HEARTS UNDER SIEGE
by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS or HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, April 2001.
SEXUAL DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a sexual relationship between two women. If this bothers you, please look for something else to read.
VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER: There's one rather nasty accident involving broken bones, plus a couple of other gory bits, including a suicide. And since this is Xena: Warrior Princess, there has to be at least one fight scene, right?
FIFTH SEASON DISCLAIMER: The idea for this story was conceived during the fourth season of XWP, before it was announced that Xena would become pregnant during the fifth season. I decided to go ahead with my own storyline, despite what was happening on the TV series. Thus, you will find few references to fifth-season events in this story, but this doesn't mean I haven't been watching the show!
SIXTH SEASON DISCLAIMER: I never dreamed I'd still be writing this darned thing well into the sixth season! Needless to say, there are no references to sixth-season events.
HISTORICAL DISCLAIMER: I did what research I could on Amphipolis, took some of the facts I found, and added a whole lot of imagination. I'm sure the end result is every bit as historically accurate as any episode of XWP!
SPECIAL THANKS: To Jeanne, Jan, and Sandy for their time, expertise, and advice.
If you have comments about this story, I'd love to hear them. You can write to me at email@example.com.
"Well, this is the big night," Toris said to Gabrielle. "Are you nervous?"
Gabrielle looked up and grinned at him. She was standing behind the bar in the tavern Xena's family had owned for almost five decades, washing tankards in a tub of soapy water. "Yeah," she said, "I guess I am a little nervous. How about you?"
Toris laughed. "No, not me. I know Lyceus is going to do a good job," he said. Then, setting down the pitcher he'd been using to refill patrons' goblets, he walked around the bar and picked up a jug of wine. "After all," he went on, "the kid's been telling stories since he was knee-high, and he couldn't have had a better teacher than you."
"He does seem to have inherited certain bardic tendencies," Gabrielle admitted with a smile, "and I know he'll do well, too. I guess it's just the nature of a mother to get nervous when her son performs."
"Well, you can't be blamed for that," Toris said as he uncorked the jug and poured its dark red contents into the pitcher. "But where is our young bard? I haven't seen him all afternoon."
"He told me he was going to practice, so I imagine he's out by the river, telling stories to the frogs. I just hope he doesn't wear his voice out."
"It looks like we're going to have a big crowd, anyway," Toris said, recorking the jug and then leaning against the bar as he surveyed the large room. "There seem to be quite a few men down from the gold mines looking for a good time," he added. "They'll probably enjoy the storytelling, if they're not too drunk by the time it starts."
Gabrielle frowned as she sloshed the last tankard around in the water and then set it upside-down on a folded cloth to dry. "I hope they don't get too unruly. I don't think Lyceus would know how to--"
She was interrupted by a dark-haired woman bursting out of the kitchen behind them. "Where in Tartarus is Cyrelle?" the woman demanded. "I've got a dozen plates filled and ready to be served, and she's nowhere around. Now the food's going to get cold, and people will be complaining! Where is that worthless girl?"
"I don't know, Acantha," Gabrielle said as she quickly scanned the room. "I saw her just a few minutes ago."
"There she is," Toris said, "talking to somebody at that table over by the stairs."
"Well, tell her to get a move on," Acantha said, then turned her disapproving gaze on Gabrielle and Toris. "And you two aren't helping much, either, standing here yakking when there's work to be done. Can't you see how busy this place is tonight?"
"Yes, we were just saying what a nice crowd we're going to have for Lyceus to tell stories to," Toris said mildly.
"Humph!" returned Acantha. "I don't know what all the fuss is over that boy. He's told stories here before."
"Yes," said Gabrielle, "but tonight he'll be the only bard, telling stories all evening. That makes it special." She picked up an old, somewhat ragged linen towel and began drying her hands.
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing very special about telling a story," Acantha said, "especially for a kid who's been telling tall tales ever since he first learned to talk."
Gabrielle felt her face grow suddenly hot, and angry words rose in her, threatening to spill out. But just as she opened her mouth, she saw Toris' warning look and shut it again.
"I'll help serve the food," he said. "Gabrielle, why don't you go see what's keeping Cyrelle."
Apparently satisfied, Acantha nodded and headed back to the kitchen.
"I'm sorry," Toris said as soon as she was gone. "She shouldn't have talked to you like that. I don't know what's gotten into her lately."
"She's your wife," Gabrielle observed "You ought to have some idea why she's acting this way. I mean, I know she's never liked me much, or Lyceus either, but she's usually not so nasty about it."
Toris shook his head. "All I know is she's been really moody for several days now. I finally decided maybe she was coming down with something, since she mentioned a couple of times that she doesn't feel very good."
"Well, maybe that's it," Gabrielle agreed. Then she took a deep breath and made an effort to put her anger aside. After all, it was a special day, and she didn't want it marred by family squabbles.
"Anyway, like I said, I'm sorry," Toris repeated, as he laid a hand briefly on Gabrielle's shoulder. Then he turned and strode through the door into the kitchen.
Gabrielle turned her attention to dealing with Cyrelle, and saw that the girl was now coming towards her, making her leisurely way among the tables. Stepping out from behind the bar, Gabrielle hurried forward and caught her by the arm. "Cyrelle, what's the matter with you?" she asked. "You're not keeping up with the serving, and now Acantha's all in a twit about the food getting cold!"
"Oh, Acantha's always in a twit about something -- especially lately!" the girl responded. Then, pulling free from Gabrielle's grasp, she used both hands to push her long, black hair back from her face and tuck it behind her ears. "I don't know what you expect me to do about it," she added, turning defiant dark eyes on the bard.
"I expect you to do your job, just like Acantha is doing hers. And your job is to get the food out to the people who ordered it."
"They'll get their food eventually."
"Eventually isn't good enough," Gabrielle insisted, then threw a grim smile at Toris as he emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with plates of food. "If people aren't happy with the service here, they'll go someplace else," she went on. "Then we'll have to close the tavern, and we'll have no way to make a living."
Cyrelle sighed, folded her arms across her chest, and rolled her eyes.
"Okay, I know you think that because you're sixteen, you're too old to be lectured," Gabrielle said, "but as long as you keep acting like a kid, people are going to keep treating you like one."
"All I was doing was talking to one of the customers," Cyrelle said. "You always said I should be friendly and answer people's questions."
"Yes, I did say that, but it doesn't mean you should neglect all your other duties." She paused, knowing she should send the girl on to the kitchen, but now her curiosity was aroused. "Who were you talking to?" she asked.
"That old guy with the bushy beard," Cyrelle said, pointing. "See him? He's sitting all by himself at that table over there."
"Yes, I see him."
"I thought he was just a boring old pest at first, but then he started asking me all these questions about Xena."
"Questions about Xena?"
"Yeah. Turns out he used to be in her army, way back when she was still evil and everything."
Gabrielle frowned. "Did he tell you his name?" she asked.
"Uh-huh. It's Arsenios."
"Arsenios," Gabrielle mused. "I don't remember Xena ever mentioning anyone by that name. But then she's never talked much about that part of her life."
"Anyway, I told him she'd be here later," Cyrelle went on. "She is coming, isn't she? To hear Lyceus?"
"Of course she's coming. In fact, I thought she'd be here by now," Gabrielle said, casting a glance around the room.
Toris stopped by then, on his way back to the kitchen. "Cyrelle," he said pointedly, "we could really use your help getting this food out."
"Okay, okay, I'm coming!" the girl exclaimed in an exasperated tone. Then she turned abruptly and pushed her way through the kitchen door.
"Do you want me to help, too?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, I think we can get it," Toris said and then smiled. "I said you could have the night off, and I meant it."
"Thanks. I appreciate it," Gabrielle said.
He nodded, and then gestured toward the front door. "It looks like the bard of the evening has arrived," he said.
"Oh, good! I was beginning to worry about him."
Toris waved to the tall, lanky boy who was now making his way toward them, then went back into the kitchen.
"Hello, Mother," Lyceus said, bending awkwardly to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.
She looked at him and grinned. He had been taller than she was for almost two years now, but somehow it still surprised her that she had to look up to him. And just now she couldn't help thinking how handsome he looked -- how much like a grown man. But the boyish excitement shining in his green eyes reminded her that he was only fifteen. Reaching out, she brushed a lock of curly brown hair off his forehead.
"Do I look all right?" he asked.
"You look wonderful," she assured him. "And you're going to do a great job. Are you nervous?"
"A little," he admitted. "I didn't think there would be so many people here."
"It's good to have a big crowd. You just have to remember to speak loudly, so everyone can hear you."
"Yeah, I know."
"Hey, Lyceus!" called Cyrelle, as she came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray of food. "It's about time you showed up!" She hurried their way, and the odor of roasted meat and turnips quickly enveloped them.
"Yeah, I thought maybe I should put in an appearance," the boy responded, grinning.
"Are you scared?" Cyrelle asked in a teasing tone.
"No, I'm not scared," he said stoutly.
"Yes, you are," she said, poking him playfully with one elbow. "I can see it in your eyes!"
"Cyrelle, you need to take the food all the way to the tables," Gabrielle reminded her.
"Oh. Right," the girl responded. Then she leaned close to Lyceus and said, "You know who I think is the most nervous of all? Your mother. That's why she's being so mean to me tonight!" Then she dashed away before Gabrielle could answer.
"Are you being mean to her, Mother?" Lyceus asked.
"No more than usual," Gabrielle said with a small sigh, as she wondered whether she would ever understand the wildly changeable creature Cyrelle had grown to be. Then, turning her attention back to Lyceus, she asked, "Are you hungry?" although she already knew the answer.
The boy nodded.
"Okay then, why don't you go in the kitchen and ask Acantha to give you some dinner. I need to stake out a table before Xena gets here."
* * * * *
Going behind the bar again, Gabrielle filled two tankards with mead, and then carried them to an empty table near the tavern's front wall. Many years earlier, Toris had built a small platform against the back wall, and furnished it with a tall stool for Gabrielle or the occasional traveling bard to use. The seats Gabrielle had chosen were some distance from this platform, but she knew from long experience that Xena liked to sit where she could survey the whole room with ease. And in this case, it would work to Gabrielle's advantage to be able to see how the audience was reacting to Lyceus, and to signal if he needed to speak more loudly.
She sat down and took a slow sip of mead, savoring the sweet taste of the fermented liquid in her mouth for several moments before swallowing it. Then, glancing up, she saw Xena come in through the open tavern door. The years had brought so many changes to their lives -- some of them good, others bad -- but one thing that never seemed to change was the familiar thrill of admiration Xena could inspire in her just by walking into a room. And Gabrielle wasn't the only one who noticed the warrior's arrival. The fact was that Xena had such a presence, even now, that people often turned to look at her, noting the dignity and grace with which she moved even before they saw the crutch tucked under her right arm.
Gabrielle waved, and Xena nodded in response, then began to make her way past the crowded tables, stopping to greet people and exchange a few words along the way. The torches in the wall brackets threw a warm light on the older woman's hair, which time had changed almost completely to a dark, silvery gray. She wore it long, as always, but often pulled back, as it was today, into a single braid.
Reaching the table at last, Xena leaned her crutch against the wall, pulled out a chair, and sat down. "Hi," she said softly, and turned the warmth of her blue eyes on Gabrielle. "I'm sorry I'm late. I was all ready to leave, and then Basil showed up wanting some herbs for his arthritis. And let me tell you, he was in a very talkative mood." She grinned, picked up her tankard, and took several long swallows.
"Well, don't worry, you haven't missed anything," said Gabrielle. "Oh, except Cyrelle says there's a man here who used to be in your army."
"In my army?"
"Yeah, back when you were 'still evil,' as she put it. I think she said his name is Arsenios."
"Arsenios," Xena repeated and stared thoughtfully at the tabletop for a few moments. "Yes, I remember him now," she said, looking up at Gabrielle. "He was a young fellow -- a skillful fighter -- good with a javelin as well as with a sword. He was always very loyal to me -- in fact, he was one of the few men who didn't strike at me when I went through the gauntlet." She began to look around the room. "Did you say he's here tonight, in the tavern?"
"Yes, or he was a little while ago. But I don't think you'll find him to be a 'young fellow' anymore -- at least not from what I saw."
"It's strange, isn't it," Xena said as she continued to scan the crowd, "how we two stay so young while everyone else gets old."
"Very strange," agreed Gabrielle, smiling.
"Well, I guess I don't remember what he looks like," Xena said after a few moments. "I can't seem to spot him."
"Oh. Well, he was sitting at a table near the stairs, and Cyrelle said--"
"Okay, I see him," Xena interjected. "He's looking right this way. Do you think he could have recognized me?"
"Sure. What's not to recognize?"
"A lot of things -- the gray hair, the gimpy leg, the clothes . . ." She glanced down at the tunic and loose trousers that were now her habitual garb. "I've changed a lot in the last twenty years."
"Yes, in some ways you have," Gabrielle admitted, "but your face is the same, and your bearing. If Arsenios was expecting to see you, I don't think he'd have any trouble recognizing you."
"Maybe you're right," Xena said. Then she called, "Hey, Toris! Come here a minute!" And her brother sauntered over from a nearby table.
He was carrying a large basket filled with loaves of dark brown bread. Reaching in, he selected one and laid it on the women's table.
"Is that all you're serving tonight?" Xena asked.
"Oh, did you want the full dinner?" Toris inquired in mock surprise.
"Yes, if it's not too much trouble."
"All right," he said. "I'll see what I can do for you, but we're having a few problems with the help tonight."
"Cyrelle again?" Xena asked.
"I'll go get us some food," Gabrielle said quickly and started to stand up.
"No, no, sit still," Toris said, pushing her back down. "I will serve you myself. Nothing is too good for my sister and for the mother of the bard." He grinned then and turned to go, but Xena reached out and grabbed his sleeve.
"What do you know about that man sitting over there by the stairs?" she asked. "Arsenios."
Toris glanced in that direction and then back at the two women. "Only that he came in this afternoon and took the last empty room we had. Why? Is he some enemy of yours?"
"No, not an enemy. He used to be in my army, but I haven't seen him in years." She released her grip on his sleeve and then patted the wrinkled fabric to smooth it. "Do me a favor, would you?" she said. "Go ask him if he'd like to come over and share a drink with an old friend."
"All right," Toris said, nodding. "And then I'll go get you some food."
"Thanks, Toris," Gabrielle said. "Did I mention that the service here is excellent?"
"Just leave your tip on the table," he said with a wink, and then set off across the room.
"He seems to be in a good mood tonight," Xena commented as she tore a piece of bread off the loaf and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Yeah. I think he's happy that Lyceus is going to tell stories, but he'd never admit it."
"Mmm," Xena murmured through a mouthful of bread.
"Or maybe he's just trying to make up for Acantha's mood, which is positively bitchy tonight."
"You mean more than usual?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Toris thinks maybe she's getting sick or something."
"Hmm. I'll have to go talk to her later, see if I can find out what's going on."
Gabrielle took a drink of mead and then looked up to see Arsenios approaching their table, tankard in hand. He was a man of medium height and stocky build, with a ruddy complexion and deep-set brown eyes. His hair was longish, streaked with gray and thinning on top, while his beard grew full and "bushy," just as Cyrelle had described it. As he got closer, Gabrielle could see the deep lines and scars in his leathery skin, and looking at his face, she got the sense, somehow, that he was a man who harbored some great sorrow.
"Well, so it's really true," Arsenios said, his face breaking into a wide grin as he came to a halt beside the table. "The Warrior Princess of Amphipolis -- not only still alive, but every bit as beautiful as ever."
Xena rose, smiling, and held out her hand to him. "It's good to see you again, Arsenios," she said as they clasped forearms. "Sit down and join us. We've got a lot of catching up to do."
He seated himself on the other side of Xena, set his tankard on the table, and looked curiously at Gabrielle.
"I'm Gabrielle," she said, offering him her hand.
"My companion in life, and beyond, I hope," Xena said with a quiet smile for the bard.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Arsenios responded.
"Xena says you're one of the men who didn't attack her in the gauntlet."
"Yes, that's true," he said, nodding. "I never had much use for that Darphus fellow -- nothing but a wanton butcher, in my opinion."
"Oh, and I wasn't?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, you were pretty ruthless, of course, in your own way," he admitted. "But you had your principles, and you stuck to them. You saved that baby, which proved you had a heart. That's more than I can say for Darphus. He was just a soulless bastard who was bent on killing everything and everybody." He tipped his tankard up and drained it, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "That's why I didn't take part in the gauntlet," he went on, addressing himself to Gabrielle. "Xena was my commander, and a damned good one, too. I had no desire to see her beaten to death. As soon as the gauntlet was over, I went and packed up my gear. I snuck out of camp in the middle of the night, and once I got away, I just kept on going and never looked back."
He stopped speaking, apparently becoming aware that Cyrelle was standing at his elbow, listening.
"Hey, Arsenios," she said. "Didn't I tell you Xena would be here tonight?"
"You most certainly did," he said with a grin, "and she has even been kind enough to act like she remembers me."
"Of course, I remember you," Xena said. "You were one of my best warriors."
"So what have you two been talking about?" asked Cyrelle eagerly. "Some of your old battles?"
"Well, we've only just got started," Arsenios told her, "but it wouldn't surprise me if we talked about old battles at some point. Seems like there are some of them we just have to keep fighting all our lives. Wouldn't you agree?" he asked, looking pointedly at Xena.
She seemed a bit surprised by the question, but after a moment, she said, "Yes, I would agree with that." Then, turning to Cyrelle, she asked, "Don't you have work to do?"
"Sure, and I'm doing it right now," the girl said, raising the pitcher she was carrying. "I'm serving mead. Who needs a refill?"
"Well, I could certainly use one!" Arsenios said. He started to hold out his tankard, but then stopped and said, "But I'm forgetting my manners. You should serve the ladies first."
"Ladies!" Xena snorted. "There are no ladies here!"
"Speak for yourself," said Gabrielle, smiling and offering her tankard to be refilled.
"You were talking about the gauntlet, weren't you?" Cyrelle said as she poured the golden liquid. "Don't let me stop you. That's a subject I'd love to hear more about."
"It was a horrible thing to watch," Arsenios said, shaking his head. "I thought sure Xena was dead, but then she surprised us all by getting up. I'll never forget the look on Darphus' face!"
"I'd rather talk about something else, if you don't mind," Xena said as Cyrelle refilled her tankard.
"Okay," the girl said. "Why don't you tell me about some battles you fought together?"
"Cyrelle," Gabrielle said, "Arsenios wants to have a nice, quiet visit with Xena. He's not here to tell tales and entertain you."
"Oh, don't be so hard on the girl," Arsenios said quickly. "I like her. She's bright and eager, and still thinks life is going to be one big, wonderful adventure. That's the way I was once, and I'll wager it's the way you were, too, Xena."
"Yes, I suppose so," said Xena. "But Cyrelle is young yet. She'll have plenty of time for adventure a few years down the road."
"I'm not that young!" protested the girl. "I'm almost as old as you were when--"
But she was interrupted by Toris, who arrived with the plates of food. "Sorry it took so long," he said. "I got a little distracted." Then he looked at Arsenios. "You've already eaten, haven't you?" he asked.
"Oh yes, and it was quite good."
"I'm glad to hear that," Toris said. "Cyrelle, what are you up to?"
"I'm serving them mead."
"Okay, but there are other people who need refills, too, so don't take too long."
"When do you want Lyceus to start telling stories?" Gabrielle asked.
"Very soon now," replied Toris. "Where is that boy, anyway?"
"I see him," said Xena. "Looks like he's coming this way."
"Tell him to be ready. I'll let him know when to start."
Gabrielle nodded, and Toris hurried away, stopping only long enough to give Lyceus a quick smile and a pat on the shoulder as they passed.
"Hi," said Lyceus as he came up to the table.
He looked a little pale, Gabrielle thought, and reaching out to take his hand, she found it cold and damp. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"How're you doing, Lyceus?" Xena asked. "Are you all ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be, I guess," he said.
"You're going to do a wonderful job -- I'm sure of it," Xena said.
"Sit down," Gabrielle said, nodding to the last empty chair at the table. Then she turned to their guest. "Arsenios, have you met my son, Lyceus?"
"No, I haven't," the older man said, clasping the boy's forearm warmly. "Are you going to be telling stories tonight?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that! There's nothing I love more than a good story."
"You won't be disappointed, then," said Xena. "Lyceus is a fine bard. He takes after his mother in that respect."
The boy colored slightly and ducked his head.
"Arsenios used to be in Xena's army," Cyrelle said. "He was telling us about the gauntlet."
Gabrielle looked up, surprised. She had forgotten the girl was still there.
"Cyrelle, get back to work," Xena growled. "Now!"
The girl hesitated, as if she were going to argue, but the look on Xena's face apparently made her change her mind. Without a word, she turned and walked away.
Xena gave a small sigh, then picked up her knife and fork. "Is this kid?" she asked, eyeing the meat.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle said.
"Good," said Xena, as she sliced into her portion. "It seems to be nice and tender."
A silence fell over the group. Gabrielle ate several bites of meat and turnips, and then glanced up to see Arsenios holding his tankard in both hands without drinking from it. He seemed to be lost in thought or perhaps in memory, and the sadness she had noticed earlier was once more evident. Curious, she continued to watch him, not realizing that she was staring until his reverie suddenly ended, and he turned his gaze on her.
Embarrassed, she fumbled for something to say. "Oh, uh, Arsenios, I was just wondering what you did after you left Darphus' army."
He smiled. "Well, first I went back home and tried farming for a couple of years, but I hated it so much that when Draco and his army came through town, I joined up with them."
"You've been fighting with Draco?" Xena said in surprise.
"Yes, all these years, if you can believe it. I certainly never expected to live this long -- warriors usually don't, as I'm sure you know."
"Well, how is old Draco doing these days?" Xena asked with a smile. "It's been a long time since we've seen him."
Arsenios was silent for a moment, and a strange look crossed his face. "I guess you haven't heard," he said finally. "Draco is dead."
Gabrielle looked quickly at Xena, seeing the sorrow in her eyes.
"Dead," Xena repeated softly. "No, we hadn't heard."
"When did it happen?" asked Gabrielle, reaching under the table to lay a hand on her lover's thigh.
"It was in the spring," Arsenios said, "so that would be about three months ago."
"Did he die in battle?" asked Lyceus.
"Yes, he did," Arsenios said. He paused for a moment, as if trying to decide how to explain, then went on. "Maybe you know that, at a certain point, Draco tried to reform his life. That was before I joined his army, so I'm not quite sure how it came about. Some people said Draco fell in love with a saintly woman, and he wanted to change in order to please her."
Gabrielle quickly clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling. A glance at Xena told her that the older woman was also amused.
But Arsenios seemed not to have noticed, and he continued with his story. "Of course, Draco never was as successful with his reform as you were," he said to Xena and smiled. "I guess he just got too much enjoyment out of being a bad boy."
"That doesn't surprise me, somehow," Xena said, smiling back.
"Yes, well, over the years, Draco did manage to change his ways to some extent. He killed fewer people, for one thing, and he hardly ever killed women and children. In fact, sometimes he even did things that were helpful rather than harmful. And that's what he was doing the day he got killed." Arsenios stopped long enough to take a quick sip of his mead and then went on. "We had planned to attack a certain town, just to get some supplies, you know. But before we could make our move, we found out another warlord had designs on the same place. So we actually ended up defending the town instead of attacking it. Draco found a little girl stranded in the middle of the battle, and he lifted her up onto his horse to carry her out of danger. While he was riding off, an archer got him. The arrow went right through his skull. He was dead before he even hit the ground."
"What happened to the little girl?" asked Gabrielle.
"She was all right. Scared, but not hurt."
"He died a good death," Xena said quietly.
"Yes. Yes, he did," agreed Arsenios.
"So what happened to Draco's army after he got killed?" asked Lyceus.
"His son took over as commander," said Arsenios.
"His son!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I didn't know Draco had a son!"
"Neither did he," Arsenios said, chuckling. "But one day this young fellow showed up claiming to be Draco's son, and asking to be taught the ways of a warrior. He and Draco had a long talk, and I guess the kid provided enough facts to convince Draco that he was telling the truth. So Draco acknowledged him and started training him that same day."
"What's his name?" asked Xena.
"Do you think he really is Draco's son?"
"Yes, I think he very likely is. He certainly looks enough like Draco to be convincing. But the thing is, he's nothing like Draco in temperament. He's mean-spirited and greedy, and he thinks nothing of hacking a man's head off, or torturing him to death. He's got all of Draco's worst qualities without a single good one."
Everyone considered this information in silence for a few moments, and while they were doing so, Toris appeared.
"Are you ready, Lyceus?" he asked, putting his hands on the boy's shoulders.
"All right, then. Let's do it."
Lyceus got up and turned to the others. "Now be sure to listen," he said with a grin.
"Do we have a choice?" Xena asked.
"No," he said, laughing.
"Don't forget to speak loudly, so we can hear you," Gabrielle reminded him.
"Yes, Mother," he said, rolling his eyes. Then he turned and followed Toris toward the platform.
Gabrielle hadn't realized just how nervous she was until she saw Lyceus take his place on the platform. But then Xena leaned over and whispered, "Relax, it's in his blood, remember?" and she managed a weak smile.
Toris called for the crowd's attention, briefly introduced Lyceus, and then left the boy standing there alone. Gabrielle watched her son close his eyes for a moment as he waited for stillness to settle over the room. Then, opening them again, he took a big breath, and began.
"I tell the tale of Jason and his Argonauts," he intoned, "and of their quest for the Golden Fleece."
A low murmur of pleasure passed among the listeners. Although this story was known to all, it was a popular one, and everyone seemed happy to hear it again. Gabrielle knew that Lyceus had chosen this tale especially because it was one that she herself rarely told. He had first written it down two years ago, just after a visit from Hercules and Iolaus, and he had carefully included all the details he had managed to pester out of the two heroes during their stay.
Now Gabrielle listened with nerves stretched tight, willing Lyceus to remember the phrasing and nuances of tone he had so diligently rehearsed. His voice sounded a little shaky at first, but as he gradually settled into the rhythm of the tale, it began to take on more strength and confidence. Looking over at Xena, she smiled in relief. And for answer, the warrior winked at her as if to say, "I told you so."
The story continued, but Gabrielle now found herself only halfway listening, as she watched the tavern's patrons. Most were quite attentive, and the few who became noisy were soon escorted out the door by Toris. Arsenios, in particular, seemed engrossed in the tale -- all trace of sadness gone now from his face. In contrast, Xena appeared to have stopped listening. Her eyes were focused far away, as if on some landscape only she could see. Was she thinking of Draco and mourning his death? Gabrielle watched her lover's face for a time, wondering if she should call her back to the present. But finally she decided against it, turning her attention instead back to Lyceus.
The story went on at some length, and when it eventually wound its way to an end, there was eager applause and many calls for Lyceus to tell another tale. The boy, flushed with pleasure, grinned and took an awkward bow. Then, as soon as the crowd fell quiet again, he began to tell about the time when Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite had all appeared to Iolaus and asked him to choose the fairest among them.
This tale, too, was met with avid attention and generous applause.
"Your son is a delightful storyteller," Arsenios called to Gabrielle over the noise of clapping hands and stamping feet. "I don't know when I've been so well entertained."
"Thank you," she responded. "I'm feeling pretty proud of him right now, myself!"
"As well you should be," Arsenios said with a grin.
"Is Lyceus taking a break now?" Xena asked.
"Yes, and then he'll tell one more story," Gabrielle said, pushing back her chair and standing up. "I think, if you'll excuse me for a moment," she added, "I'll go tell him how well he's doing."
"Go ahead," Xena said. "And you can tell him I said so, too."
There were quite a few people around Lyceus when Gabrielle reached him, so she had to wait her turn to give him a quick hug and a few words of praise.
"Was I loud enough?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, you were perfect," she assured him.
Returning to the table, she found that her tankard had been filled again, and picking it up, she took a long drink of the cool liquid. Xena and Arsenios had apparently been discussing the injury to Xena's leg.
"Can you walk at all without the crutch?" asked Arsenios.
"I can get around, if I have to," Xena said, "but my right leg won't really support my weight, so without the crutch, I limp pretty badly."
"How about riding? Can you do that?"
"No," she said. "I've tried it, but it's painful for me, and I just don't have enough strength in my leg to grip the horse the way I should."
"Well, it was a terrible thing to happen," Arsenios said, shaking his head. "Especially to someone like you."
Xena shrugged. "I guess it seemed terrible enough at the time," she said, "but the fact is I don't think about it much anymore."
There was a forced casualness to this last statement which made Gabrielle suspect it was a lie. When Xena looked at her, she arched an eyebrow in disbelief, but said only, "I think Lyceus is getting ready to start again."
"Oh, good!" Arsenios said. "What's the next story about?"
"It's about the time Xena and I went to India, and I ended up possessed by an evil spirit named Tataka."
"You're kidding!" he exclaimed.
"No, it's all quite true," Gabrielle assured him. "Wait until you hear it."
The story quickly unfolded, and Arsenios listened closely, only turning to look at Xena and Gabrielle from time to time and shake his head in wonder. When it was over, he pounded the table enthusiastically with his empty tankard and smiled broadly at the two women. "I can't tell you how much pleasure it's given me, being here tonight. This is not at all what I thought I'd find."
"What do you mean?" asked Xena.
"I mean that when I came here, knowing you were all crippled up and no longer a warrior, I thought I'd find a dried-up, bitter old woman. But instead-- Well, you seem so happy with your life, so . . . peaceful."
Xena looked at him for a long moment without answering, but then she said, "When I first got hurt, the thought of not being a warrior anymore nearly killed me. But I've made a new life for myself now as a healer, and I have the love of my family." She paused to smile at Gabrielle, then added, "Those are the things that have gotten me through."
Arsenios nodded, but said nothing. He sat staring down at his hands as the lines of sadness slowly deepened on his face.
"You're not happy with Demetri as your commander, are you?" Gabrielle asked.
"No," he said, looking up at her. He seemed about to go on, but just then Cyrelle came hurrying up to the table.
"Hi, guys!" she greeted them. "Guess what! Toris said I don't have to work anymore since lots of people are leaving, so I can just sit here with you and hear all the battle stories." She smiled brightly, pulled out a chair, and sat down. "Boy, are my feet tired!" she added, bending down to untie her sandals and kick them off. Then, straightening back up, she said, "So, what are we talking about?"
The three adults exchanged glances for a moment without speaking, and then Arsenios asked, "Does she always have this much energy?"
"Oh, yes," Xena said dryly, "and sometimes she has more."
Gabrielle smiled and turned to Cyrelle. "Do you remember the stories I've told you about Draco?" she asked.
"Yes, of course!" returned the girl.
"Well, Arsenios said earlier that he's been with Draco's army for a number of years now -- except that last spring Draco got killed, and his son Demetri took over as commander."
"Draco got killed?" Cyrelle asked in surprise.
"Well, that's too bad, because I always thought I'd like to meet him," the girl said.
"I think he would have liked you," Arsenios said with a smile, "and you would have liked him, too. But Demetri is a whole different kettle of fish."
"And you don't like serving under his command," Xena said.
"No, I don't."
"Are you going to leave his army?" asked Gabrielle.
He looked at her and then looked away without answering.
"Arsenios, why did you come here?" asked Xena, leaning forward and fixing him in her steady gaze. "And don't say it was just to look up an old friend, because I won't believe you."
He turned his eyes on her for a long moment, and then, as if coming to a decision of some sort, he took a deep breath and said, "I came here on a scouting mission for Demetri. He's sending scouts to all the towns he plans to attack, and I volunteered to come to Amphipolis because I had heard you were living here."
Cyrelle gasped. "Are you saying that Demetri's going to attack--"
"Shh!" hissed Xena, reaching across the table to clamp a hand on the girl's arm. "Keep your voice down! Do you want to start a general panic?"
"Sorry," whispered Cyrelle. "I just thought Arsenios meant that Demetri was planning to--"
"I think that's exactly what he meant," Xena said, looking to the other warrior for confirmation as she released her grip on the girl's arm.
Arsenios nodded. "Demetri has a scheme to conquer all the northern towns and villages, and he sees Amphipolis as the crowning jewel of that campaign."
"Why Amphipolis?" asked Cyrelle.
"Because of the gold trade, I would imagine," said Xena.
"Yes, and the timber trade, too," Arsenios said. "Demetri thinks his conquest of Amphipolis will make him rich."
"It's certainly not the sleepy little village it once was, is it?" commented Gabrielle.
"No," Xena said. "It's nearly five times the size now that it was when Cortese attacked. But fortunately, it's going to be a lot easier to defend this time around." She looked pointedly at Arsenios. "If you're any kind of scout at all," she said, "you might have noticed that we now have a city wall."
"Yes, I noticed it right away," Arsenios assured her, laughing. "It's pretty hard to miss. And I also noticed that the town is surrounded on three sides by the Strymon River. There's one bridge outside the city's north gate, and anyone coming from the north or west would have to cross that in order to get into the city."
"Why can't you just ford the river?" Xena asked.
"That wouldn't be very easy -- at least not from what I saw," Arsenios said. "The channel isn't all that wide, but it appears fairly deep, and the banks are much too steep for horses and wagons to maneuver."
Xena nodded. "What else have you seen?" she asked.
"Well, there are five city gates -- one at the north end, another at the south end, and two on each of the longer east and west sides. And the whole wall is made of wood," he added. "I've never seen anything like it before."
"Wood is what we have a lot of," Xena said, "so that's what we decided to use." She leaned back in her chair. "That wall has been twelve long years in the building," she went on, "but it's finally finished, and if what you're telling us about Demetri is true, we might get to try it out soon."
"Some people didn't think we even needed a city wall," said Cyrelle, "but I guess we're going to prove them wrong now, aren't we, Xena?"
"It looks that way," the warrior agreed. Then she leaned forward again, studying Arsenios closely. "Okay," she said, "you've done some basic scouting work here, and you may have observed even more than you've told us so far, but why admit to being a scout? That doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would go over big with Demetri."
"I'm not going back to Demetri," Arsenios said quietly.
"You're deserting," Xena said, making a flat statement of the matter.
"Yes. I saw this as my chance to get out. And I also thought that if I could come up here and find you and warn you, then at least I would have done one good deed before I die."
"Before you die," exclaimed Gabrielle. "Surely you've got a lot of good years left before you cross over."
"Yes, plenty of time for good deeds," said Xena. "You can't be any older than I am," she went on. "In fact, I was thinking you were younger."
"That depends," he said. "I don't really know how old you are."
"Neither do I," Xena said with a shrug. "I lost count a long time ago. But I figure I've seen almost fifty winters by now."
"For me, it's just short of forty."
"Then you're about my age," Gabrielle said, trying to hide her surprise. From his looks, she had supposed him to be even older than Xena.
"The years have been kinder to you than to me," he said, as if reading her thoughts.
"Well, I guess it helps when you have a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in," she admitted with a rueful smile. Then she looked up to see Lyceus approaching their table. Ever since the storytelling ended, the boy had been occupied with talking to people and accepting the coins they offered as payment for the evening's entertainment.
"Ah! Here is our fine young bard!" Arsenios exclaimed. "Bring a chair over and join us! I can't tell you how much I enjoyed your stories." And then, as Lyceus set a chair next to Cyrelle and seated himself on it, Arsenios pulled a leather coin purse out of his tunic, opened it, extracted a five-dinar piece, and offered it to the boy.
"Oh, no, I can't take that, it's too much!" Lyceus said quickly.
"Take it," said Arsenios.
"No, really, I can't accept it," Lyceus said, looking to Gabrielle for help.
"Arsenios," she began, "that really does seem like--"
"I want him to have it," insisted the man, laying the coin on the table in front of the boy. "It was worth that and more for me to hear him tonight."
There was a long moment of silence, and then Lyceus slowly picked up the money. "Thank you," he said. "I'll try to put it to good use."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Arsenios said, laughing. "Life is short. Spend that money on something you really want -- preferably something silly and useless that your mother doesn't think you should have!"
The boy laughed and then tucked the coin away in his own small coin pouch.
"Lyceus," Cyrelle said. "You'll never guess what! Arsenios brought some exciting news!" Then she looked at Xena. "Can I tell him?" she asked.
The girl leaned over to whisper in Lyceus' ear, and his eyes widened in surprise. "Is it true?" he asked in a low voice. "Are we going to have to defend Amphipolis just like you and your brother did when Cortese attacked?"
"It's quite possible," Xena said. "But we need to consider all our options. Sometimes violence is not the only answer."
Gabrielle smiled. It had taken her much pain and many years to teach Xena this lesson, but the older woman had eventually learned it well.
"For now," Xena went on, lowering her voice, even though the tavern room was almost empty, "I don't want this information about Demetri to go beyond our little circle. No one else is to know until I say so -- not even Toris or Acantha. Does everyone understand?"
"Now," she said, turning to Arsenios, "I could use a little more information. How big is Demetri's army?"
"Not all that big," he said. "Maybe 150 men. But they are all experienced, well-trained fighters, and Demetri is adding recruits whenever he can."
"Where was the army when you left it?"
"Partway down the east coast, about even with Mt. Olympus."
"How soon do you estimate they'll get to Amphipolis?"
He shook his head. "I really can't tell you that, Xena. It depends on how many towns Demetri stops to conquer along the way."
"All right. Fair enough," she said.
"Arsenios," Gabrielle broke in. "Do you know if the towns Demetri plans to attack include Poteidaia? That's where I grew up."
"Poteidaia," he mused. "Coastal town? Built right on that little isthmus?"
"Yes, I'm pretty sure that was one of the places on Demetri's list. Do you still have family there?"
"Well, my parents died some years back, but my sister and her family are there."
"Is there some way you can get word to them?" he asked. "Maybe they can mount a defense."
"Yes, maybe so," Gabrielle said. She glanced at Xena, but the older woman appeared to be thinking about something else.
"Arsenios," Cyrelle broke in, "what are you going to do if you don't go back to your army? You're not going to stop being a warrior, are you?"
"I don't know," he said sadly. "I don't know what I'll do. The fact is I'm not good at anything except fighting, but I'm not sure how much longer I can keep doing that. Some mornings I can barely get up because my joints ache so bad, and then I get pains here sometimes," he added, tapping his chest. "I had hoped to die in battle, but for some reason that hasn't happened yet. I used to think the gods had blessed me, but now I wonder if they haven't cursed me instead."
"Don't you have a family you can go home to?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, not anymore."
"You can live here with us," Cyrelle offered eagerly. "We'll be your family!"
He smiled. "That's very kind of you, but I don't know how I'd make a living, and I don't want to be a burden on anyone."
"Surely we could find something for you to do," Gabrielle said. "Maybe you could make weapons. Do you know how to do that?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"You could learn," Lyceus suggested. "There's a weapons maker here in town. Maybe he could teach you."
"Maybe," said Arsenios doubtfully, "but it's awfully hard to teach an old dog new tricks."
"You can help us fight Demetri," Cyrelle said.
"Yes, I suppose I could. But I don't know why you would need me when you've got Xena."
"If you want to stay here, Arsenios," Xena said, "I think you could be very useful to us. You've risked a lot to bring us the warning about Demetri, and I appreciate that. But speaking of old dogs," she added with a grin, "I imagine it's about time some of us went home and went to bed."
"Oh, well, it is getting late, isn't it?" said Arsenios.
"Xena was up part of the night tending to a neighbor's sick child," Gabrielle said. "I'm not surprised that she's tired."
"Well, I'm not tired," said Cyrelle. "I want to stay and talk to Arsenios."
"Maybe Arsenios wants to go to bed, too," said Gabrielle, looking to the man for confirmation.
"No, actually, I feel pretty lively yet," Arsenios said with a smile. "I'd be happy to have the girl stay, if you'll let her."
"Oh, may I, please?" Cyrelle begged, looking at Xena.
"All right," said the warrior as she pushed back her chair and stood up. "But you have to leave as soon as Arsenios says for you to."
"Okay, I will," the girl said, nodding eagerly.
"And don't tell her too many wild battle stories," Xena cautioned Arsenios, "or else she'll never get to sleep tonight."
"You command, and I obey," Arsenios said with a laugh as he stood up and clasped the warrior's forearm. "Xena, I can't tell you how much good it's done me to see you again. You seem to have made peace with life, and I envy you for that."
"If I can do it, so can you," Xena said. "We'll talk more about it tomorrow. Come by my hut and I'll give you some herbs that will help with those aching joints."
"Thank you again," he said, and stood there looking at her, seemingly reluctant to let go of her hand.
"Here's your crutch, Xena," Lyceus said.
"Thank you, Son," she said, pulling her hand gently free and reaching for the crutch. "I guess we'll be on our way now. Good night, Arsenios."
"Good night," Gabrielle echoed. "Thanks so much for coming here."
"It was a pleasure to meet you," Arsenios said. "And thank you again for your stories, young man," he added, turning to clasp Lyceus' hand.
"You're welcome," responded the boy. "Good night. We'll see you tomorrow."
* * * * *
They walked out of the tavern into the cool night air. Gabrielle stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and gaze up at the tiny sliver of moon shining bravely in the star-strewn sky. Glancing to the left, she could just make out the tall, black shape of the city wall and the main north gate, some fifty paces away. Although built for defense, the gate had so far stood open to all who came and went, just as it did tonight. Many travelers passed through the thriving town these days, and one of the first sights to greet them was the tavern, whose location near the bridge had been well chosen long ago by Xena's father. Other taverns had since sprung up in Amphipolis, but this, the very first one, was so ideally situated that it did the best business of them all.
Turning to the right now, Gabrielle hurried to catch up with the dark shapes of Lyceus and Xena. She noted, with a smile, that the two of them were about the same height at this point. But she suspected that would soon change, since Lyceus seemed to be starting another of his periodic growth spurts.
Reaching out her left hand, Xena tousled the boy's hair and then pulled him close in a quick, rough hug. "I am so proud of you!" she exclaimed. "You did such a good job tonight! Do you know that I've heard professional bards who can't tell a story half as well as you can?"
"Really?" asked Lyceus in an incredulous tone.
"Really," she assured him.
"Well, thanks," he said, "but do you know what I wish?"
"What do you wish?" asked Gabrielle, coming up on the other side of him.
"I wish I had some adventures of my own to tell about, instead of just talking about what everybody else has done."
"You will," Xena said. "Someday you'll go out and travel the world and have all kinds of adventures."
"Hey, don't give him any ideas!" Gabrielle said, keeping her tone light, despite the chill she suddenly felt in her gut.
"But of course," Xena quickly amended, "you've still got some growing up to do first."
Lyceus sighed. "I've spent my whole life growing up," he said. "When am I ever going to be old enough to do anything fun?"
"You're old enough to start being a bard," Gabrielle reminded him. "Just be patient. The other things will come soon enough. I just hope you don't decide to leave home. I don't know how I could ever let you go."
"Oh, Mom," he said impatiently, and then suddenly broke into a run. "I'll go light the lamp," he called back over his shoulder.
Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, and the warmth of it comforted her.
"Don't worry. He's not going anyplace yet," the warrior said.
"I hope not," Gabrielle whispered.
They continued the short distance to their home in silence. The house was on the same side of the street as the tavern was, with the city wall at its back, and the road to the northwest gate just beyond. It was, like most of the homes in town, built of sun-dried bricks and topped with a roof of thatch. Not a large structure, it consisted of one central room, with a sleeping room at the right-hand end, and another room -- the one Xena called her healer's hut -- at the other.
The two women went in through the door that Lyceus had left standing half open. The small oil lamp he had lit sat on the table in the center of the room, its light casting a warm glow on the plastered walls. Now the boy was kneeling in front of the corner fireplace, feeding straws to the embers as he tried to coax them into a blaze.
"Well, it's been a long day," Xena said, yawning. "I just hope nobody gets sick and needs herbs tonight." She moved to the shelves that lined the left-hand wall and began checking the contents of various leather buckets and clay jugs.
"Lyceus, I don't know that we really need a fire," Gabrielle said. "I think we're all ready to go to bed." She went to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down.
"Oh. Well, I thought it might be nice to take the chill out of the room."
"We'll be warm enough under our blankets," said Xena, "and do you know what I would rather have you do? Go to the well and fill these two jugs. I want to water my herbs first thing in the morning."
"Aw, Xena, carrying water is women's work," Lyceus said in disgust as he stood up and dusted his hands off on his trousers.
"I guess we'll have to make you an honorary woman, then," said Xena with a grin.
"And lucky for you, it's dark, so no one will see that you're doing women's work," Gabrielle added.
Lyceus laughed suddenly and said, "Do you know that when I was little, I thought only women could be bards or warriors? I was so disappointed that I wasn't a girl!"
"Well, tonight you have proved that even a man can be a good bard," Xena said with a grin. "And if you can do that, maybe you can carry water, too."
Lyceus sighed and walked over to pick up the jugs.
"Thank you, Sweetie," the warrior said, patting him on the shoulder.
"I hate it when you call me that," he muttered, but smiled anyway. He started toward the door, but then stopped and turned back to face her. "Xena, what are we going to do about that Demetri guy?" he asked. "How are we going to defend the town?"
"I don't know yet," she admitted. "That's why I don't want you and Cyrelle blabbing to other people about it until I've had some time to think about what to do."
He nodded. "Okay," he said, "but whatever you decide, I want to be part of it. This is my town, and I want to help defend it." He paused for a moment, and then added, "Besides, maybe I can get some good stories out of this whole thing."
Listening to him, Gabrielle felt a chill run through her again. But Xena only laughed.
"You're as bad as your mother was when I first met her," she said, "always looking for adventure and new stories to tell. Now go get that water," she added.
"Yes, ma'am," Lyceus said with a grin and headed out the door.
"Xena, surely you're not thinking about letting him and Cyrelle help fight Demetri," Gabrielle said.
The warrior crossed over to where the bard was sitting. "I don't know, Gabrielle," she said, putting a hand on the bard's shoulder. "Like I told Lyceus, I haven't had time to think it all through yet. But one thing's for sure. If it comes to a fight, we'll need every able-bodied person who wants to help, and that will very likely include Lyceus and Cyrelle."
Gabrielle nodded, but did not look up to meet her lover's eyes.
"I think it's time we went to bed," Xena continued, and Gabrielle felt the warmth of the older woman's body as she bent forward to pick up a candle and light it from the oil lamp. "I'm going out back for a minute," the warrior said, and then headed for the back door, her crutch tapping softly on the packed-earth floor.
The bard sat without moving for several long moments. Xena had said she needed time to think, but knowing how quickly the warrior's mind worked, Gabrielle could almost be certain that many possible defense strategies for Amphipolis were already under consideration. And if she asked the right questions, maybe she could even coax Xena into sharing some of her thoughts.
Rising, she went to the shelf and took down another candle. She stuck it in a clay holder, lit it from the oil lamp, and then carried it to the small sleeping room she shared with Xena. The room had no door -- only a heavy linen curtain, which was left open during the day, and sometimes at night, too. In the main room, just outside the sleeping room, were the two cots where Cyrelle and Lyceus slept, hers against the back wall, and his against the front.
The smaller room was sparsely furnished, containing only a bed wide enough for two, a nightstand, and a wooden chest. Pegs driven into the walls at intervals were used to hang clothing and nightshifts on. And a pair of pegs near the doorway held Xena's crutch each night while she slept.
Setting the candle on the nightstand, Gabrielle returned to the main room. She met Xena coming in the back door and took the candle out of her hand. "I need this, thanks," she said with a grin. "I left you one by the bed."
"Okay. Don't get lost," Xena teased.
"Not much danger of that," Gabrielle responded dryly as she stepped out into the courtyard. The real danger was tripping over one of the flagstones in the dark. She went slowly, holding the candle out so that its light fell on the ground. The courtyard ran the entire length of the house, and was surrounded by a high brick wall. There was a gate at the end where Xena's hut was, and another one in the back. It was toward the latter that Gabrielle now headed. Pushing through the gate, she saw the black shape of the city wall looming over her, about fifteen paces away. The wall was easily three times her own height, and although she had complained bitterly while it was being built about the fact that it blocked their view of the fields and river, in this moment she drew a great deal of comfort from its presence.
Turning to the right, she walked the few paces to the latrine, entered, and pulled the wooden door shut. Then, setting the candle on the ground, she gathered up her chiton, and squatted over the hole. The small space was walled on three sides with clay bricks, and roofed with thatch which was not particularly rain-proof. Waste was carried away through a clay drainage pipe, but the need to flush required at least one trip to the well per day just to fill the two latrine buckets.
Her errand finished, Gabrielle returned through the courtyard, noting this time the pungent scent of some herb or other that lingered in the nighttime air. Lyceus had returned, she noted as she entered the house. He was sitting on his bed, unlacing his sandals. Gabrielle blew out her candle and set it on the table. "Let's leave the lamp lit for Cyrelle," she said.
"Okay," he agreed, and then yawned.
She crossed to stand in front of him, and when he looked up, she bent to kiss his forehead. "Good night, my talented young bard," she said, smiling.
"Good night, Mother," he responded.
"Did you tell Xena good night?"
"All right, then. We'll see you in the morning," she said, and pushing her way past the curtain, she stepped into the sleeping room.
* * * * *
Xena, already in her nightshift, was sitting on the side of the bed nearest the door, unbraiding her hair.
"Do you want me to rub your leg?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes, if you're not too tired," she said, glancing up. "It's been aching some today."
"Actually, I don't feel very tired at all," the bard responded. "I'm not even sure if I'll be able to sleep."
"Too much excitement, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so. And not all of it had to do with Lyceus." She crossed to the other side of the room, undid the belt of her chiton, and quickly pulled the garment off over her head. Hanging it on an empty peg, she lifted her nightshift off the next peg, and slipped it on. Then she perched on the edge of the bed while she untied her sandals and took them off. Walking back around to where Xena sat, she climbed onto the bed beside her, took the hairbrush from her hand, and began to run it through the long, gray tresses.
"I'm perfectly capable of brushing my own hair, you know," Xena protested softly.
"I know, but I want to do it."
"Well, if you'd ever let yours grow back out again, I could return the favor," the older woman said, reaching out to run her fingers through Gabrielle's short hair.
"I like it this way. It's so easy to take care of," the younger woman said. "Besides, I always let you cut it for me."
"That's not the same thing," Xena insisted. "And look at you -- not a gray hair anywhere!" she went on. "It's positively unnatural!"
"You're just jealous because I'm younger," Gabrielle said, leaning down to kiss her companion's cheek.
"Yeah, I guess so," the older woman admitted. Then she smiled and closed her eyes, apparently enjoying the attention she was getting.
"Xena?" Gabrielle ventured after a few moments of silence.
"What do you think?" she asked, lowering her voice until it was barely louder than a whisper. "Will we really have to defend Amphipolis against Demetri?"
Xena opened her eyes and stared intently at the curtain, apparently listening for some sound to tell them whether Lyceus was still awake. But there was nothing -- at least nothing that Gabrielle could hear.
"Well," Xena said very quietly, "if what Arsenios says is true, then I think we may at least be in for a long siege, if not an actual battle."
"Do you think Arsenios might be lying?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "He seemed so honest to me, so sincere. He even told us he was sent as a scout."
"Yes, and I can't really think of a reason that he would tell us that unless . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"Unless what?" Gabrielle prompted.
"Unless he wants to trick us into thinking he's here to help us organize the defense, and then once he knows our plans he can take them all back to Demetri."
"Oh. I never thought of that," she said, then pulled the brush through Xena's hair a few more times in silence. "So you don't think he can be trusted," she said finally.
"No, I didn't say that," Xena countered. "I'm just trying to consider all the possibilities. Actually, my gut instinct is to believe that he just wants to help us. And apparently that was your reaction, too."
"Yes," Gabrielle said with relief. "I really liked him. Except I felt sorry for him because he seemed so sad."
"Sure. Couldn't you see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice? Not all the time, but it was definitely there."
"Well, yeah, now that you mention it, I guess I did notice that about him. But what warrior wouldn't be sad to think he couldn't be a warrior anymore?" Then, before Gabrielle could respond, she reached out to take the hairbrush and lay it on the nightstand. "Okay, that's enough of that," she said. "Let's do the leg." She pushed aside the covers and stretched out on the bed, leaving enough space for the younger woman to sit beside her.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, crossed her arms and stuck her hands in her armpits.
"What are you doing?" asked Xena.
"I'm warming my hands."
"Oh. Very thoughtful of you," the warrior said, laughing.
Gabrielle laughed, too, and then after a moment, she brought her hands out again and rubbed them briskly together. Folding back Xena's nightshift, she slid her hands slowly up the thigh. Through the shrunken muscles, she could feel the lump where the bone had healed at a slight angle instead of straight. Neither woman spoke for a time, as Gabrielle began to gently knead the warrior's flesh. In the candlelight, she could see that Xena's eyes were closed, but she suspected that her lover was a long ways from falling asleep. "Xena?" she whispered.
"If we have to fight Demetri, do you think you can lead us?"
The warrior opened her eyes. "No," she said quietly. "I can be the overall commander, plan the strategy, and do that kind of thing, but with this blasted leg, there's no way I can lead troops into battle." She was silent for a few moments, staring up into the darkness. Then she looked at Gabrielle and said, "I'll need a lieutenant who can do that part. Are you interested in the job?"
"No, Xena. I mean, I did a lot of fighting once upon a time, and maybe back then I could have taken on such an assignment, but now--" She stopped and shook her head. "It's just been too many years, and as long as you have other choices--"
"Who do you see as my other choices?"
"Well, uh, there's Toris, for one. Unless you think he'll run to the hills again, like he did before."
"No, I feel confident that he'll stand and fight this time, and Toris is a skilled fighter -- or at least he used to be. I don't know how well he would handle a sword now, though."
"We're all pretty rusty, Xena, but with a little practice--"
"Yes, we will all definitely need a little practice, myself included."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'm sure you remember more than most of us," she said. Then she moved her hands down over Xena's knee to the lower part of the leg. Here the damage was more severe, for the bones had been crushed, and there had been no way to set them properly. Over time, the tendons had twisted painfully, and the muscles had withered. Only regular exercise and massage had kept the limb strong enough to be at least partially useful to the warrior.
"Is this the part that's been aching?" Gabrielle asked as she probed gently along the shin with her fingers.
"That and my foot," Xena said. "Don't rub too hard."
"Okay, I'll be careful. But what about Toris as your lieutenant? I get the feeling you don't think he'd be a good choice.
"One problem with Toris," Xena said, "is that he will always think of me as his little sister, rather than as someone who might have more skill in certain areas than he does. And another problem is that he tends to do things on impulse, without thinking what the consequences might be -- either to himself or to anyone else."
"He's brave, though," Gabrielle commented.
"Yes, he is. Brave sometimes to the point of recklessness, which is not a good quality in a leader. I don't think I could trust him to follow orders. He would spend the whole time arguing with me or else going off and doing the exact opposite of what I commanded."
"All right then, what about Maphias?"
"Well, Maphias has some fighting skills, too -- or used to have -- but frankly, he can be a real coward at times. He likes to fit in, and he doesn't want to make waves, so he'd probably agree to any conditions Demetri proposed, including total surrender." She grinned and shook her head, then added, "Besides, Maphias has barely spoken to me for the past year or so."
"Do you think he still blames you for his wife's death?"
"Yes, I think he does."
"But it wasn't your fault, Xena. You did everything you could."
"I know, but that fever of hers just came on so fast, and killed her so quickly. Nothing I did seemed to help." She sighed deeply and looked away. "When I lost her, I also lost Maphias as a friend, and that's something I'll always regret."
"Maybe he'll come to see things differently someday, and he'll want to be friends again."
"Anyway, I guess Maphias isn't a very good candidate for your lieutenant."
"No, he's not."
"I can't think of anyone else except Arsenios."
Xena nodded. "Arsenios seems like the most likely choice, assuming he can be trusted. His fighting skills are excellent, and I know he will follow my orders."
"But what reservation do you have about him?" Gabrielle asked. "Because I sense that there is one."
"You know me much too well," Xena said with a small smile. Then she took a deep breath and let it out again. "The reservation is that Arsenios is more of a follower than a leader. I'm not sure how well he could inspire the people serving under his command. I'd just rather have someone with a little more -- I don't know -- charisma, or something."
"Xena, you're not in a position to be very picky right now," Gabrielle reminded her. "Maybe you'll have to inspire the fighters yourself, and then let Arsenios lead them into the battle."
"Yes, you're right. I'm going to have to work with the people I've got." She sighed. "It's just that some of the people I've got are very dear to me, and I keep remembering back, remembering when Cortese attacked, and my brother Lyceus got killed. I don't want anything like that to happen again."
"Maybe we won't have to fight," Gabrielle said. "Maybe there's another way, like you said earlier."
"Help me look for it, will you?" Xena said.
"I will," the younger woman said softly. Then she took hold of her lover's foot, so oddly twisted and misshapen, and carefully flexed the ankle. Because of the way the bones had healed, there was not much range of movement in that joint, but she had learned that working it helped keep it from stiffening up entirely. "What are we going to do about Poteidaia?" she asked.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, but I'll do well to save one town. There's no way I can save two."
"No, of course not. I just thought that if we could get word to Lila and Joxer, they could organize some kind of defense there, just like we're doing here."
"Yes, they probably could," Xena said with a sigh, "but I hate to see Joxer take up the sword again. He's so much more effective as a fisherman."
Gabrielle grinned. "Yeah, but you know he'll feel it's his responsibility to defend Lila and those six kids of theirs -- not to mention everyone else in town."
"Okay, we'll figure out a way to get word to them."
"Thanks," the bard said softly, as she lifted the warrior's foot into her lap and began to massage it. She didn't say anything else for a time as her thoughts wandered back to Poteidaia, and in memory she ran again beside the sea, splashing in the surf with Lila. How long had it been since she had visited there? Over a year, she realized. Well, as soon as all this madness with Demetri was over with, she would have to go again. Her nephews and nieces were growing up so fast, and she wanted to enjoy them as children a few more times, at least.
Her mind returned gradually to the present, and she focused her attention once more on Xena's foot. Then, glancing at the older woman's face, she saw that the blue eyes held a faraway look of sadness and pain. With a small sigh, Gabrielle gave the crooked foot one last caress, pulled the covers over Xena's legs, and then got up and blew out the candle. Walking around to the far side of the bed, she crawled under the blankets and curled up on her side next to her lover.
"What are you thinking about?" she whispered, as she reached out to touch Xena's cheek.
"Being a warrior," Xena answered, and then turned over to lie facing Gabrielle.
"You still miss it, don't you? Even after all these years."
"Yes. Sometimes I miss it so much I can taste it."
Gabrielle strained her eyes in the darkness to see her lover's face, but she could not do so. "I didn't know it was that bad for you," she said softly. "You should have told me."
"There's nothing you can do about it," Xena said, taking hold of the younger woman's hand. "And besides, a lot of the time I don't give it much thought at all."
"I know, but we could have talked about it, at least."
"Gabrielle, there are some things that just can't be solved by talking -- whether you believe it or not." She paused, and Gabrielle could hear the smile in her voice. "Some things you just have to live with," Xena went on. "My leg is one of those things. Not being a warrior anymore is another."
"You will always be a warrior, Xena -- at least to me. You're a warrior at heart, and that's what counts."
"Not when the people I love are in danger. That's when I feel the most helpless. That's when I wish so much that I could fight the way I used to -- even if it was just for one day. I want to be able to defend you."
"I know, Sweetheart," Gabrielle said. "But I feel safe with you around. And I'm sure you'll find some way to defend this whole town. Maybe the best way to do it is by teaching us to defend ourselves."
"Yeah, maybe you're right," she said. Then she brought Gabrielle's hand to her lips and kissed it. "Thank you," she added.
"For everything. For sticking by me all these years. For putting up with my moods, and still believing in me. I could never have made it through without you, and that's the truth."
"I could say the same thing about you, you know," Gabrielle said with a grin, "but I don't want to get all mushy on you. So maybe it's better if we just go to sleep."
"Yes, you're absolutely right," Xena agreed, as she released the bard's hand and turned over on her back again. "Good night, Love," she said softly.
"Good night, Xena. I love you."
"Mmm," murmured the warrior, and then lay still, presumably waiting for sleep to come.
Gabrielle remained, curled cozily on her side, but she felt relatively certain that she would not sleep for some time yet. Her mind was still much too active, teeming with thoughts and images from Lyceus' storytelling, and with worries about the threat of Demetri's attack. She tried to relax, but it was just too difficult. She changed her position slightly, but that didn't help either. Then she heard Xena shift restlessly, and suspected that her companion was also finding it hard to fall asleep.
After a time, there came the sound of the front door opening, followed by quiet footsteps in the other room. Gabrielle heard a drowsy murmur from Lyceus, a brief exchange of whispers, and then the faint glow behind the curtain vanished when the oil lamp was blown out. Next came the rustling of Cyrelle's straw mattress as the girl settled into bed. Then silence enveloped the house once more.
A few moments later, Gabrielle heard Xena's breathing deepen, and was glad to know that sleep had found the warrior at last. But for herself, Morpheus' gift still seemed far away. Moving carefully, so as not to disturb her lover, she turned over onto her back and lay staring up at the rafters she could not see in the darkness. Her mind began to drift back then, back to that fateful day almost seventeen years before -- the day that changed their lives forever.
Return to The Bard's Corner