The Lion moved quietly through the darkness toward the figure in the trampled grass. The warrior was sitting crosslegged with her shield leaning against her shoulder and her head lolled down and to the side. Xena walked up and stood in front of her. The sleeping woman did not move. A look of disgust on her face Xena kicked the warrior hard in the chest, knocking her flat. The young Amazon scrambled desperately to her feet drawing her sword, her eyes wild with surprise and fear.
"Are you awake?" the Warleader growled.
The warrior came to attention, her chest heaving, her baby face blanched white. The Lion backhanded her across the mouth, snapping her head. The Amazon gasped then came to attention again, blood trickling from a lip.
"I could execute you right now, "Xena hissed through clinched teeth, ''for this treasoness direliction of duty. I could have you condemned by a warriors court and beheaded in your village square to the everlasting shame of your family."
The young woman stood rigid as a statue, the whites of her frightened eyes glowing in the dark, but she made no sound, offered no excuse. Xena leaned forward till her face was an inch from the warriors.
"Fortunately for you it's too dark for me to recognize you, you useless waste of good armour."
The young woman could not imagine how that was possible, since she could see the Warleaders' cold, flashing blue eyes and threatening face quite clearly in the moonlight that had risen over the ridge.
"Now report to your Chief and inform her the Warleader relieved you of your post. Go."
"Ye..., yes Warleader," the Amazon stammered.
She picked up her shield and hurried up the slope, her heart hammering in her chest.
The Lion shook her head. 'I decided to make things easy, Gabrielle,' she thought. 'If I had her condemned and sentenced how many sleepless nights would you spend coming up with a loophole to spare her. And after grumbling for awhile about undermining military discipline, how secretly grateful would I be that you gave her back her life.'
As she moved along the slope, a hundred yards out from the battleline, Xena came across five more pickets, only one awake enough to hear her coming and challenge her. Three only noticed her when she was almost on top of them, their senses dull with fatigue and shock. Another poor Amazon was subjected to the same treatment as the first when she was found standing but in a deep sleep. The Lion sent them all back. She began to patrol a guards beat all alone, back and forth, before her sleeping army. A silence as silent as the grave settled over the field. No birds called. No crickets chirped. No insects hummed. Even the screaming of Anista's patients ceased as the healer gave in to exhaustion and lay down to sleep, till sunrise gave her better light to work by. The temperature steadily dropped. Finally the Warleader could see the slight fog of her breath in the chill air as she walked. But as she looked out over the dark land one terrible image kept forcing itself into her consciousness, wavering before her stricken eyes like a mirage. The feeling of pure heartstopping fright swept over her again as she saw that vision of Gabrielle lying in the grass, her body black with blood, kneeling down next to her, not knowing if she were alive or dead.
Xena felt a slight pull on her fishing pole. Then a stronger one. She ignored it as she looked out over the slowly flowing river. After a moment Gabrielle's head appeared out of the water a few feet from the stick she was using as a bob on her fishing line. The bard smiled a wet, dripping smile.
"It's a big one Xena," she said, "better get the net."
The Lions eyes narrowed.
"You're very funny Gabrielle," she said. "You should go to Athens and write comedies for the Amphitheatre. I'm sure your friend Pericles would back you."
The bard crinkled her nose at Xena and disappeared under the water. In a few moments she appeared again closer to shore. She rose up out of the water naked and walked slowly to the low bank shaking her head and wiping her eyes. She plopped down next to the Warrior Princess who was sitting a few yards up on the bank, her back against a small log.
"Did I detect just the slightest bit of jealousy and concern there my warlord friend?" Gabrielle smiled, carefully watching Xena.
The Lion turned up the corner of her mouth in distain at such a ridiculous notion and did not dignify it with an answer. Gabrielle grinned at Xena's studied ignoring of her. She leaned on her elbows with her legs straight out and her head laid back and let the hot late summer sun bake her dry. The delicious warmth after the cold swim relaxed her whole body, her tired mind and spirit as well.
"This is so nice," she said at last, her eyes closed against the brightness of the sun. "I didn't realize how tired I was till we got here. Thank you for bringing me, Xena."
"No problem," the Warrior Princess answered, giving the fishing pole a slight pull to stir the hook. Gabrielle took a breath and sighed happily.
"We've accomplished so much these last six months. Opening contacts with other states, getting trade going again. Planting new vineyards and orchards so we can produce a real surplus to trade. I have a lot of ideas for what we can do around Farsala over the winter to improve the sanitation and drainage. I read a very interesting scroll by an Athenian city engineer when I was there last month."
"Uh huh," Xena said. She pulled the pole back and expertly cast her line to a promising log sunk just below the surface of the water. Her eyes peeked briefly at the tan, fit, glowing young woman next to her. So beautiful and so obviously content.
"You really enjoy being Queen don't you?" she said, turning her eyes to back to her fishing.
"Oh yes," the bard smiled. ''This spring and summer, since I assumed the throne, have been the happiest of my life I think. The challenge every day to do something positive for the Nation. To do something that will make the lives of the people better. It's exhausting but it's a good exhaustion. I do love it."
Gabrielle looked at the Lion.
"Of course you and Ephiny are just as responsible as I am. I couldn't do any of it without the work and ideas the two of you contribute."
Xena smiled at that generosity of spirit that was always present in her beloved. She shook her head.
"No Gabrielle," she said. "You're the mastermind of this Amazon renaisance you've created. I'm just trying to make myself useful when I can."
The Lion looked out over the lazily moving river for a moment, her face serious and concentrated. Gabrielle watched her intently. She knew when something was on her lovers' mind.
"It's a stange thing, Gabrielle," Xena said at last, "but with all the territory I conquored in my time as a warlord I never governed any of it. I just didn't care. It didn't interest me in the least. I would take over a some city or province and immediatly appoint a weak spined nobody as Govenor, someone I was sure would never have the balls to challenge me, and moved on. I didn't care if he governed well or badly, as long as he obeyed orders and didn't bother me with his problems. The only thing that mattered was what was over the next river, the next mountain range. What nation did not yet yield to me. What people did not yet bow before the Lion. Where ever I was I wanted to be somewhere else."
Xena rubbed her face.
"Sometimes, beloved, when I was lying alone in my tent, and I was always alone, even when a body was lying next to me, I would think about the great Alexander, and wonder if my life would end like his. That after conquering the world I would drink myself to death out of boredom."
The Lion sighed.
"Everything I did. Everything I accomplished. None of it compares to what you've done. Bringing life back to these people. What you're doing is so full. What I did was so... empty."
Gabrielle reached out and lightly rubbed Xena's leg. The Warrior Princess glanced at her with a slight, appreciative smile. She resumed her concentration on her fishing. After a candlemark of soaking up the sun on her naked skin the bard felt her stomach rumble.
"Ah, Xena," she said without looking at the Lion, ''speaking of empty, if you don't catch something soon we're going to be eating cold jerky tonight.''
"Yes, well," Xena answered in a low voice, ''it didn't help you out there splashing around like a bear, scaring the gills off all the fish."
The bard snorted derisively.
"I stayed out of the river all morning and you didn't catch anything. What's your excuse for that. That I was so quiet they were all asleep?" Gabrielle smiled. "Let's face facts, oh great fisherwoman of Amphipolis, this just isn't the fishing paradise you thought it would be when you picked it as our campsite last night. And if you don't produce dinner soon I'm leaving. There's much prettier places I could be starving to death than here."
Xena looked at the bard with a playful sneer on her lips.
"You know Gabrielle, sometimes you're a real pain in my ass."
The bard laughed. "Yes I am," she said as she reached out and pinched Xena's butt.
"Stop it," the Warrior Princess grinned as she slaped her hand away.
"All right," Gabrielle chuckled, "but you've been warned. No dinner soon and I'm leaving."
She rolled on her stomach and laid her head on her arms and let the sun cook the tension out of her neck and shoulders. Some part of her brain idly hoped that her lover would decide she looked sexy today, because she certainly felt warm and sexy, and that a hand might settle gently between her legs while two longed for lips found that special spot on the back of her neck. But after a candlemark nothing happened and she felt drowsy and on the edge of a nap.
The bard turned her head toward Xena.
"I'm awake, barely." she said.
"Gabrielle, I'd like to talk with you about something."
The timber of Xena's voice left no doubt it was something important to her. The bard rolled to a sitting position closer to Xena, her bare legs pulled up close to her chest.
"I'm listening my love."
Xena let out a little air and looked into Gabrielle's clear emerald eyes.
"I've been thinking about something a lot lately," she began. "I think it's time I told you what I'm..." the Lion hesitated and took a breath. "I think it's time I asked you this. As two initiated Amazons we can go through the Amazon marriage ritual. Would you go through the ritual with me, Gabrielle? Would you marry me and be my mate?"
The bards eyes widened with surprise. Xena put down her pole and grasped Gabrielle's hand in both of hers.
"Let me tell you what I'm thinking, beloved," she said quickly. "What I'm feeling."
The Lion's blue eyes were intense, yet soft and searching as they gazed into Gabrielle's.
"We've been together a long time Gabrielle. My heart is yours. But I'm not... content... anymore just being here at your side. I want, I need to make a deeper commitment to you. I want the honor, the responsibility of being your mate. I want your symbol emblazoned on my arm. Where ever we go together from here I want the world to see that I belong only to you. That the Lion has found her life. That you are my life. That a woman as great as the Queen of the Amazons trusts me with her love and scared honor." Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand." I would feel the most profound pride in bearing your emblem on my arm, Gabrielle. Will you marry me, beloved? I promise never to bring you dishonor."
The bard let out a very long breath.
"Xena I..." she swallowed hard. "Xena, this is such a surprise. There's so much to consider here." The bard sucked in a gasp of air. "No Queen has had a mate in over a hundred years. How would this affect the people, the government? And you know the rigor of the ritual. It's a permanent commitment of our lives, our souls together. We can never have an honorable life apart. I couldn't remain as Queen if we separated. It... it's a lot to think about."
Gabrielle put her head on her knees, staring at nothing, absorbed in herself. After a moment she turned her face away from Xena and laid her head again on her knees. She was absolutely motionless. The Warrior Princess' heart began to pound. Her stomach filled with buzzing bees. 'Have I gone to far?' Xena agonized. 'Have I misjudged her feelings. Have I finally ruined us.'
Suddenly the bard straightened and looked at Xena with her most brilliant, white toothed smile.
"Was that long enough?" she asked.
"What?!" the Lion sputtered.
"Was that long enough?" the bard repeated. "I'm a Queen now Xena. I can't jump into these major decisions without due deliberation. How would that look? The dignity of my office requires I take a proper amount of time to consider these things."
The Lion's face was dark as a thundercloud.
"I'm dying a slow death and you're just playing Queen!!" she thundered.
The bard smile got brighter.
"I wasn't playing, Xena. I am Que..."
Gabrielle could not complete her sentence because the Lion sprang on her and pinned her shoulders to the ground.
"Do you know what I should do to you?" the Warrior Princess growled.
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled. Then the smile disappeared and her eyes watered up and sparkled like spring dew on green grass. "You should love me Xena,'' she whispered hoarsly, ''love me, love me, love me, and I'll love you as much and more. Will I marry you, beloved? Of course I will. To bear the Lion's mark on my arm, to be yours completely. That day will be the first day of my life. Everything before was just preparation to make me worthy of such an honor. I will never..."
Xena's lips pressed down and cut off her words. They kissed for the longest time, pouring their hearts into each other. Finally Xena pulled back.
"Don't ever leave me, Gabrielle," she whispered, her eyes glistening.
"I won't, beloved. I promise."
"You promised, Gabrielle," the Lion whispered. "You've never broken a promise to me. Don't break your promise now. Don't leave me, beloved."
Xena tasted salt on her lips. Her eyes darted around selfconsciously. She rubbed her face and sniffed.
She made several more rounds back and forth along the length of the battleline. All was darkness and silence. Then as she approached the road from the south there was a low rumble of a voice.
The Lion broke into a trot. Two figures became visible in the shadowy silver moonlight. Xena chuckled to see them. Their forms in the darkness were mirror images of each other. Same height, same weight, same broad powerful shoulders and barrel chests. The same coal black hair and beard. Or at least the hair was the same till age and care added white to one of them. But Xena knew the differences as well. The soft, grey, gentle eyes of Telemechus, like his mother's. And the son's higher voice that spoke Greek in the cultured rounded vowels of Penelope's Delphian aristorcracy, not the rougher sound of Odyseus' island accent.
Telemechus extended his arm as the Lion drew close and she took it warmly.
"Telemechus," she said, "you're a welcome sight. If I had Salomaya's permission I'd give you a kiss."
The man looked around conspiratorialy.
"Xena," he said quietly. "What the wife doesn't know won't hurt her."
Odyseus clapped his son on the shoulder.
"He's all mine, Xena," the King laughed.
The Lion always enjoyed the two of them together. The deep affection they shared was a pleasure to witness. She exchanged a smile with the Prince of Ithaca.
"Everything quiet?" Odyseus asked.
"Yes," she replied. "What's you're situation?"
"The head of our column is just passing your camp at the bottom of the ridge." Odyseus said. "Telemechus will take half the army and go into the trees to the north. I will command the other half and go south. We'll be in position well before first light. The warriors will have a chance to get a little rest."
"Excellent," the Lion said. "When they attack in the morning I'll have a couple of rams horn trumpeters at each end of my line. I'll let Varrus march his Phalanx almost to our battleline before I give the signal. When you hear the trumpets, emerge from the forest and dress your line quickly. March at an angle to meet at the bottom of the slope. Cut off as many of them as you can." Xena looked at the Prince. "Press hard, Tel. Don't let them recover or regroup. I want them routed and destroyed as an army. Chase them as long as your men have the strength to follow."
Telemechus nodded gravely. This would be his first battle. He felt keenly the weight of the expectations that the Warleader and his father had for him. He knew he would succeed or die. He could not bear any other option. There was a moments silence.
"Are you sure he will come in the morning?" Prince Telemechus asked quietly. "Father has told me of the beating you gave him today. Perhaps he will head south with the light and give up trying to fight through here."
"No," Xena said looking down the dark slope toward the enemy. ''He'll come, he has to. Right now his mercenary commanders are asking themselves how are they going to stop twenty thousand Athenians and Spartans at the Farsala ford when they can't even defeat a thousand Amazons on a bald ridge. If Varrus admits defeat and heads south his mercenaries will desert in mass before he gets ten leagues.He knows it as well as I do. He has to smash us in the morning to re-establish the morale of his army." Xena shook her head. "He'll attack Telemechus, with the first rays of the sun in the east. And he'll come with everything he has." The Lion grinned that humorless predatory grin. ''It couldn't be more perfect. His whole force in our hands. The Carthaginians will finally understand what the Romans felt at Cannae."
There was a long silence as the three warriors contemplated the dark meaning of the Lions words. Finally Odyseus put his hand on his son's shoulder.
"Go on back Tel," he said. "Meet the column and get things started. I'll be there shortly."
Xena offered her arm and Telemechus took it.
"Good luck my friend." she said.
The Prince smiled. "I won't need it. The Great Lion and her Amazons have already won this battle. I'm just glad my name may be mentioned someday in some small way with this achievement of yours."
He turned and walked up the slope.
Xena swallowed as she watched him go.
"He's a good man," she said quietly. "You did well. You'll leave behind something to be proud of."
"No," Odyseus replied. " I was gone his entire childhood. He's Penelope's creation. And as with everything she touched, he turned out with her gentle perfection. I love him as I loved her." Odyseus let a sigh escape. Then he looked at Xena. ''Speaking of love. Gabrielle was sleeping comfortably when I left her." The man smiled. "I rested a while with her. She has the same breathy snore that Penelope had. It was so nice to close my eyes and hear that sound again. It was very hard to get up and leave it."
Xena laughed. "Don't tell Gabrielle that. She's certain she doesn't snore. You're liable to get a very dirty look. You haven't been frozen with a stare till my mate stabs you with those green eyes."
"Penelope's way was to give you a charming little smile that said you were an incompetent, doddering old fool." Odyseus grinned. "As much as I got that smile I must have been a slobbering idiot most of my life."
The two friends shared a laugh. Then the King gently grasped Xena's elbow.
"I better go help Tel," he said. "I'll see you in the evening when this is over. We'll go to Gabrielle and share a meal and talk of life and the future and start putting all this death, all this darkness behind us."
Xena nodded. "I look forward to it, Odyseus."
As the very first lightening of the eastern sky became discernable to the eye, Xena and her officers were already hard at work preparing the Amazon army for the day. The Lion was glad to see healthier color in Ephinys' cheeks as she woke her from her first sleep in days. The Princess immediatly set about preparing her cavalry, getting the horses moved down to the north end of the line and saddled. Xena woke the Chiefs not already awake and they began the task of rousing the Army. It was not easy. Shock depresses the human nervous system. People become lathargic and tired beyond comprehension. The Lion and her Lt's had to kick warriors hard in the ribs and step on their fingers to get them to move. Some had to be dragged up to a sitting position and slapped by their friends to get them to open their eyes. Most squatted where they were to pee, their bodies and minds too numb to worry about the nicities of civilized behavior.
Xena was surprised and slightly disturbed to see Herodotus pull up to the line, his wagon piled high with bread from the ovens of Pyra. She had assumed he would stay with Gabrielle and get some rest himself. It was obvious he had been busy with other things all night. Bread, water and jerky were quickly distributed by the auxilleries to all the companys and everyone sat quietly eating as the light steadily increased. There was little talking. What was there to talk about? The bodies of friends lay scant yards away, cold and lifeless. Soon the sun would begin to bloat them and the gagging smell of death would rise. For the first time since the start of the battle young warriors had a chance to think about what had happened to them. The enormity of it seemed beyond any words contained in human language to express.
As the sun peaked its first orange finger over the eastern horizon it became light enough to view the bottom of the ridge. The Carthaginians could be seen forming for the assualt. The units marching into position, the faint shouts of their officers brought up on the morning breeze. Xena watched her warriors as they looked down the slope stone faced at the prospect of a new day of battle. Could they really stop them again? The Lion motioned Chief Nita over and spoke quietly to her. The usually tacitern Chief grinned broadly and nodded. The Chief called over her Lt.s and whispered to them. They grinned as well. Then they moved among the warriors, ordering them to their feet and also imparting a bit of information. Information that raced the length of the line in a heartbeat. Everywhere warriors rose to their feet and smiled and laughed and shook each other and the depression of shock was replaced by the relieved, euphoric emotion of victory and survival. The Ithicans were in the trees!! They had slept through the arrival of their saviors but saved they were. The bastards about to attack them were going to have the shock of their lives. Every young woman in the battleline looked forward eagerly to watching the result.
Xena started at the south end and walked the entire length of the line, seeing that every company was up and prepared, and secretly enjoying, behind her warlord mask, the look of excited triumph in every young face. When she reached the north end and Ephinys' troopers she stepped in among the first line of warriors. She called the Princess to her.
"Ephiny. Stay close," she commanded. "When I give the word signal the trumpeters to blow. That will bring the Ithacans out of the forests. Are you ready to ride?"
"Yes Warleader," the Princess answered, a strange intense timber to her voice. "The Amazon cavalry is ready. Ready for whatever you ask of us."
The Lion nodded. She turned to concentrate on the approaching enemy. The deep pounding of the drums sounded again across the slope. She could see that the Phalanx was made up entirely of Carthaginian veterans. Varrus was not interested in clever strategy today. He was coming with his best to finish the job in one blow. Behind the wall of pikes she could see the bobbing fence of another phalanx marching closely behind the first, the warriors with their pikes on their shoulders. After the first Phalanx broke the Amazons the second would march through to pursue and destroy the survivors. Xena smiled her predator smile. 'He's very confident today,' she thought. 'Or very desperate. His reserve must be his worst mercenary units waiting at the bottom of the slope to witness our destruction and thus have their enthusiasm for this war restored. Varrus, you should have taken my advice on choosing your friends and enemies.'
When the Phalanx was fifty yards away the Lion shouted, "Now Princess!"
Ephiny stepped back from the line and waved her arm. First the two rams horn trumpets close by at the north end of battlefront sounded, followed quickly by the resonance of the two at the south end. The sound was answered by a muffled shouting that turned into a deep throated cheer as at each end of the Amazon line a thousand Ithacan warriors emerged from the forest and arranged themselves in a battleline three ranks deep. Spontaniously along the Amazon line the warriors began pounding their shields with their swords and answering the Ithacan cheer with the wild sound of their own warcrys.
The Carthaginian officers on either flank of the Phalanx looked at each other in stunned disbelief. They were marching straight into a trap. In fact they were already in it. They began running desperately down their lines shouting for the Phalanxs to halt but as is inevitable in such a situation, confusion quickly spread. The men at the flanks halted immediatly, seeing the danger they were in. But the center continued forward, in all the noise and shouting no order could be understood and the warriors were concentrated on preparing themselves for the moment of impact. The wall of pikes began to come apart as more and more warriors realized the men on their flank were stopping. Some were even turning back. Order and discipline was turning rapidly into chaos. On both sides the Ithacans began to advance, chanting the name of their King to mark their step as they marched.
Xena watched the Carthaginian line dissolve and her face reddened with surging adrenaline and her eyes changed their color to black. She pushed through the Amazon line to the rear.
"Now's your time, Ephiny!!'' she roared at the top of her lungs, "Now's your time!!"
"Amazons mount up!!" the Princess screamed, running along her line of warriors. "Amazons mount up!!"
There was a mad race as the Amazon troopers all tried to be first to reach their horse where they quietly waited fifty yards down the slope, held by twenty auxilleries who were almost trampled in the rush.
"Argo!!" the Lion shouted once. In an instant the great warhorse came pounding up at a gallop. Xena vaulted effortlessly into the saddle and raced over to the Amazon cavalry. Ephiny was just up on her black stallion, her sword in her hand. Her troopers all drew theirs as the Lion pulled Argo up in front of them. She pulled her weapon with a long dangerous 'sheeenk' that every trooper could hear and would remember for the rest of her life.
"No mercy!" the Lion of Amphipolis growled through bared fangs. "I'll cut down anyone I see with mercy in her eyes!" Xena stood in her stirrups to her full height, towering over everyone, her sword raised. "You have one order!! KILL EM ALL!! KILL EM ALL!! KILL EM ALL!!!"
Screeching her warcry Xena snapped Argo's head around and slapped her on the rump with the flat of her sword. The palimino bolted forward at a head down reckless gallop, completely enthrall to her mistress' black excitement. Ephiny and the cavalry thundered after. The sound that came from their throats was not anything humans produce. It was a howling of blood lust from carnivores closing on their victims.
At the sight of the Lion and her cavalry cresting the ridge and flying down the slope toward them the last thread of discipline in the Carthaginian phalanx's snapped. The men directly in their path cried out in terror and flung down their pikes and shields and ran for their lives before they were trampled. Many did not make it and were hacked down or crushed beneath pounding hoofs. After punching through the crowd of fugitives like a fist through a wall the troopers turned their horses and began hunting their prey in packs of four and five, as they had been trained to do on those blazing late summer days in the meadows south of Farsala, Daria blistering them with abuse when they showed hesitancy or strayed too far to give each other adequate support. The lessons became terrible reality. The Carthaginians were running, scattering, every man in his own desperate race to find safety. Their backs were turned and the Amazon troopers rode them down and hacked and stabbed till their arms became numb with fatigue and they could not raise them anymore to kill.
The mercenaries at the bottom of the slope did not wait to be routed. At the first sign of the Ithacans appearing out of the trees on the flanks of the advancing Phalanx's each mercenary leader on his own decided this battle was lost. They all ordered an about face and marched away west toward the walls of Vonitsa and refuge. But with each step the fetters of discipline, along with all the heavy equipment that might hinder their flight, was shed and the men became nothing but a frightened crowd headed down the Corinth highway as fast as tired feet would carry them.
The cheering and pounding of shields along the Amazon line slowly died away. The warriors viewed with a growing sense of somber unease the spectacle that was unfolding before them. Chief Ashita and Lt. Circa stood together before their companys watching. Finally Ashita shook her head.
"This isn't war anymore Lt.," she said quietly, "it's murder."
Circa nodded. "Yes, murder," she whispered. Suddenly she turned her back to the sight and with a sigh started up the slope.
Ashita watched only a moment longer then followed, unwilling to see any more.
The Lion hunted alone. Using her great strength and Argo's considerable bulk she sought out anywhere that the Carthaginians seemed to be rallying and smashed into them hacking and killing till the survivors were fleeing again as terrified individuals. And she kept her black eyes open for the red plume of an officers helmet and rode down all she could find, killing half a dozen. At last even Xena's arm became leaden with fatigue and Argo was winded and covered with a lather of sweat. She pulled the great warhorse up to rest and to give herself a moment to catch her breath and view the results of her mornings work. To the south she could see Odyseus' battleline moving steadily west herding Carthaginians before it and over running some who in despair had given up fleeing and decided to face their fate in a short clanging brutal death.
But to the Lion's consternation the battleline of Telemechus had halted at the bottom of the slope. She urged Argo on with a kick of her heels and as she approached the rear of the line she could see over it to a group of two hundred or so warriors who had clustered into a defensive circle with their pikes leveled, like a herd of muskox with their horns out to protect themselves against a pack of wolves. And the wolves were there as twenty Amazon troopers hovered around the circle with hungry, glaring eyes.
Xena hurried down the Ithacan line till she found Telemechus at the end.
"Prince Telemechus," she barked. "Why have you halted?"
The Prince looked up at the Lion with his mother's gentle gray eyes.
"Xena, look at them," he said, a pleading tension in his voice. "They're brave men. I want to give them a chance to surrender but I don't have anyone who speaks their language."
The Lion leaned down from her saddle toward Telemechus with eyes blacker than the blackest night.
"I don't want them brave, Prince Telemechus,'' she growled, her fangs flashing, "I want them dead. All dead. I want to hear the wailing of their mothers and wives and children all the way from Carthage. I want their bodies piled so high that when we light the pyre the flames scorch the moon. I want the glow in the sky so bright that Ceasar and his Senate can see it all the way to the Palatine hill in Rome. This is our land Prince of Ithaca and I want the whole world to know that invaders here will only see their homes again as ashes on the wind."
Telemechus took a deep breath and let it out. For a moment his eyes were far away and sad. Finally he turned his head slightly.
"Forward march," he said in a voice barely above a whisper to the officer standing at his elbow.
Instantly the warrior threw up his arm.
"Fooooreward!!" he bellowed. "March!!"
The cry was repeated up and down the line and the men stepped off with a rattling of shields and armour and tramping of a thousand pairs of feet. As they drew close to the embattled Carthaginians a few lost their nerve and tried to run but were quickly riden
down by the Amazons. The rest watched their fate approach with a cool resignation, each man praying or letting the faces of loved ones dance one last time before their eyes. And then the Ithacans were on them and a vicious bloody struggle erupted. The Ithacan line bent around until the Carthaginians were surrounded. After a candlemark it was over. Officers ordered the men forward to dress their line. They left behind a circle of bodies piled two and three deep. Telemechus refused to look back at the carnage, keeping his eyes forward as he got his warriors in order. Xena stared at the massacred men for a few moments, her face an emotionless mask, then her eyes shifted up and scanned the entire plain before her. In all the chaos and death there was one more task to accomplish before she would let this battle end.
"Form your archers in a line right here you damn coward!" Varrus shouted, leaning down from his horse. "If you hold off the cavalry I can rally enough men to make a stand. We still have numbers on them. We can save this day if you'll just find a backbone!"
The commander of the Baleric bowmen looked up at the mercenary general with angry contempt.
"I know a lost battle when I see one you arrogant Roman trash!" he shouted back. "My responsibility is to my men, not you. I'm getting my warriors out of here in one piece and going home. If you had any brains, which I doubt, you'd do the same!"
"You insolent craven dog!" Varrus yelled, the veins in his neck bulging. He kicked at the archer, just missing his face with a leather booted foot. The Baleric Captain started to draw the short sword at his side, rage in his face, when suddenly his eyes shifted. He froze for a moment, then his features changed from anger to almost laughing amusement. He shoved the sword back into its scabbard and looked up at Varrus. He started to say something, then changed his mind and with a derisive snort he waved his hand dismissively at Varrus and turned and trotted after his men, already a hundred yards away marching in a tight column at the double back to Vonitsa.
Varrus stared for an instant, stunned, then some sixth sense raised the hair on the back of his neck. With a hard yank of the reins he twirled his mount around. There, not thirty yards away, sat the Lion on Argo, her hands resting on the saddle horn, her body relaxed as if about to greet an old friend. But the eyes were narrow and black.
The Roman took a sharp, surprised breath. Then he settled back into his saddle and put his fist on his hip, elbow out, and cocked his head slightly to one side, in that arrogant pose that was natural as breathing to him. The two leaders eyes each other silently. On either side of them beaten, exhausted warriors streamed past. But they all gave the two enemies a wide berth, none showing the slightest interest in interfering in the confrontation.
"Having trouble with your help?" Xena said at last.
The mercenary's eyes narrowed. He let his gaze shift up to the sun, now well over the horizon, and the cloudless azure sky.
"It's a beautiful day, Xena," the Roman said, his voice almost friendly. "How nice of you to take your face out from between the Queen's legs and join me. I'm honored."
He made a slight, sarcastic bow. The Lion said nothing.
"I didn't recognize the colors on those warriors that came out of the forest," Varrus continued. "Certainly not Athenian or Spartan. Who are they?"
"They belong to King Odyseus of Ithaca," the Warrior Princess answered evenly.
"Odyseus?!" the Roman snorted in surprise. "I've heard his stories but I assumed he was long dead."
Varrus shook his head.
"What's the world coming to, Xena, when a hero and King of such noble blood comes to the aid of a peasant slut like you. It defys the natural order of things. Perhaps he's gotten senile in his old age? What a tragedy."
"I'm beginning to understand," the Lion said, her face an emotionless mask, "why you have to terrorize little boys, Varrus. You certainly don't know how to flatter a woman."
There was a moment of silence as the two enemies stared into each others eyes.
"If you're going to run, Roman," Xena growled finally, her voice dropping an octave, "now is the time. Argo is exhausted from butchering your warriors. I'm sure we couldn't catch you." The Lions mouth curled up at the end. "Just think, you could slink back to Egypt as the only man to be chased from two battlefields by the Lion and still alive to tell about it. History will mention the name Publius Varrus with Alexander, Hannibal, Cesear," her lips assumed a contemptuous sneer, "or not."
A tinge of red came to the Roman's cheeks and his eyes were grey slits.
"I can still make this trip worthwhile, peasant," Varrus replied with hardly contained rage. "I can go home with your head in a sack. I'll put your skull on the shelf above my hearth as a conversation piece. I might even send it to Ceasar as a peace offering."
Xena made a slight bow.
"I apologize, Varrus," she said, her eyes black and glittering. "You do know how to talk to a woman. That was a fine invitation to a killing." In less than a heartbeat Xena's sword was in her hand. "Let's see if you have the balls to back your eloquence, or if children are the only ones who have to fear you."
The Lion dug her heels into Argo and screeched her warcry. Varrus had his own sword out and with a yell of hate he charged as well.
Their blades meeting produced a sharp, piercing ringing sound, clearer than any bell. The two superbly trained warhorses fought their own battle as well, circling and ramming and biting each other, trying to gain some advantage for their riders. At last Argo got a good mouthful of the flank of Varrus' mount and the horse jumped sideways with the pain, lost its footing and fell. The Roman rolled away but lost his weapon. Xena launched herself instantly from Argo, did a tight somersault over the struggling horse on the ground and landed in front of Varrus as he came to his feet. She thrust savagely with her sword but he sidestepped, grabbed her arm and used her momentum to flip her over his hip. She landed on her back and he was on her in a heartbeat, a dagger from his belt in his hand. She caught his wrist as the knife came down for her throat and deflected it enough that it buried into the ground a parchments width from her skin. Before Varrus could pull the blade back Xena turned her head and sank her teeth deep into the heel of his hand around the thumb. He yelped in pain and lost his grip on the knife. He ripped his bleeding hand from Xena's mouth but immediatly had both hands around her throat, throttling her windpipe with an iron grip. For an instant she struggled to pull his fingers away from her neck then her hands flashed up to his throat and pinched the blood vessels on each side.
A strangled squeek came from Varrus' mouth. With all his will he tried to keep his grip on Xena's throat, but the paralyzing effect of the pinch quickly robbed his strength. The Lion threw him off with a heave. He landed on his back, his eyes wide as the pain and paralysis spread. Xena sat up and coughed and rubbed her neck for a moment till her breath returned. She did a graceful kip to her feet and retrieved her sword and slid it back into its place.
"Argo," she called.
The palimino was instantly in front of her. She rubbed the faithful equines' muzzle and scratched her under the chin. She started to mount but hesitated. She turned and walked over to Varrus, kneeling beside him. A dark trickle of blood oozed from his nose and his eyes were losing their focus. She grabbed his chin and shook his head till the eyes focused on her.
"Varrus," the Lion growled in a low voice, ''tell Hades hello for me when you see him." She shook his head again. "And Lentillia and Willa and all the children you ever violated wish you a safe trip to tartarus." She leaned down close to his ear. "And you should be so lucky as to have your face between Gabrielle's legs," she whispered. Then the Lion spit in Varrus' face, stood up, mounted Argo, and rode away without looking back.
Xena was annoyed. Only a league from the bottom of the ridge she could see the Ithacans had halted. The two battlelines had come together and merged into one long line more than a quarter league wide but the warriors were all kneeling, drinking from their waterskins or leaning on their shields. She approached at a brisk trot. She wanted the pursuit to last much longer than this. She wanted the Carthaginians pressed until they completely disintegrated as an army. She thought King Odyseus understood her intentions. But as she got close to the line it became obvious something was wrong. There was hardly an officer in sight anywhere. The men were virtually leaderless. Then she spotted them. By a clump of towering oaks past the far end of the line. They were all clustered in a circle looking at something on the ground she could not see for all the bodies in the way. A cold, tiny chill attacked the pit of her stomach. She put her heels into Argo and galloped down the battleline. She vaulted from the palimino and ran up to the group of men. They parted to reveal King Odyseus lying on the ground. Prince Telemechus was kneeling at his side holding one of his fathers hands in both of his. An arrow protruded from the King's neck where it turned into the shoulder at a downward angle into his chest. The Warrior Princess gasped. She threw herself down on one knee beside Odyseus.
"What happened?" she demanded as she anxiously examined the wound.
One of the officers, tears wetting his bearded cheeks, nodded toward the oaks.
"The bastard was up in one of the trees,'' he said in a husky, emotional voice. "He hit the King as we passed."
Xena glanced over in the direction the man had indicated. The body of a Baleric bowman lay at the base of a tree, hacked to pieces. The head and one arm completely severed. She turned her attention back to her friend. His breathing was a painful, desperate pant. Blood welled from the corners of his mouth with each breath. The arrow was buried deep into his lungs just inside of his left collarbone. Xena touched it carefully and noted how much blood was already puddled under Odyseus neck. She sighed bitterly. It would take candlemarks of careful probing to remove the arrow. The King's lungs were already almost full of blood. There was nothing to be done. For an instant a violent rage passed through the Lion. If there had been an enemy to fight she would have attacked without mercy. But the enemy was death. And death refused to fight. It snuck in as a thief and slunk away like a coward stealing the people we hold most dear.
The Lion took a deep breath to steady herself. She looked at Telemechus. The Prince had been watching her with a forlorn hope lighting his face, knowing her reputation as a healer. The look in her eyes took all the air from his lungs. His chest deflated and he slowly lowered his head until his fathers hand was pressed against his forehead.
Xena put her fingers tenderly on the King's cheek.
"Odyseus," she said, looking into his eyes. "I'm going to give you a nerve pinch that will relax your chest. You'll be able to breath easier."
Odyseus understood what his friend was telling him, not mentioning removing the arrow. His eyes were clear and unafraid as he gazed back at Xena. He blinked once to acknowledge her. She carefully placed her fingers on his breastbone and pushed. The painful pant was immediately replaced by a slow, but very shallow, breathing. She held his head as Odyseus coughed raggedly, clearing his throat of blood. Finally he took a gasp of air and held up his hand. Xena took it in hers.
"Congratulations, Xena," he whispered. "A great victory." He took another gasp of air. "You are the Great Lion my friend. The greatest warrior of Greece."
The Lion kissed Odyseus hand.
"No, my friend. Not as long as the Conquorer of Troy lives." Xena would have said more but the rock hard lump in her throat cut off her words. Odyseus squeezed Xena's hand. She squeezed back.
The King's eyes shifted to his son. "Telemechus," he whispered.
The man looked up with tears streaming from his eyes.
"My son," Odyseus gasped. "Hear these last words... I give you. The last help... a proud father can be... to his son. Love Salomaya... and the children... with all your heart... and you will be a good man. Give your people justice... and you will be a good King."
Telemechus squeezed his father's hand with all his might.
"All I've ever wanted to be," he said raggedly, "is a man you could be proud of father."
Odyseus took the deepest gasp of air he could.
"You were a blessing of...the gods to your mother... and I, Tell. I have never been... anything but proud of you. I love you."
"I love you father," Telemechus answered, his body trembling. "I love you."
A slight smile came to Odyseus red lips as he gazed at his son. His future was secure. He would live in his son and the sons to come. He let his head lay back. It was too hard to think anymore. There were only memories now. His breathing almost stopped, his eyes lost their focus. Then suddenly a gasp of air.
"Pen," he whispered. "The sun is down. I'll light some candles."
A tear fell from Xena's eye, then another. She leaned down close to Odyseus face, a hand on his cheek.
"No," she whispered. "Don't light a candle. Just come to me my woolly sheepdog," she used the endearment she had heard Penelope use a hundred times, "come to bed and be with me."
Odysues took a last small gasp.
"Pen, where have you been? I've been looking. Come and kiss me, Pen, kiss me goodnight."
The Lion swallowed painfully. Then her lips came down till they lightly touched the King's. A last tiny puff of air came from his mouth. Xena felt it on her lips. "Pen." Then the breathing stopped. The eyes fixed. The pressure Xena and Telemechus felt on their hands relaxed and was gone.Xena pulled her head back and a barely audible moan escaped her mouth. She stood violently up and turned her back to the King and took several painful desperate gulps of air, her heart hammering so hard she thought it would explode in her chest. She swallowed and wiped her mouth where she could taste Odyseus' blood on her lips. She forced herself to think again. She forced the iron mask of the warlord back to her face.
Around her were only the sounds of grief. Strong old warriors wept openly. Some had turned their backs like Xena and walked several steps away, unable to witness any more. Most had no memory of anyone but Odyseus as King. The world seemed to be rocking under their feet. Xena closed her eyes and steadied herself, willing her heart to calm and her emotions to subside. Finally she turned to Telemechus, who had his head down, forehead pressed against his fathers hand, his shoulders slumped with paralyzing despair.
"King Telemechus," she said forcefully.
The man's head slowly came up as his officers all responded to her words by looking at him.
"You have a number of wounded," she continued. "With your permission I will have wagons sent out to collect them. They will be taken to Pyra and given the best care we have till they are able to return to Ithaca."
Telemechus forced himself to take a breath.
"Yes," he said. "I would appreciate that very much, Warleader."
Xena nodded. Then she bent down close to the King and put her hand on his shoulder.
"Telemechus," she said quietly. "Before you leave for home please come and find me. I have some stories about your father that maybe you haven't heard. I would like very much to share them."
Telemechus looked at the Lion through watery eyes. "Thank you, Xena, I will."
The Warrior Princess squeezed her friends shoulder then walked away toward Argo, who was grazing patiently a dozen yards away. Just as she reached the warhorse and took her reins Ephiny came pounding up at a gallop. She jumped down and came over to Xena, her eyes questioning as she looked at the group of officers gathered around the still figure on the ground.
" King Odyseus is dead," Xena said evenly in answer to the Princess' silent question.
Ephiny let out a shocked breath, her eyes dark.
The Lion turned to Argo and put her hands on the saddle to mount, but suddenly she felt overwhelmingly weary, tired to her very soul. She leaned heavily against Argo and looked over the saddle to the plain before her as it stretched out and up to the Zama ridge. More than a thousand bodies now littered the earth. Most were scattered about in twos and threes, except for one large cluster of more than two hundred heaped on each other a half league away. The blue sky was crowded now with hundreds of circling carrion birds, drawn from every direction by the growing smell of death, crows, hawks, eagles, vultures. A few had already grown bold enough to land and begin their picking. And the human carrion was out as well. Warriors of Ithaca and Amazons too, looking for that special souvenir or a better weapon to replace an old one.
"A great man is gone," Xena said, as much to herself as Ephiny. "They will speak his name for a thousand years. The Conqueror of Troy. The adventure of his voyage home. The love and loyalty he shared with fair Penelope. His legend is immortal." Xena sighed, her eyes intense as she viewed the scene before her. "But what will they say of the Lion? Will the bards tell my stories a thousand years from now? Or will mothers use my name to frighten their unruly children?"
Ephiny put her hand on Xena's slumped shoulder. The Warrior Princess sighed again but then she straightened, her posture again erect and perfect. She mounted decisively and looked down at the Princess with icy, controlled blue eyes.
"I have something to show you," Ephiny said as she pulled a small gold coin out of a pocket in her skirt and held it up for Xena to see. "We overran the Carthaginian supply train. Most of the teamsters cut loose a horse and took off for Vonitsa. In one of the wagons a trooper found five sacks full of these. It looks like forty or fifty thousand dinars worth. Pay for the mercenaries over the winter I suppose. I have a couple of troopers taking the wagon back to Farsala now." Ephiny grinned. "Gabrielle won't have any more sleepless nights worrying about money. I guess I won't have to learn basket weaving after all."
Xena nodded, then looked over at King Telemechus. "We'll split it with the Ithacans to cover their expenses."
She looked at Ephiny.
"Princess," she said. "I want you to gather up your cavalry and escort the Carthaginians home. Keep pressing them but don't risk any of your warriors. Herd them as far as the Izoles river and then break off and come home. We'll let the Athenians and Spartans deal with them after that. The Amazons are finished with this war."
"Okay, Xena," Ephiny said with a nod, then she put her hand on the Lions knee, concern in her eyes. "Are you alright?"
"I'll get the army organized and ready to march home and stand down,'' Xena said, ignoring Ephiny's question. "And get the bodies of our dead home before they putrify. I don't want their loved ones to have to see them bloated and rotting as they are prepared for the pyre."
"Xena?" Ephiny said again, more concern in her eyes.
"Then," the Lion said suddenly, her voice almost trembling, looking down at the Princess, "I'm going to Pyra and see Gabrielle. I need to... to talk to her, touch her,... see her face." She let out a sharp breath, her eyes soft and distant. "I need to hold her, Ephiny," she whispered.
Ephiny patted Xena's knee and nodded. The Lion put her heels to Argo and soon had the horse in a full gallop up the bloody slope of the Zama break.
At the top of the ridge Xena found that Cassandra had already anticipated most of her orders. She informed the old warrior of her promise to King Telemechus then left the rest in her capable hands and continued on to Pyra. Six wagons were pulled up behind the Amazon battleline. One for each company. The bodies of the slain were stripped of their armour and weapons by their friends who would bring the personal possesions home to be presented in a special ceremony by the company to each dead warriors loved ones. Now the corpses were stacked on the wagons. Eleven to Farsala, fourteen to Trikkala, twelve to Kalvia, six to Lamia, eleven to Larisa, nine to Pyra. The drivers wore urine soaked cloths over their faces to dampen the gagging smell of death that the sun would soon be drawing out of the bodies. As the wagons made their way to the road and then down the ridge taking their sad cargos home, friends stood silently watching. Some cried. Most felt the beginnings of a question that would haunt their dreams and choke their throats for the rest of their lives. 'Why her and not me? Why should I enjoy the blessings of love and life and not them?' It was a question that could never be spoken, never answered, only felt as a burning in the heart that never ceased till the last veteran of the Zama Ridge died an aged death surrounded by her granddaughters and great granddaughters, but their sad faces did not float in front of her as death crept into the hut, the faces were those of friends she helped load into a wagon sixty five years before. Faces that could never be forgotten.
The last wagon to reach home arrived in Trikkala as the sun set. The scene in each village was the same. The wagon made its way slowly down the main street and pulled up in front of the village Temple which always faced the common square of the town. Word of its arrival had instantly spread and the common was already crowded with anxiety filled faces. The Prietesses of the Temple, arrayed in their most sacred garments, came slowly out and surrounded the wagon. A body was carefully extracted and the name was announced. In a burst of heartbroken cries and weeping the slain's mothers and sisters or mate and friends would come forward to carry the body into the Temple to be washed and annointed and prepared for cremation. Frightened, confused children clung to necks, their faces a mask of anquish, crying because they knew something horrible had happened even though they did not understand what. When the last body had been removed to the Temple the women of the village prepared the stacks of wood. In six villages, as the moon rose in the sky, the flames of sixty three funneral pyre's rose to meet it. And the sound of wailing and keening filled the Amazon valley as daughters and mates and parents were consumed by the fires, their souls released to find their place in the Elysian Fields. And in Pyra the Lion lay beside her mate and hugged her tight as the Queen of the Amazon Nation listened to the grief of her people and the pain that gripped her soul was so overpowering that she could not find a release for it even in tears, though Xena stroked her forehead and kissed her cheek and begged her to let the horror out before it killed her.
The dust was thick and choking as the Athenian column marched through Pyra. The head of it reached the village shortly after dawn and now it was late afternoon as the last wagons of the supply train passed down the Corinth highway through the center of the town. Pericles emerged from the hut where the body of Odyseus lay, packed in a salt filled coffin to preserve him till he could be laid to rest beside his beloved Penelope. Four warriors stood guard at the entrance, two Amazons and two Ithacans. The Athenian leader had on his gold colored armour and his helmet under his arm although he did not really look like a warrior. A little too paunchy around the middle and skinny bird legs. But under his receding hairline and above his grey flecked brown beard were two blue eyes that flashed with such blazing intensity and intelligence that it was intimidating to look into them. Intimidating to anyone except the two blue eyes that now met his.
Pericles offered his arm as the Lion walked up. She took it respectfully.
"A terrible loss for Greece," the Athenian said quietly. "I exchanged a few diplomatic letters with Odyseus but never had the priviledge of meeting him. I will always regret that. I understand you were a friend."
"Yes," Xena answered. "I had the honor of being his friend." She let out a small sigh. "It was an title worthy of attaining." she said in a near whisper, her eyes distant.
Pericles nodded and there was a moment of sad silence. The man then brightened.
"I was very pleased to see Gabrielle sitting up when I visited her," he said. "I had been informed of her wounding in the battle three days ago and didn't know what to expect. Her color looked good." Pericles smiled. "She tried to buy back all that jewelry she sold me three months ago but I'm not a fool. Someday they'll vote me out in Athens and probably chase me out of the city in the middle of the night as well. That jewelry is my escape money. Plus Gabrielle owes me. I'll settle into my retirement right here in the Amazon valley, surrounded by beautiful women and also the toughest warriors in the world. I'll need the protection. Athenian politics is a rough profession, Warrior Princess. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.'' His smile became a laugh.
The Lion grinned.
"The story of what you've done here, Xena, is spreading," Pericles continued. " Sophocles is already writing an epic poem about the Amazons and the battle of the Zama ridge. He's one of my aides. By next summer I'm sure he'll have it turned into another of his overwritten, under dramatic plays. Oh well," the man shrugged, "everyone can't be Euripedes. Anyway I hope you and Gabrielle will join Astinia and I in seeing it." Pericles winked. "Front row center of course. For all the abuse I take their are some advantages to being first citizen."
"Gabrielle will certainly come," Xena smiled. "And I'm sure she'll pester me till I come to."
Pericles nodded. Then his face became deadly serious.
"Xena, what you and the Amazons have done," he said,shaking his head in wonder. " You are the Great Lion. The Lion of Greece. I won't fumble this opportunity you've given us. Vonitsa will fall. If it takes all winter. If it takes a year. It will fall. I swear it."
The Lion nodded gravely.
"Have you any word of the Spartans?" she asked finally.
"They're about a day and a half behind us and coming hard, "the Athenian said. " Leonidas wants to be there when I arrive at Vonitsa. He's afraid I'll take the city without him. He's the most suspicious man I ever met."
Pericles looked at the end of his supply column passing.
"Well, I better go Xena." he said. He leaned a little closer to the Lion. "The truth is," he said in a low voice, "I do want to take the city without him. It would serve the bastard right for not trusting me." He laughed and patted Xena's arm. "Give Gabrielle my best again and I hope to see you both soon."
He strode to his horse, being held by an aide a few yards away. He mounted with surprising grace for a man his age and with a wave he was gone.
Xena was sitting on a bench against the wall of the hut, remembering. The curtain across the entrance was pulled back and Gabrielle entered, walking slowly but steadily. The Lion jumped up and went to her and put a strong arm around her shoulders.
"Sweetheart," she whispered, wrinkles of concern around her eyes, "you shouldn't have come so far."
"I'm fine, beloved," the bard answered with a slight smile at her mate. "I wanted to say good bye to the King."
Xena helped Gabrielle to the bench and sat down with her. The Queen laid her head on the Warleaders shoulder and there was a deep silence as the mates contemplated this long summer and fall and all that had happened. And they remembered a friend who came when they needed him and gave up his life without regret. After several candlemarks the curtain opened again and the King entered.
"Telemechus," the bard said, putting out her hand.
The man hurried over, took the hand in his and kissed it as he sat down beside her.
"I'm so glad to see you up, Gabrielle." He said, "I've been thinking about you these last days."
The bard laced her fingers with his and put his hand in her lap.
"I'm so sorry, Tel," she said with glistening eyes. "So sorry."
The King shrugged his shoulders slightly and sighed.
"I think he wasn't sorry to leave," Telemechus said sadly. "He was tired. Very, very tired. His life was filled with so much of everything it finally became more of a burden than he could carry. He missed mother so much." The son sniffed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "His spirit is soaring now, and Penelope is with him. It's just that... I'll miss him."
Gabrielle held her friends hand to her cheek for a moment and sighed. Xena stared at the rough wooden coffin, hiding herself behind her warlord mask, her eyes distant. Finally she looked at Telemechus.
"Have I ever told you the story of how Gabrielle and I met your father?" she said quietly.
"No." he answered, shaking his head.
"Well," she said, shifting her weight into a comfortable position against the wall, "we were traveling by ship to..."
The guards outside looked at each other with questioning eyes. The laughter that came from inside the hut was positively scandalous in its loud raucousness. And the two Amazons could hardly believe their ears. Is that really how the Lion sounded when she laughed? No one could remember hearing the sound before. In fact most people just assumed she did not know how to laugh. And Odyseus and Penelope listened to the sound of their sons' and friends laughter and laughed too. Because no one loved to laugh like the King of Ithaca and his Queen, and listen to stories and tell stories till the cock crowed the dawn and it was too painful in the ribs to laugh anymore.
The sun was nearing the Zama ridge as Xena walked up to Cassandra. The Amazon officer was helping load a wagon that would be taking supplies to the Ithacan army camped on the ridge. The Ithacans were waiting patiently for the Athenians and Spartans to pass before they marched home. In the meantime they had used the last several days to clean the battlefield. Burning bodies in great pyres and collecting all the weapons and supplies littered about the field to be divided as booty with the Amazons. The Lion recieved a quick report on the supply situation and issued a few orders. She was about to leave when across the town common she and Cassandra watched Herodotus pull up in his wagon in front of the communal food hut. It was the largest structure in the little village and now it was being used as a hospital with a dozen beds inside. He jumped down from the wagon, pulled a small sack out from under the wagons bench and hurried inside.
Cassandra shook her head.
"That is the single most stubborn individual it has ever been my displeasure to meet,'' she snorted. She looked at the Lion. "I'm sorry Warleader, I know he's your father-in-law but that is the plain truth."
Xena shrugged a 'tell me something I don't know' shrug.
"I've told him half a dozen times these last two days to stop and get some sleep but he just ignores me or grunts at me like some wild boar, looking at me with narrow eyes like he's challenging me to fight. One of these times I'm going to take him up on it and knock him stone cold out." Cassandra threw the sack of wheat in her arms into the wagon and leaned wearily against it. "He's been transporting the wounded home as soon as they were ready to travel. I tell him to get some rest after a trip but he just races back for more. And every time he arrives here he goes straight to that hut." The old warrior paused and rubbed her tired, stinging eyes." We keep only the most serious cases there. The ones who probably won't make it." She sighed. "He has a magically inexhaustable supply of oranges and lemons and he goes in and hands them out or turns some into juice for those that are too sick to eat. He sits awhile with every one telling stories or bad jokes or he just holds their hands and listens to them while they talk. And he remembers all their names. You should see their heads turn when he comes booming in complaining about this or that, the bad food we give them, or the lumpy beds," Cassandra gave Xena a slight smile, "or the Warleader who hogs all the credit for Leandra's or Nethra's great victory and then he goes to them first. You can see the impatience in all their eyes that he hurry up and come speak to them."
The old warrior paused again and looked at the ground and her face was sad and tired and serious.
"And he brushes their hair, and washes their faces, because they want to look presentable to their loved ones when they take their final journey home, and he holds their hands and listens to the last words they have for this world before death steals them from us. Only the strongest can do it more than once. He's done it four times now." She rubbed her nose." Somewhere inside that contankerous, contrary old warthog is a very gentle man. For our warriors sakes I'm glad he's here."
Cassandra took a deep breath. Then she straightened and without another word she walked around, mounted the wagon and drove away, leaving Xena staring across the common at the hospital.
When Herodotus emerged from the hut it was full dark, the stars shining with a milky light and the moon just up. But in the slivery half light there was no mistaking the dark form that was leaning against the side of his wagon, arms folded and feet crossed.
"Daughter," the old man said, surprised.
Xena straightened. Herodotus walked over to her.
"How's Gabrielle?" he asked anxiously, afraid something had happened.
"She's much better, she was up walking today," the Lion said reassuringly.
Herodotus sighed his relief. Xena took a close look at her father-in-law. The lines of his face were deep and dark circles of exhaustion ringed his eyes.
"It's been a hard few days hasn't it?" she said quietly.
Herodotus took a deep breath and blew it out.
"Yes it has," he said, his voice distant and hollow, his eyes distracted.
There was a long silence, then the mans eyes drifted to Xena.
"It's uh...it's," Herodotus swallowed hard. "They're such good girls. Always polite and respectful and grateful for whatever you do for them. And so brave. But at night, when they sleep, some of them cry. They cry for their friends. They cry for themselves and their broken bodies." The man took a gulp of air and his body began to tremble visibly. He turned his head away from Xena. "It's so hard" his voice quavered "so hard to lose them." The old farmer started to shake violently and he put his hands over his face.
Xena took a hard breath and then slowly put an arm around her father-in-laws shoulders. "It's alright," she whispered. "It's alright old man."
The man shook for several moments but then his will reasserted itself. He took a couple of deep breaths and forced his body to obey his command to calm. He put his shoulders back and gently shrugged off Xena's arm. "I'm fine." he said hoarsly.
For a long time the man and woman stood shoulder to shoulder looking up at the beautiful starry universe, breathing deep from a cool west wind that had a hint of much needed rain in it, listening to the sounds of the village at night.
At last the Lion broke the silence.
"You know," she said quietly, "I can't remember what my father looked like anymore. I was so young when he died I have hardly any memory of him at all. You're the only man who's ever called me daughter." The Lion looked over at Herodotus. He looked back into blue eyes he had never seen so soft and pale. "I'm proud to be your daughter, old man."
The farmer took a small breath. His chin quivered just a bit then he turned his head away. Xena heard him sniff and he rubbed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths and cleared his throat raggedly. Finally he turned back with a slight smile on his lips.
"You want something don't you?" he said.
Xena took a deep breath of her own then grinned.
"Of course, I want you to go to our hut and get some sleep. I'd feel better if someone was with Gabrielle. I'll be busy all night."
A cloud came over the old man's face.
"You've been talking to that shriviled old crow Cassandra haven't you," he spit."I swear I've never had anyone spend so much time trying to tell me what to do. I don't take orders Xena!" The anger passed quickly. "But to be fair, she knows her business. I respect anyone who knows their business, even old crows." The old man sighed. "Well, maybe it is time to sleep. All the girls that can be moved have been." His eyes found Xena's. "But if you need me..."
"I know where to find you." Xena answered. "Now go on. I'll bed down the team."
The old man nodded. Then he did something he had never done before. He reached out and gave Xena's hand a gentle squeeze and then he walked away into the dark to see his other daughter and get some sleep. The Lion watched a long time, till he was completely swallowed up by the night, before she started to unhitch the horses from the wagon.
The first tenative fingers of dawn were lessening the gloom in the hut as Gabrielle rolled over and opened her eyes. She started a bit at the sight of her father's face only inches from hers. He was lying on his back, his mouth slightly open. The slow heavy breathing left no doubt he was in a deep, exhausted, dreamless sleep. The bard listened a long time to his breathing and watched him with intense emerald eyes. Finally she put her hand out and gently rubbed his bearded cheek with the back of her fingers.
"Oh Daddy," she whispered to herself. "How long did I hate you and your stoney indifference to me. And at the same instant wish with all my heart that I could just touch you and feel your skin on mine." The bard stroked her fathers cheek again. "I know how hard you're trying to make things right." Her eyes glistened. "I forgive you, Daddy. With all my heart I forgive you. I'm so grateful you're here." She touched his cheek one last time. "I wish I could tell you how I feel but it's still too hard. But I will. I promise, someday, I'll find the courage."
She lightly touched her lips to her father's shoulder then got up and quickly dressed.
"My Queen," a voice said weakly.
Gabrielle looked up from where she was sponging the face of an unconscious young warrior burning with fever. She looked around but could not identify where the voice came from. She was not even sure she had heard it. Maybe it was just a trick of the ears. She returned to cooling her patient.
"My Queen," the voice was a little stronger and seemed almost desperate.
The bard looked over the entire room. "Who's calling me?" she said. Then she spotted her. At the far end of the room. Two sunken eyes staring at her beseechingly. The Queen stood up.
"Arianna, would you continue this for me," she said to the healer sitting on the next bed changing a bandage. The woman nodded. She hurried over to the bed of the warrior who had called her and sat down next to her, taking her hand.
"What's your name?" she asked with a warm smile, looking into the womans dark glittering eyes. Eyes burning with a fever the bard could feel in her hand as well.
"Clarissa of Pyra, my Queen," she answered. Gabrielle could tell even through the black circles around her eyes and the flushed feverish face that the woman was younger than her. Perhaps years younger. Only nineteen or twenty. Her heart began to pound painfully in her chest but her face betrayed only a strong friendly concern.
"How can I help you, Clarissa?" the bard said, brushing some strands of sweat soaked hair from Clarissa's face.
The Amazon swallowed painfully. "I know..." she hesitated and let out a breath, "I know I don't have much longer, my Queen. My leg feels hot." Clarissa reached with her other hand down toward her left leg, which ended three inches above her knee. A fresh bandage was wrapped around the stump but it was already stained through with pus. The bard could faintly detect the sickly sweet oder of gangrene. She intercepted the young Amazons hand and put it with the other one, between hers.
"We never know how long the fates will give us, Clarissa," Gabrielle said. "So we must do what we can with life while we have it. You called for me sweetheart. What can I do?"
Clarrisa's dark eyes stared deep into Gabrielle's.
"I have no right to ask such a great favor of you my Queen," she said. "But for my family I'll do anything." Clarissa swallowed painfully and so did the bard. "My mate was Daria of Pyra," she continued. "She died fighting with Princess Ephiny and the cavalry."
The bard let out a sigh. "I know Daria." she said. "The Princess thought the world of her."
Clarissa nodded. "We have a child, my Queen. A beautiful child. The light of our lives." A tear fell from the young womans eye and she squeezed Gabrielle's hand with all the strength she had left. "Would you take our child? Please? Please would you take her?"
Gabrille put a hand over her face and turned away and took a deep breath while she fought to control herself. Finally she turned back.
"Clarissa," she whispered, a tear running down her cheek, "isn't there someone in the village, a couple, that you would rather have care for your precious light."
"No, my Queen, no," Clarissa answered. "Daria and I mated very young. All our friends have yet to find their lives.'' She took in a gulp of air. "I want the best for Sula. She's had enough tragedy in her little life. I know I ask too much but I'll do anything for her, anything." Clarissa took another gulp of air and her black eyes were soft and pleading. "Please."
Gabrielle looked around the room, forcing herself to breathe, too many thoughts pounding in her head for any of them to make sense. Finally her eyes fixed on the healer.
"Arianna!" she barked.
The woman looked up in surprise at such a tone from the usually softspoken bard.
"Go to the nursery hut. Tell one of the matrons to bring Sula, daughter of Clarissa and Daria, to the hospital immediatly. Go!"
The healer jumped up and left without a word.
"You!" the Queen shouted at a young healers aide cutting cloth into bandages on the other side of the room.
"Yes my Queen," she answered with a slight bow, wide eyed.
"The Warleader is in the village somewhere. Find her and tell her the Queen wants her in the hopital hut right now. Hurry up!"
The Amazon bolted out of the room.
"Now Clarissa," Gabrielle said, turning back to the young woman and caressing her cheek, "tell me all about how you and Daria came to love one another."
Xena burst into the hospital hut and skidded to a stop just inside the entrance. The panting young aide, who had raced frantically from one end of the village to the other before spotting the Warleader coming out of Chief Ashita's temporary hut, where the Lion had been giving her engineers a very unpleasant tongue lashing over the collapsed trail that delayed the Ithacans and almost destroyed the Nation, had only said between pants that the Queen was in the hospital hut and it was an emergency, she should go at once. It was a relieved sigh Xena let out to see her mate sitting on the edge of a bed across the room.
Gabrielle motioned with an impatient hand for the Warrior Princess to hurry. Quickly Xena was sitting down on the edge of the bed opposite the bard. She looked down on the young warrior with the hollow, dark, death haunted eyes and the young child that lay on her chest, her arms around her neck. The girl's skin was black as charcoal, her kinky hair long and pulled back from her face in a ponytail held by a bright red ribbon. Her cheek bones were high and promised future elegance, her nose broad but delicate and two huge almond eyes that sparkled with intelligence as they looked shyly up at Xena. She was hanging onto her mothers' neck with all her small strength, clearly frightened of some nameless terror she knew was in the room. The Lion looked at Gabrielle with questioning eyes.
"Xena," the bard said in a thick voice, her green eyes rimmed with red, "this is Clarissa, mate of Daria. Sister's friend and Lt."
Xena looked down and nodded a respectful greeting. Clarissa put a shaky hand on her daughters head and stroked her hair.
"This is Sulawesi," she said weakly. "She's three years old. Her name means 'bright morning'. Her parents were personal servants to the Nubian ambassador to Athens. He brought her here himself after her parents died in the fever plague a year and a half ago. She's bright and cheerful." The Amazon swallowed painfully. "She was the center of our lives, Daria and me."
There was a long moment of choked silence. It was too hard for anyone to speak.
"Thank Artemis,'' a familiar voice burst out.
Xena and Gabrielle looked up to see Ephiny in the doorway, her shoulders slumped with relief. She approached.
"I just got back," she said, "and I asked someone if they had seen the Warleader and they said they saw you running like a bat out of tartarus into the hospital hut. Scared me to de..."
Ephiny was finally close enough to recognize Clarissa and Sula on the bed between the mates. She had spent several pleasant evenings with them and Daria when they had a chance to take a day off from training. She sucked in a shocked breath to see Clarissa's missing leg.
"Sister," Gabrielle said quietly. "Would you please take Sula outside and wait for us."
Ephiny looked at the young Amazon mother. With stricken eyes Clarissa nodded 'yes'.
The Princess took a deep breath to calm her pounding heart. She forced a gentle, friendly smile to her face and reached down and took Sula's arms.
"Little sweetheart, come with me," she cooed.
Sula clung tighter to her mothers neck.
"No, baby, it's alright," Clarissa whispered in her daughters ear. "The Princess is our friend. You remember her. Go with her. It's alright."
Finally the girl released her grip and Ephiny snatched her up and hugged her to her chest.
"I love you, baby," Clarissa said as loudly as she could as Ephiny hurried out of the hut. When they disappeared through the entrance the Amazon squeezed her eyes shut and water trickled down her fevered cheeks.
Gabrielle looked at Xena and put out her hand. The Lion took it and they laced their fingers together.
"Beloved," the bard said, trying to make herself sound as calm and strong as possible. "Clarissa has done us a great honor. She has asked if we would take Sula as our own and raise her as our daughter."
The Lion took a breath to steady her trembling heart. She looked deep into Clarissa's dark eyes with her own pale blue ones.
"The Queen is a wonderful, loving person," she said, a slight thickness in her voice.
"But are you sure, Clarissa, you want a rough husk like me for a mother to your precious child?"
The young Amazon swallowed painfully and forced herself to breath.
"Yes," she whispered. "Daria would be so proud to know you were teaching Sula the path of honor and the warrior. My mate was a warrior in her soul. Her greatest desire was to walk in the steps of the Great Lion. She wore her weapons, even grew her hair, like you."
Clarissa forced in another breath.
"She would be so grateful, I would be so grateful, if you would take our Sula."
Xena took a breath and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She looked up and searched Gabrielle's glistening emerald eyes. Her gaze shifted back down and she gently touched Clarissa's cheek.
"I will try every day," she said as she squeezed her mate's hand, ''to make myself worthy of your gift."
The bard put her hand on Clarissa's other cheek.
"Sula will know all about Daria and Clarissa and how they loved each other and her," she whispered. "And the sacrifice you made for her future. You won't disappear from her heart. I promise."
A slight smile came to the Amazons lips. Her breathing got slower and slower. Her eyes began to drift around the room. But then they focused again on the faces hovering over her.
"On my sacred oath before Artemis,'' she whispered, ''as an Amazon of honor, I swear I will rear this child as my own."
Xena and Gabrielle recognized instantly the beginning of the Amazon oath of adoption that the Queen administered to her women as they formed their familys. The bard let a moan of heartbreak escape her lips, then she repeated Clarissa's words, the Lion joining her.
"I will love her, care for her, sacrifice for her, teach her the path of respect and honor, and the ways of her people." Clarissa continued, her voice barely audible.
The mates repeated the words.
The young Amazon stopped breathing. Her eyes became round and empty. Gabrielle put her hand up and gently closed them.
"I will raise up an Amazon. Proud and brave," the mothers continued together." And the future of the Nation will be secure. With Artemis blessing I will do it."
Xena turned her face away and wiped a drop of water from the corner of her eye. But the bard began to shake. Slowly she bent down till her cheek was against Clarissa's. Her body started convulsing. So much flooded through her heart, her soul, her vision. Heaped bodies behind a battleline. The shocked, haunted eyes of her warriors. Damasta's warm blood as it flowed on her as they fell together. The coffin of a friend who had sacrificed all because she asked. Clarissa's tears. For a moment it was all too much. Too much to bear. Then arms were around her. Strong arms. Pulling her back. Pulling her up. She threw her own arms around a familiar chest and buried her face in a familiar neck and hung on with all her strength till the world stopped spinning away from her. The darkness could never have her. The Lion was stronger. Xena would never let her disappear into it.
Finally the bard looked up.
"I'm alright, beloved," she whispered. "I'm just... just tired. So tired."
Xena kissed Gabrielle's eyes, then nose, finally her lips. She stood up, the bard in her arms, hugged close.
"It's time to go home, beloved," she said, looking into Gabrielle's beautiful emerald eyes. "Our 'bright morning' is waiting for us. It's time to walk away from the darkness and back into the light."
The Lion carried the Queen outside.
"We're going home Ephiny," she said. "Will you bring our daughter?"
"My niece you mean," the Princess answered quietly, snuggling and kissing Sula's cheek. And together they returned to Ashita's hut to pack for home.
THE END OF 'AHSES ON THE WIND'.
COMING SOON, 'KEOLA'S STORY'
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