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 program Xena: Warrior Princess. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended. In my world, the Xenaverse intersects with the Buffyverse in a character Ive created named Kallerine, who bears a striking resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar. No copyright infringements intended toward the owners of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, either.
Violence: This is Xena were talking about here. She doesnt use that chakram to file her nails. Nuff said.
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13, nothing too graphic here, but if two women being in love rocks your world, too bad for you. Move on to something you can handle.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
Setting: Gabrielle and Xena are living together in the Amazon village. Gabrielle is queen and Xena is her champion/consort. This story falls sequentially after my first story, "March the 16th." Ive taken some liberties with history here, but then so does the show.
Gina Torres: Shes Hal on Cleopatra 2525 and she was Nebula on Hercules. For a visual, she was also Cleopatra on one of the more Xena-free episode of Xena ("King of Assassins").
A SOLSTICE TREATY
By Texbard a/k/a Texbard
. . . any king would trade his throne
For the splendor my eye can see.
- from "Among Strong Men," The Subject Tonight is Love - 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, versions by Daniel Ladinsky, copyright 1996, Pumpkin House Press, PumpkinH@aol.com.
Kallerine stood in front of the door to the queens hut, fully armed and quietly watching as various council members made their way into the dining hall for the impromptu council meeting. She studied the small clusters of Amazons, trying to catch snippets of conversation as they walked past. The general excited buzz seemed to be mixed anxiety and curiosity over the reason for the sudden meeting, and it was apparent that while most of them knew of the attack on Chilapa, none of them knew of the attack on their queen, as the courtyard area had been relatively empty when Xena had come riding in with the bard earlier. If anyone did know, they were keeping quiet about it. Xena had given both Kallerine and Amarice strict instructions not to allow anyone to enter the queens hut in the warriors absence, except Eponin. She had also admonished them not to discuss Gabrielles attack or condition with anyone.
Inside the hut, Amarice sat in a padded chair in the bedroom across from the queen, keeping vigil as the bard tried in vain to keep water in her stomach for more than a quarter candle mark at a time. Gabrielles nausea was coming in more and more frequent waves, and her tall red-headed companion rose every now and then to offer her queen a cool wet rag for her face along with sips of water. Xena had privately pulled Amarice aside and told her to do her best to encourage the bard to stay well-hydrated, handing the Amazon three full water skins before she left for the council meeting.
Despite how bad Gabrielle felt, Amarice couldnt help but chuckle inwardly at the overkill. Typical of Xena when it comes to our queen, the tall Amazon mused. For Artemis sake Xena, you said you wouldnt be gone more than a candle mark. How much water can one small queen hold?
Xena hated to leave her partner when she was so ill, but also knew Gabrielle was in no condition to handle the current situation, and with Brutus imminent arrival there was no time to spare in getting things squared away. The warrior had only been carrying her sword and chakram when she and the bard had gone for their ride, so before the meeting she had added her whip to her belt loop, along with extra daggers tucked into each boot. The ever-present breast dagger was also in place for use as a last resort if all other weapons failed. Wonder if I should add the chain mail or the cape? She peered in the mirror in the bathing room. Nah. This is good enough.
Once Xena had things settled with Gabrielle, Amarice, and Kallerine, she commandeered Ponys latest flame, Raella, to go take Eponins place at guard duty at the front gate with Rebina. The slender auburn-haired Amazon was glad to help out, even though the warrior and weapons master wouldnt tell her what was going on. Her only instruction was to come and get Xena as soon as Brutus arrived. Pony had thanked her lover for her assistance, and had shyly pecked the beautiful Amazon on the cheek as a bemused warrior looked on and mentally buffed her fingernails. I see thats still going well. Just call me Xena, warrior matchmaker.
The warriors last stop before going to the council meeting was a brief detour to the healers hut to check on Chilapa. Xena was thankful to see that there were no other patients for Cheridah to take care of. At least not yet. Lets see how many heads I have to bust at this meeting. She mused to herself. The warrior had entered the healers hut through the back door and had first looked in on the regent, relieved to see that Chilapa was sleeping peacefully. She made her way to the regents bedside and laid her hand on the sleeping womans forehead, and was glad to discover that she did not appear to have a fever or be otherwise distressed.
Satisfied that the regent would eventually be okay, Xena next moved to the front intake area where the healer stood over a table sorting through packets of herbs, causing a faint sharp bitter scent to permeate the room. The warrior approached the healer, taking in well-toned forearm and shoulder muscles that could not have come from setting broken bones and cleaning wounds. "Cheridah, are you any good with weapons?" Not an insult. Xena knew of other Amazon villages where the healers only skill was healing, and they werent expected to know how to fight.
The healer, another secret member of the warrior princess fan club, looked up and a slight smile crossed her face. "Well I dont like to brag, but I won the dagger-tossing competition at the last harvest festival." The short stocky Amazon ran her fingers absently through thick short brown hair, preening with barely-hidden pride.
"You got any daggers here in the hut?" The warrior stooped down and rested a hand on her boot top, prepared to offer up one of her own.
"As a matter of fact, I do." Cheridah pulled a small bone-handled knife from a hidden space under the table top. With an expert flip of her hand, she threw it with swift deadly accuracy, nailing a small piece of square parchment pinned on the far wall in the exact center of the paper.
Xena jumped and stood back up, not expecting the movement, and then walked over and pulled the dagger out of the wall. "Couldnt have done better myself." She peered at the parchment, which was yellowed with age, and noticed dozens of small holes in it, all at or near the center of the page. "Youve practiced this a few times, huh?" The warrior grinned at the healer before moving back near the table and handing Cheridah her knife.
"Things get slow around here some days. I have to do something to pass the time. Its not like I can do sword or staff drills in here when Im on duty." She gestured around the relatively long but narrow room. "How do you think I got good enough to win a competition? It sure wasnt by using knives just to cut stitches out of people."
"Fair enough." Xena eyed the shorter woman speculatively. "Listen, I need you to do something. A . . . um . . . situation has arisen with the queen."
"Is she sick? Is there anything I can do to help?" Genuine concern crossed Cheridahs face, not lost to the warrior. Ah. An ally.
"I cant go into it right now, but dont worry. Its nothing that wont pass with a little time. The queen is being wall-cared for. Its Chilapa Im worried about. She may still be in danger. I want to make sure her attacker doesnt have a chance to come back and try to do anything else. Im about to discuss some things with your council and I want to make sure the regent stays safe. I need you to take your dagger and go sit in the room with Chilapa until the meeting is over."
"O . . . kay." The healers expression serious, small furrows creasing her brow.
"If anyone but me, Kallerine, or Eponin tries to get near the regent, you tell them no one is allowed to see her right now. We dont know who hurt her, and everyone . . . everyone is a suspect. You understand?"
"I understand completely, Xena."
"If anyone tries to argue, tell them they have to answer to me."
A primal danger oozed from the warrior, causing Cheridahs nape hairs to rise. "I would hope that would be enough to make anyone back off."
"Hopefully." The warrior licked her lips. But if that isnt enough and they still refuse to listen, you use that knife on them, you got me?" The warriors lips twisted into a half-snarl.
"Right." Short strong fingers absently twirled the dagger hilt in the healers hand. "Xena, you expecting trouble?" Cheridahs eyes were wide with apprehension.
The half-snarl twisted again into a small evil grin. "I always expect trouble." The warrior moved toward the door and rested a hand on the knob before stopping and half-turning back. "As soon as Im done with the council Im gonna move Chilapa over to the queens hut so I can keep an eye on her myself. If I dont come do it personally, Ill send Eponin."
"Okay." The healer went back to the holding room and Xena turned on her heels and slipped out the door.
The council room was buzzing with excited female voices, as members stood around in small groups either discussing the attack on the regent or trying to figure out what the meeting was all about. No one knew who had called it, and most presumed it was their queen. Eponin had gone to each council members hut personally, only telling them when and where to meet, and offering no further explanation. Any questions were deflected by the weapons master, and she had merely told them that this was one meeting they definitely didnt want to miss. Privately, Pony couldnt wait herself to see what Xena had up her sleeve.
Suddenly both doors to the council room flew open and hit the wall with a resounding bang, as a dark menacing six-foot tall warrior strode to the center of the room and stood in silence, both arms crossed over her chest, her face bearing a well-practiced scowl. Xena silently scanned the room until each mouth was closed and all eyes were on her. "Everyone take a seat."
A few moments of scurrying took place as all the council members who had been standing hurried to their places. One look at the warriors stone-cold face told them Xena meant business. The warrior waited, not moving, only her eyes flicking back and forth until she was satisfied that everyone was settled in their chairs.
"Whats going on?" An older Amazon rose to her feet. "Wheres Queen Gabrielle?"
"Siddown. The queen is . . . otherwise occupied at the moment. Im here in her place." Xena turned in a slow half-arc as she spoke, making eye contact with each seated Amazon, watching with interest as some returned her gaze while others looked away, unable to withstand the scrutiny. "As most of you know, your regent, Chilapa, was attacked earlier today . . ." The warrior took in the watching faces, noting only a few surprised expressions. "Youll be happy to know that while currently unconscious, shes going to be okay."
A few murmured sighs of relief could be heard, as Xena began to slowly circle the room in front of the council table, which was really three long wooden tables placed so that they formed three sides of a square, the fourth side nearest the door being open. "What you dont know, at least most of you . . ." She paused, once again standing with her arms across her chest. ". . . is that your queen was also attacked in a similar fashion this afternoon."
As the warrior had anticipated, the room erupted in chatter, as the council members turned to each other expressing shock, outrage, and an assortment of other emotions. She let the exchanges go on for a moment and then raised her voice. "Quiet!"
Several Amazons jumped out of their chairs at the bellowing voice before they once again settled back and closed their mouths, looking up and waiting.
"Now we have a little problem. Cause you see, in less than two candle marks were expecting Brutus and an entourage from Rome here for the treaty summit, which is slated to take place tomorrow afternoon. The representatives from Potadeia and Amphipolis have already arrived." Xena smiled inwardly. One of them right here in this room as a matter of fact. "And Tildes will be joining us as the representative for the Centaurs. The problem is that both your queen and your regent are currently incapacitated, and not expected to be up and about in time for the summit. Sooo . . . we need to postpone the summit for a few days until one or the other of them is healthy enough to participate."
The warrior paused and counted inwardly, and waited. She reached two.
"Theres no need to postpone the summit. It can go on as scheduled and Ill represent the Amazon nation." Maniah stood. The older Amazon was not only the leader of the elders, she was also a council member. "I am the rightful person to step in if Gabrielle and Chilapa cant serve."
Xena sighed. She turned to face the grey-haired elder, the warriors face cool, the barely-contained dark side coiled just under the surface. "Your queen has worked on this treaty for a long while. She would prefer to wait and handle the negotiations herself. Thats the reason I called this meeting. I want this council to give your queen the chance to finish what she started. Besides Maniah, you arent familiar with all the details."
"Ive got a day to study it." And maybe make a few changes. Maniah stood her ground, her chin jutting out as she mimicked the warriors pose, crossing her own arms over her chest.
"Thats not what your queen would want." Xena waited again, moving her hands to her hips, one resting lightly on her chakram.
"See here Xena, I dont know who you think you are, coming in here and trying to tell this council what to do, but this is none of your affair." The older Amazons voice rose slightly and she looked around to see if she had support.
The warrior stepped forward two steps. "When it comes to someone trying to hurt Gabrielle, it is every bit my affair, and I intend to protect her interests in this matter until shes able to fend for herself."
"It doesnt matter Xena, Amazon law says . . ."
Okay Gabrielle, I tried to do this the easy way. The warrior moved so quickly that no one was quite sure how she ended up on the other side of the table directly in front of Maniah, towering over the older woman and looking down at her with piercing blue eyes that held every indication of murderous intent. "Look you half-baked piece of shriveled-up sheep dung . . ." Xena stepped even closer, her fingers still resting on her hips, itching to grab the elder and just throw her against the wall and be done with it. "After that little stunt you pulled when Gabrielle and I first moved here, you are the first person on my list of suspects in this matter. And as for your Amazon law, I dont give a rats ass in Hades what it says, I fully intend to . . ."
The warrior stopped and considered for a moment, her eyes taking on a faraway look. "Well . . . now . . . let me think for a minute." Like a wolf testing its prey, she circled Maniah, who while inwardly shaken from Xenas outburst, was determined to show no fear. "So Maniah, you claim that youre in charge, right?"
"Thats correct." The elder took the opportunity to move a bodys length away from the warrior.
"Pony." Xena turned toward the weapons master. "If the leader of the elders is in charge of the nation, is she subject to the same laws and guidelines as if she were the queen?"
"Well. Yeah. With certain exceptions, I think so." Eponin scratched her head. What are you cooking up, Xena? She watched her tall friend as the chiseled face quickly moved through several emotions.
"What about the challenge? Can someone challenge the leader of the elders while shes ruling?" The blue eyes looked sideways and Xena grinned slightly as she watched Maniah flinch.
"Dunno. I dont think thats ever come up."
"Is it written down anywhere?" Xena looked across the room to the shelves where the scrolls of Amazon law were kept.
"Go see what they say."
Eponin got up and walked over to the shelves, scanning the rows of rolled-up parchment before she hesitantly removed one from the top shelf. She took it back to her place at the council table and unrolled it, her eyes darting quickly across the lines until she reached the information she was looking for. With a grunt, she sat down and began to read more slowly. While she read, the room was deathly silent, save a bit of fidgeting on the part of Maniah and the soft tap of Xenas boot soles as she walked around, pacing back and forth in front of the table. Finally the weapons master looked up.
"Um . . . the answer is yes. Anyone who challenges the leader of the elders and wins takes over as ruler of the nation, but only until either the regent or the queen are able to resume ruling. Or if something has happened to both the regent and the queen then the challenger rules until a new queen is appointed. Either way, once the queen or the regent is able to rule again or a new queen is appointed, a challenger who has defeated an elder during temporary rule has to step back down. Unless they want to formally challenge to take over on a permanent basis."
"Doesnt matter." Maniah puffed her chest out and gestured toward the tall warrior. "Xenas not an Amazon. She cant challenge me."
The warrior looked over at Eponin. "Does it say that Pony? Does the challenger of the elder have to be an Amazon?"
"I would think so but let me see . . . um . . ." The weapons master looked back down, running one fingertip along the page as she read. "Well pluck my feathers if whoever wrote this up didnt specify that the challenger to an elder has to be an Amazon. They did make it clear in the case of a queen or regent, but I guess they left it out for a temporary challenge. So I think that means anyone can challenge in a situation like this." The faintest sparkle appeared in Eponins eyes. Shrewd, Xena. Good one.
"What?!" Maniah moved around the table and behind Eponins seat, peering over the weapons masters shoulder. The older woman read in silence for a minute and then slowly looked up to meet cold blue eyes and a feral smile.
Gotcha. The warrior moved back to the middle of the room. "So Maniah, lets get on with this shall we? Im offering you the challenge and the way I see it, you have three choices at this point." Xena removed her chakram from her hip and spun it on its edge on the end of her index finger. "You can choose your weapon . . ." She flipped the chakram up in the air and then caught it and resumed spinning. "You can pick your champion . . . or . . . you can do the smart thing and back down now and just let me assume leadership."
The warrior stalked around the table until she was once again towering over the now evidently-afraid elder. "If you make that last choice I just might make a choice of my own, and choose to let you live a little while longer, at least until I get to the bottom of the attack on my partner and am satisfied you had nothing to do with it. Thats just gonna have to wait until after the summit. So whats it gonna be, hmmmm?"
The older womans mouth opened and then closed. She worked her jaw a few times and looked around. She knew she stood no chance against the warrior, and as she carefully examined the council room, she knew that no one else in the room could win either. Even if any of them would be willing to act as the elders champion if she asked them. "I . . . will defer to you." Maniahs head hung and she quietly went back to her seat.
"Good choice." The warrior put her chakram back on its hook at her waist and panned the room. "Anyone here want to challenge me for temporary leadership?" She looked up at the ceiling rolling her eyes and then looked back down. "Anyone at all?"
"Guess that means were all clear here. As of now, I am the ruler of the Amazon nation until either Gabrielle or Chilapa can resume those duties. My first decree is that the treaty summit is postponed until I can meet with the other representatives and we can agree on a different date, hopefully a few days from now. Now if youll excuse me, Ill be returning to the queens hut until Brutus arrives. Meeting adjourned."
Without another word, the warrior turned toward the door. The room erupted in a low buzz which she ignored until one voice stood out. "Xena. Hey. Hold up a minute." Eponin caught up to the warrior. The weapons master looked up and studied her friend. "You knew didnt you?"
"Knew what?" Innocent blue eyes grew wide as the warrior turned her head to look at Pony.
"About that law being unclear."
Xenas face relaxed into an easy smile. "Pony. Never go into battle without a battle plan, and never go into the field without knowing what youre up against. Without knowing your enemy and knowing their limitations. Be prepared to fight hard, but if you can find an easier way to accomplish your objective, take that route."
"Thought for a minute you were gonna throw some people around in there. I was kinda looking forward to it. Bunch of uptight feather-heads, especially Maniah. Woulda served her right if youd just up and . . ."
"Pony, Ive learned something from traveling with Gabrielle over the past four years. Talk first and only fight as a last resort. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to make sure Gabrielles best interests are maintained. Luckily this time I got what I wanted without any bruises or bloodshed."
"Would you have taken the nation by force?" Eponins voice was hesitant.
The warrior paused and looked down for a minute before turning to face her friend. "If it came to that, yes. I dont think anyone understands just how important this treaty is, or how big the Roman empire has become. We have to work with them because there is no way we could ever fight them and win."
"I bet you could defeat anyone."
"I appreciate that level of confidence Pony, but no. Id be a fool to go up against Rome. And I think things are gonna get worse before they get better." Xena measured her words carefully, looking off into the distance as she spoke, thinking of two Roman crosses and Gabrielle holding the body of a dead Greek mercenary. "Besides, Ive already tried to go up against Rome many times. Sometimes I won, but most times I lost. The last time ultimately got me and Gabrielle killed and the time just prior to that cost my partner a piece of her soul. And . . ." The warrior visibly shuddered. "I think two times each at hanging on crosses is enough for Gabrielle and me."
The weapons master was silent for a moment, pondering the warriors last sentence. Youve got a lot of layers, my friend. "Howd you know about the Amazon challenge? I mean you didnt know until . . . well damn it all Xena, what Im trying to say is, you just got back from your outing with Gabrielle less than a candle mark ago, and you were with her the entire time until right before the meeting. How in the name of the gods did you manage to look that information up without anyone seeing you? When did you have time to . . ."
"Pony, I have many skills."
The warrior just grinned. "Im going back to check on Gabrielle. Can you go over to the healers and move Chilapa to our hut? I want to put her on a mattress in our sitting room so I can keep an eye on her and the queen at the same time."
"Sure Xena, no problem. After that Im gonna go back to the front gate and let Raella off duty, unless you need me for anything else."
"No. Not right now. Thanks."
"Very well queen Xena." The weapons master chuckled and slapped her tall friend on the back.
The warrior grimaced. "Dont even start with me Pony. You know and I know that the last thing I want is to be an Amazon queen. Im only doing this for Gabrielle, and as soon as shes better Ill gladly give her back all her authority. For that matter, as far as Im concerned, even flat on her back in bed she still has full leadership over the Amazons. Im just in this long enough to protect her."
"Just teasing ya, Xena."
Eponin trotted off toward Cheridahs hut and Xena continued on across the courtyard toward home. Oh Gabrielle, thank the gods I studied a lot more than Amazon joining customs yesterday. While she had the scrolls out, the warrior had decided to read the laws related to challenges. After Pherinys challenge of Gabrielle a few weeks earlier, she wanted to know what all the conditions were for challenges, just in case someone else decided to take on her lover. Little did she know how soon her new-found knowledge would become useful.
As she neared her hut, she saw Maniah walking ahead of her across the courtyard. Xena stopped and studied the older woman surreptitiously from a distance, and then moved in behind the elder and crept up, totally undetected until she suddenly body slammed the unsuspecting Amazon against the nearest tree, pinning her in place with an arm across her throat and her knee in the elders gut. "I need to have a word with you." The warrior growled.
The elder got a close up and personal look at Xenas sharp features and pale blue eyes gone almost white, that flashed with anger deeper than the Aegean. Maniah gasped, trying to draw air against the arm pressing into her windpipe. "What do you want with me Xena? You already outsmarted me. You got what you wanted. Why cant you just leave me alone and go back to our precious little queen? Shes really got you pussy-whipped, doesnt she?"
With a will of its own, Xenas free hand back-slapped Maniah hard across the face, causing the womans opposite cheek to grind into the tree bark, drawing blood. "You better show some respect when you talk about my partner." The warrior pushed her knee a little further into the elders stomach and drew out her breast dagger, waving it slowly back and forth in front of her face. "Im not finished with you. I meant what I said to you, both after Pheriny challenged Gabrielle and just now in the council room. If I find out you were behind these attacks, either directly or indirectly, I will become your worst nightmare."
The older woman reached up and wiped the blood from her face, peering down at the red smear across her palm before looking back up. "Youve got nothing on me Xena. And Im not going to get into this with you. I dont have to."
Xena looked slowly from her knee, to her arm, to the dagger. "Seems to me youre already in it. Let me make this very clear to you. If you did engineer any of this, I am going to take my chakram and ram it where the sun doesnt shine, and thatll be the fun part of what Ill do to you. Do you understand me?"
"Your threats dont scare me, warrior. Ive seen more of life than you can possibly dream of."
The warrior studied her captive. Liar. The older womans shallow breathing and dilated pupils gave her away, the fear on her face quite evident. "Maniah, listen to me and listen good. Be afraid. Be very afraid. You have no idea what Im capable of when Im really angry."
The elder studied her opponent, pulling out another card. "You speak of respect." She hissed the word. "Why dont you show a little respect for your elders? You enjoy pushing around an older woman?"
"You . . . are . . . not . . . my . . . elder." Xena snarled, tightening her arm against Maniahs throat another degree. "Besides, you talk so tough, I figure you can handle it. You sure act like you can. If youre gonna talk big, you better be prepared to act just as big. You may be older than me, but Ive learned something. Older doesnt necessarily mean smarter. And dont try to tell me about life, because Ive crammed more living into the last fifteen summers than most people would see in ten lifetimes. You seem to forget that I was out conquering Greece at the tender age of sixteen summers, and that was after a little side trip to Chin and the northern Amazon territory."
"Yes. Lets talk about that trip to the northern Amazon territory. I know what you stand for, Xena. I had to watch while my best friend found out Cyan, her daughter, was dead. We didnt even know where her body was. And when we did learn of her whereabouts, we were too far away to go get her and bring her home for a proper funeral pyre."
The warrior stepped back and blinked. "Weve been down that road, Maniah. I cant ever atone for my past, and I know that no amount of apologizing will ever be adequate enough to make up for what I did to Cyane. I . . . know . . . that." Xena felt bile rise in her throat, biting back the bitter taste. "All I can do is do my best to fight the good fight now. And thats what I try to do every day of my life. And part of that means protecting your queen. So . . . back off of Gabrielle or I will make your life very miserable. Have the guts to face me and quit taking it out on my partner."
"But . . . we cant be allied with you. And . . . well we just cant. It isnt right."
"Would you rather have me as an enemy?" Two dark eyebrows rose.
"As far as Im concerned you are an enemy. Our queen doesnt understand Amazon loyalty. And part of that means that we dont take up with those who have killed some of our own."
Xena sighed, a long weary breath, and released the elder. "I dont have time for this right now. Or to explain my relationship with your queen to you. Im not sure I can explain it. Just know that I am still watching you very closely. Were not going away anytime soon Maniah, so you might as well learn to get along with us."
"I cant forgive you for what you did to Cyane." The elder suffered one last cold gaze before she turned and left the warrior standing alone in the middle of the courtyard.
Neither can I.
It was times like these, the bard reflected, that she most missed the short period of peace she and her partner had shared in the Elysian Fields. She was cross-wise on the bed, stomach down, with her head hanging over the side as she once again worshiped the large thick pottery bowl Xena had left on the floor next to the bed for her. "Aaghhh." She rolled back onto her side and curled up into a ball, her arms clasped around her knees which she hugged against her chest. "Amarice?"
"Yes my queen." The redhead moved swiftly to the bedside and dabbed at Gabrielles forehead with one of the damp rags she had been using.
"Do me a favor?"
"Anything my queen."
"You see Ephinys sword over there in the corner?"
Amarice gazed around the room until she located the object in question. "Yes."
"Take it and use it to put me out of my misery, and thats an order, you got me?"
"Uhhh . . ." The tall Amazon struggled for an appropriate response.
"Dont worry Amarice. You dont have to obey that order." Xena appeared in the doorway with a wry chuckle.
"I dont?" Amarice turned around. "But a direct order from the queen unheeded is considered to be insubordination."
"Well, first of all . . ." The warrior sat down on the bed next to her partner and rested her hand on the bards muscular leg. "The queen didnt really mean for you to obey that particular request, did you honey?" She indulgently patted the leg.
A green eye opened and peered up at the warrior with an evil glare. "Eat my shorts, Xena."
Oh boy. Lets see if I can get her to find her sense of humor. "Please. Not in front of our guest, Gabrielle. Maybe later when we have a little more privacy." The warrior winked at Amarice and tugged at the garment in question, the edge of which was peeping out from beneath the bards sleep shirt.
Gabrielle let out a short snort.
"Oh gods Xena, please dont make me laugh. My stomach muscles hurt too much. No Amarice, I didnt really mean it. But its sure a real tempting option right now. Artemis help me . . ." Gabrielle rolled back over on her stomach to visit the bowl again.
Xena held her lovers forehead with one hand, while she rubbed the bards back in slow soothing circles with the other, feeling the small body heaving and feeling helpless. "Has it been this bad the whole time I was gone?" Anxious blue eyes met hazel ones.
Amarice sat down on the warriors other side. "Pretty much, yes."
"She been drinking the water?"
The redhead offered up one empty water skin and another partially empty one for Xenas inspection. The warrior popped the lid on the partially empty one and peered inside. "Good girl." She patted Gabrielles back.
The bard rolled back over on her side and rested her head in Xenas lap, reaching out and clutching the bottom of the leather battle dress. "Not that any of its still inside of me."
The warrior looked up and cocked her head, listening for a long moment. "Ponys coming. Amarice, why dont you go help her get Chilapa settled in our sitting room. Can you stay for a while?"
"Good. I want you to stay in the other room with Chilapa until Brutus comes. When he gets here, I may move Chilapa in here with the queen and have you stay until dinner, maybe later. Can you do that?"
"No problem, Xena." The tall Amazon stood and started to leave the room but then stopped and turned around. "Xena. What did you mean earlier when you said I dont have to obey Gabrielle? You seemed like you had something more to say than just that the queen didnt really want me to kill her."
"Oh. I didnt get back around to that did I? Well, technically right now you dont have to obey Gabrielle because until she or Chilapa are well enough to handle the affairs of the nation, I am the ruler of the Amazons."
"What?!" Amarice and Gabrielle exclaimed in unison, as the bards green eyes flew open and Amarices mouth dropped to her chin.
"Amarice. Ill explain later. After I explain it to the queen. So . . . if you dont mind Id like you to go on in there with Chilapa so Gabrielle and I can be alone for a minute. And thats an order." Xenas voice held a note of amusement, with no threat to back up the order.
"Yes my que . . . I mean, yes Xena." Amarice left the room.
The warrior smiled and laughed inwardly. Hmmmm. Amazons that actually listen to me. I could get used to this.
"You took over my Amazons? Okay Xena spill it. What happened?" Gabrielle managed to roll over until she was flat on her back, her head still resting in her partners lap. "Even if it is only temporary, you once told me youd rather run the gauntlet again than try to organize a group of Amazons, so this one, Ive got to hear."
"Well." Xena rested one hand lightly on the bards stomach and brushed the blonde bangs off her forehead with the other. "I went to the council to try to get them to postpone the treaty summit until you are well enough to preside. But Maniah wanted to take charge and go forward in your place, which she legally has a right to do."
"Thats true. But how did you end up ruling? I dont understand."
"I couldnt let her do that, Gabrielle. And I have a strong feeling shes behind the attacks on you and Chilapa. Its almost a no-brainer. She hates me. Ergo she hates you. Its just too much of a co-inky-dink that right before you and I are going to meet with Brutus and put in place one of the most important treaties the Amazons may ever enter into, you and Chilapa just happen to both be taken down, leaving the way open for Maniah to waltz right in and take over. Its too easy."
"Well yeah Xena. Even I kinda figured that much out when I heard about Chilapa. Im feeling bad but Im not unconscious. What I still dont get is how you ended up ruling the Amazons."
"I . . . um . . . challenged Maniah."
"Shes dead?!" The bard knew there was no love lost between Xena and the older Amazon, but she couldnt fathom the reformed warrior killing Maniah without concrete proof of malice.
"No. She backed off."
"But Xena. Youre not an Amazon. You cant challenge."
"Actually I can." The warrior smiled and ran her fingers through the short blonde hair. "Seems whoever wrote up all those laws about challenges left a little loophole when it comes to challenging an elder in a situation like this."
"Really? Thats nice."
"Yep." Xena continued to stroke the pale head. "It sure is. I didnt have to hit anyone or anything. Well, at least not during the council meeting, and that particular insult deserved a good slap. "Just talked my way into it. You woulda been proud."
The warrior felt a warm glow rise in her chest that was all out of proportion to the small expression of approval from her younger partner. "Guess there will be a few council members clamoring to amend that law at your next meeting."
"Under most circumstances, as soon as Im back on my feet Id be amending that law myself, but in this particular instance I think Ill just let it be. Might come in handy for me down the road. Besides, I have veto power. Uggghhh . . ." The bards face grew paler and her jaw clenched. "Xena. I cant keep doing this. My stomach is so twisted up I think the knots have knots. My throat hurts. My head hurts. I tried those pressure points you showed me on Cecrops ship but they didnt work. Agghh . . ."
"Sorry, they dont work for poison. Gabrielle. Try to take some slow deep breaths." The warrior watched as her partner complied. The bards chin quivered as she fought down the nausea, and tears sprang into the green eyes. Xena ran one finger lightly across her partners cheek. "Gabrielle, sweetheart. Youre doing real good. I think if you can fight it a little, you might able to sleep for a while. You need to rest if you can."
Xena continued to make low comforting noises, and slipped her hand under her partners shirt. She rested her fingers flat against Gabrielles stomach, feeling the tense muscles just beneath the skin. The warrior began to slowly rub her hand back and forth across her lovers belly, smiling as she felt the bards stomach begin to relax.
"Gods. Dont stop what youre doing. I dont know why, but its working." The bard closed her eyes and relaxed into her lovers gentle touch, feeling her weary stomach slowly unclench as the wave subsided. "Magic fingers . . ." Gabrielle mumbled, reaching up and curling one hand around Xenas knee.
The warrior heard the bards breathing deepen as sleep gradually claimed the younger girl. Xena carefully lifted her lover up and turned her so that she was resting with her head on a pillow at the head of the bed. The warrior tugged off her own boots and removed the scabbard from her back and laid it and her other weapons next to the bed. She pulled back the covers and slid in beside the bard, curling up next to her and continuing with the light stomach massage. "Sleep now, love. Ill keep watch."
Xena kissed her lovers cheek and stilled her hand against the bards belly, but didnt remove it. She sighed, pondering what the rest of the day would hold. Lets see. Ive got to meet up with Brutus and get him settled with the Centaurs, and explain Gabrielles situation to Brutus and Tildes. Then I gotta go find Herodotus and tell him the summit has been postponed for a few days. I need to keep an eye on Maniah. Maybe I can give Kallerine or Amarice that job. After that, well . . . lets just hope Gabrielle kicks this thing pretty soon, because gods help me if I have to rule the Amazons for long. Course, maybe Ill get lucky and nothing will come up. Its only for a few days. What could happen? Amazons . . . Anything. "Come on sweetheart, you gotta get well quick." The warrior pleaded in a soft whisper.
Kallerine poked her head into the queens bedroom and looked around, spotting a pare of quietly introspective blue eyes. "Xena. Brutus is here. And he brought a friend."
The warrior turned her head and sat up. "A friend?" Two dark brows frowned.
"Yes. Pony took his group to the dining hall to wait for you. Shes back at the gate now standing guard with Rebina."
"Okay. Thanks." Xena stood up quietly and tucked the covers around the sleeping bard, leaning in to plant a light kiss on the pale forehead. She picked up her boots and weapons and moved into the sitting room where Chilapa lay on a mattress, still fast asleep. Amarice sat nearby in a chair, her forearms resting on her knees. As the warrior entered the room the tall redhead sat up and rose to her feet. Xena plopped down in the chair across from her and tugged on her boots.
"Amarice. I dont think Ill move Chilapa into the bedroom because I dont want to disturb your queen. I need for you to plant yourself in the doorway between the bedroom and the sitting room so you can keep an eye on both of them. I have something else for Kallerine to do right now, so it will fall to your hands to guard the queen and the regent while I take Brutus to the Centaurs and Kallerine runs an errand for me. You up to it?"
Blue eyes solemnly regarded the younger Amazon, whom Xena had grudgingly come to see as much more competent than the warrior had first believed. True the girl was impetuous and a know-it-all and prone to cause trouble. But she was also eager to please and to learn, was an excellent archer, and most importantly to Xena, had finally come to respect the queen, even if Amarice didnt always understand Gabrielles ways. The warrior trusted the tall Amazon to watch out for the bard.
"Sure Xena. You can count on me." The large hazel eyes blinked and Amarice moved to the open doorway, resting her back against the doorjamb in a position to give her a good view of both the queen and the regent.
"I knew I could. Come on Kallerine." Xena stood and fastened the scabbard to her back and attached the chakram on its hook at her waist. "Lets go meet Brutus and this . . . um friend you mentioned."
They moved out of the hut and crossed the courtyard toward the dining hall. "Whos the friend?"
"The only thing he said was that his name is Octavian. They arent exactly cordial toward us." The slayer wrinkled her nose and tossed her hair back disdainfully.
Xena chuckled. "Kallerine, you have to remember. The last time Brutus was in this village, it was because I had dragged him here behind Argo. After he got here, Amarice tried to kill him and Gabrielle put him in jail. Im sure he doesnt exactly have warm fuzzy feelings when he thinks of the Amazons."
"Oh. So right. I had forgotten about all of that. If he doesnt like us, then why is he here?"
"Despite everything, Brutus is a man of honor. Of his word. I still believe that to be true. His loyalties may be a bit misplaced, but wherever he does choose to place them, he hangs on to the bitter end. I dont like him and I cant forgive him for what he allowed to happen to Gabrielle, but in a strange sort of way, I respect him. As for your question, I suspect hes here if for nothing more than the fact that at one time he promised the Amazons a peace treaty with Rome, and he is determined to see that through. Brutus keeps his promise."
They reached the dining hall and the warrior tugged the door open, stepping inside and blinking a few times as her eyes adjusted to the darker room. The slayer, who had the gift of instant light and dark adjustment, had no such brief period of transition to deal with, the pinpoint pupils instantly growing larger in the brown eyes, taking in everything in the room with ease. Kallerines sight was much like Xenas hearing, tuned beyond the level of the average human to something supernatural. They were gifts both women took for granted much of the time, neither one ever having known what it was like to live without their respective abilities.
"Xena, so good to see you." Brutus strode forward extending his arm, which the warrior grasped briefly more out of formality than any true desire to be congenial. "Let me introduce you to Gaius Octavian, the current ruler of the Roman Empire."
The warrior looked behind the Roman, her eyes quickly studying a rather young man with a very familiar face and straight black hair cut short against his head. He was neither tall nor short, but carried himself with an air of confidence that made him appear larger than he was. As he stepped forward to grasp Xenas arm, the warrior read a deep intelligence in the almost-black eyes, and a sincerity of countenance that seemed out of place on a face that bore a striking resemblance to . . .
"A relative of Caesars I presume?" Cool blue eyes remained impassive, the warrior masking a thousand mixed emotions at the familiar features.
"Im his grand-nephew." The voice was low and calm, and bore none of the air of superiority or pompousness that regularly resonated from the young mans deceased great uncle. "Although Uncle Julius adopted me posthumously, making me his heir to Rome."
Xena turned a laugh into a cough, chuckling inwardly at her dead arch enemy being referred to merely as someones Uncle Julius. "I see. Well . . . Gaius, or shall I call you Octavian?"
"My friends call me Octavius." The young face studied the taller warrior with thinly-veiled curiosity.
"And am I your friend?" Xenas face remained guarded.
Black eyes flicked quickly from long dark hair to the tops of tall brown boots. "Yes, I believe so. Im not my uncle, Xena, and I know there was an ongoing battle between the two of you. Im smart enough to recognize that Uncle Julius feelings toward you had nothing to do with duty to Rome, and everything to do with personal pride. Not to worry. I may have inherited my uncles position, but not his grudges. Were friends until you prove yourself to be otherwise." The young mans face relaxed into a tentative smile, one which was matched by the warrior.
"Well Octavius, another Amazon guard and I will escort you to the Centaur village where you will be housed during your stay here. I look forward to becoming more well-acquainted with you." The warrior found herself intrigued with the young Roman, who obviously bore a maturity beyond his years. A trait shared by a certain bard she was rather fond of.
"Xena." Brutus looked around and behind the warrior. "Wheres Gabrielle? With all due respect, I expected the Amazon queen to at least greet us before we go join the Centaurs."
"My apologies. Both the queen and her regent have taken ill, and send their regrets that they are not well enough to come greet you personally. I am here as a representative of the queen."
"Will the queen be well enough to preside over the treaty summit tomorrow?" Octavian regarded the warrior with honest concern.
"Probably not. In fact, one of the things I would like to discuss with you is the possibility of postponing the summit for a few days. Otherwise I will find myself in the position of representing both Amphipolis and the Amazon nation, and I fear that would constitute a conflict of interest."
"Youre representing Amphipolis?" Brutus voice almost squeaked.
A full grin claimed Xenas face. "Yes. I am. Aint life just full of surprises?"
"To say the least." Brutus fidgeted uneasily with an armor buckle. His dealings with Xena had never been pleasant, having been dragged behind a horse, shot at, thrown in jail, and literally caught with his pants down during one encounter.
"Dont worry." The warrior chuckled, sensing his discomfort. "No whips, arrows, or horses this time, other than just riding on the back of one. I even promise to give you privacy when nature calls, at least as long as you behave yourself."
Octavian observed the exchange with some interest, having been briefed thoroughly on the history between Rome and the Amazons, as well as Caesar and Xena in particular. So this is the woman that could drive my controlled collected great uncle to near madness just at the mention of her name? Interesting. What kind of woman could hold so much intrigue, that time after time my uncle was distracted from his greater plan, just to pursue her and bring her down? Shes just one woman. What about her could cause Uncle Julius to lose complete focus and turn on a dinar to go after her? "Xena, I would be perfectly willing to wait for a few days until your queen is feeling better. I look forward to meeting her. Will the representatives from Potadeia and the Centaurs be willing to wait as well?"
"Im sure the Centaurs will be no problem. As for Potadeia, I dont know yet, but I suspect he will be agreeable. In fact . . ." The warrior turned toward Kallerine. "Kallerine, Herodotus is camped between our village and the Centaur village. If I had to guess, up near that ridge that has all those sheltered rock overhangs and shallow caves. I need you to go apprise him of the queens illness and the postponement of the treaty summit. Tell him Ill send word to him when were ready to proceed. Of course hes still welcome in the village during the day, pursuant to the queens instructions."
"Sure, Xena. If you all will excuse me, Ill be on my way."
"Oh. Kallerine." The warrior stopped the young Amazon. "First go tell Pony to come help me escort these gentlemen to the Centaurs. Get Loisha to relieve her at guard duty."
"Right." The slayer ducked out the door and trotted across the courtyard toward the front gate.
Eight armed riders made their way down the narrow path between the Amazon and Centaur villages, the horses hooves kicking up small clouds of dust with each contact with the road. Xena and Octavian rode in front, deep in conversation, followed by two Roman soldiers. Behind them were Brutus and Eponin, who were flanked by two more Roman soldiers. The weapons master was uncomfortable to say the least, not being used to making conversation with men, much less one ranked as high as Brutus. "So, how about those games between the Athenians and the Spartans?" Pony flicked an errant feather off her shoulder and looked hesitantly over at the stoic Roman.
"Yes. They Olympiad, theyre calling them. Quite entertaining." Brutus himself felt out of place, and was glad for a topic he was familiar with.
"You got to see them? Wow. That must have been awesome." Honest envy tinted Eponins words, as a delighted smile crossed her face.
"It was. Of course the Spartans won handily at almost every competition. Discus, javelin, sword battles, foot races. The Athenians are no match for them, thats for sure." Watching his audience warm to him, Brutus relaxed. "The Spartans train all day long for physical competition and battle."
"No kidding?" Ponys eyes widened. "Sounds like fun to me."
The Roman quietly scrutinized his companion, noting bulging muscles that ripped under tanned skin across her back and shoulders, and down her arms. Not to mention overly-built thighs without an ounce of fat. I guess it would be fun for you. "Some of them like it, not that they have a choice. But the Athenians are more well-rounded. They also believe in training their minds, so they concentrate on art, history, science, and philosophy, as well as physical discipline. They may be at a slight disadvantage when it comes to the games, but I think in actual war they might win on strategy."
"You think so?"
"Yes. Take Xena for example."
Pony looked ahead toward the warrior, who was listening intently as Octavian spoke to her in a voice too low for the weapons master to pick up. "Yeah?"
"You ever watch her in the heat of battle?"
"Yes. Talk about awesome." A faraway look of respect reflected in the brown eyes.
"Did you ever stop to consider why she can beat much larger and stronger opponents than herself?"
"I dunno. Not that shes a little girl by any stretch, but I just figured her skills were sharp enough to compensate for her smaller size."
"True. In part. But have you ever seen her eyes when shes fighting?"
"Oh, yeah." Pony chuckled. Eyes that could bring a hundred Amazons to their knees.
"Its not just her skills. Its her brains. When Xena fights, she doesnt miss a thing. Not one move, not one expression, not one single gesture is lost on her. She studies her opponents and not only does she out-fight them, she out-smarts them."
"That is so true." Eponin recalled the warriors smooth take-over of the Amazons mere candle marks earlier, and grinned. She looked up ahead again. "Wonder what theyre talking about. Sure looks intense whatever it is."
"I would suspect, given Xenas extreme hatred of Rome, they have a lot to discuss before the summit." Brutus studied the warrior and Octavian, noting that Octavian was doing most of the talking while Xena merely appeared to be interjecting a question every now and then.
"Hate is a pretty strong word, dontcha think?"
"Strong. But entirely appropriate in this case. After all, we did crucify Xena and your queen a mere season ago. I think shes probably entitled to a little hate at this point."
"Probably." Pony turned to regard the Roman, noting a slight slump to the normally arrow-straight posture.
"Eponin, can I ask you something?"
"You can ask anything you want to, and Ill decide if Im gonna answer or not." The weapons master grinned.
"How . . . how did Xena and Gabrielle survive that crucifixion? I have soldiers who swear up and down that they were dead."
Pony gazed ahead, recalling a few awkward days in the village when no one knew what to say to two people who had been dead and come back. It was too strange. The weapons master had coaxed Xena into joining a gathering at the central fire ring one evening, and hesitantly questioned the warrior as to what had happened after the crucifixion.
It was a chilly evening, one of the first nights of early spring, and only the most hearty of Amazons had come out for what had become a nightly social event for the warriors of the village. They gathered around the fire ring in the main courtyard and swapped tales while sipping from flasks of wine or slugging down mugs of ale. It was harmless entertainment, and provided a camaraderie for the fighters who had little in common with some of their more passive sisters. All Amazons, with the exception of a few with special skills, such as healers, were taught to fight. It was a matter of personal survival. But not all were warriors. The warriors were the ones who loved to fight and lived for the glory of battle.
Having the warrior princess in residence had taken some getting used to, ruffling more than a few proud feathers of the most decorated Amazons. Compared to Xena, they might as well have been knitting booties. They had all participated in battles, but Xena had planned full-scale wars and led a large army single-handedly. She was in a league all her own. A woman with skills given by Ares himself. A warrior who loved to fight, but didnt like to fight. It was in her blood but she hated it, that much they could tell. A tortured soul who had seen too much of what battle lust gone awry could do to a person.
As Xena joined them for the evening circle, she mostly listened in silence, rarely sharing any stories of her own, content to merely sip her port and take in the tales of the others in the group. Only if she was directly questioned about something, would she join in. Thanks to Gabrielle, whose bardic tales were becoming known throughout Greece, more than a handful of Amazons had heard some of the stories about Xena at one time or another, either from the bard herself, or from other story-tellers who had heard Gabrielle perform and picked up her stories for themselves.
On this particular evening, Xena sat on a log, the night air cold against her back in sharp contrast to the welcome warmth of the fire which bathed her bronzed face to a dark red glow and brought out bluish highlights in the long dark hair. She idly poked at the fire with a long stick while Kallerine sat across from her, holding most of the other Amazons captive with her tale of she and Xena slaying the bacchae in the cave near the Roman compound a few evenings after the crucifixion.
Eponin was seated next to the warrior, listening intently to the slayers story. It was the first time Pony had heard about Xena slaying bacchae, although she had heard several of Kallerines stories. "That must have been pretty cool." The weapons master spoke in almost a whisper, so as not to disturb the slayer.
The warrior took a long draught from the port in the wineskin she held, and stared into the fire. "It was okay."
"Okay? You took a wooden stake and turned a bacchae to dust, and all you can say is it was okay? Gabrielle was right. You are the queen of understatement, arent you?"
Xena chuckled wryly. "Maybe."
"Come on Xena, didnt it feel great to watch that bacchae just poof into nothing?"
"Yep." The warrior went back to poking at the fire until Ponys hand rested on her wrist.
"What?" Guarded blue eyes looked over, reflecting the dancing flames of the fire.
"Xena. Whats up with you? You havent had much to say since you moved here. Not that I would have exactly described you as a chatty person before, but you at least used to talk to me, if nothing more than to give me a hard time. I . . . I kind of miss it. I am your friend, arent I? Is everything okay with you and Gabrielle? I mean, you seem happy enough. Just . . . different. Or something."
"Everythings fine between me and Gabrielle. Its just hard."
"Whats hard?" Ponys brow furrowed.
"Being alive. Trying to understand why Im here. Sometimes I wish . . ." Xenas face took on a wistful expression, and the weapons master could almost swear a tear brimmed in the corner of a blue eye, threatening at any moment to spill down the warriors cheek.
"Wish what?" Pony hesitantly patted the warrior on the shoulder, relieved when Xena didnt haul off and smack her.
"Gabrielle and I were very happy in the Elysian Fields. It was so peaceful there. No worries. No fighting. We could just be together and enjoy that, and not have to constantly wonder when the next attack would come, or what problem we would be asked to solve next. It was beautiful and it was perfect. Now were back and I have to watch her work through the aftermath of the crucifixion. Listen to her nightmares. Watch her sometimes go so deep inside herself Im afraid she wont come back out. It hurts and there doesnt seem to be a damned thing I can do about it."
"Xena. I wasnt there. Ive heard Amarice tell me about what Eli did. What was that like?"
"I . . . dont like to talk about that." The warrior picked up a small stone and studied it before chunking it savagely into the fire. "But youre my friend, and you deserve to know. So Im going to tell you the whole thing, and then I dont want to talk about it again, okay?"
"Xena, you dont have to . . ."
"Okay?" The blue eyes looked pleadingly into Ponys, and the weapons master realized that was the warriors way of telling her that she needed to talk about it.
In tones so low that none of the others realized what she was talking about, Xena had recounted everything, slowly at first, explaining how she felt when the chakram hit her back. What it was like to feel completely helpless, watching the bard kill all those soldiers on her behalf. The agony she was in as she watched the Romans beat and crucify Gabrielle. What it had been like in the Elysian Fields, and how she felt when she first woke up in the inn near Mount Ymarro and realized she was alive again. What it was like to realize she was in love with Gabrielle, and how much joy that brought her. How she felt she didnt deserve it. How the bard redeemed her soul over and over again. Her own fear that she couldnt give Gabrielle what she needed.
By the time the warrior was finished, everyone else had long since left the fire and it was well past midnight, the moon having set, leaving hundreds of twinkling stars alone in the sky. The weapons master had merely listened, occasionally making low sympathetic noises, but never speaking for fear she might miss this one chance to understand what her friend had been through. Pony had helped the somewhat inebriated warrior back to the queens hut, and assisted Gabrielle in getting Xena into bed.
The queen had followed her back into the sitting room. "What happened? Xena doesnt get drunk. Not unless shes really upset." Green eyes flashed, demanding an answer.
"She told me about everything."
"Everything about what?"
"The crucifixion. And all."
"Oh." The bard draped an arm across the weapons masters shoulders. "Thank you. We talk about it, but sometimes its too much. Too much emotion between us. Its too hard to watch each other hurting, knowing that on some level we are capable of being the reason for that much pain, even if its for a good reason -- being in love, I mean. Im . . . glad she talked to you. I think she needed that. She holds it in a lot because she doesnt want to watch me hurt. Im glad she has you for a friend, Pony."
Eponin slowly came back to the present and sighed, subconsciously shifting her reins from hand to hand. "They didnt survive. They died." She watched as Brutus tried to come to terms with her answer.
"Buh . . ." The normally articulate Romans tongue felt like a huge chunk of rubber plant.
"Brutus, its a long story, some of which is very personal and private. So Ill give you the facts and only the facts, got me?"
"Uh . . . yeah. Im all ears."
The Roman listened incredulously as the weapons master told him everything that had happened, from the beatings to the crucifixion, to Amarice rescuing the bodies, to Eli bringing them back from the dead. As she finished he swallowed a few times, gazing thoughtfully at his saddle horn before he looked up with an incredibly sad look on his face. "You know, Eponin. I had no idea Caesar was going to crucify them. Especially Gabrielle. If I had known I would have let her and Eli and his people go. Caesar lied to me."
"You killed Ephiny. Amarice told me it was you. You cant hide behind Caesars lies on that one. You did it with your own sword."
"I didnt know who she was. What queen or regent ranked that high fights at the front of the line? I thought she was just another Amazon."
"She wasnt just another Amazon. She was a true warrior. She fought at the front because she never asked us to do anything she wasnt willing to do herself. And she was one of my best friends." Pony blinked, determined not to shed any tears in front of Brutus.
"I am truly sorry. About Ephiny. And about Xena and your queen. I wish I could go back and change all of that, but I cant."
The weapons master read true remorse in the Romans eyes. "I believe you."
"Thank you. Xena thinks I was a coward."
"Didnt say you werent a coward. Just said I believe youre sorry now."
Ouch. "Okay. I deserve that."
"Yes you do."
They rode on in silence, all pretext of conversation gone to the wayside.
Ahead of them, Xenas head was cocked to one side, listening to a young Roman ruler she was becoming more and more impressed with, with each passing moment. She mostly listened while looking ahead, wanting to hear what he had to say without seeing a face so similar to one she hated, hoping to give him a fair chance without allowing her own personal prejudices to interfere.
". . . so yes, I want to increase Roman territory, but not at the expense of the people in the conquered areas. I have little need for backwoods villages like Potadeia and Amphipolis, no offense to you." Octavian looked over at the tall dark woman, who was intriguing him almost as much with her silence as he was her with his words.
"None taken." Xena grinned. "Id rather you not have need of them."
That brought a genuine laugh to the Romans lips. "The only reason I pay any attention to them at all is that they just happen to be part of a country that is already under Roman rule. You do realize that, dont you? That Greece is part of the Roman Empire?"
"Yes. Though I dont think most Greeks know it. It hasnt affected the lives of the farming and shepherding villages enough for them to see any difference. Athens basically gave up without a struggle, from what I heard. No one even knew unless they were living in Athens when the transition took place. Smart of Caesar to allow the rulers in Athens to stay there, even if it was just a sham. He avoided a massive uprising and gained the entire country all at the same time. I was far away at the time, with the northern Amazons."
"What were you doing all the way that far north? Isnt that . . ."
"North of Chin. In Mongolia."
"What in Hades would drive you that far away?"
"Its complicated." The warrior looked through Octavian for a long moment, remembering one of the most painful times of her life, thinking Gabrielle dead, and willing to do anything to see the bard one more time.
"I see." The Roman decided not to press any further, sensing this particular area was off limits.
Xena attempted a half-smile. "Suffice it to say its probably a good thing I was out of the country. If I had known Rome was marching on Athens, I would have tried to stop Caesar, and I might have died in the process." Before I knew an Eli or an Amarice. Before I had earned Gabrielles redemption. The warrior added silently.
"Maybe. Although tales of your fighting skills are told from Gaul to the Carpathian Sea."
"That far?" Xenas eyebrows shot up.
"Yes. It seems that several rather outstanding bards were at the Academy in Athens at the same time as Gabrielle was there. Shes famous you know. Almost as famous as you."
"Ive tried to tell her, but she doesnt believe me." The warrior chuckled, shifting in her saddle and finally allowing herself to look Octavian in the eyes. "So . . ." Xena gently steered him back to his vision. "If you have no use for small Greek villages, why are you here?"
"Im hoping that if I promise to leave Amphipolis, and Potadeia, and the Centaurs, and the Amazons alone and allow them to live peacefully in their own territories, that in exchange for that I wont get any trouble from them. Amazons and Centaurs certainly dont fit into my big picture, and I believe they have a right to live their lives without interference from Rome. Many Romans dont even believe Centaurs and Amazons exist. Theyve never seen them."
"Whats in it for you? If we did give you trouble, your army is big enough to come down and squash us into oblivion."
"Thats true. But thats not how I want to do things if I can avoid it. I have no desire to stomp on simple people that will probably never even see Rome. I want prosperity for Rome, but I can get that from the larger cities Caesar conquered. And I hope to gain it in such a way that the people in those cities will also profit from it. I dont intend to pillage. Im hoping to gain some revenue through taxes and trade agreements. But I want the merchants and traders to have incentive to be productive. Frankly, the smaller villages dont have enough livestock or crops to make it profitable to send tax collectors there. It would cost more for the upkeep to send a tax collector to the smallest villages than we would gain from any taxes collected."
Xena appraised the younger man, guessing that he was not more than nineteen or twenty summers old, younger even than Gabrielle. "Youve really thought this out, havent you?"
Octavian turned in the saddle, squinting into the rays of sunlight that broke through the tree branches above their heads. "Im not Caesar although a few people have started calling me Octavian Caesar. I watched my Uncle Julius ruin hundreds of lives. He used people and discarded them like you and I might discard our boots after they wear out. He hurt me too, just like he hurt almost everyone else that ever entered his life. He had almost nothing to do with me when he was alive. Even in death he is just using me."
"What do you mean by that? He made you his heir. Gave you the entire damned Roman Empire. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Though Im not sure Id want that large of a responsibility." The words startled the warrior, even as she heard them come out of her own mouth. Well. If you ever needed proof youve changed Xena, look no further. Was a time when youre hunger for power was unstoppable. If it werent for Hercules, you might still be out there. How far would you have gone in your desire to have more and more? She shook her head slightly in an effort to focus.
"It is a great inheritance, but it was given to me by my uncle only as a means to get back at someone else. He . . . has a son."
"Didnt know that. Whos the lucky mother?" The warrior reached around and lifted her water skin from its hook on Argos saddle, taking a long sip.
Xena snorted water through her nose, spewing it on Argos head in the process. The mare expressed her displeasure by sidestepping, dancing uneasily from hoof to hoof. The warrior patted the palomino on the side of her neck in an attempt to gentle her. "Sorry girl." She turned to Octavian, who was doing his best to hide his amusement to no avail. "Cleopatra?! Damn. I knew Caesar got around, but a kid with the queen of Egypt? Amazing. So how did old Cleo take it when she found out Caesar made you his heir?"
"Um . . . old? You havent met her, have you?" The Roman chuckled.
The warrior grinned, remembering a rather attractive ebony-skinned Egyptian queen, who had made little effort to hide her own attraction to Xena. The warrior had been so tempted to go with that, to have a little harmless pleasure, but her growing feelings for Gabrielle had stopped her. Even then on some level, she had known that such a dalliance would have hurt the bard. "Didnt mean that literally. Actually, shes an old friend of mine. I rescued her a while back from some people who wanted to kill her."
Is there anyone who hasnt met you, Xena? Octavian wondered silently. "Cleopatra didnt take it too well when she found out about me. She was another woman in a long line of women my uncle used only until he could get no more from them."
"Believe me. I know. I was one of those women."
"So I heard. But Cleopatra had one thing she could hold over Uncle Julius head that the others didnt. Apparently she was very fertile and he was not. She bore his child. His only child. And she named him Caesarian and never let my uncle forget that unless he produced another heir, that someday her child was going to have his entire empire."
"But Caesar used you to get around that."
"Yes. And Cleopatra was furious. By the time Uncle Julius died, she had taken up with Marc Antony, who was my uncles best friend for many years. I think she was using Antony to get back at my uncle, just like he used me to get back at her. Antony was already in Rome when Uncle Julius died, while I was in Gaul with my grandmother, Uncle Julius oldest sister. I had to travel a long way on horseback to get to Rome and claim my title, and when I arrived Antony had already taken over Rome. He was quite popular. I decided not to fight that, because I wanted to get off on the right foot with my people. So I formed a triumvirate with Antony and another friend of mine, Marcus Lepidus. Lepidus is enough to balance us, and it seems to be working out okay. I do still have ultimate authority over Rome, but as long as they dont try anything too far-fetched, I try not to shoot down too many of their ideas."
"What about Cleopatra?"
"She seems appeased for now, since shes so tight with Antony. She probably benefits from this arrangement almost as much as she would have if Caesarian were ruling Rome. Maybe more because Caesarian is a spoiled weak brat. He would have been crushed by Caesars enemies in no time if he had been named as heir. And I benefit because Antony is away much of the time in Egypt with her, and thus out of my hair."
"Marc Antony. Dont believe I know him." The warrior racked her brain, trying to put a face with the name.
"He was in the senate under Uncle Julius, but was never a major player until after he died. Rumor is that he was one of the ones that killed my uncle. You know Xena . . ." Octavian pinned her with unwavering black eyes. "Brutus said you were the one that warned him about Caesars plan to make himself emperor. So in a way, you are responsible for my uncles death."
"Hey!" The warrior barked. "I just told him what I heard. I didnt tell him what to do about it. And I needed information from Brutus, so I dangled that carrot in front of him to get what I needed. Besides, Caesar crucified me twice, so turnabout is fair play."
"That some kind of insult?" The warrior eyed him warily.
"No. A phrase I picked up in Gaul. It means hats off to you."
"Oh. Well in that case, thank you." Xena grinned. She looked up and spotted a familiar figure way down the path. "That would be Tildes straight ahead. Were almost to the Centaur village."
It had taken less than a candle mark to make introductions and get the Romans settled into their temporary quarters. Tildes had given them a brief tour and then showed them a pit where a large pig was roasting for a feast the Centaurs had planned in honor of their guests. Xena had almost, almost laughed, when two of the Roman soldiers eyes had practically popped out of their skulls as Tildes greeted them on the road earlier. Just as Octavian had said, neither man had ever seen a Centaur and didnt believe they existed, thinking the talk of staying with Centaurs was a cock-eyed story to keep them in the dark about some big secret Roman plan.
Tildes had agreed to postpone the summit until Gabrielle was well, and assured the warrior that the Romans would be well-entertained until then. Xena looked around approvingly at the all but sparkling village, the normally-present smell of Centaur dung not permeating the air to disturb her sensitive nose. Tildes made them clean up the place. He invited Xena to stay for the feast, but she bowed out, telling him she needed to get back to the Amazons to see to Gabrielle. She had managed to keep from either Octavian or Tildes that she thought Gabrielle and Chilapa had been attacked by some of their own Amazons, deciding that the appearance of a minor civil war might not set a good precedent for the summit.
Eponin had gotten caught up in a rather deep discussion with one of the Centaurs who had been friends with Phantes and Ephiny. Xena excused herself and made her way behind the barn where the Centaurs kept their pigs and cows, the presence of horses notably absent. Tildes had once told Xena that frankly, horses gave most Centaurs the heebie-jeebies, as it was strange to see a creature so similar to themselves that was in reality so very different. She had left Argo behind the barn to graze, as secretly she believed the sight of Centaurs unnerved the poor war horse almost as much as she did them.
"Hey girl, you ready to go back home?" She hefted up the heavy leather saddle and dropped it onto the mares back, cinching it before she tucked the saddle bags back in place. As she reached down to pick up the bridle, she heard small hooves running toward her, just as Argo reared briefly in response. "Easy, there."
A huge smile broke out on the warriors face. "Xenon, Im so glad to see you." She bent down and threw her arms around the young Centaurs shoulders. "I didnt think you were in the village. Tildes told me you were off on a hunting trip with one of your uncles."
"Was. But when I heard you was coming for a visit, I asked him to come back early." Xenons brown eyes and blonde curls caused Xenas heart to lurch in memory of his mother. He frowned and looked up at her. "Heard bad stuffs had happened to you. You okay now?"
The warrior dropped to one knee to get on eye level with her young friend. "Im fine." She brushed back a tuft of thick blonde hair that had fallen over one of the boys eyes. "I should be asking you that question. Are you okay?"
A small lip puckered out and Xenon pawed at the ground with one front hoof. "Mostly."
"You miss your Mom, huh?" Xena drew the boy into another hug.
The lip began to quiver and tears trickled down Xenons face. The warrior pulled him against her, feeling the young boy silently sob against her shoulder. "Hey. Its okay. I miss her too." The crying continued for several long moments, as Xena stroked the blonde curls and made little shushing noises. Finally the Centaur pulled back a little and sniffed.
"Xenon, have you been holding that in all this time?" From the amount of tears shed, the warrior guessed correctly that this was the first time the boy had allowed himself to cry over Ephinys death. She remembered the brave front he had put up at his mothers funeral pyre, looking straight ahead with no expression.
"Dont wants to cry in front of the other Centaurs. Wants to be a man." The lip poked out again, this time with stubborn defiance.
"Xenon, let me let you in on a little secret, okay?"
"A secret? Sure." The brown eyes grew wide with anticipation.
"Real men arent afraid to cry. It takes a braver man to show his feelings, than it does to hold them all in."
"But they might laugh at me."
"Honey, I dont think they will. But if they do, you just come see me. You are welcome to come visit me and your Aunt Gabrielle any time."
"Really. We both loved your mother a great deal, and she would have wanted us to look out for you."
"Awesome." The boy smiled and then turned, as they both heard someone coming around the barn.
Xena cocked her head. Uh oh. "Xenon. Why dont you go say hello to Eponin? I need to have a word with this gentleman. Ill come back to visit you soon."
"Promise. Now go on. Pony would love to see you." She swatted the young Centaur playfully on the rump as he trotted away.
The warrior stood, just as Octavian rounded the corner. "Hello. Im about to leave. You need something?"
"No. But I want something." The Roman closed the distance between them, and Xena found herself backing up until she was pressed against the barn wall. She sensed the energy rolling off Octavian and cursed silently to herself, putting a screeching halt on her reflexes, which were screaming to lash out and knock the man senseless.
Xena took a deep breath to steady herself, as Octavian stepped way inside her comfort zone, reaching out to trace her jawline with one finger. "You know Xena, you are a very beautiful woman."
"Thank you." Wary blue eyes met black ones, as several thoughts raced through the warriors mind, the words cradle and robber sticking close to the forefront. Oh gods. This young boy, who just happens to rule half of the know world, wants me. In that way. What is it with me and royalty? Caesar, Lao Ma, Cyan, Ulysses, Cleopatra, geez, even Gabrielle is an Amazon queen. And now heres yet another monarch just dying to get me between the sheets.
"I . . . um . . . would really be honored if you would spend some time with me tonight. I really want to get to know you better. Perhaps Tildes could give us use of a private hut." Octavian licked his lips as the bold finger reached higher, intent on tracing Xenas own lips. He was stopped, as a strong hand grabbed his wrist and pulled it down.
"Please. Dont." Dont hit him. Dont hit him. Dont hit him. Xena repeated the mantra over and over to herself.
"Why not? I can tell youre intrigued by me. And I hope you can tell I feel the same way about you." The disappointed Roman stepped back and the warrior felt her shoulders immediately relax.
"Octavian, Im flattered. Beyond measure. And yes, I find your ideas quite intriguing. But I cant do this. The old Xena would have in a heartbeat. But this one cant. Youre a man of honor, are you not?"
"I like to think I am."
"Then I hope youll understand when I tell you that I am in a committed relationship with someone else, and she would be hurt very badly if I were to cheat on her with you."
"She? Oh right. Amazons. But I thought you liked men. You were with my uncle at one time, correct?"
"Correct." The warrior eyed him speculatively. Guess Brutus didnt tell him about me and Gabrielle. "And Octavian that was all about power. It had nothing to do with love or even like. Love is gender-blind. Ive been with lots of men and women. Being in love changes everything for me, and I have only fallen in love once. With another woman, the same one Im with now."
"I can respect that, Xena. I wouldnt want to be the one to cause you to hurt your partner. Tell her shes a very lucky woman."
"Youll meet her at the summit. And after that I think youll understand why I feel like Im the lucky woman."
"She must be something else."
"That she is." The warrior smiled, unable to hide the sparkle in her eyes.
"Well then, I look forward to meeting her. Until the summit." Octavian nodded at the warrior and turned, causing his cape to swish about his shoulders, and strode back around the barn just as Eponin came to find Xena.
"Xena, you ready to go? Sun will be going down soon. Raella will be fit to be tied if . . ." She stopped as she realized the warrior was leaning against the barn wall, eyes closed, the fingers of both hands clutched tightly around her chakram, mumbling unintelligibly under her breath. "What in blazes is wrong with you?"
Two blue eyes popped open. "Nothing. Lets get out of here."
Continued in Part 4
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