Continued from Spring: Part 1 **********
I slid down off my horse and collared a nearby soldier. "Where's Darinius?" I asked crossly. He silently pointed to a group of men standing down by the creek. I could see my quarry and Marcus among the group so I figured whatever they were discussing was pretty important. I decided to wait. Finally their meeting broke up and I immediately latched on to Darinius' arm.
"Why didn't you wake me?" I asked.
"Darinius smiled at me and said, "You were sleeping so soundly I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
"For a moment I was afraid you guys had started without me."
"Now, Gabrielle, you know I wouldn't do that," he replied earnestly. He looked at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Did you eat your breakfast?"
"Ha ha, very funny," I huffed. "That big goon cook of yours wouldn't let me out of the house until I did." I glared at him and added, "He said it was your orders."
"Sorry about that," said Darinius. "I just wanted to make sure you had a good breakfast. It might be the last decent meal you get for a couple of days."
"I've been hungry before," I snorted, "It's just lucky for him I didn't have my staff."
Darinius stuck his tongue in his jaw and said nothing. I later found out that Gerth, the aforementioned hulking cook, was famous for his ability to eat a pane of glass (That's right, a pane of glass!) and then wash it down with a large pitcher of that stinking Egyptian beer. In short he was one tough son of a bitch. I was also to later learn that, despite my protest, he would be my bodyguard on part of the trip to Aetolia.
"How soon will be leaving?" I wondered aloud.
Darinius swung his arm out in the direction of the hundreds of men in the field across the road. This is the last battalion to leave," he said. "The other six have already jumped off."
I looked at him curiously and said, "I thought you said there were eight battalions."
"We're leaving one behind to protect the home folks," he answered. "Orders from the council."
"Poor Marcus nearly had an apoplexy when they told us but I reckon we'll make due all right." Despite his complaisance, I had the distinct impression Darinius was troubled by this turn of events. That one thousand men was a big chunk that would be sorely missed.
As we were walking back up the slope to where my horse was tied two men approached us. Looking them over as they neared, I was struck by the dissimilarity between them. One was tall and gangly and very young. He could not have been more than nineteen or twenty and his youthful face possessed features so delicate as to be almost feminine in quality. His companion, on the other hand, was shorter--about Darinius' height--and very well built. In fact, aside from Hercules, he had the biggest pair of arms I have ever seen. It was obvious this man with the tanned, weather-beaten face and the graying, close-cropped hair was someone that had been through many a trial and tribulation in his life.
As he got closer I noticed first a scar above his right eye and then another just below his left ear. But all in all his face was not in the least unpleasant to look at. The term "ruggedly handsome" might even apply. Watching him speak to Darinius, however, I felt there was some inconsistency about that face...something that I could not quite put my finger on.
"Sir, I have brought the man Merillion as ordered," said the older man.
"Very well, Sergeant," said Darinius. He turned to the gaping, wide-eyed, young man. "What outfit are you with, son?"
It took a discreet chicken-winged nudge in the ribs from the sergeant to get the boy to reply. "Uhhh, First Company, Eighth Battalion, sir," he gulped.
"First of the Eighth, huh? Good bunch," remarked Darinius. Then he dropped the load on the boy. "Private, I'm transferring you to the Sixth Battalion, effective immediately."
The boy blinked hard and asked "May the private ask why he is being moved to the battalion that is staying behind, sir?"
"I'm told you are Terran's boy," said Darinius. "You should be proud of that."
"I never knew him, sir. He was killed before I was born."
I had heard this line before.
"The sergeant here and I both knew him well," said Darinius. "He was a good man and a very fine soldier." He paused for a moment and then went on, "He died in my arms in the very first battle this army ever fought. I knew your brother Parsenion too. He was killed at the Demon's Spine. Your other brother, Antion, fell against Paulus at Thessaloniki." He looked hard at the private and said, "You are all the family your mother has left. You are not going to war."
Darinius placed a hand on Merillion's shoulders and in a benignant voice said, "Your momma has given enough, boy. Now go on and do as you're ordered."
His disappointment clearly evident, the boy saluted smartly and then he was gone.
The two men watched the boy melt into the throng. "That was a nice thing the general did," said the sergeant. "He wouldn't by any chance be gettin' soft in his advanced years would he?"
Darinius looked at the man wryly and said, "Hmmm now let me see...who was it that brought this to my attention again?" He snapped his fingers and said, "By Theseus, I think it was you, Sergeant."
"Ahh well," the sergeant replied, his voice softening, "it's like you said, sir--his mother has had enough sorrow for one lifetime."
Darinius nodded his agreement and then said, "So how are your men, Sergeant? Are they ready?"
"As they'll ever be," he replied.
Darinius motioned to me and said, "Sergeant, I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine. This is Gabrielle of Poteidaia. She will be going along with us."
"Any friend of the general's is a friend of mine, Gabrielle," the sergeant said, nodding. "My name is Rellus."
Looking across the road to where the Third Battalion was at last forming up, the general said, "How many times have we done this, Rellus? How many times have we lined these boys up like this and marched them off to war?"
"More times than I care to remember, Darinius."
"You think we will ever see the end of it?"
"Not as long as bastards like Melchus refuse to leave us alone," Rellus said with a sigh. "Probably not in our lifetime."
That the two were had now dropped the formality was something that had not escaped me. Here, watching the Third Battalion move smoothly out onto the road, they were no longer general and sergeant; they were just two guys that had seen so many of their friends and neighbors perish in countless battles over the last twenty years or so.
They stood there in silence for a few more moments before Rellus flashed a grin and said, "Well, I'd better get back to my men before those jarheads get lost."
Darinius looked hard at his fellow warrior and quietly said, "Don't forget to watch your back, Rellus. And don't stick that neck of yours out any farther than you have to."
"You know me," Rellus said, "I'm the soul of discretion."
"Well just be careful," Darinius said. "There's not too many of us old guys left. And we seem to be gettin' fewer."
"We ain't ready for the rocking chair just yet, sir," the sergeant said. "We'll show these young bucks how real soldiers fight." He looked down at his feet for a moment and said, "It's going to be strange, taking orders from Xena I mean."
"Just be glad she's on our side this time," said Darinius. "She's worth a couple of legions all by herself."
"That's a big affirmative," said the sergeant. "You know," he mused, "as magnificent as she was back in the old days I wonder what she could accomplish now if she really wanted to. I mean, she's undoubtedly so much more mature now, right?"
"She wouldn't make the mistakes she made against us, that's for sure," said Darinius. "Of course the only flaw she ever really had, if one could call it a flaw, was a tendency on her part to be too aggressive sometimes."
"Did I tell you I almost fought her at the Demon's Spine?" the sergeant asked. "I'll never forget that look on her face--it was like Death itself."
"How did you manage to live to tell about it?" Darinius asked.
"Well she was busy carving up some other poor bastard at the time," the sergeant replied. He shuddered and said, "Gods! Can she handle a sword. Best warrior I ever saw, bar none." He eyed his boss warily and quickly added, "No offense, sir."
"Hmph," Darinius snorted, "You don't have to tell me. I've got a foot long scar on my side that reminds me of her prowess every time it rains. But one warrior, no matter how stellar, can't win battles alone. You've got to have good people around you. Simply put, her guys weren't as good as ours. That's why we won."
The sergeant looked off in the distance as if expecting to see old friends. "You know, Darinius," he said almost reverently, "that original bunch we had, Squallas, Lester, Billus and the rest, I believe if Hades himself had emerged from Tartarus at the head of an army made up of the very worst of the lot down there we could have kicked...their...ass!"
I saw Darinius smile faintly. No doubt Rellus' mention of friends long dead had sent their memory rushing back to him. "You should be thinking more of the present and of your own men, Sergeant," chided Darinius gently.
Darinius put his hand on Rellus' shoulder and added, "But if it makes you feel any better--so do I."
I must say the way they were so matter-of-factly descanting about the past and the "old" Xena was beginning to make me a little uncomfortable. I myself had seen brief, though terrifying, glimpses of Xena's dark side and it was a place I did not want to go. Finally the two of them shook hands and Rellus was off to join his men.
After he had gone I eased up beside my friend. While listening to Rellus and him talk about war I became curious. "Darinius?"
"Have you ever, before going into battle, been...afraid?"
He chuckled softly and said, "Every time, Gabrielle. Every damn time." He darted a glance at me and said, "You don't believe me, do you?"
"I know ordinary men get scared," I said, "but--"
"You know all that poetic stuff bards say about fearless heroes and courageous warriors? Well no offense to you, Gabrielle, of course but that is all a load of crap. All battles are fought and all great deeds are done by scared people who would rather be somewhere else. The greatest lesson I ever learned as a soldier was that as a rule your enemy is at least as frightened as you are."
"If that's true then why are battles fought at all?" I countered.
"Don't confuse fright with cowardice, Gabrielle," he said. "Being scared does not mean you can't do your job. You know that to be true as much as I do. When you help Xena fight don't you get scared?"
"Of course," I snorted.
"Do you let that stop you from helping your friend? A friend that trusts you and has come to rely so heavily upon you?"
"No, I would rather die than let her down," I said.
"Well there you are," he said, smiling. "You and the coward are both frightened but whereas you see your duty and do it the coward would run like a rabbit. You don't want to die and I don't want to die but there are times when we have to put those fears aside and do the job." He smiled faintly at me and said, "You wanna know a little secret? Even Xena gets scared. Not nearly as much as you and I, mind you, but she does know what it is to feel fear."
Reflecting on this later, I realized he was right. I had seen Xena scared before. I remembered that look of fear and dread she had exhibited while telling me about her first encounter with the Horde. It was true, I thought. Even Xena feels fear...sometimes.
"Listen, I'm going to be pretty busy today so I doubt if I'll get to see you again before dark," he said almost apologetically.
"That's okay," I assured him. "I'll be fine. I'll just tag along with the rest of the boys."
"Just to be on the safe side," he said, "I've assigned someone to accompany you today."
"You mean like a bodyguard?" I asked incredulously. "Darinius, I appreciate your conern but I can assure you that's hardly necessary. I can take care of myself."
"I know that," he replied tactfully. "But it will ease my mind considerably to know somebody is looking out for you." He stuck two fingers into his mouth and emitted a loud, shrill whistle. "Gerth!" he yelled. "Gerth! Where in Hades' name are you?"
"Down here, Darinius." I looked down the slope toward the creek and there, scurrying up the incline, was Gerth.
"What were you doing down there?" Darinius demanded.
The huge man shuffled his feet much as a little boy would and said, "Gosh, Darinius, I had to ahhh..." He looked nervously at me and added, "Well you know."
"I see." Darinius untied his horse and gracefully swung himself up in the saddle. "I am entrusting Gabrielle here to your care, Gerth. Just so you understand what that means let me explain; this young lady is the nicest person on the face of the earth and I think the world of her. If she so much as gets a hangnail today..." He looked hard at the bigger man. "...it's gonna be your ass. You got that?"
I was startled somewhat at the level of Darinius' intensity while warning the big man. The charming affability was gone and in its stead was the fierce countenance of the great warrior he was. He was not only serious, he was deadly serious and though flattered by his very sweet words I was nonetheless embarrassed by them. I felt I was cause of all poor Gerth's discomfort.
Gerth's eyes got as wide as piasters and he gulped, "Yes, sir!"
He pulled a red strip of cloth from his pocket and, handing it down to Gerth, said, "Tie that on her left arm."
"What's this for?" I asked.
"To prevent every provost guard that sees you from stopping you," he explained. "It will allow you unrestricted movement through the ranks. Think of it as a pass."
"Thank you," I said.
Darinius looked down at me from his horse and in a kindly voice said, "I'll see you later, Kid." He gently prodded his horse Scraps' flanks with his heels and soon he was no more that a mere speck on the long, arrow straight road.
"We had better get going, Miss," said Gerth. "Darinius might get sore if we fall behind the column."
Sighing heavily, I stuck my foot in the stirrup in preparation to mount my horse. It was then I felt Gerth's huge hand on my butt. "Just what do you think you're doing?" I demanded furiously as I yanked my foot out of the stirrup and turned to face him.
The look on the man's face was one of pure horror. "Nothin', Miss, I was just trying to help you up that's all."
Looking into his terrified eyes, I could see he was telling the truth. What's with this guy? I thought. Here was this man who, by all accounts, was an absolute terror when provoked and yet I had the distinct impression he was afraid of me. At the time I wondered why. Later Darinius would explain it to me, with the result that I would again be very embarrassed.
"That's okay," I said quietly but firmly. "I, I can get on the horse by myself. You don't need to help me, okay?"
We both mounted our horses and turned them down the road.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you. You...you won't tell Darinius will you? 'Cause he would kick my butt from here to Mount Parnassus if he thought I hurt you."
"You didn't hurt me, Gerth," I replied patiently. "It's just that, how can I say this, a woman doesn't expect a strange man to touch her on the aah--where you did."
"You mean the ass?"
"I mean the ass," I echoed.
We rode at the tail end of the well-drilled column for about an hour without either of us saying much of anything. During this interval my thoughts naturally turned once again to the dark haired warrior I loved so much. Xena, I thought, what are you doing? Are you safe? Did you sleep last night? Have you eaten anything? Knowing her as I did, she probably had not. Can't let her drive herself into the ground, I vowed silently. Must insist she rest even if it invokes her wrath. Who knows? If the campaign lasts long enough she might even feel the need for a little "diversion." I was not going to push that issue but I was going to make it plain to her that if she needed me--for anything--as always I would be there. Gods Xena! It's only been a little more than a day since you left and already it feels like an eon. I can't wait to see you again.
Presently I saw Gerth untie a black bag from his saddle and hold it up to me. "Hey, Miss?"
"It's Gabrielle," I corrected him. "Please call me Gabrielle."
"W-would you like some nutbread, Gabrielle?"
"Nutbread?" I asked enthusiastically. "Where did you get nutbread?"
"Why, I baked it early this morning before I left the house," he replied. "Darinius told me to."
I took the proffered treat and gingerly bit into it. Like everything else Gerth had made so far it was verry good. This talent for cooking was another oddity about him. I wondered where he had learned it. "Mmmm, delicious," I said dreamily. Gods, I used to love that stuff.
"Eat all you want," said Gerth. "There is plenty more where that came from."
"I didn't know Darinius liked nutbread," I said.
"He hates nutbread," said Gerth matter-of-factly. "He had me bake it especially for you, Gabrielle."
How so very thoughtful of him, I thought. I must remember to thank him.
"You know, Gabrielle, you and Xena must be very special," the big man observed.
Rolling the tasty bread across my giddy tongue I asked "How do you get that?"
"Because I have never seen him fuss over anybody the way he does for you two."
"Well we have been friends for a long time," I replied modestly, "but I'm sure he doesn't treat us any differently than any of his other friends." He had not been with Darinius for very long and thus had not been present at any of our other visits to there. Nonetheless, his casual remark struck a chord with me. The more I thought about it the more I realized how much truth there was in Gerth's words. Whenever we visited him he would "put on the dog" as they say. Not only did he feed us like kings but he always insisted we take the best bed. Then, before we left, he would have our horses groomed so fine they would literally shine. However as to whether we were something "special" to him I really could not say. He and Autolycus had been friends since way back and I know Darinius thought an awful lot of him. I had to say though, that if I thought he valued one specific friend more than any other for my money it would have had to have been Xena. There was always an exciting sort of tension between them whenever they were together--as if one expected something to happen at any moment. While I can say without reservation this tautness was definitely not sexual in nature it was also true that there was nevertheless something there.
After I took one more piece of the delicious bread from him, Gerth retied the bag and looped it around his saddle horn. As the morning wore on the wind began to pick up which had the disagreeable result of causing the dust being kicked up by the marching men to be blown back into our faces.
"How about if we move up on the flank of the column and get out of this?" Gerth asked hopefully.
Wishing to be as inconspicuous as possible, I at first said, "I wouldn't want to get in anybody's way." However I did not relish the idea of eating a steady diet of dirt all day any more than he did.
He pointed to the red strip on my arm and said, "Nobody's gonna say nothin', Gabrielle. I guarantee it. Now what do you say?"
"Lead the way," I answered, sweeping the back of my hand toward the head of the column.
With a grateful little grin he wheeled his horse to the left side of the road and kicked the animal into a trot. "Follow me," he called out over his shoulder.
As we moved steadily up the column we were approached several times by men on horseback but on every occasion once having seen my red "pass," they halted in their tracks and immediately resumed their former places in line.
"Told ya," said Gerth, beaming broadly. After the most recent of these incidents with the provost guard it was evident he was now enjoying his temporary paramountcy immensely.
As we rounded a little bend in the road I saw Darinius, Marcus, and two men whom I did not know standing a little back off the road under a large beech tree. They did not seem to be conducting any business--rather they were just watching the well drilled troops as they passed by. As I neared I caught his eye and received a warm smile in return. I nodded in acknowledgment, smiled back, and turned my attention once again to navigating the narrow corridor between the column and the side of the road.
At midday the column stopped for a short rest and I decided to take advantage of the halt by making a discreet detour to some nearby bushes. To my chagrin I soon discovered I was not the only one with this idea. All up an down the column I saw men darting off the road and into the cover. Gabrielle, you should have known, I chided myself as I quickly dropped my skirt back down. This was embarrassing enough but to make matters worse there were other men who did not even bother with finding cover--rather they simply pulled out their...ahem, well you know, and did it right there beside the road. Oh well, I thought, this is an army on the march after all, not a recreational outing.
Foiled in my initial attempt at relieving myself, I resolved to wait until the column had started back up. I did not have long to wait. Starting at the very head of the column where the order to resume the march had first been received, the men scrambled to their feet and reformed the long line. Watching this from my vantage point beside the road, I was reminded of a long, rolling wave moving inexorably toward me. Soon the column had been reformed and was on the march again. Now was my chance. Once again I ducked into cover and this time was able to hike up my skirt without fear of being observed. For some time now I had been considering switching to trousers as I thought they were much more appropriate for life on the road but whenever I would mention this to Xena I got the impression she did not really approve. Why? I don't know. She was funny about things like that.
Soon my work was done and I rejoined the patiently waiting Gerth back out on the road. For the rest of the day we quietly rode along with the army, carefully making sure to stay out of anyone's way. I don't know exactly how many leagues the army made that first day but it was quite a few and at the end of the day these well conditioned men looked as if they could have made several more without any trouble at all.
With the sun beginning to sink lower in the western sky the officers at last called a halt to the march and the men immediately began to make camp. For a little while I was unsure as to what I was supposed to do but soon, to my relief, Darinius appeared and led me along to where some of his junior officers were already building a fire.
"We'll camp here tonight," he said. "You can have first choice as to where you want to sleep."
He then had one of the men unsaddle my little mare for me and tie her up by the edge of the woods where the grass was high. Soon a lieutenant from one of the several hunting parties that were now out scouring the countryside came by with four plump rabbits for us and Gerth went to work dressing them out for supper. Later, after a couple of pieces of rabbit and yet another piece of the nutbread, I spread my two old blankets out on the ground and sat down crossed-legged on top of them. By now the sun was well down behind the distant mountains taking with it the last vestiges of a long day. Above us, circling low over the trees, the swallows were out in force feasting on the plethora of insects wafting so conveniently aloft for them on the gentle spring breeze.
As I sat there watching the little birds gleefully swoop and dive so effortlessly Darinius quietly sat down beside me. Fingering my tattered blankets he said, "Looks like these old things have seen better days."
"I've been meaning to get new ones," I told him, a little sheepishly.
"Well we will have to fix that," he said.
"Darinius, I don't want to be discommoding," I said.
"Nonsense," he said scoffed. "No friend of mine is going to sleep on rags like those if I can help it." He looked around at the several sturdy young men now preparing their own pallets and said, "Which of you gallant gentlemen would be kind enough to donate a couple of blankets to the young lady here?"
"Me!" one called out.
"I will," replied another.
"Here's one," cried still another.
Before I could mount any sort of protest I found myself practically buried under a mountain of blankets. "Thanks, guys," I mumbled, "but really, I couldn't."
"Please, miss," one of them gallantly said, "we insist."
"Okay," I said with a sigh, "I'll taaaaake..." I finally settled on a charcoal gray one with red stripes. "...this one."
"Yesss!" chortled the blanket's owner.
"Take another," one of the other fellows urged.
"Yeah, take another," echoed one of his mates.
"Okay," I said to him, "you talked me into it." I pulled out the brown one with the white border out of the pile and said, "I'll take this one if you don't mind."
"It's all yours," said its owner, "and gladly given I might add." What nice young men I thought.
After all the fellows had returned to their places Darinius grinned slyly at me and said, "You just made those guys' day you know that don't you? Now they probably won't get a wink of sleep all night."
"Hey," I retorted, "it was your idea."
"Well, if we let you catch a chill Xena would get mighty pissed and we can't afford to get on the supreme commander's shit list now can we?"
"Oh, aren't we being the chivalrous one," I said, teasing him. Truth be told, though, he was. Whether supplying me with a menacing bodyguard, thoughtfully providing nutbread, filling me with fresh rabbit, or seeing to it I did not get cold, I knew well enough he was making it his business to see that I was made as comfortable as possible considering the circumstances.
We sat there for a time, quietly watching as the goddess Nyx slowly went about the work of once again establishing her nocturnal realm. Presently I nodded toward the now sleeping Gerth and, with a low voice, said, "I thought he was supposed to be tough."
By the light of the fire I saw him smile faintly and he said, "Gabrielle, I once saw him crush a man's skull with his bare hands." He paused and added the qualifier, "In battle of course."
"But, today, after you left, by the gods he acted like he was scared to death of me," I said.
"It's like this. For as far back as he can remember Gerth has lived his life almost exclusively in the company of men. You see a raiding party killed his mother when he was very young and, much like I was, he was raised by a man who lived alone. Now that he's grown he's turned into a good man and a fine soldier but even now he is not very comfortable around women. For whatever reason he has trouble distinguishing between behavior that might be acceptable--even encouraged--among a group men but may not be appropriate at all in the presence of a lady such as yourself. Unsure of himself in these situation, he tends to become very ahhh, what would the word be...meek, when put in a one on one situation with a woman. Especially if that woman happens to be as beautiful as you, Gabrielle."
If it had been anybody else all my internal alarms would have instantly been sounding warnings to be careful. However Darinius was not trying to, as they say, "feed me a line" at all. His comment about my "beauty" was, for him, merely a statement of fact and his analytic mind saw no reason to try to alter the truth as it perceived it to be. Still, it was a very nice thing for him to say.
"That's very kind of you," I said, almost whispering.
He tossed the little stick he had been playing with into the fire and said, "Well it's not like I'm making it up, you know. You are a lovely young woman." He stood up and looked down at me. "You know what I like best about you? I don't quite see how it's possible, little bard, but you're even more beautiful on the inside. Now why don't you try to get some sleep? Tomorrow is going to be a lot like today was."
I tossed aside my old blankets and stretched out on the new ones. As he turned to leave I called out to him. "Darinius?"
"Thank you for the nutbread. It was very good."
In a vain attempt to hide the emotion so plainly written on his face, he resorted to an old ploy of Xena's--playing the tough guy. With a not very menacing growl he said, "Go to sleep and that's an order."
I merely grinned at him and rolled over on my side. The last thing I remembered thinking before falling asleep was, of course, something concerning Xena. I remember hoping Darinius was right about my getting to see her by this time tomorrow night. Little did I realize then that I would be rejoining my love much sooner than I expected.
Sometime well before dawn, I awoke to a hand gently shaking my shoulder and a voice quietly calling my name. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle, wake up." It was Darinius.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, sitting upright on my pallet.
"Get your boots on," he said. "Xena wants to see us right away--tonight."
"It's all right, boys," said Xena, striding up to them. "I know this man." She took the sergeant's sword from him and with one swift stroke, cut the leather straps binding Iolaus' hands. "Okay, men, you can get back to your posts."
Xena waited for the men to disperse before asking "Iolaus, what are you doing here?"
He eyed her somberly and replied, "I guess I ought to be asking you the same question."
With a hint of amusement playing across her face she said, "I've been asked to lead the Aetolian army. How that came about is a long story. Remind me to tell it to you sometime."
"For myself I was on my way to Thebes to warn them about Melchus," he told her. "To save time I thought I would cut through the marshes. That's where those guys jumped me."
"Where's Hercules?" she asked.
"Still in Egypt I'm afraid," said Iolaus.
"Damn!" she grunted. She had hoped he was somewhere nearby. The presence of her powerful friend would have made things a whole lot easier. After giving the diminutive Iolaus the once over she asked "Have you had anything to eat?"
"I'm not hungry," he answered. Realizing something was out of kilter, he cast his eyes about the camp. "Say," he asked, "where's Gabrielle?"
"I expect she's on her way here right now," said Xena. "With Darinius."
"You mean, he's coming here? To fight with you?"
"He's bringing the army with him," said Xena. "And not only to fight with me but to fight under me, Iolaus. Would you believe it?"
He did not. "Aww c'mon," he said, squinting one eye at her. "Him?"
"That's right. Pretty big stuff huh?"
"Gosh, this must be bad," mused Iolaus.
The smile faded from her lips and she said, "Iolaus, I don't want to place you in a difficult position but I sure could use you here. Now if you want to go on to Thebes and warn them I'll understand. In fact I wouldn't blame you at all for doing just that. But it would mean a lot to me personally should you decide to stay."
It took him all of two seconds to make up his mind. "You know you can count on me, Xena," he said. "But I don't understand why the addition of one more guy is so important to you."
Looking him squarely in the eye, she explained, "Because this particular guy happens to not only be a very experienced soldier but also one who is not afraid to give me a truthful opinion." She looked about the camp and added, "Most of these men are so demoralized right now they are willing to follow anybody displaying a little leadership potential. I need somebody who won't be a 'yes' man."
"I don't know about that," said Iolaus. "It's not an easy thing to disagree with you."
"By the way, you didn't happen to get a good look at Melchus' forces did you?" she asked.
"I got too good of a look," replied her friend. "The bastards almost got me a couple of times." He looked around to make certain no one was listening and in a low voice said, "Xena, I counted at least ten different legion standards on my way here."
"Good call," said Xena. "But that's not all. He's got two more coming down over the Cambunian Mountains to join him."
"What do we have?" asked Iolaus.
Already, thought Xena. Already it's we to him. "Five legions at nowhere near full strength," she said, plus Darinius' boys. All told roughly six and a half legions--about forty thousand men."
"Against more than sixty thousand," observed Iolaus. "Of course you have a plan...right?"
With an ambiguous little smile Xena said, "Oh, I've given it some thought."
I just bet you have, thought Iolaus. Aloud he said, "So what do you want me to do?"
"Right now I'm going to ride out to see for myself what kind of condition the army is in. When I get back I have to meet with the legion commanders," she said. "So just stick around here close so I can call upon you quickly if the need arises."
"Right. But you know, Thebes still needs to be warned," he reminded her.
"Don't worry, I'll send a message to Aurilius and have him send one of his ministers to Thebes for you," she said.
Have King Aurilius send one of his ministers? My gods, he thought, just how much
power does she have here?
At the appointed time Xena entered the command tent and joined the legion commanders already waiting anxiously for her inside. As one long used to wielding supreme authority, she understood the efficaciousness of making underlings wait. It was the perfect technique for underscoring her dominance over them. Though she had expressed to Iolaus her desire not to have a pack of truckling sheep as her senior officers neither did she want, nor would she tolerate, any hint of insubordination from them.
Upon entering she saw they were all standing at or near her map table. No doubt hoping to get an inkling of what my intentions are, she thought, correctly of course. When they saw her enter they all immediately snapped to attention.
She eyed the generals casually and said, "You can stand easy."
They bunched up into a little knot before her and Bowber, the commander of the First Legion, said, "I wish to report we have finally succeeded in rounding up all our stragglers."
"Good," said Xena tersely. "Feed them and make sure they get some rest 'cause we're gonna need 'em--and soon I think."
"Do you think Melchus is ready to move against us, Xena?" asked Selares.
"I expect he will be soon enough," she replied. "And we have to be ready."
"Has the supreme commander a plan?" asked Tracticles, commander of the Second Legion.
"Just an outline," she lied. "Some of the more intricate details hinge on a couple of variables that I am not sure of yet." This was sheer hyperbole on her part. She knew exactly what she was going to do--whether Melchus attacked first or not. She rapped the map table with her knuckles and said, "First off, we have caught a huge break here. I've learned that the reason Melchus did not follow up on his victory after that first day was because he fell violently ill during the night and has been laid up ever since. Now from what the scouting parties tell me the bulk of his army is..." She pointed to a position just northwest of the marshes. "...here. So far the only enemy activity reported has been some half-hearted attempts to seize the causeway." She looked up at Selares and asked "As far as you can tell have these attacks intensified any?"
"No, ma'am," he replied. "We repelled another one early this morning and it was pretty much the same as all the others. They are just scouting parties really."
"That may change," she allowed, returning her attention to the map. "Now the way I see it Melchus will move in either one of two ways. One, he could mount a direct assault into the marshes along Selares' causeway in an attempt to fragment our army or two, and I believe more likely, he will simply execute a series of left obliques around the marshes and drive straight for the Aetolian capital."
"But wouldn't such a maneuver expose his right flank to us?" asked Goneron, the Fourth Legion commander. "Couldn't we just take advantage of our interior lines and attack him as he passed before us?"
"In case you've forgotten that's the whole purpose of an oblique movement--to minimize the danger to one's flanks," Xena explained patiently. "But the last thing the enemy wants to do is move into these marshes and fight us on our own terms. No sir, what he wants is to pull us out of here and get us out on open ground where his superior numbers will hold sway. If I were in his boots I would be more than willing to risk an attack on my flank if it meant drawing this army out of its natural defenses."
As he stood listening to her Selares marveled at how simple she made all this sound. All those stories about her are true, he thought. The woman is a genius. All our training, all our experience are nothing in comparison. We are as children before her. This, he thought reverently, was a commander he could die for.
"So what do we do?" asked Bowber. "We can't just sit here on our ass and let him destroy the capital."
Xena shot him a withering glare. Her icy voice hinting of minacity, she asked "Who said we were going to do that?" In the old days such insolence from a subordinate would have resulted in swift and savage punishment for the offender. Can't do that now, she thought with a touch of wistfulness. Too bad.
"Bowber," Selares warned quietly, "remember your place."
"My apologies, ma'am," said Bowber, with a slight nod of the head. "I meant no disrespect."
"Save it," said Xena. "We have more important things to worry about." She turned to the Fifth Legion commander and said, Araxtus, I want you to move your men forward to the position I've indicated on the map. From there you will be in a good position to support either Selares or Tracticles should the need arise. Now, Bowber, from what my scouts are telling me your forward positions are a little too far forward. If you get too far ahead of the units on either side of you there is a danger of your men getting pinched off. I want you to pull back one thousand paces and bring yourself abreast of Tracticles."
Bowber immediately walked over to the tent opening and murmured something in the ear of one of his aides. The young man nodded gravely and departed. "The movement will be executed within the hour, Xena," said Bowber, returning.
"Very well. Now, men, like I said before, I am not in a position to reveal much more to you at this time. Just solidify your positions and hold fast."
"May I ask for how long?" Selares wondered aloud.
"Two days at the most," she replied. "After that I expect..." She paused and flashed a knowing little grin. "...I expect the situation to change dramatically."
"Is help on the way?" asked Araxtus anxiously. In a way Xena found their ignorance of the impending alliance with Darinius a little sad. Here these men were prepared to die for their king and he did not even have the decency to inform them of the latest developments. Maybe, she thought, they ought to think about a new king. It was obvious no one from Aurilius' camp had come within leagues of the war zone.
"That would be a good guess," she replied. Naturally her cryptic answer evoked a chorus of who's from the generals but Xena stoically told them that was something they did not need to know at the present time.
The supreme commander of the Aetolian Army rolled up the heavy parchment map and the men correctly interpreted this as a signal the meeting was over. That done, she turned toward these men with the young/old faces who up until a couple of days ago had been mere second echelon field commanders. It was her guess not one of them was over twenty-five. Just babies, she thought. Neophytes or not, she knew this was no time to mince words. It was time to lay all the cards on the table. "Men," she began, "I am not going to bullshit you. The circumstances here are tenuous at best and you know it as well as I do. If we don't watch our step there is a very real chance Melchus will crush us like a rotten apple. But--and like a Cyclops' behind it's a very big butt--if we stand fast, keep our heads, and above all, follow orders we stand a chance of whipping this bastard. Yeah, I know things look bad but I assure you the situation is not, repeat not, hopeless. I want you men to act accordingly. A legion's morale starts at the very top so I want each of you to project the most positive image possible, understand? No glum faces, no sagging shoulder, no sad eyes, I want self-confidence and optimism to positively ooze from you guys whether you actually believe it or not. Soldiers pick up on the mood of their officers very quickly so I want you to stress this to your subordinates as well. By all means we must keep the men's spirits up."
The five men nodded solemnly and then in unison came to attention. Xena acknowledged their display of respect with a curt nod of the head. "That's all I have to say," she said. "Now go see to your men."
Once the men had departed Xena crossed the tent and sat down in the big chair located opposite her bed. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back and reached behind to massage the base of her neck. So tired, she thought. When was it I slept last? A rueful smile played across her lips. In the old days you used to eat this stuff up. Damn, Xena, you are getting old. She slid her buttocks forward in the chair and stretched out her long, and still very beautiful, legs. What I wouldn't give for a hot bath right now, she thought wistfully. With Gabrielle. Gods, Gabrielle, it seems like a year since I saw you last. And, like so many times before, Xena wondered, Should Gabrielle be coming here at all? No, the warrior in her answered. Yes! the tender lover in her cried out. Again the lover prevailed. Besides, she rationalized, Gabrielle would come anyway.
She reached over to the table and idly pinched off a piece of bread. Everything depends on Melchus taking the bait, she thought. Got to make the maneuver appear to be a last, desperate act on our part. Gods, Xena, who are you kidding? It is a last, desperate act. But we can pull it off...must pull it off. Question is...will Darinius play ball with me? Will he follow my orders? Is it realistic for me to expect him to break every dictum he's ever formulated about warfare and do it my way?...He so much as said he would obey me...but will he?
I wish I were going instead of him, she thought. I cut my teeth on such tactics. Can't though...must stay...here. This command would fall apart without me. You will have to do it without me, Darinius...you will have to be my...her weary mind searched for the proper way to limn his role...hammer! You will have to be my hammer, Darinius. Gabrielle...sweet Gabrielle...hold me, Gabrielle...hold me tightly...so tired...sooo...
Xena awoke at the light touch of a hand to her shoulder. It was Templarion. "What do you want?" she asked coldly.
Her authoritative tone of voice immediately put the captain on the defensive. "Uhh sorry, ma'am, but uhh, you did say you wanted to see your friend after the meeting was over.
She blinked hard twice in an effort to clear the haze. "My friend?"
"Yes, ma'am. Iolaus, ma'am."
Then she remembered. "Oh...yes." She blinked again and said, "Send him in. And Templarion?"
The Warrior Princess stood up and gave him a look that would have frozen lava. Teeth bared, she growled, "Don't you ever enter my tent again without making your presence known first. You hear me? Ever!"
To the devastated captain it was as if Death itself was speaking to him. Gulping very hard, he croaked, "Yes, ma'am. My apologies, ma'am, for my indiscretion."
"Get out," Xena snarled.
The poor man practically ran out of the tent. How long was I out? she wondered. Couldn't have been very long. But still... Why did I get so angry at Templarion? Because of his presumptuous? Because he got the drop on me. Both?
Iolaus entered the tent and the sight of her old friend put Xena's dark thoughts to rest--for the moment. "What's up, Xena?" he asked.
Xena grinned mischievously at him and asked a question of her own. "Iolaus, how are your stalking skills these days?"
He furrowed his brow and said, "Huh?"
She crooked her finger for him to come closer. "If you're up to it I've got a job for ya," she said.
"As many of the ladies will tell you, Xena," he grinned her friend, "I can get up pret-ty quick when there's a reason to."
She raised an eyebrow and playfully said, "So I remember." She then leaned forward and whispered in his ear. "Now, here's what I want you to do..."
The old healer cautiously stuck his head through the tent opening and peered inside. "Master?"
"What?" the voice in the darkened tent answered.
The healer let out a small sigh of relief and entered the tent. "How are you feeling, Master?"
"You're the healer, you tell me," the man replied gruffly.
"I trust the potion I prepared has eased Master's ahh, discomfort?"
In the gloom of the tent the healer heard a rustle of movement. "Discomfort?" the voice replied. "My ass has practically been on fire for the last two days and you have the balls to call it 'discomfort?'"
"I'm sorry, Master, I only meant--"
"Maybe I ought to shove a hot poker up your ass, Thrung. Then we'd see if you call that 'discomfort.'"
"A thousand apologies, Master. I am but an ignorant healer and as such I have no skill with words."
Thrung the healer heard the shadowy figure exhale deeply. "It is well that you are not," the man said. "The world has more than enough smooth talkers to go around but skilled healers are as rare as one of Hera's smiles."
"Then...it has been of benefit to you?" Thrung asked hopefully.
"Yes," came the reply. "Your potion has eased the pain considerably."
Thank the gods! thought Thrung. For two whole days Melchus, Crown Prince of the Five Tribes, Commander-in-Chief of a great army, had been stuck lying flat on his stomach in this intentionally darkened tent. In the meantime the heretofore unstoppable juggernaut that was his army had ground to a halt before the Pindarian Marshes and was now waiting...waiting...waiting.
In order that his generals might stay away Melchus had ordered Thrung to inform them their leader had come down with dysentery. In truth what he was really suffering from was a terrible case of the hemorrhoids that had plagued him off and on for most of his adult life. He could barely walk or sit and riding a horse was absolutely out of the question. About all he could do at the moment was lie on his stomach and groan. But faithful old Thrung had come through for him again. That thick, gooey green paste he had smeared up his master's anus had indeed eased the searing pain. Not only that but much of the swelling seemed to have gone down also. Another day of this, thought Melchus, and I'll be back on my feet.
The old healer softly cleared his throat.
"Ahh, Master, it's time for another ahh, application."
"Is it really necessary?" Melchus asked with a sigh. "I told you I was improving."
"Quite so. But to finish the job it is wise that we continue the treatments."
"Very well," Melchus sighed again, his resignation evident. By now he knew
the drill. First he slowly, carefully slid back down on his stomach into the cot. Reaching
around behind with both hands, he gingerly parted the cheeks of his buttocks and then
gritted his teeth in grim anticipation of what was to follow. "Okay, Thrung," he
said, "let's get this over with."
Ever so slowly Iolaus raised his head out of the tall reeds and focused on the soldier now standing guard just a handful of paces away. It had taken him nearly a half an hour of stealthy crawling through the damp, black, stinking dirt to reach this point.
Just a little more...
Now Iolaus eased up on his haunches and began to edge in closer still. As near as he was now he had to be ready to spring to the attack in case of detection. As he closed in the sentry suddenly turned sideways and sneezed. For the first time Iolaus got a good view of his quarry's face. The soldier could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old. My gods! Iolaus gasped silently. He's just a boy.
His initial shock, however, soon turned to disgust. What kind of bastard would use boys to fight a war? This shocking revelation made the thought of what he might have to do even more distasteful. Boy or no, within just a few moments there was a chance this one might have to die. Xena had asked him to infiltrate the enemy camp and in order to carry out the mission he, one way or another, needed to secure that boy's uniform. This was a very dangerous assignment and he knew it but then again he had never been able to say no to Xena. Iolaus sincerely hoped it would not have to come to bloodshed.
Though he had much experience as a soldier and scout and had been exposed to violence for all his adult life Iolaus detested killing. It was not just because his great friend Hercules was opposed to it either. So many of his contemporaries considered the taking of another's life of no more significance than if they were picking their teeth but to him it was an abhorrent act. Yes he had killed--several times--but with each of these deaths by his hand he felt like a little piece of him had died also. C'mon, kid, he thought, don't turn around. Make this easy for me. Don't make me kill you.
He thought of the practically invincible Xena and wondered how she did it. How, after killing gods only knew how many, was she able to cope with that? Iolaus had met a lot of people, great and small, in his day and none of them, not king, not philosopher--not even his treasured Hercules had more inner strength than the fierce raven-haired beauty from Amphipolis. Darinius had once said she was a riddle inside an enigma wrapped up in a mystery and that about summed her up. He doubted in anyone, even her beloved Gabrielle, really knew her. All he knew was she was one of those individuals that happen along maybe once in a millennium that would have been brilliant at anything they tried. There was no telling what great works she might have written had she chose to do so. Had she been a healer she might have found the cure for any number of sicknesses by now. But events had made her a warrior and at that she had few, if any, peers.
Like a leopard springing upon its prey Iolaus launched himself forward. In one swift,
well practiced movement he clasped one hand over his victim's mouth and, using the hilt of
his sword, cracked him on the back of the head. Quickly stripping the unconscious sentry
of his uniform, Iolaus tightly bound him hand and foot with the leather straps Xena had
given him. He then peeled off his own clothing and donned that of the boy. This was one of
the few times he was grateful for his small stature. A hasty inspection of the area
revealed a dense thicket nearby and this is where Iolaus dragged the sentry. He was not
worried about the sentry being discovered missing any time soon because he had watched
them change shifts and figured he had at least two hours to work with. That, he hoped,
would be more than enough time. Once inside the thicket Iolaus covered him with old
branches and such. His final precaution was to rip off a chunk of his own shirt and stuff
it in the boy's mouth. He then put on the sentry's helmet, stuffed his own clothes in a
hollow stump, and melted into the forest. Soon it would be dark and he decided discretion
would be the better part of valor so he would wait until then before he made his attempt
to infiltrate the camp.
"I'm glad to see you are feeling so much better, Melchus."
The prince casually eyed the man who had just spoken these insincere words and said, "I'm touched by the noble Bladdok's concern for my health."
Bladdok nodded politely and replied, "It is always a great cause for alarm when one's supreme commander falls ill."
"Even for the next in line?" Melchus asked provocatively.
"You do me disservice," said Bladdok smoothly. "I have never given the great Melchus anything but my utmost loyalty and respect."
Lying son of a bitch, Melchus thought angrily. Looking at the man's faint smirk it took all his self control not to rise up and gut him where he stood. He knew well enough of Bladdok's enmity toward him but he had deemed it unwise to deal with the bastard at this time. It might cause a rift in his uneasy alliance with the Phrygians and that was something he could not afford. No, he would bide his time until his war of conquest was over and then he would take care of the invidious Bladdok and all those that had been foolish enough to believe his seductive lies.
Remain calm, Melchus chided himself. We will deal with this traitorous bastard in due course. Aloud he said to Bladdok, "So you have."
"Shall I call in the others now?" Bladdok asked.
Melchus casually adjusted the pillow beneath him and said, "By all means."
Bladdok glided to the front of the tent and beckoned for the nine other legion commanders to enter. After receiving their obligatory expressions of relief over his recovery Melchus got down to business. "Two days from now," he said, "we will renew our advance."
"What about the Aetolians?" asked the one known as Kraal.
"What about them?" Melchus echoed him nonchalantly.
"I think we ought to finish them off," said Kraal. "Don't you?"
"Have they moved at all since yesterday?" asked Melchus.
"No, my prince," replied Westrum, his chief of staff. "they have not. Instead of coming out to fight us like real warriors they choose to cower like vermin in those damn marshes."
"After the pounding we gave them at Brillis I do not blame them," said Melchus, chuckling softly. "However I have determined the Aetolian Army is an entity that no longer should cause us concern." He nodded to Westrum and his fawning lackey approached bearing the circular situation map which he flattened out upon the adjacent table. Then, tracing a long line on the map with his finger, he said, "At first light day after tomorrow we will begin executing a series of left obliques which will carry us safely around the Pindarian Marshes. Once clear we will drive straight for the Aetolian capital."
"But what about their army?" cried Bladdok. "We cannot just move eastward and leave five legions in our rear like that. It would be sheer madness."
"Bladdok, once Klonce interprets our movements he will have no alternative but to come out and fight. When he does..." Melchus picked up the dagger from the table and drove it into the map. "...we will destroy him." Neither he nor anyone else in the high command was aware that not only Klonce but all of Aetolia's legion commanders had perished in the bloody debacle at Brillis-or that Xena was now in command. "In the meantime we have fallen behind schedule. Within a week Graccus will be across the River Peneus and moving in to link up with us. We have a long, hot summer before us which will eventually serve to sap our army's strength. Therefore I want to be before the gates of Athens by the solstice."
As the men spoke they were completely unaware of the shadowy figure lying on the ground outside the back of the tent, listening through the small slit that had been cut into the tent fabric for just such a purpose.
"Melchus is right," said Wilsus, another of the commanders. "We have no reason for delay."
The shadow listened intently for a few more minutes to what turned out to be mere technical stuff, i.e. size of billets, new promotions, that sort of thing. Satisfied he had learned all he was going to the shadow slowly, very carefully began to work his way back away from the tent and into the dense thicket from whence he had come. Twice he had to stop and literally hold his breath in order to avoid detection by the camp guards. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to him, he made it back to the relative safety of the treeline. There he tossed his bulky helmet into the weeds and stripped off his heavy tunic. Somewhat ruefully Iolaus realized had not needed the uniform after all. Melchus' command tent had for some unexplained reason been pitched much closer to the edge of the camp than it should have been. Otherwise he would have not be able to make such excellent use of the nearby cover to get so close.
Although it was pitch black now he had no trouble returning to where he had stashed his
clothes. Iolaus was a night fighter of long standing and thus was able to easily the
negotiate many potential pratfalls moving through unfamiliar territory after dark offered.
He considered moving the hundred paces or so eastward to check the status of his young
captive but in the end decided against it. It had been nearly three hours since Iolaus had
left him there in the thicket and it was just possible the boy either might have either
worked himself free by now or perhaps even been discovered by his mates. There was even
the possibility someone might already be there, waiting for him to return and spring their
trap. "No thank you," he muttered as he donned his shirt. Just to be safe he
decided to take another route back to the Aetolian lines. Now, he thought, what was that
password again? Oh yeah.
In the dim light he saw them, two bulky shapes that did not quite mesh with their surroundings. Two guys, he thought. Have to be guards. He watched them from his concealed position for a few minutes checking for any suspicious activity on their part. There was none. Can't be too careful in this business, he told himself. After a couple more minutes he slowly stood up. You don't have all night all, you know. Xena's waiting for you.
Taking a deep breath, he stepped out into the moonlit clearing. Hope these guys know about the password, he thought.
"You there!" a voice called out. "Stop right where you are!"
Iolaus obeyed immediately and said, "Take me to Xena. She's waiting for my report."
The two figures separated and began to move toward him, each from a different angle. "Throw down that sword you've got and put your hands on your head," the voice commanded. Iolaus did as he was told.
"Move and you're dead," the other one warned. The two guards took up positions on either side of him.
"Hey, you're not one of us," the first guard observed after managing to get a look at Iolaus' dress.
"I'm a friend of Xena's," he explained. "She's expecting me."
"You think he's the one," his partner asked.
The first one plucked at Iolaus' shirt and said, "Nah, what would somebody like Xena see in a scurvy little mutt like this."
"Maybe we'd better ask him anyway," the other one suggested.
"Look you guys, I haven't got all night," said Iolaus, losing his patience. Already he was mentally preparing himself in case he had to take these two guys out. As it turned out it was not necessary.
Fully expecting him to fail, the first one said, "All right, we'll take you to her fella--if you can give us the counter sign.
"Hot," said the other man.
With a dung eating grin Iolaus replied, "Tub."
It had been a stroke Xena could not resist. "Maybe you won't forget that," she had told him.
No, he had thought, and I never will.
"I guess he's the one." The two men closed on him. One of them picked up the sword and handed it to him. "Sorry about that," he said to Iolaus.
"No sweat," replied Iolaus, "we've all got our jobs to do."
It took another half hour of anxiously wending through the treacherous marsh before Iolaus was finally deposited safely in front of Xena's tent. "Here ya are, fella," said the first guard.
The flap to the tent was pulled down but Iolaus could see the inside was well illuminated. Stemming the urge to barge in unannounced, he quietly rapped his knuckles on one of the poles.
From within that clear, unmistakable voice said, "Enter."
Xena was standing by the side of her cot dressed in one of the most sumptuous outfits Iolaus had ever seen.
"Where in Tartarus did you get that?" he asked, once he was able to lift his jaw off the ground.
"What's it look like?" she retorted. "It's the uniform of the Supreme Commander of the Aetolian Army, sort of 'altered' of course. King Aurilius had it made for me. Sort of as a peace offering I guess. I don't know how he knew what would fit me though." It was two pieces, made entirely of soft, black leather. The pants were a perfect fit for a warrior like her--not too tight to restrict movement but still snug enough to emphasize her ahh, "assets." The tunic was long sleeved with a lace up type neckline that plunged practically all the way to Egypt. Iolaus would have had to been blind not to notice Xena had not bothered to lace it up. A blood red sash was draped over her left shoulder and fastened at the waist. Overall the new look presented an almost sensually menacing effect. It was very becoming and very powerful. "Well?" she asked with a provocative little smirk. "What do you think?"
"You're not seriously considering wearing that are you?" he gasped.
"I'm thinkin' about it," she replied. "I kind of like it."
She was not. She liked the way it fit, the way it looked on her. She liked the power it exuded. It felt good on her, like...command. Xena was well aware of how much emphasis the Aetolians placed on symbolism and how strongly this imposing look would personify her authority over them. But if Iolaus was any indication, and he was, she rather suspected those that knew her well--read Gabrielle--would be appalled by her almost malefic new look. As for the umimpressible Darinius, who detested all forms of pompousness, he was liable to tell her to take it and shove it where the sun didn't shine. But her concern for Gabrielle was what counted and in the end she decided not to wear the uniform, much as she liked it. The last thing she wanted was to make the little bard, who even at that late date had a raw spot when it came to Xena's warlord past, uncomfortable around her. Too bad, Xena thought. I do like it.
"Yeah, Iolaus," she said aloud. "Just kidding." She strode over and stood before him. "So what did you find out?"
It was all he could do to keep from riveting his eyes to her chest. "Huh? What did you say?"
"What did you find out?" she patiently repeated.
"Oh, uh...yeah. Xena, they are moving."
"Day after tomorrow at first light," he said.
Damn, she cursed silently. She had hoped for one more day.
Iolaus brushed past her and walked over to her map. "They're going to slide by..." He traced a line on the heavy parchment map to the south and east. "...in this direction in an attempt to draw you out into the open."
"I knew it!" she said triumphantly. At once her nimble mind went to work calculating times and distances and lines of march. "No time to wait," she concluded. "It's now or never." She looked at her friend and said, "Good work. Now, are you up to doing another job for me?"
"Sure," he replied. "Name it."
Xena went to the tent opening. "Elston!" she barked.
The waiting aid leaped to his feet and rushed to his boss. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Saddle a good horse and bring it here," she commanded.
"Yes, ma'am." And he was gone.
Turning back to Iolaus, she said, "I need you to find Darinius and bring him here--tonight. He's supposed to be moving along the Boeotian Road so you should not have too much trouble finding him. If you leave now you ought to make it to him before dawn."
Iolaus nodded thoughtfully and then asked "What do you have in mind, Xena?"
"A little surprise for friend Melchus," she purred. In very short order Elston returned with a very fine looking bay horse. Xena walked Iolaus to his mount and put her hand on his arm. "Tell Darinius not to jack around, I need him here."
Iolaus deftly mounted the bay. "I will," he assured her, nodding.
She slipped her hand inside the horse's bridle and patted the horse's neck. "Oh, uh, and Iolaus...?"
From his perch Iolaus smiled down at her. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll bring her."
Xena closed her eyes in a slow blink expressing her gratitude. She then let go of the bridle and Iolaus was off. He traveled all night to Darinius' camp and his friendly face was there smiling down at me that early morning when Darinius' strong hand moved in to wake me up.
It took Iolaus, Darinius, two other soldiers and myself till almost midday to reach Xena's camp. As we rode into her camp she was there waiting for us. Immediately I was struck by how...different she looked. No, it did not have anything to do with the uniform that had so mesmerized Iolaus. She had discarded that just after he departed. One look at her and I could see she was close to exhaustion. I knew she had not slept one wink since last I saw her.
"Xena!" I cried, upon seeing her. She fingered a little wave to me and almost before the horse came to a stop I was off and moving to her side. "Are you all right?" I asked.
"I'm fine," she answered with a wink. I could feel her longing to take me into her arms for a real hello but right now there were other matters to be dealt with.
For his part Darinius, shrewd observer that he was, also noted Xena's fatigue. He did not even bother saying hello to her. Instead he rather sharply asked "When did you sleep last?"
"Sleep?" Xena smirked. "What's that?"
"Drop it, Darinius," she warned.
She should have known better. With gritted teeth he sidled to her and said, "You're going to be about as useful to us as tits on a boar if you keep insisting on acting like some damned twenty year old horse soldier. As overall commander you owe it to the rest of us to get the proper rest."
As he spoke I saw the anger flicker across her face. Uhh boy, I thought. "Damn it, Darinius," she growled, "don't be such an ass. I had to set things straight here. Rest was not an option." For one disturbing moment the two old enemies stood there scowling at each other. This is Cataria all over again, I thought.
But I was wrong for Darinius slowly began to grin and he then said, "Well, I hope the Supreme Commander understands I was merely expressing my opinion."
With a smile revealing amusement Xena replied, "If you can't, who can?"
I thought they both had worked very nicely to diffuse the situation. Darinius had swallowed his pride and recognized her authority, Xena in a backhanded way had expressed her gratitude to him for doing so.
"By the way," he added, "Marcus sends his compliments."
From the polite way she nodded to him I inferred she did not deem the affable Marcus to be much of a factor in her plans.
"Okay," said Darinius, "now that we've succeeding in thoroughly pissing each other off, maybe you can tell me what's on your mind."
Xena tilted her head toward the command tent. "Inside," she said tersely. Once inside she closed the tent flap and said, "Melchus is moving again, tomorrow morning."
"Toward the capital you think?" asked Darinius.
"Uhh huh. I went up there myself this morning and scouted their positions. Nothing much yet but you can tell they are getting ready to pull out."
"I'm impressed," said Darinius, only half in jest. "Obliques can be tricky stuff with a force that size." It was then he noticed Xena's map lying on the table. To a general the presence of a map is much like the call of a Siren. So naturally he walked over to take a look at it. "So," he wondered aloud, "what are you going to do about it?"
For both of them this was the moment of truth. There was no longer a place for any petty squabbling between the two of them. Xena was actually going to have to issue him orders and if he was to live up to his word to her he would have to obey them. "I want you to immediately turn all eight of your battalions north," she said, her voice now very business-like. "We're going to hit 'em where they ain't."
"We only brought seven," said Darinius. He then proceeded to explain why.
Xena nodded that she understood and went on. "Do you know Graccus?"
"Yeah, I know him," Darinius replied quietly. "The bastard was with Paulus at Thessaloniki. He was one of the few that got away."
"Well," said Xena, "he's comin' back. I have received intelligence that he is on his way here to link up with Melchus."
"Any idea how big his force is?" Darinius asked.
"It's my understanding he has two full legions with him," Xena answered.
"Where is he now?"
"I'm not one hundred per cent sure," said Xena. It was one of the few things Vlad had not been able to tell her...simply because he did not know.
"By what route are they coming?"
"Don't know that either," she said.
"All right, your best guess. Give me an objective."
Xena poked her finger hard against the map. "Here," she said. "Tricca. That's your objective."
"Of course, the fords," said Darinius admiringly.
"Exactly. It's the only place for twenty-five leagues on the River Peneus where an army can cross en masse."
"And you want me to there to prevent that."
"Yep. I want his ass safely bottled up until we're ready to deal with him," said Xena. "If you move right now you will be able to cross Melchus' line of march a full day ahead of him and be long gone by the time he gets there When he does find out you're there he will have to play catch up."
"Well?" she asked. "What do you think?"
"It's bold, very aggressive--brilliant." He shot her an amused little glance. "Who knows? It might even work."
"Thanks," she said wryly.
Darinius returned his attention to the map and for a couple of tense moments said nothing. "Let me ask you something," he said, finally. "What's to keep Melchus from peeling off a couple of legions to mask us as we move northward?"
Xena later would tell me this was one of the most agonizing moments of her life. Looking him squarely in the eye, she said, "To tell you the truth that's what I am counting on."
As he stood there listening to her explain why Darinius' face became like a marble slab--blank and impassive. The gods themselves only knew what he was thinking.
In typical Xena fashion she did not beat around the bush. "Darinius," she began, "I know Melchus. He's a good general and a tough warrior but he has his weaknesses. He likes to fight these set piece battles. As long as things go according to plan he does very well but do something unexpected, something that upsets his apple cart, and he has trouble adapting. We are in a perfect position to upend that cart of his. He has no idea yet you are here and I guarantee you the report of almost two full legions--legions he had not counting on facing mind you--crossing his line of march and streaking northward along his flank will stir him up but good."
"What makes you think he won't try to turn and swallow us up?" Darinius asked.
"Because I'm going to give him something else to worry about," she said grimly. "At the first sign of his army moving to oppose you I'm going come out and bust him in the ribs as hard as I can."
My heart fell like a stone upon hearing this.
"We'll be his big concern then," said Xena. "It's my belief that all the while he will expect you to turn at some point to turn and hit him on his flank. You might want to exploit that by making a feint or two but of course that's not what we are after. You will keep going north. I want you at Tricca by the new moon."
"But...Xena, that's only five days from now," Darinius reminded her.
"So it is," she replied.
He looked down at the map and very slowly began to shake his head. "What is it?" Xena asked.
"Are you sure you want to come out and fight on open ground?" he asked quietly.
"I don't want to," she said, "but I have no choice. We have to move swiftly and keep him off balance."
"Off balance? Xena, with the numbers he has he can damn near fall on his ass and still win."
"Nobody said it would be easy," she said.
"Let us join up with you and we'll fight 'em ten on seven," he urged. "I think we would stand a much better chance of winning that way."
"It's out of the question," she answered patiently. "Even if we do manage to stop him all he has to do is fall back and wait for Graccus. We stand no chance then."
"Maybe Thebes will--"
Xena cut him off. "There won't be any help from Thebes or anybody else." She looked to Iolaus and said, "Isn't that right?"
"She's probably right," Iolaus said dejectedly. "They will be too worried about their own skins."
Darinius continued to stare at the map as if he fully expected it to at any moment reveal some deep dark secret. "So it's up to us after all."
"Yep. We're the whole ball of wax," she said.
As he turned from the map to look at Xena I was struck by the look in his eyes. "I've more experience than you at this type of warfare," he said softly. "Why don't you let me fight the battle here and you..." He then nodded to Iolaus and me. "...all of you, go with Marcus and drive north."
Xena walked up behind him and stood close. "Can't do that," she said softly. "The Aetolians would never stand for it. You see they don't like you as much as I do." Of course she meant it as a joke but it was plain enough that his overt antipathy for the Aetolians was troubling her. She was concerned it might cause problems later on. And it almost did.
"Well there's no love lost on my end either," he said. He wasn't kidding either. Xena looked hard at him but said nothing.
Only later did it dawn on me, the real meaning of this little--almost invisible conversation they were engaged in. Darinius was not concerned with taking his boys north and splitting up the army. He knew they would do a good job whomever led them. He was not trying to supplant Xena at the last minute either. No, what he cared about was Xena and, by extension, us. In effect what he was offering her--us--was chance at survival. He figured the Army of Mymalar stood a much better chance of remaining intact and living to fight another day than did this demoralized, already beaten Aetolian bunch.
And Xena, with her amazing perceptiveness, understood it all. She later told me that at that moment, when in effect the sentient Darinius had offered to take her place, it struck a chord deep within her soul. "What he was really saying, Gabrielle," she would tell me later, "was he was willing to die in our place."
"So your mind is made up then," he said to her.
She replied with a faint smile. "Well you know me--stubborn."
"You damn sure are," he said admiringly.
"If it's any comfort to you you're not going to be having any picnic yourself," Xena told him. "Your men might end up fighting four legions simultaneously before it's said and done."
Darinius turned to her and one could just see the respect and admiration he held for this woman. "Madam," he said, very politely, "they are not my men. They are not even Marcus' men. As long as it's you who are in command they--we--are your men and if we are to go down we will all go down as friends--together."
I could feel the tears welling up within me and I saw Xena give him a look of near shock. I think she still had a difficult time believing anyone, aside from me, could care that deeply for her. She later told me she felt a sense of shame here because after hearing his sincere, heart-felt words her first thought had been, You son of a bitch, if I had only had you at Corinth. She did not know why, it had just popped into her head. Aloud she said to him, "Well let's hope it won't come to that."
Stubborn was the word all right. She just could not bring herself to say how much his words meant to her. It was here he again looked at the map. After a few moments he said, "Xena?"
"If I do get shadowed I am going to hit the bastards if the opportunity arises."
"Of course," she replied. "Just as long as they are not in a position to be supported by the main body. It is imperative for the Army of Mymalar to stay intact to oppose Graccus."
"Understood," he said.
"If you so much as sniff a battle I want to send a messenger to notify me," she said.
"I will," he said. "But by the time you get it we will almost assuredly already be engaged."
"Just so I know," she said. She moved next to him and eyed him curiously. "You have something on your mind, don't you?"
"Possibly," he said, almost serenely.
"You wanna tell me what it is?" Xena prodded.
"Can't," he replied, "it's a secret."
"Come on, Darinius," I urged, "tell us. Please." Darinius had never refused a "please" from me before--until now.
"Nuhh uh, it's a secret," he repeated. Oh for the love of Zeus, I thought.
"Suit yourself," said Xena, shrugging. "Just remember your orders and what your priorities are."
"Will do," he assured her.
It was then Xena patted him on the back and said, "Well I wish you could stay but..."
"I get it," he said with a sly grin. "Don't let the tent flap hit my ass on the way out, right?"
"Something like that," she said, finally smiling at him.
As soon as we stepped outside his two men came forward with his horse. "Good luck," said Xena, extending her arm.
Darinius took the offered hand and then clasped his other hand on top of it. "You too."
"Take care of yourself, you hear? I would sure miss taking your money at cards if you were to do something stupid like getting killed."
He released her and stepped back. "Beware, Xena, I've been practicing. I think I can beat you now," he said, mounting his horse.
"Surrrre," she scoffed. "When this is over I'll give you a chance to lose some more to me. I need a new saddle you know."
"I don't suppose you'd let Iolaus there come with me, would you?"
"Not a chance," Xena replied. "I need him here." She paused a beat and then said, "You're going to be my hammer, Darinius. You're going to bust up Melchus' army for me."
"Well, God willing, we'll do what we came here to do," he said. I thought it odd he said "god" instead of gods.
He nodded at her and then turned to me. "Good-bye, Gabrielle. Remember what we talked about." He winked at Iolaus and before I could reply he prodded his horse to life and he and his men were gone.
"Good-bye," I said, under my breath.
"What was that about?" Xena asked, after he was gone.
"Hmmm? Oh, nothing...well nothing important anyway." To my relief Xena let it go. In truth what we had talked about that last night at his home had been very important.
We had been talking about my favorite subject--Xena--when he had suddenly leaned over very close. To my surprise and then embarrassment he had said, "Gabrielle, no matter what she says she is going to be needing you now more than ever. Don't let her push you away. A pained look came over his face and slowly, delicately, he said, "We both know how...intense...she can become in the heat of battle. It will be up to you to keep her from going over the edge. If you have to lock on to one leg and make her drag you but don't let her do something she will regret later. There may come a time when yours may be the only voice of reason she'll hear."
"This has always been my worst nightmare," I said. "I mean, her at the head of a large army again."
"That's what I'm talking about," he said grimly. "If you see her doing something you don't..."
"I know, tell her," I said, filling out the sentence for him. "But, Darinius, I've seen her...like that. She may not listen."
"She will always listen to you, Gabrielle. You've got to do it. It's up to you to keep her head on straight around all those fawning generals--and they will once they see her genius. You've got to do it."
The echoes of "you've got to do it" were still reverberating in my head when we once more entered Xena's tent.
We no sooner got inside when a voice was heard from outside. "Permission to enter, ma'am."
Xena heaved a little sigh. "Enter," she said.
It was Templarion. "Xena, a message has arrived from King Aurilius. He says he will be arriving this evening to confer with you."
"Very well," replied Xena. After the captain departed Xena turned to Iolaus and said, "You must be worn out."
"No, I'm fine," he answered. "Really."
"You've been a big help to me, Iolaus," she told him.
Our friend smiled sheepishly. "Well..."
"I want you to get yourself some rest. You and I are going to make a little trip tonight. Tell Templarion I said to find you a place to sleep."
"That won't be necessary," said Iolaus. "Any shady place will do nicely." For an awkward moment he stood there simply looking at her.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Get going," she ordered.
"Oh uhh, yeah. Right."
"Come back tonight when the moon rises," she said. "I'll fill you in then on what we are going to do."
"Right," he said again. Our friend exited the tent leaving Xena and me alone together for the first time in what seemed like ages.
"What are you going to do, Xena?" I asked.
"Let's not talk about that now," she said with a smile. In the expression now on her face only her eyes bore any hint of what was to come next. She strode to the tent opening and stepped outside. "Elston!" I heard her bark.
The ever present aide jumped to his feet and approached. "Yes, ma'am?"
"I'm going to rest now. I want a guard posted at ten paces on either side of the tent. Unless we fall under attack no one, I mean no one, is to approach the tent, understand?"
"Do you wish I should find the young lady a place to stay?" he asked.
Xena glanced lasciviously at me. "No," she answered in that throaty voice. "She'll be with me." Gee, I thought, he doesn't have to be Plato to figure that one out.
"Very good, ma'am. I'll see to it at once."
Re-entering the tent, Xena pulled the flap down and tied it off. "There now," she said serenely, "that's much better." She then leisurely strolled over to where I was and began to fumble with her breastplate. "Would you help me with this?" she asked. It goes without saying, of course, that she did not really need my help with the armor. She could undo the darn thing with practically one finger. But oftentimes we both used this little charade as a convenient excuse to draw near to each other. This instance was no different.
"Of course," I said, already at work unfastening her sword and sheath. No sooner was the armor off when I felt her strong arms envelop me.
"I've missed you," she said huskily.
I did not reply but instead laid my head on her breast. My brave warrior lifted my chin up with the crook of her finger and gently, ever so sweetly, kissed me.
"Oh, Xena," I whispered breathlessly.
"Gabrielle," she murmured, "I can't wait. I've got to have you."
Her cot was too small and flimsy for the both of us so she took its two blankets off and spread them down on the large heavily woven mat that covered a good part of the tent floor. The next thing I knew her hands were eagerly pulling my loose fitting top up over my head. I didn't even bother with taking my boots off. Instead I merely untied the lacing to my skirt and let it drop to the floor. Again she moved in close, deftly wrapping her left arm around me to pull me nearer still while cupping my left breast with her other hand. She then lolled her head back and to the right exposing simply acres of her breathtakingly lovely neck to me.
Tiptoeing slightly, I put my lips to the alluring flesh and, ever so gently, nipped it with my teeth. "Mmmmmmmm, stop it. You're hurting me," she whimpered.
Between nips I whispered haughtily, "What's the matter? Is the big, bad warlord afraid to let her men see her with a little old hickey?"
"Shut up," she moaned. "I don't want to hear anymore about warlords and armies and generals for the present. What I want now is some hot sex with a certain luscious little Poteidaian."
I took my own sweet time undoing the straps to her garment. Call me a tease if you want but when she was really hot like this I did take a kind of perverse pleasure in watching her fuss and fidget. Sure enough, she soon said, "Come ooon, Gabrielle, hurry up."
Soon both of us were naked except for our boots. Xena reached to the back of my head and with a grip just forceful enough for me to feel it, took up a handful of hair. "Come here, you," she said. Again our lips met and the kiss was not so gentle this time. Inhaling so hard as to almost snort, my love-starved warrior pressed hard and drove her tongue deep into my own eager mouth.
Gods! She is really horny this time, I thought. Well, she wasn't the lone charioteer there. I was too.
Our lips still locked tightly, we both slowly sank down upon the blankets. Finally we broke apart giving each of us a chance to come up for air. We sat there drinking each other up with our eyes for a moment and then she reached up and very tenderly put a hand to my cheek. "Gabrielle," she said, "I love you more than life itself."
I knew she did but even after seven years it still sounded so wonderful to hear her say it. "Xena, my sweet warrior, love of my life. What would I do...where would I be without you?"
"Oh, Gabrielle," she whispered. Once more we kissed and at last my warrior slowly, methodically began to march south along my tingling body with her tongue first deliciously conquering those two soft little hills she loved so well and then, storming the valley between them, moved inexorably down toward her already very wet main objective.
"Oh Xena, ohh, Xena, ohhh, Ohhhhhhhhh....Xennaaaaaahhhhhhhhh..."
Darinius looked up from the map he had only just finished marking up and faced the man who was nominally his boss. "Well, Marcus," he said, tossing down his piece of charcoal, "what do you think?"
"Gods," the younger man gasped, obviously awed at the scale of the plan just been revealed to him, "does Xena really think we can pull this off?"
"The way she sees it we have no choice," said Darinius. "I have to admit I was also skeptical at first but the more I study this the more I'm convinced she's right."
"It seems to me she is making some very big assumptions here."
"Well there is certainly come risk, no doubt about that," said Darinius. "Considering what we're facing, however, again I don't see any other way. Marcus, Xena has fought this guy before. She reads him like a cheap scroll. Besides she has a certain, I don't know...feel...for these things."
"I'm not denying her abilities," said Marcus. "Everybody knows how brilliant she is. It's just that...damn, Darinius, if we are not careful here we could end up pinned against the River Peneus with at least two legions on one side and the gods only know how many on the other."
"I'm not going to let that happen," Darinius assured him. "I intend to hit these bastards at the first opportunity and ahhh, shall we say, dim their enthusiasm?"
"I don't know, Darinius," said Marcus, still not totally convinced.
"Look, Marcus, as I recall it was your idea to place me in tactical command here. Now am I in command or not?"
"Of course you are," his friend snorted.
"All right then. We gave our word to adhere to the concept of a unified command and for us that means Xena is in charge--not you, not me. Now we have our orders. If you want us to back out and fight Melchus by ourselves fine--just don't expect me to stand by and play the lute while the ship sinks."
"Just what the Tartarus is that supposed to mean?" Marcus demanded.
"To tell you the truth I have no idea," admitted Darinius. He smiled faintly and shrugged his shoulders. "It kind of sounded good at the time."
"I never said we were not going to do it," said Marcus quietly, "but as commanding general of this army I have every right to express my misgivings."
"Yeah," replied Darinius. "You most certainly do. Even Xena would allow you that. But the decision has been made for us and we are now honor bound to abide by it."
"So we are," said Marcus. "And so we will." He turned to the aide that had been silently bearing witness to this conversation and said, "Allenus, inform all battalion commanders they are ordered to assemble here in one hour."
After the aide was gone Marcus grinned at his old friend and said, "Well, our asses are on the Hippogriff now."
Darinius returned his grin and added, "Let us just hope we don't get thrown off."
Xena and I are alone, quietly fishing a meandering stream under a blue sky with puffy white clouds idly tracking their way overhead. Xena tells me a naughty joke and I laugh like I always do. She is sooo funny. Gods, why doesn't she allow others to see this side of her? I think. The laughter dies away and for a time all that can be heard is the quite rustle of the wind in the trees and the muted gurgling of the water in the stream.
At last I break the spell. "You know, Xena," I tell her, "I think I loved you before I ever even knew you."
I fully expect her to tell me how silly that sounds but instead she merely nods and says, "I know what you mean." Somehow I have never felt so content.
Suddenly I hook a fish--a big one. I strive to keep my pole up high but the big old fish is proving to be too much for me. "Xena," I cry out, "help me!"
There is no answer.
"Xena!" I turn to her but at first I do not see her. My worthy opponent snaps my line and gets away. "Damn it, Xena, I bark angrily. "Where are you?"
"Here," a faint voice replies. It is Xena's.
Something...wrong. Oh dear gods! Something is wrong!
There! Lying on the warm sand...is Xena. As I rush to her I see the sand around her is soaked with...blood. Her blood. "Xena!" I shriek. I see the arrow protruding mockingly from her chest--a vile, most hideous thing. I crash to my knees beside her, tears already streaming down my cheeks.
"Gabrielle," she gasps, "I...I love you." I am denied even the chance to say good-bye to her for now she takes one last desperate gulp...and dies.
The grief is unbearable. I am...............alone.
Now I look up and see a dozen men, armed with swords and roaring foul epithets, charge toward us from out of the nearby bushes. So this is how it finally ends, I think. As I sit there numbly holding her blood stained hand I already know what I must do. After all, if by some miracle I could defeat these men what could life possibly hold for me now that the only thing that really mattered in it has been so cruelly plucked away from me? I bend over and lightly kiss those full lips I know so well. By now I am covered with her blood but I do not care. In fact I no longer care about anything. With a nod of determination I lean over and pull her sword from its scabbard. Edging as close as possible to my dead lover, I hold the hilt of the deadly weapon at arm's length, its sharp point pressed against my stomach--already breaking skin.
"Wait for me, Xena," I softly sob as I fall forward....
My eyes snapped open and I bolted upright from the soft pallet. For a few dizzying moments my eyes dart wildly about the now softly illuminated tent. Where am I? I heard the low murmur of voices outside and I wanted to arise to investigate but my trembling legs would not obey me. It was only a dream, I thought. A horrible, terrifying dream but a dream nevertheless. Thank the gods!
It was at this moment that Xena entered the tent. At once she sensed something was amiss. "Gabrielle," she asked, seeing me awake, "are you all right?"
She walked over and knelt down beside me. "Why you're as pale as marble." She touched the back of her hand to my damp cheek. "Did you have a nightmare or something?" she asked.
"Or something," I replied shakily.
She smiled at me and said, "Well you'll feel better once you've had something to eat."
"I'm not hungry," I protested.
"Sure you are." The smile was still there but the voice was firm.
I did not feel like arguing with her so I let it go. "Did you manage to get any sleep?" I asked.
"A couple of hours." She flashed a devilish little grin at me and said, "You wore me out you know."
Although making love with Xena was always a wonderful experience it had been particularly exquisite on this occasion. She had been as overwhelming as ever and yet so incredibly tender also. At first I thought it because of our past few days apart but then I came to realize it was not that at all. No, what she was doing was in effect savoring our passion for the last time before she got down to the rough, dirty business of running a war. "Don't let her push you away."
"Well," I said teasingly, "anything to please the supreme commander."
"Aww stop it," she said softly. For some reason the thought just popped into my head. She is so beautiful! Her smile faded and I saw an almost pained expression descend on her face. "Gabrielle..."
Here it comes, I thought. The kiss off. Well not so fast, Warrior Princess. "Xena!" I blurted out, "I wanna help."
"You will," she said. "Just like always."
"No no no," I insisted, "none of that stuff. I want to help.
For a moment she looked at me as if I had at least two heads. "Tell me you're not saying you want to fight," she said, her voice now with an unmistakable edge to it.
"If I have to."
"Forget it!" she said, her voice rising. She got to her feet and looked down, towering over me. The effect was not lost on me. "This is the same gods be damned discussion we had back there in Dolopes," she growled. "Remember?"
"And I'm just as determined now as I was then." I then heaved a deep sigh and said, "All right then I won't fight--unless I have to. But, Xena, don't you have something for me? Isn't there some way I can help you?"
"There's going to be a lot wounded--"
"Nuts to that," I said, cutting her off. "Like you just said we've been all over this before. Besides, if this fight is as half as big as you say it's going to be the casualties will be too much for anybody to handle. I'm sick and tired of doing triage. No, what I want is a job that when this is over I can look back and say I was of help to you." I thought those icy blue eyes were going to bore a hole right through me. For twenty, thirty seconds she just stood there, saying nothing. It was not often that I was the one on the receiving end of one of her "looks" but when I was I found it no less discomforting than anybody else did.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she said, "I'll...think of something."
"Thank you," I replied tartly.
"But it will have to be something that allows you to remain here, and not go anywhere near the battlefield," she said sternly.
"I understand." I stood up and lightly punched her on the arm. "Thanks, Xena."
"Uhh huhhh." She looked deeply into my eyes once more and this time all I saw was love. "Gabrielle," she began, "by late tomorrow or the day after for sure we are going to be in battle with Melchus. It may well be that I won't see you for awhile when it does."
"Will you join in the fighting?" I asked uneasily. Of course she would, I thought, sooner or later.
"Yeah," she said quietly. "When Bowber makes his assault I'm going to be there with him. I think the other four legion commanders are capable enough but I have my doubts about First Legion."
"Xena, what happens if we..."
"Lose? I haven't had time to think about that yet," she said. She paused for a moment and then continued. "Gabrielle, if the worst does happen I want you to promise me you will go into marsh. You can hide there and save yourself."
"Xena, you know I can't do that. I won't leave you." I really did not want to get into yet another of these debates about my leaving her. Fortunately I did not have to for it was at this very moment Templarion appeared in front of the tent.
"Xena, King Aurilius has arrived."
Instantly the soft, caring eyes hardened and I saw the muscles in her tighten. "Should I leave and let you two talk in private?" I asked.
"Not if you don't want to," replied Xena. "Anything he says to me he can say to you."
"That's okay," I said. "Besides I'm getting kind of hungry after all."
She squinted her eyes slightly and pulled up one corner of her mouth in that little expression of amusement I had seen a thousand times before. "Fine. Just don't wander off and get into trouble, okay?"
"Who, meee?" I inquired innocently, pointing to myself. "Get into trouble? Surely you must be mistaking me for someone else."
"Of course, how silly of me," she countered. "I was thinking of that other pesky little blonde with the green eyes."
Darn it! I never could get the best of her in these little exchanges. Together we stepped outside the tent and, sure enough, we saw several men approaching.
"That would be Aurilius," said Xena.
I nodded and touched her lightly on the elbow. "Have fun."
"Loads," she replied tersely. "Tell Elston over there you're hungry and he will take care of the rest."
So while Xena and Aurilius paired off to talk inside the tent I made my way over to the camp fire Xena had so casually nodded toward. Sitting around the fire were three of the roughest, meanest looking fellows I had ever seen. "Umm, excuse me," I said. "Which one of you is Elston?"
Naturally the biggest and meanest looking one of the bunch was the one that stood up and said, "I am."
Figures. "Hi, I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Gabrielle."
The big soldier looked hard at me for a moment and then shifted his eyes up and down my seemingly ever shrinking frame. "You're Xena's little friend, aren't you?"
"Uhh yeah, that's me all right."
"Did she sent you to fetch me?"
"Ahh no. Actually she said you were the one I should see about getting some..." Damn but I felt stupid. "...food."
For a moment his face remained eerily expressionless but then a smile slowly began to form on his lips. "Little lady," he said, "I think we can do that." He looked down at the man sitting on his right. "Cleon!"
"You heard the young lady. Round her up something to eat."
Cleon rose to his feet and said, "I'll get right on it." And he was off.
Elston gestured for me to for me to take up the now vacant space by the fire. "Sit down, Gabrielle."
He waited until I was settled in and then asked "So tell me, how long have you known her?"
"Xena? Just a little over seven years," I said.
"How did you two meet?"
"She saved my village from a warlord named Draco," I replied. "And then when she left I went with her."
"Ran away huh?"
What business is it of yours? I thought. However I did not say that. Instead I icily said, "No, I would say it was more a case of my running toward something."
"I see. Pardon my saying so but you look a little on the puny side to be a warrior," he said, his eyes twinkling.
"If you must know I'm not," I said. "I mean, not how you think of one anyway. Yeah I know how to fight but as for busting the heads of impolite hosts...well that's Xena's department."
I think he got the gist of my little message. "Sorry, Miss," he said, "I meant no offense."
"What I really am," I said, "is a bard."
Elston smiled ruefully and said, "I don't know about Actyon here but I sure could stand to hear a good story right about now. We sure haven't had too much to smile about the last few days."
"Don't worry," I said to him, "Xena will come through. She always does."
"I don't know if even having the mighty Warrior Princess lead us into battle will be enough," he said quietly.
Actyon continued to say nothing, instead he merely stared into the fire as before. I realized these men were, like me, scared individuals who would much rather be some place else right now. I wondered if most of Melchus' men did not feel the same way. It seemed such a waste that so many were going to have to die here. Will it ever end? I wondered. Of course not. Not as long as men continued not only to covet what their neighbor had, but be willing to strike him down in order to gain it. I realized there was not much chance a nobody like me could make a difference but if there was one thing I had learned from Xena it was to never, ever, give up. If I could help these men forget their fear and maybe lift their hearts even for a little while...well at least that would be something. As Xena once told me not all of the important victories in life are big ones. Well so be it.
I stood up and, clasping my hands together, assumed my best bardic pose.
"This," I began, "is a story of two brothers, one named Castor, the other
Pollux..." If the reader were to ask anyone that knew me well in those long ago days
of my youth they would tell you that when I got started on a story I tended to get a
little carried away. Sometimes I even went so far as to act out all the parts myself. This
night was one of those occasions. As I delved deeper into the tragic tale of brotherly
devotion I became so completely enwrapped in relating it I did not notice when other men
slowly began to abandon their own camp fires and congregate about ours. "...and so
great Zeus rewarded the great love the brothers had for each other by placing them among
the stars as Gemini the Twins."
Aurilius took the offered chair and sat down while Xena contented herself with half-sitting on her map table. "I should have thought you would be wearing the uniform I sent you," he said. "Did it not please you?"
"Too fancy for a country girl like me," she said wryly.
"I want you to know I bear no ill feelings toward you over our little ahh, tiff, the other day," said the king.
"That's good to hear," said Xena. However she pointedly did not make the same remark to him.
"One of my counsels spoke with a couple of your new legion commanders today," he said.
Xena raised an eyebrow and looked at him charily. "Oh?" She did not like the idea of him going behind her back.
"Yes. It seems you have made quite an impression on them. I congratulate you."
"Save your plaudits for when we get some victories," she said. "We haven't done a damn thing yet but sit here and sweat."
"But still, with Darinius here now by your side the situation is much brighter is it not? By the way, where is he? I suppose I really should swallow my pride and thank him for coming here. Please send for him."
Barely able to suppress a smirk, Xena said, "I'm afraid that's not possible at the moment."
"What do you mean?"
"He is not here," said Xena. "In fact I'd say that by now he is probably a good ten leagues or so away."
"But...I thought--he...you said..."
"Don't blow your packing," said Xena. "He's acting on orders from me."
"But where could you be possibly sending him?"
"North," she said tersely. Already she had made up her mind that was all the information she was going to impart to him. It was not so much that she mistrusted him but those shady characters that surrounded him at court. For all she knew there might be a spy among them.
"North? But that's right into the jaws of Melchus' army. His army will be crushed to pieces."
"Not if we play our cards right," Xena countered. "At the very worst he will have to face four, maybe five legions and not all of them will be at once."
"No matter how you slice it, Xena, he is going to be outnumbered," said Aurilius.
"Yeah," Xena retorted wryly. "The very same way a wolf in a sheep pen is outnumbered."
"What, may I ask, is his purpose for being there?"
"To execute hit and run tactics against Melchus," she lied. "That's all I can say about it right now."
Aurilius sat quietly for a few moments pondering the ramifications of Xena's outrageous move. For her part Xena was content to let him sit there and stew in his own juices. She did not want him or his cronies hanging around getting in the way.
"When do you think Melchus will move?" he asked.
"Don't know," she lied again. "But we are pretty well organized now so we should be ready to handle it when he does."
Over the next twenty minutes or so the two of them relegated their conversation to strained, uncomfortable small talk about the army in general. It did not take great discernment on Aurilius' part for him to sense the animus this striking woman felt for him. Why does she dislike me so?" he wondered. Not everybody had it in them to be a great warrior like her. The longer he tarried the more muted their talk became. At last he stood up and, with a weak smile, said, "I must be returning to the capital now."
"If I were you," Xena said, eyeing him intently, "I would start preparing for a siege. Either that or abandoning the capital entirely."
"I shall take that under advisement," he replied coolly. Damn her arrogance! he raged inwardly.
Just to be polite Xena accompanied him outside and waited while his guards brought up his horse.
"What's going on over there?" Aurilius asked, pointing to a large gathering of men across the way.
The first thing that came to Xena's mind was it must be a fight. Soldiers were always getting into one kind of scrape or another. It was only natural men thrown so closely together like that for such extended periods of time would get on each other's nerves once in a while. "Templarion!" she barked out.
"What the Tartarus is going on over there?"
"Ah well, it's..."
"Good bye, Xena," Aurilius, now mounted, interrupted. "Tell my men that my thoughts and prayers are with them."
What a load of bullshit, she thought angrily. You don't care whether these poor bastards live or die--just as long as they save your sorry ass. Besides, they are no more your men now than they are Templarion's.
However she did not say any of that to him. Instead she merely said, "I'm sure they already know that."
As soon as the king and his entourage were gone Xena once again turned her wrath on Templarion. Pointing to the large crowd, she growled, "Don't you know anything about maintaining discipline? What's the matter with you?"
"But, ma'am, I--"
"If you want anything done..." As Xena began to walk toward the crowd it was all the unnerved captain could do to keep up with her long, purposeful strides.
"I don't want any excuses, Captain," she muttered. Reaching the perimeter of the group she took a man by the shoulders and roughly pulled him aside. "Get back to your post," she said fiercely, "or I'll--"
It was then she heard it...emanating from within the center of this mass of humanity was the sound of muted cheers and laughter--and with it, a softer voice--Gabrielle's. Xena now quietly began to work her way through the men. Naturally when they recognized it was she who was gently shouldering her way past them they respectfully parted to make way for her.
"...and so, using only the stringer of fish, Xena completely routed the ruffians."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," said Templarion. "The men don't mean any harm. They're just listening to your friend."
Once Xena had penetrated the thick ring of men and reached its inner circle she saw she was to the right and a little bit behind the bard. Hence Gabrielle could not see her. As her bard weaved her story Xena swept her eyes over the faces of the enraptured men. Already Gabrielle had captured them.
"Would you like some more chicken, Gabrielle?" someone, probably Elston, asked.
"How about some more cider?" another asked.
"We still have some of that bread left," still another said.
Xena chuckled very softly when Gabrielle started to speak but issued forth a small burp instead. The bard giggled and put her fingers daintily to her lips. "Ohhhmmmm. Excuse me. Ahh no thank you," she said. "I'm quite full actually."
She does it so easily, marveled Xena.
"Gabrielle, do you know Hero and Leander?" someone asked.
"Of course," the bard replied smugly.
Better end this now, thought Xena, else they'll keep her here all night.
"Tell us about Perseus," cried another.
"No. Jason and the Argonauts," someone else entreated.
"Oh," I said, "that's one of my favorites." I was having a wonderful time. Never before had I spoken in front of such a large group--not even at the bard contest in Thebes had there been this many.
Behind me and off to my right I heard that clear unmistakable voice of Xena's say, "I think that's enough for tonight."
"Xena," I said happily, turning to her. "I was just telling these guys about some of your adventures."
"You mean our adventures, don't you?" she asked.
"Well, you gotta admit the part you play in them is much more interesting," I told her.
"I imagine they have heard enough about my amazing exploits for one night," she said very dryly. Turning to the men, she said, "Break it up, boys. Go on back to your own billets."
As the crowd began to disperse several of them passed by me. A young man, no more than twenty, said, "Do you think we can do this again sometime, Gabrielle?"
"I hope so," I said sincerely.
"You tell a fine story, Miss," a gruff voice said. To my surprise it was Actyon. Darn if that wasn't the first thing he had said the whole time.
"Thank you, Actyon. I'm glad you liked 'em."
"It felt just as real as if I were there," said another.
Before long the men had melted back into the darkness, each returning to his own particular spot.
"Looks like you made quite an impression," said Xena.
"They're good guys," I said. And they were too.
"Let's hope they're good soldiers as well," said Xena.
As we started back toward the tent I asked her "So, have you given any more thought as to what I can do to help?"
"As a matter of fact I have," she replied. "I'm going to put you in charge of communications."
"Communications huh? Hmmm, I like that," I said. I had to admit it sounded perfect for somebody like me. "What do I do?" I asked.
"You'll be responsible for managing all the runners as they go out to relay. messages back and forth to the different commands. It will be your job to make sure they keep me abreast of what's happening to the others. Now I needn't tell you how important that is, Gabrielle. So do you think you can handle that?"
"I can do that," I assured her. "When do you want me to start?"
"Don't worry about it now. You can start in the morning," she said. "Tonight you are to get a good night's sleep--with me. It may be the last one either of us has for quite some time."
For my part I doubted if either one of us would sleep much this night.
As we started to enter the tent Xena paused for a moment and looked over her shoulder.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Nothing," she replied. Actually it was something. She was thinking it was time for Iolaus to show up.
In very short order Iolaus did show up and together he and Xena slipped
out of the camp and into the darkness. **********
Iolaus took hold of Xena's strong arm and pulled himself up out the stream. "Damn," he whispered, "that water is cold!" Once out he followed Xena's example and stretched out on his stomach to rest for a few moments. Thankfully this spring night was quite mild so they did not have to concern themselves too much. Now that they were out of the water they would fine. Still, wading along the stream for five hundred paces in waist deep water had been quite an experience. Xena, he thought, you're going to owe me big time for this one. From that moment she had imparted to him what they were going to do he had realized this was going to be no walk in the agora. This was to be serious business. Here they were now, a good three leagues from safety with ten enemy legions all around them--out there somewhere in the darkness. If they should happen to blunder into an enemy patrol...well, with Xena along it was liable to get very messy.
Their mission on this moonlit night was reconnaissance. On her map Xena had pointed out to him a collection of low, rolling hills northeast of the marsh. Their job, she had told him, was to reconnoiter those hills and the area immediately surrounding them. Specifically she wanted to learn just how high those hills were, how firm the surrounding ground was, and above all she wanted to know more about what kind of cover there was in the area.
Before they left each of them had carefully memorized the landmarks that would lead them to their objective and there, rising up out of the moonlight, was the old abandoned temple that served as the last marker. Now, we turn due east, he told himself. Xena took one glance up at Polaris to set her bearings and off they went. Just over one thousand paces later they came to a small planted field and, once across, they then eased their way through a very large stand of laurel trees. Xena said nothing but Iolaus could tell she was pleased with what she saw. It took them almost a half turn of the hour glass to traverse the laurel grove but after at last popping out on the other side, they saw their goal. The hills.
Here Xena whispered in his ear that they should separate and, following her instructions, Iolaus for then next hour carefully worked his way over, around, and across the low knots of dirt. As far as he was concerned that was all they were really. After looking them over carefully he could not understand why Xena was so interested in them. As best he could tell none of them were more than fifty paces high. By now he had come to the conclusion that no one, not even her, could utilize these lumps to their advantage. As he started down the far side, the dark side, of one of the last hills, he did not see the marmot hole obscured by the shadows.
Stepping directly into it, his ankle turned over and he felt first the subsequent POP! The pain was severe enough to cause him to lose his balance. As he went down he desperately tried to get his hands under him to break the fall but the only thing this resulted in was a crushing pain in his left wrist once impact was made. For a moment he lay there, almost to scared to move. You idiot! he rebuked himself, How could you have missed that? But of course, you didn't miss it did you, dumbass? Slowly, very gingerly, he drew himself up into a sitting position. Already he knew his wrist was much worse off than his ankle. Carefully he traced the fingers of his other hand over it. No doubt about it, the thing was starting to swell. Is it broken? he wondered.
Striving mightily to suppress a groan, Iolaus slowly got to his feet. "Damn it!" he cursed under his breath. "Of all the stupid luck. Why did this have to happen now?" Although the pain in his ankle was considerable he found he could walk without too much of a limp. Upon reaching the base of the hill he ran through all his options and decided it would be best if he made his way back to the rendezvous point and waited for Xena. Carefully he began to pick his way among the hills. Finally he reached the spot where they were to meet. There he sat down upon the ground and leaned up against an old log. He had not been there five minutes when he felt a hand upon his shoulder.
"Let's go," Xena whispered.
Iolaus prided himself on his night skills but Xena had moved in on him as if he were stone deaf. She had been like a ghost and he knew well enough that had she been a hostile he would have been dead without ever knowing what hit him.
As soon as her friend stood up Xena recognized something was wrong. "What happened?" she asked.
"Awww I stepped in a stupid hole," came Iolaus' apologetic reply.
"Can you walk?"
"Good. Then let's get out of here."
Moving cautiously, they began to retrace their route away from the hills. Of course Xena led the way and more than once Iolaus was forced to lay his hand on her shoulder to steady himself.
"You okay?" she asked after the latest of these occasions.
"Yeah," he replied. "Sorry about that."
Without looking back Xena said, "Don't worry about it." Soon they were back across the field and were almost to the temple when suddenly Xena froze.
"What is it?" Iolaus whispered.
"Voices," Xena replied tersely. "Headed this way."
Strain as he might Iolaus could not hear a thing. "How many?" he asked.
"I've heard three different voices for sure," she said. "There may be more."
"It's not a welcoming committee."
Quickly Xena scanned the surrounding countryside. There were caught in the open under a bright moon and with Iolaus' bad leg there was no way they could make it to cover before being discovered. In a heartbeat Xena knew what she had to do. In a lightning quick maneuver she swept Iolaus' good leg out from under him. Once Iolaus was down on his stomach Xena knelt down, putting one knee in the small of his back. Leaning forward, she loudly whispered, "Stay here and don't move. And don't even think about following me, ya got that?"
It had all happened so quickly. "Got it," he answered. With this incredible woman bearing down hard on top of him what else was he going to stay?
"Good. Just lay low and wait till I get back. I won't be long."
Iolaus knew what she was about to do. He also realized why she had reacted like she had. Once he had seen that Xena intended to fight he would have been honor bound to help her, bad leg or no. This was just Xena's way of telling him she would take care of it. She had simply put the matter to rest before it ever had a chance to come up. "I'll be here," he whispered.
Though he could not see it, Xena flashed an approving smile at him. She then patted him on the head and within a second or two vanished into the night.
It was not long coming. Off in the distance Iolaus soon heard first cries of alarm, then anger, and finally panic. He heard the unmistakable Whang! of sword of sword followed by guttural cries of agony. The sounds of the unequal battle lasted only moments then...silence. By the moonlight he soon made out a graceful, athletic figure approaching. It was, of course, Xena. Soon she was by his side, helping him to his feet.
"How many were there?" he asked.
"Five," she replied matter-of-factly. "Now, let's get out of here. There's no telling how many more patrols are skulking around out here."
As he laid his hand on her forearm to steady himself Iolaus felt something damp and slightly sticky. Blood, he thought.
It was blood. Xena had it all over her arms. In finishing off the last of her foes she had rammed her sword straight into his heart with the inevitable result of blood spurting everywhere. "Gods, Xena!" he whispered. "What did you do?"
"What do you think?" she replied sharply. Iolaus said no more but Xena took him by the arm and squeezed hard. "The more of these bastards we kill now," she said, "the fewer we'll have to kill later. Now come on."
The dawn broke crisp and clear bringing with it that wondrous sense of renewal that all nature and its creatures seemed to revel in. For Darinius too this was a magical time of day. He loved these still hours when the light was just beginning to reassert its dominion over the darkness. It was his favorite time of day--always had been, ever since he could remember.
As he stood there with his hand on the bridle of his horse, Scraps, watching the column quietly slide by, he was reminded of something Gabrielle had once recited to him on a long ago morning much like this one.
"Behold great Phoebus climb the sky,
'Bove earth, and clouds and, mountains high,
With blazing chariot he takes to flight,
To return the day and repel the night."
My God, he thought, the kid does have a way with words.
Since midnight the army had been on the move. Though never certain as to what the outcome of the impending battle or battles would be, Darinius knew one thing to be an absolute fact. Some--perhaps many--of these sturdy young man would not be going home when it was over. Looking in the faces as they silently passed, it was no comfort to him that he recognized so very many of them. A few were like he was, a veteran since Day One, many more were the sons and a few now were even the grandsons of those men who had fought and, yes, died along side him. For many of them the army was more than just an instrument of policy, it was their home. And from Pentius, the boyhood friend that had been killed in the first minute of the first battle so long ago, to the charmed Delopides, who had been in the thick of every single battle without ever receiving so much as a bruise, Darinius was proud of them all.
He was still standing there when Marcus rode up. "Morning, Darinius," he said. "I trust all is well."
His second-in-command gave him a short nod in reply and said, "So far, so good.""
Marcus stood up in his stirrups and swept his eyes over the long column. "The men are making good time," he observed.
"Yes they are. And we're going to take advantage of that," said Darinius. He squinted and looked up at his boss and said, "I plan on marching them all day."
"Is that wise?" Marcus asked. "We don't want to wear them out, you know."
"Can't be helped," replied Darinius. "I want our ass long gone from here by the time Melchus' advanced guard comes through.
"That makes sense," conceded Marcus. "Still, I would feel a lot better if we were moving up by night."
"So would I," said Darinius. "After all, that's what we do best. But Xena's whole idea is for us to be spotted...after we've moved well north of course."
"Do you really believe Melchus will bite?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Darinius. "Xena seems to think so. I'm not as positive about this as she is but I trust her judgment."
"So Melchus could just ball up and press on then," said Marcus.
Darinius parted his lips in a determined grin and said, "Oh no, we're not going to let him do that."
Melchus tossed aside the last of the chicken he had been busying himself with and arose from his chair. It was time. "Tell them I will see them now, Westrum," he said to his chief of staff.
"As you wish, my prince."
Melchus wiped grease from his hands on the back of his trousers and then watched as his generals one by one filed into his tent. Once they were all assembled he briefly made eye contact with each one of them before speaking. "Men, tomorrow morning at dawn we resume our glorious march. Kraal, your army will be the spearhead. Bladdok, yours will move in echelon on his right flank in support. Adlas, you will take the left flank. And make damn sure you conform to Kraal's movements this time. I don't want any more two league wide gaps like we had after Anactorium, you understand?"
"Perfectly," replied the chagrined Adlas. He had hoped Melchus would not this particular lapse in judgment up. "I can assure you it will not happen again, Melchus."
"It had better not. Now, the movement will be in a general south by southeasterly direction with the objective being the Aetolian capital. This will be accomplished through a series of left obliques which will be executed at Kraal's discretion. Are there any questions?"
"Should I take any special precautions in the event Klonce's swamp rats get up enough balls to come out and fight us?" asked Bladdok.
"No," replied Melchus. "Do nothing to discourage him. We want the bastard to come out and fight.
"Very well," said Bladdok. "It will be as you wish."
"Is there anything else?" Melchus asked. No one spoke. "All right then. By this time tomorrow night I will expect us to be here," he said, pointing to a position on the map.
"That's quite a distance to march in one day," allowed Marsinius, another of his commanders.
"We can do it," replied Melchus. "Notify all commands that the men are to march with only their weapons and their water. All personal effects are to be loaded onto the supply wagons."
"Yes, sir," they all replied.
"Men, I do not have to tell you how critical the next few days will be. I want the Aetolian capital in my hands before Graccus gets here. The more we take now the less we have to share with them." All around were nods of agreement. "That's all I have for now. See to your battalions, men."
"How does it feel?" asked Xena as her nimble fingers probed his wrist.
"Like somebody's built a fire in it," came Iolaus' grimacing reply. "Hey, watch it will you?" he yelped as Xena pressed against a particularly sensitive area.
"Is it broken?" I asked.
"No," pronounced Xena, "it's not broken. But it is sprained very badly." She looked directly at him and added, "That hand's going to be practically useless to you for a couple of days.
Our friend shrugged in good natured resignation and said, "Well, it's not the first time I've been stuck with only one good arm. Good thing it wasn't my sword hand."
"By the way, how's your ankle?" I asked.
Iolaus stood up and did a very pitiful imitation of an Oraclian dancer and said, "Does this answer your question, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah, it does," I said. "From the looks of it you're going to be crippled for life."
"Oh, that's a good one," he said with mock indignance.
"Well crippled or not you're not going to be of much use to me with that arm of yours being what it is," said Xena. "Iolaus, in the morning I want you to go with Gabrielle. You can help her."
Naturally this floated about as well as a raft made of stone. "Not a chance," he said. "You're not sticking me in some backwater job with on the eve of battle." Realizing then what he had said, he quickly turned to me and added, "Sorry, Gabrielle, I meant no offense to you of course."
"Ioluaaaaas, you'll do what I tell you to do," said Xena. "If I say for you to go with Gabrielle, you will go with Gabrielle.
"The battlefield is a big place, Xena," retorted our friend. "Not even you can be every place at once. I expect I can find my own little part of it."
Xena knew it was no use. Outside of hog tying him there was no way she was going to keep him out of the fighting. The guy's courage and sense of duty just would not allow him to linger back. "You are a stubborn ass, you know that?"
"Talk about the pot calling the kettle black," he shot back at her.
"All right, smart guy," she growled, "that does it. Tomorrow you'll be coming with me. At least that way I can keep you out of trouble." She made a little face and added, "You think you can do that?"
"Oh, I suppose," he replied airily. "I mean, after all, somebody has to be there to protect you."
"How would you like me to make that bum arm of yours part of a matched set?" she purred. "With maybe a couple of broken kneecaps thrown in for good measure."
"Ah, no thanks," he replied. "One is quite enough, thank you."
"I thought so." She looked up at the stars and said, "It will be daylight before you know it. I suggest we all try to get some sleep."
Later, as I nuzzled against her on our pallet in the tent, I couldn't help thinking how unreal this all seemed. I mean I knew we were on the eve of some great battle and yet it was almost like we were part of some drama. It was like at any moment I expected someone to call out, "That's enough rehearsal for today, you can go home now." But no matter how I wished it to be so that was not going to happen. On the morrow or the next day at the latest Xena was going to lead a great army into battle against a much larger army--not greater that her's--just larger. Her men, for they were now undisputedly her men, had regained much of their spirit under her and now seemed to be spoiling for another go at Melchus and his boys. By now Darinius was driving hard northward and was sure to soon be causing much consternation in Melchus' headquarters. While the situation still very much favored Melchus' army I sensed that Xena was beginning to think we actually had a chance.
I softly kissed my great warrior on the cheek and whispered, "Good night, Xena." I then rolled over into my usual position--on my side, back to her, my butt pressed hard against her tummy.
As was her habit she swung her arm over my waist and snuggled close. "Night,"
she said simply.
Just after sunrise I felt a hand gently shaking my shoulder. "Gabrielle, wake up." It was Xena.
"Is this it?" I asked, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. "Has the battle started?"
"Not yet, but it won't be long now," she said. "Melchus is moving."
Continued in Spring: Part 3
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