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? This chapter contains a battle scene, along with graphic descriptions of some injuries. The squeamish should consider themselves duly warned.
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: email@example.com
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 September 12, 2000)
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear ...
-1 John 4:18, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
"Captain." A low male voice awakened the warrior from outside the tent.
She opened her eyes and blinked at the darkness, briefly disoriented as to where she was. She could feel the thick sleeping furs beneath herself, but there were no stars. Oh yeah. Tent. War. Antony. Ugh. Why do I feel so heavy?
"Just a second." She whispered with a hiss, and carefully assessed her surroundings, trying to determine what time it was, and why she was having trouble moving. Ahhh. She could smell the sandalwood scent of their bath soap very close to her nose, and she smiled affectionately.
Gabrielle was sprawled at an angle on top of her, the bard's head tucked against her neck, her silky hair tickling the warrior's cheek. Her arms completely circled Xena's torso, and she had one leg thrown across the warrior's upper thighs, effectively pinning her in place on the bedroll.
How did that happen? Musta slept harder than I thought I would. One by one, she carefully disengaged herself from her lover's arms and legs, and rolled to one side.
The bard frowned in her semi-conscious state, and reached out, snagging the hem of Xena's sleep shirt, trying to drag her back into place. "Dark." Gabrielle mumbled. "Sleep."
"Sweetheart." Xena pried the small fingers away from her shirt. "I need to get up."
"Bad warrior." The bard made one last grab for her partner, and failing to make contact with anything solid, she let out an agitated breath and then settled back down into the bedroll, obviously sound asleep again.
The warrior chuckled as she tugged on her boots and laced her leathers up. I oughta just let her sleep right through the battle. She'd be safer that way. And she sleeps so soundly, she'd probably never know until it was too late to catch up with the men. Xena grew solemn, a part of her wishing she really could do just that. Gods know if I did, even if I survived the battle, she'd kill me when I return.
Xena crab-walked over her lover and then scooted out of the tent, standing up and stretching her sleep-stiffened muscles. Off to one side of the canvas shelter, she recognized one of the men she had sent to the nearest guard post the previous evening. He stood at attention, his rigid disciplined stance causing the warrior to wince internally. Too damned early to be that formal. She looked up at the remaining stars and judged that it was about two candle marks until dawn. "At ease. What's up?"
The man's shoulders relaxed and he clasped his hands loosely behind his back. "Captain, Antony and his army have passed the two furthest outposts. He's about three candle marks from the isthmus, if he keeps moving at his current pace."
So. We fight at dawn. Xena allowed herself a brief moment of optimism. Maybe we can wrap this up before lunch. She glanced around the motionless camp, her sensitive ears detecting snores of varying pitch and decibel-levels. One advantage of being with a woman. She smiled. The bard's light nasally sounds actually served to lull her to sleep, and were almost melodic in comparison to the deep rumbles that emanated from the nearby army encampment.
The warrior looked up at the stars again and then toward the east. The only sign yet of the rising sun was a thin sliver of dark purple light on the horizon to the east. She slowly panned back around toward the west, where Antony would be marching from.
Weird time to attack. She puzzled. He'll be marching directly into the sun. That'll put him at a disadvantage visually. Unless ... She thought about a battle against a friend turned enemy, a giant that she and the Israelite David had bested by reflecting the sunlight into his eyes with a row of shining metallic mirrors. Thanks, Goliath.
"Wake Octavian up first, and tell him to meet me in the command tent as soon as possible. Roust the mess captains next and tell them breakfast needs to be served quickly. Then get rest of the camp up and tell them to be ready to move in a candle mark." She squinted across the flat landscape again, this time seeing the first barely-detectible dark pink tint on the edge of the now dark blue sky. "The men need to be sure to attach their face shades to the brims of their helmets."
"Yes, captain." The soldier saluted with an exuberant thump of his fist to his chest, and hustled away toward the other side of the tent-city, where Octavian's tent was pitched.
Xena lit a torch on a stand near the tent, and pinned one tent flap open so the light would penetrate the darkness within. She then ducked back inside and crawled up next to her partner. "Gabrielle, it's time."
"Time." The bard parroted her and pursed her lips in irritation, rolling over so that she was facing away from the unwelcome voice trying to coax her into wakefulness.
"Come on." The warrior gently shook a linen-covered shoulder until she was rewarded with the sight of one partially-open eye. "Gabri-e-elle. Get up." Xena reached for her armor and bracers with one hand, while the other continued to pat the bard's arm.
Oh Hades. The warrior tossed the armor outside the tent, one piece at a time, along with her weapons, and then leaned over her partner. She grinned and then planted a big sloppy kiss on Gabrielle's cheek. "Mmmm. Bard. The breakfast of champions."
"Blechhk. Xena!" Gabrielle threw the blanket back and sat part way up, squinting into the torchlight outside. She swiped the back of her hand across her wet cheek and scowled. "What are you doing? It's still dark."
"I know." She pushed the disheveled blonde bangs away from her partner's eyes. "Antony's army will be here in less than three candle marks. Time to get ready."
"Oh." Gabrielle rubbed her eyes with her fists and then watched as the warrior exited the tent. "Hey. Where you going?"
The dark head poked back inside. "I'm going to meet Octavian in the command tent. Come on over there after you're dressed, okay?" The warrior disappeared again, and Gabrielle could hear the metallic sounds of her armor clasps snapping into place. The next noise was the familiar hiss of Xena's sword blade sliding into its scabbard.
"Okay." Gabrielle crawled over to the corner of the tent where she had laid out her own weapons and armor before they went to bed. She paused, considering the thick leather hinged plates that would protect her torso, and then ran her fingertips lightly along the smooth flat blade of Ephiny's sword.
This is it. She knew a good dose of fear was normal. Healthy even. It would be foolish to go into battle completely confident. The sense of danger kept one from taking unnecessary chances. Of course, she thought wryly, our life together has been a long string of calculated and not-so-calculated risks, hasn't it?
They hadn't been in a big battle since the Amazons fought Brutus and Pompey. Many of their friends had given their lives up for that cause. Every time we fight Rome, someone I care about dies.
This trip had been a little different from the others. She and her partner had spent much of the time separate and apart from the rest of the army, trying as best they could to steal some quality minutes alone together. The bard smiled. The time together had been really good. Even though they were not new to each other as friends, they were still relatively new to each other as lovers. As with any relationship, they were still getting to know each other on this new level. The last few days had brought them much closer together, but as a result, Gabrielle hadn't really gotten to know any of Octavian's men.
She hated death and the horror she had come to know as war. But it was even more difficult to face back home in Greece. There, she often met wives and children, and became friends with the men she fought beside. It broke her heart to watch a friend die. Even one she had only known for a short while. The men in Octavian's army were still virtual strangers to her.
I'm sorry people are going to die today, but at least this time I won't feel it on such a personal level. The only person I'm really close to here is Xena. She paused. And then sucked in a breath, as her own thoughts sunk in.
"What?" The warrior popped partway back inside the tent with an annoyed expression on her face.
"Nothing." The bard bit her lower lip, trying to ignore the cold finger of fear that carved an icy path up her spine. "I love you. That's all."
Two blue eyes blinked and the tanned face softened into a smile. "That ..." Xena crawled all the way in and reached across the distance between them, pulling her partner up close against her. She ducked her head and leisurely kissed Gabrielle for a long moment. "... that is everything."
She traced her partner's jawline with one finger, tilting the bard's chin up. "Gabrielle, I love you too. I ... um ..." The warrior hedged, and then unclasped one side of her armor, and peeled down one strap of her leathers, followed by the left front side of the leather bodice, revealing a swatch of golden cloth that had been carefully stitched to the inside of the soft supple material.
"You ..." The bard fingered the fleecy waffled material, recognizing it in the faint light of the torch. "That's from my skirt. The one I got in India. I was wearing it when I ..."
"You were wearing it when you tried to save my life, love." Xena looked down at the frayed scrap, and the bard thought she detected a faint hint of a quiver in the sturdy chin. "In that prison cell, when you told me you chose the way of friendship. I ... after I found this when we went back, I wanted to always remember that there was someone who was willing to sacrifice their life for me. I wanted to carry this little part of you over my heart, so I'd always have it with me."
"Xena." Gabrielle helped her partner re-fasten her armor. When she was satisfied that everything was settled back into place, she lifted a large hand and brought it up to her lips, pressing them against it for the briefest moment. "I will always be with you."
"So sweet." The warrior cupped her partner's face, and let her fingers slowly trail away, as she backed out of the tent. "See you in a bit."
"Yeah." Gabrielle shook her head to clear it, and quickly donned her own armor and boots.
A soft ocean breeze ruffled Xena's dark hair, and she sniffed the air with appreciation, enjoying the fresh salty scent. She and Gabrielle had ridden to the northern side of the isthmus, while Octavian and one of his regiment leaders had gone to the south, to make sure Cleopatra's navy had moved into position. It had, and the long rows of armed war boats bobbing off shore were a sight to behold in the pre-dawn light.
And Antony thinks they're there to do his bidding. Fool. "Perfect." The warrior purred with feral pleasure. Gods, I love it when a plan comes together.
The fighters who had been assigned to the foremost trenches were settled in place. The remainder of the men, both cavalry and foot soldiers, were spread out strategically along much of the length of either side of the isthmus. They were well-hidden by a heavy growth of tall sea grasses and thicker brush that lined the upper edges of the dunes that led down to the sea on both sides.
Now all they had to do was wait. As far as she could tell, Octavian's men would be undetectable to Antony's troops until the renegade Romans were pinned in from all sides. If all went as she hoped it would, they would never need to fall back on their defensive maneuvers, and would be on the offense for the duration of the battle. Life is good.
Gabrielle had been quiet for most of the morning, an abnormal state that had not gone un-noticed, even to Xena's pre-occupied observation. The bard sat astride her horse, several paces away, staring out toward the Mediterranean. Her mouth was drawn into a permanent tight line, and she kept rolling her staff in her hands in an unconscious nervous gesture.
"Hey." The warrior nudged the black stallion's sides with a squeeze of her calves, and made her way across the dunes to her partner's side. "You ready for this?"
"Ready as I'll ever be." The bard turned to face her lover. Xena's demeanor commanded respect. She had donned the extra pieces of armor that she normally eschewed for everyday travel. A wider set of bracers circled her biceps, along with a coat of fine-mesh chain mail that draped her shoulders, upper back, and chest. She had borrowed a Roman army helmet, the face mask currently pushed back on top of her head to reveal intelligent blue eyes that missed nothing.
Gabrielle thought she had never looked more regal. Truly a warrior princess. "It's moments like this when I understand why men used to follow you into battle without question." I'd certainly follow her to Tartarus and back.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena frowned and shifted, her freshly-polished boots creaking in the well-oiled leather of her stirrups.
"Nothing." The bard played with the staff again, looking closely at the carved Amazon etchings on the surface, along with the double-faced bird's head that adorned one end. "You look really handsome."
The warrior chuckled at the typically masculine characterization. "Thank you." Glad she didn't say 'pretty.' She settled the chain mail into place with an absent tug of her fingers. "I'll be glad when I can take all this stuff off. 'Cause that'll mean we're ready to think about going home."
"Yeah." Gabrielle half-smiled, squinting into the first rays of the sun, as they crept over the far edge of the ocean, creating a palette of vibrant color on the shimmering surface. A flock of seagulls cried overhead, occasionally dipping down into the rolling waves in search of small fish and other edible organisms. The water crashed against the shore in broken up foamy pools, and the grasses all around them in the dunes rustled softly in the continual breeze. Save for the ominous presence of the naval vessels, she could almost pretend they were on another vacation. "It's so beautiful here. Hard to believe that by the end of the day we'll be hauling bodies out to sea."
"Pretty morose, my bard. Not that I would expect you to be dancing for joy right now." Xena thought about her partner's words. All of them, which wasn't too difficult considering how limited they had been since breakfast. Which had been a hurried affair while the warrior checked her maps one last time, and Gabrielle went over last-minute instructions with the chief healer.
"Gabrielle. You don't you follow me without question, do you?" The mere thought made the warrior shudder internally. "Because I ... I sure hope not. I depend on you to keep me from doing some really stupid things sometimes."
"No. Not anymore." Gabrielle finally offered a genuine smile. "I think when we first started traveling together, that would have been true. Then I followed you blindly. Now, I choose to follow you Xena, with my eyes wide open. At first I had no choice but to just do whatever you said to do, or wanted to do, because I didn't know enough about the world and how it works to make informed decisions about things."
She certainly got a fast and harsh lesson about the world. Xena's eyes darted away from her partner's face, suddenly finding a strap on a saddle bag that needed re-tying. Thanks to me. "I wish you'd been spared a lot of the stuff we went through."
"Xena. Don't. I used to feel that way too. But I came to realize something." The bard paused, waiting for the blue eyes to track back toward her.
"What's that?" The deep voice mumbled, the warrior unsure if she wanted to know.
"Everything that happened to us served to mold me. I did begin to think for myself. At first, I wanted to be a warrior, just like you. Then I went the completely opposite direction, and wouldn't fight at all. Now I'm back in the middle somewhere." Gabrielle took a more determined-grasp on the thick wooden staff. "Some things are worth fighting for, Xena." Even worth killing for.
"I hate that you had to learn that." The warrior sometimes missed the wide-eyed innocent wonder her lover used to greet each day with.
"But you are glad I can defend myself, right?"
"Yeah. If you're going to be with me, it's essential." Sad blue eyes acknowledged the truth.
"Well. Since I don't plan on being with anyone else, then you have to let yourself believe that everything ... even the really bad things, happened for a reason, Xena. I'm not going to lie and say that everything we've been through was enjoyable. So much of it has been really, really hard. But I wouldn't trade one minute of it. You know why?"
"Why?" Do I want to know why?
"I choose to believe that if we hadn't taken every step we have so far, we might not be together as partners today." Gabrielle twisted the gold ring on her finger. "If I had to die ... if you had to die with me ... for us to find the love we share, then we did not die in vain, and it was worth every painful agonizing moment, if that's what it took to bring us together ... to discover that we were in love. Every bad thing serves some bit of good, Xena. It has to."
A hint of the feckless kid was evident in Gabrielle's words, and the warrior smiled. Sometimes, when you're really lucky, you get what you wish for. After all was said and done, the bard of Potadeia was still looking for the silver lining.
"We ... um ..." Xena moved closer, until their horses were almost touching. "... better get back to the battle field. Antony should be here pretty soon."
"Guess so." The bard reached out and touched a bare upper thigh, rubbing her fingers against the fine hairs on the downy skin. "Xena, promise me you'll be careful."
"Always." The warrior covered the smaller hand with her own. "You keep your head low. And stay behind me, okay?"
"Of course." Gabrielle took her own borrowed helmet from a hook on the side of the saddle, and pushed it down over her blonde hair.
"Let's go." Xena gave the hand a tiny squeeze before releasing it to take the reins, directing the stallion back toward the middle of the isthmus.
A mahogany bay horse came galloping from the west, its pure black main streaming back behind as tiny flecks of lathery foam flew off its sweaty hide, the rider urging the straining animal to move even faster. The warrior stood up from the saddle, her weight balanced over the stirrups, watching the messenger approach. "Antony's here."
The near-panicked rider brought the horse to an abrupt halt several paces from Xena's thick grassy shelter. "Captain, Antony's men have already passed the first line."
"Thanks. Get back up there and tell the men as soon as they see my banner, follow the plan." The warrior sat back down and hefted up the royal blue standard on its staff, the one she had hoped she'd be carrying. She placed the end of the staff into a slot in the side of the saddle, fastening it securely upright, so she could have both hands free. The crisp material snapped sharply in the breeze, causing Gabrielle to jump before she realized the source of the sound.
The plan was simple. Xena would lead the cavalry down the peninsula, with the foot soldiers behind them. As they made their way toward Antony, all the men and horses that were hiding in the shelter of the brush on either side would join in. When they reached Antony's army, the remaining hidden soldiers would ambush Antony's men from the sides.
At the same time, Cleopatra's men would fall back, and detain anyone who tried to retreat. The naval vessels were to serve as a back-up for anyone who tried to escape by water. And to carry prisoners and wounded back to Alexandria.
"Gabrielle." The warrior paused, giving her partner her full attention. "As far as I'm concerned, you're as good as any soldier out there, in terms of your abilities. But you're not a soldier. You are beholden to no army. Just ... I ... just so you'll know, there's no dishonor if you decide you need to fall back or retreat. No one will think any less of you. Especially me. Understand?"
"Do you want me to fall back?" Gabrielle felt a twinge of hurt, afraid her partner was asking her in a roundabout way to stay behind.
"I can't tell you what to do. You know if it were up to me, you'd be back in the Amazon village." She smiled. "But it's not up to me. What I ultimately want, is for this battle to end with you still alive and in one piece."
"That goes both ways, Xena." The bard gave her weapons a last once-over, making sure the sais were easy to withdraw, and that Ephiny's sword was settled at her side in easy reach. She swung her staff around in a ready stance and took a deep breath. "I'm ready when you are."
"Okay." The warrior winked, and then pulled the sun visor down over her eyes. "If we get separated for any reason, you meet me back at our tent when it's over."
"Gotcha." Gabrielle fastened her chin strap and pulled her own sun visor into place, and followed the warrior out into the open center of the battle field.
Xena looked around, as the cavalry fell in silently behind them. A heartbeat, as she drew her sword, the sound of metal sliding against leather the only sound in the un-nerving quiet. For just a moment no one moved or dared speak. The warrior closed her eyes, allowing the dark side, the part of her that reveled in the glory of battle, to begin to rise to the surface. She accepted the simmering sensation in her veins, knowing it would soon come to a boil. She opened her eyes, drew in an deep breath, and raised her sword, bellowing as loudly as she could. "Charge!"
The silence was broken, as horses and men sprang to life, and hundreds of thundering hoofbeats shook the ground beneath them as if an earthquake were about to ensue. Gabrielle gripped the white mare's sides tightly with her thighs, and urge the animal forward, keeping close behind the warrior, but not so close that she would be in the way. Other cavalry members were spread out behind and beside her, some riding even with the bard, but giving both Xena and Gabrielle a wide berth.
Just as they had planned, as they rode, other men appeared from out of the brush on the sides and joined in the charge. Foot soldiers also stepped out, waiting for the non-riding troops to march by. Gabrielle turned around, craning her neck. Way back behind the horses, partially hidden by a cloud of dust, were hundreds of running men, spears and swords already drawn and ready for action.
Finally, over the next rise, they saw Antony's army approaching. Xena squinted at the front line and chuckled inwardly. Shoulda known Antony is too much of a coward to lead his own army. She re-doubled her efforts, and let her war cry lose, thriving on the sensation of the wind in her face and her hair blowing back from under the helmet.
As they drew ever closer, she caught the glint of sunlight on round metal shields, just as she had expected. Gonna have to get up earlier in the morning to catch me on that one. Amateurs. She glanced over her shoulder with satisfaction, noting that all the men had their face shields pulled low over their eyes to avoid the reflection into their faces.
Xena steeled herself, as she closed the last few remaining meters. The first man she met, who was apparently leading Antony's men, frowned as he realized the sunlight trick wasn't working. The Roman dropped his shield and raised his sword, crossing with the warrior's in an arc as she rode past.
She quickly spun around, coming back by for a second attack. Their blades met in a loud metal clank and both drew back, before swinging at each other again. After several parlays, the warrior swung under and up, using the strength of her powerful shoulder and back muscles to disarm the unprepared Roman. Xena grinned evilly and rammed her sword through the man's lower abdomen, and then kicked him off his horse.
She turned just as a soldier with a spear rode toward her in a head-on charge. She simply slowed her pace and waited. As he approached, she grabbed the shaft and jerked the surprised man out of the saddle, flinging his body through the air as if he were a stick of wood. He hit the uneven turf with a thud and then screamed, as his own spear impaled him, pinning his suddenly lifeless body to the ground.
Xena charged forward, ducking a battle mace that whizzed by so close she heard the whoosh of air as it passed by her ear. She turned and watched as the man rode past her toward Gabrielle. The bard used the butt of her staff, pounding the man in the gut and shoving him off his horse. The warrior smiled as the man tumbled backward, landing behind the hooves of his own mount, which shied and quickly ran away. You go, Gabrielle.
The bard caught the approving expression in her partner's blue eyes, even under the shade of the protective face shield. Gabrielle smiled and then turned back to the task of cleaning up the warrior's leftovers. She winced as a body-less head rolled by, causing her horse to side-step around the gruesome obstacle.
A half candle mark passed, and the battle was well underway. Octavian's army effectively circled Antony's troops, and the renegade Roman's men were dumbfounded as Xena's plans fell into place. Octavian's men attacked from all sides, only allowing a few horses and soldiers to pass through the human barrier they comprised.
Marc Antony was safely sheltered from the front line, seeking the protection of a group of over-armed foot soldiers who warded off anyone who threatened the aspiring ruler of the Roman Empire. He wielded his own sword with limited skill, having sought training from one of Rome's best instructors prior to departing for Egypt. He had also studied several scrolls full of battle tactics and strategy, although he left the actual decision-making up to his more knowledgeable generals.
A rider came thundering forward, and pulled up next to Antony's entourage. "Sir. The Egyptians have turned on us. Seems they have orders from the queen to back Octavian and the warrior princess."
The Roman glared at the messenger. "Ride to the front and let the generals know what's going on."
"Yes sir." The soldier disappeared through the hodge-podge of fighting men.
"Xena!" Antony roared with rage. "By the gods I'm going to take care of her myself, if it's the last thing I do. And then I have a little surprise for Cleopatra when I return to Cairo. Come on, let's move!" He barked at the men around him. They strode forward, the Roman's sole focus on sighting a six-foot female warrior with long dark hair and flashing blue eyes.
As far as Gabrielle could see, pockets of men were facing off, either on foot or on horseback. She tried not to focus too much on the numerous dead and wounded that littered the ground. She passed one of Xena's spike-filled pits and forced herself to ignore the anguished screams that rose up from within. It's war, Gabrielle. Death and pain are unavoidable.
The bard became quickly aware of the living soldiers who were charging forward toward her, and realized that she was about to take on three riders at once. One of the horses pulled ahead of the other two, and she made a neat swipe with the staff, knocking the man solidly in his back as he passed by. She heard the crunch of bones breaking, and the man slumped sideways and slid off the horse, landing limply on the ground with his arms and legs at odd angles from his body.
Gods. Did I kill him? She thought she saw his arms moving, and then turned to face the remaining two soldiers. They were approaching fast, and she held the staff tightly in the middle, the ends jutting out on either side of her. She urged the mare forward between the two horses, and gritted her teeth as the staff impacted both men in the stomach.
She partially achieved her goal, knocking both men out of the saddle. Unfortunately, they outweighed her by a good one hundred fifty pounds each, and suddenly, she felt her legs pull away from her horse. She hit the ground and rolled forward, her staff ripped from her grasp as the two men also landed nearby.
Gabrielle jumped up to her feet and made a quick decision, reaching down and drawing her sais from her bootstraps. One of the soldiers was obviously injured, curled up in a ball holding his stomach, as he moaned in pain. The other one growled, an animal-like sound that ripped from his throat, and he charged her with his sword drawn.
Over the next rise, Xena assessed her surroundings and made a decision to voluntarily dismount. She had penetrated most of Antony's cavalry, and now faced the barrage of foot soldiers that followed them, much in the same fashion she and Octavian had set up their men. She was finding it difficult to get in effective strikes from so far above the men she faced, and her horse was in ever-increasing danger of becoming a target.
She let out a blood-curdling yell and leaped forward and up, flipping over the black stallion's head and landing in the middle of a group of very surprised soldiers. The warrior began to systematically slash and kick, dis-arming her attackers one by one until only two held on steadfastly to their swords. Xena grabbed her chakram in her left hand, and swiped at one man with her sword on the right.
She watched with satisfied detachment as the soldier's sword-arm ripped lose from its socket, and warm blood spurted freely from the gaping wound, liberally spraying Xena's legs and torso with the copper-scented liquid. Before she could pivot, she felt a stinging sensation on her left upper arm, between her chain mail and her bracer. She spun around savagely, to find a fresh cut across her outside upper biceps. Damn that hurts. Why do they always go for that same spot? She faced the responsible party and her eyes narrowed. With one swift sideways arc of the chakram, the man's head went flying, and the lifeless body immediately sunk to the ground.
Xena's senses went into overload, as they were assaulted on all fronts. The sun beat down mercilessly, and she could feel her sweaty hair under her helmet. Her nose took in the scent of blood and sun-warmed grass and earth, which rose up from the ground and mingled together in an odd mix that pleased and repulsed at the same time. All around, she could hear the sounds of metal and wood clashing, the cries of injured men, and the neighs of frightened horses. She scanned the battle ground and realized that the one thing she needed to see was nowhere in sight.
"Gabrielle!" She looked around frantically and realized that a large group of Antony's men were closing in on her. There would be no time to search for her partner until the current threat was eradicated. Be safe, love, wherever you are. Maybe she retreated. Xena fervently hoped her partner had taken shelter somewhere out of the thick of fighting.
"I need back-up here!" The warrior yelled fiercely, and then took on the defensive stance of her life, meeting the onslaught with sword swinging and punches flying, throwing in an occasional round-house kick. She counted at least two dozen men, and was aware of re-enforcements at her back, holding off the ones she couldn't see.
Xena managed to kill or injure most of her frontal attackers, and watched as others began to retreat. She was still well-aware of soldiers fighting each other behind her, and continued to face her few remaining assailants from the front. She routinely slashed and kicked, sometimes flipping out of the way and sometimes striking back directly. She grinned ferally, allowing the dark side to come out and play, enjoying the surge of energy that bubbled up each time her sword connected with weapon or body.
"No. Back off!" A male voice rang out from down field. "This one's mine."
Antony. The warrior watched as her attackers all stood down, allowing the Roman access to the most coveted prize of the battle. She continued to hold her sword in a defensive pose, and felt her upper lip curl into a snarl. Antony stopped short, just out of reach.
"Xena. We finally meet face-to-face." He smiled sarcastically.
"Not usually your style, is it?" The warrior side-stepped, beginning to circle the Roman. "Being the coward that you are. Don't you usually get other people to do your dirty work? Wouldn't want to soil those lily-white hands of yours, now would you?" She eyed the smooth skin of the man's fingers and the backs of his hands. Not a single scar. I'll bet this is his first battle. She snorted.
"Ah, but Xena. Why put myself in danger when I can get others to protect me?" Antony studied the warrior's hands, which were liberally covered with scars and callouses. "Poor little Gabrielle. You use those beat-up paws to pleasure her? Pity. She was so beautiful when she disrobed for me ... such soft skin, and gods does she smell good. She deserves better. Too bad she ran away from me. She doesn't know what she missed."
Xena heard a low rumbling roar, and dimly realized it was a growl coming from deep in her own gut. She sprang forward, attacking the startled man with a vengeance, using strong blow after strong blow to force him back and around the small rise they were perched upon. She grinned at the Roman's text-book strikes. "What's the matter, Marc? Did you fail sword-wielding class? I've seen more battle-worthy fighting from ten-year-old village girls."
"Big words from someone who managed to get herself hung on one of Caesar's crosses. Twice." Antony smiled, seeing that he had struck a nerve. "How is Gabrielle doing? Has she forgiven you for dragging her down with you? Bet she still has nightmares. Bet you do too."
Gods. Has this guy been taking lessons from Alti on getting inside my head? Xena forced herself to shake off the comments, knowing that her anger was on the verge of slipping past a point where she could make intelligent decisions. Not good. Gotta stay focused.
"You know ..." The warrior gritted her teeth, as their swords continued to cross. "... you can try to kill me with words all damned day long, and it ain't gonna work. So ..." She jumped up, as the Roman made a swipe at shin-level. "... why don't you shut up and fight like a man? Although ..." She leveled an obvious stare directly between Antony's legs, remembering the repulsive sight of the man sleeping naked in Cleopatra's bed chamber. "... judging from the equipment you're packing, maybe you're not a man. If Gabrielle ever decides she needs one of those, I can buy a bigger one in any village between here and the far coast of Chin. And I actually know how to use it. Unlike you, I always finish what I start."
Gotcha. She watched Antony's face twist with rage. The momentary loss of concentration was all she needed, as she struck hard from over her head, slamming the Roman's sword out of his hand, sending it sailing several meters away. This is for every woman you've ever hurt. Not just Gabrielle, but the ones who didn't get away. Xena didn't even hesitate, as she rebounded from the blow, striking backward and sideways, cleanly separating Antony's head from his shoulders.
For all practical purposes, with that blow, the battle was over. But it would take a while for news to travel down the field, and until then, defensive maneuvers would be in order. She spun around to help finish off the rest of the group, which apparently found it necessary to continue fighting in order to defend the slain Roman's honor. Just as she turned, one of her own men unexpectedly stepped aside and allowed three of Antony's men to rush forward. The confused warrior quickly took out the nearest one with a stab to the chest.
She turned and then gasped in surprise, as she felt the skin of her left leg rip away from the muscle. She was aware of her legs buckling, and she slowly dropped to the ground, landing on her good knee. She watched with fascination as blood poured from a wide slash that ran from just below the edge of her battle dress to the top of her left knee cap. Shoulda put on the upper leg armor. She hardly ever wore it because it made it more difficult to ride and perform the numerous flips that were part of her fighting repertoire.
She could feel her body growing weak, and small black spots dotted her vision. She looked around wildly and ripped Antony's cape from his shoulders, quickly using it to tie a tight tourniquet around her upper leg, which immediately slowed the flow of blood. The warrior dimly heard someone rushing from behind and turned, ready to take a stand in defending herself. She shook her head vigorously and gripped her sword hilt in a cold sweaty palm. Her forearm muscles quivered, and she willed herself to hold on.
But her body won, and her one good leg would no longer hold her up in a kneeling position. Xena landed on her back and looked from side to side. She only saw one pair of Roman sandals nearby at eye level, and prayed it was someone on Octavian's side. The sandals shuffled through the carpet of grass and stopped next to her. With great effort she looked up and saw Gregorias towering over her, wearing a menacing stare.
"You ... you let those men get to me, didn't you?" Xena found speech difficult at best, and her voice sounded in her ears as if it were coming from deep inside a well. "Why?"
"I decided last night to switch sides." Gregorias cast off the smile, his voice even and low. "I can't let Octavian rule Rome. Not if he's going to form diplomatic ties with a pervert like you."
The warrior frowned for a moment, her fuzzy brain trying to wrap around the traitor's statement. "You're switching sides because I'm with Gabrielle?" Her words choked out from a suddenly dry throat.
The Roman knelt down next to her, and placed one hand on her injured leg. With an evil grin, he squeezed the wound together. Xena screamed in pain, and the grin grew wider, as he realized that to everyone around it looked as if he were trying to tend to her injury. "That's right."
The warrior felt tears stinging her eyes and hated the obvious sign of weakness. "Let me see if I understand you." Despite her injury, the absurdity of the situation forced a wry smile to her lips. "You have a problem with my relationship with Gabrielle because we're both women?"
"That sums it up."
"So ... if I was a man, you wouldn't have a problem with it?"
"Then, if nothing else changed, except that I suddenly grew a penis, then you would be okay with it?" Xena could feel herself slipping from consciousness, and she forced herself to move her injured leg, hoping the pain would shock her back into a more coherent state. She winced as sharp stabbing jolts shot into her foot and up her left side.
"Correct, because then you would be a man."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Xena chuckled weakly. "Besides, even if I were to grow one, I can assure you that I would still be what I am inside, and that is a woman who is very much in love with another woman. My gender just doesn't amount to more than a pile of Centaur poop. Love is love, Gregorias. Not that you could even begin to understand it."
"It doesn't matter if I understand you or not, because you don't matter anymore." Gregorias eyed Antony's dead body several feet away. "Antony obviously isn't going to be ruling Rome, but I'll be damned to Tartarus if I'm going to let Octavian win. And without you, he's pretty helpless. That much is obvious. It will be a pleasure presenting your head to Antony's successors."
Xena saw the man stand, saw him raise his sword, and made a valiant effort to lift her own sword. It slipped from her fingers with a thud, and landed uselessly next to her. Gods. Out of time. Again. Gabrielle, I love you. I'll be waiting for you under our tree, just like we promised. She forced herself to keep her eyes open and watched, almost as if she were floating outside herself, as Gregorias paused at the height of his reach.
The warrior flinched, as a sai flew over her, impaling Gregorias in the throat. His mouth flew open, as if to cry out, but no sound came from his severed vocal cords. He dropped his weapon and it flipped over, hitting him on the foot with its hilt. He slowly sunk to his knees next to Xena, and his eyes rolled back into his head before he fell backward. The warrior knew he was dead, knew at whose hands, and prayed to the gods that she wouldn't be joining him right away. Please, baby. Get here quickly. I have some things I need to say to you while I still can.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's anguished sobbing cry rang across the distance between them. The bard ran on leaden feet, over the rise and down to the warrior's still form, which was stretched out on the ground between two dead bodies. Gabrielle stumbled down next to the warrior, pulling Xena's head and shoulders into her lap. The warrior's eyes were closed and her chest rose and fell in uneven shallow breaths. "Somebody help me!"
"Wake up!" Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face, and she rocked her partner. "Don't you dare leave me. Don't you dare. It's not time yet, Xena."
"Hey." A very faint voice rasped. "You got here." Blue eyes fluttered open and the warrior smiled sadly. "Glad."
"Xena." Gabrielle pulled the metal helmet from her partner's head and unfastened the chain mail and breast plate armor. She carefully lifted the warrior's upper body and removed the heavy pieces, hoping it would ease Xena's breathing. The angry gaping wound made Gabrielle's stomach churn, and she swallowed bile that suddenly rose up in her throat. It was obvious the warrior had lost a lot of blood in a very short amount of time, and the bard was terrified, her heart pounding double time and threatening to explode inside her chest.
"Sweetheart." Xena whispered. Try to stay calm. I ..." The warrior placed a hand over her own heart. "I can feel your fear. So close ... to you. Lao Ma's gift."
"Sorry." Gabrielle took several deep breaths and idly combed her fingers through the dark hair. "Tell me what to do. How can I help you?"
The warrior turned her head. "Get one of your sais and slip it between the knot in the tourniquet and my skin, and use it to twist the material even tighter. When you can't turn it any further, get someone to hold it in place so it won't come loose." Xena coughed weakly.
"Won't it hurt?" Two blonde brows knitted in concern.
"Already hurts." The warrior lifted her head, trying to get a better look at her injury. "But the tighter tourniquet will help slow the flow of blood from my heart to the cut even more. Can't lose too much blood." But I probably already have. Xena fought to maintain her wits. Gotta talk to her.
The warrior felt her partner shift down and begin working with her sai. "Gabrielle. Listen. I don't have a lot, but back in Amphipolis ... back in one of the caves up in the hills where the sheep are pastured for the winter. I have a cache of weapons that have never been used. They'd sell for a nice price on the open market."
"Xena." Gabrielle had begun to tighten the tourniquet, and watched her partner dig her fingernails into the ground next to her, as her face twitched in pain. "What are you talking about? You're not making sense, honey."
"Just ... thought ..." The warrior found she couldn't continue to hold her head up, and she slumped back down against the grass. "... you can always stay with the Amazons if you want to. But the weapons would bring in enough for you to be more secure ... if you ever decided you want to go back to the bard's academy in Athens again, finish out the course ... or if you want to travel or something. You'd have the funds to do it with. And don't forget my mother told you that you will always have a home with her if you want it. Hercules and Iolaus ... you can call on them too, any time, if you need them. Iolaus always was sweet on you." Xena's lips trembled in a smile.
Gabrielle's face grew pale with horror, as she understood what her partner was getting at. "Xena." She fought the urge to shake some sense into her injured lover. "Don't you dare start talking like that. The only thing I want to hear from you right now is how to care for your wound. Nothing else."
"Baby. I don't know if I can ..."
"No." The bard snapped at her partner. "Not a word of it. You are not allowed to die today. Got me?"
"Yes ma'am." The warrior whispered, but she was smiling. "Hey. We won."
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked around, and only a few soldiers were still squaring off. Milling about way down field, she could see small sections of Antony's men, who had obviously surrendered to Octavian's army captains. "Yes, honey. I think we did." The bard brushed a tear from her own cheek. Everyone that was supposed to win won today. Everyone but us.
Octavian came running up from behind the rise, and spotted warrior and bard on the ground. He quickly made his way to Gabrielle's side and knelt down next to Xena. He stifled his reaction at the wide gaping slash and the copious amount of blood soaking the ground around the warrior's leg. He was certain the wound was bone-deep. No one survived an injury like that in the field.
"Xena." The Roman forced himself to sound cheerful. "Bit of a cut, huh?"
"Yeah." The warrior rolled her head toward his voice. Her eyes were starting to cloud again. "Just a little scratch. No big deal. I've had worse." 'Course, I died both of those times. She added silently. "Hey." She tried to point toward Antony. "I have a present for you. Antony's head."
"I see." Octavian glanced at the proffered gift, which lay nearby next to its body. "That's truly a prize. Thank you."
"You've got the Empire now." Xena shivered, the loss of blood causing her body temperature to drop. "All yours."
"I have you to thank for that. I ..."
"Sorry to interrupt." Gabrielle gently broke in. "But I need to take care of Xena's leg. Honey, please. Tell me what to do."
Octavian and the warrior exchanged a knowing glance, and Xena shook her head just the slightest bit. No need to tell her to give up yet. Let her feel like she tried to do something.
"Okay. Listen carefully, 'cause I don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep from passing out. I need you to build a fire, right here." She watched as Octavian immediately began clearing a patch of ground, while shouting orders to soldiers nearby to find wood or brush and bring it over. "Thank you. Now, get into my saddle bags and pull out my healer's kit and a flask of wine."
Gabrielle released the end of the sai to another soldier who had wandered up. "Hold that in place, and don't let go." She dashed over to the black stallion and retrieved the necessary items, quickly returning to her partner's side. "What next?"
"Hold the flask to my lips sweetheart. I need to drink about half of it."
"Xena, it's full. I don't ..."
"I know." The warrior tried to sit up, but failed. "I'm going to need it. Please."
Gabrielle complied, and watched as her partner drained half of the dark red spirit. It was obvious that just drinking and swallowing was causing the warrior pain. The bard felt fresh tears sting her own eyes, and she sniffed and blinked, trying to hold them at bay. Finally Xena turned her head, indicating that she had her fill.
The warrior began to feel the wine numbing her senses just a bit, and laid one hand on Gabrielle's, which rested lightly against Xena's stomach. "Wash the cut out with wine and then pack it with herbs. If I cry out, just ignore me. The alcohol is gonna hurt like Hades, but it will help clean out the wound."
The bard bit her lower lip and lifted the flask. Blue eyes and green met, as Gabrielle began to liberally wash out the wide slash. She saw the blue eyes water, and Xena's chest heaved with the effort of trying to control her need to yell. "Xena. Let it out, honey. Please. Don't hurt yourself anymore than you already are."
With her partner's permission, the warrior finally screamed long and loud, pounding the earth with her fists as tears spilled over and down her face. The pain was excruciating. Better pull myself together. She felt her partner dusting the wound with the powdered herbs. It ain't over yet.
"Honey." The bard finished with the herbs and scooted up to cradle the dark head in her lap again. "Gods I hated doing that. What next?"
You're going to hate this even more. Weak fingers curled around small ones that rested on Xena's shoulder. "Baby. You've got to be strong for me. Um ... do you remember when I cauterized your arrow wound?"
Oh gods. Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Yes." That was the third most painful experience of my life. The crucifixion was first, and the act of actually pushing the arrow through her shoulder was second. Giving birth to Hope was no picnic either. She mused inwardly.
"We've got to stop the bleeding deep inside the wound. Go get your other sai..." Xena stopped and swallowed, knowing where the other sai was. She looked up into steadfast green eyes that shone with love and concern.
"The way of friendship, Xena." Gabrielle managed to smile. "No regrets. Not now. Not ever. What do I need to do?"
"Heat the tip of the sai until it's red hot. Then stick it in there. No matter how much I scream, you need to make sure you run the entire length of the cut." The warrior tried to squeeze her partner's hand. "Get some men to hold down my arms and legs. And ... get a strip of leather or something for me to chew on."
"Okay." The bard squared her shoulders unconsciously, preparing herself for the task at hand. "What do I do after that?"
"After you've cauterized the internal injuries, dust the wound with herbs again and sew up the outside. Cover it up and then check it every few candle marks. I'm probably going to be out for a while. If I begin to run a fever, start watching the wound for drainage. If you see anything besides clear drainage or blood, you'll need to open up the stitches and let the cut drain more freely."
"Okay. I can do that." Gabrielle pushed sweaty dark strands of hair out of the warrior's face and off her neck. Despite the sweat, Xena's skin was cool under her fingertips. "Do I need to give you herbs for fever or pain?"
"Yeah. Both. Just like you always do. Nothing different." The blue eyes tracked upward, and Xena focused on her partner's anxious face. "Gabrielle, if my leg becomes infected, and I mean really infected. Lots of ugly drainage, any foul odor with red lines creeping out from the wound up and down my leg just under the skin, you need to find a healer to take the leg off."
"Xena. Oh gods, honey. I don't know if I can do that." Gabrielle began to cry again, and the warrior tried to reach up and touch the bard's face. Her arm dropped weakly back down, falling short of her goal.
"Hey." Xena settled for holding onto the hand against her stomach. "I trust you, baby. It's only a drastic measure, if nothing else can be done. An infection that bad will kill me. Better to have one leg than to die, huh?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle sniffled. "How can I try to ward off any infection?"
"Just need to keep the wound as clean and dry as possible. Change the dressings often and flush it out with clean water and the herbs each time. Other than that, there's nothing much else we can do." The warrior was aware of Octavian moving all around them while they talked, and realized that he had quietly built the fire they would need. "Thank you."
"No problem." The Roman's eyes betrayed his understanding of just how grave Xena's situation was. "I'll have one of the men start to build a litter for you, so that we can transport you back to camp. Plus we'll need it when we break camp tomorrow and head back to Cairo."
"Um ... thanks." Damn. The warrior had half-way convinced herself that maybe she could survive, but suddenly, the three-day trip back across the desert, in her mind, signified the final nail in her coffin. In this heat, there's no way. Even by boat, the trip would take at least two days. "Gabrielle." She forced eye contact and a smile for her crying lover. "Looks like everything is ready. Best get to work before I lose any more blood."
"Okay." The bard started to move away and felt a surprisingly strong hand close around her wrist.
"Gabrielle. I love you." Xena managed to bring her lover's knuckles to her lips. "What I said to you, back when I thought I was going to lose you, is still true. Even in death Gabrielle, I will never leave you."
"I think you've proven that." The bard leaned over and with trembling lips, placed a chaste kiss on her partner's cheek. "But you're not going to die, Xena. Not now. Not tomorrow. I'm not going to let that happen. I love you. And I have every intention of standing beside you at our joining ceremony and promising, in front of all our friends and family, to love you forever. Forever isn't over yet, Xena. It's just beginning."
Octavian quietly watched the poignant scene, and walked over to Gregorias, gingerly tugging at the sai where it was imbedded in the dead man's throat. He strode back over and held the end into the fire, watching as the blue and yellow flames licked at the metal, heating it to a bright red glow. Ouch. He winced, knowing what the weapon was about to be used for. He'd never been around such carnage as he saw today, and certainly had little knowledge regarding the art of healing.
Gabrielle summoned four soldiers over, and instructed each one to hold down one of the warrior's legs or arms. "Hold her tight. She may be a woman, but she's just as strong as any of you." The bard saw her lover's lower lip poke out in a pout, despite her pain. "Stronger." She was rewarded with a faint smile.
Okay. Now I need to cut a strip of leather off of something. She knelt down next to Xena and carefully reached under the top edge of her partner's leathers, retrieving the breast dagger from the warrior's cleavage.
"Sorry, sweetheart." Xena teased weakly. "Not that you aren't incredibly attractive, but believe it or not, for the first time since we came back from the Elysian Fields, I'm not in the mood. Check with me later."
The bard blushed furiously, knowing the men had heard her lover's comment. "You are so bad."
"And you love that about me." The warrior smiled briefly, and then winced as a sharp pain shot down her leg.
"Yes I do." Gabrielle sliced through one of the thick plates of her own leather armor, carving out a mouth-sized piece for her partner. She looked sideways at Octavian, who held up the sai and nodded, indicating it was ready.
"Xena." The bard scooted up near the warrior's face, and peered down into the partially-focused blue eyes. "The sai's ready. I ..."
"I trust you completely, baby." Xena was already secured, and couldn't reach out to her partner, who was openly crying. "Gabrielle. Kiss me. And get this over with. And please don't cry."
"Can't help it." The bard rubbed her hand across her eyes. "I hate hurting you. Even if it's for your own good."
"And I hate seeing you cry." The warrior smiled sadly. "But it was a selfish request. If you're crying you can't see real well, and I'd prefer you not cauterize anything that doesn't need it."
A small pathetic chuckle escaped Gabrielle's lips. "Good point." She leaned down and gently brushed her mouth against Xena's. As she raised up, she ran her thumb across the full parched lips and then carefully offered the piece of leather to her partner, who bit down on it and closed her eyes. "I love you, Xena."
The bard accepted the heated sai from Octavian, took a deep breath, and quickly plunged it into the wound. Her stomach turned at the smell of burning flesh, and she feared she would throw up before she completed the task.
It felt like she was being skinned alive, starting with her leg. The warrior kept her eyes closed, feeling the tears squeeze out. She wailed in agony into the piece of thick leather, certain she was going to bite it in two. She could taste blood in her mouth, and her lungs ached from her silent screams. Every nerve stood on end, and the pain finally settled somewhere in her gut, between her naval and her groin. Her arms and legs involuntarily fought the men who held her down, and her entire body jerked over and over again, as she felt the hot poker drag the length of the slash.
What seemed like hours in reality only took a few seconds, and Gabrielle quickly tossed the sai aside. No longer able to hold back, she turned around and crawled several feet away, and wretched up her breakfast. She quickly recovered and took a swig of the wine, rolling it around her mouth to wash out the sour taste. "Move. Out of my way." She shoved the men that were holding Xena's arms down, and resumed her place at Xena's head. She continually stroked the dark hair to comfort her partner, as her tears dripped down to mingle together with Xena's on the warrior's face. "I'm so sorry, love. So so sorry.
Xena spat out the piece of leather, which did indeed have teeth holes bitten all the way through. "Gods." Her jaws ached from clamping down so hard, and she suddenly felt light-headed, as she allowed her body to relax from the ordeal. "Gabrielle." She rubbed her face as long trembling breath escaped her lips. "Sew me up."
"Yeah." The bard reached across and retrieved a needle and some gut from the warrior's healer's kit. As she began to make the tiny even stitches, she felt the skin under her fingers twitch. "Guess this is nothing after cauterization, huh?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked up.
"I think she passed out." Octavian studied the strong face, which was no longer etched with lines of pain and worry.
"Thank the gods." The bard finished taking care of her partner's leg, and sprinkled it with herbs. She wrapped the wound in soft brushed linen and then moved up to Xena's left arm. "Might as well take care of this one too." She cleaned the much smaller cut on the warrior's biceps, and then sewed it closed. She softly traced a few other scars in the vicinity of the fresh one, and shook her head. "They always go for her upper left arm. If I had a dinar for every time I've stitched it up, I'd be wealthier than Midas ..." Gabrielle's voice broke and she dropped her head, covering her face with one hand.
Octavian moved over next to her and tentatively draped one arm around the bard's shoulders. "Gabrielle. You've done a good job here. Now all you can do is take care of her and wait."
"I can't lose her." The bard leaned into the Roman's armor-covered chest and began to weep. "She's everything. Everything."
"She's the strongest person I've ever met. If anyone can pull through this, she can." Octavian continued to comfort the bard. "Let's get her back to the healer's tent."
Gabrielle sat back and debated. Part of her wanted to move her lover back into their own tent, but the healer's tent was better-equipped for the ongoing care Xena would need over the next several candle marks. "Okay. I need someone to go get our bedroll and push two pallets together in the healer's tent. I'll be staying with her there. I don't want her to wake up alone in a strange place where she doesn't know anyone."
"As you wish." The Roman stood, and assisted in loading the warrior onto a make-shift litter.
Gabrielle awoke to the sound of incoherent cries directly beside her. She rolled over to find the warrior weakly fighting off one of the healer's assistants, who was desperately trying to administer a dose of liquid pain-killing herbs. "Hey." The bard's brow furrowed in irrational anger. "Give me that."
The intimidated healer complied and backed away a few steps. He had tried several times to care for the injured warrior, and each time Xena had prevented him from touching her. Gabrielle had been sleeping so soundly, they were loathe to wake her for assistance.
"Xena." The bard raised up on her forearm and carefully brushed her fingertips across the pale skin of the warrior's cheek. She frowned at the heat she could feel radiating from her partner's body. "It's okay, honey. It's just me."
"Gabrielle?" Glazed blue eyes opened briefly and then closed again, as the warrior's body visibly relaxed.
The bard laid a hand against a burning forehead. Gods. "What's in here?" She eyed the mug warily and sniffed the contents, wishing she had her partner's gift for identifying substances by scent.
The healer recited a short list of herbs, all used for pain relief.
"Take it back and mix in some of those crushed fever few leaves. And get me a basin of cool water and some clean rags." Gabrielle watched as the healer scurried away to do her bidding.
The bard scrubbed her eyes with her fists and sat up, peering in confusion at several candles that illuminated the inside of the tent. Beyond the entrance, it was pitch black, with no visible stars. "What time is it?"
"A few candle marks before midnight." The healer returned to her side and handed her the mug. "I'll get the basin and rags."
"Thank you." Gabrielle sighed. It had been a very long afternoon. At first, she had cleaned the wound and changed bandages once per candle mark. Xena had drifted in and out of consciousness, and was obviously in a great deal of pain, despite the liberal doses of herbs they had given her. The warrior had not been fully coherent since they had returned to camp. And to make matters worse, in her delirium, she refused to let anyone but Gabrielle take care of her.
The bard had put forth a valiant effort to stay awake, but her fatigued body finally succumbed to Morpheus. She had been asleep for four candle marks. Gabrielle considered that and shuddered. Four candle marks in which she suspected her partner's wound had not been checked. Dammit.
"Xena. Honey." She lifted her partner's shoulders and held the mug to the warrior's lips. "Drink this, love."
"Ugh." The warrior wrinkled her nose and pushed against the rim of the pewter stein with her tongue.
"Come on." Gabrielle persisted. "We don't have any honey to make it taste better. Please, Xena. For me."
"You." Xena mumbled and frowned, but this time she gave in, and swallowed the bitter dose sip by slow painful sip. Her eyes remained closed, and she appeared to slip back into a fitful sleep as soon as Gabrielle lowered her body back down on top of their furs.
The bard set the empty mug aside and laid out the powdered herbs and clean bandage she would need to care for Xena's cut, still waiting for the basin of water. Where in Hades did that healer go? She looked around the tent at the numerous wounded lining both walls of the canvas structure. Most appeared to be sleeping, a few moaning in pain. One other healer moved quietly from soldier to soldier, giving herbs, tucking in blankets, checking stitches, and doing whatever was necessary to try to ease the injured men's pain.
Finally, the basin of water arrived, and Gabrielle unrolled the linen that covered the warrior's injury. The last layer of bandage refused to yield, sticking to the wound, and the bard gasped, as she noted a dried crusted substance seeping through the soft material. No. She dampened the linen with some water, and slowly peeled it away, causing Xena to yelp once from the pain of the material pulling at her stitches.
The bard sucked in a physically painful breath. A thick yellow discharge was oozing from the cut, along with fresh blood. She snatched a candle from a table and held it close. Angry red lines had begun to creep out from the sides of the wound, spidering out all along the edges. The skin all around the stitches was puffy and the gut strained to stretch across the swollen flesh. No. Gods. No.
With trembling hands, Gabrielle ran Xena's breast dagger through the candle flame several times, and then began to slice the stitches open. With each released stitch, more of the discharge seeped out, running down the warrior's leg onto their furs. She grabbed a clean blanket from a nearby saddle bag and folded it under Xena's thigh. The bard mentally kicked herself. I should have stayed awake and taken care of her.
"I need more water." Gabrielle called over to the healer's assistant.
Then man disappeared outside the tent and returned with an extra basin of water. He gasped in shock at the ugly infection. "That leg's gonna have to come off."
"No!" The bard yelled, loud enough to wake several of the other patients. "You go wake the chief healer. Now."
The man stood rooted in place. Gabrielle rose up in rage and shoved him toward the front of the tent. "Go!" He turned on his heels and ran from the furious girl. The bard sank back down and retrieved an entire packet of antiseptic herbs from Xena's saddle bag, which she mixed into the fresh water. She began to wash out the cut, as the chief healer appeared at her side, still wearing a long striped night shirt.
"What's seems to be the problem here?" He peered over her shoulder. "Oh. Leg needs to come off. I'll go stoke the fire outside to sterilize ..."
"No." Cold green eyes were suddenly inches from the man's face. Along with a sai that was digging painfully into his throat. "You touch her leg and I'll run you through."
"Okay, okay." The healer backed away, holding up both hands. "It doesn't need to be done right away. She has a few more candle marks."
"She has more than a few candle marks." Gabrielle's voice was low and even, foreign to her own ears. "You tell him ..." She gestured toward the assistant. "... to bring me a fresh basin of water each time I empty this one. And I need every packet of antiseptic herbs you can spare. And a pile of clean rags."
"Yes. Whatever you need." The healer watched as the bard turned back toward her partner and began to squeeze a rag-full of the herbal water along the length of the wound, repeating the action over and over again. "Do what she says." He muttered discreetly to his assistant. "I'm going to go wake up Octavian." The chief healer made himself scarce, leaving a trembling assistant behind. He'd seen the bard in action. She was a force to be reckoned with.
In the corner, an invisible god of war looked on with grave concern. He growled and then silently snapped his fingers, transporting himself to the halls of Olympus. "Zeus!" He stormed up the imposing steps and into the bed chamber of his father.
"Ares." A very irritated god rose from his bed. "Can't you see I'm sleeping? Whatever it is, it can wait until morning."
"No." Dark eyes flashed. "It can't. You're grand-daughter is dying. We need to talk. Now."
It was near dawn when Octavian chose to go visit Xena and Gabrielle. The chief healer had come to him earlier, insisting that the bard had gone mad and should be restrained while they amputated the warrior's leg. The Roman listened intently and asked several pointed questions, until the healer finally admitted that Xena actually had several more candle marks before a definitive decision would need to be made.
"Well then. Why are you bothering me now?" Octavian groused. "Let Gabrielle do whatever she needs to do. Xena is a skilled healer herself. That's where Gabrielle learned the art. Do you want to suffer the Amazon queen's wrath once we remove the leg and then release her?"
"N ... no." The healer stammered.
"Neither do I. She's fiercely protective of the warrior princess. Pity the man who tries to hurt her. You saw the wound she inflicted on Gregorias, didn't you?"
"Yes, my lord."
"She's good with her weapons. Almost as good as her partner." Octavian smiled. "I've heard stories about the complicated person that is Gabrielle. She doesn't kill. Unless it's to protect Xena. But when push comes to shove, her aim is deadly. Keep that in mind."
"I ... I will, my lord." The healer bowed slightly and backed out of the Roman's tent.
So, with great trepidation, Octavian paused at the entrance to the healer's tent, sighed, and then strode inside. A heart-wrenching sight greeted him. An almost delirious Gabrielle still knelt at Xena's side, her exhausted hands and arms washing out the cut for the thousandth time. Her body trembled with fatigue, and sweat plastered her bangs to her forehead.
"Gabrielle." The Roman stooped down next to her. "How is she?"
The bard looked around, dried tear streaks liberally running the length of her face. "I ... think she might be a little bit better. The wound is draining clear now ... red streaks are receding ... fever's down a little ... so is the swelling.
"Hey. Come over here." Octavian called to the chief healer, who had just entered the tent. "Take a look at this."
The healer looked over their shoulders, giving Gabrielle a judicious amount of space. His eyes grew wide and he rubbed them, afraid that they were betraying him. All signs of infection were gone. "Amazing. It's ... it's like it's not even the same leg. How did you ...?"
"I just kept cleaning it out until the infection was washed away." The bard cut him off, knowing that there was no medical explanation for her partner's improved condition.
"You can't just wash infection away." The healer's voice was incredulous. "I don't understand."
Octavian was thoughtful. The bond between Xena and Gabrielle was strong. It would take a fool to miss that. But something supernatural had taken place during the night. "I don't think anyone can understand." The Roman smiled at Gabrielle. "Least of all the two people most closely involved."
The bard sat back a bit, finally letting the rag drop into the remaining herb mixture. "I'm so tired."
"Why don't you sleep for a while ..."
"No." Gabrielle was emphatic. "The last time I slept she got the infection. I have to stay awake."
"Go get her some breakfast." Octavian directed the healer. "I bet you haven't eaten since yesterday morning, have you?"
Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair. "No." She retrieved fresh gut and a needle, and dusted the cut out with dry herbs, before carefully stitching it closed again. "When do we leave?"
The Roman was silent for a long moment. The warrior was in no shape to travel, that much was evident. "If you'd like, Gabrielle, I can leave a small contingent behind for a few days. You can stay here until Xena is a little stronger."
"I would be grateful for that." Green eyes grew misty. "Thank you."
"It's just as well. We have a few others here who probably wouldn't even survive transport from here to the boats. Might as well let all the ones who are in really bad shape have a few extra days to ..." He stopped, noting the pain on the bard's face.
"Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I didn't meant to imply that Xena is in really bad shape. I ..."
"But she is." The bard lowered her head and looked over at her partner, who was sleeping in relative peace at the moment. "It hasn't been this bad since she ... about a year and a half after we met, she was injured pretty badly. Protecting a child." Gabrielle smiled. "She died."
"For a few minutes?" The Roman had heard of people that were pronounced dead only to begin breathing again moments later.
"No. For a few days." Gabrielle looked intently at the startled face. "Don't ask. It's way too complicated. That ... almost did me in. If she hadn't come back to me, I don't know what I would have done."
"And now?" The question was very gentle.
"I have responsibilities. With the Amazons." The bard eyed her staff, which lay on the ground next to their pallets. "I'd go on. At least my physical body would. But to lose her would be to lose my heart and soul. I don't think I could take my own life, but I would spend the rest of my days waiting to die so I could join her. Death would be a welcome ally."
"Your love is very strong for two people who haven't been together very long. Brutus told me, back in your village, that prior to the crucifixion you two were merely friends, not lovers."
"Merely friends?" The bard smiled at the misnomer. "Try best friends. Soul-mates. Life partners. Xena and I went to India last year. We met a mystic there who told us our souls had been together in the past. And would be together in the future. Out destiny is with each other. Even if we had not fallen in love, we would be together for the duration of this life. Falling in love was an extra special gift."
"You believe this mystic?" Octavian was skeptical.
Gabrielle decided that explaining their transportation into the future to fight Alti, much less Xena's future as the mother of peace, might be deemed crazy. She sighed. "Yes. Without question. Xena and I have been together for a very long time. And whether we are born into new bodies after this life is over, or if we eventually gain permanent residence in the Elysian Fields, we will always find each other."
"I see." The Roman rubbed his chin in thought, as two platters of breakfast arrived.
The bard accepted the food with a mumbled 'thank you,' and picked listlessly at the baked fish and flat bread, along with some sea grapes that garnished one side of the plate. Octavian observed her without comment, quickly cleaning his own plate. The bard's forehead was deeply lined with worry, and the edges of her mouth, when she wasn't chewing, were draw tightly downward. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face was extremely pale. "Gabrielle. You're very tired. What if I stay right here while you sleep? I promise to wake you in exactly one candle mark so you can change her bandages again."
"Promise?" A spark of hope appeared in the weary eyes. "You won't go anywhere?"
"Promise." The Roman leaned back against a table leg, and crossed his ankles, resting his hands loosely against his stomach.
The bard sat her half-eaten meal aside, and immediately curled up next to her partner, carefully laying her ear against Xena's chest so she could hear the warrior's heartbeat. In less than a minute she was fast asleep. Octavian watched in fascination as two long arms reflexively wrapped around the small body, and Xena sighed in contentment, unaware of her own actions.
Gabrielle sat straight up from the pallet, her heart hammering wildly. There it was again. Thunder. Overhead, driving rain drops were pelting the tent roof. She looked across at Octavian, who was keeping watch as promised. "Please tell me that's not what I think it is."
"Afraid so." The Roman shifted, scooting closer. "It would seem that the drought is finally broken, and the fall monsoons are setting in a moon early."
That's why I didn't see stars last night. They were covered with clouds. The bard sniffed the air, taking in the fresh steamy scent of the parched earth, which was soaking in the much-needed rain. Much-needed unless you were a severely-injured person who was about to be transported across open territory for three days. "Xena." Gabrielle lay back down on her side and smoothed the warrior's linen shift with her hand. "Now what are we going to do?" The silent warrior continued to sleep, almost peacefully.
"Is it time to change her bandages yet?" Gabrielle peered down at her partner's leg, which was elevated slightly on a fold in their furs.
"No. You've only been sleeping for half a candle mark."
"Well. I do need to change her shift. And mine." The bard tugged at the damp material that covered her body. "I think her fever broke while we were sleeping. We're all sweaty."
"Okay." Octavian rose to give them some privacy. "I'll be back in a little while." He drew his cape tightly around his body and pulled a hood up over his head, and then stepped out into the rain.
Gabrielle quickly shrugged on fresh clothing, and then got her partner changed. She studied the chiseled features and the damp dark hair that spilled over their sleeping furs. Finally, she set about changing the bandages, even though it was a little bit early. She noted with some relief that there were no further signs of infection. Then she packed up all their things, which had been moved into the healer's tent and lay in a pile in the corner next to them
There was now no point in waiting to travel. They might as well head out with the rest of the army, which Gabrielle could hear outside, breaking camp. Shouts of men could be heard, as they ran by, their feet splashing through puddles that were rapidly collecting on the ground all about the area. The monsoon rains, which would fall for several days, would preclude building a fire. That would mean no way to sterilize bandages and no way to heat water to mix herbs. Suddenly, it was crucial that they get back to Cairo or Alexandria as quickly as possible.
Finally, with their possessions packed away and Xena's bandages changed, despair reared its ugly head, and Gabrielle sat down on a saddle bag. She drew up her knees, rested her arms across them, dropped her head, and began to cry. This is it. She knew that her partner's condition hung in the balance, the shears of the fates poising perilously close to Xena's life line. Travel in torrential downpours would not only slow their progress, it would leave Xena open to another infection, or consumption. In her weakened condition, her body stood little chance of fighting off any further attack on any level. Even travel by boat would be a huge risk in the bad weather.
"Xena." The bard raised her troubled eyes and looked sadly at her sleeping partner. "I'm out of ideas here. I don't know what to do to get you home alive. I can't work miracles."
"I can." The god of war appeared across the tent in a cloud of swirling red smoke.
"Ares." Gabrielle spat out the name. "Are you here to gloat? She wouldn't fight with you, so now you've come to watch her die?"
"No." The dark god stalked closer. "That's not how it is."
"Then heal her." The bard pleaded. "Make her get better."
"I can't do that." The god's throat felt constricted.
"Won't do it." Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"Hey. Blondie. I heard that." Ares scowled. "I can't heal anyone without Zeus' permission. He won't let me heal her. I asked."
"You ... you did?" The bard cocked her head in disbelief.
"Yes, you annoying little self-righteous ..." The god of war stroked his beard. "Oh. Never mind. We can have that argument later."
"If you can't help, then why are you here?" Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest.
"I didn't say I can't help. I said I can't heal her." Ares stooped down and reached out, running his fingers through his daughter's hair. "I can transport you back to Cairo. Instant passage to a comfortable bed and the best medical care to be had."
"Really?" The bard's voice almost squeaked with hope.
"Just give me the word, Blondie, and you'll find yourself back in Cleopatra's palace." His large hand came to rest on Xena's forehead.
Green eyes narrowed. "What's the catch?"
"There is no catch." Ares' voice almost roared in anger. "Why don't you trust me?"
The bard's mind ran rampant with visions of the constant betrayals, danger, and wedges that the god of war had tried to drive between her and Xena since they first began to travel together. Ares read her thoughts and shook his head slowly back and forth. "Okay. I deserve that."
"Deserve what?" Blonde brows furrowed. "Oh. My thoughts. I keep forgetting about that."
"Look, Gabrielle. You may not believe me, but I do care about Xena." He licked his lips and swallowed. "She's my only daughter."
So. The bard studied the bowed dark head. That answers that question. "Um ... Ares. Give me a minute to go talk to Octavian."
"He's on his way back now." The dark god nodded toward the tent entrance, just as the Roman appeared in the doorway.
"Hey." Octavian drew his sword. "Who are you and how did you get into my camp?"
"Just popped in." Ares grinned.
"Octavian. It's okay. He's a ..." I can't believe I'm about to say this. "... friend."
"Oh." The confused Roman held out his hand, which a bemused god took, clasping Octavian's forearm tightly. "I'm Octavian."
"I know who you are." Ares smiled broadly. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Ares. The Greek god of war."
"Huh?" The Roman dropped the god's arm as if it might burn him, and stepped back.
"Another long story." Gabrielle provided. "He and Xena have a ... special relationship. He's come to take us back to Cairo."
"Wh ... wh ...?" Octavian tried to grasp the bard's words. "How?"
"It's a god thing." Ares was thoroughly enjoying the show.
"Gabrielle." The Roman moved to her side and lightly touched her shoulder. "Are you sure this is okay?"
Green eyes peered past Octavian, locking with black in a rare moment of understanding. "Yes. It's her only chance to live. You and I both know that she won't survive the trip back through the rain. And a boat trip would be absolute Tartarus in the monsoons."
"True." Octavian paused, and then found himself in a warm hug.
"Thank you for everything." The bard held on tightly. "I'll see you back in Cairo in a few days, okay?"
"Be careful, my friend." The Roman patted her back before releasing her.
"You too." Gabrielle moved to Ares' side and looked up. "I'm ready. Poof us to Cairo, Ares."
The god of war rolled his eyes and waved his hand in a large circle over their heads. In an instant they disappeared, leaving a faint trail of smoke behind. Octavian mutely walked to the spot where they had stood. Xena, Gabrielle, bedroll, bags, weapons, and Ares, were all gone, as if they had never been there at all. Vanished without a trace. He sat down in the middle of the empty space, placing his head between his knees, certain that if he remained standing he would faint.
Concluded in Part 12
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