(c) January 1998
E-Mail LZClotho at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ten Winters Ago -- Chin.
After failing to live up to Lao Ma's hopes for her, Xena led Borias back toward her homeland Greece. They subjugated towns and cities of ancient might, ruling a strip of conquered lands from the Himalayas south and west to the Carpathian Mountains.
When word reached Greece that Xena and her army were coming, there was hardly any mention of her second, Borias. This rankled the man. They battled and fought and loved and hated. It was a match of passions, both base and conquering.
Xena gave him back command, which through sheer presence she had stolen on the ride from Chin. Whether it was intentional or just the men turned to her, Borias never knew. Really it didn't matter. Men followed a warrior, and Xena had proven better than he in their eyes. But men would follow him when she demanded it. More ruthless than any man who had ever led men, Xena was given the title "Destroyer of Nations" by the army of men who reaped the spoils from wars directed by the almost godlike tactical skills of the slightly built vicious warrior woman. They called her "lady" when daring to speak to her. They called her "goddess of war" when alone, sleepless, in rough tents camped outside another conquerable city.
Word reached Ares, God of War, as well it might, when murmurrings about a 'goddess' muscling in on his domain crawled even into his earthly minions, currently conducting a campaign against a warlord named Ghenghis Khan.
Ares left his earthly troops to fight
his battle to keep the Chinese gods from the Greek world and descended
toward a war camp, nestled in the mountain range east of Greece. There
he found he had descended into the hell that was the world under Xena,
Destroyer of Nations....
CHAPTER ONE - HAIL AND WELL MET
The steams of the earth blanketed the land still, when a leather-tunic-clad warrioress with raven tresses sprang atop a rock precipice above the raging waterfall. A rainbow was painted in the mists by the water crashing into the jagged stones below. Fearless, even negligently confident in the face of the danger, she rested on the balls of her bare feet performing sword drills that sliced through the air with a speed the human eye could barely trace. The weapon caught the sunlight briefly over her head, beneath her shoulders and swirling around her body. The flashing metal in her hands was a virtually impenetrable defense.
Unknown to the intent warrior was her observer on this morning. Except for his crouching, veiled form in the bushes, just beyond where she could see, this morning seemed like a year's worth of other mornings.Xena flowed over the rock surface. Her deadly dance, filled with leaps and arching plummets, was accompanied by a deadlier dance by sword. Imaginary enemies met Hades every stroke.
Her observer knew skill when he saw it. The God of War sensed no godliness within her. Yet he could not help thinking, as mortal men did when witnessing the spectacle, "She is a true goddess." All others were merely pretenders to the title.
Ares combed his mind, all his memories, for even one prayer of thanksgiving or request for supremacy in battle thrown his way by the warrior woman before him. Being able to recall not a single one both mystified and miffed him.
Who is she? Where did she come from? He dimly associated her with a girl child he'd taunted one of his favored about. "A girl child? How could you think to bring a girl child to the God of War?" Now he knew the Amphipolitan had sensed something special in his daughter. Too bad he had passed off the words as drunken boast. There wasn't time to regret his oversight now. Ares returned his attention to the spectacle before him.
In his eagerness to know more, Ares nearly stepped from his veil of concealment. What on Olympus am I thinking? Well, he'd have to think about this. How to approach her?Certainly he could not appear as himself. That wouldn't do. She had shown no indication that she cared to know the God of War, no matter how skillfully she put to use the passions, skills, and desires for conquest which were his dominions within mortals.
But he wanted to match his skill to hers, amazingly not sure if he or she would be victorious. Seeing her mastery in his area of dominance enthralled him. His muscled arms ached with the desire to face her in friendly competition or contested match. What would it be like?
Not even Ghenghis Khan beaten and trussed, swearing his soul to the Greek god, could compete with Ares' sudden vision of the woman before him swearing allegiance. Her blue eyes would flash with a fire mirroring his own (or that of his own, referring to the fire flashing in his eyes). She would come to him, so caught in the passions of war they would set the world ablaze with conquering ecstasy and destructive will raging through them.
So Ares did what he'd only done on a few other occasions. He appeared to her in disguise. Not to seduce but to join her. He made his way to the village next on her path of pillage and submission. She was just past twenty summers old, so he made himself similar in appearance, and moved among her conquered, submitting himself to the chained bondage common for prisoners of war. In the march to the camp's cages, he accepted the lashes for pausing to admire her sitting on her horse. Feeling Death touch him, he and nearly laughed at Celesta's surprise when he did not turn to follow her. Instead, he pulled against his chains and walked toward the Destroyer of Nations, who was giving orders to her lieutenants on how to administer the fallen town.
"Crassus, I want this town's entire granary reserved for the fourth regiment. You will administer here until we reach the outskirts of Amphipolis. Then I want you to have a council installed that understands us."
"Yes, lady." Crassus was a craggy faced man who seemed to have seen one too many blades across his thin cheeks, so scarred was he. The man had been a warrior since he'd grown his first whiskers. Ares shoved aside the memory of Crassus' first kill, which had brought the man into his fold. The God of War was more intent on studying his newest fascination: Xena of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations.
Suddenly while he was looking at Crassus, he felt her attention switch to him. Slowly Ares turned and smiled.
"What do you want?" she demanded. "I don't review the prisoners until morning," she explained, tapping his manacles with the tip of her sword. "You can eat swill with the others." She met his eyes, and Ares could tell she was shaken a bit by his appearance. The corners of her eyes narrowed and a faint crease formed at the top of her nose. "No favors, even for a pretty boy like you," she murmured finally, running the broadside of her sword blade against his cheek.
Her face took on a dark cast suddenly and she scowled. The slip of her hand made a neat slice in the curve of his cheek. Nothing fatal, or even really painful, but Ares knew a vicious thought had just crossed Xena's potent mind. He smiled again, unnerving her further.
She moved her horse backward and nodded toward Crassus. "Teach our prisoner some manners." She then slid her sword with a rasp into the scabbard on her hip. In the same moment she turned her bay stallion's head around, trotting off to review the returning troops.
Crassus grabbed Ares' arm and pulled him back into line with the other prisoners. Ares suffered the whip with pride, relishing the pain in his back for his five lashes "for insolence." He looked forward more and more to the inevitable result of his constant attempts to gain Xena's attention... a meeting with the warrior woman herself.
He marched along between the stoop-shouldered, beaten villagers. His head lifted and he threw his shoulders back. Tartarus be praised I am going to love this. He threw the whip-bearer a smile.
The soldier did not see the smile. He was looking over his shoulder at Xena's retreating back, shaking his head. Ares could fairly hear his thoughts screaming: What in Hades just happened?
Then Ares had his first sight of Borias. The Hun warrior rode up to Xena, reporting on the clean up happening on the other side of the village. The God fought down a choking flare of rage as she nodded curtly, accepting his report, then leaned across the space between their horses and gripped his head, fingers threading through the man's tightly knotted hair, claiming a passion-filled kiss. Borias was the one breathing hard when they parted.
Ares knew then that Xena was truly the warrior he wanted as his champion, for all time. He took a deep breath and murmured, "You will possess the earth as easily as you possess men's hearts." He watched as she straightened in the saddle, turned her horse again and rode away. Borias became hot-faced, smiled and turned to ride back the way he came.
Ares clung to the bars of the cage
as Crassus locked him and the other prisoners from the battle inside. The
rest of the villagers huddled away from the bars, while Ares grasped them,
pressing his face between to get an undiluted vision of the mounted Xena,
as she reviewed her troops.
True to her word, at daybreak, after she had been out to her practice, Xena appeared at the cage, with Crassus. She had each man pulled out one at a time and interviewed them about their village and, if they had the desire, allowed to beg the "Warrior Princess" for their lives. Ares mused on the title and wondered where it came from, even as he knew how perfectly it fit her, body and soul.
Many prisoners did beg, and those weak-willed fools she gutted with her own sword. Many refused to discuss their tactical arrangements with other nearby villages. Those men she had Crassus gullet because, though they had honor, they couldn't be swayed to serve.
Then one man refused to speak. Ares knew -- and Xena knew if Ares could judge by her tolerant look -- he was the leader of the villagers who had stood against her army. Lightning fast, Xena smashed her fingers to his throat and the man began to choke and gag. "I have cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Tell me what I want to know or you'll die a very painful death."
He blubbered but didn't speak for the longest time. Just as the trickle of blood began to seep from his nose, the man's will broke, and he poured out all he knew. Ares smiled, a very small, very pleased smile, when she then killed him anyway.
Crassus asked, "Why, Xena? He could have told us much about the area."
"I'll find it out other ways, Crassus. He irritated me."
Crassus nodded, understanding that was all the explanation there needed to be. Ares heard Crassus offer up a quick prayer that "war continue as my brother." It was a common enough prayer for someone hoping to avert a person's anger. That Crassus felt this way around Xena, when, by his position, he was obviously more than a first-line soldier to her, and he knew it, spoke volumes. Xena wasn't above killing anything or anyone. Even a friend or comrade.
Ares could see Xena wasn't angry, though her entire being fairly pulsed with vicious thoughts and consciously designed imaginings of terrorizing villagers. Ares felt a kinship with her unlike anything he had ever experienced with another mortal.
"I must have her allegiance," Ares murmured, committing himself to his next course of action, which should very rapidly bring him into contact with the Warrior Princess.
Finally he was gestured out of the cage. He emerged in the same way he had entered, head high and shoulders back, meeting Xena's gaze with all the concern of a careless man.
"You are the prisoner from last night," she murmured. "Well? What have you to say? Will you beg me for your life? Or swear allegiance to this army and me in the same breath?"
Ares dropped to his knees and bowed his head. "On everything I hold sacred. The sword of Ares," he intoned. "Olympus, the abode of Zeus himself, and..." Ares looked up to meet Xena's eyes over the hilt of his sword. His mind swam in her blue eyes. He continued without thinking, "And the Styx herself." He paused, realizing the sacredness of what he was about to do, having only intended to impress her with his loyalty. How can she have such an effect on a god? He questioned, but finished smoothly, "I swear allegiance to you and this army."
Xena nodded in acceptance and Ares rose to his feet. "Unusual oath, warrior. What is your name?"
Ares looked up into her face and said, contemplatively, "I am called Mendices."
Xena eyed him closely and then passed him her sheathed sword, unbuckling the belt that held it strapped to her hip. "Carry this and follow me."
Ares took the sheath, and nodded. Xena turned her horse and at a pace with the horse, Ares followed her to her campaign tent.
He stepped around reclining men seated around the evening campfires, swallowing mead instead of watching their leader, though Ares could do nothing else. A few lifted a hand in greeting to the woman warrior but no one met her eyes. Those blue orbs missed nothing. Once, she had her bay stallion kick a man in the back for pushing all his coins into the middle of a betting pot.
The errant soldier looked up and immediately reclaimed the bulk of his bet. She guided her stallion to kick a wineskin with her boot from another man's hand. Good, thought Ares, she doesn't let her men commit folly even outside a battle. Control. Always control. He'd striven for years to explain that to his current favored warlord. And though he'd been successful, there had always been small incidents. Xena wouldn't have to be taught that. She already knew a man fought best when his whole life was disciplined, not just his fighting.
Finally Xena stopped in front of a large tent. Ares stepped back as she dismounted and held out the sheath. She seemed to assess him and find pleasure with his actions, because then she smiled, and Ares knew he would kill anything for her. Was this what her men felt? If a god, could feel her dominance, what poor mortal could hope to have enough backbone to do anything but exactly what she demanded?
Ares followed her into the tent. She did not hold the flap for him, and went directly to Borias' side at a table with a map laid out. "Any changes you want to make in the plans?" she asked the Hun.
"Nothing. Everything is ours between here and the Aegean. You will be master of all Greece before Solstice."
Borias and Ares were treated to the most heart-chilling, but pride-filled smile either had ever seen. Xena was obviously pleased to hear such a statement, and they both took a measure of self-congratulatory pride in her obvious conqueror's heart.Borias however had the liberty to lean and kiss her, whispering against her lips. "I want the Centaur land," he murmured.
"You shall have anything you want, Borias," she pledged, putting her hand on his chest.
Ares scowled, but dared say nothing.
At least not until he could get Xena away from the Hun.
CHAPTER TWO - THE DEATH OF BORIAS
A moon later.
Xena's army had just begun fighting with the Centaurs of the northern Greek forests. As dusk approached, she rested in her tent, considering the next day's battle plans. Ares worked nearby, repairing her weapons and armor, content to squire in order to be near her. A messenger appeared at the tent flap.
"My lady," huffed the out of breath sentry, a thick-chested man named Veras. "I have word."
"Where is he?" she demanded, leaning hard with both fists on a table where her evening meal remained untouched.
"He met with Kaleipus just after the sun was high."
"I want Borias brought in immediately." Ares caught the sudden uncertainty on her face before steel tinged her every word. "Alive, Veras." The sentry bowed his head quickly and backed out, eager to be on his mission.
Ares turned to Xena. "What do you want with Borias? Make me your missionary. I will take care of him." Ares hefted Xena's sword and swished the air.
She grabbed the blade from his hands quickly. "Mendices, I won't tolerate it. Borias is my problem, not this army's. Understand?" She flipped the sword around and casually returned the sword to his hands. "Just clean my gear."
Ares scowled, but Xena raised her eyebrow at him. He wiped the scowl from his features and nodded. "Yes, Princess."
Xena scowled at the title, and he wondered at that. It was true it was the first time he had used the title in addressing her. "May I ask you a question?"
Xena, who had gone to stare past the tent flap, turned around. "Go ahead." She crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him with what he'd come to recognize was her mildly amused expression. Her right eyebrow went up and her head tilted slightly to the right.
"Where'd you get the title 'Warrior Princess'? Did Ares gift you with it?" He hoped in the same breath to discover her feelings about his real self as well as quell his curiosity about her title.
Xena took a short circuit around the tent before answering, touching various items laid throughout. He noticed she touched a small figurine before turning around and addressing him. "You are the first man to ask me that. No one else would dare. But I'm in a forgiving mood, Mendices, so I'll tell you."
"I served a great leader in Chin," she began. "It is nearly six moons ago now since I left her service." Xena told the man she considered to be her squire an abbreviated version of her adventures in the wilds of Chin.
While listening, Ares did not find out what she thought of him. However he did think of a way to commit Xena to his service while seeming to give her a gift to recall her pleasant memories. She was still half seated, her hip propped on a table, finishing her tale of serving Lao Ma, when Veras returned.
"Borias has not been found yet, lady," he reported.
"Keep looking," she demanded. "I want Borias brought back -- in chains if necessary -- by dawn."
When Veras left, Ares requested to leave as well. "To warm your meal," he said, picking up her cold food. "I thank you for indulging me with the tale, my lady."
Xena nodded absently, lost in her
few pleasant memories of Chin, and waved him out. Ares quickly dispatched
a man at a fire to warm her meal and then disappeared from camp.
Xena became ill that night, waiting up for news of Borias. She could deny it no longer. She was pregnant. Hopefully Borias would return and she could retreat into seclusion leaving the leadership of the army in his hands. She trusted no one else.
That thought brought to mind the strange prisoner-turned-squire, Mendices. What is it with him? She was a bit surprised at her willingness to tell him about Chin. But for the last moon he had served her well. Hearing him call her "Princess" certainly had been a surprise. It wasn't that she disliked the title. In fact she rather liked it. But it was a title for a job she no longer held. She still owed Lao Ma a debt, but the moment Xena had left the borders of Chin in the distance, she'd been relieved of duty as "The Warrior Princess" for the House of Lao.
But there were men who had worked for her and Borias while in Chin. "Warrior Princess" was as ingrained as lacing up their boots in the morning.
It wasn't really an offense, but he was the first man to really speak with her, without fear lacing his every word. Other than Borias, Xena thought, knowing the Hun barely hid his disgust that she was leading this army instead of him. She found herself all out of proportion pleased by Mendices lack of reticence to speak with her. Which was ridiculous. He was a squire, a former prisoner of war; his life was worth nothing.
But his bearing, her mind reminded her. What was it about his bearing? Who was he before her army happened into his village?
A soldier requested entrance with
her reheated meal. Xena continued to consider the questions of Mendices
and that kept her mind and stomach calm enough while she awaited word of
Ares moved among Xena's troops with ease, passing checkpoints and perimeter posts. Everyone knew him. As Mendices he'd been seen for the last month as an undeterrable presence near the Warrior Princess in battle after battle for Centaur land.
"Mendices," called Dagnine, the massive man who led Xena's front battalion. He too was out late. Ares searched the man's mind for intent. "What brings you out this way? A message from Xena?"
"We have a mission. Borias has turned."
"I know," replied Dagnine. "He has gone after the Ixion Stone."
"Has he?" Ares stepped close to Dagnine. "Really? Wouldn't you rather we get it for Xena?"
Dagnine humphed. "What could she do with it? They say the man who drinks it will die. What of a woman?" Dagnine sighed. "I may not pant to get into her bed like most men in this army, but I serve her."
"Then let us rid her of Borias," Ares suggested.
"Mendices, did she order it?"
"No, but I know she desires it."
Dagnine shrugged. "Suits my purposes," he replied by way of answer.
"Do you know where he sought the stone?"
"Follow me." Dagnine led the way deeper into the woods toward caves on the western boundary of Centaur Land. "The Ixion Cave is rumored to be in the western range."
"Will he still be there?" Ares asked, keeping up his conversation with the wily Dagnine.
"It's not an easy place to reach," replied Dagnine. "I've had men searching the holes in the ground this way for days. It's a virtual maze."
"Let's move then."
Ares and Dagnine found Borias, but not the Ixion Stone. The Hun warrior swore he hadn't found it. He'd found the Ixion Cave. The markings were consistent. He even led them to the cavern below ground and showed them an altar-like rock area, but it was bare.
Dagnine believed Borias had found it yet kept it hidden. "Planning to sell it?" he demanded of the Hun.
"No," replied Borias. "I wanted the elixir," he replied. "Just like you did, Dagnine," he added with accusation. "Why are you not at Xena's side, Mendices?"
Ares, who had until now, been content to watch the two men arguing, stepped forward. "Xena thinks you betrayed her to the Centaurs, Borias. I'm here to find out the truth, and bring you back to her."
"Dead or alive?" Borias asked.
Ares shrugged. "I don't care," he replied, drawing his sword. Beside him, Dagnine did the same. For a brief instant, Ares saw Borias felt fear. The man's upper lip curled and sweat beaded his brow. Then he too drew his sword.
And the battle was on. Borias and Dagnine and Ares fought throughout the caverns below Centaur land. Dagnine and Ares teamed up and soon Borias was backed into a corner, his sword just barely effective against the onslaught of the two men. Dagnine thrust and Borias could not block it while he was already frantically trying to deflect an opposing thrust by Ares.
Both swords pierced the Hun, and his breath froze in his chest as he crumpled to the ground. Dagnine cackled and Ares searched the Hun's pouches. "He doesn't have the stone," he told Dagnine.
Dagnine, in his rage at being thwarted, skewered Borias' body, driving the thick broadsword through the vitals of the man repeatedly, shouting curses and promising the Hun a eternity in Tartarus for his betrayal.
It was the yelling that drew the
Centaurs. A village well was near the Ixion cavern and the men filling
their water buckets heard the cacophony. They beat off Ares and Dagnine,
disfiguring the latter in the process. As Ares ran off, he saw a Centaur
fall to his knees before the maligned body of Borias. Wails of grief and
shouts of anger followed Ares and Dagnine throughout the forest, all the
way back to Xena's camp.
Mendices delivered the message Borias was dead. His sword was not recovered, having been retrieved with the body by the Centaurs. The Centaurs sent a note demanding that Xena's army pull back for the duration of the mourning period.
Xena sketched a terse note in reply: We will pull out for the duration of the winter, not a day more. She signed it; a moment of perversity made her write 'The Warrior Princess of Corinth.'
She left Mendices in charge of the
winter arrangements and retreated with a trusted few of her soldiers and
a cooking woman to a hut high in the hills overlooking the Centaur plain.
But Mendices disappeared during the winter camp months as well. He left
command in Dagnine's hands during his absence.
CHAPTER THREE - DEVELOPMENTS
The man's frustration at having been disfigured in the fight with Borias seethed through him. He directed the army to continue raids even during the usually peaceful months of winter. He threw firepower and soldiers almost daily at the Centaur villages. He destroyed nothing outright but made sure to fly the banner of Xena's army every moment. The Centaurs sent word they would sue for peace only in a private meeting with the Warrior Princess, just after the last frost of the newborn year.
It was late in the third month when Xena gave birth to a son. The son of Borias, honored friend of the Centaurs. The cook woman served as midwife and the pains were gone quickly. The sun shined brightly the day he was born, and in a fit of tenderness she would not feel again for nearly a decade, Xena bequeathed him the name Solon, child of the Sun.
She had no smile to echo the motherly crowings of the cook woman. She rose from her bed within a day, and was receiving messengers in the front room on the day word came that Kaleipus of the Centaurs wished to discuss peace.
She drew on a cloak to conceal the slight bulge remaining to her figure, and to ward off the chill of the early Spring morning. She told the cook woman she was going to take the child for a walk. She needed, she said, to get out. No one must know her true mission, she knew, even as the idea flitted into her mind.
Solon was swaddled with care and tucked into a box to protect him from the wind. A soft blanket of lamb's fleece dyed a delicate blue from the oil of gillyflowers laid over the babe. Xena pulled on the hood of her cloak and stepped into the morning.
She mounted her horse and held the babe against her lap as she used only her knees to guide the stallion down into the Centaur valley toward the meeting place Kaleipus had chosen.
It was dusk when she finally arrived at the appointed spot, having spent the last few miles studying the baby's face and wondering what in the gods' names was she doing? She looked up and saw the Centaurs assembled in the clearing ahead and dismounted. She left the horse and stepped through the foliage, leaving the box beneath a thick bush. She revealed herself with a flourish and nodded to Kaleipus, who sported a fresh wound, the loss of his right eye. The bloodstains were still red instead of rust as with older wounds.
"Xena," said Kaleipus with disdain.
"Kaleipus," replied Xena, tugging off her cloak hood. "I will pull out."
"What's the catch? The Warrior Princess does not usually offer such an easy bargain." Kaleipus scowled.
Xena reached back, uncovered the box under the bush and brought it forward. "I only ask one favor, Kaleipus."
"What is it?" he asked, looking tentatively at the box.
Xena lifted away the blanket, revealing the small face of the child. "This is the child of Borias. My child. I cannot care for him. He would learn things he shouldn't learn. He would become ... like me."
"I would be honored to raise the son of Borias as my own."
"I will not return," she added, passing
over the babe. "Kaleipus, you have been a worthy opponent. But it is time
I, and my army,
Kaleipus focused his one good eye upon her, saying nothing. She could tell, by the pulled look on his face that he didn't believe her. He cradled the child gently and departed first, the other Centaurs guarding his back... from her, until he was out of sight.
Alone, Xena turned back into the woods and in silence mounted her horse and headed, not for the hut in the hills, but for the main camp of her army nestled down here, in the eastern slopes of Centaur country. She would keep her word whether Kaleipus believed her or not and move her army this very night.
The further she got from her heartache,
and the sooner, the better.
Ares met her at the perimeter of the camp and noticed the tired lines around her eyes, as he took the reins of her horse from her hands as she dismounted. "Rough ride, my lady?" he asked.
"Mendices, pass the word. We're moving out. Tonight." She shook her head and frowned.
"But...," he protested.
"Not a word, Mendices. Do as I order. Now."
"I will have someone come clear the campaign tent immediately," he replied. What in the name of Hades had happened? Ares asked himself as he watched her go off to the campaign tent while he led the stallion off to the corral. He wondered just what had happened while he was off at Olympus. He'd only just returned that morning.
Not for the last time did Ares resent
the fact that he could not see into Xena's mind, though he had come to
know her moods well during the time he'd served her.
CHAPTER FOUR - NEW ASSOCIATIONS
Xena's army moved on to the plains of Thrace. She still had an army to feed and her home village to protect. Mendices joined her in the campaign tent now, the ache of having lost Borias now all but gone. She never spoke of the departed Borias, or his betrayal. Mendices became her companion, and they often took their evening meals together by the candlelight of the tent.
But as a year since Borias' death neared an end, Xena grew quiet. Her part of the conversation, whether it was tactics or strategy, or reviews of the new recruits began to drag. Ares found himself wanting the warrioress back and began to regret having stayed as long as he had. But he could not seem to leave her. Every time he tried, he would return the next dawn, compelled by something he did not understand to see if she was all right.
One night, he broached the topic after reporting the latest mission results. "You are quiet, Xena," he began. "Is there anything you would like?"
Xena shook her head. Feeling distinctly alone at the moment, her rejoinder told him more than she probably would have wished. But the words could not be taken back. "I want to be with you," she said, raising her eyes to his face.
Both of them were a bit startled by the admission. Ares pulsed with joy, but tamped it down carefully. "You have never said anything," he replied cautiously.
"You have been everywhere for me, Mendices. You are truly my right fist in this army. There is nothing we do not speak of..." Her voice trailed off. "I would not normally ask."
He said he understood. "You are quite protective of your image." She nodded when he inclined his head silently obtaining permission to draw her to her feet. "I'd like to build that image up." She didn't say anything as he pulled her into his arms. "We can conquer together. All of Greece. Yours."
"I don't wish to speak of conquering tonight," she whispered against his ear. "Do you?"
It wasn't feigned when he captured her mouth with his own and replied roughly. "Not now. But soon."
The kiss they shared was the mark
of duelists. Two strong wills coming together in a fierce combat, and Ares'
heart, which until now, only pounded with the thought of battle, drew near
to his throat and pounded in tandem with Xena's. She breathed hard
against his throat, and fiercely tasted the skin there.
He held himself, only at great effort, from her bed that night. It nearly killed him to leave her with only gentle kisses. But he could not suffer the Fates' wills should she become with child... his child. Ares had learned long ago, that a child close to him would destroy him. Until now he easily restrained himself the baser pleasures with mortals so easily.
"You are not easy to leave, my lady," he whispered as she moved against his hands. "But I must... see to the troops."
Mendices moved easily from soldier to soldier, several smiling and offering him greeting. He took up night watch from a man drooping in his saddle. He did not reprimand the sandy-blond young man, but rather clapped him strongly on the back and chuckled, "Go sleep it off, soldier. I'll take this post for the remainder of the night."
And he did, leaning in contemplation
against the rough bark of a tree while his mind conjured Xena's sweetness,
and he feared he was well and truly lost.
He received word from Hephaestus through one of the disfigured god's spindly-legged helpers. The youthful-looking man appeared at Ares' post on the outskirts of Xena's camp when the full moon was high.
"It is done," the man reported simply. "Master Hephaestus requests that you retrieve it yourself, and thank him."
Ares laughed. It was so like the Master Smith to gain a social visit through delivery of a prized item. He rubbed his hands together. Soon, he thought, the entirety of the known worlds, both above and below, will feel the power of the unity of Ares and Xena.
"You will stay here. Act like a guard, all right?" He paused and his smile was dark, proud. "I won't be long. Don't move from this place. Or you'll be answering to the leader of this army, just as I would, for dereliction of duty." The messenger blinked. He was just an immortal youth having very little knowledge of the mortal plane.
Ares laughed again. "You'd best fear it, young man. She's Xena, Destroyer of Nations, and soon, whether she knows or not, she will be serving the mission of the God of War." Ares stepped away from the tree trunk and changed into his magnificence, while simultaneously changing Hephaestus' messenger into the garb of one of Xena's soldiers.
With a backward glance over his shoulder
and around the nearby woods, Ares lifted a hand and erased himself from
the mortal plane.
He rematerialized in the cave of Hephaestus, just outside, in an alcove off the mortals' entrance. He stroked the hilt of the Hephaestus Sword, a massive weapon thrust into a rock near the entrance. The first weapon created by the master smith, it was older than Olympus. The weapon had been used by Zeus to severe Cronos' head which had led to the fall of the Titans and the commencement of the Olympian Age. It was going to outlast the Olympians themselves for it was made not of mere metal -- even god-touched, but of the primordial ooze with which the very universe had been created.
Ares afforded a certain measure of reverence toward the great weapon and never turned his back on it as he moved around it to pass through the entrance to Hephaestus' main forge.
"Hephaestus, I am here," he called out, looking amidst the steaming bins, and hissing molds for the hulking bulk. "You said it was ready." Behind him Ares heard the uneven thump-plod of the master forger's walk. He turned and smiled. "Heph," he greeted with a smile.
"Ares," Hephaestus said, a god of sparse words.
"Here it is over on the table." He gestured to a workbench against the rear wall of the cave.
"What did you model it on?" Ares asked as he and Hephaestus moved toward the indicated workbench.
"You said she held reverence for the Eastern people and their ways. There is a weapon which they use, a disc, in the wilds there."
Ares smiled. "Perfect. And the design?"
"Yes, I took your notes. I sent a messenger to copy the design."
Ares lifted the weapon and admired it, tracing the design which Xena had told him was carved around the doorway of Lao Ma's home, the squared gold-inlay filled the inner edge, dotted in each plateau with a crystalline indentation. "Did your messenger happen to find out what it meant?"
"No," replied Hephaestus. He looked worried. "That could be a problem."
"Oh? How so?" asked Ares as he turned to examining the edge, marveling at the workmanship which made it both sharp and blunt at the same time.
"Everything bearing a symbol has a bit of the magic associated with the symbol's concept, Ares. You know that," Hephaestus took the weapon from Ares' hands.
"And the problem?"
"If the symbol is for good, whoever you're wishing to gift this to may not be as wholly in your power as you hope." Then Hephaestus gestured. "Speaking of that, who is it, anyway? And why not a sword this time?"
"This one is special, Heph. I'm not even gifting it in person. Well," he smiled. "not exactly. She's special -- "
"Since when did you recruit women warlords, Ares?"
Ares's scowled. "I've never seen anyone fight like she does, Heph. I have no idea how I missed her early years, but suffice it to say, I'm not going to neglect her now that I've found her."
"And why not gift her in person? If she's as deadly as you say, wouldn't she welcome an alliance with the God of War?"
Ares shook his head. "It's just a feeling I have, Heph. I've been working in her army for the last annum."
"Smitten? You? Never," Hephaestus humphed. "You know what the Oracle told you."
"I've not lost control, Smith," responded Ares. "I've never made love to her. Though Zeus probably knows I want to." He smiled at Hephaestus as the Master Smith raised a brow at the war god's very mortal choice of epithet. "I want her in service to me. End of discussion."
"Well, this disc is a gift of some magnitude. Bloodlust should sing in her whenever she wields it."
"And who can train her?"
"Why not take it upon yourself? In disguise of course." Hephaestus shrugged and passed the disc to the Olympian. "Try it out for yourself."
Ares smiled, feeling the weapon's surface glassy smooth against his palm. For a moment he considered the best approach for attempting a throw. Finally, he decided on an upraised flick of his wrist. The disc flew from his hand... and imbedded itself in a distance rock wall, after shearing through two of Hephaestus's stands of spears. "Impressive."
"Cause a spin in the other direction," suggested Hephaestus as they walked over to the wall to retrieve the weapon.
As Ares pulled the disc from the rock, he considered the master smith's suggestion. "All right," he said finally. Arm outstretched, he put pressure on the release in the other direction. The disc fled his hand spinning in reverse. It flew across the room, but upon encountered an object it bounced away. It careened throughout the forge, bouncing from surface to surface. It hit the edge of a squared off rock tabletop and began spinning in the opposite direction, slicing through another stand of spears before impaling a wall.
Ares' face fairly glowed with excitement. Hephaestus shook his head and muttered, "Get the damned thing out of here before I have no more spears left."
Ares laughed, retrieved the disc and headed for the door. Over his shoulder he asked, "What did the Easterners call their weapon?"
Hephaestus thought a moment. "A chakram. Means 'disc' in their tongue."
The God of War smiled broadly. Then Ares looped the weapon through a strip of leather on his belt and strode from the cave. Hephaestus stood still a long moment looking after the departed Olympian. "I hope you know what you're doing, Ares." He shook his head and returned to his forge.
Soon the clang of metal and a smithy
hammer echoed from the mountain, occasionally interrupted by the loud hiss
of the wind... or was it a weapon being dunked in cool stream waters for
curing before being molded by the hammer of the Master Smith once again?
CHAPTER FIVE - THE GIFT
The youth messenger sighed in relief as Ares reappeared at the edge of the forest. "Thanks, kid," replied the war god. "I've got it from here."
"Sir?" The youth stepped away from the tree and walked off into the dark foliage, his path vanishing even as he did.
Ares waved his hand casually, returning
his appearance to that of Mendices, mortal soldier, smitten with the great
Warrior Princess. On his hip rested the gift, a weapon unmatched on earth
or in Olympus, the Chakram. "Now," he said, "to get her attention with
Dawn found Xena practicing, as was her habit, on a rocky precipice alone high above a mountain river waterfall. She concentrated on her forms, so her mind was free of the ache that accompanied her on this morning. One year had passed since she had received word of Borias' death, and the memory still cut deeply. How could no one know why her order to bring him in alive hadn't been obeyed? The question troubled Xena because it meant there were those among her troops who were willing to disobey her. And that could easily spell disaster. She needed to find them another target village, and soon, if her instincts were right.
She never missed a stroke in her cross-patterns, or her leaps, while contemplating what she knew of the surrounding countryside. But when a low voice spoke from directly behind her she jumped sideways, turned with her sword raised and fell off the precipice as she yanked back on her sword to avoid slicing her newfound visitor -- Mendices -- in half.
He was at her side in an instant, wading into the water to help her to her feet. She growled at him and yanked her arm away. "Mendices! What in Hades' name brought you here?"
"Well, Clotho started with my threads quite some time ago," replied the soldier with a wry smile, trying, Xena could see, to control his urge to laugh.
"Don't you dare, Mendices," she warned, as his mouth began to open. "Startling me by coming that close to me was stupid! Don't you know that? You've been with me far too long to pull something so careless."
"Yes, I know. I just had, well, I had something to show you," he replied, stepping back and walking backward out of the river as she stalked out after him.
She grabbed up a cloth she kept on a rock nearby to dry off, usually after her practice was complete. Not usually because she'd taken a dunk in the river. "And it couldn't wait until I returned to camp?" She was growling now, her face visible for a few seconds between vigorous strokes of the cloth. She moved to her arms and her scowl pinned him in place. "Well?"
"What?" He was standing straight without fear as usual, but something in his eyes conveyed his confusion.
"What is it," she began more calmly. "What is it you wanted to show me?"
"It can wait until we get back to camp, I guess."
Xena shook her head. "You've got my attention now. Better take advantage of it."
"Oh. Right." He removed something from his belt and concentrated on a distant spot for a second before releasing the round weapon with a backward spin toward his intended target: a tree behind her. It imbedded itself a handswidth into the thick trunk.
Xena shook out her long hair and strode over to the tree, yanking the round thing from the wood. "What is it?"
"One of the men I killed in our last battle," he said. "He had it on him. Some Easterner. A house slave, I think." Xena ignored him as he came to peer over her shoulder as she fingered the weapon. "It does some other neat stuff too. Not quite sure how all it works though. Thought I'd give it to you since you like Eastern stuff so much."
Xena nodded absently, stroking the golden markings. On one side, featured squared markings, alternating heights ringing the inside edge of the disc. On the other was a pattern of chevrons, all circulating to the left. "This is your prize from battle," she said finally. "You earned it, I couldn't take it from you." She thought Mendices would appreciate that.
But he didn't. He shook his head and pushed it back to her chest. "No, I insist. I'd probably take off a hand within a week. Let me show you the other throw I have figured out though." He put his hands over hers and tore his eyes away from hers. "Hold it overhand like this, and put the pressure on this," he pressed an indentation in the metal just above one of the chevrons. "Then release it and step back."
Mendices moved aside and Xena looked at the tree, the same tree Mendices had struck with the weapon earlier, taking aim. She took aim and released it with quite a bit of force. Immediately she had to duck as the careening disc began a circuit around the clearing, bouncing from tree to tree and occasionally whizzing right past hers and Mendices' heads. They both dropped to the ground to await the end of the disc's travels and remained there a good period of time. Xena rolled onto her back to watch the disc in action. She could follow it easily, though she felt she wasn't supposed to be able to; it was moving impossibly fast.
She saw it careen off a tree and predicted it would pass overhead. At what she hoped was the proper moment, she reached her hand out and grabbed at the weapon. Her palm caressed a and she released the pressure of her grip as she dropped the weapon to the dirt between her and Mendices.
She looked over at the smiling man. "I see what you mean about the hand," she remarked, slowly getting to her feet. "It is an unusual gift, Mendices."
"I certainly could do nothing with it, Xena. You're welcome to it." He pushed it toward her again, carefully resting his hands over hers instead of touching the weapon itself.
"Any idea what it's called?" she asked, examining the disc again, more closely studying the edge, and noticing it was still smooth. Neither the trip embedding it into the tree trunk or its mad path among the trees had mared its surface.
Ares shrugged and responded, "Heard the dead man call it a chakram."
Xena smiled and looked up at Mendices who smiled back. "Well, I had probably better practice a while. Wouldn't do to take off my hand during a battle."
He laughed and made to pat her shoulder before thinking better of it. "Never."
Xena watched Mendices stride from the clearing and studied the disc in her hand. "Chakram, huh?" She looked over at another tree and tossed the new weapon casually, watching only how it spun as it left her hand. She wanted to learn to predict whether it would cut or careen very quickly. Otherwise her jest to Mendices just might come true. She could lose a hand.
The weapon careened off the first tree, and she studied it as it left, still spinning in the same direction. It should bounce again. She smiled as it did just that, hitting the next tree. She watched the spin. Something about how it hit that tree made it reverse spin. When next it met anything, she guessed, it would cut.
Her smile grew very wide as it did just that, burying itself about half a hand's width into another tree trunk. She strode over to it and examined the edge, committing to memory everything she remembered about the chakram's brief flight. She knew she would not be an expert for some time, but the skills were there, and all she had to do was practice. She could track the weapon easily, point one in its favor, and she had good success figuring out what it would do. But there would be times when things in a battle moved too fast, she'd be unable to watch it in flight every second.
So she'd have to throw it for hours, days, and months, until she knew without looking, exactly how it would track through a known set of obstacles.
As she set about throwing some more, she thought about Mendices. Why had he given the chakram to her? Maybe he was trying to earn his way into her bed? No, he'd already declined a session even after she'd made the first move.
Maybe he was trying to make up for having pulled away from her? No, Xena thought, that's absurd. No man gives a damn what you think of his actions. Mendices would be no different, wouldn't he?
Not being entirely able to figure
out Mendice's motivations bothered Xena a great deal, but she tried not
to let it show and concentrated on learning her new weapon.
Ares watched from the protection of nearby foliage, as Xena familiarized herself with the chakram. Beautiful, he thought. Xena, you're mine.
He swallowed hard remembering her hands beneath his against the smooth weapon. There was such hidden power in those hands, he knew. And the chakram would draw them out, mold them to kill... everything, anything. He allowed himself a prideful smile as he envisioned Xena's future. I choose only the perfect warrior, Xena. And you're it.
In silence he remained hidden and observed the rest of the woman's practice. She worked with the weapon through the midday meal, as well as the evening meal. Dusk began to gather before she began to slow, practicing slower, less forceful throws, less concentrated actions.
Ares worried that, in her relaxed state, she might miss catching the weapon properly. He watched it take a careening turn off the last tree and return on a path toward Xena. Since just that morning, she'd gotten better at making it come back to where she stood. Earlier in the day, she'd figured out where it would stop and be there to catch it. Now, it almost careened at her will, where she willed and how she willed.
The God of War watched her reach out, and grasp the weapon and snatch her hand away. She grabbed her hand as the chakram dropped noisily to the ground.He resisted the urge to check on her, and remained crouched. He watched her rub her hand gingerly and reach down with the other one to pick up the weapon. "Guess it's time to quit," she said.
And Ares stepped out of the foliage, seeing the line of red that now coated her throwing hand. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Xena looked up. "Oh, Mendices. Yes, I'm fine. This is some weapon," she remarked, gingerly shifting it to her cut hand before making that hand strap it to her weapons belt. "I'll have to come up with a way to clasp it there. I can't keep tying and untying it."
"Perhaps a small hook?" He eyed her hip as he offered the suggestion. "It does look more at home in your hands than it ever would it mine," he remarked.
"Thank you, again, for the gift, Mendices..." She trailed off. "What would you like in return?"
Ares shrugged. "To see you kill with it. Take control of whatever you like, Xena. This valley needs a leader like you. Powerful, in control." He took her hand carefully. "Come on, let's get that wrapped up and see to some dinner." He rubbed his stomach with a chuckle. "I'm hungry. What about you?"
Xena laughed and leaned over, kissing him on the cheek. "What would I do without you to make me smile, Mendices?" She heard someone, as he did, coming near the clearing.
Both faces went grim and they awaited the messenger from camp.
"Yes, Veras," Xena asked as soon as the man stepped into the clearing.
"We've been looking for you all day, lady," he replied. "Amphipolis has sent a message for you."
Xena groaned, and then set her features
hard again. "Let's go." She led the way with long, sure, hurried without
trying to appear hurried, strides. Ares and Veras followed quickly.
CHAPTER SIX - THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF THEIR LIVES
Day broke over the valley where Amphipolis nestled and a swarm of men, horses, and catapults rode fast to the crest of the north hills. Regiment leaders trotted their mounts back and forth examining their lines. Occasionally one would turn his head and smile as the sleepy valley came to life. Women, with young children in tow, hitched up their skirts and strode out to the fields carrying baskets to gather in the spring harvest of flax. Flax oil was a cleaning solvent, highly prized in Athens, and the flax threads, when cured were just now learning to be used for stitching, both in healing and sewing. The fishing villages had long ago discovered its use in netting.
The mounted soldiers of Tuminius on the hill knew all this. Today was harvest day, and that harvest they meant to have for their own. So much so that they ignored the word throughout all the villages they had passed through coming this far south, that the land beyond these hills, down in that cozy-looking little valley was under the protection of the one person no one wanted to cross: Xena, Destroyer of Nations.
But they discovered this soon enough. While the women below in the fields watched, a swarm, larger than the first by at least two times, appeared on the eastern ridge, swept briefly down toward the valley. Then they turned north, coming up to meet Tuminius' troops.
At the head of this massive counter-offensive rode a dark pair. One with raven hair, wild to her shoulders covered in overlapping plates of metal. The second, at her side, was broader of frame, but somehow seemingly less threatening, until you got a glimpse of his face.
Dark brows, and thick raven hair
blew wildly around growling brown eyes, as he lashed out with his sword
at a man who dared run at him, mounted though he was. With a glorious yell,
he stabbed the man through, dragging the body along until it split
enough to drop from his blade.
Beside Ares, Xena slashed her way through the ranks of Tuminius' troops. The God of War got his wish. The Xena, Destroyer of Nations, was unleashed, bloodlust in her eyes, a sword in her left hand and her newest weapon, a gift from him in her right, which had a bandage of well-worn creases as she'd worked right through the injury from the day before. He forgot for the moment that he was supposed to be just her mortal companion, a soldier who'd chosen to fight by her side. He reveled in the godly feelings of watching her work her own special magic, on the battlefield, his dominion. Where he had first come to see his "competition", Ares now saw, in glorious revelation, his perfect match. The goddess to his godliness. The mortal realm definition of his Olympian dominion.
He reveled in the battle as she did. There were hardly any words spoken save a "Close ranks" here and a "push them" there, but she commanded with every fiber of her willing body. She dove into the fray, leaping from her horse with a stunning height and grace. Her body arched like a hawk diving for dinner over a sparkling river, the clash of swords in the brightening sunlight nothing more to her than a water's surface to be parted, dived beneath and splashed into tiny pieces catching the sun's light on startled faces, unshielded faces, dead faces.
Her new weapon flashed in the sunlight, and Ares watched it pass among her surroundings, cutting men's sword arms, creating belly wounds in others, and knocking helmets, or slicing through the skulls of still more. She smiled at him as she caught the weapon, allowing it to jump briefly in her hand as the sharp edge made her wince. But she walked out from among the carnage unscathed.
Ares yelled, a glorious yell, welling up from his center. It was throaty, it was coarse and it was the most gut-satisfying war cry in his millenium of existence. "Aiyiyiyiyi!"
As Xena thrust her sword between a man's ribs, she caught Ares' eye. He yelled again, and she responded in kind, leaping over her fallen opponent in a graceful somersault, all the while echoing Ares's battle cry, "Aiyiyiyiyi!"
Ares felt his heartbeat pounding in his blood, making his body sing with a battlelust he'd seldom felt in all his years. He watched Xena fell another opponent, this time taking his head off with a single swipe of her broadsword. He cried out his praise. "Aiyiyiyiyi!"
She answered again with the yell and leapt to his side. Bodies converged on them and then fell aside as their blades, too fast for most to follow, cut a swath through blood and bone letting them pass.
Back to back they moved toward Tuminius and the chief lieutenants of his army. The men circled Ares and Xena at his side. Both were smiling an unholy smile, Death considered a comrade in arms, recordkeeper of their deeds. Both aimed to fill up the ledger with more dead than on any other day in recorded history. And their swords swung true.
Ares became enthralled watching Xena decapitate, incapacitate, and eviscerate her opponents. The act made him careless. A lieutenant of Tuminius snuck up behind him.
He heard Xena's cry in warning and it allowed him to turn, deflecting the man's strike, a low blow which could have pierced his belly, killing him were he mortal.
Then, smiling viciously, as he slid the man's body from his blade to a lifeless heap on the ground, he heard her cry out again. This time is was not a warning. Even as he turned, he knew. He knew he would be too late.
Xena had been watching to make certain he bested his attacker. She missed another of Tuminius' lieutenants coming up behind her. The man, skilled soldier that he was, managed to slide his sword through her belly from behind and then pulled out again, diving in and driving his weapon hilt deep through her chest. The blade obscenely divided her body in half, along the sternum, her breastplate armor cut and bent from the force behind the blade's plunging shaft.
Ares jumped to catch her as she fell. He grabbed her shoulders, willing everyone to Hades. And that meant everyone. Tuminius and his lieutenants fell to suddenly mortal chest wounds. Many of Xena's own men fell as the wave of destructive power wielded by a distraught god penetrated even their armor. When they arrived in Tartarus, they wouldn't know what killed them. Many assumed, in the confusion that they'd finally sustained an injury from their mortal opponent.
No one saw the god cradling the downed Warrior Princess, her blood pouring out across his flesh. No one saw him struggle to his feet, her body in his arms. No one saw him stagger to the cover of trees at the crest of the northern ridge and lay her gently in a bed of clover beneath a myrtle tree. When his yell pierced the air, what remained of Xena's troops retreated, unable to wait, in the wake of that inhumanly pained cry, to discover the whereabouts of their leaders. If Xena lived, or Mendices lived, they would have to find their way back to camp alone, each reasoned.
Night fell on the valley with the same eerie peacefulness as a tomb at dusk. There's a quiet, so quiet that no one speaks, for fear of shattering the delicate silence made more fragile by each passing moment. The moon rose on the glade of clover, and Ares gripped Xena's body. Her eyes opened and searched the darkness for him. "Mendices," she whispered.
"I'm here, Xena. I'm here," he whispered back. "Shh, lie still."
"You're all right," she murmured.
"Of course I am," he replied. "Why did you bother to watch?"
She moved her head from side to side and moaned. Then she fixed him with her blue eyes. Even though he saw the pain there, he still, as always, was lost in their luminous depths. "Because," she coughed, "I wanted to make sure."
Ares touched her cheek. "Your safety is supposed to be my concern, Princess. Not mine yours." He caressed her lips and closed his eyes. "Don't you know yet I can handle anything but you falling in battle?" He opened her eyes to find her studying him, her eyes grown heavy-lidded.
She tried to shake her head, but the pain in her body stopped that effort in mid-motion. She lifted her hand and tried to grasp his arm. He looked at her hand and grasped it firmly in his own.
The contact of their skin brought tears to his eyes, and Ares closed his eyes again, against the emotions he found humming through him. He yelled out for Apollo. "Heal her!" he cried as he held her weakened flesh tenderly in his strong hands.
A voice reached him in his grief. "Ares, what have you done?" came the soft, clear voice of his brother, Apollo, Sun god, and patron of the healer.
"I want her to live," Ares responded, his head down, eyes affixed to the now limp woman's soft features. "She is mine. Always."
"If she is yours, I will not help you," Apollo answered, materializing as a shade in the shadowed clover glade. "I will not help evil survive. Let her go, Ares. Hades has called her." Apollo gestured to Celeste, the ephemeral guide of Death, who now floated toward the copse and held out a welcoming hand.
"No!" responded Ares, jumping between Celeste and Xena's still body. "Athena! Hear me, sister! Xena is mine! Bring her back to me!"
Athena, goddess of war, also a healer, appeared in the glade as Apollo, shaking his head, faded from sight. "Yes, Ares?" She seemed bored somehow.
Ares laid Xena's dead body gently back against the clover and sprang to his feet. "Athena, Apollo won't do it. You have to."
"I have to?? I have to do nothing. You want her for our ultimate battle don't you?" Athena scoffed. "Well, sorry, brother, but that's not in the cards."
"You know Xena?"
Athena nodded quietly. "Once I might have wanted her to serve me -- until her soul became so dark. I want only noble warriors, Ares. That one has no nobility left."
Ares scowled, then he looked at the fading pallor of Xena's skin, and knew desperation. "Two score, 'Thena. For two score I will leave Athens alone."
Athena's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She appeared to consider it, then remembered, probably, with whom she dealt. "No deal, Ares." And she faded from sight.
Ares yelled again, alone in the night. "Xena, you are mine. Forever. Whatever paths you take in life, I swear I will walk with you. Whatever causes you fight for, I will stand with you. Whatever strength you need, I will give you." He kissed her cool lips then and felt a trembling. It was the reaction of his own mortal shape, wrapped so tightly in the emotions he was forcing it to feel. "Xena, come back to me," he cried. "You are my warlord, and I will always be your god." He wept and grabbed her shoulders. He touched the chakram at her waist and pressed it into her fingers.
There was a warm glow, a moment when the heat of his body cascaded, like a waterfall, across the smooth metal, and covered her hands. He got an idea, and moved the chakram to her chest, laying her hands and his along its smooth surface. "Xena, I command you, return to me. Now." His will forced more of his life energy to flood the chakram. "I do have the power to heal," he murmured to himself as the glow surrounded her whole being. He looked up.
He sighed, and studied the Warrior Princess' chest intently willing it to rise and fall. When a god wills something, usually it happens. This case was no different. Ares cried with relief when Xena's chest, though belabored by the weight of her armor, began slowly to rise, and then, equally, to fall. Once. Again. Again.
Ares gripped her shoulders and removed the armor, hoping to relieve some of the pressure she surely felt from the heavy array of metal. He set the chakram aside and bent close, feeling relief at her breath on his cheek.
Xena's eyes never opened, but her lips pursed and she touched her lips to his cheek. Ares's own breath froze in his chest, then consumed with relief, he turned his head and touched her lips with his own. He felt her breath on his lips, her soft mouth moved beneath his own, and he touched his tongue to her teeth. A sigh escaped her lips.
Ares fell, consumed by a hunger for this woman that only was partially met on the battlefield; the other met in the deepest recesses of his heart. Perhaps gods have a soul after all, he thought discordantly as he laid himself along Xena's length and felt her body meld to his.
"Oh, Xena," he murmured. "Thank the gods."Consumed by nearly having lost her, and never having felt anything that close to total emotional devastation, Ares tried desperately to remind himself and Xena that they both were alive and everything would be all right.
Throughout the night, he touched her; she responded weakly, but he would not permit her exertion. "I'll cherish you forever," he swore, as their forms came together, and the world's night became his only existence.
"Mendices," she murmured as he tucked her against him, finally some semblance of sanity having reasserted itself in his mind. "I love you," she finished, just as her breath evened into sleep.
And Ares wept.
He carried Xena, on her horse, back to the camp, and settled her in her tent. He tended her until he sensed she would live and could be tended by the camp healer. Then, he left.
Men in Xena's army called out to
him as he rode his horse past. "Mendices, hail. He has brought our Warrior
Ares traveled back to that glade,
over and over again. The glade where Xena had died, where they'd made love,
where she had become his heart, and he'd completely lost his head. And
a god prayed. He prayed to something even bigger than himself, bigger than
Zeus. He asked the Fates to spare him from the deep consequences of his
In the Hall of Destiny, Lachesis heard Ares' cries and stopped her weaving, but she smiled and picked it up again. The god would understand some day. An act of that kind never went unpunished or unrewarded. Whether he would consider what she did punishment or reward would be revealed some day.
She grasped the fledgling Warrior Princess' threads, and those of the God of War... Inspired by the beautiful play of the words of love even Ares would not speak but which were written plainly on his heart, she wove a tapestry together of their lives. One. Inseparable. For all time.
It was comprised of all the hues of their individual lives, like most she joined -- she'd done the same for husbands and wives united by true love over the ages. The unusual darkness came in the nature of its subjects: the indomitable God of War and the soul-dark Xena of Amphipolis, but Lachesis noticed a spark, a light, at the deepest center of their tapestry, a moment representing some influence in the future. She wondered where that goodness would come from.
But the tapestry was set. It would continue weaving together on its own, deepening the bond between the Warrior Princess and her savior this day, the God of War. Lachesis smiled at her work and moved on to another pair of lives.
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