The morning that Xena left to fight, I was determined to keep myself busy. I didn't want to allow myself the opportunity to stop moving and start worrying about her. I didn't care that she's the greatest warrior in the known world. She's both the love of my life and a mortal. She wasn't beyond getting killed out there. Thus, as I tended to the various tasks at hand, I would occasionally look up at the sky and watch the clouds move along. I prayed to the gods who moved those clouds, "Keep my Xena safe, please."
I spent half of that first day helping the healers prepare the hospice tent for the injured. I asked many questions of these experts. Two of the healers from Xena's Albion mission were among them; Aneurin, the Celtic healer who treated Xena's stab wound inflicted by Niall of Calleva, and his assistant, Kyros, the Greek healer who successfully treated my seasickness. I wanted to learn from these skilled men so that I too could keep our wounded soldiers alive; so I could be there for Xena if she needed me.
Not all of the Imperial Guard, Seumius' troops, or Glaphyra's troops went into battle. Small but well-armed detachments from each army were ordered to remain and guard the camp. Each detachment had a commanding officer. I was initially surprised that Xena didn't order Bahri to remain behind as my personal bodyguard, until I considered the fact that Bahri was brought in on this mission mainly because of Charicleia. I quickly learned that Xena did arrange for someone to watch over me. Agenta of Philippopolis was one of Glaphyra's top lieutenants and the commanding officer of her remaining detachment. She was a thin, well-muscled woman of average height, with wildly curly black hair, dark eyes, a lovely face and a deep voice. When I saw her giving orders to the men of Glaphyra's detachment, I thought to myself how well she would fit in with the Amazons. She had a strong spirit and a confident air about her.
Seumius' detachment officer, one Lieutenant Obellus, was a large and strong man with, I had been told, a solid military history in Xena's army. The Imperial Guard detachment officer, Lieutenant Diomedes, was one of Xena's most competent and loyal Guardsmen. He was also married to a childhood friend of Xena's, a woman named Flora. Yet, I quickly noticed that first day that both Obellus and Diomedes often deferred to Agenta's judgment in decision making.
Lieutenant Agenta calmly and with a thorough precision organized the guard details, food supply and hunting parties. I thought it a smart move on Xena's part to put this woman in charge. If our camp were to be ambushed by either Shaikheti's men or hostile German barbarians, I imagined that Agenta would do whatever it took to protect us and wouldn't break a sweat in the process.
As dusk approached, Agenta ordered three small hunting parties to hunt for food. She was leading one of the hunting parties and approached me for the first time before venturing off on the hunting expedition.
"I understand that you're an Amazon Princess, Lady Gabrielle," she said by way of introduction.
"I am," I said. "But my name is Gabrielle, just Gabrielle."
"You're the consort of our Majesty, Lady Gabrielle," Agenta said. "You are also Amazon royalty. I am honoring both the position you hold in the Realm and in the Amazon Nation."
"Thanks, but Gabrielle's just fine if you don't mind."
"Well, accept my apologies in advance if I slip in a 'Lady' here or there," she quipped.
We both smiled. "I'll try to contain myself at such times," I responded in jest.
"Would you like to join my hunting party, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, I would."
Our hunting expedition didn't take us very far from camp. When I set off with Agenta, I didn't know what type of animal we were looking to hunt. She didn't carry a bow and arrows or any type of spearing weapon with her. She had a sword, which was a useless weapon for hunting... or so I thought.
"What are we looking for?" I decided that the best way to find out was to ask.
Agenta gave me a large sack to carry. "Land varmints, my Lady," she replied and then quickly remembered. "Oh, I mean Gabrielle."
Agenta gave me a quick education on maintaining a healthy food supply during a winter war. Before setting out from Castra Regina, Xena ordered several carriages loaded with food. Much of it was grains, rice and dried vegetables. However, fresh pig, cow, goat and lamb meat were loaded as well. The entire war camp indulged in eating large portions of the meat the night before setting out for battle, but there was a significant surplus. To keep the remaining meat fresh for the fighting warriors' return, Agenta adopted a method of preservation that she had learned from some of the northern Steppe tribes. Taking some large wooden boxes, she and some of her men lined the bottom of the boxes with fresh packed snow. Then, wrapping chunks of the surplus meat into thin sheets of parchment, they neatly placed the chunks into the boxes. They then covered the chunks with another thick layer of fresh snow. Lids were placed on the boxes and they were stored in a designated food supply tent. More snow was shoveled into wheel barrels, which were then wheeled into the tents and unloaded on top of the meat boxes. Armed guards were then posted at the tent.
In the meantime, the rest of us needed to eat as well. "We can't bring farm animals to a war camp, Gabrielle," she explained. "Too noisy and dirty. And we can't exhaust arrows on elk, deer, boar and game birds, so we have to hunt animals that don't require the use of bows and arrows."
"Rabbit?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "They're almost impossible to find in winter, and if you are lucky enough to see them, they're too fast to catch without weapons. One of the other parties will set traps, however. But we can't rely wholly on trapped rabbits. The traps take time to work. And besides, rabbits don't provide much meat."
"Well, I assume that we're not going fishing." I retorted.
"No," Agenta said smirking. "The surface of the river is frozen now. Even if it wasn't, only Xena the Conqueror can walk into a body of water and pull out fish in a blink. For the rest of us, it too would be time consuming."
For the moment, I wasn't going to concern myself with the fact that Agenta knew that little fact about Xena. "So, what's left?"
Agenta ordered the seven men of her hunting party to disperse. They went off in various directions. I stayed with her. Eventually, we came upon a small hole nestled under some snow-covered vines near the river's edge. Agenta pulled from a pouch some strong smelling crushed walnuts and placed them on the ground next to the hole. We both took a couple of steps back. "The wait won't be long, Gabrielle," she said.
We waited in silence for a few moments. Finally, something rustled through the vines to get to the nuts. It was a small but burly brown colored beast with a strange flat tail. Stealthily, she raised her sword and plunged it into the back of the animal. It writhed for a few moments before falling still.
"What is that?" I asked.
"It's a beaver," she said.
"We're going to eat that thing?"
"Absolutely," she said as she lifted the carcass and placed it in the sack that I had been carrying.
"What does it taste like?" I asked.
"Tastes like chicken," came Agenta's reply.
I quickly went to the hospice tent to aid in treating the wounded. I learned from talking to the injured men that Xena's troops and Orocovis' army made a surprise attack on Shaikheti's army during their raid of a Burgundian village. I was very concerned about Xena, but I was also concerned about my friends out there. I asked about Bahri and her lover, Charicleia, Stanislas, Hadiya and even Palaemon. I was relieved to learn that none of them were injured or killed and that the enemies present in the first battle were easily defeated.
Near the end of the day, more injured were brought back to the camp. I learned from this new batch of soldiers that Xena had advanced the troops to another Burgundian village where they faced a larger number of soldiers from Shaikheti's army. This second group of injured concurred in their accounts that the second battle was more fierce and bloody than the first.
I didn't sleep at all that night.
Around noon the following day, our camp had unexpected visitors.
"We're looking for Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons," said a voice from outside of the hospice tent. "A soldier told us to come to this tent."
"She's right inside here," replied another voice.
The tent's canvas door opened and three familiar faces appeared before me. "Ouri, Tania, Escritt!" I exclaimed as I ran to hug my Sisters and good friends.
"It's good to see you, Princess Gabrielle," Ouri said. "Queen Otere of our tribe sends her greeting."
"How is she?" I asked. "How are my Sisters of the Northern Amazons?"
"The tribe is flourishing, thanks to you, my Princess," Ouri responded. "We came here as volunteers to help you in any way that we can."
Escritt stepped up. "There are ten of us here, my Princess," she said. "The others are outside. We have amongst us a healer, a shamaness, hunters and fighters. We're here to personally assist you."
I sighed at the overjoyed warmth I was feeling. "That's so great of you, but you know Xena. She has me well protected here."
Ouri smiled. "We know, but we want to be here with you nonetheless. If for no other reason than as friendly faces to comfort you and keep you company."
"Thank you, my Sisters," I said in my delight.
After that first day of battle, fewer and fewer wounded were being returned to camp. These injured soldiers explained to us that most of the more seriously wounded were being treated on site at the villages Xena's troops were protecting. We learned that fighting had intensified in several Burgundian villages and had eventually spread to two Lombard villages.
In the meantime, I was gaining valuable healing skills. While Aneurin educated me on the Celtic method of healing, my Amazon Sister Ouri, who was also a skilled healer, reacquainted me with the medicinal techniques of the Amazons. I also continued practicing with my staff. Escritt and another Northern Amazon Guard named Darda proved to be excellent training opponents. Keeping busy with work in the hospice and practicing with my staff acted as temporary relief from the constant state of worry I was suffering. Throughout the day, the Amazons were there for me. At night, however, I cowered under my bearskin bedding and wept, missing Xena and wishing that she were there to hold me.
Five days passed before the troops returned to the war camp. As I heard the initial sounds of the soldiers filtering in, I dashed out of the hospice to look for Xena. The sight of a badly injured Seumius stopped me in my tracks.
"Help us, Gabrielle, please," said a very tired looking Palaemon, who was assisting an equally tired Bahri carry the bleeding and semiconscious Seumius.
I replaced Palaemon, who had been holding up Seumius on his left side while Bahri had Seumius' right arm around her shoulder. Palaemon grabbed Seumius' lower legs, which enabled us to lift him and carry him into the hospice tent. We deposited Seumius on a hospice bunk and removed his bloody cuirass.
"What happened out there?" I asked as I took a clean cloth and pressed it against Seumius' stab wound.
"We were chasing them, Gabrielle," Palaemon said. "Literally chasing them. We'd secure one village, only to hear that a new batch of barbarians was raiding another one. We'd arrive, we'd fight and then they'd retreat. We finally had them cornered in one of the Lombard villages, but by that time there were too many of them."
"Did you retreat?" I asked.
Palaemon sat on a stool, overcome by exhaustion. Bahri continued, "Not right away, Gab," she said. "The Conqueror didn't want us to just abandon that Lombard village. Like the other villages where we fought before, the village men were fighting with us too, but there were old folks, women and children to consider. We stayed and we fought Shaikheti's men."
I grabbed Bahri's arm. "Xena!" I exclaimed. "I have to go and find her."
"She's okay, Gab," Bahri said. "After we managed to dwindle their numbers down somewhat, they retreated. She then ordered a retreat and came back with the rest of us."
At that moment, Ouri approached to look over Seumius. "Go and find the Conqueror, Gabrielle," she said. "I'll take care of this officer, and these two tired souls as well."
"Thank you," I said before running out of the hospice tent. Bahri cried out from behind me, "If you see my Charicleia, tell her I'm here!"
Getting to our tent proved to be an obstacle course. There were tired soldiers everywhere. On my way, I spotted Charicleia. "Have you seen my Bahri?" she asked. "I can't find her." She was almost in tears.
"She's fine, Charicleia," I said as I gently grabbed her shoulders. "She's with Commander Palaemon in the hospice tent."
"Thank you!" she shouted with glee before running off toward the hospice tent.
I continued on to our tent. This camp is chaos, I thought. When I arrived and went inside, Xena was removing her blood-soaked breastplate.
"Xena!" I exclaimed. "You're hurt!"
"No, it's not mine," she said.
I extended my arms and approached to embrace her. "Don't come near me," she commanded.
"I will come near you, Xena," I defiantly stated as I carefully closed in on her. Gently grabbing the sides of her breastplate, I looked into her beautiful blue eyes as I helped her remove it. I tried not to pay any attention to the sight of blood on her.
"Are you curious to know, Gabrielle?" she said in an ominous tone.
"How many men I killed."
"Not particularly," I said, troubled by her entire demeanor.
"Well, it was far more than I had ever fucked," she hissed.
I immediately told myself that it was the war that was making Xena this way. Fighting and killing brought out the ugliest part of Xena's dark side. I told myself that somehow, I was going to find the light within her. Placing the breastplate aside, I grabbed a bowl and filled it with water. I brought the bowl over to where Xena had sat down on the ground to remove her boots.
I knelt down next to her. "May I help you with that," I said in a very gentle voice as I reached for Xena's bootlace.
Xena grabbed my wrist and jerked my hand away. "Don't touch me," she said and then looked away. There was silence for a few tense moments before Xena returned her gaze to mine. "I'm... I'm so sorry," she said as tears began pouring out of her eyes. I threw my arms around her neck and held her. She threw her arms around my waist and pulled me to her. I began crying too.
"I had hoped to get these clothes off before you found me here, Gabrielle," Xena confessed. "I didn't want you to see me this way... covered in blood."
I released Xena and, taking her face in my palms, looked into her eyes. "I'm a big girl, Xena," I told her. "I understand that you weren't quilting blankets out there. You had an important job to do. What I want to know is did you do it? Is this over?"
"Unfortunately, no, it's not," she replied as she kissed my cheek and then began washing up. "Shaikheti's men aren't as skilled as either my troops or Orocovis' army, but they have numbers on their side."
"What are you going to do?" I asked, disappointed in the fact that she was probably going to go back out there and fight again.
"I'm thinking about it, Gabrielle," she said. "Right now, I need to clean my teeth."
As I watched Xena, I was reminded about how this great and powerful woman thinks. She often uses the time it takes to conduct mundane tasks to fall into deep contemplation of her next move. At the very moment she finished, Lieutenant Agenta's voice was heard from outside of our tent.
"May I enter, my Liege?"
Xena spit out the water and cleaning solution from her mouth. "Yes, Lieutenant, come in," she said.
Agenta entered with my Sister Escritt, causing Xena to shoot me a startled look. "What's an Amazon doing here?" she asked.
"Some of my Sisters from the Northern tribe arrived a couple of days after you left, Xena," I explained. "They've been helping out around the camp."
I was frantically trying to figure out why Xena might be angered by the presence of the Northern Amazons while she returned her attention to Agenta. "Report, Lieutenant," Xena demanded of her.
"Majesty," Agenta began, "there's not enough room in the hospice tent to shelter all of the wounded, so I took the liberty of designating a few sleeping tents for that purpose."
"Good," said Xena.
"There's still some meat in the cold tent, and we've been hunting, my Liege," Agenta continued. "These Amazons have been invaluable in that regard. They hunt from the trees, Conqueror. It's quite remarkable."
Xena's eyes widened as Agenta continued her report. "There is plenty of meat to feed the tired and hungry warriors, Conqueror. Plenty of snow to boil for fresh water. I do feel that we need to ration the grain, however."
Xena returned her attention to me. "How many Amazons are here, Gabrielle?"
"Only ten, Xena," I responded. "Why? Is there something wrong?"
"I have an idea," she said before returning her attention once again to Agenta. "Lieutenant, I want you and Escritt to round up the rest of the Amazons and bring them here."
"Yes, my Liege," Agenta said.
"Also, go and get Field Sergeant Bahri and her Amazon lover, Charicleia... and the two Parisii Guardsmen, Hadiya and Stanislas."
"And find Commanders Palaemon and Glaphyra and Lord Orocovis."
"By you will, Conqueror," Agenta stated before departing with Escritt.
Xena faced me. Her expression was one I couldn't quite read. "How did the Steppe Amazons know you'd be here?" she asked.
"I sent word to them, Xena," I responded. "I didn't ask them to come. I just wanted to let them know that you were going to address the situation with Shaikheti. They're here out of respect for me."
Xena looked up at the ceiling of our tent. "You're angry with me, aren't you, Xena?" I remarked.
"No, Gabrielle, I've just fallen deeper in love with you," she said as she returned her gaze to me and then pulled me into an embrace. "I think you may have just won this war for us."
I looked up at her, but she said nothing further until Agenta returned with the people Xena had asked to see.
"We know from the battles that Shaikheti's men are not as competent as either my force or Lord Orocovis' army. We also know those of his army who are natives of Persia and the other desert states are having a rougher go at fighting in this weather. But I know Shaikheti enough to know that he's saving the best for last. Those of his army that we have not yet met in battle are well rested and are more than likely his kinsmen Scythians. Our uninjured troops are tired and hungry. Meeting well-rested Steppe natives will prove to be a heavier challenge for our men and women warriors.
"I could send word ordering that more troops arrive from Gaul," she continued, "but that would take time... time I don't believe we have."
"Yet, you do have a plan, Conqueror," Lord Orocovis commented as a statement rather than a question.
"Yes I do, Lord Orocovis," Xena pronounced, as an air of confidence seemed to surround her. "Tomorrow morning, I would like for you and a small detachment of men from our allied forces to go to the head chieftain of the Goths and enlist their services in this war. Would you be willing to do that?"
Lord Orocovis' eyes widened. "I would, but the Goths won't ally with us, Conqueror," he protested. "They're enemies with the other Germanic clans. My relationship with them is lukewarm at best and, well, they can't stand you."
"I've never personally fought the Goths, Lord Orocovis," Xena remarked, "but Shaikheti has. You could remind them of that fact. They'll help us."
"I have my serious doubts, Conqueror," Lord Orocovis stated.
"I don't," Xena said as she walked over to Stanislas and Hadiya and sat between them. "Tell me, Stanislas, about the origin of your name." Stanislas' eyes grew wide as Xena continued. "Perhaps I can guess. You and Hadiya are about 35 years old. About 25 years ago, you were both abducted by the Romans; she from south of the great desert in Africa and you from the vast forests south of Jutland. You were taken to Albion to be sold into slavery, but the Parisii resisted the Romans, rescued you both and then adopted you as their own. You two grew up together, fell in love with each other and have formed a lifelong bond from the shackles of slavery."
Stanislas said not a word, but the tears in her eyes spoke volumes. "Will you help us, Stanislas?" Xena asked as she gently placed her hand on Stanislas' shoulder. "Please."
Stanislas looked at Xena. "I will help," she responded.
"Thank you," Xena whispered before returning her attention to Lord Orocovis. "Stanislas will accompany you tomorrow, Lord Orocovis. She is Gothic and you are respected. Between the two of you, I believe that her kinsmen Goths should be persuaded to assist us."
Lord Orocovis and Xena both stood. "It'll take at least two whole days for us to travel there, assemble warriors... if we're successful in our persuasion... and journey back. What'll you do in the meantime, Conqueror?"
"You said it yourself, Lord Orocovis," Xena quipped. "I have a plan."
"Very well," Lord Orocovis stated. "In the morning, I'll gather a diplomatic group of my men and some from your armies."
"Take as many of my soldiers that you feel you'll need, Lord Orocovis," Xena stated as they gripped each other's forearms. "Thank you."
Xena looked over at Palaemon and Glaphyra. I could tell that she was deciding which of those two commanders would accompany Lord Orocovis as a representative officer of the Realm. Much to my surprise, she decided on Palaemon. "Go with him tomorrow, Commander," she said to the equally stunned Palaemon. It was obvious that he was both honored and disappointed, but he knew, as I knew, that there was always more than one explanation for anything Xena decided.
After the two men departed, Xena turned her attention to Commander Glaphyra. "You're now in charge of my entire fighting force here, Glaphyra," Xena said. "You and Lieutenant Agenta round up Lieutenants Obellus and Diomedes and have them secure the troops for the night. I want my warriors fed and rested. Got it?"
Glaphyra looked as though she had just been crowned royalty. "Yes, Majesty!" she exclaimed with renewed enthusiasm before exiting the tent with Agenta, who was also apparently smiling with joy over the fact that she was about to finally take part in the battle. The Amazons, Stanislas, Hadiya, Bahri and I remained.
Xena turned her attention to Hadiya. "I'm curious about your native language, Hadiya," Xena remarked. "About your native heritage... I'm not familiar with it."
"My people are Bantu, Conqueror," Hadiya informed Xena before looking at Bahri. "My Greek, Bahri... help me?"
"May I explain, my Liege?" Bahri asked.
"Please do," Xena replied.
"There are hundreds of tribes of Bantu spread throughout the rainforests and great plains of Africa south of the Sahara, my Liege. The people are not like the Berber and Libyan nomads that the Romans have fought over the years. They aren't like my Egyptian brethren with our great temples, pyramids and civilizations. They are peaceful farmers and herdsmen who have lived the same simple lifestyle and worshipped the same gods for centuries."
"Do many of the Egyptians speak the Bantu language, Bahri?" Xena asked.
"No one speaks the various dialects of the language but the Bantu themselves, Conqueror."
"How is it that you do?" Xena queried.
"I got lucky, Majesty," Bahri explained. "When I joined the Dorians in Crete, I befriended a Bantu from Samu Dukiya. His name was Sesi. He taught me the language so that we could communicate with each other secretly. He was the only one in those days who knew that I was a woman. Sesi was like a brother to me."
"What happened to him, Bahri?" I asked.
"The Romans, Gabrielle."
I placed my hand on Bahri's shoulder as Xena continued her questions. "So, outside of the various Bantu tribes, the language is almost completely unknown?"
"Yes, my Liege."
"Perfect," Xena stated before standing. "I want all of you to eat well and rest tonight. Be back here tomorrow morning for further orders."
There were confused looks on the faces of our friends, but they all stood and bid us good evening before departing. After the last individual was gone, Xena threw her arms around me and planted a deep but loving kiss on my lips.
"By the gods, I love you!" she exclaimed. "You have been such a good influence on me."
"Xena, I still don't get it."
"You will, my darling, you will." She couldn't stop smiling. "In the meantime, I want to get to our bathing tub, I want to eat, and then I want to ravish your sexy body."
"By your will, Conqueror," I said with a smile.
CONTINUED IN PART FIVE