THE JOINING

Part 2: THE TEST

By LadyKate

CathyYoung1@cs.com

 

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Ares, Gabrielle, Bellerophon and Argo are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal; the other characters in this story are the author's own. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.

Rated NC-17 for the graphic depiction of consensual sex between a man and a woman. Also contains some graphic violence.

My thanks to Tango and Sais 2 Cool for their very helpful comments on the draft version of this story.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Smith (1963-2002), who so brilliantly brought Ares to life on Xena: Warrior Princess. Farewell, Kevin. In our hearts, Ares will always be immortal.

 

 

 

To thee, my god, Ares, thou terrible one,

To thee, high founder of my house, I call!

Oh! send thy brazen carriage down to me:

Here where the walls of cities and their gates

Crumble at thy advance, destroyer god,

Who tramplest underfoot the crowd-wedged streets;

Oh! send thy brazen carriage down to me.

Heinrich von Kleist, Penthesilea

 

 

"It didn't have to end this way..."

Somehow, of course, it always had to end this way.

The half-mortal son of Artemis -- far more mortal than he had thought -- looked down in shock at the crimson flow from the gash in his belly, and then up again at the dark-haired woman warrior before him.

"Oh yes." Blood bubbled on Bellerophon's lips. "It did."

He staggered and fell backward.

As life faded from his still-open eyes, Xena knelt over the prince's body. She could ignore the sting in her upper arms where he had slashed at her but not the dull ache in her heart. This man had been driven not by greed or power-lust but by revenge for his mother, the goddess she had to kill to protect her own child. And she had offered him every way out, every opportunity to end the cycle of killing...

Now that it was over, the need to focus fully on her adversary and on the fight -- that total focus she had learned from Ares years ago -- was gone, and she could let her surroundings drift back into her consciousness. Everything here seemed so ordinary: the clearing lit up by patches of sun shining through the trees, the sounds and ripe smells of the woods. Everything except for the blood on the grass ... and several men lying dead on the ground.

"Come on -- get up!"

For a second, Xena didn't recognize the voice. Then she whirled around, and felt as if a cold hand had clenched inside her chest: it was Gabrielle, pursuing one of Bellerophon's men. The soldier stumbled and sprawled on the grass. The Amazon bard gave a yell, her face distorted, and raised her sword.

"Gabrielle!"

The scream made Gabrielle stop and turn.

"It's over," Xena said.

An almost puzzled look crossed Gabrielle's face. She glanced down at the cowering man and slowly lowered her sword. Then, a little unsteadily, as though she had to make a conscious decision every time she moved a foot, she walked toward Xena.

"You won," Xena said. If only she could make it sound as if she meant it. The treacherous moisture was welling up in her eyes and threatening to spill over.

Gabrielle shook her head.

"I don't think I did," she said in a small voice. She seemed so much older than just a few days ago, and yet for a moment she looked like a lost child. "With each battle, I lose more of myself..."

Xena's own words from the day before echoed in her ears: "Just doesn't seem like the Gabrielle I know." Not the Gabrielle who, all those years, had been her link to innocence, to the goodness that she wasn't sure she could ever find in herself... This was the warrior who had led her fellow Amazons in a desperate mission to rescue the kidnaped Varia -- who had stormed the beach at the Helicon fortress under a pitiless hail of arrows, leaving behind the wounded who cried for help; rallied her depleted troops for a final battle that she knew many would not survive; thrown a dead comrade's body to the sharks because it was the only way to distract them and save the living. What was there to say now?

"War is tough on the soul, Gabrielle..."

Just then, Xena felt the back of her neck tingle, and almost in the same instant heard the "whoosh" behind her and saw the telltale blue flash. Gabrielle's eyes widened, and there were scattered gasps from the Amazons who were gathering to celebrate their hard-won victory.

Xena clenched her jaw and muttered, the words coming out as a hiss, "Ares... this is not a great time for a date."

Getting no answer, she turned around. The God of War stood motionless, his arms crossed, an absent look on his face. Xena had seen this look before, with just a hint of a not-quite-human glow in the dark eyes; she knew that he was feeling the intoxication of combat, the energy of war that fed his powers. She had accepted the fact that this side of him existed, whether she liked it or not.

But this was different.

Ares was staring at Gabrielle.

He walked toward her, right past Xena. His nostrils flaring, his gaze slid over the blood that spattered Gabrielle's neck and chest, and then rested on her face. He held out his hand.

"Gabrielle... You're feeling it, aren't you..."

The bard flinched back, her eyes terrified and pleading.

"You're a true warrior now..." he continued, his fingers brushing against her cheek. After a brief pause, he said something else; but Xena didn't hear the words, either because his voice had dropped so low or because of the angry pounding in her ears. She walked over to Gabrielle, took her by the shoulders and moved her aside. Then, as hard as she could, she hit Ares in the face.

 

* ~ * ~ *

It had been more than ten months since the day when Xena met Ares at the funeral of a young soldier who had helped him in his mortal days -- since the night when she realized that the God of War now had far too much humanity in him for his own comfort, and when so many years of games and denied longing ended in a moonlit field.

Over that time, they'd settled into a routine that had come to seem almost normal. They rarely made plans; it's not as if she could know in advance when she was going to be busy busting some slavers' heads or defending some village from bandits or rescuing some silly girl from a cult of homicidal maniacs or battling some other breed of evildoer. When they were together, Xena had no idea if she would see him again in two days or in two weeks. Sometimes, she'd call him; usually, she would pick up his presence when she was getting settled in her room at an inn, or when she and Gabrielle were setting up camp or having a meal by the fire or riding along a deserted stretch of road. Often, in a little contest of wills, she waited for Ares to show himself and he'd wait for her to acknowledge him. When Gabrielle was around, she was liable to lose patience first -- having noticed the telltale smile struggling to break out on Xena's lips -- and snap, "All right, Ares, come out already." Finally, he'd flash into view, lounging by a tree or sprawled on the grass, and once perched casually atop Argo. ("Get down, you bastard," Xena snarled and threw a harmless rock which he made a show of ducking; she didn't know for sure if she was genuinely irked or just giving him the reaction he wanted.)

They spent some of their nights at an abandoned fortress in Thrace which he had gone to ridiculous lengths to turn into a romantic hideaway -- plush rugs on the floors, oil lamps adding their golden shimmer to the glow of the hearth, satin and furs and down pillows on the vast bed, trays of fruit and delicacies on ornate tables. The first time he brought her there, Xena had to fight back a burst of laughter and was tempted to tell him he'd forgotten the rose petals, or to ask if he got his decorating tips from Aphrodite. Instead, she said with a low chuckle, "You'll be wearing silk next," only to turn around and see him in a loose, long-sleeved black silk shirt and matching pants; his grin gave way to an open-mouthed gasp when she reached out and rubbed the smooth fabric on his chest. She smiled wickedly and told him that of course she meant white silk, and he bent down to kiss her neck and whispered, "Ooh, you're really pushing it now." As Xena closed her eyes and sighed at his caress, she felt her body being freed from the confining leathers and enveloped in what turned out to be a pale yellow robe. "Ares ... I do believe you're going soft," she purred, knowing he wouldn't miss such an opening for lewd repartee; and indeed, as he carried her to the bed he breathed hotly into her ear, "Not where it matters."

She was adamant about staying away from his temples and his halls on Olympus; she never explained why, and he never asked. So he took her to other places: a tiny island overgrown with dazzlingly lush vegetation; a rugged spot on a seashore, where Xena found herself oddly moved by the sight of a twisted tree reaching toward the sky from the edge of a barren cliff high above the crashing waves; a grotto filled with luminous, gently rippling sea water whose reflections bathed the walls and the low arched ceiling in such magical blue that it literally took her breath away.

That the God of War could appreciate such loveliness was only one of the ways in which he had managed to amaze her in these past months. Once, as they sat by a waterfall on a moonless night, he lifted a hand and Xena watched, rapt, as his finger traced an intricate weave of fiery lines in the darkness, much like the designs with which the Celts decorated their weapons and jewelry. The pattern lingered in the night air, its orange glow lighting up the mist that rose from the waterfall, and she finally said, with genuine wonderment underneath the teasing tone, "I didn't know you were so ... artistic!" -- and he replied, giving her shoulder a light squeeze, "Hang with me for a while and you may find out more things you didn't know."

At times, to be sure, Ares would live up to Gabrielle's jibe about how their romantic evenings would consist of dinner and swordplay, and cajole Xena into giving him a good workout with swords or in hand-to-hand combat. But once, when she ribbed him about caring only for the mindless rough-and-tumble side of warfare, he arched an eyebrow at her and, with a snap of his fingers, produced an exquisitely carved set of chaturanga, the Indian game in which the players maneuvered a small army of pieces on the board with the aim of capturing the opponent's king. During her time in India, Xena had mastered it well enough to rise to the challenge, and it soon became a favorite pastime of theirs, though Ares still couldn't resist a bit of mischief if the game dragged on too long. The pieces would change positions or vanish altogether while he'd give Xena his best mock-innocent look. Once, he managed to throw her completely off-balance, first with shock and then with helpless laughter, when the ivory and ebony figures suddenly came alive -- the knights' tiny horses rearing up, the miniature elephants trudging across the board in violation of all the rules, and Xena's queen gesturing invitingly to Ares' king.

While she couldn't share in his life -- and preferred to think about it as little as possible -- he proved surprisingly willing to share in hers. He would sometimes spend a whole day with Xena and her companion, acting so much like the mortal Ares they remembered that Gabrielle didn't mind much, not even the evening he picked her just-finished scroll as the target for his wit. He'd hang around their campsite, bantering with them, or quietly watching his love as she went about her ordinary tasks. There were times when she could almost forget that he was a god, until they went for a swim and she couldn't help noticing how his hair didn't get wet. He only used his powers once -- when Xena, busy skinning and gutting a couple of rabbits, half-facetiously told him he might as well make himself useful if he was going to be underfoot; he winced and shuddered theatrically, then picked up the rabbits one by one, rolled them between his palms and handed them to her fully roasted. ("Great," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "A walking, breathing grill... every housewife should have one.")

A couple of times, he tagged along when the women passed through a town, and even on trips to the market. On one such occasion, Xena teasingly asked if he was going to help buy food for supper; the War God looked at her, his lips twitching with amusement, then wandered off to one of the stalls and came back to present her with a large, gaudily colored box of candy. He seemed to truly enjoy this slumming, as Xena came to think of it; he attracted attention, of course -- female attention in particular -- but no one would have pegged him for anything more than a very imposing warrior. Maybe, she thought, he was trying to experience what things would have been like if he had been part of her life as a mortal.

He tried joining her in her work, with much less success. Twice, he went with her and Gabrielle in pursuit of marauding gangs that terrorized the countryside; the second time, he stopped in the middle of the fight, slid his sword back in the scabbard and, with a conspicuously bored look, waited for the women to finish up. When a few of the thugs were dead and their surviving comrades were tied up and ready for delivery to the local magistrate, Ares rode up to Xena, saluted her with three sarcastic claps, and informed her that, all in all, he'd much rather watch her gut fish than waste her warrior skills on undeserving swine.

Moments like these reminded her of the gulf between them; yet there were other times when she was equally certain that there was no gulf they couldn't bridge.

So far at least, the fulfilment they found in their encounters seemed only to increase their mutual hunger. There were nights when they gave in to that hunger the moment they were alone, mouths meeting in a bruising kiss, bodies slamming into each other, tongues thrusting and parrying in a quick prelude to an almost animalistic coupling. Or they could draw out their sensual play forever, lying slightly apart and running their fingertips over each other's skin, caressing everywhere but where they craved it most, occasionally letting their lips touch, until it was almost too much to bear. Vaguely, Xena knew -- though she didn't think much about such things -- that, fast or slow, rough or tender, their lovemaking was never just about sex; it was about everything they could rarely, if ever, express in words.

She wondered sometimes if he was happy -- and if she was.

She wondered, too, if she had made the right choice.

She thought about it when, once in a while, ghosts of their run-ins from the old days would come calling. One night in their Thracian love nest, he asked her to put on a dark blue dress with golden buckles and a bodice trimmed with sparkling beads. In that instant, her mind took her to another room, another night many years ago: Ares had whisked her out of a filthy jail cell after he'd framed her for murder, in the first of his schemes to force her to rejoin him, and brought her to some castle to make her his irresistible offer and had her wear a dress much like this one.

The memory sat like a cold heavy lump in her chest. Ares wanted to know what was wrong; when she gave in and told him, he looked down with a scowl and tossed the dress aside, letting it disintegrate in a faint shimmer. "I was the God of War, Xena," he said grimly, lifting his eyes again (it only struck her later that he spoke in the past tense). "I wanted my star employee back on the job." She didn't quite know what to say to that, and couldn't help shivering when Ares put his arms around her and whispered, "I'm glad it didn't work." The ghost still hung around, even when they were in bed later that night making love -- until he suddenly stopped and stared at her, then covered her face with frantic kisses, pressed his cheek to hers and groaned, "I'm sorry, Xena... I'm sorry..."

The past was one thing -- but she had to deal with the present as well, every time a war broke out somewhere and she tried to figure out if Ares has a hand in it. More and more often, too, Xena heard news of Alcibiades of Macedonia, the current protegé of the God of War, who was consolidating his military might with an eye to going up against Rome. At the same time, he was gaining a reputation for cruelty -- toward provinces and towns that did not welcome his idea of Greek unity, men who resisted conscription into his army, and his own soldiers whose performance or obedience was not to his satisfaction. When she raised the subject with Ares, he stared at her heavily and said, "It's war, Xena. You want to do something about this, go ahead."

There was one night, a few weeks before the battle at Helicon, when she had almost made up her mind to leave him.

Having drifted off to sleep in the afterglow of gratified passion, Xena was jolted awake by a dream that had something to do with battles, and thought at first that she was still dreaming -- she could hear the distant sounds of war cries, neighing horses, and clashing metal. Next to her, Ares was sitting up, his eyes fixed on something that cast a faint flickering light on his face.

She looked up and stared in disbelief. Before her was something like a window that had opened up in the air; a window in which, she realized, Ares watched a scene unfolding somewhere at that very moment. A city was under attack: In the unnatural light of torches and burning projectiles launched from catapults, soldiers in crimson and gold uniforms climbed up giant wooden towers that had been wheeled up to the city walls, then leaped over the battlements and slid down on ropes while archers on the towers' top platforms gave them cover. The men on the other side were doing a fairly good job of holding back the assault when a terrified voice cut through the din of the fight, screaming, "The gates! They're at the gates!" The vision became blurred, and then shifted into an image of the city gates swinging wide open. A few dead bodies lay nearby, next to a blazing barrack. So the big offensive was merely a diversion -- allowing scouts from the attacking army to get inside the walls, take the guards by surprise, and open the gates.

Soldiers were streaming into the city now; at the head of the troops rode a tall warrior with blond locks falling from under a plumed helmet, quite handsome except for the unpleasantly thin, straight line of his mouth. Xena remembered the descriptions she'd heard: it was Alcibiades.

Just over a hundred of the city's defenders came galloping toward the gates, and their leader, a burly man with a grizzled beard, charged Alcibiades. He was a skilled fighter despite his age, but he and his vastly outnumbered men were merely delaying the inevitable. Within minutes, Alcibiades knocked his opponent's helmet off, evaded a last desperate blow and, with a harsh yell, split open his skull. As the older warrior swayed and crumpled to the ground, his remaining soldiers dropped their weapons. The Macedonian king thrust his sword toward the sky, in a sharp yet strangely graceful gesture; his cry of triumph was echoed by thousands of voices, and a forest of blades shot up in the air. It was hard to tell whether it was blood or fire that made the metal look red.

Xena looked at Ares, and felt her skin crawl. His lips were parted in a bright, feral half-smile; his eyes were sparkling. It was sickening to think that just a few hours earlier she had been making love to him, kissing those lips, staring into those eyes. But there was something even worse: she knew that part of her wanted the War God the way he was now -- and that she herself had been riveted by those images, had felt the drunkenness of battle and the exhilaration of victory. Whatever had possessed her to think that she could resist the darkness in him when she still had so much of it in her own soul? She had to get away from him, or she would lose herself; she had never been more certain of anything in her life.

Then she saw Ares flinch. It was as if a cold blast had hit him in the face, wiping off that horrifying smile, making his mouth tighten and his eyelids droop. She looked into the portal. One of Alcibiades' soldiers was crouched on the ground, clutching at his stomach and failing to stop the blood that gushed through his fingers and over his hands; his eyes were big and almost surprised, his mouth frozen in a silent howl.

With a ragged sigh, Ares moved his hand, obviously about to close the portal. Xena put her hand on top of his and he turned with a start, as if he'd just remembered that she was there. She saw the hurt in his eyes and remembered how he shouted that night in the field, "Dammit, I'm not supposed to feel this way!"

"Ares.." she said softly. "The people in the middle of all this ... they can't shut it off."

He clamped his lips together and sank back on the pillow.

Meanwhile, two men had come up to help their wounded comrade; when they tried to move him, he jerked wildly, with a hoarse shriek that was barely human. They finally managed to lift him up, using a cloak as an improvised stretcher, and carry him off. One of the soldiers shook his head and said, "He's done for."

The image faded slowly. In the dim light of the small fire in the hearth, Ares stared at Xena and gave a resigned little shrug; almost imperceptibly, the corner of his mouth twitched and his eyelashes quivered. Then he pulled her toward him in a tight hug, and she held him and didn't want to ever let him go.

And still she was scared. That was partly why, in this showdown with Bellerophon, she had tried so hard to resolve things peacefully, had even considered sacrificing herself to let Artemis' son satisfy his vengeance if he would leave the Amazons alone (though she had a strong hunch that Ares, whose offer of help in the matter she had firmly rejected, wasn't about to let that happen). Sure, the spirit of War would always be in her, and without it, she wouldn't be able to fight for any good cause; it was useless to pretend otherwise. But could she trust herself to keep that part of her under control, in its place? Perhaps she had never been fully confident of that -- and now that she was with Ares...

Except that sometimes when they were together, she saw something in his face, his eyes, his smile that she never thought she'd see in the God of War: pure happiness, untainted by malevolence or cruelty or cynical glee. And sometimes in those moments, she felt the same clean joy within herself, and knew almost beyond doubt that what they had was good and right.

 

* ~ * ~ *

Ares reeled from the impact of her blow. Xena found herself grimly hoping it hurt, and wishing she still had the power to make him bleed.

He rubbed his face and blinked, slightly dazed.

"Get away from her," Xena said in a low voice that teetered on the brink of a scream. "Get away."

He looked at Gabrielle and then back at Xena, and dissolved in a blue flare without another word. The Amazons let out a collective breath.

Xena turned to Gabrielle and put a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes were filling up with tears again.

"Gabrielle ... I'm sorry. I should never have let that happen."

The young woman was about to say something when one of the Amazon leaders called out, "Queen Gabrielle!"

"Your people need you." Xena turned away, struggling to get a grip on herself, torn between pride and agony as Gabrielle walked over to the remnants of her troops, locked forearms with Queen Varia in the traditional Amazon salute, and said steadily, "To a strong Amazon nation."

The other women repeated the pledge in hushed tones, and the Warrior Princess whispered it too. The Amazons, she thought wistfully, would never accept her as one of them, and that would always be something of a barrier between her and Gabrielle -- but at least her dear friend had a community of her own, even if she herself did not, and for that Xena was grateful.

She wondered if her display had tipped off any of the Amazons to her special relationship with the God of War. Well, let them gossip, she thought; it was over anyway ... wasn't it? She could never forgive herself if the son of a bitch sank his hooks into Gabrielle. It had to end.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

Dusk was creeping through the grove outside the Amazon village, wrapping the leaves in a soft veil of grey. Xena walked briskly, sweeping aside the branches that got in her way, until she stopped at the edge of a field and took a deep breath.

At the Amazons' request, Gabrielle had taken them back to their lands and agreed to stay for a week or so. After the devastating battle at Helicon, they needed the leader who had been with them through that ordeal. Now she was occupied with the tribe's business, and while Xena had things to do as well -- helping care for the wounded who had made it home, training young warriors to replace the fallen -- she couldn't shake the feeling that she was just tagging along. It had been only two days since their return, and already she was getting restless. Dimly, she knew that it wasn't just because she was stuck on the sidelines.

Xena looked around and shivered. This was this field where, nearly a year ago, she had confronted Ares after learning that Varia, the woman seeking her daughter's death, was his protegee; this was where he had laid his hand on her, making her sway with pleasure as the heat of his newly regained godly power spread through her body, and then told her that fable about the scorpion and the swan. The scorpion would always sting because that was what it did. And yet a short while later, she saw something different in him, something better. Had she been wrong? Maybe ... maybe not ... either way, he was bad for her, he was dangerous...

... and he was here.

She turned to see him lounging by a tree in a pose of studied nonchalance, arms crossed, head cocked, eying her with a smile that managed to be disarmingly boyish and lascivious at the same time.

"Come here often?"

Xena gave him a chilly look. "Last time I did, you were trying to get my daughter killed."

That slapped the smile off his face. Ares eyed her guardedly, and finally said, "Well. I guess this is not a good time."

She took a deep breath; best to do this quickly. "There's not going to be a good time, Ares. Not again."

"What are you talking about?"

"It's over."

In the silence that fell between them, she was very aware of the breeze rustling through the leaves and the tall grass, and the chirping of oblivious birds overhead.

Then he asked, "Why?"

"Because ... it's wrong, Ares. Wrong for me and wrong -- " she looked away -- "for Gabrielle."

"What are you talking about?"

In spite of her best efforts, her voice was shaking. "I'm talking about you messing with Gabrielle."

"Messing?" His eyebrows went up. "Have you lost your mind? What, you think that I was -- "

"This is worse," she said through clenched teeth. "Sniffing at the blood of slain men on her -- "

Ares straightened his shoulders, his face suddenly cold and unreachable. "You know what I am, Xena. When warriors get drunk on battle, I feel it with them, and what I get from that is -- " His voice rose and his jaw trembled a little, the mask slipping. "It's something you'll never understand! If you didn't want me to be like that, you should have -- " he trailed off abruptly.

"So maybe it's not your fault." Xena stood before him stiff-backed, her eyes lowered. "I'm not blaming you. I just can't be with you anymore, Ares. I've been willing to accept this side of you... maybe too willing," she whispered, almost as an aside to herself. "I never thought it would touch Gabrielle."

"Dammit, Xena -- "

He sounded more angry than hurt, and that made it easier. "Good-bye, Ares."

"Good-bye? Just like that?"

She finally forced herself to raise her eyes -- he was scowling, his mouth tight -- and allowed her voice to soften. "We've had some great times together and I -- I'm glad we did." She paused and added, looking away again, "I will miss you."

He didn't try to follow her as she walked off.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

The council meeting was over, and Gabrielle made her way back to the cabin she and Xena shared for the duration of their stay with the Amazons. In the clear, moonless night, there were only a few fluttering torches to light the streets of the village, but it was enough for her to see the shields trimmed with black bands on the doors of those cabins where one of the dwellers had fallen in the battle at Helicon.

She thought of the subtle change in the way the other queens and princesses treated her now: more respectful than before, even deferential, but also more distant. It wasn't surprising; she had led them to victory, but at what cost? The memories pushed their way into her head, as they had so often over these past days. The relentless fire of the catapults ... "We're going to die! We're all going to die!" ... Telling the women that the way to honor their dead was to fight on so the deaths would not be in vain ... "More of us may die today" ... The anguish on Xena's face... "Gabrielle, I can see that you're in pain." -- "Half of my tribe lies dead on the beach. Now, I have to be as cold and ruthless as I can be." ... The moment when she nearly struck down the enemy soldier at her feet, and was stopped only by Xena's cry ... And then Ares staring at her -- Ares as she'd never seen him before, with eyes like embers, with that strange look on his face, totally focused on her and yet far away.

She had felt pure terror at that moment. Perhaps it was because, in a way, she'd gotten so used to Ares. Sure, she still found it hard to understand Xena's relationship with the God of War; his intrusions often irked her, and she hated to admit it but she felt resentful -- jealous -- when Xena went off with him. Yet she had also come to feel almost comfortable around him, almost to like him ... almost to forget who he was. When she faced him in that clearing after the battle with Bellerophon, she knew she was truly looking in the face of War -- far more inhuman than Ares had been when he killed Eli, then tried to lure her into his fold, and then nearly killed her. But what frightened her even more was that Ares, this Ares, was drawn to something in her. "You're feeling it, aren't you... You're a true warrior now..."

The Amazon bard stopped, breathing deeply. She had been a warrior for a long time now, hadn't she? Ever since she went on a rampage in the prison yard at Mount Amaro, killing those Roman soldiers in a blind rage ... and there had been so many battles after that -- when she and Xena fought the temple warriors after Eve's birth, when they faced Athena's army at Amphipolis... Except that this time, she hadn't just shed enemy blood but sent her own sisters to die. Don't leave us... She hunched her shoulders and walked on. Was that what it was all about, being a true warrior? Or was there something else, something she had felt on that day that she'd never felt before -- not just rage, not just ferocious determination to protect Xena and herself and those she loved at all cost, but a kind of ... thrill? Had she enjoyed it?

Gabrielle pushed open the door of the cabin. Xena sat on a low bench mending a rip in one of her boots, lips pursed in concentration, tugging much too hard on the needle and thread.

"Hey," she said. "How was the evening?"

"It was long." The attempt at lightheartedness fell flat, and Gabrielle sighed and sat down to take her boots off. "Just finished discussing who will take in which of the --" she was going to say "orphans," but stumbled and finished a bit awkwardly -- "children." She put away her sais. "Oh, and Xena, Cyane thinks some of the girls you're training are too young..."

"Let's see what Cyane says" -- Xena gave the needle another yank -- "the next time they need fighters." Then she lifted her eyes, and Gabrielle felt a tug at her heart when she saw the pain in them. "Gabrielle ... I'm sorry."

"What about?"

Xena was silent for a moment. "That business with Ares."

"Xena -- it's not your fault," she said, too hastily.

"Maybe it isn't." Xena turned away. "Maybe it is. He's not going to be around anymore, Gabrielle. Not if I can help it."

"What are you saying?"

"I told him it's over."

Gabrielle gave her a questioning look. "Because of me?"

"Maybe you were right all along, Gabrielle. Maybe it should have never started. He's still everything I've spent all these years trying to put behind me." Her voice dropped to a near-whisper, her eyelids fluttering. "I almost forgot about that ... and what happened out there was a reminder." Xena rose abruptly, walked over to Gabrielle and knelt by her side, taking her hands. "You were a reminder. I'll never let it get to you. And I'll never let anything -- anyone -- get between us ... I promised you that."

Gabrielle touched her face.

"Xena -- " She faltered, her eyes darting away momentarily. After a pause, Xena asked, "What?"

"Everything will be all right."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

They had slept late; when Gabrielle got off her cot, light was already streaming in through the small window and slanting across the cabin, tiny specks of dust dancing and swirling inside the sunbeam. At the sound of her moving around, Xena opened her eyes and stretched.

"'Morning." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the sun, then turned -- and stifled a gasp. "Xena... I think we, uh, you had a visitor..."

Xena sat up abruptly, and Gabrielle could see, with resignation and without much surprise, the flash of joy in her face before it turned to a glare of icy disapproval. There was a purple flower lying on the coarse brownish blanket.

Gabrielle came closer and sat on the bed as Xena picked up the flower. It was big enough to cover her hand, its large, dark, fuzzy outer petals curling downward, the tender folds in the center opening up to reveal the deep velvety core with a pinkish little stem. Looking closer, the bard noticed that the purple was shot through with a delicate spider web of gold. Was this a piece of exotic earthly flora, she wondered, or a marvel conjured up by Aphrodite in some Olympian version of a hothouse? Had Ares actually picked it out? She tried to imagine such a scene, but her imagination failed, and she couldn't help giggling.

Then she saw Xena fingers clench around the flower -- about, she realized, to rip it to shreds. Before she could even think, her hand flew protectively toward it and she blurted out, "Xena -- don't! ... it's beautiful..."

Xena's lips twitched into an unhappy smirk. "Then why don't you take it."

Gabrielle twirled the flower in her hands, then put it down on the pillow. She sighed and fidgeted, looking down, and finally said, "Xena..."

"Yeah?"

"I need to tell you something."

"Something about Ares?" Xena jerked her head up and their eyes met.

"Did you hear what he said to me ... back there?"

"What, about being a true warrior? Oh, Gabrielle ... don't tell me you're flattered..."

She felt herself blushing. "No, after that."

Xena stared at her uneasily, waiting.

"He said, 'And it's killing you inside.'"

There was a pause as her words seemed to hang in the air between them. Xena didn't move a muscle but her pupils seemed to widen slightly.

"And Xena -- he looked ... different. Like he was feeling bad for me. Like -- all of a sudden, there was something human about him again."

With a barely visible nod, Xena touched the flower on the bed.

"Thank you, Gabrielle."

Later, when Gabrielle was helping Xena buckle her armor, she said, "Xena, if you never saw him again, you know that I wouldn't be crying. But -- I just thought I had to tell you this."

Xena turned and held her in a tight, tense hug.

"I'm glad you did," she said quietly. She stood still for a moment, then went back to the bed and picked up the purple flower, stroking the petals with her fingertips -- suddenly giving Gabrielle a strangely mischievous, almost guilty look before she slipped Ares' gift inside her breastplate. Gabrielle sighed, and finally worked up the nerve to ask, "Will you be ... here when I'm back?"

Very quietly, she said, "I don't know, Gabrielle."

Well, that answered the question.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

She knew he was watching her the whole time while she was training the young Amazons; walking back to the cabin in the gentle light of the setting sun, she had no doubt she would find him there.

As she threw down her sword, she heard the swoosh behind her and then felt his hands on her shoulders, the soft heat seeping into her sore muscles -- damn, it was good. He nuzzled the nape of her neck, and Xena couldn't help leaning back into him.

"So..." he murmured. "My ditzy sister is right -- flowers do work."

His low, sensuous voice sent warm vibrations through her body but she managed to pull away a little and turned around, smirking. "Well, actually, I expected a different kind of gift from you..." He gave her a quizzical look. "Like a severed head or something."

The God of War grinned. "A lovely thought. But much too messy." His eyes twinkled. "So, are we on again? Or ... do you want me to get down on my knees and beg forgiveness?" He knelt on the bearskin on the floor, his hands sliding down to her hips, and when his lips touched the skin above the rim of her boot she knew what sort of apology he had in mind.

"Ares..." She made an effort to shut out the effect of his wet kisses traveling up her thigh. "Don't -- I need to talk to you about ... something..."

"So talk." His voice was muffled. "I can listen."

"Mmm... You are ... such an arrogant ... bastard..." Xena closed her eyes, leaning on his shoulders.

"Yeah," she heard him mutter, "but I'm so good at everything I do." Her laugh broke off when she felt his breath between her legs and then his mouth, nibbling at her through the soaked fabric of her undergarment, making her squirm. There was no point in trying to fight this; she would only give him the satisfaction of defeating her. "Take it off," she said in a harsh half-whisper. His fingers jerked at the laces on her hip before he ripped the linen cloth in half and licked her almost roughly. Her knees were buckling. He could draw this out for what seemed like hours sometimes, but now she could sense his impatience as he swirled his tongue around her nub and sucked it hard -- it felt good, so good that for a moment nothing else mattered, and in just a few seconds she came in a violent spasm.

She sank into his arms and lay panting, shuddering with small aftershocks of pleasure. He kissed her neck, reaching for the straps of her armor.

"No god tricks?" He did his best to give his tone a droll touch.

"No god tricks." She opened her eyes and sighed while he undid the buckles, letting her breastplate drop on the fur-covered floor. The flower fell out too; Ares took it, shook his head and flashed a knowing grin at Xena, brushing his lips against the soft petals before tossing it aside and moving down to take off her boots.

"I've missed you," he said huskily.

Xena chuckled and sat up, reaching to touch the buckle on his belt, and then watched him swallow convulsively as she moved her hand lower.

"So I see."

"Gods ..." He gasped. "Look what you do to me..."

"Me and anything that moves," she said lightly, leaning forward to kiss him -- his mouth still tasting of her, his beard and mustache moist and marked with her scent -- while she worked at the fastenings of his pants. When she broke the kiss, he dropped his head on her shoulder, breathing in shallow, irregular puffs.

"I'm afraid that ... right now I'm ... all out of snappy comebacks," he said through clenched teeth.

She managed to pull the leather down over his hips and he helped her, kicking the pants away along with the boots. She wanted to touch him, to revel in the feel of him, but he was already pushing her down on the rug, his mouth claiming hers in a greedy kiss. "I want you now," he said, his voice thick, and she raised her hips to meet him as he thrust into her. It didn't even matter if she came this time; the pleasure she felt now was different -- not a rising tension that demanded release, but a steady warmth -- the pleasure of his arms around her and his weight on top of her, of being filled by him, of seeing his face like this with his eyes blurry and his mouth loose, of the sounds he made. "I've missed you," he said again, moving faster, slamming his hips into her, his every breath an almost agonized groan. She ran her hands down his back, and he shuddered wildly and shouted her name and then lay still, sliding down to nestle his head between her breasts. Xena held him, stroking his soft hair, and mouthed soundlessly, I've missed you too.

Aloud, she said with a sigh, "Let's go somewhere else."

 

* ~ * ~ *

Some time later, having just made love again, they were lolling about on their spacious bed in the Thracian fortress. Xena reclined on her side, an ornate silver tray in front of her, eating venison roasted with exotic fruit; Ares watched her, sipping his wine. After a while, he reached over, ran his hand up the side of her leg and started stroking her inner thigh.

She shot him a wry glance. "I'm not done yet."

"Neither am I," he said, bending forward to kiss her shoulder.

"Do you ever get tired?"

"I'll let you know if I ever do."

"I would have thought you'd be tired of me by now," she said, knowing she wasn't being entirely playful.

"You're good for another week or two."

Then he leaned back, stared down into his goblet and was silent for a while. When he spoke again, all the levity was gone from his voice.

"Xena -- "

"What?" she asked warily.

"I -- " Ares tapped on the side of the goblet. "I -- " He finally looked up at her, chewing his lip. "I don't want you to -- to -- leave me."

The subject had come up before, a few months earlier, when he'd tried to get her to go back for one of Odin's golden apples.

"Ares, I..." Her throat clenched with painful tenderness. "I don't -- I can't ..."

He scowled, lowering his eyes again, and said quietly, "If you love me..."

"'If you love me, you'll do it?' I think you just gave a whole new meaning to that line." Done with her meal, she moved the tray aside and he waved his hand at it, sending it away. She slid over to him and touched his face. "I can't become a goddess, Ares ... I wouldn't be me anymore."

He pulled her into a frenzied kiss, as if it were their last, and then abruptly pushed her off.

"Do you know what that means for me, Xena? Imagine if you loved a man and -- you waited for years -- and then you were finally together -- and you found out that he would die in a week. That's what the rest of your life is to me when I've got eternity before me..."

"They say that we all come back," she said slowly.

"So I'm supposed to spend eternity tracking you down when you are reborn, and praying to who knows what powers that I can bring back your memories of ... us." He fell silent, reaching up toward her but not quite touching her.

"Ares." She ran her fingers through the dark soft hair on his chest. "I'm not dying yet... can't we just, for now -- make the best of it?"

There was another silence, and then he asked, "Do you love me?"

She had never said it to him. Now, she opened her mouth -- but ... Maybe she didn't love him. Or maybe saying it would be a final surrender, a surrender that she couldn't allow herself with the God of War. She could still fall back on flippancy; in that, they were alike.

"I sleep with you, don't I?" She gave him a lopsided little grin and kissed him. He moved to embrace her, his breath quickening, but she held his arms down.

"No," she whispered, "let me pleasure you."

With a sigh, Ares lay back. Xena circled her tongue around a hardening nipple and teased it with gentle bites, rolling the other one between her fingers before she moved her mouth over it. As always, she savored the slightly tangy taste of him, the heat of skin, his response to her -- soon, he was gasping and lifting his hips, trying to rub against her -- but this time some part of her remained aloof from her senses, still too mindful of the conversation they'd just had, and of the one she had been putting off.

Slowly, she kissed her way down his chest and his flat belly, and then pressed her lips to the moist tip of his cock. As he cried out hoarsely, Xena wondered if he had other women. She realized that she didn't like to imagine anyone else seeing him like this, so out of control, so lost to pleasure ... so beautiful. Did that mean she really ... ?

Brushing the thought aside, she bent her head down, flicking her tongue along his shaft a few times before taking him in her mouth. She hoped that by now she had gotten his mind off the subject of her mortality; but then he murmured, running his hand through her hair, "Xena... I don't want to lose you... ever..."

That painful tenderness was tugging at her again, tightening inside her chest. At least this time, she didn't have to say anything -- and at least, in the next few minutes, Ares wasn't very articulate.

Afterwards, Xena slid up and lay in his arms for a while, both of them silent. Finally, she disengaged herself and sat near the edge of the bed, wrapping herself in a crimson sheet, hugging her knees.

"Ares... You have to promise me something."

"What?"

"Leave Gabrielle alone. Flowers won't do it next time."

"I'm not doing anything to Gabrielle and you know it."

"You tried to recruit her before."

The God of War rolled his eyes. "Don't you know that was mostly to get to you?" He paused and added, "Though I have to admit, the Battling Bard has surpassed my expectations."

"Ares." Her voice was as chilly and hard as the look in her eyes. "She doesn't belong to you."

"She doesn't serve me directly. But she's a warrior, Xena."

And it's killing you inside... Xena shivered and wrapped the sheet tighter around herself, lowering her eyes.

"She wasn't meant for this," she said, speaking more to herself than to Ares. "She wasn't meant to -- to kill..."

He sat up.

"Well, if you're looking for someone to blame, don't look at me."

"You mean it's my fault," she said in a small, hollow voice -- suddenly scared, not defiant. "I turned her into a killer."

He shrugged. "You pulled her into your world."

"I tried to protect her..."

"Did you really?" There was a faint touch of sarcasm in his tone. "You were too stubborn to accept my help when she went up against Bellerophon's army."

It was true, Xena thought. She closed her eyes, gripped by a quiet panic, as if something horrible were creeping up on her and she couldn't get away. Gabrielle was the purest thing in her life, the friend who was always there, the soulmate who had helped her stay the course as she sought atonement for her dark past -- and, by and by, her own darkness had caught up with Gabrielle.

She felt Ares' fingers brush her face, and put her hand over his.

"Take me back," she said. "Please." She noticed his nervous look and moved closer to kiss him. "I'll see you soon, Ares. I just ... need to go back right now."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

"You know the funny thing about being high up in the mountains like this?"

"Hmm ..." Xena grinned wryly. "The way down is as much of a pain in the ass as the way up?'

The women had been riding at a slow trot along a mountain path since dawn. The sun stood high in the bright cloudless sky, glittering in the treetops on the mountainside, flooding the valley below.

"Everything is so small from up here. The trees, the houses ... they look like I could just pick them up and put them in my saddlebag..."

"You're such a pack rat."

"And when you see people, they're like tiny dolls in a toy box ... but there they are, going about their lives."

"That sounds like the start of a new scroll." Xena glanced at Gabrielle, warmth twinkling in her eyes.

"Maybe." Gabrielle laughed. "Just think, the people down there won't even know they inspired a scroll."

"Well, maybe some of them will read it," Xena said.

"Hey -- maybe even you will."

A new scroll... Gabrielle remembered how she had tried to write down the story of their battle with Bellerophon, only to find that she couldn't finish it. She didn't feel like laughing anymore.

They rode on in silence. A few minutes later, Xena brought Argo to an abrupt halt and signaled to Gabrielle to stop.

"Gabrielle -- do you hear that?"

"Um ... maybe," said Gabrielle. "If you tell me what it is I'm supposed to hear."

"I think some little soldiers in that toy box are having a fight."

Xena's face was drawn into a mask of intense focus.

Gabrielle listened, but all she could hear was the soft rustling of leaves in the breeze.

"You think that's Cylon's and Prusias' army down there?"

"Could be." Xena released the reins and gave Argo a light kick. "Come on, let's go a little further."

More than two months since leaving Amazon lands, Xena and Gabrielle were on their latest mission in Thessaly, not far from the Peneus river. Two powerful warlords, Cylon and Prusias, were rumored to have joined forces in the region; they needed to figure out what the warlords were up to, and just how urgent it was to stop them.

Now Gabrielle heard the sounds too, coming from below -- still distant, but indeed the unmistakable noise of a battle: the shrill whinnying of horses, the grunts and shouts of men, the clanging of swords and spears and shields. And then, looking down, she saw the two armies battling face to face. From this height, they did look almost like toy soldiers, except that they swarmed and clashed with a fury that was all too real.

"All right," Xena whispered. "Let's move lower so we can get a better view."

Slowly, cautiously, they made their way down a winding path through the evergreens. Xena pointed silently to a ledge that made a good viewing spot, close enough to see the faces of the combatants.

"Over there." Gabrielle pointed to a stocky, broad-shouldered, red-bearded man galloping through the battlefield and waving his sword, his face distorted with rage. "That looks like Prusias. Didn't they say he has a shield with a golden dragon on it?" She covered her eyes from the sun, peering down, and then gave her companion a puzzled glance. "Xena, do you think they're fighting each other?"

"No," Xena said. "Take a good look, Gabrielle. One of these armies isn't just a warlord's army. The uniforms."

Everywhere on the battlefield, men in a motley assortment of outfits were fighting soldiers in crimson and gold. Turning back to Xena, Gabrielle was startled by the expression on her face: her jaw rigid, her lips pressed to a thin line, her eyes veiled. She looked bitter and resigned, as though she had just seen something she had both dreaded and expected.

"Xena... what is it?"

"Alcibiades."

She spat out the name, making it sound like some particularly offensive curse.

Gabrielle gasped. "The army of Ares!"

Xena tossed her head, as if trying to shake off unwanted thoughts.

"Well, now we know one thing -- why Prusias and Cylon pooled their armies," she said. "They'd heard that Alcibiades was headed here. I bet they're trying to stop him from reaching the river crossing."

"Is that really Alcibiades' army? It doesn't look very large."

"He probably didn't think he'd need his full forces to take the valley."

Gabrielle shivered, struck by another thought. "Xena -- do you think he's here?"

The Warrior Princess gave her a chilly look. "If he is, he's not close enough for me to sense him. And anyway" -- she chuckled unhappily -- "if he's here, he won't even notice me ... us."

They looked down again. Whether it was Ares' favor or superior skill, the luck of the battle clearly seemed to be with Alcibiades' men, who were pushing the warlords' army further and further back. Then, Gabrielle noticed some strange movement in the grove on the other side of the battlefield, and gave Xena a quick nudge; but Xena had seen it, too. The lush greenery quivered and billowed, and dozens -- no, hundreds of warriors streamed out and charged the flank of Alcibiades' army, like a dark wedge slashing into a crimson and gold spread. Taken by surprise, seeing their comrades fall next to them, the soldiers on that flank were visibly panicking -- and finally, some of them faltered and ran, getting others caught up in the stampede. Cylon's and Prusias' men, who had been obviously waiting for the ambush, took advantage of the moment to throw themselves into the fight with renewed vigor and push back Alcibiades' troops.

"There he is," Xena said quietly, putting a hand on Gabrielle's arm. For a second, Gabrielle thought she meant Ares, but Xena pointed toward a tall blond warrior in gleaming armor, with a plumed helmet -- Alcibiades, of course, trying to steady his horse and control his troops at the same time. The warlords continued their charge. About a minute later, confusion all around him, Alcibiades grabbed a crossbow from his saddle and shot an arrow in the air. It flew high, trailing two long ribbons attached to its shaft -- one black, one scarlet.

"A signal to retreat?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

Seconds later, she felt Xena's grip tighten on her arm, and heard her sharp intake of breath. One of the fleeing soldiers swayed and fell, clutching his side; then the one next to him went down, and still another. The arrows that struck them down came from a group of crimson-and-gold-clad archers on horseback at the top of a hillock. Gabrielle watched as they took aim and shot again; it took nearly a half-minute before the full meaning of what was happening sank in and she felt cold, then numb. "His own men..." she whispered. "He's ordered his archers to shoot his own men if they run..."

An absurd thought flashed dimly through her mind: If only it wasn't so sunny. The sun had no business shining on such things. A day like this had no business being so beautiful.

The retreat had come to an abrupt halt, some soldiers tumbling down when those further behind failed to stop quickly enough and slammed into the ones in front. There was another hail of arrows, deliberately aimed, it seemed, to fall just short of their target -- not injuring anyone this time but flying close enough to make a point. With no way out, the men were turning around, perhaps preferring to die at the enemy's hands than to be killed by their own.

Gabrielle finally took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Xena's face was full of such pure revulsion and fury that it troubled the bard almost as much as the scene unfolding below.

"Let's go, Gabrielle," she said in a quietly seething voice.

The momentum of the battle seemed to be shifting back in Alcibiades' favor; his warriors, whether driven by loyalty or desperation or both, were on the offensive again. But Xena clearly had no intention of staying to watch this through to the end.

As the women got back to the path and resumed their journey, they could still hear the fading sounds of the fighting below.

By sundown, when they arrived in the town of Perati down in the valley, the battle was the talk of the streets and the inn. Alcibiades had carried the day after all, though not without heavy losses. Prusias was dead and Cylon had bought his life by agreeing to serve Alcibiades, as did the warlords' surviving men. The victorious army had made camp less than two miles away from the town.

* ~ * ~ *

 

"Do you want to move on?" Gabrielle asked, sipping her cider.

"Huh?" Lost in thought, Xena had barely touched the rather bony half of a roasted chicken she had ordered for lunch.

"I was thinking there's no real reason for us to stay here. I mean ... nothing left to find out about Prusias and Cylon, right? Unless, of course, you consider the food around here a major attraction." She dipped a piece of bread in the greasy stew and took a bite.

"No," Xena said. "I consider Alcibiades a major attraction." She caught Gabrielle's scandalized look and chuckled. "Not like that, Gabrielle. Let's hang around for a day or two."

Her tone made Gabrielle wonder if she had a plan of some sort. She was about to ask, when the doors groaned and clattered, and a group of men in crimson and gold uniforms walked in.

The hum of conversation in the dining room died almost immediately as everyone -- the middle-aged mom-and-pop innkeepers, the patrons, the serving girls -- turned to look at them. Even in the half-darkness, Gabrielle could tell that these victorious warriors were not in a mood to celebrate; their faces were either expressionless or grim, and one, a russet-haired young man with a line of caked blood across the bridge of his nose, looked both absent and dejected.

"Any decent food in this establishment?" one soldier asked gruffly.

"And wine. The strongest you got," added another.

The mistress of the inn waddled toward them and hurriedly led them to a corner table. As they sat down noisily, eyes turned away and the ordinary sounds of the inn picked up again.

The two women resumed their meal without saying another word. Xena's face was blank, her body visibly tense.

"Dammit!" The voice from the corner table rose above the general din, causing another awkward if brief silence -- broken by a crash that sounded like a mug being slammed down. Gabrielle turned furtively and saw that the speaker was the russet-haired soldier whose downcast look she had noticed before. "I can't believe he's gonna do this!"

The others spoke to him quietly, evidently telling him to pipe down. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other; then, the Warrior Princess slowly rose and walked to the soldiers' table. Gabrielle followed, suspecting this wasn't going to be friendly.

"Hey." Xena stood behind the man who had raised his voice. He turned and looked at her indifferently. He was no more than twenty, and seeing him up close, Gabrielle was struck by the misery in his face and his eyes.

"What do you want?"

"What is Alcibiades going to do?" Xena asked.

He turned away and gulped down some ale.

"Come on," she said gently. "Tell me. What's going on?"

"Get lost, lady," said another soldier, a strapping man with dark, greasy curly hair. "Curiosity killed the cat."

"Yeah, well, I've got nine lives," she drawled, her lip curved in a well-practiced sneer. "Besides, stubbornness killed the ass."

The man rose, leaning on his brawny arms, and glowered at her.

"Who do you think you are, bitch?"

In the silence that fell over the dining room, somebody's spoon clanged jarringly on the side of a bowl.

"Someone who doesn't like her time wasted," Xena snapped. (Here we go, thought Gabrielle.) In the flash of a second, her hands flew up, and the man was wheezing and clutching convulsively at his throat.

"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain -- if you've got one. You'll be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell me -- "

"He's going to have my brother beheaded," the younger man blurted out.

Xena whipped around, her eyes boring into him. Then, she turned back and jammed her fingers into the other soldier's neck. He took frantic, shuddering breaths, glancing at her with a mix of fear and hate and rubbing his throat.

"Whoever you are, you got some nerve," said another one of their comrades, starting to rise from the bench. The man next to him, somewhat older than the rest, grabbed his arm and nodded toward the chakram on Xena's hip.

"Man, that's Xena," he said in a half-whisper.

"Who?"

"Xena, the Warrior Princess, you dolt."

Xena ignored the men's stares -- awestruck, hostile, or both -- and spoke to the young soldier.

"What did your brother do?"

He turned away, pursing his lips. Gabrielle took a step toward him and touched his shoulder. He flinched and looked up.

"Maybe we could help," she said. "What's your name?"

"Dion... My brother's Melesias." He took another gulp from his ale mug and sighed. "In the battle we fought yesterday, there were some men who ran..." His voice trembled and broke off.

"Three of them are to be executed, as an example to the others," cut in the older man who had recognized Xena. "Tomorrow at noon."

"He didn't even run," Dion said in a hoarse whisper. "I saw it. I swear..."

"That's Alcibiades," grunted the man Xena had put the pinch on, his voice still raspy. "Off with your head first, ask questions later. Can't expect him to bother with the details."

Xena was already striding toward the door. Gabrielle nodded to the soldiers and dashed after her.

"Xena -- ?"

She turned around, her face hard with determination.

"Wait for me back here, Gabrielle. There's something I need to do." She took another step toward the door, then stopped and looked at the stunned proprietor. "Does this town have a temple of Ares?"

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

The temple, on the edge of town, turned out to be a small, neglected shrine -- crumbling steps, cobwebs in the low doorway, thick dust everywhere, dry leaves and bits of plaster and ceramic strewn all over the floor and the altar. As she breathed in the musty air and felt the dankness seeping into her bones, Xena wondered if the worship of Ares had never been a big deal around here, or had never recovered after his too-widely known bout with mortality.

She stood with her back to the altar and leaned back on it, gripping the cold edges.

"Ares," she said.

She waited a couple of minutes and called out again, louder, "Ares, I need to see you."

Blue light flashed in a corner and Ares stepped out, casting a fastidious look around.

"You know, this is almost as bad as your old farmhouse," he said. "At least now I can fix it up a little."

He waved an arm. Instantly, the dust and debris were gone, the altar was draped in scarlet velvet with two silver goblets standing on it, the oil lamps and candles came to life, and the dank chill was gone from the air.

"I'm impressed," said Xena, looking unimpressed. "I had no idea you were so good at housekeeping."

"I'm glad I can still surprise you." The War God sauntered up to her and brushed her cheek with his knuckles, reaching over to pick up one of the goblets.

"I'll say."

He froze for a moment and gave her a wary look.

"What now?"

"Your special warrior, Ares. The commander of your favored army. A man who orders his archers to shoot his own soldiers if they start to retreat."

Ares pressed his lips together, scowling, then took a sip of wine and swirled it in his mouth.

"And now," she continued, "he's going to behead three men because they ran under a surprise attack. Or maybe they didn't even run but some of their comrades did, so he's going to use them as an example."

"They're warriors, Xena. Warriors die."

"On the battlefield -- not on the chopping block like criminals ... like cattle." She put her hands on his shoulders, forcing him to look her in the face. "You've been mortal, Ares. You ever wondered what it's like, to wait for your execution? Suppose those warlords had gotten their hands on you back then." His eyes flickered; she was getting to him all right. "Knowing that if it's cloudy the next morning, you'll never see the sun come up again. Knowing that in a few hours you'll be on your knees, tied up like a hog, and the last thing you'll ever see in this world is your executioner's boots. Praying to the gods that his hand is steady and he does the job in one stroke -- "

He jerked his head. "What do you want me to do?"

"Curb your bloodhound," she said quietly and firmly, stepping back. "He's gone too far."

He lowered his eyes, then looked up again, having regained his chilly composure. He touched her chin with the tip of a finger.

"You're breaking the rules."

"What?"

"When you don't like something I'm doing, you're supposed to stop me, Warrior Princess. Not ask me to stop."

"You want me to take on Alcibiades," she whispered. Suddenly, the suspicion was nagging at her, like an annoying buzz she couldn't shut out, making her head spin for a moment. "Is that what you're up to, Ares? You're setting me up to fight your best man?"

The slight mockery in his face gave way to a flash of annoyance, and then he stared at her heavily, pursing his lips.

"Xena. I swear, I'm not setting up anything. I just can't help you."

"You mean you won't," she said bitterly.

"I mean I can't," he snapped, his voice rising. "I gave Alcibiades my word. He likes doing things his own way, and I promised I would not interfere with his decisions -- as long as he keeps winning. The only thing I can do is replace him."

"With whom?"

"With a challenger who beats him in single combat," Ares said, his eyes fixed on her. "And takes over his army."

He caught her mute stare and gripped her hands. "Xena, I won't lie to you. I would get a huge kick out of seeing you fight Alcibiades. But" -- he enunciated each word as if speaking in an unfamiliar language -- "I did not set this up."

She looked at him probingly. Once, it would have been just like him to engineer this kind of scheme, to lure into serving as his Warrior Queen by convincing her it was for a good cause. But maybe, even in the old days, he would not have lied to her quite so brazenly. And after everything that had happened between them ... Even that time when his games with the Amazons nearly cost her daughter's life, he made no attempt to use Eve's plight to manipulate her, Xena -- and somehow, she had instantly believed his assurances that he hadn't meant to get Eve involved. If she could take his word for it then, surely she could trust him now.

"All right," she said softly.

He sighed and drew her closer, his eyes half-veiled, his lips opening for the kiss.

"Not here, Ares." She gently extricated herself from his arms. "And not now. I need to get ready for the fight."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

The tall woman warrior rode into Alcibiades' camp with the blazing sky as her orange and crimson backdrop, the gold of the dying sunlight glittering in her black hair. The soldiers who were outside, going about their daily tasks or simply relaxing, dropped whatever they were doing and gaped at her. For much of the day, the camp had been abuzz with rumors that the Warrior Princess was in the area, and hushed murmurs of "Xena... Xena..." quickly made the rounds. More men scurried out of the tents to take a look at the woman on the golden mare who rode past them, seemingly oblivious to the stares and the whispers.

Magnificent.

Invisible to mortal eyes, the God of War stood in the middle of the camp and watched, excitement surging to his throat. As always in her moments of glory, he felt intoxicating pride and admiration mixed with desire -- not slaked but magnified by the knowledge that every inch of skin under that leather and armor had been caressed by his hands and his mouth. But this time, it was different: In a few hours, Xena would be at the head of his army. That she might lose to Alcibiades barely entered his mind.

The irony of it. All the things he had done to make her join him as his Warrior Queen... He scowled slightly at the thought of those things, which gave him a very un-godlike queasy feeling -- dammit, he had been only doing his job! -- and forced it away. Anyway ... this time, he hadn't done anything to get her to take over his army, and here she was, about to do it of her own free will.

He wondered suddenly if that was true. No, he didn't lie to her when he told her he hadn't set it up. But maybe thoughts of Xena had lurked somewhere in his head when he gave Alcibiades his terms: the Macedonian could have his favor and his loyal troops and the freedom to act as he pleased -- as long as he agreed that at any time, Ares could order him to fight a challenger, and to cede leadership of his army if he was beaten. If not Xena, who?

Well, so what if he had vaguely considered it. Surely it was all for the best. She was about to fulfil her destiny, to become the warrior she was meant to be: not a warlord but a true leader, building a united force out of the scattered armies of Greece -- a force capable of standing up to and taking on the Romans. She herself agreed it was a worthwhile goal. (And she'd do it without hurting and killing any more people than she had to -- he might as well admit that it mattered to him now.) Everything was going to be all right. And the tiny knot of unease coiled somewhere inside his chest ... that was just another of those incomprehensible mortal emotions that didn't mean a thing.

Xena dismounted outside Alcibiades' tent, decorated in the crimson and gold colors of his army. Sensing Ares' presence, she flinched almost imperceptibly; he was tempted to reach over and touch her, but then decided that he shouldn't disrupt her focus. Just to watch was thrilling enough.

"I need to see Alcibiades," she said to the guard outside, turning her trademark steely gaze on him.

The man swallowed.

"M... my lord Alcibiades said he didn't want to be disturbed, ma'am."

"Well, that's just too bad," Xena said evenly. "I'm here to disturb him."

The guard cleared his throat, evidently trying to decide if he was more scared of his commander or of this lone woman in the midst of an army camp.

"And you are -- ?"

"Xena, the Warrior Princess."

The soldier fidgeted for a moment, then gingerly lifted the flap of the tent and said shakily, "M-m-my lord?"

Curious to see his protege's reaction, Ares took himself inside the tent, whose interior seemed almost too luxurious for a warrior: plush Persian rugs, a mahogany table with an inlaid mother-of-pearl decorative pattern that sparkled gently in the yellowish light of the oil lamps, bejeweled goblets and bowls. The sight of Alcibiades' latest war trophy on display -- Prusias' shield mounted on a pole, still spattered with dark dried blood -- was almost jarring in the midst of such soft opulence.

Alcibiades, reclining on a heap of pillows, lifted his eyes from the scroll in his hand; oddly, he looked as if the intrusion weren't entirely unexpected.

After a moment, he asked in a chilly voice, "Are you deaf or disobedient?"

"B-b-beg pardon, m'lord," stammered the soldier. "Xena, the Warrior Princess, wishes to see you."

Alcibiades' eyes flashed, and he sat up in a swift, alert motion; judging from his lack of surprise, he had heard that Xena was nearby. He cast a quick look about and picked up several more scrolls scattered in front of him. To Ares' mild astonishment, they turned out to be Gabrielle's tales of the Warrior Princess. Well, well, well -- Alcibiades was smart indeed, getting to know the enemy even before he could be sure that she was the enemy ... though, of course, he still had to go. The scrolls reminded Ares of the bard, and he wondered fleetingly how she had reacted to Xena's decision.

Alcibiades put the scrolls in a carved wooden box, then rose and put on his sword belt. Even without armor, he cut an imposing figure in his dark crimson leathers. He smoothed his blond wavy hair and stroked his beard, as if trying to think if there was anything else he needed to be ready for his visitor.

"Send her in!" he called out.

Xena entered the tent and stopped. For about a minute, she and Alcibiades stood silently, eyeing each other. Then, the Macedonian's thin lips curved into a half-smile.

"Xena of Amphipolis," he said, with a hint of a sneer in his voice. "The legendary Warrior Princess."

"Alcibiades of Macedonia," Xena replied, mimicking his tone. "Ares' favorite commander."

"You know," he said, scrutinizing her so brazenly that Ares felt like frying him on the spot, "it is an honor. One hears so many rumors about the Warrior Princess, one never quite knows what to believe. First, it was that you were dead ..."

"Greatly exaggerated."

"Then, it was that you killed the Olympian gods. " Her face remained inscrutable. "And that you were the mother of the infamous Livia, who -- "

"Are you planning to write my biography?" she asked in a suave voice.

Alcibiades glared at her, and then broke into a fake hearty laugh.

"Well, I see that one rumor was true: you are as good with words as you are with weapons. Which makes you interesting company." With a broad sweep of his hand, he indicated a bench. "Would you care to sit? Some wine, perhaps?"

"Thanks," she said. "I don't drink on the job."

"What's the job?" he asked.

She smiled enigmatically.

"Actually, it's your job I'm here to discuss."

After a pause, he said, "Go on."

"Tell me something, Alcibiades. You sentenced three men to die for running in yesterday's battle." She looked down. "I won't question your right to do that ... but are you sure they are guilty as charged?"

"You mean, did I have a scribe standing in the middle of a battlefield taking down the names of those who were running? No."

"And how did you happen to pick those particular three?"

"My senior men brought them in. That's all the evidence I need."

Xena steadily met his smug stare.

"Tell me, Alcibiades -- if you punish the guilty and innocent alike, how does that stop a soldier from running? Right now, he knows he could end up getting shortened by a few inches whether he does anything wrong or not."

"Maybe he'll make sure that the men next to him don't run," Alcibiades parried calmly. "Or don't stay on their feet very long if they do."

Xena shook her head, and at least for a moment sadness shadowed her eyes. "Don't you think that to be a truly great leader, you need to inspire loyalty as well as fear?"

"But I do inspire loyalty, Xena," Alcibiades said. "You see, the men who are sentenced to die aren't terribly popular with the others. One's a know-it-all and a show-off who's had a bit too much learning for a common soldier, another's a whiner, and the third's a smart-aleck who likes to do things his own way. Why do you think the other men pointed the finger at them? Because they can't stand them. You might say I'm following the will of the majority where it really counts."

Arms folded on his chest, he looked expectantly at Xena. Her face showed no emotion.

"About your job, Alcibiades..."

"What about it?"

"I know about your deal with Ares. You don't take orders from him, but he can replace you with a successful challenger."

"And you're the challenger." He nodded, unsurprised.

There was a brief silence. Then, Alcibiades said, "Tell me, Xena, is it true that years ago, Ares framed you for murder to force you to lead his army?" She lowered her eyes, her cheek twitching almost imperceptibly. "And that later, he had the Furies drive you mad and tried to make you kill your own mother, all to get you to join him?"

Ares felt torn between the desire to rip Alcibiades' head from his shoulders and a grudging admiration for his cleverness.

"And now," Alcibiades continued, smirking, "you want to fight me and take over the army of Ares ... because you care so much about three soon-to-be-dead losers you've never met?"

"I'm curious, Alcibiades. Is it part of your deal with Ares that the challenger must give you a full accounting of the reasons for her challenge?"

"Certainly not. I merely wanted to point out that you may be walking straight into Ares' trap."

"I've walked straight out of his traps before," she replied with a small catlike smile, and Ares knew it was for his benefit. "But I do appreciate your concern."

"Very well, then." Alcibiades straightened out his shoulders, throwing his head back a little and jutting out his chin. "I can't say I'm not looking forward to some action with the Warrior Princess." (This time, Ares was barely able to keep from making an appearance and knocking the leer off his face.) "So, when and where is our date? Here at the camp? Shall we put on a good show for my men?"

Xena looked at him thoughtfully.

"Do any of your officers know of your agreement with Ares?"

"Only my second-in-command, Phaleron. Warrior priest to the God of War."

"He'll be our witness, then," Xena said. "About two miles east of here, over the hills, there are three great oaks by the riverside. I'll see you there at sunrise tomorrow."

* ~ * ~ *

The clouds covering the sky were turning from black to a soft grey, but there wasn't enough daylight to even peek through the tiny window in the room at the inn, weakly lit by a sputtering oil lamp. Xena sat on the bed, unhurriedly putting on her boots and then her gauntlets. Her face was perfectly emotionless; of course, she knew he was there, and she knew that he knew it -- but she was not going to acknowledge it just as he was not going to make himself visible, no matter how much he longed to kiss her, to run his fingers through her hair. Ares wanted to tell her how proud she made him, but something about that felt wrong. He thought of telling her, again, that he hadn't set this up and that she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do; but that would have been protesting too much. Eventually, he gave up on trying to make sense of the emotions bustling inside him, and just watched her.

The door squeaked open and a rather haggard-looking Gabrielle shuffled in, wearing a nightshirt and carrying a steaming mug that gave off the sweet scent of apple cider. With a wan smile, she handed the mug to Xena; the Warrior Princess took it, giving her companion's hand a light squeeze, and the corner of her mouth curled up as she almost smiled back.

Xena drank her cider in long gulps, occasionally pausing for breath, and put the mug down.

"I'm ready, Gabrielle."

She picked up her sword, slowly ran a finger along its newly-sharpened edge, and put it away in the scabbard as she rose from the bed.

"Please let me come along," Gabrielle said.

"No." Xena shook her head. "I challenged him. You know I have to do this one on my own."

With a sigh, Gabrielle helped buckle her armor, and then the two women stood looking at each other, one face drawn and anxious, the other dangerously calm. They embraced rather stiffly, Xena stooping at an awkward angle, her cheek resting against Gabrielle's for a few brief moments.

"Good luck," Gabrielle said in a stifled voice.

Xena ran a hand over her short hair.

"You'll be okay -- right?"

The Amazon bard nodded.

"I know you'll always do the right thing, Xena." The look in her eyes said that she wasn't so sure, even as she smiled bravely.

Xena turned around and walked out of the room.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

When the Warrior Princess arrived at the three oaks, Alcibiades and Phaleron -- a tall, dark-haired man with a curly goatee who would have looked imposing next to almost anyone else but Alcibiades -- were already waiting for her.

"Xena," Alcibiades drawled suavely, in a tone that managed to be transparently insulting while remaining overtly polite, even reverent. "It is good to see you again so soon."

"The pleasure's all mine."

"An honor to meet you, Xena," Phaleron said coldly but respectfully, with a slight bow of the head. She turned to him.

"You must be Phaleron."

"I am Phaleron, yes."

"Warrior priest to Ares."

"It is my honor to serve the God of War," he said, his impassive eyes flickering for a moment.

"And you know of the agreement between Alcibiades and Ares. A warrior, with Ares' approval, can issue a challenge to Alcibiades. If the challenger wins, Alcibiades relinquishes command of his army."

"I know the terms. As second-in-command to Alcibiades and priest to Ares, I am here to witness the contest."

The air under the oaks shimmered, and there was a whooshing sound that all three warriors knew well.

"I'll witness it myself," Ares said.

Dismounting hastily, Phaleron knelt before him.

"My Lord Ares -- "

"Get up, get up -- we can dispense with the formalities." Ares waved brusquely, and Phaleron rose to his feet. "Before we get started, let me make one thing clear. This is a fight to the victory, not to the death. Got that?"

Xena looked down, unable to suppress a smile, while Alcibiades stared at his patron god with an impudent sparkle in his pale grey eyes.

"Ares, I am touched by your concern for my welfare. Assuming, of course, that it's my welfare you're concerned about."

Phaleron shot him a rather nasty look.

"I'm not in the habit of letting great warriors die a pointless death," Ares said evenly. "Now, let's get this show on the road."

The contestants dismounted and took their positions.

The murmur of the oak leaves died down for a moment, as if the wind itself were holding its breath.

"Go."

The clash of swords exploded even before the word had left Ares' lips.

The Warrior Princess and the leader of Ares' army were well-matched; what advantage he had in size and muscle was offset by her speed and agility. After a few minutes, when both were already bleeding from nicks on the arms, Alcibiades delivered a powerful kick that made Xena stagger; a second kick sent her flying, and she landed flat on her back. He leaped toward her, ready to strike or to hold her at the point of his sword -- but just as he reached her, she rolled over and sprang to her feet, in time to parry his blow.

Alcibiades snarled in frustration, swinging at Xena again. This moment of blind rage was enough to give her an opening. A shrill, ululating "A-yi-yi-yi-yi" sliced through the air, startling her opponent enough to keep him from collecting himself. She spun around and kicked, knocking the sword out of his hand and up into the air, then leaped high to catch it and flung it so far that he had no chance of retrieving it without going through her first. Alcibiades snatched a long dagger from his belt, but as Xena advanced on him, all he could do was avoid the weave of her sword -- until his back was up against one of the oaks, the tip of her blade pointed at his throat.

"I don't think you want to do anything with that little weapon of yours, Alcibiades," she said, her voice twinkling with mockery. Breathing hard, the Macedonian looked back and forth from her to Ares, and then let the dagger fall. "Good boy. Now, I think this is your cue to give up."

Alcibiades glowered at her, biting his lip, and finally lowered his eyes. Then, his hands jerked upward toward Xena's sword -- but before he could grab it, his legs were kicked out from under him and he went down hard, even as a blow to the head with the flat side of her blade nearly knocked him out. He sprawled on the ground blinking dizzily, the point of the sword at his neck once again.

Ares clapped his hands. He remained outwardly dispassionate, with only a faint flicker of emotion -- pride and adoration and perhaps a shadow of uncertainty -- crossing his face.

"Phaleron," he said. "Salute your new leader."

The warrior priest dropped to one knee and pressed a hand to his chest.

"Xena of Amphipolis, I shall be proud to serve under your command."

"Good for you." Xena took a deep breath as she sheathed her sword. For a moment, her eyes met Ares'; then she looked back to Phaleron, who had risen to his feet. "Are you ready to take some orders now?"

"Yes, my lady." He wasn't quite able to hide his surprise.

"Very well, then. The three men who are sentenced to die at noon today are pardoned. When you return to the camp, you are to release them, give them whatever pay they are owed, and let them go home."

"Yes, my lady. Anything else?"

"From now on, no peaceful villagers or townsmen will be forcibly recruited into this army. Back at camp, you will put that down on a parchment and seal it." She gestured toward the silver ring on Phaleron's hand bearing Ares' emblem, a skull and a sword. "And keep the wording simple."

"Yes, my lady."

"And one more thing."

"Yes?"

"After you've carried out those orders, I give command of this army back to Alcibiades of Macedonia."

Both Phaleron and Alcibiades, who was sitting up by now, gasped audibly. Ares gaped at Xena, his mouth hanging open in a manner most unbecoming a god. She turned to him.

"This is within my rights, isn't it?"

"Yes, I -- I suppose so," he said, shaking his head. "Yes, it is. But -- "

"Then I think that will be all."

Ignoring the stunned stares that followed her, she went to untie her horse and got in the saddle.

"A pleasure meeting you, Phaleron," she said. "Oh, and Alcibiades?" She squinted at her defeated adversary, smirking a little. "You'd better behave yourself, or I just might rescind that last order."

* ~ * ~ *

 

On the road back to town, Argo stopped abruptly and reared up, and Ares flared into visibility a second later.

"You are something else," he said.

She gave him a smile -- a little smug but also sensuous and dreamy, ultimately intended more for her lover than for the God of War.

"I'm glad I can still surprise you."

"Always." He paused, stroking her thigh. "But you know, Alcibiades could have some nasty surprises in store for you. How can you be so sure that you've won?"

"Maybe I can't be," she said, suddenly serious. "But I won't lead your army unless I have no other choice, Ares. Right now, I still had a choice."

He nodded.

"So after all this time, you still feel you have to trick me."

She darted a quick look at him, sensing the bitterness underneath the playful tone.

"If I had told you what I planned to do, would you have gone along with it?"

Ares eyeballed her silently, then shrugged.

"I don't know."

"Well, there you go," she said softly, putting her hand on top on his.

In the next moment, he was in the saddle behind Xena, his arms wrapped around her. Argo whinnied nervously.

"So," he murmured huskily into her ear, "shall we go somewhere to celebrate your victory? Unless you're in the mood for some horseplay right here."

She laughed, almost instinctively leaning into him.

"Not now, Ares." She shivered as his fingertips brushed her neck.

"What's the matter?" He kissed her shoulder, nipping a little at the skin. "Feel like teasing me out of my mind?"

"Umm -- not really." Xena forced herself to open her eyes. "I just need to get back to the inn ... Gabrielle is waiting for me."

"Is she worried?" Ares asked in the same low, sensuous voice, still holding her close.

"About what?"

"You tell me."

"You mean -- worried that I might lose to Alcibiades?"

"No." He took her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. "That you might lose to yourself. To the part of you that loved it when you were in command, even for a few moments. The part of you that didn't want those moments to end."

His soft whisper suddenly seemed to be everywhere, filling the air, enveloping her; she didn't know if he was using his powers to make it seem that way, or her own mind was playing tricks on her. With an effort, she pushed off and turned around to face him, an angry glitter in her eyes.

"What are you trying to do?"

"Me? Nothing." He smiled, brushing a strand of hair away from her face. "Just explaining why Gabrielle might be worried."

"She has nothing to worry about," Xena said firmly. "Now, get off my horse."

"What, not even a kiss?"

He gave her a mock wounded look that made her laugh in spite of herself. She leaned toward him and kissed him hard on the mouth, only to pull away almost immediately.

"Go on," she said. Then, when there was nothing left of his presence but a few wisps of blue smoke, she added, "Pick me up at the inn at noon."

When Xena got back to town, the damp grey heaviness of the air had turned to a small drizzle. Riding up to the inn along the muddy street, she spotted Gabrielle sitting on a bench outside, hunched over a scroll in which she was writing. After a few moments, the bard looked up and craned her neck, apparently not for the first time. Seeing Xena, she bolted to her feet. The look on her face was one of joy and, unmistakably, of relief.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

"Are you going to concede that I've won?"

There was a touch of lazy amusement in Ares' voice.

"Not yet."

"Come on, Xena, give it up. You have nowhere to go."

"Oh, I'm -- still pondering a couple of options."

"Stubborn as ever."

"You'd expect nothing less," she said, looking up with smile.

Ares cocked an eye at her.

"Are you sure we're talking about the same thing? This is just a game."

"Isn't everything -- to you?"

"Ow." He leaned back, laughing. "A definite hit."

Xena chuckled and went back to staring at the ivory figurines on the checkered board.

Nearly two months after her fight with Alcibiades, things were back to what passed for normal. She and Gabrielle were still on the road; she and Ares were still having their interludes, though he had largely steered clear of Gabrielle ever since the battle against Bellerophon. Alcibiades, who had kept a low profile for a few weeks following his defeat at the hands of the Warrior Princess, was on the move again; but one no longer heard stories of peasants or artisans being dragged from their homes and threatened with death or slavery unless they joined his troops. Yet somewhere in the back of Xena's mind lodged the suspicion, if not the certainty, that the drama between her and Alcibiades was far from over -- that this was only an intermission, and that along with her, both Ares and Gabrielle were waiting a bit tensely for the next act.

For the moment, at least, things seemed fairly relaxed. She and Ares were spending the evening in his latest idea of a romantic spot -- in the mountains, amidst rocks that gleamed white in the moonlight almost like marble statues of strangely shaped creatures. For extra light, Ares had conjured up a glowing sphere that floated in the air, giving this rock garden even more of a fantastic look.

After a few more minutes, Xena was forced to admit defeat. Ares waved away the game pieces and flicked a finger at the ball of fire, making it dissolve in a burst of orange sparks. Xena lay back on the fur spread and stretched, idly wondering if she wanted to sleep or to make love to Ares again. He put a hand on her stomach and she closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of his touch through her leather tunic. She waited for his hand to move either higher or lower, but he let it rest where it was. Finally, she lifted an eyelid -- and saw something in his face that instantly made her alert.

She sat up.

"What is it, Ares?"

He bit his lower lip and looked away.

"I have some news for you."

"What kind of news?"

"Alcibiades news."

So this was it.

"Spit it out," she said. "What's the bastard done now?" Whatever it was, the guilt would be hers to bear because she had the power to stop him, and did not...

"Nothing yet. But he's gearing up to attack your Amazon friends."

He spoke quietly, but the words reverberated in her head like a scream.

"You mean, Varia's tribe." Her own voices sounded like a stranger's.

"Yes."

"They don't have a chance... not after the battle against Bellerophon." He said nothing, still avoiding her eyes, and then she whispered, "Why?"

Ares shrugged. "The goal is the same as always, Xena. Build up the strongest united army there can be in Greece, and lead it against Rome. He wants the Amazons fighting under his banners. If they won't join him, he'll destroy them." He finally glanced at her. "If you're thinking about your no-forced-recruitment clause, forget it. It only applies to your precious peasants, not warriors."

"I know that," she said tersely, back in control by now.

They sat in silence for a while, the white rocks their mute witnesses. As much as Xena cared about the Amazons, she knew that wasn't why it hurt so inside her chest. Gabrielle would hear about this, and with her sense of duty to her nation, she would inevitably get involved. And it's killing you inside...

"What are his plans?" she asked, businesslike.

"His army is camped near Abdera, waiting for word back from the Amazon council on his offer. His messengers should get back in two days with the answer."

"And the answer is no, of course."

"Right. And as you know, Alcibiades doesn't take no for an answer."

"So once the messengers get back, he starts moving."

"Yes."

She turned to him, her face as chilly as the pale moon overhead.

"Tell me, Ares -- since I've challenged Alcibiades and won, do I have the right to take over his army any time I want?"

He gave her an odd look, as if he didn't quite know whether to be gleeful or sympathetic.

"You do, as far as I'm concerned," he said finally. "Alcibiades, on the other hand, might not agree. Of course, if he makes any trouble for you, I could -- "

"No." She rose abruptly to her feet. "Don't do me any favors, Ares. Just take me back to camp. If I leave tomorrow morning, I'll have time to catch up with him outside Abdera."

"You could stay with me until morning." He looked up at her, his eyes almost pleading.

Xena shook her head.

"Give me a little time, Ares," she said bitterly. "A girl needs to get used to the idea of living as your Warrior Queen."

Ares pursed his lips and stared at her; for a moment, he seemed about to say something. Then he came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, and took them into the dizzying swirl of air and light that was nothing new to her by now. When the ground was solid under her feet again, he took her hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it, and vanished without another word.

Shaking herself to get rid of the effect of his presence, Xena looked to where Gabrielle was asleep in her bedroll. The fire had nearly burned out but its remnants cast a reddish glow on her still form, somehow making her look very young and fragile, almost like a girl lost in the woods.

Everything would be okay, she told herself. She wasn't really joining Ares as his Warrior Queen. She would simply take over Alcibiades' army and lead it against the Romans, and that would be it -- just one campaign. Maybe Ares had a point back when he told her that some day, he could be on the side of something she wanted to fight for. In a year at the most, it would be over, and she would resign her command. The Amazons would be all right ... and so would Gabrielle.

She went over to where she had tied up Argo, got her bedroll and began to spread it near the dying fire. Despite her efforts to be quiet, Gabrielle stirred and muttered sleepily, "Xena... ? You're back....?"

"Yeah." She managed to keep her voice steady. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

This time, when Xena arrived at Alcibiades' camp, it was inconspicuously and late at night, when most of the men were already sleeping.

The morning after her conversation with Ares, she had told Gabrielle she wanted to head to Abdera to see what Alcibiades was up to. Gabrielle hadn't seemed particularly startled by that, or by Xena's announcement that she had to make a trip to Alcibiades' camp alone. It made Xena queasy, keeping her in the dark like this -- but there was no other choice.

It would just be one campaign. Against Rome.

She had meant to talk to Phaleron first. However, when she told one of the guards on night duty who she was and whose tent she was looking for, the man gave her a nervous glance and said, "My lord Alcibiades wishes to see you."

She lifted an eyebrow. "He knows I'm here?"

The man licked his lips.

"He had to bring you to see him immediately if you turned up at the camp, even if you asked for Phaleron."

Xena frowned; she did not like it when people anticipated her next move.

"All right," she said in a casual tone.

When she was ushered into Alcibiades' tent, the Macedonian rose to greet her. His thin lips were parted slightly in a self-satisfied smile.

"Xena. I figured I'd get your attention."

She gave him the glacial stare that few people, or gods, were able to meet without flinching. His narrow smile broke into a frank sneer.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really give a damn about the pitiful leftovers of the Amazon nation. But I know you do."

The meaning of his words hit her, and she felt the rage burning in her throat. She said nothing, letting him continue.

"Did you think you'd get away with it, Xena?"Alcibiades' voice was rising. "Did you think I'd want to be at the head of an army that I command only by your kind permission?"

"Well, then I have good news for you." Her lip curled in contempt. "My permission is revoked."

He gave a short, edgy laugh that sounded almost like a shriek.

"Oh no, Xena. That won't do. You think you can just walk in here and take my toys away because I've been bad?"

"I fought you and I won," she said evenly.

"Well, you'll have to fight for it again." His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. "Think of it as a rematch. And maybe this time, you won't be so lucky."

"Sorry, Alcibiades. Not in the mood."

"Really? Well, how about this for foreplay?" In a flash, his sword was pointed at her chest.

"You don't want to do this," Xena said, her voice heavy with futility.

"Oh, I do," he scoffed. "You don't want to do this, but you'll have to. Don't even think about getting Phaleron involved. You'll have to go through me to get out of this tent. Unless you want to run to Ares for help."

She stepped back with a sigh and drew her sword.

Alcibiades had evidently instructed the guards outside the tent to stay out no matter what. The clashing of the blades did not bring anyone running; neither did the even louder clatter when he knocked over the mahogany table to clear the space and it smashed into an amphora in the corner, making shards of clay fly and crimson wine spill on the rug that covered the ground. It was the dance she knew so well: parry -- thrust -- block -- spin -- kick. Alcibiades was good, very good, and the confines of the tent left no room for the high-flying leaps that were among Xena's strongest moves -- which, she realized, might have been why he'd backed her into fighting right there on the spot. But she also saw that her opponent hadn't learned from his mistake the last time: he was still overconfident, and when he didn't succeed, still letting anger interfere with his focus.

There were more spins and kicks and thrusts, and more property damage as a tripod with an ornate multicolored glass bowl on it flew and crashed. Then, Xena dove down and flipped over her head, and while Alcibiades was still figuring out what she was doing, she clamped her feet on the blade of his sword. Another flip yanked the weapon out of his hands and flung it away -- and in the next second, she was leaning on her own sword to kick out her legs and slam her boots into his chest.

Alcibiades was down now, blood and sweat trickling down his fine-featured face, eyes glittering with hatred. She saw his hand reach toward his belt and go up; fully in control now, she snatched the dagger as it whizzed toward her.

"Alcibiades." She forced her raspy voice to a gentleness she didn't feel. "Give it up. It's not too late."

He stared at her, panting, seemingly considering her offer. Then, with a speed and grace that surprised her, he rolled over toward his bed in the corner, swept away a heap of pillows, and rose holding a shortsword he had apparently hidden there for the occasion.

Before he could make his move, she swung again.

He stayed on his feet too long as the blood gushed down from his neck with a sickening gurgling sound, swaying a little, his eyes fixed on her. Finally he fell, and the scarlet liquid began to spread, darkening his ash-blond curls, seeping into the rug the spilled wine had stained before.

Xena looked at the dripping sword in her hand, which suddenly felt much too heavy, and then at Alcibiades again. A memory rolled over her, leaving a bitter taste of ashes in her mouth.

"It didn't have to end this way," she whispered, echoing the voice in her head, as she watched the life dimming in his eyes.

She was sure that, had he been able to speak, his last words would have been, "Oh yes, it did."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

When Phaleron arrived, fetched by a guard at Xena's request, he did not seem particularly saddened -- or surprised -- to see Alcibiades dead.

"He was a brave warrior." The priest of Ares shook his head. "But he was rash."

"I didn't want to kill him," Xena said pensively, more to herself than to Phaleron. He glanced at her, his dark eyes momentarily animated.

"When Alcibiades would not cede the army to you, he defied the will of Ares. You did the right thing."

There was clearly no point in arguing with that.

"Would you make arrangements for the funeral?" she asked wearily, before remembering that she was now in a position to issue orders.

"I shall, my lady." He bowed his head.

When the two soldiers who had come in with the warrior priest had picked up Alcibiades' body and taken it away, Phaleron turned to Xena and asked, "Will you be staying here in this tent?"

Stay in this tent, where she could still smell her dead adversary's blood ... sleep on the bedding where he had reclined less than an hour ago? There was a time when she would not have flinched at the suggestion... Xena felt slight nausea rise to her throat, and then she had another feeling, an unfamiliar and uncomfortable one -- a tug of fear that she might have gotten into something she wouldn't be able to handle.

"No," she said quietly.

"Very well," said Phaleron. "I shall have the men put up a new tent for you, though I'm afraid that, on such short notice, it may have to be much too modest."

"That doesn't matter. I won't be staying at camp tonight anyway. "

Phaleron gave her a visibly disapproving look.

"My lady -- ?"

"I'm going back to my lodgings in town," she said. "There's something I need to do." Break Gabrielle's heart.

"All right, but you should ride with an escort -- "

"No," Xena said, turning her icy glare on him. "I'll take care of this on my own, Phaleron."

"As you wish." There was an irritating hint of displeasure in his outwardly deferential tone. It was too much -- too soon.

"Phaleron," she said in a silky voice that bode ill for its recipient. "Remember one thing."

He looked at her expectantly.

"I may serve Ares at the moment, but that doesn't mean I take orders from his priest."

The smugness in the priest's face changed to shock, then deliberate incomprehension, and then sullen resentment.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, my lady. I am at your command."

"Good." She gave him a bright smile. "Then we understand each other. Have that other tent ready when I'm back."

Xena headed toward the exit, and nearly collided with the guard who was lifting the flap of the tent. He blinked at her, a bit dazed, obviously still taking in the news of the change in command.

"My lady -- sorry to disturb you, but there's a young woman who says she has to see you..."

No.

The soldier gave her a curious if nervous look; something of the turmoil she felt must have shown in her face.

"Let her in," she said steadily. "And leave us alone." She glanced at Phaleron to make sure that he knew the last part applied to him, too.

"My lady." Phaleron bowed his head and followed the soldier outside.

Gabrielle walked into the tent.

She stopped. Most of her remained in the shadows, except where the light from an oil lamp fell on a part of her face, making it glow in a golden haze.

"Xena..." she breathed out.

"Gabrielle..."

Suddenly, the bard's voice was strong and almost harsh.

"When were you going to tell me?"

Xena chuckled ruefully.

"I was headed back to the inn just now."

She wasn't sure if the glitter in Gabrielle's eyes was from the shimmering light or from unshed tears.

"Xena ... why?"

"I've thought about it. I think it's the right thing to do."

I know you'll always do the right thing, Xena... Unbidden, those words echoed in her mind -- the words Gabrielle had said to her the morning she went off to her first fight with Alcibiades.

"Leading Ares' army?"

"Against the Roman Empire." There was a catch in her voice that she hoped Gabrielle would take for excitement. "It's a chance to do something for Greece."

"And for the greater good?"

Xena was startled by her bitter, almost caustic tone.

"Yes."

"Are you sure it doesn't have anything to do with this?"

Gabrielle raised her hand. She was holding a parchment.

"It's a message from Cyane. Delivered this evening, after you had left. Do I need to tell you what it says?"

Xena slowly shook her head.

"Alcibiades..."

"You knew that if he went after the Amazons, I'd have to get involved." She met Xena's mute gaze. "Xena, you can't keep protecting me forever."

"You sound like Eve," Xena blurted out -- and almost gasped as another realization came over her. "I was never able to protect either of you, was I ..."

"Why does it all have to be your responsibility?" Gabrielle said softly. It was almost easier to deal with her bitterness than with this agonized tenderness. "You know you've always done everything for Eve that you could possibly do. As for me ... I don't need your protection, not anymore."

"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena walked slowly toward her. "It's not because I doubt you as a warrior. Remember what you said -- with each battle..."

"I lose more of myself," Gabrielle finished in a near-whisper.

"I just don't want to see that happen again.... not if there's something I can do about it."

For a few moments they faced each other silently. Then, Gabrielle said, "Xena, when you started -- when you first got together with him -- you told me you weren't going to join him or serve him."

"I'm not serving him. I'm leading an army for him in one campaign and that's it. I promise you." She reached out and squeezed the bard's hand.

"Xena ..." Gabrielle's mouth quivered. "All those times when Ares tried to turn you back into what you used to be..."

"You actually think he's still trying to do that?"

"Maybe not. But once you're with him as his warrior ... with all that power ... are you sure you can handle it?" She looked down, struggling to get the words out. "I've helped you pull back from the darkness before. I'm not sure I can do it now."

Gently, Xena touched Gabrielle's chin and lifted her face.

"You don't need to protect me. Not anymore."

"I couldn't stand it if you lost yourself for me," said Gabrielle.

Xena took a step back and folded her arms. Her eyes were stinging, and it was much too stuffy in the tent.

"I'll be fine," she said. "Like it or not, what's done is done. I knew the terms when I challenged Alcibiades. It's too late to back off."

"There's always a way out, Xena. I've learned that from you."

"And we're going to be okay. Just trust me. Please?"

The bard sighed.

"If this is what you have to do, then my place is with you. Fighting by your side."

"No!" The force of her cry seemed to throw them apart. Then Xena repeated more gently, "No. This isn't your fight."

"It is now."

"I don't want you fighting in this war."

"What do you want me to do, then? Go pick some berries while you play Warrior Queen?"

The air between them was heavy with tension, and Xena actually felt relieved when Phaleron's muffled voice came from outside.

"My lady?"

"Yes?"

"The other tent is ready."

"Good. Come in here, Phaleron." As he entered, she motioned toward Gabrielle. "This is Gabrielle of Potadeia, who wishes to serve in my army. As priest of Ares and my second in command, I want you to witness her oath."

Gabrielle stared at her.

"You want an oath of loyalty from me?"

"Not of loyalty." Xena's voice softened but only for a moment. "Of obedience."

She nearly broke down when she saw the look on Gabrielle's face -- so earnest, so wounded, so passionate. But this had to be done.

"All right," Gabrielle said quietly. She took a step back.

"Do you swear that, as long as you serve in the army I command, you will faithfully follow and obey my orders?"

She closed her eyes and bowed her head.

"I will."

"Swear it. On your honor as an Amazon queen."

"I swear, on my honor as an Amazon queen." A hollow echo spoke Xena's own words back to her.

"In the name of Ares," Phaleron said drily, "I witness this oath."

"Good," Xena said. "I have your assignment, Gabrielle. You are now the official scribe for this army."

Gabrielle gaped in disbelief.

"Official what?"

"Scribe. Keeper of chronicles. Oh, and you are expressly ordered not to take part in the fighting. You are much too valuable on the job."

"Xena -- "

"You're not about to argue with your commander, are you? Not after you've just taken your oath?" She saw the desperate plea in Gabrielle's eyes and nodded to the priest. "Go outside, Phaleron. I'll follow you in a minute."

When he was gone, she put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.

"I'm sorry... I had to do this. For you. For us." She forced herself to look Gabrielle in the face, and knew that she was the one pleading. "Maybe this is the best thing for you. Take the knowledge you've gained of the warrior's way, and put it to use as a bard."

"So you get to decide what's best for me."

"Gabrielle... when you gave up the Way of Love because of me, you said you chose the Way of Friendship. Remember?" She smiled, holding back tears, and lightly stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand. "Well ... this is my way of friendship."

* ~ * ~ *

The sun stood high in the harsh blue canopy of the sky, battering the camp, making the throngs of soldiers look like a glittering sea of armor and leather -- a gleam so bright that it would no doubt have been painful to the eyes if Ares' eyes had been mortal.

It was hard to believe that this was happening, that he was once again seeing Xena like this, not just as a warrior but as a leader of warriors. Alcibiades' officers had just sworn their allegiance to her, and now the soldiers, their hair damp and their skin slick with sweat in the sweltering sun, cheered and chanted her name. The sound of it gave him a thrill almost as intense as the one he felt when his own named was called out by warriors and worshipers. Just like in the old days ... except that, back then, she felt the same thrill and he knew it, even if she remained outwardly impassive. Now, she was merely enduring this moment. Occasionally, she would glance almost timidly at Gabrielle, who stood apart from the officers, her face drawn and careworn. Ares remained invisible, but a couple of times Xena looked in his direction too, with an expression he couldn't quite read.

Then, for just a moment, her eyes sparkled and he knew that she was feeling it too, and his body responded with such violent yearning that he had to fight the urge to whisk her away right then.

When the cheers had died down, she held up her hand and stared ahead, squinting at the sun. Then she spoke, her voice strong and resonant.

"In two days, we march against Rome."

Again, a chorus of thousands roared its approval, the wave of sound rising and crashing over the soldiers' heads. This time, Xena did not wait for the cheering to stop; she lowered her hand, nodded curtly to the officers and walked back to her tent.

There was hushed muttering in the ranks; the soldiers were evidently somewhat nonplused by their new leader's abrupt departure. Phaleron frowned slightly and stepped forward to dismiss them.

Ares lingered a moment before following Xena inside. By now, his desire had simmered down, and there was a certain pleasure in postponing its fulfilment. He flashed into view just as she sat down on a bench and started to take off her boots. She stopped and looked up at him. That gleam in her eyes was gone now, and he knew what he had seen there before -- not even sadness but ... disappointment?

"Xena." He reached out, lightly stroking her cheek with the back of his hand.

She rose to face him, and Ares had the unnerving feeling that something between them was missing, lost.

He drew her close, and her lips were warm and pliant as she received his kiss.

"Let me take you somewhere," he whispered, pulling away.

One side of her mouth twitched into a wry, sad half-smile.

"I don't know, Ares. Maybe it's not such a good idea to sleep with my boss."

"Funny." He brushed a strand of hair, damp with sweat, away from her face.

"It wasn't supposed to be."

Ares let go of her with an exasperated sigh.

"Xena -- you don't have to do this."

"I knew what I was getting into when I took on Alcibiades. A deal's a deal."

The War God winced.

"Don't." He brushed his finger against her lips. "It doesn't have to be like that between us ... not anymore."

"Now you have everything you've ever wanted, don't you," she said. "Me at the head in your army -- and in your bed."

With his memory sharpened by his powers, the day she had come to his temple in Amphipolis nearly thirty years ago was fresh in Ares' mind. I'm offering you everything you ever wanted. My sword, and the body that wields it. Take it. She had lied to him then -- after he'd given her no other choice.

The vague dread lurking in the back of his mind grew stronger, and he felt as if he had broken something fragile that couldn't be repaired ... but he hadn't really done anything, had he? The only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted -- needed to make love to her, to hold her, to feel the warmth of her body...

Xena touched his hand.

"Ares," she said softly. "Let's go."

In the next moment they were in the bedroom at the Thracian fortress, where, at his will, the oil lamps stirred and flames leaped in the hearth; but this time he undressed her with his hands as a mortal would, pausing to kiss and caress the exposed skin.

Later, he held her in his arms and wondered why, for the first time, their lovemaking had left him unsatisfied. He desired her more ardently than ever, and after the initial awkwardness she had responded fully to his passion. But there was that same feeling again, the feeling that something was missing.

Everything he had ever wanted...

Maybe she just needed time to get used to this.

Maybe he did.

 

* ~ * ~ *

Gabrielle pushed away the scroll and the quill and rubbed her eyes, staring at the single sentence she had managed to write in the last hour: "In the month of Boedromion, on the third day, Xena's army entered the city of Skodra at sundown." She had crossed out "Xena's army" and replaced it with "Ares' army," then with "the army of Ares and Xena," then stared at the parchment for a while, and finally gone back to the original.

The third of Boedromion... so it had been about a month since Xena's troops had crossed the Macedonian border into the Roman province of Illyricum and taken Skodra, once the capital of the independent Illyria. After that, the army had easily swept through half of the province; the Roman forces stationed there to control the locals were unprepared for a real war, and had quickly retreated under the onslaught of a superior military force.

Now, with reinforcements sent from Rome under the command of General Quintilius Gallo, they had gathered in the coastal city of Salonae, the seat of the colonial Roman administration. Low-walled and unfortified, with a population whose loyalty to Rome was questionable at best, Salonae was in no shape to withstand a siege. The negotiations for surrender had collapsed, and scouts had reported that Gallo was planning to take his three legions out into the open field the next morning to meet Xena's army in battle.

Gabrielle sighed and got up. Without much hope for success, she was going try it once more: ask Xena to reverse her order and let her fight. She walked out into the cool evening air, heading toward Xena's tent. As dusk enveloped the camp in a bluish-grey haze, torches and bonfires were flaring up. Everything bustled with activity in preparation for the big day.

"Hey, Gabby!"

She turned around to see Mykillos, a lieutenant who had pestered her on several occasions with what was obviously intended as flirting. He sat by a fire with half a dozen other officers.

"Come over and read us a poem!" he called out, somehow managing to make it sound like a crude invitation.

"Come on, Mykillos," said one of the men. "Your turn."

Just as she was about to move on, Gabrielle noticed a target pinned to the trunk of a tree a few feet from the fire, with four daggers lodged in it. The man who had spoken to Mykillos rose, walked up to the tree and yanked out the knives.

Her interest piqued, she came closer.

"What are you doing?"

"Who's this?" asked the lone woman officer in the group, looking her over none too amicably.

"What, Berenice, you don't know?" said Mykillos. "Gabrielle, Xena's scribe. Famous bard, right, Gabby?"

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the lieutenant with a contemptuous little sniff.

"Oh no," a burly man with a shaggy red beard gasped in mock horror. "You've done it. She's going to read us a poem."

"Hey, Mykillos," said Berenice, "you wanna charm the ladies or you wanna throw the daggers?"

"All right, all right." Mykillos scrambled to his feet and picked up the knives.

"Wait a minute," Gabrielle said sweetly. "Having a contest?"

She wasn't sure what was goading her on. Maybe she just wanted to boost her self-confidence before seeing Xena ... and to help herself brace for the moment when Xena would almost inevitably turn down her request.

"We are," Mykillos said. "Wanna cheer me on?"

"Actually, I want to play. I mean, I want to be in the contest," Gabrielle added hastily, hoping that the officers hadn't seen her blush.

"Oh please," snorted Berenice. "We're playing with daggers, not quills, Miss Famous Bard."

When the guffaws had died down, Gabrielle said, "I have some experience with daggers."

"Yeah, probably about as much as Mykillos here does with the ladies," said the man with the red beard, setting off a new round of laughs.

"Up yours, Timon," grunted Mykillos. "Hey, Gabby, I'll play with you anytime. So, what do you want to wager?"

"A scroll!" Berenice snickered.

"Um ... five dinars?"

"No, no," the lieutenant said with a leer. "Let's make it something more interesting. Say ... how about ... your top?" He gestured, just in case she hadn't gotten it.

Gabrielle shot him a disgusted glance. "I don't think it's your size."

"It'll look nice hanging in my tent as a souvenir," said Mykillos.

Timon shook his head.

"Mykillos, you idiot. She's Xena's friend. Xena finds out about this and you can kiss your balls good-bye."

The bard glanced sideways at the men, wondering if she had enough confidence in her skills to make this wager.

"Okay," she said, rather shocked at herself. "My top..." -- she had a sudden idea -- "against your sword, Mykillos."

"My sword? Are you nuts?"

"She means the one at your side," said Berenice.

"What do you want to do with it, sharpen your quills? Oh all right, let's do it."

Grinning broadly, Mykillos handed two of the daggers to Gabrielle. Then, he planted his feet wide apart at the line drawn in the ground, took aim, and threw the knives. There were two dull thuds as they hit the target, quite close to the center. He turned to Gabrielle with a bow of mock gallantry.

"Give the girl a break, Mykillos," said one of the officers. "Let her take a couple of extra paces."

Ignoring the remark, Gabrielle took her position at the line and focused, raising her arm. The daggers slashed through the darkening air tinted by firelight.

Bull's-eye.

She breathed a small sigh of relief. After a brief pause, the officers clapped and cheered, and she took a measure of satisfaction in the disbelieving and indignant look on Mykillos' face.

"Hand it over," she said, smirking.

Muttering a curse, Mykillos unhooked the sword from his belt and shoved it in her hands.

"Want to go another round?" asked Berenice, clearly impressed.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Maybe some other time."

In a ridiculously better mood (as if she needed to prove to herself that she was still a capable warrior!), she returned with her trophy to her tent. Then, she was back on her way to see Xena.

Some minutes later, Gabrielle pushed aside the flap of Xena's tent, walked in and froze in her tracks.

Xena and Ares lay together, reclining on pelts and pillows in the corner of the tent -- she in her leather tunic, leaning back against his chest; he with his vest, belt and gauntlets off, his arms wrapped around her, his cheek pressed to the top of her head. Their eyes were closed, but Gabrielle was stunned by the look on their faces -- a wistful tenderness, as if they knew that this moment would be over too soon and yet were desperate to hold on to it. She watched, mesmerized, as Xena put her hand over Ares' and squeezed it lightly while his other hand stroked her hair, his fingers running gently through its dark strands.

Gabrielle felt embarrassed, resentful and moved all at once. She was about to get out and leave them alone when Ares' eyelids flickered half-open. It was only an instant before the softness was gone from his eyes, giving way to annoyance and then to the familiar sarcastic glint.

"Here comes the scribe," he said, sitting up and dislodging Xena from his chest.

Xena flinched and opened her eyes, casting an anxious look at Gabrielle.

"I could -- uh -- come back later," Gabrielle said.

"No, no. Come in," Xena said quickly.

Ares unhurriedly put on his vest and gauntlets -- the mortal way, Gabrielle noted -- and rose.

"Xena," she said uncomfortably, "could we talk ... alone?"

"Don't you take the prize for subtle hints," Ares said, buckling his belt. Before she could answer anything, he had vanished with the usual flare of blue light, but something -- maybe the hint of amusement that peeked through the sadness in Xena's eyes -- told her he hadn't really left. With a quick motion, she pulled a sai from one of her boots and sent it flying at the spot where he had last stood. It swished unimpeded through the air before crashing into a bowl of fruit that stood on a tripod by the wall and knocking it over.

"Gabrielle? What in Tartarus was that?"

"Sorry... I thought he was still here."

"He is," Ares' mocking voice said behind her. "Right instinct. Wrong direction."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and thought of throwing her other dagger at him but figured that he would just move to some other spot and make her look ridiculous again. She glanced questioningly at Xena.

"He's gone."

"I'm sorry I interrupted you."

"It's okay."

She came closer and sat down on the pelt next to Xena. They were silent for a few moments, and Gabrielle wondered if they had talked, really talked, even once in all those weeks since Xena took command of Ares' army. How could they, really, when there was so much to avoid?

"So, what have you been doing?" Xena asked.

"Oh, the usual. The bard thing." Even the light-hearted banter now seemed more like a clumsy attempt at a distraction. Gabrielle thought of telling Xena about the dagger-throwing contest, but then it occurred to her that Xena would make her give up the sword she had won from Mykillos. She wanted to keep it, just in case.

"I miss having you around," Xena said suddenly, her voice soft, almost timid.

"Me too."

In the next moment they were holding each other, and, very briefly, it was as if they didn't need to talk. Then, Xena pulled back and asked, "You wanted to speak to me about something?"

"Xena..." She took a deep breath. "Please let me fight tomorrow. I can't -- "

"No." Xena pressed a finger to her lips and shook her head. "No, Gabrielle. We've been over this. You are not fighting in this war."

She held Gabrielle's hands, and her touch was warm and gentle as always, but this time it wasn't enough.

 

* ~ * ~ *

From the top of the hill, one got a clear view of the two armies marching across the plain, the distance between them closing inexorably: the Greeks on one side, the Romans on the other.

Gabrielle watched, shivering a bit in the morning breeze. Down there was Xena, riding at the head of her troops -- still in her old armor and leathers, only instead of Argo, whom she never took into battle, she rode a sleek wild-maned black steed.

As the first rays of the sun fell on the plain, Gabrielle peered into the distance. There, behind the Roman legions, the city lay awake under the pale sky; further west, the sea dissolved into a whitish haze.

The Romans were clearly desperate; in the middle of the night, a small band of them had tried to set fire to Xena's camp in a sneak attack that was quickly repelled. Now, just as expected, Quintilius Gallo had led his legions out of the city gates for a battle in the open field.

Xena was down there ... and Gabrielle was up here on the hill, with a group of other non-combatants -- medics and armorers, a few officers from the reserve divisions that stayed in the camp behind them, and Phaleron, who had injured his sword arm in the skirmish the other night and was forced to sit this one out.

The two armies were now no more than two hundred yards apart.

There was another gust of wind; the bard picked up a cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, thinking of their conversation the night before, of the way Xena had avoided her eyes most of the time. Not for the first time, she asked herself how they had they come to this. Was it Ares' fault, or Xena's ... or hers? Maybe she should have never let Xena see how much the fighting and the killing was tearing her up inside. Maybe she should have never let her loyalty to the Amazons come before their bond. Maybe she should have tried to get Xena away from Ares before it was too late.

A blast of noise rose from the plain as the armies clashed, and for just a moment Gabrielle closed her eyes.

Maybe it wasn't really that bad. So Xena was leading an army now, but was it that different from what she did as a lone warrior? Maybe she was wrong not to trust Xena, after all those years, to do the right thing. Maybe she wasn't really concerned about what was best for Xena, just resentful -- jealous -- because she wasn't fighting at Xena's side ... and because when Xena was out there fighting, she belonged to Ares much more completely than she ever did in bed.

Gabrielle flinched and opened her eyes.

... Before long, the outnumbered Romans began to retreat, Xena's army pushing them back toward the main city gates. Gabrielle felt a vague anxiety. She was reminded of something -- the time when she and Xena looked down from a mountain ledge as Alcibiades' troops battled the armies of two warlords in Thessaly, and when the luck of the battle nearly turned against Alcibiades due to a surprise attack by a large contingent of the warlords' men who had been hiding in the woods.

"Phaleron," she said. "Do you think the Romans are retreating a little ... too easily?"

The priest of Ares shrugged, his eyes still on the field. "What, pray, is that supposed to mean?"

"What if there's a trap somewhere? What if they have more soldiers lying in wait?"

"There are three legions out there in the field." Phaleron spared her a disdainful glance. "We know from our scouts that the Romans don't have any more troops in the city."

The Romans were beginning to disperse; it seemed that in a matter of minutes now, Xena's forces would be at the gates. Then, slowly, the gates swung open -- and it happened: throngs of warriors streamed out, on horseback and on foot, charging into the fray. Gabrielle looked on, dazed, feeling trapped in a nightmare she couldn't stop. And there were still more Romans, coming from one of the side gates and attacking the left flank of Xena's army. The clouds of dust rising over the field made it hard to tell exactly what was happening, except that the battle was clearly raging with renewed vigor.

"Impossible!" For once, Phaleron's voice quavered. "They had no reserves!"

"Reinforcements must have come in." That was Pelopidas, one of the senior officers.

"Impossible," Phaleron repeated, somewhat less emphatically. "We had sentries watching all the roads into the city!"

"Maybe they came in by sea," said Pelopidas.

The warrior priest snorted. "Unnoticed?"

To Gabrielle, their voices seemed to come in from a great distance -- but sudden realization still hit her.

"The attack on the camp!"

"What about it?" Pelopidas asked. But Phaleron's eyes widened slightly in understanding, and for once he looked at the bard with something resembling respect.

"A diversion," he said thoughtfully. "They distracted us by setting fire to the camp, long enough for their boats to get into port. Very clever indeed. Very -- "

"Who cares how they got here," Gabrielle interrupted. "They're here, and they're attacking. We have to send in more soldiers."

"We? You're a scribe, not an officer, Gabrielle."

They glared at each other, she with exasperation, he with barely disguised hostility. When Gabrielle turned back to the field, she saw that three cavalrymen had separated themselves from the seething, battling mass of humanity and were racing toward the hill. One of them abruptly lurched forward and fell, struck down by an arrow or a spear -- it was too far to see. His horse reared up in fright, then dashed after the other two riders, dragging the dead man behind it with his foot caught in the stirrup; after a while, it made a sharp curve and galloped off toward the woods on the edge of the plain.

"We're sending in more men," Phaleron said. "Pelopidas, go get them ready."

Gabrielle let out her breath as the officer turned and walked back to the camp.

The two horsemen, now almost at the foot of the hill, were waving frantically. She fought the impulse to race toward them -- she wasn't sure her feet would carry her, anyway -- and instead waited and watched them make their way up, feeling as though she were enveloped in some invisible but dense fog.

"What's happening?" Phaleron asked as the first man to reach them halted his horse.

"It's ... not good, my lord." The man paused, catching his breath. "Lysander and Mnester are dead ... about two hundred of our men have been cut off by the Romans and cornered by the city walls ... and ... Xena is with them."

The fog cleared, and Gabrielle knew with perfect clarity what she had to do. Her legs were steady now as she turned and bolted toward the camp.

"Just a minute." Phaleron's hand clamped down on her arm. "Where are you going?"

"To get my horse and my sword. I'm going in."

"No, you're not. You're a scribe. Xena forbade you to go into battle. You took an oath." She tried to free herself but, even with his left hand, the priest of Ares was able to maintain a strong grip. "On your honor as an Amazon queen."

That gave her pause, but only for a moment. No, she would never again let her duties as an Amazon come between her and Xena.

"An Amazon queen doesn't sit out a battle when her friend needs her," she said. "Let go."

"You don't even have any armor."

"That never stopped me before."

"Do they even make armor in her size?" guffawed Phaleron's aide, Cotys, who stood nearby. "Oh, wait -- maybe for kids at the training academy."

While he was snickering at his own joke, Gabrielle wrenched her arm from Phaleron's grasp, whirled around and kicked Cotys' legs out from under him. He sprawled backwards, a stunned and indignant look on his round face. Now it was some of the others who laughed -- Cotys wasn't too popular -- but Gabrielle barely heard it. Before Phaleron could say anything else, she sprinted back to her tent.

Some minutes later, armed and on horseback, she caught up with Pelopidas on the hilltop as he was taking the reinforcements, cavalry and infantry, out into the field. The officer, one of the few with whom she'd gotten to be friendly, shot her a surprised look.

"Gabrielle? I thought -- "

"There's no time to think."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Phaleron making his way toward her, shouting something. She spurred on her horse, racing ahead of Pelopidas, and he sped up too. They galloped toward the battlefield side by side without another word .

All of Gabrielle's mind had knotted into a single thought -- Please let it not be too late -- but then, another idea shot through her head. Wouldn't Ares come to Xena's aid if she was really in trouble? With a shock, she realized that she didn't know. Ares had his principles, and one of them, apparently, was that he didn't bail out his chosen warriors; they were supposed to be good enough to take care of themselves. Would he bend those rules for Xena? Maybe ... but the bottom line was that she couldn't count on Ares. Her lips tight, she gave the horse another kick in the sides and heard it neigh in alarm.

They had almost reached the battleground when there was a low whistling sound, and several blurry grey streaks cut through the air. Then another sound came, followed by a startled outcry behind her. She turned to see Pelopidas sway in the saddle, his hands going toward his throat where a barbed arrow was sticking out, and then slump and crumple heavily to the ground. Her eyes fell on droplets of blood on her knee, and her mind registered the fact that another arrow had grazed her arm. Behind her, the men seemed to hesitate.

"Follow me!"

The shout rang out above the din of the battle, and it took Gabrielle an extra second to realize that it was her own voice. The soldiers looked at her doubtfully, still hanging back. Her voice rose in fury as she yelled "Come on!" and drove into the fray, running her sword through the first Roman to block her path and then yanking it out, bright and wet with death. The others were behind her now, and Gabrielle pushed forward, cutting her path through the human thicket.

She had no idea how much time had passed, how many Romans she had struck down, or in how many places her own body was cut and bleeding. The tide of the battle had turned again, and almost everywhere the Romans were on the run, but Xena was still nowhere to be seen, still trapped somewhere by the city walls. And then Gabrielle saw her -- soaring high over enemy ranks, flipping in the air, and disappearing from view again.

The Amazon bard froze, losing her focus for a moment, and barely had time to duck a swishing blade that almost took her head off. Before she could regain her balance and strike back, the assailant tackled her, and they both went tumbling down.. Gabrielle found herself pinned underneath the much bigger Roman, her sword lying a few feet away, as he tried to aim the tip of his weapon at her throat.

Squirming desperately, she pushed him off just enough to be able to twist her body and reach one of her sais. The man's hand closed around her neck. She struggled for air, her vision growing blurry, but she still managed to drive the dagger into his thigh. His eyes bulged and he cursed, spraying her face with spit; she slashed again, and the hold on her neck was weakened enough for her to wriggle free. Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and slammed her boot into the Roman's face. With a howl of pain, he clutched at his nose with his left hand. She kicked again, knocking his sword from his grasp and catching it in mid-flight. Then, gasping for breath, she spun around, her eyes riveted to where she had last seen Xena.

And there she was, sword raised high, hair flying in the wind, leading a charge toward the gates.

She was all right.

Gabrielle turned to see her opponent rise and stagger toward her. She brought him down with another powerful kick and ran his own sword through his neck.

* ~ * ~ *

The heavy, silver-plated, ornate doors of the Roman government building groaned and shook under the battering ram and finally gave way.

The stately building with heavyset marble columns was the last patch of territory the Romans still held in Salonae. Quintilius Gallo had fled with what remained of his legions, and Xena's army had entered the city with no resistance. But it wasn't quite over yet, and Xena remained fully alert, fully focused as she strode into the ostentatious lobby. A bowstring snapped and sang overhead, and she looked up sharply to see the shooter on a mezzanine, in time to catch the arrow with her left hand and throw the chakram with her right.

Her soldiers were going off in all directions, up the stairs and down the hallways, past a handful of cowering clerks and servants who were still in building. Xena spotted a small band of Roman soldiers, fewer than a dozen, standing by a door at the end of a corridor. With her officers behind her, she headed that way. The fools were obviously determined to die on their post, and she quickly obliged hem.

When the door was flung open, the smell of burning hit Xena's nostrils. She saw a lanky, balding man standing by the fireplace, throwing parchments into the blaze -- some sort of official documents, no doubt. He turned, and she recognized him from the busts she had seen in the towns her army had taken: Flavius Bolanus, the Roman governor of Illyricum.

Bolanus had been a military commander once, and it was still evident in his bearing and in the resolute way he reached for the sword propped up by the wall -- though he was at least fifty now, and clad in a toga that was likely to hamper his movements. For a few moments, he stood there pointing the sword at Xena and seemed to ponder his next move, as if he actually had a chance; only the blinking of his eyes and the way his left hand was balled into a white-knuckled fist indicated that he knew how hopeless his plight was. He looked from Xena to the warriors behind her. Then, with a swift motion, Bolanus turned the tip of the blade toward his own chest. His hand shook momentarily, and the delay was enough for Xena's chakram to knock the sword out of his hand, the metal clanging on the marble floor. The governor of Illyricum was more useful alive than dead.

She caught the chakram, intercepting the admiring glances of her men, and said casually, as if she gave such orders every day, "Chain him. Get him out of here."

As Bolanus was dragged away, the Warrior Princess let her eyes wander aimlessly around the study. It was really over now. There had been a moment, back when the Romans had her trapped by the walls and she watched her soldiers falling and dying around her, when rage burst inside her head like a ball of white lightning and took over -- not blind rage but the opposite, focused and aware and yet savage enough that she would have gladly killed every Roman within her reach. But that had long subsided, and now the intoxication of combat and victory was beginning to wear off too; she even became concsious of her injuries -- the hastily bandaged wound above her knee, the jagged cut on the arm where an arrow had slashed her skin, thankfully without hitting bone or muscle.

And then Xena was aware of something else: the familiar tingle of Ares' presence, only now her awareness of it was heightened. The knowledge that he was watching her brought back an almost dizzying surge of pleasure in a battle well-fought and won, along with a jolt of sexual excitement that made her close her eyes.

"Everyone out," she said in a level voice.

After the officers and soldiers had filed out, Xena turned toward where the God of War stood. It was a few more seconds before he appeared. He stared at her without coming any closer; his lips were parted, and his eyes glowed faintly as if reflecting nearly extinguished embers.

She walked up to him, clasped her hands on the back of his neck, and pulled his mouth down to hers.

They had never made love like this, after a battle -- though in her warlord days, she had teased him maddeningly with the possibility, as part of that cat-and-mouse game of hers. It was something Ares had imagined many times, and yet now something made him hesitate for an instant. But she was already tugging at the laces on his pants while backing him into a high mahogany chair by the wall, never breaking the kiss, and the need to have her swept aside everything else. What presence of mind he had left went into sealing the door shut with a wave of his hand. He ripped away her undergarment and tried to unhook her breastplate, but Xena grabbed his arms, tearing her lips away from his, and pushed him down on the chair.

She undid his pants and straddled him. Then she kissed him again, a low growl vibrating in her throat, and slid down on his cock. The sensation almost shocked him; he wanted to tell her to go slow, to let him touch her, but the sheer bliss of being inside her was too much ... Tartarus, let her do whatever she wants. Her hands roamed his chest, throwing his vest open. It made him draw in his breath and arch into her -- and just then, his gasp turned into one of pain as Xena twisted his nipples hard enough to hurt even his immortal flesh.

She did it again, even more violently. Ares jerked his head away from her, freeing his mouth, and hissed, "Stop that."

Xena smirked at him, a hard glitter in her eyes. "What? Too rough for the God of War?"

Before he could say anything else, she claimed his mouth in another kiss, still pulling and twisting his nipples. He seized her wrists, wrenching her arms behind her back, and she chuckled into his mouth and then sank her teeth into his lower lip. She couldn't draw blood, which seemed only to drive her to greater frenzy, but she was hurting him all right, and he felt anger rising inside him, mixing with lust and with the residual thrill of the morning's battle. Oh, it's blood you want? I'll give you blood.

A salty, tangy, slightly metallic taste filled Ares' mouth as he bit Xena's lip, and seconds later her body shook in a wild spasm, her inner muscles clenching around him. His arousal shot up to an almost impossible intensity; releasing her arms, he grabbed her shoulders and threw her down on the floor, slamming into her again and again until orgasm ripped through him like a sheet of flame.

He wasn't sure how long he lay on top of her after it finally ended. He knew, more as a flash of realization than as a coherent thought, that this was what he had once hoped to attain with Xena, this was what had first made him pursue her years ago when she was still a warlord in his service -- the promise of this perfect union of sex and battle-lust that, in thousands of years, he had found only with two or three Amazon queens.

He pulled himself up and looked at her.

Xena lay still, her eyes closed, her breathing uneven. Dark blood ran from her lip, trickling down her chin and her neck. There was a bleeding bite on her chest as well, right above the breastplate; the imprints of his fingers on her shoulders were turning purple, and he saw red scratches next to those marks.

Ares sat up and pressed his palms to his temples, shaking his head as if trying to clear his vision. A wave of nausea, almost as powerful as the pleasure had been, rolled to his throat and made him gag, bringing back memories of some of his less enjoyable mortal moments. Even now, he probably would have thrown up if he'd had any food in his stomach.

He reached out to stroke her face but jerked his fingers away as she opened her eyes. For a moment, there was stark terror in her mute stare before it changed to anguish.

"Xena..." he whispered, gingerly reaching out again, wiping the blood from her lip.

"I'm okay." Her voice was barely audible.

His nipples were still smarting a bit, but that was nothing compared to the dull pain inside his chest. He longed to hold her, yet somehow couldn't bring himself to take her in his arms now. He touched her hand, only to notice that her wrist was bruised as well, and brushed his fingertips over the reddened skin. She shivered.

They stayed like this a little while longer, until Ares rose to his feet, using his powers to readjust his clothes.

"Up you go," he said gently, holding out his hand.

Another moment passed before she took his hand and got up. Their eyes met again, and the War God struggled for words to say something, anything, but finally gave up. He waved at the door, unsealing it, and took himself back to Olympus.

 

* ~ * ~ *

After the blue light faded, Xena paced slowly around the study. It was hard to tell which of the aches and pains all over her body came from the battle, and which from her coupling with Ares. She ran her tongue over the torn, burning flesh of her lip, which was already starting to swell. Looking down, she realized that the leg wound had reopened too, fresh blood soaking through the stained bandage. But that didn't matter; she always healed quickly, and she was used to blocking out pain. Far worse was the knowledge that she and Ares had come to this. Maybe she had been fooling herself all along; maybe everything that had happened between them from the moment of their first union that night in the field had led to this ... Xena's eye fell on Bolanus' sword, still lying where it had landed when her chakram had knocked it from his hand. She kicked it, making it slide across the floor with a scraping sound.

A noise outside drew her attention. Xena went to the window and pushed it open. Out there, men and women were dancing and singing, hugging each other, even hugging her soldiers; amidst the chanting and the cheers, she thought she heard her own name.

Xena sighed and straightened up, ignoring the soreness in her back. She had an army to run and business to attend to. She walked briskly to the door and beckoned to her officers to come in. If any of them wondered what had happened to her lip, they weren't about to show it.

She listened to the casualty reports, belatedly heavy-hearted at the thought that so many warriors were dead because she had slipped up and let the Romans trick her.

"What about Pelopidas' regiment -- whom are you going to put in his place?" asked one of the officers, Callippus. "You know, you could do worse than give it to that woman who took over when he was killed."

Xena looked up at him.

"What woman?"

"Not sure who she is, but I saw it myself. She was riding next to Pelopidas, then he got shot, and she was the one who rallied the soldiers and led them into battle. That girl can fight, I'll tell you that much!" He shook his head admiringly. "Couldn't have done better if she'd been taking lessons from you."

No. It couldn't be.

"And she didn't look like much," Callippus continued. "No taller than this" -- he held out his hand -- "and she wasn't even wearing armor..."

He stopped, taken aback by Xena's glare.

After the first flash of anger, she felt a strange hollowness inside. It was as if someone she loved had died, yet again, and she had been helpless to prevent it.

"Oh yeah -- that was Gabrielle, the scribe," said another officer, Argyron. "I saw her today -- I'd no idea she could fight like that! Say, Xena, if she's that good, how come you didn't send her out into the field bef --"

Her look cut him off even before she spoke.

"I hope you're not questioning my judgment," she said.

"O- of course not."

She was going to send for Gabrielle, but just then, the door opened and a grim-faced Phaleron came in, pulling her by the arm with unnecessary roughness, since the bard wasn't resisting. Her face and her body were streaked with caked mud and blood, the one almost impossible to tell from the other. She looked resigned and slightly dazed, until her eyes met Xena's and came to life again. Before she could think, Xena's hand went up to cover her mouth. Then she got up from her seat and turned away.

"She fought well, Xena," Phaleron said. "Under any other circumstances, she would deserve the highest honors. But she directly disobeyed your orders, and I suggest -- "

"Phaleron." Xena's voice was dangerously low. "I suggest that you let go of her right now. I also suggest that you remember what I've told you: I do not take orders from you." She paused. "Now, leave us alone. Everyone."

After a minute she heard the door slam shut, and then Gabrielle said, "Xena? They're gone."

She stood still, staring into the fireplace where the remnants of the fire had died long ago.

"Won't you even look at me?" Gabrielle's voice had a shrill edge.

Xena spun around, and the bard gasped.

"Xena --" she raised a finger to her own lips.

"It doesn't matter."

"This isn't from the battle, is it," she said quietly. "Did -- did he do this?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Gabrielle came closer, squinting in disbelief.

"Oh gods, Xena ... and here too..." -- she pointed to the mark on her chest -- "and this..." She touched Xena's scratched and bruised shoulders and tried to hug her, but Xena held her at bay, suddenly irritated at being fussed over.

"I gave as good as I got," she snapped, only to regret it immediately when she saw her friend's horrified look.

"Xena, what's happening to you? This isn't you..."

"Oh? And this is you?" She gestured brusquely toward the bloodstains on Gabrielle's skin. "Dammit, Gabrielle -- I thought I could trust you!"

"Trust me to do what?" Gabrielle's voice rose again. "Stand by while the Romans have you surrounded?"

"I was doing fine."

"Oh of course... the great Warrior Princess couldn't possibly need my help!"

"You know that's not what this is about. You took an oath. You lied to me."

"You had no right to ask for that kind of oath!"

"It was for -- "

"For my own good? Don't even say it." Gabrielle's mouth twisted in a bitter sneer that looked wrong, so very wrong on her face. "Whom are you really trying to protect, Xena? You want me to be this untainted little innocent so you can go on thinking you have something pure in your life -- while you lead Ares' army ... while you become everything Ares ever wanted you to be!"

Xena's cheeks were burning worse than her damaged lip. She remembered the words Ares had thrown at her that night in the field, just before they made love for the first time. Everything you do is because you want to like yourself... She felt the tears welling up.

"Oh, Gabrielle... Sometimes I think it would have been better if we had never met -- better for you..."

Gabrielle's face crumbled for a moment before the anger came back.

"Don't ever say that. Don't." It was an accusation, not a plea. "Don't tell me that all these years have been for nothing..." She stopped and laughed bitterly. "Including the twenty-five years we were stuck in an ice cave thanks to your boyfriend."

Xena looked down; when she raised her head again, Gabrielle's eyes were soft and hurt.

"Xena..." She reached out and took Xena's hand. "Let's get out of here."

"What?"

"Let's leave. Now. Forget about your deal with Ares. Let him find himself another commander."

Shaking her head, the Warrior Princess gently squeezed Gabrielle's bare, spattered shoulders.

"I can't, Gabrielle. I can't. But you can."

"You know I'm not leaving you."

Xena walked back to the desk and sat down. After a long silence, she said, "I want to tell you something."

"What?"

She forced herself to look straight at Gabrielle.

"Whatever happens, you are always going to be purest thing in my life. And I will always love you." She paused, because what she had to say next was even harder. "I don't know if I'm doing this for you or for me, but I have to do it."

"Do what?" Gabrielle asked warily.

"My army will be leaving Salonae in three days. Some of the troops will remain stationed here, with Theramenes in charge. I ... I want you to stay too."

"Xe-- "

"No, wait. You can do some good here, Gabrielle, caring for the wounded -- for the prisoners ... You'll have the authority, I'll give Theramenes the orders. But you are not to go outside Salonae, you understand? Try to leave the city and you'll be stopped. Try to rejoin the army, and you'll be brought back here. And that's final," she added as Gabrielle opened her mouth again.

She rose, came up to Gabrielle and drew her into a too-fierce hug. The bard raised her hands hesitantly, her palms almost but not quite touching Xena's shoulders.

"So he finally got you to get rid of me," she said in a soft, hollow voice.

"No one's getting rid of anyone." Xena stifled back tears. "I'll be back when the war's over. We'll be together again. I promise." If you still want me in your life.

 

* ~ * ~ *

"I miss Gabrielle, you know." Getting no answer, Xena sighed and continued, "You don't understand that, do you. I know you and she haven't always gotten along ... I guess you just don't know her the way I do."

Argo was eating an apple from her hand, her lips flopping wetly around Xena's fingers as she stroked the mare's smooth neck and let the warmth spread under her skin. When the last of the apple was gone, she patted Argo's muzzle, feeling the animal's soft breath in her palm.

She shook her head. What was she thinking? It was the old Argo that Gabrielle hadn't always gotten along with. Did she, after all this time, still have trouble dealing with the idea of those missing twenty-five years?

"It's too bad you didn't know Gabrielle in the old days." She took another apple out of her satchel. "Yeah ... I miss her." And the old Argo, too, sometimes... "Funny, isn't it. I don't take you into battle either, but you're not going to start complaining about it or go behind my back..."

As Argo munched contentedly, Xena reflected that Ares hadn't been around either since the day she had told Gabrielle to stay in Salonae. It had been over a month -- a month in which she had led his army to victory after victory, chasing the Romans out of Illyria, taking part of Gaul, and finally entering Italy itself. Well, he had been around, lurking and watching her sometimes, but he hadn't made himself visible even once, and she hadn't called him out.

Argo snorted gently into her neck, nuzzling her. With a wistful smile, Xena scratched her behind the ear.

"I guess we're on our own now, girl."

She heard someone coming toward Argo's enclosure and turned to see Argyron.

"The messenger from Ariminum is here."

She straightened out her shoulders, her face hardening into resolve.

"What does he have to say?"

"She will only speak to you."

"Very well, then. I'll see her in my tent right away."

The woman waiting in the tent was no more than twenty, nearly as tall as Xena and of slender build, accentuated by her long, plain, silvery-grey gown. It was possible to imagine emotion and even warmth in that beautiful chiseled face, but right now it held none.

"Xena," she said in a firm, expressionless voice.

"And who are you?"

"Lavinia Silana," she said in the clipped tones of a soldier reporting to a commanding officer. "My father, Lavinius Torquatus, is the chief magistrate of Ariminum."

"So you are the messenger they sent to me." Xena walked over to her rug-covered seat, one of her trophies from Salonae -- a chair whose silver back was formed by two crossed curved sabers -- and sat down, then pointed to a stool.

"Take a seat."

"No. For what I have to say, I'd rather remain standing."

Xena met the steady gaze of her pale hazel eyes, and knew with resignation what she was about to hear.

"I take it you're not here to negotiate a surrender."

"I'm here to tell you that every man in Ariminum is prepared to fight to the death. So is every woman. And every child old enough to hold a slingshot." On those last words, Lavinia's voice trembled a bit and her jaw twitched. "We can't beat you, Xena. We know that. But there will be no surrender."

Xena turned away. "It's not too late to reconsider."

"Yes, it is."

The shrill edge in the messenger's voice made her look up again.

"What are you talking about?"

In the next instant, she knew: her warriors whom Quintilius Gallo had captured at Salonae and taken with him in his retreat to Ariminum.

"The prisoners ..."

Lavinia looked her straight in the eye, calm again, except that her hands were clasped together too tightly.

They stared at each other in an almost unbearable stillness, as if waiting for something to happen, and finally it did. A commotion was heard outside, and then Argyron stuck his head into the tent. He looked grim.

"Xena, you should come out here."

"What's going on?"

"They've thrown some bodies from the city walls."

"Our men," she said flatly.

"We haven't retrieved the bodies yet, but -- it sure looks like it."

Xena never flinched; yet she felt rage gripping her, like an iron ring tightening slowly around her head. She turned back to Lavinia.

"It's no different than what you did to the governor of Illyricum," the young woman blurted out, and for just a second something in her manner suggested a defiant teenager rather than an intrepid Roman.

Xena narrowed her eyes. "Bolanus was killed trying to escape. It was an accident."

"So you say."

After a brief pause, Xena rose abruptly.

"You wanted to make sure there was no way back."

"If you want to take Ariminum," Lavinia said, "you'll have to kill every last one of us."

From somewhere in the past, Xena's own voice exploded inside her head. Kill them all!

"Well," she said with a chilly smile, her tone almost conversational, "since you ask so nicely..."

Lavinia stood very straight, her head thrown back, her eyes on the Warrior Princess.

"Argyron," Xena said. "Make sure she gets safely back inside the city walls." As the officer eyed her expectantly, she added, "And gather the troops. I'll speak to them as soon as they're ready. We attack tomorrow."

She looked at Roman messenger, and then turned back to Argyron.

"There will be no quarter."

 

* ~ * ~ *

The moon, creamy white and almost perfectly round, rolled out from behind a thick cloud and shone down on the camp, otherwise lit only by a few sparse torches. Gabrielle glanced around warily; it would be easier to find Xena's tent in the moonlight, but she also ran a higher risk of getting caught before she made it. Her disguise had been good enough for the sentries, who had ogled her appreciatively in her tiny, form-hugging yellow dress decorated with bright multicolored beads, and had easily believed that she was a working girl plying her trade. With any luck, she wouldn't run into anyone who knew her ... or if she did, the garish makeup and red wig would successfully conceal her identity.

She suddenly realized how tired, sore and hungry she was after seven days of nearly non-stop riding. She had stayed in Salonae for three weeks, and for the first two of them she had almost persuaded herself that she wasn't going back -- until one morning when, following a nearly sleepless night, she knew for sure that nothing would keep her away from Xena. She belonged at Xena's side; that's where she was needed most, perhaps more than ever now that Xena was determined to keep her away.

After that, devising an escape plan had been a cinch.

Now, all she had to do was get to Xena.

There was a noise behind her and then a crude laugh.

"Hello, gorgeous!" a man's voice called out.

Gabrielle turned around and saw two soldiers leering at her.

"Wanna party, baby?" snickered the shorter one.

"Thanks, boys." She put on her best seductive voice. "But I'm afraid I've, uh, already got a date for the evening."

"Oh yeah? With whom?" asked the second soldier.

She had to come up with something on the spot. "Mykillos."

"Never heard of him," snorted the first man. "Can't be that important."

"So you'll be late for your date," said the other. "No big deal."

Before she could turn away, the shorter man grabbed her and tried to kiss her, his breath reeking of garlic and cheap wine. Gabrielle jammed her knee into the man's stomach and he staggered back with a gasp -- but not before he had managed to grab her fake hair so that the wig came off in his hand. He stared at it in confusion for a moment and then broke into loud guffaws, joined by his companion.

"Looks like you're gonna have to kiss me if you want your hair back," he taunted.

She looked at him uncertainly, trying to decide if she should try to retrieve the wig or just sprint for it and hope to reach Xena's tent unrecognized.

"Hey," said a familiar woman's voice, and the men straightened up, the look on their faces changing to one of deference. "What's going on?"

Gabrielle turned around and saw Berenice, the officer who had been there the evening she beat Mykillos in a dagger-throwing contest. Dammit ... it would have to be someone who knew her. Now she could only hope the woman would be in a helpful mood.

"Sorry, ma'am," one of the soldiers mumbled. "Just, uh, questioning the girl to see if she's, uh, any trouble." Berenice's eyes widened slightly in surprise. "Says she's on her way to see a customer ... what was the name again? Oh yeah, Mykillos."

Berenice gave Gabrielle a probing look and then said curtly, "Okay, on your way, fellas. Don't make me find out if you've been drinking."

Scowling, the man threw the wig back at Gabrielle, and the two of them walked away, disappearing in the forest of tents.

"What are you up to?" Berenice asked. "You're not really here to see Mykillos, are you?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

"He's dead, you know," Berenice said drily. "Roman archer got him last week."

The bard looked down, twisting the ridiculous red wig in her hands. She felt a jab of sadness, and was unaccountably contrite over the way she had humiliated the man in front of his friends.

"I'm sorry," she muttered, lifting her eyes again.

"I know he was a jerk, but the guy really did like you. Just wasn't very good at showing it, I guess." Berenice shrugged and gave a little head shake. "He said you stayed behind in Salonae."

"I did." Evidently, Berenice didn't know she was banned from the camp. So far, so good. "I just got back."

"So what are you doing dressed like this? Not enough money in the bard business?"

"It's just a disguise in case I ran into some Romans," she said quickly.

Berenice eyed her suspiciously but then seemed to relent.

"Well, if you're looking for action to write about, you've sure got good timing."

For a moment, Gabrielle's heart stopped beating. Then she whispered, "What?"

"Tomorrow morning, we attack Ariminum. No quarter." Berenice's voice was businesslike. "Xena's orders."

There was no time, right now, to feel sick.

"Berenice ... take me to Xena's tent. Please?"

"I don't know..." The woman looked doubtful. "She must be pretty busy, getting ready for the big day..."

Somehow, Gabrielle managed not to sound too desperate.

"Please, Berenice. I know she'll want to see me."

After a few torturous moments, she said, "All right, come with me."

As they walked through the sleeping camp, Berenice talked about the killing of the prisoners and the Romans' challenge, and Gabrielle tried her best to quiet her racing mind so she could think of what to say to Xena. She could already see the familiar outline of the command tent with its feathered top when a tall figure emerged into the moonlight and stopped, turning toward them.

Even before Gabrielle saw who it was, something told her this was bad.

And then, with the numbing feeling that all was lost, she found herself staring at Phaleron.

"What's this?" the priest of Ares asked.

"Phaleron," Berenice said, her tone cool but deferential. "It's not what it looks like -- this is Gabrielle, the scribe. She -- "

"I know who this is," Phaleron cut her off. "Do you know that she was under strict orders not to leave Salonae?"

"No, I don't ... I didn't," Berenice said slowly, glancing at Gabrielle with a mix of sympathy and annoyance.

Perhaps if she bolted right now and raced straight to Xena's tent, she'd make it.

Phaleron's hands clamped down on her shoulders.

"You're under arrest."

She succeeded in freeing herself, but even energy spurred by desperation wasn't enough for her to make more than a few steps before she was tackled and knocked to the ground.

"Berenice," she called out as Phaleron bound her hands with her own belt, "please tell Xena I'm here."

"If you value your rank, Berenice, you'll do no such thing," Phaleron said. "Xena has enough to think about right now without being bothered by her nonsense."

He hoisted Gabrielle up to her feet, just in time for her to see Berenice shrug almost regretfully and walk away.

 

* ~ * ~ *

Xena settled into her bedroll, pulling the fur covers up to her chin.

The preparations for the battle had kept her busy for the past few hours; but now, there was nothing left to do but wait for the morning. Now, it was just her, alone with the past and the future.

Not quite alone: with a tiny shiver, she sensed the presence of the God of War. She lay silently and waited, as she had may times in these past weeks, knowing by now that he wasn't going to appear. For the first time, she broke down and said quietly, "Ares."

He was so close that she could feel his warmth, so close that she thought she could touch him if she held out her hand. And then he wasn't there anymore.

She sighed and turned over on her side, closing her eyes.

The rage that had gripped her when she saw the bodies of the prisoners, some stabbed and others beheaded, had abated by now. But she still felt a grim pleasure at the thought that at this very moment, the Romans behind those city walls were terrified of her, that her mere name made them tremble.

It was too familiar, that feeling. If she held any real beliefs in her days as the Destroyer of Nations, foremost among them was the conviction that fear was the one human emotion that could be trusted. Love, admiration, respect -- all these could be faked. When they feared you, you knew it was for real.

Well, they feared her now ... even Gabrielle, probably. Maybe even Ares. Big bad God of War, afraid of a girl. A bitter smirk twisted her lips.

Obviously, she wasn't going to sleep. Xena threw the covers aside, got up and lit an oil lamp by her bedside. The pale, yellowish ghost of her own face stared at her from the side of a silver pitcher.

She could take Ariminum tomorrow and then go on to Rome. She had little doubt that she'd be victorious. And then the war would be over, and she would return to Gabrielle ... or would she?

Xena thought back to the time she fought the Horde. Back then, Gabrielle had been horrified by her willingness to do what she thought was necessary to win -- and in the end, the bard's stubborn belief in the value of compassion had helped her, Xena, hold on to her own humanity and find a better way than indiscriminate killing. But there wasn't always a better way. If Gabrielle were with her now, would she do all she could to stop the massacre -- or fight right alongside her? She wasn't sure of the answer, and that frightened her.

This wasn't just about facing Gabrielle, or facing Eve. The war would be over, and she would return -- to what?

She poured herself some water, put the pitcher down and drank slowly.

Kill them all.

It wasn't the same, really. Not like when she and her army laid waste to cities and villages in her native Greece. Not like the things for which she had spent all those years trying to atone. This time, she was fighting Rome.

Just as she was fighting Rome back in Britannia ... when her obsession with revenge against Caesar had caused Gabrielle to shed blood for the first time.

This time, she had tried to protect Gabrielle from following a path that threatened to destroy her soul. And now, she was about to destroy her own soul ... and Gabrielle's, more likely than not.

She wondered, not for the first time, if Ares had drawn her into this. Then, she knew that it didn't matter. Ever since she had taken over Alcibiades' army, she had told herself that she had no choice. But there was always a choice.

The truth was that some part of her, the dark part that would always be there, had wanted to do this, had reveled in the power and the conquest ... and she had let it happen.

Oh, she had done an excellent job of telling herself that she was fighting for the Greater Good, that this was different from what she had done as a leader of armies in the old days.

It was different all right. But after tomorrow, there would be no denying that, in too many ways that mattered, it was the same.

 

* ~ * ~ *

The pallet on the floor of the tent was so thin and lumpy that finding a comfortable position -- or even one that wasn't wretchedly uncomfortable -- turned out to be a lost cause. The manacles chafing at Gabrielle's wrists didn't help.

She felt like walking around, but the chain that fastened her manacles to the pole in the middle of the tent wasn't quite long enough to even let her stand. She sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest, huddled as if she were cold.

The guard who had brought her bread and water (at least she no longer had a gnawing emptiness in her stomach adding to her misery) had eyed her as if she were some unusual, amusing but not particularly appealing small animal. Probably wondering, she thought, why some bedraggled whore was being held in a tent reserved for detainees from Xena's own ranks. She had to look awful, that ridiculous dress torn while she struggled with Phaleron, her hair matted, her face dirty and streaked with tears.

Among the thoughts swirling in Gabrielle's mind, a vivid memory floated to the surface: how, shortly after she and Xena first met, she tagged along to the tomb of Xena's brother; how Xena talked to the dead Lyceus and said softly, "It's hard to be alone"; and how the eager, clumsy, long-haired, wide-eyed kid she was then -- had that really been her? -- spoke up: "You're not alone."

And now, Xena was alone again ... or, worse yet, with him. And she, Gabrielle, was as alone as anyone could be.

Maybe one really could find comfort in talking to the dead.

 

* ~ * ~ *

Fully dressed now, Xena lifted the flap of her tent and looked outside. The two guards at the entrance jerked to attention, somewhat shocked to see her up.

"Peleas," she said to one of them, "go get all the regiment commanders. I need to see them in my tent."

The mute question in the man's eyes was, Right now? Aloud, he said, "Yes, my lady."

Xena watched him as he walked away, and then went back and sat down in her chair. She no longer felt restless. Gabrielle had told her she could trust her to do the right thing, and she would do it.

 

* ~ * ~ *

"Eli? I'm not sure where you are ... I'm not sure you can hear me... but I could really use some of your wisdom right now."

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her now-dry eyes. There were distant voices outside, and the cold moonlight poured in through a small window cut in the side of the tent.

"I wonder if you know what Xena's about to do. I mean, you know she's not that kind of person anymore, right?" The kind who'd take a town and slaughter everyone in it ... "She spent years becoming someone different ... making up for the bad things she did ... and now she's about to lose it all." Her voice dropped to a mere breath. "How could that happen, Eli? How did it happen?"

She tried to evoke the image of Eli in her mind, his eyes gentle and smiling at her, but all that came to her was his face in the agony of death.

"Maybe it was all my fault," she said tonelessly. "You taught me the way of love and peace, and I walked away from it." She had turned to violence because she didn't care about anything except helping Xena -- and then, before she knew it, she was living a warrior's life, fighting and killing left and right... "What could I do? I had to look out for Xena ... for Eve ... for your followers... for the Amazons... I got to be a little too good at fighting. And when you're good at fighting, people expect a lot from you."

She paused, not sure if she was waiting for an answer.

"I guess I made a mess of things," she said. "I thought I was doing what was best. I gave up the way of peace, but I wasn't cut out to be a warrior either. Xena could see that ... that's why she wanted to protect me, even if it meant losing her own way ..."

Gabrielle sat still for a moment, listening to the silence. She felt the tears coming on again.

"Eli ... if you can hear me, please help her," she whispered hoarsely. "You wouldn't abandon her just to punish me for leaving your path, would you? Please help her."

She buried her face in her knees and wept quietly in defeat.

And then, a familiar voice that was definitely not Eli's said, "Very touching speech. You ought to get it published."

 

* ~ * ~ *

As the flap of the tent went up, Xena turned her head sharply and saw Phaleron.

"You called the commanders to a meeting," he said, without bothering to greet her. "Why?"

"You'll find out soon enough, when they get here."

"They're not coming yet. I told Peleas to hold off on summoning them until he hears from me."

She rose abruptly from her seat.

"You countermanded my order?"

"I merely delayed its execution." He bowed with a deference that came across as fake and slightly mocking. "I wanted to know your reasons first. After all, I am your second in command."

"Well, that's just it, Phaleron," she said, smiling wryly; soon, he wouldn't be her problem anymore. "You're second. Don't forget it."

If her words stung, his face didn't show it.

"I am also the priest of your patron god." He paused. "Why would you wake the commanders in the middle of the night before a battle? Surely you can tell me that much. Is there a change of plans?"

"There isn't going to be a battle."

Phaleron raised his thin eyebrows.

"You're postponing it?"

"I'm calling it off."

"You mean, we're bypassing Ariminum and moving on to Rome?"

Xena wondered if his puzzled look was entirely sincere.

"We're not moving on to Rome. We're pulling back."

"You can't do that."

She chuckled. "Watch me."

"Let me tell you something, Xena." He came up close to her, so close he was almost in her face. "You aren't just fighting this war for yourself, you're fighting it for Ares."

"Let me tell you something." She gave him a scornful look. "I always have my own reasons when I fight. Or when I don't fight."

She stepped toward the exit, but the priest of Ares blocked her way, his chilly composure momentarily giving way to undisguised fury.

"Ares -- "

"Trust me, Phaleron. If it's between Ares and me, I will deal with it my way," she said in a deliberately insinuating voice. "Right now, I'm calling my commanders. We have nothing else to talk about."

"You're right," Phaleron said, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. "There's been enough talk."

She glanced down and shook her head.

"So you're just another man with a death wish."

"I'm a man who knows something about duty," he said. "If you want to leave this tent, you'll have to go through me."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

Her vision blurry from the tears, Gabrielle lifted her head and found herself staring at a pair of black leather boots.

"I wasn't talking to you," she said venomously.

"Well, you weren't getting much of a response, were you." She could picture Ares smirking as he said it, though she didn't have the stomach to look up. "Of course, hanging around Xena, you must be used to one-sided conversations."

"You heartless bastard."

He snorted. "If you want to use lines like that, ask her to coach you."

Gabrielle spat on his boot.

"If I wasn't chained, I'd spit in your face," she said.

"You're too short for that gesture. Besides, it's so cheaply theatrical."

"What do you want, Ares?" she snapped. "Here to gloat? Well, gloat away. You won."

He was silent for a few moments, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. "I won what?"

She chuckled bitterly. "You had me fooled, Ares. I admit it. I actually believed you didn't want to turn her any more. I actually believed -- " Her voice broke off.

She had actually believed that he loved Xena. Maybe he had once, when he gave up his immortality for her, and when he was mortal. But now, he was the God of War and Xena was the best warrior he could have fighting for his glory. What could one expect?

"What if you could see her right now, Gabrielle?" he asked. "What would you do?"

"I'd stop her."

"And if you couldn't? Then what?" He raised his voice to a falsetto. "Oh well, Xena's path is my path, I guess I'll just go and help her slaughter the whole town..."

"I'd stop her," she repeated.

A blue light crackled around Gabrielle's chains, stinging her skin slightly, and then the manacles snapped and fell off her hands. She jerked her head up with a gasp. Ares' face was half-hidden in the shadows, but even so, she could see that the look in his eyes was one of sadness and loss.

"Get up," he said. "I'll take you to her."

She blinked in bewilderment.

"Why?"

Ares watched her silently, not moving at all, except for a barely visible twitch of the muscles in his neck. And then, understanding momentarily knocked the breath out of her.

"You -- you want me to stop her."

He looked away and said, "Come on."

"Why don't you tell her to call it off?" she asked, scrambling to her feet.

"Hey." He held up his palms in a "hands off" gesture. "That's supposed to be your job, Gabrielle -- saving her from her dark side."

Gabrielle shook her head, trying not to let herself be overcome by emotion. She came closer, tilting her head sideways so that she could see his face, and put her hand on his.

"Ares... Thank you."

Ares glanced at her with an unhappy, crooked half-grin.

"What, I'm not a heartless bastard anymore?"

"Oh, you are." She managed to smile a little. "But I think you really care about her."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

Xena looked down at Phaleron, the tip of her sword resting at his chest. His breathing was hard and ragged, whether from exertion or rage, or both.

"The killing stops here," she said quietly. "Enough."

He swallowed, his eyes drifting up to her face.

"Drop it."

After a few moments, he let go of his sword and she kicked it away into a corner. She moved her weapon, pointing to the dagger at his belt.

"I'll take that for you."

With a small nod, he slowly unhooked the dagger and held it out to Xena, handle first; just as she was about to take it, he threw it away with a forceful gesture. She followed the dagger with her eyes and took a small step back.

Scorching pain tore through her side. Her legs swayed and she couldn't breathe; she managed to hold on to her sword as her other hand went to the deep jagged cut just below her armor, and was instantly doused in hot, thick blood. It took her a second to realize that Phaleron had pulled out another dagger he had hidden somewhere on him and stabbed her with his left hand. As if through a watery haze, she watched him get up. She wanted to raise her sword but it was a dead weight in her hand, and her limbs were very cold. A vague thought flashed in her mind: I' m getting too old for this.

The walls of the tent began to sway, then lurch violently and spin. She no longer saw Phaleron -- or anything else except her boots, now splattered with red, and the dark stain spreading on the rug around her feet.

What strength had been left in her legs was gone, and she sank down. Then, it seemed to her that she felt two strong arms wrap around her and a warm breath touch her cheek, and a choked voice said, "No, Xena ... no..."

"Ares?" she whispered.

"I'm here. I'm here. You'll be okay."

As he cradled her in his arms, Xena heard, as if from far away, a harsh cry of pain and surprise; it was followed by a crash, and the cry became a rattle that grew fainter until it trailed off.

"What -- " She struggled to open her eyes.

"Shh," Ares murmured, stroking her face. She looked up at him; his lips were trembling, his eyes tender and terrified. Her armor vanished, though it gave her little relief, and she felt him pull up her tunic to look at her wound.

Another face came into her line of sight, and she gasped, "Gabri-" only to cough and convulse with pain.

"Xena!" She felt a gentle squeeze on her hand.

"Did -- did Ares bring you --?"

After a brief pause, she said, "Yes."

"It's so good to see you... Even if -- " Xena's eyes slid over the smudged, heavy makeup on Gabrielle's face and the top of her dirty, ripped dress -- "you look like you -- ran away from a traveling circus." She tried to laugh, but it hurt even worse this time. Then she remembered something. "Phaleron -- "

Even under that ghastly makeup, she could see the sudden hardness in Gabrielle's face.

"Don't worry about him," Gabrielle said.

The blackness was creeping up on her, pulling her under, lulling her with a promise of rest. Yet she made an effort to fight it for another moment, to speak again, even though she could barely move her tongue.

"The army -- I have to turn it back -- "

Then, feeling Ares' arm around her shoulders and Gabrielle's hands holding hers, she let the blackness take her.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

"You can heal her ... can't you?"

Ares shook his head. "No."

Gabrielle shot him a disgusted look, the bitterness coming back. "Because you'd lose your godhood."

"Because I can't, okay? I don't have the power anymore."

"Sorry." She didn't have time to feel guilty right now. "We need to take care of her wound, then."

Luckily, it didn't take her long to find the small box where Xena kept her medicinal ointments and mixtures. By the time she brought them over, Ares had a basin of heated water ready, as well as several square bandages and a broad strip of white linen. The steam rose from the water, yellowish in dim light, making the heavy smell of blood almost overpowering. Gabrielle cleansed the wound and applied an ointment that would reduce the pain and speed up the healing, then pressed the thick bandages to the wound, forcefully and quickly, before the bleeding started again. Just as she was about to ask Ares to help, he lifted up Xena's limp body -- she stirred and moaned slightly but didn't regain consciousness -- and wrapped the linen strip tightly around her waist, over the bandages. He was handling this with a competence that surprised Gabrielle; obviously, there were many things she didn't know about him after all.

As they finished the bandaging, Ares said, without looking up, "So you took out Phaleron. Good for you."

The War God's praise made her uneasy. Gabrielle thought back to the moment when the world solidified around her again and her feet touched the floor of the tent -- when she saw the blood streaming from Xena's side and the dagger glistening red in Phaleron's hand. What did it say about her that her first impulse had been not to rush toward her wounded friend but to pick up the sword that had dropped from Xena's hand, to charge Phaleron and plunge the sword into his belly? What did it mean that she had been glad to see the shock and helpless rage in his dimming eyes?

"I'm taking her away," Ares said. "There's a place where she can stay until she's well."

"And the army?"

"The army..." he repeated, looking at her as if he had just remembered that there was an army out there.

"It has to be turned back ... it's what she wanted to do."

Only now, Gabrielle fully realized what this meant. Xena had pulled back from the edge, all by herself. The joy she felt at this thought momentarily overshadowed her anxiety about Xena, but it had an undertaste of guilt for having so little faith in her friend.

She glanced at Ares and saw the uncertainty in his face.

"Can't you just tell them to go back?"

"Look -- I don't handle matters like that personally, don't you get it?" he snapped. "I'm not the commander of this army. I dealt with Xena, and with Alcibiades before that ... and with that piece of garbage over there." He nodded toward Phaleron's body. "The rest -- most of them have never even seen me."

"Ares ... " She touched his hand, covered, like her own, in Xena's blood. "She almost got herself killed because she wanted to turn the army back."

He bit his lip and lowered his eyelids. Gabrielle wondered if calling off a war voluntarily was almost an unnatural act for him, like refusing to inhale.

"All right," he said.

Before the words were out of his mouth, Gabrielle knew with perfect clarity that this wasn't the way -- and knew exactly what she had to do.

"Let me do it, Ares."

"Let you do what?"

"Lead the army back to Greece."

He smirked at her bitterly. "I never knew you had a sense of humor."

"I don't ... I mean, I'm not joking." She was feverishly racking her brain for a way to explain it. "Ares, all this time I've been telling myself that I had to learn to be a warrior so that I could fight for peace. This is my chance -- don't you see? I've fought in your army. Those officers have seen me in battle, I've earned their respect. If you give me the command, they'll follow me. I can stop the war. For both of us ... for Xena and for me."

She thought he would laugh at her, as always -- but the look in his eyes was serious and almost sympathetic.

Finally, he said, "Well, if you're going to lead an army, we'd better do something about your clothes."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

Turning the army around proved easier than she thought.

When Xena's top officers arrived at the command tent, after guards had removed Phaleron's body and Ares had taken the still-unconscious Xena away, they were understandably shocked by the news. However, enough of them knew about Gabrielle's exploits at Salonae -- having either seen her in action like Callippus and Argyron, or heard about it from others -- for her to get a respectful hearing. When she calmly offered to fight any challenger who thought she shouldn't take the command post, there didn't seem to be any takers.

"You may be a great fighter, but how do we know that Ares is behind you?" one of the men said doubtfully.

The bard was stumped for a moment. One wasn't supposed to ask Ares for help -- she remembered as much from the adventure with Mavican. She suspected that he would probably bend the rules in this case, but then she'd always feel like she had cheated.

The best thing she could come up with was to narrow her eyes at the man and say, "Don't make me ask him to prove it."

Somebody gasped; there was a flash, and Gabrielle thought for a moment that Ares had appeared in the tent. Instead, she saw a silvery-blue fireball that whirled and flattened and became a circle, flying straight at her, lightning-fast. Her hand shot out on pure instinct and snatched the chakram out from the air.

There was a stunned silence, followed by an appreciative murmur. Unable to suppress a tiny smile of triumph, Gabrielle gave the chakram a spin in her hand and then hooked it to her belt, as if she did this every day.

None of them would question her leadership now.

Even so, the officers were visibly baffled and irked by Gabrielle's announcement that she was calling off the attack and the war itself and taking the army back to Greece. Her argument that in battling the Romans they were going to become as bad as the enemy didn't make much of an impression. They would obey her orders, of course; but the prospect of leading, even for a brief time, an army that only grudgingly followed her command was not very appealing. So she had to draw on her gift for words.

"Listen to me," she said, leaning forward, resting her hands on the table. "The campaign you -- we have fought has already weakened the Empire. Illyria is no longer under Roman rule, and they've lost territory in Gaul. Today, Greece is safer from Roman incursions than it has been in a century. What do you think we're going to accomplish if we keep on driving into Italy and toward Rome itself, sacking and burning cities, slaughtering men, women and children in our path? The Romans are no longer defending their conquests now, they are defending their homeland. They're determined and desperate. Are you ready to be mired in a war without end, a war that will keep you away from your homes and families for months and maybe years to come?"

"What about our comrades?" Callippus said. "The prisoners Gallo took? The bastards butchered them in cold blood."

"Why do you think they did that?"

"To cut off any chance to negotiate a surrender of Ariminum," said Argyron. "And as payback for the death of Bolanus."

"So they wanted to leave us no choice but to slaughter the whole city," Gabrielle said. "And you would give them what they wanted." She paused to let the words sink in. "If there is one thing I learned from Xena, it's that there are always choices. Sometimes, all of them are bad -- but some are worse than others."

"So our men will go unavenged," an officer she didn't know said grimly.

"The Romans wanted revenge for Bolanus. You want revenge for our men. Where does it end?"

"This isn't a soldier's talk," said Callippus. "What kind of warrior are you?"

She thought she detected more curiosity than reproach in his voice.

"One who knows when to fight, and when not to fight."

There was something dimly familiar about these words, but she brushed that feeling aside; this was no time for trips down memory lane.

Callippus looked at her thoughtfully and finally nodded. Gabrielle knew that the officers were not convinced by her reasoning , but at least they could respect it.

"In the morning," she said, "we lift the siege and start the march back to Greece."

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

When they were all gone, Gabrielle felt as if she could finally let out her breath. Her knees a bit wobbly, she walked over to pour herself some wine. Just as she started sipping it, she saw a flare of blue out of the corner of her eye. She whirled around.

"How is she?"

"Asleep," Ares said. He stood by the entrance, arms folded on his chest, most of him hidden in the shadows -- but she could see his face, bathed in the wavering light of an oil lamp which shimmered softly in the metal studs on his vest. For a moment, the look she saw in his eyes was one of such forlorn, quiet resignation that Gabrielle was frightened.

"Where did you take her?" she asked quickly.

"To a temple in Thrace. The priests will take care of her; they've got a good physician coming in."

"Take me to her ... Please?"

Ares shook his head. "I told you, she's sleeping." Noticing the alarm in her eyes, he added, "I'll take you there tomorrow. You should get some sleep too if you're going to lead an army in the morning." He paused and added, "She'll be all right."

She touched the chakram at her belt.

"Do you want this back?"

"You can keep it for now. I'm sure she won't mind you wearing it until she's well."

"You trusted me to catch it," she said, with a note of wonderment in her voice.

"I figured if you're half as good as you think you are, you could do it."

There was no use denying it: the thought that the God of War had some regard for her martial skills was flattering. And then, in a dizzying flash, Gabrielle knew what it was that stirred in her memory before, when she said she knew when to fight and when not to fight.

That time when the hapless Mavican wanted to prove herself to Ares by killing Xena, and Ares sent them all through a vortex to fight it out in some desolate little world he had created -- and tried to set it up so that she, Gabrielle, would be the one to kill Mavican... He appeared to her in the cave where she was hiding out and talked to her in that smooth, treacherously gentle voice about his goal of peace through power -- and told her that he wanted her, not Xena, as his chosen warrior. What I need is someone strong enough to lead people ... someone who's learned how to fight -- but has the discretion not to...

Gabrielle gulped down the rest of the wine so quickly that she almost choked. The thought that he understood her, that he had known something about her before she knew it herself, was deeply unnerving.

Blue light flared around him and she called out hastily, "Ares, wait."

"What now?"

"I want to ask you something..." She fidgeted, shifting her feet. "Ares -- back when you tried to recruit me into your service ... did you actually want me as your Warrior Queen, or were you just messing with my head and using me to get to Xena?"

He raised his eyebrows in surprise, and was silent for a moment. Then he asked, "Which answer are you more afraid to hear?"

"I want to hear the truth, Ares."

"And you think you're going to get that out of me?"

"Maybe just this once," she said.

He looked at her thoughtfully.

"I knew Xena wasn't coming back. I had to find my own way of dealing with it."

"And that's supposed to answer my question?"

"What do you want to know, Gabrielle? Did I really think you had potential? Yes, I did. And I was right. As usual."

Gabrielle smiled a little. "I can live with that."

"Just don't let it go to your head," he said and gave her a rather affectionate nod, almost smiling back, before he disappeared.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

For a few days, Xena drifted in and out of consciousness -- sleeping for many hours, with the help of the medic's potions, and mostly tossing about in delirium when she woke up. The first Ares time took Gabrielle to see her, she clutched the bard's hand convulsively, her eyes open but dim and unseeing, and rambled about calling off the attack on the city, about the prisoners who had been killed by the Romans, about going back for Gabrielle. A couple of times, she muttered, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle..." and Gabrielle almost couldn't breathe, overwhelmed by tenderness and guilt.

The Amazon bard was doing her best to focus on the task of bringing home an army nearly forty thousand strong. Perhaps it was a good thing, she told herself sometimes, that she couldn't spend day and night at Xena's bedside worrying herself sick. More often, she wished she could.

And then, one evening when she was trying to relax in her tent, Ares made an appearance, and her heart almost leaped out of her chest when he said, "She's awake."

When the temple attendant ushered Gabrielle into the room, Xena was reclining on a heap of pillows. She looked up and said, "Gabrielle...", smiling hopefully and a little uncertainly -- and everything that had come between them in these past months melted away in that smile.

She tried to remember not to hug Xena too tightly, not when she was still recovering from her wound. She also tried not to cry, but that resolution crumbled the moment Xena stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head.

When both of them were calmer, Xena said, "Leonatus told me you're leading the army back to Greece."

"Yes, I -- who's Leonatus?"

"The priest of this temple."

"I thought Ares would have told you himself."

Xena looked away uncomfortably. After a moment, she said, "I haven't seen him, not since -- " Her voice trailed off, and Gabrielle knew that it was best not to pursue this.

"What exactly happened that night?" Xena asked. "I've had such weird dreams -- I'm not sure what was real and what wasn't. I seem to recall seeing you in some freaky outfit and with makeup smeared all over your face... Did -- did he bring you over from Salonae?"

"Uh, not quite."

As briefly as she could, Gabrielle told the whole story -- her escape from Salonae (to her relief, Xena nodded with a slightly amused, affectionate look), her arrest by Phaleron, and the surprise visit from Ares.

"So he wanted to you to stop me," Xena said softly, her eyes half-veiled.

"Isn't that something? When he showed up, I thought he was there to gloat." Gabrielle gave a nervous laugh. "I actually spat on his boot."

"I'm sure it hurt his feelings terribly."

Gabrielle struggled to get over the catch in her throat. "Xena ... I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Underestimating Ares? That's an easy mistake."

She put her hand on top of Xena's and forced herself to look straight at her.

"No... underestimating you." Xena's eyes widened, and for an instant she looked almost fragile. "I told you I could trust you to do the right thing... and then I didn't trust you at all."

"Don't be sorry. I was one step away from -- justifying your worst fears."

"Xena... I don't think you were ever going to make that step."

Xena was visibly close to tears as she held Gabrielle's hands. Finally she said, almost in a whisper, "Thank you."

They embraced again, and Gabrielle muttered into Xena's hair, "I love you."

"I love you too."

After they pulled apart, she asked, "You're not mad that I didn't stay in Salonae?"

"I never should have made you stay."

"We-ell..." The bard scrunched up her face. "It did feel a bit like you had gone off and left me stabled until you could come get me."

"Hah. I would have brought you a nice treat."

"Yeah, and maybe then you could have scratched behind my ears..."

"And watered you and brushed you down..."

They laughed together. Then, Xena said, suddenly serious, "So tell me about the army."

Gabrielle told her -- how she ended up taking charge of the army, and why. She expected Xena to have some misgivings, but the Warrior Princess gave her a warm look and said, "I'm proud of you, Gabrielle."

"Not as proud as I am of you."

Neither of them quite knew what to say after that -- until Gabrielle remembered something.

"Damn ... I should have brought you the chakram."

"Why? So I'd have a toy to play with in my sickroom? No, you keep it until you get the army home. You deserve it."

They talked about the army for a while, and Xena asked about various officers -- until she stopped in mid-sentence, a shadow crossing her face.

"What is it?"

"Phaleron," Xena said slowly. "You killed him, didn't you."

"Yes, I did."

"You killed for me -- again."

"Xena ..." She bit her lip. "I'll deal with it my own way. Right now, all I know is that I did what I had to do. He tried to kill you."

Xena didn't look entirely reassured, but neither of the women wanted to talk about it any more, and they went back to their conversation. In a short while, there was a knock on the door and the attendant, dressed in austere black with a belt and necklace of silver, came in carrying a goblet.

"It's time for your potion," she said.

Xena made a face and drank up. After the woman left they talked some more, until Gabrielle noticed that Xena was getting drowsy.

"You need to sleep."

"Just a nap." Xena yawned and lay back. "A little one..."

Almost before she had finished saying it, she was out. Careful not to wake her, Gabrielle pulled the blanket up to Xena's chin and adjusted the pillows, and touched her still-feverish forehead. She was starting to nod off herself -- it had been a long day -- when the telltale blue flare jolted her awake.

"Are you taking me back?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

"I'm taking you both back."

Something about Ares' voice made her look up. His face was perfectly still and expressionless.

"Are you sure she's well enough?"

"I'm sure you'll see to it that she is ... comfortable."

He came up to the bed and reached down, touching a strand of Xena's hair with his fingertips. Then he said, "Tell her -- " His voice faltered, and Gabrielle felt a twinge of apprehension

"Tell her I said good-bye."

It was a few seconds before she took in what he meant, and gasped in shock.

"What?" she breathed. "You -- "

"I won't be back," he said quietly, his face turned away.

"Why?"

"She'll know."

Gabrielle's mind was such a whirl of disjointed thoughts and careening emotions that she couldn't figure out if she felt relieved or saddened.

"But, but -- " she sputtered.

Ares raised a hand, silencing her.

"You won, Gabrielle," he said with a touch of bitter mockery and then continued, his voice gentle again, "She belongs with you. Take good care of her."

He turned to her, and for one insane moment, seeing his face with the mask off and his eyes filled with unguarded anguish made her wonder if he was mortal again. Before she could say anything else, he laid a hand on her shoulder, and as the world dissolved around her in the now-familiar but still-dizzying vortex, she heard him say, "Good-bye, Gabrielle."

Finally alone with Xena, Ares sat down next to her. The sleeping potion was strong enough to ensure that she didn't wake up right now; he couldn't go through with this if she did. It was bad enough with her asleep.

A warm droplet was sliding down his cheek. He remembered the first time he had felt this curious sensation -- the day he had given up his godhood for his Warrior Princess, when he stood in a field by the sea and watched her walk toward the beach, toward Gabrielle and Eve, away from him.

It was strange to know he still had tears in him, now that he was the God of War once again. Maybe mortality really had messed him up for good.

He stroked her face.

"You know this is good-bye."

He focused his mind, making sure that she would hear him, wherever she was now -- but without actually entering her dream, as he had done on another occasion long ago. Even in a world of illusion, he couldn't bear to hear whatever she'd have to say to him.

"Remember how you told me I was bad for you? Well, you were right," he said. "I bring out a side of you that's ... too much like me. So, you see, the woman I love -- she can't exist if we're together. It's like one of those little jokes we loved to play on mortals when all the Olympians were still around. Except that this time, the joke's on me."

She stirred in her sleep and frowned, and he knew she had heard him.

"It's all right," he said. "We had some good times too, didn't we?"

He bent down, feeling her warm breath on his face, and lightly touched her lips with his.

"I love you, Xena."

Then he sat up straight, placed his hands on her shoulders, and sent her to Gabrielle's tent.

He opened up a portal and watched, ignoring the pain in his chest, as the blonde fussed over Xena, pulling the covers over her and arranging the pillows.

She would be all right now.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

When Xena opened her eyes, she thought at first that her mind was playing tricks on her again -- she wasn't at the temple any more but in what looked like her command tent. The flap over the entrance was open, letting the sunlight pour in. When she tried to move, pain sliced through the flesh in her side, and she knew that at least she hadn't dreamed that part.

"Hey." Gabrielle came up and knelt by her side. Xena's eyes went to the chakram at her friend's belt. So it definitely hadn't been a dream ... unless she was still dreaming.

"Wh- what happened?" She lifted her hand, shielding her eyes. "What am I doing back here?"

"Ares brought you back." Gabrielle paused and added, "He sent over your things too." She nodded toward the leathers, boots and armor, piled neatly in a corner of the tent. The look in her face was oddly hesitant, as if she needed to say something else but couldn't quite get herself to say it.

That was when Xena remembered her actual dream: she was walking along a deserted beach at dusk, alone, and then Ares appeared before her, looking sad and aloof, and told her it was good-bye -- he was bad for her, just as she had once said, and if they were together he would always end up bringing out her darkness and destroying the woman he loved. She tried to tell him that he was wrong, but he seemed not to hear her, as if he were really somewhere else, even when she grabbed him by his vest and shook him. As she stared at him in helpless bewilderment, he bent down and his lips touched hers, and then he was gone -- just dissolved into the air, without even the usual flare of light.

She flinched slightly and turned to Gabrielle.

"Did he say anything?"

"He ..." Gabrielle lowered her eyes, twisting a corner of the bedcover in her fingers. "He said ... to tell you good-bye. He said you'd know why."

"I see," Xena said quietly.

The bard glanced at her.

"So ... it's over?"

"I doubt it."

"You think he won't stay away from you?"

Xena grinned a little. "Who says I'll stay away from him?"

Gabrielle said nothing, only nodded; but she looked worried, and Xena asked, "You think he's bad for me?"

"I don't know, Xena." Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think I'll ever get him, or this -- thing between you. But he called off a war for you -- I guess that's really something. And anyway..."

"What?"

There was a twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes. "I know I can trust you do the right thing."

"You'd better put that down in writing," Xena said with a chuckle.

 

* ~ * ~ *

 

The main marketplace in Pella, the capital city of Macedonia, was bustling with people -- shoppers preparing for a special dinner to celebrate a warrior's return, soldiers buying gifts for family members or sweethearts, and just men and women out to enjoy the weather, look at the merchandise, or buy a snack at one of the vendors' stalls.

"I feel ridiculous in this dress." Xena smoothed down her skirt and adjusted the head scarf pinned to the jeweled comb in her hair. "Hot pink? What were you thinking?"

"This isn't hot pink," Gabrielle said, sipping warm apple cider from a clay pot. "It's red."

"It looks like that rag I got in Gangra when I was out of my mind."

"You weren't out of your mind. You just lost your dark side."

"And my fashion sense."

"I think it looks good on you. Anyway, you said you wanted to keep a low profile."

"Not this low."

"Xena, you'd feel ridiculous in any dress."

"This one's nice." Xena gestured toward Gabrielle's flowing turquoise gown.

"Only because you're not the one wearing it." Gabrielle put down the now-empty clay pot on the vendor's counter. "Come on, let's get moving."

After more than a month on the march, the army once led by Xena had returned to Macedonia -- without about a third of its soldiers, who had gone home to other regions in Greece. It was a strange homecoming, neither in defeat nor in victory; the king who had first led these troops on their campaign of conquest was dead, not in battle with the enemy but at the hands of their next commander, and the kingdom that welcomed them back was now ruled by his widow. There has been no festivities in the capital, no special events, nothing except for a modest farewell banquet the officers of the army had held for Xena and Gabrielle. Both women felt that it was best not to be recognized too widely for the few days they were staying in Pella; it wouldn't be dangerous so much as awkward.

"Xena," Gabrielle said, raising her voice over the din of the crowd. Turning to her companion, Xena saw that she was struggling with something.

"What is it?"

"I -- I have to take a trip to Thessalonika."

"What's in Thessalonika?"

Gabrielle stared down, biting her lip, and then raised her eyes again.

"Phaleron's sister, Chrysilla."

The Warrior Princess stopped in her tracks, ignoring the annoyance of the people pushing past her.

"You want to see Phaleron's sister? Gabrielle..."

"He was writing her a letter just before he died -- one of the guards found it in his tent."

"Then you should have sent someone to deliver it."

"I want to do it myself. To tell her what happened -- to explain..."

"Why?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Because I need to know that when I kill -- when I have to kill someone -- I don't have to forget that this person was ... human."

"Human?" Xena snorted. "I wouldn't be so sure about Phaleron."

"Xena," Gabrielle said softly, putting her hand on Xena's arm. "I need to do this if I'm going to make peace with -- who I am now."

Xena met the bard's earnest, almost pleading gaze, and finally nodded.

"Want me to come along?"

"No. I think I should handle this one on my own."

Xena reached out and squeezed her shoulder, and they walked on.

"I'll go tomorrow morning, then," Gabrielle said. "I should be back in about six days."

Xena wondered if, in those six days, she would have a chance to see Ares. She had tried calling him several times during the march, and once in Pella, but to no avail.

"Ladies!" said a pleasant if slightly unctuous voice. "The perfect gift for your sweetheart! Over here!"

She turned around. A man who seemed to be in his late twenties, with short, curly ash blond hair, fine-featured but a bit on the paunchy side, was standing over a display of rather peculiar merchandise spread out on a rug on the ground: black-eyed toy animals made from velvet of different colors, sitting upright, just tall enough to reach Gabrielle's knee. They bore a passable resemblance to bears, with round faces that somehow managed to look sweetly bemused. As if the critters weren't already odd enough, each had a red silk heart stitched to its chest.

"A huge hit in Athens, Corinth and Sparta!" the young man exclaimed, smiling brightly. "And now, on sale for the first time in Macedonia! The best romantic gift you can give anyone! And for two such lovely ladies, only five dinars apiece."

"How much is it for everyone else?" Xena asked, lifting an eyebrow. The vendor blinked, squirmed a bit and finally mumbled, "Uh -- seven."

Xena smirked. "Anyway, what's so romantic about a bear?"

"Why, just think about it." Given an opportunity to discuss the merits of his merchandise, the young man beamed again. "A ferocious beast of the woods, turned all lovable and soft and cuddly. It's a beautiful idea."

"A bear with a heart," Xena said. "It sounds like something Salmoneus would come up with."

"You know Dad?" the vendor asked incredulously.

The two women exchanged a stunned glance.

"Dad? You're Salmoneus' son?"

"Yes, indeed. He came up with the design a couple of years ago. All it takes is the fabric -- he buys up leftovers from tailors for a nominal fee -- and sawdust for the stuffing." He paused and glanced at the women. "Oh, only the finest sawdust, to be sure, from the best timber mills in Attica..."

"I see Salmoneus hasn't lost his touch," Xena said wryly.

"Well, and of course it takes marketing genius. But nowadays, Dad doesn't quite have the energy to travel around selling his wares. So he and Mom make them, back in Athens, and I take them on the road. I'm Theodorus, by the way. Say -- how do you know Dad?"

"Long story," said Xena.

"Are they really a huge hit?" Gabrielle asked.

Theodorus shrugged and studied his fingernails. "Well, they're, uh, doing okay. I mean, it's Dad's most successful idea so far."

"Here, I'll take one." Xena reached for the small purse at her sash. "And tell your father Xena said hello."

"Xena?" His eyes grew wide. "The Xena?"

"The very one."

"Oh -- oh!" he stammered. "An honor, truly an honor. And you must be Gabrielle, the Bard of Potideia? Dad will be thrilled when I tell him I met you two. He talked about you a lot when I was just a kid, you know -- everybody thought you were dead back then, and then there were all these stories that you two were back, not a day older..."

Xena picked up a bear -- light brown, with a dark green patch on its back and an especially puzzled facial expression -- and gave Theodorus a crooked grin. "In case he's wondering, we don't have a formula for anti-wrinkle cream."

The young man laughed appreciatively.

"Say," he continued, "that's a ... different look for you, isn't it? Not that it isn't very becoming -- I don't think I've ever seen anyone wear this shade of pink quite so magnificently..."

"Pink, huh?" Xena darted a gleeful look at Gabrielle. "Just a change of pace. Listen, I'd love to stay and chat, but we have to go and you have to sell bears. Good luck."

Salmoneus' son bowed gallantly. When the women turned back to wave at him, he was already working his marketing genius on his next customer -- a gruff soldier who, judging by the bouquet he held awkwardly in his left hand, was indeed on a quest for romantic gifts.

"So Salmoneus got married and had a son," Gabrielle said. "Hard to believe, isn't it."

"What -- that some woman could have been that desperate?"

"No!" Gabrielle laughed, crinkling her nose. "Come on, Salmoneus isn't so bad. I mean, just because he isn't tall, dark and..." She broke off in mid-sentence, staring at the bear in Xena's hands. "Wait a minute -- what are you going to do with that? Don't tell me it's for..."

Xena gave her a somewhat sheepish, mock-defiant stare.

"Xena! Talk about desperate... Now you're scaring me. The pink dress must be affecting your brain."

"I thought it was red."

"So did I -- but obviously, I was wrong." Gabrielle gazed at the bear's disconcertingly cute muzzle and the silk heart, then shook her head ruefully. "What next? Flowers?"

"Well," Xena said, "now that you mention it..."

* ~ * ~ *

 

The stern-faced, black-and-silver-clad priestess at the temple of Ares examined her visitor with suspicious disapproval, taking in the dress and the roses in her hand.

"Do you have some business here?" she asked.

"I'm here to make an offering on the altar of Ares," Xena said, holding up the roses.

Instead of going to the temple in Pella, likely to be swarming with soldiers, she had come out to Menetta, a small town about a three-hour ride from the capital, which, according to the innkeeper, had a modest shrine to the God of War. She had intended to wear her usual leather and armor, but at the last minute, some fit of whimsy had made her put on the pink (or red) dress; maybe it just went better with the roses and the bear. However, it wasn't very well-suited for riding and now looked rather worse for the wear, the full skirt wrinkled and specked with mud.

"Really," the priestess said. "Are you quite sure it's not the temple of Aphrodite you want?"

"Positive."

The priestess glared at her.

"Nobody brings flowers to the God of War!"

"Pity," said Xena. "It's about time someone did."

"Young woman!" The priestess was beginning to turn crimson. "Have some respect!"

"So flowers aren't good enough," Xena said with mock peevishness. "How about a ferocious beast of the woods?"

The priestess gave her a wary look. Xena reached into the cloth bag she was carrying and produced the bear, whose face now seemed to have an expression of slightly smug innocence that perfectly matched her own.

"All right," the priestess said in a steely tone. "I have had just about enough of your nonsense. I suggest you leave right away."

"Not until I've left my offerings on the altar."

"Do you want me to call the temple guard?"

"Sure," Xena said, smirking. "Only I wouldn't put your money on the guard if I were you."

As the priestess vacillated, blue light flared up behind her, and Ares materialized standing next to a very mediocre marble likeness of himself. The woman turned around and then dropped to her knees, gasping, "My Lord!"

He acknowledged her with a curt nod, then motioned to Xena to follow him into the altar room.

When the door had closed behind them, Xena strode toward the altar, feeling Ares' eyes on her. Her hands were steady as she carefully laid out the roses on the brocade-covered surface and then put the bear next to the flowers, propping it up against a silver candle-holder. Maybe, she thought, it would have been better to just come up to him and hand him her gifts with a perfectly straight face.

"So," he said. "If I don't return your calls, you're going to hang around my temples and harass my priests."

She turned around -- she could do it -- and faced him at last.

"I might."

His face outwardly impassive, Ares looked from her to the bear and back, as if not quite knowing on which to comment first.

"What happened to the leather?" he finally asked.

"It's on vacation."

His eyes glided over her dress. Was he, too, thinking back to that time when she was innocent, with no notion of violence or darkness or evil -- and when she had unaccountably felt drawn to him and he to her?

"What's that?" He nodded toward the bear.

"The perfect romantic gift."

Ares lifted an eyebrow and walked over to the altar.

"You mortals get strange ideas."

He picked up the bear, turned it over in his hands and poked absent-mindedly at the silk heart on its chest before putting it down.

"You're not going to make this easy, are you," he said quietly.

"Have I ever?"

She came closer, close enough to touch him. He swallowed and said, his voice choked, "Xena ... don't."

"Ares -- "

"You know why it has to be this way."

"I know why you think it has to be this way. But you're wrong."

Ares looked down. "I almost destroyed you."

"You mean, because I almost got myself killed? Or because I almost slaughtered a whole city?"

He raised his eyes again, a corner of his mouth twitching into a bitter smirk. "Take your pick."

"Don't you see?" Xena took another step and put a hand on his shoulder. He flinched but didn't draw back. She could feel the tension in his body, see it in the rigid muscles of his face. "I didn't slaughter a whole city. I faced a choice, and I chose not to. And Phaleron..." She shook her head, voicing a thought that had been nagging at her. "That was my fault. I wasn't quick enough and I wasn't focused enough. I slipped up. It could have happened in some other fight."

"It doesn't matter," he snapped. "I got you to lead my army. That was bad enough."

"You didn't do it on purpose." Then, for just a moment, a jolt of dread made her skin crawl. "Did you?"

"No." He sighed. "But I wanted it."

"Well," Xena said, "maybe it wasn't such a bad thing."

She moved even closer, her hand still on his shoulder.

"All these years, I was afraid of what would happen if I got too close to -- my old life. I thought the darkness in me was still too strong ... that it would take over if given a chance. I didn't think I'd be able to resist it. Now, I know I can. It's like I stepped on a flimsy bridge over an abyss, and found out that it could hold me."

For the first time, Ares' eyes flickered into life. Still silent, he watched her intently, hanging on every word.

"I trust myself more than I have in a long time. And that means I can trust you, too." His lips quivered a little as he lifted a hand and touched her hair. "Even if you're bad for me, I can be good enough for both of us."

He chuckled softly but made no further move.

"Besides," Xena said, "maybe you're not so bad."

Her breath was on his cheek now, her voice low, her lips almost touching his ear.

"Ares -- do you remember the story of the scorpion and the swan?"

"Huh?"

"How does it end?"

"You know how it ends," he said in a ragged whisper. "The scorpion stings the swan. That's what it does."

"Gabrielle told me once that when she was little, if she heard a story with a sad ending, she'd make her parents tell it again and again because she kept hoping it would end differently next time." Xena paused, half expecting Ares to make a sarcastic remark at Gabrielle's expense. "Well, this time, it did end differently. The scorpion didn't sting the swan."

"Xena..." His fingertips touched hers, sending a shudder through her body. "A story doesn't end differently just because you want it to."

"You tried to stop me, Ares. You called off a war. When was the last time you did that?"

The God of War was silent, his breathing labored now.

"My guess," she said, "would be never."

If she turned her head now, their lips would touch...

"Ares. One more thing."

"What?"

"I love you."

With a groan, Ares wrapped his arms around her, holding her so tight she almost couldn't breathe, burying his face in her hair.

"I've missed you so much," he whispered, his breath hot on Xena's neck.

"I've missed you too..."

She pulled back, took his face in her hands and brought his mouth to hers. She had meant for it to be a slow, gentle kiss, but they were both too impatient, and when it happened it was almost violent.

Breaking the kiss, Ares lifted her and sat her on the edge of the altar, sliding the dress off her shoulders, brushing his lips over the bare skin. She kept enough composure to grin and mutter, "Right here?"

He managed to smirk back at her.

"I don't think you'd make a very good virgin sacrifice..."

"Not even one out of two."

"So." He gasped when she tightened her legs around his hips. "Where shall we go?"

"How about your place?"

"My place." His voice was thick. "You don't mean -- "

"I do." She looked straight at him and smiled.

"But you never -- "

Xena covered his mouth with hers, stopping him.

"I'm not afraid anymore."

"All right." He drew her toward him, then glanced at the flowers and the bear. "I'd better get your offerings out of here. This kind of stuff could scare away a lot of my worshipers."

Xena was about to say, "And that's a bad thing?", but the temple was already dissolving before her eyes, its walls turning into a swirl of sparks. A moment later, they stood in a dimly lit hall adorned with weapons and tapestries of battle scenes, having shed their clothes at some point during their trip. They kissed again, their bodies pressed into each other. When Xena opened her eyes, she was looking at one of the silver skulls that adorned the throne of the God of War, its faintly glowing ruby eyes staring back at her.

Ares caught her stare and gave her a questioning, slightly frowning look. Her misgivings came back fleetingly, until she reminded herself that the skulls were only symbols of war and slaughter; she had faced down the real thing, and won.

Putting her hands on Ares' shoulders, Xena gently pushed him backwards and down on the velvet-covered seat. She lingered for a moment to run her tongue over his nipple, reveling, as always, in his breathless response to this caress. Then she lowered herself into his lap, taking him inside, feeling the soft touch of his hands on her breasts. She watched as the last of the wariness and the doubt in his eyes melted into pleasure and tenderness, and wondered if her own eyes were mirrored in his.

* ~ * ~ *

 

Gabrielle rode at a slow trot down a shady street in Thessalonika, breathing in the slightly tangy scent of lemon trees. Chrysilla's house, she'd been told, was at the end of this street.

Unthinkingly, her hand reached into the pouch at her belt and touched the parchment inside. Phaleron's letter was dry and formal, recounting the recent battles and victories of Ares' army -- until the very end. As much as my life is on the battlefield and in faithful service to my Lord Ares, I do miss you, dear Chrysilla, and look forward to seeing you when the war is over. Give my regards to your husband, and kiss my nephew and niece for me. When I see them playing, I sometimes think of how we used to be when we were children.

She didn't regret killing Phaleron. Under the circumstances, there was nothing else she could have done; anyway, if she hadn't done it, Ares would have, and probably in a far grislier fashion. But she did wish, with a touch of sadness, that it hadn't been necessary -- that the circumstances had been different, for all of them.

Ever since the mission at Helicon, and maybe even earlier, she had been trying to understand if she actually took joy in killing, if the intoxication of battle got to her and brought her pleasure. But maybe the important thing was that she fought for the right reasons. Maybe people -- good people -- had been given the capacity to thrill to combat because otherwise, it would be too unbearable for them to fight and to kill, and sometimes they had to. Maybe this wasn't good or bad; it just was. Smiling faintly to herself, Gabrielle thought that perhaps she should ask Ares about it; she felt fairly certain that he would be back in their lives. Of course, she had only recently gotten him to give a reasonably straight answer to a serious question, and the chances of that happening again any time soon were pretty slim.

She dismounted at the gate, using a heavy, ornate brass ring to knock. An attendant opened and she said, "I'm here to see Chrysilla. It's about her brother."

"Please come in," he said, and Gabrielle stepped into what turned out to be a stunningly luxurious garden, with roses and cypresses and marble fountains. After securing her horse, the attendant ushered her to a gazebo and told her that the mistress would be with her right away.

As she waited, listening to the warbling of birds and the ripple of a nearby fountain, a woman's voice called out, "Phaleron!" and Gabrielle almost jumped. Moments later she heard a child's tinkly laugh, and a curly-headed boy, no more than four summers old, sprinted through the garden bouncing a ball. A slightly older girl was running after him while a portly middle-aged woman, obviously the nanny, tried in vain to keep up.

"Phaleron! Aricia! You come here now!" she shouted. "It's time for lunch!"

The bard exhaled and shook her head. The children and their pursuer disappeared behind the rose bushes. Then she saw a tall woman in black coming toward her down the path. Gabrielle felt undeniable relief at the realization that Chrysilla already knew of her brother's death. She wasn't especially beautiful, and her face looked a bit haggard, but there was a quiet warmth in her smile as she looked at her visitor.

"I'm Chrysilla," she said.

Gabrielle stood up. Her legs were slightly numb and tension coiled in the pit of her stomach.

"I'm Gabrielle."

"You have something to tell me about my late brother." Chrysilla motioned to her to sit, and they both sat down.

"I have ... a letter." She reached into the pouch.

"You knew Phaleron? You served with him in the army?"

"Yes," Gabrielle said.

A small spasm ran across Chrysilla's face.

"They didn't tell me much about the way he died," she said. "Do you know what happened?"

Gabrielle turned away. Then she raised her head, meeting the woman's hazel-grey eyes, and took a deep breath.

"I do."

* ~ * ~ *

 

"You're about to lose the last of your cavalry," Ares said.

"It's all part of my plan."

"Isn't everything?"

"Not everything," said Xena.

She sat cross-legged on a rug, wearing her tunic and skirt now but not her armor. Ares, in his leather pants and vest, was sprawled on his stomach next to her, propping himself up on an elbow, facing the side of the chaturanga board. It was good to see him so relaxed.

With a flourish, he used his ivory elephant to sweep Xena's knight off the board.

"Check," she said, moving her queen.

"Sneaky. I have to protect myself, don't I? Let's see ..." He lazily moved a finger, making one of the castles slide into place on its own.

"Is that what you want to do? Okay..." Xena grinned at him and proceeded to take the castle. "Check. No, no, your king can't touch my queen because -- look." She gestured toward one of her elephants, poised in the queen's defense.

"Very well then... retreat," he said with a mock pout.

She stretched out her leg, nudging his arm with her bare foot as she made her next move. "I've got you this time."

"You think? I'd say it's still up for grabs. What if my queen goes here and --"

"Hmm... All right, so it's still up for grabs."

Ares reached over and stroked Xena's ankle, then slid his hand up toward her knee.

"Hey," he said. "Anything special you want to do when the game's over?"

"Sure." Xena put her hand on top of his, lacing their fingers. "Have a rematch."

 

END OF PART TWO

(to be continued in Part 3)


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