Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and backstory are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright property was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
This story contains descriptions of violence, some profanity, and mild references to a sexual relationship between the two main characters.
Note: This tale is a follow up, of sorts, to the two stories, "The Cage of Elysis" and "A Bardís Faith". Again, while is not necessary to read those to gain a comprehension of the following, the reader should be aware that some characters and events from those stories are referred to here without much clarification.
"So I said, Lila, if you want to get picky about it, thatís my dress." Gabrielle struck the road with the end of her staff to emphasize the word "my". "I mean, wouldnít you think it was only fair, Xena? If I let her wear my best dress to Selaís wedding she ought to have let me wear her new sandals to the festival, right? Xena? Xena!"
"Huh, oh right. Youíre absolutely right, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was not fooled. "You havenít been listening to a word I said, have you?"
"Now, Gabrielle, you know I always hang on every word you say," said Xena with an impish grin.
"Hmph. Yeah right. I can see you are just spellbound. Then, without thinking, Gabrielle added, "Itís a good thing you never had a sister."
Gabrielle was immediately appalled by her own insensitivity. No, Xena did not have a sister, just two brothers. One was beloved and dead, the other was alive but not all that close to Xenaís heart.
"Oh, Xena. I- Iím so sorry. It was a cruel thing to say. I didnít mean it like it sounded."
"I know," said Xena. She laid her hand on Gabrielleís arm and gently added, "Donít worry about it, okay?"
Gabrielle struck her forehead twice with the palm of her hand. "Stupid, Iím so stupid."
"Stop it, Gabrielle," smiled Xena. "I know youíre sorry. You donít have to do self penance." Xena maneuvered to change the subject. "You know, you have been talking about your sister an awful lot lately. Youíre beginning to miss her again, arenít you?"
"I guess I am," said Gabrielle quietly. It has been awhile, she thought. In fact she had only been back to Poteidaia once since she and Xena had been together. Even then she had not had time to really talk to Lila. The business with Meleager had taken up most of her time then. Now Gabrielle found herself really yearning to see her own flesh and blood.
"So, why donít you go see her?" asked Xena.
"Oh Xena, I canít leave you."
"And why not? It will be good for you to get away from me for awhile.
"And," Xena added playfully, "this way I wonít have to deal with you just out of the blue deciding to leave me on some road in the middle of nowhere, right?"
Gabrielle always knew that little incident had left a bigger mark on Xena than she cared to admit. "Xena, I would never do that again, not after..."
Xena tenderly placed her strong hand on Gabrielleís cheek and locked those wondrous blue eyes on her. "Are you sorry?"
"Of course not," smiled Gabrielle. "How could you even think such a thing?"
It did not take an oracle to see the love on the young womanís face as she lost herself in Xenaís eyes. The horrible ordeal of Xenaís blindness had not torn the two of them apart. Rather, it had only served to, at last, weave their hearts together as one. Gabrielle had known from that day on the dusty road that she wanted Xena to make love to her and for the only time she managed to work enough nerve to tell Xena so.
But Xena had only smiled at her and said, "Thatís not important now, my love."
Gabrielle had lost so much weight and was so weak all Xena had cared about was getting the little bard well. She had taken her to Hippocrates and after spending two weeks in his care, he pronounced her well enough to travel. Xena then fulfilled her promise to Darinius and took Gabrielle to the Eulsian Springs.
Gabrielle was still thrilled every time she remembered their first night there. She had not known the human body was capable of reaching such heights of ecstasy. Her one night with Perdicas had been nice enough but it had left her wanting something more. She had tried hard but somehow it just didnít seem right to her.
But Xena! By the gods it was like she had invented lovemaking! Gabrielle knew the warrioress would be experienced but Xena had done things to her that left her body drenched in pleasure.
The big, strong, aggressive, warrior had been a tender, considerate, and above all, patient lover. When Gabrielleís first tentative, even clumsy, attempts to please Xena had not gone well Xena had merely turned herself to Gabrielleís body and let the little bard try again later. Xena had not just overwhelmed the timid girl with her raw power and volcanic passion. She had slowly taken her time in discovering what thrilled Gabrielle the most and patiently, lovingly, showed her lover what she liked best. And it had not taken long for Gabrielle to get the hang of it.
Xena also showed Gabrielle something else. Her knowledge of pressure points could be used for more than fighting. During Gabrielleís orgasms Xena nearly caused her to lose her sanity with her use of them in just the right place.
It was everything Gabrielle had prayed it would be...and more. Their ten days at the springs had only made her love the Warrior Princess moreóif such a thing were possible.
"Mount Olympus to Gabrielle, can you hear me?" laughed Xena.
"Umm, oh yeah. I was just thinking about...well, you know."
"Uh huh," said Xena slyly. "So, uh, do want to see your sister?"
"I donít know. Well, maybe. Gee Xena, I donít know what I want. I want to go but I donít want to leave you either. I know! Why donít you come too?"
"Oh noo," smiled Xena. If I went along you would be splitting yourself between Lila and me and both of us would be shortchanged. No, you need to see her without me."
"Are you sure itís all right, I mean..."
Xena bent down and kissed the little bard. "Of course itís all right." She then brushed the tip of her index finger across the end of Gabrielleís nose.
"Just donít stay too long, okay?"
Gabrielleís face lit up like a solstice tree. "Okay," she beamed.
By Zeus almighty, she is beautiful, thought Xena. And the best part was her inner beauty was even greater. Gabrielle had been well worth the wait, thought Xena happily.
"Do you want me to take you there?" asked Xena.
"Iím not a baby, Xena. Iíll be all right," said Gabrielle.
"Tell you what," said Xena. "Iíll draw you a map so you will know which roads to take. How about we meet, say, at the temple of Delphi in two weeks? That should give you plenty of time."
"Thatís great," said Gabrielle.
Xena pulled a leather pouch out of her saddlebag and counted out two hundred dinars. Darinius had practically forced them to take the bag at their last meeting. Now there was a real man, thought Xena. In it was ten thousand dinarsómore than Gabrielle had seen in her whole life.
"Here," said Xena. "This will be more than enough to see you through. Now donít let anyone know you have this. Just take out what you need, no more, okay?"
"Xena, I know what to do," laughed Gabrielle. "Iíll be careful."
Xena took a piece of Gabrielleís parchment and mapped out the route for her to take while Gabrielle stuffed two apples and some bread and cheese into her shoulder bag. Xena walked her to the next fork in the road and reviewed the directions on the map with her.
Gabrielle stared for a moment down the road she was to take. "Well, I guess this is it," she said.
"Yeah." This was going to be harder that Xena thought.
"Xena if you donít wantó"
Xena gently placed a finger on Gabrielleís lips. "Two weeks."
Gabrielle only nodded.
"Hereís a little something to tide you over." Xena lifted up Gabrielleís chin with the crook of her finger and softly kissed the little bard.
"Oh, Xena I..."
"Gabrielle, good byes are hard so just try to think about the time we will be together again. Xena then swatted Gabrielle on the butt and added, "Now get out of here."
Gabrielle touched Xenaís wrist and smiled, "See ya." And off she went.
Xena stood there watching her greatest gift until she was no longer visible. Sadly she buried her face in Argoís neck. "You know, girl, I miss her already."
She mounted and took the other fork in the road.
Gabrielle made very good time her first day alone. She was able to hitch a couple of long rides with the locals and repaid their kindness by relating some of her marvelous stories. Heeding Xenaís warning, she did not dare offer any of them money. That night, for the first time in months, she did not sleep in Xenaís strong, loving arms and she felt very lonely. Oh well, she thought, itís only for a couple of weeks. I can surely handle that and, besides, it will be good to see Lila again.
The next day Gabrielle was not so lucky and she had to walk all day. Late in the afternoon she saw a village up ahead. Her grumbling stomach told her it was none too soon so, before entering the village, she counted out a few dinars and wrapped them in a cloth which she then put back in her shoulder bag. She hid the rest of her dinars under a scarf in the bottom of her bag.
At the inn she had a good meal and was sorely tempted to stay the night there but, in the end, decided against it. The repercussions of this simple decision would soon span hundreds of leagues in every direction and affect tens of thousands of men in three massive armies. It would also force Xena to question the continued relevance of her own life and ultimately to confront a man whom he now thought of as a brother. For that night, as Gabrielle slept peacefully under the stars...she was attacked.
On the fourteenth day Xena arrived early in Delphi in eager anticipation of Gabrielleís return. For her the last two weeks had been a very long time indeed but they had not been without their moments. She had been able to solve a couple of minor "problems" in the area. Nothing big, it mostly amounted to whacking a couple of bullies across the butt with the flat of her sword and promising them worse if they didnít back off. In fact, as far as Xena was concerned, the past few months had been relatively uneventful. Aside from the rescue of Hercules and that business with Darvax nothing big had really occurred at all. Just some minor stuff with warlord wannabes and the like. The warrioress had been thankful for the respite for it had allowed her to give all her attention to Gabrielle.
Where is she? Since just after daybreak Xena had sat on the long steps of the temple waiting for her love. She had not even bothered to eat for fear she might miss the bard. At last natureís call was too strong and she had to temporarily give up her post but even then she gave a young boy two dinars and told him keep an eye out for a small blond woman. Now the day was almost gone and there was still no sign of Gabrielle. During the day Xenaís emotions had evolved with each turning of the hourglass. Anticipation had turned to impatience which had in turn became concern and was now nearing consternation. Xena sat there waiting even after the temple closed for the day. The next morning found her still there.
Gabrielle, where are you? Damn her capriciousness, thought Xena. Why canít she be more responsible? Now calm down, Xena, she chided herself. Gabrielle is usually very attentive to details. Something must have held her up. Xena resolved to wait until noon before taking any action. Noon came and Xena knew the time had come to act. She left Delphi by the road she was sure Gabrielle would be taking to reach Delphi.
All that afternoon she expected to meet her at any minute. Gabrielle, when I get my hands on you... Donít kid yourself, she thought. When you see her you are going to hug her and look her over to make sure she is all right. Youíre going to ask her about her journey and how her sister is doing. Yes, you will chide her a little about being late but only to express your concern.
Xena spent all the rest of that day on the road. She was now becoming alarmed. Something WAS wrong. She fought the urge to kick Argo into a gallop and go tearing down the road. No the best thing to do was to retrace the route Gabrielle should have taken, even if it meant going all the way to Poteidaia.
Three fruitless days later Xena found herself nearing Gabrielleís village. Along the way she had stopped in every village and asked the locals if anyone matching Gabrielleís description had passed their way recently. No one had seen anything. Now, as she reached Poteidaia, her spirits rose a little. Maybe Lila or someone else in the family had been ill or something and Gabrielle was helping out. But down deep she knew that was not probable. Gabrielle would have gotten word to her in Delphi somehow if that was indeed the case. What will I do if sheís not there, Xena wondered. At the crossroad Xena turned her horse down the narrow road that led to Poteidaia and pondered what she would find.
In her dark past Xena had crisscrossed Greece many times at the head of her army. One of the few places she had never raided was Poteidaia. Even in those days she had known of the place, of course, but thankfully, she now thought, she had never bothered to come there because the intelligence she had received was that it was not worth the effort. The village was just too poor. Located in a rocky valley and poorly watered, its inhabitants scratched out a meager existence as best they could.
Xena sometimes shuddered to think how different things might have been if she HAD brought her army to Poteidaia. Would Gabrielle now hate Xenaís very name? Would she have even survived? Although it had not been her policy to harm women and children things had sometimes gotten out of hand. Callisto was proof of that. Xena even wondered if Gabrielle might not have turned into a "Callisto" of some kind herself; consumed with lust for revenge on the Warrior Princess.
Xena also realized a visit to Poteidaia would have eventually resulted in her own doom. After her momentous encounters with Hercules Xenaís hate and anger had been replaced by pain and guilt. She had wanted to die. She would have allowed those villagers to stone her to death. It was the nadir of her existence. But by then that feisty little village girl had attached herself to Xena like a rash on a baby and she had smoothly talked them out of it.
One did not have to have the mind of Plato to understand that if Xena had ravaged Poteidaia some time in the past Gabrielle obviously would not have become infatuated with her. Even Xenaís saving her from the clutches of Dracoís men would not have swayed her then. The bottom line to all this was no Gabrielle then, no Xena now.
Xena rode into Poteidaia and saw the village had not changed much from the first time she had been there. The streets were still narrow and the houses and shops were still much in need of repair. Itís sure not much of a place to live in, she thought. No wonder Gabrielle had so desperately wanted out.
After receiving directions from the village blacksmith Xena guided Argo to Lilaís front door. She thought she had remembered where Lila lived but somehow she had missed it. Xena dismounted and knocked on her door, silently praying that Gabrielleís face would be the one that greeted her. But is was not. The face she beheld was that of the dark haired Lila.
"Xena! What a surprise." Lila craned her neck to look past her. "Whereís Gabrielle?"
To Xena two more ominous words had never been uttered. "You mean sheís not here? When did she leave?"
"Leave? She hasnít been here in over a year." Lila saw the concern on Xenaís face and realized something was wrong. "Xena, whatís going on?"
"Lila, Gabrielle started out for here almost three weeks ago. She was coming to visit you. She was supposed to have met me in Delphi four days ago. I thought something might have held her up and she was still here."
"Xena, Gabrielle has not been here."
"Then something has happened to her."
Lila narrowed her eyes and replied, "I knew this was bound to happen."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked slowly. But she already knew what Lila meant.
"I knew if Gabrielle hung around you long enough something bad would happen to her. You have too many enemies. Sheís been with you long enough now that everybody knows sheís your friend and that includes those enemies." Lila practically spat out the last five words.
"Are you implying I had something to do with this?" demanded Xena, her face growing darker.
"Iím not implying anything. I am telling you straight out were it not for you Gabrielle would have stayed home and married Perdicas like she was supposed to and both of them would still be alive."
Xena had heard enough. Her anger was tempered by the fact there was a grain of truth in what Lila said. But only a grain. She planted herself squarely in front of Lila and pointed a long finger at her nose.
"Now you listen to me," Xena hissed. "Gabrielle would have left this sink hole you call a town even if she had never met me. Someone with her talent and spirit would have refused to allow herself to just wallow away her life in a place like this."
Lila drew herself up to her full height, such as it was for she was barely taller than Gabrielle, and said coldly, "I see now why she never came back to see me anymore. You have deluded her into believing sheís too good for us."
To emphasize the word "good" Lila poked Xena hard in the chest with her finger.
Suddenly and inexplicably, Xena felt the urge to lash out at Lila. Little woman, she thought, I could crush you like a rotten apple. At once she realized what had just ran through her brain and she was appalled by it. Why did I think that? she wondered.
Xena knew had better leave this placeónow.
"If Gabrielle comes here you tell her I said to stay right here, understand?" It was not a request, it was a command. Without even bothering to wait for a reply Xena turned on her heels and stalked out the door.
As she made her way out of Poteidaia she felt her disgust growing. How could a dung heap like this populated with such grim and bitter people have produced such a wondrous soul such as Gabrielle? she asked herself. She replayed the exchange with Lila in her mind and, again, it only served to make her angry. But her sudden urge to harm Lila troubled her.
Xena now knew that to conduct an effective search she would have to start at the very beginning. She would return to where they had parted company and follow the road Gabrielle had taken. As far as Xena was concerned the three days it took to return there was just three more precious days wasted. What if Gabrielle was injured or ill? Every minute might mean the difference between life and death.
At last she reached the place of their parting. Slowly, meticulously, she followed the road looking for any clue as to Gabrielleís disappearance. Her eyes scoured both sides of the road for anything that might be revealing. At the first village she came to she asked at least twenty people if they had seen a stranger with Gabrielleís description pass their way lately but no one had. Finally a farmer by chance heard Xenaís inquiry and told her that he had, in fact, not only seen this girl but had given her a ride on his cart. From him Xena learned that, up to that point in time, Gabrielle had been her usual friendly, talkative self. It was the first definite word of Gabrielle since their separation. To Xena that now seemed like an eon ago.
It was after she passed through the next village that Xenaís heart was shattered. At the inn she learned that Gabrielle had taken a meal there late one evening. The innkeeper recalled telling her she ought to stay the night as there were reports of bandits in the area but she had declined.
"The girl was very nice," the innkeeper told Xena. "I would have allowed her to sleep here for nothiní before goiní out on a night like that."
Xena left the village on foot, leading Argo. She was now very upset. She made up her mind to stick to the road in her search for Gabrielle as it was not very probable she would have left it voluntarily. A league or so past the village she walked past the very spot Gabrielle had made her camp on that fateful night. Of course there was nothing there now to bring itself to Xenaís attention and she walked right by it. But still, at that precise point, a strong sense of foreboding settled on Xena. She sensed it but did not recognize its real significance.
Xena continued leading Argo down the road and was so lost in thought her brain barely registered the man walking past her on the road in the opposite direction. Xena was a good twenty paces past him before her warrior instinct was able to hack its through to her consciousness. Abruptly Xena whirled and ran back up the road after the man. Before he knew what was happening she had him by the throat and was hoisting him up on his toes.
"Before I crush your windpipe you have two seconds to tell me where you got that staff," snarled Xena savagely. It was Gabrielleís staff.
"I, I found it," gagged the man.
"Sure you did," hissed Xena. "Now tell me, where did you Ďfindí it?"
By now the manís face was turning blue. "I...shhh Iíll show you."
Xena released his throat and filled her left hand with hair from the back of his head. She yanked hard on it and snarled, " I know you will."
She turned to whistle for Argo and the man swung the staff up and hit Xenaís forearm in a clumsy attempt to free himself. Xena did let go but not because of the blow to her arm. Before the frightened man could take a step she whirled him around by the arm and viciously backhanded him across the face. She then drove her foot into the side of his knee causing him to sink to his knees. Xena grabbed his hand and slowly began to crush it in hers. Ignoring his screams, she continued to gradually increase pressure upon his hand. With her face twisted into a wicked sneer Xena yanked out her dagger to...
To Xenaís horror the realization of what she had been about to do struck her.
And added to that was the knowledge she had been enjoying the manís agony.
Xena released the man and knelt down beside him. "Look, just tell me where you got the staff."
"My...my brother found it. Uh...uh up the road...tíwards the village. Found the staff...a bag...empty...someone had been there. They...they were gone. Found blood... lot of blood. No body...I swear, I...swear...wasnít us...wasnít...us."
Xena knew he was telling the truth. "Iím in a hurry or I would take you to the village. Just lie here for a while and youíll be all right." She took the staff apart and placed in her saddle bag.
The bits and pieces of information she had gleaned spun around inside her head...innkeeper said bandits around...lots of blood...bag empty. The only logical conclusion she could draw was Gabrielle had been attacked by bandits. Obviously she had been robbed but was she still alive? Maybe they sold her into slavery, she thought. Maybe they kept her for themselves. But why so much blood? They had not killed her right there for no one spoke of finding a body.
For the first time Xena had to face the very real chance Gabrielle might be dead. The possibility of it had eaten at her for some time but until now Xena had managed to convince herself that everything would be all right. For all Xena knew Gabrielle might have gotten sidetracked helping some farmer or by and of a dozen other scenarios. But not now.
She decided to continue on this road for the time being in the hope she might be able to dig up a few more clues. Before long she saw another village up ahead. It was just a few huts clumped together, really, but she saw it did have a tavern. Xena came to the conclusion that she needed a good stiff shot of something so she reined in Argo in front of the tavern.
After tying up the horse she stepped to the door and momentarily paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light inside. She strode to the bar and ordered ale. She was about halfway through her drink when she noticed a swarthy man with a colorful piece of cloth tied around his arm. He was seated at a table with three other men and they were noisily playing some sort of game.
Her face devoid of any emotion at all, Xena approached their table. In one swift motion she jerked the swarthy man to his feet by the back of his tunic and ripped Gabrielleís hair band off his arm.
"Where is she?" demanded Xena.
"I donít know what youíre talking about, honey."
"Donít lie to me, you bastard. The girl you got this hair band from, where is she?"
"There was no girl. I found that rag in the road."
"A lot of people have sure been finding things around here lately. Now for the last time, WHERE IS SHE?"
"Youíre crazy," gasped the man, his eyes bulging. "Now get out of here and leave us alone before we forget youíre a woman."
"Then tell Hades I said hello." Xena violently jerked the manís head back and slammed her knee into his spine, breaking it. The others around the table drew their swords and fanned out around her.
"Címon, pigs," she sneered, drawing her sword.
One of them foolishly lowered his sword and charged her. Xena easily sidestepped
and bashed a hole in his skull with the hilt of her sword. The second man tried to take advantage of what he perceived as the womanís imbalance and made his move. Xena merely backflipped completely over him and drove her sword a footís depth into the junction of her victimís neck and shoulder. The last one decided he wanted no part of this she devil and threw down his sword.
"Please," he begged. "We havenít done anything. IóI wonít fight you."
Her face as blank as a marble slab, Xena walked over to the man. "Thatís good," she purred. It will just make it easier for me." Xena hit him violently in the chest at three different points with her fingertips, the last being directly over his heart.
The man gagged, rolled his eyes back, and sank to the floor, dead. Xena stepped over the bodies and walked back to the bar. She killed the rest of her ale, flipped the stunned tavern keeper two dinars and silently walked out.
What Xena did not, could not, know was the swarthy man had been telling the truth. He had, indeed, merely taken a fancy to the colorful band of cloth he saw lying in the road. His love of colorful things had cost him his life.
That night Xena sat frozen staring into the fire. Although it would be light soon she had not closed her eyes for more than an occasional blink all night.
"Oh, Gabrielle," she whispered, "Iím so sorry I let you down."
A million "whys" were assaulting her from all sides. Why didnít I go with her?
Why didnít she stay at the inn? Why didnít I make get her a horse? Why did I have to love her so much? Why? Why? Why?
Xenaís eyes were still riveted to the dying flames and to her they were but a manifestation of her own soul. Itís fire, too, was dying. Gabrielle is dead. Gabrielle is...oh gods.
"NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! " Xena stood up and screamed so loudly her lungs burned. She put her hand to the side of her head and savagely ripped out a hunk of her hair. Sinking to her knees, she again repeated, Nnoooo," this time so softly only her heart could hear.
And then the tears came. Xena sat there on the ground for most of that day and grieved for Gabrielle. Not with loud wails but with gentle sobs did the find their way to her cheeks. Try as she might she could not stop them.
"Oh, Gabrielle! My Gabrielle." Her mind traced the evolution of the remarkable young life that had blessed Xenaís tortured existence. Pest...companion...friend... lover. Redemption.
Lilaís right, it is my fault, she thought. If Gabrielle had never met me she would still be alive. Better for her to be stuck in that swine hole of a town a million years than to be dead. Oh gods! Why her? Why not one of the thousands of insignificant clods that pass over these roads every day?
So was so remarkable. Kind to a fault, warm, loving, not a mean bone in her body. Everybody she came into contact with for anytime at all fell under her spell. She had turned the suspicious and cynical Ephiny into a sister willing to die for her. Autolycus thought the world of her. If there was anyone the flighty Iolaus might have settled down with, it was Gabrielle. Bicker as they might, she was the only true friend Joxer had. Hercules thought of her as his sister.
This young soul, in her own way as brave as Xena, as compassionate as Hercules, as smart as Darinius, and stronger emotionally than any of them, was gone. And with her, Xena felt, all hope of inner peace for her.
The setting sun found Xena still sitting on the ground. First I lose Mílila and now Gabrielle, she thought.
In the future years of her life Xena would never be able to recall what she did over the next ten days or so. Someone later told her it was a reflex action by the brain to try to preserve sanity in time of extreme duress and she figured that was as good an explanation as any. The next thing she remembered was talking to a woodworker in some vaguely remembered village She had him cut a small piece off the end of Gabrielleís staff and carve it into an image of a scroll.
By now she was to numb to cry anymore. It struck her as odd that she didnít want to see any of her friends. Did they even know Gabrielle was dead? Probably not yet. She knew she should inform them but it was still to painful for her to even think of Gabrielleís death, much less tell someone else about it. And what could they say, anyway? That they were sorry? She knew, of course, that all those people whose lives the little bard had touched would mourn for her but sooner or later they would cease to do so. They would never completely forget her but, for them, Gabrielle would fade into a distant memory.
"Well not me," whispered Xena. "Iíll never forget you, Gabrielle. Never. Never"
That small voice, so long dormant, was now screaming with full fury inside Xenaís brain. "You will never escape your true destiny, to conqueróto destroy."
Two months later...
"You guys have done a good job. You can knock off for the rest of the day." Darinius watched as the workmen joyfully climbed down from their scaffolds and put their tools away. They were in the process of building a new barn for him and they had put in an exceptional dayís work. Barring any unforeseen events he felt they would have it completed in record time. As the workmen passed by him he gave each of them thirty dinars.
"Now boys, donít spend all that in one place," chided Darinius. "And remember, hangover or no, I want you back here bright and early tomorrow morning."
"Weíll be here," said their foreman. "Thanks, Darinius."
He walked up the wide lane that led back to his house. For the first time in a month he felt he could relax a little. All the spring planting had been done and the sheep were all out in pasture and, finally, that new barn he had wanted for so long was about to become a reality. As he strolled up the lane he cast his eye over the two huge orchards that lined the lane.
"Itís getting pretty bad," he laughed to himself, "when all a man wants out of life is a new barn."
Before the week was out, however, Darinius would wish that was all he had to worry about.
As he neared the end of the lane he saw three horses tied up in the courtyard in front of the house. He didnít think too much about it as he was always getting visitors. In fact, since his return home, hardly a day went by without someone stopping in. He neared the horses and noticed the middle one had an unusually fine saddle.
Hmmm, looks like somebody with some clout, he thought. He stopped to wash off his hands in the fountain before stepping up on the huge portico. Inside he could hear Mageron talking to someone in that easy style of his.
"He should be back very soon," Mageron was saying, "Heís down in the pasture checking out the new barn."
"Well could you send someone after him, itís very important."
Even before setting his foot through the door Darinius knew this voice belonged to Marmax. He entered and saw him and two of his men standing by the fireplace with Mageron.
"And what could be more important than a new barn?" grinned Darinius.
"Darinius!" Marmax strode over and the two men gripped hands. "You are a sight for sore eyes."
"What brings you over to this side of Greece?" asked Darinius. "Has the fishing in your neck of the woods gotten that bad?"
"I wish that was the reason, old friend."
Darinius noted the worried look on Marmaxís face and whatever was on his mind, it wasnít fishing.
"I need to talk to you," said Marmax.
"Letís take a walk." Darinius pointed at Marmaxís aides. "Mageron, see that these two get something to eat and maybe some of that wine youíve been hoarding. But donít YOU get too carried away with the stuff, okay?"
"Right away, Darinius, right away," grinned Mageron. "Gentlemen if you will follow me, please."
Darinius retraced his route down the lane and waited for Marmax to speak his mind. "Itís Draco," said Marmax finally.
"Draco? What on earth could that punk have done to make you travel all the way across Greece to see an old farmer like me?"
"Old? What are you now thirty-five, thirty-six?" laughed Marmax nervously. I wish I was that Ďoldí."
"Thirty-seven, but whoís counting? So tell me Marmax, whatís this all about?"
"Heís put together an army. I donít know how he did it but he must have at least fifteen thousand men."
"Fifteen thousand?" Darinius whistled softly. "The majority of them have to be foreigners, then. There arenít that many uncommitted soldiers in Greece. Anything big from him yet?"
"No. Not yet."
"Heís probably solidifying his chain of command right now," said Darinius.
"What do you think his objective is?"
"I know what his objective is. All of northern Greece right now and once heís strengthened his hold on that heís going after the rest of it."
"Not with fifteen thousand men heís not," observed Darinius. "As we used to say in the Spartan army, ĎTo drive a big stake one needs a big malletí, and fifteen thousand men is not a big enough mallet to conquer all of Greece, Marmax."
"Darinius, we have reports that another army numbering over forty thousand men led by Paulus is set to link up with him inside of three weeks."
"Paulus? From the Northern Tribes? How do you know this?"
"We succeeded in placing a spy in their camp," said Marmax.
"Damn it, you and I both know strategy like this is way over Dracoís head.
This has to be all Paulusí doing and he sure as Tartarus would not trust fifteen thousand men to an amateur like Draco. Are you sure someone else is not involved in this?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, there is." Marmax paused and seemed to gather himself.
"So, who is it? prodded Darinius.
Dariniusí stomach felt as if it had been kicked by a horse. "If thatís a joke," he said slowly, "itís a damn bad one."
"Iíve never been more serious in my life. Intelligence reports have placed her in his camp for about a month now. They are showing signs of becoming much more aggressive since she arrived." Marmax paused and looked down at his feet. "Darinius, I donít have to tell you what this means"
Darinius squinted his eyes and gazed to the northeast as if hoping to see the Warrior Princess. "It means one mighty big war," he answered softly.
"I still donít believe it," protested Darinius. The look of desperation on Marmaxís face, however, confirmed the truth he spoke. Darinius didnít know what to think. What happened to you, Xena. Why are you doing this? Why, Xena, why?
"Marmax, thereís something Iíve got to know. Is...is Gabrielle..." Darinius could not bring himself to ask the question he feared most. He knew his heart would break if the little bard was involved in thisóeven if Xena was there.
"No," reported Marmax. "I made it a special point to my intelligence people to check that out. We know for a fact she is not now nor has she been in Dracoís camp. Furthermore, no one seems to know her whereabouts at all."
"Thank the gods," said Darinius under his breath. It did not occur to him some ill fate might have befallen her.
Marmax decided it was time to get to the main event. "Darinius, I have come to you for advice. We both know once their linkup is made they are going to head south. In a month or so they will be upon us."
"Then donít," said Darinius, simply.
"Donít let them link up. Hit them up there, in the north. Take out Dracoís force
before he can join up with Paulus. By the way, how big a force do YOU have?"
"Well, in my army I have about thirty-five hundred. I have personally spoken to Tyldus of the centaurs and he has promised me seven hundred of his best warriors."
"Thatís all," said Marmax. "Everyone else is waiting for someone else to commit first. It seems they donít trust each other."
Darinius spat on the ground. "Donít those knuckleheads know that if they donít work together they will all surely go down separately? Xena will cut them up like pigs on a spit. Marmax, forty-two hundred is not going to cut it by a long shot. You are going to have to form an alliance, a coalition. Itís your only hope. I know it will mean jumping into bed with people you donít necessarily trust but we might be talking survival here."
"I have already sent out feelers to several kingdoms," countered Marmax, "and I think a general agreement can be reached. However, there seems to be one major hurdle right now."
"And what would that be," asked Darinius impatiently.
"There is some question as to who would be the overall commander of such an alliance."
"Marmax, you donít have time to squabble about crap like that. This is not a time for egos. You want my advice? Well here it is. Choose a good experienced man, round up as big a force as you can, get up there and form a good battle line on some favorable ground and kick Dracoís ass all the way back to Illyria.
If you can get ten thousand men or so and somebody who knows how to use them up there right now you can head this off. That will give you sufficient time to raise a force large enough to deal with Paulus. Who knows? It might even force him to call off his attack."
"But what about Xena?" asked Marmax.
"Not even Xena can be everywhere at once," replied Darinius. "She might draw
up the battle plan but once the fighting starts it all falls on the shoulders of the junior commanders. I donít believe those guys have what it takes. Hold your line and probe for weaknesses. Sooner or later youíll find one."
"Which brings us back to the question of who will lead us," said Marmax.
"Everyone mentioned the same name when candidates were suggested."
"Then whatís the problem? Get this guy off his rear end and..." The true meaning of Marmaxís remark now hit home to Darinius. "Oh, no." Darinius threw up his hands, "This is not my fight."
"Darinius, we all want you to lead us."
"Look, I have seen enough war to last a man twenty lifetimes. All I want to worry about is getting my barn raised or when to send sheep to market. Thatís why I quit in the first place, being responsible for the lives of thousands of men became too much for me to bear. Get somebody else."
"You are the only man in Greece that commands enough respect to lead this," said Marmax. He then angrily added, "You say itís not your fight. Well if we fall how long do you think youíll have a place to build your damn barn on, anyway?"
"Weíve been hit before," said Darinius harshly. The last timeó"
"The last time was six years ago!" shouted Marmax. He composed himself
and added, "Darinius, you have not been in charge of the army here for a long time. Do you really think the men in the army today are as good as the ones you last led. I mean, look at this valley. Times are good. There has been no trouble here for a long time. The people are complacent. I have seen it. I just wonder if they are as strong and as dedicated to a cause as when you and your brave men stunned all of Greece with your deeds."
Darinius stared off into the distance for a moment before admitting, "No, they are not as good as we were. These new ones donít feel threatened they way we did. I guess we did our job too well. I myself have wondered if they are really as willing to sacrifice for the good of all like we did." He smiled at Marmax and continued, "Youíre right. The army I had ten years ago might have stopped a force that large, but not now."
Marmax gripped his arm. "So youíll do it then? You will lead us into battle against Xena and Draco...and Paulus if need be?"
"Yeah," said Darinius softly, already engulfed by all the old feelings he thought so long forgotten.
"You know," mused Marmax, "I met Xena once. She stopped an entire war I was engaged in. I thought she was the most remarkable person I had ever met."
"Me too," agreed Darinius.
"I wonder what happened to make her change paths like that?"
For Darinius it was even to painful for him to attempt an answer. He merely shrugged his shoulders slightly and sadly shook his head.
The next evening found Marmax making final preparations for returning home.
"Okay, letís go over it one more time," said Darinius. "You tell Tyldus to call on Ephiny and try to convince her to join us. Tell him it is imperative we have at least some of those Amazons with us up there in that wooded country. They move through those trees like squirrels. Tell him even if she will only commit twenty or thirty to bring Ďem."
I have already sent word to Tharses of Sparta. Since they have the farthest to march they will need to jump off first."
"Do you think Tharses will really help us?" asked Marmax.
"I saved his behind more than once when we served together in the Spartan
army," grinned Darinius. "He might be the big cheese down there now but I donít think he has forgotten me. No, he will come. You know, Marmax, if we cast our dice right we might not even have to engage in battle with Draco. If we do as well as I think we are going to we will have close to forty thousand men in the field."
"I hope youíre right."
"Remember, we will assemble by the river near Monas in ten days. Weíll count heads then and determine what our plan will be," said Darinius.
Marmax mounted his horse, gave Darinius the fist-to-the-heart salute, and said, "The gods be with you."
"Cut that out," smiled Darinius, weakly. "Iím just like the guy who cleans out the stable, itís a bad job but somebodyís got to do it. See you in ten days."
And Marmax was off.
Mageron, the old veteran who had watched Dariniusí back in so many battles, limped up beside him and watched Marmax disappear among the trees. "You know, sir," he began, "youíre never going to have any peace."
"Why Mageron," laughed Darinius, "thatís the first time in years you have called me Ďsirí."
Mageron was not amused. "Itís the first time in years my general has had to lead an army forward into a great battle to again to defend our way of life."
Darinius looked at the old-before-his-time fellow beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Old friend, if they are half as good as you are it will be a piece of cake."
The soldierís eyes welled up and he looked down at his shriveled leg and murmured, "You mean Ďwereí donít you?"
"No," corrected Darinius, "I mean Ďareí. Itís only your leg thatís weak, not your heart or your soul. Now címon, letís see whatís for supper."
Draco fingered the gold coins piled high on the table before him. "Xena, I must admit you were right again. Those spineless Thracians didnít even put up a fight."
Xena picked up one of the coins and idly began to play with it. "Draco," she purred, "shouldnít you know by now Iím always right?"
He leaned back on his seat and smiled up at her. "I donít know what came over you," he said, "but Iím glad you finally came to your senses. That last time I saw you you were acting like some kind of hero or something. It was very sickening."
Xena sat down beside him an trailed a long finger up his arm. "Well, everyone makes mistakes," she pouted. "Letís just say I was deluded and leave it at that."
"Okay. But still itís kind of odd, you know, we meeting again after so long.
That first day I saw you I thought you were in some kind of trance."
"No," said Xena, "just thinking of a way to get rich, thatís all." She leaned over and lightly bit him on the neck.
Draco broke into a big grin and gently pushed her away. "Ooohh no. I know you too well. Money was never important to you. No, Xena, power is what you craved. Itís too bad you got distracted. You might have conquered all Greece by now."
"Well Itís not too late."
He eyed her intently and only in half jest asked, "You wouldnít be thinking about taking my army and linking up with Paulus yourself now would you?"
Xena hit Draco with her best smirk and cooed, "Draaaaco, if I had wanted your army I would have already killed you and taken it. No, you keep your little toy, just as long as I get to play too, okay?"
"Xena, I donít think I can do this without you."
"Of course you canít. Just work with me and youíll have everything you ever wanted, and I mean everything."
Xena placed her finger on a particularly sensitive pressure point and gently pushed. Draco thought he was going to explode then and there but Xena merely stood up and added nonchalantly, "Oh well, a warlord has to get her rest. See you tomorrow."
By the time she got back to her tent Xena thought she was going to vomit.
She took several deep breaths to steady herself and sat down on her bedroll. To her even the mere sight of Draco was revolting but he was a means to an end...her end. Xena had by now decided the only way to silence that voice insidious voice inside her was to die.
When she had learned Draco was back in Greece with a large army she had schemed mightily to make their reunion look like chance. As for Draco, his feelings for Xena were still governed by something farther south than his brain so after a day or two of wariness he again fell completely under her spell.
Xena now had at hand the means of her own destruction. In fact Draco had saved her the trouble of raising her own army. In the month between her confrontation with the men in the tavern and joining Draco Xena had turned over and over in her mind what her next move would be. It was a given to her that she could not live without Gabrielle but it involved more than that. That voice so alluringly beckoning to her to return to the old ways must be silenced.
Despite having no will to live the warrior in her would not let her just take her own life. She had to die like a warrior. Unfortunately there wasnít anyone capable of killing her in single combat. No, it would have to be in a battle, a big battle; army on army.
She knew well enough if Draco made a big enough demonstration it the north the southern kingdoms would soon move to stop them, especially with the specter of a link up with Paulus haunting them. As to lead them, well she had no illusions about that either. They would run to Darinius like children to a nanny. Protest as he might, he would not be able to refuse them.
With all her heart Xena wished it were someone else. For all their bloody past, he had shown her nothing but respect and kindness and trust. I would rather fight Zeus himself, she thought. He was one of the very few she really thought of as her friend, even more than that. But she also knew he was the only one good enough to stop them and so the stage would soon be set.
She also had no illusions about winning nor did she care. Darinius was known and respected by everyone of any importance in Greece. The was a good chance Draco would be facing thirty to forty thousand men by the time battle was joined.
Well, she thought, so much the better for me. Oh, Gabrielle! I miss you so.
By the thousands they came from all over Greece. Sparta, Mymalar, Thessaly, Macedonia, Athens, and other smaller realms all rallied to the magical name of Darinius; the man who had never lost a battle. They were grim, soldiers determined to stop the threat from the north. Most of them had heard of Xena and how formidable she was but they took heart in the knowledge their supreme commander had faced her, and won, before. Battalion by battalion they amassed by the river. From thirteen different kingdoms they came, all ready to do battle for their homelands. Even the most common of soldier knew now was the time to lay aside their individual squabbles and unite against the common enemy. Some were better equipped than others, some were better trained, but all had very high morale and a willingness to see the job through.
The last to join with them had been the Amazons. Ephiny had wrestled with it for two whole days before, at last, deciding to join the coalition. To her it was like fighting a sister for, in truth, Xena was the ultimate Amazon. Ephiny knew from experience, however, that even Amazons could let ambition destroy the sworn bonds between them and turn on one another.
For her part she felt this might be the last time anyone ever took the trouble to consult the Amazon nation on any matter of high importance. Their numbers were steadily shrinking, she knew that. Like their centaur neighbors across the river they were being closed in on from all sides. Greedy, powerful, ruthless men wanted their lands. Men! Ephiny felt an affinity with the centaurs like no other race and not just because one of them had fathered her son. Both their races were the target of men whom she felt would eventually succeed in stamping them out. What a shame, she thought, they had spilled so much of each others blood when they should have been concentrating on their real enemyóman.
Ephiny was proud to be the recognized leader of the Amazon nation even if Gabrielle was the true queen. She prayed to Artemis every day to not let the end of the Amazon way of life die in her lifetime. But it would come eventually, of that she was certain.
She stepped outside her tent and looked up the hill towards Dariniusí headquarters. Carefully she adjusted all the regalia proudly indicating her rank and position and started up the hill.
"But it wonít be today," she murmured. "Time to pay your respects to the commanding general."
Marcus, the young lieutenant from Dariniusí own homeland, saw her coming and rapped on the front pole of Dariniusí tent. "Ephiny of the Amazons to see you sir."
"Very well, show her in," said Darinius.
Ephiny entered and found Marmax and Darinius looking over a map lying on a rough little table. Marmax smiled and strode over to greet the Amazon.
"Ephiny! Good to see you again. Howís that son of yours?"
"Growing taller every day, thank you," she replied.
"Ephiny, this is our commander, Darinius of Mymalar," announced Marmax.
"It is an honor," said Ephiny. "Your name is well known to us."
"I can assure you the pleasure is all mine," said Darinius.
"So, how does it feel to be a leader now?í asked Marmax, winking at Darinius.
"The job is not all itís cracked up to be," said Ephiny. "Thereís more worry than wonder in it."
"Ha! Spoken like a true leader," laughed Marmax. He turned to face Darinius, "Iíll speak to Tyldus about this right away."
He then gripped Ephiny by the arm, said, "Iím glad you decided to stand with us," and stepped out into the evening air.
Darinius walked over to Ephiny and stuck out his hand. "I was sorry to hear of the death of Melosa," he said. "She was not only a great warrior but a wise leader as well. As the new queen, Iím sure you will rule as wisely she did."
Ephiny shook his hand but did not return his smile. "I am not the true queen," she told him. "I am merely sitting in place of another until she returns to us."
"Interesting. Who is your true queen if I may ask?"
"Ephiny eyed him intently and said, "She is the best friend of your enemy."
Darinius immediately noted her use of the word Ďyourí instead of Ďourí.
"Yes, do you know her?"
"She is one of my closest friends." He did not tell her he considered Gabrielle THE closest friend he had. "So how did she..."
"By right of cast," said Ephiny.
"I see." He knew of this most sacred of Amazon traditions. "So, she did not choose to rule?"
"Not at this time. I think in time, however, once she has matured..." She let her voice trail off. Oh Gabrielle, I do hope you return to us one day, she thought. Your people need their true and legitimate queen.
"Perhaps you are right." But in his own mind Darinius doubted it.
He had been studying Ephiny intently since she entered and already he had formed a solid opinion as to her makeup. Using his keen insight he saw there was much to admire in this fine looking woman with the unruly blonde curls. It was obvious she was loyal. Most would have already tried to usurp Gabrielleís throne. There was no doubt she was brave. He had never met an Amazon that wasnít. She was serious, didnít have much of a sense of humor, and perhaps a little sad. Overall an outstanding example of her blood line, a true Amazon with all the finest qualities that name represented.
"So, what would you like for us to do," asked the Amazon.
"Nothing at the present. Just be ready to move out on a momentís notice."
He placed himself squarely in front of her and continued, "Ephiny, I know this was a tough decision for you to make. You may not know this but Xena is like a sister to me, too. Thatís why I am going do my best to salvage this mess and I think we can if we donít screw up. All I ask is that you trust me."
He placed his palms together over his head in the Amazon for "peace".
For the first time she gave the barest hint of a smile at one corner of her mouth and her eyes softened just a little. "Okay."
"By the way, our intelligence says Gabrielle is not with Xena. Have you seen her lately?"
"No, and I must say I am relieved to hear she is not involved in all this," said Ephiny. "When Tyldus told me Xena was again at the head of an army of conquest I couldnít believe it. I still donít, really. It would have killed me if Gabrielle was in on it with them."
"I think Gabrielle is the key to Xenaís involvement in this somehow," said Darinius.
"I have sent out scouts to try to locate her but, so far, nothing."
"Do you think she is dead?" asked Ephiny softly.
"I donít know."
The young lieutenant from the Army of Mymalar again knocked on the tent pole.
"Tharses of Sparta to see you, sir."
Darinius looked at Ephiny and rolled his eyes. "Itís about time," he whispered.
"Good. Send him in." They turned to face the huge form now entering the tent.
Tharses stuck out his hand and roared, "Darinius! You havenít changed a bit in, whatís it been, sixteen years now?"
"Aw, itís just too dark in this tent to see all my gray hair," said Darinius. "And a lot of it is attributable to you. However, Iím surprised you even remember my name, you big lunkhead."
"Remember your.. aww very funny." Tharses turned to Ephiny. "Do you know this son of a gorgon once fought and killed five guys to save my hide? I mean I was a goner but old Mymalar here just would not leave my side."
"It was only four guys, Ephiny, " corrected Darinius. "He never could count very well. Ephiny of the Amazon nation, I want you to meet Tharses, General of the Spartan army."
The Amazon and the Spartan shook hands.
"So," wondered Tharses, "whatís a deserter like you need with all these soldiers? If that slug Draco has only fifteen thousand or so men we already have more than enough to lick him."
"Deserter, huh? As I recall your people wanted to make me a captain while you were still a corporal running around with your nose up some sergeantís behind."
It took all of Ephinyís remarkable self control to curb her laughter. This guy is something, she thought.
"An injustice soon corrected after you ran out on us, you coward," laughed Tharses. His manner turned more serious. "Ephiny, if this sheep herder had stayed with us he would be in my place right now."
"Tharses, the only thing I want to be general of is my fishing boat back home, said Darinius. "Iím glad you came, old friend. As to our numbers, I think if we do this just right we will not have to fight Draco at all. That is unless our enemy is nuts."
It saddened Ephiny to hear Xena referred to as the Ďenemyí. She could not know that, in his own mind, Darinius was not referring to the Warrior Princess.
"Well, just how many are we going to have here with us? asked Tharses.
"My best guess right now, it the Macedonians make it on time, is about thirty-eight thousand."
Tharses whistled softly. "An army that size could do some big things."
"Like unite Greece under the Spartan banner," teased Darinius.
"Or yours," he countered. "Thereís worse things that could happen, you know."
"Iíve got to tell you Draco is not our only threat, Tharses. Itís rumored he might be waiting to link up with Paulus soon."
"Paulus huh? Tharses literally spat the words out. "Well if so, we will take care of that son of a bitch once and for all." The general strode over to a table and helped himself to some water.
Ephiny took the opportunity to whisper in Dariniusí ear, "What about Xena?"
"Weíll cross that bridge when we come to it," he answered softly.
"Xena! An army is massing along the river to the southwest of us. I am told there are more on the way. What do we do?" asked Draco.
"Do?" smirked Xena. "We stick to my original plan. We move on Philippi and take the city. If those bastards move against us we simply set up a defensive position and wait for Paulus."
"But I donít..."
"They are a coalition, you fool. Each member has his own agenda. That weakling Darinius will never be able to hold them together. Soon enough, some of them will want to go home and when their numbers have been sufficiently reduced we will just lash out at them and swallow the rest up."
"How did you know Darinius was leading them?"
Xena put a finger over his lips. "I have my sources too" she said. "Now why donít you run along and see to it we get started, hmmm?í
But Xena had no intention of letting Draco beat Darinius to Philippi. If youíre half the soldier I know you are, she thought, youíll know what to do. She turned up her cup and whispered, "Hereís to your success, my friend."
Shortly after midnight, the young lieutenant again rapped his knuckles on Dariniusí tent pole. The general had not been asleep for more than half an hour and he was not very amused with the intrusion.
"Yes, what is it, Marcus."
"Ah, sorry to disturb you, sir, but we caught this, ah, person trying to infiltrate our camp."
Darinius stumbled to the tent opening. "Canít you handle one measly prisoner, lieutenant?"
"Well, uh yes but ah, we found this on her, sir."
"Yes, sir. See this? Thatís our crest, General."
Before Darinius could look at it sounds of a small scuffle broke out beside his tent.
"Hey, you jerk. You better take me to your commanding officer so I can straighten this mess out."
"Quiet, spy," barked one of her guards.
"Spy? Me? No wait...there must be some mistake."
"There is and you made it, girlie."
Darinius instantly recognized the voice playing like sweet music over his ears. Gabrielle! In his bare feet he ran out of the tent, turned the corner and there she was. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle, is that really you?"
"Darinius?" Gabrielle ran forward but the guard jerked her back.
"Let her go, damn it. Sheís a friend of mine," growled Darinius.
Free at last, the bard leaped forward and practically launched herself at him. He caught the young woman and wrapped his arms around her. Gods, it felt good to hold her again, he thought.
"Gabrielle, what in Tartarus happened to you? Where have you been for Zeusí sake?"
"Itís a long story," smiled Gabrielle.
"Well, as I recall, thatís your specialty," said Darinius returning her smile.
"Come on, letís get out of this night air. Say, have you had anything to eat?"
"Well, I am a little..."
"Lieutenant, bring the young lady some food."
"And none of that leftover stuff, either. Wake up a cook and tell him I said to get busy."
"Right. Oh uh, miss? This belongs to you. Sorry, we were just doing our job."
He gave Gabrielle back the chain his men had confiscated from her.
"Iím glad to see you still have it," said Darinius.
"Iíll always have it," said Gabrielle.
He led her inside the tent and gestured for her to sit upon his cot. After lighting a couple of candles he sat down beside her. "So tell me, what were doing out there in the middle of the night?"
"I, I was in a hurry to...to..."
"Yes. Darinius is it true? When I heard she was...was with Draco again I thought it was just a malicious lie but soon everyone was talking about it."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands and back up to Darinius. Her eyes began to well up and before she spoke she gave that almost imperceptible little head jerk she sometimes did when something was unpleasant for her. "What happened to her? Was it Ares?"
"No, Gabrielle, it was not Ares." He had given the matter a lot of thought over he past few days and there was only one conclusion as far as he was concerned. It was grief. Xena believed she had lost Gabrielle so her life meant nothing to her.
"She thinks your dead," he added.
"But she promised. She promised me she would not do that if something happened to me."
"Who knows whatís really going inside that head of hers. She might even be beyond caring about anything anymore.
Soon the cook brought a large plate of food and Darinius patiently waited until the bard had eaten every bite. "Gabrielle, what happened to you? Nobody has seen or heard from you in months."
"I was on my way to Poteidaia to see Lila, thatís my sister. Xena and I were to meet in Delphi after a couple of weeks. At the end of my second day of travel I decided to make camp a league or so down the road from this little village. I almost stayed there in the inn that night but I changed my mind at the last minute." Gabrielle turned to him and added softly, "Now I wish I had."
"So what happened?"
"I was awakened by low voices. There were five men surrounding me and as I tried to get up one of them got scared and cut my arm with his sword. For a time I didnít think I was going to get the bleeding stopped."
Gabrielle pulled up her sleeve and showed him the scar.
"Were they slave traders or bandits? asked Darinius. Already he felt the anger burning within him. How dare one of those bastards hurt her! Itís too bad I wasnít there, he thought. Well, thereíll be another day. He remembered Darvax and how many months it had taken to settle the score with him for what he did to Gabrielle. Well, she seems all right now.
"Slave traders," said Gabrielle. They took two others girls and me and made for Thespis. They told us they already had a buyer from the east but when they made contact with them they couldnít agree on the price. So, we spent the next six weeks running up and down the east coast.
Finally, about two weeks ago, I saw my chance to escape. One day, while we were resting along side the road I happened to see a piece of glass in the road. They always kept our hands tied but I managed to get it into my hand and all day I carried it in my fist. That night I was able to cut the ropes of the girl tied up with me. Gosh, I thought it would take forever! But, finally, she got free, managed to Ďborrowí a knife from one of our captors, and cut the rest of us loose. They got drunk every night so we were able to get away cleanly. I tried to locate Xena. I was sure she was looking for me but then I heard the news of her reunion with Draco." Gabrielleís voice fell to barely above a whisper, "Whatís it mean, Darinius? Is she really...that...that way again?"
He took her hand and gently squeezed it. "Do you want the truth?"
"Of course," she replied, but then thought, Do I really?
"Sheís not evil, Gabrielle." By now he had decided he must lie to the little bard. In his mind he already saw a way clear through all this but paramount to his plan was the end must result in Gabrielleís complete restoration of her faith in Xena. It would be pointless to get Xena off the hook if Gabrielle had any doubts at all about the Warrior Princessí true motives.
"There are forces at work here I cannot tell you about right now, okay? he continued. "All I can say is you have got to trust me."
"Darinius, youíve got to take me to her."
"Gabrielle, I canít right now. This situation is much too delicate. It would only jeopardize everything."
"No! Iíve to see her. You have to take me to her."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Itís not that simple now. A lot of people want to get rid of her once and for all. They are tired of being afraid of her, tired of worrying if she will ever try to conquer again."
"Is that...is that why you...?"
He felt like a traitor to the broken hearted little bard. "Yes."
"How could you?" she asked bitterly. "Xena loves you like a brother."
"DAMN IT, GABRIELLE! How do you think I feel?" It was the first time he had ever raised his voice to her and he immediately hated himself for it. "Iím sorry. Please forgive my stupid temper. Gabrielle, do think I want to be here? I donít want to fight her but they gave me no choice. Most of them would not have committed to the coalition if had refused to lead it."
Gabrielle looked at him with a cold stare, "I donít believe you. I think you want to fight her. You want this battle to take place donít you?"
"Gabrielle, thatís crazy talk."
She stood up and defiantly pointed a finger at his nose. "If you wonít help me at least donít get in my way," she said fiercely. "You can do that much for me, canít you?"
She took a step toward the tent opening when Darinius caught her by the arm.
"Before you go, there is someone here you should see."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"
"Come with me." Still in his bare feet and with a firm grip on Gabrielleís arm, he led her down the hill to a tent bedecked with banners Gabrielle would have recognized had she not been so angry. Darinius rapped on the tent pole.
"Itís me, Darinius, I have someone here to see you."
Ephiny emerged from the tent to find her queen before her. "Gabrielle!" The two embraced and once again Gabrielle had to answer a battery of questions.
Finally, Ephiny turned to ask Darinius a question but he was gone.
"How did he trick you into this, Ephiny?" asked Gabrielle bitterly.
"What do you mean?"
"How did he dupe the Amazon nation into betraying one of its best friends?"
Ephiny took Gabrielle by the elbow and gently, but forcefully, pulled her into the tent. "Gabrielle," she said, " we need to talk."
The late spring morning broke clear and a little on the warm side over the two opposing camps. Dracoís camp was already broken and his army on the march to Philippi. Xena had given him the route he was to take for the next few days movement. She made if clear to him he was to take the army through the large forest a few leagues west of the city. She was not surprised when he did not even question the wisdom of this.
Xena, however, knew exactly what would happen. Once Darinius finds out we are in there he will rush elements in to jam up those two roads and slow us down, she reasoned. t wonít take much. Our army will become scattered in those dark woods and it will take some time to regroup.
Poor Draco! she thought. How he had convinced Paulus to let him lead this force was a mystery to her. He had no more chance against smart, professional soldiers than a rabbit against a fox. In her meeting with Paulus it had taken all her considerable skills of persuasion to convince him to split up his army and send this force ahead of the main army. After all she had no desire to see this bastard conquer Greece. In a few days our two armies will stand face to face and toe to toe. Xena had already decided to find the thickest part of the fighting and wade right in.
The same sun found the other camp a little late in its preparations to move out. A meeting of the leaders of the coalition was held before departure. It would be late evening of that day before scouts would confirm Dracoís movement through the forest so at this meeting it was agreed a general movement to the northeast was in order. The necessary orders to all individual commands were duly given and the huge war machine began to stir. At this meeting Darinus formed the army into three divisions with Marmax, Tharses, and Tyldus each commanding one of them.
As they made their way to the northeast Darinius racked his brain about Xena. If his plan succeeded she would not die but what then? He knew well enough some of his allies wanted her head on a silver platter and he had no intention of letting that happen. There had to be a way...
Xena rose up in Argoís stirrups and cast her eyes down on the huge forest sprawling before them. Even from her vantage point on the hill the end of it was not visible. Itís perfect, she thought. She turned to Draco and pointed to the low plain next to the forest. "Weíll camp there," she said. "Send out patrols tonight. We can expect contact with Darinius any day now."
That night Xena finally relented and played the role of lustful warrioress with Draco. She had the sense he was losing interest in this operation and wanted to go off raiding like the bandit he was. She could not allow that to happen.
She had not made love to a man in a long time and now she found it revolting to her. Maybe it was just Draco, she wasnít sure. He pawed her and grunted like a pig and Xena felt for someone with such a reputation as a ladies man he was just about the most ham-handed thing she had ever seen.
Or maybe it was because of Gabrielle. It was now almost three months since the two of them had made love but to Xena the feelings evoked by those sweet memories were as vivid as if they had just occured. Memories that, for the first time in many moons, brought a smile to the face of the Warrior Princess. Yes, Gabrielle too was clumsy but in a loving, gentle, eager to please sort of way. And still quite shy about it too. Save for their first time, it had been Xena whom initiated it every single time. Xena didnít know if the little bard was afraid she would say no (she had to admit she was moody sometimes), or if it made her too uncomfortable to ask, or it she just felt it was Xenaís option. All she knew was not one time had Gabrielle offered even the slightest hint of resistance.
And each time was like Mount Olympus on earth.
But now Xena felt such wonderful times were a thing of the past forever. It seemed to her the Fates were committed to making life miserable for her. First her happy teen years had been shattered by that bastard Cortese, then the long years of darkness that nearly destroyed her soul. Finally, a light broke through the darknessóHercules! Later that light magnified a thousand times by a wondrous lensóGabrielle!
She had even had a glimpse of inner peace. All those people she had actually helped. The friends she had made: Iolaus, Tyldus, the Amazons, Marmax, the goofy Joxer, Meg and Diana, Autolycus, Hippocrates, Darinius...Hercules. These people had accepted her for what she was not what she had been. Xena wondered what they thought of her now.
She remembered the warm glow she had felt inside after their successful return from Kathos, the pride she had felt in what they had done. How tough and brave her friends had been. The special new friend she had made. That glow had lasted right up to the day Gabrielle failed to return.
Gabrielle! What does one do when their heart has been ripped out? You die, like anyone else, though Xena. She sat up and allowed herself one final tear for the love of her life. Good bye, sweet bard. Soon it will be my turn.
Twenty leagues away, while Xena was pondering her life, Darinius was going over intelligence reports with his division commanders. The map of the area had been mounted on a makeshift easel and brought outside to allow Tyldus to join in.
"What do you make of that? asked Tyldus. "Why would they choose to squeeze themselves into those narrow roads in that forest? Why not just go around?
"They must be in one big hurry to get to Philippi," offered Tharses. "Darinius, do you think they want to hole up in the city and try to outwait us?"
"That would be my guess," said Darinius. However, he already knew the real reason. Xena wanted them to catch up.
It was now that they were joined by Gabrielle and Ephiny.
"Oh, Ephiny, good. Iím glad youíre here. I have got a job for you," said Darinius.
Ephiny never batted an eye. "What do you want me to do?"
Darinius ran his hand over the map. "See these woods? Our scouts tell us it looks like their army will be crossing through here as of tomorrow morning. What Iíd like for you to do is high tail it up there and infiltrate those woods."
Ephiny merely nodded. Everyone there knew of the legendary Amazon prowness in forest warfare.
"There are only two passable roads that traverse the forest," continued Darinius, I want you to booby trap those roads in depth, erect roadblocks, anything you can think of. How you do it is up to you. Split your people into four groups, put two here," he pointed to two sections of road at the eastern end of the woods, "take the other two, bypass their army, move into their rear and do the same to the west end of the roads."
"Once they pass this group," Darinius pointed to the western end of the woods, put the cork in the bottle and shake it up a little. Nothing big, mind you, just enough to make the bottle fizz."
Even Ephiny had to smile at this. "Right. I understand."
Tharses stood there listening to this now farmer and sheep herder and could only shake his head in amazement. Already these people were willing to follow this guy into Tartarus, he thought. And I would be proud to go with him. Itís a shame the man has no ambition. This son of a bitch could have conquered half the known world by now.
Darinius put his hand on Ephinyís shoulder. "Now listen, you are not, repeat not to expose yourself at anytime or operate under any unnecessary risk. All you have to do is slow them down a little. Weíll come running as quickly as we can. I want to see your ass back here by noon day after tomorrow, understand?"
Realizing what he had just said he added sheepishly, "Iím sorry. I guess I got carried away."
With an amused sort of half grin Ephiny replied, "Itís okay, I want my ass to come back too. Umm, when do you want us to leave?"
"Uhh nowww, Ephiny."
All through this exchange Gabrielle had not spoken one word. As she turned to leave with Ephiny Darinius caught her arm. "Not so fast, Gabrielle. Youíre staying here."
"I donít think so," said Gabrielle. "If the Amazons are to risk their lives it is my place to go with them."
"Nuh uh, nothing doing. You donít have the skills to move through those woods. You would be caught before you got twenty paces."
"Heís right, Gabrielle," said Ephiny. "You should stay here."
Gabrielleís face began to redden and she turned to Ephiny. "If I am the queen it is my duty to go with you and not stay behind like some coward."
"Nobody thinks youíre a coward," said Ephiny quietly.
"Well Iím going."
Darinius gently caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face him.
"Gabrielle, you are under my command and if you continue to defy orders you will leave me no choice but to place you under arrest and confine you to your quartersónot to mention maybe giving you a good swat or two across your backside."
Ephiny thought Gabrielleís eyes were going to pop right out of her head. She had never seen her so angry. Gabrielleís rage was not assuaged by the guffaws of Dariniusí division commanders.
Gabrielle could not even form complete words. "Arre...your com...AAARRRGGGHH!"
She wrenched free and took a big roundhouse swing at her tormentor. He easily stepped aside, caught her, and from behind her back wrapped his arms around her.
He gently hugged her just enough to confine her while allowing her to continue to flail her arms.
"Calm down, Gabrielle."
"Darinius let me...let me go!"
"Calm down," he again whispered in her ear.
"You son of ..."
Finally he sensed her body ease its tension. "You okay?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded, "Iím okay. Ephiny, go on. Iíll see you when you get back."
Ephiny nodded her approval and vanished into the darkness.
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle. I couldnít take a chance on your being hurt."
She was not entirely convinced by this remark. "You werenít afraid I was going to run to Xena, were you?"
By midmorning Dracoís army was well inside the forest. They were jammed up on both roads that ran roughly parallel about two leagues apart. Xena could only shake her head at the fact, that despite having his force divided and bottled up on two narrow roads, Draco did not seem disturbed by it. He had not even sent people ahead to scout the area like their enemy had.
To be sure Xena had seen the scouts dogging their every move for the last few days. They knew their business and kept well hidden but every now and then Xena managed to get a glimpse of one.
She looked at the men around her in disgust. Men like these were very good at killing unarmed or poorly armed villagers. They excelled at looting, rape, or murder but stack them up against even a relatively small, well trained force with someone that knew his stuff to lead them and it was a recipe for disaster. She had learned that lesson the hard way. Now with no telling how many thousands moving to oppose them they would be sitting ducks. Xena knew this was not going to be a battle but a slaughter.
The Amazons were ready. All during the frantic hours of the previous night and into the morning for a stretch of half a league both on and immediately on either side of the roads they, and a couple of dozen men borrowed from Tharses, had feverishly worked digging concealed pits, setting up log traps, stringing ropes, felling trees, and preparing various other little surprises for their expected guests.
Now Ephiny released Tharsesí men back to their unit and prepared for the most difficult part of the operation. Leaving Tara in charge of eastern group, she took the others and began the delicate task on infiltrating past Dracoís army to the western part of the forest. Within an hour they ran into the lead elements of Dracoís column. She signaled her sisters to spread out into the woods while she took to a tree to get a better look.
Sure enough, riding at the head of the column with a man that could only be Draco was Xena. It hurt Ephiny to no end to see Xena with these men but she knew from experience how easily allegiances changed. Even among her own people this was so. She noted Xena did not seem to be interacting with the others at all.
As Xena neared Ephiny ever so subtly shifted her weight to ease her way down the tree causing the tree limb she was on to slightly shake. It was a very minute movement and only one with keen eyesight and the knowledge of what to look for would have seen it.
Xena saw it. Amazons! she thought. She lowered her head and smiled almost imperceptibly. So thatís it. Heís sent them in here to bottle us up. She knew that by now Amazons were probably already behind them sealing them off. She also knew there could not be more than a hundred or so of them but, in here, it would seem more like a thousand.
Xena was right, of course, the Amazons had successfully passed by the army and, once well clear, were running like bats out of Hades to reach the west end of the forest. They wanted to make sure they had at least a good start on their traps before Dracoís spearhead hit their sisters on the other side. Their work was well underway when Ephiny caught up with them.
When Dracoís men were within five hundred paces of the first trap Tara ordered her women to take up their ambush positions. Ephiny had made it plain to her to make the attack just big enough to stir their enemy up and to be sure Xena was not to be harmed. Once the ambush was executed the Amazons were to withdraw to the prearranged rendezvous point.óa pair of small hills on the southern edge of the forest.
Xena felt it would be any time now. It was getting to be late afternoon and Dracoís men were still blundering along the narrow roads oblivious to the peril around them. Draco reined his horse back to fall in with Xena when up ahead he saw a lithe figure dart across the road and appear to fall down.
He turned to the captain beside him and ordered, "Bring that person to me."
"Here we go," said Xena, under her breath.
The captain and two of his men thundered up the road after the figure and found there was, suddenly, no more road beneath them. The well disguised pit it the middle of the road had done its work well. Draco looked around for the woman but she seemed to have disappeared. At once a hail of arrows rained down on the head of the column from all sides. Some of the men foolishly rushed forward to hoping to bypass the pit and immediately fell into another one.
By now several of Dracoís men had fallen victim to well aimed arrows and a general sense of panic was becoming prevalant. The column turned on itself in order to retreat back down the road. Well behind the head of the column logs lashed to limbs high in the trees were cut loose to complete their deadly arc.
"AMBUSH! Get off the road," roared Draco.
His men were all too willing to obey but fell right into the Amazonsí hand for when they did they encountered sharp stakes protruding from the bushes, more small pits which broke down horses, and ropes strung through the forest to throw riders.
Even Xena was taken aback by the thoroughness of the ambush. To her mind the traps laid off the road were an especially nice touch. Before bending low over Argo to protect herself a quick look around revealed the terrible havoc wrought by Ephinyís Amazons. Fallen horses with broken legs lay screaming, soldiers with arrows in their chests gurgling blood, terrified men and animals crashing into the dense underbrush only to find new terrors awaiting them. The army was now a sea of confused and desperate men recklessly colliding with each other in their frenzy to escape that road of death.
The rear of the column saw the huge mass of their comrades bearing down on them, became caught up in the panic, and bolted for the west end of the woods. These men were granted but an illusion of safety for soon they ran straight into Ephinyís little surprise. Again the ambush was completely successful.
At all four ambush sites the plan went off without a hitch. The forest was filled with fleeing men and animals crashing into the thick underbrush, trees, and each other. Not one of them even was their assailants. The Amazons had simply melted into the forest. The sometimes passed within a few paces of Dracoís men as they withdrew but none were so much as glanced at. Just before nightfall the Amazons regrouped at the pair of small hills and, after a quick head count, Ephiny mounted a stump to address her sisters.
"Today," she began, "we have shown the world we are still a force to be reckoned with. I just want to say I am so proud of all of you." She raised her arm in the Amazon salute and added, "Well done, Amazons!"
All that evening and into the night Draco and his lieutenants worked to reorganize the army. Slowly but surely they managed to bring first individuals, then units back under control. For her part Xena simply tied Argo to a tree and sat there waiting for daylight. She didnít want to take the chance of having one of those idiots mistake her for an enemy. So she sat there munching on some dried beef and stale bread and marveled at how well the ambush had worked.
Ephiny, she thought, Iíve got to hand it to you. That was well done. She finished her rough supper and dusted the crumbs from her hands.
"Well, Darinius," she mumbled, "you got what you wanted. Thereís no way we will be in Philippi before you now." She allowed herself a slight smile and added, "If ever you see me again you ought to thank me."
Xena knew what she was talking about. Darinius, in fact, already had the lead elements of his army ( mostly Tyldusí centaurs) already between the forest and Philippi. His cavalry soon joined them and by late evening a battle line was formed. Darinius left it to Tyldusí judgment to choose some good ground on which to wait for Draco. He chose a ridge running northwest to southeast that was cut by the same two roads leading out of the forest. >From this point it was impossible for Draco to get around them and into the city.
By late afternoon advance columns of Tharsesí infantry linked up with the centaurs. They had been marching since midnight. Just before dark Marmax arrived with his division which was posted on the extreme left end of the battle line. By midnight the entire army had arrived and been placed into position. The next morning Darinius and his commanders were joined half way through their morning meeting by Ephiny.
"I am pleased to report our mission was a success," she said simply.
"Tharses rose to shake her hand. "That was one damn fine piece of
soldiering. Some of my boys were scouting up there and they heard them screaming all night in there. You really shook the bastards up."
"You did great, Ephiny," agreed Marmax.
"Just doing our part," offered Ephiny.
"Well you certainly did," said Darinius. "Iíd give you a medal if I had one"
Ephiny turned to face the voice behind her. It was Gabrielle.
"Did...did you...? You know..."
"Yes, I saw her," said Ephiny softly.
"Was she...all right?"
"She looked fine." The Amazon touched her queen on the arm and added, "We made sure she was not harmed, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle could only nod her thanks.
"By the gods! We must have been hit by a whole division, Xena."
"Uhh huhh. Well just be glad they didnít press their attack otherwise those fools would have trampled each other to death."
"Once we get out of this damn forest into the open country weíll be all right."
"Sure," replied Xena dryly. And out of the frying pan and into the fire, she thought.
That night the warrioress sat up all night in her tent. The last hours before dawn were spent thinking of what had been and what was to be. On the morrow or the day after at the latest the two armies would clash. The sooner the better, she thought. Then I wonít be able to hurt anyone anymore. Yes, the loss of Gabrielle was devastating but it was compounded by the realization of what she knew she would become.
Already she felt she had broken her promise to Gabrielle. Her encounter with the man in possession of Gabrielleís staff and the brief, but deadly, fight in the tavern convinced her she was soon destined to return to the old ways. She had enjoyed torturing the man in the road and had positively reveled in the death of the men in the tavern. To her way of thinking it was only a matter of time before she graduated to bigger and more horrible deeds. I canít let that happen, she told herself.
In her tortured brain the only way to prevent it was to cease to exist. She fingered the small, colorful, band of cloth, Gabrielleís hair band, and murmured, "Gabrielle, Iím so sorry I failed you."
"Theyíll be here by this evening, general." The young scout from Tharsesí division was a little nervous to be in the presence of all these great men but he made his report concise and accurate.
"They are still basically sticking to those two roads," he continued.
"Funny thing, I donít think they have any idea just how big our force is."
"Well they will know soon enough," said Marmax.
"Good report, son," said Darinius. "You can go now." He turned to his division commanders. "Well, this is it. Either tonight or tomorrow will finish it with Xena. You all know the plan. The main thing I want to emphasize is we must not let them escape. Above all else I want their path of retreat cut off. We cannot allow any of them to escape to join up with Paulus."
"I can assure if it comes to a fight the trap will be sprung," assured Tyldus.
"I know," nodded Darinius. "Everything is ready. All we can do now is wait. If you will excuse me I think Iím going to take a nap. Didnít sleep very well last night." In fact since sending Ephiny on her mission he had not slept at all.
He nodded to the men and left them to work out some minor details about communications and returned to his tent. Before entering, he turned to the young lieutenant, Marcus. "Iím going to try to get some rest. Wake me in a couple of hours."
Darinius looked at him and smiled. "Is this your first time away from the valley, son? You homesick?"
"Yes, sir. I miss my wife awfully bad."
"Well, the gods willing, weíll be back home before the summer solstice."
Marcus watched him disappear into the tent and it struck him then how much older his general looked. Power always bears more heavily on those that wield it for good than on those that use it for evil purposes, he decided. He shook his head in awe and returned to his duties.
To Darinius it seemed he had no more laid down his head before he felt Marcusí hand upon his chest.
"Sir. Sir? You wanted me to wake you, sir?"
"Right." He sat up and tried to focus his bleary eyes.
"Would you like something to eat, sir?"
The very thought of food made his stomach rebel. "Uhh, no. Thanks anyway."
The rustle of footsteps outside his tent and the low murmur of many voices caught his attention and he stepped outside to investigate. Forming a semi-circle around his tent were the leaders of all thirteen of the armyís contributors.
"What is all this?" asked Darinius.
"Well, we were wondering if you would like to review the mení said Marmax.
"I know, I know, youíre uncomfortable with this sort of thing. But it would mean a lot to the men to see you."
"Okay," sighed Darinius.
Marmax led the group down the lane formed by the officersí tents. Past them, in a large clearing, were eleven battalionsóone from each kingdom. The Amazons and the centaurs, being much smaller groups were represented by one hundred of each. The units were lined up in a long row with their banners streaming out in front to identify their origin.
As they neared Darinius saw the others stop.
"Arenít you going with me? he asked.
"No," said Tharses. "This is your honor alone."
"Is it not the generalís prerogative to choose a Warrior of Honor to accompany him on the review? reminded Darinius.
"This is so," agreed Tyldus.
"Well, since the Amazons are the only ones to have done any fighting I think you will all agree that the honor should go to Ephiny," said Darinius.
All the division commanders nodded their heads in approval.
"No," floated a voice from the back. It was Ephiny. "If you must honor an Amazon it must be Gabrielle. She is our rightful queen and the honor is hers."
"No, Ephiny...you, itís your honor," stammered Gabrielle. "You are the hero."
"Ephiny smiled and touched her queenís shoulder. "No. It is your place to go. We will be honored for you to represent us."
Gabrielle lowered her head and nodded. "Okay, you win."
Ephiny walked her to Dariniusí side.
"What do I do," asked Gabrielle.
"Walk one step behind him and one step to the right," instructed Ephiny.
"Stay in step. If he stops, you stop. Thatís all there is to it."
Darinius gave Ephiny an amused smile and asked, "How did you know that?"
"Iíve been around," said Ephiny. I didnít come into town on a load of melons, you know. I have seen parade reviews before."
Darinius laughed and turned to Gabrielle. "You ready?"
The little bard gulped and nodded.
To calm her nerves he leaned over and whispered, "I must say that look certainly becomes you."
She was wearing the full regalia of an Amazon queen, all but the mask.
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she smiled thinly. "Well, letís get this over with."
As they began their review the powerful reverberation of an Amazon drum
filled the air. Its cadence was timed to Gabrielleís footsteps, each beat being struck as her right foot hit the ground. A second drum sounded out three short, quick beats in between the other drumís main beat. Darinius had heard their war drums long ago when Queen Melosa was just beginning her reign. His thoughts drifted back to her briefly as he made his way down the line. She had been proud and noble woman dedicated to her race.
Itís a damn shame there arenít more like her, he thought. To him their war drums signified all that was good about them. Pride, defiance...strength. Although a soldier most of his adult life, he did not much care for the pomp and pageantry However the haunting beat of the Amazon war drum was one thing he allowed himself to enjoy. They were inspiring and even an old veteran like himself could feel the blood inside him racing.
When they passed each battalion, its banner was dipped and the honor captain drew his sword and raised the blade vertically in front of his face in salute. He set a good pace, fast enough to get it over with in a hurry but not too fast to show disrespect.
To Gabrielle it was an awesome display. She had never seen such power before. All those warlords she had seen Xena battle had referred to their forty or fifty men as an Ďarmyí and to a naive village girl from Poteidaia that had seemed like an army. By the gods how ludicrous that seemed now! The bard in her knew this was the stuff of an epic tale. If it werenít for Xena...
Oh, Xena I miss you. Please, Zeus, let this turn out all right.
"The review, itís over."
She had been so absorbed in her thoughts of Xena she had not noticed they had reached the end of the parade line. Only Dariniusís hand on her shoulder brought her back to reality.
"Iím sorry. I guess my mind was somewhere else."
"Gabrielle, Iím going to fix all this if I can. You have just got to trust me."
"Weíll camp here tonight, Draco. And have your men send out patrols. We donít want anymore surprises from that bastard Darinius."
"But, Xena, protested Draco, "there are still two good hours of daylight left. We could get even closer to them it we continue on."
Xena closed her eyes in exasperation and replied, "Draco that fiasco in the forest took a lot out of these men. We must stop now to allow the men to rest because by noon tomorrow we will be at war."
With the eve of battle at hand Draco began to get cold feet. "Do you... think we can win, Xena?"
"We wonít know that until tomorrow, now will we?"
"But if we lose... what are our options?"
"Options?" She eyed him as if he was some lower form of life. ""There are only two optionsóvictory or death. Now do as I say and get these men encamped."
Xena felt it was now time to take a ride. Without even bothering to tell Draco she headed west until she had cleared the rear of their army. She them made a wide loop to the south before turning to the northeast. Her destination was Dariniusí camp. She calculated her time and distance perfectly for she reached his first outpost just after dark. Along the way she encountered several patrols but, fortunately, there was considerable cover available to hide in.
She found a particularly secluded spot and there dismounted Argo. She reached into her saddlebag and retrieved half an apple she had been saving for her beloved Argo.
The horse gently took the apple from her open palm as Xena lovingly stroked her mane.
"Girl," she murmured, "in good times or bad, be I a hero or a demon, you have always been my friend."
The mare finished the apple and carefully touched her snout to her mistressí hand, looking for more.
"Iím sorry, girl," smiled Xena. "Thatís all I have. Gabrielle is the one who always...who..." To Xena the battle was coming none too soon.
She patted Argo on the nose and whispered, "Now donít make a sound while I am gone. We donít want somebody to find you, now do we?"
Argo nudged her in the ribs to signify her assent.
Silently she picked her way through the dense growth of the woods and by the time she reached open country it was completely dark. For one as experienced in night movement as she was it was easy to avoid the numerous patrols Darinius had thrown out. Half an hour later she mounted a hill and for the first time saw the full breathtaking spectacle of Dariniusí army.
As far as the eye could see there were burning campfires forming a great semi-circle. Their glow had been visible for quite some time to her and she knew it would be a big camp but even to her battle hardened eyes this was an awesome sight. She paused for just a moment to marvel at the power that lay before her before resuming her journey.
She neared the camp and began look for someone that suited her purpose. She soon saw her man. A sentry, covering an assigned patrol route, was just the right size. Five minutes later the sentry was unconscious and Xena was stripping off his clothes. Quickly she shed her things and donned the sentryís tunic and trousers. After a quick look around to make sure she had not been seen, Xena pulled the tunicís hood up over her head, hid her things in some bushes, and cautiously started for the center of the camp. She was not worried about the sentry being found for a good while yetóshe knew the watch had just been changed.
After walking about a quarter she began to look for tents with more than usual amounts of activity around them, the more activity the higher the rank. Her height and bearing served her well because not once was she challenged during her movement through the camp. At last she turned a corner and, standing out in front of a large tent and speaking to Marmax, was Darinius himself.
She eased back the way she came and looked for a safe place to wait for the campís activity to die down. A couple of hours later she again made her way to the corner and saw no one was around his tent. As quickly as she dared, she walked the short distance to his tent. After a quick look peek to make sure he was alone, Xena quietly entered.
He was sitting on a small stool, eyes closed, with his back against the rear of the tent. Xena was shocked by how tired he looked. Knowing no one would dare enter without announcing themselves, she was not worried about being discovered. She very carefully crossed the tent and sat on the side of the cot next to him.
"I thought you were asleep."
"Nah. Hypnos hasnít been too regular a visitor lately." He cocked his head to one side and waited.
"Darinius, Iíve come to say good bye. I figure I owe a friend such as you that much."
"Good bye? You mean youíre leaving?"
"You know what I mean," Xena said quietly.
"You have got it all planned out, donít you?" You think thereís going to be a big battle here tomorrow and the mighty Xena is going to die a warriorís death fighting against overwhelming odds. Am I right?"
"Something like that."
"You know, Xena, I know what itís like to lose someone you love so much you think you canít live anymore. Iíd like to have a dinar for every time I contemplated ramming my sword in my guts after Lycidia was killed. I didnít care about anybody or anything. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I was needed."
"Nobody needs me," said Xena bitterly. Nobody needs a killer with an unstable mind."
"Stop it!" From his seat he reached up and yanked her arm, pulling her down to him. "Now, damn it, you listen to me. Thereís nothing wrong with your mind and you are not a killer either. Youíre just hurting, thatís all."
He let go of her arm and pushed her away to stand up. "So, nobody needs you, huh?"
Quickly he stepped to the tent opening and stuck his head outside.
In a second the young lieutenant was there. He murmured something into the young manís ear and Marcus at once left to carry out the order. Darinius walked back over and sat down next to Xena.
"Did you think I was going to give you away?"
He turned from her and stared straight ahead. It was time. "Xena, Gabrielle is alive."
"Alive! Where? Is she all right?"
"Yes, sheís fine. She is right here. I sent Marcus to fetch her. She can tell you what happened later. Now listen to me, we donít have much time. Now, as you probably know, just about everyone of these kingdoms wants your head on a pike."
"Xena, Iíve got a plan to get you out of this unscathed but you have got to play along with me, understand?"
She narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I can get you off the hook with these people. But I want you to promise me you will never tell Gabrielle that what I say is not the truth."
"You mean youíre going to lie?"
Darinius bored his eyes into hers. "Iím going to tell them this was all part of your plan to deliver Draco to us. Iím going to say you came to me with this plan knowing I would be called upon to lead their army and we both agreed to keep it a secret. What I need to know is are you willing to go along?"
"I donít know."
"Xena, Gabrielle is going to be here any minute. You have got to decide. You two can still have your lives together or you can be torn apart by doubt and guilt. Xena, she does not need to know."
Xena merely blinked.
"Damn it. If you wonít do it to save yourself do it for her," He paused before adding, "and for me."
They heard footsteps approaching the tent.
"Xena, Iím begging you. Take Gabrielle and get out of here. Iíll take care of the rest but youíve got to promise me you wonít tell Gabrielle what I did."
Xena closed her eyes and sighed, "I wonít."
"Sir. Sir?" It was Marcus.
Darinius walked to the tent opening and stepped. "Thank you, lieutenant."
"Whatís this all about?" asked Gabrielle sleepily.
He merely jerked his head toward the tent. Gabrielle, looked at him, shrugged her shoulders and stepped inside. Standing in the corner was the love she had not seen in almost four months. At first she could not believe it. She thought maybe it was a hallucination or maybe she was still in her bed, dreaming.
The warrior didnít know what to do or say. But the little bard did. Gabrielle launched herself across the tent and into Xenaís arms.
Gabrielle laid her head on those breasts she knew so well and whispered triumphantly, "Oh, Xena, I knew you werenít in league with Draco. I knew it had to be one of your plans."
"Thatís right," said Darinius, staring intently at Xena. "It was her idea all along to gain Dracoís confidence and sucker him into bringing his army here instead of waiting to link up with Paulus, isnít that right, Xena?"
A faint "yes" was all Xena could muster.
"Iím sorry I didnít tell you Gabrielle but it was necessary that we keep this secret," said Darinius.
Oh gods, Gabrielle, you feel so good. It was like holding love itself, thought Xena. She was so warm...so close.
"Gabrielle, I thought you were dead so I had to do something to keep from going crazy. When I heard Draco was back in Greece with an army I knew what I had to do."
"Oh, Xena, Iím so proud of you. I knew you could do it."
Xena whispered ever so softly in Gabrielleís ear, "My precious little bard, I love you so."
She didnít want to cry in front of Darinius but the pressure of those loving arms around her was just too much. "Gabrielle, I missed you so much"
The bard did not reply but her sniffling and gently heaving chest told Xena all she wanted to hear.
"Well, uh, Xena, I uh... I think youíve done all you can do here," said Darinius. "You just leave the rest to me. Tomorrow Iíll explain everything to the others. Donít want them to think you were a bad girl, you know," he grinned.
Xena smiled faintly and silently mouthed the words, "Thank you."
He winked at her and said, "Címon, you can finish this mushy stuff later. I got a war to fight."
"Maybe I should..."
"No, Xena," he cut her off, "Youíve done enough. You just get out of here and we will take care of Draco," He paused before adding, "and Paulus too."
"Yeah. I just got word this evening that heís landed near Thessaloniki."
He walked over to the little table and began writing something on a piece of parchment. "Hereís a pass though our lines." He stretched out his hand. "Xena you did a great job. We would not have stood a chance to win if Draco had linked up with Paulus. Now itís too late for them."
He sincerely meant this for he knew Xena really had held up Dracoóeven if her motive for doing it was different. He shook hands first with the Warrior Princess and then with the little bard and said, "One of these days we are going to meet when there is actually no trouble around. Who knows, we might have a picnic."
"Yeah, right," said Xena dryly. "Good luck, you pest."
The two women turned to leave the tent.
He pointed to her trousers. "You make sure my man gets his pants back, okay? He is sure to need them."
"Will do," said Xena, simply.
Gabrielle suddenly put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, Ephiny..."
"Iíll tell her," assured Darinius.
And they were gone.
Inside an hour Xena and Gabrielle were mounted on Argo and riding south. To make sure they cleared all of both sidesí patrols they rode all night and well into the next morning.
To Gabrielle it was like waking up from a nightmare, Xena was not gone, she was not an evil warlord again. She was the same Xena she had fallen in love with.
For Xena it was not so easy. It would take time but eventually she would come to believe she had, once again, been given a new lease on life. The faith Gabrielle and Darinius had shown her was something she felt was undeserved. After all, until she saw Gabrielle, she had had every intention of carrying out her plan to die. It troubled her to know Darinius was laying his reputation on the line for her. Why did he do it? Even Gabrielle troubled her. Was her love become too unquestioning? She hoped the bardís sense of justice would never become biased by her love.
Why did these people go to such pains for her? Why did they care? Hercules had cared. He could have just killed her and been done with it and been lauded for doing it. Gabrielle had cared. In their early days Xena had been less than enthusiastic about the naive kid from Poteidaia but the girl had never wavered in her trust and friendship.
Finally, after many sleepless nights and much soul searching she came to the conclusion that all she could do was wipe the slate clean once more and try again.
For her part Gabrielle was ready to resume their relationship right where it left off but Xena was plagued by doubt. She wanted the little bard more than ever but somehow she just...couldnít.
Gabrielle was troubled by Xenaís abstention but she attributed it to her worrying about the great battle about to be fought in the north. She figured the warrior in her longed to be there.
Over the next few weeks Gabrielle lovingly tried to coax Xena out of her shell but it would take time and patienceóand a dreadful turn of events.
Draco woke up to find his army surrounded. After a frantic search Xena was not to be found. The bitch betrayed me, he thought. Outnumbered almost three to one and faced with Dariniusí ultimatum to surrender or no prisoners would be taken, Draco surrendered. Without Xena he knew he didnít stand a chance.
Four days later Darinius turned his army toward Thessaloniki to face Paulus.
Within three weeks of Xena and Gabrielleís departure all of Greece was electrified with news of the mammoth battle fought just southwest of Thessaloniki.
In two days of savage fighting the armies of Paulus and Darinius slammed into each other, broke apart, performed writhing, ghastly pirouettes, and then slammed into each other again.
Paulus was an exceptional general, well schooled in the art of war and his army was made up of veterans of may campaigns under his leadership. They were used to winning. He had heard of Darinius but he discounted his ability as a soldier. He felt the Greeks always tended to build their heroes up too much. Dracoís and Xenaís perceived treachery had vexed him greatly but he still felt capable of easily defeating anything the Greeks could throw at him.
The desparate struggle was marked by courage and determination on both sides but, by mid afternoon of the second day, the tide had turned in favor of the Greeks. Paulusí left flank was crushed by a series of counterattacks brilliantly devised by Darinius and skillfully executed by Marmax and Tharses while the forces of Tyldus held the front door closed against Paulusí crushing attacks.
Eventually Paulusí line was rolled up by the hammerlike blows of Marmaxís and Tharsesí men. In the final hour of the titanic struggle Marmax and Tharses personally led their men forward and thus insured the victory. With no more than two hours of sun left in the sky Paulus and the remnants of his shattered army were compelled to surrender or be slaughtered. Fully one half his army was dead.
The historic battle guaranteed it would be a long time before the northern tribes would venture into Greece again. That guarantee, however, did not come without a price. A full one quarter of the Greek army lay dead. Tharses, the Spartan general, was killed by an arrow just minutes before the battle ended. Marmax received wounds to his left leg and shoulder but would recover fully. Marcus, the young lieutenant Darinius had grown very fond of, lost an eye but would live to hold his young wife again. The brave Ephiny survived without a scratch but thirty-seven of her sisters, a full one fifth their number, did not live to answer her roll call.
As Dariniusí massive, and ultimately successful, counterattack was being launched he had went to join Tyldus in order to insure their front line was not broken before the counterattack could wreck the havoc he knew it would. It was there he received two arrows; one in the leg and one in his abdomen. Despite Tyldusí vehement insistence, he refused to be borne from the field until the final outcome was known. Tyldus was the only senior commander able to accept Paulusí surrender.
That night a surgeon, trained by Hippocrates himself, cut out the arrows, dressed his wounds, and left the rest to the gods. After a week it was clear he was not improving so Lacos, his ranking countryman, decided if Darinius was to die it should be in his own bed. With Marcus walking beside the cart with him, the remnants of the Army of Mymalar bore their leader home. They had, indeed, proved to be soldiers he could be proud of and, as he lay on the bloody field, he had told Lacos so.
On the day of his departure the entire army lined both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see to honor the architect of their great victory. A lone Amazon drum, placed each quarter league, beat out a mournful cadence. As the cart passed her the stoic Ephiny felt her heart grow heavy and tears gently rolled down her cheeks. Even Tyldus, the grizzled old veteran of more battles than he could remember, felt a tear on his cheek. Like all the rest he thought Darinius was surely going to die.
Darinius returned home and for the next month lay in the misty region somewhere between life and death. His doctors were puzzled by it all. His wounds had sufficiently healed enough by now that he should be showing marked improvement but he was not. Why?
Xena knew why. As only someone that had borne the responsibility could understand, Xena knew. Darinius did not want to bear his burden any longer. He was tired of ordering men to their death. He was tired of being too skilled at a craft he hated. He was tired of carrying the perceived guilt for his beloved Lycidiaís death. He was just...tired.
Xena and Gabrielle once again retraced their earlier route to Mymalar and this time the encountered no trouble at the frontier. When they called on their friend they were stunned to learn he would not see them. In fact, the only visitor he had allowed in was Hercules, just recently returned from Egypt.
"But why?" asked Gabrielle in disbelief.
"He doesnít want us to see him this way," explained Xena. "Heís ashamed."
"Thatís just stupid," sobbed Gabrielle angrily. "Doesnít he know we...you know."
"Yeah, he knows what he means to us."
"So what do we do?" asked Gabrielle.
Without much conviction Xena replied, "We respect his wishes" "No! Xena youíve got to do something. Please, Iím begging you."
The Warrior Princess turned her gaze from Gabrielleís face to the house
and back again. Gabrielle is right, she thought. We canít let him just lay up there wallowing in self pity and die like some dog in a ditch. Already a plan was forming in her mind.
With a devilish smile she turned to Gabrielle. "Okay, hereís what we do. Tonight you..."
That night Xena made Gabrielle drink down a whole flask of wine. When she saw the size of the flask the little bardís eyes almost bugged out of her head.
"But why so much?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena sniffed the bottle. "This stuff is not very strong but itís all I could find.
Itís important that you positively reek of the stuff. To prove her point Xena even spilled some of it on Gabrielleís top. "We have to convince them youíre drunk.
"Hmph. After I drink all that I wonít have to pretendóI will be drunk."
"So much the better," smiled Xena dryly.
Gabrielle reluctantly took her first tentative sip of the bitter liquid and nearly gagged. "Ugh! Where did you get this stuff? The pit of Hades?"
"Close," smirked Xena. "Now drink."
Gabrielle sniffed the bottle again before turning it up and sighed, "The things I do for my friends."
Xena waited until all the lights in the house were out before she made her move.
The whole object of tonightís exercise was to create a diversion big enough to get whomever was occupying Dariniusí room with him to leave long enough for Xena to get in there for a few minutes.
"Okay, Gabrielle, get going."
By now poor Gabrielle was three sheets to the wind. As she teetered past Xena caught her arm.
"Now you do remember what to do, donít you?"
"Shhhuurrr. (hic) Whaddaya think I yam, an imbe.. (hic) an imbeci...(hic) a moron?"
"Okay, take off."
Gabrielle winked, made a circle with her thumb and index fingeróand headed out in the exact opposite direction of the house.
"No no, this way, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle tiptoed and looked down the length of Xenaís outstretched arm as if it was some sort of sighting device. "Right. Got it."
The poor girl rolled her eyes up at Xena and giggled, "Hiyo, sidekicks, away." And with that she wobbled down the orchard path that led to the house.
Xena could only shake her head.
Gabrielle weaved her way upon the portico and banged loudly on the front door with her staff. "Open up (hic). Open up in there I shhay."
Mageron open the door. "Oh, itís you again."
"Yeh, smee again. I wanna see Darin...(hic) Dar (hic)...your boss."
"As I told you before, heís not seeing anyone," said Mageron. "And what are you doing coming here smelling like a winery? Donít you have any respect?"
Gabrielle squinted at the three images in front of her and decided to address the middle one. "íSpect? Iíll show you Ďspect!"
Gabrielle wound up and heaved her wine bottle past Mageronís ear and smashed it on the far wall of the room. She held her arm up, flexed her muscles, and grinned. "Purdy good arm, huh?"
"Youíre drunk! shouted Margeron.
"No shit, Shhocrates," burped Gabrielle. The bard put her hand to her mouth and giggled. "Oops, donít tell my friend I said that. She donít like it when I say ob...(hic) when I say obscen...(hic) when I cuss.
"Get her out of here."
The entire household was downstairs gaping at the wild-eyed girl in the main room. One of them took her by the arm to lead her outside. Gabrielle stomped his toe and stumbled to the center of the room.
"Ha ha ha ha ha! Come on Mym..(hic) Mymal...(hic) you guys. Iíll take you all on shhingly or one at a time.
From her vantage point outside Dariniusí window, Xena heard the commotion downstairs and watched the young man posted in Dariniusí room leap up and run out of the room.
"Good work, Gabrielle," she whispered.
In an instant Xena was through the window and locking the door to the room.
She then quickly looked her friend over and noted how irregular his breathing was and how pale he looked.
She knelt down and put her lips to his ear. "Darinius, itís me, Xena. Now I know you can hear me. I donít have much time. Darinius, donít do this. Donít let yourself die. Fight! Your wounds arenít bad enough to kill you and you know it. But youíve got to want to live.
She put her ear to his lips and listened. Nothing. She decided to up the ante. She thumped him on the chest and hissed, "Darinius, damn you, you wouldnít let me die, do you think Iím going to let you lay here and rot away? Darinius, you son of a bitch, donít do this to me. Think of all the people that love you, that need you."
She felt the frustration building within her. "Darinus, I used to hate your guts. I prayed I would be there to watch you die. Well if you die on me now, you bastard, Iíll curse your name from now on."
Her first tear fell free and landed on her old enemyís cheek.
"You know, I can count on one hand the number of people that I care enough to die for and you, you son of a bitch, are one of Ďem."
Again she leaned over. Nothing.
Blinking back her tears she played her trump card. "If you wonít do it for me do it for Gabrielle. Damn it, itís going to break her heart to know you just quit like this. You never ducked a fight in your life, no matter what the odds were. Your whole life has been spent helping others. For Zeusí sake why donít you let us help you now?"
She lay her head down in despair on the bed for a moment but the now revitalized warrior spirit in her would not let her give up. She was losing and she didnít like to lose at anythingóeven word games with Gabrielle.
She stood up and looked down at him, sneering. "Darinius, do you know why you won those battles against me? Because I let you. I felt sorry for a pathetic, sod busting, bastard leading an army of filthy, underfed scarecrows armed with rusty swords and dull spears and I took pity on the fool.
Great general, my ass. You couldnít lead pigs to a mud hole. Finest archer in Greece. HAH! You couldnít hit water if you fell out of a boat. And let me tell you one more thing before I get the Tartarus out of here and let you wallow in your self pity. If ever by chance we meet in the afterlife Iím going to kick your ass seven ways to Sparta and make you like it. So, big hero, what do you say to that?"
It was her last bolt.
Xena silently stared at his blank face and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the barest, barest hint of a smile appeared at one corner of his mouth. Xena dropped to her knees and put an ear to his lips. A weak, hoarse, almost raspy whisper escaped.
"I say go to Hades, you arrogant, big mouthed harlot."
A weak, but full, smile played across his lips and his eyes dreamily opened. Xena put her hand to her mouth and silently thanked the gods. "Why, Darinius, thatís the nicest thing you ever said to me," she sobbed.
The thumping of footsteps on the stairs told her it was time to go. She tenderly kissed him and whispered, "Iíve got to go. Gabrielle and I will come tomorrow, okay?"
He slowly blinked his assent and weakly jerked his thumb toward the window.
"Get out of here, troublemaker."
With a dazzling smile Xena darted through the window, and for a moment, waited outside.
The young man, merely thinking he had locked the door himself in his haste, was stunned to find Darinius conscious and trying to speak.
He bolted to the door. "Mageron! Mageron, come quickly. Heís awake!"
All attention to Gabrielle was dropped and the sound of the whole household bounding up the stairs was like a herd of thundering bulls.
Mageron burst into the room and rushed to his old commanderís bedside. Darinius opened his mouth and fought for the words, "Mageron...Mageron, tomorrow must see...must see Xeeena"
The old soldier nodded and answered, "Whatever you say."
From her hiding place Xena again beamed that beautiful smile and she was off to collect Gabrielle.
"Mmmm. Boy, this stuff is good, Gabrielle. If you ever need a recommendation as a cook just let me know." Darinius sat upright in his bed filling himself with Gabrielleís stew. In the three days since Xenaís little visit the little bard had spent almost every waking moment in his room.
He finished his stew and sat back. With a contented burp he said, "You know, a man could get used to all this attention."
"Well just donít tooo used to it," said Xena dryly. "In a couple of days Iím gonna haul your butt out of that bed and make fend for yourself."
"Ohhh, Xena, not so loud." Poor Gabrielle was still feeling the aftereffects of her bout with the bottle.
"Gabrielle, that was a brave thing you did, taking on all my guys like that," said Darinius.
"Well," she smiled, "itís a good thing I was drunk or I would have been scared."
"Yeah, sure." Darinius looked at each of them. "I want to thank you guys for bringing me to me senses. I realize now that it was a selfish thing to do on my part."
Gabrielle put her hand on his arm. "There arenít many like you and Xena in this world, Darinius. We need all of you we can get."
"Well, I learned my lesson. I know now I will able to live with the fact that my life is not my own. My job is to help people and Iím not going to run away from it anymore."
Xena looked out the window toward the distant mountains. "Gabrielle, youíve been cooped up in here for three days now. Why donít you get some fresh air?"
"Who me? No...Iím good. Iím..." Gabrielle finally got the hint. "Oh. Okay. I guess youíre right. Fresh air."
The two great warriors watched in amusement as their beloved little friend began muttering on her way out, "Donít have to tell me twice, no sir. I can take a hint. Nobody ever said Gabrielle..." and she was out of hearing.
"Xena, I really appreciate what you did for me."
"No more than I for what you did for me," said Xena.
"I guess weíre even then."
"Darinius, weíre as even as two people can be." She matched his gaze.
"Tell me, what if I had not came to your tent that night? Would you have really fought against me?" She still had not decided whether he would have or not.
With only the barest hint of a smile he said, "As we used to say when I was a kid, ĎThatís for me to know and you to find outí."
Xena held up her index fingers menacingly close to his neck. "You know I could make you talk."
"Aww," he grinned, "you wouldnít hit a man while he was down, would you?"
"I might not hit a manóbut I would hit you."
"Well, yuk, yuk, yuk. Hmph, you should be known as Xena:Warrior Comedian."
His grin faded and he added, "Xena, this was a very near thing. I donít think I could do that again. I would rather cut off my own arm than fight you again. You are like my own flesh and blood."
Her reply came straight from her heart. "Darinius, I swear by my brother Lyceusí grave I will never raise my hand against you again."
"And so do Ióby the grave of Lycidia."
Xena again looked out the window and watched Gabrielle stroll down the lane, hands gesturing...talking to herself. And so another beautiful story is born, she thought.
"Would you ever have believed, all those years ago, that one day weíd be sitting here, all misty eyed, making vows of peace?"
"Hardly", Xena grunted. She knew their vows were more than just promises. They were bonds between them that would be broken only when they were dust in the ground. A warriorís vow in every sense of the word. Warriors that understood each other as none else, not even Gabrielle, could.
Darinius saw Xena for the genius she wasóhowever misguided that genius might have been in the past. Though her struggle was far from over, she might yet achieve heights even he could only dream of.
Xena saw him as the supreme example of what a warrior ought to beófeared by his enemies, loved by his friends, respected by all.
In another life they might have been lovers. But not in this life. Xenaís love was Gabrielle...as was his. He knew the little bard would never be his but he was determined to not let it make him bitter or to mar how he felt toward the two of them. He was just happy to be her friend. Their friend. For life. Forever.
Xena turned from the window and faced her great enemy/friend and smiled to see his eyes droop and his head nod. Sleep, great warrior, she thought. Nobody deserves peace more than you. Silently she crept out of the room and went to join Gabrielle in the garden.
That night in the great home of their treasured friend, for the first time in almost five moons, the Warrior Princess and her precious little bard, at long last, filled themselves with each other and afterwards lay in the otherís arms in the peaceful slumber which blesses those hearts united by unconditional love and, for all anyone knew, by destiny itself.
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