Continued from Spring: Part 2
All disclaimers remain in effect.
The young soldier entered the camp and trotted up to the nearest man. "Where can I find Darinius?" he asked.
"Right here," a voice said.
The soldier turned to face the source of the voice. There he saw Darinius and Marcus approaching him. "Sir, Melchus is on the move."
"At last," said Darinius.
"Well here we go," said Marcus.
"Very well, son," Darinius said to the young scout. This is it, he thought. Turning to a man standing with them he said, "Acedemus, you may execute the plan. I want you to make a strong demonstration on Melchus' left flank. Just like we talked about. Now don't do it half-assed, I want it to look like you're actually going to hit 'em. I've already sent word to Captain Erasmus of the Fourth Battalion that he will be joining with you in this operation. He already knows he is to conform to your movements at all times."
"I understand," Acedemus said. "What if they don't bite?"
"They will, if not this time then surely the next," Darinius answered. "Just be sure you don't get too close, Acedemus."
"No danger of that," said the captain. "I'm the very soul of discretion." He nodded to his two superiors and headed off toward his horse.
"We've done all we can do for the moment," remarked Marcus. "I assume Xena is ready also."
"That leaves the next move up to Melchus," said Darinius, finishing the thought for him.
"Let's hope it's one that is acceptable to us," said Marcus.
Turning to the boy, he said, "Ride south and find Xena's camp. Tell her we have set the ball rolling."
"Yes, sir," the young scout replied.
As he made for his horse Darinius called out after him, "And make damn sure you don't blunder into an enemy patrol."
"I won't, sir," the boy assured him.
Darinius took a step forward and watched as Acedemus rode out
of camp. As it always did when he knew the fight was close at hand all the doubt
fell away from him. All his life he had been something of a worrier before a
battle but once it was on, well...that was another matter. After all, though
they were outnumbered it was not as if they were helpless. With Xena in overall
command that in itself was like having an extra ten thousand men. His own boys
were the finest in Greece and for all his self-effacing humor Darinius knew
that given anything like comparable forces no one--not even the mighty Xena--could
beat him in a pitched battle. Yes sir, he thought grimly, if those damn Aetolians
were half as good as Xena thought they could be old Melchus is going to have
to hoe a very long row indeed. We're going to win, he thought. He could just
feel it. We're going to win. "Marcus," he said grimly, "if Xena
gives us the go-ahead--if she let's us--we're going to run that son of a bitch
clear back to the Danube."
Xena slowly strolled down the newly assembled line of twenty men. Although Templarion, a man they knew far better than she, was accompanying her no one was really paying much heed to him. Indeed all eyes were the statuesque woman with the raven hair as she finished her inspection and backed away from the rigid line. "They'll do," she said to Templarion. "I'm putting you in charge of them. Just make certain they understand what their role is. They're runners, not foot soldiers."
I think I had surprised her a little by not squawking when she had informed me that she was assigning this job to Templarion and not to me. However I had been giving this matter a lot of thought and had already decided what I wanted to do--what I was going to do. Taking her by the elbow, I said, "Umm, Xena, can I speak with you for a moment?"
I'm sure she now expected the aforementioned protest but instead I tiptoed up and whispered in her ear. She looked down at me like I had three heads and barked out a resounding "NO!"
"Oh yes I am," I defiantly assured her.
"What's the matter with you?" she demanded. "Have you gone crazy?"
"No. No I haven't," I told her. "But this is what I want to do. The question before us is do I have your blessing or not?"
"Gabrielle, we're not playing games here," she said. "What you want to do could very well get you killed. No, it's out of the question."
I had already considered that possibility. But I had faced danger, even death, with her countless times before. What was one more time, more or less? And I did not hesitate to tell her this, either.
Xena was still not convinced. "Gabrielle, if something happened to you out there I'd never forgive myself."
"Then let me save you the trouble and forgive you right now," I said somewhat heatedly. I realize this not quite the same thing as forgiving oneself but I was getting mad too.
The warrioress drew herself up to her full, imposing height and looked down at me. "Gabrielle," she said, her voice surprisingly soft, "what's this all about? I mean...really."
I took a deep breath and stood toe to toe with her. "Xena," I began, "All I want to do is help you."
"Look, these people are depending on me," she said. "How do you expect me to give them my best if I have to worry about you too?"
"What is it you're always telling me?" I countered. "Something about staying focused? Every time, every darn time, we run into something big like this old Gabrielle gets shoved behind your skirt while you step out to bravely face the threat."
"Gabrielle, that's a load of bull and you know it," she said sharply. "When was the last time I excluded you from anything?"
"I'm not saying you exclude me as such. I'm just saying that even after all this time you don't seem to think I can cut it when the big stuff rolls around."
"You really think that?" she asked, more curious than angry.
I put my hands on my hips to keep her from noticing how much they were shaking. "Yeah," I said defiantly. "I do."
For a moment I saw what seemed to be a look of sheer panic in her eyes but then her face became disquietingly serene. Instead of replying directly to me she barked, "Elston!"
"Yes, ma'am," the man replied, hastening to her.
"Where is Klonce's standard?" she asked.
This was what I had asked her to let me do. If I could not fight with her, I reasoned, the least she could do was let me carry her standard into battle.
A look of alarm spread across Elston's face. "Why I, I have no idea, ma'am."
"Lost, ma'am," said Templarion, cutting in. "At Brillis. Along with the entire color guard."
Without another word Xena left standing there and entered her tent. Almost immediately she emerged hold the brightly colored blanket we had been sleeping--and doing other things--on. She bore it over to where Templarion and his runners could see it. "This," she said, "is going to be my standard. Get a good look at the middle pattern. Learn it." She then tossed the blanket to Elston and said, "Have that middle pattern cut out and mounted on a frame."
And now, for me at least, came the moment of truth. Xena planted herself squarely in front of me and looked down upon me. "I suppose you do know what purpose a standard serves, Gabrielle.?" She was now speaking to me in the same no nonsense tone she used with the--her--men.
"Of course I do," I replied confidently. However something in her eyes told me she thought otherwise. Having no idea what she meant I fell back on that time honored practice all bards employed whenever they were stumped--I fudged. "Well sorta," I added. "At least, I think I do." As I stood there stammering like a fool she bored in ever harder on me. Finally I surrendered. "Do I?" I asked pitifully.
With her countenance revealing only the barest hint of wry amusement at my sorry plight she took back the blanket from Elston. "A standard," she began, "is more than just a brightly colored rag. You probably know it's supposed purpose is to allow a general's officers and men to know his whereabouts at all times during battle but it's actually much more than that. Very much more. You see, Gabrielle, this standard not only represents me, it is me. Wherever I go, no matter how heavy the fighting, not matter how bad the carnage, this standard goes with me, you understand? Because not only does it let the soldiers know where I am, much more importantly it lets them know that I am there. If they know I'm there with them it may just be enough of an inspiration to them to push us over the top."
I was stunned. Never in my life had I heard her speak so bluntly about her ability to lead. But as I'm sure even the gods will attest, every word she had uttered was the absolute truth. She knew what the name "Xena" meant to these men.
"If there's one thing I learned in all my years of fighting," she continued, "it's that men are capable of doing amazing things in battle if they have something--or someone--to believe in. That's what this is, Gabrielle, something to believe in. Me."
Very gingerly I reached out and touched her new colors. For make no mistake, no less than the others there I too had now been swept away by her eloquence. "Oh Xena," I said softly, lest I give away my emotion to the others, "I do understand." In my mind all I could think was What a woman!
"Good," she answered. Almost tenderly she laid the standard in my arms.
"No foolin'?" I asked. "You're going to let me carry it?"
It was then I heard Templarion softly clear his throat. "Uh, begging you pardon, ma'am. Please don't think I'm questioning your decisions but you must know the danger this will place your friend in."
Xena turned from him back to me. "He's right you know. It will be dangerous, Gabrielle. I won't bullshit you about that. And the worst part for you is that you can't worry about defending yourself. No matter what might happen, no matter what you might see going on around you your only mission, your only thought will be to stay on your horse and keep this hunk of rag held high--no matter what the cost."
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking how on earth could Xena allow me to do this, right? I mean you and I and the cow in the meadow all know there was no way in Tartarus I was going to back down now. But there's so much more to it than that. And why had she now committed herself to such a clear reversal in the way she had wanted to define my role? I'll tell you why. As you will remember she had told me at the base of Mount Helikon that I was a true warrior. Despite my initial incredulity I had believed her. After all, the ring had not killed me. But now, on the eve of this great battle, she was finally going to give me the chance to find out there was so much more to being a warrior than just being good with a sword. Or so I thought at the time.
Looking back on it now I think that, aside from my decision to follow her in the first place, this might well have been the defining moment in my life and she recognized that. Now there is no doubt in my mind I could have backed down here and not another word would have been said about it. But that's not what Xena was about. In effect what she was telling me, in her own way, was that at long last she was ready to accept me on her level if not physically, then at least spiritually. She was thrusting back into my trembling hands the responsibility for my own fate. I had long since stopped being the tag-a-long but this act was taking our relationship to a much higher plane altogether. What she was truly doing, for the first time in our life together, was giving me--in the only way she knew how--a piece of her soul, something well beyond the "I love yous" and the sweet sex and the tender companionship. She was giving me...Xena. Call me a stupid girl, I don't care. All I can say is it was one of the proudest moments of my life. And in the end it mattered not one whit to her that I actually do this thing, but it mattered everything to her to know in her heart that I was willing to do this for her without reservation.
Choked with emotion, all I could think of was what Darinius had said to her just before he left. "Xena," I said, quoting him, "if we are to go down we will all go down as friends--together."
I was not sure but just for a moment I thought I saw her eyes glisten but then again maybe it was the light. "Gabrielle, my friend," I heard her whisper.
Although she still had one very big surprise waiting for me causing later events to not turn out quite as I had expected, it was nonetheless true that from that day forward she never looked at me quite the same way again. Oh to be sure she still fussed at me and was sometimes overprotective and there was still no doubt as to whom the "alpha" female was but something had changed. I had as the soldiers say "seen the elephant." Not as a slinking observer but as an active participant--albeit not in the way I had hoped.
Taking her new standard from me, she tossed it back to Elston. "Have it fixed it up," she ordered.
Elston in turn gave it to a junior officer and as Templarion prepared to dismiss his men Xena slipped an arm around my waist. "Now, Gabrielle, you're sure about this? Just remember I won't be able to keep an eye out for you all the time."
I covered her hand with mine and said, "Xena, I'm sure. I want this. I want to be with you." Summoning up the best smile I could I said, "I'm gonna stick to your butt like warts to a frog."
"Frogs don't have warts," she gently reminded me.
"You get the idea--General," I retorted.
Just then we heard a "Ho" and turned to see three riders careen into camp. "News for the General!" one of them shouted.
"Over here," said Xena, beckoning to them.
The three bounded down off their horses and rushed over to us. The tallest of the three pointed to the curly haired youth in the middle and said, "Ma'am, this boy has come from Darinius"
"My respects ma'am," said the boy, bowing.
"Never mind that," said Xena. "What have you got?"
"Our scouts have reported that Melchus is on the move."
"Yes yes, we know that," said Xena impatiently. "Our scouts reported the same thing earlier today. Now what about Darinius?"
"He said to tell you we have set the ball rolling, ma'am."
Xena responded to this bit of news by savagely driving her fist into her palm, creating a thunderous whap! "That's the way!" she said emphatically.
"This is good--right?" I asked.
"You damn right it is, Gabrielle," she replied, positively beaming. "It means that for once Melchus is going to have to dance to our tune. And if I know our old friend, he'll make it a mighty hard tune to keep time to."
So there it was. For better or worse the battle had started.
"Templarion!" Xena barked out.
"Yes ma'am!" Looking at his face, I could see that he too had changed. And not only his face but his voice had changed too for it now had a certain sense of urgency to it.
"Notify all commands. The opening phase has started. Tell them they are to move up to their designated forward positions as soon as it gets dark. Tell them I'll be around to see them before morning."
"At once, General." And off he went to instruct his runners.
"This is it," said Xena, glancing over at me. "There's no turning back now." You're going to be my hammer, Darinius.
She turned to the northeast and peered into the distance as if looking for someone. "He'll be fine," I assured her.
"I know," she said. Let's hope it stays that way, she thought.
But some twenty leagues away, as Phoebus finished yet another trip across the sky, it was Melchus' once proud Sixth and Ninth Legions and not Darinius that were needing help from the gods for they had just been skewered by the battle-hardened veterans of The Army of Mymalar. As his men had so confidently figured it would, their commander's plan had worked to perfection. Xena might have ordered them to use aggressive movement against Melchus' flank in order to pull his army apart but she had wisely left it up to Darinius to decide just how this important task would be accomplished. And Melchus, bless his heart, had not disappointed them. Once he had gotten over the initial shock of finding himself situated between two forces he had reacted just as Xena had predicted he would. Foolishly refusing to believe Darinius' men were anything other than a splintered part of what he thought was an utterly shattered Aetolian Army, he had rushed his Sixth Legion, under the disputatious Kraal, and the Ninth, commanded by one of his own countrymen, a general named Wilsus, north to crush the stragglers.
For their part Acedemus and Erasmus had performed their mission with skill and daring. While not actually disobeying Darinius' admonition to not to get too close, Acedemus had stretched it just a little and gotten to within less than a league of Melchus' outposts. Once his scouts had reported part of the Army of the Northern Tribes to be on the move, he and Erasmus had frantically pulled back as if they had blindly blundered into a superior enemy. Playing the part of panic stricken soldiers with the skill of the finest Athenian actors, their men had torn for the hills of Aelias for all they were worth. Melchus' Sixth and Ninth Legions had been only too happy to follow. That is--until they fell headlong into Darinius' trap.
Streaking through and around the hills of Aelias like frightened rabbits, Darinius' men succeeding in luring Melchus' overconfident men into a narrow valley, the "sack" as Darinius had dubbed it. Once his enemy was inside the "sack" Darinius not only closed it off but wound the drawstring around their necks for it was here his "rabbits' suddenly turned around and bit their pursuers right on the ass. Timing it perfectly, the four remaining battalions of the Army of Mymalar first unleashed torrents of arrows down on the shocked enemy and then swooped down from their hiding places on the heights above, slamming into both of their enemy's wide open flanks.
In a little more than an hour it was over. Of the nearly twelve thousand men that had so cockily pursued their prey just a few hours before barely four thousand were now alive to escape from inside the boiling cauldron of doom created for them. For all intents and purposes the Sixth and Ninth Legions of the Army of the Five Tribes had ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.
Paying no heed to the wound on his arm, Darinius walked amid the carnage of the blood soaked battlefield. As he looked off in the distance he saw Marcus approaching. In accordance with the plan Marcus had taken three battalions to the far side of the little valley while Darinius had stayed behind with the remaining two. Watching him close the distance between them Darinius could not understand why the younger man seemed so insecure about his role. As he had always done, Marcus had performed very, very well. But then again it is one thing to lead and quite another to follow--even for generals. It was here Darinius silently vowed that in the next fight, and there would surely be one, he was going to find out once and for all if his young friend had what it took to lead these very able men.
"Ho, Darinius!" a voice called out to him. Looking to his left, he saw Sergeant Rellus approaching also.
"How goes it with you, Sergeant?" asked Darinius, much relieved to see the man unharmed.
"Pretty fair, sir," the sergeant replied in his gravelly voice. He eyed the wound on Darinius' arm. "You?"
"I'll live," his boss told him.
Rellus swept his eyes over the sea of bodies, dead and dying, strewn all around them. Thankfully most of them were clad in the clad in the enemy's colors. "The boys did all right," he observed.
"They always do," said Darinius matter-of-factly. Still looking out over the bodies he asked "How many did you lose?"
"Three, sir," said the sergeant. "Andrew, Absentius, and..." Here he paused as if gathering himself. "...Viktor, sir."
Darinius did not reply but instead merely nodded his acknowledgment. Viktor, the melancholy fellow who loved poetry, had been the one that had ignored the deadly shower of arrows at Thessaloniki in order to not only drag him to safety, but shield him with his own body until help had arrived. Now he blinked hard once or twice to fight back the tear in the corner of his eye. Sergeant Rellus pretended not to notice.
"He was a good soldier," Rellus said.
"He was also a husband and a father," Darinius reminded him. Mentally he made a note to personally visit Viktor's family when this mess was over. As all soldiers must to in order to maintain their sanity he then turned his mind to other matters.
At last Marcus reached them and Rellus respectfully saluted his commander.
"Praise Athena, the day is ours," Marcus chortled.
The goddess of all just wars had nothing to do with it, thought Rellus ruefully. However aloud he said, "We've cracked Melchus a good one in the nuts, sir. That's for sure."
Darinius turned to Rellus and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, "Sergeant, in the future you will remember to strictly adhere to army guidelines regarding proper behavior in the presence of your superiors. Specifically you will not use such vulgarity while speaking to your commanding officer, understand?"
"I'm sorry, sir," said Rellus, stiffening to attention. "I guess I don't know what came over me." Actually this reproach rated very low on the sergeant's castigation scale. Except for Darinius' self-imposed exile some years ago he had been chewing on his ass for twenty years. During that time he had on occasion heard his boss get very creative with his expletives. Rellus didn't care. To him it was all blah, blah, blah anyway. He had heard it all before and besides he knew well enough that Darinius seemed to enjoy sticking the needle in him. But, to his credit, when they were alone he allowed the sergeant to give as good as he got. His transgression here had been to extend his easy familiarity to another officer. Even for the normally laid back Darinius this simply would not do.
"That's all right, Sergeant," said Marcus good naturedly.
"Do you think your boys are up to a patrol?"
"Yes, sir," the sergeant assured him.
Darinius pointed to the southernmost of the hills and said, "Take your squad and poke around for a couple of leagues in that direction. I want you to make sure nobody is trying to sneak up on us through that stand of timber down there."
"I'll get right on it," said Rellus.
"Good. Report to me the minute you return." Rellus saluted and departed.
"Any idea how many we lost?" asked Marcus.
"Not yet. But from just looking I'd say we suffered at least a thousand casualties," said Darinius.
Marcus nodded solemnly. A thousand men dead and wounded was a great loss but considering the odds they had been facing it could have been much much worse. Trying to sound upbeat he said, "Well one thing's for sure, this is going to take a major share of the heat off Xena."
That's why we're here, thought Darinius. And though not spoken with the elegance of the poet Anacreon his friend had summoned up the day's events very nicely. "Marcus," he said aloud, "Rellus was right. We did crack 'em a good one in the nuts." He then emitted a short, shrill whistle and the soldier who had been holding Scraps for him brought the horse forward. "I'm going over to speak to Acedemus," he told Marcus.
Marcus nodded and watched Darinius mount the oddly colored horse. Darinius had given the colt the name because it in fact looked as though it had been fashioned from scraps of other horses. It was not the most beautiful of animals but Darinius thought the world of it. And to its credit the scraggly thing could seemingly run all day long.
After Darinius had gone Marcus beckoned to one of his aides, a captain, standing nearby. "Extus, I want burial details formed right away. I want every single one of our dead buried by nightfall, understand?"
"Yes, sir." Extus paused a beat before asking "What about the wounded, sir?"
That was the stickler point and both of them knew it. Unlike most armies it was not their practice to leave their wounded to fend for themselves. But there were so many. "The one's that can walk will go with us," said Marcus.
"And the rest?"
"Send out a company of men to round up every last wagon they can find. We'll ship the rest of them back home."
"Some of the men are hurt too badly to be moved," said Extus.
"Then we will have to find someplace to leave them--under the care of a corpsman, of course," said Marcus.
"Very good, sir." Extus nodded and set off to carry out his instructions.
For a moment Marcus watched him go and then he walked over to where a soldier was sitting under an oak tree. That the young man had somehow managed to make it there before dying was something of a marvel to him for the boy, one of the enemy, now sat there staring lifelessly into some other world. Cupped in his hands were what was left of his bowels. Having no desire to disturb the dead, enemy or otherwise, he walked to the opposite side of the tree and sat down with his back against it. He then ran his hand through his thick black hair and stared out over the battlefield. Everywhere there were bodies, arms, legs...heads, strewn about. Already the crows and the buzzards were starting to gleefully take advantage of their unexpected windfall. All around him he could hear the moans of men from both sides begging for help, for water, for simply for their mothers.
Though a soldier all his adult life Marcus could not help but be struck by the sheer wastefulness of it all. "Good gods," he muttered under his breath, "what are we anyway?" He drew his knees up, wrapped his arms around them, and dropped his chin to his chest. What a horseshit way to make a living, he thought.
He only allowed himself to sit there for a very few minutes
before once again rising to his feet. With all the misery around him he somehow
felt it disrespectful to rest here. By midnight, he thought, Xena will know
what we did here. For our boys' sake I hope she appreciates it. In spite of
Darinius' regard for Xena Marcus had never warmed up to her very much. Maybe
it was because she had come so very close to being their enemy at Philippi.
But be that as it may he had his duty to do. She was on their side now and by
the gods he wanted her to win just as badly as Darinius did. Now her turn was
coming and he knew the clashing of those two big armies to the south would make
this battle look like no more than a cat fight in a brothel. Wearily he put
his helmet back on and went off to rejoin his staff. "Good luck to you, Xena,"
he said softly to himself. "Because in spite of what Darinius says I think you're
going to need it."
Erasmus squinted at the solitary figure riding toward them. "Acedemus, we've got company."
Acedemus stood up and turned in the direction his friend was looking. That ugly horse could mean only one person. "It's Darinius," he said. He waved and shouted, "Over here!"
The rider veered his horse in their direction and in a minute or so was upon them.
"I'm glad to see you boys are all right," said Darinius as he dismounted.
Erasmus pointedly glanced at Darinius' bandaged arm.
"It's just a scratch," Darinius assured him.
Erasmus looked out over their end of the battlefield and said, "We sure gave 'em a bloody nose."
"That we did," allowed his boss.
"Close there for a while though," said Acedemus. "I thought for a minute they were going to catch us out on open ground."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," said Darinius, his smile now gone.
Uhh ohh, thought Erasmus. He's pissed.
"You cut it mighty fine out there today, Acedemus," said Darinius. "What did I tell you two about not getting too close to those bastards?"
"We had to make sure they were going to buy our bill of goods," explained Acedemus.
"Well you almost had to give them a big time rebate. From now on just make damn sure you do as I tell you," said Darinius reproachfully.
"Oh and I suppose you would have done it differently," said Acedemus.
"That's not the point and you know it, Acedemus. As the old saying goes do as I say and not as I do," said Darinius. Try as he might, though, he could not stay angry with Acedemus for very long--he never could. He and Acedemus were now the only members of the original group of twenty that had gone to Sparta so long ago that were still alive.
"All right, Darinius," said Acedemus. "I won't do it again. Just don't pop a cork, okay?"
Darinius grinned wryly at his subordinate's insolence. "Hey, if you get your ass killed I won't have anybody to swap lies with about the wild youth we spent in Sparta."
"I'm finding it harder and harder to believe I ever was that young," said Acedemus.
Darinius nodded and turned to gaze out over the battlefield. "Get our dead buried as quickly as possible," he said. "I want us to be ready to move by midnight."
"Are we still going north?" asked Erasmus.
"Yes," replied Darinius. "Graccus will be reaching the river soon and we've got to be there to meet him when he does."
'Understood," said the commander of the Fourth Battalion.
"Well we are off to a good start anyway," observed Acedemus.
"That we are," allowed Darinius. "Thanks to you guys." He looked at the two of them and with a faint smile, said, "It's a wonder the both of you don't have one leg shorter than the other."
Erasmus scratched his head quizzically. "Why's that, sir?"
"Because of all the heavy leaning I do on you guys," came his commander's reply.
"Well the gods willing we'll all do some heavy leaning on old Melchus," said Acedemus.
"I'll drink to that, said Darinius." With that he mounted his horse once more. "Load up your ducks and hurry along," he said. "I don't want to hang around here any longer than I have to."
As he rode away Acedemus called after him, "You're buying!"
"I tell you, sir, they were not Aetolians!"
Melchus leaned back in his heavy chair and contemptuously eyed the cowering Wilsus. "Then who were they, fool?" he demanded.
Wilsus nervously wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and said, "I, I don't know for sure--sir." Even though Kraal had been in overall command of the battle Wilsus realized that he was the one in very hot water with his boss over their miserable performance. Kraal was a foreigner and part of the alliance. Therefore he was not subject to Melchus' discipline. Unfortunately Wilsus was.
"We are pretty sure they were troops from the Mymalar," said Kraal evenly.
"My-- Impossible!" Melchus shouted. "They hate the Aetolians almost as much as I hate all these damn Greeks." Melchus leaped to his feet and, swiftly drawing his dagger, pressed it under Wilsus' chin. "I want you to explain to me how six measly battalions could annihilate two entire legions!" Melchus was so furious he literally spat the words out.
"They, they tricked us, my prince," Wilsus bleated. He was certain there had been at least seven battalions of those demons pitted against them but he correctly figured Melchus would not appreciate the difference. "At first we thought as you did, sir, that they were only a couple of splintered units of the Aetolian Army. So we pursued them as ordered. But when we...when we reached the hills they, they turned and..." Upon recalling how his men had been slaughtered in that narrow valley poor Wilsus became so overwhelmed he could not bring himself to continue.
"I see," said Melchus coolly. Almost tenderly he put his hand to the back of Wilsus' neck. "It's all right, Wilsus, my old friend," he said soothingly.
"I'm sorry, Melchus," the man said morosely. He was on the verge of tears now.
"Yes yes, I know you are," Melchus cooed. In a swift, violent movement he then rammed his dagger deep into Wilsus' neck. His horrified victim's eyes bulged out as he feebly plucked at the instrument of his destruction.
As Wilsus began to sink to his knees Melchus caught him and followed him down. "Sorry is right, you worthless bastard," he hissed. "You have failed me for the last time." What was not lost on the other generals who were witnessing this little drama was the fact that as far as any of them knew this was the only time the unfortunate Wilsus had failed his chief.
As Wilsus lay there writhing on the dusty floor of the tent gagging on his own blood Melchus yanked out his dagger and casually wiped its bloody blade off on the dying man's tunic. "Get this incompetent son of a bitch out of here!" he snarled to one of his guards. "Mymalar huh?" he mused aloud as he watched the man he had known since boyhood being ignominiously dragged away. "That means Darinius." He watched with some disgust as his generals exchanged nervous glances with one another. "So you know him then?" he asked them with a sneer.
"Who hasn't heard of his victory over Classus at Benoa and of what he did to Paulus at Thessaloniki?" asked Effron, commander of the Tenth Legion.
It was here that Bladdok saw his chance to stick a very long needle in the man that nominally was his commanding officer. "Or for that matter--Xena," he said smoothly.
To the men in the tent it was as if a storm had raged in off the Aegean and hit the tent head on. "Don't you ever, ever mention that bitch's name in my presence, you hear?!" roared Melchus.
But Bladdok was not yet finished. "I am afraid, great Melchus, you will be hearing her name a lot more in the next few days."
"What do you mean?" Melchus asked suspiciously, his eyelids narrowing. Bladdok could not resist letting the arrogant prince stew in his own juices for a little longer.
"Tell me!" Melchus shouted, seizing him by his tunic, "or by the gods I'll--"
"You'll what?" asked Bladdok. "Murder me like you did that poor slob Wilsus?" Bladdok nonchalantly glanced up at the roof of the tent and went on, "Somehow I don't think my men would care for that, Melchus. After all, we are your allies not your subjects."
"With allies like you, Bladdok, I don't need enemies," growled Melchus.
It fell to the toady Westrum, Melchus' fawning chief of staff, to inform his chief of the very bad news. Delicately clearing his throat, he stammered out, "We ahh, we have reason to believe--sir...we have reason to believe that--Xena is--is..." Like a pig smelling its slop he raced on to his ultimate destination. "...now in command of the Aetolian Army."
For a moment the tent was eerily silent. Melchus swept his eyes over Bladdok, Kraal, and the rest. The bastards must think I'm going to piss my pants or something, he thought angrily. "This had better not be somebody's idea of a joke," he warned. "Because I'm not laughing."
"Oh it's no joke, Melchus," said Bladdok. It took all of the Slav's considerable self-control not to smirk in his face. It was no secret he detested Melchus and it was only because he and his men had been ordered by their own king to take part in this coalition that he was here in the first place. As far as he was concerned Melchus was not only an arrogant son of a bitch but a stupid one as well. Worst of all he had proved to be a very bad planner. Though their army was huge in numbers Bladdok, better than the rest, recognized its weaknesses. He knew all too well there were enough cracks in the foundation that if properly hammered at, could bring the whole structure that was their army crashing to the ground. For one thing most of their men, particularly Melchus', were not very well disciplined. For another, though well armed, a great many of the soldiers were conscripts with only rudimentary training. Plainly stated they were not as skilled as he would like. To be sure they had done all right so far but now they were entering a whole new phase. Now they would be facing none other than the legendary Warrior Princess herself.
Like most warriors of his day Bladdok knew well Xena's reputation as not only an unparalleled practitioner in the art of war but a master motivator of men as well. The army opposing them now would be a far cry from the rabble they had so easily brushed aside at Brillis. And then there was the added problem of Darinius. Bladdok had in the past spoken with some of those unfortunate enough to have been on the other side of the battlefield from him. To a man they had all told him the same thing, "Whatever you do, don't try to guess with the son of a bitch. He will outthink you every time."
But while he respected Darinius' abilities as a soldier it was the dark beauty Xena that troubled him. She was the one calling the shots here. He had studied her campaigns and he recognized her hand in the day's fiasco. Only the fierce Warrior Princess would have had the guts to split an already undersized army and sent that devil-dog Darinius off to wreck havoc on their unsuspecting Sixth and Ninth Legions. And while the others might be fooled into thinking her turn for the "good" had made her grow soft he knew better. Bladdok knew Xena for what she was--a killer with such relentless tenacity that once she set her sights on some hapless victim they very rarely escaped. Now those ice blue sights were set on them...on him! It was a thing he did not relish.
Melchus' sharp tone snapped Bladdok out of his deeply disturbing thoughts. "What is it?" he asked.
Melchus intently studied the man's face in the hope his eyes might him away. Bladdok's eyes, however, revealed nothing. "Has this been confirmed?"
"Yes it has," Bladdok answered. "We managed to take a couple of prisoners today and before they died of torture both of them told us the same thing. There is no doubt about it. Xena is in command."
"If what you say is true," Melchus said finally, "then this changes everything."
No shit, thought Bladdok bitterly.
"Will we be altering our plan?" asked Kraal.
"I have a feeling Xena will alter it for us," said Bladdok.
Melchus glared at him and said, "We must prepare. I want the patrols along our southern flank doubled and then doubled again."
"What about Darinius?" asked Effron. "If we are not careful we could find ourselves caught in a pincer movement."
"What if he and Xena link up?" asked Westrum.
"Gods damn it!" roared Melchus. "What is wrong with you people? We are the aggressors here! We will be the ones that will impose our will on the enemy. So stop your whining and get ready for battle." He walked over to his map and pointed the tip of his dagger at the red X marking Darinius' position. "Don't you fools see what is happening here? That bitch has sent him north not only to try split us apart but even more importantly to try to prevent Graccus from linking up with us."
"Then we must stop him," declared Kraal.
"I thought we just tried that," said Bladdok with feigned innocence.
"Bladdok, you vex me to no end," rasped Melchus. "When this is over..."
"It gains us nothing to bicker amongst ourselves like this," said Westrum after softly clearing his throat. "I suggest we concentrate on how we are to defeat our real enemy instead."
"Westrum is right," said Kraal. "I suggest we move north with the entire army and crush this Darinius like a little bug."
"We can't possibly turn north and leave five entire legions in our rear," said Effron.
"Effron's right," said Melchus, shaking his head, "We do that and Xena will bite our ass completely off."
"So what do we do then?" asked Kraal.
"Effron will take his Tenth Legion and move north--not to engage Darinius but merely to mask his movements. This will accomplish two things. First, it will effectively block him from harassing us and second, once Graccus crosses the river it will place him in the unenviable position of being caught between our own set of pincers." He again pointed to the map. "The main body of the army will form up on these hills...here. From there we will mount an all out assault on Xena's positions and destroy her."
"Then let us prepare," said Kraal.
"Do it then," said Melchus. "And twenty talents of gold to the man that brings me the head of that marauding bitch."
Bladdok stepped out of the tent and, shading his eyes, looked toward the sun hanging low in the western sky. Try as he might, he just could not shake the impending feeling of disaster now clinging to him. Xena! he thought grimly. Anybody but her. He shook his head as if to free himself from these gloomy thoughts and walked to his horse. Mounting, he silently rode back to his men all the while wondering if tomorrow's setting sun would find him still alive.
Xena kneeled down, quietly pulled back the bush, and stretched her arm toward their target. "That's it, Selares," she whispered huskily. "That's where I'm placing you."
Selares looked at the same distant hills his commander and the stranger Iolaus had reconnoitered the night before. The pale moonlight reflecting off them made them appear as huge ghosts silently standing guard in the night.
"Okay, let's go over the plan again," said Xena .
"But, Xena," Selares protested, mildly of course, "we've already been over it three times."
"You know what they say--practice makes perfect," she reminded him "Now tell me again what you're supposed to do."
Selares sighed and began, "I am to post half the Third Legion in these woods here and occupy those hills with the rest."
"And?" she coaxed.
"I am to deny Melchus the use of the main road so that we can clog up his rear echelons."
"Verrry good," his commander purred. "Just remember do not, repeat, do not allow Melchus to turn your flank. That's what these men in the woods are for. If you let him get around you here we are finished, you understand?"
The young man gulped inaudibly and looked her in the eye. "I understand," he quietly told her. "Xena, I swear to you on my mother's grave I will do everything in my power to stop him."
"I know you will," she said. "There's just one more thing."
"Selares, I will do all I can to ease the pressure on you but if you fail to hold this place for me don't come back alive and that goes for your second in command too." And there it was. Xena was throwing her last card on the table. She did not tell him this in threatening tones or even out of desperation. She was merely stating the conditions he was to operate under. What she didn't have to tell him was that if he failed to hold there would be nothing for him to come back to anyway.
"I understand, Princess," he said quietly. Looking at his face in the pale light Xena had been very impressed by the fact that the boy had not even batted an eye over her ultimatum.
"Good," she said, patting him on the arm. "Now get busy."
"Kahrner, Pantillius...over here!" he whispered loudly.
Xena got to her feet and departed, leaving Selares and his men to prepare for the morrow's battle. As she rode back into camp Templarion and I were there to greet her. Ever since waking me that morning Xena had been a whirlwind of activity. By noon she had made yet another visit to all five legion headquarters and then upon returning had sent me to fetch her big map which she had then flattened out under an oak tree while she and I ate our repast of parched corn and stringy venison. She must have sat there for one full turn of the glass, looking at the map as if trying to stare a hole right through it. Every time I tried to speak to her all I got for my trouble was a grunt or an "Uhh huhh." That afternoon she met with patrol leaders on at least six occasions, eagerly listening as they reported Melchus' latest movements. These she had dutifully plotted on her trusty map. On top of all this was her constant fretting over what was happening up north. So far we had not heard a thing. Toward evening she had summoned Selares and the two of them had rode off for parts unknown. That is--unknown to me at least. Anyway, it was well after dark when she returned and when she did we had some very good news waiting for her.
"Xena, read this" said Templarion. So great was his excitement that he did not even wait for her to dismount before giving her the message.
But Xena first had other matters on her mind. "Did Iolaus get off all right?" she asked. Earlier that evening she had sent our friend and twenty other men off on some mysterious mission.
"Yeah," Templarion said.
Of course it was too dark to read by moonlight so she slid off her horse in that peculiar way she had of dismounting and walked to a nearby campfire. Unfolding it, she read:
"Yesss," I heard Xena softly murmur.
"By the gods that's cutting them down to size," declared Templarion gleefully.
"Read on," I said. "There's more."
"That's the secret he was talking about," Xena noted wryly. She added, "That son of a bitch. He was already turning that over in his mind when I gave him his orders."
"What do you make of this?" I asked her. "I mean his tone seems different somehow."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," I explained, "don't you think he sounds, I don't know, stiff? And shouldn't he be asking for your approval?"
"It's just a note, Gabrielle. Besides, he's going to do it whether I approve or not." She then turned to Templarion. "Where's the messenger that brought this?" she asked.
"Being fed, ma'am," he told her.
"Gabrielle, get me a quill," she said.
I hustled into our tent and retrieved one. Giving it to her upon my return, she quickly wrote "Go for it!"--Xena, on the back of the same message.
"Fetch him and give this to him," she ordered. "And get his ass out of here."
"At once, ma'am," said Templarion. And off he went.
Watching him go, Xena let out a deep sigh. "Well, Gabrielle, that's it. We've done all we can do. All preparations have been made and the only thing left now is to fight it out."
Quietly I slipped my arm around her. "Xena, you must be worn out. Why don't you try to get some rest?"
"Huh," she snorted, "that's not likely. I still have a couple of details to hammer out in my mind." She reached back across my face with the palm of her right hand and placed it on my cheek. "You, on the other hand, young lady, have no such excuse. Go to bed, Gabrielle."
"I don't think so," I retorted. "Not without you." She said nothing but looked at me sharply out of the corner of her eye. I in turn moved away from her and took the hand on my cheek into my own. Tugging on it I urged, "Come on, Xena, at least lie down with me."
"Well, maybe for just a little while," she said.
We entered the tent and Xena made straight for her big chair. "Ahhhh," she moaned, slumping down into it. She stretched her long legs out in front of her and laid her head back against the headrest.
I went to her and took hold of one of her boots. "What do you say we take these off for a while?" I suggested.
Xena nodded her assent and stuck the toe of her other foot behind her heel to assist me. After her boots were off she looked down at her big feet with some amusement and wiggled her toes. Gods be praised I loved them just as much as the rest of her but honesty compels me to say Xena's feet were...well...kinda ugly. She had these long, thin toes and...I really can't describe them to you except to say they were a sight to behold. If you ever saw Xena you know what I mean when I say she walked with this kind of peculiar bounce to her step. I sometimes wondered if this didn't have something to do with those sled runners of hers.
While she sat there watching me I spread the blankets out on the floor of the tent. "Come on," I said brightly, patting the pallet after I had finished.
My lover groaned and rolled out of the chair and onto the pallet. "I gotta admit this feels pretty good," she said. She rolled over onto her back and placed the palms of her hands up under her head. For a time we just lay there quietly watching the flickering candle light dance on the roof of the tent. There wasn't a sound to be heard anywhere. It was almost as if the whole world was holding its collective breath in tense anticipation of what the morrow would bring.
Finally I flipped over on my side and looked at her. "Xena?"
Still staring up she replied, "Hmmm?"
"Now that you've been here for a few days, have you found that you--you know--missed it?"
"What, being in command?"
"I won't lie to you, Gabrielle," she said. "Being in complete command, to have absolute power over everything and everybody, is a very seductive thing. Once you have it you not only don't want to give it up but you'll do anything, and I mean anything, to keep it. I ought to know. It's what I craved for a very long time." Though I had, as they say, asked for it I found her candor a little disconcerting. Did she now in fact have some designs on keeping control of this massive army even after the battle was over? Assuming, of course, that we won.
As if reading my mind she looked over to me and smiled faintly. "But to answer your question, no, I don't miss it. To tell you the truth this whole thing is a big fat pain in the ass. I'd much rather you and I were out fishing somewhere." With a sigh she added, "But somebody's gotta do it."
It might come as a surprise to some of you to know that Xena liked fishing very much, when she could find the time of course. Which wasn't very often.
"And if not you, then who? Right?"
"Something like that," she said resignedly.
"Sooo when this is over we get to go our own way again?" I asked.
She looked at me curiously and replied, "Of course, Gabrielle. Why?"
"I don't know," I answered. "Just making sure I guess."
Xena pulled up one corner of her mouth to form that little half smile I knew so well. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm not going to turn into some evil warlord if that's what you're thinking."
"I know that," I retorted. "But it's just you...and armies...together...make me, well, nervous."
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle."
"Huh, not me," I snorted. I edged close to her and nestled my head on her strong shoulder.
For a time neither of us spoke. Finally Xena's clear voice cut through the silence. "Gabrielle?"
"There is a very good chance that both of us will die tomorrow. You know that don't you?"
"I know," I said softly.
"I want to thank you."
"For what?" I asked.
"For choosing me. For believing in me."
"I-I don't understand."
"Remember that first night when you followed me? Remember how you came to my fire and said you were cold?"
"And I was too," I said. Gods! That seemed like a hundred years ago.
"Well, I was ready to spank your butt and sent you home but I got to thinking about how you stood by me like you did it and it dawned on me that here was one who, for whatever reason, believed in me."
"Hmph, of course," I said, lightly kissing her on the arm. "And remember I wasn't the first one either. Hercules believed in you too."
"So did Lao Ma," she reminded me.
"Unchained hearts," I whispered.
"Every now and then I ran into others who could see past my hate but none of them ever did for me what you did."
"I didn't do anything, Xena. It was you."
"You're wrong. If it wasn't for you I think--no I know--that I would have fallen back into the old ways."
"I don't believe that for a minute," I said.
"Oh no?" she retorted. "Think, Gabrielle. How many times have you had to step forward and set me straight?"
"Not that many," I said.
"It only takes one," came her reply. She rolled over on her side and slipped her arm around my waist. "Gabrielle?"
"You know how Ares and some of the others used to always prate about destiny; their destiny, my destiny, the world's destiny?"
"I'd like to have a dinar for every time I heard that old line," I said.
"Just the other day I told someone (She did not mention Ares.) that there's no such thing as destiny, only the aftermath of choices made."
"A Xena line if I ever heard one," I said, trying to sound upbeat.
"Well--I was wrong. I do have a destiny, Gabrielle. You." I raised my head to face her but she placed her hand on my cheek and gently, but nevertheless forcefully, pushed my head back down on her arm. Something inside me told me I should not resist. "I believe it was my destiny to find you in that dark patch of woods. I believe it was my destiny to, at long last, after so many years of hate and loneliness, find someone who would stick by me through thick and thin, through the good..." Here she paused. "...and the bad and just be there for me. Not because of what they might gain by it or the power they might derive from it but because it was me, of what I had inside."
"I think you're confusing Destiny with Fate," I said.
"Even the Fates have no power over Destiny, Gabrielle," said Xena. "They might kill us but destiny will not be denied." And then she said, "The funny part is I think I loved you before I ever even knew you."
Where had I heard that before? I wondered. Then I remembered. My dream! In my dream I had spoken that line word for word to Xena. Now I understood its meaning. Xena was right. I was her destiny and, conversely, she was mine. There was no doubt about it. I thought back to another dream, the one I'd had in that inn outside Pagasae after I had fallen in the tub. Again--destiny. Could it have been any clearer? No.
"Xena?" I said softly. "Tomorrow, I-I hope Death comes for me first."
"Don't talk like that, Gabrielle," she said, scolding me gently.
"No, Xena, I mean it," I said. "Because I could not bear to see you die."
"Oh, Gabrielle." I felt something wet and warm hit the back of my neck. It was a tear of course. That was why Xena had not wanted me to turn around. She did not want me to see her.
"Xena, I love you so much. And I always will."
"My sweet little bard, love of my life," she said softly. "I want you to remember something. When we are long since dead and our bones are mere dust scattered to the four corners of the earth--still will I love thee. When a thousand years from now song, and play, and poem celebrate love without bounds they will be celebrating us--and still will I love thee. When the sun grows dark and our world is no more--still will I love thee. For a million eternities and more, Gabrielle, I will love thee."
Now I ask you, just who was the bard here? "Xena," I said, trying not to cry, "I will wait for you by the river."
"And there I will look for you," she said, her voice cracking ever so slightly.
Now I have spent some bad nights in my time. I remember one Xena and I spent in a barn after I had been wounded by the Persians. Xena was the only thing standing between them and Athens and of course it fell to her to stop them. I remember wondering then what it would be like to die. I wasn't the only one. Xena herself had said she would see me on the other side. Then there was that horrible night after Darinius had told me of Xena's apparent reunion with Draco. Even to day, fifty-five years later, I remember how sick my heart was. There were others too. Many others. For life on the road was not all cherries and sweetness. There was pain, and suffering, and no small amount of sorrow as well.
But this night! I am of the opinion that before the death of my beloved some five years ago this particular night was the absolute worst I ever lived through. Of course since her death every succeeding night has been the absolute worst I ever lived through. But that's another matter.
For a time we lay there in silence until at last I gave in to Hypnos' charms and drifted off to sleep. The last thing I remember was the sweet sensation of Xena's warm breath playing across the back of my neck.
"The men are in place, sir. Everything is all set."
Selares turned to the young man that had taken his place as commander of his old battalion and replied, "Good. Now, Jonas, make certain they stay there and above all keep them quiet."
"If your men have to go, tell them to do it right where they are. We damn sure can't afford to have these guys stumbling around in the dark," Selares cautioned him.
"Don't worry, sir," Jonas replied. "No patrol is going to detect us."
Selares, however, was not finished. "When daylight comes make sure the men keep their heads down and their weapons covered. I don't want any swords gleaming in the morning sun. You understand me, boy?"
It was here Selares caught himself. What did I just call him--boy? He knew Jonas was only a couple of years younger than he was. Damn, he thought ruefully, I'm beginning to sound just like Klonce. After Jonas departed Selares eased his way to the edge of the wood and stared out at the low hills in the distance. Though they looked like something that belonged in a landscape from some forbidden world he had roughly five thousand men, half his legion, sitting atop them.
He thought back to his commander's words, "Don't come back alive." For him and his men that could mean only one thing--they were expendable. He looked off to his right into the deep shadows where he knew his men were hiding...waiting. Well so be it, he thought grimly. But if I'm going to go I'm going to take a lot of Melchus' bastards with me.
Off in the eastern sky he now saw the first faint hints that Eos, the goddess of dawn, was returning. "Today's the day," he muttered under his breath. As news is wont to do in an army, the news of Darinius' great victory to the north had spread through his ranks like wildfire. He doesn't like us, he thought. I sure wouldn't look forward to meeting him on the battlefield. He knew well enough he was only helping them because of Xena. Nevertheless he took heart in the great general's victory. I have good men too, he thought proudly. But we are outnumbered and out armed. The only thing we really have going for us is the element of surprise--and Xena.
His mind turned to the fierce, dark haired beauty that had so quickly bent their entire army to her will. He wondered what really lay behind those icy blue eyes and that intimidating scowl. And yet he had not failed to notice the way those hard eyes invariably softened whenever Xena spoke to the beautiful fair haired woman that was her friend. It was as plain as the nose on his face that she cared deeply for the one known as Gabrielle. The petite woman seemed to be able to communicate with Xena on a level nobody else could. It was clear Gabrielle was the sole possessor to the key to the great woman's heart. Well, he thought, so what? Everybody needs to love--to be loved.
It was then a voice whispered, "General, we're having trouble with one of the catapults."
With a sigh Selares got to his feet. "Let's go have a look." As he followed along behind the lieutenant in the darkness he thought again of all the disadvantages they were facing. He reckoned that if they were to somehow win it would be what the Israelites referred to as a miracle. If only she could, he thought wistfully. If only Xena could work this...miracle. What a glorious day for Aetolia it would be!
A few leagues away at about the same time I awoke to find Xena gone. Looking to her chair, I noticed her boots and weapons were also gone. I was not surprised. Rising to my feet, I stepped to the front of the tent and peered outside. Sure enough, there was her unmistakable voice. She was speaking in low tones to Tracticles, commander of the Second Legion.
"Whatever you do," I heard her say, "maintain contact with Bowber. Under no circumstances are you to allow the enemy to drive a wedge between yourself and the First Legion."
"I won't, Xena," the man promised. For a moment all was quiet again and then I heard him ask "Ma'am, if...if the attack should fail, our line of retreat will be?"
"Nowhere," she said simply.
"I understand," he said softly. I heard the creaking of leather and figured the two of them to be shaking hands.
"Good luck to you today," said Xena.
"And to you, Xena. May the gods preserve you."
As she neared she fell under the illumination of the candlelight from inside the tent. "How soon?" I asked as she entered.
"As soon as the men have been fed," she replied. "It will be their last chance to eat for awhile." What was left unspoken was the grim fact that for so many of them, it would be their last meal.
Pointing to the food on the little corner table, Xena said, "You'd better eat something too."
You might as well, Gabrielle, I thought. As I munched on the luxurious repast of dried cheese and stale bread I watched with dread while the morning light grew stronger and stronger.
Presently there was a voice outside the tent. "Can I come in?" It was Iolaus.
She walked straight to him. "How much did you bring?" she asked expectantly.
"Almost a hundred barrels," he said.
"It's not enough," she declared, "but it will have to do."
"A hundred barrels of what?" I asked.
"Oil," said Xena. "With a little luck we can let fire do a lot of our work for us."
"You mean, burn them alive?" I asked.
"I think burn them dead is a more appropriate way of putting it, Gabrielle," said Xena matter-of-factly. Seeing the look of horror on my face she said, "This is war. Losers don't get consolation prizes."
She then turned to address Iolaus. "Take your men and dump the oil out over the area I showed you on the map. Melchus is sure to pass through there. As soon as his vanguard clears your position, set the oil afire and get the Tartarus out of there. That will be the signal for the general attack."
"Got it," said Iolaus.
He turned to leave but Xena reached out and caught him by the arm. "Iolaus?" I think for a moment she wanted to tell him how much she appreciated him standing by us--her but all she did was give him that approving little squint of hers and say, "Good luck."
Iolaus flashed her a very big grin, nodded to me and was gone.
"That guy," said Xena after he had gone, "has got guts."
Almost immediately Templarion came to the tent. "Your horses are ready," he announced.
Gods preserve us, I thought. I followed her out of the tent there waiting for me was Elston and the four big guys he had hand picked to be my color guard.
"You ready?" Xena asked, turning to me.
As I nodded my assent I did my best not to let her see me gulp. Xena, Templarion, and I then mounted our horses. As soon as I was in the saddle a soldier handed me the standard. "How do I...?"
"You hold it like this," the soldier replied, showing me. "In your left hand. I added this brace to your stirrup so you can rest the end of the standard on it." Taking the standard, he positioned the end in the little brace he had made for me.
"Let's go," said Xena as she prodded her horse into a gallop.
Following her example, I nudged the flanks of my little horse but just as soon as she bolted to life I felt the saddle give way under me and I found myself falling backward off the horse. Spooked by this, my horse reared up and finished the job. Stupidly I tried to maintain my grip on the standard but all this did for me was get the arm holding it slammed violently against the ground. Gods it hurt! Right away I knew I had broken it. That awful looking loop in my forearm told me as much.
Xena was on me in a second. "Gabrielle," she cried, "what happened?"
"Owwwww! I, I fell," I said, grimacing mightily.
Quickly inspecting my arm, she said, "It's broken."
"It doesn't take Hippocrates to see that!" I yelped as she touched the arm.
"Calm down," she said. She looked up at the men on horseback now encircling us. "A couple of you give me a hand here," she barked. Templarion and Elston dismounted and came forward. "Hold her down," Xena commanded.
"But, Xena I--"
"Quiet, Gabrielle. Now lie down." I did as she instructed. "Take her by the shoulders," said Xena. My warrioress took me by the arm and looked deep into my eyes. "Get ready."
I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable stabbing burst of excruciating pain. It was not long in coming. "Aaaaaa--ahhhhhhh!"
Through my own screams I heard Xena's soothing voice, "It's going to be all right, Gabrielle. I promise."
That was easy for her to say. Very carefully she laid my arm across my tummy and stood up. Walking over to a perfectly flat slat lying nearby, she picked it up and snapped in two over her knee. How that perfectly suited piece of wood came to be so conveniently close at hand was something that would cause me much rumination later on. Within no time she had a neat little splint affixed to my ailing arm. "There now," she said, " that ought to do it. In a few weeks you'll be as good as new."
Picking up the fallen standard still lying beside me she tossed to a burly soldier standing nearby. "You look like a strong healthy boy," she said. "You think you have half the guts of my friend here?"
"But, Xena," I protested, "I can do it."
She kneeled down beside me and looked me squarely in the eye. "No," she said bluntly. "Not now." Then with the faintest of smiles, she said "Tough break, Gabrielle."
"Thats not funny," I retorted.
"I know," she quietly admitted. Her intense eyes softened and she said, "I'll see you soon."
"Ohh, Xena..." I reached around her with my good arm and hugged her as tightly as I could. "Please be careful," I pleaded.
She winked at me and said, "I'll see you soon." She stood up and turned to Elston. You," she said. "You take care of her. Make certain she stays here, understand?"
"Do it!" she said sharply, her eyes flashing.
"Yes, ma'am," said Elston meekly.
I took her offered hand and she easily pulled me to my feet. "I have to go," she said. She placed both of her hands on my cheekbones and began to apply pressure. Not enough to hurt me, of course, but more than enough to make certain I had her undivided attention. "Don't do anything stupid, Gabrielle," she warned me.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I answered, a little angry.
"Yes you do," she said. She pulled my head forward and kissed me hard on the forehead. "Elston!" she barked. She jerked her head to one side indicating she wanted a word with him. As he walked her to her horse I saw him first glance back at me and then nod to her.
They're talking about me, I realized. Later I would learn that Xena had told him that if things went badly his sole responsibility was to see to it I got away safely--by force if necessary.
Xena swung herself easily up on her big horse and glanced back at me one last time before thundering off down the road, the others trailing after her. All I could do was stand there and watch her go. Elston took my horse's reins and tied them to the tether line. In an effort to focus my mind on something other than the pain in my arm I knelt down and idly began to inspect my saddle.
I wonder how...
Then I saw it. That saddle girth hadn't broken. It had been CUT! Oh to be sure someone had taken great pains to make it look like it had worn through but I knew better. As to who that someone could have been one solitary four letter word burned in my brain...Xena!
I rose to my feet and glared down the road. "Xena, damn you. Damn you!" I yelled it so loudly my throat burned.
The startled Elston ran to me. "What's wrong?" he asked anxiously.
"This!" I yelled, showing him the sabotaged girth.
"By the gods, it's been cut. But w-why?" he sputtered.
My teeth bared in anger, I growled, "To keep me from going, that's why." With my good hand I seized him by the shirt. Elston was at least twice as big as me, maybe more, and could have squished me flat had he so desired but I did not care. I was mad. Luckily he just stood there, eyes wide. "What do you know about this?" I demanded.
"Gabrielle, I swear to you on my mother's grave I know nothing about this."
I could tell by the look in his eyes he was telling the truth. My suspicions were confirmed. She had done it! All right, Warrior Princess, it's high time you learned you can't always have it your own way. "Help me to my horse," I said.
"You heard me," I hissed. "Help me on the horse." Xena, I thought angrily, I don't need any damn saddle to ride a horse. You taught me to ride bareback, remember?
"Uhh sorry, Gabrielle, I can't do that," he said. "Orders."
It was here I lost it and did something that I am not proud of. Even today it pains me to think of it. Poor Elston was only doing his job but I was so angry I lashed out with my foot and kicked him in the groin as hard as I could. Naturally he folded up like a wet wash rag. I immediately made for his horse nearby and managed to mount it with only a little difficulty. As I streaked down the road it felt as if my arm was going to fall off with every step the horse took But I didn't care. I had to find Xena. I had to be with her. Unfortunately, or--fortunately, depending on how one looks at these things, I got lost and ended up wasting precious time backtracking. At last I topped a steep ridge and there, playing out before my eyes, was the opening scene of a spectacle which even after fifty years is as vivid as if it had happened this morning.
Off in the distance I could see an absolute wall of fire gently curving to the northwest. This was Iolaus' handiwork and it was as though a terrible slice from some vengeful god had cut off a considerable portion of Melchus' sprawling army from the rest of the main body. Like beetles desperately scuttling to escape, Melchus' advance guard swung off to their left. It was then I saw them run smack into the green clad men of the Aetolian Army. Likewise Melchus' main body was forced to veer away from the flames but instead of reuniting with their comrades they found themselves under bombardment from dozens of huge flaming projectiles launched from the catapults Xena had positioned on a slope to the east. As the deadly things hit the ground I saw them skip like rocks over a pond, cutting huge swaths of destruction through Melchus' ranks. Even from my distant vantage point I could hear the screams of horses and men alike as they died in agony. In vain the enemy tried to set up their own catapults to return fire but one by one they were picked off by the amazingly accurate horrific fireballs. It was a horrible sight.
Turning my eyes back to Melchus' advance guard, I saw that the Aetolians far outnumbered them now and I knew it was only a matter of time before they were annihilated. As Melchus' army desperately tried to regroup I saw the main body of the Aetolian Army forward from the hundreds of spider holes and hidden trenches they had been waiting out the bombardment in and slam into their left flank. All this time I had been anxiously looking for the standard that should have been mine to carry. Where is she?
Then I saw her.
Proudly sitting erect on that big horse of hers, Xena rode into battle. Immediately I saw the black clad men of Melchus' army swarm around her only to be cut down under her sword like blades of grass before a scythe.
"Xena!" I heard myself scream. When I did Elston's horse broke free from me and bolted away.
Although the initial attack on the Army of the Five Tribes had been devastating Melchus still had a very formidable force at his command and as the bombardment began to peter out I could see his men were starting to regroup. From then on I dared not take my eyes off that standard lest I lose sight of it--and Xena. >From on end of that bloody battlefield to the other she went. Sometimes it seemed she was everywhere at once. One minute she was off the horse on the left flank recklessly throwing her own body in to plug up some breech in the line; the next she was remounted and cutting her way through a sea of the enemy to relieve some poor squad of men that had been cut off and surrounded. Everywhere she went Melchus' men fell like weeds before her.
Now in my seven years with Xena I had seen her fight hundreds of times. By not like this. Sweet gods, never like this! Mine eyes had never beheld this Xena before and gods forgive me for saying it but she was glorious to behold. Now I understood why Ares had so badly wanted her to return to him.
And speaking of the devil--or god if you will. I was so entranced by the bloody savagery unfolding below me that I did not notice the figure looming behind me. "She's not bad for someone out of practice, is she?" a smooth voice asked.
I whirled around and found myself face to face with the God of War. "What are you doing here?" I growled.
His charming smile hinting of amusement, he replied, "Is that a trick question? I am, after all, the God of War." He nodded toward the carnage below us. "What do you think of your goody-goody Xena now?" he smirked.
"She's doing what she has to do," I said.
He stuck his tongue in his cheek. "Yeah sure. You go right on believing that, Blondie." He walked up and stood right behind me. "Truth is, she's loving every intoxicating, delicious, bloody minute of this."
"That's not true," I weakly protested. Even though I did not want to believe him, down deep within me I had to admit that what he said certainly had a lot of truth to it.
"C'mon, Gabrielle, she's a warrior. This is what she was born to do."
"She could get killed," I said in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Her?" he smirked. "Not a chance." Reaching over my shoulder from behind, he did as Xena had done by laying his strong hands on my cheeks. Guiding my gaze to the fierce fighting on the right, he asked "See that? Xena's men have already flanked Melchus. As we speak Tracticles' Second Legion is spilling into Melchus' rear and cutting them to pieces. Pretty soon her Fifth Legion will split the enemy right down the middle like a ripe melon. And then, she will apply the death blow by driving the tattered remains of Melchus' army into those far hills there where Selares is lying in wait with his Third Legion."
But they're outnumbered," I said.
"So?" he snorted. "That just means they have more opportunities to kill. You see it doesn't matter now. Melchus' army is no longer a cohesive unit. Now they're just a mob or more accurately--a herd of sheep." I heard him inhale deeply through his nostrils. "Do you smell it, Gabrielle?"
Awed by the sheer magnitude of what I was seeing, I replied, "All I smell is the awful stench of death."
I heard him chuckle mirthlessly. That's where you're wrong. It's victory, Gabrielle. Sweet, glorious victory. By the gods, Xena, you magnificent creature," I heard him mutter almost wistfully, "you are one of a kind."
I heard a soft swoosh and the hands faded from my cheeks. Ares was right. Even one so inexperienced as myself could tell the Aetolians were winning.
And then it happened. As one of Xena's catapults launched one last missile its huge arm cracked causing the fiery projectile to fall well short of its intended target. As I watched in utter horror the thing bounced once and slammed straight into Xena's colors.
"Oh my gods!" I cried. "Xena!" Forgetting all else, I tore madly down the long, gentle slope toward the battle. Frantically I locked my eyes in on the place where I had last seen her in the desperate hope I might detect some sign of life. To my despair I saw none. "Gods please no," I remember repeating over and over.
I was streaking toward thousands of men still engaged in fierce combat but I didn't care. My only thought was of Xena. As I stumbled down that long hill the idea that she might well be dead began to fill me not only with unimaginable sorrow but a ferocious anger no--make that rage, as well. My heart began to fill with hate not only for the enemy but all of these men. To my way of thinking they were all responsible for taking my precious Xena away from me. As fan as I was concerned one was just as guilty as the other. All you bastards killed her, I raged inwardly.
I came upon two men that had apparently died by each other's hand for they were lying there on the ground locked in a final embrace of death. Pausing only a moment to glare pitilessly at them, I bent over and snatched up the slain Aetolian's bloody sword. "This ends it," I muttered grimly. "No more staffs, no more of that 'stop the hate' bullshit, from now on it's kill 'em all."
The noise was incredible. All around me were the sounds of sword clashing on sword, of men grunting, swearing, crying, and screaming in agony. Now that I was down on level ground I became aware of the fact that I had lost all bearing regarding where to search for Xena. I had no idea where she was now. All I knew was that I had to find her--if for no other reason than to protect her body. I knew well enough that if those marauding bastards of Melchus' found her they would undoubtedly mutilate it with malicious glee. I could not let that happen.
Dodging my way through the melee, I vowed that if this was going to be the last thing I did for my Warrior Princess, on my own life I would not let her down. I would defend my love's body to the death.
But as I made my way forward a huge enemy soldier confronted me. "Looks like they're scraping the bottom of the barrel," he sneered.
"Go to Tartarus, you fat bastard!" I yelled.
He rushed at me and I braced my legs and raised my sword in preparation for defending myself. He got to within two or three paces of me and was just about to strike when out of the corner of my eye something dark blurred past. The man's eyes bulged out and he stared down in horror at the spear that had split open his chest. I whirled to see who my benefactor was and there, rushing toward me, was the resolute Elston!
Taking the sword from my hand he roared, "Xena said to take care of you and by the gods that's what I'm going to do if it kills me!"
"I'm glad to see you too!" I shouted back. "But Xena's down, Elston. We've got to find her!"
He grabbed me by my good arm and yelled, "Come on!"
Let me tell you something, that Elston was plenty tough. Xena had a saying for guys like him. After fighting someone who had fought her particularly well (But nevertheless lost!) she would sometimes say, "That guy could lick his weight in wildcats." Well, Elston could lick his weight in wildcats. He led me across the battlefield hacking and slashing all that dared get in his way.
Suddenly over the din of battle, I heard someone yell, "Gabrielle!" Out of the smoke a familiar figure made his way toward us. His face was black and his hair was caked with dirt but there was no mistaking that diminutive form.
"Iolaus!" I shouted.
"What in Hades are you doing here?" he demanded. Seeing my splinted arm, he asked, "What happened?"
"No time to explain," I said. "Have you seen Xena?"
"Are you kiddin'?" he asked. He swept his arm out before him. "In this?"
"I think she's hurt," I said. Suddenly two black clad goons rushed us. Iolaus deftly dropped to one knee and tripped the lead attacker. As he fell my friend rammed his sword into the man's belly. It fell to Elston to take care of the other one. After ducking under a clumsy slash at his head, he swung mightily and caught his assailant flush in the neck. The man's head came off and fell to the ground with a sickening thud.
"We've got to get you out of here!" Iolaus yelled at me.
"NO!" I shrieked. "Not without Xena."
The last thing I remember hearing was the clank of Iolaus'
sword hitting the ground and his gentle voice saying, "Forgive me, Gabrielle."
I felt something hard crash into my jaw and a thousand colors exploded forth
in my brain. Then--total blackness...............
................"Gabrielle?" I awoke to the sensation of my head lolling back. "Gabrielle?"
I remember thinking, Is this what it's like to be dead?
"Aaaahhhh," I heard someone groan. Was it me?
"She's comin' around," someone said. I felt strong hands take me by the shoulders and hoist me up. A moment later my head was resting on someone's...lap?
"Gabrielle," the voice repeated, only softer this time. Finally, after much effort, I was able to raise the incredibly heavy shutters that my eyelids seemed to have become and gaze up at the misty forms hovering over me. A hand patted me on the cheek. "Gabrielle," the voice said, "snap out of it."
I squinted in an effort to make the images come into focus but my darn eyes just did not seem to want to cooperate. It was then I felt them--soft lips lovingly lingering on mine. Lips warm, and tender, and oh so familiar. "Xena," I whispered hoarsely, "you're alive."
"Yeah," I heard the voice--her voice--reply. "And thank the gods that you are too."
At last my rebellious eyes came into focus. There standing over me were my friends--dear Iolaus, the redoubtable Elston, the brave Selares, and of course, the one for whom I would have gladly walked through the fires of Hephaestus--Xena. All of their faces were streaked with a mixture of sweat, and dirt, and smoke, and yes--blood. But they looked beautiful to me.
"Welcome back, Little Warrior," said a black-faced Elston, grinning.
"You had me worried there for a moment," said Iolaus, with a sigh of relief.
"Get some water," Selares said to some unseen person.
I felt Xena's hand on my shoulder so I reached up and took it. "Did we win? Is it...over?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, it's over."
"I thought you were...oh gods, Xena, I thought you were dead!" I said, my voice quivering.
"Xena pulled me up to her and whispered, "Shhhh, I'm right here, Gabrielle. I'm right here."
Someone thrust a water bag to my lips and I tried to take a drink but I got it down the wrong pipe and the water spewed back out my nose. "Calm down, Gabrielle," said Xena gently. "It's all right. Everything is going to be all right."
"Later, Gabrielle," she cooed. "We'll talk later. Now you rest."
The two riders pulled their horses to a stop at the crest of a long slope. "There it is, sir."
Darinius stood up in the stirrups and swept his eyes down the long slope. There snaking through the landscape about a stadion away, its waters gleaming in the morning sun, was the River Peneus. "At last," he said under his breath.
"Your not kiddin'," his companion said. Almost thirty-six hours had elapsed now since Xena's epic clash with Melchus but he had not received one word from her. Since their victory in the Sectarian Hills the Army of Mymalar had streaked north on a forced march in a frantic effort to beat Graccus to the river. With no small measure of relief Darinius now realized they had accomplished their goal. But in doing so his men had almost reached the limits of their endurance and seemed to be in no shape to fight.
"Good work, Leo," Darinius said to his scout. Within an hour the bulk of his army was standing there with him gazing down upon their objective. He looked upon his men and he saw their slumping shoulders and their dull, listless eyes. They are dog tired, he thought. And tired men make mistakes. Tired men lose. "You've got to do something, Darinius," he told himself. And so he did.
He waited until the entire army had assembled on the point and then ordered them to spread out along the crest in a long line. As they did he walked about fifty paces down the slope and then turned back to face them. When he turned back all the murmuring in the ranks ceased and all eyes fell on him. Mounted on his horse behind the strewn out men, Marcus gazed upon the scene and wondered, What in Tartarus is he doing?
He did not have long to wait for his answer. "How many of you," Darinius began, "are tired?" Naturally everyone raised their arm. He nodded and said, "Well so am I." He smiled at them and continued, "But you know what? I'm damn near twice as old as some of you young bucks and I bet I can still beat every one of you boys to that river." He smiled slyly at them and fished his hand into his old campaign jacket. Pulling out a gray bag, he held it high above his head and said, "Should one of you candy asses actually get lucky enough to beat me there's a hundred dinars waitin' for 'em." He turned his side to them and just before he took off, he yelled, "Last son of a bitch in the river pulls double guard duty!"
Down the slope he bolted. Just for a moment the men stood there gawking at one another. Then Rellus yelled, "Get him!" And the race was on. From six thousand voices a tumultuous roar erupted as the men spilled off the crest and down onto the slope. Casting aside swords, helmets, lances, armor, and even their belts, the hounds gleefully raced after their wily rabbit. At the time Darinius was almost forty years old and though he had lost a step or two, he was still the fastest thing on two legs. While competing for Army Group West during his younger days in the Spartan Army he had raced no less than twenty-nine times and never lost. Needless to say he was quite a favorite among his superior officers because he won them a lot of money.
But this was one race the former Champion of the Laconian Games was determined not to win. As he drew to within fifty paces of the river he glanced over his shoulder. There, just as he expected, was Anon, the fleet archer from the First Battalion. Darinius let him close the distance until they were no more than an arm's length apart. For a moment it looked as if the archer would overtake him but Darinius kicked in an extra burst of speed and began to pull away. Just as it looked as though he was going to win Darinius stumbled and fell on his hands and knees in the soft mud. Anon shot by him like one of his own arrows and dove into the river.
"Anon wins!" yelled Darinius, rising to his feet.
By now other men were streaking past him and out into the water. "Hooray for Anon!" they cheered. "Hooray!" Gathering around the happy boy, they pounded him on the back and playfully mussed his wet hair. Darinius wiped the mud off his hands and stood there on the bank watching while the entire Army of Mymalar launched itself into the river. Soon they were singing, cursing, laughing, splashing and ducking each other.
"So who won?" Darinius turned to the voice behind him. It was Marcus.
"Anon," he said.
Marcus eyed him curiously and said, "But you never lose. What happened?"
"Uhh huhhh, sure." Marcus shot him a little knowing glance and dismounted.
"Hey, he beat me fair and square," protested Darinius innocently.
"Yeah right." Marcus walked down to where his second in command was standing and together they watched the men frolicking in the cool water. "I gotta hand it to you, Darinius," he said admiringly. "They look like a different bunch already."
Darinius smiled thinly and turned to the younger man. "Marcus, what you just witnessed here is a little thing," he said kindly, "but it's something you ought not ever forget. You see we train these men both in body and mind to fight, to kill. To do that you have to remove as much of the human element from it as you can. You have to teach a man to think of the enemy as faceless, nameless beings that exist only to take his life. Kill or be killed as they say. This is basic stuff. But herein lies a great trap. While it's necessary that your men think of the enemy this way a commander can never, repeat never, allow his own people to see themselves in that same light. You understand?"
"I think so," said Marcus, scratching his head.
Darinius walked down to the very edge of the river before continuing. "Once your men stop thinking of themselves as human beings that's when your army ceases to be an army and begins to turn into a mob. It more or less becomes every man for himself and discipline is maintainable only through the use of brute force. Now you can lead this way. Xena was this quintessential example of that. But sooner or later they will turn on you. Ask her. Men have to follow you because they believe in you, not because they fear you." He tilted his head toward the men in the river and said, "Never let 'em lose their humanity, Marcus. Treat them with respect, like men--like the decent human beings they are and they'll follow you to Tartartus to fight for you. And they'll win."
He smiled ruefully at his chief and said, "Looks like I'm pulling double guard duty tonight."
"No you're not," said Marcus. In a quick movement he reached out and pushed Darinius just hard enough to cause him to put one foot in the water. He then stuck his own foot out and dipped his toe in the water making him officially the last man in the river. With a big grin he said, "I am."
As they talked Erasmus came wading up out of the water toward them. "Brrrr, that water's cold!"
"What the Tartarus were you doing in there anyway?" demanded Darinius. "You're afraid of the water."
"I guess I just got carried away by all the excitement," Erasmus replied with a shrug.
Lesson driven home, thought Marcus.
Still smiling at him, Darinius said, "Let them play a few more minutes then get 'em out and feed 'em."
"Right," said Erasmus, nodding. "Anything else?" He knew there was.
"Send out patrols up and down both sides of the river. We have to make sure the fording places correspond to what we have marked on our maps. With a little luck we can hold 'em by the nose..."
"And kick 'em in the ass?"
"You're learning, boy" said Darinius wryly. It mattered not that the "boy" Erasmus was just two years his junior.
"Does Xena know we're doing this?" asked Marcus. "If she doesn't I'd give a year's pay to see the look on her face when she finds out."
"You let me worry about her," Darinius told him. "Erasmus, tell your partner in crime I want to see him."
"Right," repeated Erasmus. "'But I think you ought to let Acedemus stay in a little longer than the rest." He held his nose and said, "He needs the bath."
"In a couple of hours we will send out scouting parties to look for our friend Graccus," said Darinius.
"You think he's close?" asked Marcus.
"Well according to Xena I can expect him here if not this evening then tomorrow morning for sure."
"Then we'll be ready for him," vowed Marcus.
"That we will, Marcus," Darinius answered. "That we will." Only this time he thought, it will be your baby.
That evening Graccus' advance column appeared over the horizon. As always the Army of Mymalar's scouts found the enemy long before they were themselves seen. In fact most of the time the enemy's scouts never even lived to report back. When the scouts excitedly informed Darinius that the enemy's main body was a good two to two and a half leagues back he unexpectedly turned to Marcus and asked "So what do we do?"
Marcus did not disappoint him. Likewise seeing the great opportunity presented to them, he seized it with a vengeance. His decision to attack was based on the knowledge that even if Graccus was alerted it would be much too dark for him to do anything about it. So instead of lying in wait for them he ordered Erasmus' and Acedemus' battalions, which were already across the river, to set up an ambush. The plan went off, as they say, without a hitch. Swooping in on the enemy column from both sides Marcus' men all but annihilated the unsuspecting one thousand men of the advance guard. By the time the slaughter was over darkness had fallen. That night Acedemus ordered the bodies of the enemy thrown into the fairly swift currents of the River Peneus so that they might carry away any evidence of what had befallen his unfortunate men.
The noon the next day the victory over Graccus' army was complete. Not, however, without a price. Before they departed the Army of Mymalar buried five hundred and sixty-six more of its men in the soft earth of the river valley. As for the remainder of the defeated army they were disarmed, stripped of their footwear, and marched to the coast under the acrimonious eyes of two companies of soldiers armed to the teeth and hoping their captives would have the guts to try to escape. None did. Once there they were herded into huge pens where they sweated out their fate. Darinius and Marcus had decided to leave it up to Xena to decide what to do with them. Later she would order them loaded onto several ships and sent to Apsinthi in eastern Thrace. There they were dumped at intermittent points all up and down a barren coastline and told to fend for themselves. While some would die they could consider themselves lucky.
One break for both Xena and Darinius' men was that when the masking legion which had been sent by Melchus to tail Darinius learned of their commander's disastrous defeat at the hands of Xena they had immediately turned tail and bolted north for all they were worth. Xena's army itself was much too shattered to give chase so they simply allowed to escape. There had been enough fighting.
Among the fortunate ones who managed to avoid the hand of Death that day was Melchus himself. Upon seeing the tide of battle turn against him, the "great" prince had fled the battlefield leaving Westrum, Kraal, and the rest to their destruction. We later learned that he had avoided capture by murdering a farmer he had blundered into and then stealing his clothes. Some warrior huh? However I am happy to report that he got his just desserts in the end. It seems Bladdok, his own personal Nemesis, tracked him down and two months later, killed him while he lay sleeping under a birch tree.
A couple of days after the battle I awoke to find Xena staring down at me.
"Good morning," I said.
As I sat up and began to rub the sleep from my eyes she asked "How are you feeling?"
Taking stock of myself, I replied, "Pretty good. Better than yesterday for sure." I not only had a broken arm but a very sore jaw and a beauty of a shiner--courtesy of Iolaus.
"You'll live," she said tersely. "You just had a bad day that's all."
"Hmph," I snorted, "my lover breaks my arm and one of my best friends nearly breaks my jaw--yeah I'd say that was a bad day."
"Don't be mad at Iolaus," she said. "He and Elston did you a favor by getting you out of there, you know."
"And I suppose you think what you did was a favor too," I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
Her eyelids narrowed to mere slits and she moved to the edge of the pallet. "Get up," she said in a commanding tone.
I got to my feet and stood toe to toe with her. "I told you," she said, "I wasn't going to allow you to become some kind of dog-faced soldier."
"You lied to me," I said accusingly. And gods help me but I could not resist adding, "Again!"
This stupid, insensitive remark came dangerously close to opening up a whole other can of worms. One we both had hoped would be buried for all time. To my everlasting gratitude Xena chose to ignore it. "Yes I did," she said slowly in that throaty voice. "And you know what? I'm not sorry for it. I'd do it again in a second. If it takes lying to you or hurting you to keep you from committing suicide then by the gods, Gabrielle, that's what I'll do."
"You said I was a warrior!" I shouted at her. I curled my lip and added, "Or was what you said up there on Helikon a lie too?"
I saw her close her eyes in an effort to control her emotions. For a moment she set her jaw so hard I could hear her teeth grinding. Gods! Was she mad! But so was I.
When she at last spoke her voice was surprisingly calm. "One of the first things I ever tried to teach you was that you had to learn to pick your battles," she said. "Gabrielle this was not your fight."
"It was your fight," I retorted. "That made it my fight."
"Can't you get this through that thick skull of yours?" she asked fiercely. "I told you there is more to being a warrior than swinging a damn sword. Any thick muscled moron can do that but..." Here she paused and I saw her icy blue eyes soften. "...but not many can bring light and hope to dark and despairing souls like you do."
"You don't get it, do you?"
"Nooo you don't get it!" she shot back, poking me hard in the chest with her finger. "Bottom line here, is that an angry, beat up Gabrielle who hates me is infinitely more desirable than a Gabrielle who is just a treasured memory. I can't--and I won't--compromise on that. So get over it."
"I don't hate you," I said softly. "What I hate is the fact that I was not there with you."
"And for the rest of my life I'll thank the gods you weren't," she said. "You saw what happened. Templarion and every one of those boys in the color guard were killed. Had you been there it would have been no different." She laid her hand on my shoulder. "Gabrielle," she said gently, "there are fights and then there are fights. Can't you see that?"
I had to admit that I did. I mean I wasn't that dense. However for the sake of my own pride I couldn't appear to give in too quickly so I said, "Yeah yeah, whatever."
Xena saw through me like cheap linen but she let me keep up my air of misguided defiance. She gave me the faintest of approving smiles and said, "Come on, let's eat. I'm starving."
"Well at least there's something we both agree on," I snorted.
She bent over in a low bow and swept the arm that by all accounts had killed more than a hundred men in the late battle. "After you, Euripedes."
"Hmph, I beat him too, remember?"
I could end the story here but I would be remiss if I did not include the account of a couple more incidents that almost served to start another war. Later on this same day King Aurilius came riding into camp like he was the God of War himself. He immediately announced he would be a holding a great feast the next day at his castle to celebrate his great victory over the barbarian Melchus. It was all I could do to keep from puking when I heard it. Surprisingly, Xena said nothing. I think her only thoughts now were to get us the Tartarus out of their as quickly as possible and besides, she owed it to these valiant men who had served her so well to stay and salute them.
By now Darinius had been informed of Xena's victory and that evening he, Marcus, and every one of their battalion commanders showed up at our camp to personally congratulate her. It was a moving sign of respect because as I have stated repeatedly throughout this narrative, they simply did not like the Aetolians. Why? I don't know. Why do neighbors dislike each other?
Anyway, Xena, still acting in her role as Supreme Commander, invited them to the feast. At first our friends demurred but when Xena asked them to do it as a personal favor to her they finally agreed. This was where the trouble started for when they showed up at the feast the following day they were placed at the very far end of the long table which held the feast. This was an undeniable snub on King Aurilius' part. He sat at the far end with Xena on his right and Selares on his left. I, of course, sat next to Xena and when I heard her bring the subject of their placement up, that bastard Aurilius lied and said they had requested to sit there. Knowing their antipathy for the Aetolians Xena had no reason to doubt his word.
But the worst was yet to come. As the food was served I noticed that their food was not quite of the same quality as everybody else's. It was a slap in the face to these brave men that had done so much to insure Xena's victory. To my surprise they said nothing. But they didn't eat either. I did see the affable Erasmus shrug his shoulders and start to take a bite but one withering glare from his comrades killed that idea in a hurry. It was then the king called for his dancers and as they began to prance to the music around the dining hall I saw Darinius bore his burning eyes in on us. My gods, I thought, he thinks this is our doing!
"Xena, I..." I heard a crash and, looking down the table, saw one of the dancers had jumped up on the table and was now lewdly gyrating directly over our friends. I was so ashamed. Darinius folded his arms and with his face as red as blood he glared up at the dancer. But still he did nothing.
"Xena, you've got to stop this," I whispered.
"Why?" she asked. "They're only having a little fun." She had no idea what was happening.
I saw Darinius put his hand under the table but Marcus calmly laid his own upon his friend's. He whispered something in his ear and I saw Darinius nod solemnly. Later I learned that Marcus had said he wouldn't trade one Amazon drum for a thousand of these skin bangers. Being prejudiced myself, I had to agree.
Then came the clincher. Almost simultaneously two men entered through the far door. One I recognized as Rellus, the crusty sergeant I had met before we ever started. The other was a young Aetolian soldier with a very worried look on his face. Rellus went straight to his officers and bending down between Marcus and Darinius, whispered something to them. Likewise the young Aetolian came up to our end and bent over to speak in Selares' ear.
I knew it was trouble. I shot a glance down at Darinius' end of the table and already he and all his countrymen were heading to our end of the table. Now at last Xena sensed something was wrong. As our friends approached she stood up. "What's going on?" she asked Selares sharply.
"There's been an...accident," came his muted reply.
"What kind of...."
She did not get a chance to finish because by this time Darinius had arrived. Yanking Selares to his feet, he hit him right between the eyes. Of course that ended the revelry.
"Darinius!" Xena yelled. "What are you doing?"
"This son of a bitch killed one of my men," replied Darinius, spitting out the words.
"Impossible!" said the king.
"Keep out of this, asshole," said Darinius.
"Dariniuuuus," Xena warned, her voice low. She looked to Selares. "All right," she snapped, "just what in Tartarus happened?"
"Xena, I swear, I just found out about it myself," the man replied. "Trester here says it was an accident."
"Accident my ass," roared Darinius. He grabbed Selares by the throat and said, "You murdering bastards killed an unarmed boy!"
He was about to hit Selares again but Marcus caught his arm. "Is this true?" Xena asked.
"Tell her, Trester," Selares urged.
"I-it was like this, ma'am," the boy stammered. "Me 'n Gothis and a couple others were manning the southern roadblock--like you ordered, ma'am. Suddenly these two fellows came up on horseback and when we challenged them they tried to turn and run. We thought they might be spies, ma'am, so we shot at them."
"If you were unarmed and four heavily armed sons of bitches jumped and began yelling wouldn't you run too?" said Acedemus grimly.
"Let's just stop it with the name calling, okay?" said Xena. "I don't want to hear it again." Turning back to Trester, she said, "Go on."
The young soldier shuffled his feet and said, "Well that's about it, ma'am. Like I said we shot arrows at them and one of them just happened to hit one of 'em. Heck, ma'am, we thought they were out of range. Lucky shot, I guess."
For Darinius this was too much. Barely able to suppress his rage, he said, "Those two men were coming here to call us back to report to the Council. And now a fine young man named Merillion is dead."
"Oh my gods!" I gasped aloud. Merillion, if you will remember, was the young soldier Darinius had sent home because his mother had lost all the rest of her family to war. How cruel the Fates can be!
"Darinius, we'll conduct an investigation," Xena assured him. "I guarantee you we'll get to the bottom of this."
"That's not good enough," he said, never taking his eyes off Selares. "It's the commander that must be held responsible for the conduct of his men. And these men were under your command were they not?"
Selares nodded that they were. By now the place was so quiet you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. "There's only one way to settle this short of war," said Darinius darkly. He pointed to Selares and said, "You and me."
I felt a knot balling up in my stomach. I liked Selares. Except for the pompous Aurilius I liked the all the Aetolians. I had found them to be good people. I knew that if Selares faced off with Darinius the Aetolian would be dead before his sword was warm in his hand. Darinius was my friend--I considered Selares to be a friend. I didn't want them to fight.
It got worse for Xena looked Darinius squarely in the eye and said, "There's won't be any of that."
"We lost a fifth of our army fighting for these sons of bitches," said Darinius. "And this is the thanks we get."
"It was an accident," said Xena. She diplomatically omitted the fact that the Aetolians had lost no less than ten thousand men in the battle with Melchus--a far cry from the fifteen hundred or so of which he was speaking. "And besides, these men were no less courageous than yours."
Darinius shot an angry glance at her and said, "So you're taking their side, huh?"
"I'm not taking anybody's side," she retorted, "but the truth's."
"Stay out of this, Xena," he said. "This is none of your business."
"That's where you're wrong," she said. "You yourself said that the commander is the one that must be held responsible for the actions of their troops. Well, that's me."
"Is that what you want, Xena?" Darinius quietly asked.
"I'm not going to let you kill Selares," she just as quietly replied.
I thought my heart was going to jump right out of my chest. I couldn't believe what was happening. Great Zeus, were they actually going to fight? I knew I had to do something. "Wait a minute," I said. "You can't do this. Think of your vow."
His eyes burning holes in Xena, Darinius replied, "When someone decides that defending the murderer of an unarmed man is more important that breaks all bonds."
"If you're determined to take your pound of flesh then you're going to have to take it from me--if you can," said Xena.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I saw the people in the room part to their respective sides. Across from me were Darinius, Marcus, Erasmus, Acedemus, and Rellus--great warriors all. Standing with us King Aurilius, Selares, Elston, all the rest, and of course--Xena. The only one not to take a side was poor Iolaus. His allegiance lay squarely in the middle on this one. Darinius had taken him in off the road in his youth and treated him like his own son. He couldn't raise his hand against him but then again, he could never raise his hand against Xena either. So he just stood there like a post, torn as to what to do.
With a voice as cold as the mountain snow Darinius said, "Xena, if you think I'm afraid of you, then you've had too many raps to that head of yours. You might be better than me, then again...you might not. Either way, I'm good enough that you know I stand a good chance of getting lucky. And I do have a history of getting lucky."
"If you fight me you're going to need more luck than you think," she said.
They're going to do it! I thought frantically.
"Darinius," I said softly, "even if you win it's not going to bring Merillion back."
"I know that, Gabrielle. But that boy died for nothing. Now you tell me, how do I tell his mother that, huh?" This was what was really eating at him. He could cope--more or less--with the guilt and frustration of ordering men to die in battle because it was considered a necessary thing for the survival of his homeland. But for one of his boys to die on some nondescript road because some other frightened young man mistook him for a spy was another thing altogether.
"That's where you're wrong, Darinius," said Xena. "Merillion died just like the thousands of others in this war--doing his duty. You, above all people, should know that. And besides, there's more to doing one's duty than wielding a sword."
Now where had I heard that before?
"Do you really want to kill Selares--me--for the stupid mistake of a scared man? Merillion died trying to do the job assigned to him the best way he knew how. If you ask me he did his part. He died for his country. What more could possibly be asked of him?" She walked around the table and stood toe to toe with him. In an incredibly soft voice, she said, "That is what you tell his momma." She looked to her feet and then back up at him. "And if you want, I'll be there with you when you do."
The fierce warrior, as brave as anybody I ever saw, looked at her and his eyes began to well up. "I'd like that," he said very softly.
Once again Xena had solved a "problem." To say the whole place gave a collective sigh of relief would be a huge understatement. Poor Iolaus literally had to sit down and pit his hands in his lap to keep them from shaking. But no one was relieved more than I. Xena was my lover, the other half of my soul. Darinius was as fine a man as I ever knew. Even now the realization of how close they came to blows that day almost makes me ill.
Without another word Darinius and his comrades turned and left the hushed hall. "Come along, Gabrielle," said Xena. "I've had enough 'celebrating' to last me for a long time.
"You handled that wonderfully," I said. "But I have to admit I was worried there for a minute."
"Darinius didn't want to fight me," she said.
"You think he was scared?" I asked.
"Him?" she asked incredulously. "No, Gabrielle, he's just tired, that's all." When we got to the main door she stopped and eyed me impishly. "Now about that 'even if you win' crack..."
"Hey, it was just a supposition," I said lamely.
The next day found us preparing to depart. Xena had already said her good byes to the senior officers and as many of the common soldiers as time allowed. They in turn expressed their gratitude to her for turning their defeat into victory and for saving their homeland. They even asked her to stay on and help the new commander, Selares, reorganize the army but she was getting as antsy as I was and said it was time to move on. For me it was none too soon. Although I had made many friends here I was quickly becoming sick at the mere sight of that snake-in-the-grass Aurilius. To his credit thought, the guy had offered Xena a million dinars as a reward for her services. You know how much she took? Exactly enough to buy me a brand new saddle. That's it. As I have said countless times--the woman was amazing.
The one guy I just had to say farewell, though, was Elston. He had risked his life to save a crazed pest like me and for that I would be forever grateful. After I had hugged the big man and told him good bye he had clumsily bowed and said, "I am proud to have soldiered with you, Gabrielle." Looking back, he reminded me a lot of Gerth, the fellow that had accompanied me that first day on the road to Aetolia. Now that seemed like eons ago.
I was saddened to learn that Gerth, the shy behemoth that could eat glass and bake heavenly nutbread, was killed in the fighting at the River Peneus.
As I mounted my horse I got one more reminder of the mountainous Gerth when Xena placed her hand on my butt to give me a boost up. Someday, I vowed, I've got to tell Xena about him. Easing into the saddle I saw Iolaus bounce down the castle steps and come toward us. "So where to now?" he asked us.
"Well first we're going to keep a promise to Darinius," said Xena. "And then...I don't know." Looking up at me, she said, "What do you wanna do, Gabrielle?"
"Gee I dunno," I shrugged. "Whaddaya you wanna do?"
Unbeknown to poor Iolaus this was a something of a running gag between the two of us.
"We could go do battle with some Dryads," I said.
"Nah," said Xena. "Been there, done that."
"I know," I said, excitedly snapping my fingers, "let's go beat up a Cyclops!"
"Bully," she said accusingly.
"How about if we try to overthrow..."
"Hercules!" Iolaus yelped.
I wrinkled my nose and asked "Now why would we want to do that?"
"No," he cried, pointing behind us. "It's the real Hercules!"
"Come on, Iolaus, you must have...Hercules!" Xena yelled out.
And so it was. Turning in my saddle I saw the unmistakable form of the great hero sauntering toward us across the courtyard.
"What are you doing here?" Iolaus asked anxiously as he took his friend's arm.
Hercules furrowed his brow and replied. "I've come home. This is Greece...right?"
"Right," said Xena, positively beaming.
He curiously looked around him and asked, "What's all the fuss about?"
"You mean you don't know?" I asked incredulously.
"Know what, Gabrielle? I caught a ride straight here from the coast on a tradesman's wagon. We never stopped anywhere." Now, finally, he got around to noticing my bum arm and my multicolored face. "Say, what happened to you?" He glanced to Iolaus and Xena standing there with their knowing grins. "Did I...miss something?"
Sheesh, I wanted to slug him.
"You might say that," said Xena with a wry little grin.
Iolaus took his friend by the arm and off he went, "Hercules, you're never going to believe what happened. I was on my way to Thebes when these guys jumped me and..."
Well you know the rest.
That's Easy For You to Say (or Aphrodite's Revenge)
"I told you, Xena, down and--a little more to the right."
"You think by now you'd know where," I said in exasperation.
"Stop squirming! Here?"
"You're too far down. Xena, you always go too far down. Up a little more. Mmmmm, that's it. Ohhhhh, yessss, that's it. You've got it now. Ohhh yessss, ohh yessss, uhhhhhh, oh gods, that's it. That's it. Aaaahhhhhhhh. "Ohhh, Xena," I moaned, "that feels sooo good!"
Xena pulled the little stick out from between my splints and tossed it to the ground. "Honestly, Gabrielle, the way you carry on."
"Hey, I can't help it because my arm itches," I retorted.
Xena shot me a wry look and said, "Well in a couple more weeks that arm of yours will be healed enough to take the splints off and then you can do your own scratching."
It was none too soon for me, I can tell you that. For a solid month now I had lugged that ungainly thing around and to tell you the truth I was sick of it. Since our epic adventure in Aetolia Xena and I had not done much of anything. Outside of a quick return trip to Darinius' homeland we had just sort of let the next road decide where to take us. It seemed to me Xena had purposely avoided contact with the outside world as much as possible. I don't know if she did this for my benefit or whether it was because she felt the need to put her own mind to rest. As always she remained outwardly imperturbable but I had the feeling the late war had affected her more than she wanted me to know. It had certainly affected me. The nightmares had by now eased some in their intensity but it would be many more months before they went away completely. The one that kept coming back the most was the way that guy's head rolled off his shoulders when Elston decapitated him.
Today, however, the war was a long way from both our minds. We were on the road due north of Pilassidi and had just finished eating our lunch. Spring was in full blossom now with all the lovely colors and sweet aromas that come with it. While Xena went to fetch the horses I walked over and idly picked some of the peonies lining the road. Although I had remained sore at Xena for a couple of days for what she did I could never be angry with her for very long and had long since forgave her. I think a lot of my problem with her during these clashes we had was that whatever position she took, invariably she was right. I don't care who the person is or how much one loves them it can nevertheless begin to grate on you when they always seem to be right. Especially when it concerns your own self. But like I said I never could stay angry with her for very long. I just loved her too much.
"Well, here you are," Xena said, handing me the reins to my horse.
Suddenly I felt an urge for the capricious. "And here you are," I replied. In the blink of an eye I reached up and put one of the peonies in her long, beautiful hair.
"Hey!" Xena recoiled slightly and put her hand up to the flower. "What do you think you're doing?" To say that she was not one much for the aesthetic would be like saying Homer could write a little bit. She pulled the flower out of her hair and held it up to me.
"I don't know," I said, properly chagrined. "I just thought..."
She smiled very faintly and squinted at me in that curious way she had of showing her approval of something. Ever so gently she affixed the flower above my ear. "It looks much better on you," she said softly. Xena did have a way about her.
Suddenly she furrowed her brow and glanced about her.
"What is it?" I asked. I had long since stopped being amazed at her sensory powers. Her ability to detect, to smell danger was something I took for granted anymore. "Is something wrong?"
"I don't knowww," she replied. "Something..."
She turned to put me on the horse but in doing so bumped me causing me to drop the reins. She no sooner bent down to pick them up for me when WHAP! something hit me like a runaway horse.
Seeing me stagger, Xena stood up and grabbed me. "Gabrielle, are you all right? What happened?"
I shook my head to clear out the cobwebs and looked up at her. "Gleeb du lotsam." ( I don't know.)
What the Tartarus was that? I wondered. "Poristan blak fennam durst." ( I felt something hit me.)
"Gabrielle, you're not making any sense," said Xena.
Suddenly we heard that familiar whoosh that could only mean one thing--a god. And trouble. "Ooops," a squeaky voice said.
"Aphrodite," said Xena disgustedly. "I thought I smelled something. This is your doing."
"'Course," she replied. "Except the spell was meant for you, Xena." She tilted her head to one side and said, "How did you know when to duck?"
I looked up at Xena in shock. "Isto callis?" (Did you?)
"There ain't no use tryin' to talk there, Shorty," said Aphrodite. "That spell I hit you with took away the thing you do best. For you that's communicating." She walked over to Xena and felt the biceps on her arm. "For youuu, that's fighting." She sighed and said, "Bummer that I missed you. Oh well, my aim never was much good."
"What's this all about?" Xena demanded, yanking her arm away.
"It's not cool to be a fool," said Aphrodite. "Or to act like one either."
"What are you talkin' about?" asked Xena menacingly.
"Think Helikon," she said brightly. "Think...Ring of Aeneas."
"Uhh boy, I thought. So Aphrodite will have forgotten all about this ring and this place, huh, Xena? Wrong!
"So that's it," smirked my warrioress. "You're a sore loser."
"You stole that which was mine and killed poor ol' Python to boot," said Aphrodite accusingly.
"What can I say?" Xena snorted. "I don't like snakes. And besides, you were the one that stole the ring originally."
"Was I?" she said, furrowing her brow. "Oh yeah," she giggled, "I was, wasn't I? Anyway, Aeneas had it comin.'" She tilted her head back and shook her long, golden locks. "Myself, he was such an ass." Only she would have been so vain as to refer to herself in an oath.
"He was your son," said Xena.
"Ooooh, listen to Little Miss Homemaker here," sneered the goddess. "I'm sure you know all there is to know about child rearing." The silly grin disappeared and she added, "You called me a bubble head and for that you must be punished."
And there it was. This was what she was really angry about.
"All right, punish me then," said Xena evenly. "Not her."
"You ought to know how it is with this god stuff by now," said Aphrodite, her good humor returning. "What's done is done and it can't be changed." She looked at me and said, "Hey, no hard feelin's, Kid. Personally I like ya. Ya got spunk."
"Change her back," said Xena in her low, throaty voice of doom.
"Can't, Muscles," she replied.
"And why not?"
"Hey, it's a god thing. You know how it is." She cocked her head to one side. "Uh oh, gotta run, that crazy Vertumnus is cross dressing again. Toodles."
"No wait!" Xena yelled. With her usual flair the goddess vanished. Xena raised her fist in the air and shook it. "Aphrodite, damn it, you come back here! You can't leave her like this!"
"Frammin conglomo ottumus," I cried out. (Aphrodite, please come back.)
Xena sighed and scratched her head. Moving to my side, she asked "Are you all right?"
"Monosodium glutamate?" I asked incredulously. (You kiddin'?) Although she could not understand me the tone of my voice spoke volumes to her.
"Calm down, Gabrielle," she said. "We'll figure something out."
"Ycul, hoss munda pregis?" (Xena, what are we going to do?)
"There's no use tryin' to talk, Gabrielle. It's all just gibberish."
Suddenly an idea came to me. I snapped my finger and beckoned Xena to follow me. Opening up the saddle bag on my horse, I reached in and pulled out a scroll and a quill.
"Ohhh, I get it," said Xena, nodding approvingly.
Eagerly I set the quill to the scroll and began to write. #~#$%^<()()%$.
"Your writing is just squiggles and lines," said Xena.
"Klag gordison sen mastidar!!" I snarled, balling my fists and crumpling up the scroll. No translation on this one. Suffice it to say I was very angry.
Stamping my foot in frustration, I turned to the warrioress. "Ycul, balcory up or gone?" (Xena, what are we going to do?)
Xena made a sympathetic face and put her arms around me. "There there now," she cooed. "It's going to be all right."
"Poop a doo," I lamented. (Everything happens to me.)
It was then a detected an odd movement in Xena's chest. Her tummy started to quiver and I heard her snort ever so softly. She was laughing. So help me Zeus, she was laughing! I pulled back and looked up at her in bug-eyed dismay. "Grissly par!" (You're laughing!)
Xena sucked her lips up in an obvious, but very pathetic attempt to stifle her snickering. "Now (Snort) Gabrielle, you know I'd (Snicker) never laugh at you."
"Piloto morda good?" (You think this is funny?)
Somehow she got that one all right because she said, "Well you gotta admit...I mean you of all people!"
"Dichem en crismore, Ycul!" I yelled at her. Another one that shall remain untranslated. "Fruglehoffer!"
By now Xena was beyond holding it in. She was gone. She threw her head back and roared. She laughed so hard tears were just rolling down her face. Frantically I tried to convince her that this was no laughing matter. "Ycul, see bladdistoler clovis." (Xena, you've got to do something,)
Well, darn her, she did. She wrapped her arms around her tummy and bent over, laughing so hard she was wheezing for air. For about a minute she did this before finally standing up and putting a hand on my shoulder. "Don't look so gloomy, Gabrielle. I think I know how we can remedy this."
She tilted her head toward my horse and said, "I'll show ya."
All her life Xena never was one to fear the gods. And truth be told, some of them such as Hades and Ares treated her more or less as an equal. Such was the respect they had for her. On this day another one would be touched by her relentlessness. Mounting our horses, we headed straight for the nearest of Aphrodite's temples.
Upon our arrival at the temple she dismounted in that singular rocking motion of hers. "Stay here," she growled. She then stalked up the steps to the temple and yanked open the door. After a few moments people came streaming out shrieking with fear. Inside I heard crashing noises and a whole lot of yelling. Xena was trashing the place. Disobeying her yet again, I hopped off the horse and ran up the steps. Sure enough, she was inside tossing huge urns around like they were cups and growling in that frightening guttural tone she used so well.
"Come on, Aphrodite!" she yelled. "Ya better show up soon or there won't be nothin' left!"
"Just what is your prob, Missy?" a voice queried from the ether.
"I want my friend back like she was before," growled Xena. She snatched a bust of the goddess off a nearby stand and hefted it in one hand.
"No no, not that one," the voice entreated. "I got that one at a close out sale. There's not another like it anywhere."
"Then show yourself," demanded Xena.
Aphrodite appeared and to my embarrassment she was stark naked. "Oops," she squealed, putting a hand to her mouth. "I forgot, mortals have this hang up about clothes. Be back in a flash." She snapped her fingers and vanished for just a second and then reappeared. "Sorry I took so long, dudettes," she yawned, "but it's hard to choose what threads to wear." Again she squealed. "I have so many, you know."
"As far as I can tell you always wear the same thing," said Xena.
"So do you, precious," the goddess retorted good naturedly.
Gotcha on that one, Xena, I thought.
"Let's get down to cases," said Xena. "Either you take the spell off my friend..." She leered at the goddess. "...or so help me Zeus I'll trash every one of your temples from here to Macedonia."
"What's to keep me from just, like, zappin' you, ya know?" the goddess asked nervously.
"Oh I don't think you wanna do that," said Xena, smiling evilly. "See I got friends in high places too. Or in the case of Hades--low places. Ares, Hercules, even Death think rather highly of me and I don't think they'd appreciate you turning me into lightning droppings.
I thought that was a pretty good line. Gabrielle, I reminded myself, you'll have to remember that one.
"Honey, you need to unloosen that girdle of yours a little," said Aphrodite. I have to admit, she was a pain in the ass but it was impossible to dislike her.
"Well?" said Xena, raising an eyebrow. "What's it gonna be?"
Aphrodite sighed and said, "It is so hard to get good temple guards these days." She flashed that killer smile of hers and said. "'Kay, you want the kid back to normal? Then so be it." She pointed her finger at me and I once again felt a jolt.
For a moment I just stood there, not daring to speak. "Well come on, Gabrielle," Xena said impatiently, "say something."
"Right all sound I do?"
"Damn it," said Xena, gritting her teeth, "now she's saying the words backwards!"
"Hey, don't get your..." She looked down at Xena's crotch. "...whatever it is you wear in a wad. I'm new at this one."
"I never would have guessed," said Xena caustically. "Now try again."
Aphrodite sighed and zapped me again. They both craned their necks forward, anxiously waiting for me to speak once more.
I opened my mouth to speak but to my dismay nothing--not a sound came out.
"Is there somebody else I can speak to?" asked Xena, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
"Hmph," the goddess snorted. "As ih-uf." Aphrodite was the only one I ever knew who could take a simple word like "if" and make a whole sentence out of it.
Xena picked up the bust again and growled, "I'm giving ya one more chance before this gets turned into dust."
"This is getting to be such a drag," allowed the goddess. Pointing her finger at me, she once more loosened her godly powers.
She must have given me an extra dose that time because that one hit me particularly hard. "Well?" both of them wondered aloud.
"In the time of ancient gods, warlords and kings...a land in turmoil cried out for a hero."
"By the gods you did it!" yelped Xena.
"Ooo-oohh, I did, didn't I?" squealed the goddess gleefully. "I am, like, sooo powerful." She expectantly shifted her gaze first from Xena's face to the bust she was holding.
Xena carefully set the bust back down on its stand "Say something else, Gabrielle," she said, smiling at me.
"This is the story of a time long ago, a time of myth and legend..."
"Okay," she said, quickly holding up her hand, "that's...quite enough. But under her breath I heard her mutter, "Uhh boy."
"Well gotta run," said Aphrodite. She looked about the wrecked temple. "Say uh, in gratitude for my services you wouldn't ahh...?"
"Don't even think about," said Xena ominously. "I don't do floors."
With a shrug the goddess snapped her finger and disappeared, "Later, taters," we heard her call out as she departed.
"Well that certainly was interesting," I said. "You know, Xena, it's times like these that really make one appreciate just what they have in life. I mean you never know what you've got till it's gone, right? Why I remember the time...."
Xena rolled her eyes and looked up to the ceiling. "Wait! I liked her better the other way, you know the quiet one!"
She was only kidding of course. At least...I think she was.
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