIOR PRINCESS.

It was the time of the GREAT COMING. The time of great changes and the time of great sadness. The day of the Hero was over, overthrown by the twin harbingers of time and war's bloodshed. The Heros had ruled the land of the Achaeans for many years, but no longer. The war with Troy consumed them all; those not dead remained enthralled by Ares at that city's gates. In their place, came the invaders from the north, from the land of Illyrium. It was the time of the IRON MEN, those savage men from northern mists. Yes, the Dorians had come to Achaea.

These tall savage men from the north, these IRON MEN, came as destroyers and enslavers. They came not as heros nor as benefactors. No, they came to the land of the Achaeans as conquerors and despoilers. They destroyed the land, enslaving its men and women. Homes once animated by the likes of Hercules, Achilles, and Agamemnon were laid low, destroyed and raised asunder. The land was not prepared for their coming and without the departed Heros there was no one to protect those left behind.

Life became unsettled as entire communities were forced to wander about the land seeking peace and safety. But without the Heros, who was to provide this security? The barbarity of the invader ruined the fields and farms and despoiled the trade routes linking the scattered Achaean settlements. The scourge of war flourished under the hand of these IRON MEN and the resulting poverty of a once proud people deepened. Who would? Who could stand against them?

It was a time of shifting kingdoms and a time for mighty warlords. A time for bands of murderous men to prey upon the weak and unprotected. The great migration from northern lands, once foretold by prophets, had begun and Achaea cried out for a hero. A hero to stand against these IRON MEN of Doria. The time of the great coming was indeed at hand. The age of bronze was about to end, ushered out by the age of iron.

No one could stand against these strange men from Doria. Those that tried found their bronze easily beaten by the iron swords of the invader. This new metal gave the Dorians strength to oppose even the mightiest of heros. So, who would oppose these strange men from the north? Who would stand against them? Who would heed the cry for a hero?

               Battle is for the men, so strong,

               Warriors bred to war!

                    The chosen of Ares' pick.

               This is combat where men contend,

               Warriors armored for war!

                    Here stand Ares' favorite sons.

               What reason brings this woman forth?

               This black haired maiden young,

                    Not yet touched by Ares' hand.

               What brings her to this battlefield?

               Onto this plain of war and blood,

                    So sacred to Ares' chosen sons.

               Why should this fair and goodly girl

               Confront these armored men?

                    Whom Ares' calls his own.

               With bronzed helm to guard her gentle face,

               What calls this girl to this sad place?

                    Where Ares' convenes his own.


Chapter 1

The high sun of summer returned to the village of Amphipolis. This was the time between. Between the time of sowing in the spring and the time of reaping in the fall. Time for the youth of Amphipolis to be themselves. To while away the long summer days in numerous pursuits and pleasures, to play at being adults. Their laughter rang resoundingly throughout the valley.

Three of these young people of Amphipolis ran past the fig groves and oak trees that bordered the stream north of the village. The young man far outstripped his two female companions. Broad of shoulder and thick of arm, his fifteen years rested lightly on his athletic form. Long legs pumping in rhythmic action, he bounded into the lower branches of the nearest oak tree with effortless ease. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that his companions were fast approaching. Climbing to the next limb, he waited their arrival with a broad smile on his handsome face.

The fleeter of the two girls was a raven haired beauty of seventeen years. Her long muscular legs sped her on her way at a much faster pace than did the shorter ones of her companion. Looking over her shoulder, she saw she had a good lead on her younger friend. Reaching the tree, she vaulted into the lowest branches and did a brief hand stand, her long skirts billowing unashamedly downward, before coming to rest on the limb below where the young man sat.

"Xena, you have to remember to help Flora into the tree when she arrives. You know she's not tall enough or strong enough yet to climb as easily as you and I do.", Lyssius reminded his sister.

"Sure Lyssius, I'll help little Flora into the tree.", replied Xena, moving to brace herself and assist the fast approaching younger girl. "Here Flora, take me hand.", she said as Flora reached the bottom of the tree, jumping for Xena's outstretched hand.

Despite her brother's admonition, a sense of perversity overtook the raven haired girl and just as Flora reached for her hand, Xena withdrew it, leaving Flora alone in the air without assistance. "Flora, you've got'a have faith.", she told the embarrassed Flora as the younger girl fell onto her backside.

Flora sat for a moment looking up at her older friend, a look of disappointment on her young face. The moment passed and with the cheerfulness that comes from wanting desperately to be part of the group, Flora good-naturedly began the laborious climb onto the lower limb next to Xena.

Lyssius playfully slapped the back of Xena's head but the look he gave her was also one of disappointment. Xena, in turn, stuck her tongue out and returned her brother's look with one of 'What?'. Flora, for her part, was just happy to be included as one of the gang for she admired and respected her older companions. They were, after all, the most sought after companions in the village. Flora basked in the reflected glory of their friendship.

Xena and Lyssius came from the most prominent family in Amphipolis. Their father, Atrius, though he disappeared eleven years before, had been a respected warrior. It was rumored he had once been a confidante of King Priam and had travelled as far south as Thessalia. But one day, he left the village on a quest and never returned. Some of the village wags said it was due to troubles with the wife, but others said he had been killed in battle by the IRON MEN from the north. In either case, Xena and Lyssius grew up without his guiding hand.

Not that this fact affected their upbringing in any way. Their mother was strong enough to raise her children in addition to running the most important business in Amphipolis. The family's inn and tavern were large and very prosperous. The dower lands their mother brought to the marriage were robust and yielded a full crop every year. In short, the family was very well off and had considerable influence in village politics. With Atrius not officially dead, Xena's mother took his place as the 'outstanding citizen' in due course. Her influence was strong and she wielded it with poise and confidence.

Recently, Xena's mother began yielding that power to Toris, her eldest son of twenty-three. Toris was the odd man out amongst the three children. He was quiet and not at all the forceful man most people would have expected from the eldest offspring of Atrius and his wife. No, Toris obviously marched to a different drummer. He had a head for business, which was why his mother allowed him to assume limited control of the family business, but he lacked the imagination and quickness of thought required of the successful tavern owner and innkeeper. He was a 'grey' man living amongst a family of lively 'colorful' people.

The same could not be said for Xena and her younger brother Lyssius. They were in fact little hellions, though neither was 'little' anymore. No, Lyssius took after his father. He was well built and had stamina that the other men of the village envied. Laughter always seemed to fill his expressive face, a face much sought after by the girls of Amphipolis. His mischievousness sometimes overflowed into irresponsibility. He had also acquired his father's outspokenness and his way with the sword. Lyssius would someday find his way as a warrior, his mother often feared.

Xena was a study in contrasts and similarities. Her mother's elegant beauty was stamped in her face and form. Like Lyssius, she too had inherited her father's height and muscular build. Her strength had been made painfully obvious to many of the village boys over the years. Those wide blue eyes could easily stare down the strongest man; no one took advantage of Xena.

Xena had a quiet outlook and was known to read for long hours the tales of far off lands. But she would come alive whenever she was around her younger brother. With Lyssius by her side, many of their pranks could just as well be attributed to her quick brain as to his. They were very close, Xena and Lyssius, as close as brother and sister could be.

"Lyssius! Xena! We need you at the inn. You know the caravan is due tomorrow and Mother needs help with the cooking.", Toris yelled from the far bank of the stream, waving to get their attention.

Lyssius made a face and leaned over to whisper in Xena's ear, "You up for it?"

"Yeah! Mother doesn't really need our help, this is just Toris being BIG BROTHER again. The insufferable lout.", Xena replied, her mouth turning down in distaste at Toris' infringement on their summer fun. "Na, I'm not going back. Besides, you promised me another lesson, remember."

"Yeah, I do. But what you just did to Flora, Xena I've asked you to be more kind to her. You know how she looks up to you. You shouldn't treat her so.", Lyssius whispered so as not to be overheard by the younger girl sitting below him.

"Not now, Lyssius.", Xena whispered in reply. "Flora, you need to go now. Climb on down and we'll join you shortly.", Xena said in a normal voice.

"All right, Xena. But aren't you going with Toris?", Flora replied anxiously, carefully climbing down from her high perch.

"Yes, we'll be along shortly. Do me a favor, Flora. Tell Toris that Lyssius and I will return as quickly as we can.", Xena told her young friend.

"Ok. See you in a little while back at the inn.", Flora said as she ran toward the bridge of stones which spanned the stream. Reaching the other side, the young girl passed her message to the waiting Toris.

"You better not be long!", yelled an angry Toris, as if he already knew 'a little while' would mean all afternoon. Taking Flora's hand he began walking back toward the village.

Laughing at their brother's officious airs, Xena and Lyssius climbed to the ground and headed in the opposite direction. They walked hand in hand along a tree lined path toward a small open meadow that was screened by a wall of thick shrubbery. Entering the meadow through a break in the shrubs, Lyssius walked over to a small shrine and uncovered it, removing a long bundle wrapped in oily linen cloth.

Xena, at her brother's side, removed an oilcloth sack and placed it on the ground next to the shrine. Lyssius laid his bundle alongside his sister's and stepped back to begin removing his tunic and shirt. Xena reached into the sack she retrieved and withdrew two sets of thick leather fore and back pieces. Laying those to the side, she reached back into the sack, retrieving a linen binding cloth and a pair of worn leather breeches. Handing a set of fore and back pieces to her brother, she turned away and began removing her own tunic and plaited skirt.

Standing in only her underblouse and loin cloth, she reached for the linen binding cloth and began winding it around her chest. The cloth would tightly bind her breasts and allow for ease of movement while helping her keep her balance. She would not be top heavy. When she finished with the binding cloth, she retrieved the leather breeches and put them on. Seeing that she was finished, Lyssius helped her on with her own set of leather fore and back pieces. The brother and sister were now ready for their shared secret pleasure.

"Well big sister, think you can beat me today?" asked Lyssius as he removed a long bronze sword from the bundle at his feet.

"Yes. Today I think, I WILL beat you LITTLE brother.", replied a smiling Xena as she too picked up a bronze sword and turned to face her brother.

"OK. Let's see if you remember that attack move I taught you last week.", Lyssius said, taking up a guard position with his feet a shoulder's width a part, his sword at arms level and across his chest.

"Fight now talk later, LITTLE brother!", exclaimed Xena as she swung in for an immediate attack to her brother's lower quarter. "Oh, you've worn your Borilus Token, how cute!", she taunted as her sword struck home.

Lyssius, not expecting an attack so quickly, responded with a low riposte and yielded a step to her forward advance. "Xena. I'm wise to your taunts. You can't make me mad anymore.", he replied, going back to high guard and waiting for her next move, his unoccupied hand rising to grasp the swaying token which hung around his throat.

Xena in turn, began a sideways movement around Lyssius' off- sword arm. Seeing her brother go back into high guard, she lunged again. This time however she fainted for the low guard and swiftly translated her forward movement into a strike at his high guard. Bronze struck bronze with loud effect as the two swords met across Lyssius' waist. Forced once again to give ground, Lyssius returned a quick strike of his own to Xena's off-sword side. His sword beat down her guard as she turned to meet his attack and they were immediately face to face with crossed swords between them. Using his powerful chest muscles, Lyssius easily pushed Xena backwards several paces.

Surprised by his quick counter, Xena retreated a further pace to put more distance between them. Several times she attacked his high guard, the strike of their swords booming loudly over the quiet summer afternoon. Continuing her attempt to turn into his off-sword side, she searched for a weakening of his guard.

Lyssius, turning with her, was puzzled at her technique. He had pointed out to her many times that this type of maneuver was not as effective as it seemed. No true swordsman would let you get into his off-sword defensive area, at least not until you had battered him into inattentiveness. Suddenly, it dawned on him. As she made him turn in a circle, she was also forcing him into a slight rearward movement. They were not circling, he suddenly realized, they were spiraling backwards.

As his feet became entangled in a downed tree limb, her tactics became clear. Xena attacked as soon as she saw her brother stagger, his feet entangled in the brush. With a powerful backhand stroke she swept his sword from his hand and using her shoulder to good effect, knocked him down. Xena stood over her brother, her sword at his throat. "Well, little brother, I guess I win today!", Xena said triumphantly, with a smug grin on her face, as she lowered her sword and gave her brother a helping hand to his feet.

"Why didn't you try that move I taught you?", asked Lyssius as he brushed dirt off his breeches and retrieved his sword.

"To tell the truth, that move takes just a bit more upper body strength than I have. I'm not as strong as you are Lyssius, though you never seem to want to believe it. I'm not strong enough to do some of the moves you've taught me. So, I've decided to try other methods of achieving dominance in a fight.", replied Xena, sitting down on the ground and motioning for her brother to join her.

"That's why you always try and taunt me isn't it?", he asked as he began polishing the bronze blade of his sword. "You want to make me mad."

"Yes! And I always try to use the ground around me to my advantage. Though today is the first time it has worked.", Xena told him as she too began to polish her blade. "I'm also thinking of combining a little body contact in between strikes."

"As the mercenary who taught me last summer would say - 'whatever works'. But why body contact? If you're afraid of some moves because strength is required then why body contact?", He asked quizzically.

"I'm a woman and a good-looking woman, if I do say so myself.", she said, flipping her raven black bangs for emphasis. "And men don't like to be hit by women. It makes them mad. As you've taught me, when you're mad you're ineffective in a close-in fight. They get mad and I win, simple as that.", she concluded.

"Whatever works.", he chuckled. "Now how about we work on that weak upper body of yours, huh?"

"OK. But I warn you, Lyssius, if I go flat chested with muscles and men won't look at me anymore I'll get back at you.", she replied playfully, helping her brother to his feet.

"Xena. Even flat chested and muscle bound, the men will always look at you big sister.", Lyssius said, slapping her on the back as they moved to face each other. "OK. Let's start with those exercises to strengthen the shoulder muscles."

Several hours later a sweaty brother and sister trooped back to the inn, arm in arm, with contented smiles on their faces. Neither noticed the tall dark clothed stranger who had watched their sparing in silence from the thick shrubbery. As brother and sister left the area, the dark figure leaned against a nearby tree, lost in deep thought about what he had witnessed

The next day dawned with a misty rain and brisk wind out of the east. By midmorning, it became apparent the expected caravan was not going to show. This was the first time in over three years the caravan was not on schedule and Xena's mother became concerned. The caravan was important to the family business. It traded for their spring grain and, of course, the caravan's crew spent their hard earned dinars at the tavern and inn. As a weak sun appeared in the sky at noon, her mother asked Toris and Lyssius to ride out and see if they could discover what had happened.

"But mother, can't Lyssius take one of the field hands with him? I should stay here with you in case the caravan arrives while Lyssius is out searching. You'll need my help.", Toris asked his mother as they stood in the entrance to the tavern.

"No Toris, you need to be the one who searches. You're going to be controlling this business soon and you must take more of a lead role in running it. And one of those tasks is to be concerned when good paying customers don't show up. No, you're going.", his mother told him emphatically, shooing him out the tavern door and into the muddy road beyond. "Now get Lyssius and be off.", she ended, turning her back on Toris and returning to the tavern's interior.

A disgruntled Toris yelled for Lyssius and walked briskly toward the barn where their horses were kept. Hearing Toris' angry words, Lyssius entered the barn and began saddling his mount.

"What's the matter big brother, don't you want to get your hands dirty?", inquired Lyssius mischievously as he watched Toris saddle his own horse.

"Shut up boy! You know I should stay here in case of trouble. You and Argus could go, he's better with a sword than I am anyway. In case there is trouble I mean.", replied Toris huffily. "But there won't be any trouble. The caravan's just late getting in, that's all. Mother worries too much."

"No big brother, it's you who doesn't worry enough.", replied Lyssius. "You know there have been reports of marauding bands of men moving through the valley lately. I've heard it's the IRON MEN finally come to Amphipolis."

"You and your IRON MEN.", Toris scolded. "You and Argus and that witch of a sister of ours tell tales to scare the children and then begin believing your own lies. I'VE not heard reports of any bad men from the north.", he chided.

"Believe what you will Toris, but the reports ARE true.', replied Lyssius hotly. "The Dorians we've been hearing about over the past few years have finally made it to Thrace. We might be their next target for all you know. That might be what happened to the caravan and we have to find out as soon as possible so we can....".

"So you can what, huh? Organize a defense of the village. Fight the BAD MEN from the north! Be a famous warrior like our father. Pah! You and Xena listen to way too many bardic tales. The Heros are all off at Troy. There aren't any around anymore so you two have to invent them. What you'll do is get this village destroyed if you go messing around with any armed bands that just happen by.", Toris angrily told his brother, turning to meet him straight-on.

"Why big brother, I think you're scared. I think ....".

Toris swung up his right fist and struck Lyssius across the side of the face. The younger man stumbled backwards, dropping to a fighting crouch. Red faced, Toris immediately saw he had gone too far, dropping his arms to his side to await Lyssius' reaction.

"Toris! Just what in Hades name are you doing!", Xena cried from the barn's entrance as she entered, running to Lyssius' side. "Lyssius, are you all right?", she asked, helping her younger brother wipe the blood from his split lip.

"That's right Xena, take his side. You always do.", Toris answered angrily as he pushed passed his siblings and returned to saddling his horse. "You had best not try and come with us, you brat. You can stay and help mother, just in case there is trouble."

"Piss on you big brother.", Xena replied nastily to Toris' taunts. Bending forward she whispered to Lyssius, "I'll bring Argus and Cassandra and we'll parallel your route. Kind'a keep a flank guard for you. If there's trouble, just whistle our tune and we'll come to your aid. OK?"

"Sure. Yeah, that'll be OK. I have a bad feeling about all of this.", he told her in a hushed voice.

"Come on Lyssius, get mounted and let's get this fool's errand over with.", Toris shouted from across the barn. "I want to be back before dark. And you Xena, get back to the tavern."

Xena stuck her tongue out at Toris as she passed him on her way out. With a swirling twirl, she flashed a quick smile and wink at Lyssius as she exited the barn. Running lightly, Xena returned to the Tavern. Her mother was waiting for her at the door.

"What was all the shouting about?", her mother inquired as Xena entered the tavern. "Are they fighting again?"

"Yes mother, they are. Lyssius called Toris a coward and Toris hit him. Toris....".

"Xena!", her mother interrupted. "I'll bet you didn't help matters any, now did you."

"Mother! You know how Toris can be. He's always trying to lord it over Lyssius and I don't like it!", exclaimed Xena as she started to walk past her mother.

"You watch your tongue young lady!", her mother scolded as she grabbed Xena's arm, yanking the girl around to face her. "You know Toris is the oldest and Lyssius should respect him more. And you, young lady, don't help matters any. You not only take Lyssius' side in everything, you encourage him to bait Toris at every opportunity."

"Mother look, I'm sorry, OK.", Xena told her mother, completely disregarding her mother's hand on her left arm. "Please, we shouldn't fight."

"All right, but you need to learn some respect yourself.", relented her Mother, removing her hand from Xena's arm. "Now, I want you to go to the shed out back and make sure all of the spring grain is tagged. When the caravan arrives late like this, they'll want an early start tomorrow so we need to get them loaded as soon as possible. Now go on.", her mother told her, dismissing her with a slight shove.

"Yes mother.", replied an unrepentant Xena as she turned to do her mother's bidding. "I'll see to it."

Xena ran out the back of the tavern, heading for the houses that sat in an orderly row beyond the tavern and inn. Ducking out of sight after she passed the first house, Xena made her way to where Argus and Cassandra lived. They were her closest friends and Lyssius had stood beside Argus at his wedding last summer. She knew they would help her shadow her brothers as she had promised Lyssius. Argus was an equal with the sword to Lyssius while Cassandra was formidable as herself. Tall and large shouldered, Cassandra was the village blacksmith's daughter and as such was manly in build and form. She had been secretly teaching Xena to fight with her hands for several months. Xena knew Cassy would relish a chance to get away from the village on an adventure, even if nothing did happen along the way.

"Cassy? Argus?", Xena shouted as she approached their back door. "Are you guys around? I need your help."

"Xena, what's the matter?", asked Argus as he and his young wife appeared at the door. "We heard the caravan was late. Is there a problem?"

"I'm not sure.", replied Xena. "Lyssius thinks it may have been ambushed. My mother thinks they're just late. Toris - well Toris doesn't think."

"Xena, don't be so hard on your older brother.", chided Cassy as she exited the house to greet her friend. "How come you didn't go with Lyssius?"

"Mother wouldn't let me. You know how she can be sometimes about MANS WORK", replied Xena. "But I'm going anyway. I promised Lyssius you and Argus and I would shadow him and help out if any problems cropped up. If you want to come with me we have to leave right now. My brothers are on horseback, so we'll have to move quickly if we're going to be of any help."

"Right.", said Argus. "Cassy and I will meet you over by the community wells. I'll bring my sword and Cassy will bring her hands." he said playfully, brushing his wife across her broad shoulders and big arms. "Go on, we'll see you there."

"OK. I need to run and get my sword and leathers from Lyssius' hiding place. Thanks, I appreciate your help. And so will Lyssius if there is a problem.", Xena told her friends, turning to run toward Lyssius' shrine and her weapons and change of clothes.

"That girl will be the death of somebody one day.", Argus told his wife as they began preparing to depart. "She just gets so headstrong sometimes. I guess - like father like daughter."

"Yeah. I remember what father used to say about Atrius.", Cassy said as she began dressing in old leather breeches and tunic. "You're right, like father like daughter. There's not a man around here who could keep Xena in peace and babies. When Lyssius leaves the valley, she'll go with him. And I for one will miss her."

The brothers rode side by side along the narrow road that ran through the valley north of Amphipolis. Lyssius' mouth was still sore from the punch thrown by his brother. Neither felt particularly companionable, so silence was the watch word of their trek to seek the missing caravan. Finally after four leagues, they came to the last turn of the valley before the road broke out into the flat land beyond. Toris was the first to notice the sounds, halting in mid-road. Lyssius, seeing his brother stop, immediately leapt from his horse and began climbing the shoulder of the cut in the roadway to their front. Arriving at the top, he had a vantage point from which he could see the finale being played out below.

The caravan had indeed run into the infamous IRON MEN of the north. The Dorians from Illyrium. The invaders of the land of the Achaeans. The caravan had already succumbed to the band of armed men by the time the brothers chanced upon it. The Dorians were 'cleaning' up the ambush site as the two men watched in silence from above.

Fifteen wagons were on fire, leaving clouds of sooty smoke to fowl the afternoon air. The horse and oxen dray teams were being led off by the tall fair-haired men from the north. The bodies of twenty men and three women littered the battlefield, or slaughter pin as it should have been called seeing that none of the strange men had died in the uneven fight. The brothers watched in grim silence as the Doric invaders began tossing the corpses unto the various fires.

Moving slowly and silently from their vantage point, the brothers made their way back to their horses. It was imperative they return to the village and warn the people as soon as possible. Night would be upon Amphipolis in less than an hour and they needed to be prepared for the worst. As the two men rode back up the valley they heard the unmistakable sounds of pursuit coming from their rear.

Turning in his saddle, Lyssius saw four riders fast approaching from the direction of the ambush. Toris, seeing his brother's concern and drawn sword, spurred his horse into a gallop and fled from their pursuers. Lyssius, turning in amassment at his brother's actions, was forced to follow suit or soon be faced with four to one odds. Odds he did not intend to face.

As the brothers fled from the pursuing horsemen, Xena and her two friends crested the skyline on the left side of the valley. Seeing the danger that his friend Lyssius was in, Argus ran down the hillside toward the road, bringing his hunting sling into immediate action. As he hit the road, he took up a throwing stance and loosed at the lead rider. The sharpened rock hit the armed rider square in the bridge of his nose, below his helmet, and the man went down with a crash, his horse stumbling to its knees.

The second rider was thrown off stride by the calamity that had befallen his leader and, swerving to miss the downed rider, ran square into the large blacksmith hammer thrown with great accuracy by Cassandra. Despite the iron helmet, his skull was crushed by the heavy blow. The man fell from his saddle, taking his horse down with him. Together, each added to the mounting pile of bodies that littered the road.

Meanwhile Lyssius, bringing his horse to heal upon seeing reinforcements arrive, turned to face the third rider, meeting him horse to horse with sword in hand. Ducking under the Dorian's guard, Lyssius gutted the tall Dorian with a swift stroke to the man's unprotected waist.

Seeing his three companions dispatched so quickly, the fourth brigand turned his horse to flee only to be knocked from the saddle by a leather clad raven haired demon from the underworld who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Hitting the ground with great force, the rider was momentarily stunned. He watched in mounting fear as Xena approached his prostrate form, her bronze sword gleaming in the last rays of a dying sun. The man staggered to his feet as Xena raised her sword to strike, bringing up his own sword to meet hers. The slashing bronze blade met the upcoming iron sword and shattered in a burst of brilliant sparks. As the Dorian raised his still intact sword to strike her down, Xena remembered Lyssius' attack move. Bending at the waist, the tall woman did a high stationary flip around her center of gravity, pulling her dagger as she flipped. The Dorian, stunned by this daring move, missed her spinning body and stumbled once again. Xena landed on her feet slightly to the left of the tall man. Thrusting her dagger into his back, down near the kidneys, she was rewarded by a spurt of hot blood as the Dorian went into convulsions and fell at her feet.

Panting with exertion, Xena was amazed at herself. The last time she tried that move while practicing alone, she had missed the timing and landed on her back. Lyssius was right, the move worked, she thought. It just needed the added incentive of survival to get her body to function as required.

Toris sat his horse in stunned silence as the deaths of four men played out before him. Regaining the use of his tongue, Toris yelled, "Lyssius, get their horses before they get away and alert the others. Xena, what are you doing here? What about mother?", he yelled at her in obvious rage. Throwing himself from his horse, he approached his younger sister with distaste in his eyes. "What do you think you are doing? You just killed a man, did you think about that Xena! You're a woman and women don't kill men!", he yelled in her face as he stood before her, his hands shaking in shock and rage.

Xena coolly stood her ground before the taller man. "That's right Toris, I just killed a man so don't get too uppity with me BIG BROTHER!", she told him, her voice as cold as the ice of Mount Olympus. "Mother will be fine and it's a good thing we came along when we did. Lyssius couldn't have defeated all four of these pigs by himself and I know you would have been no help. I didn't just kill a man! I killed my first man! AND I JUST SAVED YOUR WORTHLESS LIFE BIG BROTHER!", Xena yelled at Toris, her rising voice ending in a gut wrenching screech.

"Xena. Big sister. Come on over here and sit down.", said Lyssius as he arrived at Xena's side. Placing his hands on her shaking shoulders, he led her to the side of the road to sit on some rocks. He patted her wind blown hair as he watched tears stream down her beautiful, but much too young face. "We've both killed our first men this day, big sister. I wish to Hades I hadn't agreed to you trailing us. If I hadn't, this would never have happened. I'm sorry Xena.", he said with tears of his own running down his equally young face.

"You should be glad we came, Toris.", Cassandra told the still angry older man. "If not for Xena, you'd be dog meat by now. Lyssius too."

"You! And you a matron with a suckling babe! You killed a man. Your father would roll over in his grave if he could see you now!", retorted the angry Toris as he turned to face the strong woman. "And you, Argus, letting your wife out and away from your baby. What will people think?"

"Oh, just shut up Toris.", replied Argus, not even considering a response to the man's ravings.

"I will not! Now what are we going to do? Those men back there will be missed soon and their partners will fall on the village. You've put us all in danger.", Toris raged at them all.

"You idiot! The danger's been all around us for months, you're just too stupid to have noticed is all.", replied Argus angrily. "The Dorians have come to our valley. Face that fact and maybe we can find a way out of the same fate as hit the caravan."

"You're not serious. We can't stand against these men. Didn't you see Xena's sword shatter when it came into contact with that iron blade? We have to find another way I tell you!", exclaimed Toris as he mounted his horse, turning swiftly he departed in a cloud of dust that reflected blood red in the evening sun.

Meanwhile, Xena and Lyssius overcame their queasiness and rounded up the four Doric horses. "Cassy, you and Argus take three of the horses and return to the village. Strip the weapons from the dead. When you get back, put the weapons by that old shrine near the fig groves. Xena and I will retrieve the swords later. Tell my mother what has happened. The real truth, not the truth Toris will tell her.", said Lyssius as he approached his friends. "Xena and I will scout around and see if any more of these strangers are about. Tell my mother to round up the village elders. We have to plan for what might happen in the next few days."

"Right. We need to get back anyway.", replied Argus. "As Toris so indelicately put it, Cassy's got a babe to suckle and it is dinnertime. See you two after dark. Come on Cassy, I'll race you to the village."

"You're on big boy. But beware, I'm going to win.", shouted Cassy as her horse sprang forward with a great bound and began racing down the road toward Amphipolis.

Xena and Lyssius laughed at the sight of their fast receding friends. "Lyssius, I didn't know it would feel like this.", Xena said, overcome once again with the aftermath of her earlier actions. "I mean, that man I killed probably murdered some of the women we saw laying beside those smoking wagons. They're killers and I should feel proud at ridding the world of one of them. But I don't.", she said as tears again fell down her stricken face.

"That's just it, Xena. You're not a killer so it hurts.", Lyssius said as he tried to console her. "I remember father once telling that subtle fact to Toris. I was young so I don't remember much of what he used to tell us but that has stuck in my mind all these years. He often spoke of war and killing to Toris. I think that's why Toris is the way he is. He knew father longer then we did and I'm sure he thinks father died in battle. He received war and bloodshed full force but none of the steadiness that has to accompany such knowledge. He's not a coward, despite what I called him earlier. He's just scared and doesn't know how to handle the fear."

"I hope you're right, little brother. How did you get to be so wise all of a sudden?", Xena replied with a tear stained smile on her face. "I'm two years older than you but I only remember bits and pieces from before father disappeared. I just hope this empty feeling goes away.", she sighed.

"I know. I have the same feeling and I don't like it any better than you do. What are we going to tell mother when we get back?", he asked.

"You were absolutely right. We must prepare the village for defense. We have to be ready to battle these IRON MEN despite the difference in training and weaponry.", Xena told him, suddenly jumping to her feet, pacing rapidly back and forth before him. "You and I, little brother, we have to organize the village. Toris can't do it. Mother could, but somehow I don't think her merchant's heart will let her place her business in harms way. No, she'll side with Toris and opt for negotiations. You're all the time listening to those tales of the Heros. You can handle the men, they'll listen to you. And I think Cassy and I can bring in at least some of the women to leaven the force. Between the two of us, little brother, we can do this thing. We can save Amphipolis.", she concluded, finishing her furious pacing to face him.

"Right, big sister. We'll do it. You and I. I just wish we had five more.", he said.

"Five more? What do you mean?", Xena asked him as he rose to stand beside her.

"The bards tell us it was Seven Against Thebes. I don't think Two Against Doria has the ring of truth. No bard would tell our tale.", he concluded with a laugh.

"Ah, yes. Two Against Doria. You're right, no one would believe. Come on Lyssius, my handsome brother, let's go home and prepare for battle.", Xena said, hugging her brother and ruffling his blond wind blown hair. "Oh, your Borilus Token does look nice with that tunic.", she giggled.

"Oh, come on Xena. This token is really nice. Why do you tease me about it? I like it.", he replied, playfully swatting her arm.

The brother and sister happily rode their horses' side by side back down the darkening road, down the road to Amphipolis and a badly shaken village. Their grief at first blood slowly forgotten as visions of heroic deeds danced before their eyes. So caught up were they in their relief at being alive after their first battle they did not notice the small band of Dorians observing them from the fast receding hilltops.

The tallest of the five men was a fair skinned man of indeterminate age. The iron cuirass piece he worn across his chest reflected the evening sun in a brilliant display; his lower body encased in leather breeches and hard leather boots. On his face, below the iron helmet, he wore a mask of silver, his grey-blue eyes glinting in the failing sunlight through large eye slits. His arrogant stance marked him as the leader of the Doric raiding party. As he watched the fast disappearing brother and sister, his men became restless to be after the pair.

"My Lord, shouldn't we be after those two?", asked the raider to the leader's left.

"No Kordun, we have to rethink our line of march.", Kortese told his second in command. "Did you see how those puny Achaeans attacked and killed those four men? Those Achaeans didn't even stop to think, they just attacked. These people aren't the same sheep for slaughter that we've found thus far. And those women. Did you see that hugh blond with the hammer? And that black haired hellion with the fancy sword moves? No, we must rethink our time frame for attacking this next village. What's its name?"

"Amphipolis, my Lord.", relied Kordun.

"Yes, Amphipolis.", Kortese thanked the man. "No, they'll be ready for us by tomorrow. We'll just let them think about what's going to happen to them for a while. Let their fear prey upon their minds. We'll hit all of the other villages in the area first. So far, none of these other Achaeans have fought back. No, we'll save Amphipolis for last. Then we'll make an example of this village. Send out your scouts. I want a full report on this Amphipolis and the people who inhabit it. And find out who the coward was. You know, the one who ran and did not take part in the killing. Maybe we can find a traitor in their midst. Now go!", Kortese commanded, turning to make his way back to the scene of the caravan's slaughter.

"Yes, my Lord, as you command.", obeyed Kordun, turning to follow his leader.

Xena and Lyssius returned to the village soon after dark. As they arrived at the family tavern, it became apparent that an argument was underway inside. The village elders were all gathered at the headman's traditional table by the tavern's central warming fire. From this vantage point, the elders had a commanding view of the entire tavern and its occupants. Xena immediately noticed her brother Toris, sulking by the door that led to the kitchen. Argus and his wife Cassandra were striding purposefully back and forth before the elders, haranguing them on the need to provide for the village's defense. Xena's mother was at her usual place when the elders met in council, directly behind the head elder's chair as if she were the power behind the throne. She probably is, Xena thought ruefully to herself, as she led her younger brother into the tavern's angry atmosphere.

"Now Cassandra, I don't think we need jump to conclusions.", Xena's mother told the pacing blond woman, her hands resting lightly on the shoulders of the elder sitting directly before her. "I agree it appears the stories we've heard are true, but that doesn't mean the Dorians will come here. Or that we need to defend ourselves against them. If we all keep our heads and the IRON MEN do come to Amphipolis, we might be able to provide them with what they need. If we become their providers then they will leave us alone and the village will be safe. A carrot is sometimes preferable to the stick."

"No mother, you're wrong!", Xena said in a low voice as she and Lyssius walked toward the headman's table. The occupants of the tavern turned as one to watch Xena and Lyssius as this new voice was added to the debate. "Those men attacked Lyssius and Toris without any cause. I saw it. They gave no warning and offered no quarter. I also saw the destruction wrought by these pigs from the north. The caravan's crew was slaughtered, they weren't just killed. They burned the bodies without ceremony. The souls of the dead will now haunt our valley because their way to the afterlife was not prepared by song and ritual.", she told the group, her voice sorrowful.

"Xena, you're making too much of this.", Toris told her from his position by the kitchen. "Of course those men attacked me and Lyssius. They had no choice. We arrived unannounced. It was our being there that brought about the attack. If we hadn't gone searching for the caravan, the attack would not have happened."

"Antillicus, you knew those men, the men who died with that caravan.", Xena said, ignoring her older brother and speaking directly to the head elder. "We all knew those men. Mother, they've been coming to this village for years. They've stayed in our inn, drank wine in this tavern. Are we not going to speak the ritual for the dead? Are we not going to ask for the safe arrival of their souls in the underworld?", she asked the elders, her voice rising as the passion of the moment affected her. "ARE WE NOT GOING TO AVENGE THEIR DEATHS?"

"Daughter. Yes, I knew those men. Some of them I called friend. But daughter, they were not family. This village owes them not the ritual of the dead. That is for their families, not us.", her mother told her, ignoring Xena's last shout of anguish and rage. Walking around the table to stand before her daughter, Xena's mother confronted her second child. "You are distraught. Toris told us all how you killed that Dorian. I know the anguish his death must cause you. A woman's place is not in battle and now you know what killing can do to a person. Now, you know the guilt that men must sometimes carry their entire lives. Do you want that hurt inflicted upon your friends here in Amphipolis? Do you want the anguish that now inflames your soul to consume us all? DAUGHTER, WOULD YOU HAVE US ALL BECOME MURDERERS LIKE YOURSELF?"

Her mother's last words burned into Xena's inner soul and shook her to the very core of her being. "Momma, do you think I'm a murderer?", Xena asked her mother in a little girl's voice, full of remorse and self hate, as tears began to spill down her flushed cheeks. "Momma, please! I didn't mean it, but Lyssius was in danger. What else could I do?", Xena cried, her hands coming up to cover her mouth.

Though it was apparent her daughter needed a comforting word, Xena's mother refused to provide the solace her daughter so obviously needed. "No daughter, you are not a murderer. But if we take the course you request of us, you and all of us who survive WILL be. Your father was full of war and hate and I've not missed him one bit these last eleven years. I would not have you and Lyssius follow in his footsteps. No, we will have no war in our valley. Antillicus and the other elders have decided on a wait and see attitude until the danger you speak of becomes more clear. Now you and Lyssius go and get cleaned up. Leave this matter in the hands of the elders.", The older woman concluded, turning from her daughter and dismissing the younger woman.

Xena was stunned by her mother's behavior. Her anguish broke into sobs as she reached out for her mother's comforting arms, but the older woman turned her back and walked away, leaving Xena in tearful silence. Lyssius, though he had not spoken, put a comforting arm around his big sister's grief ridden shoulders and tried to pull her away from their mother. "Xena. Sister. Come on. Let's leave these people to their debate.", he whispered in her ear, leading her haltingly toward the door to the kitchen.

As they approached the open door, Toris reached out his hand to touch Xena's shoulder as she passed. Lyssius intercepted the hand and thrust it away from his distraught sister. Pushing past their older brother, the two entered the kitchen, continuing to the back of the tavern and their rooms.

Lyssius led Xena into her room, helping her to the bed that stood in the far corner of the room. Xena staggered as a renewal of her grief ridden sobbing forced fresh tears from her eyes, momentarily blinding her. Lyssius steadied her until she finally sat down on the bed, standing before her as a comforting presence. Xena looked up at her brother and threw her arms around his waste, hugging him to her as she buried her face in his chest and wept inconsolably.

"I'm a murderer, Lyssius. Momma said so. How can I live with this?", she cried into his comforting hug, her voice that of a little girl caught in a nightmare.

"She is wrong, Xena. YOU ARE NOT A MURDERER!", he said with quiet emphasis as he framed her haggard face with his strong hands, titling her chin upwards to look into her eyes. "You are not a murderer. I'd be dead now but for your swift actions. And those of Argus and Cassy. If you save a life as you take a life in self defense you do not murder, you just kill. Father once tried to tell Toris that fact, but our brother never understood. And neither did mother.", he told her as he sat down by her side, releasing her face as he sat.

"But I feel like a murderer.", Xena said, turning to watch her brother's face. "What if they're right about not fighting the Dorians? I don't want others to feel the way I do for no reason."

"Xena, remember those tales of Hercules we used to read.", Lyssius told his older sister as he embraced her and laid her head upon his shoulder. "Remember what he once said after he killed one of those monsters he's always facing. He said: 'It's not your life that counts, it's how you live it. A deed that helps the greater good cannot be evil or bad. No matter what the deed is, if it is accomplished with integrity and honor then it becomes a good deed. A pure heart will always win out over a bad one.' Proud words and words you should remember. I know that's how I view my actions this day. Xena, we helped the greater good. Our actions were honest and done in defense of others."

"But Hercules is a demi-god.", she replied, the tears beginning to dry on her cheeks as her grieving sobs ended.

"But we are The Two Against Doria! I think that counts for something, don't you?", he told her, a smile breaking out on his face.

Xena slowly pushed out of her brother's embrace and turned to look into his face. "Two Against Doria. Yeah, I forgot.", she said with a soft laugh, wiping the last remaining tears from her face. "Maybe Hercules was right. Anyway, I hope he was. Wouldn't it be nice to meet him someday?", she continued wistfully.

"You never know, maybe someday we will.", he replied, reaching up to remove the Borilus Token from around his neck. "Xena, I want you to have my Borilus Token. Here, you can....".

"No, Lyssius, no. I know how much you value that token. I couldn't take it.", Xena interrupted, grasping his hands softly as he tried to place the token around her neck.

"Do you know why I value this token so much, why I always wear it?", he asked, pulling back his hands and placing them in his lap, the token left to dangle from his strong fingers. As he stared off into the far corners of the room, he continued in a soft voice: "You know the token is given to boys as they enter puberty by the priests of the temple of Artemis. It is supposed to symbolize the devotion and honor of the family. The requirement that a man protect his family from harm.

"I know most boys give up wearing theirs soon after, but I've always found peace wearing mine. When I'm lonely, it reminds of you and mother. It reminds me that I love you both so much and that I am loved in return. It gives me a sense of peace and a sense of place and purpose. I want you to have it because I think it will bring to you the same peace it has brought to me these last three years. You're just as much a man as I am after today. And I think Artemis would be pleased a woman can have the same sense of purpose as the Gods have bestowed on men.", he concluded, turning back to look into her eyes.

"All right, little brother. I accept.", Xena said, reaching for her brother's hands.

Lyssius anticipated her move. Bring the token up, he placed it around her neck. As the token fell to dangle near her heart, he softly stroked her cheek with his left hand. "Xena, we can't let the others dissuade us from defending this village. I'd rather be dead then live in fear or as a slave to these IRON MEN. Tomorrow, I'm going to start on the men. Argus and I can persuade them to fight, I'm sure of it. You and Cassy must bring the women around.", he told her as he pushed off from the bed to stand before her. "Are you still with me? Are we still The Two Against Doria?"

"YES!", she said, rising to stand beside her brother. "WE can do this. Tomorrow we begin."

"Xena, I can't do this without you. Your strength is all that has kept me going since this afternoon. I love you, big sister.", Lyssius said.

Xena threw her arms around her brother and gave him a fierce hug. "Lyssius, when we're together nothing can stand against us."

"That's the spirit.", he replied. "Now, I must be going. You need to clean up and rest. Oh, and try to stay out of mother's reach, OK?", he asked her as he turned to leave her room.

"Yes, I'll try. I'm still amazed at your sudden wisdom, little brother.", Xena said, walking her brother to the bedroom door.

"So am I, so am I.", he chuckled in reply, turning to give Xena a good night kiss on her cheek before leaving her room.

As her brother quietly closed the door, Xena walked back to her bed. Falling across it, she was once again overcome by the grief she felt so deep in her heart. Crying softly into her pillow, the young woman thought of the terrible dreams she knew would come with sleep.

Chapter 2

Day after day, rumors and stories were told of nearby villages attacked and destroyed by the invaders from the north. These rumors and stories gave truth to the warnings of Xena and Lyssius. The other villagers quickly began to believe and, as reformed believers often will, they became committed to defending their village against the IRON MEN.

Lyssius and Argus recruited a strong band of men and older boys. Every day the fields around Amphipolis echoed with the clash of bronze swords as the men practiced the strange arts of the warrior. The village hunters were often seen at practice, their small crossbows sending bolt after bolt into straw butts set at varying distances across the fields.

A windfall came their way when survivors from other villages began to turn up, pleading to be allowed to join the villagers in defending the valley. Guards from other caravans that worked the local area heard of the village's decision to defend itself and came to Amphipolis to offer their assistance. They were impressed by Xena's determination to sing the ritual of the dead for the guards of the slaughtered caravan and they pledged their loyalty to this strong willed young woman.

The younger women of Amphipolis had not been resting, no Cassandra and Xena were very successful in recruiting a small band of maidens to help defend the village. Most of these recruits were young and unmarried, or recently married as in Cassy's case. The older women took Xena's mother's side in the great debate and watched in silence as the more adventurous women practiced alongside the men.

After the rumors became accepted fact, Xena's mother stopped trying to dissuade her youngest children from their purpose. She and the village elders decided to bide their time and await future events. Toris, on the other hand, made such an obnoxious nuisance of himself in his strident resistance to his siblings plan that he was ostracized by the men of the village. Because of this, Toris left the village and no one knew where he had gone.

For her part, Xena kept busy teaching the women how to use the sword. She and Cassy became sparring partners and the brawny blond taught the raven haired beauty how to use her fists and legs to deadly effect. Cassy had learned much from her father, who treated her like the son he never had. Her father had been an Olympic wrestler besides being the village blacksmith. His teachings turned Cassy into a formidable opponent.

As the training began to take hold and the women no longer needed close supervision, Xena began working out on her own out by Lyssius' shrine. One day in late summer, as the hot sun was beginning to set in the west, Xena was cleaning up after a rather strenuous workout. As she sponged the sweat from her breasts, she heard something rustling in the bushes at her back. Dropping her towel, she whirled around to face the noise, grabbing her sword from the shrine as she turned. She went immediately into a guard position with her sword held high. There, standing before her, was a tall dark stranger. As she stood her ground, she could feel his quiet appraisal of her naked breasts. Embarrassed by his presence, and the fact her nipples had become erect under his stare, Xena nevertheless stood her ground. Not willing to let down her guard, she stood and simply let him have a good look.

"Didn't your mother ever tell you, it's not polite to stare?", she calmly told the dark stranger as he continued his silent appraisal.

"By Zeus himself, a beauty and a warrior! I love it!", the dark man replied, tearing his eyes from the breasts of the young woman as he looked up into her calm blue eyes. "My dear girl, I'm always polite.", he continued, turning his back on her so she could regain her modesty. "Please continue. I'm sorry if I startled you. And I didn't mean to stare, but you are beautiful and the Gods say we should always admire beauty above all else. I was just following the way of things."

"Who are you and what do you want?", Xena asked, pulling her blouse on over her head before reaching for her leather breeches. As she finished tucking in her blouse, she retrieved her sword and took up a guard position facing the strange man's back. "You can turn around now."

"Thank you my dear. As to who I am, let us just say I'm an admirer of yours.", he told her, turning to face her sword. As if from nowhere, a beautiful long blade sword appeared in his right hand. "You see, I am just a lonely mercenary tromping these hills in search of a job. Do you know where I might find one?", he asked as he effortlessly flowed into a high guard stance.

"I've never seen you before so how can you be my admirer?", she asked as she began turning toward his off-sword side, watching for an opening to strike.

The dark stranger began turning with her, the nonchalance of his movements making it evident to Xena that he was much better with the sword than she. "No my dear, but I've seen you. I've been watching you since before the Dorians came along. Watching as you and your brother practiced here by Demeter's shrine.", the strange man told her as they continued their circling. "I have a proposition for you. Interested?"

"A proposition from a strange man, made when I'm half naked, is not my cup of tea.", she told him, dancing in to strike at his lower legs.

The dark stranger anticipated her attack and easily beat down her sword. He was impressed by the strength behind her blow. "I see the blond hammer has taught you strength.", he said as he allowed her to recover her guard. "Beautiful. Good with a sword. Strong. Be still my heart.", he exclaimed as he struck without warning at her off-sword side.

Xena, angered at his words, did not see the blow coming and took it square on the shoulder, the blow numbing her arm. The man followed up with a series of rapid strikes aimed at wrecking her concentration. Their swords struck sparks as Xena met him blow for blow. In minutes, it was obvious to her that he would win in the end. Desperate, she tried Lyssius' attack move. As she parried the dark man's last blow to her lower guard, Xena stepped back a pace. Vaulting into a high forward flip around her center of gravity, she tucked her sword into her side so she could thrust it into his back as she landed.

A hammer blow thumped her to the ground. Landing on her stomach, she felt searing pain throughout her chest as her breasts were smashed into the hard packed dirt. As she lay stunned, she felt her opponent sit on her buttocks and effectively pin her sword arm to the ground. "Peace little sister. You've just had your first lesson. The first of many I will teach you if you'll allow me. If you promise not to bite, I'll let you up. OK.", the dark man told Xena from his perch on her backside.

"I surrender. And don't call me 'little sister'! Only....".

"Only Lyssius? Yes, I know you only willingly allow your beloved younger brother to call you that.", he said as he rose to his feet, offering her a helping hand up.

"Leave Lyssius out of this. And what did you mean - first lesson?", Xena asked, rubbing her bruised chest and knees as she sat before the dark man.

"Well for starters, that move you just tried - never try it against an opponent that is better than you. Use it to your advantage, not to theirs. And never, ever, fight a man with your breasts hanging out. It just hurts that much more when someone hits you in the chest. And you never....".

"MY BREASTS WERE NOT HANGING OUT!", exclaimed Xena angrily as she regained her feet, facing the man square-on with fire in her blue eyes.

"Yes they were! And still are!", he responded, pointing to her chest. "See."

Looking downwards, Xena was embarrassed to find her breasts were indeed hanging out - well not totally exposed, but enough that she could see the bruises already beginning to form across the solid white expanse of her chest. As she quickly moved to cover herself, her anger disappeared and she began to laugh. "By the Gods, this time last year I would have run screaming into the river if a strange man saw me thus.", she giggled, looking up at the strange man. "Who are you?"

"My dear, even last year you would not have run away. It is not in your nature to run away, not from anything or anybody.", he told her as he sat down in front of her. "And as to who I am, well I told you I'm a soldier looking for honest hire. And I offer you my humble services. But only you, not the others. Please, sit.", he said, pointing at the ground to his front.

"But why only me, why not the others? And Lyssius, he could use your help too.", Xena asked, sitting down before the stranger, suddenly interested in his words. "And what do you want in payment? We are not wealthy."

"Let's just say I'm exclusive as to whom I lend my services.", he told her. "I only train the best and you are the best, though you might not believe that at the moment. As to payment, I'll take payment in that token you wear about your neck. A Borilus Token is it not?"

"NO! Not the token. If that is to be your payment then I can do without your services.", she told him emphatically, her hand going up to grasp the token hanging around her neck.

"Impasse, I'm afraid. But, I could be persuaded to take something in kind as payment.", he said, reaching to place his hand on her left breast.

Xena shrugged off his hand and bounded to her feet, snatching up her discarded sword. "You'll not get THAT as payment!", she exclaimed, taking up a guard position. "Either go or ask for something else!"

"Impasse ended. I hoped that would be your reply.", he said languidly as he sat and watched the fury which stood before him. "I'm impressed with you my dear, such poise and confidence in one so young. Tell you what. I'll agree to help you and you'll agree to meet my terms IF you are successful in driving off the Dorians. Agreed?"

"I will never agree to be your bed partner.", she said, as an embarrassing blush came across her face and chest. "But I will agree to this; I will reward you with my other services and anything else you want WHEN we win. Deal?", she said, dropping her guard and holding out her hand.

"Agreed with alacrity, my dear.", the tall man said, grasping her forearm in the handshake of a man. Feeling the power of her strong grip, he returned the pressure. The two figures glared at each other as they tested their wills against one another. Soon the dark man's strength began to get the better of her. Xena refused to let go despite the pain that shot up her arm as her shoulder began to weaken from the crushing force of the man who held her so tightly.

The stranger finally released her as he saw tears of pain and near defeat begin to well up in her eyes. He did not want to break her spirit, merely tame it. "Very good, my dear! You have inner strength and a power of will I've not met before in one of my students. You'll do nicely.", he told her, watching the young woman recover her strength and brush away the tears. "All right. We'll begin tomorrow. Be here in the morning before the others begin to stir and we'll see just what you're capable of becoming, shall we."

"Agreed.", Xena told him, turning her back on him to lean her sword against Lyssius' shrine. Rubbing her bruised arm, she turned back to continue her conversation only to find herself alone in the small meadow. Startled by her opponent's sudden disappearance, Xena quickly grabbed her clothing and sword and ran from the meadow. A disturbing chill rippled down her spine as she ran breathlessly for home. In her haste, she did not see the dark stranger standing near the fig grove, a look of quiet appraisal and expectation on his handsome face.

One day, a band of Aetolian mercenaries rode into Amphipolis to sell their swords in defense of the village. Lyssius and Argus met with the leader and negotiated for their services. Lyssius figured they now had two hundred partially trained villagers and survivors from other massacres to stand against Kortese. The addition of fifty well-trained mercenaries would help even the odds against them.

Cassy continued training the women to the sword and fist. She was surprised and slightly put off when Xena backed out of their training sessions. Something was up with her fiery friend but Cassy could not figure out what it might be. Xena was alone a lot these days and always seemed to disappear right after the sun came up. She always reappeared about midday, sore and tired. Sometimes, she came back with livid bruises on her arms and legs. Cassy figured her friend was practicing some dangerous move in private. Not wanting to disturb Xena, Cassy left her to herself and worked the other women that much harder.

Xena had indeed been practicing, and practicing hard. The dark stranger who had befriended her worked her unmercifully. Every morning they sparred for three full hours without a break. The man still made her feel uncomfortable. Even after all of the physical contact they had over the days since his mysterious arrival, Xena still felt embarrassed whenever she felt his eyes on her. She could almost feel his hands as his eyes undressed her. This strange man wanted something from her and it was not money or an old Borilus Token. Sometimes when his stare became most annoying, she got the feeling he wanted her very soul. She had to admit he had been a complete gentleman since seeing her half naked that first day. Except for the physical contact of battle, he never approached her. She still didn't know his name, if he had one that is.

"All right Xena, let's try standing on one leg and balancing my sword on your head. Don't let it drop.", the dark man said as he laid his sword across the crown of her head. "Don't worry, I'm the only one who can see how silly you look."

Xena's concentration was shattered as his words struck home and she fell down, his sword landing at her side. "Damn you. Must you always taunt me so?", Xena replied angrily as she regained her feet, picking his sword up as she stood.

"Concentration, my dear. That's the key. You're not concentrating. And don't let my taunts weaken your resolve. Remember, if you get mad during a fight - you loose.", he replied. "I thought your brother taught you that. Now try again!"

"He did.", she replied, once again balancing on one leg and trying to keep the sword from falling. "You still haven't answered me about how we're going to get around those iron swords the Dorians have. You promised you'd help equalize the odds. What gives?"

"We'll discuss that later. Meanwhile, tell me about the mercenaries who rode in the other day.", he said, inspecting her awkward stance.

"There are fifty of them led by a man named Petricles. They're from Aetolia. Have you heard of this Petricles?", she inquired.

"Young guy, about your height? Yes my dear, I think I know the boy.", he answered.

"Boy? What do you mean?"

"Well Xena, Petricles is your age. He's seventeen."

"But how did he become the leader of a band of mercenaries at only seventeen?", she asked incredulously.

"Petricles is the smoothest talking young rascal this side of the Hellespont. He talked a former warlord into giving him his army, simple as that. You stay away from him Xena, he'll charm your pants off and I know how modest you are about your pants. I don't think even you can resist his charm.", he told her. "OK, that's enough for now. I have something to show you I think you'll like."

Xena resumed a more natural stance, wincing at his reference to her modesty. She quietly waited to see what the stranger had to show her. "Maybe I'll just have to surprise you. This Petricles sounds interesting. I think I might get better acquainted with him."

"Do what you will, but never say I didn't warn you.", he told her as he moved to her side and drew a strange round object from a bag he pulled from his tunic. "This, my dear, is a chakrum. And you and it are going to get better acquainted. It is one of a kind so you won't have to worry about anyone else using one. It will give you the edge you need against the iron of the Dorians.", he finished, handing Xena the silver object.

"Chakrum, huh. How do you use it?", she asked, taking the round object and feeling its balance and heft.

"It's what I call a stand-off weapon.", he told her, watching her obvious interest in the new weapon. "Most warriors have to rely upon throwing knives and arrows to hit an opponent beyond sword range. But with this, you can kill the strongest man out to the distance you can throw the chakrum. And added wonder, it will return to your hand on its own. You....".

"AHH!", Xena squealed dropping the killing device. "I want nothing to do with the Gods and their magic!", she continued as she backed away from the object that now lay at her feet.

"Xena, my dear. This is not magic.", he said, laughing at her obvious distaste. "You felt its balance. The weapon returns to the hand which threw it not by magic but by balance. When thrown properly, the chakrum will whirl through the air and if given the right amount of spin it returns along the path taken. Here, let me show you." The stranger picked up the chakrum and with a wide toss of his arms sent it spinning off into the distance toward an oak tree. The chakrum whistled through the air and made a complete circle to whirl back into the outstretched hand of the stranger. "Now watch its power.", he said as he again sent the chakrum on its way.

This time the weapon whistled loudly as it flew directly toward the lowest branch of the oak, striking it squarely and severing it from the trunk. The limb fell to the ground as the whistling weapon returned to the outstretched hand of the dark man. "See the possibilities, my dear?", he asked her as he watched the change that overcame her expressive face.

"YES! This is what we need to even the odds. How many can you provide? How do you train someone to use it?", she asked, taking the weapon from him and again feeling the balance and poise of the chakrum.

"None and not a chance.", he replied.

"But I don't understand."

"You are the only one who will be trained to use the chakrum and I will only provide the one weapon, for your use exclusively.", he told her.

"You bastard! By Zeus' fiery breath, you are a mean bastard. You promised to help. Why just me?", she replied with anger in her eyes. "We have an agreement. And who are you anyway?"

"My dear, I told you WHO I was.", he said as he met her angry glare. "And yes we, YOU and I, have an agreement. There is no agreement where the others are concerned. Our agreement was sealed with a test of strength and is binding. I hope you remember that in the days ahead. I know you won't back out of it, but really Xena, you must understand I'm only here to help you.", he finished.

"But why just me?", she again asked the mysterious stranger. "What have I done to deserve being singled out? You are obviously a well-trained soldier. Why not choose my brother or Argus? Why me, damn it?", she replied as angry tears came unbidden to her face. "Answer me with truth."

"Your tears don't affect me, my dear. And all will become known to you when the time is right. For now, we practice and learn.", he told her.

"To Hades with you. And with your revealed truth. I'm done with you, you mean spirited man. I'm out of here.", Xena told the stranger, anger filling her soul. She turned abruptly, stalking over to Lyssius' shrine to begin changing back into her other cloths. She could feel his hot eyes boring into her back as she removed her leather tunic and replaced it with her blue linen blouse. As she finished dressing, Xena gave the stranger a rude hand gesture and ran from the meadow.

"I'll see you tomorrow, me dear.", he said as his laughter followed her out into the fig groves beyond.

"Don't hold your breath. Or better yet DO hold your breath, then the next time Lyssius and I come to this place we can bury your stinking carcass.", she retorted, running faster as his resounding laughter seemed to follow her. Even though she hated and reviled this mysterious man, Xena knew deep down inside she WOULD return the next morning. She was like a vixen in a hunter's trap. She could escape but only at the cost of her life. She had to return, the village and its very existence might depend on her abilities in the days ahead.

No, she would return but still she felt like a whore who had sold her virginity for a simple dinar. She wished she could understand the hold this strange man had over her. No. He does not hold me, she thought to herself as she increased her pace, flying through the fig grove toward home. But he did hold her village hostage. And her beloved brother. She would return.

Breathlessly, Xena ran toward the rear of the tavern, her mind still confused by what had transpired at the shrine. As she ran through the open door, she collided with the tall man who was standing in the doorway, staggering him back several paces with the force of her fast-moving body. The tall man instantly embraced the young woman as he steadied himself against a nearby wall. Confused by the impact, Xena felt the strong arms of the man encircle her waist, her body tingling at the intimate contact.

"Hold on, my girl!", the tall man said as Xena looked up into his face. "You shouldn't run so fast, you might hurt yourself, or someone."

"Sorry.", she told him, feeling his arms tighten around her waist. "Please. Let me go.", she said in a whisper, suddenly avoiding his soft brown eyes.

"Why certainly, my girl.", he replied. Complying with her request, he backed off several paces to allow her room to recover. "Why run so fast? You don't think the bad men are attacking, do you?", he said laughingly as he crossed his arms before his broad chest, looking Xena over from head to foot.

Xena blushed under his intimate appraisal. She jumped nervously as she felt a hand touch her shoulder, a low squeal escaping from her lips as her hands rose to cover her mouth. Turning, Xena saw her brother standing by her side, his hand resting on her shoulder.

"Xena. What's the matter? You look like you've seen Priam's ghost.", Lyssius asked, concern written on his face.

"Oh, ah, nothing. I just didn't mean to, ah, run .... No, nothings wrong!", Xena stammered as she tried to recover some of her usual poise, hastily dropping her arms to her side.

"OK. Anyway, I see you've met Petricles.", Lyssius said as he continued to watch his sister's face closely.

"Who?", she asked, confusion clouding her face.

"This big guy, right here. The one you almost flattened.", he told her, pointing to the tall young man who continued to watch her with appraising eyes. "Xena, meet Petricles. He's the leader of the mercenaries we hired to help us against the Dorians."

"I'm sorry, Petricles. I'm Xena, Lyssius' sister.", she said, offering her hand to the tall man.

"Charmed, my girl.", Petricles said as he grasped her foreman and honored her with a man's handshake.

Xena felt the tingling in her body return as Petricles shook her arm. She could feel his soft brown eyes boring into her as if he were searching for something deep within her soul. A sudden surge of warmth rose from her lower body, her heart pounding a faster and faster beat in her chest. Embarrassed by her body's reaction to the tall young man, she released his arm and backed up several paces to put distance between them. She blushed a deep red as she heard Lyssius' quiet chuckle.

"Why big sister, I've never seen you turn so red before. You had better watch out, Petricles, I think she likes you.", he laughed.

"LYSSIUS!", Xena squealed, her voice rising several octaves as she slapped at her brother's arm.

"No Lyssius, I don't think I need worry. I for one am charmed by her flushed face.", Petricles told his partner as his eyes continued to feed on the sight of the beautiful young woman who stood embarrassed before him.

"Oh, you two!", Xena said in frustration, stamping her foot for emphasis. "Lyssius, one of these days.", she said as she turned and fled down the hall toward her room. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw that Petricles' eyes continued to track her as if she were a deer in the hunter's sites.

"Sisters! Who can figure them?", Lyssius said to no one in particular, throwing up his hands as he watched Xena's fleeing back.

"I for one find sisters most interesting.", Petricles said as he turned his attention to Lyssius. "Now about those crossbows. I think we could extend the range a bit if we used a better draw string. What do you think?", he asked as he and Lyssius exited through the empty doorway. As they walked into the midday sunlight, Petricles looked back over his shoulder, a look of curiosity and avid interest on his face.

Later on that evening a much calmer Xena entered the tavern's common room, surveying the many men, and a few women, who occupied its open space. She spied Petricles sitting alone two tables away from the headman's table where her brother and Argus were in deep conversation with Antillicus and the other elders. Walking quietly toward his table, she felt once again his appraising eyes inspect her body. She shuddered under his gaze and faltered a step or two but quickly recovered and moved to stand before him. Petricles languidly stood to receive her as he pulled a chair from under the table and offered it to her. Not trusting her quivering voice, Xena quietly accepted the proffered chair and seated herself at the tall man's table, carefully avoiding his eyes.

Sensing her uneasiness, Petricles turned his eyes away and motioned a passing serving girl to bring more ale for himself and a glass of wine for Xena. Unconsciously, he felt the young woman's racing pulse steady and some of her confidence return. Still, he did not return his attentions to her, rather he let the silence drag out before them. After the ale and wine had arrived, he felt his companion's eyes boring into his face and turned to return her gaze.

"Why do you look at me so?", Xena asked in a low voice, slowly sipping the wine he had bought her. "What interests you so much?"

"Why my girl, you must know the effect your beauty has on men.", he told her. "Especially when you're all dressed up in breeches and high leather."

"My name is Xena, not MY GIRL! And when have you ever seen me in breeches and leather?", she asked, suddenly angry with this man's assumed airs and supposed charm. "I must tell you I've been warned about your charm, so don't try it on me."

"By the man you spar with every morning, perchance?", he asked, disregarding her anger and continuing his quiet inspection of her face and eyes as he sipped his ale.

"How do you know that?", she asked as her face flushed deep red, her glass of wine suddenly forgotten. "Have you been following me?"

"No. Not following you. But the sounds of a sword fight can be quite loud in the early morning calm and my men DO patrol the roads around your village.", he said. "I must admit, you do look lovely in sweaty leather as the early morning sun reflects off your black hair.", he continued, reaching forward to gather into his hand a mass of raven black hair from off her shoulder.

"I didn't come here to be charmed by you, silly man!", Xena replied heatedly, slapping his hand away from her shoulder. "Do you know how to defeat iron weapons?", she asked, quickly changing the subject.

Not confused by her sudden change of topics, Petricles sat back in his chair and rested his hands in his lap. "No. Not really. But I do have some ideas on how we can strengthen bronze. I also have several of the iron rocks the Dorians use to fashion their swords and armor from. We attacked and destroyed a Dorian supply caravan last spring. Unfortunately, we were not able to find many iron weapons. The caravan guards were all greeks armed with bronze weapons. But we managed to find the iron rocks amongst the booty. Do you have a blacksmith who might be able to work the rocks into a more useful form?"

"Yes, we do. Cassy, uh, I mean Cassandra can work wonders on any type of metal. Yeah, give these iron rocks of yours to her. Tell her your ideas as well.", replied Xena, her anger subsiding as a ray of hope shed its light on their dilemma of iron versus bronze.

"Ah yes, the rather large and beautiful blond.", he said.

"She's married and has a babe, so you leave your CHARM at home when you talk to her. You hear me, silly man!", Xena told him, her anger returning as she shook a finger at his handsome face.

"Why my girl, whatever made you think I would try and charm your lovely blacksmith?", Petricles replied, smiling at her wagging finger.

"MY NAME IS XENA!", she nearly yelled at his insufferable attitude.

"As I said. MY GIRL!", he replied, suddenly leaning his smiling face forward to within inches of hers.

"You are an intolerable lout. Do you know that?", Xena spat, recoiling from him and nearly knocking over her chair with her brisk movement. "You may think that you can charm your way into any woman's heart with your pretty brown eyes and your sweet smile. But I'm not just any woman."

"Yes, I know. You wear leather and spar with strange men in the early morning mists.", he replied, placing his elbows on the table and his head in his hands to stare up into her angry blue eyes.

"ARRRRRG", she growled as her hand swung up to slap his smugly smiling face.

Petricles easily intercepted her swing and grasped her hand in his, holding tightly as he warily watched her other hand out of the corner of his eye. "No Xena, you are not ordinary. No, my girl, you are extraordinary. It will be interesting to meet you in battle. To match blades with you, so to speak."

"But you're on our side!", Xena exclaimed in confusion at the sudden turn in the conversation.

"You misunderstand, my girl. It's not your sword I want to meet and conquer, it's the stubborn heart that beats so frantically behind your beautiful breasts. That is where our battlefield lies, Xena, within your heart.", he said, releasing her hand and moving his head backwards out of easy reach.

"YOU BASTARD!", she yelled as she bounded out of her chair, her hastily swung fists neatly impacting his chin and knocking him from his chair. Shaking her numb hands, Xena turned and fled from his presence. Her furious pace faltered as she heard his laughter follow her out of the room. The last thing she heard as she ran through the door into the kitchen was his voice saying: "Until next time, MY GIRL!"

Needless to say, everyone in the crowded tavern witnessed her display of anger and noticed her quick departure. The younger men who had lost to her in the past smiled at Petricles' blood stained lips and bruised chin. The others, the ones who had hoped to love the raven haired beauty, suddenly realized they had lost their battle to another.

Chapter 3

"My Lord. The man you wanted us to search for has arrived. Shall I bring him to your tent?", asked Kordun as he stuck his head through the entrance to Kortese's battle tent.

"Yes Kordun, bring this Achaean to me. Let's see what kind of metal he's made of, shall we. What do you think, Kordun? Is he iron or bronze?", Kortese asked from his seat behind the large camp desk which sat at the center of the tent.

"Definitely bronze, my Lord. There is no strength to this one.", Kordun answered before departing.

Several minutes later, Kordun escorted a clearly frightened Toris into Kortese's tent. "Well Achaean, what is it that brings you to my tent?", Kortese inquired, pulling an iron mask down over his broad weather beaten face as he rose to meet the Achaean who stood fidgeting before him.

"Ah. My name is Toris and I am a, ah, merchant from the village of Amphipolis.", Toris stammered, his hands nervously playing across his thighs. "And I've come with a proposition for you."

"Yes, Amphipolis. The only village we haven't visited yet.", Kortese said, moving closer to Toris as if inspecting his dinner. "Don't I know you, Achaean? Weren't you one of those who killed several of my men sometime back, huh?"

"Oh. I don't think so.", Toris nervously replied, his hands beginning to tremble.

"Are you sure?", asked Kortese menacingly.

"I didn't kill your men. It was my brother and his stupid friends. They're the ones who killed them, not I.", Toris replied, taking a step backwards from the hulking presence.

"Well that's better.", Kortese said with a sudden change of expression as he returned to his chair and sat back down. "Please sit. Kordun, some refreshments for our young friend.", Kortese said amicably, pointing toward the chair he expected Toris to sit in. "You mentioned a proposition. Speak, my young friend. Tell me your proposition."

Toris took the offered chair and sat before the larger man, his confidence returning as Kortese's attitude seemed to change. "I know it's your men who have been raiding the villages near my valley. I've come to offer you our services if you'll leave my village alone."

"And what, pray tell, could you possibly offer that would be of interest?", Kortese asked good-naturedly.

"We promise to supply your men with provisions and wagons, at a much reduced rate, in exchange for leaving our village in peace. In addition, we would like to negotiate a long term arrangement to supply your men as you move south.", said Toris.

"You say 'we'. Who is 'we'? Certainly not those people you were with when my men were killed, I hope.", inquired Kortese.

"The village elders sent me to conduct these negotiations.", Toris told the Dorian chieftain.

"But we have heard your village is arming for a fight. How do I know you are telling me the truth? How do I know this is not one of those famous greek stratagems, spun to lure my men into an ambush?", Kortese asked, leaning forward, his face inches from the sweating Toris.

"Ah. Ah. You don't have to worry about those stupid people that have been following my brother and sister around, acting like they were warriors.", Toris said, recoiling from Kortese's masked face. "They're just playing at being adults. The village elders and I know better. After all, our bronze can't stand against your iron swords. We would be stupid to try."

"That would be wise. But about my assurances?"

"Yes. Well, the village elders desire to meet with you and conclude the deal. Their offer of a meeting at a location picked by you should prove our surety.", Toris replied.

"Done. Tell your elders we will meet in one week's time. Return tomorrow and Kordun will give you the location. And if this is a trick, my Achaean friend, your head will adorn my tent's centerpost until the crows have stripped the bones bare. Now go. Kordun!", Kortese said, rising up to his full height and turning his back on the startled Toris.

Toris stumbled to his feet, allowing himself to be escorted from the tent by Kordun and his group of guards. Within minutes, Kordun returned to his commander's tent. Entering, he awaited his leader's orders.

"Kordun. Prepare the men. Call in all the outriders and secure the supply wagons.", Kortese said as he paced the stretch of hard ground before his desk. "We're about to set a trap for this little band of rabble that has risen its ugly head in Amphipolis. And we'll get to kill two birds with one stone, as they say. Our dirty greek traitor, this Toris, will bring his elders to the slaughter and his pesky brother and sister will die in their undoubtedly heroic rescue attempt. I like this idea of having a local supply source. We'll spare this village from destruction. Yes, we'll occupy it and make it our own. Now go."

Amphipolis was no longer the peaceful village Xena remembered from her childhood. A steady tension had built up over the last few weeks, threatening to split the village apart. Toris returned and was often seen talking with Antillicus and the other village elders. Her mother withdrew completely from Xena's world, refusing to speak to her daughter. Training began to slacken as the men and women who signed up to fight began wondering if the danger was indeed real. The Dorians made no overt moves to threaten Amphipolis and the villagers were beginning to regret bringing the mercenaries into their midst. The Aetolians were simply eating them out of house and home and with the harvest season fast approaching their presence was becoming a nuisance.

Petricles' split lip healed rapidly and he soon found that Xena was no longer tongue tied in his presence. The angry blow she had delivered to his face that night seemed to have taken the fire out of her. She was still wary of the tall Aetolian, and she was never alone with him, but within a group she never seemed to leave his side. Xena was very much impressed with his knowledge of metalworking, as was Cassandra. And many of his ideas on how to strength bronze were found to be sound. Cassy was able to forge the iron rocks into thin bars which were then annealed to bronze thus producing a stronger blade. In addition, they were able to make iron arrowheads for the crossbows which would punch through Dorian armor. All in all, Xena was very pleased with her new friend.

Lyssius too was pleased, pleased with Petricles, and pleased his lovely sister had finally found someone she could like. Xena had never really been interested in any of the boys and young men who lived in the village and sometimes Lyssius despaired for his sister's future happiness. She seemed happy enough these days. And the look she sometimes gave Petricles, especially when she was sure no one else was looking - well he often thought his sister might be falling in love with the mercenary.

He shuddered at the thought of his sister letting go, of Xena letting her passions go free and unbound. No, they needed her steady hand and strong arm in the days that lay ahead. She had become truly amazing with the sword and her unarmed fighting skills were now better than Cassy's. She had even taken Petricles for two bouts out of three the other day, though Petricles huffily maintained he let her beat him so as to give confidence to the other women. Yes, Lyssius was happy, despite the continuing danger.

Xena, on the other hand, became a welter of conflicting emotions, her outward calm an elaborate smokescreen she was hard pressed at times to maintain. She feared her emotions for the Aetolian mercenary as much as she missed being able to spend long hours alone with her beloved brother. She tried many times to get Lyssius to go with her to their shrine but he was always so busy these days, what with defense preparations and sword training. Thus, she was thrust more and more into the company of Petricles and her heart seemed ready to burst under the pressure of his presence.

She tried to hate him, to hate his insouciant manner toward her, but her hate failed to materialize. She tried to conjure up a blinding rage during their hand-to-hand bout when, after their first contact, he groped her breasts and pinched her bottom, but again her rage refused to materialize. No, she had just beaten him silly, angry he would take such liberties with her body when others were present to watch. She felt helpless sometimes. Alone in bed at night, she realized she was fast losing the battle for her heart. She became terrified when it suddenly dawned on her that she really liked this strange man her own age; she feared it might be love.

She also hated being drawn back to Lyssius' shrine and the other mysterious man who now enlivened her young life. Yes, as she feared she would, Xena returned to her early morning rendezvous out beyond the fig groves. Like a moth drawn ever closer to the flame, she felt burned as the dark man seemed to sear his own special mark across her soul.

"Again, my dear. Keep your arms tight to your side. That's better.", the dark stranger told Xena as she practiced vaulting into the lower branches of the tall oak trees that bordered the stream. "Now, you need to add a backhand strike as you vault. Catch your opponent off guard and strike at his back as you clear the shoulders. Strike for a spot between the shoulder blades. Even a glancing blow can sever the spine and kill the largest man. Now try it again, my dear."

Xena again vaulted high into the air, striking the straw dummy between the shoulders as she cleared the lowest branch. Sweat poured from her body as she continued to practice over and over again under a hot early morning sun. During her final vault, she managed to twist in midair and instead of striking the dummy, she threw the chakrum at a second target several paces away. The chakrum easily severed the head from the straw figure before returning to Xena's outstretched hand.

"Very inventive, my dear.", the dark man complimented her as he joined her at the base of the tree. "I think with this addition to your arsenal of cleaver moves, we should call it a day. Don't you think?", he continued, handing her a linen towel he took from around his neck.

"All right.", Xena replied as they began walking back to the shrine.

When they finally reached the shrine, Xena began to undress unashamedly. The dark man had seen her naked many times over the last few weeks and his lingering gaze no longer disturbed her. She no longer feared he wanted her body, not since that day she had run in fear back to the comfort of her home. No, she realized he wanted something far more important than her puny body, she just couldn't figure out what it was.

As she buttoned the last button of her red linen blouse, she accepted the stone mug of cool clean water from her mentor's hands. With a flash of insight that sent cold chills down her spine, she suddenly realized that was exactly what he had become. He was her mentor. As that fear ridden fact hit home, she dropped the mug and like a startled animal before a predator looked up into his amber eyes.

"What am I to you?", she asked fearfully as the dark man returned her stare.

"You are my student.", he answered, his rich voice seeming to paralyze her every thought.

"That is not an answer. It is an assertion.", she replied, her mind opening up to his voice.

"Yes it is. It is also the answer. You are my creation. My finest work. My finest student.", he told her as his voice continued to lull her, continued to wind itself around her mind.

"Your creation? But why create?", she asked, her mind a confused mass of conflicting thoughts.

"You are my scourge of the Dorians.", he answered her. "I have walked these lands for many years. I've trained some very good men, and a few women. But now I find the land has fallen fallow, the seeds planted long ago no longer viable. You will be the rebirth. IF you can defeat the IRON MEN from the north, that is."

"Funny, I'm still a virgin.", she said, blushing deeply at her non sequitur. "But I thought our deal was for WHEN I defeated the Dorians?", she continued, returning to the threads of their discussion.

"My dear, you are tired. IF. WHEN. There is no difference. Agreed?", he replied apace, his voice changing timber and releasing her mind. "Why don't you go home and get some rest?"

"No. I guess not.", Xena said as she shook her head to clear it, her mind suddenly her own again. She felt the fire in her cheeks, not truly understanding why she was blushing so. "Yes, I think I will. What are we going to learn tomorrow?", she asked as she stood and prepared to leave.

"Learn? Why my dear, I think your training is about complete.", he told her. "No, I think the only thing that remains for us is the consummation of our deal. I'll let you know when we should see each other again. Now run along home."

Xena's head came up at this mention of their deal and her fear of him returned, not unexpected but overwhelming nonetheless. She fought against the urge to run screaming from the meadow, the urge to fling herself into the nearby stream. She walked backwards from his presence, keeping him in sight the whole time as if he would pounce on her back if she turned away. As she exited the meadow, she quickly turned and at a brisk pace walked home toward Amphipolis. She could feel his eyes on her back, their icy coldness caressing her mind. She valiantly overcame her urge to run and maintained her brisk stride as the shrine slowly receded in the distance.

Xena was amazed at the transformation in her younger brother. Lyssius stood before her dressed in the full panoply of an Achaean warrior. From his feet up, he was bedecked in shining bronze and tin armor. A solid bronze cuirass piece covered his broad chest and a brilliant scarlet underblouse. His forearms were protected by tin plate which wrapped around to protect the exposed arteries and veins of his muscular wrists. A skirt of dazzling white leather strips was worn instead of breeches, the bronze studs catching the midday sun like stars in a dark night. Bronze greaves covered his lower legs from the knees down and extended to protect the tops of his feet, now encased in tough leather boots. On top his head he wore a helmet of brightly polished bronze, a horse hair plume dangling from its top and falling down to rest between his shoulders. At his waist, he wore a wide leather belt, complete with bronze and tin studs, which held a long bronze sword and polished tin sheath. His panoply was completed by a brilliant dark blue cloak worn around his shoulders.

"Well, big sister, what do you think?", Lyssius asked Xena as he twirled around for her inspection.

"By the Gods, Lyssius, you look deadly.", Xena said in awe. "But, where did you get that armor? Petricles' men only wear boiled leather so where did you get all that shinny metal. And who made it for you?"

"Believe it or not, this is father's old armor.", he replied, ceasing his spinning to stand straight and tall before her. "I found it several years ago in that old storage shed out back of the inn. It was in an old trunk. I don't think mother even knew it was there. In fact, I know she didn't because if she had she would have destroyed it. You now how she gets about anything relating to war."

"But Lyssius, you can't wear that armor against the Dorians.", she told him as she continued to inspect him.

"Why not?", he asked.

"With that armor, you become the prime target for the Dorians. They'll come after you first thinking you're some Hero come to meet them in single combat. You can't take such chances Lyssius, please.", she told him in earnest.

"Remember what you always say: THE TIMES CHANGE PEOPLE....".

"AND PEOPLE CHANGE THE TIMES, I know.", she said, completing his statement, a frown coming over her face.

"I'm about to help change the times, Xena.", he told her, walking over to sit next to her on her bed. "I've been thinking recently about what's going to happen. About you and I, about mother and Toris. About Amphipolis. I don't what to live like this. I don't want the village to live like this. We've been split apart by our fear of the Dorians and it must stop. These wild men from the north have terrorized the entire country for years now. They've slaughtered countless numbers of our countrymen and have run rough shod over our lands. It has to stop. With most of the trained warriors off to Troy there are no Heros to fight this scourge. Xena, I'm going to be the Hero who DOES fight and defeat them. I will change the times, even if my life becomes forfeit with the change.

"Oh Lyssius.", she sighed, her eyes suddenly awash with tears. "You're not my little brother anymore. You've become a man. And I thank Artemis I was here to witness the transformation.", she said, hugging him fiercely. "Do you think the world is ready for a woman Hero?"

"Yes, I think it is. After all we are The Two Against Doria.", he told her as he broke out of her protective hug, leaning back to study her face. "You'll come with me won't you? Help me change the times?"

"Wild gryphons and scaly chimeras couldn't keep me from coming.", she replied. "But we'll have difficulty making plate armor for me.", she said, eyes suddenly mischievous.

"Why's that?", he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"Well. I'm as broad shouldered as you are, but my chest runs fore and aft, not side to side like yours. Don't forget little brother, I'm a girl.", she said, eyes dancing merrily. "My bumps are different than yours."

"Ah. Ah. Yeah, I guess so.", he stuttered, a blush breaking out on his youthful face. "I sometimes forget things like that."

"Not to worry.", she told him. "Cassy made me a rather handsome set of tough leather 'breast' plates studded with bronze and iron filigree. I'll be wearing mostly leather, but there will be enough metal worked into it to provide protection against all but the most direct sword strikes."

"Leather huh. I know Petricles will like it.", he said with a chuckle.

"Lyssius!", she squawked, her face going deep red at his mention of her new friend. "What makes you think I care what that insufferable bore likes or dislikes?", she said, her squeaky voice filled with unexpected tension.

"Insufferable bore is it now. Just the other day it was 'you moronic lout'.", he said as he watched his sister squirm beside him. "I'll have to pay closer attention next time. But really, big sister, I know you like him."

"I DO NOT!", Xena yelled, jumping up to pace furiously back and forth before her brother. "Petricles is an insufferable bore, a moronic lout, a shifty bastard....".

"And here he told me his parents were married. I guess he's a liar to boot.", Lyssius interjected.

"Huh. Oh. Yeah! He's a lying snake, a mettlesome sneak, an insufferable bore....".

"You already said that.", he interrupted.

"SHUT UP LYSSIUS! Do not interrupt me when I'm excoriating the man I love.", Xena shouted. Suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks, a look of bafflement and confusion clouding her flushed face. Turning to her brother, she asked in a very quiet voice: "What did I just say?"

"You said, and I quote 'the man I love' unquote.", he answered her from the bed.

Xena returned to her place beside Lyssius and looked down at her hands folded in her lap. "Damn. I said it. I actually said it. I love this man.", she said, her voice still heavy with confusion. "But I don't. Yes I do. NO I DON'T. YES I DO!", Xena said, her voice again rising as she played the ancient guessing game of love. "NO I DON'T....".

"XENA - CHOOSE. RIGHT NOW!", Lyssius shouted at her, grabbing her shoulders lightly.

"I love him.", Xena chose quietly, her voice becoming a little girl's talking to her dolls. "I love him."

"There, doesn't that feel better.", he said as he released her.

"No. Yes. No. I don't know, maybe so. But he is still a shifty bastard and an insufferable bore.", she told him, her voice returning to normal. Jumping to her feet and facing her brother, Xena wagged her finger in Lyssius' face. "Don't you even think of telling him. You hear me Lyssius. None of your silly pranks. This is my decision and I'll decide when and how to let him know. OK little brother."

"Yes big sister.", he replied, taking a playful bite at his sister's wagging finger. "Xena. You know I would never embarrass you in such a manner.", he said seriously.

"I know, Lyssius.", she replied, returning to sit beside him.

"I guess that settles our problems with bardic tales."

"What do you mean?", she asked, confusion returning with the apparent change in topics.

"Now it'll be Fifty-two Against Doria.", he chuckled, closely watching her blush return.

"Lyssius, one of these days!", she replied to his taunt. "But you may be right. If, and I do mean IF, I choose him then I guess we'll have to ask him to join us on this crusade of yours. This crusade to rid our lands of these Dorians. Yeah, Fifty-two Against Doria. It has a lousy ring but you have to admit, it does even up the odds a bit."

As brother and sister sat and talked for the first time in many days, Xena began to realize she had passed a major waypoint in her young life. At some point during the past months she had passed from girlhood to becoming a complete woman. Her happy past was over; her future stretched out before her. Come what may, she was determined to leave with her brother, to join him and his crusade. To become a woman Hero; some would say the first. She was also determined to make a choice concerning Petricles, though she feared what her choice might be. She thought she loved him. She also knew she did not really understand him, or his motives, and in that uncertainty lay a rocky field rough with pain and fraught with the potential for disaster.

Chapter 4

Xena and Cassandra inspected the group of women warriors who stood in a long line before them. The women wore the leather armor Cassy had fashioned for them. Each woman was armed with a new bronze and iron alloy dagger, though none carried swords. The training had been rigorous but only Xena and the blond blacksmith had the required strength of arm to meet a man on the field of battle. No, the women were outfitted with an assortment of auxiliary weapons.

All carried long oaken spears strapped across their backs, each spear topped with a blade made from Cassy's bronze and iron alloy. Half of the women carried long hunting slings slung at their waists with pouches of sharpened stones dangling alongside. The other half were armed with light ropes, as long as a man is tall. The light ropes ended in solid bronze balls encased in tough leather.

The women would act in the traditional manner of the Achaean auxiliary. Their place was to support the men who would play the role of Hero and Champion. The women would attack the flanks of the enemy. With their hunting slings and throwing ropes, they would cause confusion in the enemy ranks thus breaking his front and allowing the men to attack the disordered pieces. The women had been trained by Xena and Cassy to work in pairs, one sling thrower and one rope thrower. These teams would attempt to bring down their enemy with sling or rope then finish him off with their spears. This way their lack of strength would be nullified and the odds against them evened.

Cassy would command one wing of the auxiliary corps, Xena would command the other wing. Xena did not like this arrangement. She would much prefer to remain at Lyssius' side, but her brother persuaded her she would be needed most with the women, to strengthen their morale and resolve during battle.

The four iron swords they had acquired from the Dorians were distributed between Xena, Argus, Petricles and the mercenary's second in command, a man named Borias. Lyssius refused to take one, preferring instead to wield his father's sword. Xena tried to dissuade her brother from his choice but he adamantly refused. Cassy, too, had refused the offer of an iron sword. She preferred her blacksmith's hammer, now made even more wicked with the addition of several sharpened spikes.

The tension in Amphipolis had almost reached the breaking point, especially for the women. Their mothers, and those sisters who had chosen not to join the growing army, continued a silent battle with the more adventurous members of their sex. The warrior women felt the stares of the others constantly. Morale dropped and Xena had finally taken matters in hand, moving her band out of the village. The warrior women took up residence in the fields to the south of the village, several leagues down the road toward Aroilus. Here they could continue their training in peace and recover some of their lost confidence.

After finishing their inspection, Xena and Cassy had the women break up into pairs and practice their teamwork. While the others were at their practice, Xena and Cassy squared off for a little hand-to-hand fighting. Suddenly, their bout was interrupted by the cries of a middle-aged woman running toward the group from the direction of Amphipolis. The warriors quickly gathered around the woman as she slumped to the ground, trying desperately to regain her breath.

"Epinaeas, what's wrong? What in Zeus's name brings you way out here?", Cassandra asked the prostrate woman.

"Xena! Where's Xena?", the woman croaked out as she took the mug of water offered by one of the warriors.

"I'm here Epinaeas. Catch your breath and tell us what's wrong.", Xena said, pushing her way through the crowd surrounding the older woman. "And don't drink so fast you'll make yourself sick."

"Xena! Oh, there you are girl.", the woman said, lying aside the mug and slowly regaining her feet. "You must return to the village. Lyssius and the others have left. They've gone to attack the Dorians."

"WHAT? THEY DID WHAT?", Xena shouted at the older women standing before her. "Tell me!", she commanded, quieting as Cassy put a restraining hand on her arm.

"They departed several hours after your older brother and the village elders left for Aphetae. They....", Ephinaeas continued.

"Aphetae! Why would Toris and the elder go to Aphetae? Start from the beginning, you're....", Xena said, again interrupting the older woman.

"Xena. Let her finish. You're rattling her.", Cassy said, whispering her admonition in Xena's ear.

"Right. OK. Ephinaeas, from the beginning.", Xena responded, folding her arms across her leather and bronze clad chest.

"This morning Toris and the elders left.", Ephinaeas continued, picking up where she left off. "This was unusual so one of the men asked your mother what it was all about. She told him that Toris and the elders were going to Aphetae to talk to some Dorian named Kortese. To straighten things out, she said. She....".

"WHAT!", Xena shouted, her misplaced anger returning full force.

"Xena.", Cassy said, moving to restrain her angry friend.

"Right. I'm sorry Ephinaeas, please continue.", Xena said, surrendering her anger.

"Well, your mother told us everything would be all right so we thought nothing more of it.", Ephinaeas continued. "Then Petricles returned from one of his rides around the area and told Lyssius he'd seen the elders out on the Aphetae road. Things got confusing as Lyssius tried to find out from your mother what was going on. She didn't seem to want to talk to your brother, but finally she got mad at his continued questions and told him Toris and the elders had gone to negotiate with this Kortese. Lyssius and your friend Petricles went a little crazy, what with all their hard efforts and such to safeguard the village. Finally, they decided this Kortese couldn't be trusted so they gathered their men and left to stop the elders. I volunteered to come and alert you. Xena, I sorry but I'm an old woman and can't run as fast as you youngsters. I'm afraid I took longer then I should have getting here. I'm sorry. Lyssius told me to tell you he loves you and to come as quickly as possible.", the older woman concluded, sitting back down to rest her tired and swollen feet.

"Valiantly done, Ephinaeas. I wish you could join us.", Cassy told the older woman.

"Yes, bravely done.", Xena said, adding her praise to that of the strong blond's. "What of Petricles? Did he pass on a message for me?", she asked quietly.

"No. Not a personal message, not really. But he did say to tell you this 'Come quickly, MY GIRL. Here's our chance for a different battlefield'. I hope you understand what it means, Xena.", Ephinaeas told her.

"My name's Xena damn it.", Xena whispered under her breath as she felt her heart begin a rapid fire beating in her breast. Her palms suddenly sweaty, Xena turned her back on the other warriors as a tear came unbidden to her eyes. "Yes Ephinaeas, I understand what it means.", she told the older woman, her voice almost a croak. He loves me, it suddenly dawned on her, he loves me.

Whipping the tears from her cheeks, Xena whirled back around to face her band of warriors. "All right. Pack up ladies, we're off to save the menfolk. Cassy, we leave as soon as everyone has filled their water bottles.", Xena told the group, her strong voice of command returning. "NOW MOVE!"

With malice in their collective eyes and a dangerous purpose in their breasts, the warriors began forming up for the long march ahead. The men had several hours head start so the women would have to force march the entire distance to catch up with them. Xena and Cassy hoped the long hours of physical conditioning would be enough to carry their friends through the next few hours. No. Lyssius and Petricles would not fling themselves at the Dorians without a good reconnaissance. They would not run heedlessly into battle. Maybe the women would make it to Aphetae in time. Xena did not give a second thought to the safety of her older brother or the thrice dammed village elders. Typical fools, she thought as she and Cassy led their band back up the road to Amphipolis and the battlefield they knew lay beyond.

Aphetae was eleven leagues north of Amphipolis. This quiet market village lay nestled amongst sparse groves of fig and oak trees. Northward, behind the village, the ground rose into a series of low barren hills. Toward the south, another series of low hills bordered the road before taking a turn toward the west. Lyssius had drawn up his little army along the crest of the southern hills. From here, he could see into the village which lay beyond. Petricles, meanwhile, kept his mercenaries hidden behind the hill Lyssius occupied. His men were mounted and would provide shock action when required. The Dorians fought as infantry; Petricles and his cavalry would come as a surprise to these invaders from the north. Lyssius, Argus and Petricles held a council of war just behind the line of leather clad infantry.

"Argus, you take the left wing. We'll let Borias take the right.", Lyssius said. "If I could borrow your second in command, Petricles?", he asked as he began drawing a sketch map of the battlefield in the dirt at their feet.

"I've already told him you might need his services. He'll be ready.", Petricles answered.

"Thank you.", said Lyssius. "Argus, you form up the left flank spearwall here. Borias will form the right flank here. The center can form along this crest here. Flank your walls with swordsmen. They can use their crossbows on the enemy as they approach.", Lyssius commanded, pointing out positions on his dirt map. "What about your men, Petricles?"

"I don't know Lyssius. My men are not used to fighting mounted.", Petricles told his friend. "At least not against infantry. The Dorians are less numerous than we thought. I think your three hundred infantry can hold their own. There can't be more than four hundred Dorians drawn up in front of the Village. No. With the numbers involved on both sides, I think we'd just be in your way. They can't really flank you and the line of battle will be so short there won't be an exposed flank for us to hit. No, I have a better idea."

"OK. Let's hear it.", said Argus, leaning on his iron sword and studying Lyssius' improvised map.

"We know from that villager we ran into a little while back that Toris and the others are being held at an inn toward the rear of the village. What I think I should do is take my men around to those hills behind the village and break them out.", Petricles told the two men, pointing out his route of march on the map. "I think we can get there without the Dorians seeing us and I don't think they'll be expecting a mounted band getting behind them. Once I've saved your worthless brother, I'll lead my men straight through the village and hit the Dorians from the rear. How does that sound Lyssius?"

"If the truth be known, my friend, I forgot about my brother and the others.", Lyssius confided. "You're right, we have to make plans for their safety and I do believe you've hit on the best plan we can devise at the moment. Let's do it. Argus, do we attack first or do we wait for our large friends?", Lyssius asked his oldest friend.

"I don't know. We've got about two hundred spearmen. They should have a good chance against those iron swords. But the other hundred are armed with those alloy swords of Cassy's. Now don't get me wrong, I think my wife is a superb metalsmith but the first sword that shatters when it comes into contact with one of those iron monsters the Dorians carry - Lyssius I think the ranks will break and we'll have a rout on our hands. No, we should await their attack. We've got the high ground and besides our men don't really know how to maneuver. Let the Dorians come for us, uphill all the way."

"It's decided. We stand.", Lyssius said. "Petricles, I ask that you send a rider to find Xena and Cassy. Have him inform them of our plans and ask them to bring the women up on both flanks of this hill when they get here."

"As you wish, my friend.", replied Petricles. "I'll send my fastest horseman to harry them on. It'll be good to see the old girl again. Especially all decked out in that new set of leather and bronze Cassy made for her." he finished, looking off into the distance as if searching for something he had lost but hoped to find again.

"Now Petricles, don't you go and get my sister all flustered just before a fight.", Lyssius chided quietly, his face clouding over with apprehension for Xena's safety.

"Never.", replied Petricles quietly, turning back to face his friend. "I'm sorry, I was just babbling out loud. Battle stress, you know.", he ended with a chuckle.

"Right.", replied a skeptical Lyssius. "Let's get ready. To your places."

"What about you Lyssius? Where will you be?", asked Argus

"I get the unenviable tasks of playing the role of Champion.", Lyssius replied as he rubbed out his improved dirt map and rose to his feet. "I will be foursquare and to the front. I command the center. As tradition has it, I get to meet their Champion."

"You be careful, Lyssius.", Argus said, suddenly fearful for his friend's life. "I know the role you have to play. But, you be careful. Don't forget, your sword will not stand up to iron. OK?"

"I understand, my friend. But my father's sword is strong. Don't worry, I will not do anything stupid, but I have to do this thing.", Lyssius responded as the two friends grasped each other in a fierce embrace. "When this is all over, Xena and I will have you and Cassy over to the inn for a big feast. Now go ready your men. Please. I'll be all right."

"As you say.", replied Argus before returning to the battle line.

"Petricles, a word with you before you leave.", Lyssius said, walking his friend several paces away so they would not be overheard by the others. "If something should happen to me this day please take care of Xena for me, all right?", Lyssius asked the older man who stood before him.

"If she'll let me.", Petricles said. "But I don't know if....".

"Don't worry, my friend, she'll let you.", interrupted Lyssius as he laid his hands on the other man's shoulders, looking him straight in the eye. "I haven't asked what your intentions are toward my sister. That's between you and her. But let me tell you something about my big sister. Xena is a very strong willed woman, as I'm sure you've discovered by now, and she does not give out her affections lightly. I'll not tell you what I think her feelings for you are, that's her decision to make. But mark my words, if you wrong this woman, if you play with her love, then Zeus help you for no mortal will be able to. I do know this, her feelings for you are such that if you were to wrong her she would not kill you outright, but your life afterwards would never be the same. And tell her I love her dearly."

"Na, you tell her yourself when this is all over.", replied Petricles, shuddering as he saw the mark of death suddenly appear around his friend.

The two men stood in silence for a few brief moments, each lost in his own thoughts. Finally Petricles broke eye contact and turned away, walking back toward were his men stood to horse. Lyssius watched as his new friend, and potential brother-in-law, walked back down the hill. After several moments of reflection, Lyssius turned and walked toward the battle line. The battle line he had helped forge. The line of friends and neighbors. The line which, with sudden realization, he knew he would give his life for this sad autumn day. This unexpected realization of death did not cause him fear nor did it dissuade him from his course of action, but he would miss Xena. And he would miss her future.

The din of battle rang loud across the hills surrounding Aphetae. A large cloud of dust, thrown up by the clashing armies, obscured the hills that lined the road from Amphipolis. The battle had been raging for over an hour. Though their strength was waning, the men of Amphipolis had stood their ground. Three times the Dorians tried to breach their wall of spears but each time the small band of swordsmen broke the Dorian flanks, helping the spearmen drive back the enemy. Three times the swordsmen took up their crossbows and decimated the retreating enemy. Nearly everyone had been wounded at least once and the dead were beginning to mount. The swordsmen reaped a windfall from the enemy's dead, those that remained alive were by now armed with iron swords. Yes, Cassy's swords had held, the battle line had not broken. The men of Amphipolis stood their ground.

Xena could hear the cacophony of battle and smell the sick sweat smell of blood as she led her warriors toward the rear of the hill where the men of Amphipolis stood their ground. The women were nearly spent from their long forced march but the magnificent sight of an unbroken wall of Amphipolian spears gave them a second wind. Xena and Cassy hastily formed the women into their respective wings, giving the women time to make last minute preparations before joining the men atop the hill.

"Cassy, you take your wing and go to the left. That's where Argus will be.", Xena commanded as she surveyed the ground to her front. "You! What's your name again?", She asked the man who Petricles had sent to speed them on.

"Manus.", the short broad shouldered man replied, a toothy grin breaking out on his scarred face.

"Right.", Xena said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Manus, you take my wing and go around to the right. Support Borias. And remember, my warriors are auxiliary not heavy infantry. Treat them accordingly."

"As you command.", Manus replied.

"All right, let's do it.", Xena commanded, drawing her iron sword after adjusting her leather arm guards.

"Xena. Where will you be?", Cassy asked, concern written in deep lines on her face.

"Where else! With Lyssius of course.", replied Xena, giving her friend a reassuring smile. "Don't worry Cassy, I'll not do anything stupid. Now go on, please."

"Right. See you when it's all over.", Cassy said, not convinced in the least by Xena's reassurances.

As the two groups of warriors made their way around the hill toward their assigned flanks, the sound of battle surged to a crescendo as the Dorian infantry renewed its attack on the wall of spears. The women ran as fast as they could, tried as hard as their hearts could possible desire but it was as if the fates had intervened, intervened on the side of the Dorians. Cassy and her wing of women warriors arrived on the left flank just as the wall of spears broke under the furious pressure of the Dorian infantry assault.

Immediately deploying her small band, Cassy led her women into the Dorian flank. Laying about her with her deadly hammer, Cassy fought her way toward where she could see her husband standing, surrounded by the remnants of his spearmen. Despite her murderous rage, despite her strength of arm and the number of enemy she killed, she realized she would not make it to his side in time. She watched in horror as a fresh wave of Doric infantry attacked her husband's small band and in a shower of blood overwhelmed them.

In a test of courage no person should ever have to face, Cassy fought the urge to continue trying to get to Argus' side, instead she rallied her women and the few remaining men of the collapsed spearwall. Forming her decimated band around her, she led them in an orderly withdrawal back toward the base of the hill.

Meanwhile, the other flank of the spearwall was holding despite being driven back from the top of the hill. Manus led his women directly into the rear of the Dorian infantry, braking the enemy's assault on the right flank. He and Borias met in the center of the melee and began the task of integrating the badly shaken wall of spearmen with the band of women auxiliary. As they got their men and women organized, they noticed through the clouds of swirling dust that the left wing no longer stood. Looking frantically for Lyssius or Xena, they knew they had a decision to make. Without Petricles, Borias knew the choice was his so he commanded the right wing to retreat off the hill, to cover the withdrawal of the left wing if it still existed. He sent Manus to the center of the spearwall, to tell Lyssius the flanks had been forced to fall back from the hilltop.

As he ordered the withdrawal, Borias looked back toward the village and was surprise to see that the Dorians were retreating as well. What he saw in the distance brought a chill to his heart. There in the midst of the retreating enemy walked the Dorian commander, as cool as an early spring day, his silver mask reflecting the afternoon sun in brilliant rays. Beside him, two of his men were dragging an obviously dead Lyssius like a sack of seed corn. Borias shuddered as he watched the Dorians strip the young man of his armor. Grimly, he noticed they had already begun to mutilate the young man's body. Tearing his eyes from the dead body of his commander, Borias led his men and women off the hill back toward the road.

Xena had run directly up slope, up toward the center of the spearwall and the place where she knew Lyssius would be. As she approached the center, she heard a cry go up directly to her front as the Dorian infantry renewed its attack on the center. Suddenly time seemed to elongate, her feet no longer working as fast as she desired. She felt as if a great hand was holding her back or that she was trying to run directly into the fiercest of winds. Finally, as if an infinity of seconds had passed, she crested the small hilltop and the entire battlefield lay before her.

Directly to her front was the center of the spearwall. It had advanced some distance down slope to meet the renewed Dorian attack. To her left and right she could see that her women were fast approaching their respective flanking positions and would soon be engaged. Off in the distance, she could see Petricles' mounted men attacking the rear of the Dorian army. But the sight that demanded her attention the most, the sight that drew her inexorably onwards, was the sight of her brother Lyssius out in front of his men surrounded by a horde of tall Dorians.

Stunned and frozen in place, she watched as the IRON MEN of Doria beat down her brother's guard. As Lyssius fought valiantly to win free of the Dorian swordsmen, she saw an enemy soldier pick up a discarded crossbow. She watched in grim silence as he swung it around and shot Lyssius in the chest pointblank. The bolt easily pierced the bronze armor and the fight went out of her brother. Xena felt the bolt strike home, her hand flying up to grasp the Borilus Token which hung around her neck.

Before his dying body was swept from her view, she saw Lyssius turn and look back in anguish toward where she stood. They made instant eye contact across the field of dead and dying. His eyes piercing hers, she stood transfixed as she saw his mouth say 'I LOVE YOU, BIG SISTER'. Then in a flash, his body was gone. Xena's heart died at that moment of pure agony, not noticing the withdrawal of the flanks or the death of Argus. All she heard and felt were her brother's last words.


Xena flung herself from the mound and ran toward her brother's last position as the center of the spearwall fell back around her. She shrugged off Manus' frantic attempts to stop her, knocking him to the ground as she ran. She made it thirty paces down the blood soaked hill, thirty paces toward where her brother had died, before being tackled and held tightly by the restraining arms of Petricles.

"Lyssius! No! No! No!", she cried, tears of grief and anguish flowing down her face, her eyes wild and unseeing. "No! Little brother! No!"

For several seconds she continued to struggle with the man who held her, finally she was able to twist around enough to bring her strong legs into play and kicked the man in the face. Momentarily stunned, Petricles instinctively grasped his damaged face and Xena was off like a maddened wolf, down the slope toward where Lyssius had disappeared. With no other recourse, Petricles threw a large rock at the back of the speeding woman and was rewarded when the projectile hit her square in the back of the head. Xena went down like a puppet whose strings were cut. Petricles ran to her side and picking her up he swung her across his shoulders, running back toward where his horse stood nearby. Throwing the still breathing woman across his saddlebow, Petricles mounted and rode down the hill to where several of his riders waited.

The bloody battle of Aphetae was over and its last casualty had left the field.

Chapter 5

Xena flailed about with her long iron her sword. Kortese's men died in great pain and numbers as she cut a swath of death and destruction through their midst. Blood flew in all directions as she battled her way toward her brother, her sweet little brother. She could see him. Out there, surrounded by the enemy, calling to her. But try as she might, no matter how many Dorians she killed, she could not kill enough of them to save her brother from his preordained fate. Again and again, she saw him pierced by the bolt of a greek hunting crossbow. Over and over, she felt a searing pain in her breast at the impact. Time and again, she felt the life of her brother snatched away by death's black hand. Every time she saw his bloody body disappear in a welter of enemy swordsmen, she cried his name.

"LYSSSSIIUUS!", Xena cried in anguish, her body flying up from the bed. Thrashing about with unseeing eyes, eyes already haunted and haggard, she fought the imaginary enemy for her brother's life. Striking out with fist and feet, she smashed Cassy in the face splitting her lip and knocking the blond backwards with the strength of her blow. Cassy grabbed Xena's flailing arms and wrestled the maddened woman back into a recumbent position. Manus and Borias quickly moved to help the strong blond pin Xena to the bed. After several minutes, the three were successful as Xena battled her way out of the nightmare. The hag ridden woman lay back in despair and indifference as the three removed their restraining hands from her body and sat down on the bed beside her, carefully keeping out of striking range.

"Oh Lyssius.", Xena cried in grief, throwing her arms across her contorted tear stained face. In her struggle with the dream of death, she kicked off the blanket which Cassy had covered her with earlier. Her naked body, covered in bruises and oily sweat lay exposed to the three people who sat beside her. An ugly black bruise had begun to form between her breasts where she had continuously beat herself as she fought her dream. The men made a hasty withdrawal, averting their eyes from her naked body. Walking back to the bedroom door, they took up positions in case they were needed.

Cassy quickly reached for her friend's side, drawing the blanket back over the now quieted woman. Seeing that Xena's head wound had reopened, she carefully reached for the blood stained pillow upon which Xena's head rested. Quietly replacing it with a fresh one, she took her friend's arms and pulled them off her face. "Xena. Xena, you're home now dear. You're back in Amphipolis. You're in my bed. Do you understand?", she asked, watching for some spark of understanding in her friend's chalky white face.

"I'm awake, Cassy.", Xena told the blond, looking up into her friend's concerned face. "I know Lyssius is dead. Tell me what else happened?", she asked, her voice appearing distant but focused.

"Thank the Gods.", Cassy said. "Yes Xena. Lyssius is dead. But we won, sort of. The Dorians have retreated up into the hills north of Aphetae, though they left a small party to occupy the village. And Petricles saved your older brother and the village elders. We're safe for now."

"But at what cost?", Xena asked, her concern for those who might have perished with her brother obvious in her voice.

"Many died and many were wounded.", Cassy told her. "We lost seventy-five men and twelve women. Petricles lost fifteen of his mercenaries. Everyone else, just about, suffered wounds to varying degrees. But we won, Xena, we won."

"What of Argus? And Petricles?", Xena asked, fear returning to her face. "What of them, Cassy?"

"Oh Xena, Argus is dead.", Cassy told Xena as tears of her own began to flow down her strong face. "I saw him die as he tried to rally the left flank. I tried....".

"Cassy, I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry.", Xena cried, reaching up to hug her friend. "Arrr! My head!", she growled, the pain of her head wound hitting her full force. The pain and dizziness forced her to release her friend and lie back down, gingerly laying her throbbing head on the newly blood-soaked pillow. "My chest hurts. How was I wounded?"

"In battle, trying to reach Lyssius.", Cassy lied, fearing to tell her friend the truth at the moment.

"What of Petricles?", Xena asked, the dizziness receding.

"He lives.", replied Borias nonchalantly as he approached the bed from his position by the door. "He remains with his men scouting the roads. He will return sometime around midnight."

"Thank you, Borias.", Xena told the man who stood by her side. "And what of you and Manus?"

"I'm fine.", replied Manus as he joined Borias at Xena's side. "Just a scrape on the shoulder, nothing to worry about.", he told her, shifting his bandaged arm to emphasize his words.

"I too am well, Xena.", Borias told her. "I suffered no wounds."

"I'm glad.", Xena told the men. "And I want to thank you both for what you did today."

"That's what we're getting paid for.", replied Borias, trying to downplay his role in the battle. "Actually, I was impressed with the courage displayed today by the men and women of your village. You and your brother trained them well."

"Thank you.", Xena said. "I hope the dead hear your compliments. They deserve them."

"Xena you need to rest.", Cassy interrupted. "You just go back to sleep. We'll be just outside if you need us."

"No! No sleep. But I will lay here and rest.", Xena said, her mouth suddenly dry at the thought of returning to her dreams. "I don't think I ever want to sleep again."

"I understand. Now rest!", Cassy said as she led the men from the room and closed the door to leave Xena alone with her pain and grief.

Despite her attempts, sleep soon closed Xena's eyes and she slept without dreams. She woke once more during the night, sometime between midnight and dawn, the time when the body is most at peace with itself. Slowly, she sat up to look out the window at the full moon which sent streamers of soft grey light to illuminate the room. As she lay back, Xena was startled by a dark figure sitting in a chair close by her bed. Fearful at the appearance of this dark enshrouded form, she cried out her hands flying up to cover her naked breasts.

"There, there, my girl. It's only me. The insufferable bore Petricles.", Petricles reassured her as he walked into the moonlight and looked down at her taught body. He turned his head aside as she covered her naked body with the blanket not wanting to cause her the discomfort of his having seen her without clothing.

"Petricles?", she said in a hushed voice. "You're not an insufferable bore. You're a moronic idiot. And my name's Xena.", she told him, her voice becoming stronger as she realized who the shadow was.

"Yes, my girl, your name IS Xena. And a sweet name it is.", he told her as he quietly sat down beside her on the bed. He watched her in silence as she lay back before him, her hands clutching the blanket to her chin, eyes wide and haunted. "Yes, your name is Xena."

"Oh, Petricles.", she cried suddenly, reaching up to hug him fiercely to her now exposed breast. Unmindful of her nakedness, she held the man tightly and cried on his broad shoulders. "At least you did not die. But Lyssius. Lyssius is dead.", she sobbed.

"I know. I made it to the hill just as he was struck down.", he told her, taking her face from his shoulder and looking into her tear filled blue eyes with a look of fierce possessiveness. "I know. But YOU live, my girl. Thank the Gods.", he said, one hand dropping to caress the livid bruise between her naked breasts. "I have something for you.", he told her as he withdrew from their intimate embrace, retrieving something from the pocket of his leather tunic. "I brought you back Lyssius' Borilus Token. You lost it during the struggle."

Xena's hand flew up to her breast, to where the bruise had formed. "Thank you, my friend.", she told him, moving back into the embrace of his comforting arms. Looking up into his anxious soft brown eyes, she asked: "Petricles, tell me what happened. Tell me the truth. The others are worried about me and wouldn't say much. Tell me, please." Xena released the man and lay back down as dizziness from her head wound returned, her body remaining naked before him.

Petricles looked down at the battered but still beautiful woman who lay at his side. Mustering up his courage he told her the truth of what had happened that sad autumn day, softly caressing her breasts as he told his tale. He told her of the courageous stand of the spearwall, how it had withstood the many assaults of the more numerous and better armed foe. He told her how Lyssius had stood before the spearwall's center waiting the enemy's attack. He told her how Cassy's new swords had withstood the test of battle. He told her of the valor displayed by the women of Amphipolis as they battled to the aid of the men. He told her of the defeat of the left flank and how his friend Borias had led the remnants of the center and the right wing off the field of battle following Lyssius' death. He told her how her brother died. How Lyssius had fought alone in front of the spearwall until he could fight no longer, only to be overwhelmed when the enemy's numbers became to many for his sword. And he told her the truth of how she came to be wounded. But he did not tell her everything, his courage faltered.

"I guess I can add 'back stabber' to the names I call you, my friend.", Xena told him softly as he finished his tale, reaching up to touch his face as her other hand covered his at her breast. "As much as I would have liked to have died there by his side, I know Lyssius would hate me if I needlessly sacrificed myself out of grief and not necessity. Thank you. You saved my life and I will forever owe you that. Come what may."

Petricles bent over and kissed the ugly bruise between her breasts. Leaning back, he took her hands in his and sat in silence just looking at her, a look of calm on his face as he studied her moonlit face and body. The silence lasted for sometime before Xena removed her hands from his soft grip and struggled to a more comfortable sitting position beside him. "But what about you, my friend? You didn't mention your part? Beside back stabbing me, that is.", she asked, a soft smile coming over her face.

"We were to ride around the enemy's flank and enter the village from the rear.", Petricles told her, looking off into the distance, his soft brown eyes reflecting the moonlight. "We discovered where your brother and the others were being held and we hoped to rescue them. It took us longer to get behind the Dorians unnoticed then I expected. And once we found your people, that damned brother of yours, Toris that is, wouldn't be rescued so we were delayed as we tied him up and drug him out of the village kicking and screaming. I'm sorry Xena, we took too long and weren't able to hit the enemy's rear until that last assault, the attack Lyssius died trying to stop. As soon as we hit the enemy, I fought my way uphill to where you were standing. Lyssius was already surrounded by then so I came to you.", He finished quietly, returning his eyes to hers.

Xena reached forward and embraced the man, fresh tears coming to her eyes. "I'm sorry too, Petricles. To the depths of my soul, I'm sorry. For you. For Argus. And for my brother. For everyone who fought today.", she told him tearfully as she felt him shudder within her arms. "There's something else isn't there. Something else is wrong. Petricles, tell me please.", she said as she sat back, watching him as he suddenly refused to meet her gaze. "Please, my friend. Tell me."

The man's hand absently returned to caressing her breast, caressing the ugly bruise where Lyssius' Borilus Token had once rested. His other hand rose to caress her face, but he continued to avert his eyes from hers. "I didn't want to tell you. At least not tonight.", he told her quietly, his voice a harsh rasp. "I hoped I could find an easy was to tell you, to soften the words. But I can't. Xena, the Dorians have your brother's body and they've strung it up outside of Aphetae for the crows to feed on. They stacked his armor at his feet but only after they broke it up so no one could wear it against them.", he told her. Startled by her anguished sob, his face snapped toward hers as he sought her blue eyes in the moonlight. He gently drew her body to his as she wept into his hair, his hand rising to lightly touch the bloody wound at the back of her head.

Time passed as the two cried out their grief, heartened but not completely consoled by their embrace. Finally, they lay down beside each other, not to sleep for nightmares lurked in the corners, but to gently hold each other as they watched the morning sun rise in the east. As the first rays of the morning sun illuminated Petricles' face, Xena knew she had lost two battles, the battle to save her brother's life and the battle for her heart.

Xena remained in bed for sometime after Petricles left to see to his men. Slowly, as the early autumn heat began to build, she got out of bed and dressed. She had been restlessly thinking of the person she must confront, of the task she must perform and her skin crawled as if alive with the vermin of nightsoil. Tenderly wrapping a clean bandage around her head, she turned and retrieved an old pair of leather breeches, hastily putting them on. She could not bear to touch her leather and bronze armor yet. As she drew the breeches up over her loin cloth, she realized with a sudden return of grief that they belonged to Argus. Cassy must have left them for me, she thought as she used her leather belt to tie the much to large breeches around her slim waist. Tucking her linen blouse into the belt, she walked out of Cassy's bedroom, quietly slipping out the back of her friend's home.

Walking briskly through the village toward her family's inn, Xena refused to meet any of the quiet greetings and stares her appearance produced from the villagers. No one thought to stop her, the look on her face kept all at a discreet distance. Entering the rear of the inn, Xena walked down the narrow hall to the room her mother used for conducting business. As she stood in the open doorway and looked inside, she found Toris sitting at the desk reading a parchment. This is even better, she thought, mother can wait till later. Standing quietly, Xena watched her brother, a look of hate and rage overcoming her face as she waited for him to notice her. Finally she could stand it no longer. "Toris.", she hissed, drawing his name into a curse.

Toris finished reading the document in his hands and suddenly felt the hairs on the back of his neck go erect at the sound of her voice. His head snapped up to the tall figure that watched him from the doorway. Hastily, he rose and scrambled behind his chair as if it and the desk were enough of a barricade to protect him from the fury that stood before him.

"Ah, Xena. I'm glad you are feeling better.", he stammered, his hands beginning to tremble as he held on to the back of the chair. "I'd like to talk but I'm busy. Mother wants....".

"Toris, you worthless piece of sheep shit.", Xena insulted him as she entered the room, watching with maddened glee as she saw her older brother quail before her advance. "Our brother lies dead and unavenged. Our father's armor lies in the possession of our enemy. Our brother's ghost cries out for us to mourn his loss and all you can think about is business?", she hissed at him, continuing her advance toward where he cowered behind the desk and chair.

"You are the oldest male member left to our family. Why haven't you sent the challenge? Why haven't you ridden forth to recover our brother's body so that it might be buried properly according to ritual? WHY HAVEN'T YOU AVENGED THE MAN WHO SAVED YOUR LIFE?", Xena screamed, her fists coming down full force on the desk top. The strength of her blow was immense and the desk top shattered, the pieces falling away from her brother. Xena reached through the wreckage and picked up the chair her brother released as if his hands were on fire. She smashed the chair against the wall above Toris' head, splintering it beyond repair.

"WHY ARE YOU STILL ALIVE?", she screamed, quickly turning her back on her older brother to keep herself from grabbing him next and killing him where he crouched.

"Daughter?", Xena's mother said quietly from the doorway, having just arrived after hearing the splintering of wood and her daughter's hate filled screams. "Xena, let your brother go. Please."

Suddenly Xena's anger fled and she slumped against the wall nearest the door where her mother stood. Her head pounded as she felt fresh blood running down her neck and back as her wound reopened. Ignoring Toris as he beat a hasty retreat from the room, Xena slowly sank to the floor and curled up, crying softly into her hands. Her mother knelt down beside her and pulled her into a soft embrace.

"Momma, Lyssius is dead.", Xena sobbed into her mother's hair as she returned the older woman's embrace, her voice that of long forgotten childhood. "My beautiful little brother is dead."

"I know. I know.", Xena's mother comforted her, tears streaming down the older woman's face as she too sobbed for her lost son. "We must grieve for his soul. I loved Lyssius dearly. You always love your last born the most. One day you will know how it feels to love a son. I just hope you never have to morn one as I do now. Just remember how much of a delight it was when he was alive. Remember the love he had for you Xena. And grieve."

"Momma, I want to honor Lyssius as a fallen Hero.", Xena told her mother, not feeling the older woman tense in apprehension at her words. "I want to grieve for him in the proper manner as the high families do for their dead. Momma, I need to retrieve his body and kill the man who murdered him. Toris won't do it, so I have to.", she said, looking up into her mother's face for permission. What she saw repulsed her, unexpected as it was. Her mother was not going to agree, she suddenly realized. Her mother was going to oppose even this small request. She was going to refuse the Hero's death ritual Lyssius so richly deserved.

"No, Xena. You can't do this.", her mother told her firmly but tenderly. "Yes, Lyssius was an honorable man and died with valor, but I won't have him remembered as a warrior and certainly not as some Hero. A Hero whose legend might someday lead another son to his death. I won't stand for it."

Though her mother's look had prepared her, though prepared to hear the hurtful words, Xena had still hoped beyond reason that her mother would give her blessing to the request. She threw the older woman from her, raging to her feet to stand over her mother's body like death itself. Her mother sucked in her breath at the look her daughter gave her. Hate, remorse, guilt, and anguish played tag across her daughter's face as Xena looked down at the mother she knew she no longer had.

"You won't allow! You won't stand! You don't want!", Xena said as her voice climbed. "What about your son? What about his naked body hung for crow bait? What about your husband's armor left in the hands of our enemy? HOW CAN YOU BE SO CALM WHILE MY BROTHER REMAINS UNAVENGED?", she yelled into the stricken face of her mother. "If you and that skunk Toris will not help, then I will say the ritual. I will grieve the proper grieving. I WILL AVENGE MY BROTHER'S DEATH!", Xena screamed as she turned and fled the room leaving her mother sobbing on the floor.

Xena ran furiously out of the inn and headed for the tavern. Entering through the kitchen, she slowed long enough to pick up a brazier of old coals and ash. Running back out the door, she headed for the village square unmindful of the crowd of villagers that followed her. As she approached the square she slowed to a walk and then into an even slower gait, beginning the chant for dead Heros she and her brother had memorized long ago.

Reaching the village square, Xena came to a halt and faced the crowd that watched from a safe distance. Her eyes wide open and unfocused, she set the brazier down at her feet. With both hands she scooped up the dead ashes of past fires and returning to her feet raised her hands high above her head, chanting the dirge without pause. Slowly, she let the ash trickle from her hands to fall silently down onto her head and shoulders. Her head pounding with the effort, she chanted louder as the last of the ash fell from her hands, fell to complete the coating that now surrounded her bleeding head wound.

Staggering slightly, she lowered her hands to her face and with sharp finger nails raked furrows of bloody tracks across her tear streaked cheeks. As the blood began to well up and join her tears, coursing down her face to drip at her feet, she moved her hands downwards and ripped the linen blouse from her upper body, pounding her breasts as her chant grew ever louder. Blood seeped from the bruise between her breasts as the remorseless pounding broke the skin. She raked her breasts with taloned fingers, adding to the blood that flowed from her body. The chant became a screech, its words no longer understandable as a racking cough overtook her, driving her to silence with its convulsive impact. Dropping to her knees, she continued trying to complete the chant through the cough which constricted her throat.

Petricles pushed his way through the silent crowd, fighting to reach Xena's side before she did herself irreparable harm. He finally reached her as she passed out under the strain of her grief and collapsed into his arms. "I want to win your heart, my girl, not watch you tear it out yourself.", he told the comatose woman as he carried her from the village square, his broad shoulder protecting her from the stares of the others. He carried her back to Cassy's house where they cleaned her body, dressed her wounds and put her to bed. Petricles kept a quiet vigil by her side throughout the long night.

The next morning, a battered and wounded Xena woke to the sounds of gentle snoring near her painful chest. Looking down she saw Petricles sleeping with his head on her stomach, the remainder of his body kneeling beside the bed. She lay and watched him in silence as his slow breathing rustled the linen sheet covering her body. As the time passed, the weight of his head near her swollen chest became too painful to bear any longer and she gently touched the sleeping man's face.

At the touch of her fingers on his cheek, Petricles opened his eyes to meet the wide blue irises that stared down at him in quiet contemplation. "Good morning.", Xena croaked at him, her mouth dry and painful, as he raised his head off her stomach. "Making a close-in reconnaissance of our battlefield?", she asked him playfully as he abruptly came to a standing position beside the bed.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep like that.", Petricles stammered as he looked downwards into her blue eyes. "I hope, my girl, I didn't hurt you."

"The name's Xena, damn it. Boy, we're going to have to work on your memory.", she laughed quietly at his discomfort. "Sleeping on guard duty? What would the good Borias think, huh my friend?"

"No. Not guard duty. Well - yes it was guard duty.", he replied, sitting down on the bed beside her, putting his hand on her stomach where his head had been. "You quit breathing sometime during the night. I thought you were dead but before I could run get Cassy you began breathing again. I was afraid it might happen again, that I'd not notice until it was too late. So, I knelt by the bed and put my head on your stomach so I could feel your breathing. Guess I fell asleep. Yeah, sounds like sleeping on guard duty to me. What sort of punishment do you recommend?"

"Come closer and I'll tell you.", she croaked as he bent his head toward her face. As he drew close, Xena reached up painfully and pulled his face the rest of the way toward hers. As their lips met, she kissed him tenderly but firmly. Petricles did not flinch when Xena nipped his lower lip, causing blood to well up. Nor was he surprised when he felt her tongue lap away the blood before it could run onto his chin. He opened his eyes and looked down into her blood scarred face as she broke the kiss and drew his head aside to whisper in his ear: "I hope you don't think THIS battle's over yet, my friend." Xena said, releasing his head and gently pushing him away from her body.

"Now tell me what sort of damage I did to myself yesterday.", she asked as he leaned back away from her, a trickle of blood forming at the corner of his mouth. "Oh, and first blood to me.", she said, reaching up to dab the blood from his mouth.

Catching her hand before she could draw back, Petricles brought it up to his lips and kissed the long fingers before licking his blood from them. "You pretty well beat yourself up. Fortunately, none of the beating will be permanent except for one deep cut over your right breast where you really dug in with a finger nail. That's permanent.", he said, releasing her hand and reaching down to draw back the linen sheet and expose her body. "See? Right there.", he said, pointing out the blood scabbed crescent shaped wound. "The marks on your face will go away in a few days. But don't beat your chest anymore. We don't want our battlefield to remain black and blue forever, now do we.", he smiled down at her. "Yes, you spoke that Hero ritual like the furies come to life. Never seen better. Xena, Lyssius would have been proud."

"Thank you, my friend.", she said, reaching back up to caress his chin. "But I'm not through yet. I still have one other task to perform. But first, I have to see a man about a promise."

"Xena, I know what your task is.", he said, reaching up to cover her hand at his chin. "And I'm not prepared to try and talk you out of it. I know I'd never succeed. Therefore, Cassy, Borias, Manus and I have prepared a small band of warriors. There's only a hundred but they're prepared to go with you to retrieve Lyssius' body. We'll leave whenever you're ready."

Suddenly chilled by the prospect of renewed battle, Xena withdrew her hand from his and reached down to pull the linen sheet back up over her naked body. "Thank you. Now you must go, I have to get dressed. No! You can't watch, leave some surprises for the future. Now go.", she told him. But as he prepared to rise from the bed, Xena suddenly reached up and drew his head back down to hers and whispered in his ear: "You've broken the right flank but the battle's not won yet.". Releasing him, she drew the sheet up to her chin and turned toward the wall not wanting to see his face as her last words struck home. Xena lay for sometime before she felt him leave her room in silence.

Xena jogged across the fig grove toward the hidden meadow and her rendezvous. As she approached, she heard the unmistakable clangor of a sword fight. Clearing her sword from its scabbard, Xena slowly walked toward the entrance to the hidden meadow. She had come wearing her leather and bronze armor so was prepared for danger. Yes, there is a fight going on beyond those shrubs, she thought as she paused at the entrance. She listened intently as the clang of sword against sword resounded across the meadow.

Prepared for any eventuality, Xena burst through the entrance ready to help anyone who needed it. What she found was an empty glen and silence. Confused but still on guard, she cautiously walked toward Lyssius' shrine.

"Well hello, my dear.", said an unmistakable voice at her rear.

Startled, Xena nearly dropped her sword in fright as she whirled around to face the voice, her head wound causing her to stagger slightly. "You!", she nearly yelled, facing the dark stranger. "I heard a fight. Was it you?"

"Fight? No, my dear. There wasn't a fight going on anywhere near here.", he told her, moving to stand before her. "You must still be hearing the sounds of the battle of Aphetae."

"No!", Xena exclaimed. "People were fighting, I could hear them crying out and their swords clashing. It was a fight I tell you."

"Well, survivor's guilt is like that I'm afraid.", the dark stranger told her as he reached out to force her blade downwards to her side. "No, Xena. No fight."

"So now I'm guilty. But guilty of what?", she asked, afraid of his response.

"Everything and nothing.", he replied cryptically. "There is no understanding survivor's guilt, and no relief from it."

"Enough of your stupid answers that have three possible interpretations!", Xena scolded him. "That's not why I'm hear. Actually, I came to thank you for your help. We've beaten back the Dorians and now I owe you a favor. Our agreement is complete. Name your price."

"Oh Xena, my dear girl.", he chuckled. "Our agreement is definitely not complete. You haven't beaten the Dorians, not by a longshot."

"What do you mean?", she asked him, confusion in her voice. "We ran them out of the valley. All except the small group they left in Aphetae. We'll be driving THEM out tomorrow. So we've won."

"But what about Kortese? He still lives, does he not?", he asked. "And what of the other bands of Dorians who roam the valleys here about. You haven't even started on them, now have you?"

"Don't worry about Kortese.", she said with confidence. "He gets his tomorrow. You can dine on his grave tomorrow evening for all I care. And what's this about other bands? I never agreed to anything like that."

"Oh, but you did my dear. You did.", he said. "Our agreement was for me to help you prepare to fight the Dorians, not just Kortese."

"I refuse to mince words with you, silly man.", she replied, dismissing his assertion with a wave of her arm. "Ask your price now or not at all. Your choice. Choose!"

"Sorry, my dear.", he said, shaking his head. "But I can't agree. No. I'll ask my price WHEN you've beaten the Dorians. Your words, not mine."

"Suit yourself, silly man.", Xena told him. "Your choice. I've got better things to do this day.", she said as she walked past him toward the entrance to the hidden meadow.

"Oh by the way, I find your warrior outfit quiet becoming, my dear.", he taunted as he watched her leave. "And your Borilus Token, a nice touch I think. Get rid of the bruises though, they spoil your looks.", he laughed at her back as she disappeared through the entrance to the meadow.

Xena was familiar with his taunts by now so she didn't even look back. This time she would calmly walk away from his presence. However, a chill did go down her spine when his laughter caught up with her as she headed home to Amphipolis.

Petricles waited for Xena just outside the village. When she saw him standing there in the early morning sunlight, Xena's heart came alive again. The anger of her argument with the dark stranger suddenly disappeared, replaced by joy at seeing her friend waiting so patiently. Picking up her pace, Xena ran toward the tall young man and threw herself into his arms.

Petricles was startled by her action and staggered backwards at the impact and embrace of Xena's body. "Hold on, my girl. What's this?", Petricles said, looking down into Xena's blue eyes as they hugged. "You're white as a ghost. It's not your head wound is it?", he continued, his voice filled with concern.

"Oh Petricles, just hold me. Don't talk, just hold me.", Xena told him, laying her head on his shoulder.

"Ok.", he said, his arms tightening the embrace. "Xena, you should introduce me to this mysterious man you keep seeing. You always return upset whenever you go out to that meadow. I wish you'd let me go with you."

"No!", she replied. "No. Petricles, I don't need help, but I appreciate your offer. I'll be all right. My mystery man has been a real help, besides, after today I don't think I'll be seeing much of him anymore.", she said as she broke their embrace and the two began walking back to the village.

"As you say, my girl.", he replied, taking her hand in his as they walked. "Oh, Cassy wanted me to remind you she's got something for you. She wouldn't tell me what it was, said it would be a surprise."

"Yes my friend, you will be surprised when you see it.", she told him as they entered the village hand in hand. "What about the others? Are they prepared for our little outing tomorrow?"

"Yes they are." Petricles replied. "Borias and Manus have everything in order. They'll each lead fifty men, yours and mine. That'll give us thirty-five riders and the rest as infantry equally split between the sword and the spear. And the women who have decided to join us, they'll be a welcomed addition to our strength. Xena, we're prepared whenever you are."

"Good.", she said. "We leave at first light. Now, I've got to go see Cassy about this surprise. She'll come get you when we're ready. OK?"

"All right, I'll go make arrangements for tomorrow.", he told her. "See you later.", he said, bending down to kiss her lightly on her still scarred cheek.

Xena's body tingled as she felt his light kiss. This is his first public show of affection, she thought as she felt a blush coming over her face. She reached up to feel the scars on her cheeks as she watched him depart. Her face was still slightly swollen from the death ritual and her eyes were both solid black and blue. I must look a fright, she thought as she turned to walk toward Cassy's home. The blush didn't help matters any, her face looked ready to explode under the various shades of color that ran together into one great blue and black and red hued mass. Xena began to jog slowly toward her destination as she saw Cassy at the front door waving an early morning greeting to her approaching friend.

Some time later, Xena and Cassy finished their project. Cassy stood back from her friend and surveyed the results. "Girl, you look devastating and I mean that in the literal sense. You look as deadly as Lyssius did.", Cassy told her as they watched Xena's reflection in the polished metal mirror that adorned Cassy's dressing room.

"Yeah I do, don't I.", Xena said, slowly turning round and round to view Cassy's creation from every possible angle. "I think this should put a stamp on our fight tomorrow, don't you think."

"If Kortese is not impressed then these Dorians are dumber than they've led us to believe so far.", Cassy replied. "Here, let me touch up your face powder. I've disguised most of the bruises and scars, but I need to add a bit of color.", she said, moving to apply some colored face powder to Xena's ravaged face.

"Cassy, I'm not going to a dance.", Xena laughed as she bent forward to allow her friend to complete the task of making her more presentable. "Unless it's a death dance."

"Well, that's about all I can do in the looks department.", Cassy said as she finished applying the face powder and rose to stand beside her friend. "Should I go get Petricles?"

"Yeah, guess so. He's probably lurking outside.", Xena said. "He does that very well - lurk that is. Yeah, go get him." She remained standing before the metal mirror as Cassy left to find Petricles. I do look like Lyssius, she thought. I never really considered how much we looked alike, especially now, all dressed up like this. Xena became nervous as she thought about what Petricles would think. Fidgeting, she was startled when Cassy quietly reentered the room after returning from her errand.

"You were right, Xena.", Cassy giggled as she closed the door. "He was around front."

"I figured as much.", replied Xena, her nervousness growing more evident.

"Stop fidgeting, Xena.", said Cassy. "You don't want him to think you're scared, do you?"

"No. He'll not think that.", Xena replied as she fought against her nervousness. "I think he knows me better than that by now. It's just that I don't really understand our relationship.", she sighed, walking over to the chair and sitting down. "I really think I love him, but he can be such a pig sometimes. You know what I mean?"

"Yes I do.", Cassy replied as she stood before her sitting friend. "I was very lucky with Argus. He never treated me the way most men treat their wives and lovers. He was very kind and always treated me as a partner and friend, never as a toy. I'm afraid my little girl is going to grow up without a father since I don't think I can replace Argus. He was one of a kind."

"Yes he was.", Xena replied. "But I just don't know about Petricles. Oh, he treats me as an equal, I've given him no other choice in the matter. But, I don't know what his feelings are. He's affectionate enough, and romantic at times, but he's never told me how he feels, what he finds attractive about me. I guess that'll be left for the future."

"After he sees you in this outfit, you just tell him to either declare his intention or you'll fight him in single combat.", Cassy told her. "He'll come around, I promise. Now, are you ready for Petricles?"

"Yeah, bring him in.", Xena replied, standing up and walking toward the center of the room to stand facing the door.

Petricles was cooling his heals outside in the hallway. He jumped when Cassy startled him out of his daydream as she opened the door and motioned for him to enter. Petricles entered the room only to be struck dumb at the figure which stood before him. He stood in slack jawed awe as it dawned on him what it was he was seeing, the first man to ever see a woman dressed in the high armor of a full-fledged Achaean Hero.

Xena stood tall before her friend, her man's height giving her a regal stature. Her already broad shoulders were made broader by the pauldrons of white leather and worked tin filigree. Her fore arms were protected by tin arm guards extending down to her upper hands. The gorget about her throat and neck was made of scarlet dyed leather, the front embossed with copper figures.

Beneath the red throat guard, she wore a most impressive leather and bronze cuirass, or breast plate as she would call it. The cuirass was made of highly polished white leather inlaid with bronze strips around the stomach and ribs. The white leather and bronze had been polished such that when the light hit it her head appeared disembodied, riding above the brilliant reflection. At the center of the white cuirass was a worked copper plate engraved with the bow and running dear of the huntress. Above the running dear was engraved the word: AVENGER.

Beneath the cuirass, she wore a scarlet and white leather skirt. The leather and linen combination went to her mid- thighs, the leather worked into the linen in strips. The skirt was split on all four sides to allow for ease of movement. Copper studs completed the arrangement, the studs being worked into the leather and highly polished.

A wide black leather belt surrounded her slim waist, a copper and tin frog holding her iron sword and bronze hunting dagger tightly to her sides. Around her lower legs she wore leather and copper greaves that went down to touch her hard leather half-boots.

As He looked her up and down, Petricles saw that she wore one of his men's leather helmet. The helmet had been dyed white, to match the rest of her armor, but had the addition of a horse hair crest of worked copper. The plume of black horse hair reached downwards to the middle of her back.

"Close your mouth, my friend. I don't want 'dead bug' on your breath the next time we kiss.", Xena said, startling him out of his silent appraisal. "Cassy, I do believe this is the first time I've found him speechless.", Xena chuckled.

"Xena, I don't know what to say.", Petricles said in open admiration of the deadly woman before him. "You look...I can't tell you.... I'm speechless."

"That's obvious, my friend.", she said as she walked over to take his hand. "Just tell me I look deadly. Deadly and beautiful. And thank you for calling me by my given name for once."

"Ok, you look deadly.", he replied, not noticing her wince at his seeming refusal to tell her she was beautiful. "I guess you're ready for tomorrow's battle. The Dorians will be impressed. But you've made it obvious you're a woman, the cuirass makes it impossible to see you as anything else. Aren't you worried that this Kortese will refuse to fight a woman in single combat?"

"Don't worry, my friend, the fact that I'm a woman will make him think he's got an easy conquest.", she told him. "And if not, I think I can shame him into fighting or he'll appear to be running from a mere girl. No, he'll fight."

"I hope you're right.", Petricles replied. "All right, are you ready for a little sword practice? You need to get used to your new armor. I think Borias can oblige you with enough practice so that you'll know all of the kinks. What do you say?"

"Ok sure, Borias and I can see how this armor plays in a sword fight.", Xena said. "Cassy, can you watch and help make changes as needed?"

"I don't think we'll need to make any, but yeah, I can help out.", Cassy told her friend. "I'll get my tools and meet you and Borias at the inn."

"All right, let's be at it!", Xena exclaimed to her friends as they left Cassy's dressing room for the practice fields outside of town.

Chapter 6

Xena sat her white horse in silence as she observed the village of Aphetae in the valley below. The sparse early morning mist did nothing to obscure her view of the Dorian infantry formed up before the village. It also offered no impedance to her view of the sight which brought chills to her body. There before the village, just behind the last rank of Doric infantry, hung the badly bloated body of her brother Lyssius.

Even from this distance, Xena could tell that her brother's body had been mutilated and the sight warmed the chill until it boiled her blood in mingled hate and remorse. She could see that Lyssius' dead eyes had been gouged out, that his long blond hair had been shorn from his head and burned at his feet. His face was all but unrecognizable, the carrion crows had seen to that during the days following the battle of Aphetae. His distended stomach was stretched to near bursting. You look a fright, my sweat Lyssius, she thought. Don't worry little brother, the men who did this to you will not live out the day - this I swear. She tore her eyes from her brother's body, turning her horse she returned to the command group.

Xena dismounted as she came upon the assembled men and woman who stood at the top of Lyssius' hill. Petricles, Manus, Borias, and Cassy gathered around her as she approached. Behind the command group, her army was drawn up on the skyline. In the center, the spearmen had formed their traditional wall of spears. The swordsmen, carrying their crossbows strapped to their back, held their place on the flanks of the spearwall. The mounted men were drawn up on the right flank, as solid mass of man and horse ready to strike in any direction. On the left flank, a small body of twenty-five women auxiliary stood in loose formation.

"All right, how do we play this?", Xena asked her lieutenants as she removed her helmet. "Petricles?"

"Be direct. Just ride out and challenge Kortese to single combat.", Petricles told her. "They'll understand the gesture. I don't know if they have the same ritual, but I suspect they do. Borias?"

"Xena, meet them just as Petricles said.", Borias offered. "Don't give them a chance otherwise. You control the challenge, they'll have to reply. I don't think they want to fight a woman but if you just ride down there and issue your threat, they'll have to respond in kind. Their manhood would be sullied otherwise."

"Got it.", Xena said. "Cassy, I want you to accompany me. Let's make this an all female affair, shall we."

"Right.", responded Cassy, a look of malice and revenge glowing in her eyes. "Manus can take command of the women. He did a good job the last time and my girls like him. Your cute, Manus.", she said, turning to smile at the blushing Manus.

"Thanks Cassy.", Manus said as he returned her smile. "I think they're cute too. And deadly! I would be honored to command the women again."

"That being settled, Borias you command the center and Petricles you command the horse.", Xena ordered. "If they attack, let them. We'll fight this battle, if it comes to that, just as Lyssius did. Petricles, take your horse back downhill and attack as you see fit, but don't let them know where you're at until you engage. Borias, let them come to you while Manus, you and your women hassle the flanks as they approach. Cassy, you take command of the swordsmen if a fight breaks out. I don't think they'll mind being commanded by you. Let's keep it simple.", she finished as she rose and replaced her helmet, lacing it tightly under her chin.

"No. They won't.", Cassy replied, flexing her hugh biceps to emphasize that any man who did would only dispute her commands once.

"To your places, then!", Xena commanded, turning to mount her horse. "Cassy, when you're ready."

Xena spurred her horse into a canter as she headed downhill toward the Dorian infantry, Cassy jogging effortlessly beside her. Xena reined in a respectful distance from the enemy, just out of spear range, and stood in the saddle turning so that her womanhood would be apparent. She stood, looking at the enemy gawk, as it became obvious she was a woman. A low rumble broke out from the Dorians as the impact of her actions hit home. Xena swiftly drew her sword and began her challenge.

"Men of Doria. I, Xena, sister to the murdered Lyssius who hangs in death behind you, issue a blood challenge to your commander. Come forth and meet Lyssius' Champion in single combat. TO THE DEATH!", Xena challenged, her strong voice echoing in the morning mist.

As she stood in the saddle her sword raised high, Xena saw the ranks of infantry before her give way as a tall arrogant man strode forth, his mask of bright silver reflecting the sunlight spilling from behind her. He slowly walked to within several paces of her and stopped, looking her and her friend up and down in silent appraisal.

"What DO we have here?", Kortese said in mocking tones. "A greek girl made up to be an Achaean Hero? So, it was your brother whom we killed last week. I had wondered, but then I saw you that day trying to get to his side. You're lucky someone stopped you.", he mocked. "Go home girl!"

"What's the matter Dorian? Or should I say Kortese?", she mocked in return, drawing out his name into a hissing curse. "Can't your manhood stand the test of a woman? Are you afraid of this greek girl who stands before you and calls you eunuch? Are you afraid she'll do with your manhood as you did to her brother's? STAND AND FIGHT KORTESE!", she screamed her challenge.

"No. I'm not afraid of you girl.", he replied, his angry laugh breaking out with his words. "And your taunts mean nothing to me. However, I will grant your challenge but only as a Champion. You see, I understand your greek customs. Yes, my Champion will meet with you in single combat, not I. You are your brother's Champion so it is only fitting that my Champion meets his. I do this not for your sake, girl, but for your brother's. Yes, I honor this Lyssius of yours. He fought well for an Achaean. KORDUN!"

"Yes, my Lord!", replied Kordun from the ranks beyond the two figures locked in verbal combat.

"Send for Kalis!", commanded Kortese as his second in command left to do his bidding.

"You shall meet Kalis and when he's killed you we will strip your body and hang it for crow bait there beside your brother's stinking carcass.", Kortese told her, surprised that his threat had no impact on the silent woman before him. "We will melt down your armor and make spoons and forks from the molten metal. That will be the commemoration of your death. To provide eating utensils for your enemy.", he laughed as he turned his back on her and walked back toward his infantry.

Xena's rage and hate had distilled into a solid rock of determination as his taunts and words flowed over her silent form. Watching for betrayal and a spear, Xena slowly dismounted and stood beside Cassy to await the arrival of this Dorian, this Kalis. She did not have to wait for long. Slowly, like death come to dinner, the Dorian ranks moved aside as their Champion made his way through the infantry to stand downhill from Xena.

Even at a spear's distance, Xena could see the Dorian was hugh. A small giant, he would stand head and shoulders over her tall body. His shoulders were massive and cast broad shadows, his pauldrons standing out like wings. The iron cuirass he wore caught the sun and reflected it back at her in a brilliant shimmer. His unprotected legs were as impressive as his shoulders, the muscles standing out in high relief as he stood his ground in silence. For weapons, Kalis carried only a long two handed iron sword, no dagger or other weapon adorned his wide sword belt. All in all, a very impressive warrior.

And a quite confident warrior, she thought as she tried to quench the rising fear that rose from the pit of her stomach. Kortese was big enough but this man was far her superior in both strength and reach. No matter, she thought, challenge given and returned. If I die today, little brother, I do so for you, she thought as she brought her sword up and drew her hunting dagger before striding downhill toward her fate.

"So, this is all the dirty greeks can dish up?", mocked Kalis as Xena stopped to stand just out of sword reach. "If it is death you want this day, little girl, then death it is!", he yelled as he quickly advanced toward her, bringing his sword up to strike.

Xena danced sideways and brought her own sword up to meet his. Iron clanged against iron as the swords met over her left shoulder. Xena saw a look of confusion come over her opponent's face as he realized she carried an iron sword. Jumping back out of reach, Xena began turning into the tall man's off sword side, her dagger down at her left side for thrusting while her sword held steady at high guard.

Again the Dorian struck a bow at her left side, her sword coming up to meet his at shoulder height. The force of his blow smashed her sword downward, downward against her left arm breaking open the tin arm guard. Pain lanced through her as the iron blade opened a deep wound in her left fore arm. Xena dropped her dagger as the hand went nerveless. Dancing backwards, she managed to avoid his next blow.

Xena resumed her circling, blood dripping freely from her broken left arm. Warily, she searched for an opening. Then it came, their spiral had brought the sun behind her and in a flash her copper medallion reflected the word AVENGER into his wide opened eyes. Dazzled by the reflection, Kalis was momentarily blinded. Xena took her chance and leapt forward to within a pace of his front, driving her sword into his left leg at mid-thigh.

Dancing backwards once more, Xena was rewarded as the man fell to one knee, blood spurting from the deep wound in his leg. Howling in rage, Kalis launched himself at the woman to his front. The impact of his body threw Xena backwards and she stumbled, falling on her back as the Dorian swung his sword up for the final blow.

The blow hit empty ground, the sword buried to half blade by the force of the impact. Xena continued her roll and came back to her feet, lancing the man's right calf deeply with her sword as Kalis fought furiously to free his. Finally, Kalis freed his sword and swung to meet Xena as she struck again at his unprotected legs.

Unprepared, his swing caught Xena in the helmet, severing the horse hair crest and forcing the helmet up across her cheeks. Fighting to right the helmet and unable to see, Xena was again knocked to the ground as Kalis shouldered her with great force. This time his follow-on strike was quicker. Xena brought her sword up to meet the downward slashing iron. As before the force of the blow drove her own sword against her armor, this time against her stomach. The bronze armor split and a large gash opened along her finely muscled stomach. The pain stunned her but she rolled nonetheless, dodging Kalis' next blow.

Regaining her feet, Xena staggered out of reach as Kalis momentarily slowed to catch his breath. Covered in blood, both his and hers, Xena stood her ground. The pain of her broken left arm made her nauseous but she fought it off as she watched for Kalis' next move.

Kalis was also in great pain. His numerous leg wounds were bleeding freely and both legs quivered as if each would give out at any moment. He was no longer confident of a quick and easy victory.

The two blood-soaked warriors stood and watched each other, their labored breathing like bellows at the forge. Suddenly, Xena ran forward and vaulted over the stunned man, striking at his upper spine as she cleared his body. The iron of his cuirass did not give under the heavy blow but he was staggered and fell to his knees with the force of the blow. Xena whirled and slashed sideways, catching Kalis across the buttocks with a deep cut, slicing off several of the leather pieces which dangled from his sword belt. Blood spurted as Kalis bellowed in pain and jumped to his feet, slashing around at waist level in an attempt to catch her off guard.

Kalis' slash met empty air as Xena danced around his blind side. She stooped to retrieve her dagger and pushed it into her belt as she circled around to Kalis' front. Kalis was a mass of blood-soaked humanity from the legs down. The pain of his wounds was obvious on his weather-beaten face.

Xena was caught completely off guard as the wounded man jumped right at her, his bulk driving into her and they went down together, he on top. Stunned and breathless, Xena saw the unarmed fist as it drove into her helmet just above her eye brows. The impact brought brilliant stars to her eyes and she was momentarily blinded by the force of the blow.

With an effort few would credit, the young woman fought her blinding pain and confusion. Grabbing her dagger with her broken left arm, Xena thrust it into Kalis' groin and twisted. Blood flowed down her arm as the hugh man rolled off her in screaming agony, the dagger going with him as the blade was captured by spasming muscles.

They lay there side by side, in stunned pain, neither able for the moment to pursue an advantage against the other. Sitting up, Xena fought for breath as her already swollen and sore chest was again assaulted. She had felt two ribs break as the man landed on her and her breasts felt as if on fire. Her recent head wound had reopened and she felt dizzy as the blood flowed freely down her neck and back.

Her left arm was now more than useless, that last thrust turning the break into a compound fracture. Grunting against the pain, she pulled her left hand up and thrust it through her sword belt, the pink bones of her fore arm sticking out. Getting to her knees, she used her sword to steady herself to her feet. Panting, she faced Kalis once more, her sword held high.

But before her stood a man so bloody his armor no longer reflected the sun. Kalis wobbled on his injured legs, holding his bleeding groin, his sword forgotten at his feet. He eyed her warily, knowing that she had him if she moved fast enough. But she just stood there, six paces to his front and stared, stared with those piercing blue eyes.

Then, he saw the blood begin to flow down from under her helmet, down from the top of her head. He watched as the blood made wide runnels across her scarred face. Still, she did not act. Warily, Kalis reached out and retrieved his sword. But still she stood immobile, staring at him in a bloody haze. His moment came, the bloody runnels met her eyes and her stare was broken. Kalis launched his pain racked body at hers in one final assault. He hit her low and drove her to the ground once again.

Xena, not prepared for the blinding sting of the salty blood as it dripped into her eyes, was distracted for one fatal moment, and it cost her. As she hit the ground under Kalis' combined weight and the force of his charge, Xena heard her lower spine snap under the impact with the rocks and hard ground. She screamed in agony as she watched his hammer like fist draw back for the final blow, the blow that would crush her skull and end her life.

"Please dear Artemis, give me strength to avenge my brother's death.", Xena cried out in her mind. Looking upwards into his rage maddened eyes, she saw her death approach as the gory Champion launched his fist toward her helmeted skull.

With a soul searing tingle, Xena felt her mind suddenly leave her body and speed from the scene of battle, from the scene of her approaching death. Suddenly, a form coalesced in front of her. The white mist soon revealed a well-remembered male form.

"Not Artemis, my dear, just yours truly - Ares, God of War.", said the tale dark stranger from the meadow.

Xena squeaked in fright as the dark stranger approached her slumped body. Looking down, she saw her body as it would appear to the man before her. Blood-soaked and in intense pain, her body was a wreck. Her left arm was now dislocated and literally hung from her body, her wrist no longer held tightly by her belt. Her armor lay in tatters, the white leather now pink from the blood smeared across it. She couldn't move her legs so she supported her upper body with her sword arm, the sword not having arrived with her in this strange place.

"Not a pretty sight, my dear.", Ares said as he circled her, inspecting the ravages of her battle with Kalis. "But you were masterful. Yes, concentrating on his legs was a stroke of genius, my dear. You just might have been able to take him.", he laughed as Xena tried to follow his circling, the mangled helmet continuing to get in her way.

"Ares!?", Xena croaked in confusion, her throat dry as she recognized who stood before her. "But you are my mentor. You can't be Ares. He's a god."

"I am and I am.", he replied as he stopped his circling. "I am your mentor and I am Ares. As I once told you, you are my scourge. My scourge of the Dorians. My strength reborn."

"I'm no scourge now.", she croaked, the irony making her wince in pain as her left arm was jolted by her attempt at laughter. "You 're a cold hearted bastard. Why me? You said you'd tell me when the time was right. Well this has to be the right time. TELL ME!", she screamed, almost passing out from the pain.

"Yes, my dear, the time is right.", he replied. "Xena, you are my creation. But I only work with what's provided, I don't add. I take your need and mold it with mine. It is time that my land, my Achaea, had a woman Hero. The men have grown soft. They've pranced off after beauty, left my lands unprotected. Since they chase beauty in Illium, I'll give Achaea a beauty to take their place. A beauty to become the scourge, my scourge of the Dorians."

"But I don't want to be your scourge!", Xena exclaimed, tears of anguish replacing those of pain. "I just want to avenge Lyssius and go back to being myself again. I want to grow old with my grandchildren at my side."

"No, Xena. You don't really want that future. I can see it in your heart.", he told her. "Besides, we have an agreement, you and I. It's time to pay up."

"But I was losing. I'm dead back there in the real world.", she said. "And where are we anyway?"

"Everywhere and nowhere.", he replied, laughing as she cursed his ambiguity. "No, Xena, you can still win. If you agree to be my scourge I'll agree to see that you beat our overmuscled friend down there. But our agreement is binding until the Dorians, all the Dorians, are driven from my lands. Agree?"

"But, I can't agree to something like that.", she replied. "I ....".

"CHOOSE XENA! Choose life or choose death, it's your choice.", Ares demanded.

"And if I choose death?", Xena asked quietly.

"Then dead you'll be. But I can assure you, your death will be neither pleasant nor quick.", he told her.

"Then I choose death!", Xena chose, her voice a husky whisper. "At least I can be with my brother once more."

"Ah, but there's the irony, my dear. Xena, your future is not yet written. It lies unknown, waiting for the outcome of this battle. That being said, there is no assurance that you will be with Lyssius on the other side. You may, but then you may not. Quite a dilemma, isn't it my dear?", Ares told her.

"Then I choose life AND DAMN YOU FOR ALL ETERNITY ARES.", she screamed, her voice rising as she felt her mind return to her body, returned to the battle for her very life. Ares' laughter followed her as did his words of parting: "What's eternity to a God?"

Xena was startled to find herself back at the beginning, at the start of her fight to the death. She stood a sword's length from the Dorian Champion unwounded. She felt added strength cursing through her body as if each individual muscle had suddenly been excited all at once. As if in a dream, Xena watched Kalis make his opening move, a move she parried with ease.

Circling the tall man's off sword side, Xena drew back her left hand, to ready her dagger for throwing. She was not about to give him a chance to close on her this time. As her hand went back to throw, it came into contact with a metal object lashed to her belt. Looking down quickly, Xena found the chakrum hooked to her belt. At least I can thank you for this Ares, she thought as she re-sheathed her dagger and drew the chakrum.

Kalis had been watching the tall woman to his front. As she looked down at her belt, he launched himself forward, his sword held high for a downward slash. His sword clashed with hers as he swept her feet out from under her and followed up with a kick to her side as she rolled away from his legs.

Xena regained her feet with ease, the pain this time was almost nonexistent. Immediately, she went on the attack and their swords met as strike after strike was driven home. Kalis became worried as the woman continued her assault, she was not tiring as he expected nor was her strength as puny as he had hoped. No, this woman was as strong as he was, and as good with a sword. Staggering under her relentless attack, Kalis back peddled to put distance between the two.

Xena continued her assault, her iron sword throwing brilliant bolts of reflected sunlight with each strike. She had her large opponent on the run as she watched him move backwards out of striking distance. Once again, however, she was caught off guard as the man launched a frantic leap to land at her side. Xena stumbled as Kalis shouldered her in the chest. As she tried to regain her balance, Kalis swept her feet out from under and again she faced him from the ground.

This time she continued her survival roll until she had put some distance between them. She quickly realized that Kalis' phenomenal speed would always be her disadvantage, that he could always beat her to the ground where his strength would quickly kill her. Bounding to her feet, Xena swung back her left arm and flung the chakrum at Kalis as he advanced toward her. The round weapon hit him just above his gorget, severing his windpipe and the major artery. Blood fountained as a look of stunned disbelief swept over Kalis' flushed face. The tall Dorian spasmed once before falling dead at her feet. Panting, Xena held out her left hand and the chakrum returned to its mistress as if by magic.

Groans of horror and cheers of victory met her ears as she bent over the dead Champion, wiping the blood from the chakrum with his tunic sleeve. Turning, Xena watched as Borias and Petricles led her men and women in a fierce charge downhill against the Dorian infantry. The Dorians, their morale shattered with Kalis' death, could not stand against the charge. As it struck home, they broke and ran. As the battle swirled around her, Xena spied a masked man rapidly leaving the battleground on a fast horse. So much for Kortese, she thought as she turned to meet Petricles who had ridden to her side.

"By the high God Zeus himself, you were magnificent Xena.", Petricles said as he jumped from his horse and embraced the exhausted woman. "The most brilliant display of fighting skills I've ever seen. No wonder I love you so much, Xena.", he told her as he kissed her forehead.

He only loves me when there's a battle going on, she thought ruefully as she returned his embrace. Reaching up, she captured his face and kissed him full on the lips.

"Manus, get the cold water. I think we'll need it to break these two apart.", Cassy laughed as she approached the pair, Manus at her side.

Xena and Petricles jumped out of their embrace as they heard the laughter of their friends. "I think I deserve a kiss after what I just did.", Xena told Cassy as she hugged the blond woman to her armored chest. "Manus, what of the battle?", she asked as she released Cassy and grasped Manus' arm in greeting.

"The good Borias leads our men and women to victory as we speak.", Manus told her, returning her grasp of friendship.

"Enough of this, you people get back to your commands.", Xena ordered with a smile on her face. "Get everybody rounded up. Don't pursue the Dorians. They're beaten enough and we don't want our people to be caught in any rearguard ambush. Now go, you two."

As her two subordinate commanders returned to their men and women, Petricles put his arm back around Xena's shoulder. "Are you up for this?", he asked her softly. "I can do it if you'd like."

"No my friend, I can handle it. Let's do it.", Xena told him as they turned to the task of cutting Lyssius' body down from where it hung, turning slowly in the freshening morning breeze.

You really are a mess little brother, she thought as she helped Petricles slowly lower the body to the ground. The stench of death was strong in her nostrils but it didn't seem to bother her much. Even your death smell is sweat to me little brother, she thought, keeping a tight control on her stomach. She blanched a deadly white as she saw the extent to which the Dorians had mutilated his once handsome body. No hands, no feet, no eyes, no - they gelded you didn't they my poor lovely little brother, she thought as the anguish overcame her and she fled into Petricles' arms, softly crying into his chest.

Petricles held her tightly as Xena was racked by deep sobs of grief. They stood together for sometime until finally Xena regained her composure. Releasing Petricles, she walked back to where her horse still waited patiently and removed a sheet from her saddlebags. Together, they rolled the dead man's body into the sheet and tied it to a discarded spear. Picking up the ends ,they carried Lyssius' remains from the field of battle outside Aphetae. Finally, the last casualty of the battle was leaving the field.

Chapter 7

Xena stood quietly in the afternoon sunlight staring down at Lyssius' shrine. The birds were quiet, as if afraid to break the young woman's reverie. She would never again come back to this place, never return to hear the ghostly laughter of her and Lyssius at practice. No, she would go from this place and only visit it in her memories. Memories of Lyssius as he was - as a boy, as a man, and as a gallant warrior. Memories she would cherish till the end of time, cherish beyond death itself. Turning to leave, she suddenly felt eyes on the back of her neck. Turning to meet the dark stranger, she sneered: "Ares. I wondered when you'd show up."

"I just came to pay my respects, my dear.", Ares said gallantly, moving to her side. "Your brother was quite a warrior, wasn't he."

"Yes he was.", Xena replied, looking back at the shrine.

"Hades will judge him as he rightly deserves. Never fear for your brother's soul, Xena. Lyssius is in his rightful place.", Ares assured her.

"You would know that better than I.", she told him, shuddering slightly at his reference to the other side.

"Anyway my dear, I've come to tell you what a wonderful choice I think you've made. I think we'll get along nicely. Don't you?", Ares said lightly.

"You lied to me.", Xena said in a near whisper. "You enchanted me with your glib tongue.", she said looking up at him.

"No, my dear. I never lied to you nor did I deceive you.", Ares replied evenly. "Our agreement was set strictly to your guidelines. There was no deception on my part."

"But you told me you were a soldier, a mercenary like Petricles.", Xena said.

"That was not a lie, my dear. I once was a soldier.", Ares told her. "Even Gods have to have on-the-job training. No, I was once a soldier. Xena, you set the rules of this exchange. I agreed to IF you win. You agreed to WHEN you beat the Dorians."

"But I don't see the distinction between the two. IF. WHEN. Where's the difference?", she asked, in confusion.

"The difference, my dear, is that IF implies the act of winning was up to you and you alone.", Ares told her. "WHEN allows an opening for others to act on your behalf. After all, you did call out at the last for the Gods. I gave you what you wanted."

"I called out for Artemis, not you Ares.", she hissed.

"Yes, I do admit I jumped in front of her and appeared first.", Ares agreed. "But that fact is neither a lie nor a subterfuge. No, I gave you exactly what you desired most - revenge.", he said drawing out his last word for emphasis.

"I don't want revenge, Ares. I want justice!", Xena exclaimed. "Justice for my people! Justice for Lyssius!"

"No Xena, you were not motivated by justice.", Ares told her. "You were motivated by dreams of glory, dreams of becoming a hero. No. You didn't want justice, you desired the destruction of those who had invaded your land and hurt your people. That, my dear, is revenge not justice. No, I simply offered you a way to become more than just a simple village girl, to become something larger than life. And you my dear, jumped at the chance, though I will admit you fought the urge at first."

"Then I have damned myself.", she replied wearily.

"Not damned, just reinvented.", he replied.

"Same thing to me.", Xena said, no longer wanting to argue the point with him. "Damned or reinvented, I've lost what I once was. I've lost my innocence and my brother."

"Oh my dear, you lost your innocence long before we ever met.", Ares told her. "You lost it the day you killed your first man. After that, everything just fell into place. You are now my scourge of the Dorians."

"As I said, I'm damned.", Xena told him.

"You know my dear, you really should be more exact when you agree to something.", Ares said equitably. "You really should."

"Ares, you're a cold hearted bastard.", Xena told him, her eyes full of hate.

"No Xena, I am a God.", Ares replied, disappearing as quietly as he had appeared.

Xena sighed and began walking back toward Amphipolis, turning to take one last look at Lyssius' shrine. A sudden wind whipped the branches of the nearby oak trees. The rustling seemed to say to her: 'Remember our agreement, my dear. Until the Dorians are destroyed, you belong to me'. Chilled by the haunting sounds of the wind, Xena began running furiously toward Amphipolis. Toward an unknown future and an unwelcome fate.

As she rounded the last house and ran toward the Tavern's rear door, Xena spied her Mother standing at the doorway. Artemis give me strength, she thought as she slowed and walked up to her mother. I really don't need this on top of having just played mind games with a God, she thought as she greeted her mother.

"Hello Mother.", Xena greeted the older woman, trying to slip by into the Tavern.

"Xena. Daughter, we have to talk.", her mother said, gently stopping Xena with an arm across the doorway.

"And what would we speak of, huh. What could we possibly have to say to each other, mother?", Xena said, her voice showing her exasperation with the situation.

"Daughter, you know you must leave.", her mother informed her. "And you need to leave soon. It is your fault Lyssius is dead, your fault Xena. That is what we have to speak about, daughter."

"Please mother, don't start on me again. Please.", Xena pleaded, her voice weary with the effort.

"Your ideas killed your brother, talked him into becoming one of those heros you always read about.", her mother said vehemently.

"I know it was my fault Lyssius died.", Xena told the older woman. "And I'll have to live with his death on my conscience for the rest of my life. But at least we made a difference, struck a blow for the greater good. No matter what my fate is, no matter how much pain Lyssius' death gives me, I'd do it all again if necessary.", Xena said with finality.

"Daughter, leave when those mercenaries do. Be gone by day after tomorrow. This village is not your home any longer and these are no longer your people. Go to your bloody God. Go!", her mother told her.

Xena stood aside as her mother fled back indoors. Yes mother, she thought to herself as she entered the tavern and walked toward her room, I'm going to my bloody God. Between you and Ares, I have no choice, she thought, entering her room and quietly closing the door.

The festivities went on far into the night. The village out did itself in its collective joy at being freed from the threat of Kortese and his IRON MEN. Xena, of course, was at the center of this festive occasion, seeing how she was primarily responsible for it. She drank her fill of wine and ale as Petricles' men and those villagers who had fought along side her at the last drank toast after toast to their new hero. The bards WOULD tell the story of The Two Against Doria, Lyssius would not be forgotten. Xena laughed uproariously at the many variations of the tale already in circulation. Yes, her brother would not be forgotten, he was now a full-fledged Achaean Hero. And so, it seemed, was she.

That sense of the moment which had possessed her, which had led her to drink far more than normal, finally caught up with Xena during the middle hours. Her head hanging down, she was rescued by a still sober Cassy and little Flora. Her two friends helped her disengaged herself from the rowdy crowd of drunk and near drunk men, hustling her out into the cool autumn night. Helping her to steady herself, they walked her to the village fountain, there to sit under a sky full of brilliant stars.

"Thanks, guys.", Xena told them. "I was trying to find a way out of that bunch but couldn't quite come up with it. Thanks."

"You needed rescuing. Girl, you're drunk!", replied Cassy, helping her friend remain in a sitting position and not a wet one in the fountain.

"Yeah. Guess I am at that.", Xena said as her head spun. "And you, Flora. You should be home in bed. You run along girl before your mother gets after me for corrupting you too."

"It's all right. Momma and my father are at the party. They'll never notice I'm still out. Please Xena, let me stay.", asked a hopeful Flora. It is so hard having grown-up friends, she thought, they always think they can boss you around. "No, I want to stay here with you and Cassy. Besides, I have something for you, Xena."

"No, Flora. You have to go home.", Cassy told her firmly. "I should have taken you home sometime ago. You go on home. Xena and I have to talk."

"I promise to come and see you tomorrow.", Xena told a resigned Flora.

"Oh, all right! But you guys are awful!", replied Flora, rising to her feet to stand before her two older friends. "But Xena, you have to come see me. I really have something for you. Ok?"

"Yes. I promise. Now go, you scamp.", replied Xena as she and Cassy gave the younger girl a hug before watching her disappear in the starlight, back toward the tavern and her family.

"Cassy, I'm leaving with Petricles.", Xena told her oldest friend, looking up into Cassy's face, suddenly very sober.

"I know.", Cassy replied, reaching up to place a reassuring hand on Xena's shoulder.

"Petricles gave me command of those caravan guards who decided to join his mercenaries.", Xena said, looking off into the dark night, her eyes glistening in the starlight. "And, some of the village men have decided to come along as well. I'll bring as many men to his band as remains of his original fifty. I'll be more than his second, we'll have a sort of joint command."

"I wish I could persuade you not to leave.", Cassy said.

"No. I've got to go, no matter how much I would like to stay.", Xena replied. "Mother has practically disowned me and the two of us in the same village would be a disaster. Besides, there's still the matter of tracking down Kortese. And defeating all of the other Dorian bands here about. No, my defeat of their Champion destroyed any hope that I could ever go back to being just a village girl. With Lyssius dead, I'm the new Hero. I'm the protector. Gods but I wish I still played with dolls.", she said, her face filled with sorrow.

"I've still got mine.", replied Cassy. "I found them when I was packing away Argus' old things the other day. We could go and get them and play here by the fountain. You think?"

"Na. They'd just end up with sword wounds and missing limbs what with our present mood and all.", replied Xena, a smile and chuckle breaking out on her serious face. "And what would everybody think if they found us? After all, I have a reputation to maintain.", she said jokingly.

"Yeah, your reputation. I forgot." replied Cassy, laughing along with her friend.

"I killed Lyssius, you know.", Xena said, suddenly serious. "I was responsible for his death just as much as that crossbow bolt."

"Now Xena, you know that's not true.", Cassy told her friend. "You couldn't have stopped him and you know it."

"That's my point. I don't believe it.", Xena said. "In the back of my mind there's a little voice that screams the opposite to me constantly. That yells - YOU COULD HAVE STOPPED HIM, IF YOU HAD WANTED TO. We both grew up with those tales about Heros and Champions. And when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance to become the first woman hero. I didn't stop to think that Lyssius would do as he always did and follow my lead. I was the oldest and I should have been wiser. I'll go to my grave knowing that I had it in my hands to keep him alive and safe but chose otherwise."

"That's hogwash.", replied Cassy, turning to look her friend in the eyes. "No. Lyssius and Argus and all the others made their own choices. Not you. Not me. They themselves chose. You led, but they followed. They bear the responsibility as well."

"I'm not belittling anyone's choice or denying that it was theirs to make.", Xena said, returning her friend's look. "But, I know things could have been different if I had only been wiser, thought of an alternate choice. Besides, my nightmares reinforce my belief every night. I dream of that bolt entering Lyssius' chest and I feel the same awful pain in my own.", Xena said, her hand going up to grasp the Borilus Token around her neck. "This token was his and if he had been wearing it that dammed bolt would have been deflected and he would still alive. No Cassy, I killed my little brother as dead as did that bolt."

"Xena, you can't think that. He gave you that token, you told me so yourself.", Cassy said. "It was his choice, you did not seal his fate by taking it."

"Oh, but you see Cassy, that is just what I did.", replied Xena. "Lyssius' gave me his token to perk me up, to help strengthen my resolve. And in accepting it, I stole his strength. I killed my brother."

Cassy knew further words were pointless, that once Xena had decided responsibilities nothing would persuade her otherwise so she sat by her friend, offering Xena a comforting presence. The two women sat for sometime by the fountain, sat in silence as they assimilated the events of the past weeks. Finally the coolness of the night got the better of them and they rose to walk back to the tavern and its comforting warmth.

"Oh, before we go back to the others, I have something for you.", Cassy said. "I was going to wait but since your leaving with Petricles tomorrow I guess now's the best time. Let's go over to the stables. You're going to love this."

"All right.", replied Xena, her interest aroused.

The two friends walked to the stables, out back of the inn. Entering the large building, Cassy led her friend to a stall at the rear of the stable. There standing in the soft light of a recently risen moon stood a yearling filly. The pale gold coat glistened in the revealing moonlight as the young horse nickered a greeting.

"Xena, I want you to have this little girl.", Cassy said, moving to stroke the filly's soft flanks and scratch an ear. "I found her just before we abandoned Aphetae. Her mother was taken by the Dorians so I brought her along when we left the village. I want you to have her. She'll make a splendid remount once she grows up."

"She's lovely!", Xena replied, gently hugging the young filly as Cassy moved away to allow the two to get acquainted. "What's her name?"

"I haven't named her.", replied Cassy. "What do you think about Cassandra? You know, give yourself something to remember me by.", she said, a broad smile breaking out on her face.

"Don't worry Cassy, I need no reminder of our friendship.", Xena said, suddenly serious as she rose and moved to her friend's side, looking back at the filly with a brief smile. "No. I want to name her Argo in honor of my dear friend and your loving husband. No, her name is Argo, long may she live."

Cassy was overcome by her friend's gesture, and her own loss. The two friends embraced as tears of joy and anguish rolled down their faces in the soft moonlight. The two women consoled each other, and knowing this really was their goodby, embraced the harder at the anticipated loss. A soft wet nose nudged Xena's back as Argo moved to her new friend's side, to add her own brand of condolence to the embrace. Xena briefly ended her embrace with Cassy to gently stroke the filly's nose before turning back.

"Argus will be pleased with this little one.", Cassy told her friend, as they finally moved aside and said goodnight to the young filly. "I'd better get back. I promised your mother I would help get everyone sorted out when the drinking was over. I'll see you in the morning before you ride out. Goodnight, my friend, and know my prayers will always be with you; come what may.", she told Xena, giving her friend's shoulder one final touch before hastily leaving the stable. If she didn't leave now, Cassy knew she never would.

Xena stood and watched Argo as the filly returned to her stall and arranged herself to go back to sleep. "Sleep tight, little one. My beautiful Argo.", Xena quietly told the young horse as it finally fell asleep. "You have a long ride ahead of you tomorrow.", she said, turning to make her own way out of the stable and to bed.

As she exited the stable a small shadow approached from the direction of the tavern. "Flora, is that you?", Xena asked the shadow as it drew near. "I thought you were going home.", she said as the shadow revealed a serious Flora.

"Xena. I have a present for you.", replied Flora as she walked into the soft moonlight to stand before her older friend. "I know you're leaving tomorrow and I wanted you to have this.", she said, handing a folded bundle to Xena. "I hope you like it. And I hope you'll use it when the times right."

"What have we here?", Xena said, unfolding the bundle to reveal an embroidered wedding veil of near transparent linen. "Flora! I can't take this!", she told the younger girl, trying to hand the veil back to Flora. "This is YOUR wedding veil remember. We made it for you."

"I know.", Flora said. "But Xena, I'm only thirteen. I won't be needing it for sometime to come. But from the way you and Petricles look at each other I think you will.", Flora continued, her young eyes dancing mischievously in the moonlight. "Besides, Petricles is kind'a cute and Cassy gave him her wedding bracelet since he didn't have one. She said he'd....".

"SHE DID WHAT?", Xena exclaimed, suddenly flustered and embarrassed.

"Yeah, Cassy gave him her wedding bracelet so he'll be ready when the time is right.", Flora told the older woman, relishing her friend's embarrassment. "Cassy told him it was for 'when you've won the battle for her stubborn heart'.", Flora mimicked Cassy's husky voice.

"OOOHHHH! You two! He hasn't won THAT battle yet!", Xena exclaimed, stamping her foot. But suddenly, as her foot hit the ground, Xena lost her angry embarrassment and grabbed her young friend in a fierce embrace. Finally, Xena released the young girl and stood back to survey her friend. "Thank you, Flora. I'll cherish your gift. And even if Petricles doesn't win, I hope someday someone does.", Xena told the girl as she smiled at the beautiful expression on her friend's face as Flora realized her gift to Xena would always bind them as friends.

Since no further words were required, the two friends said a silent goodby. Finally, Flora turned and ran toward home, her tearful goodby lost in the stillness and soft moonlight. Xena watched her friend until Flora was out of sight then walked toward the rear of the tavern and her room.

As she entered the hallway at the tavern's rear, she found Petricles lounging near her bedroom door. "You're pretty sure of yourself aren't you, my friend.", she told him as he pushed off from the wall and stood before her, his face seeking her's in the dim light of the hallway.

"Well, you had a lot to drink and I was sort of concerned when you left and didn't return.", he told her as he moved to her side. "So, I figured this was the best place to find you. After all we're making an early start tomorrow and we don't want my new second-in-command sick in front of the troop. Now do we?"

"I'm sober now, you insufferable bore.", she told him, suddenly angry with his attitude. "At least you didn't call me 'my girl'. And I'm NOT your second-in-command. This is a joint venture. And I'll have my say as your equal, you moronic idiot.", she told him, wagging her finger in his face. "And what makes you think I'll invite you into my room?"

"Xena.", he said in a soft voice, looking down at the floor and his shuffling feet. "We still have a battle to fight, you and I.", he said, looking up into her blue eyes as he said the words.

At his words, Xena's anger fled and she embraced the man in a fierce hug. Petricles returned her embrace with a possessiveness all it's own. As they stood, Xena reached behind the man and opened the door to her bedroom. Releasing Petricles, she gently took his hand and led him inside, drawing him toward her bed. They kissed as they stood before the bed until Xena broke off and sat down, reaching up to draw Petricles to her side.

"I want to thank you for rescuing Lyssius's armor during the battle.", she told him as they held hands. "I ....".

"You had other things on your mind at the time.", he interrupted. "I'm glad to be of service. Lyssius was a good friend and I would have given my life to see his armor returned to your family. Returned to you."

At his mention of her brother, Xena drew him once more into an encompassing embrace and kissed him passionately. Reaching up to whisper in his ear, she said: "You've broken the left flank. But the battle's not won yet. The center still stands." Shivering slightly, Xena began unlacing his tunic as he cautiously reached across to begin the same with hers. The two fell sideways across the bed as their actions soon became frantic, a wrestling match that would have two winners.

Sometime later, as an early morning sun peaked out over the horizon to dawn a beautiful autumn day, Xena and Petricles rose to dress and begin preparing for their departure. As Xena bent over to lace her worn leather boots, she felt Petricles lean over her back. As she raised her head to meet his, he whispered in her ear: "I do believe second blood goes to me."

Xena blushed scarlet at his allusion to the night before, turning she looked into his face. "You ARE an indelicate pig aren't you, my friend.", she said as she pushed him away from her.

"Yes my girl, I certainly can be at times, can't I.", he chuckled as he moved away from her and finished dressing.


Xena sat her white horse in silence as Petricles and their men mounted up beyond the tavern. Argo fidgeted nervously beside the larger horse, the filly not yet comfortable being around her bigger sisters.

The village had changed over the last few months. It had weathered much and would never be the same. The youth of Amphipolis had changed forever. Lyssius, Argus and the others who died at Aphetae had been mourned and the proper rituals for the dead had been observed. Petricles had rescued Lyssius' armor after Xena retrieved her brother's body. The armor, the panoply of a full-blooded Achaean Hero, lay beside his sarcophagus inside the family tomb. Kortese would have to be left to the future.

Cassy and her baby girl would mourn Argus for many days yet, but Xena realized her friend would return to normal in time. Cassy was strong, as strong as the iron she had learned to forge in the aftermath of the recent attacks. Cassy and the other youths of Amphipolis would resume their quiet lives and soon all would be forgotten, subsumed by the ordinary trials of everyday life.

Xena didn't really care what happened to the remainder of her family. Without Lyssius by her side, she felt empty and without purpose. Her mother had disowned her and the village elders refused to give credit where credit was due. She and Cassy and all the other youths of Amphipolis had saved the village. Cassy and the others knew it, so maybe it was not important no one else acknowledged her deeds. She was simply leaving. Xena knew her grief and anguish would return, that many sleepless nights lay ahead, but with Lyssius gone she did not seem to care what happened to herself anymore.

"Xena, it's time we left. I want to be ten leagues from here before dark. Come on, my girl, let's be off.", Petricles said quietly as he drew his horse up next to hers.

"My name is Xena, you silly man.", Xena chuckled at their private joke. "Right, let's be off. Come on Argo.", she said, giving a tug to the young filly's lead line. "We need to talk about this relationship we seem to have developed.", Xena told the young man as they turned and led their mercenary band toward the village boundary. "I hope you don't think you've charmed me completely.", she said, looking at her new partner's smiling face.

"Never, my girl, never. But you WILL be my next conquest. Charm will have nothing to do with it. You're my next battleground Xena, you and that stubborn heart of yours.", he told her as they left the village of Amphipolis behind.

"You always speak in terms of the battlefield, my friend.", She said, returning his smile with one of her own.

"Naturally. We are warriors, you and I. Warriors of love, in battle over your heart.", Petricles replied as he reached across to touch her shoulder.

"But I will NOT be your next conquest so you had better brush up on that charm, you're going to need it.", Xena laughed. As she reached up to touch the hand that rested lightly on her shoulder, she turned to take a final look at her onetime home, the bitter taste of ashes coming unbidden to her suddenly dry mouth.

Goodby Lyssius, my handsome little brother, rest easy in your dry grave, she thought to herself as she surreptitiously wiped the sudden tears from her eyes, vainly hoping Petricles did not notice. You would not recognize your big sister now, she thought as she looked down at her armored body while the iron sword at her back bumped against the back of her head. I hope Hercules was right about good deeds and bad ones, she thought. Your deeds, little brother, were always of the purest intent. You deserve a happy life on the other side.

Suddenly, Xena felt that strange sensation at the back of her neck and felt time itself stand still. Her body continued to ride beside her lover, but her mind was captured by another. "Ares.", she hissed, knowing the young man by her side would not hear. "What do you want now?"

"Why my dear, you of all people know what I want.", Ares said as his form appeared in the air before her. "I just wanted to drop by and say hello. And to answer your unasked question. This will be the last time I come for you. At least for some years. But then, we'll have a lifetime together. Won't we, my dear?"

"You don't own my soul, Ares.", Xena told him with quiet confidence. "Oh yes, I might serve you at the present. And yes, you command this body. But don't delude yourself into thinking you own the Xena who once lived in Amphipolis. The real Xena who still lies deep within this body. You mark my words, Ares. Xena, the Xena I once was, will return one day to the land of the living. One day she WILL walk free of the chains of deceit that now bind her. BY THE SOUL OF LYSSIUS, I SWEAR IT!"

"If only you could, my dear, if only you could.", Ares laughingly taunted her as his form disappeared and her world returned to normal.

Xena failed to notice the strange dark man that leaned against an oak tree just off the road. She did not notice his look of victory or hear his silent laughter as she rode past his tree. Xena managed to pick up the threads of her conversation with Petricles without him noticing her having been gone. Turning to give her lost home one last look, Xena did not notice the strange man as he gave her a salute and began walking back down the road. The road that led back to Amphipolis.

          War, the bloody domain of men,

          No place for women here!

               This place of Ares' kin.

          What brings this fair young maiden here?

          Onto this plain of war,

               Where the blood of Ares flows.

          What calls this woman to this plain?

          Her honor and life itself!

               To cry her brother's name.

          For Lyssius, who died not in vain,

          She now gives her body to the flames!

               Touched but once by Ares' hand.

          What calls this woman to this plain?

          His honor and honor's name!

               To bear the burn of Ares' hand.

          To pale grey dust goes her hope,

          Of home and hearth and family life.

               Shed to enter Ares' realm.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Believe it or not the following transcription was found attached to the bottom of the story just told. The writing is in Gabrielle's hand so we must assume she inscribed it in the margin as a record of Xena's reaction to the tale of her 'love affair' with Petricles.

"Gabrielle! Do you realize what you've just done?", Xena yelled at her friend in surprise, throwing down the manuscript and taking a threatening pose.

"What?", replied Gabrielle, not at all afraid of her friend's attempt to intimidate her with body language.

"Well I'll tell you, my girl! If you idiot bards are right and a woman's first love is her true love than you've made that insufferable bore, that moronic idiot, that ungrateful pig Petricles my ONE AND ONLY TRUE LOVE.", Xena yelled, still livid at her friend. "What about Borias? By the Gods, what about MARCUS? What will he think if this story of yours ever gets back to him? I mean, Hades would be just the bastard to see that Marcus gets a copy. He'd call it light reading. Gabrielle, please - not Petricles. I'll never live it down."

"Xena, my name's Gabrielle damn it.", quipped Gabrielle, her poise not at all affected by Xena's anger. "You see, you did love him! You even talk like him at unguarded times. You....".

"GABRIELLE! I did not love Petricles. I did not.", Xena yelled, shaking her head opposite of her professed denial.

"Xena, don't interrupt.", replied Gabrielle. "If you did not love Petricles than why did you shake your head 'YES' while trying so hard to deny it just now?"

"GABRIELLE! I DID NOT LOVE PETRICLES!", Xena screamed, fleeing the room.

"Sure. If you say so, my girl.", replied Gabrielle, smiling as the other woman fled. "Keep telling yourself that and maybe one day you'll believe it."

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