The Irresistible Flame
Xena entered the temple to the God of War, ignoring the priest as he quietly slipped out of sight. The temple was hauntingly quiet. Towering walls of marble kept the structure cool even as the sun beat down in the heat of a sweltering Corinthian August. The design was deliberately austere save for the one carved statue at its center, an effigy of Ares himself.
Her heavy boot steps echoed in the open chamber as she walked forward to stand before the monument, looking up at the tall, strong figure. It had been carved with great skill; shoulders square, one foot resting upon a mountain boulder as a handsome face stared out, presumably across a field of conquest.
There was just one problem - the sculpture didnít look anything like Ares at all.
Of course, few would know that.
Xena played with the edge of the chakram on her hip Ė a habit she had developed since the God had presented it to her. The way it sliced at the skin on the tip of her finger reminded her of its deadly sharpness and, as always, she found the sting pleasurable. Gazing at the monument, she recalled Aresí words when he came to her last night, only the second time he had ever appeared before her. The War God had voiced a concern that she had lost her focus. He didnít know how right he was, and if he knew the reason why, he probably would have laughed his head off. The truth was thoughts of war had completely left her mind; all she had been able to think of lately was a certain mysterious blond visitor.
Yet, his presence was as seductive to her as ever and with supreme skill he pulled her back from the shining beacon of light that was Gabrielle, back to his dark side of the battlefield.
"When engaged in combat," he had whispered softly in her ear as he stood behind her and caressed the bare skin of her shoulder, "the vanquishing of the enemy should be a warrior's only concern. This is the first and cardinal rule of combat, Xena. Suppress all human emotion, theyíll only get in your way."
"What about love?" she had asked, even though his presence at her back caused her heart to pound like the heavy beat of war drums, her mind was still full of Gabrielle. To her question, the God of War had laughed softly.
"Xena, Xena, Xena," he had whispered. As he pressed the rock hardness hidden in his leather pants against her, she found herself lost in a haze of lustful passion. "There is no such thing as love, thereís only lust. This Ö and what you feel as you ride forth in battle, swing your sword Ö or touch your chakram Ö this is the only love you need. Forget about love, Xena. You must kill whoever stands in your way, even if itís Aphrodite herself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat. Once it is mastered, you will fear no one."
"Besides," the God of War finished, running his hand across the hard armor shielding her breast, "Love is just a trick we gods play on you humans in order to get you into bed." And then he simply disappeared. She had been left standing there in her dark bedroom alone yet still able to feel the heat of his hand against her breast despite the bronze metal shielding her chest.
He was a pleasure delayer, that one, Xena thought with a smirk. Though his touch sent a fire running across her skin, all he offered that night was advice and left her in such a state that she almost went running out of the room to find that servant girl for some relief. Thankfully, she still had the presence of mind to leap from the balcony to the courtyard below instead, not to chase fathom dreams of love, but to run through a series of sword drills. She practiced death blows with her sword in the courtyard that night, under the watchful eye of a waning moon, until the sweat bled the passion from her veins and she was able to collapse to her bed into a sound sleep.
No golden-haired dreams that night.
It was time to clear her mind and refocus her energies. At dawn, she left her bed and came to the Temple of Ares knowing the chill within would help to harden her heart and strengthen her resolve. Bringing herself to attention in front of the marbled God of War, she drew her sword from the scabbard across her back. The hiss of steel reverberated against the Corinthian marble columns that stood like sentries at even intervals all around her.
With one smooth motion, she sliced open her palm, pausing to allow the blood to gather before reaching up to place her hand against a bone white marble knee. She pressed her hand against the statue and let the cold of the stone staunch the flow of red.
Her throat felt like it would close if she uttered the words, but she had to do it. She had to let go of any wistful notion of a different life. This was her fate and there could be no golden haired guardian angel to save her from it, no matter how deeply she may wish for it to be so.
Taking a deep breath, she let her voice fill the temple, loud enough for the priest to hear as witness to her vow. "Ares, I ask for your blessing in our march against our enemy, Persia. All blood I shed, I shed in your name. Everything I am, is yours."
The God of War stared out across his eternal battlefield, face devoid of all emotion. Xenaís words hung heavy in the air.
She flipped her sword back into its sheath and turned. Taking long strides out of the Temple of Ares, she ignored the droplets that slipped from her long, slender fingers and dripped to the cold, clean marble floor leaving a splattered trail of blood to mark her passing.
Gabrielleís mother slipped gracefully into the 16th century Elizabethan carved oak chair and leaned back, crossing her legs. Smiling, she felt his presence as he entered the room, walking quietly across the carpet until he was standing just behind her. Men had a scent to them that was unmistakable, especially when they were aroused. She smirked, enjoying the smell of erection as he leaned over her and waited in silence, watching his strong, masculine hands reached for the Bohemian crystal brandy decanter. He pulled the stopper and placed it carefully on the shiny top of the antique French side table before pouring an amber shot of a century old brandy into a Waterford sniffing glass.
She nodded in thanks and waited for the hand to withdraw before lifting the drink to her nose, swirling it to enjoy the fragrance a moment before taking a sip. He put the decanter down and paced around her seat to his own chair. She tracked his attractive form with hooded eyes appraising him as he sat.
Things were going good. In fact, she had never felt better, she thought, watching him as he sat in the armchair across from and graced her with a sexy smile.
Raising her glass, she offered an equally seductive grin in return. "So, what did you have in mind, Senator?"
"Right to the point. I like that in a woman."
She took a sip, playing with the deceptively cool liquid on the tip of her tongue before swallowing, enjoying the sensation of the brandy burning a path down her throat. "Iím not all business, you know."
He raised a dark eyebrow, blue eyes sparkling. "No? I like that in a woman, too."
She took another taste of the smooth liquor. His clear, blue eyes brought to mind an image of Xena charging forward on her golden warhorse, hair flying, eyes blazing, the sun glinting off the blade of her sword just before she let it swing in a long sideways arc that beheaded an unfortunate enemy.
"The question is," she asked, putting happy thoughts aside, "do you like that in a Vice President as well?"
"As a matter fact," he answered, rising, unbuckling his belt and lowering his zipper at the same time as he stepped toward her, "those are exactly the qualities Iím looking for."
Oh yes, Xena must be back on track in her pathetic life as the Destroyer of Nations because she could feel the strength of it all the way to her toes. Opportunities to expand her own empire were presenting themselves almost every day.
She pursed her lips in approval at the thick, hard offer he was making to her. Not to her usual taste, she had to admit. Then again, it had its perks. Vice President wouldnít be so bad, she reasoned. With one last gulp, she finished the drink and put the glass down and licked her lips like the cat who was about to eat the proverbial canary.
After all, after she became Vice President, how hard could it be to arrange an assassination?
Fifty thousand men. Xena crossed her hands and leaned on the horn of her saddle as she sat upon her golden warhorse staring out across the plains below. The sight of it never ceased to impress her or send a thrill of adrenaline rushing through her body. Invariably, her mind made comparisons: fifty thousand dinars, would a pile of money that big thrill her as much? Fifty thousand leagues Ė would that distance seem as incredible?
In truth, nothing compared to the excitement of armed troops in action. Ares had no need to worry. Her heart still raced at the sight of it and, for this moment, as she sat upon Argo looking out across the golden landscape shimmering in the hot Corinthian noonday sun, watching the garrisons as they moved through practice maneuvers intended to give them intensive training in mountain warfare, she belonged to him, heart and soul, once again.
Fifty thousand men Ė more than enough to get her juices flowing, but would it be enough to conquer the world?
Regardless, after the banquet tonight and a day of rest tomorrow, the march against Persia would begin.
She intended to reach the enemy territory well before snow fell on the mountain passes. But she also knew she could not leave Greece for an extended campaign until some of the outlying frontiers had been thoroughly pacified. The Greek states, of course, no longer poised a threat, but the wilder tribes to the north still needed to be dealt with. Xena knew there was only one way in which the northern frontier could be permanently secured and that was by pushing Greek boundaries forward a hundred miles through some of the roughest fighting terrain in the known world.
The planned approach by land would place a lot of obstacles on their way to Persia Ė not to mention marching an army comprised mostly of men fifty-thousand strong right through Amazon land. Persia knew this. In fact, they relied upon it as part of their strategic defense. If Greece attacked Persia by land, then they would have to fight the Amazons first. In order to avoid confrontation with the Amazon Nation, the Greeks historically had always launched any engagement against Persia by sea.
But, that was then. This is now, and she was in charge. Xena was more than confident that they would have no trouble enfolding the Amazons, and their lands, into the bosom of the Greek nation. Though she had ordered a squadron of Athenian warships to sail from Byzantium into the Black Sea and up the Danube, those ships would not be carrying a single Athenian other than their crew.
While Persia was busy intercepting false messages and tracking the path of the Athenian armada, she would be leading their daunting forces by way of the overland route: through Amphipolis, eastward to Napolis, across the River Nestus and through the Rhodope Mountains. By the time Persia had figured out that the armada was a ruse, the main invasion force would be crossing the Hellespont and at their back door.
The campaign overland would serve more than just conquering an old enemy; it would end up stabilizing Greek borders. And, the fight against the Amazons would have the added benefit of serving as a full-scale tactical exercise in preparation for the assault on Persia.
For the most part, the march across Greece would be easy. Up to Philippopolis, they would be marching through friendly lands, but after that, they would need to cross the mountains, probably by the Shipka pass.
Here is where they would more than likely end up face to face with the full fury of the Amazon nation. The fierce women warriors would be furious with their intrusion and though far less in numbers, they will have the distinct advantage of the higher ground and unique expertise in what Xena like to think of as bush warfare. An amusing pun when she thought of it, not so amusing when she faced it. Greek experience was to wage war in the style of the Romans, out in the open with regimented lines and organized phalanxes. This kind of strategy would not be possible in tight mountain passes and her newly invented sarisas would be practically useless. The Amazons killed stealthily, under cover of the forest and from above in the trees and ridges, where they flocked down upon their enemies like bloodthirsty hawks. If they werenít careful, the Amazons could wipe out half their number before they ever reached Persian soil.
Most military experts believed those lands to be impassable. However, she was unique amongst most Greek generals in one crucial way Ė she had studied the art of war throughout the world, had traveled the breadth and width of known lands and absorbed the styles of killing in as many cultures as there were cities Ė including the Amazons.
Xena knew her enemy, knew how they ate, slept, lived, shit and, more importantly, knew everything about the way they liked to fight and, in knowing all this, she ultimately knew how to defeat them.
The Amazons would be no exception. She had dealt a heavy blow to their nation years ago during her days of lust and blood. And now, she was coming back to finish the job.
The Centaurs, however, were another story.
Xena frowned, looking out over her troops. Columns of men moved in tight organized lines, while others scrambled on the ground or practiced fighting on horseback, kicking up dust as they galloped across the plain, swinging their column out in an organized maneuver like a flock of birds changing direction in the sky.
The pleasure that Xena usually felt at the sight of their skill suddenly evaporated.
The Centaurs, Xena thought again, her heart sinking. Their lands, though not directly in her path, were not far from the Amazons. The fact that the Amazons and Centaurs were ancient enemies and had been at war for centuries mattered very little.
For Xena, the Centaurs were untouchable.
Somehow she would have to avoid them all together. Somehow she would have to find a way to steer the largest army that Greece had ever assembled around Centaur provinces without anyone being the wiser. She had a personal and very private agreement with the Centaurs that no one could ever know about Ė least of all the God of War.
She pushed thoughts of the Centaurs to the dark recesses of her mind along with the rest of her past as her keen senses alerted her, long before their horses kicked up the dust by her side, that Parmenio and Attalus were approaching,
"The troops look good," Xena commented watching as a garrison fell to their chests in the dirt and covered themselves with their shields, transforming into a human armadillo of bronze armor. "Are all squadrons practicing that maneuver?"
"As you ordered, Supreme Commander," Parmenio responded, "Though I fail to understand what falling flat to the ground with a shield over your head is going to do for us."
"Tell ya what," Xena replied, swinging Argo around, "when the time comes and I order the maneuver, if you donít see the value in it, you can have my job."
Parmenio watched the commander of the largest armed force in the history of Greece as she cantered away, knowing full well he could never even begin to fill her boots. Xena was the inventor of some of the most creative war tactics he had ever seen.
"You would jump into the River Styx and swim to Hades if she asked you to, wouldnít you, Parmenio?" Attalus asked, eyes fixed on the columns going through the same strange exercise.
"Doesnít matter the river, if Persians are on the other side, they donít stand a chance," Parmenio responded and clucked at his horse, high-stepping down the slope to rejoin his battalion. "Too bad Alexander wonít be there to see it."
Attalus waited until Parmenio was out of sight. "Oh, heíll be there to see it. I just donít think Xena will."
Her job, huh? Attalus thought to himself. Well, he certainly didnít want it, but he knew someone who did and he knew just what he needed to do to make sure that certain someone got it. Kicking his heels, he launched his own warhorse in a different direction, pressing into a full gallop in a rush to get back to Corinth.
He had a banquet to attend tonight Ė a very important banquet Ė historic, in fact - and he didnít want to be late.
The hut was large for an Amazon, almost grand - if an Amazon shelter could ever be considered grand. Noticing it was made mostly out of animal hide, it came to her mind that it took a lot of hunting to cover a dwelling of this size with pelt. A testament to the ownerís skill and power as a killer, Alti mused as she drew the flap aside. She paused a moment to consider the texture of the covering at the door before entering.
Interesting, she thought, fingering the thick material and examining it closely. This is not animal skin, she realized, but it certainly was flesh. Human perhaps? Personally, she preferred to eat the hearts of the enemies she conquered. But covering your home with their skin? It gave her an instant appreciation for the Queen who was waiting for her inside.
She had been summoned to an audience with the tribeís new leader not long after her arrival in the Amazon village. Her status as a sorceress was obvious enough to them, but when the local Amazon shamaness had greeted her on bended knee, it had caused a whisper throughout the tribe that made its way to their Queen faster than a vulture descending upon dead carcass.
Yes, definitely human flesh, Alti thought, smirking and dropped the flap. She entered the Queenís hut, more than ready for the first meeting with her new prodigy.
She stepped in and immediately noticed that the dirt floor gave the dwelling a scent of moist earth and the air a coldness that was eerie compared to the warmth of the bright sun outside. It was difficult to see in the transition from bright to dark, but Alti resisted the urge to squint. Instead, she waited patiently for her eyes to adjust and when they did, she beheld the Queen of the tribe of Amazons that now encompassed the entire frontier on the edges of the borders of Thrace and Macedonia. This tribe was much larger than her own albeit extinct one and its leader was a creature of a different type completely.
She was no Xena, that was for sure - neither in stature nor beauty, Alti thought making the judgmental comparison immediately. The Queenís face held the sharp, hard lines of a woman who rarely smiled, unless she was dealing death or leading the charge in a winning battle.
Xena used to be like that, Alti mused.
"You summoned me?" Alti said, bowing her head in respect, her raspy, low voice, carefully leaving all sarcasm from her tone.
"I like the blood on your forehead," the Queen commented, appraising Alti coolly, "Nice touch."
"I was hoping you might," Alti replied, encouraged.
"Who are you and why are you here?" the Amazon leader asked and rose.
The Queen circled Alti, looking her over. Alti stood tall and still, calmly waiting while the woman walked in a deliberate circle around her. She noted that the Queenís eyes were green, almost florescent and wondered briefly if the glow wasnít a trick of the shadows or the latent power of a god coursing through her veins that caused her eyes to flicker so.
One thing Alti did know Ė the woman was a seething volcano ready to explode and Alti wanted very badly to bathe in the power when it happened. "Iíve come to offer you my services."
"As a shamaness. Obviously, the one you have is hardly adequate for a leader of your potential."
"You feel I have potential?"
Alti bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Tremendous potential."
"And what is the price?"
"The price?" Alti snickered, "My dear Queen, my services are priceless. Surely you already know that."
The Queen smiled, a wholly evil action. "What do you ask in return, then?"
"I only ask for a place in your tribe Ė a seat at your side."
"My right hand side?"
"Thatís for you to decide. Though, the truth is, I think you will find that I can be very valuable to you."
The Queen snorted. "Really. Somehow, I donít think you can give anything Iím not already destined to have."
"And what do you believe is your destiny, my Queen?"
"Why, to be Queen of the Amazons, of course. To bring together the last of the remaining tribes into one Amazon nation, strong enough to defeat all of our enemies."
"Like the Centaurs?"
"What if I could offer you more than that Ö far more."
Those disturbing iridescent eyes bored into Alti. "What can be more than that?"
"Join with me and I can make you the Destroyer of Nations."
Alti was surprised to see those eyes flash in anger at the offer, "That title already belongs to someone. Do you take me for a fool?"
"Not at all. But, a title is a fleeting thing. One moment it belongs to one, and then the next moment, it belongs to another. Iím sure Melosa would agree with you, if she were here. Then again, Iím guessing she is." Alti pointed to the flap of skin at the entrance with her hand and grinned.
The new Queen paused a moment in contemplation, then laughed out loud. "Well, I have to admit, this is something I hadnít considered. I like you, shamaness. Perhaps, I will avail myself of your services after all. Tell me your name and Iíll have the scribe record your new status as official shamaness to my Amazon nation."
"Alti, my queen," she bowed, looking up at the warrior woman through dark eyes, "but I believe your tribe already has a shamaness."
"A detail Iíll leave for you to take care of. Letís call it your first official task."
"As you wish, Queen Ö"
The Queen dismissed Alti with a wave of her hand. "And donít come back until the task is done."
"What did she say?"
"Nothing! I told you. I was only there for a few moments."
Evelyn couldnít believe what she was hearing. "And you didnít say anything?"
"How could I say anything?"
"Are you sure they were kissing?"
"Oh yeah, they were definitely kissing."
"I canít believe you didnít tell me this before. Gabrielle, why didnít you say anything about this until now?" Evelyn folded her arms across her chest and huffed.
"I donít know. I was ÖI was Ö mad, I guess."
"You were mad?"
"Well Ö yes. It wasnít what I expected, you know, that I would find her with some girl up against the wall, kissing her lights out."
Evelyn uncrossed her arms. "What did this girl look like?"
"Look like?" Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. She was shorter, small. Long blond hair, I think."
Evelynís eyebrows rose. "Long blond hair?"
"Nice small, firm breast," Gabrielle murmured, lifting her hand and cupping said imaginary breast the way she had seen Xena do it.
Gabrielle dropped the hand, embarrassed. "You know what I mean. She was small."
"And blond?" Evelyn pressed.
"Yes, Iím pretty sure she was blond. Anyway, the candlelight was reflecting off her hair." Gabrielle paused, noticing the way Evelyn was looking at her. "What? Why are you looking at me that way?"
"Come on, girl. Do I have to spell it out for you? Small, blond Ö firm. Does it sound like anybody you know?"
"What? Know? Me?" Gabrielle pointed a finger at her own chest. "Are you saying Xena was kissing a surrogate me?"
"Hello? Is anybody home?" Evelyn rolled her eyes. " Did you get any feeling for how much time had passed?"
"Not really. Just that it wasnít the tent anymore. We were in a room. A big room with torches on the walls and elegant furnishings."
"Hmmm. You mean, like a castle."
"Yes. Thatís it. It was definitely a castle. Some time had to have passed because Xena wasnít in her command tent, but already living in castle, or at least staying in a castle."
"Any clue where?"
"Not really," Gabrielle eyebrows knotted as she scratched the edge of her mouth, thinking, "I know there werenít many cities in Greece at that time that had large castles of that type. Athens, Olympia, Sparta. I know it wasnít Sparta. Maybe Athens or Corinth. They both had marble and granite architecture during that period."
"So, youíre the big history major. Where do you think she was?"
"Hmmm," Gabrielle paced to the bed and sat. "She had been about to sack Sparta and I talked her out of that. So she would have accepted their surrender and gone on from there. History says Phillip instituted the League of Corinth that met several times before Ö"
"Before Phillip was assassinated. Then Alexander went on to march against Persia."
"But Xena was still alive when you saw her?"
"Very much so," Gabrielle made a face, thinking of the scene she had witnessed and the anger she still felt whenever she thought of it.
"So maybe she was in Corinth at one of those League meetings."
Gabrielle nodded in consensus. "That makes sense."
"It must have been months and months later. She made you promise not to come back, right? She figured sheíd never see you again or that you were a figment of her imagination. Sheís in Corinth, a beautiful, hot-blooded, beautiful warrior at a boring political meeting."
"Well! Youíre the one who called her beautiful! I canít imagine she would be enjoying herself with a hall full of old senators. She sees this cute little slave that reminds her of you Ö are you beginning to get the picture?"
"Great! So, she takes her and slams her against the wall and then Öyou know. That makes me feel a lot better, Evelyn."
"You were jealous!"
"I was not! I was embarrassed!"
"Yeah, you were that. But you were also jealous. Thatís why you didnít tell me about it. You were jealous and embarrassed to tell me."
"I was not!"
"You were, too!"
"Itís as clear to me as glass, Gabrielle. Donít you see it?"
Gabrielle shook her head, not understanding where her friend was going with this at all.
After a moment, Evelyn blurted out, "She missed you, you idiot! She missed you so much, she pushed a slave up against a wall in frustration. That is what you saw and that is what you needed to see. And more importantly, you probably interrupted her from doing something that she would have only ended up regretting later."
Gabrielle squinted at her friend, not buying in to the concept. "How can you know so much?"
"Iím a shamaness, remember?"
"You Ö are crazy."
"No, Iím right on the money. Gabrielle, this time thing is not linear. You two are not traveling at the same speed in time. Itís not even as if a day here is a month there, or a year here is two for Xena. Itís more like when you go back, you go to exactly the point that you need to be."
"Need to be to do what?"
"To point Xena in the direction she needs to be going. To put things right. Or as close to right as they can be, given how messed up it all is. This is all becoming clear to me now."
"Well, Iím glad you can see through the glass because it sure looks dark to me. I donít see how my arriving in Xenaís boudoir just in time to interrupt her from getting it on with a slave girl would have anything to do with putting things right."
"Gabrielle, something or someone messed with destiny. Your destiny, my destiny and thereís probably quite a few other destinies screwed up along the way. Xena is the key. Xena Ö and you."
"No, Iím just a bit of the fall out. Itís like a spiritual bomb exploded and souls were scattered everywhere in the aftermath."
"A spiritual bomb, huh? You are such a kook," Gabrielle stated with affection. "So who lit the fuse then, Miss Cleo?"
"Who indeed." Evelyn paced, flexing her fingers as she thought. "Gabrielle, we need to get you back there. We have to find a way."
"I donít know, Evelyn. Maybe thatís not such a good idea. Whatís done is done. Fate, history Ė however you want to look at it, I donít think we should be messing with either. I think itís time I just got on with my life and concentrated on graduating so I can get a job and go out on my own."
"You mean get away from your Mother."
At Gabrielleís silence, Evelyn stopped pacing and plopped down next to her friend on the bed.
"And thatís why you are majoring in history?"
"Iím not a major in history. Iím journalism major."
"Journalist, huh? At least thatís what your Mother thinks, am I right?"
Again, at Gabrielleís continued silence, Evelyn pressed on. "So, have you found a Warrior Princess mentioned in any of the historical texts you have filling up your dorm shelves?" Evelyn swept her hand around the room to indicate the books lining shelves, filling up every bit of spare space.
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Not a one." She shifted on the mattress at looked at Evelyn. "You know, itís funny. Itís as if Xena didnít exist. But yet, when I go back there, thereís no King Phillip anywhere in sight."
"Modern history has never recognized strong women. Maybe the story of Phillip is really an allegory for Xena. Maybe her story was wiped out from written history along with the rest of womankindís, like Sappho and the Amazons."
"If thatís true, then Xena is fated to be assassinated."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because thatís what the texts all say happened to Phillip. He was poisoned at a banquet. Alexander was named king and led the march into Persia, eventually conquering it and most of the known world."
"Doesnít that make you want to go back? To warn her?"
"Yes, but that doesnít mean I could Ö or even should."
"Yeah, but if you could. IF ... you could. If there was a way, would you?"
Gabrielle bit her lip and thought. It had been more than a year since their last attempt to bridge the gap in time. She was a sophomore in college now. Her mother was pretty much leaving her alone to her studies, believing she was toiling away at trying to become a journalist Ė what she considered a useless, innocuous profession, as she had pointed out to her on numerous occasions. Little did Mother know that most of her allowance had been spent on ancient history books from Amazon.com and most of her time had been spent in the library looking up references, all in search of a warrior princess. If Mother knew she would not be happy.
No, something told her Mother would not be happy about it at all.
Now, here was Evelyn urging her to try to go back again. But, what would she find there, even if she could?
And, even if she could Ė should she?
Gabrielle shook her head, her long blond hair swaying at the action. Her hair had gotten a lot longer and lighter, thanks to a lot of time outdoors running. She was styling it more simply these days, wearing it straight and smooth with attractively layered bangs trimmed off just at the eyebrows. "I donít think thatís a good idea, Evelyn."
"Well, after what happened, I donít blame you. I was pretty shaken up, too. After all, last time we both ran into some unexpected things. You should have seen that creature! She was hideous!"
They both smiled, remembering Evelynís turn at heaving her lunch.
"This time, though, weíll be better prepared," Evelyn stated, nodding resolutely.
Gabrielle found her interest suddenly piqued. "What do you mean, prepared?"
Evelyn chuckled. It didnít take a shamaness to know what she needed to get Gabrielleís attention.
"Youíre not the only one that can do research, ya know," she answered cryptically.
As good as sex, Xena thought and sliced the air again with a series of sword maneuvers that practically parted the hair of the men sparing with her. Each one in turn either lost their sword or their pants, depending on whether Xena aimed for their weapon or their belt.
The end result, six men equally embarrassed, standing dumbfounded and emptied handed or shielding their family pride.
She finished the exercise with a series of sword flips and ended in a stance she had learned in Japa, foreign enough to the Greek men to cause them to clap, pride forgotten.
"I should be the one clapping," Xena remarked smartly, an eyebrow raised to the manly display before her.
The few who were exposed, blushed and covered the goods, which made Xena smile Ė a rare sight that her men always cherished.
It had been a good practice, and one she sorely needed. She had returned from the valley and her inspection of the preparations for departure with a few hours to kill before the banquet. Always enjoying her ability to indulge in a variety of pleasures on a whim, Xena ordered a guard to gather a few able bodies for a little fun.
The guard rushed off and returned with six eager men, anxious to please. And please her they did. Little did they know it would be in a nice long bout of six against one in a sweaty, grunting and totally satisfying sword sparring session right in the courtyard of Corinthís senate. Xena noticed gleefully that she had drawn a crowd, several notable Senators among them, watching the action from the loggia above.
Let them watch, she said to herself and swung a head full of sweaty black locks to get the hair out of her eyes. She hefted the sword in her hand to rebalance and smiled again, fully. The flex of tanned muscles against black leather and the flash of white teeth in a dazzlingly smile of her stunningly beautiful face caught all of her opponents off guard.
In an instant, she was over their heads executing a tumbling flip and smirked at the accompanying chorus of ooohís and aaahís that sang out from the balcony above. Before her sparring partners could react, she dropped to the ground and swung her leg in a sweeping arc that took their feet right out from under them.
One by one, they all fell down.
She rose, examining with satisfaction the scattering of soldiers that now littered the grass of the garden.
Still got it, Xena, she said to herself and raised her sword to the crowd in salute as they applauded. Her clear blue eyes sparkled with enjoyment as she scanned the faces that were smiling at her from above. She was keenly interested in who was present to see the display.
Alexander was up there, flanked by Attalus and Isocrates, of all people. Those three were getting to be as thick as humus.
Her prodigy, Alexander gave a nod, a big grin gracing his handsome features. She could be upset, if she let herself dwell on his actions over these past months. Then again, he clearly still admired her. Perhaps, he was even a bit enamored of her. Could it be that he was simply naïve to the political machinations of everyone else around him? It was entirely possible. Alexander always seemed to her to be honest and forthright, that was why his performance in the council was so distressing. Now, whenever she saw Alexander, either Attalus or Isocrates wasnít far behind. She was going to have to deal with this before she left, one way or another.
Isocrates gave her a respectful nod, which Xena returned. The old senator was no real threat to her though he imagined otherwise. She knew he would be dead of old age before she returned from Persia. But Attalus, he was another matter entirely. Her flashing smile twisted slightly into a snarl, barely noticeable. She would take care of Attalus soon enough.
But Alexander? What of Alexander?
Friend or foe, she had yet to decide. Perhaps she needed to take him as a lover?
Her eyes left the threesome and drifted along the terrace, acknowledging the faces that were all still smiling at her, until she noticed a very unusual figure just behind a column in an empty section of the veranda.
If the sun wasnít playing tricks with her eyes, it looked like an Amazon shamaness was on the balcony of a government building in Corinth watching her do sword drills.
Unconsciously, she flipped the sword in her hand and stepped forward, sharp eyes squinting into the sunlight for a better look.
How did an Amazon get into the city without her knowing about it?
Deerskin cloak, horned headdress Ė it was a shamaness Ė or was it? She used the blade of her sword to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun.
The horns didnít look real, the fur looked like Ö well, like squirrel not deer and the entire outfit was three sizes too big for the woman who wore it. Her scrutiny centered on a young face almost hidden by a headdress far too big for the head that bore it. The girl was staring back at her like a deer caught in a bow-sight.
Whoever this young girl was, she was no shamaness.
A shout drew Xenaís attention to Alexander. He had followed her gaze and, seeing the same thing, was ordering the guards to apprehend the stranger. Xena snapped her focus back to the corner of the loggia but the girl was gone, disappeared almost as mysteriously as she had appeared.
Almost like Ö
Xena launched herself off the grass and was flipping onto the balcony before the guards had rounded the first corner.
All signs of the mysterious shamaness were gone. She ran through the open columns into the hallway, but the marbled corridor was cold and empty. There was no sign that anyone had ever passed. Then came the sounds of stomping boots, and a small group of guards were coming, swords drawn, running full speed around a corner.
They joined Xena and she waved them off to search down the empty hallway while she returned to the veranda to check the area one last time.
No one. Nothing. She looked down at the spot where the mysterious woman had stood and noticed a tuft of something on the hard granite floor next to an urn. Stooping, she picked up the bit and studied it curiously.
It wasnít even squirrel Ė it wasnít any kind of animal at all. She sniffed at it, confused by the lack of scent and then rubbed it between her fingers. It wasnít skin, but some kind of material the likes of which she had never seen before. It looked like fur Ė she rubbed it between her fingers again - it was as soft as fur, but it was most definitely not fur at all Ė it was fake.
"Stand down," she ordered the guards. "Whoever it was is gone."
"Shall we do a complete search, Supreme Commander?" one of the guards asked.
"No," she replied, stuffing the piece of strange material into her greave. "Sheís gone."
Xena walked off in the direction of her quarters, intent on a bath and a bit of solitude before the banquet. She had a lot to think about before the eveningís festivities. Not the least of which was to wonder how, if the strange visitor was what she thought she was, did she manage to leave behind a piece of something that should have been insubstantial.
And, if she was what she thought she was, and it wasnít Gabrielle, then who the Hades was it?
At Evelynís insistence, they met in her off campus apartment. Thanks to her father, Evelyn enjoyed the luxury of living in her own 1-bedroom brownstone not far from Dupont Circle. It provided them with a level of privacy they could never have in Gabrielleís dorm.
Evelyn jammed the key into the lock and used her shoulder to push open the door.
"Warped," she explained almost apologetically and flipped on a light before ushering Gabrielle in.
Though old, the brownstone apartments were always quaint and held a unique charm that was typical of the trendy Washington DC neighborhood. Evelynís small apartment was no exception.
"I love it," Gabrielle exclaimed, looking around. Decorated like a page right out of a Pottery Barn catalog, Evelynís father was obviously far more generous in support of his daughter than Gabrielleís mother ever was Ė or ever would be.
Gabrielleís eyes drifted across the living room noting that the leather couch and matching easy chair had been pushed aside to make room on a hand woven Indian rug for a center display of candles and other paraphernalia. The way it was arranged, it looked suspiciously like either an altar or an opium den Ė knowing Evelyn, probably both.
She stared at the set up for a few brief moments and then squinted suspiciously at her friend. "I thought we were just going to talk about options tonight, Evelyn. Whatís all this for?"
"All talk and no action makes Gabrielle a dull girl," Evelyn answered playfully, closing the door and locking it behind them.
"I am not shooting up," Gabrielle stated, crossing her arms in defiance.
"Well, neither am I, if that makes you feel any better."
"Then what? Donít tell me." Gabrielle paced over to the rug and studied the items: candles, incense, hand-painted clay Indian pots, a few scattered musical instruments and something that looked suspiciously like a pipe. "Freebase?"
"No! Do you see a torch anywhere?" Evelyn answered, indignantly.
"Not marijuana again. All that did was give us the munchies"
"No, this is a smoke-free environment, Gabrielle," Evelyn said seriously, though the corners of her mouth were twitching with mirth.
Evelyn snickered. "Nope."
Gabrielle threw her hands up in exasperation. "Evelyn, what else is there?"
Gabrielle watched her friend as she walked over to a counter that separated the living room from the kitchen and threw her keys on the top. "Weíre going to do what the Indians do."
"Indians?" Gabrielleís eyebrows lifted incredulously. "What? Smoke peyote?"
"No, silly. I told you, this is a no smoking zone. Besides, itís not about peyote, is it?" Evelyn turned to the refrigerator and opened the door, peering inside. Grunting in satisfaction, she pulled out a large glass jar and placed it on the counter, presenting it to Gabrielle as though it were the answer to all of her questions.
"What is that vile looking liquid?" Gabrielle stared at the dark brown, muddy substance contained within the jar.
"Tea?" Gabrielle stared a little closer at the jar. The contents were so dark she could actually see her own reflection staring back at her. "If thatís tea, then thatís the strongest looking tea I have ever seen in my life. Evelyn, my friend, are you trying to poison me?"
"Poison? Iím insulted Gabrielle. This brew is an old family recipe." Evelyn unscrewed the lid of the jar and sniffed. "It smells great. Here see?" She shifted the jar over to Gabrielle offering a smell.
Gabrielle raised a golden brow, tentatively taking a whiff. "Yuk! Evelyn! You have got to be kidding!" The bitter aroma cut through her sinuses like hoarse radish. "If you think Iím drinking that, well Ö youíve been drinking too much!"
"Trust me, Gabrielle. Itís better when itís hot. Not bad at all really, once you get use to it. Actually, itís an old Indian recipe for Peyote tea Ė only without the Peyote."
"Then whatís in it?"
Not answering, Evelyn screwed the top of the jar back on and then walked over to the couch and sat. "Iíve been thinking. The last time we tried the hypnosis thing, we werenít prepared."
Gabrielle turned away from the tea, leaning against the counter. "Prepared for what?"
"Well, prepared for travel, if you want to think of it that way."
"Evelyn," Gabrielle said in a warning tone as she pushed off from the counter and walked over to the couch, hands on hips, "what crazy plan are you hatching in that new age brain of yours now?"
Evelyn patted the empty space on the leather couch next to her, indicating that Gabrielle should sit, smiling when she did. "Iíve been doing some reading. American Indians, Aborigines, all kinds of cultures, ancient and modern Ė they all have spiritual rituals that use some type of drug."
Gabrielle nodded, pushing a yellow strand of long hair behind one ear. "Well, weíve talked about this before."
"Yes, but, that was the drug part we talked about. We didnít think about the ritual part of it all."
"Ritual?" Gabrielle moved forward, intrigued.
"They donít just pop peyote buttons and hang on for the ride. They do things to prepare, to ready themselves for the journey, both mentally and physically. We havenít."
"No." Evelyn pointed at the magic circle she had created on the rug in her living room. "Like a birthday, itís not just the present, but everything that goes along with it that makes it special."
"The cake, the singing, the making a wish and blowing out the candles?"
"You know," Gabrielle said, grinning, "You actually may be on to something here."
Evelyn smiled back at her friend proudly. "You see, college is good for something after all. Iíve been spending some amount of time at the library."
"The library! You? No."
"Youíre funny, Gabrielle. But I found out a lot of things. First Ö I have a present for you."
"Not the tea, I hope."
"Well, the teaís part of it, but not the best part. Hang on a sec." Evelyn jumped up, out of her seat on the couch, skipping excitedly across the living room and disappearing into her bedroom. When she returned, her arms were filled with what looked like to Gabrielle a variety of animal skins.
"What did you do? Go hunting?"
Evelyn laughed, throwing her armload onto the empty chair and plopped back into her seat, bouncing happily.
She sorted through the bundle of furs and fabric eagerly. "This is for you," she said tossing an item over, which Gabrielle caught mid-air.
"What the heck is this?" she asked dangling what looked like a red leather bathing suit top from her fingers.
"Thatís the top," Evelyn explained, still sorting through the pile in search, "hereís the bottom." She tossed over another bit, which landed squarely on Gabrielleís face.
"Hey!" Gabrielle pulled the item off and dangled it in her other hand. If it was the bottom, there wasnít much to it but beads. "You are not seriously expecting me to wear this get up?"
"And this, too." Evelyn tossed another object, which landed in Gabrielleís lap. It was some kind of mask meant to resemble a bird Ö almost. Gabrielle stared at beak pointing up from her lap.
"I thought you said this was similar to a birthday Ö not Halloween?"
"That," Evelyn explained, ignoring the quip, "is an original copy of an exact replica of an Amazon outfit."
Gabrielle stared at each skimpy item in turn. "It is?"
"Yes. And this," Evelyn added, lifting up something big and furry and topped off by a pair of horns, then setting it on her head, "Is for me."
Gabrielle stared at the headdress in disbelief. "You look like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer!"
Evelyn straightened the lopsided headdress and huffed. "Gabrielle, I assure you Iíve done my research. What you are holding is an exact copy of what they think an Amazon wore. And this," Evelyn pointed to the stuffed velvet antlers adorning the headdress on her head, which had tipped crookedly over to one side again, "this is what a shamaness wore."
Gabrielle looked at the strands of beads hanging from her hand that couldnít possibly be enough to even begin to cover her butt. "They didnít leave much to the imagination, did they?"
Evelyn showed Gabrielle a long furry tunic, displaying first the front, then the back proudly. "These are pretty close renditions to what I saw in a textbook. I had them made just for us and they werenít cheap."
"You paid to have someone make this?" Gabrielle put down the beads and picked up the mask, staring at it. The papier-mâché mask stared back at her without answering.
"Yes, I did. And the tea."
Gabrielle let the items in her hand drop to her lap. "Weíre going to put these on and then drink that tea?"
"Yes, weíre going to dress, prepare the room, fast, then drink the teaÖ"
"Wait a minute, wait a minute Ö back up there. Did you say fast?"
"Yes, I did."
"Fast as in, drink fast?"
"No, fast as in not eat, fast."
"Evelyn Ellison, have you gone completely bonkers?!"
"Gabrielle, we only have to fast for one day. One measly day. We just need to clean the food and crap from our systems. Weíll hang out here, drink plenty of water. Tomorrow night, about an hour before midnight, weíll drink the tea and then Ö"
"And then what, Evelyn? What happens? Whatís in the tea?"
Evelyn chewed the inside of her lip, wondering how the revelation would go over.
"OxyContin," she revealed, adjusting her animal skin helmet again.
"Oxy Ö Oxy Ö WHAT!"
"I know what it is. I wonder if you do."
"Itís an opiod."
Gabrielle shook her head. "This is crazy."
"Itís the drug du jour. It was easy to get."
"How much is in that tea?" Gabrielle turned her head to look at innocuous looking brown tea sitting innocently in the glass jar as though in wait.
"What the recipe calls for."
"Where did you get the recipe?"
"I told you, itís an old family recipe."
"Evelyn," Gabrielle glared at her friend in warning.
"Okay. I got the infusion recipe from the internet, but the tea is really an old Indian recipe. My grandmother said one shot of this tea is good for anything that ails ya."
"Is there any alcohol in that tea by chance?" Gabrielle asked her friend, eyes squinting suspiciously.
"Well," Evelyn admitted, hiding a grin. "I have to admit, alcohol is the first ingredient."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Evelyn rushed on, blocking the words. "I know better than to mix alcohol and drugs, Gabrielle. Remember who youíre talking to. I left out the alcohol."
"How do you know this wonít make us anything but sick?"
Evelyn rose, taking off her headdress and placing it carefully on the leather chair. "Because Iíve already tried it."
"What! Youíve tried it?" Gabrielle popped up from the couch, and the Amazon outfit slipped from her lap to the floor. "Did it work? Did you go back? Did you see Xena?"
"Easy there, Amazon Princess. I thought you werenít interested in Xena any more?"
At Gabrielleís sheepish expression, Evelyn pushed down on Gabrielleís shoulders, settling them both back on to the couch.
"I didnít take much Ė just a bit. But I did the whole ritual, room cleansing, fasting. I did it all. I wasnít back there for long, but I got back there all right."
Gabrielle stared at her friend incredulously. Her expression, the way she was looking at her Ė Gabrielle didnít need to ask again; she knew.
"You saw her. You saw her, didnít you?"
Evelynís smile lit up the room. "She is one hot mama-jama, let me tell you!"
"Right." In an instant, Gabrielle was up and off the couch, picking up the pieces of her outfit from the rug. She pressed each piece against her body, checking for fit. "Now, just what goes where and how?"
Evelyn watched her friend shift the costume at different angles against her. "Anxious, are we?"
"Letís get this show on the road, Evelyn," Gabrielle said. She noticed a pair of matching rust colored boots still on the chair and picked them up. "These boots were made for spiritual walking..."
"And thatís just what weíll do?" Evelyn completed, grinning.
"Does an Amazon shit in the woods?"
Evelyn put on her shamaness cloak and twirled. "I guess weíre about to find out!"
Xena was turning heads and she knew it. Purposely, she had left her usual brown leather and bronze armor back at the state house, in the opulent bedroom laying on the oversized bed in favor of a samurai warrior outfit she had obtained while traveling in Japa. Black pant leggings flowed in gentle waves like a skirt as she strode through the crowd. The top was a shimmering red tunic embroidered with patterns of dragons in exacting detail. The material itself was exceptional. Silk was extremely erotic, not only to the eye but to the skin of the person wearing it, and as valuable in Greece as gold. It caressed her body like the smooth lips of an attentive lover. Xena had forgotten how much she relished wearing the fabric and vowed to herself that if she ever did settle down, she would make certain that the sheets of her own bed would be made of nothing but.
She rested her hand on the ornately carved ivory hilt of the samurai sword that adorned her hip. Her fingers playing absently with the sharp edge of the ever-present chakram that hung suspended from a gold chain right next to it, she smiled at the young boy talking to her. He was a member the Royal Corps of Pages Ė Greek youths of good families kept in the personal service of the generals while training as officer-cadets.
Of course, the appointment as Royal Page was one of great honor and offered only to the most important families. Most parents released their sons into service happily. The young lads themselves couldnít wait to go, hungry for the adventure as the young so often are. In truth, the only purpose their presence served was giving Xena a powerful hold over the often traitorous rich families. She had done similarly with many allied tribal chieftains or any tough-minded, ambitious senators - she took their young sons as insurance against sedition.
Whatever the reason, the boys themselves couldnít wait to go and it was a rare treat for the young officers-to-be to have a chance to engage their Supreme Commander in conversation. They chatted with her eagerly and she indulged them with sparkling blue eyes and a full smile that made the younger ones giggle and the older ones blush.
"Technicians and specialists," Xena explained to her audience. They had asked her why so many non-military men were accompanying them on the campaign. "Siege engineers," she elaborated, "miners for tunneling, engineers for the construction of roads and bridges, should we need them. Surveyors to collect information about routes and campsites and to keep track of the distances we march."
"But why the scientists? Why the scholars? Why all the bards?" a teenage cadet asked abruptly and instantly covered his mouth with his own hand, embarrassed for blurting out the question.
Xena patted the boyís shoulder, "Always find the courage to question, thatís how youíll learn. So listen carefully -- when you travel across unknown territory, always plan every step you are going to take before you take it."
"But how can you plan where to step if the territory is unknown?"
"I knew you were going to ask that," Xena grinned and nodded to the more veteran officer present. "Go ahead, Philotas, explain it to your charges."
"Military intelligence reports based from recognizance," General Philotas replied without hesitation.
"Advanced scouts," Xena added, noting the confused faces. "Architects to decipher the defenses of enemy cities, geographers who are expert on the land, botanists, astronomers, mathematicians, even oracles. Every detail is important and each bit of information, no matter how small, could end up making the difference between victory and defeat, life Ö or death."
The boys nodded in unison, awestruck by the immensity of such an undertaking as this invasion and even more so by the woman who seemed to have mastered it all.
"And the bards?" the same lad blurted out.
Xena laughed, a deep, throaty sound that drew attention. "Achilles had Homer to immortalize him. Who will immortalize you?" She winked at the young man, turning away. "Enjoy the banquet tonight and make sure you rest tomorrow. After that, youíll learn first hand what it means to go to war."
"Interesting who boys choose as their heroes these days," Xena overheard Isocrates comment to a colleague as she passed by.
She glanced back at the cadets who were still watching her, an interesting combination of fear and worship in their eyes.
"Theyíll change their minds soon enough," Xena stated sufficiently loud for the old senator and his companions to hear, and thoroughly enjoyed the startled look on Isocrates, believing his comment had gone unheard.
And so, let the games begin, Xena snickered to herself as she wove her way through the throng of revelers.
With all military preparations complete, Xena was determined to put her army in a good humor. In accordance with a tradition established by King Archelaus, she had ordered a nine-day festival in honor of Zeus and the Muses cumulating in a grand banquet of epic proportions. A gigantic, luxurious tent was constructed, large enough to hold over a hundred dining couches in which to present a magnificent feast for her senior staff, as well as ambassadors from the various Greek city-states. Her troops always foremost in her mind, she invited her generals to nominate a select number of lower ranking officers, cavalry, infantry, archers and even mercenaries for attendance as a reward for their performance to date. There were lavish sacrifices to the gods, followed by drama and music. All sacrificial animals were presented to the troops in an equally splendid, but no doubt much more raucous version of the same feast that was being held throughout the entire encampment.
In many ways, Xena wished she could be knocking back a pint of the sweet wine she had especially imported from Pompeii out at the bonfires of the rank and file rather than ducking the barbs of the pompous attendees in here.
Stealing a goblet of wine right out of the hand of Attalus as she walked by, she took a sip, smiling at the swallowed protest when he recognized who it was that had snatched his drink from him.
After all, she had a better chance of not being poisoned if she drank someone elseís wine Ė especially his.
Round, hand-carved tables of wood were set up throughout the tent, ringed by velvet dining couches. Servants were bustling to and fro, filling their centers with trays of lavish culinary displays: pheasants and quail, boar roasted to perfection surrounded by mounds of spiced peas, special trays of raw beef, the meat of sacrificed bulls Ė a tribute to the god of war.
She meandered over toward her appointed place of honor at a table on a raised dais that overlooked the activities at the head of the tent. At her right, Alexander already lay on his couch, reaching across his plate to grab a handful of olives. She could see that a special serving of prize bull gonads had already been placed on her plate. She would, at one point, be expected to eat them as tribute to Ares.
Not quite ready for that, Xena thought to herself and made an abrupt turn that landed her at a table full of cavalrymen.
"Xena!" Antipater, one of the officers, said in greeting, raising his arm to salute her presence. "You look incredible!"
"Supreme Commander!" the group bellowed and began to scurry out of their divans to stand.
"At ease, men," she said, smiling at the table full of officers from her favorite unit, the cavalry. Her horsemen were the beset in the world Ė she knew it and they knew it. "Tonight, you are the honored guests. Iím the one at your command." She inclined her dark head in their honor.
"Then we order you to join us!" a young rider shouted, to the immediate alarm of the rest of his companions.
"Sheís busy, you fool! Are you mad?"
"No at all," Xena replied charmingly, eyeing an empty couch. She far preferred the meats and fish they had spread out before them than what awaited her on her own plate on the dais. "Donít mind if I do."
To their utter amazement, Xena strode over to the empty seat, eloquently shifted her samurai sword out of the way, and stretched her long frame out, sinking into the soft velvet couch with a sigh.
Eyes sparkling, she raised the golden goblet already in her hand.
"To victory, gentlemen," she said and drank, titling her head back and emptying the goblet in one good, long gulp.
She smacked her lips in satisfaction, and then extended her arm in a silent request for more.
The men were delighted. "To victory!" they echoed loudly, turning the heads of the entire room and causing a series of shouts that repeated the toast like a wave through the rest of the tent, outside and beyond.
The young officer next to her filled her goblet and she graced him with a dazzling smile that left him blushing. With a roguish grin, Xena reached across her plate and helped herself to a leg of lamb, knowing full well that, for the moment, her unexpected seating would allow her to eat without fear.
Let Ares eat his own gonads, Xena thought as she happily ripped her teeth into the flesh and took a succulent bite.
"How do I look?" Gabrielle asked, stepping into the living room and presenting herself.
Evelyn nearly dropped the incense she was about to light. The bra-like, rust colored top lifted Gabrielleís breasts in a most attractive manner. In fact, Evelyn had no idea that her friend had so much cleavage. And the bottom Ė Evelynís eyes nearly popped out of her head.
Gabrielleís abdomen looked as though she had spent months doing nothing in the gym but sit-ups. The beaded fringe draped down the front covering just enough, without covering nearly anything at all. And when Gabrielle turned to display the back, Evelyn realized the bottom wasnít a bottom at all Ė it was practically a thong. She stared open-mouthed, astounded at the play of muscles that rippled along her friendís spine ending at a firm, beautifully sculpted, set of buttocks.
"Gabrielle, your ass!" Evelyn shrieked.
"What? Whatís wrong?" Gabrielle stretched her neck over her shoulder in an attempt to see.
"Youíve got a great ass!"
Gabrielle grunted and rolled her eyes, turning around.
"And those abs! Who did you pay to give you those abs?"
The blond looked down at the body part in question. "Yoga," Gabrielle answered, giving her nicely sculpted abdominal muscles a pat. "Yoga twice a week."
Evelyn looked down at her own abs, which were hidden by the furry cloak she wore. The motion caused the headdress she was wearing to slip over her eyes. She settled the horny hat back in place and smiled. "How do I look?"
Gabrielle scratched her nose to hide a smile. "Like Bambi?"
Before Evelyn had a chance to be insulted, Gabrielle walked over with a few leather bands in hand. "Give me a hand with these, would you?" She presented her arm and Evelyn snatched at the beaded leather accessories, tying them into place around her bicep.
"You look great," Evelyn said, securing a tight knot. "Just like an Amazon." She fitted the next band on Gabrielleís opposite arm. "Whereís the mask?"
"The mask is a little much, donítcha think?"
"No! Itís authentic! Go get the mask! You need the mask." Evelyn gave Gabrielle a prod on her practically bare butt back toward the bedroom.
"Oh, all right." Gabrielle stomped back into the room, returning moments later, the bird mask in hand. She placed it over her head and brought it down into place.
Evelyn clapped in delight. "Perfect! Absolutely perfect! I canít believe how good you look, Gabrielle! How do you feel?"
"Hungry," Gabrielleís answer came in a muffled reply from behind the mask.
Evelyn looked up at a clock on the wall, holding her headdress in place so it wouldnít slip. "Itís almost midnight. Everythingís in place, so I guess we can get started. Are you ready?"
"Do I have to leave this thing on the whole time?"
"Yes," Evelyn sat crossed leg on the carpet inside an interesting circle they had both spent time drawing on the carpet with various colors of chalk. She faced an arrangement of incense, candles and tea cups at the circleís center.
"Iím going to suffocate," Gabrielle grumbled, stomping over to the rug and sitting in the same crossed legged position across from her friend.
Evelyn ignored her, closing her eyes and settling herself in preparation for the task ahead.
One second later, her eyes popped open. "Hang on a sec," she said jumping up from the rug.
"Where are you going?" Gabrielle asked, tracking her friend with difficulty through the two small holes that were supposed to be eyes at the base of the birdís peak.
"I have to pee!" Evelynís voice called out from within the bedroom.
A few moments and a flush later, Evelyn was back. She dimmed the lights in the living room and turned on the CD player before settling back in to her position on the rug.
The deep tones of drums, flutes and various bird calls filled the room with the appropriate mysticism.
"Great, more birds," Gabrielle muttered from behind the mask.
"Shhush," Evelyn ordered, taking a deep breath and lifting one of the cups of the tea. The brown liquid had already been made piping hot in the microwave and was ready to be drunk. She lifted the cup to her friend in an offering.
Gabrielle took the cup solemnly and waited.
After a few minutes of Gabrielle holding the cup solemnly within her hands, Evelyn huffed.
"Well, go ahead! Drink it!"
"How?" Gabrielle exclaimed.
Another huff and Evelyn leaned over, lifting the mask from her friendís face. "Drink the tea, goddamn it!"
"All right. All right. Donít get huffy." Gabrielle took a sip and immediately scrunched up her face. "Evelyn!"
"I know, I know, itís pretty bitter. But youíve got to drink it."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and gulped down as much as she could.
"All of it," Evelyn scolded.
"All of it?"
"All." Evelyn watched closely until Gabrielle finished, leaning forward to check in the cup to make sure it was empty. She reached her hand out and pulled the mask back over Gabrielleís face. Then she picked up her own tea cup, emptying it quickly of its contents.
"Okay, now we really have to concentrate, Gabrielle. Itíll take about a half hour for the drug to take effect. In the meantime, thereís a bit of a ceremony I have to do with the incense and the candles. I need you to sit still and concentrate. And above all, donít laugh."
The mere mention of laughter almost made Gabrielle do so. She fought back a giggle, suddenly grateful for the mask, but Evelyn seemed to be reading her mind.
"I mean it, Gabrielle. No laughing. Think about Xena. Think about what you saw when you visited last. Picture the warrior in your mind and think about how much you want to see her again Ė what it means to you. You do want to see her, donít you?"
At this, Gabrielle nodded soberly and closed her eyes.
Much to her surprise, she heard Evelyn begin to chant. The words and melody were foreign to Gabrielle, but her friend seemed to be speaking in a real language, in ancient words. She could hear that Evelyn was dancing, moving around her and the circle. The sharp scent of incense was spreading itself all around her. Immediately, Xenaís commanding presence filled her vision. Gabrielle returned the welcoming smile, relishing the warm gaze of Xenaís striking eyes and admiring the long, flowing hair - the way it drifted in a soft breeze; loving the way Xena stood tall and proud, the strength in the hands that rested upon her hips - the way her gaze softened as she recognized her.
The room she was in, the rug she sat upon, the droning music, Evelynís chant seemed to drift away down a long tunnel, far away off into a future that didnít exist and Gabrielle knew without a doubt that she was a traveler once again on a long, long journey down a familiar road going home.
The tent was a swirling mass of festivities. Performers of all types wove their way around the tables: jugglers tossed sticks of fire, acrobats flipped over the heads of a delighted audience; exotic dancers in various states of near-nakedness shimmied and jiggled at the behest of whoever called them over.
Amongst all this, Xena remained stretched out upon her divan at the cavalry officersí table. She was no longer eating. The servers had brought over new plates of food and so therefore the meal was now suspect, but she was enjoying the view. Looking across the room to the raised dais, she watched Alexander flirt with a young poet, Hephaestion she believed he was called. She smiled to herself when the bard sat in the very chair planned for her and pushed away the so-called sacred dish to make room for a plate full of lamb.
Finishing off the wine in her goblet, she tossed it over her shoulder, gleefully ignoring the thud and accompanying grunt from the table next to them that followed. She waited, watching patiently until one of her young tablemates finished a sip from his own cup and then, using the reach of her long arm, she snatched his goblet away. The young officer laughed and then copied Xena by stealing the goblet of his friend next to him, and then his companion lifted another, and on and on, until it seemed the entire table was involved in a game of "steal your friendís wine".
"You know, Xena, you are allowed to drink the wine thatís poured you," Antipater, the young officer she had been sitting next to slurred, grinning at the antics.
"Are you sure about that?" Xena replied. She sipped from the mug she had stolen and watched his expression change as he was about to drink from hers.
Antipater paused, cup at his lips, the realization of why Xena was doing what she was doing washed over him like a wave. Without a second thought, he tossed his goblet away. They both shared in a good laugh at the round of protests that came from the table behind them, the drink having splattered them all.
Without announcement, Antipater jumped up and dashed off to another table and snatched up their entire jug of wine. He pinched two fresh, golden goblets from yet another as he sprinted back to Xena and plopped down into his seat, pouring himself and his commander a fresh drink.
"You have a future in this army!" Xena announced, grabbing the chalice and downing the drink happily.
"With you as its leader, we all do!"
Xena raised her cup, toasting her dinner companions in return and drank. There was no doubt about it - she was definitely beginning to get quite a nice buzz on. Musicians must have started to play because a lusty rhythm joined the cacophony of celebration, adding to the already heady ambience of everything around them. The warm, sweet wine she had been drinking was heating her blood, bringing a welcome flush of warmth to her skin. Of course, the beautiful dancer who had just sashayed by helped to add a degree or two to the glow. Xena drank from the golden goblet, following the dancerís naked form from beneath hooded lids, the blue of her iris darkening to a smoldering purple.
Women were such wondrous creatures, she mused, finishing off her wine, tossing the cup away.
Oh she was tipsy all right, because the anticipated clunk she heard was the result of the cup hitting a table rather than someoneís head. Oh well.
An anonymous dancer might be a safe partner for the evening, she found herself justifying as the stimulating atmosphere brought out thoughts of companionship of the hot and sweaty variety. Then again, there was Alexander.
Xena looked over her shoulder at her ex-prodigy. The way he was looking at the poet and the way the poet was looking at him, it was obvious Alexander had plans of a completely different flavor. Her lip lifted in sneer of dismissal.
One of her friends at the table? She scanned their handsome, eager faces one by one. Good looking, clean and virile enough, but then they were all coming with her to Persia and that meant she would have to put up with one of them sniffing after her for more from now until the invasion was over.
Unless she had him killed.
Now, there was a thought.
She sipped her drink and looked across the room. Her gaze fell on Attalus and she watched as a servant girl lean into him, pushing her more than ample cleavage into his face. He nuzzled her happily, grabbed at her waist and pulled the woman down into his lap. His companions at the table around him encouraged him on with bellows of laughter.
The girl leaned back her head and giggled, exposing a clear, youthful neck. Xena could now see it was the same blond haired beauty that had offer herself just the other night. Her mood became sour. Here she was, clearly the most powerful person at the banquet, yet she had not been the recipient of a single salacious offering: neck, cleavage or otherwise.
"Theyíre afraid of you," Alexander whispered in her ear, kneeling unexpectedly beside her. "If you smiled once and awhile, instead of scowling and hitting people on the head with tossed wine goblets, maybe you would have more fun."
"Iíve got nothing to smile about, Alexander," Xena replied, adjusting her position to move away from him a bit. "Besides, tossing goblets is lots of fun."
"Youíre angry with me and I donít blame you. But Iím angry at you, too, you know."
"Whatever for?" she asked glibly.
Alexander gently touched her shoulder; "Itís a mistake to leave me behind Xena. You need me."
"I donít need anyone."
"Oh yes, you do. Now, more than ever before. You have very few friends in this room, Xena."
"You think I donít know that?"
"I imagine you do, but what you donít seem to know is that Iím one of them."
"Are you? Are you really?" Xenaís stare turned dangerous, the wine allowing more of her anger to show than she would normally allow.
Her angry glare only made him sad.
"Always, Xena," Alexander sighed and rose from his kneeling position, staring down at her with disappointment coloring his strange gaze of one brown eye, the other blue.
He walked away then, leaving Xena to ponder, not his words, but the expression she saw in his face. Her attention was drawn back to Attalus and the pretty servant girl. He was fondling a breast with one large calloused hand and whispering in her ear, words that were causing the young girlís eyes to sparkle. Had Alexanderís traitorous uncle whispered similar words to Alexander, enticing him with a different type of seduction Ė the seduction of power?
Or was Alexander telling the truth? Could she still rely on him to watch her back? Or was she just a little too drunk and, in her drunkenness, merely romanticizing a childish wish that in life, friends stood by friends.
Real life had taught her a far crueler lesson Ė keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
Xena finished off her drink, placing the chalice back on the table.
"Antipater," she called, motioning for the officer to lean toward her. "You know Iím leaving behind a sizable number of troops in Corinth to mind our interests while weíre gone."
"Yes, Supreme Commander, I was aware of that."
"Theyíll remain here in Corinth, along with Alexander as my Regent. Of course, Iím sure youíve heard the arguments about my choice of Alexander and the opinion that the remaining militia should be housed in Athens. But, I have my reasons for choosing both."
"And Iím sure theyíre good reasons, Supreme Commander," Antipater replied, tactfully remaining cryptic in his opinion.
Smart boy, Xena thought. "They are. But, Iím curious, if you were me, where would you position them? And more importantly, who would you chose to leave as Reagent?"
Antipater paused before replying, waiting for the servant girl who had come over to fill their cups to finish. The slave poured, flashing a bright smile at Xena hoping for attention. Xena recognized her all right, but chose to ignore the pretty blond. She had, after all, just been kissing Attalus and the notion of it had turned her off to the girl altogether. The servant finished pouring the wine into Xenaís cup and walked away, frowning in disappointment.
"I would place the occupational force and the Reagent exactly where you did, Xena," Antipater replied confidently, after the girl had left.
"Why?" Xena probed.
"Because a Regent in Athens would be too close to Isocrates. And Isocrates is a weasel who would conspire with whomever the Regent was to usurp you while you risked your life in Persia on Greeceís holy cause."
"And that wonít happen in Corinth?"
"No, because Aristomedes hates Isocrates and is in love with you."
Xenaís dark eyebrows disappeared into her bangs. "Is he?" The unexpected revelation gave Xena pause.
"Quite so, Xena," Antipater confirmed, grinning and lifting his freshly filled goblet in salute, "as are we all."
"Youíre a silver-tongued devil, Antipater, but youíre smart and you speak bluntly. I like that," Xena smirked and raised her chalice. "I like that."
Antipater bowed his head slightly. "Thank you."
She leaned forward in her couch, well aware that there was another question that had yet to be answered and she was intensely interested in what this young man had to say next. "And the question of Reagent?"
Antipater swirled the wine in his cup thoughtfully and then shrugged. "You know what they say, Xena. Keep your friends close Ö"
She didnít need to hear the rest. The conversation had confirmed for Xena everything she needed to know. Coming to a decision, she smiled at the cavalry officer and together they toasted, bringing the golden goblets to their lips to drink.
She froze at the shout, simultaneously recognizing both the voice and the nature of the warning. Quickly, she slapped Antipaterís cup away from his lips. The wine splattered across their table, drenching the half empty plates with dark red liquid. She sniffed her own cup. An evil, angry expression colored her features as she recognized the minute, yet unmistakable scent of poison. Xena rose from the couch.
The shout and accompanying clatter caused the boisterous chorus of merriment to slowly deaden as though a blanket of tension was settling throughout the tent. All heads turned to the source to find Xena standing, poisoned wine cup still in hand, staring out across the room with a dark, stern, heatedly angry expression. She scanned the crowd, eyes settling on the servant girl, who stood in place, urn clutched against her bosom, staring back with a guilty and panicked expression frozen on her young face.
Not even needing an order, Antipater and his mates jumped into action and quickly surrounded the slave, snatching the wine pitcher away and detaining her roughly by the arms.
Xena turned, preparing to order a search of the room to find Attalus, but he was already rushing at her with sword drawn, intent on assassination. She had no time to draw her own weapon before Attalus was upon her.
Attalus knew he only had one chance, this one second of surprise. He shouldered an officer out of the way and swung his sword at her with all of his considerable might.
All Xena had time to do was lift her goblet before she was taking the full blow of the sword strike on the cup. Liquid spilled everywhere, but she managed to block the blade inches from her forehead. She grimaced in pain as the force of the heavy sword nearly shattered her wrist and promptly lost the cup; the swing of the strike carried it spinning across the floor. When the next blow came, there would be nothing to stop it.
Xena ignored the scream of pain in her wrist and grabbed for the hilt of her samurai weapon intent on sending Attalusís head flying from here to Persia. Before she could draw the blade from its sheath, blood splattered her face and eyes, blurring her eyesight for a brief moment. When her vision cleared, she watched Attalusís head leave his shoulders and tumble to the ground, the expression of surprise still on his face. His body fell a brief moment later.
Xena blinked to find Alexander standing there, sword still held high and dripping blood.
Seeing that Xena was now out of danger, he slowly dropped his sword arm. Alexander stared down at the severed head and body of his uncle that lay scattered at his feet.
"Are you all right, Supreme Commander?" His uncle now forgotten, he sheathed his sword and rushed to her side.
"Iím fine." Xena took a rag offered by an officer and wiped the blood from her face, then checked her favorite silk tunic to ensure that it had not been stained; it hadnít. She tossed the rag and stepped over the body without a hint of acknowledgement then strode over to where Antipater and his friends were detaining the slave.
"What did he promise you?" she asked, her voice dark and dangerously cold.
The girl shrunk back from the warrior in fear.
"What did he promise?!" Xena shouted, her voice echoing in the dead silence of a now tensely quiet tent.
"Freedom," the girl responded meekly.
"Freedom?" Xenaís eyebrow lifted, the corner of her lip quivering upward into a snarl, "Then you shall have it."
Antipater smiled, knowing all to well what was coming next.
"Take her away," Xena ordered, without emotion. "Kill her immediately." Her eyes searched through the rest of the audience, resting finally on an old woman servant who was hiding behind a General, hoping she had been forgotten.
"Her, too," Xena ordered, pointing at the old slave.
All heads turned in surprise. The old woman didnít bother to plead, she simply tried to turn and run, but was unable to escape all the hands that grabbed at her, holding her in place.
"Supreme Commander! I had nothing to do with this!" the old crone begged, struggling against her captors.
"Oh no?" Xena asked, striding over to stare down at the pleading woman.
"No, I swear! The wrench was acting on her own. Please believe me."
"Is this true?"
"Yes, yes! I swear it, oh mighty Xena."
Xena nodded, almost considering the notion. Without warning, Xena smoothly scooped her long fingers into the womanís apron, producing a small vial. She raised a brow, awaiting an explanation.
"Itís just a bit of potion Ö for my arthritis," the woman stammered.
"Arthritis?" Xena pursed her lips in sympathy and deftly popped the cork with the fingers of the same hand that was holding it. "Then maybe you should take some." She shoved the vial to the lips of the old servant, threatening to pour the liquid down her throat. The old woman scrunched her face and turned her head away.
Xena backed off. "Take her away."
The crowd watched in silence as the old woman and the young servant were whisked off by the officers of Antipaterís cavalry, Xenaís tablemates for the night.
"Give me that vial, Xena," Antipater said, carefully removing the poison from her grasp. "Bring some water for Xena to wash her hand!" he shouted.
"Thank you, Antipater," Xena said and dipped the hand that had held the vial in a bowl of water that was quickly produced. Another servant handed her a rag, which she used to dry her fingers and then tossed away.
Her attention was now fixed on something else Ė finding the source of the shout that had saved her life and it didnít take long for her to find it, standing innocuously amongst a group of soldiers not far from her table.
It was the small shamaness she noticed first. The headdress she wore was simply too large for her head and kept slipping to one side. The young woman adjusted it without realizing she was even doing so. The strange cloak was the same fur-but-not-fur as the piece she discovered on the balcony.
Xena bit back a smile watching the young shamaness gasp when she realized that Xena had spied her and was now walking their way. One by one, the crowd parted to let Xena pass, until the last person to step away revealed the owner of the voice who had saved her life.
The throb in Xenaís wrist was all but forgotten as her eyes beheld the woman before her. Her hair was longer and flowed down in straight, silky strands that reflected the torch fire around her like a halo of sunlight around a cloud.
Xena couldnít stop her eyes from widening at what she saw. A deep rust and craftily beaded dress in the style of the Amazons left very little of a well defined body to the imagination. She found herself staring in disbelief, first at the firm breasts, appreciating the way they rose and fell, then at a surprisingly beautifully sculpted tummy and finally, at the drape of beaded leather strips that playfully tickled a pair of long, attractive legs.
She lifted her gaze not believing that the beautiful Amazon woman standing before her could possible be the girl she thought she was. Staring back at her was the pointed beak and beady eyes of a funny looking bird.
That ever elegant eyebrow lifted, waiting patiently until a well-defined arm lifted the mask and there was Gabrielle, smiling at her in all of her angelic glory, the danger and bloodshed of a moment ago all but forgotten.
For a brief instant, Xena smiled too and then, remembering where she was, quickly removed any expression of recognition from her face. She took a quick look left and right. There was doubt about it, not only was she seeing them, but everyone else in the room saw them, too.
"Who are they, Xena?" Alexander asked, drawing her attention.
"Theyíre the women who saved my life Ö along with you, Alexander," Xena answered, not forgetting to credit her general. "Representatives sent from the Amazon nation, no doubt. Am I right?" She looked pointedly at the little shamaness for confirmation.
"What?" Evelyn squawked in surprise, realizing she had been addressed. Her headdress fell forward and she pushed it back. "Oh yeah, right. Weíre representatives from the Amazon nation."
"And Ö?" Xena prodded.
"And what?" Evelyn asked blankly.
"And Ö you are, who?"
"Oh, right." Evelyn stepped forward to formally introduce them. "I am Evelyn Ö I mean, Yakut. I amYakut, a shamaness. Well, obviously Iím a shamaness, you can see that. And this," Evelyn swept her hand back in a gesture that would have been graceful had the big cloak not been covering her hand, "Is er Ö princess Ö I mean, Queen Ö er Ö Queen Ö"
"Gabrielle," Gabrielle added, helping her friend.
Evelyn nodded. "Right. Queen Gabrielle. This is Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation."
Xenaís eyebrow arched higher than Gabrielle had ever seen it arc before. "Queen Gabrielle?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered smoothly, removing the mask all the way and inclining her head in a respectful bow. "Iím Queen Gabrielle and this is my Shamaness, Yakut. Weíve come for an audience with the Supreme Commander of Greece. Iím happy we arrived in time to be of service."
Xena bit back a smile and nodded in return. "Then welcome Queen Gabrielle and Shamaness Yakut to our celebration. We are in your debt. You are my honored guests for the rest of the night. Please, have a seat at my table." Xena swept her arm in the direction, not of the dais, but of the simple round table where she had spent the evening with the officers of her cavalry. Antipater was still present and politely stepped over to arrange the couches in order to accommodate the new guests. The table was now empty, the other officers having dragged off the traitors to perform their duty.
The body and head, Xena noted thankfully, had already been taken away and a rug had been throw across any splattering of blood that may have drenched the floor. She gave a slight nod of approval to Antipater, who had no doubt arranged for the quick clean up.
"Join us, Antipater," Xena ordered, "And you, too, Alexander."
As they wandered over to the table and settled themselves into their sofas, one by one, group by group, table by table, the tent returned to the celebration of the coming invasion, now made even more boisterous by the excitement of a foiled assassination.
"What are you doing here?" Xena whispered, watching her unexpected visitors slide into the settees nearest her.
"Xena, whatís going to happen to the girl and that old woman?" Gabrielle asked as she arranged her limbs comfortably, somewhat surprised to find that she could sit on the sofa at all. Maybe she was really floating, she didnít know. She certainly couldnít feel the material of the couch she was lying on. Gabrielle ran her hand along the surface, noting that not only couldnít she feel it, but if she pressed down into the cushion, her hand passed right through it. Perhaps she was simply floating. She looked over to Evelyn, who was obviously having exactly the same musings.
Evelynís arm was gone up to the elbow. She looked up bemusedly at Gabrielle, pulled her arm out of the sofa and shrugged.
"I asked you a question," Xena whispered again irritated, checking discretely to see if Alexander and Antipater had seen her visitorsí hands disappear into the furniture. Thankfully, neither man appeared to be the least interested. They were talking heatedly together, probably discussing the impact of the assassination attempt.
"Whatís going to happen to them?" Gabrielle pressed capturing Xenaís attention. Xena found herself staring into concerned green eyes. Her gaze traveled down the length of the smooth body lying stretched out along the couch. Her guardian angel was obviously a girl no more.
"You look terrific," Xena found herself saying aloud.
Gabrielle scowled. "Donít change the subject!"
"Thanks! I made the outfits," Evelyn piped in brightly, then became shy under the intense blue stare the comment had drawn.
"You had them made," Gabrielle corrected. "Xena - about that old woman and the girl?"
Evelyn, however, would not be denied. "Well yes, but I designed them."
Xena snorted a chuckle. "Did ya design your outfit, too?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I did."
"Then, what in the name of Artemis is it supposed to be?"
"Itís a shamaness outfit!" Evelyn replied, enraged, staring down at the attire in question. Looking back up, her indignation folded under the warriorís sarcastic smirk. "All right, so I got the material off the discount rack, but do you know how hard it is to get real fur these days? What with all the environmental groups and animal activists, I couldnít very well march into a fabric store and asked for six yards of deer skin!"
"Just who exactly are you?" Xena asked the amusing psuedo-shamaness, grinning.
Gabrielle answered for them. "This is my friend, Evelyn. Evelyn, this is Xena. I met Evelyn at the rehab center."
"The what?" Xena inquired, curious at the unknown word.
"The rehab Ö oh, never mind that, just Ö I met Evelyn and we discovered that we have something in common."
"And whatís that? That you both like to wear funny costumes?"
Gabrielle faked a smile and continued, ignoring the gibe. "Evelyn has dreams. Dreams like mine, Xena. Only in her dream, she was an Amazon shamaness, named Yakut. There are such things as Amazon shamanesses, arenít there?"
"Yes," Xena answered, considering. "Yes, there are. So, Evelyn, I gather you like to take drugs Ö dangerous drugs Ö just like your friend here?"
Evelyn gulped nervously, suddenly desperately feeling like she needed a drink, and so she reached out for the nearest chalice, but her hand just passed right through the goblet when she tried to pick it up.
"Donít touch anything, Evelyn!" Gabrielle warned in a hushed tone. "Donít touch anything and donít let anyone touch you."
Xena had already turned, stretching in her settee to see if Antipater or Alexander or anyone had see the ghostly action performed by the visitor, but no one had Ė they were all thoroughly occupied by their own concerns. She narrowed her eyes, staring suspiciously at them both.
"What I want to know is, if you canít touch that goblet, then how is it Iím able to touch this." Xena produced the small tuft of material she had found on the balcony out of a hidden notch in her belt and tossed it on the table.
Gabrielle tried to pick it up, but couldnít.
Xena leaned forward, intensely interested. "That was you up on the balcony, wasnít it?"
"Yes, that was me," Evelyn replied, feeling uncomfortable for some unknown reason. "My cloak got caught on the edge of that broken urn."
"How did it do that?" Xena pressed on, "You canít even touch the wine goblet!"
"I donít know!" Evelyn replied nervously. The warriorís unearthly stare was making her sweat for no reason. "I donít even know how Iím sitting on this couch!"
Xena stared at Gabrielle as though she had the answer, but Gabrielle appeared just as confused.
Xena leaned back into her seat totally dissatisfied. "So, how long have you been a shamaness?"
"How long?" Evelyn asked, confused at the change of subject.
Xena rolled her eyes. "Havenít done very many spells, have you?"
"No, just the one," Evelyn admitted, "not counting the hypnosis."
"The first time I was able to come back was the time Gabrielle and I were hypnotized. I saw the ugliest woman Iíve ever seen. The next time was with my spell and I saw you."
"Have I just been insulted?" Xena asked, turning to Gabrielle.
"I didnít mean it like that!" Evelyn wiggled forward so she could lean closer to both Xena and Gabrielle and talk without fear of being overheard. "It was a woman, or at least I think it was a woman. She was a shamaness, too, but she was old Ö I think Ö at least, she looked old. Black, penetrating eyes like a crow; blood smeared all over her forehead. Bit fat lips, dripping gore. It looked like she was about to eat a heart."
Evelyn stopped at the abrupt gasp of recognition that came from Xena.
"Alti," Xena rasped out the name with hate. "Alti," she said again, this time thinking deeply.
"You know her, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, reaching out to touch the warriorís shoulder, but pulling back remembering that she couldnít.
"Know her?" Xena replied with a sneer. "That bitch!" she exclaimed and pounded the cushion of her settee with an angry fist, which promptly enflamed her already throbbing wrist into a wave of pain.
"SHIT!" Xena sat up, clasping her wrist and grimacing painfully.
"XENA!" Alexander and Antipater cried out in unison and scurried to rise.
"Stay! Stay!" Xena ordered, calming them and others nearby who had heard her yell. "Iím fine. Itís nothing. Relax everyone. Go back to your meals." She waved her hand around to all who were looking, ignoring the stab of pain it caused and swallowing the next curse until everyone went back to doing whatever it was they were doing.
"Son of a bitch," she mumbled under her breath.
"Xena, is your wrist broken?" Gabrielle inquired with concern.
"No, no," Xena replied inspecting her hand. "No, itís not. It just hurts like Hades. I hate it when that happens." She graced Gabrielle with a roguish smile.
"Soak it in ice," Gabrielle advised, suddenly realizing how much she loved that smile and how beautifully the deep red of Xenaís silk tunic contrasted against the black of her long, flowing hair.
"What?" Xena looked up, her attention drawn to Gabrielleís soft lips.
"Soak it in ice," Gabrielle repeated, mouth going dry under the regard of Xenaís clear eyes.
It took a second for Xena to register what the word Ďiceí meant. Oh yeah Ė she needed some ice alright, but it wasnít to soak her wrist. "And where would I get ice, Gabrielle? Itís the dead of summer here."
Evelyn leaned forward toward her friend. "No refrigerators, Gabrielle, remember?"
Gabrielle grinned apologetically. "Sorry, I forgot."
Xena shook her head, half in amusement, half chastising herself for acting like a fool. "You two are quite the pair. I donít know whether I should spank you for coming," she said, looking directly at Gabrielle, "or kiss you."
Again, Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by Xenaís gaze, the way she looked at her with such affection - it was so very familiar.
But she couldnít let it distract her. "Xena, whatís going to happen to that young servant girl and the old woman?"
Xena frowned. It was unbelievable the way Gabrielle would not let something go. "What do you think will happen to them, Gabrielle? They conspired to assassinate me. They have to die."
Xena rolled her eyes in frustration. "What would you have me do, Gabrielle? Reward them?"
"No, not reward them. But why more death? Hasnít there been enough bloodshed here tonight? Do you really think a young girl and an old woman would be a part of a conspiracy plot to assassinate you? Donít you think it more likely that they were just being used?"
"Of course they were being used, Gabrielle. They were just too stupid to see that."
"And so they have to pay the ultimate price for stupidity?"
"That is exactly right. Everyone is responsible for their own decisions, their own actions. I canít let anyone who tries to kill me Ö who even thinks about trying to kill me Ö live. To do anything else would be considered weak."
"And what about compassion?"
"Compassion?" Xena snorted. "Compassion is for kings and fools."
"But you are a king Ö or a queen Ö or whatever you want to call it."
"Iím no king," Xena argued, adamant, "Iím a warrior."
"All the more reason you should show compassion."
"Compassion to who? A pair of traitorous assassins?"
"To a young girl and an old woman who hated being slaves so much, they would risk their lives by helping others to kill a king just for a chance to be free."
"Whatís this all about, Gabrielle? Is this your way of trying to suggest that I should do away with slavery? Because if you are, you arenít nearly as smart as I thought you were. Slavery is an institution in Greece. In many ways, our economy depends on it."
"So, you believe in slavery?"
Again, Xena grunted in frustration. In truth, she did not believe in slavery. She, herself, kept no slaves and allowed none in her army. She thought briefly back to that short time in her life when she tried to walk the path of good and fight the good fight. Countless times she had shut down slavers, only to turn around and find them open for business somewhere else. Her efforts against slavery, like her attempt at redemption, had been fruitless.
"No, as a matter of fact, I donít believe in slavery, but I know better than to think I can abolish it with a wave of my hand. Besides, slavery isnít so bad sometimes. Believe me, those two would have it far worse if they were out in the real world."
Gabrielle smirked and the expression once again gave Xena the distinct impression that she had just ended up playing right into her clever, little hands.
"Then that wouldnít be a half bad punishment for what they did, would it? Expel them from the house they served, out into the real world, where they would have to learn to survive on their own."
Xena couldnít believe it. Once again, the girl had managed to turn around a perfectly logical decision to something else entirely. "You mean that I should give them what they were promised?"
"Give them their freedom? For trying to poison me, I should free them?"
"Yes, but you donít have to position it that way. Make their punishment be that they should get exactly what they asked for: give them their freedom, but banish them from Corinth and ban them from ever serving in a wealthy household again. End the cycle, Xena, one or two slaves at a time. Besides, couldnít you just claim it could be a bad omen to kill an old woman on the eve of a campaign?"
Xena narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle. It was clever, but was it transparent? Certainly, it would be unexpected. Turning, she got Alexanderís attention and called him over with a wave of her hand. As he came to her side, she stood and whispered something into his ear and ignored the surprised expression. She waited patiently, scowling until he ran off to carry out her command.
"I take that back," Xena grumbled as she lay back down on her couch.
"Take what back?" Gabrielle asked, curious if the whispered command meant she had won the argument.
"I said I didnít know whether to spank you or kiss you. I think Iíve made up my mind."
Gabrielle was about to voice her own personal preference to Xenaís dilemma, when a shadow alerted her to the presence of someone else.
"I was wondering if our honored guests would care to dance?" Antipater was standing over them, clearly making the offer to Gabrielle.
"What?" Gabrielle looked up at the soldier in panic.
That rogue, heís got some set of balls, Xena thought and slipped back to her feet, annoyed at having to stand up again.
"I was just about to ask the same thing." She stood over Gabrielle, lifting her hand to her Amazon guest in a graceful offer, shooting the handsome officer a quick sideways glance.
Antipater bowed and quickly withdrew, "Your pleasure is mine, Supreme Commander."
You bet your sweet ass, Xena thought and nodded to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stared at Xena dumbfounded, clearly assuming that Xena understood the quandary she had just placed them in.
"Just take my hand," Xena urged.
"But Ö I." Gabrielle gulped, painfully aware that many in the room were now watching them. "I donít know how to dance."
Xena smiled widely, extending the elegant arm a bit further. "Donít worry, Iíll lead."
Gabrielle slowly reached up and placed her hand in Xenaís. She couldnít feel the warmth of skin against skin and she knew, clearly, that neither could Xena, but the warrior pretended she was able to clasp the small palm within her own and waited politely for Gabrielle to rise and join her.
"Where are you going?" Evelyn sputtered.
But Gabrielle chose to ignore her friend and, carefully keeping her hand in place so that it gave the appearance that her hand was within Xenaís grasp, she rose. She smiled softly at Xena and Xena grinned back, sharing her confidence that together, they could do this.
The crowds parted at their passing, ladies and gentlemen of the court, generals and soldiers bowing politely to their Supreme Commander and the visiting Amazon Queen.
"How long do I have you for this time," Xena asked, smiling softly at her dancing partner as they walked.
"I donít know," Gabrielle answered, blushing under Xenaís smile.
"Well, Iíll have a lot of explaining to do if you disappear into thin air in the middle of our dance."
"I hope that wonít happen," Gabrielle answered honestly.
Xena motioned with her head and Gabrielle realized they had arrived at their destination. The dancers already there made a spot for them and they stepped into place, facing one another.
Gabrielle nodded and Xena opened her palm, allowing Gabrielle to give the impression that she was removing her hand from Xenaís.
Gabrielle looked up and down at the two lines that were forming and scratched the back of her neck. "I told you I donít know what to do."
"Donít worry, itís easy. This is an old, traditional Macedonian dance. We start off in two lines, facing one another. Step forward, then step back. Just watch me. Keep your eyes on me. Youíll be fine."
"What if someone knocks into me?" Gabrielle whispered urgently.
"Clearly, they canít."
"What if someone else tries to dance with me?"
"Clearly, they wonít," Xena smirked.
"Right," Gabrielle stated, nodding. She was dancing with Xena. No one would dare cut in.
The musicians started a beat and then in a few bars, flutes began to play.
"Here we go," Xena said, standing tall.
Gabrielle noted that Xena was on the menís side and she on the womenís. She quickly assumed a similar, yet more feminine pose, mirroring the noblewoman next to her.
A few beats and Xenaís row bowed. A few beats and then so did Gabrielleís. She anticipated the action and curtseyed appropriately, earning her one of Xenaís dazzlingly beautiful smiles. Xena stepped forward and stepped back. Then, in turn, so did Gabrielle. They all faced to their right hand side, which Gabrielle intuited only a moment in delay and then they were strutting forward, two long lines, side by side, stepping in time to the beat of the music.
Xena lifted her arm, red silk fabric draping down eloquently, and offered her hand. Anticipating the timing along with the rest of the women, Gabrielle accepted, and they stepped off into a series of turns that Gabrielle had very little trouble predicting as long as she kept the other dancers visible in the corner of her eye - and she remembered to pretend to keep holding Xenaís hand.
"Look at me," she heard Xena say, but didnít, feeling insecure in doing so, afraid she would miss the timing of the next step.
"Donít worry about the others, just look at me."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle drew her gaze away from the couples close by and looked up into the clear, blue eyes of the Warrior Princess.
"Where you lead, Iíll follow," Gabrielle whispered, feeling as though the world was disappearing all around them.
Xena stared affectionately down at her mysterious guardian angel, once a girl, now miraculously a woman Ė a beautiful woman. "Somehow," she answered, gently leading Gabrielle toward their next step, "I knew youíd say that."
They danced in silence, Gabrielle staring fully up at Xena, amazed at how incredibly happy she felt just seeing Xena so happy. The warrior danced with her, the smile never leaving her beautiful face as she directed their movements with her body. Their hands, though unfeeling, pretended to remain clasped and they moved as though they had danced this dance together many times before. An amazing conclusion came to Gabrielle suddenly. Somehow she did know this dance; the traditional Greek steps came to her like a memory she didnít realize she even had. The beads of Gabrielleís Amazon skirt swung out and back as they turned, and the other couples and onlookers disappeared in a swirl of color and movement.
The tempo of the music increased until even Xena had trouble keeping up and eventually, all the couples broke up in peels of mirth and laughter, clapping at the musicians heartily.
The music ended then and the dance was over. Gabrielle smiled up at her dancing partner, breathing heavily at the exertion.
The other couples were leaving the dance floor as the music changed to an ethnic rhythm and then Gabrielle found they were being surrounded by gypsies and other more native women of a distinctly tribal variety.
"Theyíre playing your song," Xena stated, smirking.
"Amazon. This is Amazon music. You gonna dance, Queen Gabrielle?" Xena took several steps, backing away, leaving Gabrielle alone as the dance floor filled with half naked women.
Suddenly, they were all moving and Gabrielle could do nothing but dance, too or look foolish. They stomped, waving their arms, not in unison but in time to the steady pounding of the drums and Gabrielle realized they were all performing intricate steps from their individual cultures; some looked African, others Egyptian Ė to Gabrielle, it all looked like disco, so she joined right in.
Xena backed away, giving Gabrielle center stage on the dance floor. Women warriors from Libya, Algeria, Aegyptus and other mercenaries who had join her army years ago filled the space and quickly the floor became a mass of undulating dark skin Ė save Gabrielle, whose golden tones shone out like the sparkling sun amongst them all. Xena along with everyone else watched the spectacle in delight.
Now Gabrielle was attempting to shimmy her shoulders and hips in syncopation to the rhythm, staring directly at Xena in some attempt to dance provocatively and Xena had to cover her mouth to hide a laugh. The tide of dancers changed direction, and Gabrielle waved her arms about wildly trying to mimic the great Libyan archers who were dancing next to her. A dark warrior woman next to Gabrielle shifted abruptly and might have knocked Gabrielle to ground, had the womanís muscled shoulder not passed right through. The archer paused surprised at what she thought she saw.
Gabrielle, not missing a beat, smiled up at the tall imposing warrior. "Síokay, you missed me," she said over the pounding of the drums, smiled impishly and continued to boogie.
The proud archer nodded her head respectfully and continued her dance without further thought to it.
She was beyond adorable, Xena thought watching her jump, but she sure canít dance. The thought quickly evaporated as Gabrielle turned her back to Xena and for the first time, Xena got an eyeful of just how revealing the Queenís new wardrobe truly was.
Shaking her booty, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and waved, smiling brightly as Xenaís eyebrows disappeared into her bangs.
Shouts and hoots and hollering along with stomping of the audience joined the dancers and soon the entire tent was clapping in unison, urging them on. The drums and other percussion rose to a crescendo and the dancers began leap into the air, flying past Gabrielle faster than she could react, but she bravely attempted a similar move and didnít do a half bad job, much to Xenaís surprise. Her fair skin was covered in a sheen of perspiration that sparkled in the tent light and the sudden desire to gather the woman up into her arms and carry her out of the tent raced through Xena like a wild forest fire.
Abruptly the music stopped, the song ended and the dancers halted, bosoms heaving, out of breath, bodies exhausted, but their souls thoroughly satisfied. Gabrielle wove her way carefully around the other departing dancers, nodding and smiling in bonded happiness.
"That was fun!" she said as she approached Xena, fanning her face with her hand and looking around.
"Fun," Xena said as a statement. Fun was something she hadnít had or even thought about having in years. And now, in barely a heartbeat, this woman was giving her that and so much more. "It was, wasnít it?"
She stared at Gabrielle, admiring the flush in her face and the way her chest was heaving from the exertion of the dance. The sparkle of sweat brought out the sinews of muscles in her shoulders and the definition of the biceps in her arms. To Xena, the Amazon outfit clearly brought out the very best in the woman, in every way.
Gabrielle realized that every inch of her was under Xenaís heavy-lidded scrutiny.
"What?" she asked, her fanning hand halted and she looked down at her body. "You donít like the outfit?"
"No, no," Xena replied, taking in every sweaty, skimpy inch of it. "You donít know how much I love Ö it," she gulped, suddenly realizing something and the recognition of it frightened her more than anything else ever had. Her eyes widened with that fear and she found herself stepping away. "Gabrielle," she began, wanting to say something, but not knowing what or how.
But Gabrielle knew all too well. She felt the same way and had felt so, from the first moment she saw the warrior, bloody sword in hand, riding on her horse.
"Xena, we have to talk."
"I know," Xena replied, almost breathlessly.
"Is there somewhere we can go?"
The question mobilized Xena Ė finally something she knew how to handle. "Yes," she said resolutely. "What about your friend?"
Gabrielle looked over to the table, to her shamaness.
Evelyn was gone.
To be continued ÖPart 6
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