Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence: Were mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?
Subtext/Maintext: R. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, but then, so does the show.
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted August 23 , 2000)
Enjoy life with the woman whom you love ... for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.
-Ecclesiastes 9:9, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
Dark grey light slowly penetrated the thin canvas shelter, gradually giving shape and color to the few possessions inside the tent, as well as the reclining occupants. The warrior opened one eye, just a slit, and groaned internally, knowing that soon she would have to get up. Now, however, she was content to stay right where she was, her body protectively curled around Gabrielle, who was still sound asleep. Xena pulled her partner more tightly against her, and planted tiny kisses across the back of a tasty shoulder.
You, sweetheart, may have tried to imagine who you would fall in love with, but I tried to imagine ever falling in love at all. You're not the only one who got so much more than she ever hoped for. She nuzzled her face into short blonde hair, inhaling deeply of the clean aroma of sun and lake water that lingered there, along with Gabrielle's own unique scent, which caused a pleasant tingling in Xena's middle. I never thought anyone could come to mean everything to me. I hope I'll always react this way to her.
The warrior had been awake for at least a candle mark, one part of her enjoying the simple pleasure of holding her lover, and another part mentally gearing up for the coming drilling session with Octavian's army. She had puzzled further over her encounter with Ares, and ruefully recognized his subtle provocation for what it was, or at least what she wanted to believe it was.
True, it might have been a negative approach, but the results had been positive, giving her a much-needed kick in the backside. Of course I'm a warrior. I can't believe I ever doubted myself. I'm his daughter, it's what I was born to. Can't I take that and use it to help people instead of hurt them?
After much thought, she realized that the missing link in her chain of motivation had been the personal aspect. Not that fighting to save Greece and the Roman Empire wasn't a worthy battle, but in the past, she had always had her own more driving reasons for doing anything she did, above and beyond how it might benefit others.
Her initial war with Cortese had been to save Amphipolis, but more importantly, to protect her family. In her warlord days, it had been for her own power and wealth, and to exact restitution from everyone who had ever wronged her. For the past five summers, it had been a never-ending need to atone for the sins of her past, always hoping that if she did enough good, she would manage to erase the darkness that clouded her days and haunted her nights.
But there had been a multiple-part transformation for her, that had started in the woods outside Potadeia. And in a long house three summers later, it was further solidified as she watched Gabrielle come very close to death from a poison arrow wound. She had made a conscious decision to shift her focus, from always fighting on behalf of others, to first and foremost, protecting and caring for the one who had become her best friend and constant companion.
That had been a major turning point in their relationship, as Xena began to more and more often allow the bard to dictate their direction. It eventually led to the trip to India and the discovery that their souls were destined to be together both in the present and the future. Darkness and light, war and peace, head and heart, co-mingled between two very different people, who together made one perfectly balanced whole.
In her final confrontation with Callisto, Xena had boldly stated that she had come to terms with her guilt, and had accepted the way of the warrior as the path she must follow. And in a stunning moment of clarity, she knew she meant it. It didn't matter anymore that she and her partner had different ways of getting things done. Together, they formed an unbeatable team.
The loving friendship that had developed between them went a long way in bridging the vast chasm of their differences. As she lay on a cross, her body beaten and helpless, knowing that death was inevitable, she spoke the truest words she had ever uttered, "Gabrielle, you were the best thing in my life."
That had been the key to the resolution of her past, to live her life using her fighting skills for good, and to allow herself to love and be loved by the one who completed her. If ever I did anything right in my life, it was allowing her to follow me on this journey, even though it went against every instinct I had. Funny, I had such noble aspirations of teaching her how to survive. But you, my love ... Xena kissed the soft skin again. ... you taught me how to truly live.
As she reflected on the night before, and their whispered promises of things to come, she found the personal motivation she needed to ride into battle against Antony. Her focus was drawn sharply toward what was most important, and when she peeled away all the complicated layers, she was left with a very simple truth. To dig deep down inside herself, and find strength she didn't know she had, and drive that would outlast exhaustion and despair, she need look no further than the precious package she held in her arms.
Just as Gabrielle had redeemed her soul from damnation for the past, the bard was tightly woven into her future. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Xena not only wanted to live, she eagerly embraced the future. She wanted more than anything to build a life with her partner, and to be just as supportive of Gabrielle as the bard had been of her from the very first day they met.
That is something worth fighting for. She mused with a trembling smile. Gabrielle, our life together, and the family we will make. I want to grow old and gray with her, and spoil our grandchildren rotten. And I won't allow a vile piece of slime like Antony to take that away from me, or mar the world we will live in together. Or the world our children will live in after we're gone.
"Thank you." She whispered softly.
"What for?" A raspy voice startled the warrior.
"Oh. Sorry." Xena trailed her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "Didn't know you were awake."
"I was having this really nice dream, that you were kissing me on the shoulder, and then I woke up and it wasn't a dream at all." The bard rolled over, snuggling into the warm body next to her, and did some shoulder-kissing of her own. "Is there something you need? Hmmmm?" Gabrielle draped her arm around the warrior's waist, and teasingly stroked Xena's back with light touches of her fingertips, feeling her partner's heartbeat pick up speed.
"Mmmm." Resolutions of being ready to drill by the time the sun was fully up were rapidly deteriorating. "I always, always need you." Xena wrapped her hands around two solid hips, and pulled the bard up until they were face-to-face. She gazed into the still-sleepy green eyes, and then leaned forward, gently nibbling at Gabrielle's lips, getting lost in the sounds of their heightened breathing, the sweet taste of her lover's mouth, and the tiny mewling noises that indicated Gabrielle was enjoying the moment as much as she was.
They slowly melted into each other and continued in sensual touching, as the kisses deepened. Finally, the warrior reluctantly broke off to breathe, her chest heaving in her effort to speak. "I ... um ... I don't want to stop." Xena pulled her partner close, until there was no space between them, and slowly pushed her knee between Gabrielle's legs, while one hand ran up and down the small back, and the other played across the curve of a hip, and down a firm thigh, settling her partner against her.
"Then don't." The bard wrapped her hand around the back of the dark head, pulling her lover's mouth down to meet her own, letting her lips and her hands urge the warrior to continue. This may be our last true moment of privacy until we get back to Cairo ... gods that's nice. Coherent thought escaped her, as Gabrielle felt her partner begin to move against her in earnest.
A half candle mark later, they lay on their sides, once again exchanging gentle caresses, so close they shared the same air. Speech had not yet caught up with emotion, and they simply looked at each other, their eyes communicating what their hearts felt. Xena spent a silent moment touching her partner's face, re-memorizing the curve of a cheekbone and the softness of her skin, and finally found her voice. "So beautiful, my love."
"I love you, Xena." The bard sensed that there was something more going on behind the baby blues than just desire for some morning cuddling. She reached across and pushed the dark hair back from around Xena's neck and shoulders. "What were you thanking me for?"
"Thanking you?" The warrior was distracted by blunt nails lightly scratching the back of her neck, and her eyes reflexively fluttered closed at the pleasant sensation. Did I thank her? I think I thanked several of the gods just now. But ... "Oh. You mean when you first woke up, before we ..." She grinned broadly. "There are so many things I could say about that, because I meant it on so many different levels."
Gabrielle watched the blue eyes grow thoughtful, as Xena briefly wandered away. "Xena, honey, are you okay?" The bard placed her palm against a high forehead, checking for fever, and realized that given the fact that they were in the desert, and things were still slightly heated up between them, that it was a futile effort at best.
"Yes. More than okay." Xena gently removed the small hand, and placed it against her own heart, firmly covering it with her own larger one. "Gabrielle, remember when we fought the Persians?"
"You fought the Persians." The bard quietly corrected her partner.
"Gabrielle." The low voice sent shivers up the bard's spine. "The minute I saw that vial of antidote for the poison, and knew you had a chance to live, I wanted to live too, so don't ever diminish your part in that battle. We won because you survived."
The warrior linked their left hands and held them out in between them where they could both clearly see the braided bands of gold on their ring fingers. "I was thanking you for something I said to you back then, that's still true."
"What's that?" Gabrielle kissed the scarred knuckles one by one.
"You're my source, now more than ever." A pause, as two hearts connected in mutual understanding. "I was just thanking you for that."
"Xena." The bard closed here eyes and swallowed, and then opened them again, allowing the love she felt for the warrior to shine through. "Let's go kick Antony's butt and get back to Greece. We have a joining to plan and eventually, someday, babies to make."
The warrior quickly sucked in a breath, and then slowly released it, as she ran a hand along Gabrielle's arm and down against her back, pulling her forward and kissing her deeply. "Sounds like a plan to me, love." Xena slowly sat up, dragging her partner with her, and held her in a tight hug, as she spoke into the bard's ear. "I would love nothing more than to snuggle with you here all morning, but I think the sooner we get up and get going, the sooner we can go back to Alexandria and find a ride home."
"Then let's get moving." Gabrielle abruptly stood, and held out both hands to her partner, hauling her up to her feet.
"Okay!" The warrior pushed wind-blown hair out of her face, and yelled from the top of a rise. She had just cut away from the front of the line, galloping up the sandy slope to the vantage point where she could observe the maneuvers. "Everyone re-group, and run the drill again. This time, I'm going to watch." She tugged on the reins, backing the black stallion out of the path of the mock-battle, and watched with great satisfaction as the soldiers quickly fell into place.
If I had had an army like this in my warlord days, nothing could have stopped me. I'd have been ... She paused, and looked over at Gabrielle, who sat astride the white mare several paces away, watching the drills with pure fascination, her ever-errant cloak blowing back behind her. ... I'd have been one Hades of a lonely, miserable ruler of the known world, and she'd probably be a slave. Thanks the gods I didn't have an army like this.
"Now! Go! Go, go, go! Don't stop until you've penetrated the first and secondary lines, and the re-enforcements behind them!" Xena had divided Octavian's troops into two sides, and had set up a series of basic military maneuvers, both for the cavalry and the foot-soldiers. The men had quickly proven themselves more than equal to the simplistic drilling, and the warrior had escalated their activities, invoking a much more challenging set of objectives for them to meet.
The current lay-out involved a potential scenario in which they reached the isthmus where the battle was to take place, and Antony decided on primary attacks from the sides with a secondary frontal attack. That was assuming that Octavian and Xena for some reason didn't gain the upper hand in offense, and were forced to take on a defensive position. She had the cavalry out front in a wide arc, which would serve to defend both side and frontal attacks simultaneously, while also providing a protective shield for the foot soldiers which followed behind and within the curve of the arc.
By mutual agreement, she and Octavian had decided that she would lead the cavalry at the very front and center of the line, and Octavian would lead the foot-soldiers. The Roman would be on horseback directly behind the cavalry and immediately in front of the platoons of marching men. They had determined that the men on foot would be better able to see him and hear his commands if he had the advantage of the slight elevation from his position in the saddle.
"Xena." Gabrielle guided the mare closer to her partner. "Shouldn't I be participating in some of this? I've never fought on horseback before. Don't you think I should practice?" Xena had told her partner to watch the drills and try to memorize some of the patterns, since the bard had little real combat experience, at least not with an army of the magnitude that Octavian had brought with him.
"Yeah." The warrior watched the men down on the field from her peripheral vision and focused her attention on the bard. "I guess you should. I had kind of hoped you would just ride behind me and not do too much of the fighting, keep your head low and be my look-out of sorts."
"I can do that." Gabrielle paused and bit her lower lip, observing the men as a cheer rang out, signifying that the secondary line had been neutralized. "But Xena, if I'm going to watch your back, I need to be able to defend it."
"True." Xena eyed her partner, who had come fully prepared, with her sais tucked into her boot straps, Ephiny's sword in the scabbard against her left hip, and her staff resting at an angle across the saddle and her right thigh. "And on horseback, your staff is going to be your weapon of choice."
"Why?" The bard looked down, rolling the smooth solid wood in her hands. The callouses she had earned were all from over four seasons of diligent staff work, both in drills and in actual fighting.
"Sais are too short to make much contact without the risk of falling off, and you haven't used the sword enough. It might be awkward. You have the horse to think about, both its movement and its head. I'd hate to see you lop your horse's head off, or worse, hurt yourself if the mare moves unexpectedly."
The warrior reached around, drawing a folding staff from a saddle bag and expertly snapping the parts into place. She made a few wide sweeps back and forth in front of her. "With the staff, you have the greatest reach while maintaining the furthest distance from your opponent."
"I see." Gabrielle made some tentative swipes of her own, quickly becoming re-accustomed to the familiar rhythm and movement of the staff. "Yeah. That's pretty comfortable."
The bard continued with the fluid motions while Xena looked on with reluctant affectionate approval. "I forget how good you are with that thing. Tell you what. It's time for lunch. After the men eat, I'll run them through a few more rounds in which I'll step in again as leader. They need to get used to following me into battle anyway. Some of them are still looking back at Octavian for their orders. At the same time, you can fall in behind and practice using the staff while the horse is in motion."
"Just a second." Xena turned and yelled toward the soldiers, who were milling about awaiting further instructions. "Fall out for lunch. We'll go through some final drills in about a candle mark." The men began to disburse, and she focused her attention back on her partner.
"Good." Gabrielle smiled. "I'll feel a lot more secure during a real battle if I get to drill some first. I haven't used the staff in a while."
"True." Xena's eyes quickly scanned her partner's body, noting the additional muscles that were somehow more familiar to her by touch now than by sight. Often, in her mind's eye, she still saw the thin girl from Potadeia, who had a soft rounded baby face and long blonde hair. The more angular face before her was that of a young woman, the shorter hair was something she loved to run her fingers through, and the body was strong and capable. "You're the best at those sais. Certainly superior to me. You do know that, don't you?"
The bard beamed in the light of her partner's praise, recalling a staged round of drills on their first full day of living permanently in the Amazon village. "Xena, I hardly think one lucky break during a sparring match counts as being your superior."
"I'm not talking about that. And it wasn't luck, it was skill, pure and simple." The warrior side-stepped her horse until her leg brushed against Gabrielle's. "I've watched you. You're excellent, and besides, you've had more experience with them than I have."
"Really?" Green eyes grew wide in disbelief.
"Yes. Other than a few practice rounds in Chin, I simply never chose to use them that much."
"But you taught me how to use them."
"That I did, but you've come a long way with them since then." Xena reached down and tapped the hilt of one of the weapons in question, where it poked up from the side of the bard's boot. "You're a natural with them, love."
"Thank you." Gabrielle smiled. "It's nice to get a compliment from you on something that I know you have a lot of respect for."
"You're welcome. Let's go find a shade tree near the lake and eat." She nudged her horse, turning it toward the water as the bard followed in her tracks. Hmmm. The warrior frowned, silently considering her partner's last words. I think I need to work on letting her know that I respect some of the other things she's good at. I mean, I do compliment her on her cooking and her stories and her bartering skills and stuff, and gods know I tell her how much I enjoy the way she touches me when we make love, but maybe there's more to it than just thanking her ...
She looked over her shoulder and grinned at Gabrielle, receiving a glowing smile in return. "You know, sweetheart, I'm constantly amazed at how you can make meals on the trail taste so good."
"Huh?" The comment was completely out of the blue. "Um ... thank you."
"No. I mean it." Xena slowed until they were riding side by side, their horses' hooves making muffled thumping noises in the partially-packed sand and dirt. "Before we met, I ate because I had to eat to survive, but I never looked forward to it. You should have seen Herc and Iolaus and I arguing about who was going to cook. It's a skill I simply never could master."
"Well then." The bard knew what her partner was doing, and she felt her body engulfed in a gentle warmth that had nothing to do with the blazing sun over their heads. "I guess it's a good thing I came along."
"That's the understatement of a lifetime." The warrior was pleased to see Gabrielle soaking up the praise. "And your stories. I used to just sit alone after eating my bland dinner, and my main form of entertainment was sharpening my sword and mending my armor. You sure changed that for me. Your imagination is something else. Mine doesn't come even close."
Gabrielle laughed, thinking of several ways in which her lover was extremely imaginative. "Xena, thank you. But honey, you don't have to try so hard, okay?"
"Oh." The warrior pulled the horse to a stop as they reached a large tree near where some of Octavian's men were seated on a grass-covered slope by the water, eating trail rations and fresh fruit, a meal similar to what she and Gabrielle where about to share. She dismounted and held out her arms, assisting the bard as she slid off the mare. "Gabrielle, I just don't want you to ever think that I believe my skills are more important than your skills, or that I don't appreciate what you bring to our relationship. We're a team. I need you just as much as you need me."
The bard placed both hands on her partner's shoulders and looked long and hard at the tanned face, studying the very serious eyes and the small, almost undetectable twitch in the warrior's jawline. "Who are you, and what did you do with Xena?" She smiled, indicating that she was halfway joking.
"What do you mean?" The warrior fought back a slight twinge of hurt, since her partner obviously wasn't upset. That much was evident by the bard's light-hearted tone of voice.
"I mean ..." Gabrielle looked around, and satisfied the horses provided a shield from the soldiers, she quickly pecked Xena's lips. "... I mean, that for a long time, the Xena I knew couldn't string together enough words to form a complete sentence. You've become downright chatty lately. Not to mention philosophical and sensitive."
"Is that bad?" The warrior looked puzzled. "Do I need to turn in my tough-warlord card?"
"No." Gabrielle patted her lover's cheek. "It's a very good thing. Keep it up. I rather like it. And keep the card. I love that part of you too."
"Okay." Xena smiled and leaned in, also taking advantage of their cover for a long moment. "Hey, I'll go find us some oranges if you'll get the trail rations out."
"Deal." The bard began rummaging through saddle bags as her partner stalked off toward a citrus grove.
Gabrielle sat with her back against the tree, peeling a fragrant orange and enjoying the brief respite from the intense heat under the shelter of the thick green branches. Xena had quickly eaten her lunch and then excused herself to go discuss afternoon plans with Octavian. The bard had pulled out a scroll and quill, and in between juicy bites of her orange, she scribbled on the parchment, carefully recording much of their adventures since they first arrived in Egypt. They'd been so busy, she'd had little time to keep up with her journal.
"What are you writing about?" A deep voice made her jump, and she looked up to see a fair-haired soldier standing over her, his Roman-issue army helmet tucked under one arm and his cape whipping about in the breeze.
"I don't believe we've met." Gabrielle smiled, as the man knelt down on eye level with her.
"I'm sorry." The soldier held out his forearm, which the bard grasped. "I'm Gregorias. And what might your name be?"
"Gabrielle." The bard let go of his arm, and rolled up her scroll, tucking it into its case.
"Please, don't let me interrupt." Gregorias sat down and crossed his legs, getting more comfortable.
"It's okay. I was about to finish up anyway." Gabrielle drew her knees up, clasping her hands around her legs. "We'll probably start drilling again soon."
"We?" The soldier chuckled. "You're a fighter?"
"Yes. When I need to be." The bard felt her good mood begin to crumble. She hated being patronized. "I'll be participating in the exercises this afternoon."
"If you don't mind me asking." Gregorias smiled most charmingly, and took her left hand without permission, admiring her ring. "What is a pretty girl like you doing here? If I were married, I certainly wouldn't let my wife go traveling about the countryside with a former warlord. Much less, would I let you fight in a battle against Marc Antony."
"I'm not married ..."
"Oh. Good." The soldier cut her off, his voice betraying his obvious delight at her matrimonial state.
"I'm betrothed." Gabrielle flashed her own sarcastic smile, and withdrew her hand.
"I see." Gregorias boldly reached across and rested a hand on the bard's upraised knee. "Even worse. I certainly wouldn't let you out of my sight if I were betrothed to you." He let one finger glide down a smooth leg. "I don't know who your husband-to-be is, but he must be crazy. Surely you can do better than a man who would be so careless with such a rare treasure."
Gabrielle smiled, as she felt two warm familiar hands come to rest solidly on top of her shoulders.
"Everything okay here?" Xena's barely-controlled voice caused goose bumps to prickle across the bard's skin.
"Fine." Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at her kneeling partner and smiled. Now. She added silently.
"Good." The warrior reached around and cupped her partner's cheek with her left hand, letting it linger long enough for the soldier to note the matching ring on her finger. "Just checking."
Gregorias slowly removed his hand from Gabrielle's leg. His jaw was clamped tightly shut, and his eyes bore into Xena with a look of defiance that she knew was a challenge. She chose to ignore it, for the moment. Her point made, Xena slowly stood up, her eyes never leaving the soldier. "We'll be starting drills again in a few minutes. Just thought I'd give you a heads-up, love." Her emphasis heavy on the last word.
"Thank you." The bard chuckled as her tall partner strode confidently away toward the horses, the afternoon sun casting her figure in silhouette.
"You're betrothed to her?" The soldier's voice was tainted with disgust. "It's not even a legal bond."
"It is according to Amazon law." The bard waited, mentally ticking off the seconds, watching as the information sunk in.
"You're an Amazon?" Gregorias looked incredulous. "You don't look like an Amazon."
"You know." Gabrielle gathered up the remains of her lunch. "Assumptions are a bad thing. I am not just an Amazon, I am Queen of the Amazons. And as you can see, my betrothed is a she, not a he. I'm hardly ever out of her sight, and she would sacrifice her own life to protect me. And ... I am firmly convinced I could search the entire world, and not do any better." The bard rose to her feet and leaned over, retrieving her scroll case. "But you did hit one thing right on the dinar."
"And what was that?" Gregorias had now stood up, still stubbornly placing himself inside the bard's personal space.
"If provoked, she can be crazy." The bard dusted her hands off on her skirt and gave him an icy smile which quickly morphed into a no-nonsense glare, before she turned on her heels to follow after her partner.
"We'll see." The soldier muttered under his breath, as he watched the object of his desire walk away.
Gabrielle rode hard, her ducked head low to one side against the battering wind and sand, her grip so strong on her staff she was convinced she might snap it in half. It had been a long afternoon, and what had promised to be a short session of drilling had turned into several agonizing rounds of maneuvers. Once she had gotten into the center of the troops, the warrior noticed some dangerous chinks in their defense that needed mending, and had been relentless in her drive to perfect their technique.
The bard had been swept off the mare's back twice, dropping her staff and rolling as soon as she hit the ground, just like Xena had taught her to do in such situations. Each time she fell, the warrior had immediately turned and leaped to the ground, carefully checking Gabrielle for any broken bones, despite the bard's protests that she was unharmed. She secretly suspected she'd have bruises on her bruises by morning, but she was determined not to complain even the slightest bit.
"Xena. In the heat of battle, if I fall off the horse, you can't stop to make sure I'm not hurt." Gabrielle had gently patted her partner's stomach after her last fall. "Just keep going. I'll get back on the horse fine. She's obviously been battle-trained enough to know to stop. See." She gestured toward the white mare, who stood patiently nearby, waiting to be re-mounted.
"True." The warrior groused. "But we're not in battle yet. I'm in charge, and if I want to stop and take care of you, I will."
The bard merely shook her head, realizing that arguing would do no good. She picked up her staff and got back in the saddle, determined to stay there this time. And so far, she had. She'd paid careful attention to her grip against the horse's sides with her strong thighs, and ruefully realized that along with bruises, she would probably be walking funny for a few days.
Her thoughts focused sharply on the present, as her staff connected with the flat of a Roman sword blade. The force of the strike vibrated in the bones of her forearms, but she held on doggedly, sweeping the staff around behind her on the rebound, lightly tapping the soldier on his back as they passed. In battle the move would have been full force, and the man would be on the ground. In drills, blows were pulled and no attacks were made with the sharp edge of a knife or saber. It was too dangerous to go all out as they would have in one-on-one drills.
Gabrielle grinned at the leather-covered back of her partner, who rode ahead of her, her war cry ringing out freely across the wide-open desert. The warrior was in her element, her eyes flashing with delight as she realized most of the problems she had noted earlier had been corrected. Xena's sword moved in a constant blur of precise activity, as she mentally counted the number of kills she would have made by now if it were an actual battle.
The warrior methodically dis-armed each soldier she encountered, leaving a trail of weapons in her wake, along with a fair number of bodies and corresponding rider-less horses. She had managed to kick a few soldiers out of the saddle, who then had to gather up weapons and get back on their horses. As Gabrielle passed them, she heard muttered grumbles and curses, mostly from men who couldn't believe they'd been bested by "a damned woman."
The bard grinned. She knew her partner well enough to know that if those men were on the ground, it was because Xena wanted them there. The warrior's skills were way too well-honed for her to "accidentally" not pull a blow or a kick. Gabrielle suspected that most of the fallen soldiers had been pre-selected for their fate, because they either didn't know how to follow orders, didn't respect Xena's authority, or otherwise had attitude problems the warrior had chosen to subtly "adjust" them for.
"Tch. You show 'em, honey." The bard watched as she heard Xena's unmistakable laugh, and another surprised soldier came flying over the head of his horse, landing directly in front of her. His eyes grew large as saucers, as his head snapped back and forth between Gabrielle's on-coming charge, and his own horse, which reared up in protest at his presence in its path. Luckily, the white mare had quicker reflexes than Gabrielle did, and was already scurrying around the obstacles, giving them a wide berth, before the bard had a chance to actually direct her to do so.
Octavian pulled up alongside the bard, and she slowed down a bit as their horses fell into pace. "Hello Octavian. What's up?" It had been a long afternoon, and she was secretly glad for the excuse to take a break and catch her breath.
"Queen Gabrielle." The Roman nodded in respect. "You're quite good with your staff."
"Thank you. I learned most of those moves from either Xena, or from Eponin, the weapons master back in our village." The bard laughed. " And please, Octavian, let's dispense with the title. Plain old 'Gabrielle' will do."
"Very well." Octavian thumped a fist against his chest in salute. "But there's nothing plain about you."
"Thank you." Gabrielle realized that there was no flirtatious intent in the Roman's comments, but merely a genuine compliment. They were actually close to the same age, if she recalled correctly, and it was entirely possible that her life experiences outweighed those of the young Roman, at least in terms of events that might prepare them for the coming encounter with Antony. She tried to imagine what it was like to rule much of the civilized world, and shuddered. I think I'll stick to the Amazons. That's enough to deal with. "So, what are your immediate plans after we beat Antony?"
"You seem pretty confident we're going to win." The Roman actually looked relieved at his friend's rock-solid faith.
"I know we'll win." The bard looked ahead of them until she spotted her partner again, who had wheeled around and off to one side of the area to observe the men. "Xena all but promised me we would, and she doesn't break her promises."
"I see." It was Octavian's turn to study the warrior, who briefly raised her sword to him in a gesture of respect. "Since victory is a given, then as soon as we get back to Cairo, I hope to work out an agreement with Cleopatra whereby she would continue to lead Egypt under my appointment."
"That will go a long way toward mending things between the two of you." Gabrielle was impressed at the young ruler's willingness to allow a former enemy into his confidence.
"Gabrielle, I was wondering ..." The Roman's words caught in his dry throat, and he paused, taking a long drink from a water skin. "You did an excellent job of working out the peace treaty between your Amazons and Rome, along with the other entities involved. I was hoping you might be willing to lend your negotiation skills in my dealings with Cleopatra. There are a lot of other details we need to work out besides who will preside over the Egyptians. We could handle everything back in Cairo. It might delay your and Xena's return to Greece by a week or so. But if you would, I'd really ..."
"I'd be glad to." The bard cut Octavian off before he was reduced to the begging stage. "That is, as long as Xena's willing to stay longer. I don't see any reason why she wouldn't be. Not for something like that."
"Great." The Roman breathed a sigh of relief. The treaty with the Amazons was the first one he had ever negotiated, and he had secretly hoped to work with Gabrielle again, and learn from her before he had any future treaties to work out on his own. This would be a perfect opportunity.
He had been employing a similar tactic for leading an army, watching every move Xena made, making mental notes for the many battles he was certain would be in his future. In fact ... He turned to scrutinize the dark imposing presence with a more objective eye.
"Okay!" The warrior's voice bellowed across the mock-battlefield. "That's enough. Everyone gather around for some de-briefing." The troops quickly formed several sets of orderly ranks about the area, and Xena was once again extremely impressed with the discipline instilled in the Romans.
Gabrielle and Octavian rode up and flanked her on either side. "Listen up." Xena panned the soldiers, all of whom were drenched in sweat along with a healthy layer of grime. "Pack up as much of your belongings as you can before the sun goes down. And everyone, skin infections are way too easy to come by in this heat underneath all that armor. I want every last one of you to thoroughly clean your weapons and your armor, and get in the lake and take a bath. Gabrielle and I promise not to look." This got a low laughing rumble from the men, along with a few groans from the ones who didn't bathe unless they were forced to. From the expression on the warrior's face, the bath wasn't an option.
"That's okay, Captain. Look all you want to." A cheeky soldier yelled out from the back of the group, which caused another round of chuckles and back-slapping.
The warrior merely grinned, ignoring the comment. She had developed a camaraderie with the individual platoon leaders, all of whom had quickly come to respect her leadership and judgment over the course of the very long day. "After you pack up and bathe, everyone eat a hearty dinner and turn in early. It may be your last hot meal for a few days. We'll be breaking camp at dawn. I want to set up our command posts near that isthmus in two days, so we'll be riding from dawn until dusk, and even into the early evening hours if we have to, to get there in time. That's all. You put in a good day's work today. Dismissed."
Xena began to ride away toward the other side of the lake, when she realized Gabrielle wasn't following. She turned and frowned, as she saw her partner and Octavian in what appeared to be a rather serious conversation. The bard's face was a mixture of emotions, as she listened intently to whatever the Roman was saying.
Gabrielle looked up and their eyes met, and the warrior's heart lurched at the obvious pain etched into her lover's features, which were clearly evident even at the considerable distance between them. "Xena." The bard yelled, as she made a conscious effort to pull herself together. "Go on. I'll be over there in a little while, okay?"
"You sure?" The warrior fought the urge to gallop to her partner's side as fast as she could.
"Yes." The bard saw the doubt on Xena's face. "Really. I'm fine."
"Okay. If you say so." The warrior slowly turned and made her way to their tent, looking back every now and then to make sure Gabrielle didn't need her assistance.
"So." Octavian could tell the Amazon queen was distressed, but wasn't sure why. He mentally shrugged and continued. "Do you think she would accept such an appointment?"
The bard could feel her insides warring with each other, and she pushed down the bile that rose into her throat. "I don't know."
As soon as they were dismissed, the Roman had quickly pulled her aside, and told her he wanted to ask Xena to be commander-in-chief of the entire army for the Roman Empire. He had not officially named anyone to that position since he had taken over as leader, patiently biding his time until he found the best person for the job. He was convinced that on this day he had.
"What about Brutus?" Gabrielle had noted the absence of the former general who had served under Julius Caesar.
"Brutus has been dismissed." Octavian stated flatly. "He was too connected to my uncle, and I wanted to make a completely fresh start. Besides, I reviewed his record, and he proved at times to be an indecisive coward."
"That's true." The bard shuddered, remembering the crucifixion for a moment, before she forced herself to put it out of her mind.
"But it couldn't hurt to ask Xena, could it?" The Roman's face had a child-like expression, which Gabrielle vaguely recognized as something akin to the hero-worship she had once held for her lover.
"No. It never hurts to ask." The bard remained calm, belying her inner turmoil. It would hurt me. It would kill our plans to raise our family in the Amazon village. I would have to step down as acting queen. We'd be far from our families. Gabrielle wanted to cry, but instead, she merely turned partway on the mare, and then stopped. "I'm sure she'd be honored at the proposal."
"Tell you what. To sweeten the deal, if she accepts, I'll offer you a position as my personal scribe. Your skills would be quite useful to me during all sorts of negotiations." There, that should seal it for me. Surely she would rather live on my palace grounds than in that run-down little village where they live now. And she'd have a lot more prestige serving me than she does leading her handful of pathetic renegade women. He watched the Amazon queen's face with veiled anticipation.
"Wherever Xena goes, I go." Gabrielle swallowed and tried to smile. "So it would be nice to have something to do while she's away all the time." The bard knew that Octavian's offer to Xena would not include any sort of provision for her to travel with her partner. None of the other soldiers had their wives with them. It simply wasn't done. Only soldiers traveled with the army, and Gabrielle was no soldier.
"Great." Octavian smiled, mistaking the bard's demeanor for amiability. "As soon as the battle is over and we arrive in Cairo, I will definitely make her an offer I hope she can't refuse. Good evening, Gabrielle."
"Yeah. You too." The bard decided to dismount and walk, in an effort to buy herself some time to think. It would be Xena's dream come true to lead an army like that. Gabrielle had seen the look in her partner's eyes during the drills. The warrior had loved every minute of it. Come on, Gabrielle. It would be the chance of a lifetime for her. She would have an honorable way to do what she does best, every single day of her life. And we would have a really nice life in Rome. Her own arguments rang hollow. The bard's heart was with the Amazons, at least as far as where she would choose for them to live. Okay, no matter what, I'm not going to be selfish about this. If Xena wants to go to Rome, we go to Rome. And that's that.
She walked the rest of the way back around the lake, watching as some of the Romans began their evening meal preparations, while others were stacking packed saddle bags outside their tents. A small flock of unfamiliar water fowl settled on the surface of the lake, preening their feathers and occasionally dipping under the water to snap up skate bugs and plankton. Gabrielle sighed. Suddenly, the world had lost its beauty and fascination. She finished the brief trek with her head down, concentrating on the task of placing one heavy foot in front of the other.
"Hey." Cautious blue eyes greeted her as she arrived at their campsite, and the warrior forced a smile she didn't feel, looking up from the fire she had built. "Why are you walking?"
"My backside is a little sore." The bard made a show of rubbing the part in question, although it wasn't much of a stretch. She could already feel the beginning of what she knew would be escalated pain by morning.
"Need a massage?" Xena shifted, flipping some fresh fish she'd caught and put on the fire to grill. "A real one, I mean."
From the warrior's wet hair and clean shift, Gabrielle could tell her partner had already taken a bath, most likely during the fishing expedition. "That might be nice." Gabrielle made her way over to the fire ring and peered at the plain white flesh in the frying pan, which appeared to be completely spice-free. "I'll trade you. You take care of my horse and I'll finish up our dinner. And I'm going to go take a quick dip in the water right before we eat. My skin feels absolutely disgusting."
"Fair enough." The warrior stood up and briefly touched her partner's shoulder. "Everything okay?"
"Fine." The bard knew she was going to cry, and she swallowed hard against the thick lump in her throat, blinking rapidly several times.
"No it's not." Xena's own eyes registered pain of a different sort. Why isn't she being up front with me?
"Xena." Gabrielle looked down at the ground, kicking at the dirt with one toe. "Just go take care of the horse, please?"
"Whatever you want." The warrior allowed her inner defense mechanism to rise most of the way up. She led the mare away in silence, her drooping shoulder the only sign of her true emotions.
Dinner passed in complete silence, as Xena kept a studious gaze on the contents of her plate, refusing to make eye contact with her partner. She deftly stabbed another bite of the fish, which would normally taste good, but for some reason was sliding down her throat like sawdust. A sniffle made her look up. Across the fire, Gabrielle had her head down against her upraised knees, her body shaking in silent sobs.
"Hey. Come here." The warrior's hurt and anger immediately dissipated, and she was at the bard's side in an instant, wrapping her in a comforting hug. "Gabrielle, what did Octavian say to you? Because by the gods, I'm about ready to march over there and introduce him to the sharp end of my sword."
"No." The bard looked up, feeling long fingers brush the tears from her cheeks. "He didn't do anything to deserve that."
"Then what's wrong?" Xena sat back against the same rock they had lounged against the previous night, settling her partner against her, as she stroked the silky blonde head.
"Xena. Out there today, you were really enjoying yourself, weren't you?" Gabrielle sniffled again.
The warrior felt her frustration increase. "Gabrielle, yes. I was. You know I enjoy fighting, and I enjoy leading an army. I haven't done it in a long time, and it was nice to know that this time, I'm leading the good guys. This is war. I don't know what to tell you. That part of me, I need to let it loose. If I don't I can't ..."
"Shhh." The bard pressed two fingers against her lover's lips. "You don't need to apologize. I was asking as an observation, not as an accusation."
"Oh." Xena felt a dull throbbing in her temples, and prayed she wasn't going to get a full-blown headache. "Then why all the tears, and why won't you talk to me?"
Gabrielle scooted around until they were side-by-side, and leaned back against the smooth stone, which was still warm from the sun it had soaked up during the day. She felt her partner's arm slide around her shoulders, and a brush of lips across her forehead. The bard reached across, taking the warrior's free left hand, watching the fire glint off the gold band, as dusk began to settle in around them. Wherever we go, we go together. Always.
"Dinar for your thoughts, love." Xena intertwined their fingers.
"Xena, what if you could lead an army like that every day? Would you enjoy that?" The bard saw the gleam in her partner's eyes, and got her answer.
"Yeah, I probably would." The warrior assumed they were talking in hypotheticals. "Ever since I met Hercules, and then you, I've fought with myself every single day. There's a part of me that really enjoys the planning and the fellowship with the soldiers, and the thrill of a win. But in the past, my armies brought nothing but pain to thousands of people. It would be great to lead one that was doing good, protecting people that can't protect themselves, that kind of thing."
"Honey, maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but Octavian is going to ask you to be permanent commander of his entire army." She watched the shock register on her partner's face, as she continued to talk. "Xena, it would be your dream come true, the chance of a lifetime. You could ..."
"No." It was the warrior's turn to silence her partner. "First of all, leading his army to continue to conquer new lands would be a very different thing from the battle we are going to fight with Antony. The battle with Antony, that is a cause I believe in. Leading an army like that, I would enjoy. But Octavian plans to expand. That's why we entered into the peace treaty, remember? So he would leave us alone. I don't agree with the expansion, and wouldn't even tolerate it, except that he will be reasonably humane in his treatment of the people he conquers. But he will still be taking away some of their personal freedom. I don't want to be a part of that."
Gabrielle felt a huge weight slide off her shoulders, and she realized she had been holding her breath. "Are you sure?"
"Gabrielle, you are my chance of a lifetime and my dream come true." She tilted the bard's chin up, watching the green eyes shed their doubt as they read the sincerity in her own blue ones.
The corners of the bard's eyes crinkled up as a tentative smile decorated her features, and she leaned in, pecking her partner on the cheek. "I want you to be happy, Xena."
"I am happy." The warrior brushed her thumb across Gabrielle's lips. "You make me happy. I don't want to go live in Rome. I'd never see my mother or brother again. It would be taking you away from you family. And the Amazons need you. Not to mention we have our children to think about, whenever we have them."
"Rome wouldn't be a good place for children?" The bard cocked her head to one side in question.
"I already fear any children of mine becoming targets because of my past. Although I'm starting to think I might be able to relax, just a little. But if I were to be in a visible position like commander of the army for the Roman Empire, I'd fear for their safety every day of their lives." Xena took both of her partner's hands, studying them. So delicate and yet so strong. I want to hold these hands forever. "I'd rather raise them in Greece, with the Amazons, and with your mother and my mother nearby if we need them."
"I just don't want you to look back someday and regret the path not taken." Gabrielle also looked down at their clasped hands. This is absolute security. These hands, that work every day to protect me and provide for me.
"That isn't even possible anymore." A warm smile graced the tanned face. "You are my path. I could never regret that."
"And you are my tree in the forest." They both spared a memory for Gabrielle's innocent words that had been spoken in what seemed another lifetime. Technically was another lifetime. The dreams of a very young girl. Dreams that despite everything that had transpired since then, had survived and come true.
"Wherever you want to be, Xena, I will be right there by your side." The bard squeezed the beloved hands with surprising strength. "The promise I made to you when we first moved to the Amazon village still stands. If the day ever comes when you can't bear to live there anymore, I will go with you, wherever you want to go."
"You know something?" The warrior grinned sheepishly. "When we first moved into the queen's hut ... our hut ... there was a moment when I sat down on the bed, and looked around, and asked myself what in Hades I was doing there."
"I know." Gabrielle smiled at her partner calling their living quarters 'our hut.' "I saw it on your face several times that first moon.
"It's mostly my history with them. The northern Amazons, and that whole disaster after Solan died and I broke Ephiny's arm and dragged you out of there. I'm surprised they didn't hunt me down and execute me for crimes against the Nation. And then that whole mess with Maniah. I was about ready to scoop you up and run far away from it all." The chiseled features scrunched into a brief frown, before smoothing out once more.
"What changed?" The bard traced little patterns with her fingers on the back of Xena's hand.
"I watched you thriving there. And one day I realized that for the first time since I was banished from Amphipolis, I felt like I was part of a community. That I could make a contribution. It became comfortable, and started to feel like home." Blue eyes glowed. "And I liked the way that felt."
"Me too." Another burden slipped off Gabrielle's shoulders. "I just wonder if you're going to get bored staying in the same place."
"Bored?" The warrior snorted. "Gabrielle ..." The low melodic voice lengthened the name. "We've lived there for less than two seasons. Have we had a single moment of boredom during that time?"
"Guess not." The bard laughed. "And for that matter, here we are, so I suppose we won't always be staying in one place."
"Nope." Xena was enjoying her partner's idle attentions, and she unconsciously flexed her hands out wider, palms down, giving the bard better access. "I think people are going to be asking for our help for a long time to come. I'd wager there are a few more trips in our future, both in and outside of Greece."
"And don't forget, you promised me a trip to Lesbos." A mischievous grin played at Gabrielle's lips.
"Oh, don't worry. That's one trip I definitely plan on taking with you." An equally lascivious expression reflected the bard's. "That, I wouldn't miss for the world. In fact, we could detour by there on our way home from here, if you want to."
"Maybe." The bard suddenly felt a tiny bit of trepidation, remembering their discussion about Lesbos the night that Xena proposed to her. "I could probably use a rest after all of this is over."
"Rest?" Xena barely managed to keep from laughing at her partner, who was still surprisingly naive at times. "Sweetheart, Lesbos is not a place one travels to to rest. I can burn more calories in one week on Lesbos, than in a month of leading an army." She watched as Gabrielle puzzled over her statement, and then chuckled as a blush crept from the bard's chest, up her neck, and finally spread across her cheeks.
"Come here, baby." The warrior pulled her flustered partner into her lap and wrapped long arms around the small solid frame. "I love you so much. I don't mean to tease. I can't wait to take you to Lesbos. Or anywhere else you want to go. I could spend a hundred lifetimes with you and never, ever get bored."
Gabrielle sensed the truth of the words, and smiled against the clean-smelling linen her face was pressed against. "Let's do it, Xena." The bard looked up and touched her partner's face with her fingertips, watching as the warrior's eyes lit up. "After all this is over, I really want you to take me there."
"Okay." The warrior felt her partner begin to relax, and she leaned back against the rock again, holding the bard in peaceful silence. They sat there for about a candle mark, once again watching the animals come to the water to drink, and sharing mutual unspoken dreams of the future.
Later, they heard muffled splashes from way across on the other side, as Octavian's men began to take their ordered bath. Xena chuckled. "It's so dark we can't really see them, but since we promised not to watch, that may be our cue to go inside. Besides, we need to get a good night's sleep tonight."
"Yeah, and you promised me a massage." The bard's voice was faint, and her body was fighting to stay awake. She could feel the muscles in her legs and backside starting to tighten up from the hard afternoon of riding, and knew it would only be worse by morning.
"That I did." In a repeat of the previous night, Xena lifted Gabrielle up and carried her into their tent.
Even later, a bemused warrior curled up against her sleeping partner, carefully tucking a light blanket around their shoulders. Gabrielle had fallen fast asleep long before the massage ended, leaving Xena alone with her thoughts, partly of gratitude for the much-needed stability the bard had brought to her life. Another part of her, the part that always kicked in right before a big battle, mentally ran through all the things they would need to do as soon as they reached the isthmus. From here on out, it would be a race against the sun to reach their destination and gain the upper hand on Antony, whom she knew was already on the move.
Xena paced back and forth in front of a long system of connected trenches, barking grumpy orders and occasionally jumping down into the almost-finished barriers to lend her personal assistance, or to make her desires more clear. The mid-day sun had become her enemy, a part of her sensing, rather than knowing, that sometime tomorrow they would face Antony's army. They had reached the isthmus in record-time, and had spent most of the previous day running through drills again.
The nearby ocean, which flanked them on both sides, tempered the scorching heat, providing a constant, much-welcomed breeze, and a source of refreshment for their weary bodies at the end of the day. They had even set up a system of trot-lines in a sheltered cove, and would be able to enjoy fresh fish for the duration of their mission there.
More than once, the warrior had ignored the off-handed comments of "slave-driver," and "relentless bitch," that her sharp ears had picked up. As long as the complainers were actually working, she chose to let it slide. She knew the men were tired, and if blowing off steam at her expense in such a harmless manner made them feel better, she was willing to take the heat.
Xena was in full warrior-mode, her mind completely focused on the task at hand. Upon their arrival at their destination, Gabrielle had quickly assessed her partner's mood, and quietly took a look at the warrior's hand-written notes, trying to determine how best she could help. The bard had smiled, realizing that while Xena had made every provision for drilling, and their weapons cache, and everything that had to do with actual fighting, she had failed to plan for some of their more basic creature comforts.
"Xena." The bard softly tapped her partner on the shoulder on the first afternoon of preparations. The warrior was inside her main command tent, pouring over a set of maps, trying to figure out which approach Antony might take. She turned in agitation, ready to take Gabrielle's head off, until she realized who it was. Xena's face visibly softened.
"What is it?"
"Um ... have you thought about where you want to set up your healer's tent?" Gabrielle knew her partner had barely thought of anything except the battle itself, since they left the oasis.
"Damn." Xena scratched her head and looked at her notes. "It's been so long. I guess I'm a little out of practice. I don't suppose you could take care of that for me?"
"I'd be happy to." The bard smiled. "Um ... honey. While I'm at it, do you want me to set up the main mess tent too?"
"Forgot that too, huh?" The warrior grinned ruefully.
"Yes." Gabrielle borrowed a quill and twirled it between her fingers, and then picked up a piece of blank parchment. She quickly made her own checklist. "How about the water supply? Should I have them set up those little contraptions that filter the salt out of the seawater?"
The warrior grunted and took her partner's list, her eyes quickly scanning it. "Gabrielle. All of this stuff, if you can handle it, I'd be extremely grateful."
"No problem, Captain." The bard mock-saluted, which earned her a swat on the behind.
"What would I do without you?" Xena rewarded her lover with a look of complete admiration.
"You'd be drinking salt water, eating sheep jerky, and your wounded would be deserting to the other side for treatment." Gabrielle managed a most innocent smile, quickly jumping aside to avoid a second swat.
"Go." The warrior chuckled. "Seems we've both got our work cut out for us."
That had been yesterday afternoon. Now, while Xena was outside tending to the various trenches and traps she wanted to set-up across the battlefield, Gabrielle was inside the healer's tent, knee-deep in freshly-boiled linen bandages. Several healer's assistants were scurrying about, laying down rows of pallets along both sides of the tent.
"Okay." She studied her notes. "We've got our herb supply laid out on that table over there ..." She gestured toward a very rough structure that had been hastily assembled that morning. "... our bone needles and sheep gut are over there next to the herbs ... and we probably need to find some kind of bin to put these bandages in."
"Yes, your highness." The chief healer for Octavian's army quickly gathered up the clean pile of material and dumped it into a small half-barrel that sat in a corner. 'Chief healer' was a tentative title at best. The man had served as a healer for exactly one battle prior to the one they were about to fight. "Will that do?"
"Yes. That's perfect." Gabrielle sighed. She had long since quit correcting the Romans for addressing her by her title. Word had quickly spread throughout the ranks that an Amazon queen was in their presence. More than one soldier had found some excuse or another to ask her a question, or merely wander by just to look at her. Many of them had believed Amazons to be a myth, just like Octavian had once believed the Centaurs to be myths.
"Think I should do something to make it a less-disappointing experience for them?" The bard had shared a quiet moment with her partner, curled up together by the fire the previous night. "They come by, and they look, and they just walk away. What did they expect, anyway?"
"Leather." Xena laughed. "Not those little linen numbers you've been wearing. Maybe we could pierce your nose with a bone or something."
"Ewww. Xena, that's gross. Not to mention ugly and painful." Gabrielle had slapped the warrior soundly on the leg. "During the battle, I'll be in that armor you made for me. That's partly made of leather. What is it with men and Amazons, anyway?"
"It's a fantasy thing." The warrior rubbed her leg, pretending the slap had hurt.
"How so?" The bard was genuinely confused, and looked to her tall more-worldly partner for an explanation.
"They ... um." Xena pursed her lips, searching for just the right words. "Some of them want to watch."
"Watch what?" Gabrielle frowned.
"You know. Watch." The warrior bit back a laugh, waiting for the information to digest.
"Xena! You have got to be kidding me. Why in Hades would anyone want to watch us ... us ... For gods' sake, that's private." The bard was outraged, and suddenly very self-conscious, warily looking around at the other small fire circles nearby, wondering if anyone was observing them.
"And then there are the ones that want to join in." The warrior whispered close to her partner's ear, which immediately turned bright red.
"Oh gods." Gabrielle almost choked on a sip of orange juice. "People don't really do that sort of thing, do they?"
"Absolutely." Xena leaned in closer and playfully nipped the ear.
"Have you ever ...?"
"Absolutely not." The warrior chuckled, her warm breath tickling said ear. "I don't like to share, remember?"
"Thank the gods for that." Gabrielle was still processing the idea that anyone would want to watch something that to her, was a very beautiful and very private thing shared between two people who loved each other. "Xena, if three people, you know ... that means that they can't all be in love with each other."
The bard had turned in her partner's arms, looking up earnestly at the warrior's face, which glowed softly in the firelight. "I don't understand."
"Good." Xena's hold had tightened around her waist. "I hope you don't ever understand."
"Queen Gabrielle." A deep voice brought the bard back to the present. "Is there anything else we need?"
"Yes." Gabrielle looked around. "We need a large water barrel set up with a dipper. And we'll need a fire ring immediately outside the tent. We'll need to have a pot set up to boil soiled bandages, and the fire itself should be constantly tended for sterilizing knives. That means we'll need a good stack of wood and kindling"
"I'll get on it right away." The chief healer saluted her and exited the tent, leaving her alone for a blessed moment of silence. Which ended as Gregorias looked around from outside and then ducked inside the tent.
"Hello, Queen Gabrielle." His tone dripped with sarcasm, and he quickly closed the distance between them, until they were standing face to face, less than a foot apart.
Several choice curses died on the bard's lips, as she realized her sais and staff were both in her and Xena's tent. She had changed into a light tunic after lunch, in an attempt to stay cooler on what promised to be another blazing hot afternoon. In the process of changing, she had left all her weapons behind. Several times since their encounter by the lake, she had noticed the Roman watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. Gods. Okay, gotta stay calm.
"Hello, Gregorias. Is there something I can help you with, or have you come to volunteer your services in the healer's tent?" Gabrielle backed away slightly as she spoke, but the determined soldier kept pace with her.
"Oh." His eyes showed no hint of friendly intent. "There are some services I would like to offer, and the privacy of a tent would be conducive to them." He reached out and traced her jawline with one finger and then trailed lower, down her collar bone to the neck opening of her tunic.
The bard reached up and grasped his wrist, squeezing it with a firmness that caused him to flinch. "Are you insane?" Gabrielle's eyes darted around, desperately searching for something she could use as a weapon. "Because I am not going to be responsible for what Xena will do to you if you take this any further."
"Her?" Gregorias sneered. "She doesn't look like all that much."
"So you are insane." The bard gasped, as the Roman suddenly grabbed her, and spun her around, pulling her against him with her back against his chest, her arm pulled up tightly behind her back at an awkward angle, so that if she struggled, it would cause extreme pain.
"Maybe." Gregorias pressed his lips against her ear. "I'm just firmly convinced that there's nothing wrong with you that the right man couldn't fix. Know what I mean?"
"There's nothing wrong with you that I can't fix with a quick trip to the chopping block." An enraged voice interrupted him, and Gregorias dropped to the ground in agony, as he felt a sharp pain in the back of his leg.
The warrior strode forward and kicked him face down on the ground, bending over to retrieve her breast dagger from the back of his thigh, where she had imbedded it as soon as she entered the tent and saw what he was doing. My aim with that is still dead on. She grinned and wiped the blood off the blade, using the hem of his cape as a rag, and then tucked the small knife back into its usual storage place. Xena bodily hauled the man up to his knees and quickly jabbed two fingers into each side of his neck.
Gregorias coughed and then grabbed at his throat, his eyes bulging as a trickle of blood dripped from one nostril. "I ... can't ... breathe."
"No kidding?" The warrior towered over him, her arms crossed over her chest. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in sixty seconds unless I release you. Now ... I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you don't take subtle hints well. So ... I'm going to be just as clear as I possibly can."
Xena held out her hand, indicating that Gabrielle should take it. The bard quirked an eyebrow and complied, and found herself pulled tightly against her partner's side. "You see these rings?" The warrior held their left hands out in front of the despairing Roman's face, who merely nodded affirmatively as his eyes began to roll back in his head.
"Good. These rings mean that Gabrielle and I are to be married. To each other. She isn't on the market, and she isn't up for grabs. So ..." The warrior leaned over until her eyes were mere inches from Gregorias' face. "If I ever ... ever ... see you touch her again, I will cut off all of your fingers ... as well as your other eleven appendages, and I will take them down to the cove and use them on the trot lines for fish bait. And then I'm going to take what remains of your sorry carcass and hire a boat, and go trolling further out. It's been a long time since I've had a good shark steak. I think you'd attract one rather nicely, seeing as how you're obviously related to them."
She pressed her fingers against his neck, and paused. "Do we understand each other?"
"Y ... yes. Pl ... please ..." The warrior jabbed the pressure points, and the grateful man fell over and rolled into a fetal position, coughing and spluttering for air.
"You okay?" Xena peered earnestly into the green eyes, while she carefully examined the bard's arm for any injury.
"Yeah." Gabrielle continued to warily watch the Roman, who finally managed to get up and slink out of the tent. "I can't believe I came in here unarmed."
"Mmmm." The warrior finished her examination, and gently brushed her partner's hair back. "That was close."
The blood drained from Gabrielle's face, and she looked as if she might throw up. "Xena, do you think he would have ...?"
"Don't know, love." The warrior sat down on a pallet, dragging her partner down with her and pulling her into a comforting side-hug. "I think he was just trying to intimidate you. I trounced on his manhood a few days ago, and I think he felt like he had something to prove. He'd have to be pretty stupid to actually rape a woman in the middle of the camp in broad daylight."
Xena felt her partner begin to tremble slightly, and she decided a change of subject was in order. "How's it going in here, anyway?" The warrior looked around, her nose twitching at the sharp scent of the herbs that permeated the space.
"Everything is just about ready." Gabrielle visibly relaxed a bit, and she scanned the interior of the tent with a sense of accomplishment. "The mess tent is already preparing the evening meal, and some of the men have gone to check the trot-lines."
"Good job, sweetheart." The warrior rubbed her partner's shoulder, the one that Gregorias had tried to twist. "The trenches are finished and we've got them camouflaged with branches, and I've got some great pits set up with some wicked spikes planted in the bottom."
"Xena ... I don't know. Hope our own men don't accidentally fall into one of them." Gabrielle idly brushed some dirt and debris from the warrior's tangled hair.
"As long as they pay attention, they shouldn't. We've got the pits marked with some rock patterns that aren't obvious unless you know to look for them. In fact, in the morning, I want to take you out and show you where they are. Although I expect you to stay behind me the entire time."
"Xena, honey. No offense, but you are filthy." Gabrielle pushed up one arm bracer, revealing clean skin that abruptly stopped at a ring of dirt that extended all the way to the warrior's elbow. "Why don't we go down to the water and take a bath, and then see how dinner is coming along? Besides, after Gregorias had his hands on me, I have a sudden desire to scrub myself clean from head to foot."
"Okay. I don't think there's anything else I can do today before the sun goes down anyway." The warrior took her partner's hand and led her out of the healer's tent and toward their own private one, which she had taken great care in setting up slightly apart from the neat rows of shelters the army had erected. "I told the men to relax tonight, and have some fun. As long as they aren't hung over in the morning, I want them to enjoy themselves. They'll be better in battle tomorrow if they aren't sitting around tonight worrying about it." Xena stood just outside their tent, while Gabrielle crouched down and ducked inside.
"You want me to tell them some stories?" Gabrielle dug through their bags, tossing the warrior some towels, and a cake of soap, along with two clean sleeveless tunics and a wide-toothed comb for her partner's extremely disheveled hair. She crawled backward out of the tent, and felt two strong arms pull her up to her feet.
"Only if you want to." Xena looked doubtful. "Soldiers ... they tend to find their own stories to tell, some of them a bit ribald, I might add."
"Oh. Good." The bard didn't look disappointed at all, much to the warrior's relief. "I'd rather sit by the fire with you and listen."
"Okay. But you've been warned. I don't know if you've ever heard any stories like these." Xena began walking toward the path that led down to the cove.
Gabrielle fell in behind her. "Oh come on, Xena. How much worse could it be than learning about things like threesomes?"
Heh. The warrior merely smiled, and kept walking.
Several candle marks later, Xena rested comfortably against a log, with Gabrielle sitting between her legs. Her hands rested lightly on the bard's shoulders, and they were listening to a young soldier recite several colorful limericks. The personable man had explained that they were poems he had heard in Eire, the island across the sea from Britannia.
"That's where Ronan's from." The bard turned and whispered to her partner.
"Yeah." The warrior was thoroughly enjoying herself. It had been a very long time since she had spent an evening in the company of an army she was to lead. As the young man's sing-song rhymes washed over her, pleasantly tickling her ears, she chuckled inwardly.
Part of the warrior's own personal entertainment had come from Gabrielle herself. Many of the jokes and stories had gone completely over the bard's head. The very first story had totally confused her, and she had quietly asked Xena what was so funny about playing with a cat. The warrior had burst out in hearty laughter, and gently explained, low enough that no one else could hear, that the tale had nothing to do with a cat, and everything to do with a certain part of the female anatomy.
"Oh." The bard had taken that in and then turned back around. "I think I'll just save up my questions and ask you later when we're alone."
"Good idea." Xena had spent part of the time watching her partner's reactions to the stories, knowing exactly which ones Gabrielle understood, and which ones she didn't, mostly by whether or not the bard was laughing in the appropriate places.
A soldier knelt down next to the warrior, interrupting her private humorous thoughts. "Captain, would you like a smoke?" He held out a pipe that was packed with sweet-smelling tobacco. "The leaves were imported all the way from India."
Xena had observed several of the men smoking during the evening, but wasn't even tempted. It was something she had never done enough to get hooked on. And she wouldn't have done it in Gabrielle's presence at any rate. That argument was still too fresh, and not completely worked through yet. "No thank you."
"Well then." The admiring Roman held out a flask. It was obvious the very young man was anxious to please the warrior. "How about some port?"
Xena hesitated, just a second. "No. I ..."
"I would." Gabrielle broke in, and gingerly took the flask from the soldier. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, your highness." The soldier politely ducked his head and then scooted away.
The bard un-capped the leather container, and wrinkled her nose before taking a small sip.
"Gabrielle." Xena's voice held a note of warning. "You and I both know you don't like port."
"But you do." The bard was determined to put this particular issue to rest. She had quietly observed her partner, noting that Xena had not had a single drop of alcohol since their argument back in Cairo. She turned around, facing her partner while holding the flask under her nose.
"I am not going to ..."
"Xena. It's okay." Gabrielle touched the spout to the warrior's lower lip. "You are not my uncle. It doesn't frighten me when you drink. I've never even seen you drunk. You know how to control yourself."
"You're sure?" The warrior really did want to partake of her favorite libation, but was loathe to do anything she thought might hurt her vulnerable partner.
In answer, the bard tipped the flask up, and watched as Xena took a few sips. "Thanks, love." The warrior wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, and gently took the flask, setting it down next to her hip. She pulled the bard back down against her and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist.
They continued to listen to the stories, and later songs, enjoying the rare extended evening of entertainment. Xena continued to take occasional sips from the flask, and felt a faint warmth spreading through her mid-section. It was partly the alcohol, and partly what she clearly recognized as a case of desire, at its most basic level. She had experienced it on a hundred other nights prior to a hundred other battles, a natural edginess that manifested itself in a very physical way. Always before, she had been able to find someone to help her out, so to speak.
She sighed, knowing she was a lot smarter than that now. On this night, it was not to be satisfied. The men were too punchy, and she would have to invoke her rule. Not only for their safety, but on the off chance that Antony were to arrive by cover of night. She had already sent out the late evening patrol, that had yet to return with a report. It was likely they wouldn't return until the wee candle marks of the morning. There were also several outposts set up to keep watch during the long night of waiting. She had to be ready at a moment's notice, and that meant having her wits about her.
The warrior quietly grasped the edges of the blanket they were sitting on, and wrapped it around them, feigning a need to block a chill that had settled in from the nearby ocean. Once they were covered, she played with delicate laces, deftly loosening them, and then slipped one hand inside the bard's tunic. Long fingers softly caressed the skin on Gabrielle's stomach, enjoying the sensation of the muscles fluttering against her touch.
"Xena ..." The bard closed her eyes and leaned back, laying her head against the warrior's shoulder.
"Relax." They were not directly in the light of the fire, but were partially hidden in shadows just outside the circle of men. While not completely out of sight, someone would have to stare long and hard to know what was going on under the blanket. "I'm not going to do anything to embarrass you. I just want to touch you, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle reached down to find inviting skin under her own fingertips, and began a gentle stroking motion against the outside of the warrior's thigh, occasionally allowing her hand to drift further in, earning low almost inaudible growls from her partner whenever she strayed a little too far inward.
This is nice. Xena brushed her lips across the top of her lover's head, and looked up, just in time to catch Gregorias studying them intently from across the fire. Her eyes never left his, as she pulled Gabrielle tightly against her, and began to nip and kiss her way across the back of the bard's neck and shoulders. Gods. I could take her right here, right now, under this blanket, twenty feet away from a legion of soldiers. And in another time, in another life, she would have. But that wasn't who she was anymore, and she knew it would hurt her partner. She sighed and ducked her head, whispering into her lover's ear. "Kiss me, Gabrielle."
The bard, who had been barely controlling the urge to do just that, turned her head, and they met in a slow sensual duel of lips and tongues. Gabrielle finally pulled away and turned sideways, snuggling into the warm body that engulfed her, and burying her face into the warrior's leathers. She sighed with contentment and closed her eyes, everything but the top of her head concealed underneath the blanket.
"Thank you, love." Long arms and legs re-settled around the bard, and Xena resumed her light touches to the skin of her partner's midriff.
"Mmmm. Anytime." Gabrielle was tired and she was extremely lethargic. She decided she wanted to stay right where she was forever, and was way beyond questioning the abnormal public display on the part of her partner.
The warrior kissed the fair head again and her upper lip curled into a pronounced snarl, as she and Gregorias locked eyes once more. Mine. Her eyes narrowed and she waited, knowing he would be the first to look away. She laughed inwardly as he broke the connection and got up from the fire, limping away toward another group of men further down near the beach, favoring the leg she had nailed with her dagger.
Xena knew that on a certain level, her actions were akin to claiming her partner as her property. It was not too dis-similar from the attitude of many village men she had known in her time, who claimed their wives and daughters as part of their household inventory, sometimes giving them scant more value than a prized bull or stallion. Sometimes less, depending on how many dinars the bull or stallion could bring in for stud service.
She didn't think of Gabrielle in that way, but she did admit that watching Gregorias touching her partner's leg back at the oasis had spoken to something deep inside of her. And what he had done earlier that afternoon ... he was lucky she hadn't ordered him drawn and quartered on the spot. It was a fierce protective instinct that she believed all humans and animals held for their mates and their children. She was capable of killing to protect her partner, and had proven it many times over.
But this was protection of a different sort. To preserve what they shared between them, that belonged only to them. And it was something she would never ever let anyone else take away. Gregorias had crossed a line, a sacred one, and she had communicated to him in no uncertain terms that he was to never attempt to breach that particular taboo again. The punishment for any future trespass on his part would be swift and painful. The first offense she could attribute to ignorance. The second one she chalked up to stupidity. But a third. If that were to happen, she could only interpret it to be a death wish.
In the darkness that blankets the earth after midnight, the warrior lay awake in their tent, listening to the night noises and her partner's quiet snoring. She had never been able to sleep well the night before a battle, and this night was no exception. This time, however, her worries were of a different nature.
Gabrielle's head was resting on Xena's stomach, employing it as a pillow, and the warrior stroked the short hair, almost unaware that she was doing it. So. This is it. Something had been nagging in the back of her mind, gradually working its way to the forefront until it shocked her with a profound truth. Tomorrow, I may fight my last battle with Rome.
Xena had been at personal war with the Roman Empire for half her life. In so many ways, it had shaped her and molded her into the person she was today. Before Caesar she had very little sense of direction. After he betrayed her, it had changed everything. She fought for rage and for vengeance, and no matter how she might try to deny it, every single time she had been given an opportunity to go after Caesar, she had taken it. No matter what the cost.
And she paid the price for that, time after time. The warrior looked at her partner, whose face in sleep belied the knowledge and experience that exceeded the tender number of years Gabrielle had actually lived. I almost lost her in Britannia. And afterward, I did lose her for a while. And why was I in Britannia? To fight Caesar. Where was I when she was almost raped by Antony and when she was tricked into losing her blood innocence? Making plans to fight Caesar.
I left her on a dock in Greece, and I never intended to return, because I thought my past with Lao Ma was more important than my future with her. She betrayed me in Chin. I went there to settle a debt I owed Lao Ma. And how did I meet Lao Ma? While running from Caesar.
The next time we went to Rome, she was forced to make a decision that led to the execution of Crassus. And I know that she considered it to be her third kill, even though she never touched the axe that took his head off. She did that because of me. And why were we in Rome? Once again, they had been going up against Caesar.
She led an army against two opposing legions of Rome, while I was down in a pit fighting with Pompey and Caesar. Gabrielle ... led ... an army. Because I couldn't ... no ... didn't choose ... to be there. What in Hades was I thinking? Gabrielle had never led an army before. She could easily have been killed.
Hot tears stung the warrior's eyes, and she angrily brushed them away. The anger was directed at herself, as she reluctantly forced herself to come to terms with the fact that every single time she had pursued her need for revenge against Caesar, Gabrielle had paid the price. One by one, small pieces of the bard's heart and soul had been offered up as a sacrifice to Xena's unquenchable need to win.
And after that last battle against Pompey, she finally made the supreme sacrifice. My sweet pure Gabrielle paid with her life. Because I left her behind. To go kill Caesar.
Not only did Caesar shape my life. He shaped hers too.
What have I done to her?
And why in the name of all that is decent in this world is she still with me?
And today, if I hadn't gone inside that healer's tent when I did ...
Baby, it ends tomorrow.
We will win, and we will go home. And I will never raise a sword against Rome again. The price is too great.
With her final piece of motivation hammered firmly in place, the warrior drifted off into fitful uneasy dreams.
Continued in Part 11
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