A Moment of Peace, A Moment of War
Summary: Queen Gabrielle and her general Xena reach a new level in their relationship as they help the Amazon Nation prepare for war with Rome, and their conflicting roles and duties test the strength of their commitment to each other.
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin and any other characters from XWP...you know. Not mine, copyright holders (whoever they are), not for profit, etc. The Amazons belong to Greek mythology but live again thanks to the efforts of RT & Co. The Roman Empire is public domain and extinct, thank the gods. Everything else is mine.
Love/Sex: Yup. Sex, but only a little. This a love story, though, not pwp. If you want that or youre disturbed by two women in love, read something else. Lots of affection between two loving women.
Subtext: Aint no "Sub" about it. The love of two women for each other is an integral part of the story.
Violence: Yup. This is a war story. Combat and battle scenes, not terribly graphic; also some other forms of violence.
Emotional content: I found this story pretty emotional to write, with lots of ups and downs. There are (I think) some intense moments.
Age Rating. Strong R. Not good for those under 18.
Translators note: Form of Address among Amazons -- This manuscript deals with the culture and customs of the Greek Amazons of ancient times. While these tribes spoke common Greek in their everyday intercourse among themselves and with other cultures around them, certain specific words and usages are unique to Amazon culture and the reader may find an explanation helpful. Most of the unfamiliar, non-Greek terms in the manuscript are titles and forms of personal address. The syllable "ki" appended to a name is equivalent to "Mrs." in English, indicating an Amazon in a permanent monogamous marriage to another Amazon, recognized as such by the tribe and the throne (e.g. Ephinyki). An honorific form is "ki-aga", used only on formal occasions and by social inferiors where the difference in caste is important to the communication at hand. (When the Roman envoy addresses the Queen as "Gabrielleki" rather than "Gabrielleki-aga" she is committing a serious breach of etiquette, since as an ambassador speaking for her sovereign she ranks considerably below the Queen, who is herself the sovereign. It is possible the envoy was unaware of her disrespect.) The term "ki", used alone, is equivalent to "wife" or "spouse". Both terms mean "beloved" in ancient Sumerian, derived in turn from the primeval earth goddess Ki. By the time of these histories these terms had lost all affectionate, personal or religious connotations among Greek Amazons and served as mere titles. The word "lukur", preceding a name or standing alone, is a privately used endearment that can be (very) loosely translated as "lover"; the word originally meant a devotee or priestess of Inanna/Ishtar, goddess of fertility, love, and sex. "Simutha", Xenas title of rank among the Amazons, is the Amazon word for "General", or "supreme commander", and derives from a Sumero-Akkadian phrase meaning "She who kills in the name of justice." Another title in this manuscript is "Sakkal" (pl. Sakkalim") "counselor, advisor", in the original Sumerian a gods vizier, but in Amazon usage a member of a human rulers cabinet. The Sumerian origin of these important terms lends significant evidence to the hypothesis that the Amazon tribes originated in Mesopotamia and diffused throughout the then known world. The existence of such words indicates that t he Amazons were a modestly hierarchical society, with recognition and differentiation of rank both civil and military, and the system of law and discipline to go with it. They also suggest that marriage was afforded its own revered status in Amazon culture, implying that -- contrary to prior scholarly opinion -- Amazons were neither more nor less sexually permissive than the cultures among whom they lived.-- J.C./M.P.
Part I: The General and the Queen
"It was a wonderful wedding, wasnt it?"
Gabrielle stretched luxuriously as sunlight through the huts window pried her eyes open. Xena rolled over and grunted beside her. "As weddings go, it was a good one."
"Im glad Hercules and Iolaus came. And Cyrene."
"And Lila. I hope she doesnt get into too much trouble...Im sorry about your parents, Gabrielle."
The blonde closed her eyes for a moment, breathed deeply. "Theyll get over it. Someday."
She was silent for a moment, changed the subject slightly. "Im sorry Joxer didnt come."
"Did you expect him to? For real?"
"I guess not. I hope hes not terribly hurt. Id hate to lose him as a friend."
"You wont. Hes my friend, and anybody whos a friend of mine will just have to put up with you."
"Thanks. I think. Still, it was a good way to start."
"It was okay. Id do whatever it took to be with you."
"Oh, come on, sweetie, how many times do you get married in your life? Show some enthusiasm."
"My enthusiasm was more for the wedding night."
"Now, that was fun. How come you never did that with me before?"
"I was saving it for a special occasion. And I didnt know your body was that limber."
"I didnt either. Thats something well have to try again, though." Gabrielle smiled into blue eyes. "Gods, lukur, I love you."
"Call me by my name."
"I love you, Xenaki."
"I love how that sounds when you say it. Gabrielleki, do you realize what youve done? The impossible -- turned me into a married woman. I could have sworn that someone like me would never marry. Yesterday I could have walked away from you and no one would have cared but you and me. Today, if I left you, Id break a sworn oath -- and the Amazons would hunt me down and drag me back here for a trial. And I want it that way. Being lovers was wonderful, but you made me want this."
"You proposed to me, Xena. All I did was say yes."
"The best thing you ever said to me." She kissed her ki and their tongues did a small, firefly dance together as their bodies warmed to each other. She touched Gabrielles smooth throat, and the blonde moaned deep inside herself, her excitement overwhelming the sexual shyness that Xena always found so charming in her lover. She continued to kiss, and touch, and taste Gabrielle until the younger woman could no longer maintain her facade of innocence; she became the aggressor, grasping Xenas wrists with her hands, holding them down above her head as she rolled over on top of her, locking her thigh in between Xenas, Xenas between hers, and holding their mouths together until they both gasped for breath. The motion of their bodies was as rhythmic as ocean waves, as full of energy as trees shaking in storm winds. This time, to both their surprise and delight, orgasm seized them both at the same moment; they experienced the sweet violence inside each others eyes, that hypnosis blending with the pulsing of their bodies to drain each of all thought, all expectation, until nothing was left but raw sensation and the pounding of hearts.
They stayed together as their one united climax subsided. Gabrielle kept murmuring "I love you, I love you," in a whisper indistinguishable from the summer breeze. Xena touched her, held her, treasured her. Silence sealed the moment and it was stored away as a memory, to add to all the others.
"Xena, this all happened so fast. A month ago we were in Athens. You proposed, out of the blue. Such a surprise. Were sitting in a tavern and you put down your mug and look me in the eye and say you wanna get married? Why?"
Xena disengaged a little so Gabrielle could watch her face. "It wasnt out of the blue, lukur. While you were busy at the Academy I was busy learning more about whats going on in Rome. Caesar's been named first consul. Pompey wanted the post and may fight Caesar for it, again. He hasnt yet but could at any moment. So many parts of Greece are under Roman occupation, Gabrielle. I fear that the Amazon Nationll be at war with Rome soon. And youre their Queen. My love, you could soon have a price on your head. Id defend you with my life, but -- I dont know how to say it. It was important to have the right to defend you, the right to say you are mine and none others, to be yours and none others. To have all those we know acknowledge that. If war comes, Ill feel safer knowing you and I are one, and no one disputes it. Im not being clear. I cant talk about this. I can only feel it."
"Being married lets you focus."
"Thats a part of it. Gabrielle, lukur, I have a job to do here. Being married to you ends that last little bit of uncertainty. We are together for all time, and now I can sleep at night knowing that. I can do what I have to do to defend this place, with total concentration, knowing that."
"And I can concentrate on being Queen. I understand. Being married is different than being lovers. And I am so happy! But now this Royal Person must empty her bladder and fill her belly."
"May the Queens General accompany her?"
"Simutha Xenaki is required to attend on her sovereign until the Queen dismisses her."
Xena bowed gracefully and elaborately, a gesture rendered ridiculous by the fact that she was completely naked. Gabrielle laughed and threw her a robe.
"Thats all right, Ill get dressed."
"Whats that racket?"
From outside the hut came a rhythmic clash and clatter, accompanied by chanting and shouting. Gabrielle opened the door of the hut a crack. The entire population of the village was outside, chanting, cheering, striking weapons on shields, making an unholy din in celebration of the consummation of the latest marriage in the village. Comments, crude questions, good-natured taunts rose from the smiling crowd, as Gabrielle blushed hotly behind her hand. She hadnt forgotten this custom, but she simply hadnt drawn the line between her wedding yesterday and this charivari at her door this morning. The absurdity of it made her laugh again, and the laughter put things in perspective. She was what she had been raised to be: married, with a home and responsibilities. But oh, what the home folks never planned on...
She raised her hands to quiet the crowd. "Thank you all for dragging me out of bed. Be assured Ill remember this! Were happy to be together with all of you."
"Wheres Xena?!" "Did you wear her out, my Queen?" "Shes probably waiting for seconds!" "Cowering in a corner, Ill bet! The Queen scared her silly!"
Xena appeared behind her, fully dressed in her armor, a wry smile on her face. A young girl sprang up to the porch of the hut with a bouquet of flowers and peacock feathers, which she handed to Gabrielle as a congratulatory gift. Xena and Gabrielle raised joined hands, the bouquet held high, and the crowd cheered themselves hoarse.
There was peace in Amazon lands in those months. Crops grew, children were taught, new huts built, game hunted. Queen Gabrielle had her hands full, deciding those many issues of peace that are of interest only to those who live them, disputes at law, matters of ceremony, changes in her cabinet and court. But she and her counselors knew this was only a calm before a breaking storm. The threat of Rome loomed on their every horizon. Castra for two legions had been built within a days march of the Amazons borders and, while there had been no exchange of blows or blood, the Roman presence was perilous.
Xena was expanding and training the Amazon army. New recruits reported to the practice field every day, and the sound of mock combats and formation practice could be heard from dawn to dusk. Even at night, Xena trained an elite corps of fighters for battle in darkness, fog and bad weather. She had reorganized the army on the Roman model, knowing that her enemys success warranted imitation. New leaders were promoted and trained. She was especially anxious about her new cavalry units, several hundred of the best horsewomen the Nation had to offer, mounted superbly and trained to fight in the Scythian fashion, on horseback with bow and sword. She placed great hope in the cavalry corps, knowing that this was one aspect of warfare in which the Roman army was weak.
Some of the lessons she had once spurned now proved valuable. She knew, they all knew, that, alone, the Amazons could never defeat Rome, could indeed only hope to die bravely. Borias had been right; there was true strength only in alliance. The weak must band together to face the strong. The Amazon Nation was itself strong, compared to its neighbors, perhaps the best fighting force in Greece next to the Roman army itself, each Amazon soldier more than a match, individually, for her Roman counterpart.
But the Empire was immensely strong, immensely rich. If Caesar wanted to he could pour thousands of troops into a war, overwhelming the Amazons with sheer numbers. Xena knew that the Roman Senate authorized twenty-eight legions, each of about five thousand men. They were scattered throughout the Empire, from Britannia to Syria. Four of these legions were in Greece; twenty thousand men, of which ten thousand were at her door. Four legions would be enough to crush the Amazon army, if the Senate so ordered. With allies, the odds were closer to even. That was Gabrielles most important task as Queen: cementing alliances.
Most of the Greek states based alliances on politically useful marriages. That choice was not as available to Amazons, keeping marriage, as they did, primarily within their own tribal structure. Gabrielle had the tools of military support, trade, and statecraft at her disposal, and she was good at making deals and got steadily better. Xena watched with growing respect as Gabrielles negotiating skills blossomed, first to heal the rifts among the Amazons themselves after Velascas abortive rebellion and to settle the conflict between isolationists and those who welcomed contact with the outside world. Later, she opened relations with surrounding tribes and city-states, often stepping into hostile situations to provide a neutral, trustworthy third party in negotiations. The Amazons were a warrior nation, Gabrielle never forgot that; but she earnestly desired peace, and felt that the only salvation for the Amazons was to find common cause with their neighbors and trade partners.
That common cause was Rome. Gabrielle had been slow to distrust Rome the way Xena did, and Xena had tried not to unduly imbue Gabrielle with her own prejudices. But after Gabrielles experience in Brittannia -- being hung on a cross can make one more than a little hostile -- and the duplicity of Roman forces in Greece, she realized that peace with Rome lay only in the strength to resist Romes advances and the realism to distrust Romes promises. The Nation was changing under her leadership from an isolated band of warriors to a nation among equals on a world stage, as their Queen prepared to realistically face an implacable enemy.
During those months Xena changed, as well. Having always been wary of committing herself to the Amazons, she now embraced them wholeheartedly, realizing two things: her love for Gabrielle overrode any other aspect of her life, and the need to know, as she had told her ki, that they had a place they could be together in safety. Her fears of her bloodstained past proved groundless. She had atoned for her sins many times over. Just healing the breach with the centaurs, building a productive alliance over generations of hostility, would have been service enough. When she and Gabrielle had announced their intent to marry, the Council had required only that Xena undergo the rituals of purification and initiation, and she had been welcomed fully into the Greek tribes, a proper Consort for their Queen.
She had come to know that marriage was different. She filled her nights with Gabrielle, devoured her and was devoured, covered her with kisses until she trembled uncontrollably, begging to be set free, basking in warmth and intimacy. Their loving was more intense than before they had wed, more joyful and less ridden with anxiety. There were no doubts, no nighttime speculations, no uneasiness that Gabrielle would find another and leave her, alone and empty. And there was no lack of opportunities for that; since they had come to the Amazons,before it was generally known that she and Gabrielle were anything more than friends, the young, lovely blonde had been the object of amorous intent from many quarters. Xena never truly doubted Gabrielles loyalty. There were times when she doubted her own; she knew her own restless nature, her mercurial selfishness, and she often thought herself unworthy of Gabrielles attentions. The marriage put this all away. She would never let her restlessness overcome her love; she had chained herself to her beloved with golden chains of her own forging, before all those about whom she cared. She would wear them proudly until the end of her life. Marrying Gabrielle was an act wholly inconsistent with her persona but in complete harmony with her heart.
"I want that maneuver to roll smoothly from right to left of the line! We want the feint on the right to be effective. Remember, the Romans place their best troops on their right in the millenaries. Pull the secondary cohorts to their left, isolate the millenaries, and we can surround them and destroy them in detail. But they have to believe its real. We have to appear disorganized while keeping our purpose fully intact. You all understand this?"
"Yes, Simutha, we understand." Her commanders nodded their assent. "All right, lets run it once more and then we rest for the day."
The drill ran again, not up to her standards, but improvement was apparent. She singled out two squads for special mention, dismissed the troops, and left the field. She was filthy, she wanted a bath. She wanted Gabrielle. No reason she couldnt have both.
She made for the common hall, where she was likely to find her ki at this time of day. Sure enough, Gabrielle sat at a table with several others, drinking cold tea and chatting, her moment of relaxation before Xena came off duty. She was talking animatedly with Acantha, a younger woman across the table. Xena came up behind Gabrielle, put her arms around her, kissed her ear. "Who are you flirting with now?"
"Everyone. All the time. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Jealous Xena." She put her mouth against Xenas ear, whispered so no one else could hear. "I adore it. Dont expect any sleep tonight." Gabrielle kissed her.
"Im going to bathe. You, too?"
"Sure. Signing treaties is gritty work."
Acantha grinned, said, "Can I go with you? I can hold your towel..."
Gabrielle said, "Im sorry, Acantha. I just need to be alone with Xenaki for a while."
"Oh, yeah, then, sure, I forgot, you just got married...gee, Im so dumb..sorry, my Queen."
"Acantha...its all right." Gabrielle used her ceremonial voice, the one she considered pompous. "We appreciate your...devotion to the Queens person."
As they walked to the pond, Gabrielle said "That girl sticks to me like a burr."
"Ya want me ta killer for ya?" Xena rasped. "You know how I feel about anyone else getting too close to you."
"No, you jealous harpy, lets keep that as a last resort. Shes harmless, really. Shes just...queen-struck, or something."
"Shes not an Amazon."
"She came in before we arrived to get married. Shes been here about five moons. Her village was attacked and burned, her family killed."
Xena bared her teeth. "Terrorists."
"Its effective. They burn one town, others are a lot less likely to support a resistance."
"I know how effective it is. Ive done it myself."
"Okay, now rinse." Xena ducked under the water, feeling the sensuous touch of Gabrielles fingers through her hair. She surfaced, and Gabrielle enveloped her in her arms, kissed her wet neck. "There. All clean."
Xena waited, luxuriating in Gabrielles embrace. Finally she said, "Well? Dont you want me to wash you?"
Gabrielle squeezed her more tightly. "I can wait."
"But I cant. I have an exercise with the nighthawks after sundown. The commander cant be late."
"Will you be home before I fall asleep?"
"Yes. Wait up for me. I promise not to be terribly late."
Assenting, Gabrielle let go and sat in front of Xena while the dark woman soaped her hair. Xena felt her soften under the touch.
"Gabrielle, Talking about that girl..."
"You really are jealous."
"I am, always, totally. But this isnt about that. Listen. Ive been meaning to talk to you about this. I...I know you want to continue taking in refugees. Its your policy and Im just your advisor. But Im your military advisor and Im not comfortable with the security problems that raises. I know we dont let anyone in armed, and theyre watched, and you limit the number that we do take in. We dont take in men. But even with those precautions, theres no way to know whos really a refugee and whos a spy. I think we need to be more careful."
"What would you have me do, Xena? Greece is in turmoil. Theres the Romans, and every tinplate half-assed thug who can get six drunks together calls himself a warlord. These are innocent people whove been driven from their homes. Their only choices are starvation or slavery. We give them shelter, food, a place to be safe. What were you saying a while ago about our marriage, Xena? A place to be safe? Dont these women deserve that much?"
"The safety of the Amazon Nation is my first concern, my Queen."
"Dont call me that when were alone. Please."
"I wont, normally, but this is business that concerns the fate of the people you rule."
"I can hardly make an unbiased decision when youre holding me like this."
"I dont expect you to. I just want you to know that I intend to bring it up in Council. I dont want to blindside you, you should have a chance to think about it."
"Well..all right. Ill think about it, and Ill listen to your arguments in Council. But I dont know what else to do."
Xena did get home late. But the Queen was also up late, conferring with Ephiny on the agenda for the next days Council session. Ephiny left just as Xena was arriving, and the night was passed in a most satisfactory fashion, just the right mix of lovemaking and sleep. She woke in the morning refreshed and alive, as she had almost every day since she had left Poitidea. If only all her decisions could be as good as that one had been.
She ate her breakfast in the common hall; Xena would eat at the barracks before the days training began. She shared small talk with Ephiny and several others. Now and then she fell silent, pretending to listen to the talk, while she relived a tender moment from the previous night. She caught fragments of conversation from a table behind her; words that she found disturbing. She turned and saw two women she knew slightly, a married couple, both wearing the special badge of Xenas elite nighthawks. They talked on, not noticing that their Queen was behind them.
She went to them. "Could I see you in my hut in a quarter of an hour, please? Id like to talk to you both." A polite invitation, coming from the Queen it was a command. The soldiers came as she had ordered, and within half an hour she had extracted the whole sordid business from them. She dismissed them, paced the hut, biting her lip in anxiety. This would have to wait until after the Council meeting. A good thing she wouldnt see Xena before then.
"...The Roman Legate has asked that we receive an embassy directly from Rome," Ephiny went on as the agenda wound down. "The third day after the next full moon. Thats four days from now. They wish to discuss general relations between the Empire and the Amazon Nation of Greece."
Xena spoke. "Is this necessary?"
"Could it do any harm?" Eustellae asked. "We might as well hear what they have to say."
Xena snorted. "Nothing we havent heard before."
Gabrielle looked at Xena as if to address her directly, thought better of it. "I agree with Eustellae. It wont hurt. Tell them well receive their ambassador, on these conditions: no more than ten in his retinue, all identified in a letter before they arrive. No weapons. Theyll be met at the border on the west road at dawn and escorted blindfold with bound hands to the capital. The meeting will take place that same day, publicly. Therell be no secret conferences. Theyll be escorted to the border that same day, the same way they came in. No Roman tricks this time. But -- Xenaki, are your troops ready? Can you put on a show?"
"A show? I suppose. Just what do you want them to see?"
"The best army in Greece. Nothing secret, nothing they dont know you can do. But I want everyone on that parade ground, every soldier, every auxiliary, every archer. No special badges, but full armor and weapons."
"Id prefer not to let them see our cavalry."
"Is that still secret?"
"Yes. If they know we have good mounted troops they might try and upgrade their own. I want them to be lazy about that. I dont mind showing off our infantry."
"Good. Thats how well do it. I want them led past that parade ground while theyre here."
Ephiny raised an eyebrow. "Harsh conditions. They may not accept."
Gabrielle set her jaw. "Let them. We know theyre not coming here to negotiate with any sincerity. Theyve already rejected any treaties. Id like to think they dont want war. But lets see how much this is worth to them. Ephinyki, have the message sent to the Legates headquarters. What next?"
Ephiny passed a parchment to Gabrielle, "This a letter from Gelasia, Queen of the Egyptian Amazons. It was brought as an introduction by a woman named Irisa, who is Greek, but has lived in Egypt since she was a child with her Amazon mother. She came back to Greece, shes not clear why. Shes asking that we accept her."
"Where is she now?"
"In the visitors hut."
"How long has she been here?"
"Hmm. Let me look over this letter tonight. You too, Sakkalim Ephinyki, Xenaki . I want to talk to her in your presence. If she is who she says she is we can give her the freedom of the village, I think."
Ephiny rolled up her scroll of notes. "Thats everything."
Xena said, "Before we adjourn, Id like to talk about a problem. Its about refugees." She looked at Gabrielle, but her ki wouldnt meet her eyes. Xena went on to voice her concerns about security.
Before anyone could speak, Gabrielle said "Weve considered this issue before, and the Throne believes that We are pursuing the correct policy with respect to displaced women from the lands around us. We see no need to discuss the policy further or implement any change. This session is ended. Sakkalim, thank you for your attendance. Simutha Xenaki, please remain after the others have left."
There was a moment of silence after this abrupt ending to the meeting, and the counselors got up and left with many surprised glances at one another. Gabrielle had never stomped on discussion of an issue in Council this way. All the counselors were trying to read her mind and not succeeding. And what was with the Queen and the General, anyway?
Gabrielle stood after the others had left and paced back and forth. She faced Xena with her arms folded in front of her. "Xena, am I your Queen?"
The blue eyes narrowed. "Yes, of course."
"You are my Queen, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle, what is this?"
"You are my Queen, Gabrielle ki-aga."
"Good. Then perhaps youll explain to your Queen why you are training a corps of assassins?"
"What! Where did you hear that?"
"Im not going to tell you because I dont want anyone punished for telling me about it. I had no knowledge of this, no opportunity to disapprove! All I want to hear from you is, is it true?" The Queen was struggling to keep her voice from becoming strident.
"Gabrielle, this isnt..."
She stamped her foot on the floor planks and cut Xena off with a chopping gesture.
"You will address me as My Queen or Your Highness and you will answer my question! Is it true?!"
"Yes...my Queen. Its true."
The Queen stared at Xena for a long, long moment as if she had been struck in the face, eyes wide, mouth open. She seemed truly speechless.
"And you never told me."
"No, my Queen."
"And you never asked my permission."
"No, my Queen."
And you thought you could just keep me in the dark about this?"
"No, my Queen."
"Youd better explain that."
"My Queen, the intent was not to deceive you. The intent was to protect you. If you truly did not know you couldnt be personally responsible for their actions."
"Xena...Simutha Xenaki, I am the Queen. I am responsible for everything that happens in Amazon land, any action taken by Amazons in the name of the Nation. What were these actions? And who are these people?"
"My Queen, theyre a special unit recruited from the nighthawks."
"And what is their mission?"
"To neutralize important links in the Roman chain of command when the Nation is in imminent danger."
"Neutralize. You mean kill."
"Yes, my Queen."
"Who are these important links?"
Anyone intelligent enough to be a danger to us, my Queen."
"A stupid Legate -- and there are many -- is a help to us, hell mismanage his legion and theyll be that much easier for us to defeat. We leave him alone. But an intelligent centurion under him may inspire troops and officers to be better in spite of the stupidity of the Legate. Its that centurion were after. Hes our target, and others like him. We identify the most efficient officers, governors, tribunes. Even, perhaps, Senators in Rome. Perhaps even Caesar himself. And, when they attack us, we kill them. A few deaths to prevent many. We cut out the brain, and the body disintegrates, or at least is paralyzed. My Queen."
"But necessary...my Queen. Were a small Nation confronting a great one. Weve got to wring out every possible advantage. Rome thrives on organization, order. We exploit that by disrupting that order just enough to make it unwieldy."
Gabrielle began to lose her temper. "I will not sanction cold-blooded murder! If were as ruthless as our enemy we become our enemy! Were not murderers -- we are not Rome! This is all about you and Caesar!"
"This is about war! I dont give a rats ass about Caesar. Caesar is so blind with hatred and bloodlust and lust for power that he might escape our plan. Hes becoming a bad leader. That makes him safe from our assassins. If he comes within swords length of me, though..." Xenas previously impassive expression twisted into a malicious smile. She continued. "This is a way to put Rome on a leash. Nothing need ever happen unless they attack us."
"How did you intend to place your assassins within swords length of their targets?"
"Roman officers a long way from home are like lonely men everywhere. The company of an attractive woman makes the long days on campaign bearable. Our assassins were recruited for their fighting skill, their bravery, their patriotism, and their ability to appeal to men."
"So they were to become campaign whores in order to be close enough to strike when the time came."
"My Queen, theyve sworn to bear any burden in defense of the Nation."
"Ive heard enough. Simutha, Im -- shocked doesnt even begin to describe it. Not merely at the whole plan -- thats despicable enough -- but at you! Xena, this is rank defiance of your Queen!"
"I did not defy you! You never gave orders not to do this!"
Gabrielles green eyes flashed in anger. "Dont prevaricate! Dont you dare! You know me -- you know me better than anyone does! Were married, by the gods! I cant believe that you wouldnt know that Id reject this plan. We are not murderers! You do know, and you did know, that I wouldnt approve, and you went ahead anyway!"
"Gabrielle, this is about saving your life!"
"Saving my life! Xena, this is about revenge, your revenge on Rome, this is personal! And its an insult to me and everything I stand for! And lets not even talk about Amazon law! I could have you flogged, for Artemis sake! The penalty for disobedience in the ranks is thirty lashes and relief from duty, and a heavy fine! You dont own a single sheep! How could you pay it? Thats another thirty!"
"Youd have to get me between the whipping posts, first."
"Youd go. If I ordered it youd go willingly."
"What makes you think that?"
"Because you love the Amazon Nation. And you love me."
Xenas lips twisted. "Youre right on both counts. Id go. if you ordered it."
"Well, I wont. Youre relieved..."
"Youre relieved of duty, and confined to your hut until after the embassy leaves, when I can give my full attention to how Im going to handle this. Turn your duties over to Eponin. The assassin squad is disbanded..."
"You cant do this!"
"...and the nighthawks are suspended from training until I decide on your sentence."
"You cant do this!"
"You said it yourself: Im your Queen. Oh, yes I can. And worse, if you make it difficult. Now, do I need to call for manacles and an escort?"
"No. Ill go. I just hope you know what youre doing."
"Even if I dont, Im still the Queen."
Xena lowered her eyes. "Yes. You are that."
Gabrielle lifted Xenas chin with her hand, looked into her blue, blue eyes. "Xena. Please understand. This awful conversation we just had -- it was between the Queen and her General."
Xena stared impassively, remained silent.
"I confined you to your hut. Thats an order. Your hut is mine. I will be there, every night, in that same hut, your ki, your lover, your family. I will sleep in the same bed. I will love you as I always have. Thats between Xenaki and Gabrielleki."
Xena would only nod.
Gabrielle embraced her beloved and whispered into breast, "lukur, lukur", then watched her as she walked, tall, strong, back straight as the sword she carried, from the Council house, across the compound, into the royal hut, and closed the door.
Part II: A Game of Bluff
There was a night and and a day and a night. During that first night Ephiny sat up in bed, watched Solari sleep, sat outside the hut and watched the stars. No sounds were heard from the royal hut next door. No cries, moans, low crooning of lovers. She had never told Gabrielle or Xena how much of their domestic life she could hear; she and Solari found it quite stimulating. Ephiny wondered how much of her conjugal activity reached the Queens and Consorts ears. But not this night, in either direction; the cloud of gloom was too deep and dark and spread from the royal hut like a deadening fog. She went back to bed and didnt sleep.
In the day she went about the village, seeing, doing, adjusting, insuring that the wishes of Queen and Council were carried out. Her job. She had gone to the Council house to see the Queen that morning, as was her regular routine, and had retreated in near-terror after only a few inconsequential words. Gabrielles eyes were mirrors of pain, her face was shrunken and shriveled as if she had aged a lifetime in one night. There was nothing Ephiny could say that would relieve that agony. It made her hurt just to be in the room. She had left, sought out Solari, given her ki a silent, desperate hug, and gone on about her business.
The next night she had deliberately seduced Solari, as soon as she had bathed, and they had stayed in bed touching, loving well into the night. Ephiny had again arisen, after Solari had slept, and, again sitting outside in the warm summer air, saw Gabrielle make her way to the Council house in the dead of night. She did not emerge.
The morning of the second day she screwed up her courage and went to the Council house. She found Gabrielle sprawled face down at the Council table, surrounded by scrolls and scraps of notes, and several empty clay jars that had held the potent wheat beer that was a specialty -- and a major trade item -- of the Amazons. Ephiny brought a cup of cool water and lightly bathed the Queens forehead, bringing her back to consciousness.
After Gabrielle had blinked and stretched and shaken the fuzz out of her eyes, and nursed her aching head, she looked at Ephiny and started crying. Ephiny held her, patted her back as if she were a child, until the crying stopped. Gabrielle looked at her Regent and said "She just lies there."
"Where?" No need to ask who.
"She just lies on the bed. She didnt even get undressed, she just lies there, doesnt talk, doesnt look at me. If I touch her she doesnt move, toward me or away, but shes hard and cold as stone."
"Gabrielle, I dont know what passed between you two here the other day -- do you want to tell me about it?"
"No, not the details. The fewer people who know about that the better. Just...she did something without my authorizing it. Something important."
"Something you would have approved if youd known?"
"No, and she knows that. And I chewed her out, and suspended her from duty. I thought I was doing my job. I told her it wasnt personal."
"You did the right thing, my Queen."
"Oh, forget that nonsense. Ephiny...When you tell someone you love them you put an obligation on them, and if theyre the kind of person worthy of being loved, theyll take that obligation seriously. Thats why I held my tongue with Xena for so long. When you say I love you youre making that person responsible for your feelings."
Dont I know it, sweet Gabrielle...if it hadnt been for Xena and Phantes, you and I might be...I certainly wouldnt have minded. But I never spoke, and thats why.
"I know that, Gabrielle."
"But Xena doesnt seem to know it. Not now. Shes pouting like a child."
"Gabrielle, I love Xena like a true sister, and Id lay down my life for her in a second. But there are times when I think youre twice the woman she is. More."
"She really isnt selfish like that..."
"Oh, yes she is. She can be."
"Ephiny, you sound as if you hate her."
"No. But she shouldnt put you through this. She did something wrong and she needs to own up to it, take her medicine and move on. Not put you through the rack until you soak yourself in beer and pass out in a chair in another room. You did the right thing. Now its her turn."
"But it wasnt an attack on her. It wasnt about her, the woman I live with and love. It was a matter of state. Cant she see that?"
"Let me say something. Xenas smart, very smart. But one of the things I think you like about her is that she has the instincts and responses of a hunting animal, quick, total, and deadly. She defends herself and those she loves with every fiber, every muscle, every thought. You know that once you get past her barriers shell be yours, completely. And she is, thats why youre married. But it works both ways. When you threaten part of her, you threaten all of her. And her response could be dangerous. If it had been anybody but you that person would have been hurt. Or killed. All she can do against an attack from you is stay silent."
"What can I do?"
"Out-wait her. She needs you as much as you need her. As for what she did, its your duty to see that shes aware of her breach and is punished accordingly. You cant show favoritism."
"I cant...its too much."
"Whats too much?"
"Thirty lashes. Military disobedience."
"Is it that bad?"
Gabrielle merely nodded.
"If its that bad, its that bad. You cant let her off the hook because youre married to her. Most especially because youre married to her."
"Ephiny, youre not telling me anything I dont know."
"But hearing somebody else say it makes it more real. Ive sat in that chair; I know how hard it is."
"Maybe theres a way out. There must be."
"If anyone can find it, you can. Gabrielle, we need to interview Irisa."
"The Egyptian woman. I have her letter here. Yes, we should do this now."
"You should clean up first. You look like a bad day in Tartarus."
"My pleasure." She hugged Gabrielle again, almost kissed her but decided not to. The Queen straightened, pulled herself together. "Half an hour."
Irisa was a woman of middle years with dark hair going to gray, and a sharp birdlike face that was beginning to show lines around the eyes. The gray eyes were birdlike, too, bright and lively, watching every movement of the Queen and the Regent as they entered the visitors hut. The stranger was short and slim, shorter even than Gabrielle. She wore a light tunic and riding trousers.
Introductions were made all around. Irisa dropped to one knee. "My Queen."
"Not your Queen quite yet, Irisa. Please rise and sit. Wed like to know why you wish us to accept you here. Why did you come to Greece?"
"My mother came to Egypt from Greece with my father, who was a cotton merchant. He died there and we were stranded. She became close to another woman who was an Amazon, and we moved to the Amazon country near Cyrene. Its an oasis in the middle of the desert. She always talked about how green and beautiful Greece was. I wanted to see that again, forest and green fields and feel the mist on my face in the morning. All Ive ever known is Amazons."
"Were you initiated?"
"Yes, when I was sixteen."
"You know Queen Gelasia?"
"Describe her," Ephiny asked.
"Very tall, with very curly black hair. She has dark skin and brown eyes. She had a beautiful smile and she laughs frequently."
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny, who nodded. She said to Irisa, "Welcome to Greece, and welcome to the Amazon Nation, Irisa. You have the freedom of the village except for the guarded and restricted spaces. Ephiny will show you permanent quarters. Shell also be assigning you to some work in the village, until you find something that suits your talents."
"Thank you, my Queen."
As they walked back Acantha detached herself from a group of young women and fell in with the Queen. "Id like to be of service today, if I can, my Queen. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Not right now Acantha. Im very...wait. There is something you can do."
"Just name it, my Queen."
"Go find two of the Queens guard. Tell them to go to my hut and escort Simutha Xenaki to the pond. She is to go there on my order."
"Yes, my Queen." The girl was off like a deer.
Ephiny looked at the Queen. "What are you doing?"
"Being clever. I hope."
The water felt glorious in the heat of the day. She lounged naked in the pond as Xena came up the path. Gabrielle dismissed the escorts with a gesture. Xena stood tall and straight, looking straight ahead, hands at her sides.
Gabrielle stood up so that Xena could see her naked body. "The envoy from Rome will be here tomorrow," she said. "I want you to attend the meeting. You havent bathed in three days and I want you presentable for the ceremony. So strip down and get in here."
"Is that an order?" The blue eyes flickered in Gabrielles direction.
"Yes, it is."
Xena took off her tunic and boots and stepped into the pool.
They stared at each other without speaking. Xena seemed far away, detached. Gabrielle waited. Finally Xena said, "I thought I was off duty. Why do you want me at this meeting tomorrow?"
"Because I value your observations and advice."
"You still trust me?"
"Of course I trust you. I trust you with my life and everything in it. Xena, youre one of the most dangerous women in the known world and I lie down next to you, defenseless, every night. I was -- I am -- angry because you didnt trust me."
"I trust you."
"But you didnt trust my judgment about this plan of yours. You didnt tell me about it first."
"You said it. I knew you wouldnt approve."
"And that should be good enough. Thats why Im the Queen and youre not. I dont mean to sound snotty, Xena, but the responsibility is mine. It has to be somebodys. If you dont think I can handle it, challenge me to a combat. Or resign as supreme commander. You used to command your own army. You know that responsibility cant be shared."
"What are you going to do?"
"I dont know yet. But I thought if we met on neutral ground we could reach an understanding. I have to do something. Everyone knows that youre in trouble with me. I cant show favoritism. If this had happened in your army, when you were in charge, what would you have done?"
Again the wry grin. "Idve used his hide to make a saddle."
"We dont have to go that far. Ill try to make this as painless as possible. In the meantime Im going to let you out of jail. You can report to the parade ground, but you cant assume command. you can work with the troops but Eponin is still in charge. All right?"
Xena nodded curtly. Gabrielle went on. "Now I want to talk to my woman. The one I love. Do you love me, Xena? Still?"
"Yes, I love you."
"Will you kiss me?"
"No. I...cant. Not until this thing is over. I dont know why."
I know why, Gabrielle thought. Ephiny knows. Why dont you, Xena?
"Xena, I dont want this to be about us. I love you."
"I think Im clean. Should I go to the parade ground or go home?"
"Oh. Go home. You need time to think, and so do I."
Gabrielles copious tears did not add perceptibly to the level of the pond.
The envoy was a woman.
For a woman to occupy such a post was unheard of in Roman society. The letter the Legate had sent describing the delegation had listed her name, but in its masculine form -- Gaius Publius Pylornus, rather than the feminine forms ending in -a. She had been listed as a sacerdote of Juno -- but there were many male priests of Juno -- and belonging to the household of the Senator Phrivius Pontus. What they didnt say was that the envoy was the Senators wife, not a son or nephew.
Rome, thought Gabrielle. Always more devious than they need to be.
She received the envoy on a dais in the village square, flanked by Xena and Ephiny on their side of the table. The envoy and two of her advisors faced them. The eight remaining Romans were on the ground, each attended to by two Amazon escorts. Armed escorts.
Gabrielle wanted no misunderstandings about whose conference this was.
She welcomed the envoy and asked what they might do for each other. The envoy gave a discourse on the benefits of Roman citizenship, and how the Amazon Nation might be better served by allying itself to the might of Rome, made a case for exclusive trade with Rome, described the dangers that lay about the region, and pointed out that the Roman army was unbeaten and therefore the ideal protector. Gabrielle countered by reminding the envoy that the Amazon Nation had done quite well on its own for a thousand years, mentioned that the Amazons had a thriving network of trade with many states, and that while she was flattered by Romes generous offer, the Amazon interest was best served by Amazons and not Romans; the Amazon army was itself unbeaten, large, efficient and well led, and could continue to protect the Nation efficiently without Roman intervention. And on, and on. The Queen, with her natural eloquence, her gift of gab, made the perfect diplomat, expressing firm positions in the most accommodating language, never giving overt offense while challenging the truth of every word out of the envoys mouth. To every overture by the Roman envoy, the reply was a flowery, flattering, diplomatic version of "No, thank you, you lying pusbag."
Finally the envoy tired of fencing. She said "All this is very well, and forms basis for future discussions, Queen Gabrielleki." There was a murmur of discontent among the Amazons, which faded quickly. "Perhaps we can discuss other, more specific issues of concern to our homelands."
"Perhaps," replied the Queen. "Although no specific agreements can come of this meeting today, as Im sure you understand. We must consult our Council, and communicate with our allies about any proposals that affect their welfare."
The envoy smiled. "It is of these alliances that we wish to speak," she said. "Specifically, treaties concluded in the last year between Pieria and Florinia, two petty kingdoms, and the Amazon Nation."
"The treaties are the concern of the states involved,and not of Rome," said the Queen. "They are intended to keep the peace. As all know the peace-loving intentions of the Senate and People of Rome, how could any Roman be concerned?"
"Rome fears that the alliances may represent hostile intent. As you know, the Senate and People have many interests in the region in question."
"Hostile intent? Pieria and Florinia have just concluded a costly war. This everyone knows. The Amazon Nation brokered a peace between them and offered to defend each state with its own army so that the states could rebuild and live together in peace. It is not in our interest that our neighbors should be at war. Rome is in no way involved." Where by Hades is she going with this?, Gabrielle wondered.
"The Senate is convinced of the pacific intentions of the current leadership of the Amazon Nation. It is possible, however,in the eyes of some in the Senate and the Consulate -- " here she looked Xena in the eye "--that , the gods forbid, the Amazon Nation undergoes a change of leadership, perhaps to a more aggressive stance, then Amazon presence in these two states could threaten the interests of Rome and the citizens under its protection."
Gabrielle sat silently for a moment sorting out this convoluted sentence, then consulted with Xena. "She wants us to think she thinks were threatening Roman territory from Florinia or Pieria."
"Your Excellency, no such threat is intended or practical to carry out were it intended. Our alliance with these states was purely a peacekeeping measure. It is a matter of policies of the Amazon Nation, and two other independent states. Surely the Roman Senate has no interest or desire to dictate the foreign policy of independent nations?"
"Thats exactly what the Senate thinks," whispered Ephiny. "You go, my Queen!"
So that was the veiled threat behind this embassy, Gabrielle concluded. They want us out of those kingdoms and want to us to let them tell us who we can and cant form alliances with. They might have even started the war in the first place. Sorry, Caesar, youre out of luck on this one.
Gabrielle concluded the conference with a short speech. "The Amazon Nation is a worthy friend to have, and a dangerous enemy. Surely the Senate does not wish war. War would be costly to both sides. Remember Epirus. King Pyrrhus held the field, but at such a cost that his kingdom was unable to fight on. Surely Rome wishes to avoid such a victory of its own. Free trade with a free Nation is always more profitable to any one side than war is to either side. Soldiers are expensive; merchants are cheap."
A meal was served, after which the Roman delegation would be escorted on its way out of Amazon land. During the meal Xena noticed that one of the envoy party was missing. Eight, nine, ten...there were supposed to be eleven, counting Pylornus herself. She went to Ephiny. "I think we have a problem." She explained what she had noticed.
Ephiny cast a glance at the Queen, engaged in mutual false bonhomie over wine with the envoy. "Take three guards and find him. Bring him back here in manacles."
Xena left the party and searched the village. Finally a figure was noticed ducking behind the armory hut, where no Amazon ought to be, let alone a stranger. She split her guards on either side of the hut, two and two, and took the man as he was trying to pry up a corner of the shutter on the armory. She slammed him to the ground and immediately hit him with the neck pinch.
"You dont know me, so let me explain. That numb feeling is your brain dying. I just shut off the blood to it, and if you dont answer me youll be dead in less than a minute. What are you doing here?"
The man was all too ready to give it up. "I...told to determine..strength...had to...count weapons...estimate reserves...readiness of your army..."
"So this embassy was a cover for a military operation. Is there more?"
"A standard cohort...attack tomorrow...south road...penetrate your border. Take prisoners back for interrogation. Reconnaissance in force."
"Sixteenth legion, Canis mortis."
She took the pinch off. "I knew Rome didnt come here to blow air." To the guards, she said, "Shackle him and take him to the lockup. Stay with him. When I send word, escort him to the square."
She told Ephiny and Gabrielle what had happened. Gabrielle ordered him brought out. The square fell silent as the manacled retainer shuffled into view, surrounded by armed guards. Gabrielle stood, addressed the envoy. "We found this man in a secure area. That is a violation of the terms under which you were welcomed here. It is best if you leave immediately. You may take your man with you."
The envoy rose. "My sincerest apologies, Queen Gabrielleki. This was completely unauthorized. I take full responsibility, personally. Please do not hold Rome accountable for his actions."
This woman needs to learn some manners, Gabrielle thought as she prepared her next speech in her head. Amazon style. But not today.
"We are accountable for all acts of the Amazon Nation," said Gabrielle, with a sidelong glance at Xena. "We hold Rome equally so for the acts of their citizens. The penalty for espionage is death. Our commander tells us he saw nothing of value. Therefore we commute the sentence and send him -- and you -- on your way. Leave."
The embassy was escorted out of the village. Ephiny, Xena, Eponin and the Queen held an emergency meeting in Gabrielles hut. Ephiny asked a question.
"Was it wise to let him go? Now they know you know about the attack."
"It wouldnt have mattered. He wasnt acting alone. That envoy knew what he was up to. The whole thing was a sham to get a spy inside the capital village."
"Will it change their plan?"
"I would. But Im not the Legate. they might just go through with it anyway. A cohort is almost five hundred men. They already have the attack prepared. Its too late to change their target. Ill take two regiments out tonight and well be ready for them."
Gabrielle spoke up. "Xena..."
Xena looked at Ephiny and Eponin. "Do you mind if I speak to the Queen alone for a moment? My Queen? May I?"
Gabrielle nodded and the others left the room. Xena said "Is it your intention to replace me permanently as supreme commander?"
"No! Of course not. But you are temporarily suspended..."
"Gabrielle, If Im going to stay in command, then I need to lead this detachment. Amazonsve never fought legionaries before, and this Legate is new to the area. I need to get a look at his organization, command style, what kind of control he has over his troops. I need to do that first hand and in a way I can respond to on the field. I have to be in command."
"Oh, all right. But just of this detachment. Send them in and Ill tell them. Xena..." She took a step closer to the tall, imposing woman; there was pleading in her eyes.
Xena was as cold as a sword. "Not now, my Queen. I have to organize my command. With your permission..." And she left the hut, sending the other counselors in as she did so.
Despite my being Queen, shes still in control, thought Gabrielle. How do I let this happen?
Before sundown troops formed up at the south gate, two Amazon regiments, almost seven hundred trained foot soldiers. Xena, mounted on Argo, conferred with her subordinate officers before giving the order to move.
"I want treehoppers out half a league ahead of us," she told her chief of reconnaissance. "Sweep a front half a league off each flank."
"Four on four?" the recon chief asked.
"Eight on eight. These are legionaries, not auxiliaries. Deploy in strength. You mission is to harass as well as detect."
"Yes, Simutha." Even though she didnt warrant the title right now, habit was strong.
As she sent the officers to their formations Gabrielle and four priestesses came through the gate. She and each of the priestesses held a bowl with fresh deers blood. The deer had not been sacrificed wantonly; they had been blessed, dedicated to Artemis, and would be cooked for the nights meal. Gabrielle reached up to Xena, who, mounted on the horse, now bent down as Gabrielle smeared streaks of blood on Xenas forehead and cheeks. The priestesses did the same for the leaders, and then went along the ranks, as each trooper dipped her fingers in the bowl and streaked their faces. As she touched Xenas face she whispered, "I love you. Come back to me. We can work this out." Then, not wishing Xena to see her tears, she turned sharply away and held the bowl aloft, while the high priestess called for Artemis blessing on the mission.
Goddess grant that is all the blood thats shed today, she thought as the troops moved out into the thin forest cover.
Our first battle with Rome. And the first time, in a long time, that she had separated from her love without a kiss of farewell.
Xena rode between the two regiments, scanning the landscape without thinking about it. It was something she did as automatically as sitting in the saddle. Her senses would alert her to conscious action if a threat presented itself. As she rode she worried at the pain in her mind and heart like a tongue on a sore tooth.
She had never believed Gabrielle was wrong. She was the Queen. Xena, even more than Gabrielle, knew what that meant. Obedience was everything in war; the leader who couldnt command obedience was crucified.
But she had never been good at obedience. She never took orders well. Even when she shared command, when she was with Borias, she hadnt the tolerance for not being in control. And as much as she had changed from that time to this, she still had that quality. She hated being told what to do.
It was one reason she was the Simutha, the General, the supreme commander. She didnt have to take orders.
Except from the one person in the world she loved with all her soul.
Her lover. Her ki. Her Queen.
The other reason, of course, was that she was supremely good at being a General. She knew, without false modesty, that when it came to tactics, strategy, the intangibles of command, she was as expert and adept as she was with sword and chakram and her own body. She stood head and shoulders above any of the Amazons in military skill. On the scale she commanded, she was better than any commander Rome could field. She was the equal of Caesar, in everything but treachery, and only because she had renounced its use. She had known that that would have to change, that to beat Rome treachery would have to re-enter her arsenal. So she had dusted it off and initiated the bloodthirsty plan that had brought her and her hearts love to this breach. A rupture so painful she had lost all power of speech or action, paralyzed to make any gesture that Gabrielle would accept.
"We can work this out," Gabrielle had said. How could you know that I wanted to kiss you, right there in front of the army, and make it all right again? Just wipe away this stain on our marriage. But how can I when you attack my pride? I am proud to lead this army, proud to be an Amazon. You humiliate me. You dont know you do, but you do.
Pride? Or arrogance? Are you still the arrogant warlord, owing allegiance to none?
What had hurt the most was that she had done what she had done for Gabrielles own protection. If they could not fatally cripple Romes efforts to destroy or enslave the Amazons, the best Gabrielle could expect would be to spend the rest of her life a hunted fugitive. The most likely outcome would be her death on a cross, or a beheading in some Roman arena. Xena harbored no illusions about Roman benevolence. That Xena stood to die at Gabrielles side mattered not at all; Xena and death were old companions, riding together day by day. And without Gabrielle life would end, in any case.
She had thought that she and Gabrielle would be able to work together smoothly, that they would see the salvation of the Amazon Nation as their common purpose and accept any means toward that end. But to Gabrielle war was a tool of statecraft; the nature of the state she wished to rule dictated to her the limits of what was acceptable in war. To Xena war was an end in itself. She had spent her adulthood engaged in war as an occupation, an exercise of wanton power, with only the vaguest of goals in view. It was only in the last few years, since Hercules, and Gabrielle, that she had seen fighting as a means to possibly accomplish something decent and lasting.
She rode on in the gathering darkness. They would not camp tonight. This territory was as familiar to all of them as the village itself, and the troops would march until sunrise, to the border outposts, where they would deploy to receive the Roman attack. Xena was confident of victory, her only unknown being its cost. That is, if her intelligence was correct.
Gabrielle spent many hours that night in study in the great library. The subject was Amazon law and military discipline, and she absorbed thousands of lines, having tea and food brought to her until she could literally no longer stand erect. Ephiny came in the small hours and put her to bed.
The first arrows came in the earliest lightening of the sky before dawn. The treehoppers, assisted by nighthawks on the ground, had flushed several blinds of Roman troops, camouflaged under leaves and brush and set to ambush the Amazon formations as they advanced. That didnt mean that they had found all of them, and proof of that came to Xena when she heard a hissing whistle out of the predawn darkness, and snatched an arrow out of the air. Two more followed in quick succession. Advance skirmishers quickly located the blinds and took them, fighting for prisoners. There were only two casualties, both in the ranks near where the General rode.
Gabrielle sat at her table, reviewing documents. Appointments. Treaties. Trade bills. Here was a request for the redistribution of lands resulting from a marriage. So be it. And here was a document, a scroll under a seal, from -- Egypt. How strange. She broke the seal, and found a Declaration of Right of Caste by Gelasia, Queen of the Amazon Nation of Egypt and the Upper Nile. In it, Gelasia passed her rights as Queen to a successor, made a disposition of her property, and made known her funeral wishes. It was a kind of Last Will. At the bottom was Gelasias signature, in her own hand. Below the signature was a note stating that beloved Gelasia, Queen, had passed on. The document was dated two years ago.
Two years. This had been sent to all the Amazon enclaves throughout the known world, and, communications being what they were, it had taken two years to get here. But -- something bothered her. She rummaged in her papers, found one she wanted, and compared it with the one before her. She called to the guard outside the door, and she entered.
"Find the woman Irisa. Shes working at the looms. Bring her here, now!"
"Yes, my Queen."
By the time the Amazons reached the treeline, scout reports had made it clear that there was more than a cohort in front of them. As the night faded into false day, the Amazons rolled from the trees into the small open plain between the forest and the border. Silhouetted against the dawn sky they could see the ranks of Roman soldiers, standing in their lines, shields resting on the ground, pila thrusting above their heads like the spines of some predatory insect. At intervals cross-shaped objects stood above the formations, as if the Romans were already preparing for executions. Ballistae, giant crossbows that fired an eight-foot bolt that could skewer five troopers at once if it impacted the head of a file.
Who brings artillery on a reconnaissance mission? And from where she sat, looking down the gentle slope, it looked like more than a cohort out there. A lot more. She estimated fifteen hundred men, or more.
The odds had gone from a little more than even in her favor to more than two-to-one against her.
A trap. Sucker bait.
Well just have to be twice as good as they are.
Xena ordered archers forward, and a reserve of two hundred to the rear. The regiments deployed from marching order to line of battle, matching the Romans along their front. The reserve came up twenty yards behind.
She would let the Romans make the first move. After all, theyd come here, and all the Amazons had to do was prevent them from achieving their purpose of penetrating Amazon land. If the Romans chose to attack, let them. If they chose to go home, well, that would be disappointing, but it would be a victory for the Amazons. Cowardice or expediency, it didnt matter their motive, if the Romans withdrew, she won.
"Irisa isnt at the looms, Gabrielle. Shes not in her quarters, either."
"Ephiny, I want her found! Quickly!"
"Whats so important?"
"Come here. Look at this."
"I see. She came here seven moons ago, when Gelasia had already been dead a year and a half."
"And the seals dont match. Nor do the signatures."
"Shes an impostor."
"Find her, before she gets away, before she does some damage." Xena, Im sorry, you were right. How could I have been so stupid?
The Romans opened with fire from the ballistae. The huge, sleek bolts hissed through the air, a deeper, more threatening note than arrows. She dismounted, hurrying up and down the front line, sword in hand, exhorting the Amazons to stand their ground. She had them kneel to present less of a target. Bolts began striking down troopers. She could hear the bolts coming at her, and she dodged as they went by and buried themselves in the ground. This was getting hot, but they could stand it.
The firing stilled. Xena saw the Romans advancing up the slight slope, pila ready for throwing, swords drawn. She gave a command and Amazon shields went up in the tortoise formation. Pila whisked through the air, clattered on the shields, their soft lead shafts bending into useless junk on impact. She stayed close to the ground until the wave of spears passed. The archers rose up, loosed a hail of arrows. The advancing Romans raised their shields and most of the arrows were deflected; here and there a legionary went down with an arrow in his arm or eye. The Romans had time for two more throws before they closed to swords point. The second throw came, and to Xenas eyes it seemed as if a hundred pila were converging on her alone. She deflected several with her sword, not wishing to hide behind her shield and block her view, but finally raised the decorated disc and felt the heavy thud of many spearheads up her arm. She usually didnt fight with a shield, but that was in more open circumstances; it was the use of the shield that made the Roman formations so deadly, so resistant to attack, and shed trained her Amazons -- and herself -- to use them as effectively as legionaries.
The last throw came just before contact. The Amazon archers fired one last time, a flat trajectory into the Roman front, and then retired. The Amazons held their tortoise and then, so rapidly the eye could almost not follow, stood and extended lances through the front rank to meet the oncoming Romans. The leading legionaries were impaled on the lance heads as the Amazon lines took a simultaneous step forward, and then back, using the bodies of the Roman soldiers as shields as they drew sword and met the Roman army hand-to-hand.
Xena began striking before the Romans had come up to crush shield to shield. She was so strong that she clove through many shields, leaving the man behind as prey for the Amazon swords. Longer and heavier than the Roman gladius, the Amazon smiths forged a superior weapon, which, when used with the same level of organization as the Romans, was lethal. This legion would go home knowing that they had not fought mere barbarians. Blood stained every blade, every shield. The ground became soft with it.
After only a few moments the Romans disengaged, in a disciplined fashion, backing up step by step as the Amazons held their ground. They fell back out of bowshot, and a new rank came up through the old. Xena looked to her right; the remainder of her line was standing firm, bodies of legionaries littering the ground -- and some Amazon bodies as well, but the ratio seemed to be at least three Romans for every Amazon down.
At her command the Amazon front rank stepped back and the second rank came forward, in imitation of the Roman move. Only a unit of highly disciplined troops could do this reliably; it was why the Roman army was the best in the world. If the Amazons were as disciplined, and could field superior fighters, they might do the unheard of -- defeat Rome on the battlefield, something that had not happened since Hannibal.
This time the Romans changed formation, forming wedged packs armored with shields along the edges and bristling with lances. They struck the Amazon line in many separate places, but she had trained her warriors to respond to just this tactic; the lines split on either side of the roman wedge, allowing them to penetrate, surrounding them on all sides, and then closing in behind and around the tip of the wedge, striking with short hammers and maces to break the arms of the shield-carriers and collapse the wedge in on itself. It worked as well now as it had on the drillfield, but she didnt have time to admire it; she was being attacked by a mass of Roman soldiers who, led by a centurion, seemed to have no other objective but her.
She tossed her shield aside; in this kind of a fight her body was a better defense than any shield. The Romans came on, and she slashed them down; punched, kicked, and spun, howling the familiar and terrifying war cry that was her trademark. If the Romans didnt know who they were fighting before, that cry surely told them. But this gang wasnt intimidated, indeed they seemed to press their attack on her all the more vigorously. She thrust her sword into one grimacing face after another, slashing high, stabbing low, a whirlwind of violence. She fought with such bloodlust that she might have killed her best friend if she had come close enough. She wasnt using her brain, or her body, or her heart; she was using her entire being, this was her Way, her purpose in life, her food and drink and worship. She had once been the consort of the God of War; she had never forgotten that feeling of total surrender to her darkest self. Romans tried to kill her, and those Romans died.
"We found her, my Queen."
"She was running for the northern border. The guards at the border intercepted her. Shes being brought back here in chains."
"Did she resist?"
"No. She begged them not to kill her."
"Put her in the lockup. I want to see her when shes been subdued."
"What do you think she was doing here, my Queen?"
"Ephiny, I dont know. I think she was a spy, sent here by Caesar or one of his lackeys to find out what she could about us. Xena was right, we have to be more careful."
The Romans withdrew, only to form up again and renew their ballista attacks. It seemed as if everywhere that Xena went, Death was sure to go; the Romans concentrated on her as if she was the only person on the field. In the next infantry attack, she was surrounded by a crescent, then a circle, of swordsmen, and she had to fight her way free while her army fought on. During a lull in the fighting she conferred with Zelia, her left wing commander.
"Do you think theyre slowing down?" Xena asked.
"Yes, except when youre around. They go after you like ants after a pool of honey."
"Do you notice they never push an attack? Are they trying to hold us here?"
"Simutha, could this be a feint?"
"If it is, theyll run into Eponin and the bulk of the army if they attack anywhere else. They ought to know that one cohort isnt going to bring out most of our strength, Its like swatting a fly with a mace."
"Watch out!" The noise of a bolt roared in Xenas ears, and she threw Zelia to the ground as the bolt smashed through the tree they had been sheltering behind, scattering splinters and penetrating the trunk up to half its own length. The sound of ripping wood was deafening. "Lets end this nonsense."
"What do you have in mind?"
"Bring your left in toward the center. Concentrate. Double-file. Let them overlap your flank. Well do the same on the right."
"What are you doing?"
"Setting shark bait. Youre the bait."
She rode to the right and gave the same order. Then she rode back to the reserve, giving orders as the main body changed formation. When the front of her army had been reduced to about half that of the Romans, she ordered a disciplined retreat towards the treeline. The Romans began to close on the narrowed front, irresistibly drawn to the now-exposed flanks of the Amazons. the Romans assumed the shape of a crescent, a closing pincer with the Amazon army trapped between the jaws. Amazon archers and spears kept the legionaries from getting too close. Both armies left a trail of broken bodies on the little plain as the retreat brought them closer to the woods.
When the ends of the Roman crescent were within half-bowshot of the woods, Xena bellowed at the top of her lungs, and two bands of fresh troops lunged from the trees at the exposed Roman flanks. The Romans were taken completely by surprise by the divided reserves, and began to melt away in panic as a hundred demon women, howling like fiends, set upon them at each end. Xena, eyes wide and face alight, charged with one of the reserves. Immediately she was surrounded by soldiers whose sole intent was to obliterate her. She fought free, and Zelia, seeing her, screamed.
"Xena! Simutha! Its you! Theyre trying to kill you! Drop back! We can handle this! get out of range!"
Xena had come to the same conclusion. This battle was an elaborate assassination attempt. But it made no sense. If she died, Eponin would take over, and she knew almost everything Xena knew by now. And what Eponin didnt know Gabrielle did. Gabrielle would just appoint...
The Roman line was collapsing into piecemeal bands, which the Amazons could destroy in detail; most of the surviving Romans were heading back toward the border, tails between their legs. Her officers could mop up.
Gabrielle. Oh, gods, Gabrielle.
She bellowed to Zelia that she was in command, and leapt into Argos saddle. She galloped off the field and flew like a blown leaf through the trees, back to the Amazon village.
Gabrielle was busy turning the common hall into a hospital. She knew the battle would result in too many wounded for the healers hut, and she wanted to have space to receive and treat them. She divided the space into sections, to sort the wounded into those who would die regardless, those who would recover on their own, and those who could be treated and saved. She had cots set up, and a surgery, and an area for the treated to rest in peace while recovering. She set women to tearing up sheets and scarves and bolts of cloth for bandages, and sent others out to gather more of the healing herbs. She had knives washed and needles sharpened and leagues of leather twine cut and rolled. She knew it needed doing, and it was something she could do, something besides act as the figurehead while other people did the real work.
She wasnt ready to confront Irisa yet. Besides, if she was what Gabrielle was sure she was, some time in jail would do her good.
Xena rode, spurring Argo, swearing at herself, using every foul word she knew in several languages. How could she have been so stupid? To let herself be suckered like that...
Everything that could be done was done, until the wounded came in. One grisly detail had been her most recent responsibility; seeing to the gathering of wood and the building of funeral pyres. there would be dead to send on, as well.
Throughout the entire day Acantha had been with her, both a helper and a pest, demanding attention but anxious to do anything she was asked, like a willing but untrained pony. She kept up an endless stream of chatter, about how great it must be to be a fighting Amazon, how proud Gabrielle must be to be Queen, how amazing Xena was. Gabrielle finally got to the point where Acanthas chatter was no more than an irritating buzz, like cicadas singing or the gnats flitting around her sweaty forehead.
As the afternoon passed Gabrielles edge of readiness was blunted by waiting. There was no reason she needed to be here just waiting for news. People will think Im calmer if I go about everyday things. Besides, she was deathly tired. She told Solari to take Acantha out of her hair and put her to some useful work, then she returned to her hut to sleep through the hot part of the day. She was positively convinced that, as keyed up as she was, she could only pretend to sleep. To her surprise, she woke in the late afternoon, refreshed from a deep sleep.
She stretched, splashed her face with water from the basin, and sat for a moment at her table. She drifted into contemplation. The problem of what to do with Xena still plagued her. She had come across something that might lead to a solution, but she hadnt worked it all out.
On the table were trinkets, artifacts, small treasures; some dinar coins; A wooden lamb; a lovely piece of blue-streaked stone that she kneaded between her fingers in moments of preoccupation; a sewing needle; a Roman sestertius. A small dagger, a boot-knife, unsheathed, razor-sharp and needle-pointed, with a lean, straight blade, that Xena had purchased in some nameless village and had given Gabrielle after that business in which she had been kidnapped. Xena had been blinded; she had come to find her friend anyway. Xena had saved her so many times, and here Gabrielle was all over her for not telling her what shed been doing.
She picked up the knife. Such a small thing. But a token of something greater: I love you. I fear for your safety. Let me help you protect yourself -- for my sake and yours. Gabrielle had never used the knife and probably never would. She wasnt willing to shed someone elses...
Her head screamed with pain as her hair was pulled sharply. At the same time she heard hot breath in her ear, and felt the strain of muscles as her head was pulled backwards. She couldnt think; she could only react.
Gabrielle was a natural staff fighter because of her almost supernaturally fast reflexes. She had had training, from Xena and others, that had honed those reflexes to astonishing speed. If Gabrielle ever decided to adopt Xenas warrior ways fully and without reservation, she could become a formidable, almost unbeatable opponent because she was too fast to hit. Now, that speed saved her life.
She twisted away from the tickle of the blade she felt graze her throat, ducked under the arm of her assailant that still held her hair tightly. She thought the hair might rip out by the roots. Holding her own knife in her right hand,she flexed her arm to bring the tip of the knife to her assailants throat, as she grabbed for the attackers head to stabilize the target. She did all this without thinking, without moral meditation, simply pure hormones and self-preservation. She found herself staring into her attackers eyes.
Gabrielles knife was pressed against the girls throat; a thin trickle of blood descended from the point. Simultaneously Gabrielle felt a painful prick at her own throat, where Acanthas knife pressed against her vital vessels in a similar manner. They each could kill the other, but not before the first victim, in her dying breath, thrust to kill. They would both wind up dead on the floor of the hut, their knives embedded in each others throats, still gripping handfuls of each others hair. A Spartan stand-off.
Why Acantha didnt just go ahead and kill her was a miracle that Gabrielle, until the end of her life, never understood. Perhaps it was surprise that someone she thought an easy victim should react so swiftly to avoid the killing stroke. Perhaps it was fear. Gabrielle never knew. She was merely relieved to be in this precarious situation, rather than being dead. She would rather die a few seconds from now than now.
Gabrielle, wide-eyed with surprise, felt it all revealed in a flash. An assassin. Acantha was an assassin, planted in the village to await the opportunity to slaughter the Queen. Someone in Rome was afraid enough of Gabrielle, of what she might do as Queen of the Amazons, to plot to have her dispatched. All this time she had been stalked, and never knew it. Xena had warned of the danger, how she had made enemies just by being Queen, but she had dismissed Xenas fears in her own heart. Who could hate a little girl from a pathetic little village enough to have her killed?
Obviously someone did. She had been fast enough to survive murder by stealth. Now she had to survive, if she could, by convincing her would-be killer that her death carried too high a price.
"Acantha. I can kill you. Even if you kill me, youll die." The words came out dry and hoarse, as Gabrielle tried to speak in a normal voice in this most abnormal position.
Acantha bared her teeth slightly. "Im not afraid to die."
"What good will it do to lose your life?"
"An enemy of my city will die. Thats what Ive lived for."
"This is your life? Murder is your purpose? Death is your goal?"
"In the name of my city. Rome is all the good in the world. Those who stand in its way will die. Youll die."
"Im no threat to Rome. Rome is not going to suffer from the Amazons."
"Anyone who refuses to accept the wisdom of Rome is an enemy. You know that and still you persist in your fantasy of independence. Rome will crush you."
"Do you want to die?"
"If its for the good of Rome, yes! Lives must be sacrificed. If Rome thrives by my death and yours, so be it."
"Is my life worth fifty Roman lives?"
"Fifty? You only hold one life at the point of your knife, traitor." Gabrielle felt the knife press harder against her flesh, pushed her own knife deeper into Acanthas skin. The girl reacted. Not totally cold-blooded, then.
"Acantha, do you think were stupid, we Amazons? Do you think we have no sense of treachery at all? There are at least fifty Romans with knives at their throats."
"You lie, bitch!"
"Can you afford to not be sure?" Keep talking, keep talking! Keep her occupied with talk and shell be less prepared to finish it. The longer you talk the more likely something is to happen. A distraction, a shout, someone entering...just keep talking because talk is the only thing thatll keep you alive!
"We have them. Fifty. Fifty mistresses, camp whores, cooks, even wives. Fifty women who are what you are. Fifty Romans who will die as soon as word gets out that Im dead."
"Why? What good does it do if they dont know? How does that protect you?!"
"It protects the Nation! Who rules isnt important! Its who we rule! If Rome wants an enemy, theyll have one -- All Amazons, everywhere, and theyll never know who is the target. Kill me, and fifty Romans die. Then fifty more, and fifty more. We can keep killing until the last Amazon gives up her life. Are you prepared to leave that as your legacy?" Keep it up, Gabrielle. This is the performance of a lifetime. If its lousy itll be a very short lifetime...
Acantha was shaking with rage. "You!! Youd never even think of such a thing! Youre soft as sheep dung!"
"But Ive got the Warrior Princess working for me! Whose idea did you think that was?"
Acantha stopped shaking, but Gabrielle saw a sliver of doubt pierce her eyes.
It would have to be a fast straight throw, no bounces, no time for the bitch to cut Gabrielles throat. Into the right arm, below the shoulder, cut the tendons so that shed lose her grip on the knife. She slipped under the window, crouched along the ground three paces, took aim. She remembered every detail of the inside of the hut, exactly where the two figures were locked in deadly embrace, the angle of the limbs, the position of the knives, just how Acanthas eyes saw the room. She could get the chakram to come in behind her field of vision, but it would have to be just the right angle...
Focus...subdue the minds noise, listen to the ka, the inmost soul...See the path...Be the path...NOW!
In half a heartbeat the chakram flew through the window, slicing through the fleshy back of Acanthas knife arm, cutting a deep gash between her ribs as well. The ring embedded itself in a corner post with a thunk that was drowned by the assassins enraged howl of pain. The knife fell from her fingers. Gabrielle struck her under the jaw with the heel of her hand and Acantha collapsed backwards on the floor, stunned.
Thatch and lath splintered and ripped as Xena crashed through the wall of the hut, sword drawn, leaping at the prone body of the assassin. Gabrielle screamed "Dont kill her! Dont kill her!" and foolishly threw her body over Acanthas, reliving the act that had made her an Amazon princess.
Xena stopped her thrust just short of Gabrielles throat as her loves words penetrated the haze of her killing rage. She saw in an instant that Gabrielle was safe, lowered the sword, then dropped it on the floor. She kicked the killers knife into a corner, dropped to her knees, and embraced the love of her life. The only thing in the world, the only truth, was that this woman was safe in her arms. Xena wept openly, Gabrielle sobbed and they covered each other with kisses and tears.
Acantha was tightly bound and taken to the council hut. Gabrielle wanted her alive; Xena kept her distance as other Amazons escorted her. Whenever Xena looked at that woman, her anger threatened to overwhelm her. Acantha would not survive a heartbeat alone with Xena within sword thrust.
An interrogation revealed little. Xenas pinch was superfluous; the young woman would simply have died under it rather than reveal anything of value. Gabrielle would not permit torture, which was contrary to Amazon usage in any case. Xena doubted it would have done any good, anyway. Acantha was a hard case. She was sent to the lockup, manacled hand and foot, until her disposition could be decided. As she left the hut under the strongest of guards, She cast Gabrielle a last glance. Never had Gabrielle seen so much hate in one persons eyes.
You hate me because I am not Roman, she thought. You can only end that cycle by hating yourself; because there is always someone more Roman than you.
Part III. See Yours and Raise You
The dead had been washed and placed on the pyres. The wounded were being tended to. The dancers were preparing their funeral performances, and the mourning drums were calling the outlying villages for the ceremony. Gabrielle and the council met to settle matters arising from the crisis.
It was time to deal with Irisa, the impostor. In chains, she was brought to Gabrielle and the Council. Gabrielle order her chains removed; in the presence of Xena, Ephiny, and the others, she was safe from any threat. Confronted with evidence of her deception, Irisa gave way.
"Why did you lie to us?" Gabrielle asked.
"All I ever wanted was to be an Amazon. Ever since I was a little girl. My head was full of tales about the Amazons, their strength, their power. But my parents arranged a marriage, and I had to go along with that. I had three children and spent years raising them while my husband traveled with caravans. Then my father died, my mother became ill, an illness that lasted years. I tended her. When she died, a year ago, I had nothing. My children had all married and were far away, my husband had died, my parents had died."
Ephiny said, "Why didnt you just come to us with the truth? We would have taken you in."
"I wasnt young any more. I was never a warrior or anything like it. Id never so much as been outside my home town. I was sure the Amazons wouldnt accept me. So I -- reinvented myself. I forged that letter, based on what Id heard about Amazon customs. I worked hard on it, and on my story. By the time I was done I half-believed it myself. And if it hadnt been for you finding out about the real Egyptian Queen I might have gotten away with it."
Gabrielle spoke. "Irisa, you should know that we are a culture, that we have children and they are brought up as Amazons, and that we grow old and we die, like everyone else. We are a community, we care for our own here, regardless of age. And not everyone is a warrior. Im not -- oh, I can fight, but I wasnt brought up so. I, like you, wasnt born Amazon. All of us can defend ourselves, thats basic to being a free people. But there are many ways to contribute besides war. We have farmers and herders, hunters, smiths and cooks and potters and builders of huts and teachers of children. We all work together for the good of the tribe, and each other, under a rule of law. If youre willing to submit to that law youre welcome to join us, you, as you are, not some made-up person."
"You would have me? Even after what Ive done?"
"Forgery and perjury are crimes under our law. But Ive learned a lot about Amazon law recently and I know that the Queen and Council have wide discretion about punishment. So heres your punishment. You have two choices. You may leave Amazon lands and never return. You will be stopped at the border if you do. Or, youll remain here, as a refugee, for a year. You wont be admitted to the high ceremonies and rites. Youre to work in the childrens compound for that year. Youll also be required to train in staff fighting with the young girls until youre proficient. I should tell you that this last is something of a disgrace, because self-defense with the staff is among the first things an Amazon child learns. But you wont be the first adult that Eponin has trained." The council members all laughed at this, and Gabrielle smiled.
"At the end of the year you must chose again. To leave us forever, or to become a full Amazon and undergo the initiation and purification rites. Thats my decision. Does anyone on the council have anything to say?"
No one did. "Then do you assent to the Queens sentence of the woman Irisa, as atonement for her crimes against the Amazon people?"
They answered in unison, "We do."
"Irisa? What do you chose?"
"I chose to stay."
"What do we do with the assassin, Acantha?" Asked Ephiny. "This is a security matter. Id like to hear from Xena."
"You really dont. If it were up to me shed be meat for the dogs. Slow-roasted. But the Queen and I have discussed this. Send her back to Rome."
Ephiny and the council were shocked. "Shes a murderer! She tried to kill you!"
Gabrielle said, "Yes, she did. But she didnt, and one of the reasons is I was able to bluff her."
"Before I go on I must emphasize that what were about to discuss must remain absolutely secret. No one, no other Amazon, not your kis, not your children, your mothers, your best friends, no one is to hear of this. Xena, would you explain your original plan to the council, please?"
Xena described the assassination plan as she had told it to Gabrielle days ago. The Council was surprised and shocked, but many agreed that it was a good idea. Gabrielle spoke up again.
"I told Acantha that such a plan was already in place, and that if she killed me that important men in Rome would die. I dont know if she believes it or not, but I know it caused her to hesitate long enough for Xena to stop her. We should let her story get back to Rome. And we should do our best to plant that rumor everywhere we can. We should devise a plan to lead the Romans to think we have assassins in their midst. It will give them pause before they try something like this again."
"Why dont we just do as Xena planned? Train the assassins and place them?"
Gabrielle considered an answer. "I have many reasons, but the most important one is a concern for our own people. The women we train. I dont want them to become what Acantha has become, living sham lives filled with hate. Were better than that, better than Rome. If Rome thinks were as ruthless as they are, so be it. But we arent."
Ephiny mused. "Some innocent women are liable to be arrested when this rumor gets around."
Xena answered. "I know, and thats an aspect I dont like but I dont know how to stop. We cant prevent every atrocity committed by Rome. How many innocents has Rome crucified, enslaved, beheaded? If Romans turn on themselves its because thats the way Rome is. We can slow them down this way, distract them, weaken their resolve. But Rome will rise or fall on its own. We simply have to outlive Rome."
Finally, there was the matter of Xena.
Gabrielle tried to keep the trembling out of her voice. "Xenaki, stand before the Council."
As Xena stood, Gabrielle spoke. "This is a complicated case. There are several charges and considerations. First, you conducted a training program of great risk to the Amazon Nation, without the approval of the Queen and the Council. Further, you undertook this program with the full knowledge that is was against the Queens policy. Second, you left the battlefield in the midst of an action where you were in overall command. Both these offenses are punishable crimes. On the other hand, your swift action saved the life of the Nations Queen, and your tactical ability and the training you directed gave us a victory over Rome. Xenaki, What do you have to say?"
"My Queen, you know I dont speak well before others. I can only say that when I developed the assassination plan, it was because I thought it was in the best interest of protecting the Amazon Nation. Perhaps I was wrong. Im sure I was wrong in not seeking the consent of the Queen and the Council before proceeding. I admit that fully. As for the second charge, I turned over authority to my second in command, because I had evidence that the Queen was in imminent danger and that I was needed to protect her. It was a decision that could only be made one way or the other. I didnt leave the field until I was assured that wed win."
"Is that all?"
"Thats all, my Queen." Xena met Gabrielles eyes, saw the pain there, realized that this was one of the most painful things Gabrielle had had to do.
Gabrielle looked in the eyes of the council members, hoping someone would take this off her shoulders. It was a forlorn hope; she was Queen, for good or ill. "Heres my decision.
"Im going to dismiss the second charge. Xenaki acted correctly, using the established chain of command. She used her best professional judgment and thats her job. But the first charge, disobedience, is more serious. Traditionally the penalty for this crime has been thirty lashes, loss of duty, and a fine of half the offenders goods. We rarely do this. Ive never had to order it or seen it done. Were a civilized people who live disciplined lives and recognize the good of the community as our own. We rarely have to resort to law.
"Xenaki is an agent of the Nation and her wealth is the Nations. Therefore the fine is waived. Shes been relieved of duty for four days. Ill sentence her to ten more days. Finally, the physical punishment."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Ive spent time reading our law. Much of our law comes from a very ancient time, when the Throne was the sole power, before a Council existed. It seems that there is a special provision. If the disobedience was committed by a member of the royal family, only another member of the royal family could administer the punishment. And the ruling head of the royal family decided what the punishment was to be. That laws never been changed. So. Xenaki, Queens Consort, I sentence you to be flogged by a member of the royal family. Me. Sentence to be carried out here, and now, with this Council as witnesses."
Xenas eyes widened in shock. You wouldnt! You couldnt! She and Gabrielle locked eyes, and hours of conversation passed silently between them. She felt the resolve, the regret, the wish for something better. The good of the Nation. the good of the marriage. Anger. Law. Duty. Love. Hades take it, Xena thought. It wont be the first time.
Xantippe said, "She should be tied to the whipping posts. Before the whole village."
Gabrielles eyes flashed. "I say no. Here and now. Does anyone wish to challenge me on this? If you do itll be by combat."
"Gabrielle!" Xenas composure broke.
"I mean it. This is my word as Queen and if you dont like it you can fight me. Anyone?"
Any of the warriors in that room could have beaten Gabrielle in combat, and they all knew it. But none cared to challenge her spirit.
"Xantippe, cut me a green whip. Xenaki, bend over the table and bare your back."
Xena shot Gabrielle a poisonous look, unhooked her breastplate, unlaced her leather kirtle and sprawled her torso across the Council table. Xantippe came in with a flexible, fresh-cut branch, guaranteed to leave welts and scars if applied with a will. Two counselors reached for Xenas wrists to restrain her, and Xena pulled away from their grasp. Gabrielle told them, "You dont have to do that. She wont hurt anyone."
They let Xena go. She gripped the far side of the table and lifted her head to stare into their eyes. They recoiled at the chained ferocity there.
"Close the door, Ephiny. Xenaki, do you have anything to say?"
"Lets get this over with."
Gabrielle stood for a moment. She would not cry now. Later, later. This had to be done. She raised the whip. "This is going to be very painful."
"Ive been whipped before. I can take it."
"I know you can. I meant for me."
She brought the branch down across Xenas lower back. Hard. Xena gritted her teeth and hissed in her breath slightly, but showed no other reaction. Gabrielle struck her again. Two angry red welts streaked Xenas back.
The lash was applied a third time. Not once did Xena cry out or flinch. Gabrielle broke the whip, threw in on the table, and said "Punishment is complete." Speaking to the chief healer, who was part of the Council, she said, "Hygea, tend to her wounds." She sank into her chair, too weak in the knees to stand, and closed her eyes tightly to hold back the tears.
The healer washed the welts, found no blood or broken skin, and applied a salve. Xena stood up without apparent discomfort and dressed herself again.
Gabrielle rose unsteadily, looked Xena in the eyes. "Amazon law has been satisfied. You have ten days off duty. Five of those days you must spend in purification ritual. As for the other five...disruption of a family is a disruption of the community. Your Queen requires you to spend five days in attendance on your ki. Work to heal any breach that has arisen between you and her."
Xena asked, with a twist of her lips, "Are we done here?"
"One more thing, and that is to address the Queens negligence."
"What?" Ephiny said, and the entire council echoed the surprise.
"The Queens military advisor gave her good advice, which the Queen chose to ignore. The Queen admits this herself, and sentences herself to five days of purification ritual. And since her failure to listen caused a rift within her family, the Queen sentences herself to five days in attendance on her ki, to heal any breach that has arisen between them."
Ephiny gave a cynical chuckle. "I suppose Xenas sentence and yours will be served at the same time."
"Of course. Ephiny, during my sentence youll act as Regent. Eponin can continue to act for Xena."
"I understand, my Queen. There is one thing that must be done before you begin your sentence."
"I know. The funeral. Xena, can you sing? Will you?"
"Yes, my Queen. Yes, my Queen."
Six days later Gabrielle was holding her love as they soaked in the tub behind their hut. "Do you forgive me, lukur?"
"I do. I love you. But I thought youd find a way out of having to hit me at all."
"Oh no, my love. You dont understand."
"What dont I understand? You spanked me!"
"Thats all I wanted it to be. It could have been ten times as bad. But I thought that all youve done for me is at least ten times more than what you were punished for."
"But you didnt have to at all."
"Maybe I need to do it again. You still dont understand."
"I think I do, perhaps. Tell me."
"First, tell me. Did you learn anything from all this?
"Gabrielle, Im going to say this, but Ill probably screw it up. Be patient. All my life, when I fought, I fought for myself. I never fought for a king, or a cause, except to defend my home. I never respected any man or woman enough to take orders from them. Gabrielle, we won a battle against one of the most powerful nations on earth. And while I was fighting I was fighting for someone, someone I knew I could respect and love. I was your...champion, and it gave me strength. When I knew that they were trying to kill us both, I hated myself for not protecting you. I failed you, gods, I failed! I went off and left you to be butchered by...gods, how could you ever live with my failure? How could I live with that failure? I finally lost all my pride, my arrogance. Do anything you want to me, flog the flesh from my bones, cut out my heart, I didnt care, I deserved whatever you dished out! But I never thought youd do it. When it came down to it, my pride took over, I didnt think I deserved it."
"Xena, dearest love. I have to be two people here. Here, with you, Im your lover, your ki. Over there Im Queen. But its not that simple. Im always in love with you. And Im always Queen. You dont know how much it hurt that you lied to me. And dont say you didnt; an untold truth is a lie. You hurt me, because you didnt respect me. You didnt trust me. You did deserve it, in Amazon law and in my heart. I hated it. I needed that purification. I cried for three days after I hit you. I dont want to remember it. Im glad I didnt leave any scars. And the welts are almost gone. I did it because you should always take the Queen seriously. Never fail to take me seriously again."
"Ive always taken you seriously, Gabrielle. My love."
"Lately, yes. Together, on the road, in bed. Between us. But have you ever really accepted that I am Queen? Xena, it took a while before I could take it seriously. It was thrust at me, but I couldnt duck the responsibility. If you hadnt been dead at the time, I might have found a way out. But having taken it, I have to do it right."
"I guess I havent always acted like it, but I do respect you. Always. Youre...wonderful. Maybe you were right. And I wont ever underestimate you again."
"Xena, Id say this only to you. This whole crisis has depressed me. I wonder what my limits are; I feel so torn. Im fighting a war I know nothing about, and I have no idea how to stop. I know the enemy is Rome, but who is Rome? Caesar? The Senate? Acantha? The gods? My soul is...so...weighed down."
"We should go back on the road. Lifes simpler there."
"I cant. Not while the Roman threat is so close. Id feel like I was running away."
Xena put her arms around Gabrielles. "I know what you mean. Its a nice dream, but youre right, we cant leave now, with two legions breathing down our necks. "
"I wish we could go somewhere far away. Somewhere where Rome isnt. Somewhere where I could find myself."
"Maybe someday. Ill go wherever you go. Whatever you want, Ill do my best to see that you get. But lets take care of our home first."
"Yes, my love?"
"Take me to bed."
Wounds heal with time. Over the moons, Xenas back was smooth again, Gabrielles guilt subsided into a pricking of conscience whenever she was inclined to pull rank. That didnt mean she didnt do it, but she used her authority carefully. Xena, for her part, took everything to the Queen and the Council, accepting her position as their servant. And they loved each other at night, and in the day, and all the moments in between.
A messenger came on a day of dark clouds, beating the first snowfall. He was a runner from the town of Pydna, and his news was important enough to convene the Council. Ephiny reported his information to the assembled counselors and the Queen.
"The legions are gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
"Gone. The camps are empty. The sixteenth, that we fought, and the thirty-third have both pulled out."
"Where did they go?"
"The messenger says theyve left Greece. The Iberian provinces are in rebellion and they were probably called to go there. Rome wont bother us for a while, so it seems."
Xena, said, "My Queen, with your permission Id like to take a party and ride out to confirm it."
"Yes, send someone. But not you. Youre needed here."
"Yes, my Queen."
The reconnaissance confirmed what the messenger had said. There were no Roman legions in the vicinity. In the ensuing days more news reached them of the Iberian revolt, and of other troubles in Gaul and Syria. Caesar had his hands full for the foreseeable future.
"Gabrielle, do you still want to go?"
"Yes, Xena, I want to go. My soul needs a change."
"Then lets go."
"You mean it?"
"Things are safe here for a while. You can hand over the Regency to Ephiny and we can be gone for a time."
"Ill pack. I wont need much. Back on the road again! Its time."
"Where do you want to go?"
"East. Away from Rome. As far east as we can go, maybe."
"Someplace weve never been. I hear that the highest mountains in the world are there somewhere. Id like to see them."
"Whatever Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets."
She kissed her love, and they both felt the dream of freedom pass between them. "I love you."
"And I love you."
"Ill try not to boss you around."
"Not even a little?"
Gabrielle gently nipped Xenas chin.
"Well...maybe a little."
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