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Destroyer Of Nations: Book One

Part 1 of 4

by Gabrielle, Warrior Bard

translated by Phillip Howell

Copyright Statement

'Destroyer of Nations Book One' and "Song of the Warrior Princess" -- all:

© Copyright 1997 by Phillip Howell, Powder Springs, Georgia

Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and backstory used in 'Destroyer of Nations' 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.

**WARNING: This story contains graphic sexual activity between male/female and female/female participants. If you are under 18 years of age (or the legal age in your country) please do not read this story.


This is the story of my friend, Xena. Not the Xena of our early friendship, but the Xena of an age now past. I have written of my friend's youth, of her coming of age. But that was merely the beginning -- the prelude. The deal Xena made with the devil was an insidious cancer left to fester deep within her soul. The pain of its initiation receded and all that remained was a hollow husk, a burned out husk that would soon rise to conquer the world.

This is the story of Xena, Destroyer of Nations, a sobriquet my friend still fears. She fears it because the words sometime sing to her in the night and call her soul. She battles continuously with her insidious past, but the endless internal struggle often leaves her wounded and afraid. The one consolation she has had over the years is that the act of becoming Xena, Destroyer of Nations, put an end for all times to her deal with the devil.

This is the story of Xena's transformation as a warrior into its final form. The act of freeing her soul from Ares' grasp, her self-ruination of his chosen scourge, nearly destroyed her soul. Once Xena began her long journey as the Destroyer of Nations it would be a lifetime before she could return to simply being herself. No, her victory over Ares was a double- edged sword at best. Xena was out of one nightmare, not of her own choosing, only to find herself caught up in another. This one of her own design. The tragedy that afflicts all mortals who are touched by the Gods became a continuing tragedy for my friend.

And so Xena, warrior princess; Xena, Destroyer of Nations was born. What had begun as a God's dalliance with a mere mortal grew beyond even Ares' powers to confine. What had started out so simple grew beyond all measure until that mortal became a force of nature. The Xena of this past age stalked the world with almost God-like omnipotence, for a while. For good or bad, for evil intent or joyous reverie, my friend cut a wide swath through the world. Xena grew to make her own history -- a force of nature, indeed! For the act of overthrowing Ares' machinations brought Xena beyond his control once and forever; not even the Gods could control her now. She had become the Xena of legend. Xena, warrior princess; Destroyer of Nations. Nothing more. Nothing less. Simple as that.


Xena's army remained encamped around Amphipolis for several weeks following the sack of Aroilus. As spring gave way to early summer, Xena led her army south after the retreating Dorians. Next, she would 'liberate' Thessaly from the scourge of these northern brigands. First Thessaly, then on to Parnassus and Boeotia. Only two Dorian armies remained in the field against her. If she could defeat these armies, she would be rid of Ares and her deal with the devil once and for all. But then, Ares and their deal was a faded backdrop against the changes which had overcome Xena since the previous year. Her dark stranger from the meadow outside of Amphipolis was a memory buried deep, almost forgotten.

Outwardly, Xena had become a hardened warrior, as hard as any of the men who rode at her side. Her commanding presence held the army together, kept it together as a force in the field. She had learned well the lessons taught by Petracles about how to administer an active army. Her generalship was sound.

Inwardly, Xena became two people captured in the same body. Her anger and hatred became one pole, one node, one lightning rod for her inner turmoil. The other pole, the other lightning rod was a young village girl who cried out for normality and peace. Between these two opposing poles lay the desiccated remnants of her childhood dream of being a hero. So, the two poles fought for control of her outward self. This conflict nearly overwhelmed her at times and Xena felt fragmented, like an untempered sword that has broken under the impact of the blacksmith's hammer.

Lyceus, her much loved younger brother, was dead and after the sack of Aroilus so was her status as a Hero. Lyceus' crusade was also as dead as its chief sponsor. Xena had been unprepared for such an abrupt end to Lyceus' dream. She did not know how to replace the dream, could not find a way to cement her alliance with her people. Xena's world became as fragmented as her personality.

Sometimes, the village girl would have the upper hand. She could not forget she had almost been a mother, had almost felt the comforting warmth of a baby growing inside her. Almost.

Her miscarriage had happened so early in her pregnancy that Xena could only wonder what it felt like to bear a child. But in that painful memory, the memories of that terrible night when she lost her first child and her love for Petracles, Xena discovered she could still be a woman, still be the village girl without the bloodshed that surrounded her getting in the way. And in that golden nugget of rediscovered womanhood, Xena formed the idea of having another child, a child to help bind her to the reality of that village girl.

Fortunately, Xena had a steady hand to fall back upon as her inner self fought its secret battle for her soul. The worthy Borias became her anchor. Unlike her love affair with Petracles, Xena and Borias were friends before becoming lovers and that friendship helped steady her. Borias became the stability Xena needed to anchor her self to reality. Petracles had been all flash and dash. Xena had loved him dearly but their affair had been a love that was all form and no substance. Now Borias -- well, Borias was substance personified. And so, their love took a more adult form than had Xena's love for Petracles. Borias was in control, for now. But lurking in dark corners was always the question: for how long?

Xena's army had become as fragmented as the personality of its commander. Despite the discipline enforced by Xena and Borias, for neither wanted another Aroilus, the army became a many-sided beast. Philemon and Manus continued in command of the mercenary horse, the remnants of Petracles' mercenary band. While loyal to Xena, the mounted arm served for pay only. And as always, Xena and Borias were hard pressed to find the gold necessary to keep the mercenaries paid. Lykus, the ever faithful village youth from Xena's home village of Amphipolis, commanded the small remnant of Lyceus' crusading army. Now called The Guard, Lykus and his men became a wall between Xena and the rest of her army.

The rest of her army -- well, scum will flow to scum. The rest of Xena's army was the repository of the hard eyed men who had joined for the plunder. No, Lyceus' crusade against the Dorians and the army he and Xena had formed was no more. The bloody retaliation against those Greeks who aided the northern invaders and the sack of Aroilus ended all that. The army had changed from a collection of wide eyed village boys to a hard edged monster.

The murderers and thieves, mercenaries and brigands, cutthroats and robbers had become the mainstay of Xena's army. As Xena changed, from village girl leading heroic youths in a desperate struggle to the hardened Xena, Warrior Princess, so changed her army. The Hero of Aphetae was dead, as dead as Lyceus and his crusade. But a more potent force was born from the death and ashes of Aroilus, a force the world would come to know as: Xena, Destroyer of Nations.

      She was a Warrior fair,

          Who assumed a prince's flair;

      Whilst in the battle's air,

          The blood of Ares fired her.

      They sang stories of her deeds,

          Not counting the widows weeds;

      Told of her strength. Indeed!

          Sang of the Warrior Princess.

      Her strength was manifold,

          Like that of the Gods of old,

      Her heart and blood ran cold;

          Though her eyes appeared haunted.

      She rode a pale horse of doom,

          'Cross fields enslaved in gloom,

      The vanquished laid in their tomb;

          Destroyer of Nations they called her.

Chapter 1

Xena waded ashore, the salty brine soaking her leather boots and soft doe-skin breeches. Around her, the infantry of her army continued unloading the long line of ships beached along the shore. She strode to the high water mark and turned to watch her men struggle against the surf. Twenty-five ships were beached along the sandy shelf that divided the land from the sea. Xena looked toward the northeast, watching the people of Pagasae milling about the road that paralleled the coastline. In the far distance to the east stood Mount Pelion, its snowcapped bulk rising from the sea, the morning sun just beginning to peek over the mountain's massive slopes.

You should have stopped me here, Xena thought as she watched the locals milling about around eight stadia to the north. If you're going to resist, that is. No, you look like sheep to me, she thought, shielding her eyes from the early morning glare. Turning her attention away from the gaggle of scared humanity that stood and watched her army disembark, Xena made her way back into the surf to help her fleet captains, Tellus and Visirius, with the unloading.

It had been a long voyage, six days to make the distance from Antigonia. Six days at sea without word from Borias and Manus. Xena had left her cavalry under their command, to make the overland march from Macedonia on horse back. They should be nearing the slopes of Mount Olympus about now, she figured. Then onward to Larissa and the conquest of Thessaly. Xena shivered slightly at the memory of another Larisa, a Larisa swaying in grim death, the crows picking her sightless eyes. Shrugging her shoulders, she continued on her way to where the fleet commanders fought the surf and wind to land her army and its supplies.

"Tellus, get the supplies ashore as soon as water and wind will allow," Xena yelled to be heard over the sound of the surf, the salt spray stinging her eyes. "I don't think the locals are going to resist but be prepared. I'll leave a hundred of Pelius' swordsmen to help your sailors guard the ships. The rest I'll take with me and occupy this flea bitten town of Pagasae."

"As you say, Xena," Tellus replied, raising his hand to wipe soaked bangs from his face. "Visirius and I have your men disembarking as we speak. The supplies will take longer." Tellus pointed over at the ships where supplies were being hoisted onto the beach

"Xena, it'll take at least until nightfall to get the wagons unloaded and re-built. Are you sure you can find enough horses and oxen here about to pull them?" asked Visirius.

"I'm sure of it. Thessaly is well known for its horseflesh," Xena replied, rubbing her red eyes and sweeping salt encrusted bangs from her face. "I'll just bet Pagasae can come up with the numbers we need. If not, there's bound to be enough towns and villages close at hand to make up the difference. Take your time with the wagons. We need to start heading north for the rendezvous with Borias and the cavalry, but we need the wagons and supplies in good shape for the journey." Xena turned and looked back inland in the direction of Pagasae and the frightened villagers.

"Yes, Xena," the two sea captains responded, watching Xena make her way back to the shore, her oiled sea cape billowing out behind her in the stiff sea breeze.

Xena walked the shore line to a dry knoll that offered a commanding view of the bay. From its peak, she could see that Lykus and Pelius had the infantry well in hand. The spearwall had already formed its ranks just up from the line of bleached debris that marked high tide. The swordsmen were still in the surf assisting the sailors unload supplies and wagon parts.

Xena smiled as she watched Argo and her white mare being swung out from one of the beached ships. She laughed as Argo squealed in discomfort at the heavy leather belly band of the harness. It won't be long now, little one, Xena thought. You'll be on dry land soon.

Xena knew the voyage had been rough on her horses. She had spent two near sleepless nights watching over Argo and Samos, the white mare. Two nights, that is, after she had gotten over her own seasickness. Hades but I hate the sea, she thought as she remembered the gut wrenching agony of her first two days at sea. But sailing was better than walking, or riding Argo along dusty trails.

Looking northeast toward Pagasae, Xena noticed that the gaggle of local people had coalesced into a formation of men and boys. She watched the early morning sun glint off their makeshift weapons. So, you plan to resist me, she thought. Good! I didn't want a confrontation, but if you insist we might as well show you who the new boss is around these parts. Xena pulled the sea cloak tightly about her shoulders, the cool sea breeze knifing into her soaked clothing, a chill running up her body. Turning her attention back to her army, Xena watched Lykus make his way up the slope to her knoll.

"Looks like we'll have a battle," Xena yelled over the wind as Lykus halted at her side. "We'll have to make an example of these fools." She pointed at the formation of local villagers to the northeast.

"Well, no time like the present, as Borias would say," Lykus told her, looking along her pointing finger at the formation of local militia off in the distance.

Xena shivered when Lykus mentioned her new lover, Borias. It's been ten days since I've had his comforting presence by my side, she thought. Ten days without his steadiness to keep me at peace during the long nightmarish nights. Ten days and six days more.

"Yes, as Borias would say," Xena responded, drawing the cloak tighter. "Start your men up the road. Have Pelius take the swordsmen and circle around along the bay. Keep your spearwall in tact and let Pelius disperse these idiots."

"Where will you be, Xena?" asked Lykus, looking back down the hill at the spearwall formed up on the beach.

"I'll take Samos and head out in front. Let these local fools see who's come to conquer their homeland," she replied, a smile breaking out on her beautiful face. "All right, lets get started." Xena slapped Lykus on the shoulder for luck.

Together, the two warriors made their way down the sloping knoll. Xena left Lykus to his men and jogged over to where Argo and Samos were being saddled by her stable boy. The horses neighed a greeting as Xena approached. Argo gave her mistress a baleful eye as the woman patted her on the neck before carefully checking each fetlock. All was well with Xena's young filly and the woman turned her attention to Samos.

The much older horse looked tired. Much too tired, Xena thought, checking the older horse's legs and barrel. Samos, my love, you've seen better days, Xena thought as she completed her inspection. I'll have to find you a nice stallion and a good pasture, then you can retire, old girl. "You've been a good friend," she told the mare, mounting the older horse. Xena watched the stable boy lead Argo off to dryer land then turned the mare and cantered through the briny surf to where Lykus and his men stood to arms.

"All right, remember my orders!" Xena yelled as she brought Samos to a halt in front of her army. "Leave the women alone, you here! Kill any man who resists but the women go free. Lykus. Pelius. Let's be about our business. TAKE THE VILLAGE!"

And with those words, Xena smiled a dazzling smile and reined Samos around. Putting the spur to her horse, Xena galloped up the road toward where the local militia waited in grim silence.


The war chant of her army chased her up the shore road toward Pagasae. Pelius and his swordsmen began a brisk jog along the shoreline while Lykus and the spearwall began it ponderous march up the road. The sailors who lined the shore and worked the ships added their voices to those of the infantry.


Soon, Xena and Samos closed the distance and Xena reined in a good crossbow shot from the milling line of local militia. Off to her right, she could see Pelius and his swordsmen making their way toward the militia's left flank. As she fought to control a prancing Samos, Xena noticed several of the militiamen change formation to face Pelius' threat. As she sat her prancing horse and watched the locals, Xena could hear the spearwall advancing at her rear.


The war chant rose to a crescendo as the infantry of the wall slow marched to an eighth stadia behind where she sat her horse. Feet stamped as the spearwall halted, growling its chant. The midmorning air was rent with the sound of iron swords beating a rapid tattoo against iron cuirasses, an unmistakable warning to the locals -- do not resist us, it told the nervous militia. Or, you will die!

Xena laughed out loud as the noise her army made began to unnerve the locals, their formation fragmenting as some decided discretion was the better part of valor and fled back toward the town. A little terror now and battle can be avoided, she thought as she watched the militia formation begin to shred.

Without conscious effort, Xena loosed the chakram at the lead rank. The round killing weapon made its whistling way toward the first rank of militia. Panic broke out as the weapon made a bloody path through the ranks. Blood sprayed and men died as the chakram made its relentless progress through the terrified militia. Then, as if by magic, the weapon was back in the hand of its mistress.

Xena gave a loud war cry and spurred Samos into a thunderous gallop straight at the decimated ranks of the local militia. By the time her iron had a chance to meet flesh, the militia had begun a stampede back toward the village. Xena and Samos pranced in a circle, the local militia avoiding hooves and sword, breaking into a fleeing mass headed for safety. Pelius' men had merely to herd those who stood their ground back toward the town. No fight here, Xena thought, smiling at Pelius. Her infantry lieutenant gave her a wave as he led his men toward the village.

Xena and Samos pranced forward, the men of the spearwall following at a slow walk behind her. She watched as Pelius and his swordsmen brought order to their prisoners, the fight having been drained from the militia by the speed of its defeat. Xena smiled as Pelius began sorting out the elders from the younger men of the militia. She brought Samos to a halt in front of the elders and watched as they squirmed nervously, awaiting their fate at her hands.

"You! Elder!" Xena exclaimed, pointing at the oldest of the village headmen. "Yes, you. Stand up man!" she said as one of the elders collapsed in fear. "My name is Xena, warrior princess. Hero of Aphetae and scourge of the Dorians. Let everyone know that I come to deliver you from this northern menace," she said quietly. Samos stamped a hoof to emphasize Xena's words. "I will protect this land regardless of your help or your hinderance. Whoever opposes me will pay the price of their opposition in burned villages and dead men."

Xena watched as her words began to sink in. The elders went to their collective knees in supplication, hoping against hope that this fury would spare their village. She smiled as the fear took hold of the gaggle of men and boys who nervously looked up at her.

"Lykus. Did we lose any men?" Xena turned and asked her lieutenant.

"No, Xena," Lykus replied, standing beside her horse, watching the nervous prisoners.

"Elders, you're lucky your futile resistance caused no deaths among my army," Xena said, looking down at the gaggle of humanity that quailed before her. "If it had, my wrath would have been terrible to behold. As it is, I think mercy is in order. Lykus, hang every twentieth man. Yes, I think that is mercy enough for these sheep," Xena commanded, her eyes still on the squirming prisoners.

And with those words, Xena wheeled Samos toward the sea and began a brisk canter back to her fleet, leaving Pelius and Lykus to their unenviable tasks of culling the prisoners. Clearing the spearwall, Xena spurred Samos into a trot. Looking back, she watched her lieutenants round up those poor unfortunates who would pay the price for her mercy. As the first man began his slow dance at the end of a rope, Xena spurred Samos into a fast gallop back down the road that led to the sea.

Lykus returned to the beach during the early evening. His grim task completed, he had rounded up all the dray animals found in the town. He watched as the horses and oxen were corralled for the night near the water's edge. Lykus had found only three quarters of the animals required to pull the army's baggage train. Pelius would have to 'visit' the next town up the coast, Ioicus, the next day and 'requisition' the remaining quarter. Lykus began jogging down the beach when he saw Xena wave in his direction.

"Okay, we're all here," Xena said as Lykus came to halt at her side. "Tellus, you and Visirius keep your sailors working on the wagons. I want to leave as soon as we have the animals necessary to move the wagon train." Xena slapped her gauntlets against her wet thigh.

"I've told Pelius to round up whatever animals can be found in Ioicus," Lykus told her. "He should have them back here by midmorning tomorrow."

"Very well," Xena answered, patting his back. "When will the wagons be assembled?"

"By midnight, I should think," replied Tellus. "Visirius and I will move the fleet into the harbor at Ioicus tomorrow." He pointed up the coast in the direction of the next village

"Fine," Xena agreed. "You can transport Pelius' wagon guard with you."

"No problem," replied Visirius. "Where should we take the fleet after you begin the march inland?"

"Take it back around the Ipni Peninsula and meet us where that river meets the sea near Meliboea," Xena ordered. "We'll head in that direction along the inland side of the coastal mountains. Do you have enough men to overcome any opposition when you make landfall?"

"Yes, Xena. Our men are all trained warriors," replied Visirius. "They row, but they fight as well as any of your swordsmen."

"Good! I can't spare any men to sail with you," she said. "We'll rendezvous with you in a fifteen days. Lykus, have your men give a hand with whatever Tellus needs doing," she told her infantry commander. "I'll make camp up on that knoll. If you need me I'll be there." Xena turned and walked away from her lieutenants, back to where her horses waited for her and their dinner.

Xena ministered to her four footed friends, the army going about its business around her. As full night fell upon the bay, Xena led Samos and Argo up the beach to the knoll. She staked her horses out on long lead lines so they could graze on the sparse grass during the night. Taking a bed roll from the rear of her saddle, Xena completed her sleeping arrangements.

Not worried at the stares of her men, Xena stripped herself of the cold, wet leather and bronze armor. Clothed only in a soggy loincloth, she briskly dried her water wrinkled skin and removed the salt brine that had collected over the course of the day. Moonlight spilled across her naked back as she replaced the soggy loincloth with a fresh one from her saddlebags.

Picking up a linen shift, Xena pulled it on over her nakedness and turned to watch her army continue unloading supplies. She laughed as several of her men stumbled in the surf and fell into the water, their heavy loads washing up on the beach with the tide. Turning away from the scene below, Xena lay down on her bed roll and pulled pieces of dried meat and oat bread from her saddlebags.

She was content. I can add admiral to my growing list of titles, she laughed to herself. General, admiral, and warrior princess -- what next? Palatine of Parnassus? Well maybe so, after all my army is headed in that direction. After Thessaly, that is. First Thessaly, then Parnassus, then onto Boeotia. She knew the Dorians had not advanced any further south than Boeotia. Attica would have to wait for another day. Soon, the scourge of the Dorians will rule all of northern Greece, she laughed as the moonlight spilled across her.

Xena's decision to split her army had been a hard decision to make. She knew is was not wise to split an army, especially one as small as hers. But the Dorians had retreated from Macedonia following their defeat at Aroilus. The battle and sack of Aroilus had put an end to the Dorian occupation of her homeland. She and she alone had driven them out. Well, she and her army, that is. The seven thousand men who followed her were not many considering the strength of the Dorian bands that plagued northern Greece, but they were a potent seven thousand. The training and discipline given to the army by Borias and Lykus insured the army was prepared to take on all comers, no matter what the numerical strength of the opposition. Five thousand hardened infantry and two thousand mercenary cavalry -- a potent force, indeed!

The sack of Aroilus had been a defining moment for Xena. While the aftermath had affected her greatly, she soon realized that having people fear her and her army was just as effective as their willing assistance. As word of the sack and rape became common knowledge, Xena found that resistance became less and less. She was able to collect a windfall of precious metal and supplies from the towns and villages of Macedonia. In fact, many elders stumbled over each other to win her good graces. Hence, her title as warrior princess.

Princess with a little 'p'; no, Xena had not assumed royalty but she was treated like royalty wherever she went. Village after village swore fealty to her as she and her army marched south from Aroilus into the Chalcidice peninsula. If I can't command their respect, she thought at the time, then their fear can be made to work just as well. Yes, fear can be just as useful, just as binding as respect. She vowed to use anybody and anything that would give her and her army an edge against the Dorians. Princess with a little 'p'.

The next step in her campaign against her hated enemy was the move south. She had to follow the Dorians as rapidly as possible. Xena did not want them to regroup and come north again. She and Borias had decided that a foot pursuit would be much too slow. Hence, her decision to divide her army.

The villages of the Chalcidice were glad to 'lend' Xena the money to hire a fleet of mercenaries. The twenty-five ships commanded by Tellus and Visirius provided fast transport for her infantry as well as flank protection for her army as it moved south into Thessaly and Boeotia. Supplies could also be moved by sea, freeing the army of its long and cumbersome wagon train. So, her army split, the infantry going south by sea while Borias and Manus travelled overland with the cavalry. The strategic situation was looking better every day.

Xena had laughed uproariously as the fleet sailed. General, princess, and now admiral. By Hades' singed beard, how she loved titles. She laughed until sea sickness ran her off to her cabin during the second day at sea. Then, the title of admiral had not seemed such a good one to have as she vomited the contents of her stomach at every wave crest. The dry, retching heaves that followed were even worse.

Had she been alone, she probably would have thrown herself over the side in a frantic attempt to stop the agony. But the comforting presence of her men, as they heaved right along side her, stilled her thoughts of a watery grave. Youth is elastic and by the third day, Xena had recovered some of her old form. Food remained out until the evening before the landing at Pagasae, but she had at least been able to sleep.

As the sun had dawned on the last day, Xena discovered that she liked sailing. She made a promise to herself to sail again some day. Oh, Xena hated the sea, but after she gained her sea legs she found the ride more comfortable than long dusty marches through over heated countryside. Sea sickness be damned, Xena vowed to return to the sea one day.

Xena and Lykus led the army north, north along the long border between Magnesia and Thessaly. The coastal mountains to the north and east loomed large in the distance, the forested and snow capped peaks offering the army a panorama of natural beauty. On the second day of the march, the army came to Lake Boebeis and turned to the west to pick up the Amyrus River. This river would led them directly to the coastal town of Meliboea and her fleet.

On the third day of the march, Thessalian light cavalry began harassing attacks at every opportunity. Pelius and fifty men had been mounted on horses left over from the selection of dray animals requisitioned for the wagon train. Everyday, Pelius and his makeshift cavalry tried valiantly to keep the enemy horsemen at bay. Everyday it became more evident that the army might have a fight on its hands before it could link up with Borias and the cavalry.

The march became a slow agonizing ordeal as the spearmen were forced to halt and form the wall to repel cavalry and protect the wagon train. Even stripped down to only twenty wagons, the baggage train was a prize the Thessalian cavalry could not pass up. Fortunately, the villages along the route of march were fat with plunder, the army did not want for supplies and forage, not yet.

On the fifth day, it became apparent to Xena that she would have to give battle. The Thessalians were beginning to bring up their infantry. No, she would have to give battle. Better to pick your own ground than be forced into a battle on terrain not of your choosing, she realized as the sun came up over the Ossa Mountains. Today we find our killing ground, she thought as she watched her army stand-to in the early morning mist. They're out there, she could feel it and her battle senses were on edge. Today, we find out what manner of men these Thessalians are, she thought; the pipes and drums of her improvised band beating the morning call-to-arms.

Xena paced in front of her tent and waited for her lieutenants to arrive for their early morning conference. She had put on her second best set of leather and bronze armor for the coming battle. The little used underblouse itched and her arm pits were already rubbed raw from the constant chaffing with her leather ties and the joints of her pauldrons.

For some reason, her day had started out wrong. A fanciful dream had kept her sleepless most of the night and without a partner to ease her nightmare, Xena had woken dazed and tired. She could feel an evil presence just over her shoulder, something watching, something waiting to pounce on her if she let down her guard. I have a bad feeling about today, she thought, her pacing becoming more a run than a walk. Back fifteen paces, forward fifteen paces, and back again, the sweat of exertion glistening on her face and exposed arms and thighs. Today, someone I love is going to die, she felt more than thought. Death!

Xena's furious pacing was interrupted by Lykus and Pelius as they came into view out of the early morning mist. Xena came to a ragged halt, returning their greeting with silence. Taking a chair, she motioned for them to sit down by her camp table, her servant bringing the morning wine without having to be told. Xena sat and watched her two friends as they drank their wine in silence. They knew her well by know. The pacing told them she was unsettled. And they knew an unsettled Xena boded ill for someone or something. They sat in silence and waited her out.

Xena squinted at her friends. Looking hard at each in turn, she tried to see the death signs, the aura that told her one of them would die in the coming battle. Nothing. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to answer the questions posed by her uneasiness and dreams. Must be someone else, she thought. But who?

The silence drew out as the men fidgeted under Xena's cold scrutiny. Finally, the waiting got the better of Pelius, and uncharacteristically, he broke the silence. "Xena the men are formed in route march order. The wagon train and its guards are ready to depart."

Xena continued her inspection, her eyes taking on a faraway look. Pelius fell silent and waved for the servant to refill his glass. A soldier learns to take his drink at every opportunity and Pelius knew the day would be long and dry. Lykus likewise took the proffered refill as the servant scurried past, retreating back into Xena's tent.

Xena was startled back to the present by the jingle of tack and harness. She turned and watched as the stable boy led her horses to the front of the tent and tethered them to a stake set in the ground near the entrance.

"I'm sorry, Pelius, you were saying?" Xena said, her attention now firmly focused on the lieutenants and their morning conference.

"The men are formed for the march. The wagons and guards are prepared to depart whenever you're ready, Xena," replied Pelius, turning to Lykus for assistance.

Pelius still has trouble speaking like a commander, Xena thought, her eyes smiling at the man as he fidgeted under her stare. I shouldn't embarrass him so, he blushes easily and those scars on his face don't look good infused with blood.

"Thank you, Pelius," she said, smiling openly at the man. "Lykus, I think we'll have a battle today. In fact, I want us to seek a battle. If the Thessalians come anywhere near the route of march, I want you to halt the column and set up the battle line. We'll meet these Thessalian pigs on our own terms."

"As you say, princess." Lykus blushed as Xena smiled at his use of her pet name, the name her closest confidants used only in her presence. "I imagine they'll come for us around noon. The scouts found a tall knoll about fifty stadia from here where we can form the wall. I'll see the men make the distance by midday. We'll be ready, Xena."

Xena rose from her table and stood aside as her servant and stable boy began breaking down her tent, to stow it with the wagon train. Xena walked forward until she stood between her two friends. She shook hands with both men before dismissing them to be about their duties. Around the trio could be heard the sounds of the army as it made ready for the hard march ahead.

After her lieutenants returned to their men, Xena watched her possessions being loaded into her own personal wagon. Making sure that the furniture was well secure and the brown tarpaulins taught, Xena walked over to where her horses stood. Both horses had been saddled, but only Samos would accompany their mistress during the march. Argo would remain with the baggage. The filly was still too young to ride to the sounds of battle. War remained in Argo's future.

Not so for Samos, by now the old mare was a seasoned warhorse. Her iron shod hooves were as much a weapon for her mistress to use as were Xena's sword and chakram. The mare blew a frothy gust of horse breath in Xena's direction as the woman checked the girth and cinch at Samos' barrel.

Xena stopped dead in her tracks, looking up into her mare's eyes. A look of stunned disbelief came over her as Samos reached forward and began to nibble on Xena's leather pauldrons. Tears came to her eyes as she watched Samos lick the sweaty salt off the leather shoulder guards. It's you who'll die today, Xena suddenly realized, looking Samos in the eyes. She could see the death aura surrounding the horse, its erie presence bringing chills to her body. Xena could smell the taint of death on Samos's breath as the horse continued to nibble and lick.

She stroked the mare's nose and cried silent tears of sorrow for her old friend and companion. Not you too, Xena thought. You were Lyceus' mount before becoming mine. Samos was also the last foal thrown by her father's mare -- Calliope. "You're the last of your line, old girl," Xena told her friend, continuing to stroke the horse's nose and throat. "I should have found you a nice stallion and left you with Cassy."

Xena was startled from her sorrow by Argo, the filly brushing the young woman across the back with her nose. Argo sensed the uneasiness of her mistress and nickered softly in Xena's ear. Xena reached behind her and brought the young horse around to stand beside Samos. "I wish I had a choice, old girl," Xena told Samos, the mare nuzzling her shoulder. "I wish we could just ride away. At least you'll have a warrior's death, my old friend. I hope this little one here will be as good a friend as you have been."

Xena wiped her tears and turned Argo over to the stable boy. The boy was used to Xena talking to her horses. Ever since a horribly cold day the past winter when Xena nearly died during an ambush, the youth had tended Xena's mounts. The young woman and boy had become fast friends during the time they had been together. Xena patted the boy on the shoulder as he led Argo to the wagon. Poor child, Xena thought, he'll miss Samos as much as I will.

Xena vaulted into the saddle with her usual flourish. Samos pranced sideways as the woman settled her weight and pulled her friend around to face the army as it began its march north. Xena and Samos sat and watched as the army marched past in the early morning mist. she patted Samos' neck as the middle of the column wound its way past them. A slight pressure to the horse's flank and Samos walked forward to take her place in the column of march. Argo neighed softly as Xena and Samos were lost in the ever present dust of the army's marching feet.

Lykus stood in front of his spearwall and watched the Thessalian army begin to form a line of battle about six stadia to the west of the knoll where his men had formed their battle line. Xena's five thousand infantry had a commanding position atop the gentle knoll. The elevation and slope was just enough to give the wall momentum in the charge.

The spearwall was hollow this time, the center being taken by Xena and the fifty mounted men of her makeshift cavalry. The wall would protect the badly outnumbered mounted arm. And from the safety of the wall, the small band of horsemen could sally forth when the opportunity to do battle on even terms arose. The swordsmen and peltist auxiliary were strung out along the small line of trees that adorned the crest of the knoll.

Lykus watched as Pelius completed arrangements for guarding the wagon train. The twenty wagons formed a circle to the rear of the spearwall on the gentle reverse slope of the knoll. The guard force was armed with crossbows to keep the enemy cavalry away from the wagons and precious supplies. Looking up, Lykus noticed that the crows and vultures had already formed up and were circling the battle ground, waiting for death to begin their feast. Lykus turned as he felt a hand at his shoulder. Xena patted his back as she stood by his side and watched the enemy army below them.

"Let them come for us, my friend," Xena ordered in her quiet voice of command. "Let them break their teeth on the wall. We out number their infantry three to one so they'll not send the foot soldiers first. That horde of cavalry over there by those trees will be your first opponent." Xena pointed down the slope to where a large group of Thessalian cavalry had formed a tight block formation of man and horse.

"Right," replied Lykus, sighting down her pointing finger. "The wall will stop those horsemen cold. They don't have horse-archers so they'll never make direct contact with my men, our pikes will see to that." Lykus looked back at the spearwall, his men standing rigidly at attention in the midday sun.

"I know, but don't get overconfident," Xena said, turning to watch Pelius and his swordsmen in the tree line. "Pelius should be able to harass them quite nicely from those trees. Those trees are just close enough together to afford protection against a cavalry charge."

"As soon as we've broken the cavalry, I'll lead the wall downslope and into their infantry," Lykus told his commander. "Those short spear they have won't be a match for our pikes. It'll be just like Aroilus," he grinned. "By Zeus' breath -- look!" A grimace came over Lykus' face as he looked toward the far tree line.

"Centaurs!" Xena exclaimed, drawing the word out into a sibilant hiss. "Bloody damned centaurs," she said, pointing to the small formation of centaurs that had just made an appearance along the tree line to the west. "I'd heard they were allied with the Thessalians."

"By the Gods, what brutes," replied Lykus, shielding his eyes from the midday sun for a better look at this newest addition to the enemy's line of battle. "They're larger than any regular horse. I'm sure glad there's not many of them."

"Remember Lykus, the larger the man the harder the fall," Xena said. "But you're right. We'll have to figure out a way to kill those ugly animals. Start thinking about a method of taking them out and we'll begin training the infantry as soon as we link up with Borias and the cavalry. I'll leave the matter of a cavalry response to him and Manus. Okay, you ready?"

"Yeah, princess, I'm ready," Lykus replied, smiling at her. "What are you going to do?"

"I'll take command of the mounted men," Xena told him, pulling on her gauntlets. "I'll lead them into the flank when the time is right. Just be ready for my signal, be ready to open the wall."

"Right," Lykus replied. "Well, I'd best be getting back to my men. See you when the battle's over."

"Take care, Lykus," Xena said. She patted her friend on the back and then walked over and mounted Samos. Xena turned her mount and walked Samos back into the center of the spearwall where the rest of the mounted men waited.

It was uncanny how an eighteen year old woman like Xena could so easily read a battlefield. As she had expected, the Thessalians used their more numerous cavalry first, leaving the infantry to await matters at the bottom of the knoll. The cavalry came directly up slope in a thunderous charge of man and horse. And as expected, the Thessalian horse was not prepared to confront the wall. The rock steadiness and long pikes of the wall frustrated every attempt to break her army's tight formation. And after every enemy charge, the swordsmen and sling throwers of the auxiliary sallied forth from the trees to decimate the stragglers as the enemy horse beat a retreat off the knoll. Four charges and the enemy cavalry was nearly finished as a fighting body, at least for this day.

A lull settled over the field of battle as the Thessalian cavalry reformed for one final charge, one final chance to break the spearwall. Up they came, the afternoon sun glinting off their short spears and throwing lances. Under a constant barrage of crossbow bolts and deadly sharpened stones, the enemy cavalry charged up slope. Winded by the many assaults made in the heat of the day, the Thessalian cavalry slowed almost to a fast walk by the time it reached the spearwall on the crest of the knoll.

As her swordsmen and auxiliary closed in on the enemy's flanks, Xena saw that the time for her own cavalry charge was at hand. A piercing whistle broke over the cacophony of battle as she gave Lykus the signal to open the wall and allow her mounted men a channel forward.

Xena spurred Samos into a fast gallop as the wall's left flank wheeled outward, her fifty riders right behind her. Her battle cry rent the air as she crashed into the flank of the Thessalian cavalry. Her charge was all it took. As she and her men met the enemy's flank, the Thessalian cavalry broke and fled downslope for the protection of its own infantry.

Her battle lust in full swing, Xena led her mounted men directly downslope in a wild charge. She turned in the saddle and saw that Pelius and his men were following at a fast run. The army's battle cry pursued the enemy cavalry from the knoll.


The chant reverberated across the valley and echoed through the trees where the Thessalian infantry awaited her charge.


The spearwall chanted as it began its own charge downslope, its fifteen foot pikes glinting in the sun. Momentum picked up as the gentle slope and nature gave the wall its added advantage. As expected, the wall smashed into the enemy battle line and overwhelmed it in a welter of blood and cries of pain and anguish. The swordsmen and auxiliary swept the enemy's flanks, keeping the remnants of the Thessalian cavalry from disturbing the slaughter.

Xena led her mounted men around the enemy battle line and swept into the rear ranks. As her men laid about with their iron swords, Xena reined in to take stock of the battle. As she sat and watched her men complete the encirclement of the Thessalian infantry, Xena lost track of the battle behind her.

Kaleipus was enraged, enraged that the Thessalian commander had not heeded his advice on how to attack the invaders. Kaleipus was half horse himself and he knew instinctively you do not charge repeatedly uphill during the heat of the day, especially not into that wicked formation of long and deadly pikes. As he watched the Thessalian infantry dissolve under the onslaught of Xena's spearwall, Kaleipus decided it was time for he and his centaurs to intervene.

At this stage of the battle all he would be able to accomplish was to save some of the Thessalian infantry, not many, but maybe enough that a complete slaughter could be avoided. As he prepared his centaurs to charge from their place of concealment in the woods, he saw the enemy commander lead her cavalry around to the rear of the Thessalian line of battle. His chance had come. His battle cry rising over the din of battle, Kaleipus and his forty centaurs charged into the rear of Xena's cavalry.

Xena felt the earth vibrate from the pounding of many hooves before Kaleipus' battle cry assaulted her ears. Instinctively, she reined Samos around to meet the enemy's charge. She was alone, the rest of her mounted men already engaged with the Thessalian infantry. Without hesitation, Xena spurred Samos forward. Better to meet your enemy in motion than be ridden down as a statue, she thought as her own battle cry split the air.

As Samos began to pick up speed, Xena loosed the chakram at the lead ranks of the centaur cavalry. The round killing weapon slipped through the first rank and six centaurs went down, their fetlocks severed. The crippled centaurs threw the whole formation into a mass of thrashing half-man half-horse companions. The centaurs struggled to regain their formation but so many had gone down or been entangled in the thrashing mass of downed centaurs that the momentum was lost. Its momentum destroyed, the centaur formation ground to a halt just short of the surrounded Thessalian infantry. Not so its leader. Kaleipus swerved to miss the worst of the mass of downed centaurs. His charge unbroken, Kaleipus headed directly for Xena.

Xena saw the large centaur as he bore down upon her and her much smaller mount. As the large brute charged the remaining distance toward her, Samos reared and brought her front hooves into play. Kaleipus ran right into the smaller horse's slashing hooves. As the iron shod hooves smashed at his head and chest, the centaur swept his long two-handed broadsword into a sweeping arch. Samos did not stand a chance, though Xena tried frantically to pull her mount's head around. Samos went down in a fountain of blood as the sword severed her neck and throat.

"SAMOS!" Xena screamed in rage as she vaulted free of her dying friend. Xena immediately came to her feet and turned to meet the centaur in single combat.

Kaleipus reared onto his hind legs as the smaller horse died under his sword. Prancing sideways he sought out the female who had ridden the dead white mare. Pain lanced through his body as his gonads were assaulted by a deadly kick. Staggering under the pain, Kaleipus bounded backward and watched the woman roll to her feet off to his left side.

Xena back peddled out of the centaur's sword range and took a quick look around. Her cavalry had fought its way free of the Thessalian infantry and were now engaging the centaur cavalry in a general melee. A short distance away, she observed Pelius and his crossbowmen begin a rain of bolts down upon the centaur cavalry not directly engaged with her mounted men.

Seeing that the battle was won, Xena returned her attention to her centaur adversary. The old centaur had been sorely hurt by her kick to his groin. She could tell by the way his barrel heaved as the centaur gasped for breath. Xena took to circling the old centaur, waiting for an advantage. At over seven feet tall, the odd creature had the reach on her. And more importantly, she had lost the chakram in her mad charge into the enemy ranks.

Kaleipus bit down on the pain between his hind legs and struggled to regain his breath. He could tell by the sound of battle that his men were losing their fight with these invaders from the north. He had no reason to continue the battle any longer. With a loud battle cry, he turned and galloped from the field, leaving the warrior woman alone, standing beside her dead mare. The remnants of his centaur cavalry followed him into the tree line and safety. He knew, as he looked back at the maddened woman, that they would meet again. No, their battle was not over, not yet.

Xena watched as the centaurs retreated from the field of battle. Slowly, she walked over to where Samos had fallen. Knelling down, Xena closed the dead eyes of her friend, tears of loss streaming down her young face. She pried her horse's mouth open and replaced the tongue, closing the mouth and smoothing out the grimace of death from Samos' lips.

Xena sat and brushed Samos' main, feeling the warmth of life recede from her friend's body. Headless of the blood that still flowed sluggishly from the hideous gash in the horse's throat, Xena leaned forward and kissed Samos one last time, kissed the mare's nose and tickled her dead ear, just like the old mare had loved so much.

Xena sat and cried by her dead friend's side as Lykus and Pelius made sense out of the slaughter behind her. Soon, her lieutenants had things well in hand, their men herding the Thessalian prisoners and wounded into the tree line, away from the piles of dead and near dead where the power of the wall had made itself known.

As order was returned to the field of battle, Lykus walked softly over to Xena's side and knelt down beside her. "Xena, we're ready to move on. Or would you prefer we camp over by the knoll for the night," he asked quietly.

Xena brought her tear streaked face up and looked Lykus in the eyes. She reached over and patted his arm. "We'll spend the night here, my friend," was her only response as she sat and looked at him. "At least Argo's safe," she told him. "I'll bury Samos here were she fell. Not meant for war, she nevertheless fought like a hero." Leaning back down, Xena kissed the mare's nose one last time.

Lykus put his arms around his commander and comforted her as the army began marching back toward the knoll.

That evening a large platform was erected at the sight of Samos' death. The old mare was wrestled onto the platform. Under the place of honor were piled the army's dead. Soon, the funeral pyre was blazing as Samos and the other dead heros began their journey to the other side.

Xena stood by the pyre and sang her song of grief and longing. She hated to lose men, and she always made a point of singing to them as they began their journey to a different life. But this time, Xena sang for only one of the dead. She sang for her lost friend, her Samos.

Well Argo, it's just you and me now. You and me and Borias, Xena thought to herself as she watched the flames consume her dead friend's body.

No one took notice of the long line of hanged Thessalian prisoners. No one concerned themselves with the deaths of men who had surrendered to the army only to be hung up for crow bait, as Borias would say.

Chapter 2

The thick, dirty black smoke stung Xena's eyes. Her ragged breathing made her chest hurt as she struggled up the village street, the houses on either side burning fiercely. The heat of the fires seared her flesh. Xena could hear the screams of the dying over the deep growl of the flames.

Suddenly, a small child ran screaming from one of the burning homes, the fearful screams grating on Xena's nerves. Xena changed direction and ran to the child's side, picking the child up in her arms. Grasping the poor little thing tightly to her breast, Xena ran for safety, ran away from the fires that consumed the village.

As she ran from the burning village, Xena heard the pounding of hooves behind her. Turning, she saw a tall man on a white mare pursuing her from the burning village. Xena hugged the child with all her might as the mounted man reared his beast over her, the slashing hooves pawing at her head and chest.

Protect the child echoed through Xena's mind as she fell to the ground, the child pulled tightly against her chest. Looking up at the man and horse, Xena watched as the pair pranced around her. At first, the smoke was too thick and Xena could not make out the face of the man. Then, a freezing cold wind blew away the smoke and his face came into focus.

Petracles! And Samos! Xena shuddered as the man reached down, and without any effort, threw her to the side, away from the child. She watched in horror as Petracles grabbed the child, hauling the small bundle of humanity onto the saddle behind him. Xena cried in agony as Petracles wheeled Samos and spurred the horse into a gallop, a gallop leading back into the burning village.

His words burned her soul as Petracles and the child and the old white mare were lost from sight, engulfed in the flames. "Not for you, Xena. This child is not for you!" His words echoed through her head. As the three wraiths disappeared in the smoke and flames, Samos was transformed into an ugly centaur, the creature's eyes as red as the flames that engulfed it.

Xena came awake with a jolt as if she had been hit by lightning. Her eyes went wide with fear, the blue pupils blending with the surrounding white. Shaking hands flew to her sweat soaked breasts as she tried to calm her rapid breathing. Her head was still clouded with the remnants of the dream, the flames still licking her mind, leaving her disoriented.

Looking around the tent wildly, she suddenly realized she was in her own bed and not in the burning village of her dreams. After her heart began beating normally again, Xena sat up and pulled off the sweat soaked linen shift that had become tangled around her waist. Standing, she padded on bare feet over to the camp desk in the far corner of the tent. Throwing her wet shift onto a pile of discarded clothing, she sat naked at the single chair.

Shivering slightly, she bent over to stoke the fire that burned in the iron brazer beside the table. As the fire blazed, Xena recoiled backwards, nearly falling out of the chair. The flames reflected a child's face. Was it Petracles she heard echoing in the far corners of the tent? "This child is not for you!"

Xena grabbed the towel that lay across the back of the chair, using it to soak up the slick sweat that covered her body. She began to shake uncontrollably, the dream pursuing her, the flames of the fire glinting in her unfocused eyes. A soft moan of anguish escaped her as she sat and tried to control her trembling body. As she fought her body for control, Xena put her head in her hands and began to cry softly, tears replacing the sweat on her haggard face.

The dream was the same every night. It replayed over and over again each time she slept. The burning village, the terrified child, the return of her lost lover Petracles and her dead friend Samos, all ganged up on her night after night. There was a quality to this dream that sat it apart from her other nightmares.

The nightmare of Lyceus' death was old and familiar territory. While it pained her deeply and kept her from the sleep she so badly needed, the nightmare of Lyceus' death was a dream centered in her reality. Her other recurring nightmare, the one where a mysterious dark clothed stranger taunted her night after night, was also a dream she associated with events in her past, though she could never quite figure out who the mysterious man was.

But this nightmare, this dream of sadness and pain, had the quality of a prophecy, the foreboding of things to come. When the nightmare first occurred, Xena had thought the child was the baby she had lost following the sack of Aroilus. The memories of her dead baby, of the terrible miscarriage that had ended her love affair with Petracles, ate at her soul. Every night, as she undressed, Xena watched the body of a young woman unfold before her as the manly armor was stripped away, bit by bit.

Every night, she was transfixed by the gentle flair of hips and sway of heavy breasts. The warrior was no more, all that remained was a beautiful young woman. In the silence of her tent, Xena longed for the return of the girl she had once been. Her poor baby had died before her body had made the transformation from slender girl to pregnant woman. She had been robbed of the chance to feel a child growing inside her. And she longed for that chance again, the chance to create a living baby deep inside her womb.

But as the nightmare reoccurred, night after night, Xena began to realized the dream spoke to her of the future, not the past. The child had an ageless beauty about it, the long blond tresses, streaked with soot from the burning houses, gave no hint the child was boy or girl. The presence of Samos added to the pain of her dream, especially following the old mare's death.

But the centaur, that ugly half-man half-horse creation, brought chills to her soul. She hated centaurs, hated their hideous methods of acquiring human females to breed their offspring. She would die before she would allow a centaur to steal a child from her arms. Never!

Xena made a vow to herself, made a pact with her body. She would have another child, she would add the title of mother to the collection of otherwise meaningless titles she had collected of late. Yes, she would become a mother, maybe then the nightmare would leave her alone, alone to sleep peacefully without the raging pain and anguish the dream caused her. A child, a baby!

>From the curtained alcove to Xena's sleeping area, her stable boy, Solan, watched as his mistress lay back down and covered herself with a blanket. The ten year old boy kept a distant vigil for his mistress as she fell back into a troubled sleep, her eyes dancing madly behind the closed eyelids. "This child is not for you, Xena!"

The hot dry dust of the march coated Xena from head to foot. Her army had been on the march for six days now, seven with the short sharp battle her army had won against the Thessalian cavalry. The mounted scouts were kept busy scouting forward of the infantry as the march north continued. Tomorrow, they would link up with Borias and the cavalry. Then, the army would march to meet Tellus and Visirius on the coast. Supplies were beginning to run out and Xena wanted to get fresh supplies from her ships before marching on the Thessalian capitol of Larisa.

Xena watched as her army marched past the stand of trees where she sat Argo in the shade of the oaks. First came the swordsmen and peltist auxiliary, their crossbows clanging against iron cuirases. Next came the steady trod of the spearmen, their heavy pikes weighing the tired men down, eyes glazed and dirt rimmed. Behind the spearwall came the baggage train, the twenty wagons adding to the choking cloud of dust. The wagon guards had it worst of all, they marched in grim silence, dun colored as the dust of the army's passing settled upon them.

"Lykus, Pelius. We'll make camp here in these trees," Xena commanded, removing her leather helmet. "Pelius, make sure your scouts are well out and alert. Borias and the cavalry should be half a day's march to the northwest. Make sure your men keep a sharp lookout for them. And see if they can't find a nice fat village, we need the supplies before we head for the coast. Borias will be short, as well."

"Yes, Xena," Pelius replied, looking off into the distance. "When will we link up with Borias?"

"About noon tomorrow, I expect," Xena replied, wiping sweaty bangs from her forehead. "Okay. Lykus, get the men off the road and into the shade. Have my tent set up back there atop that slight rise," she said, pointing back behind the stand of trees to a small hillock.

"As you say, princess," Lykus replied, turning his horse and trotting up the road to the head of the long column of infantry.

"And Pelius, make sure your scouts aren't observed. We don't want unwelcome visitors before Borias gets here," Xena told Pelius. She sat and watched as the man spurred his horse up the road, his arms waving a signal for the riders to follow him.

Xena signaled Argo into a slow trot, heading the horse toward the hillock where her tent would be erected. She turned in the saddle and watched as the baggage train began winding its way off the road and into the trees. As she reached the small hillock, Xena dismounted and stood beside Argo, watching her tent go up on the crest.

The afternoon hours passed quietly. Pelius and his scouts returned and reported the surrounding area secure. Pelius also brought Xena a present. His men had found a secluded pond and meadow not far from the army' encampment. His gift was well received.

Xena fidgeted as she sat Argo and surveyed the pond and its seclusion. The dirt and grit of the march had made its insidious way into every crack in her leather armor. Her body was coated and she hated it. A bath would make the day complete.

Xena dismounted and began removing Argo's saddle and tack. The grass around the pond was lush and Argo could get in a good graze while her mistress attended to more personal matters -- getting clean again.

"There, my little girl, go on," Xena told her friend, watching the filly prance over to a particularly succulent looking clump of grass.

Xena smiled as Argo rolled in the grass. Turning, she walked down the gentle slope to the pond and sat by the water's edge. She surveyed the pond and the surrounding meadow, her soldier's instincts inspecting the area for possible defense against attack. Yes, she thought, we can defend this place if we are disturbed. The men will be pleased at the chance to get clean themselves. They can use the pond to wash up after the guards have been set. But only after I get clean. Commander's privilege, she smiled. She giggled out loud at the prospect of being clean again.

Her decision made, Xena quickly rose and began undressing, discarding her hot leather and bronze armor. Off came the leather and bronze cuirass and pauldrons, then the brown underblouse, to be quickly followed by her knee high leather boots and shin guards. Standing in just her short leather half-breeches, Xena reached up and removed her helmet. Laying the headgear aside, she removed her breeches and loincloth.

As her last bit of clothing was thrown aside, Xena began stretching out the tired muscles of her young body. She still marveled that after so many battles she remained unmarked. Well almost, she smiled. The finger-nail shaped crescent above her right breast reminded her of the death ritual she had sung for Lyceus the year before. If she looked really hard, she could see the four tiny puncture wounds that lay below her navel, wounds given her by a Greek traitor. She dismissed the haunting echo within her soul, dismissed the words -- "and killed your child".

Xena's face was still chiseled perfection despite having broken her nose twice. Only the slightest hint of a long scar between her breasts, and ending up at her waist, reminded her a fierce night battle fought in the snow. Her beautiful long black hair covered the scars of her many head wounds. All in all not bad, she thought as she continued stretching her long limbs. Eighteen years old and still in form, still beautiful. Even her single combat with the Dorian Champion, Kalis, had left her whole and intact.

Xena shivered as another voice echoed deep within her soul. But you died in that fight, the echo said. You are dead to the world. No longer Xena, the echo reminded her, the sudden image of a dark clothed stranger coming unbidden to her mind.

Clamping down hard on her inner voices, Xena turned from her stretching and dove into the cool water of the inviting pond. Furiously, she swam as hard as she could, headed for the other side of the pond. Then, she swam back to her starting point, her arms windmilling faster and faster as if she were being chased by a demon.

As she reached her starting point, Xena began scrubbing herself, removing the dirt and grime of the march. Her scrubbing became frantic as the echo was heard again. She scrubbed until her skin was not just clean of the grime. No, she scrubbed until it was livid red, scrubbed to rid herself of this maddening voice that found her no matter how hard she tried to hide from it. "You are dead -- no longer Xena."

Soon, her scrubbing became to painful to bear and the young woman ceased her frantic efforts to scrub away her past. As control returned, Xena hauled herself out of the pond and sat on the rocks by her discarded armor.

Youth is flexible and Xena quickly put aside her inner turmoil and sat back to enjoy the hot sun as it warmed her naked body. As her emotions settled, Xena began humming softly to herself. She did not notice that the tune she hummed so quietly was a well remembered lullaby from her childhood.

Xena relaxed and let the heat of late afternoon play on her skin. Her humming became words as the lullaby twinned itself around her heart.

"I love it when you sing," Borias said in a low voice.

Xena bounded to her feet as the soft words disturbed her repose. Stumbling backwards in confusion, she fell down, her naked backside making a loud splash as she hit the water. Sputtering, she came to her feet, her face flushing as Borias' laughter taunted her.

"Oh, you do look lovely, Xena," Borias laughed as he walked toward her, reaching out a hand to help her from the water.

Xena took his hand, her blush deepening as Borias inspected his commander. Her anger at being so rudely interrupted disappeared as Borias helped her back to the rock. Xena sat unashamedly, watching Borias begin removing his own travel stained clothing and light armor. As the man stood, after removing his boots and breeches, a wicked smile came over Xena's flushed face. Without warning, she picked him up in her strong arms and threw him in the water.

Now, it was Borias' turn to sputter as the water closed over his head. Coming back to his feet, he reached up and yanked on Xena's arm, bringing them both into the pond's comforting depth. Surfacing, they stood facing each other, just looking the other up and down, silly grins plastered on their faces.

"If you intend what I think you do, Borias, we need to get you clean first," Xena said playfully as she began scrubbing Borias' chest and back. "I'm clean for the first time in ages and I don't want your dirt getting all over me. Or inside me," she chuckled, her hands going lower to capture him in their warm grasp. "And where did you come from, anyway?"

"I knew you were close, so I left Manus in charge and rode on ahead," he replied, shivering as her hands moved against his skin. "I came for you, Xena. It's been too long."

His body grew heated as her callused hands continued their intimate caress. Borias just stood and let the young woman scrub his skin clean of the dirt and grit, the itchy reminder of his long ride south. After she finished her task, Borias swept her up in his arms and ran up the bank toward the grassy meadow where Argo grazed contentedly.

Lying Xena down on the soft grass, Borias ran over to where his horse stood quietly nibbling the green grass of the meadow. Seizing a blanket off the rear of his saddle, Borias ran back to where Xena waited in flushed silence. Returning to her side, Borias laid out the blanket and sat down beside her. He reached across and placed a hand on Xena's shoulder, pointedly ignoring her naked breasts.

"Are you sure?" he asked huskily, his voice full of emotion.

Borias received no answer. At least not an answer in words. No, Xena's response was a physical one. She reached up and grasped his hand, bringing it down to rest on her breast. As his hand came into contact with her warm flesh, Borias pulled her down to lie beside him.

Xena reached up and drew his face to hers, her tongue probing his mouth in a fevered kiss. Borias returned her kiss with passion, his legs moving between hers, his hands gently caressing her breasts. Xena cried out in joy as he entered her, her eyes locked on his as she began moving with him.

After a while, their bodies spent and at peace, the two lay beside each other watching the darkness of evening begin slipping across the pond. As her breathing returned to normal, Xena looked across at her new lover and smiled at the sloppy grin spread out across his weather beaten face.

"You've been waiting for that, haven't you my friend?" she asked languidly, reaching out to stroke his stubble roughened chin.

"No, not waiting," Borias replied, intercepting her fingers and kissing them softly. "Expecting, more like."

"Don't take what we just did too lightly, Borias," she told him, snatching back her fingers from his lips. "Don't take me for granted."

"You misunderstand, Xena," he replied. looking over at her face. "I don't take you for granted. You know I love you, that I have for some time. I've just been expecting you to return my love, is all. I'm a patient man, Xena."

"Just don't take me for granted or treat me like a child," she warned him.

Borias raised himself up on an elbow and looked into Xena's sky blue eyes. "No, I won't treat you like a child, just as a woman. The woman I love. I'll not make the same mistakes Petracles did."

Xena shuddered at the mention of Petracles; the echo of her soul returned -- my lost baby, echoed through her inner being.

Uncharacteristically, Xena surrendered to his words and mastered her haunting echo. She found it was much easier to surrender her love to Borias than to fight him as she had Petracles.

Coming to a kneeling position at his side, Xena pulled his face forward and kissed his scarred cheek. "Make love to me, Borias. Make me feel alive again," she whispered in his ear.

And he did.

Some time later, they realized full night had descended on the meadow. As Borias finished lacing up his boots, he felt Xena's hands on his neck. Looking up, he watched as she placed Lyceus' Borilus Token around his neck. Looking up into her eyes, Borias found a look of confusion on Xena's strong face. A look that told him the young woman was acting on impulse. He took her offering, his hand grasping the token in fierce possessiveness. Before he could respond to her gift, Xena was off, off to where their horses napped in the moonlight.

Xena fled Borias' side and ran to where Argo napped after her meal of succulent grass. Quickly, she saddled her friend then turned and ran back to the pond for her armor. Borias watched as the young woman pulled on her half-breeches and brown underblouse. Her boots and armor in her arms, Xena ran back to Argo. Throwing her armor across the rear of the saddle, Xena mounted and spurred Argo into a gallop. Borias watched in wonder as the woman and her horse sped up the bank, back in the direction of the army's encampment.

Borias sat in the moonlight, holding tightly to the token Xena had placed around his neck.

Continued - Part 2

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