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
Amber" (the very first story I ever wrote) and he's seen in more detail in "Compelling Associations" another of my general fiction
If Memory Serves
(c) January 1999
The sea smell upset her stomach, waking Gabrielle. Opening her eyes drew her attention to the bobbing of the horizon through a small porthole in the far wall. The greenish blue rippling surface mirrored her stomach suddenly and she gagged trying not to throw up.
"Must've been hit in the head pretty hard," a voice echoed in her ears from very close.
Gabrielle turned her head and identified a dark-skinned woman, narrow-boned, and barely clothed, chained next to her. "I... my name is Gabrielle."
The girl nodded. "Leepna." She lifted her bound hands and brushed Gabrielle's bruised brow, making the bard wince. "You fought hard. Useless you know."
"Now, I do." She looked out the porthole again... only briefly. She swallowed quickly before returning her gaze to Leepna's and asking, "How long have we been at sea?"
"A full day. It's almost dawn again." She was whispering now. Gabrielle looked past Leepna and saw the huddled young women, and a separate huddle of men heaped unconsciously in a pile. Leepna answered the question in her eyes before she could ask. "There are as many girls as fingers and toes... And about half as many men."
"All from Greece?"
"I think so."
Gabrielle sighed and carefully leaned her head against the gunwale. "How long until we reach port?"
"My father was a trader," Leepna said. "It usually took him a week to conduct his business and return home."
"All right, so about two or three days on the water," Gabrielle calculated. "Well, I think I can stand it that long."
Leepna shook her head. "I don't understand."
"I get seasick. The remedy a friend told me about is almost as bad as it though." She felt carefully through the tendons and blood vessels in her wrist, until she reached the particular spot. With a quick jab that made her head spin briefly, Gabrielle cut off the sensations. In reaction the queasiness in her stomach subsided. Then, inconveniently, she remembered she hadn't eaten in almost two full days. She looked around the floor. "Is there anything to eat?"
"They said they'd bring us something twice a day. Someone will probably be along soon with the morning food." Leepna looked Gabrielle over and found her apparently a bit out of place. "Where'd they pick you up?"
"My friend and I were on our way to visit some Amazon friends."
"That's what you're wearing." Leepna smiled. "You're an Amazon. I bet you killed a few of them before they got you, didn't you?"
"I try not to kill," she said finally. Leepna didn't know what to say to that, and Gabrielle decided that was all right. She seldom knew what was the right response to it either. Holding to her values seemed so pointless sometimes. It only seemed to get her into more trouble than it got her out of. And now it looks like I'm going to die a slave.
She knew it didn't really make sense to blame her non-violent attitude for her present situation. But there was no point trying to be angry with anyone else but herself. Xena was gone. Gabrielle swallowed and admitted her deepest fear to herself. Likely she's dead. Even if she wasn't dead, with the bard now out of Greece, it would be a miracle if the warrior could even track her.
For some reason, Gabrielle felt more fearful that Xena and she would never see one another than by the fact that shortly she would be sold into slavery in a foreign land, to an unfamiliar master. Work wasn't a stranger to the girl from Poteidaia.
But it would be a very lonely life. Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to pinch off the tears insistently beginning to run down her cheeks. Dimly she heard boots on a ladder and opened her eyes to see three men, arms loaded with cloth bundles, hurrying down toward them. Food.
She caught a bundle thrown at her
belly, and unwrapped a dry crusty bread. One of the other women asked for
water. Feet bound as they were, Gabrielle could only wince as a boot connected
solidly with the questioner's chest. The wince reminded her of the fall
from the horse as an aching pain swathed her shoulders and chest, threatening
to make tears fall.
The food was satisfying only in that it put something solid on her stomach and continued to help it settle to the rocking of the boat. It wasn't nearly enough to sate her completely, but Gabrielle wasn't about to ask for more. One of the men who'd been picked up earlier than Gabrielle had tried to take more from the sailor and been beaten to death in front of everyone.
Even now, Gabrielle glanced to her left, his body had been left to rot among them. By the time the ship docked, if the man's body hadn't been thrown overboard it would make the air in the hold unbreathable.
A memory of decaying flesh assailed her. Pained, she closed her eyes against the nightmare. Meridian charging Khrafstar; the knife in Gabrielle's hand, sliding into the woman's waist. Khrafstar's laughter dinning in her ears, his taunting words. The terror. Even after all this time, and knowing she wasn't to blame, that it had all been a setup by Dahak. That Hope was dead, and Dahak was gone from this plane thanks to Hercules.
The memory had indeed dimmed and fragmented over time to just the most intense moments. But the bard was certain it would never completely leave her. Both the blessing and the curse of the best storytellers, Gabrielle knew, was the ability to have very complete recall.
A trait she'd actually honed in herself as a child, playing memory games with Lila and her other village friends. It had served her in her travels with Xena, remembering details for the warrior's use, or for a scroll on their adventures later. Now it would hold forever a memory she desperately had once tried to forget.
What a terrifying trip that had been,
Gabrielle remembered. In the end at Mnemosyne's temple, she'd decided that
forgetting would be worse than being able to keep the memories of how close
she and Xena had become during, and after, all the trouble.
Xena, she cried out in her mind. "Where are you?"
The camp was in an uproar when Xena and Mendices strode in. Keeping her calm and leaning on her walking stick, Xena began barking out orders for movements and supplies, and how they were all going to move out. "You." She waved a broad-shouldered man out of the cluster of men at the weapons tent.
"Take a detachment and scout the Roman position. I want a report by the time I reach the ridge north of camp."
He saluted her smartly and tapped the shoulders of the five nearest men. "Let's go!" The group was off at a run. She watched them until they were out of sight.
Mendices stopped at her shoulder as she leaned forward to grab a sack of arrows. "What're you going to do with those?" he shouted over the din.
"Fire them," she answered succinctly, grabbing up a bow as well.
"You're not used to a bow. And how are you going to use it and remain on your feet?"
She stood and turned to him, pinning him against a tent pole with her glare. "You told me yourself that I'm in no shape." She waved the arrow tips under his nose. "I'm going to have to hang back. But I will be in this fight."
He nodded tersely. "I'll guard your back."
She shook her head. "I need you up front. Tear into them with everything you've got."
Mendices' brown eyes widened. "You want me to take the point?"
"I'll clean up the rear. This is important to me. But being well enough to take on Caesar is my ultimate goal." Mendices nodded. "This won't take long," she continued. "Then we'll sail for Rome."
"He certainly won't be expecting that."
"Exactly." She walked away from the supply tent and ducked into her own tent, retrieving her sword, sheath, whip and chakram. "You sure?" Mendices asked when she gestured for him to help her strap on the sheath. She nodded tersely. She winced as wounds and abused muscles were pulled, but moved her hair out of the way as he adjusted the straps. "All right then. We ride?"
Xena strode ahead of him to the corral and looked at the collection of war-horses. Her brow furrowed in confusion. "Where's my horse?"
Mendices who had simply mounted up on a dark gray big boned stallion looked at her in confusion. "Just pick one."
"No," Xena looked at each horse in
turn, rubbing muzzles and staring into round startled eyes. "Where's my
horse? She's not here." She looked over her shoulder at Mendices. "She's..."
Xena paused as she concentrated for a moment with a tan mount. "Lighter
than this? Golden?" Another thing I seem to have forgotten, the warrior
realized. With a self-disgusted grunt, she hauled herself into the saddle
of the tan horse. She had to use only her arms as her legs both suddenly
gave out completely. But Tartarus would be damned if she said anything
Xena thought viciously biting her lower lip. The horse felt powerful under
her hands, but unfamiliar... Damn. Grasping the reins, the dark warrior
pulled the horse around ignoring the pain signals from all over her body
at the strain. She stabbed a finger into her left thigh, the worst abused,
and successfully blocked the nerve sending jangling messages about the
torture it was under. "Let's ride."
The battlefield was determined quickly. After receiving the report of the Roman position at the crest of the north ridge, Xena split her forces into two detachments and directed them, one off to the west and one to the east, to converge on the valley where the Romans marched, intent on the heart of Greece.
Mendices led the charge down the eastern slope, and she brought up the rear attack of the western group. Falling on the Romans like a swarm of locusts, though the Romans were well-trained and efficient fighters, the surprise gave Xena's men the edge.
Back and forth they surged over the ground, first one group prevailing and then the other. Wide sweeping charges gave way quickly to hand-to-hand combat. From her position on the rise, Xena directed the archers, who rained down volley after volley of arrows into the melee.
The Romans assembled their archers and protected them behind the body shields and soon arrows were turned on the Greeks. Mendices shored up the eastern line, and battered toward the back of the enemy line.
Xena had taken refuge from the high profile position of being mounted--and truth told, taking refuge from the constant jostling to her injuries by the horse's uneven gait. She now leaned back against a tree, hiding in the deeper ground foliage. She continued to nock arrows and send them into the thickest part of the fighting, bringing down a soldier here and there. She turned to assess the damage she'd inflicted and the rocks underfoot shifted. She fell hard onto her rear, shaking herself up considerably. As she was carefully pushing to her feet searching vainly for the walking stick she had propped against the tree, Xena had to bring her bow up to block an incoming blade. Some Roman, she noted, had slipped through the lower lines and made his way up the hill. With a growl, and setting aside her own pain at the maneuver, she kicked her legs up into his groin and threw him over her head.
He landed on his back about five yards away, rolling over quickly to attack again.
Xena only made it to her knees before he was on top of her again. His weight thrown full against her chest rolled them both back, heels over head. Their bodies rolled in this locked battling position: he trying to punch her jaw and she trying to shove her bow under his chin. She tried to keep in mind the terrain and use it to her advantage. His heavier armor made it more difficult to move if she could force him into the thick underbrush. She guided their roll and closed her eyes as they tumbled into a thorny bush. She snapped off a long branch, ignoring the scratches, and raked it across her opponent's face.
His howl and mad scrabbling to relieve the pain gave her the advantage. She threw him from herself and pushed to her feet, ignoring the blood rushing over her palms from her rebroken wrist. Grabbing his own sword, lost when he went to tend the wounds on his face, she drove it into his chest, pulled it out and threw it aside.
Snatching up her bow and turning on a charging Roman, she batted away his weapon, its arc aimed for her right side. The action seemed foreign, but familiar at the same time. I'm just more used to my sword, she thought, turning his knife when he drew it. The blade sank into his neck and at these close quarters she was squirted in the face with his blood. She tasted the metallic tang at the corner of her mouth and spit in his face as he fell away. Breathing deeply, she staggered away from that confrontation only to become embroiled in another quickly.
Across the way, she glimpsed Mendices
still standing strong, feet braced well and swinging his sword like he
was sheaving wheat in a field. Romans fell this way and that, away from
him, though they kept coming in collections time and again. He howled with
laughter and for a brief instant his brown-eyed gaze found hers across
the distance. His smile gave her strength and she smiled back, driving
another Roman's knife into his own belly.
The Roman legion, nearly a thousand soldiers strong was nearly non-existent as darkness arrived. The melee turned into a retreat and the Romans fell back, fighting off the pursuing Greeks. Xena had worked her way toward the front of her troops. Ares glanced at Xena alongside him and saw her make the kill. There were an untold number of deaths at those long-fingered swordless hands so far, but Ares could see she held back, kept herself out of the fight. Her body was weakened by her earlier injuries still obeyed her. Her moves were all there. The grit was businesslike, not passionate as he remembered. "You all right?" he thought to ask at a shout when they were back to back.
"Just ready to be done with this."
He cut a deep swath through the man in front of him, leaving a bloody mess of entrails dripping in his sword's wake. "We'll send them packing, and then head for port."
"Glad to know you're at my back," she replied.
"Just glad to know you're still in the game," he answered.
They were silent then until the last of the Romans turned and ran. Cheering Greeks surrounded Ares and Xena. "Hail! Hail, Xena! The Warrior Princess of Greece!"
Ares watched the brunette woman accept the accolade, but aside from a single fist thrust once in the air, she did not respond. He took critical stock of her condition, noticing her limp was back with a vengeance, making her face pale with the exertion. Also the gashes in her head had opened up. Her older injuries had been joined by a whole new host of new scratches and shallow wounds. He wondered which of her bones had rebroken and which were newly shattered from the battle.
Damn though, she's good, he reassured himself. Together they walked back to camp. She reached up with her bandaged left wrist and used the cloth to blot at the sweat and blood beading on her brow. He saw her wince and knew the wrist was a casualty of the battle.
She must have noticed his scrutiny. With a sideways glance, she questioned, "Something interesting?"
"Just amazed me again, you know that?"
"Good. I can keep you on your toes that way."
"No. I meant... You broke your wrist again. I'm surprised you don't spend more time laid up with broken bones."
Xena scoffed. "I'd make a crummy leader if I got laid up with every battle."
Ares put a hand on her shoulder. "You've got the will," he said.
"Mendices," she warned. "If you didn't think I did... would you be following me?"
The question made him smirk in pleasure and he lifted his hand from her shoulder. "Point taken."
"Tell the camp we're heading for Rome next. I'll be in my tent cleaning up." She paused, her hand holding her tent flap open. "I want to be sitting on Rome's throne by the next full moon."
"That's three days away."
She narrowed her eyes and the smile on her lips was deadly. "I know."
He found himself smiling just as
ferally in return. The warrior was back. He saluted her and turned around,
striding out of camp and mounting up on another horse, after leaving orders
to close up the camp.
Xena sent Yerkes away when he came to her tent. "There are men more in need," she responded. "I want everyone able to leave Greece, ready to do so by morning."
Yerkes straightened his jerkin and tightened the lacing. His gray eyes met hers as she eased herself down onto a wide stool. "You are certain?" He gestured toward the wrist she was supporting uneasily. "I should re-set that I think."
She shook her head, unwilling to endure the rebreaking and wrapping that would require. "No." She gestured with a shoulder toward the tent entrance. "Just tend what men you can."
"Will you sleep?"
Xena looked at him with curiosity. "I have too much to do," she said sternly.
"Still, how can you --?"
"Yerkes," she replied, her voice dropping several registers. "Do as I say." The healer got the idea, his gray eyes widening slightly, and quickly bowed, retreating.
Alone at last, Xena let her shoulders drop and took several deep breaths to calm her pounding heart, and ease the pounding in her head. "This shouldn't be this difficult," she thought. She carefully removed the forearm bracer, protective glove and bandage. She carefully prodded the blue, black and purpling wrist and hand and confirmed the break.
Shoving with her forefinger and thumb, she realigned the bones. Tears welled in her eyes but she blinked them quickly away. Sighing, she fished through the bag at her feet and retrieved a powder, mixing it with water from the wash basin. Then she applied the pasty compound and tightly wrapped the wrist in a fresh bandage.
She moved to the table and picked up a map of the nearby Aegean coastline. She sat in the chair, but found it uncomfortable and shifted to the bed. Propping herself up carefully with pillows and blankets, she contemplated the coming travel. With a finger, she traced a water route and identified a series of ports suitable for landing on the eastern coast of core Roman territory. The boundaries of that land were considerably larger than she remembered, but that didn't concern her right now.
The terrain was familiar to her once they hit land. Mountains and streams... she remembered them all, had traveled them in her first days seeking distance between her and the betrayal of Caesar.
Caesar. Xena put aside the map even as her fingers mangled it threatening to shred the paper. It has been almost a year, Xena, she told herself. "So why in Tartarus do I still want to kill him?"
She thought about the last time that she had seen him. Ordering the breaking of her legs while she hung from the wooden beams. The half-smirk she saw; the defeat she'd felt. If not for M'Lila's rescue she'd have perished on the beach with the rest of her men.
She remembered M'Lila collapsing in her arms, killed because Caesar had heard Xena was alive and ordered her killed.
The darkness of the night she sneaked from Nicklio's hut on barely healed legs, having turned down Nicklio's offer to heal them. She'd stolen a horse and pulled herself into the saddle. Terror filled her as she rode east. She'd thought of turning west and hunting down Caesar then, but sanity prevailed. She knew she wasn't in any shape to take him on then. So she sought revenge against everything.
She'd found Borias, a moderately successful tribal Hun. She wanted his band, wanted to grow it into the force she could send against Caesar. So she seduced him.
Carefully remembering the lessons she'd learned at Caesar's boot, Xena distanced herself from the Hun's charms, but worked her way into his confidence as a fighter and strategist. Finally into his bed. That she was always a little more willing to spill blood than he was made theirs the kind of relationship she could manage. Borias was simultaneously drawn and repelled by her. She could seize on his repellence and keep her heart free of entanglement, even as the attraction he felt for her continued to deepen with strategic moments of acquiescence. Works both ways, Caesar, she scoffed, remembering how easily Borias came to believe she loved him. You can separate a man from his sensibilities too.
She had utilized every advantage. Ch'in had been an experience that simultaneously brought Borias closer to her. Xena felt herself getting closer and closer to her personal goals.
Lao Ma's magic. Xena pushed her hair from her cheeks and closed her eyes, envisioning the peaceful, always mildly amused expression the Great Lao's wife had bestowed on her time and again. I even got what I wanted from her, Xena smiled in memory. I made her pretty mad, trying to tear into her kid like that, but she didn't understand. Nothing is allowed to get in the way.
"Leave to fight another day." She remembered thinking she'd come back and team with Lao Ma someday...Somehow she had a vague feeling she'd never see the enigmatic Asian again. Nothing could have stopped her plans then. And now... Xena's feral grin returned. "Now it's time to finish this." She drew herself up and squeezed her fingers into a fist. "Caesar, you're dead."
Setting aside her thoughts of Caesar for the moment, Xena assessed her physical condition beyond the troublesome injuries that would be mostly healed by the time she arrived in Rome. From the fighting today and, she sensed, fighting lately, she was as peak as she could be. The men were ready as well.
The all-Greek army of Xena, the Warrior
Princess, was about to run roughshod over the center of the largest empire
in the known world. Julius Caesar had taught her about power. And punishment.
Now the pupil was going to show the teacher how well she'd learned her
The sea air smell finally abated four hours into the ride from the coast. The slaves to be auctioned had been piled into a high-sided cart, affording no legroom, and even less personal space. The rutted road, which steadily improved in condition the closer they came to the center of the Roman Empire, kept everyone awake, even those for whom comfort and sleep were usually easily attained.
Like Gabrielle. Looking out through the slats of the wagon side against which she was squeezed, the bard's eyes absorbed the scenery, the color and the smells automatically. She hadn't slept well since leaving Greece. She grimaced as the wagon jolted in a rut. Her shoulder, where she'd taken a lucky moment to shove her floating breastbone back into place, still ached when bumped. Cramped now as it was gave it a supporting pressure, except when the cart hit a rut.
Her inability to sleep she knew stemmed from other things as well. It was easy for the young woman to find sleep when Xena had been with her. Whether it was on rock-laden ground with just a thin blanket, or on Argo, head resting against Xena's armored back, Gabrielle had discovered a peacefulness would steal over her, claiming her for sleep almost instantly.
This was different. No Xena. No peace, and likely more of the same where she was headed. There wasn't anything unusual, not really, about the Roman countryside as opposed to the Greek countryside, the bard acknowledged with a heavy heart.
Without Xena near it was the strangest place she'd ever been. The bright fall sky overhead seemed malevolently encroached with dark clouds. The simple villagers and merchants' faces they passed on the road turned into hideous scowls. Casual hand movements, of children and wives. All Gabrielle saw was the power... their power to make her stay, keep her alive, or kill her in an instant.
The driver of the cart appeared at the back of the wagon. She felt a shiver of fear grip her and grimaced at the renewed ache in her shoulder.
"All right, ye slags. Off the cart with ya." The men and women around Gabrielle began to stretch and relieve the cramps in their bodies. As they moved to the edge of the cart and off, one of the guards would tie a loop of a long restraining rope around their hands. Each was tied to the ones in front and in back of him or her. If one tried to bolt the others would hamper them.
In the corner of her mind, where her fear didn't reach, Gabrielle acknowledged the intelligence behind such a move... and resented it. Why can't they be stupid? She thought. It would make this so much easier.
It was finally her turn to get off the cart. She moved her legs over the side and braced her hands in order to push herself from the wooden surface. She couldn't move quickly because of her shoulder, and the guard didn't care. "Move!" He grabbed her arm and pulled her off. She was dragged along the wood beams of the cart floor, and howled as splinters briefly caught up in the skin of her thighs and bottom. Tears streamed down her face from the abuse to her bottom as well as the feeling that her shoulder had separated in all the tugging. "A princess ye are, eh?" he snorted and threw her ahead of him, simultaneously pulling a loop of the rope around her wrists. She stumbled but kept her balance. The hemp scraped as it tightened but Gabrielle bit her lip. No sense in showing any emotion. They wouldn't care anyway, she decided.
She moved gingerly, but quickly along in the line with the rest of the slaves. A very tall man was ahead of her and a child lagged behind her. Her arms hurt from the suspended position of her hands, but she kept trying to lower them in order to ease the pull on the young boy behind her, as well as ease the strain on her collarbone.
It wasn't an easy balance of her strength, and it began straining her shoulders, but the fact that the boy was able to keep up, and wasn't dragged off-balance at any point made Gabrielle feel considerably better. Even in the bowels of Tartarus there is a moment we can all be merciful, she thought.
Roman eyes looked on their procession with distant fascination. A few Centurions, standing at the base of a central, raised platform, looked them over as they were left in a corral-like circle and their captor ascended the steps and raised his hands.
"Welcome citizens!" he yelled. Gabrielle listened to him, but kept her eyes on the crowd. The meandering of the people slowed and then finally stopped as people got a good look at them and their seller up on the platform. "I have some of the finest flesh those barbarians in Greece can breed. The viewing will begin now, and bidding will start in an hour."
Open season. Gabrielle sighed, trying not to look at any of the
approaching throng directly. The people around her, and she herself, were poked, prodded, and questioned about their skills and strengths. A gaudily dressed portly man in a pea green toga, the seashell shoulder clasp securing both toga and purple robe, poked her in the ribs.
"Yes?" she asked, trying not to grit her teeth or show any other mark of disdain for this whole humiliating situation.
"Ah, good, you can speak." She remained silent. "My wife needs another kitchen maid to help with the festival party next week." He paused and lifted her hands for inspection. "Seems you've known work, so... Can you cook?"
"You'll die from food poisoning, I'm sorry, sir." She made herself seem truly contrite. He seemed to take her at her word, and shook his head.
She heard him mumble as he moved off to the next one. "Greek food anyway. Ugh."
Triumphantly she allowed herself a small grin. Until a hand grabbed her chin, jerking her face around to her next "inspector." She looked up into the face of a man with a high brow, dark complexion and broad cheekbones. He didn't look Roman, but he didn't look Greek either. Mediterranean, she thought. She waited this time for him to ask her something first.
"You have muscle." He glanced down at her legs, raising an eyebrow. "Legs, too." He grasped her arm. She tugged against him surprising him a bit with her true strength. "Very good." He grinned at some internal thought and walked away, turning his head once to look back over his shoulder at her.
Gabrielle bit her lip. She'd likely be dead within a week if the man managed to purchase her for field labor.
More prospective buyers came through. One thought she'd be "good enough to teach his son the rudiments of pleasure." Another with a leering smile pinched her rear and grabbed her breast with meaty hands obviously thinking she'd do to serve his pleasure. Sigh.
They were led away at the end of an hour, and ordered to sit down in the shade of a tall featureless building. Bread and cheese were passed out, a skein of goat milk was sent down the line, one sip allowed to each of them.
Even as Gabrielle swallowed the last chunk of cheese, they were ordered to their feet once again, and sent inside the building. The sounds of bidding ensued almost as soon as the first Greek foot crossed the threshold and Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to block the cacophony of sound that was souls being sold.
She wished her own soul elsewhere
and hoped that the part of her that was Xena's would be the last to die
out here leagues from home and anyone's love.
The ship's railing drew Xena again. She left Mendices with the hired captain, to assure that they remained on course for Roman shores. Her eyes were drawn to the restlessness and stirring peace of the sea. She eyed the depths with relief and saw the specks of land in the distance full of promise and adventure.
She hadn't realized until they were underway just how eager she was to be on the water. The blue-green of the Mediterranean beckoned her gaze time and again. She drowned herself and her thoughts in their depths. Pearlescent waves and eddies sparkled with sunshine and she was put in mind of glittering gems. Her chest expanded and she felt freedom and happiness. I'm headed for the fulfillment of my destiny, she thought with pleasure. Caesar will die and I will be free.
She turned away from the rail for a moment and scanned the boat's deck. Most of the men were below, bunked together in bedrolls or the wooden cots projecting from the gunnels. Those topside were sailors, or being otherwise useful. She saw a cluster of men braiding hemp for the mainsail ties. Another group climbed the rigging, constantly checking the status of the sails and the ropes tethering them. A rip from a crosscut wind, or a sudden shift in the direction and a mooring could break loose, stranding them on the water.
She took a deep breath of sea air and found herself smiling. She looked over at the captain and Mendices, standing together at the rudder wheel. Mendices stood fast, hands braced on the wood handles. Beside him the captain was talking with his hands, obviously describing the path ahead. The brown-eyed gaze of her second in command fell on her and he dropped his head in acknowledgement.
Seeing the gesture as an invitation, Xena strode across the deck, enjoying the roll of it beneath the balls of her feet. She grabbed for the stair railing leading up to him, and caught his eye. With an almost casual bounce, she flipped herself up and over, landing squarely on the higher surface, about three paces from Mendices and the captain.
"Feeling better," Mendices commented appreciatively. He gestured with a twitch of his chin, keeping firm hands on the wheel. "Xena, this is Captain Litrimos. Captain, the Warrior Princess."
Litrimos held out a hand. Xena took stock of his appearance before grasping it firmly in her own. He was a man in his late years, thick chested, and thin of waist. Much of the lower portion of his face was covered in a bushy, but well-kept salt-and-pepper beard and mustache. His eyes roaming her form were a pale brown. He was both washed and darkened by many years exposure to the sea and sun.
"Nice to meet you," he said. His voice burred the words sending a warm shiver over Xena. His voice was higher than she expected, but it was friendly, and spoke of the easy self-assurance granted by age.
Xena nodded, her expression settling back to its typical grim lines. "Mendices, I want to confer with you."
Without answering, Mendices nodded, relinquished the wheel to the captain and gestured for her to lead him down to the map cabin. She ran a hand appreciatively over the header of the doorway before ducking inside and then turned to watch Mendices descend.
"What would you like to discuss?" He hung back still a moment with a hand braced on the overhead boards. She could see him clearly even though the lighting was dim. His beardless face, dark almond skin, thick arms and broad hands stood out against the darkness of his clothing. She met his eyes and found herself stepping forward.
He put up a hand whether to stop her or touch her, she didn't know, or care. She grasped it in her own and laced her fingers through his pulling herself against his body. She locked her gaze on his and brought her other hand up, pressing his head down slightly until their lips met.
She tasted the juice he'd drunk at breakfast, and smelled the ham he'd eaten. Licking his lips, she began to delve her tongue into his mouth and fiercely tried to lay claim to him.
Xena found herself suddenly cast backward. She bounced lightly off the wall, and stood there, hands braced against the wood, panting lightly to catch her breath. She balanced from leg to leg as her injury thudded with pain.
Ares kept a wary eye on Xena. The short distance separated them not nearly enough to cool his blood. Damn, why'd you have to touch me? He struggled to remain ignorant of the desire he saw pulsing through her blood and shining from her eyes. The emotional turmoil he saw there called him like a Siren.
"Damn, Xena!" He clenched and unclenched his fists. "What in Tartarus do you think you were doing?"
"Mendices," she breathed. She made another move toward him and they grappled but the activity brought their bodies together and sent a shock of desire straight to the god's groin.
"Grrr..." he growled, falling back on unintelligible defenses as he sought to separate them once again.
"Don't you feel alive for the first time, Mendices?" she questioned, still trying to run a caressing hand over his cheek.
Ares bit his lip to keep his mouth away from hers. He'd be lost if she kissed him again. "I can't do this!" he barked at her. "Don't tempt me like that!"
Xena ducked past his hand as he tried to grasp her shoulder and hold her still. Her head came up under his chin and butted it. Pain erupted in his throat and he was knocked backward. The scramble sent him off balance and grips intertwining, they both tumbled to the floor.
She set about immediately seeking the upper hand, wrestling him beneath her by bringing her legs and arms into play. Ares was so afraid to touch her, aggravating her injuries that she had him pinned before he could roll free. Her mouth came down on him as she changed tactics. Though her grip on him was firm, the touch of her mouth on his was soft, coaxing, not demanding. The weight of her body was suddenly only feather-light as Ares found himself drawn into wanting her and helpless to resist the lure she'd thrown him.
Gods, Ares thought, moaning when the tip of Xena's tongue invaded his mouth. She tasted sweet, like the apple she'd sat up on deck eating earlier. He remembered watching her perch on the railing, one leg dangling over the side. She had looked ahead of the ship, chewing on the apple pieces, her mind obviously far away and peaceful.
Somehow the journey had become infinitely more complicated. It wasn't as simple as wanting to see if she succeeded in her plan to kill Caesar or his earliest thoughts on finding her injured: that she got well. He dragged himself and her upright, and pinned her against the nearby wall, sharing a kiss. Their gazes devoured one another and reaction sent shivers skittering over their skin, communicated to one another. "Xena," he murmured, nuzzling her throat. Her hands pushed through his leathers, finding the skin burning beneath. Ares groaned.
When she started to pull his leather jerkin free of his belt, something snapped in his head. This is gonna get you killed, he heard a voice say. Oh shit, he gasped for breath and reason, pulling away from Xena. The Oracle's prophecy.
The Oracle at Delphi, shortly after he assumed his godhead, had promised that a child of his would end his reign. The fear of that had kept him out of every woman's arms... except Xena. Panic rose in him again. She might not have conceived then, he remembered being fantastically relieved, but ... The fear galvanized him with the strength to resist. Ares grabbed both of Xena's hands. When she tried to pull away and move around to find a better angle, he forced his elbow into her chin, driving her head back, and stunning her for a moment.
"Mendices? Wha -?" Ares watched with a mixture of relief and agony as the passion fled her crystal blue eyes replaced by icy swirls. Gods be damned.
And narrowly ducked the swing of her fist. Damn, I can't win. Keep my hands off her and she'll kill me. Touch her and I'm dead anyway. He backed up, and swung his own fist, managing to block her second blow. "Listen to me!" He decided to try talking her out of her disappointment. She crumbled to the floor, eyes on him, a stunned look disturbing the clear blue depths. He ached to comfort her but steeled himself against it. "It isn't a good idea," he reminded her. "Come on! You're the leader of an army for Ares' sake!" He pointed to himself. "You're willing to risk dissention in the ranks for a tumble?"
She tracked him uneasily. It was hard to watch the gleam on her cheeks as tears she didn't acknowledge emerged. He glanced up once at the hatchway, relieved that no one was coming. She'd be mortified to be seen. That she was letting him witness her weakness spoke volumes, and he felt an ache start in his arms and the absurd thought occurred to him that he wanted to hold her while she cried.
I am losing my mind Ares admonished himself. "I think I'll head back to the wheel," he made his voice as steady as possible.
Still not wiping at her tear-stained face, Xena responded to the assured tone. "Do that," she managed. "I'll be up shortly."
Ares put a foot on the ladder, paused and turned to look back at her. Their gazes met; they nodded at one another. He scrambled up the ladder quickly before he could change his mind.
Xena watched Mendices go until his
boots disappeared through the opening to the deck. Gods, I'm going crazy,
she thought. Finally she felt the light breeze chill the damp trails on
her cheeks and brushed them lightly with the back of her hand. She swallowed
several times and closed her eyes. Mendices face immediately rose, enticing
her again. Damn. She viciously switched the scene in her head to that of
Caesar. "I can't jeopardize this campaign," she told herself sternly, the
sound of her own voice, getting steadier with each word, strengthened her
enough to stand.
"You have a name?" Gabrielle looked at the slight man in the gold-brocaded toga with a jaundiced eye. "Fine. Don't need a name where you're going," he went on when she shook her head.
He swung his gaze away from her and looked out on the assembly. Gabrielle's gaze followed and she swallowed at the absolutely packed theater. It seemed there wasn't a single space anywhere to sit. Everyone stood, moving about in a writhing mass. She watched her vision swim and felt the sudden attack of lightheadedness. Quickly she drew in a breath. It would never do to pass out, she realized. She needed to keep her wits about her if she was going to survive this.
Not for the first time and not for the last time, Gabrielle closed her eyes and ignored the hum of the bidding, letting her mind feast on a happier memory.
Xena and she had decided to stop for a break. They reached a clearing by a river thick with rocks and rushing white water. Gabrielle removed her scroll bag and their food supply bag from her shoulders. She dropped her staff on the ground beside them, sat down, and unlaced her boots.
"If we stay in that alcove, we should be safe enough," The warrior pointed out a spot in the river surrounded by large rocks that would be a perfect place to soak off their trail dust. She dropped Argo's reins and removed the mare's saddle and their bags and bedding. Argo lowered her head and nibbled the soft, green grasses blanketing the clearing.
Xena removed her scabbard and armor, standing in only her leathers for the moment, looking around. Gabrielle stepped out of her skirt and folded it atop her bags.
"I'll race you," Gabrielle suggested. "Looks absolutely inviting!"
Xena's eyes sparkled at the challenge and said simply, "Whenever you're ready."
Nodding, Gabrielle jumped toward the water, then yelled, "Now!" A few paces from the water's edge, she looked over her shoulder and saw Xena. The clearing was empty behind her. She stopped. "Xena?"
"Over here," came the reply. Gabrielle spun to see Xena come out of an aerial somersault and land lightly ahead of the bard, about a step from the water.
"Gods!" gasped the bard, falling to the ground as she spun quickly around. "You did that without so much as a rustling sound!"
"Nothing was on the ground where I took off. Not even a dry leaf," shrugged the warrior. She stripped and slipped into the water first, while the bard remained on the shore, her face suffused with astonishment. Smiling broadly Xena announced, "I win."
Gabrielle shook her head, pulled off her shift, and slid into the water beside her friend. Both women sank down in the warm water, moaning contentedly. Although a strong current still moved past them, the huge boulders kept the harshest white water away.
"Divine!" sighed Gabrielle, ducking her head under the water and rubbing trail dust from her face and strawberry blonde locks.
When she came up for air, water cascaded over her head, making her splutter. "Hey!" She splashed back at the warrior... or at least where the warrior had been.
Xena popped to the surface behind Gabrielle and splashed her again. This time, as Gabrielle turned in the water, she felt the warrior's body sliding past her legs. She dropped a hand in the water and touched a bare back. "Gotcha!" the bard spluttered when Xena came to the surface, splashing her in the face once again. "Gotcha, too!"
Both women laughed and settled against the rocks, breathing deeply.
The memory made a smile tug at the bard's lips. She was suddenly pulled off balance however and looked up.
"Go on with you," the slave hawker said, pushing her away from him. She looked in that direction and saw a man, rolls of fat on his body barely covered by the toga he wore, standing with arms crossed, looking utterly bored. Behind him a slimmer man studied her intently. Her new owner and his personal servant, she realized.
The personal servant touched the larger man's shoulder and with a nod from him was left to lead Gabrielle to her new duties. "Come with me," he said quietly, gesturing for her to precede him.
Xena, Gabrielle offered a quick fervent prayer. I hope we'll meet again someday. She walked along in silence next to the man until they were well clear of the building.
"My name is Chican." His tone sounded absently bored.
"Gabrielle," she supplied succinctly.
"Well, Gabrielle, you've been bought by Minitus. A merchant trader."
"Household slave," she realized aloud.
Chican nodded. "It's not a difficult life."
"My freedom is gone," she argued.
"I cannot change that. Neither can you. However, cooperation can gain you many privileges." He paused in their walk down the street and pinned her with a serious gaze. "I'm going to take off the ropes. Will you walk with me the rest of the way?"
Gabrielle studied his eyes for a long moment without answering. They were hazel, set in the shadowed well between high cheekbones and a broad forehead. There wasn't any malice present in them, and despite her predicament, Gabrielle found herself acknowledging a modicum of trust. She nodded. "I won't run."
He took her at her word instantly, wielding a small knife against her ropes. She prodded her freed wrists and looked back up at him expectantly. He gestured again and she walked beside him to the merchant's home.
It was a small building. The front portion was his store, the rear a well decorated home. They walked the separating corridor between the two, Gabrielle brushing a hand against the marble columns as they passed. Rooms were off in both directions, some filled with supplies, and others were appointed as bedrooms she realized. They passed the bathing room, sweet aromas of skin oils and soap assailed her.
"The master's wife is at her daily bath," Chican explained when her nose twitched.
"What exactly will my duties be?" she asked.
"You have been bought to serve in the kitchen. We had a ... loss last week."
"Someone died?" Gabrielle shivered.
"The guard dogs killed her when she was trying to steal some food one night," Chican answered in a matter-of-fact tone.
Gabrielle groaned. Better keep my appetite in check here. She wasn't amused by her own wry attempt at humor.
There were fourteen deck beams in the ceiling of Xena's cabin. She sighed; she had counted them a dozen times trying to lull herself to sleep.
Damn. Throwing aside the covers of the cold pallet, Xena stretched and pushed to her feet. Maybe I'll find someone to talk to up on deck. Knowing herself to be a loner, easily distancing herself from her men and others, Xena was distinctly bothered by that thought. The warrior rubbed her shoulders to ward off the night chill. Must be an aftereffect of her head injury, she reasoned. Get into a good fight and I'll straighten myself up.
She smacked her forehead in exasperation. I don't remember being this damned introspective either.
In a very real way, Xena wanted this trip over and done. When did I start thinking of going home? Gods, maybe I'm not in any shape to lead this thing.
She shivered in the night's sea breeze as she emerged on deck. Running a calming hand through her loose hair, Xena walked out to the railing, skirting a tall coiled pile of rope, the anchor chain and a deck-washing bucket.
"Commander?" Xena looked to see one of her men leaning on his mop handle, the desk wet beneath his booted feet. He eyed her with open curiosity. She realized at that moment that she'd made it to the deck without aid of a support, smiling inwardly a bit at her improvement.
She said nothing. He smiled at her nonetheless and as he went back to his cleaning offered casually, "Heard the lookout say we'll likely put into a coastal port of Gaul just after dawn."
Xena smiled at that. A need to communicate drove her to say, "Looking forward to it."
"Oh yeah," he responded, eagerness evident. "Romans gotta learn they've no right to Greece." He grinned. "'Sides, I hear tell Rome's got riches. I'd like to be sitting pretty some day."
She nodded, strangely realizing she was uninterested in the prospect herself. Whoa, where did that though come from? "I'll see you later," she excused herself, moving further down the deck toward the bow.
Xena studied the wind blown water's surface, feeling that same breeze pick up her hair and tug it off her shoulders. Breathing deeply, she searched the moonlit water for her fleeting focus.
She was beginning to find it, feeding her anger toward Caesar, and the inner confusion, into the blood of her veins, making her heartbeat steadily faster... until she turned, kicking a length of chain into her hands and lashing out...
At Mendices, who'd managed to come up behind her. He caught the free end of the metal in his right palm where it hit with an audibly painful smack. "Trouble sleeping?"
"I'll sleep once Caesar's dead," she seethed.
"Really?" He scratched his chin. "You know you've never told me why that is?" He frowned at some further thought, but Xena felt instant relief relax her shoulders. At last, someone she could unburden herself to.
She settled on the deck, the action inviting Mendices to join her in dangling their feet off the side of the ship, arms wrapped around the railing.
"Caesar and I have a history," she began plainly, not looking directly at his features caught half in shadow from her body and the moonlight reflecting from the sea's surface.
"I gathered that. What exactly happened?" He seemed genuinely curious and Xena found herself, sparse storyteller though she was, telling him the whole of it.
From her first intrigue to the infatuation to the sex, which she qualified as "intoxicating." A glance occasionally and Xena faltered with every indication of Mendices' jaw stiffening. She interpreted that, surprisingly as anger on her behalf. The thought of sympathy was foreign to her, but she found herself entertaining the sense of closeness. She wanted to stop, but the avalanche had begun and wouldn't stop until it had buried everything.
"He said we'd meet again. I believed him like I've believed no one since," she admitted. "When he returned, he had my men and me crucified... As examples, he said." Her voice became thick with the remembered emotions of hurt and anger. Mendices' jaw twitched. "I lived through that, swearing to never fall prey to that kind of deceit ever again."
"And you never did." Mendices' voice was deep, musing, pained. "I'm beginning to understand." He said nothing more as he stood up from the railing and straightened his tunic and pants.
"Where're you going?"
He gestured to the eastern horizon, just beginning to grow pink with daylight. "Breakfast." He offered her a hand. "Let's get this done with."
She grasped his hand, feeling a charge pass between them. He grimaced and pulled her up.
"All right," she said, a little confused, but considerably lightened.
As she led him toward the galley, Xena felt his hand solicitously touch her back. It was only for a brief moment, but the loneliness Xena had been feeling seemed finally at bay.
Green eyes scanned the dining room, as muscular arms balanced two trays of food. Trying not to, Gabrielle found herself fidgeting. Her personal attire had been taken away, replaced with Roman garb. She looked down at herself and frowned at the trim lines of the knee length white toga belted at the waist. The left shoulder was held together with the mark of her station: her master's seal, a lion seated on a wagon, affixed to the clasp.
The family had a dinner party they were hosting. Gabrielle, as kitchen help, was both dining room servant and cook's assistant. She studied the contents of her trays.
The one in her right hand was filled with bowls of finger-sized chunks of braised lamb, an appetizer. The one in her left hand held the bowls of soup, which marked the first course.
The room was filled with nobles, mostly the merchant's most important clients. The women wore effusions of gems, and gold-threaded clothes. The men wore the simpler toga with gold braiding on the seams. None of them had ever had too little to eat, she thought, noticing not a single slender figure in the entire assembly. She moved toward the front of the room to begin serving with the merchant and his family, dodging the couch corners with careful steps.
One of the nobles took it into her head to get up. The woman's flat feet crossed directly into Gabrielle's path as she turned to stand, and the bard's load prevented her seeing the obstacle. Food, bard and noblewoman went tumbling into a heap. Hot soup spilled down the Roman woman's arm making her squeal in pain. Braised lamb stuck to Gabrielle's shoulder, burning it before falling away and coating the noblewoman's cream-colored clothing with a lurid splash of brown sauce.
"Let me get that," she murmured. Gabrielle rolled over finding her feet and starting to pick up the mess, when she was kicked from behind and went sprawling. "Hey!" She rolled over again and started to push to her feet. Another shoe ploughed into her ribs, and the resulting shockwave revived the ache from her dislocated collarbone from her original capture. She felt rage, and scrambled to her feet, knocking aside another foot intent on kicking her. "I said I'd get it!"
The room fell silent. She looked around and felt her heart sink. Minitus had walked around from his place at the table and now stood wearing a very dour expression.
The noblewoman Gabrielle had had the accident with, immediately pointed to her. "That heathen did this on purpose! I demand she be censured."
Minitus looked from his guest, to Gabrielle and then around to his other guests. Outnumbered, Gabrielle thought dejected and knew his response even before he spoke. But she still didn't expect the immediate words.
"Bring the whip." The voice was grim, cold.
Gabrielle focused her gaze on Minitus until it was clear he wasn't looking at her so much as through her. She shifted to watching the noblewoman. There was a smug smile. What did I ever do to you? Gabrielle thought. Certainly spilling food wasn't worth a beating?
She was so focused on the noblewoman's impassive face that she didn't feel the first fall of the whip across her shoulders, but when the end snaked down and snapped against her lower back, she yelped.
The whip slipped away and she thought it might be done.
But then Minitus handed the whip to the slighted noblewoman. Gabrielle couldn't continue to meet the passionless blue eyes and was grateful for Brune's hands on her arms turning her around... Until the whip snapped and slapped viciously against the full of her back. She bit her lip, determined not to make another sound, enduring five lashes before she heard Minitus request the whip back, heard the leather slip against itself as it was rolled back up.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the whip being passed to Lotrim. "Take her out of our sight," he demanded.
Shifting as they moved her, Gabrielle felt every gash from the lashes. One of them laid a hand over the burn spot and rubbed it raw, momentarily distracting her from the pain in her lower back. She bit her lip and struggled. Not able to give quarter in front of their lord any more than she would have been permitted to speak on her own behalf, Lotrim butted his elbow against her head and her vision dimmed.
Instantly she stopped struggling and allowed them to drag her out of the dining room. It wasn't until she was out of the dining room that she began to contemplate her fate. Under her breath, she asked, "Brune, what's going to happen?" The brown-haired slim-faced man said nothing for a long time. She looked up to catch him exchanging a grim look with Lotrim. "What?" she asked again.
"You will be confined. Until after the meal. Then Minitus will decide what to do with you."
"I didn't intend to spill that food," she pointed out.
"It still remains that you did."
Gabrielle worried at her lower lip with her teeth as Brune and Lotrim led her down a hall, turning a corner. They moved down that hall to the last room. Brune left her in Lotrim's grasp and opened the closed door with a thin key from his pouch. "In there?"
Brune nodded and stepped aside to let her lead the way in.
Gabrielle looked at the bare, small plain room. Her slave quarters had at least possessed a thin bag mattress of straw. Nothing adorned this room. She looked toward the far wall. No windows. With the door closed, it would be dark as a pit in there.
"How long?" she asked with trepidation.
"Until he decides what to do with you."
"What about my back?" she asked.
They shrugged and shook their heads. She entered the room and turned back, watching them close the door.
Slowly she sank to the floor, crossing her legs underneath her. The position eased the pressure on her back, since she couldn't lean back against the wall. So you really got into it this time, eh, Gabrielle?
It didn't seem like it, but she suddenly realized she'd been gone from Greece only four days.
Getting into trouble faster and faster didn't seem to be an improvement. She wished Xena were there to rail at her, then hug her, saying everything would be all right.
The darkness hid the identity of the voice from her, but she swiveled her head toward the sound any way. "Where did you come from?"
"Just checking on some things." He cleared his throat. "Are you Gabrielle, the bard, from Poteidaia?"
Someone would know her out here? Incredible. "Yes, I am." She let the undeniable note of pleasure creep into her tone.
"What are you doing here?"
Not exactly sure what she was being asked, Gabrielle answered, "I spilled some food on a noblewoman."
"No, I mean in Rome." There was a shuffling. "Oh, never mind." Then silence.
"Are you still there?" Strange as the conversation had been, Gabrielle grew uneasy at the silence.
There was no answer.
Ares stood in the shadow of the trees, watching the army assembling on the hillside. Men were strolling around, getting their land legs back after the sea journey. Several took out their swords and traded practice blows. He viewed the usually pleasing spectacle of the mobilizing war machine with a mixture of unfamiliar emotions.
Chief among them was unease. An unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotion for the confident god.
Ares had left her when they docked, having shared breakfast in the galley, and more conversation... like the short, and bitterly sweet one they'd shared on deck in the pre-dawn light.
Gods. Ares closed his eyes and immediately the vision of her sprang to mind, back-lit by the rising sun, blue eyes half-closed and her chin turned aside as she talked. He felt the heat rise in his hands in memory of his desire many times to reach out and touch her cheek... Gods, he groaned. Just to see her smile. "I've got to get out of here!" he panted, opening his eyes, and looking around. "Damn. Damn. Damn. Oh, god damn!"
This whole affair had been screwed up from the beginning. Xena's loss of memories wasn't turning out exactly to be the welcome happenstance he'd thought. "Ah, feh." He discarded the notion as crazy. He was the god of war. Here was a warrior going to war. He had dominion over the whole situation.
Regardless of how much she'd changed over the years, Xena was still his. His Chosen, a mortal counterpart. They couldn't travel a separate path. Even if they wanted to. Right? Ares turned and started down the hill, catching Xena's look as she sensed his approach. At least that hasn't changed. Even if she couldn't connect it with his godhead, just some nebulous attraction she was having trouble reconciling, Xena still lit up in an indefinably pleasurable way whenever he was near.
"We'll be ready to move on Rome by dusk," she said as he approached.
Ares felt compelled to ask, suddenly under the impression he wasn't going to like the answer. But he asked anyway. "After this, what next?"
Xena looked toward the turrets and buildings of Rome then back out over the sea... toward Greece. He could tell her mind went unfocused for only a brief instant. Then he saw the conviction in her expression. "After this I'm going home," she murmured.
Ares had been right. That wasn't an answer he was happy with. There would be no marching across the face of the known world. Then he caught the gleam in her eye. But it was what she wanted. So he'd see that she got it.
He didn't even have the little bard to blame this time. A wave of despair swept over him. "I have to go," he said.
Unable to deal with the light curious tone he heard in her voice, Ares' reply was curt. "I'm going to prepare for tomorrow," he said, resolutely ignoring the pained expression that flitted across her face. He turned on his heel and left, walking to his tent, entering it even as the last tent stake was hammered into the ground.
Gabrielle wasn't certain how long she sat in the dark. Some moments it seemed she'd been there for ages and others she could swear only a few minutes had passed perhaps barely a candlemark. "If I had a candle," she said quietly, startled suddenly by the sound of her own voice, which seemed painfully small in the dark space.
"All right, Gabrielle," she spoke again, beginning to warm to the idea of hearing something in the interminable silence.
She cheered herself up with a short story, remembering the last time she'd laughed out loud. She and Xena were helping Tara convince a village that dancing wasn't something evil, was liberating and fun actually. Autolycus dressed as a zealot had been hilarious enough.
Then there was the pleasure on Xena's face as the mission came to a successful close in the town square as she and Xena danced arm in arm.
Aloud she related the story.
"You've been that far east?" came a quiet male voice. "What is it like?"
Gabrielle looked around and then sighed, remembering she couldn't see. "Who's there?"
"I'm in the next cell." Gabrielle followed the sound of the voice and pressed her ear up against the wall. "What's your name?" came the question.
"I'm Tirus." A pause. "What are you here for?"
"I spilled some food."
Gabrielle nodded, then said, "Yes." Curiosity prompted, "You?"
"I heard word there's an army coming this way," came the voice.
"How did you hear that?"
"I have my sources."
"What's the city doing? Are we in any danger?"
"It'll be the confusion that'll help us."
"Help us what?"
"What about the army?" Gabrielle gingerly rubbed an itch on her nose from the stone dust.
"Ever offer your services to a general?"
Gabrielle gasped. "You're not serious."
There was silence on the other side
of the wall, and Gabrielle collapsed in quiet despair. From one frying
pan into another, she thought. What do I do? The darkness decided her.
"All right. What do I do?"
Ares clenched and unclenched his fists, reveling in the energy he allowed to flow through his chest, arms and pulse through his loins. Ares threw his head back, howling at the early risen moon. "By the gods that feels good!" 'Good' degenerated into a feral growl, and he bent at the knees, launching himself heels over head, several body lengths up into the air. He vanished in the ether for a long moment at the top of the leap then reappeared and landed with a shout of "Yes!" fist pumping with relief. Taking several deep breaths, he glanced around and sobered. "Damn."
He glanced down at his trademark black leathers and passed a casual hand over each, part by part, transforming back into the jerkin-wearing, comparatively soft-looking Mendices. "No telling what she'd do," Ares thought of Xena, knowing his ability to remain close to her hinged on whether or not she accepted him.
As Ares, all he'd ever gotten from Xena in this lifetime was flack. Challenged around every turn, he bartered her allegiance like a merchant chiseled down his profits in order to make a sale.
Grrr. He threw his fist against a tree trunk, smiling grimly when it sank knuckle-deep into the bark. "That's the gods be damned problem!" he shouted to the sky. "She's going to kill me with this confidante stuff."
He couldn't leave. Here she was, on the verge of the one thing she'd said she really, really wanted, and she wanted him to help her. Well, not him but him. The other being he had foolishly become once, and knew he was becoming more in tune with every day he remained in this mortal form. "How on earth can I leave her to face that alone?"
He slapped his own face, reveling in the sharp sting that jolted his senses. "Shit. I'm losing my mind. Alone. Damn. She's a warrior. She's faced less intense things than this."
For the gods' sake, she faced down Dahak and Hope. And won. What would a few Romans be? Merely a nuisance? Right? Right.
Then why couldn't he just walk up to her, tell her he was Ares, here to cheer her on to victory... and stand back, letting her win the day, empowering him as she yelled his name on the battlefield in victory, over and over again.
He slammed his shoulder against the tree trunk, feeling a rattle vibrate up the trunk and looked up as a pine cone came tumbling, broken from its tenuous hold on the branches higher up. He caught the prickly wood-like ball and squeezed until he felt the tiny points impress themselves on his skin.
Throwing his shoulder back and then forward, he cast the cone away, watching it arc through the treetops... and off into the sky rapidly fading from azure to black.
Ares turned around to throw his fist into the tree again in frustration. He stopped, his fist only brushing the bark, before he opened his palm and caressed the hard surface.
He sighed with pain and desperation. He couldn't tell her because instead of embracing him, she might spurn him. Send him packing and tell him she didn't need him. That's all she'd ever done when faced with his requests or his cajoling or when he offered earnest information.
"Go away, Ares. I don't serve you any more."
Funny how that used to fire him up, making him anxious for more toe-to-toe negotiations in the past.
Now... he was certain ... if she said those words to him now... He'd listen. He'd leave. Cleaving a part of him off in the process. It would make her happy.
As Ares he'd have to leave.
Even now, as he settled his immortal essence back within the confines of the mortal shell, he could feel tendrils of something lash him within it, holding to his arms, to his head, and to his chest with firming resolve. If he remained Mendices much longer he might not ever be able to leave.
Gods, this really stinks.
He sensed something behind him and swiped his sword from his hip and dragged the tip through the air with a vicious whoosh.
Had his visitor been mortal, he'd have been greeting Celeste.
But his visitor wasn't. The sword's shiny blade slide effortlessly through his stomach and out the other side. "Thought I'd find you here." The voice was wry, resigned.
Ares sheathed his sword and scowled. "Do you have something to report?"
"Xena down there getting ready to attack Rome?"
"Yeah, she has this idea of seizing the pre-dawn advantage and taking the mounted division into the heart of the city as they open the gates for the day's merchant traffic."
"Well, she'd better be careful. Can't do any discriminate killing in there."
"Why not? She wants Rome. She wants Caesar spitted on her own sword, and she told me in all the gory detail why. She'll have it by dusk tomorrow." He paused and pressed his fist against his chest. "Hermes, she's that good. I made her that good."
"Well then she'll likely kill her little bard friend."
Ares blinked and dropped his fist. "What?"
Gabrielle? "You have word?"
"She's in a dark room in the center of the city down there," Hermes confirmed.
"But that's not why Xena's here," Ares mused. "What in the name of Tartarus is going on?"
The messenger god shrugged. "Beats me." As an afterthought, he remarked. "Someone beat the kid too. I could see the welts even in the dark."
Ares absorbed this information. "Did she see you?"
"Nope. Just heard my voice as I asked her questions. She has likely already dismissed my visit from mind." He looked past the god at the assembling army and caught sight of Xena striding among the troops, giving praise and criticism in equal measure. Even trading light blows with a man here and there, warming up her blood. "So, how's your ultimate warrior doing? She going to take out Rome and give it to you?"
Ares mused for a long time. Would she dedicate the conquered Rome to him? "I don't know," he answered honestly. "She seems bent on getting Caesar, but I don't think she's in this for blind revenge any more."
"Can't read her warlike tendencies any more? Isn't that not supposed to happen?"
"Yeah." Uncomfortable with the turn of conversation and eyes riveted to Xena, Ares dismissed Hermes with a wave of his hand. "Thanks for the information. I'll call you if I have anything else."
"Fate's weird sometimes," the messenger god said with a smirk. "They whipped her."
Ares glanced over his shoulder down to the city beginning to sleep. "Badly?"
Hermes shrugged. "Dunno. Those mortals can sometimes take a lot more than we think. She didn't look too badly mangled."
Ares put a hand on Hermes white-covered shoulder. "Keep tabs on her." He looked down at the camp for a long moment, wondering what the morning would truly bring. "Through everything. She went very close to nuts when the girl jumped down the pit in the temple." He thought for a long moment, knowing that something very deep had shattered in Xena that day. "Even without her memory, Gabrielle's broken body could shatter her again."
"You think? Well, that would be helpful, right?" Ares pinned him. "Remember what you tried with the Furies?"
Ares responded in a guarded tone. "Yes."
"Nutsy Xena serves the greater will of the God of War," Hermes predicted triumphantly.
Ares shook his head and solemnly, even surprising himself a bit, said, "I don't want that."
Hermes looked at him, tilting his head quizzically. "You don't?" Ares settled his face in a "don't question me" scowl and Hermes backed up. The messenger god shrugged. "Ah, whatever. All right. I'll keep my eyes on the blonde."
Ares nodded. "You do that." He had already turned away scanning down the hillside toward the nestled encampment. Hands on hips, squeezed his weapons belt, and then brushed across his buckle.
Hermes faded. His final murmuring barely audible. "I know where your eyes'll be."
"All right. That's enough." Moving her arms and shoulders in time with her broad strides easily made Xena appear powerful and confident. In truth she was trying to raise her body temperature in advance of the night cold sweeping through in this more northerly climate. The cold was making her knitting bones ache.
She glanced up at the horizon. The sunset's angle cast an orange glow across the valley, in slanted stripes, sloping down from the hilltop. Shading her eyes with a hand, the warrior scanned the ridge--for the fourth time--searching for Mendices. After their walk, he'd excused himself abruptly. I wish he'd get back sooner, the brunette thought, not finding any signs of the distinctive profile on the hill's crest or on the paths leading down toward the camp.
Xena could spot a deer through thick underbrush, unmoving as it caught her scent during the hunt. An uncanny sense of her surroundings had always been helpful, in battle, and in the hunt for beast or man. Finally she caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned her head, drilling her solid blue gaze into the thick-chested soldier. "Yes?"
"The men are assembling on the western field, Commander," he reported smartly. "Just as you ordered."
"Good. Begin drills and I'll come for the final work out."
He blinked. "All right. I'll tell..."
"No." She barked the word. "I told you to conduct drills. You'll do it, or I'll have their heads along with yours for disobedience."
He swallowed. "Um, I'm only..."
"And I'm god damn in charge of this army! Now move!" She had unsheathed her sword and swung it at him in the same final breath.
He ducked and dodged, then turned and ran toward the western field. "Yes! Ma'am!" drifted back along the strengthening breeze to her. She smiled, winced at the ache in her wrist--I'll have to bandage it tightly for tomorrow's fight, she thought, sheathing her sword and returning her gaze to the hilltop.
Ah. There he is. She shielded her eyes against the sun's glare and continued to watch Mendices approach as he zigzagged his way down the hill. Occasionally he broke into a jog, other times he casually flipped heels over head, avoiding a rock obstacle or low bush by simply leaping over it.
"About time," she kicked up her normal speaking tone several notches to carry the increasingly shortening distance between them.
"I had someone to talk to," he replied, dropping immediately to a walk. He wasn't breathing hard, or even showing any signs of sweating. She smiled.
She turned as he came alongside her, and striding together shoulder to shoulder, they crossed through camp to join the men on the western field. "Private workout, or prayer?"
He glanced askance at her. "What?" Xena decided she really enjoyed watching the orange sunlight glint in his brown eyes.
"Were you working out privately or busy praying for victory?"
He looked up at the western sky for a long moment and then back to her. "A little of both, I guess you could say."
She laughed. That made him smile slightly. "Ah, that's amusing. Thank you." She gestured. "So you pray, huh?"
He looked surprised. "Don't you?" His voice, she realized, held open curiosity.
"No." She looked toward the hill where he'd come from. It was now bathed in the shadows of night. "Never had a need to." She looked back at him. "But you.... If you do, maybe there's something to it."
He smiled. "Maybe."
"Who do you pray to?" she asked.
"Ares, of course." His reply was quick, full of surprise at her question.
Her voice dropped as they came within earshot of the practicing army. "Have you ever seen him?" she asked.
A long, long moment of silence. Finally his shoulders dropped slightly, and his voice was resigned as he said, "No. I haven't."
"Then why do you still pray?"
They joined the men, taking up positions opposite one another and lifting their swords. "I don't know," he mouthed, where she could see, and no one else could hear.
Without acknowledging his words, she raised her voice to the surrounding men. "All right. Time to show these Romans who's master here!"
Xena started slowly, engaging blades with casual side blows, then as the men took her up on the challenge, slashing, cutting and bruising bladework soon surrounded her. Every man who could shoulder his way into position swung his weapon at her.
Some tried for her feet. She leapt straight up out of reach of their blades. Some men drove point toward her stomach. She roundhouse kicked their weapons aside. Still others drove for her throat. These blades she parried, spinning in place or ducking.
Mendices stood in the center of another circle, skillfully parrying his own "attackers." The night's breeze couldn't cool their rapidly heating bodies fast enough, and sweat beaded then dripped down her brow and his. She leaped up once, saw Mendices out of the corner of her eye, bending to the full-body press of another soldier. In encouragement she released her battle cry, the sound piercing the air, filling the spaces left between the metallic clang of weapons and armor and the falling of bodies against earth and other bodies.
Mendices looked to her as her battle cry reverberated in the tiny valley between hills. He answered her cry with one of his own, and brought the blunt of his blade down against the temple of the nearest man, "killing" him, according to the rules.
Xena nodded, spun and kicked another man in the belly, forcing him backward, boots sliding along the ground, until he tripped over a root and went sprawling. She let loose another cry, listening to it carry on the wind... and wishing it to carry right into Rome, into Caesar's palace, and chill his very tiny little heart as he tasted fear. She howled with a triumphant note again.
The floor was cold, and damp. The sensation awakened Gabrielle from her fitful sleep. There were no blankets and the night's darkness had somehow managed to increase the darkness in the room. Probably because the hallway outside, visible just under the bottom of the door, was the only source of natural light.
Gabrielle shifted and rotated her shoulders working out the ache. She felt the pull of her sorely abused, but mostly healed collarbone. Now to get to my feet, she thought. Walk around a bit, get the circulation going and warm up. She brushed tired hands through her now lank blonde hair. It crackled dry against her touch.
Her right leg was a little unresponsive having been trapped against the cold floor for the longer time, as she liked to sleep to that side. Pausing, she rubbed her thigh briskly, warming it. She was finally moving to her feet when the door swung wide quickly, banging wooden against the stone wall.
Startled like a deer, she turned and blinked rapidly into the somewhat brighter outer lighting.
"The master wants to see you," she was told by the shadowed figures at the door. Gabrielle could make out their massive body shapes but not their features. They came forward and grabbed her arms, dragging her from the room, disregarding her stubbornly unresponsive right leg.
The bard finally got her feet under her and quickly started to think about what she could say, or do, to prevent getting thrown back in that cell.
She spotted Minitus as soon as they rounded the corner and entered the Roman bath. Portly and naked, she still would have recognized that puffed face in a crowded room. And in the empty bathing room, reclining against the wall as the water swirled around him, he was impossible to miss. Sort of like a beached boat, the bard thought uncharitably. She schooled her features into disinterested lines as she felt the two men who'd dragged her here release her arms and fade into the darkness beyond the door.
Candles and torches throughout the room gave it an ethereal glow, as the orange light flitted off alabaster surfaces and reflected in shifting patterns.
A memory suddenly swamped Gabrielle. Of her and Xena, in a similar bath, sharing quiet conversation and gently trading backwashing before sliding together for more pleasurable amusements.
Oh gods, that was a bad idea, she scolded herself, feeling her legs jelly. She didn't need those memories now, she recalled herself. She needed her mind on the matters at hand. Getting out of that damp cell.
"You," she began quietly. "You wanted to see me?" Her voice was demure as she sought to offer nothing offensive or that could even be construed that way.
"I realize that we can't leave you in there all night. My wife requires assistance at her evening preparations." He rose slightly and leaned on the side of the bath. "However, I will not tolerate clumsiness, or suffer mouthiness."
"I... um... No. No, sir. I never meant to offend. Sir." Gabrielle stepped back, clasping her hands at her waist.
He cocked his head to the side, and she was pinned under penetrating gray eyes. "I can see that you wouldn't." He smiled then, and the bard was put in mind of a cat about to pounce on a bird. "Perhaps I can find work where you wouldn't need to be on your feet so much."
Gabrielle fought very hard to keep her face impassive. Off my feet. Oh gods help me. But instead of losing control, she managed a very tight nod and "Whatever you need... my lord." She even managed a vague smile, which got her an answering leer.
"You may return to your quarters," he said. "My wife will summon you when she requires assistance."
"Yes, sir." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Thank you, sir." He'd already dismissed her from mind, she realized as all he did was turn away and wave her off with a casual flick of his wrist. She hurriedly left the room before he changed his mind.
Making her way down the lamp-lit corridors, she returned to her room and fell across the bed... no more than a pallet really, heaving a sigh of relief.
She was lying on her side--her back still itched from the lash burns too much--studying the small bit of night sky through her high window, when the breeze carried to her ears a soft sound.
It was extremely faint, but the cry was unmistakable. It's familiarity brought tears to the lonely bard's eyes and she sat up. Her hope ventured out on a whisper, "By the gods... Xena's out there."
The warrior must have tracked her... The gods only knew how. And now, she was close. So close she wanted the bard to know she was near. To reassure her.
The sound reached her again. Gabrielle crossed the room, stacked a chair against the wall and climbed up. Brushing her hair back from her face, the blonde lifted onto tiptoe. She couldn't see out the window, but that didn't matter. Her fingers could scraped the opening, feel the night wind even as it shifted across her fingers and became a wind of promise.
She left her hand there, on the threshold of the high window, touching the outside, imagining it to be the skin of her heart's only love, softly moving as the warrior breathed in the afterglow of their lovemaking. The breeze heated her own skin and cooled it in turns, and Gabrielle imagined Xena's breath or her kiss. Tears of happiness coated her cheeks, falling so thickly it was a stream that dampened her toga top, seeping through and wetting the skin over her breast, where her heartbeat quickened.
The Poteidaian bard found new courage to face the dawn. Her heart was close at hand... as close as the night wind. She touched her fingers to her lips and lifted them into the wind at the window. "Be careful, Xena." Gabrielle sent the kiss floating toward the battle cry echoing on the hills beyond the Roman gates.
Continued in Part 3
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