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DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny etc. are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
All other characters and the story itself belong to the author and may not be used without permission. The lyrics to the song "Indian Strings" by Suede and "Leave" by R.E.M. are used without permission and again, no copyright infringement is intended.
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: There are vague references to sexual violence in this story, but nothing graphic.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts love/sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same sex. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.
AUTHORīS NOTES: This story can be said to take place at the end of the fourth season, but have practically nothing to do with any events of that season and therefore stands on its own. Iīve shamelessly messed up Greek history and geography with my own imagination to use for my own personal benefit, but since the show does that constantly, I guess itīs all right. I want to thank, MyWarrior, for all the time and patience sheīs invested in this project. Her encouragement and comments have been invaluable. This is my first attempt at fan fiction and I hope youīll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. Comments/feedback are more than welcome at email@example.com.
This oneīs for Susan, whoīs always in my heart.
The Amazonsī Boy
Copyright © 1999 by Day.
The following night five funeral pyres were lit. Two warriors from the village, together with two from the neighbouring village had died on the battlefield, and in the early hours of dawn another soldier succumbed to her injuries. Callias fought a long, hard battle against death, each ragged breath threatening to be her last, but when the pale morning sun rose to drive out the remaining shadows, the healer raised her head and gave Gabrielle an exhausted smile.
"She survived the night. Sheīll be all right now."
The pyres burned through the night and everyone in the village who were capable, were there to honour the dead. Ephiny held a quiet eulogy for each warrior, outlining each soldierīs courage and skills. Her voice only breaking once, when she began speaking about Terisa, the young scout, who had been stabbed from behind. It was a night of sorrow, but also a night of joy. The joy of the victorious and the joy of being alive. It was decided to have a small celebration when the injured were strong enough to participate, and life slowly returned to normal. Xena had requested that the warriors from the other village stay for at least a fortnight before returning, and Ephiny had agreed. In spite of the recent victory the thought of what might follow was never far from the Regentīs mind. The documents they had found had only been used to keep track of the soldiers pay, and hadnīt been able to put some light on who they were, or where they came from. Several Greek names had been among the more foreign sounding ones, and Xena had felt her body fill with rage. It was one thing when the city states forgot all the solemn promises of brotherhood they had exchanged, and began waging war on each other, but Greek men entering foreign service to fight Greek was something entirely different. Secretly she was glad none of the soldiers had survived, although she would have liked to have had the opportunity to question one about their targets. Gabrielle had spent most of her time tending to the injured, and every Amazon who might have felt displeased with their Queen and her refusal to fight, now felt a strong sense of pride. Without complaint the Queen knelt down on the stained floor, exchanged bloody bandages, washed dirt and gore from battered bodies and always she had kind, comforting words for anyone who might need it. Xena had guards posted on the borderland, so she could be immediately notified of any movement on the plain, and spent the majority of her time going over the attack with Lykeas or sparring with the soldiers.
Stretching her back, Gabrielle rose from the chair next to Calliasī pallet. The Captain had been drifting in and out of consciousness for most of the day, her body raging with fever. Kelife came to stand beside her and gently put a hand on the patients forehead.
"The fever has broken."
Gabrielle nodded, "I know."
"Why donīt you go home and get some sleep, my Queen? You have been on your feet for two days without rest."
Gabrielleīs entire body was aching and her eyelids felt heavy and swollen, but she shook her head.
"I canīt, not yet. The wounded need me here."
The healer reached out and lifted her Queenīs head so she could see her face.
"The wounded have been taken care of. All they need know is to rest and the same goes for you, my Queen."
When she saw Gabrielle was about to protest she smiled. "Itīs by the healerīs order," she said and gently pushed the exhausted woman towards the door.
"Go, get some sleep. I donīt want to see you again for the next 10-12 hours."
Gabrielle gave her a tired smile, the strain of the last days clearly showing on her face. She stepped outside and was surprised to discover it was night. She had been inside the hut all day and hadnīt noticed the hours slip away. On her way through the deserted village, she noticed Ephiny walking towards Lykeasī hut carrying his arms.
The Regent almost jumped.
"Oh, itīs you. I didnīt hear you coming. How are the wounded?"
"They are fine, itīll take time for some, but theyīll all recover."
"Ah, thatīs good... I know, I should have checked on them myself, but I been so busy with the funerals, and rearranging the army and... I havenīt..." She trailed off, taking a deep breath to compose herself. "I havenīt even said goodbye to Terisa yet."
Her eyes went to the South of the village where the memorial grounds were.
"I...I meant to bring her some flowers tonight and tell her... But I have to return these weapons to Lykeas first. I know heīd want them back, and after the way he fought for us it would be petty to refuse."
She silenced, but made no move to leave. Gabrielle reached out and took the weapons from the Regent.
"Iīll do that. You have somewhere else to be right now."
Ephiny gave her a grateful smile.
"Thank you, Gabrielle, youīre a true friend and a true Queen. You may not think so yourself, but you have proven to everybody in this village that youīre worthy of ruling the Nation... As if we didnīt know that already."
And with these as her parting words, the blond Amazon disappeared in the direction of the memorial grounds. Gabrielle walked the last way to Lykeasī hut and knocked on the door.
"Just a sec." She heard him answer as he moved around inside.
"Okay, come in."
He was sitting on the bed with nothing but a blanket wrapped around him, his wet clothes hanging on a chair close to the fireplace.
"Iīve put off washing for too long." He explained at her inquiring look. "Thought I might as well get it over with while I had the time."
Gabrielle nodded and gave him a tired smile.
"I know what you mean... I have your weapons with me, Ephiny thought you should have them back."
His face lit up by her words and Gabrielle groaned inwardly.
Warriors! It really doesnīt take much to make them happy. They can be stoic and brooding for days, but the moment you return them their toys, they begin purring like kittens.
"Just put them against the wall."
Gabrielle complied and placed the sword, bow and quiver against the wall.
"Where do you want your daggers and knives?"
"Oh, I guess you can put those on the floor, I wonīt be able to dress for a while."
She did as she was told, but as she raised her head, Lykeas shifted on the bed and the movement caused the blanket to open slightly and expose a tanned, muscled thigh to the hip. Gabrielle stared in astonishment. His left thigh was covered in an intricate pattern of thin white scars, circling and weaving into each other, and she knew with a freezing clarity that those patterns hadnīt been caused by any accidental strike. They had been carved into the flesh.
"Who did that?"
He looked at her for a second, unsure of what she was referring to, then realization hit and he followed her gaze to his thigh.
"What?" Gabrielle exhaled softly.
"I did... I had to prove a point once."
Gabrielle looked into the clouded black eyes, then she slowly walked out of the door, closing it as she left. Lykeas stared at the closed door, but he didnīt see it. In its place he saw bloodshot, grey eyes looking at him with drunken malice, a hand moving to reveal a knife.
The woman threw the knife and it embedded itself in the wall behind the young boy.
"You said there was nothing I could do to you, you couldnīt do yourself. So prove it!"
A small bronze hand reached for the knife...
With a groan Lykeas got up and began dressing in his still damp clothes. He wouldnīt get any sleep that night.
Gabrielle entered the Royal hut and was pleasantly surprised to see that Xena was there, but her feeling of joy quickly evaporated when she noticed the sullen expression in the blue eyes.
Seems like somebodyīs had a bad day.
"Where have you been?"
Oh yeah, definitely a bad day.
Gabrielle closed the door behind her and almost fell down on the bed. Her body was aching all over and she felt like she could sleep for weeks. Xena was standing at the wall staring at her. She had indeed had a bad day. She had woken up that morning with a terrible headache and she could still feel it throbbing in the back of her head. Then even before sheīd had the change to eat breakfast, she had had a major argument with Zelei about something so stupid, she had forgotten all about it the moment it finished. But the aggravation hadnīt left her body and that, together with the restlessness she had begun to feel, her temper had been ready to explode since noon. To make matters worse, she had been sparring with Lykeas and he had beaten her rather convincingly because her thoughts had kept drifting to other subjects, and her chest still hurt from the blow sheīd received because she hadnīt been paying attention. Zelei had witnessed it and it was her luck that Erinya had had the good sense to pull the Captain away, before she had said something that would have left her a head shorter. After that she had gone in search of Gabrielle, only to find that the Queen was still attending to the wounded and probably wouldnīt be home for hours.
Yeah right, I wonder why.
"So?" The question was followed by a raised eyebrow.
Gabrielle slowly pulled herself up in a sitting position on the bed.
"You know where I have been, Xena. Iīve been with the wounded."
"I thought they were all out of danger?"
Gabrielle sighed and began to pull off her boots.
"They are, but that doesnīt mean they still donīt need to be cared for."
Blue eyes narrowed.
"Yeah, I bet."
Gabrielle raised her head a looked at the warrior, a frown on her face.
"Whatīs that supposed to mean?"
Xena crossed her arms over her chest.
"Donīt you think itīs funny that the Amazon Queen herself so vigorously spends all her time with the wounded, tending to their every need, when the healer and her helpers are more than capable of that?"
"Iīm just trying to do my part."
"Oh, is that so?"
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh.
"Xena, what are you talking about? Iīm too tired to play games with you tonight."
"What Iīm talking about is that maybe there is a reason, why youīre so keen on spending every minute of your time changing bandages, cleaning wounds or holding hands with the wounded. Or I should say one particularly wounded? A certain blond Captain perhaps?"
Gabrielle shot up from the bed.
"Xena, thatīs ridiculous!"
But the memory of Calliasīs passionate kiss entered her mind and a faint colour rose to her cheeks. If possible, the blue eyes narrowed even more.
"Touched a nerve, did I?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but was too late, the warrior had already stormed out of the hut. Totally exhausted she flung herself down on the bed.
Iīll deal with this tomorrow. I have to sleep first, and then Iīll deal with it...Tomorrow.
Xena rushed through the village till she found what she was looking for. She grabbed Lykeasī arm and pulled him with her, almost causing him to stumble from the force.
"Hey! What are you doing?"
"Weīre going hunting!"
Lykeas knew better than to argue.
The two warriors glided through the dark forest. They moved soundlessly between the trees, never within sight, but always keenly aware of the otherīs location. Lykeas suddenly inhaled a familiar harsh smell.
"I know," a voice spoke out of the darkness. "Boar."
"Wanna go for it?"
Rattling of leaves was all the answer he received.
"Guess you do."
He followed her trail, muttering to himself.
"I hope you know how crazy this is, without spears and everything."
"Itīs all part of the challenge." She answered, somewhere ahead of him.
"Have I ever told you how annoying that hearing of yours is?"
They arrived at a small clearing and came to a halt. Xena sniffed the air.
Lykeas pulled out an arrow and prepared his bow. He threw a glance at Xena.
"Arenīt you gonna use your chakram?"
Xena reached for the hilt of her sword, a wolfish grin playing on her lips.
They waited and soon they heard a heavy animal moving through the bushes. The sound was accompanied by snorting and grunting, and Xena could feel her heart rate increase, anticipation filling her body. Suddenly the grunting stopped and Lykeas involuntarily tensed. A pair of yellow eyes were starring at them from the opposite of the clearing. He raised his bow.
He sighed and lowered the bow again, keeping the arrow ready. When Xena was in one of her moods, it was better to just play along and see where it would take them. He couldnīt help but wonder if this would take them both to Tartarus a lot earlier than expected. In that instant the boar charged. The underbrush was torn apart and a huge black animal ran directly towards them. Xena slowly unsheathed her sword. The animal thundered through the clearing, small grunts of rage filling the night. Xena could smell the animal strongly now, and briefly closed her eyes.
Come here... Come here...Thatīs right, Iīm waiting...
She could feel the tension in Lykeasī body, but he didnīt move a muscle and remained at her side. Just like she knew he would. She sensed the boar close the distance between them and she opened her eyes. The arrow flew from Lykeasī bow and he immediately pulled out another. The arrow embedded itself deeply into the animalīs throat, but it didnīt even halt itīs approach. Itīs attention shifted from Xena to Lykeas and it lowered itīs head, intending to tear his legs with its fangs. A second arrow left the bow and found its target and this time the boar staggered, before resuming its pace.
"Hey you! Thatīs right, piggy, you! Come here!"
Xenaīs voice caused several birds to take off from the trees and the boar turned its sole attention to her. It thrust itself against her, and Lykeas watched in horror as Xena fell to the ground, taking the boar with her. Franticly he dropped the bow and drew his sword. With all his might he brought the sword down against the animalīs neck, through hard sinew and muscles, blood immediately smearing the blade. For a second the animal struggled then it went limp. He dragged the boar away, steadying himself for the sight of Xenaīs mutilated body. Instead he was met with sparkling blue eyes and the sound of roaring laughter.
"Gods, Lykeas! If you could see yourself!"
He extended a hand down and pulled her up.
"Iīm glad you find this so amusing. I thought youīd been killed."
Xena brushed earth and leaves off her leathers and aside from a few cuts and scrapes on her legs she appeared unharmed.
"Ah, Lykeas, you should know me better than that. It impaled itself on my sword when we went down, didnīt you see?"
"If I had, I definitely wouldnīt have been so busy stabbing it from behind, would I?" He grumbled, but a grin was slowly spreading on his face.
"Gee, Xena. Iīd forgotten how it was to go hunting with you."
Xena returned his grin, "Just like the old days."
"Yeah... What now? I donīt really feel like carrying it all the way back to the village."
Xena poked the animal with her foot. "Who said anything about going back?"
The smell of roasted meat made Lykeasī stomach rumble and Xena threw him an amused glance.
"I take it weīre feeling a bit hungry."
He smiled sheepishly, "Perhaps, just a little."
They were sitting comfortably resting their backs against a tree, a blazing fire burning in front of them. A sharpened branch with several chunks of meat had been placed just above the flames. For a while the only thing heard was the occasional seething from the fire when the juices of the meat came in contact with the flames. Lykeas lazily stretched his body with such an enthusiasm that all his bones cried out in complaint.
They began to eat, burning their tongues and fingers on the hot meat, juices running down their chins.
"We make quite a sight," Lykeas grinned and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic. "And Iīd just washed this."
When sated, Xena leaned back against the tree, enjoying the feel of her body slowly beginning to unwind and relax. She closed her eyes and inhaled a few deep breaths of air. The night was slightly colder than the ones before, but she didnīt mind. The cold air was slowly clearing her mind, and she felt the throbbing in the back of her head lessening and then disappear completely
"So... Are you gonna tell me why weīre here?"
"Like I said, I wanted to go hunting."
Xena opened her eyes and turned to look at the man beside her, half hidden in shadows.
"Itīs no big deal... I just made a terrible fool of myself tonight."
"So what else is new?"
She gave him a friendly slap.
They both knew that taking this conversation any further would lead to a discussion of more personal matters, something that neither was comfortable with, so Lykeas changed the subject.
"When do you think the reinforcements will arrive?"
Xena picked up a twig and threw it at the fire.
"I donīt know."
"You think they will come?"
"Yes, itīs only a question of time."
"I wonder who they are..."
They fell silent and soon the calm, even breathing told Xena, Lykeas had fallen asleep. She was pleased for him, she didnīt think he had gotten a lot of sleep the last couple of nights. Neither had she for that matter, but perhaps a trip to the forest, hunting boar was all it took, because she soon felt her eyelids grow heavy and a warm, soothing sensation enter her limbs. Still, she resisted falling asleep right away, enjoying her state between sleep and awareness far too much. Unbidden images came to her mind and it didnīt take long before she found herself at another fire, in a different forest, many years ago.
The fire had almost died, but neither had made a move to throw more wood on. They had been alone, sitting close to each other, the remains of the army camping further away.
"Iīd wish youīd stop doing that, it drives me crazy."
"What?" Lykeas said, looking up from the knife resting in his hands.
"That knife," Xena elaborated. "Iīd wish you stop playing with it all the time, it makes me nervous."
"Oh, sorry." But he hadnīt put it away, but begun staring at it instead.
"You know, itīs funny..."
"This was my fatherīs knife."
Xenaīs brow furrowed.
"Really? I thought... I mean, you said your father-."
"I know," he interrupted. "He forgot it when he left. My mother brought it with her... I donīt know why, perhaps as a reminder or something."
He looked up and Xena was surprised to feel a shiver run down her back, but the expression in his eyes...
Do you know what the funny part is?"
"He didnīt recognize it."
"What do you mean?"
"I showed it to him just before I killed him, but he didnīt recognize it."
"You killed him?"
"How? What do you mean how?"
Xena shook her head, "No, I mean how did you find him? How did you know who he was."
"He told her his name, remember?"
When he noticed her confusion he continued, "He told her not to forget her name and she never did."
"Lisisis was so kind to tell me. She didnīt want me to go through life without knowing, who my father was."
Xena wasnīt sure whether she should encourage him to continue or try to change the subject. So she decided to wait and see what happened. She could see in his eyes that his mind was far, far away.
"Remember when we were in Athens? Before we shipped out?"
"I looked him up. He wasnīt hard to find... He had become respectable, rich, with slaves and everything. He was married."
"Oh," Xena commented, well aware that he wasnīt listening.
"A slave fetched him for me... He was pretty annoyed, I think heīd just been woken up. He asked me what I wanted and I showed him the knife."
"What did he say?" Xena found that she was becoming intrigued by the story. This definitely beat the drunken tales of her men, she was otherwise subjected to.
"He just looked at me and asked if I was crazy. Apparently, his memory wasnīt worth much."
The dark-haired man sighed, "At least not till I shoved him up against the wall... but it wasnīt the knife he remembered... It was my eyes, or perhaps I should say my motherīs."
He looked up and Xena felt him staring right through her.
"I told him, I was glad he remembered."
He pulled himself out of the haze that had entered his mind, and tilted his head slightly to look at Xena, a faint smile showing on his lips.
"Then I killed him."
She awoke with a start. For a while she took in the sight of the black sky and the white stars, before she turned to look at Lykeas. He was still sleeping, a peaceful, almost vulnerable expression on his face. She shook her head to remove the last traces of sleep and began rebuilding the fire.
Gabrielle awoke from a restless sleep. She wasnīt surprised to find the bed empty and tried to ignore it, but after a while she had had enough and got up and dressed. It was early dawn outside and she knew she should be exhausted and try to sleep a couple of hours more, but she knew her body well enough to tell that sleep wouldnīt return. Besides she felt relatively rested and the heaviness had left her head. She stepped outside into the grey light of the morning. A faint mist lingered between the huts and the air felt damp against her skin. She took a deep breath and looked around, unsure of what to do. The village was still sleeping and no activity was seen or heard. Without really acknowledging it, she began to walk towards the healerīs hut. She paused outside the door and debated with herself whether to go in or not. She knew it wasnīt really necessary for her to be there, and that Xena probably would resent it when she found out. The last thought was also the deciding one. She felt a small fire of anger ignite inside of her.
How can she even think something like that? Doesnīt she know I love her? Doesnīt she trust me?
Gabrielle realized that because of the warriorīs unreasonable behaviour, she was suddenly more determined than ever to enter the hut. There was no way in Tartarus that Xena was going to tell what she could and couldnīt do. She wasnīt a naive village girl any longer, she was a grown woman, an Amazon Queen for Godsī sake. A Queen with responsibilities to fulfil and a duty to be there for her people in whatever way she could. The fact that Callias was one of the wounded had nothing to do with her resolve.
Touched a nerve, did I?
Xenaīs last comment came to mind, but she pushed it away and entered the hut. The hut was dark and the by now familiar smell of dried blood and something she suspected was vomit filled her nostrils. The floor had been cleared of all pallets except one, the other injured apparently well enough to be allowed home to recover under the care of friends and families. Kelife was sitting on a chair next to Calliasī pallet, her head resting against the wall behind her. The healer was fast asleep. Gabrielle gently shook her awake.
"Kelife, wake up! Itīs time to go home."
The pale eyes were bloodshot and the face grey with exhaustion.
"Wh-What! Your Majesty? What are you doing here? Didnīt I tell you to get some sleep."
"Yes, you did and I have. Now itīs your turn, go home, go to bed. Thereīs no need for you to run yourself down."
We may need your skills later...
Kelife opened her mouth to protest, but Gabrielle silenced her.
"Itīs by the Queenīs order."
The healer frowned at having her own words thrown back at her, but then she rose from the chair, a tired
smile on her lips.
"I guess, I could use a bit of sleep. I donīt think there should be any problems," she gestured towards the
patient. "But in case something does happen, you just go get me, okay? No matter what."
Gabrielle nodded and ushered Kelife out of the door.
"Weīll be fine, go home and sleep. I donīt want to see you for the next 10-12 hours."
For a second Gabrielle thought the healer was about to stick her tongue out at her, but Kelife just gave her an
little mischievous smile.
"As you wish, my Queen." Then her expression turned serious. "You have a good heart, Gabrielle. Iīm
honoured to have you as my Queen."
Gabrielle stood in a stunned silence and watched the healer walk away. Kelifeīs words slowly made their
way to her brain, and a beautiful smile showed on the young womanīs face. She closed the door again and
sat down on the chair beside Callias. She studied the Captainīs face and was relieved to see that a bit of
colour had returned to her cheeks. She hadnīt spoken to her since the night at the practice field and to be
honest, she didnīt know what to say, when the moment arrived. She desperately wanted Callias to know that
it was okay what had happened, that she didnīt need to feel ashamed. It just couldnīt happen again. A little
voice in her head that she had been able to silence till now suddenly began to make itself heard.
Oh, come on, Gabrielle. Why donīt you admit it? You enjoyed it when she kissed you. Youīre not fooling
anybody. And donīt pretend you didnīt know how she was feeling, nobody is that blind.
"But I didnīt," Gabrielle whispered to the empty room. "At least not at first."
Really? What took you so long? Was it the way she she looked at you when she thought you didnīt notice?
Was it the dancing or the fact that she was willing to die for you and almost did?
"I love Xena, thereīs nobody else for me," Gabrielle once again whispered to the room.
Oh, and where is your precious warrior now? She ran off as usual, didnīt she? They way she always does
when the going gets tough. Whereīs her faith in you? Whereīs her faith in your love?
Gabrielle pressed her hands hard against her head, willing the voice to go away and it did, but only to be
replaced by another.
Callias was awake.
The afternoon had begun to change into evening when Lykeas and Xena finally arrived back at the village. They had spent a relaxing day with hunting and frustrating the Hades out of the Amazon guards in the forest. Xena had begun by betting with Lykeas that he wouldnīt be able to sneak up on one and soon the innocent little wager had turned into an exciting little game they both enjoyed thoroughly, much to the guardsī dismay. So it was with a rare feel of satisfaction and peace, Xena bid Lykeas goodbye and went inside the Royal hut only to be greeted by a fuming Gabrielle.
"Where have you been?"
Xena vaguely recalled having used the same words the night before, and that opening hadnīt turned out very well. This time she sat down on the bed while Gabrielle stared at her, standing in the middle of the hut.
"Hunting." The warrior meekly replied, hoping they could get this argument over with soon.
"You disappear for the entire night and half a day without telling anybody, and thatīs all you have to say?"
"I can take care of myself," Xena replied, beginning to feel just the slightest hint of annoyance.
"You didnīt ever consider I might be worried about you, did you?"
Gabrielle was clearly not happy and Xena sighed, this wasnīt going well. She knew she shouldnīt say this, but she couldnīt stop herself.
"I thought youīd be too busy to even notice I was gone. Donīt think Iīm not aware of your little walk on the wild side, Gabrielle. I saw you kiss her."
For a moment all words left Gabrielle and she could just stare at the warrior, disbelief mingled with guilt written on her face.
"She kissed me." Gabrielle finally managed to say.
"Oh, really? You didnīt look like you minded it very much. Frankly, to me it looked like you were having a jolly good time with her tongue in your mouth."
Gabrielle paled at the words, but at the same time felt the fury she had been holding inside her all day begin to build.
"I meant to tell you."
"When? Youīve had plenty of time to tell me"
Speaking the thoughts that had been on her mind for days, added to the anger filling Xenaīs body and she was helpless to control it. She didnīt want to control it.
"Perhaps if you didnīt run off all the time, I would have had the change to actually tell you," Gabrielle replied harshly. "But that has always been at trademark of yours hasnīt it, Xena? To run off whenever something gets too complicated for you to deal with."
Xena rose from the bed, the blue eyes glaring dangerously.
"I wouldnīt begin talking about running if I where you, Who is it, whoīs practically taken any opportunity that came along to try and leave me."
Gabrielle began to reply, but stopped herself, taking a deep breath. This wasnīt going anywhere. She wasnīt sure where Xenaīs last statement had come from, but she knew the warrior well enough not to take it lightly.
"Xena, I would never leave you."
"You have before," the warrior growled.
Gabrielle felt her temper flare again.
"If youīre so keen on spending time with me, how come I practically havenīt seen you for the last two weeks? It seems to me youīve spent more time avoiding me than being me with."
"In case you havenīt noticed, " Xena retorted and took a step forward. "Iīve been busy fighting a war! Iīve spent every day of the last week, trying to come up with a plan to save your precious Amazonsī necks when the reinforcements arrive. You and everybody else might have forgotten, Gabrielle, but I havenīt. They will arrive and when they do, they will attack."
"You donīt know that!"
"Oh yes, I do, because thatīs exactly what I would do. A strong leader canīt allow his men to see him in defeat."
"And youīd know all about that, wouldnīt you?"
Their faces were inches apart and the air between them almost sparkling with electricity.
"Just because you arenīt capable of leadership doesnīt mean I not," Xena spat out and immediately regretted her words, but whatever apology she was about to make disappeared from her lips, as Gabrielle slapped her in the face.
"Donīt you ever say that again!"
Xena didnīt even flinch, just stared at her in utter disbelief. Her initial reaction had been to fling Gabrielle through the room, but she clenched her jaw and forced the thought away.
Never! Iīll never hurt her!
Rage ran in her veins and her breathing was ragged.
Out! I have to get out of here!
She spun on her heels and for the second night in a row, the Warrior Princess stormed out of the hut. Gabrielle stared blindly at the door.
This canīt be happening... This canīt be happening...
She wanted to scream in rage and frustration, she wanted to cry to release the immense pain she was feeling in her chest and she wanted to run after the warrior, grab her and never let her go, but instead she sank listlessly down on the bed.
Xena spent the next week avoiding Gabrielle. Not that she ever openly acknowledged it to herself, she just found other things to do and other places to be. Fortunately for her, there was a lot to do. Warriors from three other villages had arrived, and hours of heated discussion followed between Xena and Zelei about which steps to take when the army arrived. Zelei openly doubted that any more soldiers would show up, and accused Xena of being a control freak with a severe case of paranoia. Xenaīs response was to disappear into the forest for hours with Lykeas, and if Zelei had thought about it, she would have known that those trips probably saved her from being hurled against the nearest wall. Gabrielle didnīt understand Xenaīs behaviour and had gone over their argument in her head countless times to find out what had triggered it all. She was hurt by the warriorīs lack of trust and still angry for having her abilities as Queen questioned. It had taken her a long time to feel comfortable in her role as leader of the Amazons, always doubting herself or having her capability doubted by others. Xena had stood by her all that time, but now when she had finally gained her confidence and was respected and loved by her subjects, the one person who should always be there for her had abandoned her. In her heart she knew Xena was proud of her, but her anger and misery together with the nagging sense of guilt she carried with her, prevented her from reaching out. At times she would curse Xena for doubting her, and at other, she would curse herself for getting into this mess in the first place. She felt guilty for hurting Callias first emotionally, then physically. Although in her right mind she knew that she wasnīt to blame for the latter, and that in war soldiers get wounded, she couldnīt lose the thought she somehow was to blame. So she spent a lot of time with the Captain trying to be her friend, knowing full well that Xena would get the wrong impression, and the fact that she actually enjoyed being with the blond Amazon did nothing to improve the situation. As the days passed it became harder and harder to be the one to make the first step, particularly because neither really knew where it had gone wrong. Gabrielle thought Xena was behaving unreasonably and childish, and Xena, whoīd rather die than admit it, had been deeply shaken by what sheīd witnessed at the practice field, and was hurt and not just a little angry, Gabrielle had chosen not to mention it. They still shared a hut, but Xena spent most of her nights in the forest either patrolling the border or hunting with Lykeas, and when Gabrielle didnīt have work to do, she spent hers reading scrolls, eager to learn everything she could about the history and culture of her people. She also spent a considerable amount of time with the Amazon Captain, who had recovered enough to leave the healerīs hut and begin walking around supported by crutches. It gave Gabrielle a cruel sense of satisfaction, the rare moments she noticed Xena seeing her talking with Callias, and although she instantly regretted it afterwards, she couldnīt help it. Ephiny was too tied up in work to be of any real help, although she did try to talk to Gabrielle about it and Lykeas remained neutral, never indicating that he was even aware of any problems. Not being very comfortable with emotional issues himself, he found the entire story somewhat tiresome and was beginning to look forward for some action that would put an end to Xenaīs bad mood.
The third week after the battle, the celebration to honour the dead and celebrate victory was held. In spite of the Regentīs words of caution, a lot of Amazons felt the need to wash away all thoughts of the past and all worries about the future, and the drinking steadily increased through out the night. There was plenty of food and wine since three fifths of the soldiers were on duty, some patrolling the border, others the forest and the rest guarding the village. However, there was no danger of the celebration being dull since everybody else had decided to participate in the festivities with twice as much enthusiasm as usual, and soon roaring laughter and music was all the sullen guards in the forest could hear. Xena had first considered skipping the party, but Lykeas had stubbornly refused to go with her, and she hadnīt felt like going into the forest on her own with nobody to distract her from her thoughts, so she had stayed. To her surprise she realized that she was actually having a good time, and in the back of her mind she knew it probably had something to do with the countless glasses of wine she had consumed, but the company wasnīt bad either. Lykeas had found somewhat of a friend in Erinya, and together the three warriors enjoyed themselves tremendously, telling preposterous stories and bragging about their skills and courage as fighters. Gabrielle was sitting further away, closer to the dancing and once in a while she turned to look at Xena, but to her silent annoyance the warrior didnīt even indicate that she had noticed her presence. Soon several more soldiers joined the warriors and Gabrielle lost sight of Xena who, until then, actually had thrown several glances in the Queenīs direction, but her eyes had never rested long on her, but always come to a halt staring at the blond Amazon beside her. Once the two pair of blue eyes had met and Xena had lost all sense of what was going on around her, concentrating only on the challenging, but gentle eyes staring back. Xena looked away first.
"...And ever since then, we never had any problems with getting him to bathe regularly!" Lykeas finished his anecdote to a roar of laughter and he smiled briefly. He was feeling quite at ease, in spite of being surrounded by Amazons, something heīd have sworn would never happen. Xena emptied another glass of wine and reached for the wineskin. She remembered the incident Lykeas had just told about very well, since it was of one her men, whoīd been subjected to Lykeasī rather unusual idea of an education. She caught his eye and gave him a big grin.
"Kleipion was never the same again after that little lesson."
Lykeas returned her grin with a smug smile, "Well, that was sorta the idea behind it all, wasnīt it?"
He raised his glass and they toasted, their eyes meeting in a quiet understanding. One of the soldiers from the regular army began to tell an anecdote of her own, but Xena was unable to pay attention for long. She was beginning to feel restless. The wine, the stress of the last couple of days and the never ceasing rhythm of the drums had blended together into a fiery, intoxicating cocktail running through her veins. All her senses were keenly alert and she felt her entire body fill with an energy that made it almost impossible for her to remain seated. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing and fight the impulse to get up and run till she dropped from exhaustion. As she opened her eyes she found herself staring directly into a pair of dark brown eyes, openly admiring what they saw. Xena returned the gaze, a sultry smile playing on her lips. The woman across from her was slender, but the short leather skirt and top didnīt nothing to hide the firm muscles playing under the tanned skin every time she reached for her glass or turned to say something to the soldier beside her. Xena didnīt recall ever having seen the warrior before and came to the conclusion that she was from one of the other villages. The woman leaned forward to reach for the wine skin, thereby giving Xena an uninhibited view of her cleavage, and there was no doubt in the warriorīs mind that that exactly was the sole purpose behind the movement. For a moment her gaze lingered on the soft flesh before she returned to look at the woman, who gave her a seductive smile, obviously not minding the appreciative look in the blue eyes one bit. Xena suddenly found herself wondering what it would feel like to bury her head in the warriorīs long chestnut coloured hair, nudging her thigh between the firm legs, her hands slowly sliding down to... She brought herself back to reality with a small shake of the head, but the movement together with the look in the dark warriorīs eyes hadnīt gone unnoticed by the Amazon, who gracefully rose from her seat. Without a word she extended a hand to Xena, who took it, suddenly feeling terribly nervous. She knew she hadnīt thought this through. She had responded to an attractive woman without thought or consideration of the consequences. It was a game she had played countless times for so many years as a warlord, and it was so deeply integrated in her that she was helpless to respond. But things had changed and now, in spite of all her skills, she felt like a player, who had entered a somewhat familiar, but still foreign game without knowing all the rules. She was about to mutter some kind of excuse and then disappear, when her eyes fell on Gabrielle leaning close to Callias, whispering something in the Captainīs ear oblivious to the blues eyes watching them. Xena turned to the woman still holding her hand.
Callias smiled at her Queen again and was about to speak when something caught her eye. Gabrielle noticed the Captainīs nonplussed expression and followed her gaze to the dancers. It took her a few seconds before she realized that she actually was seeing was her disbelieving mind told her she couldnīt be. Xena was dancing with another woman, their bodies so close together that not even air could pass between them. The warriorīs hands were on the Amazonīs hips, whose own hands were tightly around Xenaīs neck, occasional sliding one down her back, caressing the dark hair. They swayed together in a sensuous rhythm, practically not moving from the spot. As if feeling Gabrielleīs gaze, Xena raised her head and looked straight at her, the blues eyes both challenging and inviting. Still with their eyes locked, Xena let her hands slide down to cup the Amazonīs rear pulling her closer against her body. Gabrielleīs eyes widened for a second before narrowing. She rose from her seat and without a word or a second glance at Xena, left the celebration. She entered the Royal hut and within seconds felt a presence behind her. Arms encircled her from behind and calloused hands reached for her breasts. Gabrielle pulled herself forcefully out of the embrace and turned to face the warrior.
"How dare you humiliate me like that in front of the entire village!"
Xena didnīt answer, but stepped forward and Gabrielle suddenly found herself with her back against the wall of the hut. She tried to move away, but Xenaīs arms came down on either side of her body holding her in place.
Lowering her head till their faces were only inches apart Xena drawled, "Iīm not the one whoīs been publicly flirting with one of her subjects all night."
There was a dangerous edge to the warriorīs tone and a shiver ran down Gabrielleīs back, but she didnīt have time to respond as Xena lowered her mouth to hers and forcefully thrust her tongue inside her mouth. With one hand Xena began to unlace Gabrielleīs brown leather top while the other went down to slip up under her skirt. Gabrielleīs senses railed against the sensual onslaught, her body just wanting to give in to the warrior, while her mind was furious about the way she was treated. Xenaīs tongue was everywhere in her mouth, demanding and fierce, leaving the young woman breathless. She felt a hand move inside her top and couldnīt help but release a moan when the rough fingers found an erect nipple. Xena pressed her harder against the wall, trying to get Gabrielle to put her legs around her waist. Gabrielleīs mind finally surrendered to her body and she returned Xenaīs kiss with a passion matching the warriorīs, her hands going around the bronze neck to pull her head further down. Xena broke the kiss and obligingly moved down to take a nipple into her mouth, eliciting another moan from the blond woman. Gabrielle felt a hand push her legs apart and she closed her eyes to give in to the sensation.
"I bet Callias never made you feel like this."
Gabrielleīs eyes snapped open, a cold fury burning through the haze of desire and arousal. She shoved the warrior hard in the chest, causing her to stagger and take a few steps back.
"So is that what this is all about? You see this as some kind of competition where the winner gets to fuck the Queen!"
Xenaīs face was flushed, her eyes dark with the desire. She stepped forward and tried to push Gabrielle back against the wall, but Gabrielle swiftly evaded her hands and moved away.
"So tell me, Xena! Is it?" Her voice loaded with anger. "Not that you really have to worry about losing, since Callias is still recovering and nowhere capable of shoving me against the wall and take me. So I guess that means you win."
"Gabrielle..." Xena growled and closed the distance between them, but Gabrielle avoided her again.
Xenaīs expression hardened.
"If youīre not gonna give me what I want, Iīll go find somebody who will."
"Then I suggest you do that," Gabrielle spat out, green eyes flashing, "Because thereīs no way youīll be fucking me tonight."
For endless moments they just stared at each other, faces flushed and breathing laboured. Xena was feeling consumed by anger and desire and had to force herself to remain still and not reach for Gabrielle again. The tension in the hut was unbearable and for a moment Gabrielle felt a small tingle of fear, but then Xena turned on her heels and marched out. With the warriorīs departure Gabrielle felt all strength leave her legs and she slowly sank to the floor, burying her head in her hands.
Lykeas awoke with a thundering headache. He remained lying on his back for a couple of minutes before slowly, very slowly sitting up on the bed. Fortunately the room stopped spinning fairly quick and after a few deep breaths, he managed to stand. He noticed he was still fully closed and sighed in relief, he wasnīt sure his stomach would have approved if heīd have had to bend down and pick up any clothes. He opened the door and squinted against the harsh light of the sun. It was noon, but the village was practically deserted and Lykeas came to the conclusion that he wasnīt the only one, whoīd had slightly more to drink than good was. He let the fresh air caress his face and wash away the ache in his head and soon he began to feel more like a human being again. He closed the door behind him and began walking to the stables, deciding that a short stop to see Rarjan was in order. He hadnīt had the change to ride for weeks and knew the horse missed their trips together just as much as he did. Halfway there he noticed Zelei coming from the other side of the village, a sour expression on her face. He ignored her and walked passed the Captain inside the stable. For some reason unknown to him, Zelei followed him inside. He could feel her eyes at his back, but continued to stroke Rarjanīs mane, whispering quietly to his horse.
"It was quite a show last night." Zeleiīs voice interrupted the silence.
Lykeas didnīt turn around and briefly argued with himself whether he should answer. He knew heīd probably regret it, but he couldnīt stop himself.
"I donīt know what youīre talking about."
"Oh, then you must be the only one," Zelei answered and Lykeas more felt than heard her step a bit closer. "Iīm talking about the little display between our Queen and her warrior."
The way she spat out the word Queen didnīt escape Lykeasī attention and he slowly turned.
The Captain pleased with herself for getting his attention continued, "I donīt think Xena got lucky last night, do you? From the look on the Queenīs face when she left the celebration it must have been a very cold night for the Warrior Princess. Or perhaps itīs just a game they play, to get their juices flowing. I bet our little Queen loves it when she is thrown on the floor and thoroughly fucked all night by her warlord."
Lykeas raised his hand to smooth out an eyebrow.
"You know, you really shouldnīt talk like that."
He knew Zelei was trying to provoke him and he also knew that it was working. The Captain put her hands on her hips.
"Oh, and why not?"
"Because itīs your Queen youīre talking about and she demands your respect whether you like it or not and..." His voice was soft, but cold, "She...is also my friend and I wonīt have anybody talk about a friend of mine like that."
He stared at Zelei and for a moment the Captain could swear she saw something in the black eyes, but before she could identify it, it was gone and replaced by his usual unreadable look. He walked pass her and left the stable. Zelei suddenly felt disappointed, she had begun to enjoy this confrontation and didnīt want it to end just yet. She quickly followed him outside and fell into stride beside him.
"She may be your friend, but sheīs no more Queen of the Amazons than I am, although Iīm more likely to be qualified than she is. Hades, everybody in this village is more qualified than she is."
Lykeas stopped and turned to look at the woman beside him, but didnīt speak.
"The Amazons doesnīt need a leader, whoīs too weak to fight and refuses to defend whatīs ours. Sheīs not even a real Amazon, this charade shouldīve been brought to an end long ago."
"Zelei..." The warning in the dark manīs voice was clear.
"Oh, come on, Lykeas," the Captain smirked, "An Amazon has to be willing to fight for whatīs hers, and from what Iīve heard, even that crazy mother of yours knew that, although Iīll admit it didnīt do-."
Her legs disappeared from underneath her and she cried out in surprise as she fell to the ground. Before she knew what had happened she felt a heavy weight on her chest and a hand closing around her throat. The grip tightened and she tried to throw the body off her, but to no avail. Her pale brown eyes stared into the black ones above her, only inches away from her face. A second hand locked around her throat and her vision began to blur, obscured by a red fog. Her hands which until then had been on Lykeasī chest trying to push him away, moved down to her throat, her fingers frantically struggling to loosen the grip. As her strength left her and her body began to go limp, Lykeas leaned down and whispered, his mouth almost touching her ear.
"Youīre gonna die now."
"Lykeas, get off her!"
Zelei barely registered her Regentīs panicked, but commanding voice.
Lykeas slowly turned his head and stared into the brown eyes. Ephiny saw a myriad of emotions briefly run across his face, then painfully slow, he loosened his grip around Zeleiīs throat and stood up. For minutes the only sounds heard were the hoarse gasping and coughing from the Captain, who was still lying on the ground, her face deadly pale. When her breathing had calmed, Ephiny stepped forward and pulled Zelei to her feet, then moved away again, to study the two persons in front of her.
"What in Tartarus was that about?" Her voice cold and controlled, practically oozing authority.
Lykeasī gaze had never left the Regent and didnīt do so now.
"Zelei and I... We had a little...disagreement."
His eyes rested briefly on the Captain before returning to Ephiny.
"She said that...strength was the best weapon and I said...speed was... I was just proving my point."
The Regentīs eyes narrowed, barely able to control her anger, but she didnīt say anything and turned to look at Zelei.
"Itīs that true?"
The Amazon Captain looked away, "Yes," her answer sounding strained, her throat still recovering from the abuse.
Ephiny looked at one then another.
"Is that all you have to say?"
They both nodded in reply.
"Zelei, go get Kelife to look at your throat and then come to my hut, I want to talk to you."
The Captain nodded again and hurried away.
"And you, Lykeas, youīre gonna remain inside the guest hut for the rest of the day. Youīre not to leave under any circumstances, and if necessary Iīll use force to keep you there. Is that clear?"
He looked at her with the so familiar veiled expression, not one movement revealing what he was thinking. Then he gave her an almost imperceptible nod and left in the direction of the hut. Ephinyīs eyes followed the dark man til he disappeared from her view, then shook her head in a mixture of frustration and confusion.
Inside the hut, Lykeas took off his leather tunic and the thin tunic of wool he was carrying underneath. He kicked off his boots and threw himself on the bed wearing only a short pair of breeches. This was going to be a bad day, he just knew it. Lying on his stomach he lifted one then another shoulder, trying to loosen up his tense muscles. He could feel a painful ache where his spine ended and his skull began, and knew without any doubt that he would be having the headache of a lifetime within the next couple of hours. He heard his door open, but recognizing the steps didnīt turn around.
"Let me help."
He moved over and felt the bed shift slightly as the warrior positioned herself on the bed, straddling his hips. She began throroughly and efficiently to work out the knots, occasionally moving a hand up to press down on the sore muscles between neck and head.
"Gods, Lykeas! You have to learn to relax. Your muscles are like stone."
She found a particular painful area and he squirmed underneath her.
"Itīs supposed to. If youīd only follow those neck and shoulder excercises I told you about, this wouldnīt be nescessary."
"I forgot," came the noncommittally reply.
"Well, donīt come complaining to be me then, when you have one of your headaches."
Lykeas just smiled against the pillow. Xena continued her now more gentle ministrations in silence and Lykeas felt himself slowly begin to drift off.
"Iīll kill her."
"No, you wonīt." His voice muffled from the pillow and his mind wondering how it was that Xena always seemed to be fully aware of everything that happened.
"Youīre right, I wonīt... But Iīd really like to though, sheīs been bothering me since our arrival."
"Well, she wonīt have the oral skills to bother you for a while, Iīve made sure of that."
"I know," Xenaīs hands stopped and she absently counted the scars on Lykeasī back. "What exactly was it all about."
Lykeas managed to shrug. "She...she said something about Gabrielle that she shouldnīt have."
"I suspected that much," Lykeas could feel the warrior tense against him. "Maybe Iīll kill her anyway."
She felt Lykeas move underneath her and she lifted herself off of him and sat down on the end of the bed. Lykeas sat up with his back against the wall, pulling his knees up and resting his arms on them.
"I donīt think Ephiny would be too understanding if she was suddenly one captain short," he said with a small grin. "But youīre right, itīs tempting."
Xena gave him a menacing grin in return, her mind going through all the appealing things she felt like doing to Zelei and, she admitted to herself, to another captain as well. For a while they were both silent, Lykeas gaze distant and thoughtful, and Xenaīs focused on the jagged scar marring her friendīs lower abdomen from just above the navel to the hip. Then reaching a decision, she cleared her throat.
He turned his attention back to her.
"Back when...I mean, when you left..."
"Yes?" He repeated calmly, but she could see the black eyes had become keenly alert.
"Well, I just want you to know, Iīm sorry about...about what happened and everything."
He looked at her in silence and she couldnīt read his expression.
"I know... I know things didnīt turn out the way you wanted them to. I know you must feel I let you down, but I swear... I didnīt mean to. I really wanted it, just like you, but then..." She trailed off, feeling very uncomfortable by the blank look on his face.
"Things change, Xena." He said softly. "And itīs not like it came as a total shock... I mean, I sorta saw it coming."
She looked away, unable to hold his gaze. He reached forward and gave her hand a gentle squeeze before returning to his position against the wall.
"Itīs okay. It may not have been what I wanted, but..." This time it was him who looked away. "In the end, I just wanted you to be happy...one way or the other."
Xena looked at him, startled by this unlikely emotional response from the dark warrior. She knew he would be terribly embarassed if she commented on it, so instead she just gave him a warm smile.
He shrugged and looked away again.
She waited till he had returned his eyes to her.
"I want you to be happy too."
"Yeah well, I-."
His was interrupted by the sound of running feet outside and several voices shouting. Xena shot up from the bed and stormed outside, Lykeas close behind on bare feet, pulling the leather tunic over his head. Several Amazons ran past them to the village square and Xena and Lykeas wasted no time in following them. A crowd had already gathered and they pushed their way thorugh till they were almost face to face with a panting Amazon warrior. Xena grabbed the womanīs arms to get her attention.
"What?! What is it?!"
In spite of clearly having run for several miles, the Amazon was white as a sheet.
"The...The soldiers are coming!"
"The soldiers? Are they on the plain?"
The warrior shook har head and a strange expression entered her eyes.
"No... They are in the forest... They are coming here!"
Xena narrowed her eyes trying to make sense out of the panting soldier.
"But how can that be? What about the border patrols? Why havenīt they notified us?"
Tears began to flow from the warriorīs eyes.
"They...theyīre dead. They were ambushed. They were butchered by the soldiers. We...we could hear their screams...even through the forest."
The Amazon sank to her knees, shock and disbelief written on her face.
"By the Gods! Those screams, I can still hear them."
Xena stepped away from the despairing woman, a cold, calculating expression in her eyes.
"Okay, listen up folks! You all heard her. I want to see all warriors and anybody else capable of fighting back here fully armed in two minutes. I want somebody to get the Queen and the children into safety, and I want-."
She never got to finish her sentence for in that moment hell broke loose and death made its entry into the village.
Soldiers stormed in from all directions of the village and immediately the sounds of battle filled the air. The Amazonīs in the square were scattered as three men on horses rode between, cutting down warriors as they went by. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw Lykeas spin on his heels and sprint the way back to his hut, narrowly ducking a spear from a soldier suddenly appearing between two huts. With a low curse, Xena unsheathed her sword, her chakram and armour were still in the hut, but she didnīt have the time to worry about that as one of the riders moved directly towards her, raising his sword. She waited until the last moment then jumped to the side, grabbing onto the soldierīs leg and pulling him off the horse. The soldier barely managed a shout of surprise before Xena plunged her sword into his chest.
Inside the hut, Lykeas went straight for his sword and without boots or armour returned outside. The village was chaos. Everywhere people were either killing or being killed. Amazon warriors, some only partially dressed were engaged in fighting with fully armed soldiers, while riders kept coming through, their swords slicing through unguarded flesh on their way. And all the time, in a neverending stream, enemy soldiers kept coming. Lykeas saw Xena standing on the same spot where he had left her, bodies scattered all around her. Right now she was slowly forced back by four soldiers in brown uniforms, but before he could move, he heard the air sing and he instinctively ducked. A sword penetrated empty space where his head had just been and he kicked out behind him, grinning in satisfaction when he felt his bare foot connect with the soldierīs groin. He turned a saw a young man, sinking to his knees, clutching his private parts. Without thought, Lykeas swung his sword, almost separating the soldiers head from his body. With an animalistic cry, he turned and ran forwards, letting himself be swallowed whole by the mayhem of screams, blood and death.
Still groggy from sleep, Gabrielle stumbled out of the hut. Her eyes widened in shock as she saw a young Amazon run pass her, a soldier on horseback closing in from behind. Gabrielle screamed out a warning, but was too late. A spear penetrated the Amazon and for a second she was still, before her body fell off the spear to the ground. The soldier roughly moved his horse around to stare into the green eyes of the Queen. His face lit up in a bestial grin and he dismounted, drawing his sword. Gabrielle took a step back, but found herself with her back against the hut. A strange calmness entered her body. Forgotten was the chaos around her, silenced were the cries and clangs of metal, and the smell of blood and smoke disappeared. She only saw the broad, bearded soldier rapidly close the distance between them. Her eyes locked onto his face, her gaze never wavering and her back straight, the only indication of fear being the tight clenching of her jaw. The man was so close now that she could smell the sour odour of sweat coming from his body. He raised his sword and she closed her eyes.
Forgive me, Xena.
Ephiny placed her foot against the dead soldierīs chest and yanked her sword out. Promptly another soldier charged and she brought her sword up to block. She had been caught off balance and the powerful blow made her sink down on one knee. Pressing his advantage, the man angled his sword to stab her from above, but then stared in disbelief as his intestines slipped out from the horizontal cut in his stomach. He dropped the sword to press his hands against the wound, his brain marvelling at the surreal experience of feeling his own intestines between his fingers. Then he fell to the ground and the last thing he saw before he died, was the bloody dagger in the Amazonīs left hand. Ephiny got up and caught a short glimpse of Kelife ushering the children down a narrow path between two huts, before her attention was drawn to a horse thundering towards her. She ducked to the left, but felt s sharp pain in her left arm as the riderīs sword sliced through the flesh. She felt the blood run down her arm, but didnīt have time to look as the rider charged again. The dagger left her hand in one fluid motion and sank deeply into the manīs throat, and with a gurgling sound he fell forward, then sideways down the horse.
Zelei found herself cornered by three men and her grip tightened around the axe. She knew she had to even the odds fast and she swung the axe. She felt a cruel satisfaction as she watched the blade sink into the thigh of the closest soldier. He screamed and fell backwards, blood splashing out from the vein that had been opened. Zelei turned her attention to the soldier with the sword, shifting her axe from hand to hand, her face contorted into an inhuman grimace.
Leda screamed out in pain as the sword penetrated her heart and all light disappeared from her eyes.
A white hot pain made Calliasī eyes tear up, but she didnīt halter her approach. In a haze she saw the Queen close her eyes and the soldier in front of her lift his sword to deliver the fatal blow. With an impossible force drawing both from adrenaline and pain, she threw herself against the soldiers side, causing them both to fall. The man cried out in surprised and anger, and tried to shake the Amazon off him. Callias tightened her grip around the manīs chest, trapping his arms down his sides. She knew if she let go she would die. She could already feel herself begin to lose consciousness from the pain in her side. A warm liquid drenched her tunic and it took her foggy brain a few seconds to realize it was her own blood. She felt her grip around the man weaken, and as he felt it too, he pushed her off him and got to his feet. He plunged his sword against her chest, but an inch before it should have penetrated her, Callias felt her body being pulled out of danger, her shoulder almost dislocating from the force of the movement. Xena stepped over the bleeding Captain and closed in on the soldier. Her face was smeared with blood, the blue eyes glowing and her entire body radiated primal power. The soldier knew he was dead even before he felt the blow.
Lykeas spun around and found himself face to face with Ephiny. They both only just managed to stop their swords inches before they would have met. Ephiny gave him a strange smile.
"Thereīs no reason to make this harder than it is already."
He couldnīt help himself and smiled in return.
Side by side they sliced, plunged and cut their way through the next ten soldiers. Lykeasī arm was crying out in complaint every time he raised the sword to deliver another blow, and blood and sweat kept running into his eyes, obscuring his vision. Suddenly seemingly out of nowhere four soldiers emerged and began circling them. Ephiny turned till her back was against Lykeasī before charging. Lykeas kicked the sword out of the first soldierīs hand, ignoring the excruciating pain in his foot, and let out a chilling laugh as the sword flew through the air and impaled another soldier from behind. He heard a low groan, and out of the corner of his eye, saw Ephiny step away from the dying man at her feet. He quickly discarded the second soldier and searched the square for his next opponent, when he felt the slight warmth against his back disappear. He turned and his eyes widened as they took in the sight of Ephiny slowly sinking to the ground, an arrow penetrating from her chest. Their eyes locked and time stood still as black and brown mingled for the last time. Lykeas saw life fade from the brown eyes and Ephiny fell forward, her body convulsing a few times, before lying still on the bloody grass.
Lykeas stared, his entire body motionless. He didnīt hear the soldier behind him before his head exploded in pain and he spiralled into darkness.
"The only abnormality is the incapacity to love."
- Alexander the Great, 356-323 BC
Xenaīs gaze briefly rested on Ephinyīs funeral pyre as she passed, but the warrior didnīt slow down. As she was embraced by the forest, she stopped and took a deep breath, relieved to be free of the smell of burnt flesh. The forest around her was quiet and the rattling of leaves when caught in a breeze was all she heard. She followed Gabrielleīs trail without making a sound of her own, until her eyes saw a familiar figure sitting against a tree, knees pulled up under her chin and arms wrapped around them. She took a few steps closer and although she could swear she didnīt make a sound, Gabrielle raised her head and looked directly at her. Their eyes met and for a second neither moved, but then Gabrielle bolted up and buried her head against Xenaīs chest, her arms going around the warriorīs neck. Xena had to take a step back to regain her balance, before wrapping her arms tightly around Gabrielleīs waist, pulling her as close as she could. How much time passed as they stood together, locked into a fierce embrace, Xena couldnīt tell, but she didnīt care. All she concentrated on was the woman in her arms, crying quietly. As she felt Gabrielle begin to relax and loosen her death grip around her neck, Xena put a finger under the bardīs chin to raise her head. Gabrielle looked up and the warrior gently began to wipe away the tears, the calloused fingertips remarkably soft against Gabrielleīs cheeks. Without a word, Xena led Gabrielle back to the tree where she had been sitting earlier and sat down with her back against the trunk, pulling the bard down on her lap. Gabrielle leaned back and rested her head against Xenaīs shoulder, shifting slightly sideways so she could put her arms around the warrior. She used all of her willpower to ignore the hollow ache inside and instead focus entirely on the strong arms holding her. Xena raised a hand and let her fingers run through the bardīs hair in a slow, comforting caress, repeating the motion over and over again. She felt the tension slowly leave Gabrielleīs body and bent her head to plant a light kiss on the blond hair.
"I miss her."
Xena left her lips rest briefly on the silky hair before answering, "I know."
"Itīs not fair." Gabrielleīs voice breaking slightly.
Xena lifted her head, staring up at the sky, "No."
Gabrielle tried to snuggle even closer to the warrior, if possible she would have crawled inside of her and never come out again.
"Why did so many have to die?"
Xena knew it was a rhetorical question, Gabrielle only speaking her thoughts out loud, even so, she didnīt have an answer. Many had indeed died. Two thirds of the village, including the warriors from the other villages, had been killed in the nightmarish battle that had taken place three days before. The Royal Guard had been practically extirpated and more than half of the regular army had been wiped out as well. Of the warriors patrolling the border, none had survived. Even after the battle was over, more than two dozens of Amazons had succumbed to their injuries, in spite of Kelifeīs frantic attempts to save their lives. The only bright point was that none of the children had been hurt, and that was the one thing everybody focused on when the pain in their hearts became too much. They had lost their Regent, but the children were alive. They had lost lovers and friends, but the children were alive. Although to some it was a small comfort as they watched loved ones die in their arms. Almost immediately after the battle, funeral pyres had been lit in spite of protests from the relatives, Kelife insisting it should be done to avoid any epidemics. For two days the sky over the village had been darkened by smoke, a darkness reflected in the eyes of the survivors. The bodies of the enemy soldiers had been gathered in two big piles away from the village and then put on fire, nobody lingering to watch the flames do their work. Three men had been captured before the army retreated and were know held in custody, their future faiths as yet unknown, but Xena doubted it would stay that way for much longer. Too many had died and Xena knew she would have to question them soon, now all the funeral arrangements were over, and people would begin to concentrate on something other than their immediate grief. What happened to the men after she had questioned them was none of her concern, but it was Gabrielleīs. She sighed and looked at the bard, now sleeping in her arms. Tonight she could grieve like anybody else, but when dawn arrived, Gabrielle would have to leave her safe haven in Xenaīs arms and step out to become the leader her people needed her to be. Xena knew in her heart that Gabrielle would find the strength required, but she was mortally afraid of what it might cost the young woman in the end. Without loosening her hold, she managed to get to her feet and began walking back to the village, the bard still sleeping in her arms.
"We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way, and frankly I donīt care which, but I think you might do."
Xenaīs face was only inches away from the terrified soldier tied to a chair. When she didnīt get a response, she turned to look at the other two captives, who were also tied to their chairs, a malicious grin on her lips.
"Donīt think youīll get anywhere with this silent routine of yours, I know you can understand me."
She walked behind them and smiled at their futile attempts to turn their heads to see what she was doing. She bend close to the first soldier and whispered seductively into his ear, "You know, I donīt really need three of you to get what I want."
She moved to stand behind the next soldier and leaned forward again.
"Actually, one of you will be enough to tell me what I want to hear."
She stepped behind the last man and practically purred.
"So...you do the math."
She walked around to face them again and noted to her satisfaction that her words had been understood. She smiled pleasantly at them, the smile never reaching the blue eyes.
"But, of course, Iīm not inhuman or anything," she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, "so Iīll let you make the decision."
The soldiersī faces paled as their minds went beyond the ingratiating tone of her voice and the meaning of the words struck.
"Itīs your pick," Xena gave them another sweet smile, "Iīll be back in fifteen minutes to hear, who youīve decided should live."
She walked to the door and opened it, but lingered in the doorway, turning to look at them again.
"Make the most of it."
Xena paused outside the hut and closed her eyes, willing the adrenaline coursing through her veins to disappear. She needed to stay focused and not lose sight of her objective with this small performance.
But damn! It feels good.
Her ears picked up a sound and she turned to look at Callias. The Amazon Captain was leaning heavily on two crutches, the low afternoon sun making her blond hair shimmer with a reddish glow.
Even on crutches, I canīt deny sheīs beautiful. At least Gabrielle has good taste...although she did choose me first. Guess her judgement must have improved along the way.
The last thought released a sudden, sharp pain in the warriorīs chest, but not once did her face betray what she was feeling. She raised an inquiring eyebrow at the Amazon, who obviously was trying to gather her wits and say something.
"Do you think theyīll talk?"
They both knew that this wasnīt what she wanted to say, but Xena just shrugged.
"Eventually. Eventually they all talk, itīs just a matter of time."
Callias nodded and cleared her throat while Xena waited patiently, suspecting that the Captain was about to approach the subject she had come for.
"I...I wanted to thank you for saving my life."
The warriorīs face remained expressionless, prompting Callias to go on. The Amazon was clearly feeling uncomfortable, but her gaze never wavered, and, although reluctantly, Xena couldnīt help but feel a great deal of respect for the decisive Captain. It took courage to face an angry Warrior Princess. Of course, Xena didnīt feel angry, instead a strange, all-important sense of calmness had settled inside her body, but then again, Callias couldnīt know that. The Captain cleared her throat again.
"Well, I just wanted you to know that Iīm in your debt, if thereīs anything-."
"No, youīre not," the warrior interrupted.
The Amazon looked puzzled.
"What...what do you mean "no"? You saved my life, I owe you." Her face hardened, "Itīs a question of honour, and I wouldnīt feel comfortable by just letting it slide by and pretend it never happened."
"You have already repaid me."
"What?" Callias narrowed her eyes in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"You saved Gabrielleīs life." The warriorīs voice was very quiet. "And for that I can never repay you. You owe me nothing, whereas I will forever be in your debt."
Xena walked away, leaving the Captain to stare at her back in astonishment.
The people in the councilīs hut were quiet, all digesting what theyīd just heard. Xena was leaning against the wall, her arms crossed and waited impatiently for somebody so say something. The occupants in the room were the same who had been there weeks before, except for the empty chair, constantly reminding everyone of what had happened. The only new addition to the council was Kelife, who sat in Xenaīs chair, after solemnly having declined to sit in the Regentīs, and nobody had felt the need to argue. Lykeas fidgeted in his seat and Xena knew the silence and inactivity was beginning to bother him.
"Do you believe they tell the truth?" Erinya asked, a small frown on her face. "It sounds almost too fantastic."
Xena stared dispassionately at the weapons master.
"I would think that the battle we experienced the other day is proof enough. It make sense...at least to me."
"I take it thatīs because itīs the way you would do it?" Zelei smirked, watching the dark warrior with half closed eyes.
"Probably," was all the answer she got.
The room was fell quiet again until another captain broke the silence.
"So what youīre saying is, is that these people are trying to conquer Greece by taking one small piece at the time."
"Although," Callias continued, "that by that rate it would take forever to finish."
"Yes, but itīs practical," Xena replied, her gaze resting on the Amazonīs face. "If a foreign force invades and conquers a huge part of land, theyīll be met with fierce resistance everywhere and even old enemies as Sparta and Athens will forget old grudges to unite and drive them off Greek soil."
She looked around in the room to see if they were still following her.
"But if they instead take their time and only take one city here, one kingdom there and wait till things have settled down and people gotten used to having them around, perhaps even welcome the new rulers, then nobody will see them as a serious threat until itīs too late. They will be able to slowly and gradually expand their territory before anybody realizes what happened."
"That would require enormous resources."
Xena looked at Lykeas, "Yes, resources we all know the High King of Persia possesses."
"I donīt think that any Greek would take kindly to a Persian army invading his country, "Zelei objected. "No matter how slow they take it."
"Oh?" Xena slowly turned her head to look at the Captain. "Do you think any man in this country would have raised an eyebrow if the Amazon Nation had succumbed to a Persian Army? Do you think they would be too worried if the Centaursī territories were taken as well? And what about the Islands? Or if some of the so-called kingdoms ruled by nothing more than petty murderers were to fall into their hands? Would they care enough to assemble a costly army and risk the lives of their young men? Trust me, to most Greek men if something takes place further away than the walls of their cities, it might as well not take place at all. Besides, they would make sure it didnīt appear as a Persian army. Itīll be sponsored and equipped by Persia, but most of the soldiers will be mercenaries and officially Persia will claim to know nothing of it."
"Will they return and try again?" Gabrielle spoke for the first time, staring down at the table.
"Here?" Xena inquired and Gabrielle nodded. "No, they soldiers said their orders were to take the Nation with as few casualties and as fast as possible, and if somehow things didnīt work out, they were to retreat and meet up with the main force."
"And whereīs that stationed?"
Xena looked at Lykeas, uncertainty showing on her face, "Thatīs the funny thing, they claimed it should be somewhere north of the river Ister."
"But thatīs crazy! Itīs too close, an army of that size would have been noticed."
Xena let out a small sigh and nodded, "Thatīs exactly what I donīt understand. How come we havenīt heard anything? Troop movements of that size canīt possibly have gone undetected."
"What did the prisoners have to say about it," the weapons master asked, a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Ah, " Xena shrugged in disgust. "They didnīt know or they claim not to know and frankly I believe them. They are all too low in the hierarchy and, in my opinion, too stupid to have been informed. They are apparently all kept on a need to know basis only."
"Perhaps they are lying?" Zelei gave the warrior an innocent smile.
"No, I donīt think so."
"Well, I guess youīd know what youīre talking about. After all, Iīve heard you can be rather persuasive when you want to or at least were...back in the good old days."
Xena found herself getting increasingly tired of the Captainīs attitude, and mentally she wondered why of all the people whoīd been killed, Zelei couldnīt have been one of just them. She caught Lykeas staring at her and she returned the almost invisible smile on his lips, they were clearly thinking along the same lines. Callias, who was also fed up with her colleague, decided to change the subject.
"So what, if anything, are we gonna do about it?"
Xenaīs eyes flickered to rest at Gabrielle before she returned her gaze to Callias.
"I donīt know what you are gonna do, but Iīm going north."
"What do you mean?" All eyes in the room fell on the Queen.
"What I said, Iīm going north," Xenaīs jaw tightened. "Iīm going to Ister to see for myself whatīs going on and if necessary do something about it. Thereīs no way Iīm gonna let an army, Persian or not, get foothold on Greek territory. Itīs just too close...itīs too close to home."
Even Gabrielle had to look away from the intense fire burning in the blue eyes, and she looked down at her hands in her lap, and saw to her surprise they were curled tightly into fists.
"When are you leaving?"
Gabrielle was sitting on the bed in the Royal hut looking down on her hands, and Xena who had been leaning against the wall, took a step forward, but stopped herself.
"In a day or two."
"Iīm not coming with you."
The words were spoken so quietly that Xena had to strain to hear them, and even though she had been prepared, they cut deep into her heart. She closed her eyes briefly, but even with her eyes close she could still see the blond woman on the bed, looking desolate and pale.
"I canīt leave them," Gabrielle continued as if she hadnīt heard the warrior speak. "We lost so many, more than half of the huts in the village are empty, they need me. The Gods only know if I can do anything to help them, but I at least I have to try... I canīt abandon them, I wonīt...not right now."
Xena leaned back against the wall, her legs suddenly feeling weak.
"I know;" was all she managed to say.
Gabrielle looked up and in spite of her words, Xena could see the doubt written all over her face, and she took a decision.
"You should stay, they need you here, and if anybody could do anything to help them it would be you."
The bard gave her a weak smile, then her expression changed slightly and Xena saw something in the beautiful green eyes, she couldnīt quite define.
"If I..." Gabrielle looked down at her hands again for a second, then looked up, "If I asked you to stay, would you?"
I canīt, Gabrielle... Donīt you see that?
"I have to go, you know that."
For a moment it looked like the bard slumped further down on the bed, then she straightened her back.
"Is Lykeas going with you?"
"Yes, and maybe also Areia. She said there wasnīt any reason for her to stay here anymore."
"Iīll talk to her if you donīt mind, I donīt want people to leave, although I sure knows itīs tempting, but if this village is ever going to return to some semblance of normality, Iīll need people to stay. I donīt want the village to die out, I owe Ephiny that much."
"I understand that."
For a while silence hung in the air, then Xena headed towards the door. Gabrielle looked up at the movement.
The warrior turned.
"The prisoners, they have to die, havenīt they?"
"Itīs not my decision, Gabrielle. Itīs yours. I...I canīt help you with that. The Queen decides who lives and dies in the Nation, not me."
Gabrielle looked away from the blue eyes looking at her, afraid that if she didnīt, she would say to Tartarus with her resolve to be there for the Amazons, to be their Queen in more than name only.
"If you want, you can appoint a new Regent..." Xenaīs voice was hesitantly and uncertain.
"No, Iīm not going to run from my responsibilities again."
The bardīs face was determined and Xena suddenly didnīt see a young insecure woman on the bed, but a confident and passionate Queen loyal to her people beyond any doubt. Her heart both warmed and froze at the thought.
"You should probably send for help from the other villages for supplies and let it be known that anybody who might be interested to come and live here are more than welcome to do so, that way the village will be populated faster. You should also ask for at least 50 warriors, so you have some kind of defence and I think itīd be wise, if you ever have any doubts to ask Kelife what she thinks. She seems like a reasonable person to me, also keep a look on Zelei. Sheīs a troublemaker and I..." Xena suddenly stopped, afraid she had overstepped her boundaries, but Gabrielle just smiled.
"Thank you, Xena. Iīll keep that in mind."
The warrior nodded in relief and absently ran a hand through her hair.
"Well, then... Iīd better go find Lykeas."
She put her hand on the door, but didnīt open it.
"Callias is a good woman, you should rely on her, too."
Xena closed the door quietly behind her.
Walking through the village, Gabrielle felt her throat constrict again. Although days had passed since the attack, she still hadnīt gotten used to all the visible reminders there were left. A small fire had erupted and luckily only two huts had burned, but the charred remains where still there. She shivered from the thought of what could have happened if the direction of the wind had been any differently. In so many ways they had been fortunate, but it was hard to believe when you saw the still recovering wounded limping pass on crutches or heard the cries of pain from the healerīs hut, and then there was the never ending line of relatives and friends paying their respects to the death at the memorial grounds. Even from a distance you could smell the flowers which had been planted there and were meticulously tended to by those who had been left behind. The worst of it all though, was the sense of hopelessness and despair that hung in the air and seemed to take hold of everyone in the village. Gabrielle knew she had to do something, but to be honest she didnīt know what. She desperately wished Ephiny was there, she needed the subtle and friendly guidance of her Regent, but she wasnīt and now Xena was leaving as well.
Although, she knew the reason why, she couldnīt help but feel there was more to it than that. Xena had behaved differently after the battle, not hostile or annoyed, that Gabrielle could deal with, no, she had been withdrawn and distant as if she had already left in her head. The warrior had slowly pulled herself further and further away. She was never cool or unfriendly and had stood by Gabrielle when she needed it most, but now after the funerals were over and the time to live again had begun, the warrior had become resigned and silent. It was a mood Gabrielle didnīt understand the reason for and it scared the Tatarus out of her.
Iīm losing her and I donīt know why.
As she neared the practice fields, she saw Xena and Lykeas sitting on the fence with their backs to her. Before she could step any closer, Xena turned her head and looked at her, their eyes meeting for the briefest of moments, then she spoke quietly to Lykeas, before sliding down from the fence and disappear in the direction of the stables. Gabrielle felt like she had been punched in the stomach, and just stared after the warrior. Lykeas shifted on the fence and turned to face her. She slowly turned her gaze to him and he gave her a faint smile.
She didnīt answer, but stepped closer to climb onto the fence beside him.
She could feel his eyes search her face.
"Are you all right?"
She had to smile at his hesitant tone of voice, and wondered for a second how he would react if she told him how she really felt. Heīd probably rather face a pack of starving wolves, then having to listen to the emotional problems of the Amazon Queen.
He nodded to himself and she could tell he knew better, but obviously didnīt know where to go from there, and most likely didnīt want to either. A thought suddenly struck.
"But what about you? How are you doing?"
"Oh, Iīm fine. My headīs healing nicely." He gestured to the stitches barely visible above his right ear. "Xenaīs always said I was terribly thick headed, but it sure came in handy this time."
He smiled at her again and Gabrielle realized he hadnīt understood her question.
"No, I mean, how are you doing..." Gabrielle strained to find the right words. "How...how do you feel about Ephiny? I mean..." She faltered and could almost see the walls go up in his eyes.
For a long time he just looked into her eyes, and Gabrielle had the unpleasant feeling he was trying to read her mind, and even worse, succeeded in doing so.
"Iīm sorry she died." He then said noncommittally. "I know she was your friend."
"She was your sister."
He stared at her and the slightest hint of emotion flickered across his face, but whether if was anger or something else she couldnīt tell.
"It doesnīt matter anymore what she was, Gabrielle. Sheīs dead."
He jumped down from the fence.
"Iīll leave you alone. I know you have a lot to think about."
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling another burden settle on her shoulders.
"Youīre right, I canīt believe how I could forget that for a second."
"Probably because you wanted to. Thatīs usually the way it works."
He lifted his hand in a half-hearted greeting and as he began to walk away, and Gabrielle suddenly found herself becoming angry at his lack of response, her mind refusing to believe he could be so cold.
He turned, his face expressionless once again.
"Youīre not fooling anybody."
His eyes were suddenly filled with such a sadness that Gabrielle forgot all about what she had intended to say.
"I have no intention of fooling anybody, Gabrielle."
He left her there, sitting on the fence, staring after him.
Xena carefully opened the door to the hut and looked inside. Gabrielle was lying on the bed fast asleep. She was fully dressed and a few scrolls were scattered around her and some had fallen down onto the floor. A single candle illuminated the room, bringing shadows to life and making Gabrielleīs hair shimmer in a soft glow. For minutes the warrior just stood motionless, watching the young woman on the bed. She wanted to be able to remember this moment forever. She wanted always to be able to recall the beautiful, pale face and the soft, slightly parted lips. She wanted to remember the sound of her breathing, the scent of her hair and most of all, she desperately wanted to see into those hazel eyes that always took her breath away, making her lose sight of everything else around her. In that moment Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena almost shrank back when she saw the beautiful eyes looking back at her, and felt how she was slowly losing herself in the depths of them. Without a word, she left the hut and the woman inside. She hurried through the village, suddenly desperate to reach the forest. She avoided the guard there and dived aimlessly into the darkness. She broke into a run, but no matter how fast she ran, she couldnīt shake the dull ache in her heart. When she finally came to a halt, she was panting and her body covered by a light sheen of sweat. To her surprise she noticed her legs and arms were covered by several cuts and scrapes from thorns and branches. She hadnīt even noticed it happening while running. The moon emerged from the clouds and bestowed the trees around her with patches of black, grey and silver, the colours shifting whenever the leaves were caught in a breeze, but the warrior paid it no attention. When she had finally regained her breath and the beating of her heart had stilled, she began to slowly walk back towards the village, her feet not making a single sound on the soft ground. As she stepped out from two trees, she saw Gabrielle. The bard was standing with her back to the warrior, her eyes searching the forest. Xena didnīt dare breathe as the young woman slowly raised her head and turned to look at her. She felt how all her senses were brought back to life the moment their eyes met. She felt the warm wind against her skin, she heard the rattling of leaves from the trees around them, and she sensed the presence of the small animals hurrying through the bushes a few feet away, but somehow it seemed to come from far away, and it all paled in comparison to the intensity she felt radiating from the woman in front of her.
The word was spoken softly, almost a caress and the warrior felt a shiver run down her back. She wanted to speak, but the words died on her tongue.
"Xena, I donīt understand..." Gabrielleīs voice nearly broke and the warrior had to restrain herself from taking the bard into her arms.
"Why do you..." She stopped and looked away for a moment.
"Donīt you love me anymore?"
This time her voice was barely above a whisper and now it was Xena who looked away, unable to hold her gaze.
"Whatīs happening? Whatīs wrong with you?"
The bard was angry now and took a few steps closer
"Look at me!"
When the warrior didnīt comply, she closed the remaining distance between them and put a hand under her chin, forcing the dark woman to look up. The bardīs green eyes shining with fury and frustration were in stark contrast to the emotionless blue looking back at her. Gabrielleīs expression hardened and without a word she wrapped her arms around Xenaīs neck and crushed her lips against the startled warriorīs. The blond womanīs tongue forced its way into Xenaīs mouth and as her grip around the warrior tightened, Xena felt her knees go weak. Involuntary her arms went around Gabrielleīs waist and she felt herself melt into the searing kiss. Bodies interlocked, they sank to the ground, tongues and mouths never ceasing the relentless assault. Xena pushed Gabrielle down onto her back and lowered herself to cover the bardīs body with her own. Their kisses and touches became frantic and desperate. Clothes were torn from bare skin, and demanding hands and mouths sought claim to each otherīs bodies with a frenzy and urgency that drove all other thoughts away. It was only the two of them together and nothing else mattered. They clung together unable and unwilling to let go even for the briefest of seconds. Afterwards, without having spoken a word, they fell into an exhausted sleep in each otherīs arms. When Gabrielle awoke the next morning, she was covered by a blanket and her clothes had been neatly placed in a pile beside her. There was no sight of the warrior.
The first couple of days passed in silence. Lykeas occasionally threw a glance at Xena, but the warrior stared straight ahead, oblivious to everything around her. They rode fast and only paused when it was absolutely necessary for them to catch a few hours of sleep, or to give the horses a rest. The road they were following was in a remarkable good condition, a testimony of the fact they had left no manīs land behind them and entered a kingdom. Three kingdoms separated them from the river Ister. The first two were minor ones, ruled by Polyidos and Simmias, men Xena had heard little, but nothing bad about, and she doubted they would have any problems passing their territories. The last kingdom, however, was another matter. King Kassander was known as an arrogant and proud man, and if one first found oneself on his bad side, there was no turning back. He was hungry for power and wealth, believing himself to be a direct descendant from Achilles and wanting nothing more, than having his name branded into history for all times to come. On more than one occasion, when still a warlord, Xena had sacked his villages and robbed him off his gold, and although it was years ago, she knew he still had a price on her head. If she were to fall into his hands, she would be executed on the spot.
Or perhaps I should consider myself lucky, if thatīs all heīd do to me.
She looked at Lykeas and tried to remember if he had ever been with her on one of her many raids in Kassanderīs kingdom, but she couldnīt remember. As always, when she thought back to her past, it was hard to distinguish one village from another, and one kingdom from the next. There had been so many and she hadnīt cared. It all came together in a mist of blood and smoke, and only a few scenes were clear and unmistakable. Scenes like Cirra and Corinth, her encounter with the Horde. These were images she would never forget no matter how much she tried, and in some way she supposed it was only fitting. She turned to look at Lykeas again. Heīd been at Cirra with her, but she doubted he would remember if she asked him. He noticed her look and gave her a questioning glance in return, but she looked away.
Maybe one day...
She was abruptly brought back to reality by the sound of a scream coming from somewhere ahead of them. Without a second thought she pushed Argo into a gallop, barely registering the look of surprise on Lykeasī face as she thundered down the road. Lykeas sighed and brought Rarjan into a gallop as well, quickly closing the distance between them. As they came closer they could hear the sound of flowing water and soon after they saw a river cutting through the land ahead with only a small bridge to bind the road together. A young woman was standing on the bridge, sobbing uncontrollably. When she saw them coming, she frantically gestured towards the water, and Xena practically jumped off Argo and ran to the young woman without losing a step.
"My baby! My little girlīs in the water. Please help her, she canīt swim!"
Xena looked down at the roaring water and swallowed when she saw a small form appear on the surface for a few seconds, only to be dragged under again by the current. She swiftly removed her armour and sword and was about to jump into the water, when the small from appeared again. The river had pulled the girl further away, but even from the distance she could hear the low thud as the small body was crushed against a rock sticking out of the river, and Xena knew without a doubt that the little girl was dead. She stepped away from the edge and the woman looked at her, terror and denial written on her face.
"What are you doing? Please help her! She canīt swim."
Xena reached out to the woman, but she shrank away.
"Why wonīt you help her? Donīt you understand, I canīt swim either! Please, she needs your help. The other man was willing to help!"
The warriorīs brow furrowed and she grabbed the woman around her wrist.
"What other man? Is there somebody else in the river?"
When the woman just stared at her without answering, Xena turned to look at Lykeas, who was still sitting on Rarjan.
"Lykeas! Can you see anybody in the water?"
He rose in the saddle and let his eyes search the river.
"No, but the currentīs awfully strong. If anybodyīs in there heīd have been dragged further away."
"Take a look, will you? Iīll try to get the girl out."
Lykeas shrugged and left the road to ride parallel with the river. Soon the river narrowed and the current became less dangerous, but there was no sight of anybody. Just as he was about to return to the bridge he saw something in the middle of the river, clinging to a branch that had been trapped between two rocks. For a few seconds he just took in the scene in front of him, then an almost resigned expression crossed his face and he slid out of the saddle. Discarding amour and weapons on the way, he ran the last yards to the river, before jumping straight into the water. Immediately he felt the strong pull of the current and realized too late that he had underestimated its force. Before he managed to take another breath, he was dragged under the water again. He fought the panic that was rising inside him and willed himself to relax. It wouldnīt do either of them any good if he lost it, and somehow, of all the different scenarios Lykeas had pictured himself dying, drowning in a river while trying to rescue a stranger hadnīt been one of them. Just before he thought his lungs would explode, he felt the current release him and he shot through the water, towards the surface. Finally he was able to breathe again and he drank in the air so forcefully that his head began to spin. When he had himself under control once more, he realized he was able to tread water and remain on the same spot. He had been pulled further to the other side of the river, and apparently the current was less strong there. Still, by the time he was close enough to reach the man holding onto the branch, he was practically drained of all strength and had swallowed more water that heīd thought humanly possible. He grabbed the manīs arm, but didnīt get a reaction.
Oh fuck! Donīt say I have to get him back to the bank on my own.
He shook the man a few times, but except from fluttering of eyelids there was no response.
Just great! Just great! Remind me to thank you for this one, Xena.
He gave up his attempts to wake him up and put his arm around the manīs chest. With a powerful kick of his legs, he pushed them away from the rocks and with only one arm free, he started to swim back to the bank. After what felt like forever he entered shallow water and could reach the bottom with his feet.
"I got him."
Strong arms, lifted the man out of his grip and Lykeas felt how the last strength left his body. He slumped under the water, only to feel a hand pull him back up.
"Oh, no you donīt."
He smiled at the sound of Xenaīs voice and felt his body be half dragged, half carried out of the water.
"Donīt think for a second you can deny me the pleasure of teasing you with this noble deed. If I didnīt know better, Iīd say youīd just done something heroic."
Inspite of the playful words, the concern in Xenaīs voice was evident and Lykeas felt a faint warmth enter his otherwise freezing body.
"So thatīs why you pulled me out. You were afraid you wouldnīt get the change to bother me with this."
Xena gently placed Lykeas next to the other man on the bank.
"Exactly, your reputationīs been totally ruined. If youīre not careful people might actually think youīre a nice guy."
"Uh, we wouldnīt want that to happen, would we?" Lykeas replied, just before slipping into unconsciousness.
Xena threw a couple of branches on the fire before sitting down on her bedroll. She grabbed her sword and began the slow, meticulous task of sharpening the blade. Not that it really needed it, she always kept it in perfect condition, but there wasnīt anything else to do. Her gaze fell on the two men lying on the other side of the fire. Lykeas hadnīt been hurt in the river, just gone out cold and still was, but by now she suspected his state of unconsciousness had turned into sleep, so she wasnīt worried. The other man, although he was hardly more than a young boy, had received quite a few bruises and cuts, but nothing too serious and he would be fine in a couple of days. After dragging them out of the river, she had made a fire and gotten rid of their wet clothes and covered them with blankets. Sheīd had a hard time with the young woman whoīd lost her daughter, and if it hadnīt been out of respect for her loss, Xenaīs temper wouldīve flared several times. She had managed to retrieve the small body from the river and had accompanied the woman home. The womanīs village had only been a few miles away so it hadnīt taken too long, and immediately after having delivered the woman into the care of her husband and mother, Xena had headed back to the river. She hadnīt been too happy about leaving Lykeas and the boy alone, but she couldnīt let the at times hysterical, at others catatonic woman go home alone. To her great relief Lykeasī weapons had still been where heīd left them, she wouldnīt have liked having to tell him they were missing. After taking care of Argo and Rarjan, she had made camp on the bank, caught a few fish and was now waiting impatiently for her patients to wake up. A small movement made her look up from her work and look at the young boy. His head moved slightly and a small groan escaped his throat, before he slowly opened his eyes to look around. Brown eyes widened as they took in their surroundings and came to rest on Xena. He sat up with a start, only to discover his current state of nakedness and frantically wrapped the blanket closer together. A furious blush showed on his cheeks and Xena had to fight not to laugh.
"Donīt worry. I swear, I didnīt peek."
The young boy blushed even more from her last words and this time Xena couldnīt suppress a smile.
"Who are you?" He finally managed to say.
"My nameīs Xena and sleepyhead there beside you is Lykeas."
The young boy removed a few light brown strands from his eyes and looked at the man beside him. Then suddenly remembering, he turned his gaze back to Xena.
"The girl! The girl in the river! Did she make it?"
Xena shook her head sadly, "No, she died... Did you know her?"
"No, I didnīt. I was on my way home when this woman came screaming about her little girl had fallen into the river. I wanted to help." He cleared his throat to get rid of the lump he felt there. "I guess, I wasnīt much of a help."
Xena gave him a reassuring smile, "You shouldnīt blame yourself for failing, only for not trying. You risked your life for somebody you didnīt even know thatīs nothing to be ashamed of."
"So did he." The brown-haired boy gestured towards Lykeas. "And he succeeded."
"True, but itīs the intentions that counts and Iīll bet your intentions were a lot more honourable than Lykeasī were."
She gave the still sleeping form an affectionate smile, "Lykeas doesnīt rescue people on a regular basis, only when heīs in the mood for it."
An uncertain smile showed on the young boyīs face, obviously not quite sure how he should interpret her last remark.
"Will he be all right?"
"Oh yeah, heīs just sleeping. Nothing to worry about."
Xena studied the young boy closer. Heīd light brown hair and gentle brown eyes. He was slender of build, but there was nothing frail about him. He was well muscled with the right proportions and would in time grow into a beautiful man. They way he spoke and his entire manner, made Xena wonder whether he was royalty or perhaps the son of a wealthy merchant. Guessing her thoughts he reached out and Xena hid a amused smile and shook his hand.
"Iīm sorry, I should have presented myself sooner. My nameīs Alexias, Iīm the son of King Polyidos."
"Nice to meet you, Alexias."
She was about to say something more, when Lykeas stirred under the blanket and slowly sat up. He rolled his neck from side to side before focusing on the young boy beside him. Alexias reached out and after quick glance at Xena, Lykeas shook his hand.
"Iīm Alexias, thank you for rescuing me, that was very courageous."
Lykeas face took on such an awkward expression that Xena laughed out loud.
"See, I told you, Lykeas. Your reputation will never recover from this."
He gave her a crooked smile.
"Perhaps not." Without a second glance at Alexias, he stood up. "Where are my weapons?"
Xena reached behind her and tossed the weapons to him. "Theyīre all here, but...," she paused. "Lykeas?"
"Not that I mind the view, but perhaps you should consider getting some clothes on, youīre embarrassing our guest."
Lykeas looked down at his naked body and then at the young boy, who was blushing furiously again while staring into the fire.
"Oh..." He gave Xena a suave grin.
He got dressed in his now dry clothes and picked up Alexiasī and handed them to the boy. The boy just stared at his clothes, then Xena and then Lykeas. Xena arched an eyebrow and Lykeas tilted his head slightly.
"Uh... Would you, I mean... Could you...turn around?"
Early the next evening they arrived at the gates of King Polyidosī castle. In spite of several protests from the young Prince that it wasnīt necessary, Xena and Lykeas had decided to accompany him home to his father. It wasnīt that much of a detour and besides, neither warrior thought it would be a bad idea to have the King on their good side. Alexiasī horse had disappeared after he left her at the river, so the Prince had been riding behind Xena on Argo all the way, since there was no way Rarjan would accept a second rider.
Polyidosī castle had been built in the middle of the city on a slightly higher level that gave a good view of the city and the lands surrounding it. It wasnīt the most grand or the most impressive castle, Xena had ever seen, but the solidly built houses in the city and the carefully maintained roads, spoke volumes of the Kingīs wealth and care for his subjects. When they rode through the city toward the castle, people everywhere bowed their heads for the young Prince or shouted friendly greetings and wishes of good health to him and his father. Clearly the people cared as much for their King as he did for them. When they finally arrived, the gates were immediately opened and they rode into a huge courtyard that belied the small size of the castle from outside. Barely had they dismounted before a small, chubby man came running towards them as fast as his small legs could carry him.
"Your Highness! Your Highness! Iīm so relieved to see you again! His Majesty has been so worried since your horse returned without you." The man stopped to take a few much required breaths.
"Weīve all been worried, I canīt tell you how happy I am to see you again. I trust you havenīt been hurt?" The last remark was followed by at suspicious glance at Xena and Lykeas.
Alexias stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on the sweating manīs shoulder.
"Iīm just fine, Charmides. I havenīt been hurt. Actually," he gestured towards the warriors, "these two people saved my life. If it hadnīt been for them, I most likely would have drowned."
The chubby little manīs eyes widened at the Princeīs words and he rushed to shake first Lykeasī then Xenaīs hand.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! The Kingdom of Polion is in your debt. If it hadnīt been for you... Uh, I donīt even dare to think the thought." He clapped his hands together and from out of nowhere two servants arrived.
"Proklos, Praklos, show these two heroes to our finest guest chambers and from this minute, I hold you responsible to see to that their every request and every need are taken care of, is that clear?"
The two men, who were obviously twins, nodded and then spoke in unison.
"Yes, sir. Weīll see to it right away."
"Oh, hold on just a minute, weīre actually-." Xena began, but was stopped by Alexias.
"Please, I know you must be anxious to move on, but my father will be devastated if he didnīt have the change to thank you for your deed. Please..," he said again, when he saw the doubting looks exchanged between the warriors. "Just stay for one night. Your horses will be able to rest and I know my father will like to talk to you, itīs so seldom we get any visitors from the South."
Xena shrugged, "I guess it canīt hurt, just one night."
"Okay," Lykeas said, "a nice, warm bed isnīt something I willingly decline."
"Capital! Capital!" Charmides was practically jumping up and down on the spot. "We have the softest beds in the Kingdom. Proklos and Praklos will take you to your rooms and Iīll see to that your horses are being cared for. Dinner will be at eight, but donīt worry a servant will be sent to notify you. Uh...is there anything else...?"
The little man scratched his chin in a thoughtful manner, "Oh yes, weīll have new clothes brought to your rooms, so you donīt have to worry about that."
Lykeas began to open his mouth, but Alexias put a hand on his arm, "Just humour him. When Charmides is like this, thereīs no way of stopping him." He smiled at the dark warrior, "You can wear whatever clothes you like."
Charmides frowned at this, but didnīt say anything.
"Uhm," Lykeas said, looking rather overwhelmed. "Okay, but Iīll take care of my horse. Rarjan doesnīt take kindly to other people."
"As you wish. The stables are over there. Iīll show you."
"No, Your Highness. I think itīll be better, I you pay a visit to His Majesty and inform him that you have returned. Heīs been very worried."
Alexias nodded, "Youīre right, Charmides. Iīll do that right away."
He gave a small bow to Xena and Lykeas, "Iīll see you at dinner then."
Charmides began leading them towards the stable, but Xena lingered at moment to look around. It was a very beautiful and apparently friendly place they had arrived at, and she was actually looking forward to meeting the King, who was responsible for it all. As she hurried to catch up with Lykeas and Charmides, she noticed Alexias standing on the top of the stairs leading into the castle. The young Prince was staring after Lykeas with an expression, Xena knew all too well. It was the same expression she had seen on the face of a young, green-eyed village girl in what seemed to be a completely different lifetime.
"Itīs quite a place they got here." Lykeas looked around, clearly appreciating what he saw.
"Uh huh," Xena agreed and dropped down on the bed with a small sigh. "Is your room the same?"
"Yep, the view is different, but else itīs the same."
The guest chambers were small, but beautifully and richly decorated with wall paintings and tapestries. The marble floor was inlaid with mosaics picturing scenes from hunting and war, and a huge fireplace took up almost the entire wall opposite the bed. A skin from a bear was placed in front of the fireplace and to the left of that was a small table and a chair.
Lykeas rose from the chair and stepped over to the window. The view from Xenaīs room was of the city and the route they had travelled all day. His own view was of the Royal Gardens and was quite stunning if one cared to look which Lykeas hadnīt. He turned and leaned against the wall next to the window to look at his friend. Xena was lying sprawled out on the bed and was still wearing her armour. She opened one eye and looked at him.
"Itīs almost eight, donīt you think you should get ready for dinner?"
"Ah, but Iīm so comfortable." She raised her arms before letting them fall back on the bed. "I could stay here all night."
"Well then, at least get cleaned up. You stink!"
Xena opened the other eye. "I do not!"
"Do -." Lykeas stopped himself and gave Xena an angelic smile. "I see your range of conversation hasnīt improved much over the years."
"You should talk," Xena said good-humouredly and slowly sat up on the bed. "But I guess, I do smell a bit."
She disappeared out of a small, almost hidden door next to the bed and soon Lykeas heard the sound of splashing water. With a deep sigh, he slumped down on the bed and closed his eyes. He could get used to this.
He was woken up by a sharp knock on the door and propped himself up on one elbow.
Proklos or Praklos, Lykeas couldnīt tell the difference, peeked inside.
"The dinner is ready, miss...uh, sir." Lykeas gave the servant a conspiratorial smile.
"You can call me miss if you want to."
"Donīt play with the servants, Lykeas," Xena chided with a smile, coming out of the bathroom.
Lykeas winked at the servant and rose from the bed, "Iīm never allowed to have any fun."
They were led through several corridors and colonnades before they arrived in front of a heavy oak tree door with two guards on either side. Praklos, as it had turned out to be, knocked three times on the door and it was promptly opened from inside. They stepped inside into a surprisingly small dining hall, it was more of a room than a hall and Xena was pleasantly surprised. She always felt extremely ridiculous when seated at the end of the preposterous long tables some royalty used, having to shout her lungs out to converse with her dinner companion at the opposite end. Fortunately that wouldnīt be necessary tonight, as the table was only meant for six or eight people and the chairs had been placed close together at one end. The man sitting at the end of the table rose from the chair and walked around the table to meet them. He was middle-aged, but there was no sign of grey in his black hair. He was dressed in a white tunic and a purple robe. His dark brown eyes scrutinized them in a reserved but friendly manner, and Xena was suddenly glad she did take the time to clean up. The heavy oak tree door behind them closed with a bang and both warriors jumped. The King raised his hands as if to reassure them.
"Donīt worry, Praklos always does that. I gave up years ago to get him to close it quietly."
He smiled at them and they returned his smile, not knowing what else to do.
"So youīre the two people my son owe his life." He paused for a moment, searching for words. "Iīm eternally grateful for what you did. As long as you live youīll be honoured and welcome guests in my kingdom."
He stepped closed and stopped in front of Xena, studying her up close. Xena began to feel uncomfortable and shifted from one foot to the other. Perhaps this wasnīt such a good idea after all."
"Xena..." The word lingered between them. "Xena..." The King spoke again, practically tasting the word. "So youīre Xena."
Xena returned his gaze without blinking. "Yes." Her short reply didnīt hide the tension she was feeling.
"Itīs a pleasure to meet you." The King reached out and Xena barely managed to hide her surprise as she shook his hand.
Still holding onto her hand the King continued, "Iīm a great believer in letting bygones be bygones." He smiled at her slightly suspicious expression. "Guests in my home donīt have to worry about anything but whether their beds are too soft or the food too salty."
He smiled again and Xena gave him a relieved smile in return, she was starting to like this man already. He moved to stand in front of Lykeas and solemnly reached out again.
"Thank you for saving my boy."
Lykeas shook the Kingīs hand briefly. "Uh, donīt mention it."
"Ah, but I will." The King replied and began walking back to the table, "and as often as it pleases me."
He sat down and gestured towards the chairs, "Please sit down, my son should be here any minute if Charmides isnīt keeping him with one of his lectures."
As on cue a knock sounded and the soldier standing at the wall reached out to open the door and Alexias stepped inside. His eyes swiftly surveyed the room before coming to a hold on Lykeas.
"Good, Alexias. Right on time, come and sit down.
Alexias walked around the table to sit on his fatherīs right, opposite Xena and Lykeas. The King clapped his hands once and immediately the room was invaded by servants carrying dishes, plates and bottles of wine. Almost as fast as they had appeared they disappeared again, the only proof they had been there, being the now fully loaded table. Xena eyed the huge amounts of food in front of her. Gabrielle wouldīve thought sheīd died and gone to the Elysian Fields. Suddenly she had to swallow and reached out for her glass. The King followed her example and raised his glass.
"A toast for the heroes of the day, Xena and Lykeas, who rescued whatīs most precious to my heart."
They toasted and began to eat. Their conversation was friendly and harmless, but Xena couldnīt shake the feeling that the King was waiting for the right moment to approach more serious matters. Lykeas didnīt talk much and enjoyed most of the meal in silence. A couple of times when he looked up, he caught Alexias staring at him and every time the boy looked away, a faint blush on his cheeks. After they had finished the servants appeared again and cleared the table. Then they returned with four glasses and a decanter and not until they had left, did the King speak again.
"Well now, Iīve had a pleasant meal in pleasant company, but now I think itīs time you tell me why youīre here, and afterwards I may have something to tell you.
The Amazonsī Boy continues here