Note: I conceived and began writing The War shortly after viewing the original airing of the episode The Price in the spring of 1997. This story explores what might have happened between Xena and Gabrielle if the events of that episode had taken place over a much longer period of time. In this version, Gabrielle does not bring about a turning point to the conflict by running outside and giving water to the enemy wounded. I have never believed that the Horde would have watched a foe pouring an unknown liquid down the throats of their injured comrades without responding by putting an ax in her back. So I have eliminated all references to this action. On a more positive note, in this alternative setting, Gabrielle's Bilious Green Sports Bra <tm> was never invented.
Standard Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle, as well as all the other characters from the show, Xena Warrior Princess, belong to Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. Their appearance here is not intended to infringe on any trademarks or copyrights belonging to Studios USA or Renaissance Pictures.
Copyright notice: This story is protected by copyright. The author owns the copyright to the story itself. You are welcome to link to the story, but please don't post it elsewhere.
This story contains sexual (and other) violence.
To Kit, for her infinite patience
They've begun to treat her like a goddess. She is their deliverer, the answer to their prayers to Athena. And she, who has no respect for the gods, is starting to believe she is one. She soaks up her soldiers' adulation and believes she need answer to no one. But I will make her answer to me.
There are terrible storms in the country where I grew up. My Uncle Moros had a farm near the foothills, and I still remember the way the sky would change, while I was out in the fields. The air at the horizon turned a dull green, and the break in the clouds where the sun spilled through was blood red. It covered the landscape with an eerie light that warned, in the deathly silence, of what was to follow. There was never enough time to get all the animals to safety before the onslaught, and my uncle warned me that the storm would take any living creature that did not take cover. But all too often I would find myself out in the open meadow, transfixed by the unearthly colors, and the quiet, and the stillness of the air, and the dark power of what was to come. I would hear a roar in the distant trees and see the blue-black clouds hurtling toward me, until I was caught in the full force of wind and knife-edged rain and a screaming sound that must have been the cries of our wrathful Goddess come down to us, to unleash her terror on our lands.
My uncle would rage and fight the storm and do what he could to save his animals and crops from total annihilation, but I--I would run laughing to greet the howling fury, standing in the rain with my arms outstretched so that it could have me, if it chose. My uncle thought me mad, but I had no fear. I knew that if I let the storm's fury wash over me it would leave me unharmed, or else take me away, in its dark terrible beauty, to a different place, a place where I belonged.
We had thought it could be won in a day. When we came to the fort and Xena took command of the Athenian soldiers who were trapped there, they hailed her as their savior. She won them their first battle, and they were sure the tide had turned. But the Horde weren't like us, she'd told me that often enough, and we could not predict when they would attack us, or how. They had the leisure of knowing that we were trapped where we were, in a fort filled with dying men. They could take their time, and they did. Days started to pass, and we realized that there would be no easy victory. They would attack us for hours, and then we would see nothing of them for a day and a night, sometimes longer, barely enough time for a few more of the scattered surviving remnants of General Gallipan's relief force to straggle to the fort. It became clear that we were going to remain here for a long time, or as long as we could survive.
At first, we could think of nothing but staying alive from moment to moment, but even the direst campaign, Xena had always told me, brings long periods of waiting and boredom. As the days went by, the long hours in between attacks began to tell on men confined in too-close quarters with their fellows, and petty squabbles sprang up like sudden brush fires. Xena and her officers quelled the fights with threats of double duty at the wall. The punishment was, I realized, close to a death sentence, and most quarrels subsided to a begrudging silence.
Worse than the fights was our hunger. Gallipan's soldiers had managed to carry some food that we added to our dwindling supplies, but we had no idea how long we would be trapped here. We had daily rations, enough to keep the healthy alive, but not enough to fill our bellies, and it was only a matter of time before someone was tempted to pilfer the food stores. Finally, Xena made an announcement: anyone caught stealing food would be publicly flogged. One culprit had already been apprehended, and the sentence was duly carried out by one of the sergeants. I had never seen a man whipped before; I heard his screams and saw him carried off the grounds.
The punishments did not keep them from adoring her. If the new soldiers gave the army hope in numbers, Xena gave the inspiration to fight. She was a mythical figure to them; stories of her exploits grew in the telling in the dining hall, until her abilities seemed to rival the gods. And I could see that she loved it. She played to it and made sure that she was always seen at the riskiest location during any battle, and that she emerged unscathed. She developed a swagger to her step, and I told her as much, but she pointedly ignored my disapproval. Her reputation grew as our casualties stayed low, and the Horde were kept at bay. We will kill them all, she told the men, and they believed her, even though none of us knew how many of them hid, just out of our sight, in the woods.
I'm not sure when I realized she had stopped listening to me. Perhaps it was at the first sight of the Horde near the river where we had been fishing. That was when the fear came upon her, she who I thought was not afraid of anything. Seeing the look of near panic in her eyes as she bid me run with her frightened me more than anything the Horde could have done to us. But when we made the Athenian fort, she covered her fear with something else, a mask of assurance to keep the soldiers' doubts at bay. And then she started to act in ways I had never thought she could, and the men cheered her for them. She axed a running man in the back, and the soldiers cried her name. And then I saw her arrogance begin, and I saw her look to me for the unquestioning worship she expected to find, but I would not give it to her. And that is when the war between us began.
There was another change in the soldiers after the first few days. Boredom expressed itself in gambling games, bawdy stories, and the beginning of leering glances in my direction. I became acutely aware that I was a young woman alone, except for Xena, among a rough troop of men. I would feel their appraising glances on me as I walked by, and I sometimes heard a whispered word or a ripple of laughter. It made me uneasy, but nobody had yet given me any trouble, and the appraisal ceased when Xena was near.
I learned soon, however, that the men's eyes were turned, not just on me, but upon their fellows. There was a time that I turned a corner of one of the inner hallways, only to come up short when I heard an unfamiliar sound, a sort of whimpering, and something else. Cautiously I peered around the corner and saw one of the young swordsmen, a curly-haired boy with delicate, comely features. He was bent over, naked, with his hands clutching the rail against the wall. On his back, roughly coupling with him, was Pollux, his troop sergeant. I froze where I was, unsure whether to leave or stay, or to speak out. I could see Pollux's face; he had a look of pleasure that I had seen before, a look he had when he killed an enemy in the heat of battle. His hips thrust harder as his climax came upon him; the boy's whimpers grew sharper, and his knuckles grew white as he clutched at the iron bar.
Pollux gave a final grunt of satisfaction and pulled away just as a trumpet sounded for the guard shifts. He adjusted his clothes and gave a slap to the boy's buttocks, in the way of a man praising a horse who has carried him well. I didn't breathe, in fear that he would walk by my hiding place, but he moved down the hall in the opposite direction. Slowly, stiffly, the boy let go of the rail and straightened. Shakily, he bent down and retrieved his clothes and started to dress. As he turned to walk past me, our eyes met for a sudden, frozen moment. He gave me one stricken look, and then he moved on.
I saw him the next day, standing with his troop at attention, behind Pollux his sergeant. The boy held himself steady and alert, with a disciplined look on his face. He seemed calm, prepared, a soldier fulfilling one of his many duties. I realized then that there was a side to soldiering that I had never understood, but which must have been all around me, had I the eyes to see.
As time went by, I found myself watching Xena from a distance as she moved among her men. One day I looked up to see her balancing on the wall as she demonstrated an attack posture. The wind had come up and whipped her hair behind her, but she maintained her stance with a swordsman's grace. I saw the soldiers following her moves with rapt attention. She fell easily into the role of their Commander. Watching her, I could see the transformation. Hard though our life was, she was gaining a vitality, an animal energy, from living as we did. She was embracing this life. She looked like a woman who had come home.
While Xena planned her war, I found myself fighting with her, waging small battles of my own. Some of them were about little things, like the way she had begun to give me orders. "I'm not one of your conscripts," I would say, and sometimes I would hear quiet laughter and a muffled comment exchanged between a pair of soldiers who had overheard us. I know their laughter irked her, but I think it would have wounded her pride too much to confront them over our bickering. It gave me some satisfaction to show that not everyone considered her a god.
I fought with her because nobody else would. Our harshest fights were about the wounded, whom she had left to starve. We hadn't the food to spare for them, she said. I had taken to caring for them as best I could, although she gave me no help. She only wanted the walking wounded for soldiers and the dead bodies that the others would provide, to seemingly swell our soldiers' ranks on the wall. But I would not let them die for her convenience.
At first I tried to share my food ration among the men with strength enough to eat. When she realized what I was doing, she became furious and forbade me from bringing my meals into the hospital. She made me eat in the soldiers' mess, or where she could see me. I was angry and humiliated, and told her that my hunger was my own concern.
"No it's not," she said, eyes narrowed as she looked down at me. "It's mine."
I opened my mouth to ask her why the dying men were not also her concern, but she had already turned and walked away from me.
So men would weaken, and eventually die, and if we were lucky, new stragglers from Gallipan's decimated forces would arrive at our gates in time to replace the dead and dying. That was all that mattered to Xena. That, and the body count outside the walls. All she knew to do, with an enemy like this, was to kill them on sight. Perhaps she thought that we had enough arrows to annihilate them all. She certainly didn't try to understand anything else about them, to find another way out of our predicament. Maybe they are afraid of us, I told her. Maybe they would want peace, if we just could find a way to talk to them, to understand them. She laughed at me. She had never laughed at me before--not like that. There's nothing to understand, she said. Death is what they can understand. Death is what we will give them. She left me then, going off to the company of her men and their comforting accolades.
Days went by, divided into sudden attacks and just as sudden retreats, as the Horde was thrown back from the walls. The nights were strangely still; we were almost never set upon after darkness fell, and the roars from unknown predatory beasts told us why. There was a sameness, for awhile, in how we were attacked, and how we would prevail at the end. The battles changed nothing; the Horde did not pull out of the valley, and we were not strong enough to fight our way out. The tension within the fort was like a living being. Men snapped at each other. Only Xena was calm, but it was a calmness that caused her officers to keep their distance. Finally, I approached her one day on the ramparts, where she stood gazing out at the endless forests. I asked her what was happening, what we were doing.
"We're waiting," she said.
"For what?" I asked her.
"For what comes next."
When the Horde attacked again, something had changed. They wouldn't engage the rows of archers on the wall above the gate. Instead, a group of ten split from the main force and started to scale the rear wall, causing an Athenian soldier to lean too far over the edge in an attempt to reach them with his sword. With a triumphant yell, the tribesmen pulled the swordsman over the wall and carried him, struggling, back down with them. They slipped out of arrow's range and circled, still in our view, to the front of the fort.
I stood with Xena, Mercer, and the archers above the gate as we watched the raiding party parade with their struggling prize. Finally, they lowered our man to the ground. I looked at Xena; her face was grim, but she didn't move. Horde warriors stripped the soldier of his clothes and began to stake out his arms and legs. Mercer was ashen. He turned to Xena.
"We have to go get him," he said.
Without turning her eyes away from the scene below us, she shook her head.
"It's what they want. They're all around us in the trees. There's no way to reach him without our men being cut down first." I could hear the frustration in her voice, but still she didn't move.
One of the raiders was dressed more elaborately than the others, with strings of feathered beads around his neck, and long feathered earrings. He stood with a leg on either side of his spread-eagled prisoner, raising his battle axe in the air and giving an eerie, high-pitched call. I felt Xena stiffen next to me. Mercer swore softly. The raider knelt down, straddling the prisoner and holding the axe just above his chest. We were too far away for me to see our soldier's eyes, but his head moved frantically back and forth. The raider slowly ran his axe down the center of the soldier's body, as if he were splitting a side of beef. I heard a long drawn-out shriek, and I buried my head in Xena's shoulder. I felt her grip my arm tightly, but otherwise she remained stock still and watched everything they did to our poor soldier. It took him a very long time to die.
When it was finished, we heard the victory songs of the Horde as they celebrated in the forests around us. The warrior in the feathered beads and the other raiders were still in plain sight, gesturing and taunting us. The light was starting to fade as I lifted my head from Xena's shoulder and looked at her. She hadn't moved a muscle since the scene had begun, but the stillness was terrifying, and her eyes looked black; I could barely see the blue of her irises. She was staring intently at the bead wearer. When she finally spoke to Mercer, it was in a hoarse growl.
"I want him."
When the sun had set, but the light had not completely faded, Xena, Mercer, and seven soldiers slipped out through a tunnel exit that emerged into a brush-covered area bordering the woods. We could see nothing of what happened, except that the celebrating Horde raiding party was one less than it was a few minutes before. When I heard the sounds of our small band's return, I went down to the yard to meet them.
Mendicles had assembled the men who were not on watch duty. Although there was still some remaining daylight, torches had been lit around a square area in front of the troops. A split log, resting on two squat stands, lay in the middle of the square. Xena stood facing the Athenians, a Horde battle axe in her hand. Behind her, in the shadows just outside the torchlit square, were Mercer and two of the soldiers from the tunnel raid. At their feet, trussed like a deer, was the warrior in the feathered beads.
Xena began to walk up and down the line of the men before her.
"We have been given a message," she said lightly. "Our enemy thinks we are cowards because we kill our foes cleanly." As she walked, she met the eyes of each of the soldiers she passed. I saw her eyes glitter in the torch light.
"So they tortured Stanos, and cut him to pieces, so that we would feel terror and run from them."
One of the men turned his head away for a pained instant, then remembered himself and met his Commander's eyes. Xena paused and touched his shoulder for a moment, and then she stepped back and included them all in her gaze.
"But I think it is they who need to be sent a message. The Athenian Army will not allow its men to be butchered by animals."
A collective growl began to rise from the soldiers. I started to feel a chill down my spine.
Xena's voice raised. "For every Athenian slaughtered in such a manner, we will give one of those bastards the same treatment!"
The growl turned into a roar.
"No!" I could only manage a whisper.
Mendicles's voice rose over the cacophony. "How will they get this message? We can't just walk out the front gates and do it in front of them."
Xena held up her hand for silence. The air was very still, and we could hear sounds over a long distance. She threw her head back and gave her battle cry. Instantly, a chorus of taunting war cries carried to us from the forest.
She smiled. "They don't need to see it. They only need to hear it." She jerked her head toward Mercer and his soldiers. He nodded toward the men, and they hauled their prisoner to the split log.
"Xena, don't!" I had finally found my voice.
She ignored me. "Tomorrow we will throw what's left of him out the front gate, for the Horde to see."
The two soldiers stretched the warrior onto the log. His eyes grew wide, and he began to struggle frantically.
"Xena, you can't do this!" A few men turned to look at me. Mercer moved in my direction.
The soldiers stripped their prisoner and ripped the feathered beads from his neck.
"Tie him down." She stood at the feet of her panicked prisoner, while his arms and legs were staked out on either side of the log. He heaved his body up and down and whimpered.
She knelt down beside him. "I guess not all of the Horde have courage," she said to him gently. She ran a finger down the center of his chest, down to his stomach. He jerked away from her touch, as best he could. When her hand reached his genitals, she gave them a sharp jerk. His scream rang across the night air.
"By the Gods, Xena, you're becoming one of them!" I sobbed. Her head rose, and she threw me the most vicious look I had ever seen her aim at me. Mercer was beside me, perhaps trying to quiet me. I didn't know. I didn't care.
She flipped the axe into her right hand and held it just above her captive's chest. Her head turned back to her prey. I watched her face in horror. Her eyes were wide and intense, and she was smiling, as if to a lover. As if to me.
I lunged forward. Mercer grabbed me by the arm and held me back. He couldn't stop my words from lashing out at her.
"Is this what you used to be?"
She stopped short. I saw a look of shock, and something darker. She raised the axe over the prisoner's head and, with a yell, brought it down. For a moment, I thought she had split his head open, but the weapon landed with a thunk into the wood of the log, a fraction of an inch away from his face. I shook Mercer's hand off and walked toward her. In one swift motion she pulled her sword out of its scabbard. I thought, for an instant, that she meant to use it on me. Instead she turned it downwards and held it, two-handed, over her captive's chest.
"Xena, please," I whispered. There was no other sound in the yard, and the words carried. She stood like a statue, sword poised to strike. Her hands trembled slightly, the only sign that she had heard me. Then, as if she had spotted her own weakness, she plunged the sword into her prisoner's chest. He gave a single grunt and went limp. I heard cries of disbelief and disappointment from the soldiers. I felt sick to my stomach.
She pulled her sword from the lifeless body. In a voice filled with frustration, she said to Mendicles, "Hang him over the front gate."
"But Commander, we were going to--" "Now!" she roared, with a murderous glance and a step toward him. Her sword, covered in blood, was still in her hand. Mendicles backed up three steps and hastily went to carry out the order. Now her eyes swept to me. I panicked, turned and fled through the hallway that led to the inner rooms. I heard her swift footsteps, following me.
I turned the corner of the hall that led to our chamber and ducked inside the room. I thought of shutting the door against her, but I knew that would do no good. There was nowhere I could go that Xena couldn't reach me if she chose. I stood against the far wall and waited for her. In another moment, she burst into the room. I recognized the look she wore; it was battle rage. I shrank against the wall, eyes riveted on her still-drawn sword. I saw the wildness in her eyes change when she saw where I was standing, and what I was looking at. Almost puzzled, she glanced down and noticed the blood-stained sword in her hand. With an exasperated sigh, she lowered it, leaned against the wall, and closed her eyes. Her body was tense and quivering; I knew she was trying to control her anger enough to approach me. I dared say nothing. Finally, she opened her eyes and moved away from the wall, and reached for a rag that lay on the table. In two graceful strokes she wiped the blood from her sword and tossed the rag on top of a trunk. She slammed the blade into its sheath, and only then did she look at me.
"You think this is a game, Gabrielle. It isn't. If you question my military decisions in front of my men, then they'll start questioning too. And then we're all finished."
"Military decisions! You were about to cut that man to pieces while he was still alive!"
"Listen to me," she hissed, moving toward me. "What happened to Stanos was only the beginning, if we didn't stop it then and there. All the Horde understands is butchery. As it is," and she looked straight into my eyes, "you may have a lot more dead men on your conscience, by stopping me."
I was stung, and that made me reckless. I looked over at the bloody rag. "I'm not the one committing murder."
Before I knew what happened, I was jerked toward her, her hands fisted in the neck of my shirt. All I could see was blue eyes boring into mine. A stray thought crossed my mind; how beautiful they are. Then her hands relaxed, but she stayed close. When she spoke, her tone was different, soft and musing.
"Maybe the Horde doesn't scare you. But when you question my orders, in front of the others, I want you to think about something. You are the only person here who is not a soldier. You don't have the fighting skills to take on a Horde warrior. My men know that. Yet, while their wounded comrades starve, you get a full ration. Have you ever wondered why they don't resent that?"
I felt cold. "But...I take care of the injured in the hospital."
Her voice became melodious, and even softer. I had never realized what a hypnotic voice she had, when she chose. "You can't heal them, Gabrielle. Not without help. You haven't learned enough to do it on your own. Besides," and she smiled at me gently, "I'm not letting you heal them, am I?"
The chill in her honeyed tones made it hard for me to breathe. It was true, I realized. Forays for food were so risky that she forbade the soldiers taking the time to gather healing herbs. We had almost none left.
She had a curious expression on her face. We were still so close to each other; I didn't remember ever being quite that close to her before. "The soldiers look at you sometimes, don't they Gabrielle?" A warning started in the pit of my stomach. "You're a very lovely young woman." She reached her hand out and fingered a lock of my hair. "Have you never wondered why they won't touch you?" I would not hear this. I turned my head away from her, but she gripped my face in her hand and forced me back to meet her eyes, which had hardened. "Why do you think they won't touch you, Gabrielle?" The voice was now steel. I would not hear this. I would not answer this.
She bent her head forward until she almost touched mine, and her voice was only a murmur.
"Because they know you're mine."
I stared at her. "I don't understand," I breathed. But I did.
She let go of my face and stepped back a little. She gave a bitter laugh. "There's a name for it, Gabrielle. You're the Commander's Woman. We all have a job to do here; you just never realized what yours was."
I was in shock. I wondered how we had come to this. I could have laughed, and cried, as I thought, where was Xena to save me when I needed her? Is this what you used to be?
I watched the woman whose campfire I had shared these past two years. I realized I had been toying with a tiger, without knowing it.
"You were ignorant. That's understandable." She moved casually toward the table next to the bed, shrugging off her sword and scabbard and setting them down. She unhooked her chakram and lay it next to the sword. "But that ends now."
I looked at the door, which was still ajar. Her back was to it, and to me. As quietly as I could, I started to edge toward the doorway. There was a loud slam as her leg kicked out behind her, hitting the door shut. Then I was against the wall, with her hands at my throat. She spoke carefully, as you do when you are correcting a disobedient dog. "I said, that ends now."
I remembered the storms' fury. I remembered how my Uncle died fighting one. You cannot fight a storm. You can only let it take you where it will and hope that you emerge unscathed. I tried to remember the storms' beauty, and how much I loved them. There was beauty in front of me now, dark and wild, and magnificent. And I loved her. But I feared her, as I never feared the storms, as I never had feared her before. I did not know where she would take me, and whether I would survive the journey.
Her hands reached out and held my face, stroking my cheeks with her thumbs. Her fingers traced down my face, playing with my hair, my ears, my neck. All the time she was watching me, studying me. Her hand trailed down my chest, over my shirt, and cupped my breast. I exhaled sharply. Her other hand tilted my head up, and she bent to kiss me. My mind and my heart raced. After all this time, and all that we never could say to each other, it happens like this ? Merciful Aphrodite, why must it be like this?
Her lips came down on mine, softly at first; then her breath quickened and she forced her tongue into my mouth. I staggered backwards, and she pressed up against me. I felt the wall at my back. Her hand squeezed my breast, hard. I gave a cry, of pain, and an excitement that shamed me. I tried to catch the sound back, before she could hear. She broke off the kiss and laughed. She knew. She kissed me again, roughly, pinning me to the wall. She started to pull off my clothes. I felt her thigh force open my legs. I gave a whimper of panic; it excited her. She raked her nails across my buttocks. Her hands were everywhere. Her lips were on my neck. Her armor crushed into my naked body. I knew she was about to take me where I stood, and I was afraid. I made myself speak.
"Is this what you really are?"
Hands grabbed me by the waist and threw me on the bed. She stood over me, breathing hard, as she undressed. Her eyes, her voice, were cold.
"Get used to it."
Finally, she came to me. The door had cracked open, throwing a sliver of fading light on the floor. Illumination from the single candle threw wild shadows across the room and upon her face. She knelt on the bed looking down at me.
"Spread your legs."
I was shaking. I parted my thighs slightly. She put her hands on my knees and wrenched my legs far apart. She lowered her body on top of mine. I felt the shock of its contact. She straddled one of my thighs and put her hand between my legs. I gave a soft moan, and she pressed her hand against my sex, moving her fingers slightly. Her lips were at my ear, and I felt her tongue tracing its rim. I gasped and moved against her. She crooned to me, "You don't have to be quiet, Gabrielle. I know you like this." She ran her tongue along my throat. Her fingers thrust inside of me. I moaned again, as she took me. I felt her hips move against me, as she rode my thigh. She put her mouth against my ear. "I want to hear you, Gabrielle. I want them to hear you." She pinched my nipple sharply, and I cried out. Her other hand came inside me with more force. I was no virgin, but I was small, and I felt both pain and arousal. I cried out from both. I felt wetness across my thigh as she rode me faster. I heard her ragged breathing. Her hand quickened its rhythm as she entered me. I buried my head in her shoulder, where I tasted the salt of the sweat on her body. She pushed my head back onto the bed. "I want the soldiers to hear you, Gabrielle!" She thrust harder inside of me. I threw my head back in a howl of fear, and pain, and finally climax. I felt the pressure of her body as she rode me to her own pleasure, and then, with a cry, she collapsed on top of me. After a time, she lifted her head and looked at me. Her hair was damp with sweat, and her blue eyes held a look of victory. She spoke quietly.
"I think that now we all know why you're here, Gabrielle."
She fell asleep sprawled on top of me, with her head lying on my shoulder and her arm stretched across my chest. I tried to slip out from under her weight. Her hand tightened on my arm, the way I had seen her, in sleep, grip her sword, or some other possession she kept close to her. I gave up struggling and lay where I was, beneath her.
The soldiers looked at me differently after that. Xena walked me into the yard the next morning as the men were being mustered. I was not steady on my feet. She walked close to me, always with a hand touching me somewhere, on the arm, on the small of the back. I would have welcomed her touch, once. I saw the soldiers' eyes fall upon me and then quickly turn away. Some seemed astonished that I was still in the realm of the living. I remembered then that when Xena had burst in on me the night before, she had her sword in her hand. No one spoke or gave me the leering glances I had remembered from the days before. Something had changed. I wondered what they had heard the night before, or what they thought they had heard. Perhaps they just looked at my face. All that day, and for days afterwards, Xena walked close to me, touching me, warning people off. No one dared treat me with disrespect. No one approached me without permission. She was, I realized, protecting me. I was protected from everyone. Everyone but her.
Don't pray to the Goddess of Love, my mother used to warn me, for she will trick you in her answer. Of course I prayed anyway. When I came home the first time, after running away to find Xena, my mother lashed out at me in her anger and worry. If you want to follow a warlord, she will have a warlord's price for you to pay. Until now, I had never thought that my mother could be wise.
I walked in a daze that first day. I could not take in all that had happened, so I refused to think on it at all. Common objects looked different, in the way of things when a person is in shock. People looked different. She was different. I realized that I was in a world totally unlike the one in which I had been born. Nothing I knew about life, about what was right and wrong, mattered here. I did not know what was important here; I did not know how this world worked. When I could function a little more normally, I set myself to a task. I had to learn the rules of this place. I had to understand them, before I could follow my own.
The first rule I learned was that life went on. There were no attacks, although the weather was good, and the soldiers took advantage of the lull to fortify our defenses, repair their weapons, and make a new stock of arrows. Xena moved among them, and I watched her, to see how she would be, to see what would happen between us. She was not what I expected. For her, these days were ordinary. She was relaxed, more relaxed than I had seen her since we had fought our way into the fort. I even saw her crack a smile as she helped the men reinforcing a damaged section of the wall. I wondered how she would speak to me, and what she would say, but her tone was calm and undisturbed, as if nothing had happened. She would ask me to bring her supplies, or send me to help with a task, or ask me a question in such a matter of fact way that all I could do was answer her. At first I was careful about how I replied, but I found that it was difficult to upset her. She was not angry with me. For her, an issue had been resolved.
When she was certain that the soldiers knew enough not to give me trouble, she went about her business and let me wander the fort at will. Sometimes she would have work for me, but I had no regular assigned duties as the soldiers did, and during the daylight hours, my time was my own.
The nights were another matter.
I was not surprised when she walked me back to the Commander's quarters that first evening; I thought she was making sure that the men kept their distance from me. I did not realize that there was another reason she had found me. After she had closed the door behind us, she turned to face me. Casually, her hands reached out to me and started to undo the bindings of my shirt. I watched her as she touched me, looking for anything that I understood, of the person I had once known. She seemed thoughtful and almost nonchalant, as if she were undoing her own boots at the end of the day. As she dropped my shirt to the floor, I realized that this was ordinary to her. This was what was expected, and would be expected, from now on. She moved her hands on me. She bent her head to taste me. This was why I was here.
It was another full day before I returned to the hospital. When I saw the wounded men's eyes turn to me with a desperate hopefulness, I was ashamed. I had believed her. I had believed that I could do them no good by being there. But they didn't have the benefit of her wisdom; they had faith that I could help them. I suddenly remembered what a young healer had once said to me, in another room full of broken bodies. A man's spirit needs healing, as well as his body, he told me. He said that was my gift. So I gave them what I had to offer. Instead of food, I gave them stories, and bathed them in well water, and crooned nonsense lullabies such as they might have heard from their mothers. I tried to cheer them, to encourage them to hold on until the end of the siege. I told them good news of the war; that we seemed to have frightened off the Horde for now, and that perhaps soon it would be over. I don't know that they believed me, but the tone of my voice and my presence seemed to help them.
I began to wander the fort, talking to the soldiers, asking questions of those who had any healing skills, no matter how small. I learned how to splint a broken limb; I discovered new ways to dress a wound. Before Xena sent him back to the wall, one of the walking wounded showed me which men I could not safely give water, because they had been hurt in the belly. I hoped that the soldiers would begin to see me in a different light, as someone who cared about their injured comrades. I hoped also that they would know, if it came their turn to enter the hospital, that I would do everything I could to make sure that they walked out again, to grace the earth as something besides a corpse against a fortress wall. For even as I worked, Xena would come in once or twice a day, like a silent banshee, looking to carry off the dead for her own purposes. A chill would fill the room, and my men and I would stare at her silently as she directed soldiers to take away the bodies. She would throw me a glance, saying nothing, and leave as suddenly as she had come.
During intervals of peace, I took to spending entire days in the hospital. I only left to learn more of the healing arts from any who had the knowledge and the time to give to me. It wasn't just for the sake of the wounded. I needed to know that I had some worth, some value in being here. I needed the soldiers to know--I needed to know--that I was something more. Something besides the Commander's whore.
I would stay with the injured until the shadows grew and candles had to be lit. When night approached, I would glance up to see her standing just inside the doorway, watching me, until our eyes met. Then she would turn and walk out of the room, without looking back. I would steel myself, then rise and follow her.
As the days passed, a stifled feeling came over me. There were too many of us, trapped together behind wooden walls. Everywhere, there was the sight and the smell of human bodies, living and dead. Voices carried from one side of the fort to the other. The slow-moving river magnified the sounds of the men and animals in the forest, as if they were just outside our walls. Or perhaps they were.
I desperately wanted privacy, in a way I had never needed it before. Growing up, my house was small; I had shared a room and sleeping space with my sister and was never troubled by it. On the road with Xena, I almost never felt the need to go off by myself; it was she who chose to frequently journey without me, and I who resented it. But now, I spent my days among wounded and dying men who pulled at my arm as I walked by them. Their need was almost too much for me; I had to be strong, and encouraging, and never show them the hollow place inside me.
There was nowhere, and no time, for me to be alone. My nights were not my own; nor was my body. In the dark, she was always there before me, and she took what she wanted from me, as her right. And I did what she wanted. There was no rest in the dark. Always, always she was there. If I shut my eyes against her, I felt her touch, on me, inside of me. I came to wonder what would happen some night, were I to seek that solitude I needed so badly--were I to refuse her.
A night came where I had to make my own choice. I arrived in the chamber before she did. The Commander's room had a small desk by a window; I sat there, fully clothed, and intended to spend the night that way, to show her my force of will. After an hour or so she came in, pulling off her sword and armor as she moved toward the trunk where our things were kept. She flicked a glance in my direction and said, "Get undressed."
I did not move.
Now she turned, slowly, and casually lowered herself into a chair, looking at me all the while. Her arms lay on the rests of the chair, and she crossed one booted leg over the other. Her eyes never left mine. In them was all the command of a warlord. Very softly and deliberately, she spoke.
I tried to hold her gaze for as long as I could, but her power was too great. Finally, my eyes lowered. Unsteadily, I stood from my chair and, with shaking fingers, began to undo the fastenings of my shirt. From the corner of my eye, I saw her watch me undress, until I stood naked before her. I watched her face; I thought I saw satisfaction there. She stripped down to her shift and moved slowly behind me, putting her hands over my shoulders. She kissed me, very softly, on the side of my face, and down my neck, to my shoulder. She rested her head there for a moment. I could feel her breath against my ear. Then she turned me and guided me onto the bed. She placed one hand lightly on my chest and slowly pushed me onto my back. She paused a moment, and I felt her eyes upon me. She knelt over me, her dark hair falling to touch my breasts. She lowered herself to meet my body, as her lips found mine. She began kissing me slowly, deeply. She had begun. My arms finally reached up to hold her to me.
I never tried to refuse her again.
You can become used to anything. I know that now. I knew that if I went to bed ahead of her, I would be awakened by the light touch of her hands on my face, when she came to me. She would touch my body and look for my response. She wanted things from me that I would not give her, because she had not asked. But still she tried. She could not get what she wanted; perhaps she didn't know what those things were. But some things she could see. She knew that she aroused me, and that I tried not to feel it, or to give her the rewards of knowing that I did. So that became her quest, a campaign she knew that she could win, with time.
There were times when she came to me, when she set about knowing me, winning my body in a way that she could not win my soul. She would stand over me, with a curious smile that was chilling in its gentleness. She would look at me as if she were studying me, trying to know everything I kept hidden from her. She would become serious, still watching me with that intent gaze, and kneel on the bed beside me. She would reach out a hand to touch me, always a different place every time. She would caress my face or run her lips down the inside of my arm. If she heard me gasp, she would lift her head, give that gentle smile again, and repeat what she had done, more firmly or more softly, anything that would make me lose my control. I remember her lips on my neck, on my breast, in the hollow of my stomach; I remember a hand tracing a line down my back, her head lowering to nip me lightly on my side, and the feel of her hair brushing against my body as she moved lower. Always, she heard the smallest sound--my intake of breath, my racing heart, my stifled cry. And she would look in my eyes with triumph and use what she had learned to make me belong to her, until I forgot that the cries I was hearing were the sound of my own voice, and the fire in my body was not what I wanted, and the woman whose soft whispers helped push me over the edge was not the woman I had trusted, or loved.
And always, finally, she got me to reveal something I would have kept to myself, and she came to know what pleased me, what hurt me, what terrified me, and what would make me follow her anywhere she led me. She came to know my body better than I did, and I was afraid she would do the same with my soul.
Things were different when the Horde started attacking again. When there were battles, she wanted me close by her, behind her, but somewhere where she could keep an eye on me. She never trusted that a Horde warrior might not be able to slip through our defenses unnoticed and pass into the inner rooms. It was terrifying in the outer yard, where I tried to hide from flying axes thrown by an unseen foe. These were not people I could fight with my staff, or fight at all, without being killed. Somehow, though, Xena never let an axe come close to me. She could fight an enemy unlike any other she had encountered, but she never forgot that she was protecting me. In that, she was the woman I remembered.
She tried for dramatic victories, without foolhardy risk. She knew that the exhilaration after a won battle would give underfed troops the energy to go on for another day, in what looked to be a long siege. The potential for despair, she told the officers, was our greatest enemy. It would kill us far sooner than the Horde. She made sure the troops could see her in the thick of battle, and she never showed them the fear I knew she felt. After all, she was their War Goddess. She was not supposed to feel fear.
After a victory (and we called everything a victory, as long as the enemy retreated back to the forest), she did not calm down. The battle glint would stay in her eyes, and she looked as if a bolt of lightning vibrated inside her. After celebrating with her troops, she would search for me, with the same look she wore on the parapets. She would take my arm and pull me into the corridor leading to the inner rooms. Sometimes I would catch knowing smiles on the faces of the soldiers closest to us, as she led me away.
It was different, after a battle. I don't know what she had done with her war lust after the other fights we had been in over the years, but now she turned it on me, as if she hoped to ground the thunderbolt inside her. Sometimes she could wait until she'd pushed me into our chamber; other times she pressed me against the corridor wall outside our room, and I would feel her mouth and hands on me, as she tried to undress me. By the time we were inside, all I could feel was her body on top of mine, and her teeth and her cries as her mouth raged over me, and the shock of a warrior's unleashed power as she rode me. And there were no choices here; I followed where her fury took me, and let it overwhelm me, and fill me, and push me to that place I could almost see. I would hear her rhythmic cries, and something in me that answered them, and I would see something that came out from behind the blue of her eyes and landed deep inside me, where I never thought that anyone knew how to enter. And I would hear her throaty cries, and watch the terrible beauty of a War Goddess, as she tried to take me on her journey of conquest and terror and whatever it was she sought from me that I feared to give her. I cried back to her, and clung to her as she drove inside me, and I captured her until she would give me release, and she could let loose whatever had ridden her during this battle. Then she would fall back against me, and I would keep my arms tight round her, and she lay atop me, looking down at me, still inside me, and I would see the light of what had been upon her still grace her face, and I came close, so close, to telling her that I loved her, but I would not, not here, not now, not like this.
When she slept, she always had a look of heartrending sweetness. Even now. Especially now. I would watch her as she slept, and I could almost imagine that we were real lovers, the kind I had dreamt we could be when I would watch her sleep on the other side of the campfire. Now the memories of our past times together, the past two years of adventures and joys and tragedies that bonded us together in friendship and unspoken love, overwhelmed me with unbearable sorrow. I reached out my hand to her and softly brushed the hair off her face.
"I miss you," I whispered.
She did not awaken. She knew who had touched her and felt no danger there. I watched her for a long time. I realized that the woman I loved was lost--she had willingly sacrificed that part of herself in order to win a war. But she had not consulted me, and I had not given my consent. I would not let her be damned. I would not let her slide irrevocably into the dark. I would fight for her in the only arena in which she would allow me. Gradually, bit by bit, I would find the pieces of the woman I knew, and draw them out, and finally, rebuild a human being.
I kept vigil over her that night and made a silent vow to her.
I will find you, and I will bring you back to me.
After that, when she came to me, I felt anticipation, not dread. What had before been a ritual of conquest was now a dance between us. I had a power, now, that she did not understand. Sometimes she would be aware that something had changed, and I would see puzzlement in her eyes, but I dared not show her too much and risk the puzzlement turning to anger. So she touched my body as she had before, and did not quite understand that there was something I wanted from her, and that I would respond to it when I found it. Until now, I would not show her my arousal, unless she had pushed me beyond my own control. Now, I changed my own rules. As she took me, I would watch her face and her eyes. I would watch every flicker of emotion that she would reveal, every expression, every movement of her mouth, every sound she made, every whisper that came from her. I welcomed her closeness, because it made it all the easier for me to catch the one subtle moment of something that came from our past life together, something that spoke of the woman I had loved. When she gave me that--then, and only then, would I willingly respond to her, caress her, show her what she had touched in me. I don't think that she ever realized what I was doing, but gradually, those glimpses of the woman from my past recurred more and more.
One night, after she had spent herself, she dropped her guard for just a moment. Gazing at me sleepily, a hand idly playing with my hair, she smiled. I recognized my Xena within that fleeting smile. I took her face in my hands and kissed her.
Still, our hunger grew. Increasingly, we depended upon small foraging parties to sustain our food supplies. One morning, at dawn, a few young men, with a daring born of desperation, slipped out the tunnel to find what game that they could in the bush. We found out later that they had gotten more than they bargained for. The deer they tracked led them too far into the woods, where a score of the Horde ambushed them. Our men barely made it back to the tunnel, and Darius, the unconscious bowman now lying in my hospital, had done what he could to lure the enemy away from the tunnel's hidden entrance. We'd given him up for lost, but at long last he made it to the fort's main gate, and the guards dragged him inside, under cover of our archers on the wall.
Xena was worried, as we had no way of knowing whether any of the Horde had managed to find the tunnel entrance. She could not question Darius while he was unconscious, and my mouth twisted when she told me which healing herbs to give him and how to use them. She said that I was to make him a broth, if he came to. This was a man she wanted me to heal.
She left him to me and ordered every man not on watch to help her block off the old tunnel entrance and to begin digging a new one. I'd heard Mercer once say that the original tunnel had been long and rocky digging, and I wondered whether they had the time and strength to finish another.
A groan brought me back to myself. I looked over to where Darius stirred, although he did not yet waken. Soon it would be time to prepare his medicines. Next to Darius was a boy with a fractured leg. He'd lain there for days, and had gone without food for as many. It wouldn't be his wound that killed him--it would be starvation. My anger started to grow. We didn't need the Horde to kill our men; we were doing it ourselves. Xena was letting them die, and I was helping her.
I felt disgusted with myself. Restless, I rose and entered the empty hallway. The fort appeared almost deserted, with most of the able-bodied men below, at the tunnel site. I walked to the storage room and unlocked the heavy door. I chose the herbs for Darius, as well as a little dried meat for his broth. Then I hesitated. On an impulse, I took as much dried meat as I could carry and returned to the hospital.
As I made the broth, enough for all of the men in my care who were capable of drinking it, I considered what I was doing. Certainly, I was taking a chance, but not as great a one as it could have been. Everyone was preoccupied with digging the new tunnel entrance. If Xena returned, she would assuredly give me Holy Tartarus and force me to give the rest of the food to the men on the wall, but before that, at least a few of my patients would have a chance at life.
When the broth was ready, Darius was on the verge of waking, although he still tossed restlessly. I felt eyes upon me; the aroma of the soup had carried to those of my men who were not too busy with the process of dying. I looked at the filled bowl in my hands, took a breath, and carried it to the soldier lying closest to me. Holding his head with my hand, I lifted the bowl to his mouth.
"We have to try to ask him. We could be wasting our time down there."
My head jerked up, to see Xena, accompanied by Mercer and Mendicles, heading toward Darius's cot just beyond me. In the sudden silence, I saw Xena give me a sharp look, and the others followed her gaze to the bowl I was holding to the lips of a man with a shoulder wound. It was too late to hide what I'd been doing. I saw their eyes shift to the kettle of broth, to the pile of dried meat beside it. Xena turned back to me. I saw something flicker across her face, and then it was gone. Mercer and Mendicles looked, not at me, but at her. It was then that I realized my mistake.
I searched her eyes, desperately looking for the woman I'd glimpsed there the night before, the woman I was so proudly convinced I was bringing back for good. It was no use--that woman had vanished, if she had ever been there at all. I tried to read my fate in her gaze; she gave me no sign. The silence seemed unending. At last, in a deliberate, toneless voice, she spoke.
"Assemble the men."
What happened after, I remember only in disjointed pieces. I heard Mercer's voice, asking a question. I heard Darius answer. I saw Mendicles leave the room. Then Xena came for me. She took hold of my arm with an iron grip. She pulled me through the hallways, Mercer following, silent, behind her. I saw the light of the archway leading to the yard. Mendicles and the soldiers were all there, in formation, gathered to watch. She walked me through their ranks. I passed rows of faces and saw what they carefully tried to conceal; curiosity, pity, satisfaction. She led me to a wooden post with an iron ring on it.
She had never let anyone else touch me, and I knew she would not now. I was hers, and hers alone, to do with as she chose. It was her hands that tied my wrists to the heavy ring. It was her hands that pulled the clothes from my body, stripping me to below the waist, the same hands that had undressed me for other reasons the previous night, and so many nights before. Yes, I knew she would let no one else do this work.
I heard the leather whistle through the air; she had begun.
If I had grand notions of keeping silent, I forgot them. If I vowed that she wouldn't see my tears, I was a fool. I cried out the first time she struck me; I began to weep the fourth. The Warrior Princess has many skills, and one of these is the ability to inflict pain. And she knew my body intimately by now; she knew not only what gave me pleasure, but also my most tender places, the places that could be hurt.
I could feel nothing but the pain, meted out in steady, inexorable intervals. She kept on. I cried her name. She still kept on. Finally, when my world had become the step of her boot on the ground, the sound of the whip, and the streaks of fire across my body, she stopped. By this time I was sobbing, and not just from the pain of the lash. The woman who cut me down from the post was nobody I knew at all.
Now, finally, she stepped back from me and handed me over to two men with a litter. As they carried me away, I heard someone mutter, "Of course the Commander went easy on her. She'll want to be able to use the girl later, won't she?"
The soldiers took me to Xena's quarters, where they laid me face down on the bed. I wondered how I would feel when she came to care for my wounds. I need not have troubled myself; I soon heard a limping gait and turned my head to see that she had sent old Mellius with a jar of salve. As he gingerly began to tend my back, I buried my face in the bed.
"Coward," I said into the blankets.
That night, the pain would not let me sleep; I lay alone in the bed of the Commander and tried not to think. The candle next to me burnt low, and finally I sensed her presence. She was standing in the doorway, watching me. I feigned sleep. After a time, she left.
I stayed abed for another day and a night; then I forced myself upright and began walking stiffly through the inner passageway. I wasn't ready to move steadily, but I refused to let Xena think she had cowed me. I knew that my wounded men needed me. With no food and no medicine, there was nothing to give them but my presence and my caring. I was all they had. As I slowly moved toward the hospital, soldiers turned their heads to look at me. I did not see Xena. I had not seen her since that first night, when I lay in pain in her bed. She did not come to the chamber. Where or if she slept, I don't know.
There had been a lull in the fighting for some days. It became easy to believe that the Horde had simply given up and moved on, and in any case I had enough on my mind to make me forgetful of the dangers outside. There came a time when I walked too far out in the open, too close to the wall. There was a sudden whir next to my head, and I saw the throwing axe coming toward me. An arm shot from the shadows to catch the weapon before it split my head in two. I saw her then, standing before me with the axe in her hand. Her lips moved slightly, and she reached with her free hand to brush the hair from the side of my face. I shied away, flinching from her touch. She stood staring at me for a moment, then spun on her heel and strode away.
There was an enemy attack after that, and I was busy tending the new wounded. Two days passed before I realized that I hadn't seen or heard Xena at all during that time. It was early on the morning of the third day that I heard shouts, then cheers from the men, and some kind of ruckus at the wall. By the time I got out of bed, things had quieted down. I hurried to the hospital, to see to any men who might have been wounded in the skirmish. I also steeled myself, as I did every morning, for the sight of the newly dead that awaited me. But this morning, I saw something different--a large sack of herbs and foodstuffs on a table near the hospital hearth. I felt many desperate eyes upon me. I hurried then, to help my starving wounded, and to begin to save their lives.
Later that day, I found out, in bits and pieces, what she had done. Two nights before, she'd tracked an enemy raiding party, in hopes that they would lead her to one of their supply caches. She went alone, refusing to waste the lives of any of her soldiers on such a suicidal, and probably futile, mission. She spent part of one night in a tree, waiting for the Horde warriors to leave the cache. Then she filled a sack with as much food and healing herbs as she could carry. The warriors were on her tail when she sprinted toward the fort, throwing herself over the wall, rather than risking any of the enemy making it through the gates. She left the sack on the hospital table. All that she had won, she gave to me.
For the rest of the day, she was sequestered with Mercer and Mendicles, passing on whatever strategic information she had learned. When I climbed into bed that night, I still had not caught a glimpse of her. I was starting to doze when she staggered in, nearly dead from exhaustion. As she pulled her clothes off I saw that she was covered in dirt and sweat, and there was a long red cut, hastily treated, running down her right arm. I also saw what was in her eyes; she looked like a woman who had just faced the legions of Hell.
When she had undressed, she came over to the bed and threw herself down upon it. Her blue eyes stared, unseeing, at the ceiling. I lay watching her. Slowly, I reached out my arms. She turned onto her side and gazed at me. Then she moved into my arms with a deep sigh, falling asleep as soon as her head fell against my chest.
They attacked in full force the next morning. We had never realized how many of them there actually were, hidden in the forest around us; now we could see how outnumbered we truly were. They would come at the wall in waves, testing our strength. They still did not know how many men the fort held, and they were still cautious. But it would not be long before they discovered the truth.
As she armed herself, Xena paced our chamber in frustration.
"I was a fool to enter their camp. Now I've brought them down upon us."
"You had to," I said.
She looked at me in distracted worry, as she gathered her weapons. "It wasn't necessary."
I walked over to her, and gently placed my hand on her chest, where her heart would be. I looked up at her. " Yes. It was."
Her eyes filled with pain. It spilled into her voice. "I may have killed you, by doing it." She stood before me, strong and vulnerable, with a tenderness in her face that I had not seen in a very long time. I realized then that she had come back to me.
I kept my eyes locked with hers. "It doesn't matter," I said, willing her to understand.
She watched me in silence, then lowered her eyes in what might have been assent.
We had a Horde prisoner chained in one of the storage rooms. For days, Xena and the officers had tried to get information out of him, but he would reveal nothing. Now, whenever she could afford to be away from the wall, Xena would spend time with him. I feared at first that she would torture him, but the one time that I walked in on the two of them, she was just sitting and staring at him, as if he were a puzzle that she was trying to figure out.
Now, even as the attacks escalated, she stayed with him. I spent my time in the hospital, trying to cope with the stream of new casualties that were brought to me. There was no more bed space; I had to lay them on the floor. I wondered how long we would have enough men to hold off the attackers.
Finally, there was a lull; perhaps Xena's defense strategies were still sufficient to keep any of the Horde from breaching the walls, even with our decimated troops. I looked out the hospital window that faced into the yard; the storage room door had been opened, and I saw two guards leading the prisoner to the gate. To my astonishment, they cracked it open and set him free.
I ran out to look for Xena. I found her in the officers' quarters, looking for all the world as if she were dressing for a military review. As she fastened a tunic around her shoulders, pinning it with an insignia of rank, I asked her what in the name of all the gods was she doing.
She was headed out the door, even as she answered me.
"I'm going to end this war, one way or another."
I ran to keep up with her as she strode toward the gate. Mendicles and Mercer were waiting for her and opened the door wide, as if there were no danger of the Horde making a charge for the entrance. I stood between the two men and looked at the scene just outside the walls. The clearing was filled with warriors, more than I had ever seen, all armed, but none taking aim at us. They appeared to be waiting for something.
Directly in front of the fort, the Horde had left an open space. Facing us, in the front line of the warriors, was a powerfully built man. In his hands were two small curved fighting knives. As he stepped toward Xena, and they began to circle each other, I understood what was happening. He was the Horde's war leader, or perhaps their chosen champion, and this was almost certainly a fight to the death.
I saw Xena smile at her opponent; I saw her put on her face of battle. Both armies saw what she wanted them to see: the mantle of the War Goddess; only I saw what it was costing her and the fear that she could not afford to feel.
If a fight can be beautiful, it was she who made it so. She moved like a dancer, confusing him, taunting him, slipping under his guard, striking, and jumping away again. I realized what she was doing; she was trying to make him appear the fool in front of his own men. But her enemy had both speed and power of his own, and a wicked knowledge of the little fighting blades he wielded. Xena was fighting on little food and less sleep, with a wounded sword arm. And only I knew that, beyond all doubt, she was not a god, and might die here, in front of me.
In the end, she defeated him with his own weapons, switched in mid-fight. She had the advantage of experience with the fighting knives, while he knew nothing of a Greek sword. She humiliated him, left him living, and turned her back on him as she walked toward us. I cried out to her as he shouted a challenge, as the men behind him raised their axes, but she never turned her head. I wonder, now, if she expected to die that day. The Horde killed their own man, but it was Xena whose eyes looked out from the realm of the dead.
And so, that simply, the siege ended, and the Horde disappeared. Mercer led scouts to search the surrounding forest, but they found nothing. Xena was not surprised.
"No, they're gone," she said. "We have the victory." I saw that she was pale, and very tired. She pushed damp hair off of her forehead and stared beyond her officer for a moment. Then she gave orders for the troops to prepare to move out.
We traveled with the army for that first day's march through the forests. As we passed through the gates of the fort, I looked behind me, at the abandoned buildings, the empty rooms, and the part of myself that would always remain there.
Xena did not look back.
The army pushed on until darkness and our own exhaustion forced us to make camp in the woods. To sleep on the ground again, with only a blanket between me and the night mist, was a disorienting experience. I waited for Xena to lie down beside me, but when I raised my head to look for her, the dull glow of the moonlight through the mist showed her silhouetted against a nearby tree, standing watch. I was puzzled as to why she would bother; she was convinced the Horde had long gone, and there was an ample watch on duty. I fell into a light sleep. When I awoke, the moon had almost set, and I was still alone. A few yards away, Xena sat dozing, her head resting against the tree trunk.
We parted company with the army at the crossroads where we had begun our journey, just south of the river's edge where, all that time before, we had gone to fish. The men would march northeast, toward the next outpost on the road to Athens. Half a mile in the opposite direction lay the village where we had stabled Argo.
I checked the litters of the wounded men, while Xena had a final word with the officers. When Mercer made his invitation to her, I turned to listen. "Come with us to Athens," he said to her. "For what you have done, they will surely give you Gallipan's generalship." I watched her reaction. She flinched, as if she had been struck in the face, and then I saw her cover it with a small smile as she shook her head.
But I also saw her clasp every soldier's arm, as she bid each man farewell. As they marched off, they raised their swords in the air, shouting her name. I looked after them as they disappeared around a curve in the road, only the dust behind them remaining, suspended above the forest path. Soon even that disappeared, and quiet returned to the woods, the first silence I had heard in a very long time. It was then that I felt her eyes upon me. I turned around; she stood about twenty feet away from me. I realized that she must have been watching me for a long while.
She did not approach me, but just stood where she was, head tilted very slightly to one side, wearing an expression that I didn't quite understand, but which seemed somehow familiar. I had a sudden twinge of memory; there was another day, so long before, when we had looked at each other from so far away, yet so intently. It was the day we first met, outside of Potedeia. After she had fought to keep me from being enslaved. Perhaps she, too, remembered. I understood now what was on her face, and in her eyes, as she watched me. She saw the child that I had been, and would never be again, and why.
"I'll take you home," she said quietly.
I saw the woman who stood before me, as still as the woods behind her. I found myself watching her hands, one resting, unaware, on the whip looped at her waist. I saw the woman I had come to know so well, far better than anyone should know another. I thought of how well she knew me, and why. I saw what lay hidden in her eyes. I saw it all. I saw the woman who stood in the road before me, waiting for my answer.
Finally, I shook my head.
"No," I said. "The war is over. I belong with you."
Her eyes filled with doubt, but she didn't argue with me, and together we walked toward the village.
And so we took to the road again, as we had for so many countless days before, Xena on horseback, I walking beside her, but on a path that seemed more directionless than it had ever been. She would not tell me where we were going; I don't think she knew. She did not speak to me, just a word or two in answer to a question I might ask, and finally I stopped trying to reach her. The sun shone hot and clear over the placid farm country we journeyed through. Looking up at her, I saw her still wrapped in her military cloak, staring straight ahead, at something only she could see. The silence became heavier, and her eyes more haunted. I did not ask her what she saw, but I think I knew.
The sun was lowering in the sky, but still she kept a steady pace and seemed grimly determined to drive onward until one or all of us dropped from exhaustion. Although I was tired, I was determined not to complain, and only when Argo began to flag did Xena search the surrounding woods for a small clearing where we could make camp.
We made our preparations in absolute silence, and the tension began to weigh on me. I watched Xena from the corner of my eye; she worked quickly and efficiently, without once looking at me. She did not touch the small dinner I prepared, instead rising to take her blanket to the far side of the fire, where she sat, unmoving, in the restless shadows just beyond the light's reach.
My discomfort changed to a slowly growing fear. We had the trappings of our old life, but none of the heart of it. Too much had happened, and too much had been left unsaid. We could not go on in this way, but I didn't know how to change it. As I had no answers, I went through the rituals of preparing to bed down for the night. Without thinking, I started to undo the ties of my shirt, exposing my skin to the cold night air.
"Stop it!" Her voice, sudden and harsh, struck me out of the darkness.
My hands paused. We had always slept clothed, on the road. I had learned the other during the war.
"I don't own you, Gabrielle."
Slowly, I made my hands move again, deliberately continuing to undo the ties.
"Then stop telling me what to do," I said.
"What do you want, Gabrielle?"
I dropped the shirt at my feet and began to remove my skirt, until I stood naked in the firelight. I heard her ask again, her voice rising.
"What do you want from me?"
I could feel the fear in her. She was frightened by my nakedness. I started to walk toward her. She threw words at me like stones, to keep me at bay. I could hear the mocking edge to her voice.
"What do you think is going to happen?"
I knelt down beside her, in the shadows. Her voice softened.
"Go home, Gabrielle." She took her sleeping blanket and draped it around me. I kept it on my shoulders, but let it fall open, so that I was not concealed.
"Find someone who will court you," she said. She laughed bitterly. "With flowers and sweet words."
"It's too late," I said. I looked in her eyes. "I belong to you. We are bound to each other. We can't pretend that we're not."
I heard her frustration. "Nothing good can come of us. Not with how we started."
I thought again of what had passed between us outside of my village, so long ago.
"That's not when we started," I said. I reached out my hand to her.
Her voice came low and terrible. "Do you think I can't do it again?"
My hand stopped. She had brought it all back too vividly. But I answered her. "Perhaps you could, but neither of us is the same person who walked into that fort." Gently, I touched her face. "I'm not afraid," I said. And I realized that it was true. It was she who was terrified. She stiffened at my touch, and stared at me, eyes wide and fearful.
"All we can do is go on," I told her. "And see where the road leads."
She never moved, although I knew she wanted to run from me. I would not let her run from me, not into the forest, nor into herself. We were in my world now, where my rules reigned--the rules of love. If she did not understand them, then I would teach them to her.
I put my arms around her. She was rigid in my embrace, but she did not pull away. I moved my hand on her back. I realized that I had never touched her in this way. She had not wanted me to. It was not what we were. I touched her now, caressing her back, trying to soothe her fear. Her arms came around me, so lightly that it took me a moment to understand what she had done.
We had come too far, and seen too much, in each other's arms. It was the only way I knew to reach her. So I did the only thing I could do--I loved her. I loved her with my body, and with my heart, and I showed her what I was, and what she was to me. Slowly, her arms drew me to her. Slowly, she unwrapped her heart to me.
I heard her cries as I touched her, saw her eyes wide open as I entered her. I saw her give to me what I wanted most; I saw her fierce tenderness and all that she felt for me. She found her courage at last; she let me love her and, finally, she let herself love me.
It was our first time.
She clung to me with a fierce desperation. There was nothing for me but her eyes and her pain and her arms tight round me. I heard her voice. Don't let go. I would not. She was a part of me. I held her from the fear, I gave her all I had left of myself that was not already hers, I fell through her eyes, in them I saw her heart laid bare. I told her what I would not, all that time before, I told her I loved her.
I think she would have wept, but some things are too serious for tears.
She let me cradle her then, her head on my chest, my lips touching her hair. She relaxed against me, and I soothed her into sleep. The fire burned low, and the shadows blanketed us. Even sleeping, she held me close to her, as something precious she would not let go.
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