I thank Ren Pic and all the intials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle. I hope I used them well. Only time will tell.
There is some same sex sex in this story and also a lot of violence. Wars are like that. It's an ugly business.
This is the last of the Battle of the Zama Ridge trilogy. To get the full impact of the story you should also read 'Dreams Lost and Found' and 'The Will of the Lion'. But then you already have right. Right! Right!! Oh, come on. Why not? It's good, it's entertaining, it's non fattening.
Do I want feedback? Of course I do. Nothing is free. The price of reading my story is you have to tell me what you thought of it. Good or bad I want to know what you think. I can be reached at email@example.com I'll be very disappointed if you don't write.
And now, (roll of drums and skree of bagpipes provided by the Black Watch)
For a thousand years conquorers returning to Rome from the wars were entitled to a 'triumph', a tumultous parade. Treasure and exotic animals from the conquored territory were paraded through the streets. The conquorer rode in a golden chariot drawn by white horses, dazed prisoners walking in chains before it. The conquorer's children stood in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave also stood beside the conquorer, holding up a green laurel wreath of victory, and whispering a warning, that all glory is fleeting.
ASHES ON THE WIND
BY JIM KUNTZ
Xena dismounted behind the battleline.
"Go and graze Argo" she commanded, slapping the warhorse on the rump. The big palimino trotted down the slope a few dozen yards and found an untrampled stretch of grass to enjoy till her mistress called for her.
"Auxilleries back to the water wagons!!" the warleader roared.
Xena spotted the commander of the supply train trotting toward her. "Cassandra! Get your people back to the wagons! I want the battleline cleared now!!"
The old warrior stopped. "Yes warleader" she called and turned and started back along the line shouting for her women to retire to the half dozen wagons parked in the Corinth highway fifty yards down the ridge from the battleline of warriors. Up and down the line Chiefs and Lt's. repeated the order at the top of their lungs. The hundred women of the auxillary, scattered from one end of the line to the other filling waterskins from buckets, and nervous hearts with smiles and words of encouragement, began hurrying away from the line.
"King Odyseus!!" Xena yelled at her friend, sixty yards away talking intently with Chief Nita, his big mace resting on his shoulder. He looked up."Go to the end of your line and be sure we are anchored to the forest. They might try to infiltrate archers into the trees!"
The King nodded and waved and started south at a quick trot. Xena headed in the opposite direction.
"Keep your heads up, remember your training!!" she bellowed.
At the center of the line she passed Gabrielle and her bodyguard standing several paces back where they could be easily seen by the Chiefs and officers and any of the warriors who had the opportunity to look. The Queen had her feet apart and planted as if she were rooted to the ground, her staff at her side. Her face was calm but her green eyes blazed with intensity, all of her senses completely alert and her mind racing. As the Lion passed she gave her mate a quick squeeze on the arm but no words were spoken.
The sound of the approaching war drums was joined now by the steady tramping of almost two thousand pairs of feet and the metalic rattling of their shields and equipment. Xena could hear commands being shouted in different languages. The mercenaries. She listened intently for a second, trying to get a feel for how long to the moment of impact. She started to run.
"Third line step up and brace with your shields!!" she roared. "Step up and brace!!"
Up and down the line the order was repeated, or more exactly screamed. The warriors of the third line put their shields in a solid continuous wall, one edge of a shield touching the next, and pushed them up against the backs of the warriors in the second line and leaned in with their shoulders while putting one foot back for support, as if they were trying to stop a tree that was about to topple on them.
The deep pounding of the drums seemed to vibrate the air the warriors breathed now. Many of them were gulping oxygen, their hearts thundering in their ears louder than the drums. Faces lost their color and eyes dilated with adrenaline fueled excitement and fear. Some of them urinated on themselves or vomited as their bodies involuntarily responded to the terror by ridding itself of anything that might slow them down when they ran. But none ran. None moved. Twelve hundred Amazon warriors planted themselves in the soil of their homeland, between the enemy and their loved ones, and braced themselves against the hurricane.
The last ten yards were covered at a quick trot as the Carthaginian mercenarys tried to build momentum to smash down the Amazon wall and open the way to Farsala. The sound of all those iron tipped pikes running onto bronze shields was like a thousand small rocks thrown at once hard against a metal roof. A dull, deep unmistakable clattering. The noise of impact was immediatly replaced by a terrible deafening roar of inarticulate, unconscious screaming and cursing, no one sound distinguishable from the rest but the whole a continuous shriek of three thousand frightened, angry humans locked together in a horrifying contest of will and death.
Six warriors scattered along the line were knocked off their feet by the impact. Their fate was sealed the moment their backsides hit the ground. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. No place of refuge or mercy. They could not scramble back, the warriors of the second and third line were already crowding forward to fill the gap in the wall of shields. They could not stand, a wall of pikes formed a ceiling over their heads. And always two or three pikemen siezed the opportunity to kill an enemy. They thrust and stabbed with all their strength at the helpless women on the ground until they sliced the jugular or penetrated deep through an unprotected groin into the intestines. All six were dead in moments, their blood soaking the ground, their friends so occupied with survival that none could spare even the slightest glance at them in their agony. They died as alone as if they were on the far side of the moon.
Along the battlefront, however, the line held. No breaks appeared, nowhere was the line pushed back. The impetus of the attack was broken and now there was only a dangerous bloody stalemate. Xena trotted up and down the battleline shouting encouragement and trying to spot problems before they started. Suddenly at the north end of the line the roar of battle died away and the sound of a cheer went up. The noise spread slowly south until the only sound to be heard was cheering. The Lion smiled to herself. She knew what it meant. But the smile quickly changed to concern as she looked down the battleline and saw disorder in the ranks of the Trikkala company, the second company in line from the north, and no sign of Chief Murise. Some of the warriors were disappearing forward while others were looking around with obvious confusion. She could see Ephiny sprinting toward the spot from the far end of the line.
The Lion took a few steps toward the battleline and sprang up and over in a tight flip, landing softly on the other side. The mercenary phalanxs were withdrawing in various states of disorder. Some still maintained a certain discipline and formation as they backed away. Others, the warriors had simply turned around and were ambling back down the incline like a crowd of farmhands on the way to the fields, their long pikes on their shoulders like hayforks.. But opposite the Trikkala companys' front a small, vicious, clanging battle still raged. Half the warriors of the company had advanced thirty and forty yards down the slope following the retreating plalanx opposite them. The men in the rear ranks were trotting away, many dropping their pikes as they did to hasten their escape. But the first rank had stopped and turned to fight off the pursuing Amazons. Dropping their pikes and pulling their short swords they met the warriors of Trikkala shield to shield, hacking and banging in furious deadly individual duels to the death.
The Warrior Princess drew her sword and raced down the front of her line to the battle.
"Get back damn you, get back in your ranks!!" she roared as she arrived. She grabbed warriors by the strap holding their breastplate and yanked them backwards. Invariably the mercenary in front of them used the opportunity to turn and make his escape down the slope.
"Get back I said, get back!!!" the Lion's eyes burned with cold fury as she kicked and shoved at warriors so charged with rage and fear they could hardly understand what was being said to them, their emotions so out of control they could barely think. Ephiny approached from the opposite direction doing the same. Pulling and pushing and screaming at the top of her lungs for the women to return to the line. Finally the words seemed to have some effect. Amazons began to turn and head back toward the battleline. The pursuit stopped and the last of the mercenarys made their escape unimpeded.
Xena grabbed a warrior by her long blonde hair where it hung beneath her helmet and yanked her to her feet from where she was kneeling beside the fresh body of her kill searching for a bloody souvenir to keep of her triumph.
"Get back in line, damn it, now!!" she growled, giving the shocked Amazon a shove.
The Lion turned and there in front of her was Chief Murise. Splotches of blood dripped down her breastplate and blood was smeared all the way to the handle of the short blade in her hand. Her eyes were fierce with the excitement of battle.
"Did you see it Xena!" she shouted hoarsly. "We're going to kill all those bas..."
The Chief's head snapped violently as the Lion's fist smashed into her face. The tall womans knees immediatly buckled and she collapsed on her back. For twenty yards around everyone foze in stunned disbelief. Then the look of shock on many faces turned to angry, resentful scowls. Ephiny was the first to move. She raced up beside the Warrior Princess with her weapon in her hand and narrow threatening eyes that glared back at the angry eyes around her. Xena looked down at the unconscious Murise at her feet and briefly debated whether she should finish the woman. Certainly the old Xena would have, without a thought. But killing did not come as easy anymore. Some part of the Lion's heart had changed since Gabrielle. Holding the bards precious life in her arms, that gentle heart beating beside hers, the lives of others had somehow become more real, more meaningful. Against the cold calculation of her warlord instincts Xena resisted the urge to cut Chief Murise's throat.
Suddenly King Odyseus appeared at the Lions other shoulder, breathing a bit heavy from the sprint he had just made. He had been coming to consult with the Warleader when he saw from a distance the Lion smash down the Chief. Now his mace was resting in the crook of his arm and the hard look on his face left no doubt where his loyalties lay. Xena looked up seemingly oblivious of the tense, violent atmosphere that swirled menacingly around her.
"Circa!!" she roared. "I want Lt. Circa here right now!! Where in Tartarus is she!!"
After a moment two scowling warriors were pushed aside and Circa ran up to Xena, her eyes down looking at her friend and Chief. She knelt and put her fingers on the prone womans jugular. Satisfied she was still alive Circa stood up, eyes blazing.
"Lt. Circa," the Lion said in a low growl, "you now command the Trikkala company."
"You can't do that,'' Circa protested heatedly. "Only the Queen can relieve a Chief."
Xena's eyes became narrow slits of cold blue ice. "Do you really believe the Queen won't back me?"
Circa let out a harsh, angry, disgusted breath. Then she bowed to what she knew was true. Reluctantly she came to attention. "I am yours to command. What are your orders Warleader" she said with resignation and sadness.
"Get your warriors under control and back in line. You are not to advance or retreat again without a direct order. Do you understand?!" Xena barked.
"You better," Xena growled, "or I'll knock your ass out and find someone in this company who does. Now get to work and get this mess straightened out. Hurry."
"Yes Warleader" Circa answered with a slight bow. She turned to her warriors. "You heard her, back in line, right now, lets go!!"
With sullen faces the warriors of Trikkala responded to their new leaders command and started back for the line. Ephiny pointed at two Amazons passing close by.
"You two,'' she ordered. "Pick Murise up and dump her behind the line. When she wakes up be sure she gets a shield. She can still be of use to the Nation."
The two women did as they were commanded. Another warrior was also carried back by her friends, to be placed behind the battleline. She had lost her duel with a mercenary. But Ephiny quickly counted fourteen bodies left on the rapidly clearing field in front of the Trikkala company, their heaped forms grim testament to the skill with a blade the huntress' of the forest village were famous for.
"He was trying to play us for suckers," Xena said quietly
At the words Ephiny turned her attention to the Lion and King Odyseus, who were standing side by side looking down the slope toward the enemy. She joined them. A half a league away she could see Varrus and his Lt.s' herding the mercenaries toward the flanks with shouts and waving swords. As the disorganized men parted and quit the field to the left and right they revealed a new phalanx already formed and waiting patiently for the order to advance up the hill.
"Yes," Odyseus answered. "He was ready to sacrifice his mercenaries to draw us out in a pursuit and then he would have rolled right over the top of us while we were scattered and helpless."
Xena nodded. "He's a ruthless son of a bitch. There was a time I admired that about him."
The King looked at his friend. "I have a suggestion. He'll attack as soon as the field's cleared. We should have the third line move up and take the place of the first and the first move back to third. They'll be fresher for handling this next assault."
"Excellent" the Lion said. "But we haven't practiced that manuever. We were only training for one attack. Do it one company at a time Odyseus and supervise it personally. I don't want any confusion or unsteadiness in the line. Do it now."
"Right" the King said and he hurried away.
Xena turned to Ephiny. "Do the same Princess, and for this attack I want you to stand with the Trikkala company. I want them under control."
Ephiny nodded and then she looked up at the Warleader, her brown eyes dark.
"You made an enemy today Xena" she said quietly. "Murise is famous for two things. Her short temper and her long memory. This isn't over."
The Lion looked down at the Princess and let out a short, dismissive burst of air through her nose.
" I truly hope it is over" she said evenly. "But if I ever hear that she's after me, Princess, I'll go to Trikkala and cut her heart out. I have one rule of survival. I kill my enemies. I don't give them a chance to kill me. I won't break that rule for her." The Lions eyes softened a bit and she let out a small sigh. "I've never had so much to live for Ephiny. I won't let Murise steal my life now. Her friends had better tell her that." Xena put her hand on Ephiny's shoulder. "Now go. We don't have much time."
As Ephiny and Odyseus rapidly directed the shifting of the lines to put fresh warriors in front for the next attack Xena stalked along in front of her battleline, her shoulders back, her sword in her hand, a defiant sneer on her lips and her eyes blazing. The dark charisma that made her the center of attention where ever she went was never more evident or powerful. It radiated like heat and warmed everyone within sight of her. It was also all deliberate, calculated theatre. She was using all of her tricks and experience now. With a veteran army she would not have bothered with this display, but with these young, uncertain warriors she wanted all of them to see the Lion. She wanted them to know she was alive and well and in command. And to remind them that the Lion always won. That somehow, someway, if they kept their courage, they were going to win.
Behind the battlefront the auxilleries worked feverishly to remove the injured. Warriors bleeding profusely from deep cuts on their heads or legs. Warriors on one knee, tears of pain washing their faces as they held a seperated shoulder or dislocated elbow. More than forty were led or carried back to the wagons where the Nations healers waited to aid them, blankets throw on the ground for them to lay on as they patiently waited their turn for help. Herodotus made two trips to the line. Each time carrying back in his arms a young woman that looked like a baby to him, smiling and telling them bad jokes as he walked. Seven bodies were also lying behind the line, their arms and legs spread haphazardly, their heads lolled to one side, sightless eyes staring at nothing. The women of the auxillery stepped around them without looking down, pretending they did not exist. The lifeless shells had no meaning now, no purpose. Only the living mattered. The dead were unwelcome guests to be ignored. Their friends, if they thought of them at all, silently thanked Artemis that it was not them that was lying behind the line growing cold and gray. There would be a lifetime to feel sorrow and guilt at their loss but now in every warriors heart there was only relief that it was someone else who was dead.
The deep pounding of the wardrums began again. Three Phalanx's, fifteen hundred proud veterans of Carthage, moved purposely up the long slope. The difference in the appearence of these experienced, confident warriors was immediatly evident to every Amazon waiting to receive them. Their tread was measured and precise. Every man in perfect step. The wall of pikes never wavered or broke as they moved up the ridge like a slow motion avalanche, overwhelming, unstoppable. Xena did a flip over her battleline and started troting back and forth behind her women.
"Remember your training, "she bellowed. "Keep your heads up!! You stopped them once, you'll do it again!!"
Odyseus strolled calmly, casually behind his companies, his mace resting relaxed on his shoulder. "Steady Amazons, steady," he called in his deep soothing voice. "You know what to do." Only the dark burning in his black eyes betrayed that he was not enjoying a walk in his palace gardens.
Ephiny stood beside Circa behind the Trikkala company. The only sign of emotion on her otherwise motionless body and granite face was a steady nervous drumming of her hand on her thigh. Circa chewed her lip till it bled between shouts of "first line keep your shields low!!"
Xena stopped and judged the sound of the rythmic tramping of sandaled feet.
"Third line brace!!!" she shouted. "Third line brace!!!"
Up and down the line the order was screamed. The third line jammed their shields into the backs of the warriors ahead and braced themselves. At ten yards the Carthaginian officers commanded ''Quick march forward!!" The Phalanx increased its pace to a trot and the men of Carthage let loose with a deep, gutteral shout of determination. They were used to victory, they expected it now. The impact of their pikes had a more brutal sound to it, not a thousand small rocks hitting a roof but one great boulder smashing down with a terrible thump. Xena saw the line sway back in several places. She held her breath for an agonizing second, but the warriors of the third line stayed on their feet and with all their strength, shouting themselves hoarse with the effort, they forced the line back straight.
This time thirteen Amazons lost their feet and were swiftly, professionally executed. With their momentum stopped the Carthaginian pikemen immediatly reverted to the deadly tactics they had learned and perfected through a dozen battles to break a deadlock and force the enemy to give up and flee. Working in teams of three, two men lunged their pikes at an Amazons face to force her shield up while the third stabbed at her legs. When she finally went down she was quickly, mercilessly speared like a boar caught in a pit and then the process was repeated against the warrior from the next line who stepped into her place.
One, two, three candlemarks burned away, the deadly contest never slackening in its intensity, the clattering, shouting sound of mortal combat at a fever pitch, but the Amazons refused to break and exhuastion was setting in for the Carthaginians. A ten foot pike tipped with an iron point is heavy and a man can only fight with it so long before his arm becomes numb with fatigue and refuses any longer to work. The Phalanx officers knew their men had reached the end of their strength. Up and down the line the order went out to withdraw. But their was no confusion or disorder in the Carthaginian line as it pulled back. The warriors simply backed up, their pikes still out, a hedge that discouraged any pursuit. After twenty yards, when it became evident that the Amazons had no interest in following, the officers shouted to shoulder arms and in one practiced motion twelve hundred pikes went straight up in the air and were rested on weary shoulders and then with an about face the Phalanx ebbed back like the tide down the trampled slope.
This time there was no cheer of victory from the Amazon line. Pale, bloody, exhausted women watched the enemy march away and then they sank down on one knee and their heads drooped and they gasped for air. Some began wretching and vomiting from dehydration and overwhelming fatigue. Twentythree bodies were scattered along the line but for the moment no one attempted to pull them behind the human wall. There was no energy for that now. Ragged, parched cries for water were heard and Chiefs and officers began shouting in raw, overused voices for the auxilleries to bring water, more water. The seriously injured limped or dragged themselves away from the line toward the wagons. Auxilleries delivered buckets of precious liquid, then helped a wounded warrior back before refilling their buckets and returning to the line. Around the wagons healers worked desperately to tourniquet arms and legs with severed arteries that were pouring dangerous amounts of blood. In the back of one wagon Anista, the best and most experienced healer in the Nation, was working grimly on her fourth amputation of a leg. With an artery severed the flow of blood below the cut would never return before the extremity blackened and turned gangrenous. Only removal offered hope, if shock did not finish the patient. But these were strong, healthy young women. Most would survive, after screaming their way through the operation with a knotted leather cord in their mouths and four aides to the healer sitting on them to keep them still.
More than seventy Amazons staggered or were carried back to the healers. Almost one hundred and fifty warriors had been removed from the battlefront. Xena did a flip over the line and walked a dozen yards down the slope to better observe the enemy. After a few moments Odyseus joined her, then Ephiny. They had to sqiunt against the late afternoon dazzle of the sun. It hung low and had turned into a fiery orange ball on the horizon. They could see Varrus again on his warhorse pointing and gesturing with his sword. The withdrawing Phalanx split in two and started marching north and south. As it did another waiting line of pikemen was revealed. Two unbloodied phalanxs of Carthaginian veterans and the best of the mercenary phalanx's reformed for another attack. Seventeen hundred men ready for a final assault.
Odyseus sighed heavily. "I was hoping that he was done for the day. That he would wait till morning to try again. If he breaks us now darkness will keep him from pursuing for very long. Most of our army will be able to escape down the far side of the break into the night. He'll lose his chance to destroy us outright."
Xena shook her head. "He knows the lay of the land between here and the ford. Ambassador Hashimi has briefed him well I'm sure," she said quietly. "If he can force us off the break before dark we're finished. There's no place to make a stand before the river. In the morning all we could do is fight a rear guard action while we evacuate the valley. He'll win the race to Farsala." The Lion paused and her jaw flexed for a moment. "Even if the Athenians and Spartans are able to force the ford when they arrive Varrus will burn our villages as he retreats. He'll chop down our orchards and vineyards and choke our wells with the rotting carcasses of our sheep and goats. I've seen his work. He'll turn our land into desert. It'll take years to recover, if we can at all.''
Xena turned to look at the Amazon battleline. The bodies of her dead warriors were finally being dragged back by their friends to be left unattended with the others. There were so many now that the auxilleries had to watch where they stepped so as not to trip over them. Most of the warriors were on one knee, leaning on their shields, heads down. Some poured water over their faces and down their necks. Others drank the last drop from their freshly refilled waterskins. Many were bleeding from cuts on their faces and legs. There was so much blood now that Xena's sharp nose could pick out the coppery smell of it in the still air, mixed with the sweat and fear. All of them were gasping for oxygen like marathoners just finished with a race.
"What do you think?" the Lion asked, looking at Ephiny and Odyseus. "One hundred fifty, sixty?"
The King nodded. "At least."
Ephiny looked at the Warleader. "Maybe more," she said. "The Trikkala company got hammered. They have at least forty out of the line dead and wounded alone."
The Warrior Princess put her hands on her hips in that unconscious pose she assumed when she was thinking. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Varrus in the distance galloping down his line preparing them to advance.
"Ephiny," she said decisively, "Chiefs call in the road behind the line right now. Pass the word, Princess. Hurry."
The Amazon nodded and departed at a quick jog, shouting Xena's order, which was immediatly repeated up and down the battleline. Odyseus took a deep breath and let it out.
"You won't be able to hold them like last time," he said in a deep, quiet voice. "You're down ten, fifteen percent in numbers and your warriors are exhausted." He looked at his friend with tense, serious eyes. "If you want I'll take charge of a rear guard. Give you a chance to make an orderly withdrawl. We can still save your people Xena. I've seen cities and villages plundered and burned. The women raped and murdered. It's a nightmare I never want to see again."
There was a moment of silence as the two friends looked at each other. Then the Warrior Princess put her hand on the mans shoulder.
"I'm not retreating," Xena said slowly, iron conviction in her voice. "I'm attacking. Varrus isn't going to win this battle, I am. I'm the Lion, King Odyseus, and the Lion always wins." Xena's eyes narrowed to two flashing blue slits. "When I stop believing that I'll give up this game." She squeezed the King's shoulder. "Now come my friend. We have much to do and little time to do it."
As Xena and Odyseus approached the small circle of Chiefs standing in the dusty road a dozen yards back from the battleline the weary, anxious, slumpshouldered signs of resignation were painfully obvious. Gabrielle was working quickly with practiced fingers sewing up a nasty cut on Lt. Zoe's cheek. Chief Ashita assisted, pinching the ragged mouth of the slice together as the Queen stitched. Drying blood covered the young Amazons cheek and dripped down her neck but she stared stoically ahead, motionless as the bard worked, her face calm and completely controlled. The leaders of the Nation had their heads down, their eyes on the ground. Their faces were drawn and sweaty and tense and sad. As if standing around the deathbed of a loved one and there was nothing to do but wait for the inevitable end. And there was also a tinge of fear in the air. Not fear of death, these tough warriors had no fear of that, but fear of something far worse than death. Defeat.
Xena walked up, Odyseus at her side, just as her mate finished the last stitch and snapped off the thread. She put her hands on her hips, one leg slightly in front of the other, posture completely relaxed, and looked slowly around at each Chief. They gazed back with dark hollow eyes. Suddenly the Lion burst out in a wide, glorious, white toothed smile. One that rivaled the special smile only Gabrielle had ever seen and treasured so much.
"So," she said, a laughing lilt to her voice, ''are we having fun yet?"
The incredible shocking smile, and now these frivilous words, a joke from the dark Destroyer of Nations, it was like throwing ice water in everyones face. They all sucked in an astonished gulp of air, and then some of them actually laughed out loud. Odyseus laughed his deep baritone laugh as well. But not at Xena's attempt at humor. He laughed with the pleasure of seeing a genius exercizing her talent. In an instant the feeling of desperate gloom had vanished. Every eye was on the Warleader and the calm confidence that flowed out of her every pore lifted them all. The Lion of Amphipolis was here. She knew how to turn defeat into victory. Six Chiefs, one Princess and one Queen believed again. The Amazon Nation was going to survive.
The grin on Xena's face faded. The cold blue eyes blazed an icy fire.
"Alright, listen up," she said forcefully, in complete command of herself and her audience. "Everyone knows the situation. The critical moment of this war has arrived. What we do between now and darkness will decide the fate of our people and maybe all Greece. We're not going to fail Amazons. We're going to win. Here's how." Xena drew her sword. She made a circle in the dust of the road. The Amazons crowded closer to see her diagram. "This is the forest at the north end of the break." The Lion drew a circle two feet away. "This is the forest at the south end of the break." The Warrior Princess looked up. "We've lost too many warriors to continue stretching our line all the way across the break from forest to forest. In too many places we'll only have two lines instead of three. And our warriors are exhausted. If we receive this next attack as we are they'll certainly smash through and destroy us. So here's what we do." Xena looked down and drew a line from the south circle to within six inches of the north circle and stopped. Her eyes came up. "This time we're not going to just passively stop them. This time we're going to force the issue and counterattack." The Lion looked at Ephiny. "First, the Princess is going to pull her troopers out of the line and form them up at the north end of the battleline." Xena eyed her Chiefs. "Then we're going to shorten the line moving south till all the companys can establish three solid lines again." Xena put the point of her sword in the space between the end of her line and the circle of the forest. "This will leave an unprotected gap on our northern flank of sixty or seventy yards. Ephiny will hide her people behind the north end of the battleline." Xena looked at her friend. "Have them kneel Princess. Be certain they can't be seen by the approaching Phalanx. When the Carthaginians strike our line the enemy opposite the gap will march through and try to turn to attack our flank and rear. But Chiefs, a Phalanx has a terrible weakness. It can only go straight forward or back. When those warriors try to turn they'll lose their cohesion and gaps will appear in the wall of pikes. That's when you attack Ephiny." The Lions eyes narrowed to the hard look of the predator. ''No mercy, Princess, no pity. Kill them like wolves among the sheep and drive them out of the gap as rapidly as possible." Xena put the point of her sword where the troopers would wait to ambush the Carthiginians and drew a U around the end of the line so the point finished on the opposite side of the line from where it started. "That will be the easy part however Ephiny. The hard part is that you must keep control of your warriors and once you've cleared the gap you must turn things around and fall on the flank and rear of the Phalanx engaging our line. Once you're behind them they'll break quickly all the way down the line. Warriors won't fight with their unprotected backs in danger."
Xena looked one more time at her Chiefs.
"Until Princess Ephiny breaks them we hold the line. Whatever it takes, however long it takes, no matter the price, we hold. And when they do break this war is ours. Tomorrow
we'll make the bastards pay tenfold for what they've done to us today. I swear it. Now is everyone clear?"
The Amazon leaders nodded.
The Chiefs turned and ran for their companies. But as Ephiny passed Xena grabbed her arm.
"Ephiny," she said, her voice low so only the Princess could hear, ''for all my brave words these women have reached the end. They won't be able to hold long. You must keep your warriors together and fall on the Carthaginian flank and do it quickly. If they scatter pursuing the enemy out of the gap our line will break somewhere and this will turn into an instant disaster."
Ephiny's eyes blazed hot as she looked into Xena's cold blur orbs.
"If I fail you Warleader," she said in a hoarse whisper, "kill me."
"If you fail Princess," Xena replied, ''I won't have too."
The Lion released Ephiny's arm and the Amazon rushed to the line and started shouting for her troopers to come out of the battleline and report to the north end of the battlefront on the double. She ran north to organize them. Gabrielle watched her go and then walked over beside her mate and King Odyseus. Xena looked down and placed her hand on the bards shoulder. The Queen looked up.
"Are we going to make it Xena?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," the Lion answered immediatly. "But it's going to be close, beloved. I want you to take your bodyguard and patrol the line on the north side of the road. If a hole starts to open you've got to close it Gabrielle. We have to hang on." The Warrior Princess turned to the King. "Odyseus and I will take the south side of the road."
Xena looked at her mate and suddenly that special smile that was reserved only for Gabrielle came to her face.
"Are we having fun yet?" she whispered.
Gabrielle shook her head wearily and snorted.
"Xena, one day you're going to develop a sense of humor and I'm going to live long enough to see it." Gabrielle looked at the King. "But I don't think Odyseus has that long."
The King of Ithaca let out a deep roar of laughter. Xena made a face at her beloved.
As the battleline adjusted itself south under the watchful eyes of the Chiefs and Lt.s, Xena and Odyseus walked along ready to deal with any problems. There were none. The unfamiliar manuever was accomplished swiftly and without confusion. Finally the King put his hand on the Lions elbow.
"Xena," he said, "you were right. These are the best disciplined warriors I've ever seen. Whatever happens it's been a priviledge to be here with them."
"Yes," the Lion replied, her eyes looking up and down the line, ''I've commanded armies of tens of thousands of mercenaries and cutthroats and freebooters that I've pounded into shape and bent to my will and conquered vast territories with, but I wouldn't give spit for any of them, I despised them all" the Warrior Princess paused and her throat tightened a little, "but here today, for the first time, I feel pride." She let out a breath and shook her head slightly. "By the Gods Odyseus I'm proud of these warriors and what I've done to help shape them. I'm proud to lead them." Xena looked at the King with sad, dark eyes. "What a pathetic thing to say after leading so many warriors in so many battles."
In the distance the wardrums took up their steady, rythmic, ominous beat. The Lion took a very deep breath and Odyseus noticed the strange phenomenon that Herodotus had seen. That as the pressure and the danger increased Xena seemed to grow larger. The weight that crushed most people only expanded her vigor and determination.
The Warrior Princess let out a little air, then said, a strange, serious, quavering, questioning tone in her voice "Am I evil Odyseus?"
"Am I evil?" the Lion repeated. She shook her head and let out more air in a disgusted sigh. "I feel so completely alive right now. So focused, alert, connected to myself and everything around me, more so than even..."Xena shook her head again, "than even when I'm in Gabrielle's arms. What's wrong with me that I love death more than I do my mate and the life she gives me?"
King Odyseus paused and took a breath of his own, then looked at his friend with those black, penetrating eyes.
"Achilles asked me such a question once," he said. ''As we were standing in a battleline getting ready for another useless assualt on the walls of Troy. I can only tell you what I told him. Some few of us in this life are touched by the Gods with the gift of genius Xena. Philo of Corinth has it with a sculpters chisel. You have it with a warriors mind and heart. The gift is never good or evil. Only its use. When you use it selfishly it's a curse to the world, when you use it for others it's a blessing. Don't be ashamed of your gift Xena, just use it well."
For a moment there was silence as Xena's jaw flexed, the way it did when she was concentrating. Then she looked at her friend and her eyes were softer.
"I never met Achilles," she said finally. "I was a child when he died. Was he as good as the stories they tell of him?"
"Sword, mace, staff, bow, fist. He was the best Xena. Greater even than the Great Lion." The Kings smile became a soft chuckle. "But the truth is my friend, as much as I loved the man, and I loved him like a brother, I wouldn't have followed him to the latrine. He drank too much, and too often his thinking was done by the head between his legs instead of the one on his shoulders, and he never could control his temper. In many ways he was never anything but a dangerous overgrown boy." The smile disappeared from the man's face. "I'll tell you something Xena, as much as I like and respect Gabrielle, if you weren't here I would never have agreed to risk my Ithacans. You are the greatest leader of warriors and battlefield commander I've seen or heard of. You are the Great Lion of Greece. On you I was willing to wager the lives of my warriors and my son."
Xena, who had been listening carefully to the sounds of the approaching Phalanx as Odyseus spoke, put her hand on his shoulder and gently squeezed.
"Now,'' she said with a slight smile, "we find out if you've made a wise bet."
Xena started to run down the line. "Third line step up and brace," she roared, "step up and brace!!"
The order was screamed up and down the battleline. Then there was the guttural shout of the Carthaginians followed by that deep, violent thump of iron on bronze and the screaming, violent roar of mortal combat.
The Amazon battlefront survived, barely. Twenty more young women had their lives ripped from them as they begged for help from Artimus or cursed their enemies. Close to the Warrior Princess the line began to give way, the third line forced back. Xena, quickly joined by Odyseus, put her back against a warrior, her arms out to support two more, and she pushed with all the strength her iron legs could muster and the bulge in the line disappeared. The two friends sighed with relief then began to walk along shouting encouragement, eyes sharp.
Xena spotted it first. A dozen yards ahead. The line surged backward. First one, then another, then another of the warriors of the third line fell, the fourth screamed in agony as her knee snapped trying to hold back the flood. Women of the second and first line stumbled back, tripping and falling over the warriors already prone on the ground. The Amazon army was on the razors edge of defeat and destruction. In three steps, as she drew her sword, the Lion launched herself into the air and screeching her warcry she did a tight somersault and came down on top of a stunned warrior in the middle of the Carthaginian line, crushing him to the ground.
Her sudden, incredible appearance, a demon descending from the sky like a horrible harpy of legend, shocked the men around her so much that for a moment they stopped their push forward to gape at this supernatural apparition. The Lion quickly demonstrated however that she was flesh and blood and supremely dangerous. Her blade began to slash at the enemies around her with incredible speed and power. All thought of going forward ended as desperate warriors dropped their pikes to cover themselves with their shields and draw their swords to fight back against this servant of Hades that was trying to kill them all.
There was hardly room to move in the press of bodies and Xena used her powerful shoulders as much as her sword, pushing and shoving and ducking awkward attempts to stab at her. She sliced a leg out from under a man, then another, and now there was more room to fight as they fell. BANG! BANG! The sound of Odyseus' mace hammering on a shield was unforgetable in its shocking violence. Xena could feel the rush of air it produced on the back of her neck.
"Xena!!!" The King bellowed in his deep baritone. "You're in too far!! Get out!!"
"No!!" The Lion shouted back. "I can hold them!! Get the warriors on their feet!! Close the line!!"
Odyseus took several steps back and started grabbing Amazons by the arm and yanking them to their feet. Others, the forward press of the pikes gone for the moment, struggled up unaided and started forming themselves again into a line.
The King forced himself forward, his mace bashing at Carthaginians who were trying to press around behind the Warrior Princess.
"We're ready Xena!! he shouted. "I've got your back!! Come out damn it!! Hurry up!!"
The Lion took a step back, then another. She parried the thrust of a sword to her right and used her shoulder to knock the man into his comrades. Before she could turn back a war club came flashing from the left and smashed into the armour over her left breast. She was jolted sideways and would have fallen but in the press of bodies she banged up against a shield and stayed on her feet. She recovered instantly from the shock and slashed back at her attacker. The club fell to the ground, a severed hand still holding it. But the blow took Xena's breath away and for a moment she was unsteady on her feet as she tried to continue retreating. She stumbled clumsily over the man she had first landed on and the Carthaginians around her crowded in looking for an opening. But before they could find one a thick hairy arm circled around the Lions waist and picked her up off her feet and pulled her back. Immediatly Amazons pressed in on either side and in an instant the wall of shields was restored, the line again intact.
Odyseus put Xena down and she quickly started grabbing warriors and pulling them into better position to support the Amazons in front and seal the breach. After a moment she was satisfied that the equilibrium of force had been restored. She took several steps back till she was beside her friend. Odyseus' mace rested on the ground at his feet and he was bent double, his hands on his knees. He was panting deeply and water dripped from his nose and forehead.
Xena put her hand on his back.
"Are you wounded Odyseus?" she asked, deep concern in her voice.
The King took several more deep breaths, then glanced up. "No," he panted. "I'm just too old Xena, too damn old."
After a moment he glanced up again. "Are you alright?" he asked. "You were hit hard."
The Lion moved her left arm around in a circle as her eyes continued to scan up and down the line looking for more trouble. She winced and grunted.
"Yep," she said, "the bastard nailed me good. That breast is going to be black for a few weeks.'' A smile came to the Warrior Princess' face. ''Damn, that's Gabrielle's favorite too. Well, she'll just have to suck on the other one for awhile."
There was the sound of deep throated laughter, then Odyseus said in a breathless, strangled voice, "Xena, please, don't make me laugh, I'll have a heart attack."
The Warrior Princess squeezed the King's shoulder. Then, as the Lion looked north, the sight she had been hoping for, praying for, to that nameless diety she was certain must exist somewhere, a God greater than the petty tyrants of Olympus that she held in such contempt, came to her eyes. Rapidly, perceptibly, it moved down the line toward her and then past and on south to the end of the battlefront, like the rippling effect of a row of sticks falling in a childs game. It was the releasing of pressure as the Amazons of the third line, one after the other, relaxed their desperate pushing and took a step back, many sinking to one knee, gasping with the complete exhaustion of total effort.
"Odyseus!" Xena shouted joyously. "She's done it!! Ephiny's done it!!"
The man straightened.
"By the Gods," he blurted, looking up and down the line, ''so she has."
Xena looked at her friend for the first time with pure excitement in her eyes.
"I'm going north to help the Princess,'' she said rapidly. "I don't want her warriors chasing the bastards. Stay here and keep the line steady. No pursuit. And don't let them break ranks yet to rest. Varrus may have a trick yet to play."
The King nodded. Xena took a step toward the line and launched herself up and over. On the other side the Carthaginians were falling back quickly. And there was disorder this time. The wall of pikes was broken and uneven, some men retreating faster than others. The drums beating the step were silent and the Lion could hear the unmistakable sound of angry cursing by the Carthaginian officers although the words were unknown to her.
With a glance she checked the sun on the western horizon. It was a sliver of blazing orange on the edge of disappearing below the rim of the earth. The sky above was already beginning to darken. So late in the fall full night would come in only a few candlemarks. For one brief moment Xena let herself exult in the beauty of the sunset. She had done it! They had done it! 'The Lion always wins Gabrielle,' Xena thought. 'But never has it meant so much to me. The Nation will survive and the Queen will sit on the throne she was born to occupy. Finally my gift has served someone besides myself.' Xena let out a small breath. 'Thank you, beloved. As always you're the best part of me.'
The Warrior Princess started north at a run. The Amazons she passed along the battleline were in a dozen different stages of physical and emotional collapse. Most were on their knees, their hands on the top of their shields leaning on them desperately to support shaky legs. Some were retching up bile and water, the only things left in their empty bellys, all the dried jerky and bread of noon long since digested and burned up in the terrible struggle. Others were weeping, a few hysterically, overcome by the stress on their bodies and nerves. And everywhere there was blood. Blood on the thirty bodies scattered along the line. Blood on faces, blood running down legs, blood on hands as friends tried to help each other bandage the cuts. And in every eye was the hollow, black, dilated, haunted look of shock.
As Xena reached the end of the line a small battle still raged. A brave Carthaginian officer had rallied fifty or sixty men and attacked Ephiny and her troopers, occupying them so the north flank of the Phalanx could escape without further slaughter, the eighty bodies clustered in a short space, some piled on top of each other, at the end of the Amazon front testament to the ferociousness with which the Princess and her warriors had fallen on the unprotected backs of their enemies.
As the Lion came up a warrior turned and lunged at her but she easily parried the thrust. She answered with a powerful front kick to his shield that knocked him back. He stumbled and fell.
"Get out of here," the Lion growled. "Run!"
The man may not have understood the words but the meaning was clear enough. He scrambled to his feet and ran.
The individual duels had formed into a ragged line.
"Pull back Amazons, pull back!" Xena shouted as she ran along behind it. She spotted Ephiny a dozen yards away battering down a desperate opponent who was on one knee trying to hold her off with his shield.
"Pull back Princess," Xena bellowed. "Let'm go. We'll finish them tommorrow!"
Ephiny took a step back and the grateful man was instantly on his feet running.
"Amazons withdraw!" Ephiny screamed at the top of her lungs. "Amazons withdraw!"
Up and down the line her order was instantly obeyed. The discipline she and Daria had instilled in the hard months of training was iron and absolute. As the women warriors stepped back the Carthaginians eagerly fled. They had accomplished their mission of halting the slaughter. Now they only wanted to join their comrades in safety at the bottom of the slope. The clanging sound of one battle however continued. At the end of the line Xena looked to see Keola shield to shield with the officer who had rallied his men. The two enemies were attacking each other with a frenzy that seemed personal in its fury.
Xena came up to Ephiny and grabbed her arm.
"Get your people back behind the line,'' the Warrior Princess said quickly. "I don't want them exposed out here. I'll help Keola."
The Princess nodded.
"Behind the line Amazons," she shouted, her order shockingly loud in the suddenly quiet early evening air. No drums, no marching feet, no screams of pain and battle, only the bang of two swords on two shields to compete with her hoarse voice.
She turned and headed for the end of the Amazon battleline, more than eighty warriors following after like a great pack of faithful hunting dogs. Xena took a few steps toward Keola to end the stubborn fight but the young warrior ended it herself. In a move of stunning daring and virtuosity she brought her shield down to expose her neck and head and when her opponent attempted to remove it with a mighty swing she ducked under and sidestepped and as his momentum exposed his unprotected side she brought her sword up and plunged it deep between his ribs. A shocked gasp of air escaped his ruptured lungs. Keola immediatly withdrew her blade with a hard twisting jerk then contemptously slammed her shield into the man, knocking him down. He pulled in one last ragged gulp of oxygen and then his body relaxed into death.
"Keola!" Xena shouted. She looked up. "We're withdrawing, let's go!"
The young Amazon nodded. Xena turned and started after Ephiny. She had not taken a dozen steps when some sixth sense only she possessed caused her to jerk her head sideways. An arrow zipped along her cheek so close that the feathering on its shaft tickled her skin as it passed. She looked back to see a skirmish line of Baleric archers running forward, some stopping to loose their arrows. 'Damn you Varrus,' the thought raced through Xena's mind. 'You didn't have to send out your archers to cover your retreat. I wasn't going to follow.'
She looked to see if Keola was safely retreating and to shout a warning but to her shock the young Amazon scout was kneeling next to her dead opponent, staring intently at his bearded face, oblivious of everything around her. Suddenly she grabbed the red crest of his helmet and jerked it violently off his head and with a shriek of unadulterated hatred she rose from her knee and buried her sword in his skull.
"By the Gods, what's this all about?" Xena mumbled to herself. "Keola! Archers! Get your shield up!" she yelled.
Keola wrenched her blade from the man's head and looked up at the Lion with black, uncomprehending eyes.
"Archers damn it, come on!" Xena repeated.
The young scout finally seemed to understand. She picked up her shield and started toward the Warrior Princess. She had had hardly taken a step when she let out a sudden gasping squeek of surprise. She looked down to see an arrow sticking from her lower left calf. It had gone completely through her leg, glancing off bone and only stopping when the point came out and ran into the shin guard wrapped around the front of her leg. She felt more stunned than injured. How could such a stupid thing happen to her? The arrow looked silly sticking where it was sticking. She tried to ignore it and keep going but after a few strides her leg went numb and she collapsed to the ground.
She had hardly touched the earth when the Lion knelt at her side.
"Ephiny!" Xena shouted with her leatherlunged voice. "Archers! Get to cover!"
The Princess turned and looked. "Run!" she screamed, "Run for the line!"
Instantly her warriors responded, racing for the cover of the shield wall as up and down the battlefront Chiefs could be heard ordering their warriors up off their knees and behind the protection of their shields. Ephiny ran too. Straight back to Xena and Keola. She grabbed Keola's shield and crouched between them and the archers, giving the Warleader and the scout as much cover as she could. Xena carefully examined Keola's leg in the fading light. She cut the straps of her shinguard with the knife from her boot and stretched the leg out. Keola winced with pain but said nothing.
"We can't stay here long," Ephiny said calmly as an arrow clinked off her shield.
"I know," Xena answered just as calmly. Blood poured from the ragged hole in Keola's shin where the barbed point of the arrow head had come out. "I have to get a tourniquet on this leg before we move or she'll bleed to death. I need a strap."
Ephiny looked around. "Got it.'' She reached out with her foot and pulled an abandoned Carthaginian shield closer to Xena. The Warrior Princess cut the long carrying cord from it and started to wrap it around Keola's leg just above the wound. An arrow zipped past her shoulder and another flashed by the young Amazons head so close she could feel the breath of its passing.
"This could get interesting," Ephiny said as another arrow skipped off her shield.
"Yep" Xena replied absently, concentrating on her work.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, as Keola lay back trying to merge with the earth and make as small a target as possible, a cluster of warriors appeared and crowded around. Half a dozen of them. They crouched down forming a protective umbrella over Xena and her patient with their shields. Keola looked up to see a young face, younger even than hers, a stranger bleeding from a small cut on her chin, her black hair stringy and drenched with sweat where it hung under her helmet.
"Compliments of the Pyra company," the stranger said with a friendly smile, her brown eyes bright and intelligent. "We all saw what you did. Maybe you can teach me that move sometime."
Keola started to speak but Xena cinched the strap tight and the scout started with the pain and closed her eyes and clinched her teeth.
"Anyone have a strip of cloth?" she heard Xena say.
Keola started to open her eyes to say something to the warrior who had come to her aid when her arm went reflexively up to ward off a falling object she sensed more than saw. The body of the young woman from Pyra collapsed heavily next to Keola, her shield on top of her.
"Shields up dammit, shields up!!" Ephiny yelled angrily.
Keola let out a horrified gasp and it seemed from the pain in her chest that her heart must have skipped a beat. Next to her, on her stomach, lay that brave stranger with an arrow protruding from an eyesocket. "Oh no, please no,'' the scout whispered as she put her hand on the still warm cheek. There was no reaction to her touch. She looked down at the Lion who was carefully cutting off the feathered end of the arrow in her leg.
"Help her." Keola demanded desperately.
did not look up. She grasped the point of the arrow and without a word pulled it through the scouts leg and out. A hard breath of pain escaped Keola's lungs. As soon as she got the air back she tried to jerk her numb leg away.
"Forget that!" Keola shouted. "Help her!!"
The Warrior Princess held the leg tight and glanced up.
"There's nothing I can do for her," she said firmly. "Now shut up and hold still."
Keola fell back gasping for air as Xena wrapped a length of cloth around the holes in her leg. She turned her eyes to the frozen face only a foot away, blood slowly running down the nose and dripping to the ground. "I not worth this," she whispered, a tear trickling from her eye. "I'm not worth your life. The price is too high."
"Alright Ephiny," the Lion said, finishing the knot in the bandage around her patients leg. "We're ready." Xena put an arm under Keola's knees and the other under her shoulders.
"Stay together and keep your shields up." Ephiny ordered. "We're going straight to the line"
She nodded at Xena.
The Lion stood up easily, Keola cradled in her arms like a baby. The little group walked quickly in a tight cluster as arrows zipped past and clinked off their shields. Keola tried to get one last look at the girl with the stringy hair and shining eyes but could not.
The warriors of the battleline made a space and let the group through then closed behind them. As Xena put her burden down an auxillery came up and threw Keola's arm around her shoulders and the two of them headed down the slope toward the wagons and the healers, Keola hopping along on one leg. The young scout never looked back as she was helped away. Xena and Ephiny watched her go for a moment.
"The artery is cut." Xena said quietly. "She's going to lose that leg, and maybe her life."
Ephiny took a deep breath and sighed. She rubbed her weary stinging eyes with both hands. "What a war" she whispered sadly to herself.
The two friends stood silently together for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts of this long day that was finally ending with blessed darkness. Xena looked up to see the first stars appearing. She was about to tell Ephiny to see to getting her troopers reorganized when Chief Ashita approached with shocked, stricken eyes.
"Is it true?" she asked in a husky, strangled voice. "It can't be true."
"What?" Xena asked, her body suddenly tense. "What's true?"
Ashita took a breath. "It's going down the line. They're...they're saying the Queen is dead."
Ephiny's tan, sweaty face turned instantly white as the purest snow. For a moment she forgot how to breath. Xena's face was marble, immovable and calm. Only she knew how close she came to collapsing, her suddenly watery knees barely able to support her. When she caught her breath the Princess took a step to start running south but an iron grip encircled her arm.
"No!" Xena barked. "Ephiny, if we start running like chickens with our heads cut off we'll have the whole line in a panic." The Warrior Princess took a breath to try to control her wildly hammering heart and think. "Stay here and organize your warriors. Help her Ashita. I'll send you word as soon as I know what's happened." Xena looked into Ephinys shocked eyes. "By the Gods Princess, stay under cover. If you are the Queen I'm going to need you in one piece."
Ephiny shook her head. "Please Artemis, please." she whispered.
Xena took a deep ragged breath and started to run down the line, jumping over dozens of broken, stabbed, slashed bodies that meant nothing to her now. There was only one life that truly, deeply meant everything. And if she was no more the Lion did not know if her own life would be worth continuing. As she approached the road, through the deepening twilight, she saw her mate lying in the trampled grass. She recognized Anista kneeling by the Queen and next to her knelt the King of Ithaca, holding Gabrielle's hand in both of his large strong hands. The bard did not move.
Gabrielle looked up at the noontime sky as she carefully brushed Xena's long black hair. They had been swimming all morning in the quiet pond at the bottom of a small waterfall and now they were dressed and the bard was just finishing arranging the Warrior Princess' sun dried tresses.
"What a perfect day, "Gabrielle smiled. "After all the rain and mud and slogging along that quagmire of a road the last few days this is wonderful. I finally feel fresh and clean again."
"Yep." Xena answered, leaning against the large rock that the bard sat on, enjoying the warming sun on her face and the pleasant tug of the brush as it was pulled through her hair.
"Yep." Gabrielle said in a slightly mocking voice. "You know Xena, your way with words has always been an inspriration to me. Always so economical and to the point, yet expressing completely a thousand deep thoughts and emotions with each carefully chosen syllable. If only more people were like you, warlord, human communication on this earth could finally come to a complete halt and we could all go back to grunting, spitting and waving our arms. Wouldn't that be wonderful. Golden silence would reign everywhere. You'd be so happy."
"Arrrrrrrgh,'' the bard snarled in playful frustration and she wrapped an arm around the Lions neck and shook her. Xena reached behind Gabrielle's head and flipped her expertly over her shoulder and let her land softly at her feet. She started to jump around to sit on her chest and pin her but the bard whipped a leg around and caught the Warrior Princess off guard, knocking her legs out from under her. As Xena landed with a thump on her butt Gabrielle scrambled up and threw herself on the shocked Lion and pinned her shoulders to the ground.
"Gotcha!" the bard laughed triumphantly. "I've been waiting for just the right moment to use that on you. I saw you do it once in a battle and I've been practicing ever since. I knew I'd get you."
Xena scowled up at her conquorer. "So, I see how it is. You sit around thinking of ways to ambush me."
Garbrielle grinned. "Yep."
The Lion growled but then she could not stop the smile that came to her face. "Well, that was a good move actually. I'm glad to see you were paying such close attention."
The bard looked down at Xena, those stunning blue eyes, the fine chisled face, the wide relaxed, unguarded smile that only she was priviledged to see, their faces so close she could smell the orange on the Lions breath that she had eaten for lunch, and the aching beautiful perfection of it all stopped her heart in its beating. In a sudden rushing fever that filled her body and flushed her face all she could feel was an overwhelming love and desire. Desire for this woman that was the center of her life. Before her usually calm, cautious mind could think a rational thought her raw emotion, that had been building like a swelling tide behind the dam of her intellect for so long, finally spilled over and she slowly brought her face down till her lips lightly touched Xena's. But as they did the Lion turned her head away.
Gabrielle's head jerked back and she took a shocked breath. A look almost of terror came to her eyes. She rolled off Xena and drew her legs up to her chest.
"I'm uh...sorry,'' she whispered. She scrambled to her feet never looking at the Lion. "I'm sorry."
She walked quickly to their camp, suppressing the desire to run. Run and run and run to the ends of the earth. She tried to force herself to pack things. To be busy like nothing had happened. But inside it felt like death. It felt as if her heart was shriviling up like a grape in the hot sun. The pain in her chest was unbearable. Finally she gave up and walked away down the bank of the pond till she came to a large rock. She sat down and put her face in her hands and she thought she would cry but there were no tears. Instead her face felt so hot she thought it might burst into flame. Heartbreak and humilition were so mixed together that it was like she had discovered some new emotion that left her weak and paralysed.
Suddenly she started as two long legs appeared on either side of her and two arms wrapped around her waist just under her breasts. She let out a surprised breath.
Xena put her chin lightly on the bards shoulder.
"I hurt you just now," she said softly in Gabrielle's ear. "I'm sorry."
The bard straightened and tried to pull away.
"No, I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what..."
The Lion gently but firmly drew Gabrielle back into her arms. She again rested her chin on her shoulder.
"I hurt you Gabrielle," she whispered, emotion in her voice. "I'm very sorry."
The bard took slow deep breaths. She wanted to say a thousand things, express a thousand emotions, but now she could not find the courage to speak even one. Her feelings had been buried for so long that now that they were all on the tip of her tongue she found she had no words to give them flight.
Xena pressed her cheek to Gabrielle's. She could feel the bard trembling.
"You wanted something from me just now," she said. ''What was it?"
"Xena I..." the bard stammered. "I uh, I..." she closed her eyes and gave up.
The Lion pulled her into a tight hug.
"Did you want to make love to me, Gabrielle?" she asked simply.
The bard let out a long breath, her heart pounding so hard it made her ears ring. She let her hand lightly rub Xena's arm. Her head nodded once.
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I wanted to love you." She let out a little air. "Am I wrong Xena, am I wrong?'' she asked with quiet desperation.
The Warrior Princess took her own deep breath. "Oh Gabrielle, Gabrielle,"she whispered, more raw feeling in her voice than the bard had ever heard before, "do you know how much I love you?''
"Yes, I know," the bard answered, her cheeks red with emotion. "You've shown me your love in a hundred different ways. I've never doubted it Xena, never. Do you understand that I feel the same? That I love you completely?"
"Then tell me Xena," Gabrielle whispered, the heart beating in her throat making it difficult to speak, "am I wrong to want to touch you, love you? Is what I feel all wrong? Is my life a selfdeluded lie?"
There was a long silence as Xena let her head rest against Gabrielle's. The bard tried to stop her trembling but she could not. The entire direction of her life was about to change and she knew it. The next words Xena spoke would alter her destiny forever, for better or worse. And the bard was sore afraid.
"You know that I have no particular preference, male or female, when it comes to partners" Xena said slowly. " Cesear, Borius, Loa Ma, I've never let anything interfere with my will," the Lion let out a little breath, "or my desires. I've always taken what I wanted. But there was no love in my desire, Gabrielle. Only animal appetite. A need to be satisfied. An itch to be scratched. The use of my body to dominate and control another. The promise of my favors to bend them to my will." Xena sighed. "In truth sex has meant nothing to me. It was just another tool, another weapon to advance my will to power. My heart was never touched by it. What little heart I had."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle tighter.
"Then four years ago I met a guide, a teacher, a friend, who showed me the depth and strength and power of the human heart. And the mysteries of love. Not desire but love. Unselfish, giving love. A concern for someone that put them first. You've taught me all I know about love Gabrielle. I owe you a debt I can never pay."
The bard rubbed Xena's arm.
"No Xena," she said quietly, "you've shown me the world these last years. Taken me places body and soul that I could never have gone alone. Taught me how to survive and more. I'm paid in full Xena. There's nothing that you owe me."
"Yes there is," the Lion said. "I owe you the respect you've earned." Xena rubbed her cheek on the bards'. "Have I ever told you how much I respect the person you are. Your courage and loyalty. The endless capacity you have to learn and grow. Your love of beauty and nature and art. You've opened a world for me I hardly knew existed. You're the best thing in my life, Gabrielle."
Xena paused and took a long slow breath in and out. The bard did too, her heart pounding and a million butterflys twirling in her stomach. The Lion had never talked to her like this. So open with her feelings. Where was it leading? Was she about begin a new life or be buried in the rubble of her hopeless illusions.
"I've thought many times about loving you Gabrielle," the Warrior Princess said in a low, intense, almost quivering voice, "many times I've dreamed of kissing you and touching you and hearing the sounds you would make as you reached release. But I just couldn't bring myself to take the risk." Xena sighed. "Imagine that. The Lion afraid to take a risk. But Gabrielle," Xena hugged the bard so tight it took her breath away, "what if this last step we haven't taken in our life together changes something between us? What if it turns out to be a mistake? I have no..."Xena's let out a ragged emotional breath, "I have no experience at this. At truly loving someone without barriers or limits. What if this ruins us? If I ruin us?"
Gabrielle pulled away and turned around to face Xena. She looked into blue eyes that were paler and softer than she had ever seen them. Eyes desperate for reassurance. She put her hand on Xena's cheek and rubbed it ever so softly.
"Xena," the bard whispered, then she paused to swallow the hard lump in her throat, ''Xena, we've traveled so many roads together. Faced so many dangers. Survived such heartbreak, and shared such joy. You are the center of my life and I want no other." The bard swallowed again and the Lion saw a single tear form in the corner of her eye. "I love you, I have desire for you, I... I have passion for you. I want to express all that I am, share all that I am with you." She put her other hand on Xena's cheek and lightly pressed her forehead on hers. "I'm not afraid to risk all, my dearest love, to gain all. I want to make love to you, Xena. Will you love me back?''
Xena took one of Gabrielle's hands and tenderly kissed it. A long sigh escaped her lips.
"I can't help but love you, Gabrielle." she said. "And to make love to you would be such a wonderous gift. I desire you too my love. My heart longs for you."
Ever so carefully, the Lion moved her face closer till her mouth gently carressed the bards. Gabrielle let her tongue slowly emerge and begin to move along Xena's lips. She pressed closer and there was Xena's tongue finding hers, and then it was in her mouth searching and insistent. Gabrielle put her hand behind Xena's head and pressed her body against her. The trembling uncertainty she felt was burned away by the fire of passion. Stronger and hotter than she ever thought it would be. She wanted to swallow Xena, merge herself with her, embrace her heart and soul. The Lion wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and squeezed her so tight they could feel each others hearts racing. They kissed long , till they had discovered every way their mouths would fit together. Finally the bard pulled back.
"I have to have you, Xena" she whispered, her breath hot in the Lions face. "Right now."
Xena looked into the blazing emeralds an inch from her and the fire in them was nothing she had seen before. No partner had ever looked at her like this. The passion of it was transcendent. It took her breath away. To be wanted and accepted so completely, by someone who knew her better, good and bad, than anyone ever had. It was electrifying.
Here was love given without calculation or pretense. The Lion trembled inside for a moment at the sight of it. And then emotion rose in her that she did not know existed. An exquisite mixture of love and lust that flushed her face and made her heart pound like hammer on anvil.
"Then have me, Gabrielle," she whispered fiercely. "Body and soul I'm yours."
The bard unhooked Xena's armour on one shoulder but her excited, nervous fingers fumbled with the other hook. Finally she growled in frustration and with a slight smile the Lion expertly released it and the breastplate fell in her lap and she let it slip to the ground. Gabrielle pulled the shoulderstraps of Xena's leathers off those strong shoulders and Xena reached behind her and loosened the draw string and the garment dropped to her waist. She pushed the bard back and stood up off the rock and let her leathers fall to the ground at her feet. Gabrielle took a deep breath and swallowed. How many times had she seen Xena's naked body, a hundred, a thousand times. She had reached the point of hardly noticing it. But now it was before her brand new, an incredible mystery to be explored. She looked deep in those blue eyes that usually held such an icy sparkle but now they blazed with a warming, inviting fire. She put her hand on Xena's cheek, feeling her smooth, cool soft skin for the first time. She let the fingers move slowly over her mouth and down her neck till they were between her round firm breasts, the nipples already erect with anticipation.
"Xena, in my eyes you're so beautiful," she said, shaking her head. But her hand hesitated until Xena grasped it and placed it on her breast. She pressed the hand against her.
"I like the pressure," the Warrior Princess smiled.
Gabrielle placed her other hand over the other breast and gently squeezed them both.
"Tell me I'm doing it right,'' the bard said with a shy smile and imploring eyes.
"Oh yes my love," Xena whispered. She put her hand on Gabrielle's cheek and then moved it to her green top and began loosening the straps that held it. The bard pulled out the last strap and with a shrug of her shoulders let it fall. Then she undid the hooks on the side of her skirt and let it fall as well. She watched Xena's eyes as they soaked her in from head to foot. The Lions' hand made a lazy circle around her breast and then brushed against a nipple so hard with exitement that the contact was almost painful.
Suddenly, in a motion of stunning swiftness, Xena put an arm behind Gabrielle's back and another under her knees and picked her up and hugged her close. Without a word she walked back to their camp and carefully laid the bard down on their rolled out blankets. Looking deep into Gabrielle's eyes she lowered herself on top of her. The bard welcomed her with open arms. They kissed passionately for a moment then Xena pulled her head back. The end of her mouth curled up in that little mischivious smile she got sometimes.
"I know you've heard many stories about me, Gabrielle," she whispered. "About all the beds I've shared. But I can tell you, the rumors about the sheepdog are wildly exaggerated. There was only the one time."
Gabrielle burst out laughing. The vibration of her chest under Xena felt more pleasing than any sensation the Lion could remember. The bard laughed so hard she had to bury her face in Xena's shoulder for a moment to control herself. She looked up into Xena's smiling blue eyes.
"Thanks for being honest Xena," she grinned. "I've wondered about that."
The smile faded into seriousness.
"Promise me, Xena," she said, her eyes intense, "promise me you'll show me everything that gives you pleasure. Teach me all that I can do to please you."
"I will," the Lion answered, "if you promise the same."
"Yes,'' the bard whispered huskily as she pulled Xena's mouth to hers.
They made love for hours. Then cooled off their overheated bodies in the chill of the pond. Laughing and splashing each other they dove and swam like the mermaids of myth. Sitting on warm rocks in the afternoon sun they combed each others hair and talked of a thousand different things, their hearts and thoughts open to each other as never before. And then they made more love, reveling in the pure pleasure of it. As night fell and the flickering lights of the universe appeared overhead Xena started a small fire as Gabrielle lay on their blankets stretching her naked body like a cat waking from a nap. The Lion sat beside her, her knees drawn up to her chest The bard grasped her hand and kissed it. Then gave her arm a little pull.
"By the Gods Gabrielle" Xena smiled, shaking her head, " aren't you exhausted yet?"
"Completely,'' the bard answered. "We've made love fresh and full of energy, now let's see what it's like when we're too tired to move.'' She smiled. "It's important to experience everything in life, Xena."
The Lion laughed then moved around and laid herself on top of Gabrielle. The bard looked up at that beautiful face framed about with a thousand twinkling stars and she put her hand on the Lions cheek and murmured "my most beloved."
Xena put a hand on top of Gabrielle's head and pulled a few stray strands of redblonde hair away from her face with the other.
"That's from your favorite poem isn't it?" she said softly.
Gabrielles eyes widened with surprise.
Xena smiled. "Oh I know Gabrielle, "she said. "I know you don't think I'm listening when you read all that poetry you love so much. But I am listening. I'm always listening. With my ears, my eyes, my heart. I'm always listening to you, Gabrielle."
She paused and looked deep into emerald eyes.
" 'she is a god in my eyes' '' Xena recited. '' 'the woman who sits beside me. I who listen intimately to the sweet murmer of her voice. the enticing laughter that makes my heart beat fast. she is my most beloved.' "
" 'in her I see the beauty of the sunrise' " the bard continued. '' 'taste the sweet nector of wine. smell the fragrance of the flowers in the field. feel the velvet of her hand on my cheek.' "
"You are my most beloved,'' Xena whispered and she kissed Gabrielle.
"And you are mine," the bard answered.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Everything swam in dark fuzzy shadows for a moment, then sharpened into clarity.
It was Xena's beautiful face that came into focus, twinkling stars surrounding her head.
"Beloved," Gabrielle whispered in reply with a weak grin. "I was just dreaming of you."
"Were you?" Xena answered with a smile as she held the bards hand to her cheek, on both knees leaning down close to her mate.
"Yes," Gabrielle continued hoarsly. "I was dreaming of our first time together. Do you remember? By the pond and the beautiful waterfall."
"Every detail, beloved," Xena kissed Gabrielle's blood stained fingers. ''Down to your wrinkled fingers from spending so much time swimming."
Gabrielle's smile broadened.
"I was thinking," she said, her voice stronger. "You didn't lie to me about the sheepdog did you? Was it really only once? Confession is good for the soul, Xena."
The Lion gave her mate that smile that was hers alone.
"And a little mystery in a relationship is what gives it spice. Anyway that's what someone who knows about such things once told me." she said.
The Warrior Princess brought her face down and carressed the bards lips with her own. She pulled back and looked deep into emerald eyes.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
The Lion felt her hand being squeezed.
"I love you, Xena.''
Then the bards eyes shifted and she turned her head looking around her.
"What's the situation, Xena?" she asked, tension in her voice. "What's happened?"
Xena stroked her mates cheek.
"We stopped them, beautiful,'' she said with a reassuring smile. "The Queen of the Amazon Nation has won a great victory."
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief.
"I know who's won a great victory," she said. "Thank you, Xena. Thank you.''
The Lion put her hand on the bards forehead. "Close your eyes, beloved, and rest. Everything is under control." Xena smiled. "Dream of me and sheepdogs. I know the dirty imagination you hide behind that pretty face."
The bard grinned back at Xena then her eyes closed wearily, gratefully. The Lion stroked her head and cheek for a few moments till she was satisfied Gabrielle was relaxed, her breathing unforced and regular. She then looked sharply over at the healer Anista who was kneeling on the other side of the Queen.
"The wound is not deep, Warleader," the healer said quickly. "The point entered just below the ribs but it did not penetrate the bowels."
Xena looked down. The bard was stripped to the waist. A fresh white length of cloth was wrapped around her body just below her breasts. In the gloom of the darkening night she could see a round stain on the bandage and dried blood covered Gabrielle's bare stomach and soaked her green skirt turning it black.
"I've cauterized the wound," Xena caught the faintest hint of burned flesh in the air. "and packed and wrapped it. The bleeding has stopped." The healer sighed. "She's lost a lot of blood. That's why she's so weak. But if Artemis answers my pleas and spares her infection she should make a complete recovery. The Queens father was here and he's gone to get his wagon to take her back to Pyra. I want her resting in a regular bed as soon as possible and I have a broth that will strengthen her and restore her blood."
Xena carefully checked the bandage, then nodded her approval at Anista. She rose and looked over at Odyseus who was on one knee a few feet behind the healer leaning on his mace. For a moment she shared the pain that was squeezing her heart so hard with a friend she knew understood. Then her gaze shifted to the three members of the Royal Bodyguard who stood at Gabrielle's feet like mourners at her funeral pyre. The Lions eyes blazed an icy fire.
"Report," she barked. "What happened to the Queen?"
For a moment there was silence, the three warriors staring down with black eyes at Gabrielle. Finally Eosa of Trikkala shifted her attention to Xena, her face dark and haunted with shock.
"We uh, we..." she began haltingly, ''we were walking behind the line, shouting encouragement and watching for breaks. The Queen was only a few steps in front of us. Suddenly a few yards ahead, near the road, our line started to collapse. Our warriors were being forced back, falling. You could see the pikes of the Carthaginians pushing through, pushing them down. The Queen, she didn't," Eosa took a breath and shook her head, "she didn't give us a chance. She just took off at a run and threw herself in front of the pikes, knocking them up with her staff and screaming for the warriors to get up, get up and reform."
The Amazon paused and her eyes focused on some ghostly apparition in front of her, as if she were watching again the terrible events as they unfolded.
"I could see it. See the pike go back as some bastard got ready to put all his weight into killing the Queen. I... I tried to shout but it all happened so fast. The pike came forward and Damasta of Larisa stepped in front of the Queen and it uh, it..."Eosa gasped in horror. ''went right through her and into the Queen. For a moment they were pinned together. Then the Queen took a step back with a surprised look on her face, like she didn't know what happened. She tried to grab Damasta. To help her. But Damasta fell, fell back on the Queen. They both fell. And then Leoda of Pyra went beserk. She just went beserk. She started screeching like some horrible demon from tartarus and she flung herself into the enemy. With the first blow of her sword she knocked the helmet off the man who held the pike and with the second she split his skull to the jaw. But when he fell he wrenched the sword out of her hand. It didn't matter. She just started shoving and kicking at them, cursing them. Then the point of a sword appeared out of her back and disappeared and she collapsed. Eponin of Farsala was behind her. She stepped over her body to protect her. She kept yelling in that deep voice of hers 'Get the Queen away! Get the Queen away!' Palla of Kalvia" Eosa glanced at the woman beside her, ''grabbed the Queen and dragged her back from the line while Agela of Lamia and I tried to help Eponin. We were almost beside her, smashing at them with our swords, when a mace came out of nowhere and hit Eponin full on the side of her face. She fell at my feet." Eosa let out a ragged, horrified breath. "Brave Eponin,'' she whispered. "I uh, I stepped over her to protect her and they just disappeared." The Amazon shook her head. "Like a magic trick. The Carthaginians just disappeared. It took me a moment to realize they were backing up, retreating, running."
Eosa put her hands to her face and her breathing was fast and shallow. Xena recognized the deepening shock she was falling into. The Amazon looked over past the King's shoulder.
"My brave friends, why have you left me behind?" she whispered to herself. "What is my sin that you have abandoned me here?"
Xena followed her gaze. Three bodies were neatly placed side by side behind Odyseus. The Lion sighed sadly to see Eponin's familiar thick chested form lying still and cold. Ephiny would wail a genuine grief at the pyre of one of her oldest friends. It would be a hard day for all of them.
Eosa began to tremble. Her mind wavered between this world and the next. The ceremony when she pledged her life for the Queen's and Gabrielle tied the red sash around her arm floated before her. Her proud mothers in Trikkala. Her sister winking at her as she stood in the company battleline watching. The glorious history of the Royal Bodyguard she knew by heart. The two Queens' who had died in battle and the six warriors, faithful to their oath, who lay dead around each of them, their guardians in this world and eternal companions in the next. The Amazon put her hand on the knife in her belt and slowly drew it out.
"What is my sin Artemis?" she whispered. "Why have you taken my honor?" Her black eyes dilated. "I want my honor back!!" she screamed.
The blade was an inch from her jugular when her hand was stopped by an iron grip around her wrist. For an instant the knife wavered as Eosa fought against the pressure. Then her arm was ripped down by Xena's superior strength. Her wrist sprained and the knife fell from her hand.
"You don't want to do that my friend," a deep voice rumbled softly.
Xena looked over to see Odyseus taking a knife out of Agela's hand, a strong arm around the woman's waist holding her up as she seemed on the verge of collapse. Palla reacted to none of this. She stared straight ahead adrift in a tartarus of her own.
The bard did react. Awake instantly at the scream she was desperately trying to rise.
"I forbid it!!" she yelled. "I forbid it!! Xena tell them!! I forbid it!!"
Anista threw her body over Gabrielle's and gently pressed her back down.
"Lie still my Queen," she pleaded. "Please lie still, you'll start bleeding again."
"Damn it Gabrielle, lie down," Xena commanded. "I'll handle this."
The Lion looked with angry, narrow eyes at the three Royal Bodyguards.
"You don't have the right to do this," she growled.
She looked into Eosa's vacant eyes and suddenly slapped her hard across the cheek. The Amazons eyes focused. She grabbed Palla's ear and yanked. The pain brought her back and she glared at the Lion.
"Your lives belong to me, do you understand," she said, menace in her voice. "Me and the Nation, and we're not through with you yet." She looked each of the warriors in the eye. "If any of you turn up dead I'll personally throw your bodies in the Euridian swamp and curse your names in your village temples. Your souls will wander forever on the wind. Do you understand?"
The Amazons looked at the Lion with sullen faces but they acknowledged her words.
"Alright warriors." Xena ordered. "You still have duties to perform. Eosa, Princess Ephiny is at the north end of the battleline. Find her and report what's happened here. Tell her Queen Gabrielle is on her way to Pyra and that the duties of Queen are hers till she recovers. Go."
"Yes Warleader." Eosa replied with a bow and she started north.
"Whoa." Herodotus called, hauling back on the reins. He immediatly jumped down from his wagon and walked quickly to Gabrielle, kneeling at her side. The bard looked up and smiled.
"Hi daddy," she said with as much cheer as she could manage.
"Hello sweetheart," her father answered, putting his hand lightly on top of her head. His face was calm but his eyes dark and intense. "How do you feel?"
"I'll be alright," she said. "Anista has everything under control."
"The Queen flatters me too much," the healer said with a smile.
Xena knelt beside her mate and took her hand. "You'll be sleeping in a soft bed tonight. Lucky you."
"Yep, lucky me," the bard smiled.
The Lion kissed her hand.
"I'll be back to see you as soon as I possibly can."
"Don't worry about that Xena," the bard replied, her face serious. "Our warriors come first. See to them before anything else. Okay?"
Xena nodded. "Okay," she said softly.
Herodotus put his arm behind Gabrielle's shoulders and under her knees.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
The bard laid her head on her fathers shoulder. "Yes daddy, I'm ready."
The old farmer picked up his daughter and carried her to the wagon and gently placed her on a blanket in the wagon bed.
Xena looked at the two Bodyguards.
"Her life is still in your hands," she said sternly. "Accompany her to Pyra and see to her every need. You haven't completed your duties yet. Go."
The two Guards looked uncertainly at each other, then bowed and climbed into the wagon with the Queen.
Herodotus chucked the reins and hauled hard left and the wagon slowly circled till it was back on the road and headed down the ridge into the darkness toward Pyra. As Xena watched it go Odyseus came up beside her and took her hand.
"We both know the black look around the eyes when death is coming," he said quietly. "Hers are bright and green and beautiful. She's going to live, Xena."
The Lion took a deep breath, it came out ragged and trembling. The man brought her hand up and kissed it. She took another breath and unashamedly let herself lean for a moment on this mans great reserve of strength, till she found her balance again after nearly having the world swept away from under her feet. Then her eyes changed color and her face darkened.
" 'and they shall reap the wirlwind' "she said.
Odyseus looked at his friend questioningly. "What?"
" 'the calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces. for they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. the standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal. if it were to yield, strangers would devour it. though they hire allies among the nations, I will soon gather them up. and they shall cease for a little while from anointing king and princes.' "
Xena took her hand from Odyseus and put it on his shoulder while looking him in the eye.
"A Hebrew poet named Hosea wrote it." she said. "Gabrielle read it to me once. The Carthaginians have spent all summer sowing the wind, King of Ithaca." The black look in Xena's eyes sent a shiver down even the brave Odyseus's spine. ''Tomorrow they reap the whirlwind."
Suddenly Xena turned and walked away. Odyseus watched her till she was swallowed up by the blackness, the blackness of night.
Xena walked the whole line speaking to each Chief. Getting a report on the casualties and condition of each company. Sixty three dead. More than two hundred too injured to continue and crowded around the water wagons back from the line. She found Cassandra to issue a string of orders only too the find the old warrior had already issued most of them. A steady stream of wagons quietly came and went taking the wounded to the camp at the base of the ridge so they could rest under the shelter of tents. Anista resumed her own grim work by the light of torches held by her assistants. The screaming of her patients was a constant grating on everyones already frayed and exhausted nerves. Ephiny found herself trembling when she recognized Keola's strangled screams as the young Amazon fought with all her might to control herself in her agony.
The night became steadily chillier. After a cold meal of jerky, dried vegetables and dates was distributed by the auxilleries, blankets were brought forward and passed out. Xena ordered the companies to sleep in their ranks, the warriors clumping together in threes and fours to share body heat under their coverings. The Lion knew the deep, almost drugged, sleep these battered women would fall into now that they could finally close their eyes. It would be like waking the dead to rouse them. Having them already in their battleline would just make things easier and more efficent come morning.
Xena took two blankets from an auxillery as she walked by and headed north till, as expected, she ran into Ephiny, talking to Chief Ashita at the end of the line.
"How do you want to plug the gap in the morning?" the Princess asked as the Lion walked up.
"Your troopers will do it,'' Xena answered. "I want your warriors together and ready to go when Odyseus flanks them and they start to run. Have your horses brought down here and have them all saddled before first light. I want you ready to ride at a moments notice tomorrow."
Ephiny nodded then put her hand on Xena's forearm, her eyes searching the Lion's.
"She's going to be alright," Xena said quietly.
Then she knelt and laid out the blankets.
"What are you doing?" the Amazon Princess asked, incredulous.
"Time to sleep, Ephiny," Xena said as she rose from her knee.
The Princess blew out a dismissive burst of air through her nose. "There'll be plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead Xena. Till then I..."
"Ephiny," the Warrior Princess said sharply. "I'm not asking you. I'll wake you when I need you. Now get some sleep. I want you alert tomorrow."
Ephiny started to protest but before she could Xena turned her back and strode away.
The Princess took a breath and looked at Ashita.
"You know," she said, "sometimes that woman is a real bastard."
The Chief smiled. "Yes she is. Thank Artemis she's our bastard."
Ephiny nodded."Yes, thank Artemis." She looked down at the blankets and shrugged her shoulders. "Well, I guess I better do as I was ordered and get some sleep. I wouldn't want the bastard mad at me." Ephiny lay down and slept for the first time in three days.
Xena was almost to the south end of the line when a horse and rider loomed out of the starlit darkness and approached. She immediatly recognized the broad form of Odyseus on the animal.
"I've been examining the lanes you've cut in the trees," he said quietly as he brought his mount to a halt. "I'm going back to meet Telemechus and guide the army up. We should be ready well before dawn."
"Excellent" Xena answered, looking up. She put her hand on the King's thigh. Odyseus did not have to see his friends face to know what she wanted.
"Don't worry. I'll check on Gabrielle. She'll have whatever she needs."
"She'll be in Chief Ahsita's hut," the Lion said. "And Odyseus, it's a big bed. If you have some time before Telemechus arrives lay down and get some rest yourself."
The King smiled.
"I'm flattered you trust me so much Xena, inviting me to lie with your mate."
The Warrior Princess snorted. ''I don't trust you at all you randy old goat. I trust Gabrielle."
Odyseus chuckled in his deep baritone.
"You're a wise woman. I know your trust is well placed."
"Please my friend," Xena said, concern in her voice. "Get some rest."
"What's the matter Xena," the King replied, annoyed. "Do you think this old man can't carry his weight without his afternoon nap."
Odyseus' face darkened. "Honesty isn't always the best policy, Lion. A little diplomatic lying is sometimes a better approach."
"No," Xena said quietly. "Not with a man who is always strong enough to face the truth."
The King sighed. "That was so once. But these days the truth has become a heavy burden. Its been pulling me down." He put his hand over Xena's. "I should take more naps shouldn't I." he said with a slight smile.
Xena rubbed his leg with affection.
"Oh, I almost forgot." the King said. "I sent pickets down the slope to listen for Varrus. I doubt he'll try anything. His warriors have to be even more exhausted than ours. But better safe than sorry. You should check on your Amazons though. You know the shape they're in."
Xena nodded. "I will."
Odyseus patted the Lions hand. "I'll consider your request," he said. He turned his gray warhorse away and headed down the slope at a trot.
Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)
Return to The Bard's Corner