And as he watched his massive army cross the River Strymon at a point barely ten leagues above Amphipolis he thought of "The Bitch" as he called her and for a brief, delicious moment considered diverting a force there to raze the town and slaughter everyone in it. In the end decided against it. He was on a tight schedule at the moment and was not about to risk falling behind it because of some petty, vengeful act against the people of his most hated enemy. Besides, there would be all the time in the world for that later.
From lands as far north as the Carpathian Mountains and as far east as Black Sea they had come; hardy, seasoned warriors all united under his banner. His ranks now numbered ten full legions, over fifty thousand men. In a fortnight he would be joined by Graccus and his two legions. In all he would have about sixty-five thousand men under his command. His plan was a simple one. Striking with crushing fury into the heart of central Greece, he would force the capitulation of Eprius and Thessaly. Once this was accomplished he would pause only long enough to consolidate his gains and then move on to the real plums--Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Sparta. Because of the mutual distrust these city-states had for each other, he was certain he would be able to use this and their stupid pride against them. Like fat berries on a bush he would pluck them one by one. Yes, it was a good plan, a plan he had spent years perfecting. It took into account everything from utilizing the rain swollen rivers of spring to constrict enemy movements to where his seat of power would be once his conquest of Greece was completed.
And with Hercules conveniently mired in a political morass in Egypt there was now only one variable with which he had to contend. Twice he had fought "The Bitch" and both times she had squashed him like a bug. Each time she had slaughtered thousands of his men and sold the survivors into slavery. And each time Melchus, Crown Prince of the Five Tribes, had barely managed to escape with his life. This time it would be different. This time it would be "The Bitch" who would be forced to flee for her miserable life.
Often he fantasized about what he would do if she ever fell into his hands. He longed to gleefully torture her, violate her magnificent body in the most pernicious ways, mutilate her, and finally, mockingly savor the look of horror and agony on her battered face as she was slowly gutted alive. For some strange reason these vengeful thoughts gave him an erection every time.
However Melchus was no fool. Though she no longer had an army at her disposal she was still a formidable, even deadly, enemy and he had to respect that. But now, save for an insignificant little servant girl she traveled with, she was alone. He had vowed to hunt her down like the wild slut-pig she was. This time, Xena, the so-called "Warrior Princess," would be the one forced to yield to the unmerciful power of his terrible sword. It would be sweet indeed.
Of course at the time neither Xena nor I had the slightest inkling she was on such violent collision course with Destiny. As we ambled along that dusty road to Ambracia trouble was the last thing on our minds. Why would it be? The signs of spring were everywhere. It was a nice warm day, the trees were budding out, the grass was starting to grow--how could anyone possibly think negatively on such a day?
For the last hour or so we had led our horses along, saying little. Because Xena's mind was so enigmatic I would never have been so presumptuous as to think I knew what was on her mind. Her thoughts might be on China, they might concern her dead son, or then again she could be wondering why that dried beef she'd had for breakfast didn't want to stop crawling around. With her one never knew. I, on the other hand, was always an easy read, especially by Xena. My heart was pretty much worn on my sleeve. For one so stoic herself she was unusually perceptive of the emotions of others.
And so, not knowing what her thoughts were, I did what I usually did in that situation. I asked her. "Xena?"
"A dinar for your thoughts?"
She abruptly stopped and smiled wryly at me. Sticking out her hand, she said, "Pay me first."
I took up the strong, well callused hand into both of mine and tenderly kissed the back of it. I then held it up to my cheek and with a little bit of a wanton smile said, "Now this is better than any old dinar isn't it?"
Xena bent over until her face was so close our noses were practically touching. She gave me that sinfully playful pouty look and said, "Nnnope. Show me the money."
"Xena, you are positively wicked, you know that?"
"I'll show you wicked," she grunted. The next thing I knew I was being wrapped up in her muscular arms and a pair of luscious lips were grinding against mine. Soon I was very wet. Gods! She always did this to me. She was sooo beautiful and my body ached for her. I wanted her to take me right there. She might have been the Alpha female but I was never one to hesitate when it came to sex. If I wanted it I told her. And why not? Her touch was too exquisite, her talents too artful, her passion too volcanic to just timidly sit back and wait for her to initiate things.
And truth be told, she was usually more than willing to comply. Had you known her I don't think it would have been any great shock to you to learn that Xena loved sex. Over the years she had been an absolute master of not only performing it, but of also knowing when it could be utilized to her advantage. Sex with her or the even the mere likelihood of sex had always been an integral part of her ruthlessness whether as an alluring carrot to ensnare some unsuspecting victim, a sweet reward to be meted out to one her devoted underlings, or merely as simple lustful gratification for her fierce desires. Rarely though had it ever been an expression of love. Most of the time it was just another of those deadly effective weapons in her arsenal, a tool with a proper place and time for utilization.
But, as they say, that was then. Now it was no longer just the act for her. Now it was truly lovemaking. How do I know you say? How could I be so all fire sure about a person who had for so long been such an artful practitioner of deceit and treachery? I knew. Believe me, I knew. You see, I didn't need Xena to tell me she loved me. Every single day she made it manifest in a myriad of ways. Like the tender way she would pull me close to her on cold nights so that I might be warm or the heart wrenching way she would look at me whenever I happened to get hurt. I don't care how skilled at lying she was, or...used to be, one could not fake those things.
As badly as I craved her loving caress at that moment I knew
it would have to wait. Oh well, I thought, at least I had more to look forward
to that evening than a fish supper. As it turned out though, I had to wait slightly
longer than I thought I would.
Late that afternoon we began to notice an increase in traffic on the road. Right away we saw the bulk of this flux was not your ordinary travelers. Most of these people were in carts or wagons filled with what looked to be their personal possessions. Others were scurrying along on foot loaded down with all they could carry. Almost all of them wore expressions of worry and even dread. At first we minded our own business. Later the trickle of humanity became a stream which in turn developed into a road choking flood. It was clear this was now a situation which could no longer be ignored. Naturally Xena decided to investigate. All the while we were watching these people numbly file past us Xena's countenance had grown more and more grim. I rather suspected she already understood the reason for this melancholy procession. She had caused enough of them herself.
Up ahead of us we saw a young couple pull a rough hand cart off the road and wearily sit down under a birch tree. By the time we reached them they were trading swallows from a leaky water bag.
"What's happening here?" Xena asked the young man.
The young man answered with a question of his own. "You mean you haven't heard?"
"No," Xena told him. "My friend and I have been on the road. We just arrived here."
The man took the bag from whom I assumed was his wife and gulped down another heavy swallow. "Well you picked a bad time to visit Thesprotia," he said bitterly, after wiping his mouth on his sleeve. One could almost see the acerbity oozing from him. "You see," he continued, "Melchus has swept down from the north with a vast army and is ravaging the countryside."
"Melchus?" I detected a hint of surprise in Xena's voice. "Are you sure?"
"Oh yeah," the man said caustically. "He left no doubt about that. After his men slaughtered our rag tag militia outside of Ambracia he sent word into the city demanding the surrender of the castle. When the king refused he stormed the place and, except for one servant girl, tortured and beheaded everyone not killed in the actual assault. He sent this girl out with a parchment sign reportedly lettered in the king's own blood threatening all who dared oppose him with a similar fate. It was signed 'Melchus of the Five Tribes.'"
"How far away is he now?" Xena asked.
"Does it matter?" the man shot back. "We're all going to die."
Xena reached down, caught him by the collar, and jerked the surprised man to his feet. "I asked you a question. How far away?"
"Uuh, last I heard he was back up the road there no more than four, maybe five leagues behind," he sputtered. "It could be less than that now."
Still holding the man's shirt Xena looked up the road. "He's probably just on the other side of those hills," she muttered, more to herself than anyone else. As for me all thoughts regarding the wondrous beauty of spring were now gone. It looked for all the world like we were going to be involved in yet another war. Turning back to the man, Xena released her grip. "Sorry about that," she said.
"You, you're not going up there....are you?" he asked incredulously.
"Yeah," Xena replied.
"I want to see for myself," she said.
The man shrugged and again sat down next to the woman. "It's your death rite," he said.
Xena eyed him sharply for a moment but all she said was, "Come on, Gabrielle."
We mounted our horses and worked our way up the road past the long column of refugees. After a while the line began to thin out and by the time we reached the hills it had again returned to a trickle. These hills Xena had referred to were farther away than I expected and it was nearing dusk when we arrived at the base of them. Here we left the road and began to make our ascent by slowly picking our way up a small, rocky valley. About half way up the valley we dismounted and started up the tallest of the hills on foot.
A quarter hour later Xena took my hand and, with an easy tug, pulled me up onto the summit with her. Following her example I shaded my eyes with my hand and turned westward. The sun was now very low in the sky and the glare made it hard to see but my warrior's well trained eye had no difficulty spotting the two dark, distant prongs.
"There they are, Gabrielle," she said.
"Where?" I asked. She moved in behind me and, using my outstretched arm as a sight, guided my eyes in. "Ah yeah, now I see 'em."
They were still some distance away and as I watched the long lines slowly undulate first to one side and then to the other I was reminded of the story of Apollo and Python--or rather Xena and Python.
However Xena did not share my sense of wonder. Already her battlefield savvy was kicking in. "Two columns," she said tersely. "Four, maybe five legions each. One moving along the road the other overland to protect the main body's flank. No heavy cavalry as far as I can see. No chariots. They are pulling catapults though."
"What does it mean?" I asked.
Without taking her eyes off the advancing masses, Xena said, "It means these guys plan on being here awhile. It means they are in no hurry. They're not here to dance around. No, this army is designed to slug it out."
"A war of attrition?" Hey, I had not traveled with a military genius for seven years without learning something.
"No," she said. "Look at the sheer power behind it, Gabrielle. I'd say a war of annihilation is more what they're after."
We stood there in the twilight quietly watching Melchus' army as it slowly crawled toward us. The gloaming soon made any further attempts at observation useless so we started back down the hill to our horses. Judging from Xena's extended reticence I figured she was in the process of formulating some plan. I did not need for her to tell me she was determined to become involved in this. I assumed she knew Melchus from the way she had reacted when that man had mentioned his name. In all probability they had butted heads somewhere along the line. And undoubtedly Xena had won. Except for those very, very, very rare occasions she had always won. It was my understanding she and Tyldus had fought to a draw in a titanic battle at Corinth. I knew Darinius had defeated her rather soundly in a small battle and then later just barely eked out a victory in a cataclysmic collision along a string of low hills known as the Demon's Spine. Already this battle had reached legendary status. Outside of a couple of very minor and as it turned out, temporary setbacks in the east that was the extent of her setbacks.
Upon returning to our horses I asked "What now?"
"If Melchus has taken Ambracia my guess is his next move will be to secure the seaport of Anactorium on the Acarnanian Peninsula. Most likely he will turn inland and move southeast toward Delphi."
"What makes you think he won't move down the coast instead?"
Xena took up her horse's reins and began leading him down the valley. "Because, Gabrielle, that's what I would do if I wanted to take control of this region."
"Okay," I conceded. "So what do we do?"
"Well for starters we forget about Anactorium," she replied. "It's lost. There's no way in Tartarus that peninsula can be adequately defended. The kingdom of Aetolia lies between Acarnania and Doris where Delphi is located. That's the first real place where it might be possible to put up a defense."
"But, Xena, you said yourself he had nine, maybe ten legions. That could be as many as sixty thousand men."
"Aetolia has a good-sized, fairly well trained army," she said. "It doesn't number sixty thousand but it's a start. I think..." Here she paused. From the way she hesitated I could pretty well tell whatever she was about to say next concerned me.
"Yeah?" I prodded her.
"I'm going to Aetolia and see if the king can use my help," she said.
"Do you know him?" I asked.
"I knew his father," came the reply. "He was a good man."
"By the way, I think you made a slip of the tongue," I said. "Didn't you mean to say 'we' instead of 'I?'"
"Gabrielle, you really shouldn't..."
Here we go again, I thought. "Xena, we've been down this road a hundred times at least. I go where you go. You know that."
"Yeah, I know," she said. "But this time it's...different."
"How so?" I asked. "I've seen battle before."
"This won't be like anything you've ever seen before," she said. "Up till now the fights you've seen, though bloody enough, have been in reality nothing more than heavy skirmishes." She touched my arm and continued, "Gabrielle, you've never seen a real battle, a battle where massive armies slam into each other with full fury. The carnage is unbelievable. I remember..." She paused for a moment and I could only suppose her mind was flying back to some distant gory battlefield. Instead of finishing this sentence, though, she started another. "That's what we're facing here. I, I think maybe you should sit this one out."
"Xena, I know it's going to be bad," I said. "But I know what death and suffering are."
"Not on a scale like this you don't," she retorted.
By this time we were out of the little valley and back out onto the main road. I mounted my horse and said, "Xena, like it or not I'm coming." Not saying a word, she simply mounted her horse. "Well," I demanded, "aren't you going to say anything?"
Still she did not reply. I was stunned. "You mean, I get the last word for once?" I admit I was pretty full of myself there for a moment. That is until Xena drew up along side me.
"Not quite," she answered, her voice quiet but very forceful. "So you're bound and determined to come huh? All right then, I won't try to stop you." Then her voice took on that menacing throaty characteristic I knew so well. "Just remember this and remember it well. No matter what happens you will do exactly and I mean exactly as I say. There will be no discussion, no debate. To put it bluntly if I tell you to shit you'll say what color, understand? See, we're not looking at some Horde raiding party here. These people are here to conquer us, to annihilate us if we resist. High ideals and good intentions aren't going to cut it with these bastards. It's gonna take strong arms and plenty of guts. Now, if you think you can't cope with these conditions then you might as well not come with me. I won't have the time nor the inclination to explain to you everything I do."
"You're just trying to scare me," I said stubbornly.
Her voice softening, she said, "No I'm not. You know that. I just want you to understand how things have to be. This is going to be down and dirty, Gabrielle. There won't be any such thing as taking the moral high ground. We're talking survival here. Forgive me for saying it but in times like this the virtuous and the honorable usually end up dead. And given the choice between alienating you and burying you I'll, well..." Here she paused. "So maybe you ought to reconsider."
"Since we seem to be laying all our cards on the table here," I said, "understand this. I won't leave you. If you send me away I'll hide and follow you--just like I did when we first met. I will not allow you to face this alone, you got that? I just won't. Now I promise to keep my mouth shut and do what you say but forget about getting rid of me. And while we're at it I'm a little bit hurt that after all this time you still think I'm some kind of candy ass. Xena, I'm not so blindly idealistic anymore as to think just being good is enough. I've learned that in order to do the right thing it's sometimes necessary to get one's hands dirty. So don't worry about me. I can soil my hands with the best of them."
"What in the name of Perseus are you talkin' about?" she asked sharply. "You sound like you expect to fight or something."
"I will if need be," I answered.
"Like Tartarus you will," she replied heatedly.
"If you're going to fight I'm going to fight," I told her.
"Gabrielle," Her face was not visible in the darkness but in my mind's eye I could plainly see the set jaw and the clinched teeth. "if you think for one second I'm going to allow anybody to turn you into some kind of dog-faced soldier you're out of your sweet mind."
"Why? I'm not afraid--much," I shot back. "And besides, I can fight."
"I know that," she said. "But you'll have more important things to do."
"Like what? Taking care of the wounded? Ohhh no. Not this time."
"Gods be damned, Gabrielle!" she rasped. "We haven't even gotten there yet and already you're doing it to me."
"I just want to take a more active role, that's all," I said evenly. "What's wrong with that? "I just--"
"All right!" she snapped. I heard her inhale deeply in an effort to calm herself. "We'll...find...something else...for you to...do."
"Thank you," I said curtly.
Under a full moon we rode along in uneasy silence for quite some time. Though I knew her only thought was to protect me I had been somewhat surprised by Xena's vehemence. During our life together a great many occasions arose where Xena was called on to lead more than just me and I always dreaded them. I could not help but fear the next one might be the one that drove back into the arms of Ares. It never happened of course but that did not keep my poor nerves from becoming pretty frayed by the time these situations were over. Mainly this was because every now and then, if only for a moment, I got a good look at the "old" Xena. It was very unnerving. She would get this, I don't know, "look" in her eyes. Her body language would change completely. Her graceful walk would become almost a swagger and her smile would change to a faint sneer. Even her voice would change. Instead of her normal crisp, clear tones she would speak in a lower, much more throaty voice. But it would pass. Thank the gods, it always passed.
An hour passed and I began to wonder if Xena was still angry with me. Finally she broke the silence. "You know, Gabrielle, you can be a such a pain in the ass sometimes."
It wasn't said with sarcasm or anger or even annoyance. Actually it was something more along the lines of admiration. For most of her adult life Xena had been obeyed unquestioningly and I think that sometimes, despite her deep feelings for me, my rebellious nature would cause the old warlord blood to boil up within her. On the one hand she never tried to discourage me from speaking my mind but on the other...well, she sometimes got irked when I did. On the whole though I think she liked for me to stand up to her because she would usually make some favorable comment about it later.
"Well," I said quietly, so thankful she wasn't mad, "I learned from the best."
I heard her chuckle softly. "Okay, Agamemnon, what do you say we call it a day?"
It sounded good to me. I was beat.
It took nearly two days for us to cover the twenty-five or so leagues to the kingdom of Aetolia. Word had reached there of the invasion and quite understandably we found the populace to be very uneasy. At end of the second day they learned of Melchus' advance into neighboring Acarnania and that uneasiness turned into downright panic.
Like several other regions of central Greece such as Dolopes, Locris, and Malis Aetolia had no great cities. The seat of government was located in a place called Narum which in actuality was nothing more than a fair-sized town. It was about two hours before sunset when we arrived there and once inside the gates we made straight for the castle. As usual we had little difficulty obtaining an audience with the king for in most places the name "Xena" was like some kind of magical key.
While we sat waiting to be shown in we saw there was a considerable amount of activity going on. Before long a guard came to take us to the king.
After we were announced the king came over and extended a hand. "Xena, he said, "I'm so glad to finally meet you. My father often spoke very highly of you."
"Phileon was a good friend," said Xena.
Aurilius, eldest son of Phileon, King of Aetolia, was what could charitably described as an unusual physical specimen, especially for a king. He was not much taller than me and was very, very thin. In all my years I don't think I've ever seen anyone quite so gaunt. I swear Xena's arms were about as big as his legs. Although in his thirties his face was very youthful, so much so that were it not for his full beard he could have easily been mistaken for a teenager. His voice was high pitched and quite nasally but one only had to hear him speak for a short time before realizing he was very intelligent.
I don't mean to sound inhospitable but I'm afraid you've chosen a inopportune time to pay us a visit," said Aurilius.
"Melchus is why we are here," said Xena.
"So you've heard about the invasion then."
"Yes," she replied. "Aurilius, my friend here and I have come to offer our help."
"The king looked quizzically looked me up and down and raised an eyebrow. "Oh? In what capacity?"
"I've fought Melchus." Xena said, "I know his tactics and I know the man. If you want I'd be glad to help you design a defensive strategy."
"I don't think General Klonce would be too thrilled with allowing a total stranger access to our most sensitive plans," said Aurilius. "No offense, Xena, but I don't think I would either."
"I can understand your suspicion," said Xena. "But my guess is that within the week Melchus' army is going to crossing over your frontier. If you don't deploy your forces with the intent of luring him into those marshes north and west of here where you can fight him on ground that's to your advantage it's going to be Kira bar the door for you because you'll never stop him then."
"I'm sorry you have so little faith in us," said Aurilius coolly. "We are not exactly helpless though. We have five well trained, fully equipped legions to call upon and General Klonce is a skilled veteran of many such battles."
I could see Xena's patience was being tried. "Aurilius," she said evenly, "I personally reconnoitered Melchus' army and he has at least nine, probably ten heavy legions equipped with catapults. Do you honestly think you stand a chance against that kind of power out on open ground?"
"I won't lie to you, Xena," said Aurilius. "I'm no military man. My father, unfortunately, never saw fit to train me in such matters. All I know is what my generals tell me and they say it's feasible."
"Aurilius, I'm telling you it's not," said Xena.
"What would a woman know about such things?" a gruff voice behind us rang out.
"Oh, General Klonce. I'm glad you're here," said the king.
"Your majesty, who are these people?" asked Klonce, eyeing us sharply.
"This is Xena. She was a friend of my father's," said Aurilius. He then turned to me. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
I opened my mouth to speak but Xena beat me to it. "It's Gabrielle," she said forcefully.
"So you're the dreaded 'Warrior Princess,' eh?" the general asked, positively sneering.
Uhh oh, I thought. Not another one with an ax to grind.
"Some call me that, yeah," said my friend quietly.
"Well you know what, Warrior Princess, I've studied your campaigns and I say you're heavily overrated," said Klonce.
"Yeah. Your tactics were crude, your men were an undisciplined mob, you never really managed to hold any of the ground you conquered, and you allowed Darinius to beat you with a force two thirds your size."
"It's no disgrace to lose to Darinius," said Xena.
"Both of you together wouldn't stand a chance against my men," said Klonce.
"Let me ask you something," said Xena, her blue eyes flashing. "Did you sustain a knock on the head or were you just naturally born stupid?"
Klonce's eyes got as big as rials. "Why you--"
Klonce took a step toward Xena but, fortunately for him, the king interceded. "Now, General, he chided, "we shall remain civil here. You have much more pressing matters." Turning to Xena, he said, "I apologize for Klonce's rude behavior. He has been hard pressed lately."
Xena locked her burning eyes on Klonce. For a moment a faint smile of disdain flickered across her lips. "Not as hard as he's going to be," she said grimly. She turned to me and said, "C'mon, Gabrielle, we've wasted enough of our time."
We exited the room and started down the hall. Just then we heard a voice behind us. It was Klonce. He had followed us out of the room. "Hey, Warrior Princess, if you and your friend are really looking for jobs I might have a couple of openings for camp drudges available."
"I was right, Klonce," Xena growled, "you are an idiot."
Unbelievably, he strode over to us and arrogantly drew himself up to his full height. "I don't know what your motive for coming here really was but I don't like the idea of some pushy woman comin' in here trying to take my job. Now get your asses out of here before I call the guards and have you thrown out."
Quicker than a cobra Xena's hand shot out and caught Klonce by his own hand. "You know," she snarled, "your peevishness is beginning to irritate me. And when I become irritated people tend to get..." Here she clamped down tighter on his hand, "...hurt!"
"Arrrgggghhhh!" The general feebly tried to extricate himself from her crushing grasp but it was useless.
As she ever so slowly tightened her grip I could plainly hear the popping of the joints in his hand. "Now, I don't mind being called names," said Xena. "But I won't have you insulting Gabrielle. You will apologize to her." By now the excruciating pain had forced Klonce to his knees. "Say I apologize, Gabrielle, for being such a crude, imbecilic bastard."
When Klonce did not comply Xena jerked his hand up to her face. "Say it!" she commanded through gritted teeth. "Or so help me I'll turn your hand to mush."
"Gabrielle," she prompted.
"...Gabrielle, for being such a crude..."
My warrioress looked over to me. "Is that acceptable, Gabrielle?"
I quickly nodded that it was. Even now these unpredictable displays of temper by her unnerved me. Xena released her grip and Klonce's numb arm fell to his side like so much dead wood.
"There now, that's better," said Xena blithely.
We continued on down the hall leaving the still kneeling Klonce moaning in agony. "Did you have to do that?" I asked.
"Surly bastard," Xena muttered under her breath. It was clear she was miffed by Aurilius' rejection. I think this was something she had not counted on.
"What do we do now?"
For once my warrior did not have an answer. "I don't know. I'll have to think on it."
"What about Hercules?"
"The last I heard he was still in Egypt," said Xena. "He'd never get here in time to be a factor."
However as one might expect, her indecisiveness did not last long. Like the true genius she was she had hit upon a backup plan by the time we stepped outside and bounced down the huge castle steps.
"Gabrielle," she said, "go down to the market and pick up some food for us. We're going to Mymalar."
"Darinius?" I asked.
"Do you think he's in a position to help?"
Xena mounted her horse and looked down at me. "There's one way to find out."
The valley of Mymalar lies in Achaea near the Padasaean Gulf. It is one of the most beautiful places in all of Greece. Green fertile fields and bountiful orchards abound in this peaceful, serene land. But it had not always been so. Many times in the past it had been ravaged by warlords and bandits, its crops stolen and its citizens murdered. But that had all changed when the people there had at last had enough and decided to form an army for defense. The people banded together and sent their best young men to Sparta to learn the art of war. When the survivors came back they became the backbone of one of the toughest armies in all the world. Though always outnumbered, they time and time again defeated those foolhardy enough to invade their precious valley. On a couple of occasions the invader had been Xena.
There were many reasons for their success, courageous, well-trained soldiers, the inherent ferocity of the people, and an indefatigable even fanatical commitment to the defense of their homeland to name just a few. But without a doubt the chief reason for their army's daunting reputation was Darinius. An orphan, raised by a an old man who lived alone in the nearby mountains, Darinius had been one of the young men that had volunteered to go to Sparta. There he had shown amazing aptitude for the military. Upon his return to his homeland he had within a very short time assumed command of the valley's infant army. In battle after battle Darinius made such skillful use of his tough, resilient men now armed with the very latest weaponry that they consistently routed forces much larger than their own. Within two years word had spread throughout Greece that Mymalar was not a place that could be tread upon anymore.
Naturally upon hearing this Xena became determined to sack the place. Her first confrontation with Darinius ended in an ignominious defeat. At the time she was still somewhat inexperienced and facing an army that had just as much battle hardened savvy as hers was something new to her. But she licked her wounds and bided her time, waiting for the day she could strike again at the man she now loathed. Five long years she waited until finally, she thought she was ready. In what is now called the Battle of the Demon's Spine her huge army slammed into Darinius' tough little nut just before dusk. Most experts now agree that this was the most horrific night battle in history. Realizing he did not have a force big enough to meet Xena on open ground, Darinius had cleverly bided his time and waited for her on the ground of his own choosing. He knew his only hope was to turn Xena's ferocious aggressiveness against her.
Finding Darinius' army deployed along a string of low hills, Xena's men attacked and at once fell prey to a series of deadly traps. Dozens of pits filled with sharpened stakes, murderous showers of deadly accurate arrows, oil soaked logs set afire and rolled down upon them, these were just a few of the harrowing obstacles her men were forced to contend with as they stumbled their way up the long, sloping hills.
All night long the battle raged. Swords glinting in the flickering light of burning logs and burning men clashed all up and down the battle line. Five times Xena's forces savagely assaulted the enemy and were repelled only to regroup and attack again. Try as they might, however, they could not dislodge Darinius' men from those hills. With each repulse Xena took her mounting frustration out on those unfortunate enough to cross her path. It was later said she personally slew over fifty men that awful night. All night long she relentlessly searched for Darinius but never found him. Only through later conversations with him did she learn the two of them had been within mere paces of each other on several occasions that bloody night.
Although it makes me shudder I have often wondered about might have happened had they met that night. Surely one of them would have died. At the time they were both in the prime of their lives each possessing what could only be described as awesome combat skills. They had met in battle some five years but at that time neither of them was then the consummate warrior they were later to become. In the years since I have spoken to several who knew them both at this time and the general consensus was this: while everyone considered Xena to be the superior swordsman and also better at hand to hand combat, they thought Darinius unequaled with the bow. The one thing they, to a man, all stressed was that he could never, ever be underestimated for that was the very moment he would jump up and bite your ass off. His resourcefulness was legendary.
I never asked Xena about it for I was sure she would have been confident of her ability to beat him. However after I had known him several years I finally worked up the nerve to ask Darinius who he thought the victor would have been. He never did give me a straight answer but the look in his eye told me all I needed to know. I guess self-confidence was not a trait exclusive to Xena. I know one thing, he certainly did not fear her.
By morning it was over. Xena's army had been like a raging tide surging ever higher up against the rocks on shore. In the end it had lapped at the edges of the crest but had never able to wash over the top. It was said one could step from one end of the battlefield to the other on the bodies of the dead and never touch the ground. Much has been written of this epic struggle between these two giants of modern warfare. I have heard men ranging in rank from common soldier to king speak in awe of the magnitude of the ferocity with which this battle was fought. Professional soldiers have picked apart every detail of the battle ultimately holding up The Demon's Spine up as the quintessential model for defensive warfare.
I'm sure all the lectures these great generals give on this battle are interesting but as for myself there was nothing like having the two principals quietly discuss it while sharing the same supper over a campfire on a remarkable night some forty years ago. Both were in their forties by then and while they were still as formidable as ever they had finally begun to make a few concessions to the passage of time. Already Xena was beginning to suffer sporadic bouts of the rheumatism that would so plague her in her later years. Darinius had by now developed an acute case of tinnitus that would aggravate him for the rest of his life. Sitting there listening to them discuss the battle I was amazed by the lack of emotion exhibited by both of them. It was almost as if they were talking about someone else. It was a towering monument to their friendship that they could relive such an obviously painful moments from their past face to face without letting the old enmity once again resurface. The subject had arisen quite innocently that night but once out in the open, they had talked about it for hours. The thing I remember most was Darinius' startling revelation that if Xena had hit his army two hours sooner he would not have been able to stop her. He told Xena he had expected her to fall upon him at any moment and often wondered why she had not attacked sooner. And so after twenty years, he finally learned the reason why. It seems the previous night's heavy rains had made the roads very muddy. The inevitable result of this was a delay in the advance of Xena's main body thereby enabling him to put that precious extra time to use fortifying the hills. Such is the capricious way the Fates play with destiny.
I think this grim conversation was something of a release for
both of them--a final letting go. After this remarkable night I never heard
either them mention The Demon's Spine again.
Two days later found us on a windy hill overlooking the beautiful valley.
Xena stood up in the stirrups and shaded her eyes. Scanning the scenic panorama below us, she said, "Well there it is."
"Xena," I asked, "what are you going to do if he refuses to help."
Lowering herself back down into the saddle, she said, "He won't refuse."
It took another hour of carefully picking our way down the narrow path before we were down on the valley floor. Unlike the first time I was here there were no sentries manning outposts along the frontier anymore. The valley's many years of peace had caused the local populace to be much less suspicious of strangers now. I can still vividly remember Xena's violent confrontation with that snotty sentry the first time I came here with her.
As we rode up the orchard-lined lane that led to our friend's great house I felt a sense of apprehension wash over me. Would this massive invasion by Melchus turn out to be the instrument of that which I feared most--Xena's destruction? I did not need for her to tell me how very grave the situation was. I had only to look at her grim visage to realize what was at stake here.
Soon the trees parted and there, looming before us, was the home of our old friend. As always the place was immaculate with its neatly trimmed landscape and its freshly scrubbed facade. We rode into the circular courtyard and, after dismounting, tied our horses to the hitching post that stood beside the wondrous fountain. I always marveled at how the thing worked and usually I never tired of looking at it. Today, however, there was no time for such whimsicality.
After securing the horses we started toward the house. We were about halfway across the courtyard when off to our left we heard a familiar voice. "I didn't expect you so soon." It was Darinius.
He was coming up the path that ran from the house out to the barn. "I kind of figured you already knew," said Xena.
"Just that Melchus is sweeping down the western seaboard," he said. Here he reached us and, as always, he extended his hand. Contrary to the general custom of the day he did not employ the arm clasped in arm greeting. Rather, he preferred the unusual method of shaking the person's hand. As they shook hands Xena, employing her exceptional powers of observation, noted the numerous scratches on the back of Darinius' hand.
"What happened to you?" she asked.
With a sheepish grin he said, "I was coming down off the mountain this morning and, graceful warrior that I am, tripped and fell into a damn briar patch."
The mountain Darinius spoke of was a place he often frequented. His beloved Lycidia was buried on it and he liked to go up there and just spend time alone thinking. One of his farm hands once told me Darinius would sometimes go up there for two, three days at a stretch.
"So just where is he now?" Darinius asked, after our greetings were exchanged.
"Last word was he had taken Anactorion," said Xena. "I'd say in a day or two he'll be ready to move again."
"Sounds about right," Darinius agreed. "He will want to maintain his army's momentum." He turned to me and with that devilish grin of his said, "Damn, Gabrielle, you're lookin' mighty good these days."
"Why thank you," I replied, blushing slightly. That was the thing about Darinius. He never beat around the bush. If he liked you, you would know it. If he didn't...well you would know that too. Needless to say he liked us--a lot. He always left me with the wonderful sense that he cared deeply about my welfare. In a way he was much like that big brother I never had, always nagging at me about one thing or another--not in a mean or spiteful way of course but merely out of an intense desire to see me grow as a person. And Xena, damn her, would take his side every bleeping time. I think she took a sort of perverse delight in watching me squirm under his grillings.
As close as I was to him though, it was nothing like the bond he and Xena had. I have never seen two people more in tune with one another. When they spoke it was always direct and to the point, never any "bullshit" as Darinius liked to call it. And on those occasions when one of them thought the other was wrong they never hesitated to say so. But above all was the deep sense of respect they had for one another. Both of them had been survived the hellish fires of battle and had emerged even stronger for it. Some years ago this unseen bond had been augmented by a solemn oath between the two that they would never raise their hands in anger against each other again.
Again addressing Xena, he said, "You think he's coming this way?"
"I believe so," said Xena, nodding.
"I do too," said Darinius.
"I went to Aurilius," said Xena. "I offered to help."
"No dice huh?"
"No," she replied. "I don't think they trusted me." She swept her hair back and said, "They think they can stop ten legions out on open ground."
"I would have thought they would want to try to lure Melchus into those marshes," said Darinius absently. This was but another example of how much he and Xena thought alike.
"I told them as much," said Xena.
Darinius shook his head in sad disbelief. "Stupid bastards. Especially that Klonce."
Finally Xena got to the heart of the matter. "Darinius, what kind of preparations are you making here?"
He gave her that little half smile of his and, to our astonishment, said, "None."
My friend squinted hard at him. "What do mean, 'none?' Haven't you mobilized your militia yet? I'm telling you..."
Darinius smiled pleasantly and held his hand up. "Our army is being formed as we speak."
She eyed him curiously. "I don't understand. You just said you weren't making any preparations."
"I am not making any preparations," he told her.
"Cut the double talk, Darinius," Xena said impatiently. "We don't have time for games."
"Xena, the army is not my responsibility anymore. I'm not in command," he said.
"You're kidding," Xena said incredulously.
"Nope. I relinquished overall command about two months ago."
It fell to me to ask the inevitable "why?"
"Well I just thought it was time," he explained. "I'm not getting any younger you know. Besides, Marcus is more than qualified to take my place."
Xena absentmindedly scratched the back of her neck. "Marcus?"
"Yeah. You remember him. He was that lieutenant of mine who lost his eye in our battle against Paulus at Thessaloniki."
"Oh yeah, I remember him," I said. "Nice guy."
"And a damn good soldier too," added Darinius.
"You remember him don't you, Xena?" I asked.
"I prefer not to think about that period," she replied bluntly. Five years later this turbulent time in our lives was still something of a sore spot for her.
Perceptive fellow that he was, Darinius instantly recognized the awkwardness of the moment. He cleared his throat delicately and said, "Say, I'll bet you two guys are hungry after your long trip. Let's go inside and see what we can dig up."
"Sounds good to me," I said, trying not to sound too enthusiastic. Darinius never was one to set a skimpy table.
Xena's face hinted of annoyance but she knew it was no use. He could be just as stubborn as she was. "Darinius, we really need to talk about this," she said calmly.
"I know, I know," he replied. "But let's get you guys fed and rested up a little first huh? Then we'll talk."
Later, after a fine meal of mutton, flatbread, dried figs, and lentils we walked out back and Darinius and I sat down on the garden bench. Xena, as businesslike as ever, chose to stand. It being early spring nothing much was up yet in the garden but it was still a beautiful place. In the summer when all the various types flowers were in full bloom the place was a spectacular sight to see. And every plant, every flower, every bush had been planted by Darinius himself. For a tough hard-nosed guy like him to be interested in such things as flowers was just another of the many contradictions that surrounded the man.
"Okay, Xena," he said, popping the last of the dried figs into his mouth, "what do you propose to do about this Melchus?"
Xena folded her arms and leaned against the gate post. "That depends on you," she said.
"Me? What do you mean?"
"Is the army going to be sent out to face Melchus?" asked Xena.
"I don't know," he replied. "That's for the council to decide." He then looked out toward the mountains to the south and added, "I hope not. Our army is even smaller than Aetolia's. We only have eight battalions or as you would put it, two legions. If they ask my opinion I'll recommend we fall back to the hills and--"
For a moment I wondered why he had stopped so abruptly in mid-sentence and then I realized this was what the same tactic he had employed against Xena so long ago.
Xena shook her head slowly and said, "It won't work, Darinius. Not this time. I've seen their columns and they're pulling heavy catapults. If you hole up on those hills they can just sit back and pound your ass at their leisure all day long."
"You're right," he admitted. He shrugged and said, "Well, it's up to Marcus to dictate strategy now anyway. He's the one in command."
"Come on," Xena snorted, "considering the situation you're surely not going to let a man that young lead the army now."
"He's twenty-eight years old now, Xena," said Darinius. "That makes him a full five years older than I was the first time I faced you."
Xena locked her blue eyes upon him and in a quiet voice said, "With all due respect to your friend Marcus, he is not you."
Darinius stood up and walked over to where she was standing at the gate. "I can understand your concern and I do appreciate your favorable opinion of me but, damn it, he has been duly named by the council to succeed me and that's it."
Xena was still not satisfied. "When you and Marmax put that coalition together to fight Paulus you weren't officially in command of the army then either, were you?"
"Noo," he answered cautiously. "But--"
"So there might be a chance that, considering the imminent peril, they might reinstate you?"
"Welll, I suppose so," he replied. "But I doubt if that will happen."
"Then just what the Tartarus do you propose to do?" she demanded. "Lamely sit on you ass in this garden while somebody else leads your men off to war?" It was a deliberate attempt on her part to provoke him. She was hoping a good swift kick in the pride might persuade him to change his mind.
Darinius however, refused to take the bait. He knew her too well. "Xena, he said, "let it go. It's his time. To answer your question I do plan on going along."
"As what?" Xena sneered. "One of those so-called dog faces as your foot soldiers like to call themselves?" I could tell she was becoming very disturbed over his attitude.
"If that's how they feel I can best serve, yes." he replied evenly. "Xena, this is not an autocracy. Here the people decide and you can't just respect the will of the people when it's convenient for you. It has to be done all the time."
"Come with us," she urged suddenly. "Surely the kingdoms farther south have gotten wind of what's up by now. We'll go down there help them get organized."
Darinius smiled warmly at her and put his hand on her shoulder. "You don't really expect me to do that, do you?"
"Xena," he said, "we could really use you here. Why don't we go talk to Marcus? I know he would be more than happy to have you working with him."
My warrior looked at her friend with painful disappointment. "I'll think about it," she murmured. But in my heart I knew her mind was already made up. As far as she was concerned the valley was already lost. All that was left now was for her to decide what her--our--next move would be.
As if reading her mind, Darinius said, "You know, somebody once said lost causes were the only ones worth fighting for."
"Yes," she replied, "but there's a difference between fighting for a lost cause and being just plain stupid."
He shot her an amused glance and said, "Well be that as it may, that's how it has to be because I won't try to usurp Marcus' authority."
Now it was Xena's turn to look toward the mountains. "I always did like this place," she said. Having spoken her mind, she knew there was nothing more to be said about the subject.
"I tell you what, the council will be meeting tomorrow night to decide what our course of action will be. Do me a favor and come. The least you can do is listen." He raised his eyebrows and then said, "Please?"
This was not a word Darinius used very often. Xena, however, was not moved. All she said was, "We'll see."
Darinius seemed to be satisfied with that because he too then changed the subject. For the rest of that melancholy day we said little. Although neither of them gave any indication of it I'm sure both of their minds were on the great events taking place to the west. As for me all I could think of was how frustrating all of this was. Why was Darinius being so stubborn? Did he really believe in his system of government that much or was it because, gods forbid, he had somehow lost his nerve? Finally, late that evening, Xena decided we would stay until tomorrow and hear what the council had to say. At this point there really wasn't much else to do. Later, in the early hours of the morning, all that would suddenly change and Xena's mind would be made up for her.
Darinius awoke to the sound of frantic knocking upon his front door. A notoriously light sleeper, he bounded out of his cot and made his way to the door. Whenever Xena and I visited he always gave us his room upstairs while he took a cot off the kitchen. Upon opening the door he found a slumping figure silhouetted against the moonlight.
"Is this the house of Darinius?" the dark figure asked.
"Yeah. Who are you?"
"My name is Lassus," the figure replied breathlessly. "I've been sent by Aurilius to find the one called Xena. Is she here?"
"I'm here," Xena answered from the stairs. She too had heard the rapping on the door. She had tried to rise without waking me but without success. I was on the top step when I heard Lassus ask for her.
"Xena, Aurilius sent me to find you," the messenger gasped. "I've...I've been riding..." That was as far as he got because here he collapsed to the floor.
"Gabrielle, get some water," said Xena.
"Right." So while Xena and Darinius carried him to the divan I stumbled off to the kitchen to fetch the water.
Five minutes later the poor fellow was sitting up quaffing down the water I had brought. "Thank you," he said to me. "I haven't had water in over a day."
"You said Aurilius sent you," said Xena. "Why? What has happened?"
"A debacle," he moaned. "A debacle."
Lassus took another drink of water before continuing. "Our army was sent forth to meet Melchus on the plain. It was madness, madness! The enemy's numbers were like locusts. They attacked and split our center like it was rotten wood."
"What about Klonce?" Xena asked.
"Killed," sniffed Lassus. "They drove us back and tried to encircle us but we managed to retreat into the marshes and bog down their advance. For the present they seem to be content to sit back and let us bleed for awhile. How much longer...I don't know."
Because Xena had tried to convince Klonce and Aurilius to try to do that very thing to Melchus I'm sure she saw the irony in that. However there was no "I told you so." Instead she knelt down next to the distraught man. "Do you have any idea what Aurilius wants with me?"
"I believe he, he wants you to take command, Xena. He wants you to lead our army."
And there it was. I heard someone give out a slight gasp and only afterward did I realize it was me.
Darinius stood up and started for the door. "Where are you going?" Xena asked him.
"To saddle your horse," he replied quietly. "If you push hard you can be there by nightfall."
"Then, then you'll do it?" Lassus asked anxiously. "You will go to Aetolia?"
I already knew the answer. Xena stood up and looked down at him. "Yes." She then turned to me and said, "Okay, Gabrielle, remember what I told you about following orders? Well here's where it starts. I'm going to have to travel hard and fast and there is no way that little horse of yours will be able to keep up."
"I understand," I replied dejectedly.
"Don't look so blue," she said gently. "I'll expect you to catch up as soon as possible."
"Do you think you can do it? Help them I mean."
"Who knows? If I can get there quickly enough and the Aetolians haven't done anything else stupid..." she replied, her voice trailing off. Hearing this, I could not help but wonder if she did not, despite her tremendous self-confidence, have serious doubts about whether or not she could turn this around.
Presently Darinius' shadowy outline filled the doorway. "Your horse is ready," he said to Xena.
She quickly strode over to him and took him by the arm. She led him out onto the portico and said, "Darinius, I'm going to do everything I can to slow Melchus down but it's imperative your men join with us if we are to have any hope of actually defeating him."
"I have to tell you, Xena, relations between our valley and Aetolia are not the best right now. In fact I have grave doubts about whether the council will agree to send any assistance to them at all," said Darinius.
"Then it's up to you to convince them otherwise," she said forcefully. "Otherwise we're all dead."
I saw him nod gravely and he said, "I'll do my best."
"I know you will," she said.
Darinius stepped past her and through the doorway. "I'll get some food for you to take with you."
Once he departed I moved to her side and slipped an arm around her waist. "Xena, please be careful," I pleaded. "Don't try to whip them all by yourself okay?"
"Oh, Gabrielle, she whispered huskily, "I miss you already." She took me into her strong, loving arms and hugged me very tightly. I laid my cheek upon her warm breast and there a tear...or two...or ten...of mine gently fell down upon those lovely mounds. Feeling this, she cupped her hand around the back of my head and kissed me on top. "Don't worry," she cooed, "I'll be all right."
"I, I can't help it," I stammered. "Xena, the day I stop worrying about you is the day I stop drawing breath. I love you, damn it."
She lifted my chin with the crook of her finger. Her voice incredibly tender she said, "My precious Gabrielle, you are my life, my one true love. She then leaned over for what I thought would be a nice little kiss but to my surprise she pulled me tightly to her and gave me one of those long, passionate, crotch-tingling kisses she usually reserved for when we were totally alone. It was as if her tongue and mine were making love all on their own. Gods! Could that woman kiss! We knew there others near--maybe even watching--but we didn't care. The time for hiding our feelings for each other was long gone. I loved this woman more than my own life and I didn't give a damn who knew it.
Finally our lips parted but not before hers delicately lingered for a moment upon mine, culminating with her very gently taking my upper lip and sensually pulling at it with her own two lips. She knew how much I liked that. A final flick of that marvelous tongue across my lips and it was over.
Leaning back, she smiled at me and said, "That ought to tide you over until we see each other again."
"Maybe," I said, "but I doubt it."
Devil that she was, Xena held up her middle finger and said, "Well you've always got this."
"Gods, Xena," I gasped. "You're awful."
"Okayyy I've got some beef strips, some raisins, and the last of that flatbread," a voice said. It was Darinius.
Xena's eyelids narrowed and she cocked her head to one side. "How long have you been standing there?" she growled.
"Long enough," came the laconic reply. Few if any understood the feelings Xena and I had for each other better than he did. In fact he had recognized what was there long before we became lovers.
"It's not very polite for a host to spy on his guests you know," said Xena. But in truth she was not angry.
"I didn't want to break up such a tender moment," he said. He didn't say it snidely or in a condescending manner but rather sincerely and earnestly. He handed her the bag of food. "You better get going," he said.
Taking the bag from him, Xena turned back to me and said, "I'm going to do whatever it takes to stabilize the situation there. I may have to kick a few asses to do that, Gabrielle, so don't panic, okay?"
"I won't," I told her. I touched her arm and said, "Xena, you do whatever you have to do."
She smiled faintly and turned to Darinius. "How long will it take your guys to mobilize?" she asked.
"Two days at the earliest," he replied.
"Make it one," she said. "I expect your butt to be marching westward on the second day," she said. "With a little luck that should put you in Aetolia by the fourth day."
"Yes, ma'am," said Darinius, a hint of amusement on his face. "That is...if the council approves the move."
"They'd better," she allowed. I don't think any of us, least of all Darinius, believed for one minute the council would go against his recommendation. I mean, after all, the guy was like a living monument to these people. But then again, one never knew.
Xena stepped to the door. "Lassus!" she called out.
The messenger jumped to his feet and came the door. "Yes, ma'am?" This was how quickly he had come to accept Xena as his new commander. I remembered Darinius had also called her "ma'am." I wondered...did that mean....?
"Lassus, I want you to stay with Gabrielle," said Xena. "On your life your job will be to see she safely makes it to Aetolia, understand?"
"Yes, Xena, I understand perfectly."
"Good. Then don't fail me."
I started to protest, "But Xena, I don't need--"
"Remember your promise now, Gabrielle," she reminded me.
"Oh all right," I huffed.
"Wait long enough to see what Darinius' people are going to do," she told Lassus. "If they agree to help you two come along with them."
She stepped off the portico and untied her horse. As she swung herself up into the saddle I could feel the sadness descending on me like a dark shroud. As she had remarked to me before I too, missed her already.
Darinius moved along side her horse and put his hand in the bridle. "Xena," he said, "whether the vote is yes or no I'll send a messenger ahead to let you know."
"All right," she said. She took the horse's reins in her hands and he again tugged on the bridle.
"I just want you to know," he said grimly, "that if the vote is no I'll be there anyway. So save a place for me."
"What changed your mind?" asked Xena, clearly touched by his gesture of loyalty.
In the light of the early dawn he smiled broadly at her and said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's always been my secret fantasy to fall under the command of a beautiful woman."
"Yeah right," Xena scoffed good naturedly. But in reality his lame jest had told her all she needed to know. He would be there because of his feelings for her, for us. He was coming because he was our friend and she needed him and in the end he could not--would not--let her down.
She turned her horse and I rushed to her side. "Oh, Xena," I said sadly.
"Heyyy," she cooed gently, bending down and wrapping an arm around my shoulders, "it's going to be okay. You just be strong, you hear."
I backed away and futilely tried to blink the tears back. "I will," I said.
My warrior winked at me and dug her heels into her horse's flanks. "Hyahhhh!" And she was gone.
We stood there watching her until she was no longer visible in the early morning fog. After she disappeared the three of us stood there looking down the mist shrouded lane for a time each, I suppose, wondering what the coming days would bring.
Finally Darinius cleared his throat and said, "Well, that's that. What do you two say we round up some breakfast? Lassus, do you like salt bacon and eggs?" Even now, as bad as things looked, it was just not in the guy's nature to allow those around him to lose heart.
"Sure," the messenger answered eagerly.
"Good," said Darinius. "Okay, you two are hereby temporarily transferred from the Army of Aetolia to the Army of Mymalar. Captain Gabrielle?"
"Yes, sir!" I replied snappily. Hey, at least I wasn't a private.
"You and Lassus gather up the eggs and I'll get the bacon started. We might as well let the cook sleep in this morning."
"Xena!" the king exclaimed with a sigh of relief. "Thank the gods you've come. You know, of course, why I have sent for you."
He extended his arm but she ignored it and made straight for the map table. "Save the pleasantries for some other time," she replied curtly as she leaned over to look at the map. "Just fill me in on the situation."
"Well, ah...it's ah..." King Aurilius hung his head dejectedly and said, "It's bad, Xena. It's very bad."
"I know that," she told him brusquely, "otherwise I would not be here...now would I?"
"How dare you speak to me in such a disrespectful manner," Aurilius cried.
"You lost any respect I had for you when you allowed those men to go out there and get chopped up like chicken liver," Xena said. "You let your damn foolish pride get in the way of common sense."
"All right!" Aurilius exclaimed. "What do you want me to say? That we should have listened to you? That you were right and we were wrong? That we should have enlisted your aid? All right then, we should have! We should have!
Xena slowly straightened up from the map table and fixed her deep cerulean eyes on the shaken monarch. "Aurilius, these paroxysms of yours are not going to solve anything." With blinding speed she lashed out and grabbed him roughly by his tunic. "You're a king, damn it! Pull yourself together and try to act like one."
"Xena, you have got to help us. You are the only one that can defeat Melchus now."
She released him and with as much dignity as he could muster Aurilius, son of Phileon--King of Aetolia slowly straightened his rumpled tunic and joined the warrioress at the map table. "At this moment were are positioned here," he said, pointing to a spot on the map. The First and Second Legions are ensconced along this long hedgerow. The Third Legion, or what's left of it, is here...desperately trying to block this causeway into the marsh. The other two are being held in reserve."
Xena nodded thoughtfully and said, "Not bad. Who made these placements?"
"I believe it was a Captain Selares," came the reply.
"Captain Selares?" inquired Xena. "You mean to tell me all your general officers are dead?"
"Dead...or dying," the king answered. "Klonce was killed when his horse threw him. The fall broke his neck."
Xena said later she remembered wondering if she was ever going to get a break. She thought for a moment and then snatched the map up off the table.
Aurilius watched in dismay as she folded it up. "What are you doing?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm going to personally inspect all the commands," she said. "I've got to find out for myself which officers can cut it and which ones can't."
"But...how will you know?"
She curled her lip slightly and bored her eyes into his. "I'll know," she said darkly. "Believe me, I'll know." Pausing at the door she asked "You coming?"
"No," he replied reluctantly.
With a contemptuous scowl Xena re-entered the room and stood face to face with the apprehensive king. "What kind of man are you?" she quietly demanded. "What kind of man would hide away in a fortified castle while his loyal men are out fighting and dying on the battlefield?"
"I'm no soldier!" he cried out. "I told you that before."
"Gods be damned, Aurilius!" she roared, "You don't have to be a soldier. That's why I'm here, remember? I'll handle the son of a bitchin' war but you ought to at least go out and show yourself among your men . Who knows?" she sneered. "You might even inspire some of the poor bastards."
"I, I...can't, Xena," Aurilius, the king bleated. "I just can't."
With eyes as cold as the mountain snow Xena glared at him. "I feel sorry for you. I knew your brother Diomedes at Troy and he would be turning over in his grave to see you act this way."
"Diomedes is not here now," Aurilius rasped. "I am the king remember?"
"You are about as much of a king as my ass is," Xena shot back. She moved in close, menacingly towering over him, "Look you little worm," she growled, "just so we understand each other. From now on I'm in complete command here, understand?" She poked a long finger against his chest and went on. "Everybody, including you--especially you, will obey me without question or so help me I'll walk right outta here and leave you bastards to wallow in your own blood. If it wasn't for the honored memory of your father I would anyway." She noted the look of terror in his eyes and disdainfully shook her head. "No, Aurilius, it's not what you think. I don't want your pissy-assed little kingdom any more than I want a case of the crabs. I'll fight your damn war but not for you, sure as Hades not for you. I'm going to do it for the good folk that live here and because I honor your father's memory. If I do happen to save your sorry ass your throne will be safe from me." She placed the back of her hand on his chest and pointedly pushed him aside. "Just stay out of my way."
Once again she moved to the door and once again she paused. "Oh by the way, within four days I'm expecting Darinius to arrive here with two more legions. With some luck maybe we can hold out that long." To Xena it was a given that, despite his unpretentious insistence to the contrary, Darinius would in the end be called upon to lead the small, but ferocious Army of Mymalar.
"But...we and Mymalar are on quite unfriendly terms," Aurilius choked out. "How did you convince them to fight for us?"
"Oh but you misunderstand," Xena harshly corrected him. "You see, they won't be fighting for you. They'll be fighting for me."
"This meeting of the Council of Mymalar will come to order. We recognize the esteemed Darinius."
My friend stood up and faced the council. "I thank my old friend Altus," he said. As was his habit when speaking in public he put his hands together behind his back. Knowing how much depended on what he said here he started slowly, carefully choosing his words. "This august body," he began, "together with our friends and neighbors from here in the valley, are here tonight to decide how we can best face the grave threat now posed to us."
He stepped away from his seat and walked out in front of the members of the council. There he could be more easily seen by everyone in the packed meeting house. Normally those who were not recognized inhabitants (Recognized male inhabitants I might add.) of the valley were not permitted to attend these sessions but the burly guard at the entrance to the hall had not even blinked when I entered. Of course my being under the personal escort of Mymalar's leading citizen had not hurt my chances any.
"Whether or not we shall fight is, of course, not open to discussion here," said Darinius. "Those brave souls who have fought and died over the last twenty years to protect this valley's way of life will expect nothing less from us. What is open to discussion, however, is just how we will prosecute this war; specifically, will our posture be an offensive or defensive one."
"Defensive, as always," one of the council members cried out. "We don't have the resources either in manpower or armaments to conduct offensive operations against a force of that size."
"The honorable Basinion, as always, speaks the truth," said Darinius. "Indeed we can't hope to match them man for man."
"Then what is there to debate?" asked another. "Surely we must follow the time honored strategy of luring the attacking force onto battlefields of our choosing."
"Perhaps our good friend Perillis doesn't realize just how large this army of Melchus' is," said Darinius smoothly. "I have it from an unimpeachable source that his ranks number at least fifty thousand men."
I heard the crowd heave out a collective gasp. All around me I heard the murmuring of the incredible number, "Fifty thousand?"
"And just who is the 'unimpeachable source' that gave you these...direful numbers," Perillis asked suspiciously.
Uuh boy, I thought, here it comes. Like so many places throughout this end of the Mediterranean, Mymalar had supplied more than her fair share of sons to the ruthless meat grinder that had been Xena's army. And on one or two of our previous trips through Mymalar on our way to visit Darinius Xena and I had witnessed first hand the hatred some of these people still felt for her. She knew there was no point in expressing remorse for what she had done and she certainly was not about to try to justify her actions. As long as they posed no physical threat she usually just stoically went about her business. Darinius too, for all his acclaim, took a good measure of heat for his friendship with the Warrior Princess.
Darinius took a deep breath and said the word he figured for sure would create a firestorm of controversy. "Xena."
I heard some buzzing in the crowd behind me but the commotion was surprisingly muted. I later concluded it was because that there were many in the hall, particularly among the younger ones, that had probably never heard of her. After all, it had been over ten years since Xena's juggernaut had last stormed up the valley. But the council members remembered.
"Xena?" exclaimed Perillis. "Darinius, don't tell me you believe that monster!"
"If I've told you once I've told you a hundred times, Perillis, she's not like that anymore," Darinius said with a heavy sigh.
"Well tell that to the mothers and wives of all those boys who died stopping her," said yet another member of the council.
For just a moment I saw the barest hint of anger flicker across Darinius' face. "Melton, I don't need you to remind me of the hallowed sacrifices made by our young men. I was there, remember? Almost everyone here has lost a loved one in battle against one warlord or another. Remember how Xerthus of Euboea tried to conquer us by starving us out? How many died then, Melton? And yet I know you and several others have since traveled to that island in the hope that we might establish trade with them. I never heard any indignant cries of protest about that." My friend discreetly licked his lips and delivered the knockout punch. "Could this apparent inconsistency of hatred on our good friend's part be due to the fact that there is no personal profit to be gained from a friendship with Xena; whereas there is with Xerthus?"
Melton's face turned as red as the tunic he was wearing and he jumped to his feet. "By the gods," he shouted, "I don't have to take this abuse from anybody, not even you, Darinius!"
"Sit down, Melton," said Altus vapidly. "Nobody is accusing anyone of anything." He turned and looked directly at Darinius. "Are they?"
"Of course not," Darinius answered suavely. "I was merely pointing out the apparently arbitrary manner in which some people choose whom to hate that's all. If I have offended the honorable Melton, I am sorry."
Funny, from the way Darinius had almost spit out the word "honorable" he did not seem sorry to me at all. Altus clasped his hands together and placed them in front of him on the table. "Let's leave the personal animosity for another time shall we?"
"In your opinion, what should we do, Darinius?" another member asked.
Darinius waited several tense moments before replying. From the pained expression on his face it was clear he felt he was treading on very thin ice. On one hand there was his reluctance to offend Marcus, his hand picked successor; on the other hand was his belief in what he felt was the right thing to do. What would he say? I wondered.
"Well, that question is for this body and through them, Marcus to decide, Lesher," he replied. "As for myself I can only speak now as a concerned citizen would."
Yeah right, I thought. Except for Perillis, Melton, and a handful of people in the crowd, everyone there was bent forward in their seats, hanging on every word the man spoke.
"That may be," said the one called Lesher, "but all here recognize the great weight our friend Darinius' words have."
Darinius responded by nodding politely. "As we speak Melchus' army and that of Aetolia are locked in combat in front of the Pindarian Marshes," he said. "I'm sure there are many here with differing opinions but I personally think it would be in our best interest to send all eight of our battalions to Aetolia and join them in their fight against Melchus."
"I need not remind you that we and Aetolia are not on the best of terms right now," said Altus gravely.
"No one is more aware of the delicacy of that situation than I," said Darinius. "But as the old man that raised me used to say, 'A freezing man cannot be choosy as to whom he jumps into bed with on a cold night.'"
I saw several members of the council give small nods of agreement.
Now, for the first time, Marcus spoke. I had talked to him briefly upon entering the hall and found him to be a little nervous. As a long time friend and protégé of Darinius he too felt the awkwardness of this discussion. "Just for the record, sir..." Though now commander of all the valley's forces he still had difficulty in calling Darinius by his name. "...who would be in overall command of this ah, alliance?"
"An excellent point," said Perillis. "As we all know that Klonce is an absolute idiot."
Darinius scanned the council, his eyes momentarily resting upon each member. "Klonce is dead," he told them.
At this point several of the council members looked at each other in surprise. "Then who is in command now?" asked Atlus. "The king?"
"No, Darinius answered, "but he has wisely sent for the only individual I believe who can salvage the sorry mess they are in."
"You?" asked Melton incredulously.
With a faint smile of amusement on his lips Darinius replied, "Nooo....Xena."
"What is it with you and this harpy anyway?" demanded Melton.
"Melton, for your sake I will ignore that question," replied Darinius ominously.
"Are you saying our army should be placed under her command?" asked Lesher.
"Their army is thrice our size," said Darinius patiently. "It only makes sense for their general to assume overall command."
"Absolutely not!" Perillis exploded.
"Never!" raged Melton.
"I would rather we all perish than allow ourselves to be associated with that...that...harlot!" raged another.
"Now that's a stupid thing to say," chided Darinius. "The primary function of this council is, always has been, and always will be to maintain the security of our homeland. It doesn't take a genius to see there is no way in Tartarus we can fight these northern tribes on our own. We must ally ourselves with any and all forces willing to fight these bastards and that includes the Aetolians."
"But...Xena," the man bleated helplessly. He left off the obvious "Anybody but her" part.
"Darinius, I'll put it to you straight," said Altus solemnly. "Can we trust the woman?"
Darinius lowered his head for a moment before turning to face Altus. "My answer to you would unequivocally be yes but of course I'm biased. Besides you're asking the wrong person. Marcus here is the one who has to make that call." He moved into the aisle where he stopped and again faced the council. "I wish to inform this body that no matter what the vote here tonight--I'm going to Aetolia to fight with Xena."
All eyes turned to the quiet young commander. "Well, how about it, Marcus?" asked Altus. "If we vote to commit our forces to the fight would you be willing to subordinate your command to her."
Please, Marcus, say yes, I silently pleaded. My heart went out him at this moment because although he was clearly a fine soldier he was new to the politics of the job. As he stood there in front of the packed meeting hall he reminded me of the boy who had been caught with his hand the candy jar. I must admit I had the unhappy impression he was overwhelmed by it all.
Finally, after a seemingly interminable amount of time, he haltingly said, "I...can...live...with that."
Thank the gods! I thought happily.
Altus looked out over the crowd and said, "Is there anyone else who wishes to speak on this matter?" To my surprise no one stood up. "Very well, the council will now vote."
Darinius turned and quietly walked out of the hall. I thought about going with him but then I realized his premature exit was probably more for theatrical purposes than anything else. After he was gone Marcus came over and sat down beside me and together we sweated out the voting.
"Do you think it will pass?" I asked him.
"Hard to say," said Marcus. "Melton and Perillis have a lot of influence."
"The clerk will read the measure to be voted on," Altus ordered.
The clerk stood up and cleared his throat. "Measure number sixty-one of this council's term. 'The Army of Mymalar shall proceed as soon as possible to Aetolia and join in the action against the northern tribes.' Councilman Lesher, what say ye?"
"Aye," said Lesher.
"Councilman Melton, what say ye?"
"Councilman Basinion, what say ye?"
"Councilman Theripides, what say ye?"
"Councilman Theripides abstains."
"Chickenshit," Marcus muttered to me.
I quickly did the mental calculations...nine members...one abstention... "What happens if there is a tie?" I whispered to Marcus.
"In case of a tie the measure fails," he answered.
Three for, three against, one abstention... This was not good.
"Councilman Hextus, what say ye?"
And so it came down to Altus. He had seemed sympathetic enough to Darinius but as Xena often told me nothing should ever be assumed.
"Councilman Altus, what say ye?"
"Councilman Altus...says aye."
"The vote is five aye, three nay with one abstention," the clerk announced. "The measure is passed."
To my surprise Marcus instantly leapt to his feet. "Members of the council, at this time I wish to announce my intention to implement General Order Number Three."
As he elaborated I sat there in stunned silence. Once again, events had proved Xena right.
The grizzled captain snapped to attention as his newly appointed Supreme Commander dismounted and approached. "General Xena," he said stiffly, "welcome to Third Legion headquarters."
"You are Captain Selares?" she asked.
"Well, Captain, forget that 'general' stuff. Just call me Xena."
"And while you're at it, lose the 'ma'am' stuff too, okay?"
"Yes...Xena." The captain pulled the tent flap back and respectfully waited for her to enter first.
"Aurilius tells me you are the one responsible for saving the entire army from annihilation," she said.
"Not really," the captain replied modestly. "I think the credit should go more to Melchus than to me. If he had pressed his attack that next day after our center was broken he could have rolled us up like cheap parchment. For some reason though he slowed his advance long enough to give us a chance to effect an orderly retreat and regroup here in these marshes."
"Any thoughts as to why he did that?" she asked. From previous experiences with him Xena knew Melchus was sometimes indecisive when things did not go as he had expected. Maybe he had done it yet again, she thought.
As if reading her mind the captain said, "The only thing I can figure is they didn't expect to break us so easily and therefore were not in a position to exploit their gains."
Xena walked over to a large map positioned on an easel. "What kind of casualties have you suffered?" she asked.
"Well it's kind of sketchy right now but my estimate for this legion is about thirty per cent," said Selares matter-of-factly. "Some companies bearing the brunt of the initial assault were wiped out completely."
Xena nodded grimly and then tilted her head toward the map. "Okay, show me what you've got."
"I don't know how well you know this area, the captain began, "but these marshes cover an area of about ten square leagues. Most of it is too soft or too wet to support movement but as you can see by this map there is a man-made causeway running north-south through it that can."
"I'll bet Melchus wants that real bad," remarked Xena. "What are you doing to defend it?"
"We have erected roadblocks, of course, we've dug pits, set up traps...that sort of thing."
"What about troops?"
"Two heavy companies deployed in depth," the captain answered. "We also have a reconnaissance unit running continuous patrols all along that entire area."
Xena nodded approvingly and said, "Selares, you know your stuff. Good work."
The captain stiffened and said, "Thank you, ma'am...I mean--Xena. Coming from you that means a lot."
"There has been no attempt by Melchus at all to breach your defenses?" she asked.
"Nothing in force," he told her. "Only a probe here and there. Mainly they've been content to bombard us with those catapults."
Xena pushed the tip of her tongue against her cheek in thoughtful silence.
"I understand you have already visited the First and Second Legions," said Selares. "How are those guys doing?"
"The Second Legion is in pretty good shape but the First is a shambles," said his new commander. "They've got men and animals scattered all over the damn place. I've given orders for them to reassemble but it's going to take at least a day to round 'em all up." She smiled thinly at Selares and said, "Cheer up, Captain, the news isn't all bad. I expect reinforcements to arrive in a couple of days."
"From...where?" Selares asked, scratching his head.
"Mymalar," she answered simply.
"Yeah yeah, I know," said Xena, cutting him off. "Those guys and you don't get along too well."
"But how did you swing it?"
Xena, the Warrior Princess, smiled devilishly and said, "Let's just say I have ahh...connections."
"Well we sure can use 'em," the captain observed. "Those guys are bad to the bone."
Tell me about it. thought Xena. Aloud she said, "Okay, for the present I want you to sit tight and lay low. I know it's going to make it crowded but I want you to send another company to reinforce the two you already have up at the roadblock."
"It will be done immediately," Selares assured her.
"If the enemy does try to penetrate in force send for me--day or night," ordered Xena.
"With a break or two we might be able to make these bastards sorry they ever came here."
As Xena turned to leave the captain cleared his throat slightly. "Uhhh, Xena?"
"Some of the men were wondering if the king had named another general yet to take command of the legion?"
"It's not up to the king," said Xena bluntly. "It's up to me."
"Oh, uh, I see."
"You can tell your men that I have already decided upon a new commander for the Third Legion," she said.
"Will he be arriving soon?" Selares asked. "I'd really like to apprise him of our situation as soon as possible."
"Anxious to get back to your own company, Selares?" asked Xena.
"Yeah. To tell you the truth I feel kind out of place here at this big old headquarters. I mean, I'm just a lowly captain."
Xena smiled faintly and said, "Well, ya better get used to it in a hurry, General Selares, because you are the new commander of the Third Legion."
"As Supreme Commander that is your prerogative," said Altus. "And it goes without saying that I approve of your choice whole-heartedly."
Marcus nodded and said, "I would have been an idiot not to do it." He turned to me and said, "Well, Gabrielle, shall we go tell him the news?"
"Do you think he will go for it?" I asked. I had to wonder. In every battle the Army of Mymalar had ever fought he had been the leader and now he was going to be asked to accept a subordinate role.
"He's perfect for the job," Marcus replied, mounting his horse. After I had mounted mine he leaned over and said in a low voice, "And I for one am damn sure not going to try to tell him how to do it."
I had to admit Marcus' solution to his dilemma had been a very neat one indeed. Like everyone else he did not relish the idea of the army going off to war without its greatest soldier. The problem had been finding a niche for him. Marcus was well aware he was neither the tactician nor the inspirational leader his former boss was but for the sake of his own career he knew he just could not hand over the reins of the army to him. Not now. He would be branded as someone unwilling or unable to accept responsibility in times of crisis and for a professional soldier that was the kiss of death. But by invoking an obscure army regulation he now had a chance to kill two birds with one stone--bring Darinius back into the fold and keep his own job.
As we neared we could see the yellow glow of candlelight from the house peeking through the trees. After the vote we had remained to talk to Altus for a few minutes. This had given Darinius ample time to make it home and put up his horse. Soon we were on his portico and Marcus was rapping his knuckles on the big oaken door. I guess he was expecting us because Darinius himself opened the door.
"It passed, right?" he asked.
"Yeah," Marcus answered. "It was closer than expected. In fact the vote came down to Altus but he came through for us."
"Good." He stepped out of the doorway and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. "Come in, guys," he said.
"Ahh, sorry," said Marcus apologetically. "I have to get home. I have a million things to do."
"I guess you do," said Darinius. "Tell that ornery wife of yours I said hello."
The two men grinned at each other for a moment. These soon faded however and Darinius edged closer to the younger man. "Marcus," he said quietly, "you know I have the utmost respect for your ability or else I would not have recommended you to succeed me."
"I know," replied Marcus. "And I appreciate that."
"I just want to say that I will be more than happy to help out in whatever capacity you see fit," said Darinius.
"I'm glad you feel that way," Marcus told him. "You see, I do have a job for you."
"Name it and I'll do it," Darinius said.
Marcus took a deep breath and let go. "Deputy Commander," he said rapidly. "Responsible for overall tactical command of the army and liaison to Xena, I mean the Supreme Command."
Darinius' face turned to stone and he looked Marcus dead in the eye. "G.O. Number Three has never been evoked before," he said. "Are you certain this is what you want?"
"Yes," Marcus assured him. He smiled sheepishly and added, "Hey, I want to win too, you know."
Darinius nodded solemnly and said, "I will do everything in my power to see that we do." He then looked curiously at his new boss and said, "Liaison to the Supreme Command?"
"Yeah uh...well you know I don't...I don't..."
"I know," Darinius said gently. "Don't worry, I'll handle it."
Marcus nodded gratefully and said, "Well, I'd better go pack."
"I'll see you at dawn," said Darinius.
Marcus nodded again and stepped off the portico and out into the night.
I waited until Darinius closed the door behind him before speaking. "Why was he so nervous when you mentioned that bit about the Supreme Command?"
Darinius gave a little smile and said. "Xena, of course. You see, Marcus is ahh...well...a little afraid of her."
"Hmph," I snorted, "what new?" Poor Marcus wasn't the only one to get shaky knees and sweaty palms when faced with the possibility of having to deal with the potential fierceness of the Warrior Princess.
"Xena has been known to make a few sphincters tighten up," mused Darinius.
I thought of my warrioress and as I often did when she was away I wondered what she was doing at this very minute. When we were apart did she think of me as often as I thought of her? Probably not, I admitted. Xena could be so focused at times like these.
My wistfulness must have been showing because Darinius said, "You miss her, don't you?"
"Yeah," I replied softly. "I always do."
"Well, take heart. This time two days from now you'll be with her again," he said.
"She's always with me--no matter where I am," I told him.
I think he felt the conversation was becoming a little too personal because he then strove to change the subject. "We need to inform Xena we're coming," he said. "Gabrielle, would you please take down a note for me?"
"Sure," I said. "Only...why me?"
"She knows your letters," Darinius explained. "In times like this you can't be too careful."
"Oh." That made sense, I thought.
He pointed to a cabinet in the corner. "You'll find writing materials in there," he said.
I retrieved the materials and sat down at the writing desk. "Okay," I announced, "I'm ready."
He grinned mischievously at me and said, "Put this down. The sod busting bastard wishes to inform you that your dog faces have been turned loose."
I wrinkled my nose and looked up at him. "You mean...that's it?"
"That's it, Gabrielle. Write it exactly that way."
"Okay," I said, sighing. I wrote it down and when I was finished he indicated for me to fold it up. I did and then gave it to him.
"Lassus!" he called out. Lassus emerged from the kitchen and joined us. "You ready?" Darinius asked him. Obviously he had been anticipating a favorable vote all along.
"My horse is already saddled but, are you sure Xena won't be angry with at me for leaving Gabrielle here?" he asked nervously. "You heard what she told me."
"Not after you show her this," Darinius said, handing him the note. "So I don't have to tell you to take care of it."
"Believe me, I will," said Lassus.
"Make sure Xena and only Xena reads this," said Darinius. "Tell her we will be on the march by no later than noon tomorrow."
"Right." Lassus tucked the folded up note inside his boot and made for the door. Darinius followed and when they got to the door Lassus turned to him and said, "I would like to express my gratitude to you and your people for agreeing to help us."
"You might want to save your thanks," said Darinius. "We haven't done anything yet."
"All the same, thanks."
Darinius opened the door for him and the two men shook hands. "If I don't see you again good luck to you, boy," said Darinius.
"Good luck to all of us," replied Lassus. He smiled briefly and me and said, "Good-bye, Gabrielle." With that he was gone.
Darinius lingered at the door and watched him make his way to the stable. I joined him there and soon we heard the hoof beats of Lassus' horse as it trotted down the long lane leading to the main road.
"The moon is up now," Darinius observed. "That will be a big help to him."
"Darinius, can I ask you something?"
"Why did you word that note so oddly?" I asked.
"Well, you know how Xena is," he explained. "If Lassus was to suddenly show up there without you the chances are good she might not believe his story after all. As you know this could have an extremely adverse effect on the boy's health; especially since she's probably locked in that warrior mode of hers by now. So you see the note was more for his protection than anything else. 'Sod busting bastard' is what she used to call me in the old days. Combine that with her obvious familiarity with your lettering and she will undoubtedly reach the conclusion that the boy is telling the truth. That note is like a voucher from you and me."
Gosh, I thought, the guy never misses a trick!
We stepped back in the house and Darinius closed the door behind us. "I guess I had better start getting my things together," he said.
"Do you need any help?" I asked.
"Nah, we're going to be traveling light. My old sea bag is all I'm taking," he said. He then turned and looked me up and down. "You know you really ought to try to get some sleep."
"Hmph, are you kidding?" I scoffed. "There's no way I'm sleeping tonight."
"Suit yourself," he replied with a shrug. "If you're going to stay up why don't you make yourself useful and make us some tea?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, saluting smartly.
"Just fix the damn tea," he growled in mock annoyance.
While I put the tea on he went upstairs and packed up what he liked to call his "sea bag." It was just an old bag cut from sailcloth but he prized that smelly thing like it was made of the finest silk. The tea was already brewed by the time he came back down the stairs.
"It's ready," I announced.
"Good." Pitching the big old bag into the corner by the door he took the cup from me and sat down at his writing desk. "I guess I'd better write the old man a letter," he said.
"'The old man?'"
"Piloto," said Darinius. "The old man that raised me. I always write him a letter before going to battle."
He then proceeded to tell me the story of how an old man who lived alone in the mountains took in an orphaned boy and raised him as his own. Darinius said the one called Piloto was up in years when he took him in and was surely in his nineties by now. Although the old man refused to speak about his past Darinius said he now believed Piloto had once been a very great warrior. All the time the boy spent on the mountain the old man worked with him, teaching him how to defend himself and imparting great insight to him about the inner workings of the mortal mind. Piloto just seemed to have an air of masterful intuition about him. As to why he would choose to live such a solitary life, who knew? Perhaps he had once fallen into disfavor or maybe had just gotten tired of all the killing. Whatever it was the old man had been content to live on the mountain for over forty years now, raising his goats and falling to sleep at night to the soft moan of the wind as it moved restlessly through the trees.
"Do you visit him often?" I asked.
"Once or twice a season," said Darinius. "I gave up trying to convince him to come down off that mountain of his a long time ago." Darinius smiled faintly and added, "You know, I'm pushing forty and he still calls me 'boy.'"
"He must really be something," I said. "I'd like to meet him sometime."
"Oh he'd love you," said Darinius. "He loves to hear a good story." The smile faded and he said, "My father was killed before I was born. My mother is just a very faint memory now. That grouchy old man up there is all the real family I've ever known."
With that he turned back to his desk and resumed his writing. After he was done he wrote a couple more letters to friends and then we sat and talked for quite a while. Some time later a knock came to the door and one of Marcus' officers appeared. How long he and Darinius stood out on the portico talking I cannot say because I, despite my vow, fell asleep in my chair. Later I vaguely became aware of the cup that was still in my hand being carefully pulled free and then becoming gently enshrouded by something heavy and warm--a quilt. I heard a surprisingly tender voice murmur, "Good night, little one," to which I mumbled, "Nnnt."
The next thing I knew the morning sun was high in the sky and I was alone.
Xena arose from the roughly hewn table and strode to the front of the command tent. Slowly she pulled the tent flap back and peeked out. Off to the east a very faint hint of reddish glow was starting to appear on the clouds. Soon the men would be waking and she could get started. Thank the gods, she thought. It had been a long day and night. After leaving the pusillanimous king she and one of his ministers had first visited the various forward commands before arriving at her headquarters. All that night there had been a beehive of activity around her tent as officers came and went either to apprise her of their own particular situation or to receive their orders.
For the first time in many months she had spent a night without the little one in her arms and already that old gnawing sense of loneliness was creeping into her soul. Oh, Gabrielle, she thought sadly, I miss you. As she watched the camp guards change shifts she hoped that the next night would be the last one she would have to endure without feeling the warmth of her beloved's soft skin as it pressed against hers. Then and there she made a solemn vow that no matter what came or how desperate the situation might become...this time she was not going to repeat her past mistakes and take it out on the one she held most dear to her heart. But even as this promise was softly passing over her lips the first of no less than four of the visitors that would soon come to her in rapid fire order was approaching that would make her forget all about the sweet bard--at least temporarily.
She had heard the horse enter the camp and figured it to be some scout reporting to his captain. It was not an uncommon occurrence. Since taking command she had scouts and patrols out all over the place. Looking out over the camp she now became aware of the approach of two men. It was something she felt more than saw. Even with her exceptional eyesight she could barely distinguish the darkly clad men from the murky background of the marsh. Soon, however, she recognized one of them to be the sergeant of the guard. She eyed the other, taller fellow with great interest because something about those sloping shoulders filled her with a sense of foreboding. Then it came to her.
"Lassus!" she snarled. Xena did not even wait for them to reach the tent. Instead she stalked out to meet them and angrily took Lassus by the throat. "You son of a bitch, where is she?" she demanded fiercely. "Where is Gabrielle?"
Lassus gagged and tried to speak but her grip was too strong. All he could do was gurgle up saliva.
"But...Ma'am--!" The poor sergeant foolishly tried to intervene but one powerful backhand to the jaw from her lessened his resolve considerably.
Now realizing she was in danger of losing control, Xena loosened her terrible grip on Lassus somewhat and looked down at the stricken sergeant. "You all right?" she asked, her voice softening.
The sergeant sensed her anger waning and replied, "I've had worse, ma'am."
Still maintaining her hold on Lassus, Xena extended her other arm down and helped the sergeant to his feet.
"He's got news, ma'am," the sergeant said.
"For your sake this had better be good," Xena growled.
"I have a message from Darinius," Lassus blurted out, finally able to speak.
"Let's have it," Xena commanded.
"He, he said to tell you the vote passed. I am to inform you that by no later than noon today their army will be on the march to join us."
Xena eyed him suspiciously and in that low, throaty voice of hers said, "I don't care. You were told to stay with Gabrielle--or else."
"But...Darinius sent me," he bleated. Then he remembered the note. "Here," he whimpered, reaching into his boot.
Xena snatched the offered note from his shaking hand and walked over to the nearest camp fire. There she quickly unfolded it. By the flickering light the two frightened men watched with great relief as her fierce countenance softened and her scowl was replaced by faint, but definite, traces of a smile. "Sorry about that, Lassus," she said when she had finished the note. "I tend to lose it when it comes to Gabrielle."
"I don't blame you," said Lassus, exhaling deeply. "She's a peach."
Xena straightened out the man's shirt for him and said, "Go get yourself something to eat and then report back to your unit."
"Yes, ma'am," said Lassus, straightening to attention.
Xena and the sergeant watched Lassus disappear into the gloaming. "As for you, Sergeant..."
The noncom straightened to attention. "The Sergeant humbly wishes to apologize to the Supreme Commander for his reprehensible behavior. I fully acknowledge my transgression and I am ready to accept my punishment, ma'am."
"Oh you are huh?" Xena folded her arms and slowly sauntered around the stiff form. "What's your name anyway?"
"It's Elston, ma'am."
Well, El--ston, here it is. I want you to find your captain," she began, "and ahhh, tell him..." Here she paused just to make him sweat a little longer, "...that you have been promoted to lieutenant."
The sergeant turned at her in disbelief. "But--"
"Stand at attention!" barked Xena. "I will not tolerate insubordination from my aides."
"An...aide, ma'am?" the sergeant said, blinking.
"That's right. You got some kind of a problem with that, soldier?" she asked menacingly. Although Xena was merely toying with the sergeant way down deep within her she had to admit there was still something inordinately delicious about watching some nervous individual squirm in her formidable presence.
"No, ma'am," the sergeant answered stoutly. "No problem at all."
Finally she dropped the warlord act and said, "Elston, I like a guy who is willing to stand up for what he thinks is right."
"I was only doing my duty, ma'am." replied Elston.
"Maybe," said Xena. "But I think you're one of those guys that sees his duty more clearly than most. I can use a man like that."
"I will do my best not to disappoint the Supreme Commander's confidence in me," said Elston.
"Good. Go get you personal stuff and report back here in an hour. Now get outta here," said Xena.
The newly promoted lieutenant saluted and he too faded into the blackness. As she walked back to her tent she saw three men ride into the camp. The last rider was pulling another horse with what appeared to be a man trussed across its back. "Where is the new commander?" she heard one of them ask the burly guard.
"Right here," she said, advancing toward them.
The one that appeared to be the leader dismounted and quickly approached her. "Commander, we have a prisoner," he said excitedly.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Seldon," the man said. "I'm a sergeant in the First Legion. My patrol found him wandering around alone out in the marsh. I think he's an officer, ma'am."
"Bring him to my tent," she ordered.
The sergeant motioned to his two cohorts and they quickly brought the man down off the horse. Once inside Xena's tent they plopped him down on her cot per her instructions. Turning to one of the privates she said, "Go out and tell the guard to wake up that captain, what's his name--oh yeah, Templarion. Tell him to wake up Templarion and bring him here."
The private nodded and quickly departed.
As the man sat on the cot defiantly glaring up at he she began to turn the possibilities over in her mind. What was he doing out away from his camp alone? she wondered. Maybe he really did get lost. Then again he could be a plant, somebody sent on purpose to feed us false information. Well, she thought soberly, we'll find out soon enough.
Placing one cheek of her butt on the corner of the map table, Xena eyed the prisoner casually. "What is your name?" she asked.
"I'd like some water," the man replied.
"I just bet you would, you bastard," Seldon snarled.
"Sergeant," Xena said, her voice sharply reproachful, "get him some water."
While the chastened sergeant poured some water from a clay pitcher into a cup Xena watched the prisoner intently.
"Here," Seldon grunted, thrusting the cup at the man.
The prisoner took the cup and greedily quaffed the water. Xena patiently waited until the man had drained the cup before repeating her question. "What is your name?"
"I don't suppose it will hurt to tell you that," the man allowed. "My name is Vlad."
Vlad, she thought. A Slavic name. Melchus must have done some serious recruiting this time. "The sergeant here seems to think you're an officer," Xena continued. "Are you?"
The man cackled and spat on the floor. "An officer? Meee an officer? Hmph, that's a laugh. Why I wouldn't give a gold piaster for every damned officer ever made. He leered up at her and added, "And that includes you."
False bravado if I ever saw it, she thought. She had already sized up the man and decided upon the least messy way to break him.
It was now that the private returned with Templarion. "What's up, Xena?" he asked sleepily.
"We've got ourselves a live one," she replied, gesturing to Vlad. She then eased off the table and stood towering over him. "So...you're not an officer, eh?"
"I told you I wasn't," the prisoner rasped. "Now gimme some more water."
Insolent bastard, she raged silently. For a moment she felt the urge to seize him by the his tongue and....
Quelling her anger, Xena instead bent over and put her hand on his shoulder. "Now," she purred as she began to apply pressure to his collarbone, "you and I both know you are lying like a rug."
Maybe it was that frightening chill in her voice that caused his haughty facade to slip. Maybe it was the cruelly taunting look in her ice blue eyes or the unbelievably excruciating pain she was now so leisurely inflicting upon him with one simple thumb over his collarbone. Whatever it was, Vlad's eyed grew wide with fear and he sputtered, "I'm not...officer."
"Sure you are," Xena replied serenely. She released her grip on him and stood up. "Know how I know?" She tapped the toe of her boot against the toe of his. "Your boots, they're much too nice. Ordinary soldiers in the field never have boots that good. Much like a teacher would to an unruly pupil, she now said, "Vlad, you will tell me your rank."
It was here that Vlad came to one of those proverbial forks in the road that all mortals must face at various times in their lives. He was well aware of the choices being presented to him and neither of them was very appealing. On one hand he could choose to cooperate with these people and risk being branded a coward and a traitor. It might save his life, it might not. On the other hand he could choose to resist and maybe be honored as a hero by his army--posthumously of course. For he knew that to resist this she-devil was certain death. He had seen the quiet demon lurking behind those cold blue eyes and knew she could terminate his life with no more regard than if she was squashing a beetle under the heel of her boot. Yes, Vlad had come to his "Y" in the road. He could choose a precarious life as a prisoner of war or he could choose death. Vlad chose the former.
"I'm a captain," he said finally.
"What were you doing out there in the marsh all by yourself?" Xena asked. You're mine, she thought triumphantly. I won't even have to use "the pinch," as Gabrielle calls it, on this one.
"I, I got lost," he replied.
Xena raised an eyebrow and eyed her latest conquest with amusement. "Templarion?"
"Yes...Xena?" She had already told him to dispense with titles of rank but after experiencing first hand the power of her forceful personality and observing the almost imperious way she carried herself he felt that not only he but the entire army ought to fall to its knees and address her in the most subservient manner possible. Her beauty only made her seen even more deserving of plenary power. He dared not dwell on it too for long lest his eyes give him away but already he was wondering if this warrior...goddess might yet need have need of some virile young officer for purposes other than...well--military. There were worse things in life, he thought dreamily, than being a consort to so powerful a woman. It was clear to him Xena was used to being a conqueror--in more ways than one. That there might exist a young bard somewhere who sometimes actually had the unmitigated gall to fart on this "goddess" as they lay sleeping or an equally forceful man who had once had the hardihood to call Xena a "murdering harlot" to her face would have been beyond the realm of comprehension for the awestruck Templarion. He simply would not have believed it possible.
"Get some parchment and write down everything this man says," Xena ordered. Turning back to the prisoner she cautioned, "And don't even think about lying to me again. Because next time I might not know when to ease off."
Vlad believed her.
An hour later Seldon emerged from the tent gripping the prisoner Vlad by his bound arm and led him away. Templarion was next to come out. In his hand was a note written by Xena herself ordering all five legion commanders to report to her at noon in order that they might personally receive their new instructions from her. Lastly Xena came to the front of the tent and looked out. It was light now and all about the camp men were busily preparing for the much anticipated onslaught by Melchus. But Xena already knew it would not come today. Vlad's poor sense of direction had been a most fortuitous break for the Aetolian Army--her army--for during the past hour he had, as they say, "spilled his guts.'" Now Xena knew the exact location of many of the enemy units, their relative strengths, what the army was subsisting on--she even found out why Melchus had prematurely halted his advance. It seems that for the last two days he had been stricken down with such a severe case of dysentery that he could not be moved at all. She had learned something else too, something far more disturbing. The Phrygian Graccus was on his way with two more legions to join Melchus. Only once had Vlad faltered but it had only taken for Xena to partly push her finger into the soft flesh where the front of the his neck met the chest to make the prisoner once again fully compliant.
For once she was glad Gabrielle was not with her. To be sure she had not actually tortured the man but she had made the threat of it--or worse--very plain to him. Though not nearly as squeamish about such things as she used to be, Gabrielle's innate compassion and basic sense of decency still prevailed in all things. As an older, more mature Gabrielle she now would have probably understood Xena's need to gather intelligence any way she could but that would not have made her warrior's grim work any more palatable to her.
The Warrior Princess closed her eyes hard and put the tips of her thumb and forefinger on the bridge of her nose. In the "old" days she could go for days at time without rest and never bat an eye but now she suddenly felt...tired. She had forgotten just how physically draining leading a huge army could be. Standing there in the gray light of dawn she thought of Gabrielle and how she liked to nuzzle at Xena's breasts with her nose. She longed to feel the bard's soft lips on hers and positively ached for the always thrilling touch of the young woman's hand.
Her stomach growled a loud protestation over its neglect and only then did Xena realize she had not eaten in almost two days. Gotta watch that, she warned herself. Though hungry, she resolved not to eat any more than what the other men were getting. She had to know what their limits of endurance were. It was here Elston returned and after ordering him to bring her some food, Xena sat down again at the map table and for the umpteenth time pored over the map. Presently she became aware of a dark, malignant, and very familiar figure presence behind her.
"Hello, Ares," she purred without turning around.
"Hello, Xena," he said, moving around in front of her, "long time no battle."
"Funny," she replied casually.
"You know, you're the only mortal I know that can sense me like that," said the God of War pleasantly.
"I have a very acute sense of smell," countered the warrioress.
"Oh ho ho ho," he chuckled mirthlessly. "That's no way to greet an old friend. Still a little testy about our last encounter are we?"
"Oh I thought I'd just drop in. You know, for old time's sake."
She sagged her shoulders in exasperation and said, "You're not here to sing that tired old 'return to me, Xena,' song again, are you?"
"Nah, I'm over that," he said pleasantly.
"How does it feel?" he asked, ignoring her .
"How does what feel?" she asked, knowing full well his meaning.
"Come on, Xena," he said smoothly, "we know each other too well to play games. How does it feel to be in total command of a huge, powerful army again?"
"No different than commanding my horse, or one man, or ten thousand men," she answered matter-of-factly.
"You have a potentially magnificent instrument of destruction here," he told. "Think of what you could do with it."
"You know what I'm going to do with it," she said.
"Oh I mean after you defeat Melchus," he said. "You know, after you've destroyed his army's will to fight and crushed them like rotten apples. After that it would be so easy to absorb the remnants of his army into yours and create the most powerful army the world has ever seen. You could then take up where Melchus left off. First Thebes, Athens, Sparta...all of them would be yours. Then you would perfectly poised to overrun Crete and use it as a staging area from which to move on Egypt..."
"My only concern is Melchus," she said, rising from her seat. "And right now it's nip and tuck as to whether we can beat him or not."
"It doesn't become you to be so pessimistic," said Ares. "Maybe you've been away from command too long. After all, you have some very talented young officers call upon, you have thirty-one thousand good, though demoralized, Aetolian troops at your command, and last but certainly not least there's those nearly ten thousand crack soldiers Darinius is bringing over with him."
"You can afford to be supercilious," said Xena, "I can't."
"Xennnnah," he said huskily, "you know you're going to win." He leered at her and then traced a finger across her map. "You even know how you're going to do it, don't you?"
"I have some ideas," she admitted coolly.
"I would be careful if I were you, Xena," he cautioned.
"What are you talkin' about?" she demanded.
"Don't be cute. I'm a god remember? You plan on pulling Melchus' army apart by having Darinius drive north to the River Peneus."
Xena's face was as noncommittal as ever but behind it her mind was racing. How did he know that? she wondered. She had told no one about the plan which Ares had just thrown back in her face.
"Well old Darinius might just have a surprise waiting for him when he gets up there."
"What kind of surprise?" Xena asked, knowing full well he was referring to Graccus.
"If I told you it wouldn't be a surprise now would it?"
"I don't have time for this patty cake stuff," Xena said petulantly. "I got work to do."
"If you let him do this he's going to get all the glory for executing your plan," Ares rasped.
"I don't give a damn who gets the credit," Xena retorted. "Just as long as we win."
"You have been away from command too long. Don't you realize the threat he poses to you?"
"A great man once told me there's no limit to the of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit," said Xena.
"Sounds like some of that drivel Hercules would bleat out," Ares sniffed. "Too bad he's not here then the two of you together could just mire the enemy down in all that honey and sugar you spout out.
"That is sooo weak, Ares," she snorted. "And so typical of you."
"Xena, an army can only have one commander. I'm telling you if he pulls your plan off the whole army will want to follow him instead of you," said Ares.
"You're slipping," she said with a smirk. "These Aetolians don't much trust those boys from Mymalar. I think they fear Darinius more than they do Melchus."
"And why shouldn't they? You know how formidable Darinius is. Kill him and take his army while you have the chance," he urged, almost pleading. "Then all the glory of a truly historic victory will be yours and yours alone, as it deserves to be."
"A glory that would naturally reflect itself back on you? You just don't get it, do you?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Xena, no offense but you're not a young filly anymore," he said solemnly. "This may be the last chance you get to fulfill your destiny."
"I'm not an old nag yet either," she replied firmly. "And besides there's no such thing as destiny, only the aftermath of choices made."
"Do you think these peasants will thank you saving their hides?" he cried out. "Do you actually think they'll even care? Why I'd wager in five years time half of them won't even remember you."
"I'll remember," she shot back. "Gabrielle will remember. That's all that counts."
Ahh the blonde, Ares thought. Sooner or later it always comes back to the blonde. Gabrielle, The Great Meddler. How easily history can be altered by a chance meeting in a forest between two lonely women. He shook his head and looked sadly at the mortal woman that, after all these years, still evoked feelings in him that no other, god or mortal, could ever do. "Xena," he said softly, "if you live to be a hundred I'll never understand you."
"How can you," she replied honestly, "when I can't even figure myself out?"
"So be it then." The God of War smiled impishly at her and said, "Well I'd like to stick around and count the bodies but I have other business to attend to."
"Like what," Xena asked, smirking. "You gonna run to Melchus and tell him my plan?"
Ares eyed her with amusement and replied, "Now that would be cheating, wouldn't it? Besides, it's no concern of mine if Melchus gets his ass whipped--again. If you must know there's a nice little ahh "disturbance" brewing up over in Sumer. It's too early to tell yet but the indications are the body count from that one will be most gratifying."
"Well don't come all over yourself from thinkin' about it," said Xena salaciously.
Ares waved his index finger in her face and said, "Ah ah ah, naughty, naughty. Besides, that's reserved for when I think of you. At any rate, I'll be back to see if you still have your touch." With that he faded away leaving Xena alone to ponder over his final words.
But not for long. "Ma'am?" It was Elston.
"I brought your food, ma'am,"
"Hmmm? Oh, yes, ahh put it over there," she said, pointing to her cot. "And call me Xena."
"Yes...Xena." The lieutenant did her bidding and turned to leave. "You know," he said, smiling, "all the excitement must be getting to me."
"Why's that?" Xena asked, only half listening.
"As I was approaching the tent I could have sworn I heard you talking to someone in here."
"You're right, Elston," she said, "the excitement must be getting to you."
"That's what I figured, ma--ah, Xena." He moved to the tent entrance and stopped. "If the General needs me for anything I'll be right outside."
Xena nodded absently and Elston made his departure. Maybe this is getting to all of us, she mused.
The sun was now well up in the sky and she decided to use the remaining time before the meeting with her legion commanders making the rounds and talking to her men. This would help her get a better feel for them and maybe provide some insight as to what their present state of mind was.
Like any veteran campaigner, Xena had mastered the art of eating quickly. The potato cakes and cold stew were soon nothing but a memory when, licking her fingers, she strode out of the tent. "Elston!"
"Yes, Xena?" he inquired, rushing to her.
"Have someone saddle my horse."
"At once." The aide saluted briskly, grabbed the nearest private, and off they went.
Again her thoughts turned to Gabrielle. I'd like to know what she's doing right now. I wonder if she thinks about me as much as I do about her when we're apart like this. Nah, I doubt it. She's probably dreaming up some story or other.
She walked over to converse with some men diligently tending to their equipment when, all of a sudden, she heard the sound of angry voices approaching. Turning in the direction of the sound, she saw a blindfolded man encircled by several of her soldiers being roughly pushed toward her. There were so many men around him Xena could not get much of a look at him at first.
"What have you got here?" she asked, walking toward them.
"A damn spy, ma'am!" one of them chortled. "One of our patrols caught him tryin' to infiltrate our lines."
"Let me see him," Xena ordered.
The men respectfully parted and shoved the smallish man forward. Xena did not need for them to remove the man's blindfold to recognize who their captive was. The fellow's long blond locks told her all she needed to know. Under her breath, she called out the man's name. "Iolaus."
Continued in Spring: Part 2
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