Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: Set sometime late in 4th season, I figure. One of my characters, Mendices, is mentioned in "History Cast in Amber" (the very first story I ever wrote) and he's seen in more detail in "Compelling Associations" another of my general fiction stories.
If Memory Serves
(c) January 1999
Xena opened one crystal blue eye and scanned her surroundings. Deciding against actually moving from her position, she cradled the soft naked form of the bard beneath their shared blanket. Idly she stroked long, strong fingers against the soft bare shoulder, and with her other hand tugged the blankets more closely against Gabrielle's back. The warrior's gaze caressed her young lover, absorbing the smooth lines of a face that thankfully seemed less world-weary than it should after the last trying year.
They had both done a lot of changing, some of it good. Well, for Gabrielle anyway. The bard had come into her own. It had taken Xena a long time to accept that the child-woman she had pulled onto Argo's back outside her mother's inn in Amphipolis more than three summers ago had become a complex, but happy, woman. Gabrielle had grown from a girl who accidentally became an Amazon princess, to a young woman who chose to become an Amazon queen, for reasons that actually had little to do with needing a place to be. As Gabrielle had revealed recently with the Thracian Amazons, it all had much more to do with trying to be in the right place to do the right thing at the right time.
Gabrielle had figured out so much over the last three years, things that Xena still struggled with understanding. That had a lot to do with why Xena needed the bard close. Over the years since leaving her home to lead an army across the majority of Greece, the warrior had had many willing teachers. M'Lila, Caesar, Borias, Lao Ma, Alti, Cyane...
Tucking her own dark hair behind her ear, Xena smiled down into the peacefully sleeping face. Never had she had a teacher who didn't know she was one. Drawn to the gentle rise and fall of the bard's chest as she breathed deeply in her sleep, Xena lowered her head and pressed warm kisses to the soft skin just below Gabrielle's collarbone. Under her lips she felt the quality of breathing change, and the body under her hands began a langorous rise to consciousness.
Hips swayed to her questing touch. Shoulder and arm muscles rippled where her breath awakened them to warm life. Stomach and pelvic muscles, tightened from years of walking the length and breadth of much of the known world, clenched and unclenched at her caresses.
Finally, like the rising sun bringing the light into the world for another day, Gabrielle's eyelids rose, revealing languid green pools of color, which drowned Xena with the first touch of their gaze. The bard's voice rumbled with the huskiness of sleep, "Good morning."
Unresisting to the urge, Xena brought her mouth to Gabrielle's, licking and nipping at the warm lips until the play dissolved, leaving in its place a passion riding them both to deeper, wetter kisses. Tongues slipped against one another, first inside the satin warmth of Gabrielle's mouth, then, when the bard awoke fully to her passions, inside the velvet heat of Xena's.
Hands followed suit, drawing responses beginning with playful caresses, tickling along the curve of a breast. Fingers traced groaningly sensuous lines toward heated centers dampening with passion's fluids. Xena's fingers were drawn in first by Gabrielle's hips squirming in the ageless dance of impending need. She caressed the swelling bud at the juncture of Gabrielle's thighs first, while suckling on a nipple pearling against the ministrations of her tongue.
When the bard arched upward, Xena slid her free hand beneath and caressed the muscular line of her back. Hips shifted again and Xena's fingers slid home in the warm caress of Gabrielle's soaking hot center. A sound of animal pleasure expelled on a breath from the bard's parted lips. "Xena!" she sighed, groans rising as her release neared.
"Gabrielle." Xena lowered her voice to a growling caress, her breath warming the curve of Gabrielle's left ear. "Good morning, love." The endearment mingled with the peaking mewling sounds of Gabrielle's release. In that instant, pleasure convulsed through the bard's body, and Xena's heart leapt at the vibrations deep within her lover.
The quiet which settled over them was enforced by the deep even breathing of two chests pressing against one another until Gabrielle slid her body down Xena's length. A deep chuckle erupted from the warrior as a fully-awakened Gabrielle used breath, hands, lips and tongue to take her body on a journey of its own pleasure.
A squirrel that had ventured close to the camp, and a fox sleeping in the hollow of a tree, both bolted when the warrior's shout of pleasure shattered the still morning air. Gabrielle chuckled, still stroking Xena's stomach muscles, which were jumping all out of control, when she heard a series of splashes in the lake beside their campsite.
That reminded her she was hungry. Her eyes must have conveyed something. As Xena's eyes unglazed and focused on her face, instead of something langorous and loving dripping from that enticing mouth, the warrior asked, "Hungry, huh?" which burst the moment instantly, making them both laugh.
Pushing to her hands over the warrior's sweat-soaked and limp body, Gabrielle ducked her head and briefly nibbled lips that nibbled back. "Um, yeah. How about I do the fishing this morning?"
Xena's eyes closed briefly and then opened, a look of such pathetic gratefulness that she wouldn't have to move transformed her face. Gabrielle laughed and sat up, stroking stomach muscles that leapt helplessly. "You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear you say that. I don't think I could move."
"Not even if a whole band of Saracens were descending on our campsite right this minute?" Gabrielle teased with a smile as she stood and walked down to the lake, dousing her naked form and stroking out until she stood shoulder deep in the cool water. Xena rolled onto her side and with a surprising amount of effort, lifted her head onto her hand to watch.
Xena watched the level of concentration increase by measures on the smooth face. Gabrielle's brow furrowed, and she bit her lower lip in the most endearing expression. Her shoulders moved and suddenly the warrior saw a large trout flying through the air toward her. With an unconscious movement, she snatched the meal from the air and with a groan, sat up. She had to dress and find her knife and prepare their breakfast for the fire.
Pulling on her leather gambeson, she retrieved the knife, sitting back down by the time Gabrielle emerged from the lake. Water cascaded from her nakedness until only the droplets on her breasts and thighs caught the morning sunlight, casting her body in a dance of diamond-like sparkling light. The sight stilled Xena's knife because she couldn't trust herself not to cut off her own fingers in her daze.
"You are beautiful," Xena expelled her words on a shocked breath.
Gabrielle crouched and reached out, caressing a hand over Xena's own naked shoulder. "So are you," she breathed just before their lips came together for a long breath-stealing kiss.
"Mmm," murmured Xena when they parted, blue and green gazes locking. "Uh, maybe you better build up the fire a bit."
"No problem," Gabrielle replied, turning and sitting to carefully feed new wood to their night's fire. Then she stood, collecting her clothes and covering herself.
"You're chipper this morning," Xena remarked, finding her breathing steadying reliably at last.
"I got awakened with such a wonderful greeting," the blonde offered by way of explanation. "Usually you're already off scouting the perimeter, or doing your morning exercises, or..."
Xena's eyebrow lifted. "Are you saying you want me to become a lazy slugabed?" She passed the bard the prepared fish.
Gabrielle slid the filets into their frying pan, then shifting it over the flames. "No. But while your morning exercises are a wonder to watch, there's very little room for sharing when you're swinging your sword around." She looked back over her shoulder and arched her own blonde eyebrow in question. "Am I right?"
Xena smiled, smoothing the eyebrow with a gentle finger. "Right."
"Why did you stay in bed this morning?"
Xena pulled out their small platters so Gabrielle could serve up breakfast. Since the bard's miraculous return from near-death at the chasm, she had found herself doing a lot of small things. "I just wanted to stay close," she said finally.
Gabrielle passed a plate back to Xena and snuggled up against the warrior's left side, using her fingers to flake off pieces of fish. "Me too." Swallowing quickly, Gabrielle lifted her chin, meeting Xena's eyes and finding herself being thoroughly kissed. "Mmm."
"I could probably be persuaded to wake up like this a lot of mornings," the warrior murmured against Gabrielle's panting mouth.
"Oh, I wouldn't want you to have your skills waste away," the bard replied. "What would I have to write about?"
Their plates were set aside as Xena
gave Gabrielle a few ideas for some very romantic tales.
The sun was nearing its peak in the sky when Xena and Gabrielle finally moved on once again, headed for Corinth province. It had been nearly two moons since they stumbled on the Thracian Amazons, meeting Felice, Mika and helping out their new friends when the Persians struck again.
And a moon since they had run across Tara again, discovering her caught in the middle of a town's repressive expression of love for Calliope, one of the nine muses. Xena had enticed Autolycus from a nearby town to help the village see the error of its ways and unleashed a dancing young populace on the elders of the town. Both women enjoyed themselves a bit in the process.
But Gabrielle had promised Felice and others of the Thracian Amazons, to bring word of them to Ephiny. The visit could not be put off any longer. For nearly a week they had run across nothing more threatening than a handful of road thieves, whom they both quickly dispatched with sword or staff to the local authorities and moved on.
"You ready?" Gabrielle asked, from her position at Xena's knee, as she rubbed Argo's shoulder absently.
"I wonder what's happened while we were gone."
"I think I'll have a little explaining to do."
Gabrielle put a reassuring hand on Xena's knee. "I'll take care of that."
"I can take care of myself. You just spend the time you need getting reacquainted."
The bard looked up and the warrior looked down. At the same moment they both realized they were trying to minimize the other's coming problems. "It won't be easy."
"No, I don't think it will," Xena acknowledged with a wry look. "But I mean it. Take care of what you need to. I'll worry about myself."
"You've got Artemis' blessing. Remember that."
Xena smiled, remembering the brief exchange she'd had with the Amazons' goddess on the bank of the mythic-but-very-real Artemis Spring, which had been hidden within the forest surrounding the Thracian Amazons' village. "I'll try." Gabrielle caressed Xena's thigh. "Hey, we just got moving again. No fair trying to entice me off the road." She nudged Gabrielle's shoulder with her knee. "Tonight, I promise."
Green eyes lifted and winked and a soft hand continued its enticing stroking over and under a very sensitive thigh. She watched Xena's jaw stiffen resolutely and mused that things were going well... very well indeed.
"You are incorrigible."
Green eyes twinkled with unfettered joy at their play. "I could easily say the same thing about you."
The eyebrow went up with sardonic interest. "Yeah?"
"Oh, yeah. Just watching the energy when you dispatch a few bad guys. You love it. It makes you hungry for more action. I see it in your eyes."
"No more power, Gabrielle. I won't allow myself to hold that kind of power. Just me and this sword. And you at my side to remind me why I do this."
"That was beautiful."
Xena flushed. "Mush, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. But I love mush," Gabrielle chuckled, sliding her palm further up Xena's thigh until it disappeared beneath the leather strips of the warrior's skirt.
"Careful, remember my chakram's on that side," Xena chuckled.
Gabrielle shook her head and after a glance of approval from Xena, she slipped the round disc from its catch, gingerly turning it over in her palms. "This is a remarkable weapon."
"I won't teach you."
"Oh, no, just wondering where it came from. What it was like when you first had it. You know, storyteller stuff." Gabrielle returned the weapon to Xena and smiled up at the twinkling blue eyes. "You've never told me. So I wonder, and I make up little stories about it from time to time."
"What's the most popular theory?" Xena enjoyed the light conversation and pursued it willingly.
"With all its incredible properties -- god-given, definitely."
Xena's blunt monosyllabic response piqued Gabrielle's interest. "Ah, so do I finally get to hear the real story?"
"What's another theory?"
"Well, I haven't fully formed it yet, but Lao Ma figures prominently. The pattern, y'know." Xena nodded. "So?"
"Well, sort of. You know I returned to Greece after leaving Lao Ma." The bard nodded. "Well, I was having trouble with Borias. A new soldier joined my army for a while." She shrugged and gestured at the chakram. "He gave it to me after he took it from someone in battle."
"Really? Just a war prize? Wow. It seems like it was made for you."
"Were you really bad when you first started using it?"
"Oh yeah. Sliced myself pretty often. Took a long time before I got this under control."
"Whatever happened to the soldier?"
Xena let Argo's stride rock her gently in contemplation for a while. "I don't know," she admitted finally. "He was gone after the second battle for Amphipolis."
"A second battle? Gone? Did he die?"
"No, I don't think so," she mused quietly, digging her memory for any word she'd ever had. Nothing. Then aloud to Gabrielle, she tried to explain about the second Amphipolis battle. "We were stopping an army from taking their harvest. We won, but I took some pretty bad hits. I was laid up out of it for at least a week. When I finally got up and around, a scout told me he was gone."
"What was his name?"
Xena tilted her head back to bathe her face in the sunlight streaming through the trees, diving back in her memories. A name fell from her lips with soft surprise. "Mendices."
"Hmm." Gabrielle watched the light and shadow play across Xena's face. Her heart expanded with a jolt of love. Suddenly she felt jealous of this long-gone soldier who had obviously touched Xena's heart in some still unknown way.
More sensitive now to the blonde's moods, Xena offered her hand, palm up. "Wanna ride for a while? We'll make camp a little late tonight, to make up for our long leisurely morning." She smiled when Gabrielle didn't hesitate and only grabbed her wrist. Steeling her body, she flexed the muscle in that arm and in a single motion, hauled Gabrielle up in front of her, sitting sideways.
Protectively she wrapped her arm around the bare, muscular waist, and nuzzled the bard's throat. "Well, now, maybe I can --" She broke off and her head shot up, eyes scanning the area quickly. "Th!" She warned when Gabrielle started to open her mouth in question. "Down!" She came off Argo with Gabrielle protectively cradled between her body and the mare's.
Spears pierced the air around them, and Xena felt a bolt slide toward her throat. Ducking and grabbing, she halted the flight before it could bury itself in Argo's side. With a whistle, she ordered Argo from her side. Gabrielle slid her staff from the saddle loops as the mare left. A step away, Xena spun, drawing her sword, in the direction of the spear's arrival.
She met the downthrust of a broadsword, wielded by two thick arms attached to bare muscled shoulders. He was a mountain of a man, towering almost a foot over Xena's own striking height. She braced, bending her knees against the strain until she had enough recoil energy to shove back.
His legs, thick as tree trunks, did not sway as she tossed his arms up and away from her. The sword hilt remained in his grip. He quickly brought the sword back down toward her head. She dropped her head almost against her right shoulder and swung her sword in an arc, driving his weapon away from her left shoulder. A breath of air finally separating them, she tried to see enough of him to size him up, maybe even figure out whether he was just a brigand, or, as her instincts were yelling at her, a trained soldier from some invasion force.
His armor was links of mail, covering all of his upper body. He wore only metal wrist bracers on his arms, and linen clothing beneath the chain mail. A soldier definitely. From Gaul, but not Roman. Xena shoved aside her curiosity and repelled another strike, looking for a way to offset his formidable balance. Sweeping his legs would be unlikely. He was just too massive. Maybe if I change directions on him, Xena thought. Coiling under his last strike, she threw off his sword and blasted her own body into the air over his head with a battle cry. She sailed further, out of reach of his arms, tumbled heels over head and turned in mid-air so when she landed she was behind him, watching him turn. He was slow, doubtless because of his huge bulk. She leapt and plowed both feet into his half-turned side. With his knees bent he could not withstand the blow. Wrenching his back, he fell to the ground with a howl.
She drove her sword down, burying it in his massive frame then wrenching it free. Taking a deep breath, she looked around for Gabrielle. She saw Argo nearby pawing at the ground. By her rear hooves lay a man obviously recently kicked by the mare's powerful hooves.
But the bard was nowhere to be found. "Gabrielle!" Another soldier came up behind her, and she met his sword with a reverse blow of her own, pounding her hilt against his wrist. The sword dropped away and she drove the hilt of her weapon against his temple.
His body dropped without a sound.
"Gabrielle!" She scanned the ground and found the bard had been dragged off into the woods. "Gabrielle! Hold on, I'm coming!"
With a yell, she grabbed Argo's reins, leapt into the saddle. She guided Argo with a single hand, her other still wielding her sword at the ready. The kidnappers' tracks broke through brush for hundreds of paces, sometimes cutting a wide swath and sometimes a single-file one. She couldn't tell how many men had dragged the young woman away.
Damn, she cursed herself. You let your guard down she castigated herself. Some Warrior Princess you are. Letting a few men get the drop on you. They were enough ahead of her that she caught neither sight nor sounds of their location though she moved on horseback for almost two full candlemarks. But among their tracks she still only found evidence of men moving on foot. Not a single horse among the running kidnappers, she was almost certain of it.
So how is it they were moving so fast? Xena thought, the gods be damned. She pushed Argo onward, following tracks the kidnappers made no effort to hide.
The trail drifted off, becoming hidden by tangled brush. It soon became too tight for her to ride the war-horse and she dismounted, leaving Argo to forage while she pushed ahead. In time she found a trail, concealed as a game path, and followed it. The broken branches, crushed leaves and packed dirt evidence led the dark-haired warrior on a twisted route deeper into the forests off the road.
The warrior's sixth sense began racing like a runaway stallion. She set her feet down on each step more carefully.
Which turned out to be a good thing.
Pushing through the tangle of undergrowth and vines, Xena stepped out...
Only her lightning fast reflexes -- retaining hold on a vine she had been releasing -- kept her from a plunge. She groaned as her shoulders strained and her body slammed into a sheer rock face. Swinging slightly she searched out details of her situation both above and below her position. The ledge she'd fallen from was five or six body lengths above.
A glance down made her thankful Gabrielle wasn't with her. The younger woman's fear of heights would have taken a severe beating. Even Xena took an extra hard breath in shock. A river, plowing its way noisily through the canyon floor looked like a tangled blue hair ribbon at this distance.
At least two leagues. She admitted ruefully that she likely wouldn't have survived the fall. No matter how incredibly I can leap, she decided, I always pick a landing spot that gives a little. The rocks lining the river on both sides just didn't cut it.
"Or rather," she remarked dryly, "would have cut me -- to ribbons."
Flexing her shoulders to change the point of strain, Xena began the hand over hand climb up to the ledge.
The vine was supple and strong but the surface rubbed her palms until she felt the tingle of a burn on the skin. About halfway to the top, Xena paused. She wrapped the vine around her right wrist and bicep to free her left hand a moment.
You're getting soft she admonished herself, noticing the raised red areas and a blister forming at the base of her fingers.
Shaking her hand to get the blood flow back, she swapped positions freeing her right arm for a similar examination.
Sighing, she finally resumed her climb.
About three lengths from the top she found gouges to use her feet. But she paused. She could have sworn the climb was only going to be over only about five or six lengths. Certainly she had already climbed that far? Blinking to clear the sweat from her eyes, she looked down again.
And blinked once more, unable to believe her eyes.
The river -- a slim ribbon when she had begun her climb -- now raged close enough she could see the rocks over which the whitewater crashed, splashing up spray.
Her sixth sense reeling, Xena reprocessed all the new sensations: the closer crash of the water, and the more distant sound of the animals in the foliage above.
She looked at the vine in her hands and followed its length up to the cliff. Now three body lengths looked more like thirty.
"Just great!" All right, she thought, looking up at the sky. "Which one of you is messing with me this time?" The breeze changed direction blowing her hair into her face.
She looked down and found her feet now hovered just above a wide flat rock alongside the river.
Aggravation with whichever deity had done this to her warred with the ache she now felt constantly burning in her muscles. She rotated her shoulder again to relieve the strain there and in her back.
The pain won. Keeping her eyes on the ground so it didn't go anywhere she released her grip on the vine. She resisted the natural urge to close her eyes as she fell. She was determined to avoid further surprises.
Bending deep as she landed Xena struggled to find her center of balance on the suddenly teetering surface. "Damn."
She swung her arms wide and rocked back onto her heels.
Bit by bit the rock slowed and came to a stop.
Feeling her center of balance finally adjust to a point above her hips, Xena examined her surroundings and looked for a place to transfer to, preferably on ground, not teetering rock.
The rocky ground extended without relief to the wall of the canyon and in both directions as far as Xena guessed she could have jumped. Looking toward the river, she admitted that there wasn't anyplace to set down except the river.
"Great," she murmured. The safest -- this condition being enormously relative -- place appeared to be the riverbed.
She had no idea how deep it was or how fast the current really ran. But the frothy white surface seemed to tell her the answers were too deep and too fast.
She looked over to the canyon wall again. Her posture deflated. Even if she traversed the rocks the vine was now gone. "Well, the river it is then," she groaned.
She thought about moving across from rock to rock and stepping in at the edge of the river. An ominous rumbling interrupted her plans. The ground shifted. It threw her, and the rock she was on, off balance. It kicked up nearly on edge. "Well, up I go!" she rolled into the toss, flexing her legs and flinging herself heels over head. She splashed down into ice cold water. Her feet never touched bottom. Instead she was dragged downstream feet first, pell-mell among the rocks.
Trying to use just a few principles of steering, Xena lifted her arms stiffly, holding them in the water behind her. She adjusted their position relative to her body like twin rudders. In this way she managed to avoid the bigger rocks. A host of smaller stones gouged her thighs, back and shoulders as she bounced in the current like a child's ball.
Knowing she couldn't close her eyes or she'd die crushed against a rock, Xena resolutely kept them open despite the stinging spray. Her eyes watered in pain but she withstood it. I don't want to die, she thought, a vision of Gabrielle flashing up in her head.
The current pulled, pushed and finally
tossed Xena out of the river. She could not prevent the fall back and only
had time to recognize the gray surface below as a sharply pointed rock
when her head struck it. Agony exploded in her head. Cold water closed
in. Inky blackness followed.
Firelight flickered somewhere near. She could smell the crisp smoke of dried birch. Too, she could hear the crackle of wood expiring in flame. She felt the warm air brushing against her left cheek. Slowly she turned her head keeping her eyes still shut tight, and opened them to find herself less than three feet from a campfire.
Her gaze slid down and she identified a threadbare brown blanket protecting her from the chill seeping up from the dirt. And that made her realize that it was already nightfall, well past sundown. She wondered how long she had been unconscious. She started lifting her free left hand to rub at the ache at the base of her head.
Her wrist was seized in a vise-like grip. "Awake, eh?" Suddenly her wrist was thrown aside and her shoulders grabbed instead. Large meaty hands pulled her to a sitting position. "Easier to make a sale that way. Best stay awake." He tugged at a lock of her hair as she tried to focus. A wave of nausea overwhelmed her and she lurched away to throw up. "Nice blonde like you'll fetch a fine price in the slave markets of Rome."
Alarm registered and wiping her lips with the back of her hand, Gabrielle pinned him with wide green eyes. "Rome?" she asked weakly. "No, please..." Slavers! Oh gods, Xena! Where are you? She pushed to her hands and knees, trying to shake off the ache in her head that blurred her vision. He grabbed her, and yanked her back down, pressing his body over hers threateningly.
His breath, tinged with the smoked fish he'd obviously consumed for his evening meal, disarrayed her hair. "Y'ain't goin' nowhere, little lady. We'll make the boat by dusk tomorrow, and then it's a bag o' dinars'll take ye t' Rome."
Gabrielle shivered with fear. His eyes, in the firelight their brown depths glittered gold and narrowed. Unable to find anything to convince him to get off her, she resorted to a submissive question. "Um, can I ask for something to eat?"
He pushed away from her, and quickly she pushed to a sitting position, but made no further move. "Here." He tossed her a chunk of the fish from a pan resting just off the fire out of her direct line of sight. She caught it against her chest, flakes of the fish catching in her top as she pulled it away.
Tentatively she nibbled. The smoky flavor overwhelmed the fish, making it taste more burnt than nourishing. Knowing she hadn't eaten since that morning, she divorced herself from the food. Instead she remembered her last fish with Xena, how tender and flaky and aromatic the filet had been. She was also rather proud that she'd caught it herself. She remembered Xena's pleased look at her first taste. I put that smile there, she thought, and a smile touched her own lips in memory.
"Glad y'like it."
Gabrielle wisely said nothing to that, instead finishing off the fish and dusting her hands over the dirt. "Hits the spot." She felt her mouth pull into a smile, but did not feel joy in her heart. Gods, Xena. What am I going to do?
He slid away from her. "I'm going to keep watch. You stay put."
In silence, the bard looked around and realized that she was alone with him. "What happened to your friends who attacked my friend and I?"
Her question halted him halfway to his feet. He spun. "Yer demoness friend killed every last one of them! I was lucky t'get away with you!"
Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from smiling at that. It wasn't really well done of her to be pleased at several deaths. But she wished she knew if Xena had suffered any wounds during the battle. Or if even now she was hunting down their trail, to rescue her. "You attacked us first."
"Where the hell did she learn to fight like that? We figured two women on the road..." He shook his head. "Caught m'buddy across the temple pretty hard y'self with that staff."
Gabrielle looked around. Her staff was nowhere to be found. Her heart sank. Ephiny's gift of that weapon had been a sign of the Amazon's growing affection for the bumbling bard-who-would-be-queen. "My staff? What did you...?"
"Snapped it in half and threw it in the river. I'm not stupid. Leave you with a weapon, and I'll be just as dead as any of my friends one night." He seemed to consider something. "I can't keep lookout with you loose either. Damn." He snatched up a length of rope.
Gabrielle stumbled to her feet as he went for the rope. He jumped at her and with a thud, she felt the impact of the ground, as the breath caught in her chest. Stars spun in front of her eyes and she fought against him. The ropes were pulled tightly, wrapped multiple times around her wrists and hands, immobilizing her. Then, like a recalcitrant goat, she was dragged back to the blanket and her feet lashed together.
Her shoulder burning from the scrape of rocks and dirt, Gabrielle struggled to calm herself. There wasn't going to be any escape tonight. She tried to console herself that he couldn't possibly expect her to hop all the way to the boat in the morning, so most likely would untie her for the trip. Staring into the fire, she closed her eyes, and prayed for sleep, despite her nerves, so she would be able to take advantage of the first opportunity that presented itself.
From under half-closed eyes, she
watched him settle against a tree at the edge of the small woodland clearing,
eyes moving slowly over their surroundings. His hand drifting over his
knife was the last sight as the bard closed her eyes. Blue eyes twinkling
with love and rare laughter accompanied her into sleep. Xena, I hope you
know I love you. Please come find me soon.
The first thing she felt was stabbing pains in both hands and something cold and hard pressing against her right cheek. She started to flex her fingers, but had to stop at the shooting pain that erupted in her shoulders. Broken. Oh damn. Assessment of her physical condition for the moment overruled any desire to figure out where she was lying face down.
Muscle by muscle, she tried to tighten and loosen each one, using the sensations to tell which bones were broken and which were still intact. Twice, while flexing her right bicep and then her left hand, she felt a warm rush of blood flow over the limb. Oh boy, you're in really bad shape.
She tentatively moved her jaw, felt the pinch of broken bone and immediately stopped. Well, that's busted Xena. She was pleased at least that she remembered her own name. So, mild concussion, busted jaw or anything else, at least she could recover. Quickly assessing the rest of her mental condition, she tried to remember what she'd been doing just before rattling her brains.
She had a vague notion of rolling through a battlefield, leaping, careening, with her sword slashing through opponents. She closed her eyes and saw a face. Dark hair fell across one eye. She brushed a weak hand out and pushed the silky smooth lock out of the way. Brown eyes, set deep with concern, looked back. One word fell from her lips: "Mendices."
The battlefield had been on the hills outside Amphipolis. Now, she lay on her back in a glade just off the field. Everything hurt. But somehow she was alive. How was that possible? She was fairly certain she'd taken a sword through the stomach, from behind.
"You're alive," Mendices breathed. "Thank the gods." He had kissed her then, and she felt the rounded edge of her chakram caught between their bodies, the metal quickly warmed by their body heat.
I must still be on the battlefield, Xena decided. She opened one eye, to find herself staring at the craggy edge of a large rock. No grass was anywhere in sight. She stopped her brow's furrowing as pain shot through her neck. Where was Mendices? Unable to use her right arm or her left hand, Xena worked herself onto her back. The sun she remembered being up was gone. The moon was visible just at the edge of some cliffs looming far overhead. How in Tartarus did I get down here?
Mendices' absence suggested that he had gone for help and maybe she'd stumbled to her feet, falling off the cliffs. Now the task remained to get back to her army.
Unable to move her head more than a scant inch or two at a time without an overwhelming need to throw up, the process of getting to her feet was excruciating and slow. First, she moved one leg over the other, turning her hips slightly against the ground. She rolled her head to the same side.
Fresh blood trickled over her temple, down her cheek and into the crevices of her armor. But she resisted the urge to brush at it, knowing that jarring her arms or her wrist might result in an irreparable damage. She certainly hoped that the battle was well and truly over. She was in no condition to fight off a cold much less an enemy with a weapon.
Her vision continued blurring at odd intervals, but overall finally she identified the separate injuries rather than feeling like one huge mass of broken parts. She steadied herself at each stage in the process of standing. First, on her knees, then she used her elbows to lift her chest from the ground. To shift her center of balance required the only sudden move she hoped she'd have to endure. Lurching her chest to a position over her hips, she bit her lip until she tasted the blood drawing. Tears squeezed through her tightly shut eyelids. The pain was agonizing.
But she was up. She opened her eyes slowly and adjusted to the slightly higher view of her situation. The rock she'd looked when she first awakened was about three feet high. Slowly rotating her gaze, she saw where she'd fallen. The rock corners held dark smears of blood.
All right, Xena, she encouraged herself. Time to get to your feet and find a way out. The move from her knees to her feet was easier. She only grimaced once as she felt pain shoot through the likely stress fracture in her right leg. But then she was on her feet. Her muscles shaking and her heart pounding, she gingerly moved her left hand along her right arm, squeezing, and trying to separate out the sensations and identify where the break actually was.
"Ah, okay. There." Xena sucked in a breath at the shattering pain as she squeezed her elbow. She had nothing with her to wrap it up, but knowing the exact details of her injuries settled her mind a bit. "Time to find my other answers," she resolved.
Slowly she checked her armor and weapons. Amazingly her chakram was still attached to her belt. Her palm slid over the slightly indented markings. A smile touched her lips, remembering how incredibly useful the weapon had been in her battle. She could protect a distant quarter while fighting halfway across a battlefield. She found a lengthy tear, just over her left hip, in the leather of her gambeson. A night with a leather needle and she'd have that fixed.
There was weight on her back, but she could not tell if the sheath there had anything in it. But then something tickled her mind. I don't wear the sheath on my back! The alarm at the incongruity scared her into jumping. Pain erupted in her shoulders, back and legs as she ripped the sheath off, finding the sword in it. The entire process brought tears coursing down over her cheeks and she fell to her knees.
The instinctive act of trying to brace her fall snapped through the rest of her cracked left wrist. She felt the bones push through. Gods! She cried out in anguish and pain, struggling to her feet. Ares! The God of War's name crossed her mind as she experienced a moment of pure rage, at her condition and the frustration of the situation. She staggered forward and tripped on the rocks.
The ground's impact likely would finish off the hairline fracture in her leg, she thought, but the ground's impact never came. Strong hands and arms caught her just before her knees hit, preventing her fall. Her head slammed into a leather-covered chest. The ache in her chest, she decided, noting the solid arms of her savior, was nothing compared to what would have happened otherwise. "What the hell happened to you?" The voice was male, deep, and gruff.
Unable to push off and look up at her rescuer, Xena answered, her voice muffled by her position, "I fell off the cliff." The body she was reclining against stiffened, and she could feel the muscles shift as he looked up.
"Damn!" His hands--she could tell they were broad, lightly covered in springy hair on the back--moved over her body, into her hair through the matted blood, and then down across her shoulders and onto her arms. When his hands squeezed her broken elbow and shattered wrist, she yelled. The sound rung in his ears, since her mouth was scant inches away, but he did not flinch.
"It's broken," she whimpered, trying futilely to pull herself from his grip.
"Don't move so suddenly, Xena!" he reprimanded, "You'll snap something I can't fix!" He sounded worried, distracted, and alarmed all at once, trying to cover it up with gruff command.
He knew her? Was this one of her men having found her during the usual sweep after a battle? "What's your name?" She tried to focus her vision, but the ache in her head had grown worse, making most things merely shapes.
There was a long moment of silence where both of them were still. She could hear his jaw working, but he didn't make a sound for the longest time. Finally she felt his shoulders shift. "Mendices," he said.
Xena sighed and released her tension. "Thank the gods, it's you," she breathed. "Why'd you leave me on the battlefield alone?"
"I didn't." His voice was uncertain. There was a long pause. "I... You know me. I went for help."
She lifted her chin slowly and met familiar brown eyes set in a vague face that slowly cleared into the form of her newest right hand. "I was stupid, or out of it. I think I stumbled away. Then I fell off the cliff, I guess."
"Xena," he said quickly. "How many fingers have I got up?"
She turned her head to the right slowly and focused on his left hand, palm toward her. She counted and reported with triumph, "Three."
"Okay, sight's fine. How old are you?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "C'mon, humor me."
"I turned twenty on my last birthday."
"When was that?"
"About three moons ago."
"You don't look twenty. You look about thirty," he said. She made to swing at him but there was no strength behind it and he grabbed the hand to prevent the vibration of impact from traveling up her arm aggravating her injuries.
"I don't lie about my age," she sought to correct him.
"Fine. So you're twenty." She caught his gaze and saw a slight twinkle. Then his voice was resigned as he mumbled, "What do I care that you want to repeat the last ten years?"
"Repeat? What in Tartarus are you talking about? Did you take a fall off the cliffs?"
"I've been occupied, but I was nowhere near the cliffs. Trust me."
"Is everyone back at camp all right?"
Another long pause. "Yes, I'm sure they are."
"Didn't you check?"
He sounded a bit distracted when he answered, "Fine. Yes, yes. They're all fine. C'mon. I'll take you back to camp." Supporting her every step, he helped Xena move slowly over the ground, patient as she continually shifted her weight gingerly and set her feet down exactly so on each step.
Mendices' presence was comforting, and knowing that she was exactly where she remembered set her mind at ease that her brains hadn't been unduly rattled by her fall. Now she just had to concentrate on recovering. "You're quiet," she said.
"Just making sure one of us makes it back to camp in one piece," he responded still sounding slightly distracted. "You feeling any better?"
She tried to shrug, grimaced instead, and finally just answered in a whisper, "I'll be all right." She looked over and noticed Mendices was looking more haggard. "Am I too heavy for you?"
"Oh," he looked to her, bringing
his distracted attention back into focus on her. "Oh, no. I'm fine." He
shifted his grip until she was leaning hard on his shoulder instead of
his chest. "You relax. I'll have you back to camp in no time."
The steady pace finally became monotonous. She constantly looked down, watching her feet and his, move over the ground. They left the rocky landscape and stepped into grasslands, then the ground sloped upward and she realized they were taking the long way up, circling around and therefore back up to the high ground. Mendices had fallen silent, concentration distracting them both.
The sounds of an active camp ahead brought Xena's head up. Looks like the post-battle celebration is in full swing, she thought. "I better go the rest of the way alone," she said.
Slowly, and Xena could have sworn it was with great reluctance, Mendices released his hold on her. She straightened carefully but was grateful she managed to keep her feet under her. Shoulder to shoulder they walked into the war camp.
Men quickly surrounded them with whoops, hollers and cheering. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" Her head rattled from the noise, and she made a nodding gesture, but then tried to raise a hand to stop their closing in. Her hand never came up. However the crowd parted in the next instant, clearing a path through the camp to a tent roughly in the center. She looked on the canvas-covered dwelling and felt a strange jolt of unfamiliarity. She scolded. It's not like you hate tents. But she could not shake the strange feeling she would have preferred to sleep out under the stars night after night. Weird. She shook her head, causing an exhaled moan of pain.
"I'll send the camp healer over." Mendices' voice sounded at her shoulder and she turned to respond, only to see his back as he strode away.
The young soldier standing guard at her tent pulled the flap aside and gestured her inside. "Welcome back, Commander."
She nodded and limped inside, not pausing once she identified the fur- and blanket-covered bed. Piece by piece, she removed her weapons, armor and leather coverings. The chakram clanged to the floor. The sword bounced tip to hilt twice then settled. The leather greaves, cuirass and wrist bracers followed. She tried to pull the leather gambeson off, but the pain was too much. Ah Tartarus, the healer can cut it off, she decided. The sheer will she'd employed to keep her feet moving fell away with a weak, very feminine whimper as she collapsed onto the cushioned surface. Thank you, gods! She closed her eyes.
Currently her plan was to be unconscious
while the healer poked and prodded, tending to her wounds. Though usually
interested beyond measure to observe the healer's skills, learning everything
she could as her or her men were treated, Xena decided that this was one
healing session she'd gladly give a miss.Too bad I can't give the pain
a miss too, she thought wryly, succumbing to sleep.
Mendices crossed through the camp with anxious broad strides. His sword swung wildly from his belt. The strap that had steadied it on his hip had been broken when he first lurched to catch Xena and stop her fall. He still couldn't believe he'd found her where he did. He pulled his hands through his hair.
What a stroke of luck. A smile touched his lips, spreading across his face, but falling far short of his dark brown eyes. He leaned into the healer's hut and reported, "The Commander needs to see you in her tent. Now."
The healer, a heavy-set fellow with dirt-blond hair receding from his forehead, but the length trailing on his jerkin's collar, turned around. "Right away, Ares."
With a wave of his hand, the form of Mendices melted away, revealing the dark black features of the God of War. "Not this time, Yerkes," the darker man replied. "It's Mendices on this trip." He covered his true nature with a wave of his hand, returning to the slightly less imposing, and considerably less dark shape of Xena's old trusted comrade. Accepting his god's will, the healer simply nodded. "Something's up with her head, I think, but I am not going to pass up this chance." He paused at the entryway, a last thought occurring to him. "Have Hermes find out what happened to the annoying fluff Xena used to travel with. Girl's name's Gabrielle."
Yerkes strode from the tent after Ares departed in the guise of Mendices. His first stop was to the interior of another tent where he tapped a crystal against the glass of a full-height plainly ornamented mirror. The crystal sparked against the other surface and a light glow flowed outward from that point. His reflection, gray eyes and smooth face, rippled away, replaced by a shimmering vista of an ornately decorated room. Once more he tapped the glass then lifted his foot toward it... and stepped through.
He emerged in a large opulently appointed chamber and grasped a small single reed pipe, about a handspan in length, off the nearby dresser surface. He blew a trio of notes, each different by half a pitch from the last. The air behind him rent and a bright flash subsided as quickly as it appeared. A narrow shouldered thin male in a twin-shouldered drape-style white toga looked up with hazel eyes from beneath a winged helmet. "Yes?"
"Got a chore for you, Hermes. Lord Ares wants to know where Xena's friend Gabrielle is."
"Has he checked next to the Warrior Princess lately?" the messenger god replied sarcastically.
"Xena's in his camp right now. The blonde woman was not with her."
Hermes frowned at this. "Really?" He turned once around, spinning on a heel, propping his chin on his fist. "Have any idea where I ought to start looking?"
"Always the hard ones, eh?" He adjusted his toga and slung a short cape over his arms and then back again. "Oh well. I'd better get on it."
Yerkes nodded, watched Hermes vanished in another flash of light and then turned around, walking back through the matching full-length mirror standing in the corner of the room.
He emerged back in the tent and stepped outside, looking both ways to see if he was observed, then walked purposefully to the central tent. He nodded curtly to the guard and ducked inside. "So, Commander, had a rough day?"
There was no answer from the bed, but again, he hadn't really expected one. If Lord Ares had requested his services, the young woman was beyond a mortal healer's help. He crossed to the bed and with a healer's eye examined the sleeping woman. Not bad though. Well, certainly difficult, but not impossible. She had a few broken bones. Her hand was quite a mess from the broken wrist. And the crack in the leg could've been worse.
Yerkes studied the sleeping profile with a jolt of admiring pleasure. She had a slim, aquiline nose and high cheekbones. Muscles shifted under her skin in arms and legs. The creamy smooth texture of her skin was marred by several deep bruises, mottled from blue-green to green-yellow and a bright red-purple one encompassing much of the left side of her jaw. With a finger, he traced the line of her jaw and the bruising faded considerably, though her coloring was still considerably paler than it should be.
Lord Ares did always worry a little more than necessary over you, he thought in wondering silence, gently stroking silky black locks away from the pale, pain-drawn face. He was glad she slept, but Ares was very strict about this. She could never know. With a wave of his hand, a soft glow surrounded her head for a brief moment then faded away.
Now assured she would not awaken while he did his job, Yerkes used a combination of mortal methods, setting her bones, and wrapping the gashes in cloths, and his special touch, a soft glowing bit of energy applied here and there. Occupied for the better part of three candlemarks, Yerkes finally sat back away from the battered woman. Passing his palm over her eyes, he lifted the spell and stood to leave.
A voice from the covers stopped him. "Thank you."
Yerkes turned and nodded. "You should rest, Commander. The bones will take time to knit. And you must get your strength back." Tired eyes, as blue as he'd ever seen the skies in Olympus, smiled at him. His chest squeezed and he hoped he hadn't missed any of her wounds. "Lord Mendices will be glad to know you feel better."
"Tell him to see me after he's received the camp reports." Yerkes was pleased to note that the warrior's voice held only a slight tremor from her efforts.
"I'll be certain to tell him." Pushing
aside the flap, he left Xena to rest.
Pain woke Gabrielle. She could see evidence of dawn's light just before a hand swept into her line of sight, aiming for her cheek. She was lucky she was reaching up to rub at the crick in her neck. The hit was blocked, preventing the sting of another person's palm against her face. "I'm awake," she grumbled, throwing her captor's hand aside and pushing away from the tree trunk where she had fallen asleep.
"We're due at the docks by midday." He stood, adjusting his weapons belt, and gave her a scornful look.
Gabrielle scowled back. "Problem?"
"Not well." She looked around. "You don't have a horse, so what's the matter?"
He looked over his shoulder at her and shrugged. "Was wondering how many I'd have to steal." He gave her a matter-of-fact grin. "Now I only have to steal one."
He tugged her upright using the loosened bonds between her wrists to haul Gabrielle to her feet. The bard swayed unsteadily still hobbled by the ankle restraints. Her shoulder muscles were pulled awkwardly taut when he led her a few steps away from the tree. Then he bent down and untied her feet.
Gabrielle watched him carefully while he worked at the knots. When the ropes were loosened but not entirely gone from her ankles she raised her arms over her head and brought her fists crashing down against the back of his head. He dragged her down with him when he fell over. She let out a pained yelp as her body crashed to the ground. Thrashing and struggling, she managed to free all but one foot and began dragging herself from his grasp. He was stronger though and the hold he had on her leg outlasted the strength in her arms to drag her body free. Biceps shaking from the effort, Gabrielle finally fell against the dirt, too strained to try any more.
He sat up, rubbing his head where she'd hit him and she hoped, meanly, that he was seeing double, at least. He sat on her back when she tried to get up. "Spunk'll just get you killed. Better off learning that right now, girl. Or the Romans'll beat it out of you."
"Like you aren't planning to already?" She rolled over, using her hips to throw him aside, and sat up.
"Nope. My job's to get you to the boat. What the slave trader does with you on board is his business, not none of mine." He stood, brushing dirt and dead leaves from his tunic and breeches.
"You're Greek. Why'd you get into slaving for the Romans?" Pulled to her feet, Gabrielle fell against her captor suddenly, and found the ropes on her wrists cinched a bit tighter. Her scalp itched from the dirt and debris and she wished for a free hand to scratch.
"C'mon," he said instead, dragging her with him through the woods.
Her likeliest escape attempt foiled, Gabrielle tried to find something heartening to think about. It did indeed look like, some miracle not intervening... Next stop, Rome. Between her queasy stomach and the isolation of being among several guards, escape from the boat would be extremely unlikely. Once in Rome however...
Xena! The bard's mind cried out for her friend and lover. It had been a full day since their separation. If the warrior was close, she was well hidden. Gabrielle wondered again what might have happened after the roadside battle. If she had even been capable of pursuit. Warrior Princess or not, Xena wasn't invincible. While she might have dispatched their other attackers, Gabrielle realized with a sinking heart, she could have taken a disabling blow herself. Please, gods, let Xena be all right. Gabrielle's prayer was aborted as quickly as it began when her captor yanked her out of the deeper brush onto the sea-bound path. The ground sloped away and she stumbled forward several steps.
"Watch your feet," he warned and
she thought she detected a note of concern in his gruff voice. She couldn't
tell if he cared if she fell flat on her face or if he was more concerned
about damaging the "merchandise." More likely the latter, she thought grimly.
It was late morning when Gabrielle's stomach really began informing her she hadn't eaten any breakfast. Her captor had other ideas. He threw her into the bushes and ducked onto a road angling toward their position in the woods. She worked herself free of the brambles in the bush and edged out into the open on her secured hands and knees. It wouldn't be fast, she realized, but perhaps I can make it difficult for him to follow me. She scuffled along the ground. Her stomach growled angrily. She began eyeing the berries on the bush next to her despite her knowledge that they were poisonous. Nerves and lack of food were set aside however when she heard and then spotted her captor came crashing back through the brush, dragging a thick-shouldered bay gelding behind him.
He dropped the rope and quickly hauled her out of the bush. "Trying to get away, eh?" He flipped her onto her back and scowled down into the bard's face. He threw a bag at her and ordered, "Eat." Foiled in her attempt at escape and hungry enough to eat a whole rabbit alone, Gabrielle just wrestled with the drawstring long enough to dump the contents into her lap. Dried meat, a small hunk of drying cheese and a half-chewed loaf of hard crust bread crumbled into smaller pieces when they hit the tan leather of her skirt. Grabbing up a piece of the dried cheese she popped it in her mouth and chewed quickly, nearly choking. "Slow down," he ordered. "We're sharing."
The food isn't enough for one person, Gabrielle thought. How can we share this? But he snatched away both the bread and the meat, leaving her only the cheese to consume, which she quickly did.
"All right," he ordered. "Up on the horse." He pulled her to her feet, even as she choked down the last bit of cheese. "Up!" he said, cupping her foot in his palm and throwing her onto the horse's back. Without a saddle to grip she almost fell off the other side. Instinct made her grab for the black mane and she wove her fingers through the locks.
He swung up behind her, also finding
it hard to adjust to a non-saddle seat. As fast as she thought about tossing
herself off, he had grabbed the rope he'd strung around the horse's head
in a makeshift bridle, and they were riding toward the sea. She tried to
sit forward, not touching his body, but the rocking of the horse and the
lack of a saddle made her back hurt very quickly. To ease it, she let herself
rest against him. His breathing in her ear despite her tension created
a soothing rhythm. She found herself drifting in and out of sleep.
Gabrielle opened her eyes when she smelled a salty edge to the air as they dropped closer and closer to the sea level port town where her captor would meet up with his slave trader's boat. Gods preserve me, she remembered the imploring plea from her youth, but the hope behind the words was not there. The Olympians likely had more to worry about than a lone kidnapped bard, already well on her way to Rome.
The horse passed under a tree and pinecones rattled down from the branches overhead, striking the horse's neck and making it skitter. Gabrielle was crushed in her captor's attempt to settle the horse and regain control.
It must have been sheer luck... bad luck, Gabrielle thought, that the scared horse didn't dump her and keep running with her kidnapper aboard. I'd gladly suffer a broken neck just to remain in Greece, she decided. Busy keeping the horse in line, her captor was not in any position to grab her or counter the struggle. She pushed off the horse's withers, launching herself only slightly off the horse's back, and the momentum was enough to throw her weight to one side. She dropped toward the ground.
An obscene crack echoed in her ears
as her shoulder impacted the ground ahead of the rest of her body. Agony
cascaded through her chest and she began to fade out from the pain. Only
vaguely did she register rough hands throwing her over the horse's back
and black edged her vision. The first jolt of the horse into motion once
again completed Gabrielle's trip into darkness.
Xena opened her eyes and moved her head judiciously from side to side, scanning her surroundings. She decided the pain was tolerable. The tent's interior draping hung in dark hues, holding away the daylight trickling in from outside. She wondered how long she'd been asleep.
Much was silhouetted in the shadows, but she did make out a table in the middle of the tent. There were papers and maps spread out across its surface, and she started to roll over to a sitting position to go examine them when a voice broke the silence.
Her tone was dry. "Unless the dead roll over in their sleep."
"You grouse still as good as ever."
Xena sat up, eyeing the man sitting in a chair mostly hidden by the shadows. Mendices held a rolled up map in one hand, and braced the other elbow on the chair arm, resting his chin in his palm and staring at her. She pushed out of the bed, letting the covers fall away, and stood on shaky legs, but her expression was grim, determined. "So, did we successfully rout Tuminius?"
"Tuminius? Who's he?" He offered her a look of sincere bewilderment.
Xena frowned. "The battle yesterday. On the hills outside Amphipolis. Did we rout the bastard or not?"
He paused, considering that for a long moment it seemed. Then by way of answer, he said, "Don't you always rout them the first time?" He offered a cocksure smile and that brought up an answering one in her.
"All right then. Give me a tally of the wounded. And our casualties."
"Not much. A few scrapes." He chuckled. "Mostly from their revelry last night."
Xena pursed her lips and slowly crossed the dirt floor of the tent. She made to lean against the table, but her balance shifted enough and her injuries were still troubling her enough that the lean became more of a fall, and she was bracing herself more than standing. "Let me see the maps."
He had stood and braced his body against the mid-tent pole, crossing his arms over his chest. "We're going on another raid?"
"I'm going up into the hills to make sure that Tuminius is dead," she responded coldly.
Mendices stood and passed over the map of the Corinthian province. He watched her eyes as she unrolled it slowly and laid it out on the table. They narrowed slightly and then darkened from summer sky blue to midnight. "Something wrong?" he asked.
"Where the hell is the map of Corinth?!" She crumbled the paper in her fist and turned her angry gaze on him.
"That is the map of Corinth."
"This is not Corinth. I know my own home area. I control it." She made a step toward him and despite her impaired condition, he took a step back from the ire in her eyes. "What are you trying to pull?" She shook the map at him. "This says I control nothing in this province... and we both know. That. Is. A. Lie!" She threw the map at him and turned around. The sudden motion threw her head into a spin, and her balance shifted dramatically. Mendices was at her shoulder, grasping her torso in a steadying embrace before she could think. She caught her breath and felt her blood boil. "Get your hands off me!" she hissed through gritted teeth.
"If I let go, you're gonna fall on your face."
She ground out, "Just. Do. It." She pushed against his arms and found them surprisingly immovable. She watched his arms separate slowly, releasing the pressure on her chest by degrees. She stiffened her good leg, and waited... impatiently... for freedom.
He slipped one arm entirely away but keeping one still tucked in the space around her ribcage, but only touching her feather-light. Her breathing hitched, and the shift of her body began to threaten to go past her center of balance. She swayed. He began to retighten his single arm, but her arms, all the while her wrists radiating insistent messages of pain, pushed between them and kept his hands away. With effort she moved her good leg forward, resettling her balance. "That'll be all," she said, not turning to look at him.
She remained standing in the center of her tent as she listened to the sounds of Mendices' departure. His leather attire made a slight creaking sound as he moved toward the entrance. Only when she heard the tent flap fall back into place did Xena let out the breath she was holding, and the tears escaped her eyes.
Confusion ruled for a long moment as she stood there wondering what to do next. She spotted her weapons on the floor where she'd dropped them the evening before and set her injured uncooperative body one goal: to put her weapons and other accoutrements of war into order.
The task of simply collecting the weapons and seating herself in a chair at a worktable raised sweat on her brow. Bending, stretching and balancing, she moved her chakram to the bench first. Then acknowledging she probably wouldn't want to move again, she turned back and picked up the sword. Its blade scraped the floor as she held it with her braced left wrist. She shifted the weapon into her other hand and managed to get it onto the table. Her muscles were trembling from exertion when she finally lifted the cuirass, having laid it over her forearm. Steady on her feet she finally sat in the chair, laying out the cuirass by letting it slide from her arms. She could feel a light trickle of blood as wounds reopened under the bandages bled anew. She took several deep breaths and tried to calm herself, tightening a bandage here and there until she didn't feel the warm traces of blood anymore.
She wondered what had happened to the woman slave she'd had before the battle. No matter, she decided. It would be good for her to do this work. Idle hands made her crazy. She struck flint to the wick of a tallow candle in a bowl on the table and picked up the edge of the cuirass, holding it into the light.
Finding no dents or scratches, she lifted the small cloth from next to her hand at the table and worked in small circling strokes on improving the shine of the brass overlay. The flame began to sputter in the well of melted wax before she was finished.
Putting down the cuirass, she wiped her sweat-soaked brow on her forearm. She turned around slowly in the chair and noticed the rumpled bed.
She knew she ought to lie down. The exhaustion of simply working with her armor had shortened her breathing considerably. A noise outside drew her gaze to the entry. Then again, she thought, my army hasn't seen me in nearly two days. She needed to assert her command again, and quickly. She weighed the benefits of a nap against the need to at least appear in the company of her men. The stubbornness of command won out.
She pushed to her feet, using the polishing cloth to pat the sweat from her arms, face and throat. The smell of brass polish filled her nostrils and she coughed. The ache wasn't as bad, she realized as the coughing fit subsided. I can do this.
More confidence in her step, Xena moved to the tent flap and pushed it aside with one hand. She braced the other on the thigh of her left leg, easing away some pressure from walking on the near-break. At the tent doorway she lifted a thick gnarled stick, about three-quarters as tall as she was, and leaned heavily on it as she emerged from the darkness.
Late afternoon sunlight bathed her face in a refreshing warmth. She straightened a bit more and stepped out onto the main walk of her camp.
Men reclined by small fires, repairing their weapons and trading stories. She could hear their voices rise and fall, but not distinguish the words. Old ones, young ones, those with bulks of muscles and those with just bulk. Each man seemed to sense she was there, and turned to look at her.
She put a smile on her features, one that held both feral eagerness for battle and the dourness of command. The expression garnered salutes before each man returned to his task. A few continued to curiously watch her as she moved steadily, but slowly along the camp paths. As she passed one cluster of men leaning against an oak tree, a man near the back separated from and moved quickly off into the woods. Xena considered that, and figured he was only just noticing he was late for guard duty. She wasn't in any shape to reprimand him, and besides, she couldn't recall his name.
So she left it alone. Nervous, surprised looks followed her as she moved on again.
She made it all the way out to the training field, leaning against a tree when she reached the large clearing. Just beyond, men practiced with swords, staves, and all manner of weapons. Not drawing attention to herself and knowing her presence would be remarked on soon enough, Xena was content to feel the sun on her face, the light breeze on her arms, and listen to the arrhythmic clanging of weapons. Hidden mostly by shadow except for her face, she focused on the metal clashes and let her heartbeat echo it.
"Good group." Xena looked up as Mendices came alongside her. He answered her look before she could voice the question. "Men said you'd come out of your tent."
"Yeah," she responded, letting her gaze travel back over the field now that she knew who had come upon her. Mendices seemed to be debating with himself to say something, but finally stopped fidgeting and reclined next to her against the tree's wide trunk. "I appreciate the rescue yesterday," she said quietly.
"Anytime," he replied, just as quietly.
She shifted on her walking stick and felt the slight pressure when their shoulders touched, looking up into his brown eyes for a long silent moment. Then slowly two dark heads, unwilling to acknowledge their closeness, swiveled away to level their gazes on the troops.
Sunset found them walking back into camp surrounded by tired men, too tired to notice that their Commander walked with pain in most of her steps. Mendices walked slowly next to her. They both acknowledged the men's greetings, but the aroma of meals cooking soon distracted everyone toward thoughts of dinner.
Though Mendices suggested she eat in her tent, Xena was determined to show her men she was still capable. That required being out among them as much as possible. She settled without assistance on a log next to a fire about fifty paces from her tent. Mendices hovered until she turned a stern look on him.
At which point he looked over his shoulder and then shrugged settling to the ground, crossing his legs over each other. He accepted a bowl of the deer meat stew and began, like Xena, digging into it with his fingers. After only a single bite he passed the bowl away and walked away from the fire. His face, Xena noticed, was an almost comical study in distaste.
She finished her meal, curiosity driving her after Mendices. Getting up however proved a problem. She moved slowly to ease the ache of her muscles, and covered it with a series of exchanged handshakes and ribald jokes, with her men, which though the words fell from her easily, seemed unusual somehow.
"Are we heading out again in the morning, Commander?" one soldier asked. A buddy elbowed him in the ribs and rolled his eyes in warning. Hazel eyes examined her from a face framed in dirty, lank blonde hair, cut short. An unruly cowlick swirled atop his head.
Xena couldn't pin a name on the young
face and replied only, "You'll know in the morning." She straightened completely
after that and walked away, following the direction Mendices had taken.
Ares walked aimlessly among the trees until he was certain no one from the camp would see him. Then he found his way to a promontory overlooking the valley. Fishing in his belt pouch he withdrew a reed whistle. He blew three trill notes, very like the call of ravens.
"You called?" Hermes stepped from behind a tree.
"Well, what'd you find out?"
"Straight to the point hmmm? Got troubles?"
"Just tell me damn it... Where is Gabrielle?"
"I saw her traveling in the company of a man headed for the sea," Hermes replied.
"Seemed like it. She was asleep in his arms."
Ares frowned. "That doesn't sound like Gabrielle. She's too attached to Xena to go tripping off after some man, no matter how hot blooded." He grinned remembering something he'd felt between them when one of Aphrodite's spells gone awry had resulted in his traveling with the bard for a couple of days. "Actually the more hot-blooded the less likely she'd be to fall for him." He pointed at Hermes. "You'd better keep an eye on her."
Hermes pouted, but wiped away his expression at a stern glare from the God of War. "Those duds become you," he remarked, noticing for the first time Ares' attire.
"Yeah, well, the old familiar is helping Xena feel right at home."
"Any idea yet what's up with her?"
"Seems she fell off a cliff and forgot the last ten years."
Hermes put a thoughtful fist under his chin. "No kidding?" he said, obviously not believing that Ares didn't have anything to do with it.
"Well, I can't say that I'm unhappy with the results," the god admitted. "But something is still out of place," he mused. "And I'm sure I've got to pin it down before too much more happens."
Hermes nodded. "Yeah, keep me posted." He snapped his fingers and levitated before he was a streak of gold and white against the darkening evening sky and vanished within moments.
Ares had already put his visit with the messenger god out of his mind. Now what is it about Xena that has me so uneasy about this? Putting one foot in front of the other he continued to meander through the woods.
He paused at the bank of a small spring and looked out over the water. He could see grasses and weeds growing up through the placid surface. Though outwardly the same as ten years ago, Xena's behavior was just slightly different. Was she holding out on him? Playing a game?
As wily as she was, he could never
be sure. Could he?
The paths were dark now, the sun having finally descended well below the horizon. Xena moved along carefully. The light thud of the stick intermingled with her slightly heavier than normal treading. She was mindful that should she trip over a root or something she was entirely alone and likely would rebreak or aggravate any one of her injuries. The light sounds of the cicadas surrounded her, and the sharp smell of running water reached her nostrils. She followed that smell, and found herself stepping out alongside a small spring.
She watched the eddies and swirls in the surface before noticing where they originated. Over to her left, she realized, Mendices sat poking a branch repeatedly into the water. His brown eyes watched the ripples as they widened and dissipated from their source. His dark hair hung in loose curly tangles around his face. In the moonlight she could identify it as brown. His skin was swarthy, seeing as much sun as rain in its day, she imagined, although he'd told her once he wasn't all that much older than she was.
She recalled their first meeting: he a captured villager and she atop her horse, and took a step toward him. "Don't," he said, not looking up.
She stopped in mid-stride leaning against a tree trunk for support. "Something wrong?"
"You never asked me that before," he said. The expression in his voice seemed somewhere between awe and pain.
"I don't understand."
"What's to understand?" he replied, his voice tensing even as his shoulders squared and tried to shrug.
She wanted him to look at her. Suddenly the desperate need to connect with Mendices somehow overwhelmed Xena. "I've been wondering," she said, knowing most men didn't talk about feelings easily. "Why didn't you just leave me on the battlefield? Take over this army yourself." The easiness of her voice drew his gaze up to hers. She took advantage of the eye contact to move in and settle on the same outcropping of tree roots where he'd settled.
"I couldn't do that," Mendices replied. "You're my commander."
In the instant he said those words, Ares felt a jolt of pain erupt in his stomach. Moron, he castigated himself, all the while keeping his gaze level to Xena's. He waited to see how she would respond.
"Commands come and go, but... thanks for your loyalty." The simple sentence hit Ares like a battering ram. If only you knew, Xena. By the gods, if you only knew. She looked away from him and out over the lake. "I think I hit my head harder than I first thought," she said. "I seem to be forgetting something."
Ares set aside the branch and looked out over the water. "It's too calm. Seems there ought to be a battle going on somewhere."
"Was the map true? Do I control nothing?"
While it sank his warrior's heart to realize that she really didn't seem to know what was odd about her memories and her present situation, Ares was hesitant to answer, to break her bubble of contentment. "Um, well, yeah," he answered. "Corinth is a free Greek province now."
"I did forget some important things then." She squared her shoulders and then let them fall. "What am I fighting for?"
Now Ares was on more familiar ground. "You're fighting for a better world, Xena. A world ruled by order and discipline, not chaos and chance." He considered that he'd never been this close to getting her back to his side and started to reach for her shoulder.
Sounds of running boots and a body or several crashing through the underbrush drew both his and Xena's gazes back toward the woods. Ares pulled his hand back, resting it on the ground between them. Their conversation was set aside for the moment. Ares identified the runner for her. "Miletus, what is it?" The young man was out of breath when he came upon the spring.
"Romans, sir. Commander." Miletus turned to Xena. His face was smooth, pale and cheeks reddened from exertion.
Xena's eyes lit up with the fire of challenge. "We'll be right there. Get the men geared up." She was already coming to her feet. Her injuries all but forgotten in the rise of her body's eagerness for battle.
Ares waited until Miletus was out of earshot before telling her, "You just fell off a cliff. You're in no shape to do battle."
"Mendices, I am not allowing the Romans overrun Greece," she shot back, moving with a determined grimace back up the path toward camp. Ares had to shove a lot of underbrush out of the way in order to keep up. He was amazed at her ability to ignore the pain. It certainly wasn't the first time, he'd seen it, but he was beginning to see Xena with new eyes. "Since when did you have a fight with Rome?"
"They have a commander, Julius Caesar..."
"He's head of their whole government now!"
The new information caused Xena to pause. Then, the light Ares had always wanted to see gleamed in her eyes. "Then I'll tear this legion apart first and turn on Rome next."
Ares must have still looked doubtful because she asked next, "Are you with me, or against me, Mendices? I need to know that right now."
Ares met her gleaming blue eyes and wondered why he even hesitated. He offered a silent Sorry Caesar you're on your own and nodded his head. Finding his voice he finally answered, "I'm with you."
She grinned, not unlike a wolf ready to tear into a pack of elderly deer. Her tone was feral. "Good."
Ares had the distinct impression that she would have attempted to kill him had he refused. The feeling was not a triumphant one, he realized as he followed her quickly back to camp.
Continued in Part 2
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