The skin on her face stung as though burned. Holding a cool palm to her cheek, Gabrielle glared at her mother in defiant silence.
And there stood Mother, staring back at her, posture confident and relaxed, her eyes sparking with seething anger.
"Where the fuck have you been?"
"Out," Gabrielle replied tersely.
That brutal hand swung at her again, but this time Gabrielle caught it in a firm grip. She sneered, please to see the startled look on her mothers face.
"You will never hit me again," Gabrielle stated, her a voice a hoarse growl. She pushed her mothers hand away, "Never."
Mother chuckled sardonically. "Oh, really? And when did you get so brave, my little mouse?" She circled Gabrielle, appraising her in contempt. "You havent got the balls to stand up to me."
Gabrielle stepped forward and faced her mother, toe to toe nose to nose.
"You just try me."
They stared at one another in tense silence and Gabrielle fought the urge to gulp. This close, her mothers eyes cut through her like a razor blade. Garnering her nerve, Gabrielle refused to falter. She stood firm and tall, willing her eyes to hold her mothers terrifying gaze. No matter what, she would not be the one to look away. Not now not ever again. Courage swelled in her heart as she watched her mothers upper lip begin to quiver.
The blow that followed came so fast, Gabrielle barely saw it before it sent her reeling against a bureau. Her hand went to her face in reflex and she felt the warmth from a small flow of blood.
Mother snickered as she cleaned off the ring on her middle finger. "You have a lot more to learn before you try to stand up to me, little girl."
She lifted Gabrielles face up by the chin and grinned at the tears that were now falling freely. "Dont you ever talk to me like that again."
Gabrielle pulled her face away from her mothers touch. "You cant do this. Im not a little girl anymore. Im 21 now."
Her mother threw head back and laughed out loud. "Oh, so youre 21 now. 21 and never been kissed, eh?"
Gabrielle stood silent, scowling as those cold eyes appraised her in sarcastic speculation.
"I bet not," Mother said, drawing closer, "Or should I say, better not."
Gabrielle flinched away under the threatening scrutiny.
"You listen to me, my darling daughter. Whatever youre up to, its going to stop now. And dont try to deny it."
Gabrielle was about to snap a sharp retort but stopped, appalled as her mother sniffed at her.
"I can smell her leather on you."
Gabrielles eyes grew wide at the comment.
Her mother backed away, suddenly calm. "You will never escape me, Gabrielle. No matter how you try no matter how old you get. There isnt any place on this planet you could go where I couldnt find you. Your past has been erased and your future re-written, my dear, and there isnt a fucking thing you can do about it. So take a little advice from me - mother to daughter - accept your lot in life."
Gabrielle watched with abject hate in her eyes as her mother took graceful steps toward the door.
"Oh and one more thing, Gabrielle," she said, standing in the now half open doorway about to leave, "I know theres someone helping you. I even know who she is in a way. Its only a matter of time before I find her. And when I do, shell wish she had never been born."
The door slammed shut and Gabrielle listened, frozen in shocked silence, to the tap of her mothers shoes as she walked away.
It wasnt until the rhythmic click of stiletto heel on linoleum died out did Gabrielles brain registered the true meaning of the conversation.
Her mother knew. Her mother knew everything. And perhaps the most mind-numbing revelation - the thing that sent a wave of nausea rolling through her gut - was the sudden realization that her mother was the reason the reason for it all.
Gabrielle swung her backpack up onto her shoulder and walked at a brisk pace down Wisconsin Avenue. She paused at a shop window and pretended to look at the shoes, taking the opportunity to confirm a suspicion that had been nagging at her since she had left the dorm.
Someone was following her. The same clean-cut man wearing a Georgetown University sweatshirt had been tracking her since she left Harbin Hall and turned onto Prospect. At first, she had planned to hop on GUTS, the universitys shuttle, and head to Dupont. She needed to talk to Evelyn as quickly as possible, but was afraid to use the phone, any phone, for fear of the conversation being recorded or worse, Evelyns location traced.
The shuttle was the fastest way to get to her friend, but then Gabrielle had spotted a guy way too well groomed for a college student and looking completely out of place in his GU sweatshirt. Instinctively, she knew that her Mother was at work.
Did they really think she was that stupid?
Gabrielle stood at the store window and stared at the shoes on display, holding her breath until Joe College walked right up to her and then passed her by. Still, Gabrielle didnt believe he wasnt shadowing her, and sure enough, the man paused by a shop not much further down the road, pretending to do a little window shopping of his own.
Goddamn it, Gabrielle cursed to herself and nibbled at her bottom lip, trying to come up with an alternate plan.
Making up her mind quickly, she left the window and changed direction to head the way she had come back toward the campus. She wasnt the least surprised when Joe College ended his shopping and started walking in the same direction.
She quickened her pace, darting between two park cars to cross the busy boulevard and risked a quick glance back. Joe College had done the same, dodging the oncoming traffic in order to keep up despite the cell phone to his ear.
Son of a bitch, Gabrielle breathed. Hefting her bag to balance the load, she was startled when her own cell phone began to ring. She shifted the backpack in order to reach in the pocket and grabbed the still ringing phone, pausing to look at the caller ID.
It was Mother.
For a brief moment, she thought about ignoring the call but, still walking, she glanced back at the agent following her and thought better of it.
The phone chirped at her again and she flipped it open, bringing it up to her ear with trepidation.
"What do you think youre doing?" she heard her mother say.
The statement sent a wave of resentment rolling through her gut.
"NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS!" Gabrielle yelled, and promptly tossed the cell phone, mother and all, into the next garbage can she passed.
She could hear the muffled voice of her Mother cursing from amongst the dirty trash as she stomped away.
The library was blissfully quiet despite the fact that Joe College was in here, too pretending to read a book. Gabrielle peeked up from her own text to glare at him. He glanced up and stared back at her with a blank expression before returning his attention to the pages he was shuffling through.
Gabrielle raised a golden brow. She doubted the guy even knew how to read.
Leaning her elbow on the pages of her open book, she tapped thoughtfully against her lips with the tips of her fingers.
Her mother had endless resources at her disposal to use to track her movements. That was one truth Gabrielle could not escape. Anything she did, anything she bought, any place she went her mother would know about it.
She couldnt risk using a phone and the dorm payphone was probably already bugged. Even if she used public phones randomly, her Mother would simply have her thugs follow immediately behind her and trace where she had called. In this age of technology and instant communication, everything left an electronic trail.
Her fingers left her lips and tapped a thoughtful rhythm on the oak tabletop.
By hanging up on her Mother and throwing her cell phone away, Gabrielle had for all intents and purposes just declared war. So, now that they were at war, what she needed was some good advice on military strategy.
"So," Gabrielle asked herself as she stared at the soft light streaming in through the etched panes of the large picture windows in the library, "What would Xena do?"
Her fingers drummed a light march on the table for a few more seconds before an idea popped into her mind. She stood up from her chair so quickly the agent across the room couldnt help from jumping in surprise. Gabrielle chuckled to herself, watching him from the corner of her eye as he settled back down realizing she was only going to a computer station.
She slipped into an open seat and her fingers pecked at the keyboard. It wasnt long before she found what she was looking for. Her eyes scanned along long list of research papers and books readily available for reference.
War Strategies of Alexander the Great a research paper written by E. Badian in 1958.
"Close enough," Gabrielle mumbled to herself and pressed the print key, waiting for the job to spool before closing the search page.
A few moments later, she was back at her seat with printed pages in hand, scanning the sentences of the War Strategies paper that had page after page of quotes on the art of warfare attributed to Alexander along with other great generals of ancient times. She smiled at a paragraph written in the paper that credited Alexander with a number of military strategies still being followed to this very day.
"Everything he knew, he learned from Xena," Gabrielle muttered as she read through the list of classic battle maneuvers and guerilla warfare invented long before the age of modern man. Even terrorism, it seems, was not a novel idea and it appeared that Xena knew more than her fair share of how to terrorize.
Fear will halt your enemys heart long before your sword will ever draw its blood, she read a quote, attributed to the Prince of Macedon. Did they give Alexander credit for everything Xena did, she found herself wondering?
Her attention turned back to the paper, but it was near impossible to get the awesome image of the first time she saw Xena, dressed in full battle leather, sword swinging in a wide arc as she raced across a field, battle rage flashing in her startling blue eyes.
"She certainly practices what she preaches," Gabrielle whispered as she tried to return her concentration to the page.
All warfare is based on deception," she read and grinned. Despite the stiff translation, in her mind, she couldnt help but give Xenas rich voice and smooth tones to the words, Hold out baits to entice the enemy if he is taking ease, give him no rest if his forces are united separate them. Do things openly for the purpose of deception and allow spies to know of them and report them to the enemy.
Green eyes looked up from the simple black words and glared across the room at the agent who was still trying so hard to pretend he was interested in the book in front of him.
Do things openly for the purpose of deception and allow spies to know of them and report them to the enemy, Gabrielle repeated quietly as she stared.
"Xena," she said, slamming her books closed, "youre a genius."
Gabrielle jumped up from her chair, gathered her things and scooted around the table heading for the door, totally unconcerned that her shadow had just scrambled to his feet to scurry after her.
Hours later she returned to the dorm after taking her tail on a merry goose chase around a good portion of Washington DC. It had been a beautiful day and what better thing was there for an all-American, rich college girl to do than go shopping? And shop she did, using one of her mothers credit cards to spend as much as she could possibly carry, and then some. She led Joe College on a shopping spree he wouldnt soon forget, stopping to make a dozen calls at just as many different pay phones along the way.
She thought about buying a new cell phone, but shrugged it off. It was much more fun to think about her mothers agents having to work through the phone company to track the numbers she had dialed at an array of public phone booths. Gabrielle had called friends to talk about inconsequential things, made a variety of social plans she doubted she would keep, and went so far as use her mothers Platinum American Express account to book a hotel room and flight out of town for the coming week-end.
That ought to send the agents on a wild goose chase and tweak her Mothers already tight butt-hole.
Gabrielle threw her bags on the bed then flopped down onto it herself, exhausted. Spending her mothers money sure was tiring but oh so satisfying. She should have been doing this all along, she thought with a laugh, imagining the agent who had been following her was just as tired.
She rolled over across the mattress and peaked out of the window.
Yup, there he was, sitting on the bench. Her eyebrow twitched as she snickered. Back not quite so straight now, huh fella? He looked as though he was ready to fall asleep.
If he is taking ease give him no rest, Xenas smooth, warm voice whispered the sage words she had read and Gabrielle rolled over, back onto the bed.
"Time for phase two," she announced to the ceiling and jumped up.
Fifty-cents later, she was dialing the pay phone at the end of the hall. It was bugged and she knew it.
"Peter?" she said, smiling when the ringing phone was answered, "Its Gabrielle. Hey! Hi to you, too. Been a long time, huh? I was thinking about you. Thought you might like to get together. When? How about tonight? You free? Good! Feel like dinner my treat, of course. Cool. Whadda ya say we meet at the Cactus Cantina at 8. Great! Itll be good to see you. Yeah, me too. Okay, see ya later."
Gabrielle hung up the phone and stared at it a moment, feeling a little guilty. She had no intention of meeting Peter at the Cantina. Patting the phone receiver, she looked at the doors to the rooms down the hall, hoping Mary was around. Shell just have to explain to Peter later what was going on she was certain he of all people would understand.
Once those men reported to her Mother that she had made a date with Peter, they would be all over the Cantina like white on rice.
Gabrielle walked down the hall to Marys room, pausing a moment before knocking. Unlike Evelyn and herself, Mary was not rich and always short on cash. Gabrielle had no doubt she would be more than happy to join Peter for dinner for the right price.
A sudden worry furrowed her brow. Was she placing her friends in possible danger? She certainly hoped not. At least, that wasnt her intention. No, the agents were just shadowing her and reporting her movements to her mother. And Mother was no threat as long as she wasnt around.
"Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him," Gabrielle repeated, her green eyes sparkling with ideas.
"Well, I might not be able to crush my enemy, but I can certain drive them crazy," Gabrielle said and then knocked on her friend Marys door.
Gabrielle slipped out the cab and paid the driver, tipping him almost double the amount of the fare. He smiled broadly in appreciation and she waved in thanks as he drove away. Her plan had worked flawlessly Xena would be proud.
As instructed, Mary had left the dorm a few minutes earlier than she, walked down to the end of the street out of sight of the agent and hailed a cab. Once in the cab, she drove back up to the dorm, discreetly slipping low in the back seat. Gabrielle had used the pay phone in the dorm to order a cab and pranced down the steps, jumping into the vehicle as though it had been the one she had called for.
As she had anticipated, Joe College was in a very obvious, unmarked car, ready and waiting to follow.
The cab pulled up at the Cantina and Mary popped out. The cab pulled away, but the agent stayed behind, fooled by the Marys long blond hair and identical clothing jeans and a black leather jacket.
As the cab pulled away, Gabrielle peaked up over the back seat and snickered. The agent waited dutifully at the Cantina assuming Gabrielle had gone in to keep her appointment with Peter.
Back in the cab, Gabrielle shifted around comfortably in the seat and gave the driver the address for Evelyns apartment, adding a conspiratorial wink to man as he stared back at her curiously in the rear view mirror.
The cabby had made no comment to the subterfuge or to the switching of clothing in his back seat, though his dark eyes tried hard to get a good view. In the end, he saw nothing more than a bare back and a bra strap, but the unusual fare with a big tip at the end was more than he needed for an evenings enjoyment. He drove away as pleased as Gabrielle.
She turned and headed up the front steps to Evelyns apartment, confident that she had traveled here unescorted and alone.
Gabrielle knocked on the door and smiled when it creaked open to reveal her friends surprised face.
"Gabrielle! Where have you been? Ive been calling and calling you."
"Sorry, I had to throw my cell phone away. Is it all right if I come in?"
"Sure," Evelyn said, opening the door wider and offering welcome with a sweep of her hand. "Come on in."
"Close the door," Gabrielle said in a tone that caused Evelyns eyebrows to rise.
Evelyn shut the door and followed Gabrielle to the couch in the living room. "Whats going on?"
"Im not going to be able to see you for awhile," Gabrielle stated with a serious face.
Evelyn stared at her and then burst out in laughter. "Geez, Gabrielle, what are you breaking up with me?"
"Stop laughing, Evelyn, Im serious. When I got back to my dorm this morning, guess who was waiting for me?"
"Dont I wish. Guess again."
Evelyn huffed impatiently, "I dont know, Gabrielle, who was waiting for you?"
"No, your mother. Yes, my mother and she was as angry as a two-headed chicken on slaughter day, let me tell you."
"As a two-headed ," Evelyn snorted, "Gabrielle, what are you talking about?"
Evelyn gulped, not believing what she had just heard. "She knew? What do you mean she knew?"
"She knew," Gabrielle repeated, shifting closer. "Im telling you she knew she knew about Xena. You know what that means, dont you?"
Gabrielle nodded, her face a mask of seriousness.
Evelyns eyes grew wide. "Shes the one."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement again. "What are we going to do?"
Evelyns eyes searched her living room as though looking for an answer. "She must be one hell of a powerful shamaness, Gabrielle. How are we going to fight that?"
"Shes knows about you, too, you know."
"What?" Evelyn exclaimed, jerking in surprise. "What do you mean she knows about me?"
"She told me she knows that someone is helping me, although I know for sure she doesnt know who it is yet."
Evelyns shoulders slumped in relief. "Good. You scared me half to death. Im in no position to face anyone that powerful."
"And we have to make sure you never face her that is, not until youre ready to," Gabrielle stood up from the couch and gathered her things. "I better leave. I wanted to check in on you make sure you were all right and that you knew what was going on. Im pretty sure I wasnt followed, but you can never be certain with my Mother."
"Her goons. Agents. Ive had to deal with them for most of my life. Now, theyre really watching me closely. Thats why I wont be able to see you for awhile. We cant let Mother find out who you are. At least, not yet - not until were prepared."
"What do you mean, not until were prepared?"
"We wont be able to see each other for at least a few months, maybe more. And none of your trips without me, you got that, Evelyn?"
Evelyn made a face as though she was loath to agree.
"Im serious Evelyn. Dont you dare go back there without me. Somehow my mother is dialed in to what were doing. And now shes watching even more closely. We cant risk doing a ritual not now." Gabrielle scratched her chin thoughtfully. "Eventually, shell grow tired of watching me she always does. Were just going to have to wait until then."
"My god, Gabrielle. I hadnt thought about it. Your mother is running on the ticket as Vice President in the next election!"
Gabrielle nodded; the gravity of the situation began to weigh heavy on her shoulders. "Thats right. Its more than just our destinies at stake here, Evelyn."
"The past and the future," Evelyn whispered, "She cant get elected. No one like her should get that much power."
"No contact," Gabrielle stated firmly. "No contact whatsoever. Do you agree?"
Evelyn nodded sternly. "What should we do in the meantime?"
"In the meantime," Gabrielle answered as she walked to the door, "Xena warned me the next time I visit her, shell be at war with the Persians. I need to be ready for that."
Evelyn followed her friend through the living room to the front door. "What do you mean, ready?"
Gabrielle halted at the door and turned. "Me?" she said, pointing to herself, "Im going into training. Yoga, martial arts, karate, weapons you name it, Im gonna do it."
"What do you think youre gonna do? Fight in her army?"
"No by her side, if I can. If I cant, then at least I wont cause her any harm, like I did the last time. Either way, Ill be prepared."
"Prepared for what? Were like ghosts there."
"You werent a ghost in the Amazon village, were you?"
"Yeah, but only because I took enough drugs to kill an elephant."
"Yes and thats why you have some work to do, too. I want to feel the rain on my face, just like you did, Evelyn. Xena needs me. I need to make myself real to her. Not just in the brief moments after I appear and before I disappear, but real like I was born back then. There has to be a way I can do it, without killing myself by overdosing to do it."
"So, whats the plan? What should I do?"
"You," Gabrielle answered as she grabbed for the door handle, "need to go into training, too."
"Yes, you do. You need to learn everything about shamanic rites and rituals, especially as they were performed in ancient times."
"I can do that," Evelyn said, smiling.
"Good," Gabrielle replied, grinning back.
She walked through the open door into the hallway before turning to face Evelyn one last time.
"This is dangerous, Evelyn. Really dangerous. If Mother finds you "
"Dont worry, your mother wont find me. After all, we hardly move in the same circles."
Gabrielle placed her palm on her friends shoulder and squeezed. "Just make sure your circles dont intersect. Please, be careful."
"I will. And you, too," Evelyn responded, placing her hand on top of her friends, giving it a squeeze in return. "Be careful, Gabrielle. Im going to miss you."
"Im going to miss you, too." Reluctantly, Gabrielle let her hand fall from her friends shoulder and walked away from Evelyn, down the hall toward the stairs.
"How long?" Evelyn called out, "How long do you think we should wait?"
"I dont know a couple of months at least," Gabrielle replied, turning around and walking backward as she answered. "Dont call me. Ill call you when I think its safe."
"When I do call just you be ready," Gabrielle warned, pointing her finger.
"Ill be ready. I promise."
Gabrielle shifted to face the right direction and shuffled down the stairs to exit the front door.
"Take care, Gabrielle!" Evelyn called out. "Dont take anything I wouldnt take!" Smiling, she watched her friend disappear from view as she skipped down the steps.
"Be safe," Evelyn repeated softly and returned to her apartment to shut the door.
This was nothing more than pageantry and Xena hated it. It seemed such a waste of time when so many other much more important details required her attention. She shifted in her saddle atop Argo and adjusted the way her sword laid against her back.
Dressed in full battle attire, Xena was an impressive sight. Even amid the long rows of brightly armored cavalry winding its way throughout the city, she stood out as a commanding presence. All along the main thoroughfare, Corinthians and tourists alike jammed the sidewalks and loggias overhead to cheer for the combined Greek forces as they marched their first steps forward to launch the war against their ancient enemy, the Persians. And though the crowd pressed forward to cheer their soldiers on, if asked many would admit that they were really there in hopes of getting a glimpse of the legendary warrior, their Supreme Commander, Xena of Macedon.
The Warrior Princess did not disappoint. A powerful presence, she sat on her warhorse looking as calm as if she were departing on a hunting trip. The parade ahead of her was an awesome spectacle; 12,000 of Greeks finest had started the march promptly at noon. The sections given the honor of accompanying the Supreme Commander out of Corinth were the Guards Brigade and the Companion Calvary, a combined foot and mounted force of the best fighting men in all of Greece. The rows of soldiers and horses filled the street eight deep and stretched so far ahead that an hour later, Xena had yet to move an inch.
What the spectators didnt know was that they had missed the true spectacle. The bulk of Greeces army had paraded from the fields outside of the city at dawn. More than 6,000 cavalry of Macedonians, Thessalians, Thracian, Athenians, along with 30,000 odd infantry representing every Greek city-state and a host of mercenary and foreign tribal volunteers had left the dusty plains at first light following a trade route that skirted the city all together. Four battalions staggered their starts to ensure that the army reached their various destinations for each days march on schedule and without bumping into one another.
Xenas brigade generals: Parmenio, Lysimachus, Cassander and Nicator were not with her to bask in the glory of the grand parade through Corinth. They led the columns that followed the morning light toward Sestos. Before them, a corps of engineers and specialists had left Corinth several days earlier to collect information about routes and camping grounds, as well as to ensure the safe passage of all the troops over field, stream, bridge or any obstacle they might encounter. And previous to that, before any soldier had taken a single step toward Persia, Xena had dispatched messengers to stand at periodic intervals. They would feed her status reports of each divisions progress as they reached checkpoints already decided upon along the way.
Then, of course, there were the smaller groups of fast riders who had departed under cover of the night. Advance scouts who would mark and report back on possible enemy movement, although nothing was expected until they left the safe borders of Thrace. And then there were the spies almost as many spies as light armed troops more than a thousand. Their mission had begun months before and Xena had been receiving a constant flow of information from these well-paid mercenaries long before she had ever arrived at Corinth.
She turned her head to look at Alexander and grinned at his youthful impetuousness. He believed his speech to the Senators was responsible for launching the campaign. In truth, Xena had been taking steps toward the conquest of Persia long before the Congress in Corinth had even considered it.
Alexander noticed Xena looking at him and grinned. "Thank you for changing your mind."
Xena chuckled under her breath. More than a year with her and poor guy was still clueless.
"You should thank Antipater," she replied, returning her gaze forward. "He convinced me of the error of my decision."
"Antipater?" Alexander shifted to look for the newly assigned Regent. The young man stood at the top of the steps leading up to the forum, flanked on either side by two of his friends. They would remain behind at the head of a sizable militia to protect Greece, and Xenas interests, while they were gone. Eight years was a long time for a ruler to be absent from her throne and eight years was the minimum that Xena estimated it would take to conquer the rest of the known world.
Alexander saluted Antipater, the young lieutenant who had been chosen to taken his place. He could see in the way that Antipater stood, the way he smiled proudly and saluted back then waved to the cheering crowds that he was thrilled beyond measure to be promoted so quickly to such a high level.
Like a boy left behind to mind the farm, Alexander thought smirking.
Alexander lifted his eyes to the sky and silently gave thanks that he was not the one left behind to rule in absentia.
He held no doubts in his heart whatsoever Xena was destined for victory. The gods, especially the God of War, favored the female warrior. And on this day, of all days, the sun shone down on her as though Ares himself was kissing her forehead, bequeathing his blessing upon her. He smiled as he studied Xenas profile. Beautiful and confident, she sat calmly on Argo waiting for the parade of soldiers stretching out before them to uncoil.
So, if the glory of conquering the world was not meant for him then at least he could bask in its light by standing beside Xena in this, the greatest of all of her campaigns.
The line of mounted troops ahead of them began to surge forward, and Alexander smiled, feeling the warmth of the sun on his back and hearing the cheers of the thousands that lined the streets and balconies of Corinth as they yelled Xenas name. Yes indeed, it was a good day for war.
Xena pulled slightly on her reins, a command to Argo to remain still. Beneath her legs the mare was beginning to shift nervously as the level of excitement rose in the crowds surrounding them. She could see over the heads of the soldiers in front of her that very shortly they would begin to move.
And so, on this beautiful summer day, she at last would set out from Corinth on a march for the Hellespont. Ever since she rode at the head of her very first army, she had dreamed of this day and now the dream was about to be fulfilled.
And then the rows ahead surged. Seconds later, she nudged Argo with her knees and her warhorse pranced, taking their first proud steps forward, hooves clomping nosily on the paved boulevards stone. Her movement caused a roar of cheer from the crowds and a lurch of surprise from Alexander. Xena smiled and nodded, acknowledging the applause and enjoying a small amount of pleasure at Alexanders awkward start. Under the heavy scrutiny of thousands, even the tiniest of stumbles made a difference.
Xena gave her companion a wry grin as he finally brought his horse under control and matched step at her side.
"Must you always be so perfect," Alexander asked out of the side of his mouth, trying to mimic Xenas stoic composure.
"Im far from perfect," Xena replied, "the trick is just in appearing so."
"I have a lot to learn, dont I?"
"Your words" she replied smirking, "think you can learn it all in a moon."
"Why? Whats going to happen in one moon?"
"One moon 20 days to Amphipolis and Thrace 10 days to cross the pass."
"10 days! You think we can get down the mountain in ten days?"
"Im not worried about getting down the mountain. Its getting up it that will take doing. By the time we begin our ascent, the weather will have turned."
"Youre worried about the weather?"
"No, Im worried bout the Amazons. Theyre not going to be very amicable to an invasion force marching through their lands, sucking their woods dry of game just before winter."
"They will put up a fight, make no mistake about it."
"I thought you met with their Queen. Was no alliance struck?"
Xena smiled, remembering Gabrielles attractive image dressed as an Amazon Queen. "Oh, we struck an alliance all right."
Alexander snorted a chuckle, "Ive no doubt you did. Then whats the problem?"
Xena shot him a sideways glance, annoyed at the salacious tone. "Different tribe," she answered flatly and averted her eyes away.
"Oh, too bad," Alexander commented, staring at her with interest. Had she just gotten upset with him? The thought vanished when Alexander turned to wave at an outburst of cheers as the line turned a corner. They were approaching the beautiful Temple to Aphrodite and Alexander was all too familiar with the worshippers who resided there.
He smiled, watching as flowers tossed out by the cheering and hooting women fell down all around them. The air filled with a colorful rain of floating petals that drifted down to light upon their heads and decorate the braided manes of their well-groomed horses.
"Quite a tribute from the 1,000 Sacred Prostitutes of Corinth. Are the flowers for you or me?" Alexander asked, glancing at Xena. Her reply was a mischievous smirk and one raised eyebrow.
The whores sang a chorus of cheers, wobbles similar to Xenas own war cry, and began to chant her name.
Alexander dusted a few of the petals out of his hair and off of Bucephalus. "That answers that question."
The long parade passed under a daunting marble archway, two gilded chariots adorned the towering stone pillars on each side, one carrying Phaethon the son of Helios and the other Helios himself. The crowd roared in approval as the passage through the gate marked the official exit of the Greek army out of Corinth and onto the road to Persia.
From the corner of her eye, Xena spied a messenger. He was pushing through the crowd, steering his horse as quickly as possible through a maze of people that filled the citys streets.
Finally reaching her, the messenger turned his horse to pace along side the Supreme Commander. He saluted her, hand to chest, and then handed her a rolled scroll before riding away. It was the first of many messages Xena would receive on this day.
"Everything ok?" Alexander asked, noting the furrow in Xenas brow as she read the note. He leaned over trying to peer into the missive.
"Theres a disturbance ahead," Xena answered cryptically, rolling the scroll back up. "When we get to it, leave the line and tend to it."
Alexander frowned. They hadnt even gotten a league out of the city and already there was a disturbance. He found his apprehension growing as they rounded a bend and the problem clearly became visible off to the side of the road. There was a crowd gathered and their attention was not on the passing parade, but on a small circle of Corinthian militia.
Alexander gave Xena a meaningful look and she returned it with a quick nod of her head, his signal that he should and attend to and disperse whatever it was that was causing the commotion.
He pulled at the reins and drew his horse out of line, clucking and kicking gently to urge his stallion forward. The large beast forced the small sea of onlookers aside until finally, Alexander could move forward no more. He swung his leg up and over the saddle horn and jumped down, heaving and pushing the rest of the way through the crowd.
"Move aside!" he shouted, "I said, move aside!"
He pushed beyond the last of the crowd until he stood in a clearing guarded by a circle of militia. An officer was on one knee bent over someone, apparently dead lying in the grass.
Alexander strode over, hands on hips. "Whats going on here?"
"Official business, so that means its none of yours!" the officer barked back, glancing over his shoulder in annoyance. He jumped to his feet as soon as he recognized who had asked the question. "Sorry, General! I didnt know that was you."
"What is this?"
"We found them lying here dead, General," the officer answered, indicating the two bodies with his hand. "Murdered."
Alexander bent over the bodies to examine them more closely. His eyebrows rose as he recognized who they were.
It was the young blond slave and the old woman. Xena had only just recently banished them for their part in her attempted assassination. They lay dead in the grass on the side of the road barely two days after they had narrowly escaped a sentence of death.
Their throats had been cut from ear to ear.
Alexander stood tall with apprehension. How would Xena take the news, he wondered? An ill omen? Or perhaps it was an indication of the gods opinion of her mercy?
He heard her calm, smooth voice without ever hearing her walk up and it nearly made him jump out of his uniform.
"Burn their bodies, clear the road," Xena ordered without emotion.
"Dont you want an investigation into who killed them?"
"Its obvious who killed them," Xena stated as the guards began to lift up and carry the bodies away. "They had been slaves serving the upper class of Corinth for most of their lives. They knew nothing of the thieves, thugs and murderers in the city. The old woman died trying to protect the pretty young girl. The girl after her. So now, they are free."
Alexander grimaced envisioning the fate of the pretty, young girl outside the walls of Corinth once her elder protector was gone. Yes, it was no place for anyone who had no idea what to expect.
Xena turned away from the scene and strode through the crowd, a path parting easily as she walked. She hopped on Argo, resuming her place in line. In a few moments, Alexander was back on his own horse at her side. It wasnt long before the commotion dispersed and the parades forward movement began anew.
After a moment of riding in silence, Alexander finally spoke up. "You knew that would happen. Thats why you pardoned them."
Xena gave a short shrug in admittance. "I didnt know for sure, but I suspected as much."
Alexander stared at her, amazed. "At first I thought it was a stupid decision. That it made you look weak. But later on that night, I heard the comments throughout the tent. It made you look merciful. Attalus was the traitor and everyone thought the slaves were just stupid. He lost his head and you gave the slaves what they were willing to risk their lives for their freedom. All night long your men were singing your praises for it. Yet, you knew all along those two women wouldnt last through the night."
"Well, they had a better chance out here than with Attalus. If Attalus had succeeded, he would have ended up killing them."
Alexander nodded, knowing his uncle very well. "Thats very true."
"At least they had a chance. They might have made it," Xena commented, though in her heart she knew it was a lie. They rode by the spot on the side of the road, now cleared away of all history save for indents in the grass where the two bodies had lain. Sorry, Gabrielle, she thought, your heart was in the right place.
Mine wasnt, she admitted to herself and flicked her reins, urging Argo on a bit faster to put the incident and Corinth behind her.
It pays to be rich or at least it pays to have a dad whos rich. Evelyn thanked her lucky stars again as she lifted a nicely poured martini from a waiters tray. She quickly scanned the room for her father, smiling when he was nowhere to be found. He would be absolutely furious if he saw her take a drink. She downed the martini in one gulp and returned the glass to the waiters waiting tray, covering her lips courteously with the tips of her fingers when she burped.
"Do excuse me," she said to waiter demurely.
The waiter turned away without a word.
The days were passing slowly for the young shamaness-in-training. True to her word, she had not heard a peep from Gabrielle. It was as though they had never met, never been friends, never shared their amazing experiences together. If it had not been for the solemn promise that they would both need to get ready for some future adventure, Evelyn would have thought the entire matter a figment of her overactive imagination.
During the course of the months that followed, she had dropped out of college, choosing instead to attend every new age, numerology, astrology, crystal loving, tantra singing, meditative, Buddha-loving course she could find on-line or in Washington DC.
If she sat on a yoga pad, muttering out with anger, in with love one more time, she swore she was going to throw up all over the next shaved bald head she saw.
So, seeing as she had declared tonight as an official vacation away from the discovery of her own inner shelf, she saw no reason why she shouldnt look into sneaking another cocktail.
Her eyes scanned the crowd that had gathered in the trendy downtown restaurant. She spied a different server, a waitress this time, carrying a tray of drinks.
Game set and match, she smiled mischievously, sauntering through the standing bodies to make her way over to the target. Before the waitress had even noticed her presence, she had lifted the cocktail glass off of the tray, knocked back the smooth Kettle One martini and placed the empty back in its spot. By the time the waitress felt the difference in the weight and turned her head to see who had lifted a glass, Evelyn was already gone.
"Oooh, do excuse me," she said again in apology to a well dressed, executive-type looking man who had caught her belching. "Martinis give me gas," she said in the way of an explanation and quickly moved on before he had a chance to comment.
"They would give me gas, too, if I gulped them down like that. Tell me, how are you managing to still be walking?"
The glib voice belonged to a tall, thin and very attractive woman.
"Practice makes perfect," Evelyn responded cheerily and walked over. For some reason, she liked the way the woman looked. She was very well dressed, had long wavy hair, kind eyes and a smile that welcomed conversation.
"Whats a college girl like you doing at a DC power party like this?" the woman asked, snatching two martinis from a passing waitresss tray and handing one to Evelyn.
Evelyn accepted the drink graciously and toasted the woman before taking a sip. "My father," she began.
"Of course," the friendly woman interrupted, "Yes, I recognize the resemblance, now that you mention it."
"I hope you wont hold it against me."
The woman took a sip. "Not at all. After all, your father is a very wealthy and successful business man. You could have done worse for a parent."
"Isnt that the truth," Evelyn said, taking another sip and thinking of Gabrielle. The strength of the liquor combined with that thought caused a shiver to run down her spine. It was at that moment that Evelyns eyes settled on a woman dressed in a Washington power suit talking to a small group of very important looking gentlemen off in a corner. For some reason, she was both drawn and repelled by her.
"Do you know her?" her companion asked, noting where Evelyn was staring.
"No," Evelyn shook her head, but one look at the woman face and Evelyn knew exactly who she was.
"She is a full blown bitch from hell, let me tell you. But, at the moment, shes one of the most powerful women in Washington." Evelyns new companion took a sip from her martini and leaned closer to Evelyns ear in order to whisper. "All indication is that she will be the first woman Vice President, if you can believe that. Your Dad must have some serious connections to get her to attend his little soiree."
Evelyn stared across the room, barely registering the conversation. Her eyes grew round as saucers.
Holy shit! Thats Gabrielles mother, Evelyns thoughts screamed.
Her attention tunneled down to the fierce looking woman across the room. Mouth suddenly dry, those two martinis, which moments ago tasted so delicious, threatened to make a repeat performance.
She could practically see the power rolling off the Gabrielles mother in waves. The force of it swept through the crowd and roared into her, stealing the breath right out of her lungs.
From across the room, intense green eyes left the face of the person she had been talking to and turned, focusing in on Evelyn.
Suddenly, Evelyn knew exactly what it felt to be a deer caught in the headlights. The razor sharp stare cut through the crowd and seemed to pierce right through Evelyn. Her heart pounded in her chest, the sound of it filled her ears until she all she could hear was the rapid thud of her panicked heart and nothing else.
"So whats your name?" Evelyns new friend moved in front of her, blocking the view, instantly disrupting the connection.
"What?" Evelyn turned her distracted attention to the voice but her mind felt like it had been sucked dry.
Her companion looked quickly over her shoulder.
"Come with me now. You cant stay here."
She grabbed Evelyn by the shoulder, turning her abruptly and ushered her toward the door.
"Lets get you out of here," she whispered into Evelyns ear.
Without wasting another moment, the concerned woman maneuvered Evelyn through the crowd and out of the party.
First it was there and then it was gone. There was no mistaking it. Gabrielles mother had felt the pull of someone with an incredible amount of elemental power. She continued her conversation with the two Senators but all of her attention was on scanning the room in order to find its source. Then her cold gaze rested on a young woman holding a martini in her hand who was staring back with an odd expression.
Gabrielle mothers ire grew. She returned her attention to her companions and interrupted the conversation. "Excuse me one moment please, gentlemen. I have to use the Ladies Room."
In the short time she took to excuse herself and look back, the girl was gone. The space was empty where only a second ago the young creature had stood frozen in her sight like road kill.
Gabrielles mother pushed her way through the crowd to the spot, still warm and pulsing with the energy from the powerful presence. That much power couldnt possibly have emanated from a college kid.
And then Gabrielles mother remembered an older and taller, more beautiful woman who had been standing next to the younger one.
She looked around the immediate area in vain. Finally, her thin eyebrow lifted haughtily. "Whoever you are, I will find you."
A black limousine pulled up to the restaurant and the attendant swung open the door.
"Get in," the woman instructed gently. Evelyn hadnt the will to object, her mind was still dazed from the close encounter with Gabrielles mother. She made no protest when the woman helped her to slide into the plush seat of the car. The woman followed, sliding gracefully into the limo next to Evelyn and nodded at the attendant to close the door.
Evelyn sat waiting in numb silence, watching the interaction between the woman and her chauffeur. He was looking at his mistress through the rear view mirror until the woman nodded once. Immediately, the driver took the car out of park and drove off, steering the long, sleek limo into the flow of the slow moving DC traffic.
The movement of the car brought Evelyn to life.
"Where are we going?" she asked, her mind finally finding words.
"Some place where we can talk."
"Talk? Talk about what? Who are you? What do you want with me?"
The woman studied Evelyn quietly for a few short moments as though judging her in some mysterious way. Evelyn had the distinct impression that she was being examined well beyond the simple outer layering of skin and bone.
"You have a shamaness heart," she announced without warning.
For the second time, Evelyns eyes grew wide. She sat in the back seat of the limo staring at the beautiful woman, speechless.
The woman smiled softly, her warm eyes were calm and friendly. "I thought perhaps you might want to talk about that."
Xena strode through the encampment, oblivious to the attention her presence was commanding. Rows of campfires were lit and her men sat huddled around them, glancing up at her with a combination of awe and fear in their eyes as she walked by.
A young page ran up and without pausing in her stride she accepted a message of his hands, taking note of clouds of breath she could see escaping from his lungs. The air was becoming crisp at night as the season was slowly turning.
As she walked, she unrolled the scroll and read it. Parmenio was camped in the Edomes valley. She rolled up the papyrus and tucked it into her grieve. His battalion had reached the checkpoint right on schedule. Her own troops were still several weeks behind them.
She passed a fire and nodded in greeting to the soldiers who saluted her. The knowledge that they very close now to Amphipolis preoccupied her thoughts. Again, she toyed with the idea of paying a visit to her mother and again quickly dismissed the thought.
Her mind was made up. She would march by her homeland at the head of the greatest army Greece had ever known and give her past no more than the brief glance it took to send a messenger on his way to deliver a missive to its leaders.
Amphipolis would pay the price for this war with a few good men, if they had them, just like every other city in Greece.
Her heavy boots left deep footprints in the fertile soil as she stomped through the encampment. No, her decision was final. Amphipolis was going to be treated just like every other city they passed on the way to their victory in Persia.
With renewed determination, she marched past a guard and walked into her tent, the only tent erected each night and then torn down and packed up each day during the course of the forced march. While the weather was good, most soldiers preferred slept under cover the beautiful, clear Grecian night sky. Normally, she did the same.
Lately, however, she had taken to erecting a tent just in case a certain someone decided to pop in.
With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the attending page and sat at the table. The maps and quills had been moved aside to make room for supper. In the evenings, she made a habit of dining alone and talking in soft tones to the one person whose presence she sorely missed. It had been more than more than a full cycle of the moon since Xena had been visited by her guardian angel.
"We covered good ground today, Gabrielle," Xena said to herself as she tore off a bit of bread and stuffed it in her mouth. "Well be in Pella by the moons wane and outside of Amphipolis just after harvest. Thats good time, in case you didnt know."
Amphipolis. The city invaded her thoughts again and Xena signed sadly. They would pass through the golden fields of her homeland just after harvest. She grabbed a quill and wrote a quick note to remind herself to include a tithe of wheat from those golden pastures and sheep from their bountiful flocks, along with a score of able-bodied men for the draft.
"Draco told me you can never go back. And you know what, Gabrielle? He was right." She took a spoonful of boar stew and chewed it, again dismissing the urge to visit her mother out of hand.
"It was too long ago to hold a grudge. I no longer have the stomach to embrace that kind of anger. Its better if I dont see her at all."
She took a sip of wine and swallowed, but couldnt hold back a grin. She just knew what Gabrielle would say to that. The stubborn girl would probably see right past her stoic façade. Xena chuckled, imagining the stern scolding the beautiful blond would be giving her.
You shouldnt give up on Amphipolis on your mother," she could hear Gabrielles sweet, insistent voice argue. "Shes your family."
"Sometimes our families dont live up to our expectations, Gabrielle," Xena answered her invisible friend, "Sometimes you have to let your family go and make your own. Youre more my family than my mother could ever be."
In her mind, she imagined Gabrielles eyes turn soft and the corners of her mouth lift upward into a small smile. "I feel the same about you, Xena."
Xena shook her dark head, laughing at herself.
"What a bunch of sentimental hogwash," she mumbled and changed the subject.
"Ill lose 20 percent of the army crossing the Rhodope Mountains," Xena reported in a business-like tone. "Some to the elements, but most to the Amazons. That kind of planning I dont tell my generals, not even Alexander. I bet theyd be surprised to know that a commander has to measure death long before their army ever faces a battle. 20% - thats nearly 10,000 troops. I have to increase manpower by that much at least. Ill do that by conscription. That means drafting young boys into service as we pass by Greek cities along the way. Theyll be untrained, but Ill use them as buffer against loss of my more well trained men. Are you shocked to know that I think in this way?"
Again Xena laughed imagining Gabrielles horrified expression at the thought of planning ahead against the demise of her troops and worse, choosing young boys to lead the fight when she knew full well that most of them would die.
She could hear Gabrielles sweet voice asking, "How can you make them do that?"
"I dont make them" Xena said, practicing that answer aloud, "they volunteer and I accept."
"They volunteer because they must. Its the price all Greek cities will pay for this war."
"Why boys?" she could hear the beautiful blond asking, her clear, green eyes moist with sorrow.
"Because by the time we reach Persia, they will be young men if they live to cross the mountains, that is."
Xena closed her eyes against the pain of the truth. She knew that Gabrielle would argue that no war was worth even one young man his life.
"But this is the life that the Gods have given us," she heard herself say to the empty tent, "What other way is there for us for me?"
"What about love? The way of love - isnt that another way?"
The stew lay in the bowl forgotten as Xena sat at the table in the center of her empty tent and stared at the entrance, willing Gabrielle to walk through and smile at her.
But no one walked in.
Disappointed, Xenas attention turned back to her meal. She brought a cold spoonful to her lips.
"Not for me," she mumbled through a mouth full of food and lifted a goblet of wine to her lips to wash it all down with a gulp.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pushed away from the table, suddenly no longer hungry.
"There can be no compromise between love and war," she stated quietly.
In the silence of the tent she could hear the faint laughter of her troops as they enjoyed a brief moment of campfire companionship before bedding down for the night.
"Sure there is," she heard Gabrielle say as if on the wind, "Its called forgiveness."
Forgiveness, Xena thought to herself snorting, tell that to my mother.
"You go tell her yourself," Gabrielle replied, her voice drifting away.
Xena was about to bark a sarcastic response when an idea surrounding the notion of compromise popped into her head.
"All right, Gabrielle," she said, grabbing for a quill and parchment. She dipped the quill tip in a bowl of dye and began to scratch on the papyrus. "Well try this your way."
Her mind ablaze with the brilliant idea, she scribbled a missive quickly. When she was finished she read it over carefully before folding it in the fashion of the Athenian Senate and sealing it with a drop of wax from a candle using her own personal seal.
She summoned for a page, handing him the message when he arrived. "Give this to Polyaenus," Xena paused, thinking, and then changed her mind. "No. Make it a woman Agina of Zucchabar. Shes tall and dark, long legs an archer. Do you know who I mean?"
The young page grinned, familiar with the female soldier; she was an officer in the light arms brigade one of the tribal volunteers.
Xena nodded, pleased. "Tell her shes to travel quickly to Amazon lands and deliver this personally to their Queen. Into the hands of the Amazon Queen only and no one else, ya got that?"
The young page nodded once and rushed off.
"Okay, Gabrielle. If this works, we may not have to fight the Amazons at all. We could enter Persia without spilling a single drop of young Greek blood. Are you happy now?"
When no reply from Gabrielle was forthcoming, Xena huffed and rolled her eyes. "Oh, all right! By the gods, dont you ever give up!" she exclaimed to the air. "Ill go to my mother. Ill go. Ill try to see her. But dont be surprised if she turns her back on me."
Xena laughed out loud at herself for the way she was acting. "Actually," she said as she unclasped her armor and lifted it over her head, undressing for the night, "Ill be happy if she doesnt throw any rocks at my head."
The truth was, for some reason, she actually did feel happy now. It was as though a heavy weight had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders.
"You must be happy," A clear voice spoke out in the tent. "The only time you laugh at yourself is when youre happy."
"Gabrielle?" Xena turned in alarm, the voice sounded so clear.
But no one was there.
Gabrielle smiled widely. Her closed eyes began to twitch as she fought off the urge wake. She was having the most wonderful dream. Xena was happy, laughing. Gabrielle didnt know what she was laughing at, but the warriors unbidden smile was so rare and wonderful a sight, it made her heart soar just to see it.
The sunlight tickled her eyelashes pulling her away from that wonderful moment. Despite her best efforts to stay asleep, it was her own laughter that finally woke her up. She lifted her head and blinked, embarrassed to find that she had drifted off in the middle of a public place. How silly she must have looked with her head hanging, chin to chest, chortling.
She glanced down to check her blouse, relieved to find that she didnt have any drool marks.
Why cant I just dream forever? she asked herself, sighing, as leaned back in her chair.
It had been more than a year since she had last seen Xena. The school semesters had come and gone, mid-terms and end-terms taken and passed, and still she had not been able to shake her mothers hired agents in order to see Evelyn. She spent her days in classes or studying in the library, looking for information on Phillip of Macedon or Alexander the Great. In the evenings, she studied Kendo and Karate learning to use her hands and feet in self-defense and improving her skill with ancient martial weapons.
At night, she went to bed and when she slept, in all of her dreams, she was with Xena.
"Xena, I miss you so," she whispered. She ran her fingers through her short blond hair a habit she developed since she had cut her hair. It always surprised her to find her long locks missing even though she had chopped her hair short months ago. It was easier to deal with short hair than long now that she was working out so much.
She just hoped that Xena would like it.
Gabrielle looked down at the book she had been reading and frowned. She had reconciled the fact that history had replaced the Warrior Princess with a more acceptable male pseudonym, so everything she read about either Philip of Macedon or Alexander the Great, she related to the Warrior Princess. The information surrounding Phillips death was conflicting. One book recorded his death by poison in a conspiracy headed by a trusted general, Attalus.
Well, Gabrielle thought grinning with satisfaction, she knew what happened to that plan.
Another reported his murder in 336 BC by a jealous lover. Reading this theory had caused Gabrielles ears to turn red. She didnt want to think of Xena having a lover at least any lover other than herself. And, if their mutual attraction had caused Xena to spurn an admirer which resulted in her death
Gabrielle had slammed that text shut and put it back on the library shelf post haste. No. No simple lovesick general would have been able to take Xena out. It wasnt possible.
So, while she waited for her Mother to lose interest in her comings and goings, Gabrielle worked at solving a riddle.
Where had history hidden the incredible woman warrior? Was Philip of Macedon really Xena? Or was everything attributed to Alexander the Great really the doing of the Warrior Princess.
And what, if anything, did Gabrielles evil mother have to do with either of them?
Everything she was doing from this point on, all the training, all the studying - everything that she knew Evelyn was trying to learn as the long, lonely months trickled by was preparing them both to face this black mystery.
And Gabrielle was certain when she stood against the scorching blast of that particular fire, she would be looking through the flames right into the face of her dear ole Mom.
Gabrielle looked at her empty hand, imagining a weapon there.
If being with Xena meant that she had to kill her own mother, then by the gods, thats exactly what she was going to do.
Gabrielle pushed back in her chair and jumped up, the resulting scrape echoed across the library, causing a number of students to start in alarm at the sudden noise.
"Sorry," she mumbled in apology to the room and gathered her books into her backpack.
A sudden urgency gripped her by the guts. She couldnt wait she couldnt wait any longer. She had to see Xena.
Even with her eyes closed, Xena would recognize the pastures and rolling hills of her homeland. The land had the sweet scent of fertile soil and the streams that meandered throughout the valley filled the air with the gentle music of the soft trickle of flowing water. Their song, like no other, would always remind her of home.
For the first time in years, Xena welcomed the sight of the golden fields of Amphipolis. In the past, she avoided marching here, choosing instead to steer her army clear of this part of the coast. In fact, she had divorced Thrace altogether and centered her military career in Macedonia or Thessaly, even the Peloponnesus anywhere as long as it was far away from the sun-kissed fields of Amphipolis.
Today, she rode at the rear of the great marching column of her mounted troops as they rode to camp just beyond the low lying hills that bordered Xenas birthplace. They would spend the night there, nestled in a valley and then move on to catch up to and eventually overtake Parmenios troops. From that point on, the mounted battalion would lead the Greek army over the Rhodope mountains, through the Shiptka pass.
Thousands strong her cavalry pranced through the tall grass valley ahead of her and they were a sight to see, if she did say so herself. Unlike the other cities or villages they had marched near, the Amphipolitans did not come out in full force to see the spectacle of the Greek cavalry and cheer them on.
As the column of mounted soldiers and supply wagons wove through the fertile fields, there were no crowds of cheering townsfolk, no hands or scarves waving in colorful pride, no jubilant cries of the women or full-throated shouts from the men at the display of Grecian strength and homeland honor passing so close to their city.
And Xena knew all too well why.
The good people of Amphipolis knew better than to cheer for war. Victory was a bitter feast at best, especially when your childrens seats were empty. They had lost most of their sons in battle already, thanks to Xena. The last time the villagers of Amphipolis had lined up to great her, they had thrown rocks.
This time, they hadnt even bothered to line up.
Xena rode, last in line at the end of the long column of marching cavalry, flanked on either side by Alexander and a small escort of officers of the Royal Guards Brigade. They rode silently through butterscotch pastures, weaving their way toward the gentle hills that rolled lazily along the not too distant horizon.
Their horses clomped through a tiny stream dribbling by that crossed their path. Hooves kicked up water that sparkled like diamonds in the sunshine. Xena smiled, knowing that this small trickle of water marked the turn off for a path that led down to the city proper.
Once they crossed the stream, Xena pulled back on the Argos reigns, surprising her escort.
"Gwan. Follow the troops to camp. Ill be along shortly."
"Where are you going?" Alexander turned his horse and asked anxiously.
"I have some business here that I need to take care of."
"Youll need as escort."
"No I wont."
"Dont argue with me, Alexander. Go on ahead. I leave you to settle the men. This wont take long."
She tugged Argos reins and turned the mare, trotting off in the direction of the turn-off without looking back.
The guards riding with them looked at Alexander uncertainly.
"You heard her," he said, annoyed at Xenas constant tendency toward unpredictability, but obeying the command none-the-less. "Lets get the troops settled. She can take care of herself."
He clicked his heels and rode off to catch up with the rear of the column. Xena would either be spending the night visiting with her mother or else she would be right back. Alexander knew all to well - it all depended on how well her kinfolk received her.
Xena trotted down the road to the citys center, passing the first of a few outlying humble dwellings.
There was Horace, the blacksmiths place, still where she remembered it. The roof tilted south and the house leaned east, and the smell of the ovens brought a smile to her lips remembering how he used to chase after her all over town. She would steal his well-made horseshoes and practice throwing them at the trees.
Perhaps Ares had been training her even then?
Argos heels kicked up loose dirt as they pranced by three small homes in a row. They belonged to the Souvlaki sisters. Three women, all sisters, who had never left Amphipolis, or each other, even after they had married. They lived side by side in these three identical homes, bringing up a score of children and consistently making the best Soulvaki in Thrace. Her mother served that Souvlaki every Thursday to a packed house.
Three of their boys died following Xena against Cortese.
Another on the cross when Caesar betrayed her.
She rode past the row of small houses, ignoring the look of alarm when one of the sisters opened the door to her home and recognized the woman warrior who was riding by. Xena did not look back to see what happened after that.
She entered the center of town and pulled to a halt just at the front of the jug-makers store. The tavern owned by her mother stood across from it, in clear view. Xena could tell from the lack of noise and traffic that the lunch rush was over. Her mother would be mopping floors at this time and getting ready for dinner, and the drinking crowd that followed after that.
It occurred to her that perhaps now wasnt a good time for a visit. Her mother would be too busy.
She hesitated dismounting from Argo. The mare shifted nervously under her feeling her indecision.
Maybe this wasnt such a good idea, she thought again, her confidence waning quickly. Her mother didnt need to see her didnt want to see her. If she had wanted to, she would have been out in the field watching the army pass, waiting for her. Surely they all had heard that the army would be passing this way every other city had known it.
Xena tugged on Argos reins and the horse complied, backing up a few steps in preparation to turn.
At that moment, the taverns doors swung open and Cyrene emerged carrying a bucket which she was hefting with great effort, clearly carrying out dirty water to dump. Immediately, the tavern owners attention was drawn to the bronze and leather clad warrior mounted on a huge golden warhorse that was prancing nervously right in the center of town.
Xena felt as though she had been caught stealing the blacksmiths horseshoes again.
Cyrene stood frozen in the doorway holding the bucket aloft by the handle, its weight all but forgotten. Her expression shifted through a variety of emotions that Xena was clearly able to read. Recognition was replaced by surprised, and then sadness - and then her mothers face became a mask of stone. The older woman turned abruptly, heavy bucket still in hand, and stomped back into the tavern.
Xena sat stiffly in her saddle, watching the tavern doors swing shut and settle to stillness. Her own expression changed from hopeful to cold. Not waiting another second, Xena tugged on her mares reins and turned the horse. With a solid kick, she sent Argo trotting back down the road they had come, leaving Amphipolis and her mother once and for all.
By the time she arrived at the army encampment, the sun was licking at the tips of the mountaintops threatening to be swallowed whole. She ignored the bright colors that marked the end of the day as she swung her leg up and over her saddle horn to jump down from Argo. Handing the reins over to an attending page, she walked with long, even strides to her tent.
"Xena!" Alexander called out as he noticed her arrival. "Xena!"
He rushed after his commander when she ignored his call, pushing into the entrance of the tent without permission.
"Xena. Are you all right?"
"Im fine," Xena replied stoically, removing the sword from her back, scabbard and all.
"Nothings wrong," Xena repeated, getting annoyed. She paused in what she was doing and looked at Alexander, raising an eyebrow. "Is there something wrong in camp?"
"No, no. Everythings fine."
"Fine. Then lets get some rest. Well start out at first light."
"Dont you want to .?"
"Usually, we go over "
Xena sighed deeply, turning to face her second-in-command. "Not tonight, Alexander. Walk the camp. Spend some time with the men. I have some messages and maps I want to look at and then Im going to sleep. Okay?"
"Sure. Okay." But Alexander didnt leave. Instead, he stood at the center of the tent, staring at Xena as though waiting for something. He watched her tug at a stubborn clasp, beginning to struggle with it impatiently.
"Here, let me help," he said softly, walking over to help her unhook.
Xena sighed and lifted her arm to allow him better access.
"I know you too well, Xena. Youre upset," he said as he worked the brass clip. "Did something happen in Amphipolis?"
"No. Nothing," Xena replied, looking straight forward, her face a mask.
Alexander gave a tug and finally the hook unclasped. "Well, then," he said stepping away. "I guess Ill see you in the morning."
"Good night, Alexander," Xena stated turning her back to lift her armor over her head.
"Good night, Xena," Alexander responded and quietly passed through the flap at the entrance to the tent.
Xena sighed, happy to finally be alone. She couldnt talk about her family problems with Alexander or with anyone for that matter. To do so, would be a sign of weakness.
Weak, however, was exactly what Xena felt at the moment. How weak of her to believe that her mother would feel any different about her now. What did she expect? To ride into town and be greeted with open arms?
Xena pulled off a gauntlet and tossed it aside.
As if becoming the Supreme Commander of Greece meant she had changed at all. How could she have even imagined that this could be what her mother would think?
What an asinine thing to assume!
Xena tugged off the other gauntlet, this time throwing it across the tent in self-deprecating anger. It thudded against canvas and fell to the dirt.
What a pathetic, weak fool she had become!
"Xena, what is it? What's wrong?"
The question, spoken so softly, caused Xena to turn in alarm. Her blue eyes blinked once and then twice, not believing what she was seeing standing there in the soft, flickering candlelight of the command tent.
Gabrielle looked unbelievable in the soft golden hues. Light and shadow dance across delicate looking fabric of a white, short sleeved tunic held closed in the front by a row of small, decorative circles the likes of which Xena had never seen. Her pants were blue and made of sturdier stuff, and they hugged her hips and legs in a most attractive way. Gabrielle stood in the center of the tent as comfortable as if she had been standing there all along for years, for all of Xenas life.
The warriors eyes roamed blatantly over Gabrielles entire body. She looked terrific fit and strong as strong as any Amazon warrior Xena had ever seen.
"Is that you?" Xena asked incredulously, amazed at the transformation. "Your hair ..."
Gabrielles hand automatically lifted to pat the shortened locks. "I cut it. It was getting in my way at workouts," she explained and grinned bashfully, "Do you like it?"
Xena smiled fully, forgetting all about her mother in favor of the joy of seeing Gabrielle. "I love it. You look terrific. Although, I have to admit, I do miss the Amazon Queen get-up." She stepped forward, reaching automatically for a hug, but then stopped herself and dropped her hands as she remembered all she would probably get was an armful of air.
Gabrielle stared up at the warrior and grinned ruefully. "Thanks, Im glad you like my hair. Ill wear the Amazon outfit next time."
"You promise?" Xena asked, and Gabrielle smiled thinking that the question made the warrior look like a little kid.
"I promise. But, don't change the subject. What's wrong?"
Xena looked away and shook her head, taking a step back. "It's nothing. It's stupid."
"You can fool them, but you cant fool me. Tell me. What's wrong?"
Xena did not respond, but turned and tried to walk away, but Gabrielle wouldnt let her. She stepped in front of the warrior and held up her hands, blocking her retreat.
"I know you think that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness, but you need to talk to someone. Why not me? Sometimes it helps, you know, to talk things out."
Xena still didnt respond. She continued to look around the tent uncomfortably, so Gabrielle changed tact, trying to lighten the conversation and get the warrior to open up.
"So where are you? Are we in Persia yet?"
"Persia?" Xena paused, distracted by the question. She had forgotten that Gabrielles time and her own were not in sync. "Oh no, we haven't even crossed the mountains yet. No, its only been about two moons since I saw you last."
"Only a couple of months?" Gabrielle couldnt believe it. "It's been almost more than a year for me."
"More than a year?" Xena asked, engaged in the conversation once more. "No wonder you look so different. Older, stronger. You look great. It's great to see you. Im glad you popped in."
"I do seem to pop in just when you need me most, don't I? Now, tell me whats wrong. It's not like you to look so ... defeated. Where are you? What's happening?"
Xena shook her head and sighed. The woman just couldnt let any opportunity for a sensitive chat go. "We're outside of Amphipolis."
"A small village in Thrace ... I ... it's my home. It's where I was born."
Xena chuckled, "I was born somewhere, ya know. Dont tell me you believe that old myth about me?"
"That I was fashioned from clay and Ares breathed life into me."
Gabrielle huffed. "Ive never heard that one, but its good. No. I know youre human. All too human, if you ask me."
Xena didnt comment, but followed Gabrielle with eyes that were grateful to see her as the young woman strolled around the inside of tent, checking out what little there was in the way of accommodations.
The blond wandered over to the table and reached out to play with a few of the maps and scrolls that littered the top. The papyrus passed through her fingers as if she was a ghost.
"So, youre camped just outside of your home town?"
"Yes," Xena answered watching in amusement as Gabrielle paced around the table, head bent, trying to understand the maps - upside down. She caught Xena watching her and smiling. Quickly, she walked around to the other side of the table and bent her head in the opposite way.
"Do you still have family here?" Gabrielle asked lightly as she pretended to understand the scratches on the papyrus.
"Yes ... no. I mean, I do, but I might as well not. She wants nothing to do with me. Can't say I blame her."
Gabrielle looked up from the table. "She? Are you talking about your mother?"
Xena nodded wordlessly, looking at her toes.
Gabrielle stood by the table, waiting patiently. It wasnt easy for Xena to talk about her past and Gabrielle knew it.
"Where were you when I needed you a few years ago?" the dark warrior asked as she stared at a wrinkle in the canvas of the tent wall. "I tried to change, turn away from the path of war. Even buried my leather, armor and weapons."
"Yeah - just outside a small village. Then some slavers came along and attacked a group of young girls just outside the town. I dug my stuff back up and stopped 'em," Xena said, grinning saucily as she recalled the nice little fight. She had snatched away a spear and used it as a fulcrum, swinging out to bash them all in the heads, one after the other. It was a thing of beauty. The smile disappeared as the enjoyable moment faded, "You know how they thanked me?"
"Told me to get out of town before sundown - or something like that."
Gabrielle looked at the floor feeling sad for her friend. "That was very rude of them, Xena."
"Yeah, but it felt good, though - to help somebody. Anyway, I went home. I thought I could go home ... be forgiven."
"Im guessing that didnt go well?"
Xena looked up from the floor, grinning. It was easier to talk to Gabrielle than anyone she knew. "Amphipolis turned their back on me," she told her, watching her reaction. "Even my mother turned her back on me. They stoned me."
Gabrielles eye grew wide. "They stoned you? Your mother, too?"
Xena nodded her dark head. "Nearly killed me. I can't blame them though, blame her. She couldn't see what was in my heart. My mother didn't throw a single stone, but she might as well of. It hurt, let me tell you, and not because of the rocks."
Gabrielle nodded, understanding completely. When her mother hit her, it hurt far more than any blow ever should.
Xena sighed, feeling the weight of her depression lifting from her shoulders. It was getting easier to talk by the second and she found the rest of the story flowed out from her without effort. "An old friend, found me lying in a ditch one breath away from dead. He carried me on the back of his horse back to his camp and took care of me."
"He was a good friend," Gabrielle stated, relieved to hear that someone was around to help her.
"He was ... is ... a murdering warlord, just like me. You know what he told me as I lay there bleeding from the wounds given to me by my own kinfolk? There's no rest for the wicked, Xena, he said. And you want to know something? He was right."
"No, he was wrong," Gabrielle countered firmly.
"Was he? Look what's happened since."
"Since? Since when? Since then? Gabrielle stepped up, more than ready to argue against Xenas dim view of her own self-worth. "Since then, you've gone on to become the Supreme Commander of all Greece - to fight for a better world for everyone. He may not see it, none of your soldiers may see it, but I know, in your heart - you're fighting for the greater good. You have changed."
Again, Xena shook her head and chuckled. "Gabrielle, you'd see the good in Methuselah."
"It's easy to see the good in people, when you look for it. I'm sure if your mother looked a little closer, she would see it, too. Dont give up on her, Xena. Youre her daughter. She still loves you and she always will."
"You know, if you had been with me then, back when I first buried my weapons in the ground - things might have turned out very differently."
Gabrielle relaxed knowing they made it through the worst part of the story. She studied Xenas face and long dark hair, the way her clear eyes mirrored the orange flicker of the tents candles, the way the corner of Xenas lips curved upward into a tiny smile as if she didnt want the smile to be seen.
"That's what this is all about," Gabrielle said softly, "we were meant to be together. That's why, when my spirit soars free, it keeps getting pulled back to you."
"I don't deserve such a pure spirit."
"My spirit is not so pure."
Xenas dark eyebrow lifted high. "No? And just when was the last time you did anything wicked?"
"Every time I lie in my bed at night in the dark thinking of you," Gabrielle replied and then looked away, face turning bright red. She couldnt believe the words that just came out of her mouth.
It was only years of practice in self-control that stopped Xena from laughing outright. She bit the inside of her lip, waiting for the attractive blush on Gabrielles skin to fade.
Gabrielles eyes were looking everywhere, except at her. "Do you ever think of me ... you know ... like that?"
Xena could no longer resist the urge to laugh and did so. She reached out, grinning, and brushed her knuckles along the edge of Gabrielles rose-colored check, but felt nothing. Her fingers passed through the charming womans flesh as though it wasnt there.
Gabrielle shrugged and leaned into the gesture anyway.
Xena kept her hand to Gabrielles cheek, pretending she was able to caress the soft skin. "Do you have any idea how frustrating this is?"
"I think I have a very good idea," Gabrielle replied with a sigh.
Xena let her hand drop, beginning to feel morose again. "It's probably better this way. Better that I can't lay my hands on you."
"Why? Is there something wrong with your hands?" Gabrielle asked, annoyed that Xenas mood had turned dark once again.
"I'm a barbarian, Gabrielle," Xena responded, stepping away. "I'm a rough and hard warrior. The men and women I've been with were the same. I'd only end up hurting you. You deserve better than that."
"You're wrong. I bet youd make love to me just the way I always imagined it could be. Just like in my dreams. It would be wonderful. Don't you believe it could be wonderful?"
"I wouldn't know where to begin with someone like you," Xena said, admitting her insecurity to the floor.
"You'd begin by kissing me, wouldn't you?"
Xena looked up, smiling, "Would I?"
"Yes, you would. Softly and tenderly, with all the love that I know you have for me in your heart. I know just how your lips would feel, too."
"Do you?" Xenas eyebrow lifted as she stepped closer, suddenly very interested. "How would they feel?"
"They'd be firm, yet soft - full and hot, warm like the flame from a hearth fire. You'd kiss me once like that, soft and tenderly, so soft it would feel like a whisper on my skin and then ..."
"And then?" Xena prompted.
"And then your strong arms would wrap around me and pull me in to you, pressing our bodies together. Your tongue would part my lips and I'd feel not just the warmth of your body, the heat of your lips or the strength in your arms, but your passion, your love all of it.
Xena stared open-mouthed at the beautiful young girl in amazement. Gabrielles words were like fingers on her skin.
She closed her mouth and swallowed hard, chuckling ruefully. "Yep, this is when I'd start to get rough."
"No! Not rough, no ... passionate. There's a difference. A wild passion fueled by frustration. The kind of passion that makes your heart beat like it's going to explode. Where your mind forgets everything, everything around you. Where all you know and feel are hands and lips and tongues."
"We would kiss like that until the air left our lungs, until we would be forced to stop in order to breathe. We'd pull apart, but we wouldn't let go. We'd just be standing here, holding one another, staring at each other quietly. And I'd think to myself that you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen."
"I'd be thinking that of you, too." Xena stepped closer, as close to Gabrielle as she could get without holding her, "And then?"
"And then, you'd unbutton my shirt."
The warriors dark eyebrow rose in surprise. "I'd what?"
Gabrielle grinned and began to do exactly what she had suggested.
Xena watched entranced as Gabrielles nimble fingers quickly worked the strange dots through holes in her tunic. The warrior realized for the first time that the colorful, unfamiliar things were more than just decorative. They were like clasps, holding the top closed. How ingenuous, Xena thought, and then any notion of buttons quickly left her mind when Gabrielle began to slowly open the shirt.
Xena stared at a treasure of smooth skin beneath, watching quietly as Gabrielle pulled the shirt all the way open and let it slip from her shoulders to drop on the floor. She stood before Xena bathed in the soft shadows and warm candlelight of the tent wearing only her bra.
"So, what would you do next?" Gabrielle asked, grinning at Xenas stunned and lustful expression.
Xenas eyebrow twitched only once. Always a woman of action, Xena reached out and ran her hands along Gabrielles bare shoulders as though she could touch her. She traced along the contours of her skin, appreciating the beautiful tone of her muscles. Her fingers tripped over the straps and cloth of the bra that got in the way, annoyed at their presence even though she couldnt feel them.
"This would have to go," she said, indicating the bra.
Without hesitation, Gabrielle reached up and slowly pulled the straps from her shoulders. Xenas hands followed along as though she were the one removing the garment. Their eyes locked and together they pulled the straps all the way down until the bra pulled away from Gabrielles chest and her breasts were fully revealed.
Xena waited breathlessly as Gabrielle reached behind her back to unhook the clasp. With a small smile, the bra was pulled away and tossed to the floor.
The warrior stared, her heart thudding wildly in her chest. Gabrielles breasts were perfect, full and round. Pink nipples were relaxed and swollen with warmth, and her golden skin glowed like fire in the soft candlelight.
"By the gods, Gabrielle, you are breathtaking," Xena whispered, her throat so tight with passion, she was hardly able to speak.
"What would you do next?" Gabrielle asked in a voice that was an irresistible mixture of innocence and passion.
Xena stared wordlessly at the beautiful offering before her. For the first time, she had no plan, couldnt think beyond anything other than loving Gabrielle for the rest of her life. With shaking hands, she reached out and ran her fingers along the strong shoulders and up muscled arms in worshipful reverence, soaking in the beauty of Gabrielle in any way that she could.
Her palms traced the border of skin and dropped down to cup the sides of firm, round breasts. Xena smiled when she heard Gabrielle gasp at the sight of her thumbs rubbing in slow circles all around and over her nipples.
"I would make love to you better than in your wildest dreams," Xena promised, voice hot with passion.
"Hard and rough?" Gabrielle asked. Her eyes were riveted to what Xenas strong hands and long fingers were doing.
"No, no. Soft and passionate love." Xena fingers pretended to play with Gabrielles nipples, smiling when they perked right up even though she knew Gabrielle couldnt feel a thing. She bent her head and placed soft lips on the tip of each one, bequeathing two imaginary kisses, one on each, in deference to their beauty.
Xena looked up at Gabrielle slyly, pleased to see that she was watching her closely. Then she opened her mouth and made good on her promise with a long, slow, wet lick.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and moaned. It was as though she could feel the soft tongue drag wetly across her breast. The sensation trickled through her all the way down to her toes. It was too much. She felt the room spinning. Needing support, she reached up and ran her hands through Xenas dark, long hair and was surprised to feel strands like silk slip through her fingers. Without questioning, she grabbed them and pulled Xena hard, closer to her. She needed more. She needed more so very badly.
Xena tasted skin, felt the taut nipple in her mouth, the salty sweetness that was Gabrielle. She could smell the clean fresh scent of her. Her world spun as she sucked on Gabrielles breast in earnest, moaning when she felt hands run through her hair and tug at her to pull her in closer, harder. She complied happily, squeezing the breast that filled her palm and deepening her feasting on the other until she almost fell over
She gasped, out of breath, grabbing at the air. The heat of Gabrielle was still on her, the taste of her still on her lips, but there was nothing in her arms. No one in the room.
She was on her knees in the dirt of an empty tent, alone.
"This is killin' me," Xena muttered and then looked to the floor where Gabrielle had tossed her top. It too was gone.
"Really killin' me."
To be continued
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