Shadows, part 4
Armored soldiers moved purposefully around the well-ordered military encampment. The center of the camp was dominated by a large tent with a deep burgundy pennant snapping in the breeze outside its opening. A pair of praetorian guards stood erectly at attention on either side of the flap; their crossed spears barred the entry of anyone uninvited by the tent's occupant. Brutus approached, preoccupied, and he hastily waved aside the guards as he ducked inside. He adjusted his silver armor, a pale imitation of that worn by the man standing before him.
"Caesar, forgive my interruption," Brutus said, straightening his shoulders as he spoke.
Slowly, Julius Caesar turned to face his lieutenant, hands clasped behind his back. Calculating, intelligent eyes bored through his nervous second-in-command, and he let Brutus squirm for a moment.
"Yes, Brutus, what is it?" he asked finally.
Brutus stepped forward. "I've just received news from our scouts along the coast. They say a woman there has raised an army to stand against us," he paused.
Caesar gave a short laugh and, apparently unconcerned, he selected an apple from a table laden with an assortment of fruit and wine. He polished the dark red apple with the hem of his rich, velvet cloak and inspected the fruit carefully before sinking his teeth into its firm flesh. He returned his attention to his lieutenant.
"And why should I be concerned with a handful of barbarians who think they can stop my legions?"
Brutus cleared his throat anxiously and swallowed hard, anticipating the reaction from his commander when he revealed the next bit of information.
"The scouts overheard a conversation among some of the men in the barbarian army. Apparently this woman who leads them...she sent for Xena."
Caesar snapped to attention and his eyes flashed at the mention of his old adversary's name. So, Xena was joining the game. He smiled, his patrician nostrils flaring at the challenge. He was already busily devising a plan to bring his nemesis to her knees.
"Xena should reach Eire any day now. She might already be here," Brutus added, seeing the familiar obsession brighten Caesar's eyes.
"Ready the legions, Brutus, and tell the generals to wait for my command. When I'm through, Eire and Xena will be mine."
They entered the camp and Siobahn drew her grey mare to a halt as a tall, lanky man approached them. Like many of the soldiers in her army, he was outfitted in makeshift armor made of mismatched bits of leather and metal. Pale blond hair hung to his shoulders and a scruffy beard covered his jaw. Curious blue eyes darted back and forth as he examined the two strangers who had returned with his general. Siobahn dismounted and turned to assist Gabrielle, but the bard had already climbed down without her help. Xena also slid gracefully out of her saddle and stood quietly, stroking the black stallion's neck as she waited.
"What's the news, Brandt?" Siobahn asked.
"Nothing new to report, General," he answered, noticing the faintly amused grin on the dark-haired warrior's face as he addressed his commander. "Caesar hasn't moved," he continued.
Siobahn grunted and pulled on her earlobe. She had expected the Roman leader to be advancing towards them by now. The fact that Caesar was evidently biding his time worried her. She dismissed Brandt with a nod and gestured to Xena and Gabrielle to follow her as she led them to a fairly large tent near the center of the camp. Fighters of all sizes called out to Siobahn as she passed, and Xena raised her eyebrows, surprised by the obvious respect that her old colleague commanded among her army. Xena ducked her head and entered the tent as Siobahn held the flap aside for her.
"Wait here. I need to check on a few things, and then we can talk," Siobahn said before departing.
Gabrielle circled the interior of the tent curiously, fingering the impressive array of weapons displayed on racks and tables cluttering the space. She lifted a heavy, spiked mace and hefted it in her hands. Absently, Xena took it away from her and put it back on the table.
"So, what do you think?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'm not sure," Xena answered. "It's more than I expected. I never saw Siobahn as a leader, but she seems to be doing okay here," she picked up a crossbow and turned it over in her hands, admiring the craftsmanship. "Speaking of Siobahn," she began slowly, trying to sound casual. "I'd watch my step around her if I were you."
Gabrielle made a face. "You mean that touchy feely thing she keeps doing with me? I know she's only doing it to get on your nerves."
Xena blinked, a bit surprised by the bard's understanding of the situation. "Oh, well, good. As long as you're aware of it," she said.
Siobahn reentered the tent with a battle-hardened man trailing after her. He was of medium height, about as tall as Xena, but he had broad shoulders and rippling biceps that indicated a lifetime spent at war. Close-cropped black hair, flecked with grey covered his head. An angry scar ran from the right side of his wide, flat nose all the way to his ear, a reminder of a long ago battle. Like Siobahn, he wore light chain mail under his cloak and the toes of his heavy boots were tipped with iron plates. Strapped to his back, he carried a massive broadsword, and a matching dagger was sheathed at his belt. His eyes flickered briefly over Gabrielle, but he quickly recognized the presence of another warrior and he turned his full attention to Xena, folding his arms across his chest as he regarded her soberly.
"This is Kieran, my second in command," Siobahn introduced the two women to the silent man.
Gabrielle murmured a cordial greeting, while Xena simply nodded in the man's direction.
"So you're the great warrior princess," Kieran remarked in a deep, resonant voice.
Xena shrugged. "Some people call me that. I usually just go by 'Xena'."
Kieran laughed at that, a hearty sound that vibrated in his chest. He slapped Xena's back with a meaty paw, his smile broadening when she didn't flinch at the blow.
"Welcome, Xena. And you, Gabrielle," he said in a friendly tone. "Any help the two of you can give us against these Roman bastards will be greatly appreciated."
"We're glad to help," Xena replied, giving him a tiny smile in return. "Although I'm still not sure what you want us to do," she directed that remark at Siobahn.
"Come. I'll show you," Siobahn said.
The auburn-haired woman crossed to one of the tables and swept aside a dozen arrows, clearing some space on the table's surface. She reached into a pouch at her belt and retrieved a carefully folded piece of parchment. Shaking the creases out of the parchment, she spread it out on the table as the others crowded around her. It was a detailed map of the area. Siobahn drew her dagger and used it as a pointer, placing the tip over the place where their camp was clearly marked.
"As you can see, this is where we are," she traced the dagger along the coastline to another point on the map. "This is where Caesar is. There are no other towns of any importance between us and him, so reason says he'll come here next."
"That makes sense," Gabrielle agreed, observing the strategy session with fascination.
"Honestly, I expected him to be moving by now, but my scouts say that so far, he's staying put," Siobahn continued.
"Aye, but it's only a matter of time before he sets his sights on us," Kieran interjected.
"When Caesar draws close enough, here's what I want you to do, Xena," Siobahn caught the warrior's eye and held it. "Take a small force with you and divert his attention here," she jabbed at the map.
Xena studied the parchment closely. The site Siobahn had indicated would back her up against the edge of a sheer cliff. Caesar would have the advantage here. She raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Don't worry, I'm not asking you to go on a suicide mission," Siobahn reassured her. "While Caesar's busy with you, the rest of my army and I will circle around him here," she dragged her knife in a wide pattern across the parchment. His legions will be trapped between us."
Xena tilted her head to the side, examining all the angles of Siobahn's plan as she committed the hand-drawn map to memory. It could work, she admitted, provided Caesar was focused enough on her to overlook the rest of the army that was boxing him in. Given her history with the egomaniacal Roman leader, it was a pretty safe bet that he would be preoccupied with her, once he discovered Xena was involved. Xena pursed her lips as she traced the line of the cliff with her fingertip. Timing would be crucial, she realized. She would have to engage the legions long enough for Siobahn to cut off their retreat, but at the same time, she would have to give herself and her men a chance to move into a flanking position. Otherwise, they would have their backs pressed up against the edge of a 100-foot drop with nowhere to go but down. Xena voiced her concerns to the rest of the group.
"I'm sure you'll find a way, Xena. I have great confidence in your abilities," Siobahn said with a sardonic grin, ignoring the warrior's scowl. "Now we just have to get Caesar's attention."
"Already taken care of, General," Kieran spoke up. "We spotted their scouts several days ago, and I took the liberty of directing the men to mention quite loudly that Xena was on her way. I'm sure the rats went scurrying straight off to inform Caesar."
"Good thinking, Kieran," Siobahn complimented him. "Why don't you give Xena a tour of the camp? Come, Gabrielle, I'll show you where you and Xena will be staying."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, but Siobahn cut her off before she could get the words out.
"Relax, Xena. I'll make sure no harm befalls your friend," Siobahn said, struggling to hide her smirk.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look and the warrior silently warned her friend to be careful as Siobahn led the bard out of the tent. Gabrielle warily kept pace with Siobahn as the auburn-haired woman leisurely sauntered through the camp. She took careful note of the layout of the place, memorizing every detail in case she needed to find her way back in a hurry. They passed a communal dining area where scores of disheveled men lounged around several blazing fires as they enjoyed their midday meal after a long morning of drilling. Gabrielle blushed as several of the men eyed her and let out low, appreciative whistles. Siobahn gave her soldiers a warning glare, and they fell silent, returning their attention to their food. The snowfall was becoming heavier, and Gabrielle pulled the hood of her cloak up around her ears. Siobahn directed a sympathetic smile towards her.
"Colder than you're used to, isn't it?" she commented.
"Yes, it is," Gabrielle replied politely.
They stopped outside a small tent and Siobahn held the flap aside and waved the bard inside, following her once she had passed. The accommodations were sparse, consisting only of a mound of blankets and furs piled on the dirt floor, but, Gabrielle reasoned, they really didn't need much. She shot a worried glance at the canvas walls as they shook when a moderate gust of wind touched them, but the tent posts seemed sturdy enough and the structure held.
"We don't have many luxuries here," Siobahn explained.
"This is fine," Gabrielle assured her. "Xena and I don't require many luxuries, anyway."
Siobahn adjusted the cuff of her long-sleeved tunic as she considered just how far to take this little game she was playing with the bard. She'd never really forgiven Xena for rejecting her all those years ago, and now she had the opportunity to pay the warrior back for toying with her young, foolish heart. Xena, she knew, was in love with the young storyteller, whether the little blonde knew it or not, and Siobahn imagined the warrior's reaction if she managed to seduce Gabrielle away from her. Speculatively, she eyed the blonde, who was arranging the furs into two neat piles and she wondered if the bard was as innocent as she appeared.
"It gets awfully chilly at night. Those furs should help keep you warm," she said casually, as she stepped closer. "There are lots of ways to stay warm at night," she added, lowering her voice. She leaned down and brushed a strand of hair back from the bard's shoulder, lightly touching Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand.
Gabrielle pulled away, distinctly uneasy from Siobahn's advances. She moved to the other side of the tent, gathering her composure. Taking a deep breath, she looked Siobahn squarely in the eye.
"Look, Siobahn, I don't want to be rude, but I'm not attracted to you," she said, as diplomatically as she could.
Siobahn stared at her, impressed by the Gabrielle's directness. She knew that she was an attractive woman, and it was rare that anyone turned her down. Certainly not so bluntly, anyway. A grudgingly admiring grin edged her lips as she studied the bard. Part of her, she realized suddenly, actually wanted to like this disarming young woman who had the courage to stand up to her. The grin faded abruptly as she recalled the mocking laughter as the Destroyer of Nations had kicked and beat her savagely. She had to make Xena pay for that, didn't she? Siobahn's eyes flashed back to Gabrielle. She wanted to hurt Xena's little friend, but even more, she wanted to warn the bard, warn her so that Gabrielle would never know the kind of pain that she had.
"You're a fool. She'll never love you," Siobahn spat bitterly, knowing perfectly well that it was a lie. "People like her aren't capable of love."
Gabrielle's green eyes widened in shock as she realized that Siobahn had easily seen that she was in love with Xena. Could other people see it? Could Xena? Then, as the other woman's angry words sank in, the bard's temper flared and she leapt to her friend's defense.
"You're wrong," she said heatedly. "She may never love me, not the way I love her, anyway, but I know Xena is capable of more than you could ever imagine," Gabrielle gentled her tone. "I know what she did to you, and it was wrong. But she's not that person anymore. She spends every waking moment trying to make amends for all the terrible things she did."
Hazel eyes closed tightly against the pain as Siobahn saw the truth of Gabrielle's words. The blonde was right, Xena had changed. It was obvious in the way that the warrior looked at the bard, and in the way that Xena had agreed to help fight Caesar, even though the risk to herself was great. No, this wasn't the same self-serving warlord from long ago. Her shoulders sagged as she understood that her plans for revenge served no purpose. The Xena that she remembered had died a long time ago.
"She does love you," Siobahn whispered before she could stop herself.
Gabrielle froze, unsure if she had heard correctly. "What?" she whispered back, certain that she had misunderstood what the other woman had said.
Siobahn opened her eyes and fastened her sad gaze on the stunned bard. Tears welled in her eyes at the knowledge that Gabrielle had secured what she never could. Suddenly, she realized that her feud with Xena was over, and she smiled genuinely at Gabrielle.
"Xena loves you," she stated simply. "It's in her eyes every time she looks at you."
Gabrielle's knees buckled and she sat down on a pile of blankets, not trusting herself to stand any longer. Siobahn's words rang in her head. It wasn't possible. Xena didn't love her, the bard's mind told her. She shook her head slowly, refusing to let herself believe it. This was one of Siobahn's tricks, it had to be.
"You don't believe me," Siobahn said as Gabrielle continued to stare at her incredulously. She started to say more, but a rush of frosty air interrupted her as the tent flap flew back, revealing the presence of a suspicious warrior princess.
Xena took one look at the shocked, rabbit-caught-in-the-torchlight, expression on Gabrielle's face, and her blood started to boil. Clearly, Siobahn had said or done something to upset the bard. A low growl bubbled up from her throat and Xena's hands balled into fists as she took a menacing step forward. Siobahn backed away hastily, putting her hands up to ward off the angry warrior.
"Calm down, Xena, it's not what you think," Siobahn said, realizing that Xena had assumed she was hitting on the blonde again. "Okay, yes, I came on to her. But she turned me down cold," she admitted truthfully, surprising the warrior.
Xena stopped her advance and cocked her head questioningly at Gabrielle. "Is that true?" she demanded, her icy stare never leaving Siobahn.
Gabrielle stammered out a barely coherent answer. "What? Oh, um, yeah, she, I... . she's telling you the truth. Nothing happened."
The warrior's eyes narrowed. Something else was going on here, and she was determined to find out what it was. She summoned up her best scowl and launched it at Siobahn, feeling an internal satisfaction as the other woman flinched under her glare.
"Get out," Xena snarled, resurrecting the ghost of the Destroyer of Nations, if only for a moment.
Siobahn, to her credit, immediately got the point and hurriedly exited from the tent without another word. Xena waited until she was gone and then turned to face Gabrielle, who was still seated in the same position with the same stunned expression. The bard gathered her scattered wits as she quickly tried to figure out how much to tell the expectant warrior. She looked up at Xena, standing there with her arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently.
"Okay, Gabrielle. Tell me what really went on here," Xena said.
"Nothing. Really," Gabrielle told the doubtful warrior, hoping that she sounded more at ease than she felt. "It's like Siobahn said. She was hitting on me again and I told her I wasn't interested. And then we reached a kind of understanding."
"An understanding," Xena repeated skeptically, still believing that there was more to the story.
Okay, that should hold Xena off for a while, Gabrielle thought, missing the vaguely hurt look that flickered across the warrior's face. Concealed anxiety made her stomach flutter, and needing to keep her hands busy, Gabrielle began rearranging the blankets again. She hummed tunelessly to mask her nervousness and to fill the somewhat strained silence between them.
For several heartbeats, Xena didn't move. She stood, rooted to the ground, staring blankly at the top of the bard's bent head. Gabrielle was keeping secrets from her again, and it stung the warrior deeply. A wave of grief crashed over her, and Xena closed her eyes, remembering the last time that the bard had deliberately lied to her. Her reaction to Gabrielle's deception had been unforgivable, Xena thought, and she recalled the day that she had shown up at the Amazon village, fully intending to murder her best friend. It had been one of the lowest moments of her miserable life, and now Xena feared that the damage done in those dark days would never be fully repaired. She'll probably never trust me again, Xena thought bitterly.
Gabrielle's voice dragged Xena away from her descent into the depths of self-loathing. She forced a smile that she didn't feel and her heart ached as Gabrielle answered with a tentative grin.
"Sorry, I drifted off for a minute there," Xena said. "Look, if Siobahn bothers you again, let me know. Okay?"
The bard nodded vigorously, relieved that Xena had chosen not to pursue the issue or take matters into her own hands. Judging by the earlier expression on the warrior's face, Xena might have ripped Siobahn to pieces if she had caught her. Again, Siobahn's words resounded in her mind, and Gabrielle quickly dropped her gaze. The warrior was incredibly perceptive most of the time, and Gabrielle didn't want her friend to read her thoughts. Xena misread the bard's reaction. She can't even stand to look at me, the warrior thought sadly.
"Okay. As long as that's settled. Listen, I'm gonna go scout around. Check out this cliff that I'm supposed to lure Caesar to," Xena announced suddenly, desperately needing to be alone in her misery.
Gabrielle glanced at the fading light outside the tent. Snow was still falling from the sky and covering the ground with a rapidly growing blanket of the cold, wet, white stuff. It was already bitterly cold out, and the temperature would plummet even further once night fell. She looked at Xena as if the warrior had gone completely crazy.
"Maybe you should wait until tomorrow," she suggested. "Caesar won't be here for at least a few days, right? I mean, it'll be dark soon."
"I'm not afraid of the dark," Xena kicked herself into warrior princess mode and gave the bard a cocky, rakish grin. She shrugged, pretending to be unfazed by the setting sun.
"I wasn't suggesting that you were," Gabrielle returned, slightly perturbed by Xena's attitude. "I'm just saying that it might be a better idea to wait until morning before you go running around in unfamiliar territory."
In a moment of clarity, Gabrielle made a decision. Rising to her feet, she took a deep breath to steel her resolve. Determined, she ignored her quivering stomach and laid a hand on Xena's forearm, feeling the rough wool of the sleeve covering the warrior's arm and the warmth of her friend's skin beneath her palm. She searched the warrior's face and found a question lingering in those pale blue eyes. It was now or never.
"The truth is, I don't want you to go," Gabrielle admitted quietly. She thought her voice sounded odd and strained, and she wondered if Xena could hear her wildly pounding heart.
"You don't?" Xena blinked, puzzled. A moment ago she'd been sure that the bard could barely stand to be around her.
"No, I don't," Gabrielle repeated, giving the warrior a timid grin. She gestured towards the furs on the ground. "Let's sit down. There's something I need to tell you."
Feeling decidedly light-headed, Xena followed Gabrielle's example and took a seat on the thick furs. She removed her weapons and laid them out of the way, but made sure they were within reach if she needed them. This is it, she thought, bracing herself for the worst. This is where she tells me that she's going home without me. Xena kept her gaze firmly fixed on the ground in front of her, swallowing against the enormous lump rising in her throat.
"Something else happened with Siobahn," Gabrielle started, fumbling for an easy way to broach the subject.
Xena's head snapped up at that, and fire burned in her eyes. "If she hurt you..."
Gabrielle shook her head emphatically, interrupting the warrior's threat. "No, no, it's nothing like that," she clarified quickly. She closed her eyes and decided to plunge in with both feet. "She said you loved me." Gabrielle let the words tumble out of her mouth before she could lose her nerve.
Gabrielle snuck a glance at Xena, who had an expression of utter shock on her face. Her heart sank as she suspected that Siobahn had been wrong, and she felt the flush spreading across the back of her neck as she cursed herself for her foolishness. Attempting to salvage the situation, she started to speak again, but Xena cut her off.
"She told you that I loved you?" the warrior asked, her voice a bare whisper. Gabrielle nodded mutely. Silence fell between them while the warrior battled her own better judgment. Xena glanced up at the bard, suddenly feeling very awkward and shy.
"She's right, I do." Xena scarcely believed that she was saying the words out loud.
Gabrielle stopped breathing and tears welled in her eyes. She covered her mouth with her hand, unable to believe what she had just heard. Xena loved her. It was all she had wanted, and now she was speechless.
"Gabrielle, it's okay. I know you don't feel the same way. That's why I didn't say anything," Xena said, suddenly fighting back her own tears. "But gods help me, I love you."
A soft, strangled cry escaped Gabrielle's throat, and Xena's stomach dropped. The urge to get up and bolt from the tent threatened to overwhelm her, and with great effort, she managed to grit her teeth and force her body to remain still. Now that the words had been spoken, she was determined to stay and face the bard's reaction, whatever it might be.
Gabrielle's head spun. A single tear rolled down her cheek and fell, quickly absorbed by the collar of her tunic. She willed herself to take slower breaths, realizing that she was on the verge of hyperventilating. The last thing she wanted to do right now was pass out. Xena loved her. A positively giddy feeling began to seep throughout her entire body, and a slow, wondering grin curled her lips and lit up her shining eyes.
"I love you too, Xena." She touched the warrior's cheek with the back of her hand, savoring the softness of the skin. Xena's shoulders were rigid, and Gabrielle realized that her friend had been expecting the worst. She tilted Xena's face up until their eyes met.
Blue eyes widened in shock as Gabrielle's words penetrated Xena's brain. The edges of her vision dimmed until all she could see was Gabrielle sitting before her, gazing into her eyes. Xena opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She snapped her mouth shut again and continued to stare at the bard, absolutely dumbfounded.
Gabrielle's smile broadened and the bridge of her nose crinkled. Gathering her courage, she slid her hand around to the back of Xena's neck and leaned in to brush her lips against the startled warrior's. They parted and Xena blinked rapidly, still at a loss for words. Gabrielle captured Xena's lips again for a longer, more passionate kiss. She sucked in a sharp breath as Xena responded this time, kissing her back, and the warrior lightly ran her hands down the bard's sides. Reluctantly, Gabrielle drew back, in need of air.
"Wow. That was nice." She slowly licked her tingling lips as she caught her breath.
"Uh, yeah." Xena grinned at her, reeling from a day full of surprises.
The bard and the warrior looked at each and suddenly burst into a fit of adolescent laughter. Xena stretched out flat on her back, clutching at her stomach as her laughing fit subsided. She slid an arm around the shoulders of the helplessly giggling bard curled in a ball next to her. Gabrielle inched closer, reveling in the physical contact.
"We should have done this a long time ago," she said, kissing Xena's shoulder lightly and feeling the muscles twitch beneath her lips.
"Mmm." Xena murmured in agreement, absently stroking Gabrielle's arm with her thumb. She stared up at the canvas ceiling of the tent and listened to the wind howling around them outside.
Mixed with the wind, she began to hear shouts of alarm, and a scowl darkened her face. She really didn't want to be interrupted right now, and she wondered how long she could ignore whatever was going on out there. She got her answer a moment later when Kieran burst into the tent abruptly. His eyes went from the warrior to the blonde nestled against her, and he reddened.
"Uh, sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt anything," he muttered as the tips of his ears turned a deep crimson.
"It's okay," Gabrielle assured him, sitting up. "What's going on out there?"
Kieran cleared his throat and scratched at the back of his neck. "One of our patrols was due back at noon. They haven't returned yet."
Xena glanced at the dim light visible in the slim space between the tent flap and the wall. The patrol had been overdue for a good three or four candlemarks, and with a vicious snowstorm bearing down on them, the odds of their survival weren't very high. When Xena turned to look at Kieran, her expression was grim.
"Where's Siobahn?" she asked.
Kieran rubbed the side of his nose. "The general went out looking for them. Said the rest of us should wait here. No sense in all of us freezing to death, she said."
Intensely blue eyes stared at him. "You mean, she went out there alone?"
Kieran nodded, wincing as the raven-haired warrior let loose a string of curses that would make Aphrodite blush. He watched warily as Xena paced back and forth, muttering to herself under her breath.
"I was hoping maybe you could..." he hesitated. "Siobahn once told us that you were the greatest tracker she'd ever seen."
"Not in a snowstorm, I'm not," Xena growled through teeth clenched in frustration.
She raked her fingers through her dark hair as she considered her options. She could wander off into the snow and search for a bunch of people who were probably already dead. Or, she could stay here, nice and warm, with Gabrielle. She rubbed her temples wearily and let out a disgusted sigh.
"I must be out of my mind," she muttered. "Allright. I'm going after them," she jabbed a long finger in Kieran's general direction. "No one else leaves this camp until I get back, 'cause I'm sure not gonna go chasing after all your sorry butts. Got it?"
Kieran nodded in agreement and quickly told the warrior where the patrol had been. Xena's almost perfect memory brought the details of Siobahn's map to her mind, and she envisioned the area where the soldiers had disappeared. It was a densely wooded area to the north. It would be easy for a man to lose his way in the trees, especially with the snow. His mission accomplished, Kieran backed out of the tent and disappeared into the growing darkness. Xena bent to retrieve her weapons, resettling the sword on her back and the chakram at her hip. She pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and made sure that it was securely fastened.
"Wait here. I'll try not to be gone long," she said to Gabrielle. She turned to leave, but Gabrielle quickly reached out and snagged the edge of her cloak, forcing the warrior to stop. Xena turned and found a pair of resolute green eyes gazing back at her.
"You're nuts if you think you're going anywhere without me," Gabrielle informed the warrior, her tone discouraging any argument.
Xena blinked, debating whether or not to insist that Gabrielle stay behind. One look at the bard's determined face told her that it would be pointless to argue, and she sighed in defeat. A tiny, lopsided grin touched her lips and she held out her hand, watching in perplexed amazement as Gabrielle's face lit up at the gesture. The bard took her hand and intertwined her finger's with the warrior's. The heat of Gabrielle's skin warmed her palm, and Xena couldn't help smiling back when the blonde head tilted up towards her and the bard gave her a dazzling grin.
"Let's go," Xena led the way out of the tent, pausing just outside the entrance to get her bearings.
The snow was mixed with sleet now, and the wind screeched around them, whipping at their clothes and hair and driving the stinging shards of ice into their faces. Xena made sure to position herself in front of Gabrielle, blocking the brunt of the weather with her considerably larger body. The rest of the army had sought shelter inside their tents and the camp seemed practically deserted as Xena headed for the northern edge of the encampment, with Gabrielle following her closely.
Once they left the confines of the campsite, the snow grew deeper, sucking greedily at the warrior's ankles as she trudged ahead. She stopped, blinking rapidly to rid her eyelashes of the ice that was already clinging to them. Squinting into the gloom, she discovered that she couldn't see much more than 100 feet in front of her face. Not a good sign, she thought. Turning, she lowered her head, brushing her lips against Gabrielle's ear.
"Walk in my footsteps and stay close. Don't get separated."
Gabrielle nodded and squeezed Xena's hand. The wind made her eyes water, and she lowered her head against its force, carefully placing her smaller footsteps in the indentations made by Xena's larger ones, using her staff to help push through the clinging snow. She wondered how they would find anyone in this blinding snowstorm. Gabrielle had no idea how long they had been walking, but eventually, she noticed that they had reached the edge of the woods, and barren trees with their skeletal branches loomed in the darkness around them. Xena stopped abruptly, and Gabrielle nearly crashed into her back.
Xena pointed, and Gabrielle followed her outstretched arm. At first, she saw nothing, then, through the swirling whiteness, she saw a body lying face down on the frozen ground beneath a tree. Xena rushed forward and knelt in the snow next to the fallen soldier. Knowing fingers searched for a pulse, but the man was dead. The warrior rolled him over and a rush of adrenaline surged through her as she discovered that his throat had been cut. She stood, her right hand automatically going to her chakram.
"Part of the patrol?" Gabrielle shouted to be heard over the howling storm. Xena nodded, eyes scanning the woods around them. "Where are the others?" Gabrielle asked, noticing that the rest of the missing soldiers and Siobahn were nowhere to be found.
Xena crouched, sharp eyes squinting at the barely visible tracks that led deeper into the woods. She rose, unsheathing her sword.
On completely numb feet, Gabrielle stumbled after the warrior. Several yards away, they found the body of a second soldier sprawled across a rotting log. His throat had also been slashed. Gabrielle felt a knot forming in her stomach, and she tightened her grip on her staff as she looked around nervously. Someone had murdered these men, and for all they knew, the killer could still be in these woods, stalking them.
"Relax. Whoever did this is long gone." Xena's low, rumbling voice sounded directly in the bard's ear, making her jump. "These men died several hours ago." Xena gestured towards the frozen blood splattered down the front of the soldier's armored chest.
Gabrielle flexed her free hand, trying to will blood back into her fingertips. She wanted nothing more than to be back in their tent, wrapped in the nice, warm blankets with Xena. Or better yet, back in Greece in front of a blazing campfire. Just about anywhere else other than this forest, ankle-deep in snow. She sighed.
Xena turned her head, her preternaturally keen hearing picking up the sound, even through the cacophony around them. "You doing okay?"
Gabrielle nodded grimly. "Yeah. Let's just find Siobahn and get out of here."
Xena wiped away the wetness dripping down her face and grunted in assent as she resumed her course. They passed a large boulder and Gabrielle heard her friend unleash a torrent of choice words. She looked down and gasped. Siobahn was laying on her side, unconscious, an ugly purple bruise covering her left temple. She was unnaturally pale and her lips were tinted blue. Quickly, Xena bent down to check the woman's pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when she found it beating faintly beneath her fingers. She straightened and looked around, her mind turning.
"We need shelter. Now." Xena yelled as Gabrielle stared at her with a complete lack of comprehension.
As Gabrielle stared at her in confusion, Xena started poking at the ground with her sword. Finally, near the base of a massive, ancient oak tree, she found what she was looking for. Dropping to her knees, she began to dig, scooping away double handfuls of snow, ignoring the chill seeping through her. She glanced up briefly as Gabrielle knelt beside her.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle shouted into her ear.
"We can take shelter under the roots until this blizzard ends." Xena resumed digging and Gabrielle joined her, though she still didn't completely understand. "We have to get her warm." She nodded at Siobahn's prone form.
As they tunneled deeper, the ground became harder, and despite the cold, both women were soon sweating from exertion. Xena unhooked her chakram and used it to hack at the frozen earth. It seemed to take forever, but finally, they had managed to carve out a fairly substantial space beneath the enormous tree. Xena staggered over to Siobahn's still form, unable to feel her own feet. She no longer felt cold, instead, a warm lassitude was overtaking her, and the warrior knew that was a bad sign. Straining against the dead weight, Xena dragged Siobahn over to the opening of their crude shelter.
"You go in first and I'll hand Siobahn to you." She pushed Gabrielle towards the mouth of their makeshift cave.
Gabrielle nodded and slid feet first into the opening. She paused, letting her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. It would be cramped quarters down here with all three of them, the bard realized. But at least they would be out of the punishing blizzard. She reached out and grabbed Siobahn's boots as Xena lowered the unconscious woman down to Gabrielle.
"Okay, I've got her," Gabrielle yelled as she eased Siobahn the rest of the way into their shelter and leaned her limp body against the wall of their cave. Sliding over to the other wall, she made room for Xena as the warrior crawled into the small space.
They were pretty much pressed shoulder to shoulder, but at least their collective body heat provided some much-needed warmth. Xena leaned over to make sure that Siobahn was still breathing and she probed delicately at the large bump on the woman's head.
"Is she okay?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, she'll be fine. But she'll have one nasty headache when she wakes up." Xena shifted her position, worming her arm under Gabrielle's shoulders and pulling her near. The bard willingly assisted her, happily wriggling closer until she was able to rest her head on the warrior's cloaked shoulder. Xena's lips brushed the top of her head, and Gabrielle smiled against the damp wool surface under her cheek.
"Not the most romantic first night together, is it?" Xena remarked dryly.
Grabbing the top of Xena's breastplate, Gabrielle hauled herself up until she was eye to eye with the faintly grinning warrior. She leaned her forehead against Xena's and gazed seriously into those infinitely blue eyes.
"We're together. That's all that matters." Gabrielle captured the warrior's lips, and for several long moments, they both lost themselves in the intensity of the kiss. Xena's hands slid across the bard's back, drawing her even closer, and Gabrielle felt her own body respond, her skin tingling from the contact.
"This would be a little awkward," Xena pointed out regretfully, a hint of amusement sparkling in her eyes.
Gabrielle laid her head back down on Xena's shoulder. "Mmm. Maybe a little," she agreed, using her fingertips to lightly trace patterns on the warrior's other shoulder. Xena took a long, shuddering breath and Gabrielle's eyes widened in amazement at the effect her touch was having on the warrior. After all, it wasn't like Xena was inexperienced in that department. Apprehension gripped her, and the bard's breath caught in her chest.
Xena sensed the change and correctly surmised its cause. "Gabrielle," she whispered simply, forcing the bard to look at her. She smiled tenderly. "There's no hurry. We can take this as slowly as you need to."
"But," Gabrielle started.
Xena laid a finger across the bard's lips to silence her. "No buts. I mean it. I want our first time together to be perfect. And that means waiting until we're both ready."
Gabrielle smiled at her through a thin film of tears, seeing the love and the sincerity in Xena's eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, kissing the tip of the warrior's nose.
Beside them, Siobahn stirred and groaned, one hand going to her battered head. "Ow... my head," she moaned, her voice hoarse.
Hazel eyes opened and blinked dazedly as Siobahn took in her unfamiliar surroundings. She turned her head slightly, wincing as pain lanced through her skull. She gritted her teeth and inhaled sharply, fighting down a wave of nausea. Finally, she forced her eyes to focus on the two women staring at her in concern.
"What in the name of the great goddesses hit me?" Siobahn moaned woefully.
"We were sort of hoping you could tell us that," Gabrielle informed her.
Siobahn shook her head slightly, grimacing as the movement sent more pain shooting through her skull. "Snuck up from behind. Didn't see him," she gasped. "Where are we?"
"We're in a snow cave," Xena told her tersely. "Quit moving so much, you'll just make your head hurt worse."
Baleful hazel eyes fixed on the warrior. "Gee, thanks. As if I hadn't figured that out for myself already."
Xena merely shrugged in response. Siobahn's eyes widened suddenly as she recalled the missing patrol she had set out to retrieve. Two of them were dead, that much she remembered, having stumbled across their bodies. But what about the other four soldiers in the six-man patrol? Where we they?
"Two of my men are dead. Someone slit their throats for them," she said.
Xena grunted in acknowledgment. "We know. We saw their bodies. No sign of the others before we found you."
Siobahn squeezed her eyes shut and silently prayed for the throbbing in her head to cease.
"We need to get back to the camp," she struggled towards the small, ragged hole that marked the opening to the crowded cave. Xena reached out and put a hand flat on her chest, unceremoniously forcing her back down.
"Don't be an idiot. We're not going anywhere until the snow lets up," the warrior growled. Gabrielle nudged her lightly in the ribs and gave her a reproving look. Be nice, the bard's green eyes pleaded. Xena let out a small, defeated sigh. "Look, we wouldn't make it back to the camp in this storm. We're better off waiting it out here."
Siobahn turned her head and glared at the warrior beside her. An finely sculpted auburn eyebrow arched as she observed the close position of the warrior and the bard. She snorted, half in amusement.
"So I get to spend the last moments of my miserable life being buried alive with you two lovebirds? That's just perfect," she groaned.
Gabrielle propped her chin up on Xena's chest and mildly regarded the injured woman. Her lips curled in a slightly embarrassed grin. "This is all your fault, you know." She gestured towards herself and Xena. "If you hadn't told me that she loved me, we'd still be suffering in silence."
Siobahn rolled her eyes without rancor. She studied the dirt ceiling of the cave, less than a foot above her upturned face. The ugliness between her and Xena seemed a lifetime ago, and she wondered why she had wasted so much time harboring such bitterness towards the ex-warlord lying next to her with the good-natured blonde draped across her body. Xena had changed. It was time to let go of the past.
"For whatever it's worth, I'm happy for you, Gabrielle," she said sincerely, as the bard beamed at her. "You too, Xena," she added with a wry glance towards the recalcitrant warrior.
"Yeah, thanks," Xena muttered dryly, somewhat uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. "Get some rest, Siobahn. I think that blow to your head must have rattled your brains."
Siobahn let out a short laugh, wincing at the white-hot bolt of pain that shot through her head. She could hear the bard murmur something softly into Xena's ear and the low chuckle as the warrior responded. Strange, she mused, she hadn't thought anyone would ever tame the fierce warrior, but the bard seemed to have Xena completely wrapped around her finger. Siobahn directed a slightly melancholy smile at the ceiling, and she let her eyes drift shut again. Suddenly, sleep seemed like an excellent idea.
When she woke again, Siobahn was completely alone in the dark, damp little cave. She struggled to raise her head, but was forced back down by a sudden rush of dizziness. The air was close and stale around her, and it was getting harder to breathe. She fought against the rising panic building in her chest as the walls and ceiling seemed to press in on her. She had been buried alive; she knew it. Cursing Xena's name, Siobahn pounded her fist against the ground. That damned traitorous bitch had betrayed her again. Left her here to die in this cold, black tomb.
A scream of pure fury ripped its way from her throat. Hands grabbed her ankles and she thrashed wildly against their strong grip, believing them to be the hands of death. Slowly, Siobahn became aware of the light hitting her face and the wet snow beneath her body. She took a deep breath and cold, but wonderfully fresh air filled her lungs. She opened her eyes and saw a pair of annoyed blue eyes glaring at her in exasperation.
"General, are you allright?" Siobahn shifted her head slightly and found Kieran peering down at her, worry filling his eyes. Brandt and two more of her men stood behind him, holding the reins of their horses.
One hand pressed to her injured head, she sat up and managed a weak smile. "I'm just peachy, Kieran. Don't you worry about me."
Silently, Xena offered her arm to the wounded woman. Siobahn regarded her soberly for a moment, still warring with the part of herself that remembered the cruel, heartless warlord who had hurt her so deeply. Then she looked past Xena at the blonde bard watching them both closely. Siobahn sighed and let go of the last remnants of hatred. She took Xena's hand and allowed the warrior to haul her to her feet. Strong hands supported her as the dizziness threatened to send her crashing back to the ground in an undignified heap. Kieran stepped forward and solicitously took her other arm, and Siobahn gave him a grateful look.
It was just past dawn, and the early morning sun peeked weakly from behind the clouds. The snow had stopped sometime during the night, and thick drifts of the stuff were piled throughout the landscape. Xena had spent the long, dark hours kicking the snow clear of their shelter, making sure they wouldn't be trapped inside. At first light, she had crawled out of the small cave, and shortly afterwards, Kieran and the others had appeared, leading two riderless horses.
Xena and Kieran led Siobahn over to the horses, but the injured woman took one look at the animals and shook her head.
"There's no way," Siobahn said through clenched teeth. No way she would be able to keep herself in the saddle. Not with her head spinning the way it was.
Xena nodded in understanding. "Kieran, help her up and then you ride with her. Make sure she doesn't fall." She turned and smoothly swung herself up onto the back of one of the other waiting horses and held her hand out towards Gabrielle.
Reaching up, Gabrielle took the warrior's elbow and let Xena pull her into the saddle behind her. She slid her arms around Xena's stomach and squeezed gently, feeling the warrior's ribcage expand as she took a deep breath. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of the watching soldiers, Xena pressed her knees against her horse's flanks and urged him into an easy trot. A brief grin flickered across her face when she heard the sound of hooves behind her as the rest of the men followed her. It felt good to be riding at the head of this group of trained soldiers. Her breath caught as Gabrielle tightened her grip and rested her cheek against the warrior's back. That felt even better.
The ride back to the camp was a short one. They reached the outskirts without incident and Xena dismounted gracefully, automatically turning to help Gabrielle down. A young soldier, barely more than a teenager, took the reins from her and led the horse away to be brushed down. She spared him a fleeting glance and then shifted her attention to Siobahn, who was being helped down from her horse.
"I'm fine, Kieran. Really. Stop making such a fuss," Siobahn assured her lieutenant.
"Don't worry. She'll be fine in a day or two. Siobahn has an exceptionally hard head," Xena said dryly, getting a dark look from the injured woman.
Siobahn opened her mouth to respond to the warrior's attempt at humor when she was interrupted by a voice unfamiliar to her.
"Gabrielle, is that you?" Gabrielle turned towards the voice, her face breaking into a welcoming grin at the sight of Jared poking his rust-colored head out of a tent.
"Jared! This is a surprise. What are you doing here?" She stepped forward to greet the young man.
Siobahn studied the newcomer. He was young and a little on the scrawny side, but she sensed a certain strength to him. She watched Gabrielle hug him warmly and noted the young man's awkwardness around the bard. So, the lad carries a torch for Gabrielle, as well. Siobahn snuck a quick glance at the stiff warrior standing next to her, and she was unsurprised to see jealousy darkening those blue eyes.
"I take it you know this kid," she whispered.
Xena didn't look at her, instead, she kept her gaze firmly locked on Gabrielle and Jared. The kid's timing was lousy and she knew that he was bound to get in the way of her burgeoning relationship with Gabrielle. Maybe I really should have tossed him overboard when I had the chance, she thought with an evil grin. Realizing that Siobahn was still watching her, Xena wiped the homicidal look off her face and resumed her expressionless mask.
"Kid's name is Jared. He worked on the ship we sailed over on," Xena explained.
"Xena look who's here," Gabrielle called out, leading Jared over to where Xena, Siobahn and Kieran were standing.
Jared walked straight up to Siobahn and looked her squarely in the eye, stubbornly refusing to even glance at Xena. He held out his hand to the auburn-haired woman.
"I want to help you fight Caesar," he said simply.
Siobahn straightened her posture, letting some of her usual imperious demeanor show through the pain and exhaustion. Unhurriedly, she looked the young man up and down, knowing that she was making him nervous. Xena seemed ready to pounce on the poor kid, meaning that the warrior was well aware that Jared had a crush on Gabrielle. Siobahn groaned inwardly and hoped that the palpable tension between the two wouldn't become a serious problem.
Jared lifted his chin slightly, trying his best not to wilt under Siobahn's steady gaze. Unable to resist the temptation any longer, he stole a quick glance at Xena and found her looking at him, an unreadable expression on her face. He returned his attention to the auburn-haired commander in front of him as she finally gripped his hand.
"Greetings, Jared," she said formally. "We welcome anyone who wishes to stand against the infection that is Rome." Siobahn turned to her second in command. "Kieran, make sure he has everything he needs."
Kieran nodded and escorted Jared away. As he left, the young man cast a clumsy grin toward Gabrielle, nearly tripping over his own feet as the big lieutenant led him off to the armory. The bard gave him a friendly smile in return, her eyes darting towards the six-foot, frowning warrior princess. She sidled over to stand beside Xena and raised up on her toes so she could whisper in her friend's ear.
"You have nothing to worry about," she confided seriously, taking the opportunity to lightly nip at Xena's earlobe.
Xena reddened slightly at the public display and she glanced around surreptitiously to see if anyone had seen them. No one appeared to be watching, other than Siobahn, who was grinning like an idiot. Xena shot her the dirtiest look she could manage, but her old comrade merely grinned wider and started to chuckle softly.
"Oh, Xena, no one from the old days would believe me if I told them that the great Destroyer of Nations had such a sentimental streak," Siobahn shook her head slowly. She rubbed her aching head. "Well, I think I'm gonna go lie down for a bit. See if I can get the world to stop spinning around me. If there's anything you need, find Kieran and he'll take care of it."
Siobahn started to leave but stopped after a few steps. Without turning around, she addressed Xena, her voice oddly quiet for the usually brash young woman.
"By the way, Xena, thank you. You saved my life yesterday. I owe you one." She began to walk away again.
"You don't owe me anything." Xena said, just loud enough for the other woman to hear her.
Siobahn gave no indication that she heard. Gabrielle slipped an arm around Xena's waist and rubbed her back comfortingly, knowing that the warrior was still tormented by what she had done to the other woman in the past.
"Hey, let's go find some breakfast. I'm starving," Gabrielle nudged Xena in the direction of the food tent, getting a laugh from the tall warrior.
She slipped her hand into Xena's, pleased to notice that the warrior offered no resistance, and she tilted her head up to look into Xena's eyes. Xena smiled at her and quickly looked around. Seeing that they were still more or less unnoticed, the warrior ducked her head and stole a kiss, getting a surprised squeak from the bard. A mischievous grin crossed Xena's face as she casually slung her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders and led the way towards breakfast.
Julius Caesar sat ramrod straight atop his immaculate white warhorse. Dark brown eyes stared ahead at the bleakness surrounding him and the columns of Roman legions stretching for miles behind him. The previous day, Caesar and his legions had embarked on a forced march to the west after the Roman leader had learned that Xena had joined the resistance against him. The sudden blizzard had caught them all by surprise, and it had taken its toll on the invading army.
Caesar was growing impatient with their slow pace, impeded by the fresh blanket of snow. Hoofbeats sounded directly behind him, along with the faint jangling of armor, and a moment later, Brutus drew his horse alongside his commander's.
"Report." Caesar barked abruptly, not looking at his lieutenant.
Brutus sat up straighter in his saddle. "Sir, some of the men are questioning the wisdom of this march."
Slowly, Caesar turned his head and pinned his lieutenant with a haughty gaze. "Really?" The Roman commander drawled, disdain dripping from the word.
Brutus fidgeted in his saddle, knowing that Caesar did not like having his authority questioned under any circumstances. He swallowed nervously, his prominent adam's apple bobbing up and down in his throat.
"Yes sir. Twenty-three men froze to death during the night and many more are suffering from frostbite," he reported dutifully.
Caesar waved his hand, a bored expression on his face. "Theirs was a noble sacrifice for the glory of Rome, Brutus." The lives of twenty-three men meant nothing to the Roman leader, who commanded an army of thousands. This was a war, after all, and casualties were expected. The infantry was, more or less, expendable. "Tell the men that if they have a problem with their orders, they may speak to me personally."
Brutus nodded, understanding the unspoken message behind Caesar's words. If the men complained directly to Caesar, they would most likely be executed on the spot.
"Yes, Caesar. I'll spread the word," Brutus touched his heels to his mount's flanks and galloped ahead.
Caesar squinted at the undulating columns of men ahead of him. He, along with the rest of the Roman cavalry, rode toward the middle of the vast army. Pikemen and archers led the way, while the bulk of the infantry, the common foot soldiers trudged wearily behind the elite cavalry. Caesar could feel the anticipation growing as every step brought him closer to his nemesis. This steady, plodding pace was maddening, and he considered speeding it up. Even if a third of his army fell along the way, the Roman forces would still vastly outnumber the ragged, pathetic band of barbarians who stood against them. A thin smile touched his lips. Soon, Xena, he thought. Soon, we will meet again, and this time there will be no mercy. Eire will be mine. It is my destiny.
Xena ducked inside one of the food tents and held the flap aside so that Gabrielle could enter behind her. Wordlessly, she selected a loaf of bread from a reed basket and inspected it for mold or bugs. Finding it in satisfactory condition, she handed it to the bard and began examining various pieces of fruit. She picked out two pears that were the right firmness and tucked them into the pockets of her cloak. She liked her fruit on the crunchy, slightly green side. Behind her, Gabrielle sifted through a small basket full of blueberries, popping several into her mouth before filling her pockets.
"Hey, save some of those for me," Xena laughed as Gabrielle chewed contentedly.
Gabrielle playfully stuck a purple-tinted tongue out at the warrior. Feeling daring, she held a berry between her thumb and forefinger and offered it to Xena, quirking a blonde eyebrow at the warrior. Xena immediately got the hint, and she carefully captured the berry with her teeth, gently nibbling the bard's fingers in the process. Chewing slowly, she smiled as the sweet juice exploded in her mouth. She winked at Gabrielle as they exited the tent.
Outside, Xena's grin quickly vanished. A tall, thickly-muscled man with the build of a wrestler stood directly in her path. She stared at him coolly, waiting for him to move, but instead of getting out of Xena's way, the man stepped closer. He was well inside the warrior's comfort zone, and she could smell the rank sweat emanating from his unwashed body. Xena's nostrils flared, but she refused to back away. Her eyes flicked past him to four more men who were watching with interest. Obviously they were testing her. Xena sighed inwardly. She hated the constant challenges which required her to prove her skills to morons like these. Might as well get this over with, she shrugged.
"Something I can help you with?" she drawled lazily.
He smiled at her maliciously, exposing rows of rotting teeth, the foul stench of his breath almost overpowering the rancid stink of his body. Xena's stomach heaved, but she didn't flinch.
"I hear you're a pretty good fighter," he said.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and stepped out of the way, knowing what this was leading to. It was always the same. Men threatened by Xena's reputation were constantly trying to best her in combat. They never won, but they never seemed to get a clue.
Xena smiled back at him with a savage grin that burned in her eyes. She unfastened her cloak and tossed it to Gabrielle, who caught it neatly in one hand.
"I do okay," she replied calmly, flexing her fingers in anticipation.
He laughed, sending a blast of foul-smelling air directly into Xena's face, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. Why did these guys always fail to grasp the importance of basic personal hygiene? A fight seemed inevitable, and she surveyed her opponent carefully, looking for a weakness. He was big, but it was her experience that the big ones were usually slow.
"I bet you're not as good as you think you are," he challenged her, leaning even closer until his face was mere inches from hers.
Xena had had enough. She put her hands flat on his chest and shoved, sending him staggering backwards a few steps. Putting on her best don't-mess-with-me face, she glared at him angrily.
"You don't wanna do this," she warned him, giving him a chance to back down.
He didn't take that chance. They never did. Instead, he unleashed a vicious swing directly at Xena's head. She ducked it easily and feinted to his left, testing his reflexes. Like she had suspected, his reactions were slow, and she chuckled softly. This would be a quick one.
Xena stalked her adversary in a leisurely circle, a predatory grin curling her lips. He swung at her again, and Xena slid sideways, letting the blow glance off her shoulder as she slammed her fist into his midsection. He doubled over with a grunt, and she stepped back, waiting to see if he would continue. Behind her, the man's friends were laughing and jeering at their buddy. He straightened up, his face red from anger and embarrassment. Bellowing with rage, he lowered his head and charged at Xena, nearly losing his balance as, without warning, the warrior launched herself into a flip that soared up and over his head. She dropped down behind him and planted her boot against his ample backside, sending him stumbling forward and falling to his knees.
"Had enough yet?" she asked him reasonably, hoping he would have the sense to back off.
His friends were drifting closer to the fight, putting Xena on edge. She had no desire to take on all five men at once. It had been an agonizingly long, cold night, and all she wanted was breakfast and maybe a couple decent hours of sleep. She cast a quick glance towards the anxiously watching bard. Gabrielle had set the food down, and from the way she was gripping her staff, Xena could tell that her companion was itching to jump in. Xena gave her a tiny grin and winked at her reassuringly, then she returned her attention to the man in front of her. A dark eyebrow hiked upward.
"Well? Are we done her or not?" Xena inquired as he glowered at her sullenly.
"Aw, give it up, Gereth, before she wipes the ground with your ass," one of her opponent's friends called out.
Gereth glared at her stubbornly and lumbered forward, his wounded pride forcing him to continue. Xena sighed in resignation. She really wasn't in the mood for this. Patiently, she waited for him to strike. He lunged at her, intending to wrap the warrior up in a bear hug, but she ducked under his outstretched arms and slammed her elbow into his ribs, knocking the wind out of him. As he doubled over in pain again, Xena brought both of her fists down on his upper back, and he collapsed to the ground. He rolled over to his back, wheezing heavily.
"Okay, I give up," he gasped.
Xena shook her head and stepped over his prone body. She'd worked up a sweat and now the chill was getting to her. Without a backward glance, she retrieved her cloak from Gabrielle and headed for her tent. Gabrielle hurriedly picked up their breakfast and followed the warrior while Gereth's friends helped him up
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle caught up to her fuming warrior friend.
Xena glanced sideways at her. "Yeah, he barely touched me." She examined her arm where Gereth had hit her and grimaced at the purple bruise already visible against her skin.
She was silent the rest of the way back to their tent, and Gabrielle trailed after her hesitantly, sensing her friend's suddenly dark mood. Wearily, Xena shoved aside the tent flap and stepped inside. Exhaustion was quickly overtaking her, and she unhooked her weapons and let them drop to the ground with a thump. She fumbled impatiently with the buckles on her armor. Her fingers felt thick and clumsy.
"Damn stupid buckles!" she burst out in frustration. "And why do these idiots always insist on testing me? How many people do I have to beat up just to prove that I can?" she continued irrationally.
Gabrielle studied her critically, noticing the shadows beneath Xena's eyes and the tense lines around her mouth. She stepped forward purposefully and brushed the warrior's hands aside. She finished unbuckling the heavy breastplate and set it carefully on the ground. Xena stood obediently, too tired to protest, while Gabrielle unlaced and removed her gauntlets.
"Sit down," Gabrielle commanded, leaving no room for discussion.
Xena sank to the ground and scrubbed at her face with her hands. Her eyes felt like they were full of sand. Gradually, she realized that Gabrielle was still staring at her, and she peeked at the bard through her fingers.
"You didn't sleep at all last night, did you?" Gabrielle asked accusingly, already knowing the answer. Xena shrugged noncommittally, and Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh. "You let me and Siobahn sleep like babies while you stayed up all night long. Xena, that's just stupid! I mean, sure, Siobahn needed her rest, but you and I could've taken turns keeping watch."
Xena's ears reddened and she tensed. Had she overstepped again? She knew Gabrielle didn't like being treated like a kid and the bard was very sensitive about that sort of thing.
"Sorry," she mumbled contritely. "You look so peaceful when you sleep. I didn't want to wake you."
One look into Xena's repentant blue eyes, and Gabrielle felt all of her irritation just melt away. She circled around the curiously watching warrior and knelt on the furs behind her. Xena tried to turn, but Gabrielle grabbed her shoulders and forced her to stay still.
"Just relax," she murmured into Xena's nearby ear.
With shaking, uncertain fingers, she slowly pushed aside the straps to Xena's leathers, smiling a little when she heard the warrior inhale sharply. Her confidence growing, Gabrielle swept Xena's dark hair off of her neck and began a gentle massage of her companion's shoulders, taking care not to touch the bruise Xena had received during the fight with Gereth.
Xena let out a soft sigh of pleasure, and she let her head drop forward, succumbing to the easy pressure of the bard's hands. Her eyelids felt incredibly heavy, and she permitted them to droop shut. Impulsively, Gabrielle leaned down and brushed her lips against the soft skin on the back of the warrior's neck, causing Xena's eyes to snap open again in a hurry.
"I thought the idea was to get me to relax," Xena teased.
Gabrielle smiled, and Xena could feel the motion of the bard's lips against her skin. The bard stopped her massage and wrapped her arms around the Xena's neck, content in the knowledge that no one else got this close to the warrior. She rested her chin on Xena's shoulder.
"Right. Sorry," Gabrielle laughed.
Xena laughed too, and she stretched out on her back, holding an arm out so that Gabrielle could curl up next to her. She pulled the blankets over both of them, surprised at how comfortable she was with their closeness. Outside, a steady stream of voices drifted past their tent and the air was filled with the sounds of hammering and the clashing of swords as men prepared for war. Xena filtered out all the surrounding noise, instead, she focused on the steady sound of Gabrielle's breathing. Her eyes closed, and she was fast asleep within minutes.
Dalton stood on the northern edge of the sprawling camp. The day before, a patrol had come across him, but he had dispatched them quickly and hid in the woods until morning. Today, he had easily evaded the outer sentries, and he laughed at their ineptitude. He had abandoned the red satin robes, instead dressing himself in the rough leather tunic and pants common for a mercenary. He adjusted the battered sword hanging from his belt. From his vantage point, he could just barely make out the cluster of tents at the center of the camp. He focused his dark eyes on the largest of the tents, knowing that he would find the leader of this army of mercenaries and misfits there. The wind blew, rustling the bare branches of the trees, and the tree limbs rubbing together sounded like the clatter of bones. Dalton lifted his face to the cold sky and shut his eyes, listening intently to the voice that only her could hear. He smiled.
"I understand," he whispered softly as he headed for the camp.
As he passed the first scattering of tents, he was stopped by a pair of officious soldiers who barred his path by crossing their spears in front of him. He held out his hands to show that he meant them no harm, and his face twisted into a ghastly grin reminiscent of a death mask.
"I'd like to speak to the woman that leads this army," he requested, as politely as he could.
The two soldiers exchanged a look, and they lowered their guard slightly. The first of the pair, a baby-faced young man took the lead.
"The commander doesn't usually see visitors unannounced," he said gruffly, trying to sound tougher than he looked.
"It's okay," Dalton informed them, his grotesque grin widening. "She knows me."
The baby-faced soldier stared at him suspiciously. He didn't trust this strange man who had wandered into their camp out of nowhere, but the truth was, they needed every soldier they could get. Still it would be wise to be cautious, he knew. Reaching out, he yanked Dalton's blade from his belt, disarming the stranger. Using Dalton's sword, he waved the oddly grinning man forward and proceeded to escort him to Siobahn's tent. The soldier poked his head inside and spotted Siobahn lying on a narrow cot, one arm thrown across her face.
"Someone here to see you, General. Says he knows you."
The woman's arm dropped and hazel eyes peered balefully at the soldier who had interrupted her nap. She sat up and ran both hands through her hair, settling the auburn waves around her thin shoulders.
"Does this man who claims to know me have a name?" Siobahn inquired, her tone making it clear that she was displeased by the intrusion.
Stricken, the soldier realized that he hadn't bothered to ask the stranger what his name was, and he began to stammer nervously. Siobahn rolled her eyes at him and stood, pausing while her equilibrium gradually restored itself.
"Never mind," she said brusquely as she crossed the space between them and threw back the tent flap, stepping out into the mid-morning light. Her face brightened as her gaze fell upon Dalton. "Cousin!" Siobahn rushed forward and pulled the burly man into a warm embrace.
"It's good to see you too, Siobahn," Dalton greeted her. "It's been too long."
"Yes, it has," she agreed. "I'm so glad you're here, cousin. When I received your last letter, I was certain you wouldn't make it home in time for the battle." Siobahn linked her arm through Dalton's and fairly pulled him towards her tent, dismissing the two waiting soldiers with a wave of her hand. "Come inside and tell me all about your adventures on the other side of the world. I'm just dying to know what Sumeria was like."
Unseen by the woman, a chilling smile flashed across Dalton's face as he followed Siobahn into her tent. He slouched into a sturdy wooden chair and waited while his cousin took a seat in an identical chair across from him.
"Sumeria was... .interesting," he said, his gravelly voice bouncing off the canvas walls.
Siobahn leaned forward excitedly and slapped her cousin's knee. She and Dalton had been close as children, growing up in the same small fishing village in the south of Eire. Dalton was a bit older than her, and when his mother had died seven years ago, he had left his homeland in search of fortune and adventure. In his absence, Siobahn had fallen in with a bad crowd, which eventually led her to Boadicea, Xena, and life as a fighter. When Caesar had first begun to threaten Eire, Siobahn sent word to Dalton, asking him to come home and help her stand against Rome.
"Before we talk about your grand adventures, there's something I need to tell you," Siobahn broke in. "I took your advice and contacted Xena." In his last letter, sent from Sumeria several months ago, Dalton had suggested recruiting the warrior princess to aid them in their battle.
Dalton feigned surprise. "Really? And she agreed to help you?"
Siobahn nodded. "Yes. You were right, Dalton. She came out of a sense of guilt, I think. And because she hates Caesar. Anyway, what difference does it make why she's here? Xena's here, and that's all that matters."
His lips twisting into another deathly grin, Dalton nodded slowly. "Yes, that's all that matters."
She was in the maze again, dark, twisting, cold. The sinister whispers of a thousand voices bounced off the polished stone walls, echoing weirdly through the maze, and Xena strained her ears, trying to make out the words. They were calling to her, beckoning her. She shook her head and backed away, desperate to escape their pull. Stumbling blindly, Xena turned a corner and found herself in a cavernous chamber. At its center, a woman was lying on a stone altar, her face turned away from the warrior. Warily, Xena approached the platform and a low chuckle dripping with ancient, primordial evil reverberated throughout the chamber, filling her with dread. The woman's head turned, and Xena froze as familiar green eyes stared at her in terror.
"Xena, help me," Gabrielle pleaded, her eyes brimming with tears.
A strangled cry reached the warrior's ears, and Xena realized that it had emerged from her own throat. She tried to rush to Gabrielle's aid, but much to her dismay, she discovered that her feet would not obey her. Growling in frustration, Xena tried to rip her boots from the floor, but she was firmly rooted to the spot. A flicker of motion in the corner of her eye captured her attention, and she turned her head. To her right, dark mist poured across the floor, seeming to originate from the walls themselves. She watched in horror as the wispy tendrils writhed and danced around each other. Slowly, the mist coalesced, becoming a towering, vaguely man-shaped form. The shadowy creature glided across the floor, moving inexorably towards the bard, who struggled frantically against her bonds.
"No!" Xena screamed, tearing herself free from her paralysis. She leaped forward, placing herself between Gabrielle and the thing that stalked her. With shaking hands, Xena drew her sword and prepared to defend herself and her bard. Glowing red eyes burned into her soul as the creature continued its advance, stopping just short of the warrior. The insidious whispering began again, swirling around her, burrowing into her mind, and Xena felt her will start to crumble. Her fingers went numb, and her sword clattered uselessly to the stone floor.
"No," she moaned softly, comprehension dawning in her eyes.
Xena watched as, completely without her conscious permission, her arm rose and reached out towards the insubstantial thing standing before her. She could hear Gabrielle calling her name, but she couldn't resist the creature's seductive pull. Triumphant laughter filled her ears as it took the warrior's hand and swallowed her entire being with a single touch.
This time, when she woke from her nightmare, Xena couldn't hold back the scream. She bolted upright, drenched in a cold sweat, and she buried her face in her hands, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Gabrielle scrambled up beside her, jolted awake by the warrior's cry. She knew Xena was frequently plagued by nightmares that she never talked about, but in all the time they had spent together, she had never seen her friend so badly upset by one before. Hesitantly, Gabrielle wrapped her fingers around the warrior's forearm, feeling the muscles jerk in response to the touch.
"It's okay. It was just a dream," the bard murmured soothingly, stroking the chilled flesh beneath her fingertips.
Xena drew in a long, shaky breath and forced herself to calm down. Gabrielle was right, it was only a bad dream. She looked at the bard and smiled wanly to reassure her friend that she was okay, and Gabrielle let out a small sigh of relief.
"It might help if you talk about it," Gabrielle suggested.
Xena paused uncertainly. Part of her wanted to tell the bard everything, but something held her back. Besides, the truth was, the images were already becoming fuzzy and vague in her mind. She shook her head, pretending not to notice the expression of slightly hurt disappointment on Gabrielle's face.
"It was about time to get up, anyway," Xena said, rising to her feet.
Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully. Judging by the light outside, they couldn't have been sleeping for more than a candlemark or two, and Xena was still clearly exhausted. She scrutinized the warrior more closely, realizing that Xena appeared even more tired and drawn than she had before. The bard frowned, wondering just how long this particular round of nightmares had been tormenting her friend.
"Xena..." Gabrielle began.
"I'm fine, Gabrielle, really." Xena cut her off abruptly. "Look, I need to go see that cliff before the battle. Figure out how to keep Caesar occupied. Why don't you stay here and get some more rest?"
The bard gave her a look, and Xena sighed, knowing that it would be useless to argue. She closed her eyes briefly and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Opening her eyes again, she bent to pick up her breastplate and she regarded the bard thoughtfully, noticing the set determination of Gabrielle's mouth.
"On second thought, why don't you come with me?" Xena amended, getting a victorious grin from her blonde companion.
For now, Gabrielle decided to save the discussion of Xena's troubling nightmares for later, when the warrior was less distracted by Caesar and the impending battle. But Xena was nuts if she thought they were just going to forget about it altogether, the bard thought as she stared at the tense, rigid set of the warrior's shoulders.
They exited their tent, blinking as their eyes adjusted to the light. The skies had cleared and the sun shone brightly, though it was still cold enough to see their breath and slushy snow crunched beneath their boots as they walked. Xena's sharp eyes took in everything as they crossed the camp. In a clearing, Kieran led a large group of men, including young Jared, in a series of rudimentary sword drills, and Xena paused to watch for a moment. Kieran was a better than average swordsman, though he would be no match for her own skill, she thought critically. Still, he seemed to be a good teacher, and she nodded in approval while he patiently demonstrated a move to an inexperienced new recruit.
Xena moved on, passing a grassy area where a short, stocky man was barking cavalry commands at twenty or so mounted soldiers. Moving together, the horses wheeled sharply, and Xena was impressed.
"They all seem like they're ready for this," Gabrielle commented. "I wonder what they all did before this war started. I bet they were just regular farmers and fishermen. Now look at them."
"Mmm," Xena replied, deep in thought. "People will do just about anything when their homes are threatened." She spared a glance at her friend and smiled sadly. "I should know."
They reached the eastern edge of the camp and turned slightly south. The further they walked, the more barren the landscape became, as trees and shrubs gave way to wind-swept rock. By the time the sun had reached its peak, they had arrived at their destination. Xena stood at the edge of the cliff and stared down at the surf pounding against the jagged rocks below. The wind was strong up there, with nothing to block its path from across the ocean. Xena examined the terrain carefully, planning her strategy.
Caesar would come at them from the east, while Siobahn and her army would engage the legions from the north. That left one option for Xena and her diversionary force. They would have to retreat west, along the cliff face, and then double back to reinforce Siobahn's troops. Xena cocked her head to one side as she worked out the angles. It would be tricky, that was for sure. They would have to stand their ground long enough for the legions to get close. If they executed everything perfectly, it would be Caesar trapped between the cliff and an attacking army. If not, Xena shrugged, they would be the ones who wound up on the rocks below.
Gabrielle stepped up to the edge beside Xena and peered curiously over the cliff. It was a long, long way down, and as she stared over the precipice, the ground began to tilt and spin. She shut her eyes tightly and sucked in a breath. Xena grabbed the collar of her tunic and hauled her backwards.
"Careful," the warrior warned.
Gabrielle cracked one eye open and grinned up at her tall, dark warrior. "It's really high," she observed, stating the obvious. Her expression sobered slightly. "Xena, is this going to work?"
Xena surprised her by pulling her into a hug. "It'll work," she assured the bard. It had to work, Xena thought silently, burying her nose in Gabrielle's fair hair. We just found each other. I'll be damned if I'm gonna give this up without a fight.
They stayed like that for several long moments, locked in each other's embrace at the edge of a towering, wind-swept cliff. Gabrielle had never felt safer. She pressed her ear against Xena's chest and listened to the strong, steady heartbeat, smiling as Xena's arms tightened around her even more. Xena's plan would work. It had to.
Reluctantly, Xena let go of the bard in her arms. "We'd better head back. There are still a lot of things I need to take care of. Find out who I'm gonna be leading into battle, that sort of stuff, " she looked at Gabrielle critically. "Plus, we need to find you some armor."
Gabrielle burst out laughing. "Armor? We're all alone, in a remote, romantic setting, and you're thinking about armor?"
Xena turned in a slow circle, taking in their surroundings, and then she stared at the bard incredulously. "You think this is romantic?" she asked, leaning in until Gabrielle could feel the warrior's warm breath on her ear. "Just wait until this is all over. Then I'll show you romantic," Xena fairly purred, sending a shiver of excitement down Gabrielle's spine.
Grinning impishly, Xena winked at the bard and started to walk away, leaving Gabrielle standing in open-mouthed amazement at the edge of the cliff. Images raced through Gabrielle's mind as she tried to fathom what the warrior's idea of romance was. She had no idea what to expect, but she was willing to bet that it would be good. She shook herself and suddenly noticed that Xena was still walking away.
"Hey! Wait for me," she called out, running to catch up.
As they headed back, they kept the conversation deliberately light, playing a couple of games of warlord or warrior while they walked. They were both in good spirits when they reentered the camp. They hadn't gone more than a few paces inside the campsite when Siobahn caught them.
"Xena! There you are. I've been looking all over for you," Siobahn called, slightly out of breath as she jogged over to them.
Xena spread her arms out wide and inspected herself thoroughly. "I guess you found me," she said, getting an arched eyebrow from Siobahn.
"There's someone I want you to meet," Siobahn informed them. "My cousin just arrived to join the fight."
Xena agreed amiably and they talked as they strolled through the camp towards Siobahn's large tent at the center. Gabrielle trailed after them, listening intermittently, since battle plans really didn't interest her. She caught sight of Jared, engaged in a sword match with a soldier nearly twice his size. She waved to him. He grinned back and was promptly slapped in the head by the flat of his opponent's blade for his lack of attention. Gabrielle winced and mouthed an apology. Ahead of her, Xena and Siobahn were discussing the size of the force Xena would command.
"It'll need to be large enough to hold off Caesar's legions until you get into place, but small enough to be mobile," Xena was saying.
"Does a hundred men sound about right?" Siobahn asked.
Xena tilted her head thoughtfully as she considered her answer. A hundred men. When was the last time she'd been at the head of a force that large? It had been years, she realized, and an anticipatory thrill ran through her. She could feel that violent, ruthless part of herself stirring and she wasn't sure she liked the sensation. Still, what choice did she have here? Neither side was going to negotiate and end this peacefully. Gabrielle wouldn't agree with her, she knew, but sometimes war was inevitable.
"Yeah, sounds good," Xena said finally.
Siobahn nodded. "Okay, then. Kieran will go with you. I've instructed him to hand-pick a number of our best fighters." She stopped and put a hand on Xena's arm, her face suddenly very serious. "I'm putting a lot of faith in you, Xena. You'd better not disappoint me."
Xena had been expecting this moment, and she drew in a deep breath. Running her fingers through her dark hair, she looked at Siobahn quietly, remembering their past.
"I'll do my part," Xena said firmly. She hesitated briefly. "Look, Siobahn, for whatever it's worth, I'm sorry."
Hazel eyes widened in shock. An apology from the stern warrior princess was practically unheard of, and a thousand different responses rushed through Siobahn's mind. She settled on a tough, no-nonsense attitude.
"Forget it. It's in the past. All I care about now is Eire's future." Siobahn resumed her course towards her tent, with Xena and Gabrielle following her after a few seconds. "You've changed, Xena. Anyone with eyes can see that."
"So have you, my friend," Xena returned, surprising them both. Gabrielle grinned behind their backs, glad that this part of Xena's past had finally been laid to rest.
Gabrielle nearly crashed into Xena's back as the warrior stopped abruptly in front of her. She could read the sudden tension in the warrior's frame, and she peered around Xena's shoulder to see what had upset her. Her eyes fell upon a familiar, but most unwelcome face.
"Dalton, come meet Xena and her friend Gabrielle," Siobahn called out to her cousin, who was standing casually at the entrance to her tent.
Dalton's dark eyes met Xena's and then flicked to the bard at her side, and his ape-like face split into an unwholesome leer. Siobahn stopped, suddenly aware of the palpable animosity rising from the warrior behind her, and her head turned from Dalton to Xena in confusion.
"Forgive me for not telling you before, cousin," Dalton said, his eyes still locked with Xena's in a silent battle of wills. "Xena and I have already met. We came over on the same ship, and I'm afraid there was a bit of a misunderstanding between us. Perhaps we can put all that behind us now?" he directed this last comment to the rigid warrior, who glared at him angrily.
"I see," Siobahn said uncertainly, aware that there was more going on here. "This won't be a problem, will it? Xena?"
A harsh smile touched the warrior's lips as she stared into the eyes of her enemy. "Nah, no problem. As long as he stays clear of me. And of Gabrielle."
Siobahn read the implicit warning in Xena's words and surmised that the bard was the root of the misunderstanding between the warrior and her cousin. She stared at all three of them in consternation. What was it about Gabrielle that attracted trouble like bees to honey?
"Okay, good. Because I don't want any trouble between you before the battle," she warned.
Dalton nodded at her innocently. He had absolutely no intention of confronting Xena before the battle. No, he had bigger plans. A mad giggle threatened to escape from his throat, but he forced it back down. This wasn't the time. He turned his attention back to Siobahn, who was going on about some kind of party that was planned for the evening.
"It's sort of a tradition of mine," Siobahn explained about the evening's festivities. "Just a little celebration to help ease everyone's tension."
Xena was still silent, and Gabrielle could feel the waves of menace radiating from the tall warrior. She smiled politely at Siobahn and assured the woman that both she and Xena would attend the festivities. Wrapping her hand firmly around her companion's, she led Xena away, aware of Dalton's malevolent gaze burning into their backs. She waited until they were out of sight before stopping and letting out a long breath.
"Forget him, Xena," she said to the bristling warrior at her side. "We'll do what we came here for, and then we'll go home and forget that he ever existed."
Xena looked at her quietly, trying to put Dalton and the uneasiness she felt in his presence out of her mind. Finally, a tiny grin played around the edges of her mouth.
"Sounds like a plan," the warrior answered, getting a bright smile from the bard.
"Hey," Gabrielle tugged playfully at the corner of Xena's cloak. "Didn't you mention something about getting me some armor?"
Xena laughed softly, forgetting all about her ape-faced nemesis as she gazed into the bard's captivating green eyes. Wordlessly, she slipped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, not caring if anyone was watching them, and she guided the bard off towards the armory.
To be continued.
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