The Warrior's Journal
She picked up his sword and tested its edge. A raised eyebrow caught him scrambling for his whetstone. No words were spoken. That was like her. Never wasted words. Didn't need to. He understood. Everyone understood. A look, a smile, a frown, her eyes... stronger than any spoken language.
Panther-like, she moved to the next fire. I stood just behind her; her shadow. Quill and parchment at hand, I waited silently. She looked over the half dozen men at the fire and smiled warmly as her eyes rested on a large brute with a heavy beard.
"You found new boots, Melanedes," she said.
"That I did. Last village. M'feet feel so good I'm dancing half the day."
She laughed, and the others joined her. I remained still, not wanting my presence to intrude. But I watched her. Always, I watched her. She was like a magnet, drawing them to her. When she neared, people leaned toward her, as if pulled to her by an inexplicable force. I don't think she ever noticed, but I did. I found it almost amusing how instantaneous this reaction was. The pull of her. Drawing in energy, then converting it to power which radiated from her; feeding everyone who stood near. Even a minute or two with the Warrior Princess could embolden the weakest of men.
"Now we just have to find you a harlot willing to dance with you," she said, causing more laughter. Melanedes had such bad luck with women even the whores would have nothing to do with him.
"Aye, Xena. Then I'd die happy," he said.
She put her hand on his shoulder and he straightened; his chest expanding as if he was a waterskin being filled at a fountain. "Then I withdraw the offer. I'd rather you stayed around a good long time, old friend," she said with genuine warmth.
He nodded, emotion stealing his voice. She had that effect on people. Made them mute because words were never adequate to explain how it felt to be one of hers. To fight for Xena, well, it was the pinnacle a man with a sword could reach.
The next group were in the middle of a dice game. The bets were high; plunder had been good. She stood at the edge of the circle, her eyes assessing every man, noting his winnings and losses, the fervor in his eyes, the energy, the temper -- everything was grist for her powers of observation.
"Hades!" shouted one man as the dice went against him. His opponent cackled, drawing a large pile of dinars toward his crossed legs. The loser scowled, his hand inching toward his knife.
"I wouldn't if I were you, Petrius," she said softly.
Slowly, Petrius turned around, her sword a hair's breadth from his cheek. "He cheated," he said coldly.
"I didn't see a cheat. What I saw was a stupid bet. You deserved to lose."
Petrius hesitated. Cautiously, knowing that a sudden movement could mean his death, he inched his hand away from his knife. "Looked like a cheat to me," he mumbled, already defeated but pretending that he still had a voice.
"Next time, look closer," she said, pulling her sword away from him with a swift jerk, emphasizing the alertness of her blade. "Maybe you should take a look around the perimeter."
"And give up my chance of winning it back?" he growled.
"Win it back tomorrow. When your luck has turned. Right now, you're on guard duty." A hesitation on his part. "Go." It was an icy command. Petrius stood, staring her eye to eye for long moments, neither of them moving. I was just out of sword range. Learned that lesson early on. Never stand too close because her blades know their way out of their scabbards too easily. And you don't want to interfere if she needs room to fight.
Petrius was almost a head taller. A giant, whose bulk made him look like a human wall. But size doesn't matter when it's a contest of wills. And no one's will is stronger than hers. He turned on his heel and left the firelight. I have no doubt that he spent the rest of the night guarding the perimeter. You don't defy the Warrior Princess and live.
"Game's over, boys," she said quietly and no one argued.
She continued to work her way through the camp. Each campfire was visited. She shared a laugh with one group, broke up a fight in another, and sampled some homebrew in a third. One fire stood separate from the rest. The sounds of soft singing wafted across our skin as we neared. Andreas' haunting voice entered us as we arrived at the fire. I looked at her then. Unobtrusively, so that she'd continue to think herself unobserved. The firelight flickered on her moist eyes and I felt my own respond to the sight. There's something about seeing this formidable woman moved to tears by a haunting melody that cuts through me every time.
When Andreas finished, she said, "I haven't heard that one before. Did you just write it?"
Shyly, he smiled, nodding. "Aye, Xena. Needs a little work, though."
"It's beautiful. What a gift you have," she said, hunkering next to him. She placed her hand on his forearm and squeezed, her eyes never leaving his face. Andreas was young; barely more than a boy. He blushed furiously at the attention, dropping his chin as he tried to regain his composure. "Will you sing another?" she asked, softly.
"Aye," he whispered, and began to sing in his crystalline voice, every note a poem.
She was silent then, her eyes closed. I imagine she was picturing the scene he painted, as I was. Two lovers, separated at sea in Poseidon's storm and longing for each other as they slowly lost their strength. In the end, their drowned bodies washed up on shore together, having found each other only in death.
She bestowed a soft kiss on his beardless face. "Thank you," she said, then slipped away before he raised his lovestruck eyes.
Again, I marveled at her ability to shed her softness as the next fire brought us into the middle of a nightmare. One of her rules outlawed rape. She didn't like it. She kept a generous amount of camp followers fed and clothed and insisted that her men avail themselves of these 'volunteers' as opposed to the innocents in the villages we plundered. It wasn't a popular rule. Most of these men were used to taking whatever they wanted, and didn't like anyone telling them what they could and could not do. They put up with it, because she was generous with her profits and successful in her campaigns. Other warlords might allow them more freedom, but no one was going to give them the spoils that the Warrior Princess provided.
But as happens, these men thought that they were above the rules. They were newly joined and had scoffed at her laws. In the last raid, they had spirited away three young girls and were in the middle of taking turns on each of them.
The sing of her scabbard was deafening as the blade tasted the night air for a second time that evening. And within minutes, it wore a skin of blood; her warcry fading only when the last man lay inert in the dust. The three girls stared at her not as a savior, but as if she was Hades himself. I could tell they had considered themselves almost beyond fear, after the last few hours. But it was rekindled at the sight of this raging warrior.
She looked down at them, her eyes masked, a muscle pulsing in her jaw. "You're from Zarkos?" she asked. One of them nodded. "Dimitri," she said without looking at me. "Get them to the healer and arrange for safe passage home."
I turned and signaled to three of the men who had wandered over to watch the fight. They gathered the girls in their arms, the poor victims flinching and mewing in fright at their touch.
"Don't worry," she said, laying a hand on the nearest girl. "It's over now. No one else will harm you." Then the warlord emerged and she gave the three men an icy stare. "See that my word is not broken."
All three nodded vigorously, knowing that their deaths would be far worse than the rapists if they failed to carry out this order.
And again, we left the firelight, continuing in our circuit. It was her custom to visit every man before a big battle. She never lost touch with who fought under her banner. So we walked and visited and laughed and fought and sighed and joked and made our way slowly through the throng.
The last fire found her squatting next to a wounded soldier.
"Any more dizzy spells?" she asked him quietly, looking at his eyes, her fingers probing his wound.
He flinched, but his smile told her he could bear the pain. "No. I'm much improved. I can't thank you enough for--"
"Shhh. There's nothing to thank me for."
"You saved my life."
"It was worth saving," she said, then gracefully stood, surveying her army, her thoughts unshared.
Her enemies never understood her. The bards never wrote about the whole woman; only the warring facade. They didn't realize that behind the mask of the bloodthirsty warlord; the Destroyer of Nations; was a woman who cared deeply for the men who fought beside her. I'm not making excuses for her. She'd have my neck if she thought that. No, I'm just saying that the warrior who killed without mercy on the battlefield could also tend a wound with gentle fingers. And that the warlord who could descend on a helpless village leaving death and destruction in her wake could find the time to worry about a soldier's boots, or cry soft tears at a love song or save the lives of innocent girls.
Ah, but she was a mass of contradictions. She'd coldly dispatch a man to his death, simply to send a message. She'd seduce friend and enemy alike, if it served her purpose. She'd steal the winter stores from a village without a thought, then hand a beggar her last loaf of bread.
When I became her scribe, I tried to figure her out. Tried desperately to discover who this woman was, inside. But it would take a better man than I to unlock those secrets. Sometimes I wonder if the person exists who could get past those walls.
She's had a parade of lovers. Men, women, young and old. It was as if she was searching for that one person who could set free the light within her.
Now you're laughing at me. Light? In the Warrior Princess? Impossible! Well, you're wrong. I've seen it. In glimpses. In shards. In prismed rays, broken and colored, but there, nonetheless. Oh, she hides it well. She wears her darkness like a cloak, pulling it around her; burrowing into it as if it is a comfort. But how can darkness comfort? I've always wanted to ask her, but never had the nerve.
Some day, things will change. I hear the rumblings. A small cadre of men think she's getting soft. No killing of women and children. They buck at this. But she stands strong. It's her army and they'll live by her rules.
Loyalty. It means so much to her. Yet I have great fears. Because one day, someone will come along who'll offer greater plunder with less rules. And the loyalty will shift, because men are weak. Her kind of strength is rare. Most of us are ordinary. Most of us are small.
I fear that wretched day, for it will mean her death. Even the Warrior Princess can't survive the gauntlet. And that's what they'll demand -- if only to prove she's human. And on that day, I'll have to record her death. The last entry in the warrior's journal.
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