When I returned to camp after our last battle with Shaikheti's army, I had decided that my next move was going to be to set off alone, penetrate his stronghold and assassinate him. I had discovered during the first battle that his army, although more competent than the army I had faced in Lydia, was still a weak and disorganized fighting force. Without their leader, such as Shaikheti was, his remaining men would either surrender or foolishly retaliate once he was taken out. The first prospect was obviously appealing, but the second prospect could further catapult my armies and me into a long and bloody conflict. Yet, it was a chance that I was willing to take.
However, when I saw that some of the Northern Amazons were present in the camp, an even better idea came to me.
I had learned in my dealings with the Amazons in the past that they were highly evolved fighters. They used every natural resource around them to both aid them against an enemy and perfect their hunting. For instance, the desert Amazons have effectively defeated enemies by camouflaging themselves within the rock and sand-covered landscapes of their homelands. The Spartan Amazons have a series of underground catacombs in and around their fortress stronghold that only they can navigate. Lust-filled men who have attempted to penetrate the fortress through those caverns have always found themselves trapped like animals, caught in a labyrinth of death. Both the Amazons of Thessaly and the Northern Amazons have used the trees of their surroundings as an added advantage to their battles. The Northern Amazons, however, are the true masters of the trees. Although both tribes use ropes, vines or hooks to levitate them into the trees, the Amazons of Thessaly require these tools. The tribe of the great Queen Cyane often climbs and leaps from tree to tree without any additional aid or gear.
If I could enlist their assistance, I could map out a plan that was far more complete and beneficial to my troops than my simple murder of Shaikheti. But I was mindful of Gabrielle. Bahri, Stanislas, Hadiya and even the Amazon Charicleia were recruited warriors of the Realm. They had an obligation to go into battle on my command. The ten Amazons who came to our war camp were obligated only to Gabrielle, and because I love her and respect her position in their Nation, I wasn't about to request their assistance in this battle without her approval. I first needed to explain to her my plan and their proposed involvement in it.
After everyone had left our command tent, I took her hand and we also exited the tent. We went to a small tent at the edge of the war camp. Inside was a large barrel that I had transported specifically as our private bath. When I initially told Gabrielle about it in Castra Regina, she pissed and moaned, claiming that it was patently unfair that the two of us would have access to a hot bath while the rest of our entourage was forced to either wash up in cold-water troughs or go without washing. I reminded her that I was "The Conqueror" and it was generally expected that I would have certain amenities not available to the common populace. She didn't buy that excuse. "Well, what would you have me do?" I irritably questioned, "Deliver a thousand barrels so that everyone can have a hot bath? Perhaps we can invite Shaikheti to join us in scented saunas between battles."
"Well, if it's good enough for us..." she responded.
"Oh, so you'd rather we go without, Gabrielle."
"I think it's only fair."
I chuckled to myself during our stroll to the bath tent when I thought about our argument and how it ended that day. We had spent many long days and nights traveling and our cycles had just ended. Gabrielle was pretty randy smelling by that time but I was downright frightful. All I had to do was remind Gabrielle about just how powerful her sense of smell was, so I stretched out my offensive arms and then, throwing them around her, I pulled her to me and told her to breathe deeply. "Still want to go without, my Bard?"
"No," she said as she turned her head away from me, gasping for fresh air.
The barrel was barely big enough to fit us both, but I found it rather cozy. It had just been filled with steaming hot water and before getting in, I poured in a vial of scented oil. The water was unbearably hot for only a few short moments before our bodies adjusted to it. Because of the confining space, I was forced to wrap my long legs around Gabrielle's hips, a task that I found hardly burdensome.
"You are so sexy, Gabrielle," I began my seduction.
"You are too, Xena," she responded, "Very sexy, but we're here to fully appreciate the amenities of your status as 'The Conqueror'... so bathe."
"This is just wrong, Gabrielle," I moaned in protest. She was so beautiful and so desirable. We were so close to each other that my hardened nipples were touching her breasts and I could literally feel the heat emanating from her succulent loins.
I was being utterly tortured in that barrel.
"I want to attack and penetrate Shaikheti's stronghold," I started. "Invade his camp."
"His troops outnumber you, Xena," Gabrielle said. "Do you believe the Goths will make up the numbers?"
"They may or they may not, but I'm not concerned either way," I continued. "According to my spies, Shaikheti's war camp's set up is similar to ours. I don't imagine that he himself has wandered too far from his own command tent, although I'm sure that he has surrounded himself with several armed bodyguards. The best way to assault, when you lack numbers, is to create the illusion that you have the numbers. The best way to do that is by shadow fire."
"Yes," I explained. "Strategically placed warriors firing upon the enemy from discreet locations."
Gabrielle continued to look at me with a perturbed expression on her face.
"Snipers, Gabrielle," I said.
"Oh, I get it," she retorted. "You want the Amazons to fire upon Shaikheti's army from the trees."
"Yes," I affirmed. "They're to be a distraction. You see, my goal is to create the illusion that Shaikheti's camp is completely surrounded," I continued. "I would place some of my troops to the west of the camp and some to the east. I would have both sides attack at approximately the same time. Shaikheti's men would naturally respond by advancing toward both attacks. If they're smart, it won't take them long to notice that they could flank both attacks from the south. When they attempt to create their flanking position, a third group of my troops, as well as the shadow fire, will be there to ambush them."
"Xena, do you realize that you want to risk the lives of ten young women who are not even a part of this war of yours?"
"I do realize that, Gabrielle," I said. "That's why I'm telling you my plan before approaching them to ask for their assistance. I'd like your blessing."
"But you've already put things in motion, Xena," she said. "Did you expect my approval?"
"I was hoping for it," I responded.
"I cannot ask of my Amazon Sisters to do anything that I myself have not been allowed to do, Xena."
"What are you saying, Gabrielle?"
"If my Amazon Sisters fight, I fight," she declared.
I nearly choked on the piece of bread I was eating. "Are you insane?" I exclaimed.
"I will not allow any of my Sisters to fight in this battle if I'm not allowed to fight as well, Xena."
I didn't want to lose my temper with Gabrielle. I could carry out my first plan, but I knew in my heart that the plan involving the Amazons could be more efficient, take less time to effectuate, and prevent greater loss of life to my troops. I understood Gabrielle's loyalty, but I couldn't afford to have her get involved in this battle. I would surely succumb to madness if anything happened to her. Thus, I needed to appeal to her sense of logic.
"Look, Gabrielle," I started, "I understand how you feel, but you have to trust me. These Amazons have unique skills, and although there is a risk, their skills, combined with the height and thickness of the trees, will afford them better protection than any armor and shield could provide. I'll have enough men on the ground to further insure their safety and I'll have something that none of Shaikheti's men could remotely anticipate."
"What is that, Xena?"
"A secret code, Gabrielle," I responded. "I want Hadiya to teach Charicleia, the Northern Amazons and me some simple commands in her native language. She, Bahri and I can be their eyes on the ground. We can communicate with each other loud and clear and right in front of the enemy and they won't know what any of us are saying."
Gabrielle fell silent for a few moments. I nervously finished my food as I anticipated her response after she had processed this information. "Xena," she finally spoke, "what if Shaikheti's men decide to flank from the north instead of the south?"
"They won't, Gabrielle," I stated. "The area north of his camp is made up of steep rocky hills. Much easier to go south where the ground is flat."
She continued eating as another silence fell upon our tent. More moments passed before she spoke again. "Xena," she asked, "when do you anticipate the Goths will make their appearance?"
"I'm sure they'll come along as things start to get interesting," I replied.
"What will you do while all of this is going on?"
"Make Shaikheti sweat," I responded cryptically.
"I see," Gabrielle quietly said.
I didn't know what to make of her strange demeanor. I was almost afraid to again bring up the issue of enlisting the Amazons. "May I approach your Sisters?" I finally inquired.
"You have my blessing, Conqueror," she said before crawling over to our bedroll and climbing into it.
After undressing, I crawled into the bedroll with Gabrielle and attempted to pull her into an embrace. She knocked my arms away and turned her back on me. I couldn't contain my anger any longer.
"What the fuck do you want me to do, Gabrielle?"
"I want to fight, Xena," she said.
"That's too bad, Gabrielle," I declared, "because it's not going to happen."
She rolled around to face me. "Do you think it's right that Stanislas could live through this but Hadiya may die? What about Bahri and Charicleia?"
"Gabrielle, it's not..."
"... the same thing?" she interrupted, completing my sentence. "How do you figure? Because none of them are 'The Conqueror?'"
"No, because none of them are Gabrielle."
"Oh, so their lives don't matter?"
"They matter, but not as much as yours does to me," I acknowledged.
"Like I said," she hissed, "because you're THE CONQUEROR."
"Stop this, Gabrielle," I warned.
I was trying very hard to contain my dark fury. "Look, if you don't want me to use your Amazons, just say so."
"You've implied that using them will help you win this war and win it faster," she said.
"Yes, I do believe that's true, Gabrielle," I said, hopeful.
"I want this war to end, Xena," she said. "I don't want to see this dragged out for weeks or months. I don't want to see any more young men and women brought back to this camp injured or dying. If using my Sisters will accomplish that, then I want you to enlist them."
"Yes, Gabrielle, I do..."
"But I fight too," she again interrupted.
"No!" I shouted, abruptly throwing the mound of blankets and hides off of us both as I sat up.
Gabrielle sat up as well. "I'm not staying here while the woman that I love, my best friends and my Amazon Sisters are out there risking their lives!" she shouted back.
"I SAID NO!"
"I can fight and I will fight, Xena," she proclaimed as she pointed her finger at me. "You don't make my decisions for me."
If I had allowed myself to fall under the spell of my darkest impulses, I would have punched Gabrielle into unconsciousness; bound and gagged her to confine her in our tent, and then utilized her Amazons without her interference. At that moment of our confrontation, I began struggling with those impulses, as the woman that I am, the woman who loves Gabrielle more than anything else, realized the consequences of what those violent acts and betrayal would do to our relationship. I began contemplating what would be the greater risk, the potential loss of her being or the ultimate loss of her love.
As my inner soul trudged through this conflict, Gabrielle gently grabbed my arms. "Xena," she spoke in a very soft tone, "I know that you're afraid. I'm afraid too. But the Amazons are here because of me. They're here for me. And I need to be there for them as well. It's not just a question of respect. I don't think my staying here in the safety of this war camp would tarnish their respect for me, but I'm worried about the respect they have for you. You've demonstrated to them at the Cimmerian fort and with your Hard Death that you can honor their sense of justice, their sense of fairness. Show them that honor again, Xena. Let me fight."
I tried very hard to contain my tears. "I don't want to lose you, Gabrielle," I confessed.
"I'll be there right by your side, Xena," she said. "We'll protect each other."
"Are you prepared to kill, Gabrielle?"
"I'll take my staff, Xena," she said. "I believe that I can fight effectively without killing anyone. I've done it before."
Gabrielle's safety wasn't the only thing that concerned me. "Are you prepared to see me kill?" I asked.
Gabrielle looked down at my trembling hands that rested in my lap. She took them in hers. "This is a war," she said, her eyes cast down on our clasping hands. "I know what to expect. If killing a few will save the lives of many, I'm willing to bear witness to that."
I couldn't move. I couldn't release my hands from her grasp. Thus we sat there, in a cold tent on a cold night, thinking about each other and the hard days to come.
Exhaustion eventually claimed us both as we nestled down into our bedroll. Gabrielle once again removed her layers of clothing and then wrapped her arms around me. We made love. It was wonderful, profound, intense and, yet, a little sad. In the throes of pleasure, we both cried tears of joy and fear. Gabrielle tenderly wiped away my tears with her thumbs. I kissed her tears.
During the night, we talked about our past. It was obvious to me that Gabrielle was restless. I was certain that the ambiguity of the battle that awaited her was keeping her awake. Of course, I was still contemplating ways to change her mind about accompanying me on this mission, but I was resolute in the fact that once Gabrielle's heart and mind were settled on something, her colossal stubbornness would prevent any deviation from her decisions.
When I rose the following morning, Gabrielle was already awake and out of the tent. I crawled out of our bedroll and quickly threw on my battle garments. Just as I began lacing my second boot, she came in and knelt down next to me. Her right hand was behind her back.
"Mistletoe," she said as she revealed what she had been holding and presented the strange but lovely plant to me.
"Thank you, Gabrielle," I said as I took it.
"I've read that the Germans believe that mistletoe has spiritual powers," she said.
"Yes, and the Illyrians use it as an antidote against certain poisons, Gabrielle," I advised. "And Celtic men think that it can makes their manhoods stay harder longer."
"Well, nonetheless, I think it's beautiful," she said, sighing at my cynicism. "And I think you're beautiful."
I ran my fingers down her face. "And you're beautiful, Gabrielle," I said. "Mind, body and spirit."
Gabrielle stood. "My Amazon Sisters are ready for their orders, Warrior Princess," she said with a smile.
"I need to finish lacing my boot," I said. "Go on outside. I'll be out there in a few moments."
Gabrielle leaned down and gave my lips a gentle kiss before leaving the tent. After she departed, I looked skyward at the sun filtering through the tent's canvass ceiling.
Look, I'm not one for praying, and I don't think any of you give a shit about me anyway. But Gabrielle is a symbol of the gods on earth. She is a gift. So, I'm asking that you keep her safe and not just for me, for us all. She brings joy to everyone who meets her. She has certainly changed my life. Gabrielle is purity and light, but she hasn't seen a real war before. Keep her safe and please don't let seeing this war take away her goodness, her light. I think that I fear that more than losing her. If you have any power at all, use it to keep her light shining within her.
When Hadiya approached, I asked all of the Amazons into the command tent. Bahri accompanied us.
"All I need are some simple one-word commands for you to teach the Amazons," I explained to Bahri and Hadiya.
"Like 'shoot' and 'kill,' Conqueror?" Bahri asked.
"No, you'll be doing that anyway," I responded. "I was thinking of more offensive and defensive commands, such as 'attack,' 'retreat,' 'yes,' 'no,' 'go,' and perhaps 'trees.'"
The Amazon Tania stepped forward. "I have a suggestion for the use of the words, Conqueror," she said. It was obvious that she led this group of Amazons.
"Very well," I responded.
"You know how we operate, Conqueror," she began. "We can advance from the ground in two groups. Your two Imperial Guardsmen can accompany each one. When they're ready for us to take to the trees, they can give the command, 'trees.' They'll need to remain close enough to each one of us so that we can hear their subsequent commands."
"I plan on keeping Charicleia on the ground as well," I said. "And I'll be there." I looked over at Gabrielle. "And Gabrielle will be there too." She smiled. "That way you all can spread out more."
"Will there be other ground troops to back us up?" Tania asked.
"Absolutely," I responded. "As far as I'm concerned, this is a ground assault. You Amazons will provide the added element of surprise."
"Will the ground troops need to learn these words, my Liege?" Bahri asked.
"No, not as long as I know them," I asserted.
"By your will, Conqueror," Bahri said as she turned to Hadiya.
"The Bantu word for 'trees' is 'jiti,'" Hadiya began.
"Ji-ti," we repeated in unison.
"Fusa," she said. "Attack."
"Fu-sa," we repeated.
The lesson continued until all the words were spoken and committed to memory. Afterwards, I rallied the troops for the next round of battle. Commander Glaphyra was given command of the larger regiments of troops to attack from the west. Lieutenant Diomedes was placed in charge of the regiments to attack from the east. Both were briefed on the plan before departing.
Welcome additions to our fighting force were several militiamen from the various Burgundian and Lombard villages where we fought. Filtering into our camp, rival clansmen were able to set aside long-existing differences in order to accomplish the greater deed of defeating Shaikheti. Before he left, Lord Orocovis and I had arranged the militiamen into two platoons for this next round of battle. One platoon joined Glaphyra's troops, the other joined Diomedes.
Lord Orocovis had only taken a single platoon of his army with him to the Gothic highlands, so the rest of his fighting force was split up within the east and west regiments as well. Lieutenant Agenta and a single battalion of warriors were to accompany me. Lieutenant Obellus and one regiment of fighters remained behind to guard the war camp.
Just before departing, I went into the hospice tent and approached the bedridden but slowly improving Seumius. "Take him out, Xena," he whispered. It was the first time he had spoken my given name since our battle against Cortese, the warlord whose army invaded our home village and killed both of our brothers many years ago.
"This battle is for your brother and my brother and all villagers who have stood up against cowardly warlords," I said as I clasped his arm. As I tried to release it, he gripped it tighter.
"I've... I've wanted to say this for a long time, Xena," he started. "I'm... uh... I'm happy for you. Gabrielle is a wonderful woman."
"Yeah, I bet you would have never imagined an evil bitch like me falling head over heels with such a sweet and wonderful woman like Gabrielle," I quipped.
"Honesty, no I wouldn't have," Seumius smirked, and then added seriously, "You're very lucky. You're both very lucky."
"Thanks, my friend," I responded.
"Now, go kick some ass, Conqueror."
"I plan on it, Commander."