For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, and Book III: The Mytilene Debate, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
The house seemed peaceful, that surface sheen of normality covering the underlying tension like a thin sheet of ice. A few candles still burned, and cupping her hand around them, flames dancing shadows across her callused fingers, Xena blew softly. At her subtle command, they were extinguished.
Toris and she had separated, he to return to Brasidias' camp explaining that they had designated a tent for his use and intimated he really was to use it. "Gives them a sense of power of me," he said with a twinkle. Odd how she slept in the house, which she hadn't done in years, and Toris took to the outdoors, her normal spot.
No sounds from Cyrene's room. Running an inn meant long hours, and all those moments she could steal away and go home were spent sleeping. Especially now that Toris was engaged in military matters, Envoy for Amphipolis. Funny, she started to laugh at that idea but nothing came out. I guess I'm actually proud of him.
Ephiny slouched awkwardly in the chair by Gabrielle's bed, sleeping soundly. She's going to have a crook in that neck, thought Xena. "Ephiny," she whispered, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Of course Ephiny woke with a start, then rubbed her hands across her eyes and down her sides of her nose. "I fell asleep."
"How is she?" Xena wished she hadn't needed to ask, that she'd had the fortitude to stay with her all day.
"Woke up once in the late afternoon. I got some water down her." Ephiny stretched, "Ouch, I'm glad you got me up when you did."
"Sorry I took so long," muttered Xena.
"It's okay, I understand." Ephiny stood and retrieved the water skin taking a long drink. "Want some?" Xena shook her head so she stoppered it closed and put it back on the table. "She asked for you."
That stung even though it was expected.
"Xena," Ephiny put a light hand on her near shoulder, "Gabrielle will understand."
"Will she?" Xena's eyes flickered in the candle light. "I don't even understand, myself."
"Give her the chance to understand. She needs you right now," Ephiny patted her on the back and yawned. "I'm going to use Toris' bed, he said he wouldn't be home. Come and get me if you need anything." She padded out, Xena could hear the door open and close.
So now what, thought Xena. It's the middle of the night, I'm exhausted, and I still have no idea what to say to her. Gabrielle stirred, just a slight movement of the head, but it set Xena's pulse racing.
I have the urge to run? I've never run from anything. Of course, nothing's ever been as important to me as you are. She sat of the edge of the bed and lightly rubbed her knuckles across Gabrielle's cheek. Gods, I do love you. Give me the strength to give you what you need. And I guess the first thing that will be is the truth.
Almost without thinking, she slid onto the bed next to Gabrielle and rolled on her side, propping her head up with one hand. It felt good, it felt right to be there. It is my destiny to be here, she admitted. But, as she reminded herself, you've seen plenty of people ruined because they strayed from their paths, kicked dirt over them, dug trenches through them, anything to dissuade the fates from pulling them inexorably toward their predetermined outcome.
An awareness of someone's breath, slow and steady, near her... Nothing threatening about it, she eased herself a little more awake. Ah...
Gabrielle forced her eyes to open, adjusting to the dim light in the room. She turned toward the sound that lulled her awake, a lump of light and shadows she knew well. Her hand reached for Xena's, found sleepy fingers and wrapped around them, they settled between hers as they had a thousand times before.
In her sleep, Xena was not afraid.
The next morning when the bard woke again, Ephiny was sitting by her bed. "Feeling better?"
"Yeah, I think I am," Gabrielle tried to sit up and winced, then dropped back to the bed.
"Take it easy, you've cracked your ribs but good."
"Thanks, I knew about that." Gabrielle glanced around the room. "Where's Xena. She was... Was she here last night?"
"Yeah, she had to go out for awhile this morning. She'll be back soon," I hope, thought Ephiny. "How's your head feeling."
"Like Argo's been kicking it." Gabrielle shrugged, "Nah, actually, it's not too bad."
"That's because you haven't sat up yet. Xena left a little concoction for you that I'm supposed to mix with hot water. I'll be right back with it." Ephiny called back over her shoulder, "Don't go anywhere."
Yeah, right, thought Gabrielle. Xena's mixture was, as usual, bitter. She shivered all the way down her spine as she swallowed it. "Yuck, that's terrible."
Ephiny smiled, laying her back on the bed. "She didn't say it was good, just that it was good for you."
Gabrielle blinked away the taste and a few layers of the haze that had settled around her. Xena's room, Amphipolis. Athena and Ares. "Ephiny, is everyone okay?"
"Yes, everyone's fine. We're just worried about you."
She turned her head and focused in on Ephiny's face. "Even Xena?"
Don't say anything, Ephiny. Don't get in the middle. "Yes, even Xena," she mimicked Gabrielle's concerned tone but added her own melodramatic flair, in effect dulling the seriousness.
"Then why isn't she here?" Gabrielle asked.
Ugh, how do I answer that? "She'll be back."
Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed. Athena. She said something... "Ephiny, did Athena do anything to Xena?"
Damn. "Why do you ask?"
"She said..." Gabrielle sighed and softened her voice, "Well, Athena said something to make me think that maybe she had."
"You'll have to ask Xena about that," said Ephiny, which Gabrielle accepted without question. Of course Gabrielle would assume that Xena would keep most everything to herself. At least Ephiny hadn't been put in a position of betraying one friend's confidence by lying to another. "Do you think you can eat something? It'll help you feel better."
But by then Gabrielle had almost drifted off again, "Maybe later..."
To Xena's chagrin, Brasidias' troops were spread out all over Cerdylium, from the grassy knoll on down the hill. No privacy there today. The inn was out of the question, it housed Gabrielle's family, her mother would be there, the Amazons would be there too, if they weren't hobnobbing with Spartan troops. There wasn't a place to be alone left in all of Amphipolis.
Begrudgingly, she traipsed back to the house and set up in Toris' room. Her armor needed to be cleaned thoroughly, it still had an encrusted layer of sea salt. Her sword and chakram needed cleaning and sharpening. There was a tear to mend in Argo's bridle so she retrieved it and her tooling kit from the stable. Soon, Xena lost herself to the repetitive world of stitching and sharpening, letting the trance envelope her completely until the outside world became a dim memory.
The next time Gabrielle woke up, Hecuba was there, fussing over her, making her eat and drink until Gabrielle told her she was too sleepy and asked to be left alone. Ephiny made a much better nursemaid, number two on a very short list, thought Gabrielle as she fell into a light doze.
That evening, she felt much stronger. Ephiny fell victim to her good humor when she leaned over to smooth out a bunched up bit of blanket only to have a hand shoot out of the clump and tickle her. "Hey, cut that out!" Ephiny grabbed it and stuffed it back under the blanket, well aware that it took very little force to overpower her.
"You're too serious, Ephiny," Gabrielle laughed. "And Mother's not here so I feel better."
"Your mother's been worried about you, Gabrielle." Ephiny did smooth out that clump of blanket, proving that she was in charge, taking care of the bard.
"I know," Gabrielle replied sedately. "It's just that she's such a mother hen. I loved it when I was a kid, but now it's a bit much, you know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I guess I do," Ephiny offered her some fruit and cheese. "I won't let anyone around me when I'm not feeling well. Drives me crazy."
"Hey, this doesn't look like food for the sick. Where's my porridge?" Gabrielle snagged a half an apple.
Ephiny laughed, "You hate porridge, as I recall. And this is my dinner, anyway. I'm sharing."
Gabrielle had bitten partly through the apple then pulled it back out and offered it to Ephiny, replete with teeth marks, "Your dinner? Sorry."
"That's yours. Now." Ephiny winked and pushed the apple back toward Gabrielle. "I can always get more."
She finished the apple and helped herself to a few hunks of cheese then repositioned herself in the bed. "I've been lying down too long." She pulled herself up into a sitting position, "Much better," she groaned between her clenched jaw.
Ephiny asked her, "How's the head?"
"Not bad," Gabrielle replied. "That wretched tea helps and no, I don't want any more, thank you very much."
"When you get tired of hurting, let me know and I'll fix you some more." Ephiny watched Gabrielle fight with herself, she could see the grimace on the bard's face.
Gabrielle gave in, "Okay, I'll have some of that tea, but only because you're forcing it one me." It surprised Ephiny to see Gabrielle still sitting up when she returned with the tea. Gabrielle caught the inquisitive look as she took the mug and sipped at the steaming liquid. "It actually feels good to sit up. Really."
"I believe you, I guess." Ephiny sat on the bed, Taking the now empty mug and putting it on the table near the foot of the bed. "Better?"
"Yeah, much." She let her mind go for a minute, staring out the window and thinking back to what Athena had said about Xena. "Eph?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"Hmmm," came the equally soft response.
"I'm worried about Xena."
"Gabrielle, you're half dead and everyone's worried about you."
She turned and looked Ephiny in the eyes, "You're being evasive."
"No I'm not. It's the truth. There's been a parade of people in here for two days including your parents, your sister and her new boyfriend," that got an eyebrow rise out of Gabrielle, "his name is Perseus, and there's been a host of others in here, too."
"Don't change the subject."
Ephiny sighed. She's going to ask me things I have to answer. "I'm not trying to be evasive, Gabrielle."
The bard carefully worded her next question, "Is there a reason Xena's been avoiding me?"
"She hasn't been..." Ephiny stopped herself. I can't lie to her. "Yes."
"Can you tell me what it is?"
"Then I'd better go find her and have her tell me herself." A very determined bard threw her feet over the side of the bed.
Ephiny lunged for her, "Hey, you can't get up!"
"Ephiny, let me go. I know I feel terrible, you don't need to remind me. But I also know I'll feel worse if I just lie here and don't do anything. You understand, don't you?"
Ah Gabrielle, those eons ago when you came into Amazon Territory and all our lives changed, I should have known then that you would be the lion among us, more fierce than our bravest warrior. "She's right next door in Toris' room. Here, let me help you up at least."
Gabrielle's head reeled as she fought off a wave of dizziness. Ephiny's arms held her steady and as she took tiny steps, she regained confidence in her balance, in her own body. "Thanks, I've got it."
"Tell Xena I tried to talk you out of this, okay?" Ephiny kissed her softly on the forehead as she held the door open.
"I will and you did." Gabrielle smiled. Putting her hand on the latch, she could hear the rhythmic sound of stone on blade, the voice of Xena's sword, singing as it did each night by the fire. For a moment, Gabrielle let it wash over her like an old friend, a vivid memory, powerfully distinctive like the smell of baking bread on your mother's hearth, or of freshly cut firewood, the sticky resin of sap more an olfactory experience than a tactile one.
One last breath and she curled her fingers tightly on the latch and turned it, the sound inside stilling not into a quiet, sedate calm but rather into the immobile readiness of a cat hunting its prey, poised for a sudden attack. Gabrielle pushed the door open and was caught, Xena's eyes pinning her to the threshold. For a long moment they stared at each other, neither face betraying the jack-in-the-box they each held within, deeply seeded emotions on a trigger so thin it couldn't be measured by the eye alone, seated on top of a spiral of energy held back only by the powerful will each woman commanded.
They broke at exactly the same moment, Gabrielle taking one step and faltering slightly, Xena shooting up to catch her, holding her close to her body, afraid to let go lest she see those eyes again, those innocent and piercing eyes.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, her breath warm across Xena's chest.
"Too tight?" she responded, worried her grip had hurt the bard.
Gabrielle shook her head, collected herself again. "Are you okay?" She got
her answer from the tacit warrior by inference alone. She continued, "Then I think we
need to talk."
Xena held on, fearful that it would be the last time Gabrielle would let her touch her, trying desperately to make the sensation last a lifetime if only etched deeply in memory.
Gabrielle could smell her fright as it leaked from her pores, altering her scent like hunted prey. Knowing what Athena tried to do with her through Delia, it scared Gabrielle more than anything she had been through in the past week to think of what Athena might had done to Xena, because whatever it was had really terrified the warrior.
Before she could think of the right thing to say, Gabrielle felt her knees weaken, her body betray her. Xena leaned down and picked her up, gently cradling her in her arms, making certain Gabrielle's head was tucked under her chin. Cracking over the words she said, "Come on, back to bed with you."
Ephiny had made her escape, Xena laid Gabrielle back on the bed in a painfully quiet and empty room. Gabrielle closed her eyes to resettle her body--lightheaded, tired, weak--she hated feeling that way. "Xena," she said, then reopened her eyes and her breath caught in her throat. Eyes as deep as the Aegean, the surface hiding well the eddies in the fathoms below to all but Gabrielle. "I love you," just as natural as rain, the phrase spilled from her lips.
She received an unvoiced response as Xena traced a soft line from her forehead, down to her cheek, to her jaw and across it, then up and over her lips.
"Don't be scared," Gabrielle whispered, watching as Xena's eyes flew shut and a tremble passed through her body, traveling down to the fingertip she still had pressed against the bard's lips.
"Athena, hasn't been... well... she hasn't been good to either of us."
The old mechanisms locked into place automatically, "What did she do to you?" Xena asked, cupping the bard's chin, the fury behind the question barely held at bay.
"Nothing, really. She just... threatened and talked. It was Delia, mostly... that..."
"I killed her." Xena stated flatly. "I killed Alcibiades, too."
I don't take pleasure from your killings, Xena. "Good."
I know you hate it when I have to kill someone, even to save your life, Gabrielle. "What did Athena say?"
Oh, Xena... "She told me things I didn't want to hear... didn't want to believe." Are you going to tell me they were lies? If you know what I'm talking about, it wasn't a lie. And it wasn't, was it, because I can see it in your eyes. And I can also see how much it pains you to think about it, to tell me about it. But Xena, I know it hurts more to hold it in. I'm too tired to drag this out. "What she told me about Orithyia, it's true?"
Oh no, please no, Xena screamed silently. You should have heard it from me, not from Athena. "Yes." She pulled her hand away, she couldn't touch Gabrielle now.
A long, deathly silence passed between them. Neither able to filter out the chaotic array of sensations they felt. Xena was glad it was out in the open, ready to crawl in a hole permanently, harboring an anger at herself so vast she couldn't even begin to fathom its depth... Gabrielle was furious that Xena betrayed her, disappointed at Xena's weaknesses besting her, sad, so very sad for how Xena must feel about herself.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena spoke at last. "I should have been the one to tell you."
Xena stood to go, Gabrielle reaching out for her. "Stay!"
"No, I... can't stay here. Not now." Xena gently pried off the fingers wrapped around her wrist.
"Xena, I want you to stay. I need you to stay. Now's not the time to walk away from me." Beyond tired, Gabrielle struggled to focus. "Please."
"I can't believe you want me..."
Gods, I'm too tired, thought Gabrielle, but I can't leave it like this. "Xena?" Come on listen to me! "Xena, Athena also told me... she hinted that she did something to you." Listen Xena! Answer me. "What did she do?"
I can't let her believe for an instant that I think that was an excuse...
Again, Gabrielle struggled with her body to give her the strength she needed. It was a losing battle. As she let go to Morpheus she felt the warrior lie down beside her, fingers entwine with hers...
But as soon as Xena made certain that Gabrielle was asleep, she slipped out, not able to bear the agony of guilt.
The next morning Ephiny sat beside her, almost as if the night before had never happened. Gabrielle quickly looked around the room, the sag in her shoulders noticeable.
I'm tired of asking this question, "Where's Xena?"
"She'll be back," Ephiny said, holding out the water skin. "Drink, please."
Gabrielle complied, moving, swallowing, wiping her mouth by rote. "Ephiny, I have to talk to her."
"Give her some time, Gabrielle," Ephiny inched toward the role of mediator, kicking herself for it.
"I know what happened!" Gabrielle surprised Ephiny with her ferocity. "Athena told me about Orithyia."
More surprises, thought Ephiny.
"Gods, Ephiny. I don't know what to think."
She moved to the bed, sitting right by Gabrielle. "What did Athena tell you?" The odd tone of her voice pulled Gabrielle up short. Ephiny asked again, urgent now, unwilling to settle for anything less than the truth. "Tell me everything Athena said to you."
Not sure what to do, whether or not she even could say those words again... "She said," clearing her throat... "Um, she said that Xena... and," tears welled up in her eyes, her voice reduced to a hoarse whisper, "Xena and Orithyia..." Ephiny reached for her, catching the desperate arms, trying to hold her without hurting her ribs. Gabrielle sobbed and winced, the necessity of weeping winning out over the physical reminders of abuse suffered at the hands of Delia. Talking between sobs, spasms jerking her words into hiccups, "I can't... believe... she'd do that... to me." Clenching her fists in the gathers of the sheet bunched up around them, "I... really didn't.... think she would. I thought... we talked... I knew she wanted..." With that admission, Gabrielle believed she'd lost Xena forever. "She did... what she wanted..."
With a force Gabrielle could feel, rumbling from her ears down her back, careening into her very soul, Ephiny filled in the missing piece. "No." She took a breath. "It wasn't Orithyia, it was Athena disguised as Orithyia. It was all Athena's doing."
Gabrielle pulled away, hands resting on each others shoulders and waist. "Athena?" A long moment for it to sink it, struggling to get past the surface tension wrought tight by every heinous deed and angry word. "That's what she meant," comprehension revealing itself slowly. "That's what Athena did to Xena." The reckoning hurting even more than the misunderstanding. Looking sadly into her dear friend's eyes, "Why didn't she just tell me that?"
"Gabrielle," come on, Eph, please say this so she understands... "Xena feels... she feels like it was her fault."
"But you said it was Athena!"
"Yes, and it was. But Xena..."
"Oh," Gabrielle finally understood. "She thinks that it started from inside her, that since she was... still... attracted to Orithyia, that... she might have," Gabrielle wiped the back of her hand across her cheeks, "might have done it anyway."
"Yes. That's it." Ephiny relaxed a little, feeling the summit reached at last.
"Would she?" Gabrielle asked and it felt to her as if it had come from someone else's mouth.
And it felt to Ephiny as if she rounded a bend only to discover an entire range of mountains with even higher, more dangerous peaks to travel still lay in their path. "Gabrielle, you know Xena better than anyone else, better than she knows herself. What do you think?"
She traced back the path her feelings had taken. "When she left me at Sappho's I would have said unequivocally no. She would not have done it. But now... I don't know, Ephiny. I just don't know."
Ephiny tried one last tact, then she knew it would be time to rest and come back to the arena later when they were ready to face the issues again. "And what happened between then and now, huh?" the last articulation designed to lighten the load just a little.
"Athena happened," said Gabrielle.
Solari found Xena at the stable, it wasn't like she'd gone to a lot of trouble to look for her, she guessed the stable to be the most likely place to find the warrior and she was right.
"Hi there. Your mother's looking for you," Xena wasn't surprised to hear Solari talk, she'd heard her approach for several steps.
One last pass of the sharpening stone over the gleaming blade of her breast dagger and she tossed the stone lightly, sending it to land in the middle of her saddlebag perched on a bale of hay. "Yeah?"
"Barrels of mead and wine from Brasidias. We're all going to help her unload." Solari put on a smile, "Come on."
Xena tucked the dagger in her bodice. "Why is Brasidias sending Mother wine and mead. Doesn't he like her ale?"
"It seems a lot of supplies are coming into town." Solari fell into step next to Xena.
There could have been better developments, thought Xena as they walked to the inn. The streets were a little too busy, too many Spartans for comfort. "Something's up."
Five wagons full of heavy, sloshing barrels were parked behind the inn. Eponin and Herodotus worked as a team as did Procne and Procris. Solari jumped on one of the wagons and eased a barrel toward Xena. The warrior shouldered it for a moment then felt the weight lift a bit as Solari took her share of the load, carrying it up three stairs to the storeroom.
"Where are we going to put them all?" asked Procne, panting at the exertion.
Cyrene scuttled about, moving bags of grain, shifting pottery to a far corner. "I don't know! Just find a place."
"Mother," Xena stopped her. "What's going on."
"Brasidias said his troops would be eating here. I explained to him that we couldn't feed 2,000 hungry men so he said they'd just get their drink here and the next thing I know this was all being delivered." Cyrene threw up her arms. "I can handle thirty, fifty on a rough night, but the man is insane if he thinks 2,000 people can get in and out of the tavern in a night."
"Wait," she pulled her mother back, "He said 2,000 troops were coming here?"
"Well he didn't say how many, but that's the number under his command. More than that by some counts." Cyrene shook off Xena's hold. "Gotta get this sorted and ready."
"Why are they coming here?" Xena called, but it was to her mother's backside as she'd gone off to tell Herodotus to leave the mead until the end and only to bring in the wine. Xena followed her out, spotted Tellis just about to scoot around the corner and convinced him to help unload while she went to talk to someone about all this stuff.
She found Pleistoanax, one of Brasidias' generals, in the tavern with a small gathering of his men. Xena didn't wait for any pleasantries, "What's going on?"
Pleistoanax turned gruffly to tell off what he heard as a woman's voice interrupting him but pulled up when he recognized the person standing there. "Xena, hello."
"Pleistoanax, right?" Yes, I remember your name but I want you to think you're inconsequential to me. "Why are you taking over my mother's inn?"
"Cyrene is your mother?" he questioned. And in seeing the look of affirmation and challenge, he decided to drop it. "We're not taking over, per se. These men are here to do the work of serving and cleaning."
"Then why don't you have them do the work of unloading?" And with her defiant stare, the men scrambled over themselves to get to the storeroom. "Okay, Pleistoanax, we're alone now. What's going on?"
"Just making preparations, nothing to worry about," Pleistoanax did fear the Warrior Princess but he didn't want her to know it.
Chicken, she thought. And you're a general. "You tell Brasidias that if there's any planning to do, I'm going to be there. Got it?"
"I will pass along the message," Pleistoanax smiled weakly as she stormed out.
She headed back toward the stable, the only place she could think these days. He's bringing his troops inside the walls! We never agreed to that. He was going to defend Amphipolis, not get it ransacked by bringing the fight in with him. Two thousand extra men in here, how big does he think this place is anyway?
Xena got so involved in her internal dialogue that she forgot to listen ahead and ran squarely into the back of Toris as she burst into the stable.
"Oh, sorry, Toris."
"Xena, there you are. I've been looking for you." Toris stepped back and ran his eyes over her. "Are you okay?"
"Do you know what's going on out there? That idiot Brasidias has taken over the inn. Just like that. And Mother let him!"
He reached out and spread his hands around her arms, slowing them, "Calm down. It's not that bad. He's got plans and he wants to discuss them with you. He sent me off to find you."
"Good, because I just ran into Pleistoanax and told him I needed to see
Brasidias." She shook off Toris' hold in one strong motion, "Come on," she
said with an angry sigh. He followed her out, playing catch-up all the way to the gate.
Hecuba brought hot soup, warm rolls and a talkative mood. Gabrielle gave Ephiny the 'if you leave I'll never forgive you' look, so at least there were two of them to engage Hecuba in her incessant banter.
Her way of dealing with stress, thought Gabrielle. How wonderfully opposite from Xena. I must remember times like this when I'm frustrated with Xena's refusal to say anything.
"...So when Lila first came by with Perseus, I thought, oh my, not him, such a shy boy. Then Cyrene explained he was a coinmaker's son and they were well-to-do for these parts. And I noticed he was wearing new shoes and didn't have any ragged seams on this clothes. But Lila has been so... oh, she's been so dreamy-eyed around him I wonder if she really knows what he's like, what his interests are, if he'd make a good husband or not."
"Mother," Gabrielle asked, "Who is Perseus?" teasing her, for she knew quite well who he was.
Ephiny stifled a chuckle, earning a glare from the bard.
"Who is Perseus? Haven't you been paying attention at all? He's Lila's..." She stopped. "He's, um, Lila's..."
"Boyfriend?" Gabrielle filled in, tilting her head.
Hecuba nodded, unable to say the word. Her playfulness disappeared. I'll never be able to tell her about Xena, Gabrielle thought, rather sadly. Of course, I wouldn't even know what to say now... Hey, wait a minute, Gabrielle reminded herself, whatever happened to the Lila's got goo-goo eyes for Xena? Gods, she's so young. It doesn't take much, does it. Oh, to be that young again. No thank you!
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, are you ever going to listen to me?" Hecuba poked her thigh. "Children, they're all alike. Do you have children, Ephiny?"
"Yes, I have a son," she replied.
"Does he defy you at every turn, make you feel useless, close his ears to everything you say..."
"Mother! Do you feel that way about Lila and me?" Gabrielle's horrified expression caught both of them by surprise.
"No. No, of course not, Gabrielle. I didn't mean that at all. It's just that sometimes, well, sometimes you feel like you're not being listened to. That's all. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, you being on the mend and all. Sorry." Hecuba patted Gabrielle's thigh continuously.
"That's okay," Gabrielle reached out and stayed her mother's hand, "I understand." Then to break the insanity she felt building inside her head said, "Let's all take a walk, shall we? I haven't been out of this room in I don't know how long."
Ephiny gave her the evil eye but didn't protest. If the bard felt up to it, a walk was in order.
"Are you sure? Do you feel like it? You won't get too tired? Isn't it too soon?" Hecuba never paused long enough for an answer, so Gabrielle dropped her feet to the floor and threw an imploring grin to Ephiny to help her up.
"Ah, there I feel better already," Gabrielle smiled at her mother while her head spun. "Let's go, shall we?"
The bard latched her arm around Ephiny's, the Amazon couldn't resist a little pinch in return. Ephiny leaned in and whispered, "Tell me when you're ready to come back and don't push it, my queen."
Gabrielle glared over her smile. "How 'bout a bite to eat?"
"Oh that's a great idea." Hecuba answered, "We'll go to the inn, I'll throw something together and we can have lunch together. I'll bet your father's there, and maybe Lila if she's not off with that Perseus, unless of course they're both there..."
"Ah Xena, good. Come in." Brasidias stood hunched over the table full of maps. Cleridas nodded curtly to both Xena and Toris. "I sent Toris out for you, I wanted you to see our plan."
"So far, I see my hometown being run over by your troops," Xena said, laying the cards out on the table immediately.
"No, no, no... that's not it at all." He pulled her toward the table. "Look, we're going to send almost everyone up here," pointing to Cerdylium. Just a few of us will draw Cleon out into the open down here," pointing now to the strong hill by the marshes. "We've got to move our camp, hide our numbers, and only a small number will be... how did you put it... running over Amphipolis."
"How many?" Xena asked.
"You're pigheaded aren't you?" Brasidias tossed his hair out of his face.
Xena straightened up slowly. "Not many people have said that to me... and lived."
"I'm often the only name on short lists," Brasidias countered, sure of himself.
Cocky bastard, she thought. "How many?"
"No more than five hundred."
"Five hundred? You call five hundred 'a few people'? Fifty. No more."
Brasidias fingered the edges of a map rolling it slowly before tying it off. He placed it on a pile of scrolls before answering her. "That's my decision, Xena. You do not speak for Amphipolis."
Toris cleared his throat, "But I do. And what Xena says is good enough for me."
Thanks, Toris. "Fifty," she reiterated.
A few words from just outside the tent flap heralded Pleistoanax's arrival. "Brasidias," he took account of who was present, then said to Xena, "Oh, so you're here already."
She turned back to Brasidias, "Fifty."
"You know, Xena. I don't much like you. I've tolerated you up until now, but I really don't like you. Why don't you go away and bother someone else for awhile." Brasidias shooed her away.
"Oh shut up!" Now he was mad. "For this plan to work, I'll need five hundred!"
"Why don't you compromise?" They all turned to see Ares sitting comfortably in a chair on the far side of the tent.
"I'm glad you're here." Brasidias greeted Ares, "Now will you tell this... woman to leave me alone!"
"Brasidias, dear Brasidias. You need Xena." Ares pulled himself out of the chair and sauntered toward them. "I need Xena." He smiled at her. "And you both need me."
"Ares," Xena growled, "I warned you about getting in the way."
"You warned me? Have you forgotten the favor I did for you?" Ares planted his finger under her chin.
"Have you forgotten the favor I did for you?" Xena replied, removing his finger.
"It ain't over yet, Xena. The Athenian army is going to march up here tomorrow under the command of Cleon himself. He smells blood. He smells vengeance. And without the guiding hand of Athena, he can be more ruthless than you can possibly imagine."
"Don't try to tell me Athena was a mediating factor. I know that's a lie," Xena hated arguing with Ares, especially in front of an audience.
"You don't know Cleon. He's viscous, contemptible, vile, merciless, cruel... He'll stop at nothing," Ares' tone, though tinged with anger, held a note of regret. Xena wondered if he really didn't lust after Cleon, after his power and abject villainy.
"I know Cleon," said Brasidias proudly. "And I know how to beat him."
"No you don't, Brasidias. Getting too big for your britches again?" Ares yanked the scroll off the pile and threw it open with the flick of his wrist. "Yes, you should leave most of your troops at Cerdylium, let Cleridas be in charge of them. Yes, the rest of you should plan to attack when Cleon reaches the marshes, but," and he swooped his hand across the map in a dramatic gesture, "Cleon will be able to count your numbers in the city. If he believes he can beat you without getting his feet wet, he'll get brashly self-confident and then you can beat him. Mind my words, it will be the only way to beat him. If you go up against him in a fair fight, those Athenian soldiers of his will stomp you out like a dwindling camp fire."
"I hardly think..." Brasidias tried to counter.
"It's true, you idiot," Ares said, letting the double entendre go, "His troops have been trained from the get go. Yours are assembled from the last villages you plundered, fighting under your flag only because they hate the Athenians more than they hate the Spartans. You have to trick him to beat him."
Ares paused to ensure his audience was with him. Cleridas and Pleistoanax cowered before him but they were smart enough to hang on his every word. Toris hid behind Xena, that was no surprise. Xena listened but kept her arms crossed, she didn't trust him. Nothing new, thought Ares. And Brasidias acted like a puppy who would do anything for a treat. Idiot. But you're my idiot.
"If you bring say, 150 troops into Amphipolis, let them stand near the gate where Cleon can count their feet, he'll think he's outsmarted you. He'll believe he has you so vastly outnumbered, that he could win with his eyes closed and arms tied behind his back. Let him make the first move, and I assure you it will be foolish, then you can engage him. He'll be so sure of himself that he won't prepare for the rest of your troops, and when 2,000 more come down the hillsides and cut off his flank, well, he'll be yours to do with as you please."
"Ares, you shouldn't be interfering." Xena dared to remind him.
"Sure Xena, I do something for that bratty blonde of yours and it's okay, but now that I'm going to save your precious little Amphipolis, it's too much? Sorry, you're no one to be drawing the line. Go home, Xena. It's out of your hands now. Besides, you got what you came for. Only 150 of his men will defile the streets of Amphipolis."
Toris put a hand on Xena's back, "Come on, Xena. He's right."
"Your brother there is afraid of me," Ares laughed then ran his thumb and forefinger down his lips and through is goatee.
"He doesn't trust you," Xena corrected him. "And neither do I." She turned on her heels, collected Toris, and walked out. There was nothing left to say to him.
Brasidias threw up his hand, "How do you put up with her? She's so... annoying."
"No more so than you, my friend," Ares laughed again. "Look, I'll make you a little deal, okay? If you do me proud tomorrow, you know, not just win, but make it really convincing, then I'll reward you with something very special. How's that sound?"
Brasidias smiled, his eyes thinning with comprehension. "I'll make it convincing."
When they pulled the extra table up next to hers, she figured enough was enough. There she sat sandwiched between her mother and father; Ephiny and Cyrene across from her; Lila and Perseus flanked her on the other side at table number two. At least everyone was chatty, so Gabrielle didn't have to talk too much. As much as she hated to admit it, she was tiring.
"They've even set up a hospital in town," Herodotus filled them in on what he'd heard about Brasidias.
"They certainly delivered enough of the spirits!" Cyrene said. "I don't know what I'll do if those soldiers don't come back as promised and give me a hand."
"They'll be back," Gabrielle reassured her. "Xena will see to it."
"Oh I suppose," Cyrene said, letting her mind drift off somewhere.
"Where is Xena?" Lila asked, giggling a little. "I really want Perseus to meet her." Perseus hardly cracked a smile, he seemed the perfect little toy to carry around, one who never talked back.
"She's busy," said Gabrielle a little too abruptly, and Herodotus picked up on it. He looked at Gabrielle then at Ephiny and back to his daughter trying to gauge what was amiss.
"She hasn't been around much, has she?" Herodotus asked, trying to lead the conversation just enough to satiate his curiosity and assuage his concern. For Herodotus was a wise man and could see many things. He saw the gift of storytelling in his eldest daughter not long after she learned to talk. Nurturing the gift became his life's joy, and even in those dark days of the siege in Poteidaia, he could still fill his heart by listening to her spin a tale. On those nights when everyone in town sensed defeat, his daughter would take the stage, show them how characters in a story had never given up hope, and the Poteidaians would leave imbued with the same sense of purpose and optimism as Gabrielle had given her characters. She had the magic.
And that same ability to discover in his daughter the flair for stories, gave him the ability to see into her heart. He knew she loved the Warrior Princess. He didn't need to find out how far that love went or just exactly how the two of them defined it, that was their business, he'd say to himself, but he could see in her eyes that the fire he once helped light in his daughter's soul was now tended by another, one whose destiny was so inexorably linked with his daughter's that nothing else mattered. Except that something was out of kilter.
Gabrielle knew what her father asked, "Xena's been around, but matters keep her away more than I'd like."
That answers that, he mused. "I'm glad Ephiny has seen fit to be your attendant," said with a smile and true gratitude to the Amazon.
"Which reminds me," said Hecuba, "Don't you think you should be staying at the inn? There are so many more of us here to help you."
"Thanks, but what I need most is peace and quiet."
Ephiny read the meaning instantly, "And I think that's what you need now. You've been up long enough."
"I'll walk you back," offered Herodotus.
"And I'll come, too," muttered Hecuba, absent-mindedly piling the mugs and dishes.
Herodotus tossed a quick smile at Cyrene, she returned it and suggested, "Hecuba, why don't you stay and help me with these dishes. There'll be a pack of drunk soldiers in here tonight and I want everything ready before they get here."
"I'll give you a hand," added Ephiny. "Catch up with you in a little while, okay?"
"Thanks, Ephiny." And Gabrielle let her father take her arm, walking slowly
down the street under the late afternoon sun.
"Thanks for walking me back," Gabrielle hugged him lightly, too tired to ignore the ache in her ribs.
"I had the feeling you just needed someone around you didn't have to talk to," Herodotus kissed his daughter's forehead. "Been rough, hasn't it?"
She let him sit her down on the edge of the bed. "It shows that much? I never could hide anything from you."
"No," he said in all earnestness, "you couldn't." And in that instant, as their eyes locked, she knew he understood more than she'd ever dreamed he would. He lowered his head and began unlacing her boots. "I really didn't come here to have you tell me anything." He tugged off the right boot and set to work on the left. "That way you know you have someone who understands the general idea and won't get bogged down in the details." When he pulled off her second boot and looked up again, tears were streaming down her face.
He got up slowly and sat by her, drawing her head onto his shoulder. "I kept thinking today how proud I've been of you." She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, "Hey, careful, don't hurt yourself." He pried her grip a bit looser and felt her relax into his arms. "I was thinking about how you and Xena did so much for Poteidaia. How I never took the time to thank you properly, to tell you how it made me feel inside when you stood up in front of a crowded room of dejected people and made them look inside themselves to find the serenity they were missing. You never once took credit for it, but I know it was you who kept everyone's spirits above board, who really kept us alive."
He fell silent for a time, just holding her while she cried, at first softly then with more intensity, and finally easing off again. He thought back to times when Gabrielle was a child and she'd cry herself to sleep. How he longed to take the hurt away. But he knew that wouldn't help her in the long run, that getting through it was what taught her the lessons she'd need later in life. He vowed never to deflect adversity from her life just for the purpose of protecting her from the pain. He'd lessen it, help her to understand what had happened, be there for her whenever she needed him, but he always let her go through the ordeal. And she ended up a strong one. A stronger one than I'd ever known, he realized. And now she's taught a whole town those lessons and they're stronger for it, wherever they are.
And he wondered about his neighbors, how they were faring, where they were, if they'd settled down for good or if they'd go home when the chance arose again. For he knew there'd come a time he would go back to Poteidaia, he never doubted that. And he knew that home would never be the same, and that was okay by him as well. If he had, in any remotely similar way, learned as much about life and humanity as Gabrielle had, he'd die a happy man. Wherever he was.
After she'd calmed, he lay her back in bed, bringing the quilt up around her, tucking her in as he had a thousand times before. She reached for his hand, "I love you, Father."
"I know that, my little bard. You know how much I love you?" she smiled and leaked a few more tears. "Gabrielle, listen, I did say I wouldn't pry, and I mean it, but I do want you to know that I believe you and Xena will work it out."
"I hope you're right," she said softly.
"I am. Now go to sleep, you're exhausted." He kissed her again and as he got up to go he leaned down to whisper in her ear, "You're meant for each other."
When Xena returned, she headed for the inn, not for a social call but to find the Amazons. Brasidias had his troops on the move, and she wanted as many people she could trust to keep their eyes open. They worked in pairs, Procne and Procris near west gate, Eponin and Solari prowling mid-town. Ephiny offered to keep an eye out with Xena but the warrior sent her to stay by Gabrielle. "Just in case," Xena had said, never forgetting her first duty to protect the bard.
Xena kept watch at the east gate. She didn't know what to look for, she just didn't want any funny business. And since the bridges across the two forks of the Strymon only lead in and out of Amphipolis, she watched for anything unusual on the faces of the 2,000 troops marching through town. They formed a long line, were in no particular hurry, and some stopped to get a bite to eat or ease their thirst. She couldn't see the inn from her vantage point but she could see anyone who walked down the street toward it and wobbled back away from it. At least Brasidias had made certain Cyrene had plenty of help.
The trail of men led off into the distance, up Cerdylium and out of sight. When Cleon arrived the next morning, if he followed the course Ares suspected he would, it would seem to him that Amphipolis was guarded by a small cadre of 150 soldiers. Easy pickings for the Athenian army, even on their worst day. Xena's nervousness began to sprout, she didn't like this plan at all.
The sun had long since set by the time the last of the Spartans made it through town. Several of Brasidias' own guard swept through the streets, encouraging those who were still there to get on with it and get out of town. Once the way was clear, the front-line forces arrived. As Ares had instructed them, they camped near the front gate so Cleon could clearly see their numbers.
Xena pulled Eponin and Solari up to the gate to work with Procne and Procris. The five of them could watch over every one of Brasidias' men. Tents popped up quickly, a few fires were lit, and only the nervous talk of soldiers about to do battle the next morning disturbed the night air. She noticed none made their way to the inn, they couldn't risk the hangover that would result. Good, at least her mother was free for the night.
Nestled among the other temporary homes, the command tent was dark, its flap drawn tightly shut, guarded by two burly lieutenants. Brasidias kept to himself in there, he didn't wish to speak with anyone that night. He preferred to meditate, to revel in the impending glory, and to plan his speech for the next morning.
Two men broke ranks and came toward Xena, she felt Eponin and Solari move in right behind her, slinking in the shadows not more than three sword lengths away. Pleistoanax, she recognized him, surprised he would seek her out. Interesting. And he comes with a guard, so he doesn't trust me. After our conversation at the inn, I can't say I blame him.
"Evening, Xena," he smiled. Cordial enough, she thought. "Your town is quite hospitable."
"Has been for me," she replied, cringing to herself. Well, not all the time and only just recently has it felt that way again. History he has no business knowing.
"I wanted to have you meet Empedias, my personal guard." They nodded to each other. "If you need anything, you find him and he'll get it for you."
She smirked, okay, I can call your bluff. "That's quite a turn around, Pleistoanax. Why be nice to me all of a sudden?"
"Do I need a reason?" He kicked the dirt with the toe of his boot and nervously laughed. "Toris and I had a talk."
"So my brother convinced you I don't bite?"
"Not really," he smiled. "He convinced me you did." She laughed, imagining the stories Toris might tell and he didn't have to make them up anymore. "Toris also said you traveled with powerful friends," the last line spoken as Pleistoanax peered into the shadows over her shoulder.
"My Amazon buddies? They're harmless." She turned her head and cocked it, inviting them out. "Pleistoanax, meet Eponin and Solari. Two of my... powerful friends."
Pleistoanax smiled broadly, getting his first look at real Amazons. They were magnificent warriors! "I am glad you're on our side."
"Are we?" asked Eponin, looking to Solari who just shrugged.
"They're on my side," corrected Xena.
"As you wish," Pleistoanax bowed. "But tomorrow, I hope to watch your blades dance among the Athenians, giving them their due."
"I think that was an invitation," Solari said. "What do you say, Eponin? Shall we join them?"
"Sounds like a challenge," she replied. "And I never back down from a challenge."
"I'm glad. And your other friends, they're welcome, too." Pleistoanax put his hand on Empedias' shoulder, "Come friend, let's see that our honorary guards have nothing to fret over tonight. You remember, Xena, just find the lad and he'll do as you bid."
"Xena?" Eponin asked when Pleistoanax was out of earshot, "How much do we trust him."
"How far can you throw him?" she answered, and hunkered down for the night,
surprisingly content that any unruly behavior from the Spartan troops would be smothered
by Pleistoanax first and the honorary Amazon guards, second.
Before dawn, before even the first stirrings of the troops who would be prepared to fight as the early light cast its glow along the land, Xena rose. Battle day. She felt herself slipping so easily into warrior mode, it saddened her. Too much of her past suffocated the present, directed it, wreaked havoc on what had been, for the first time in her life, a reason to live that she was proud of.
Time, I just need time and some empty space to think in. Why is it that I can don my armor for a futile battle in which we're hopelessly outmatched and I clip each link with gusto, yet I cannot find the courage to face Gabrielle? This makes no sense. She's more important to me than some stupid war. Immeasurably so.
And when she considered the reality of the day, that she and 150 others may well be slaughtered by the finest troops ever to march on Greece's homeland, it scared her. Every other time she faced death she wasn't heading into it with unfinished business.
Xena dressed quietly and walked soundlessly down the streets belonging more to her childhood than the present. The dichotomy of two time streams, the past and the present, converging and forcing reconciliation in her mind, kept her thoughts churning. Too much of the past, too much history, she wanted to divest herself of that baggage, to live once again only in the present.
She peeked into her mother's room, barely seeing the white sheet rise and fall in peaceful slumber. How I envy you, she thought. You've had a hard life: lost a husband, a son too young, your only daughter for a time... and yet you carry on as if nothing has happened, finding in everyday life enough to keep your dreams alive.
Toris slept with the troops, the body in his bed would be Ephiny. I owe you more than you can imagine, keeping me sane, giving me a chance to work my life out. I hope I can follow through with the gift you've given me. And if not, I know you'll be the friend Gabrielle so desperately needs.
The third door swung open quietly. This time, she stepped in rather than watching from the doorway. Moving toward the bed soundlessly, she stood over Gabrielle. Why am I afraid of you? Of all the people in the world, you should be the last person I'm frightened of. I do love you, as much as I'm capable of loving anyone. I just don't understand what's going on with me. Too many regrets...
Leaning down she brushed her lips across the bard's forehead, turned, and strode out to face the next task at hand.
The troops were ready, blades sharpened, armor gleaming. This would be hand-to-hand combat for the most part. Brasidias appeared in magnificent armor, a red cape flowing from his back, to all the world a man in charge. He gathered his men together and spoke with them.
"Peloponnesians, there is no need for me to do more than just mention the fact that we come from a country where courage has always preserved freedom. What I wish to do is explain to you my plan of attack, so that no one need feel disheartened by thinking we are at a disadvantage in such small numbers. Remember that though the Athenians despise us, they are careless and they do not know to look for that which is not obvious. It is by these unorthodox methods that we shall reap our greatest glory. Once we have charged into Cleon's fray, surprising them with our fierceness, Cleridas will descend upon them with the remainder of my troops including the Amphipolitans. When this happens, our enemies will be frightened, for a second force always causes terror among the enemy.
"Remember," he continued, "that which makes a good soldier is his readiness to fight, his sense of honor and his discipline, and that this day, if you show yourselves true, you will win your freedom. The alternative is slavery to Athens, and the best you could hope for would not to be carried off to the slave market or be put to death. There must be no giving in on your side, seeing how much there is at stake. As for me, I shall show you that I not only give advice but am also able to practice what I preach." Brasidias drew his gleaming blade and thrust it toward the sky shouting, "At day's end no Athenian shall be left alive who stumbled within range of my sword."
His men cheered loud and long, they need not worry about hiding their presence from Cleon, in fact they wanted Cleon to hear them and know their number, so the ruse would have its greatest effect.
With the dawn, Cleon arrived to reconnoiter. He had planned this attack so carefully, nothing could go wrong. When he heard of the pitiful Spartan forces inside the Amphipolitan gates, he ran toward the marshes to count their number himself. And he laughed. It was a possessive laugh of a monster being handed his dinner, trussed on a gilded plate. He did not require the fight to be so easy, but he would take it and enjoy the blood bath, the annihilation just as much as in a victory hard fought.
Cleon decided to wait for reinforcements to arrive, the massacre would be more complete that way, and he called for the left wing to start back to Eion. He himself took the right wing, and when he swung it around to follow, he exposed its weaknesses to the enemy. Brasidias seized the opportunity and stormed out of the gate, falling upon the Athenians now caught short by Brasidias' unexpected audacity to attack the Athenians with only 150 troops.
Brasidias' men ran between the left and right wings, when the left wing saw Cleon was cut off from them, some ran, but many came to the aid of their commander, those troops led by Nicias and Thucydides. Now Brasidias had the right wing--and Cleon--cut off from the rest of the Athenian troops and Cleridas was on his way with Spartan reinforcements to fight the remainder.
Ares, you'll get your wish! Brasidias' sword rang bright and true, shaving the heads off Athenian scum as he pressed his way toward their commander. But first I want Cleon for myself.
Xena fought right behind Brasidias, Toris by her side. She was more worried about Brasidias' blood lust than anything else, sensing something terribly wrong with him. She knew too well where her unease originated: Ares. One look in Brasidias' eyes and she recognized the force driving him, the interference from her greatest foe. The war be damned, she had to make sure Ares didn't orchestrate something of even greater consequence in the midst of all this chaos.
Procne and Procris fought side by side on the far edge, fending off Athenian troops who had doubled back to help. As a team, they were unstoppable, their true value was in their combined effort. But when Procne tripped, her heel catching as she stepped back over a man she and her sister had slain together, Procris stood alone and was greeted by a blade, tearing a gash in her thigh. Procne got to her feet and killed the man with one swift thrust, then kneeled by Procris.
"It's not too bad," Procne said, tearing off a strip of cloth from a dead man lying near her.
"I know," Procris growled, grimacing as Procne tied off the cloth, binding the gash tight enough to control the bleeding.
They heard the hooves of three mounted troops dashing up the road. Their targets, Pleistoanax leading the troops on the far edge, and Empedias, his guard, both fought bravely a few paces behind them. Procne helped her sister to her feet and as they prepared to block the path to Pleistoanax with their bodies and swords, Solari and Eponin joined them. The quartet knocked the riders from their mounts, killing one on impact and the other two quickly after that. Pleistoanax turned to the women and bowed deeply, "I thank you," he said grinning at each of them in turn. "And I am glad you're on my side."
From the far hill, they heard the cries of Cleridas and 2,000 men running at full tilt toward them. Athenians broke rank and retreated, smelling defeat and death. The resultant chaos left everyone unsure of their footing for awhile. Was a man running toward you or away from someone else? Dozens more died as they retreated, only because someone in their path misunderstood their intentions.
Pleistoanax made his way toward Brasidias, wishing to be at his leader's side when the surrender was made official. The Amazons followed, guarding his back, enjoying the pleasure it gave the general but they also wanted to be there when Cleon surrendered.
Brasidias blasted through lines of troops gathered around Cleon in a last-ditch effort to save him. The Spartan commander had his share of wounds, while fighting one foe others had taken a good shot at him, but his fervor ran high and propelled him past any physical weakness. He would have Cleon's head.
Toris did his best just to keep up with Xena. "Are you crazy?" he yelled to her.
"No, but he is," she yelled back, noting the instant when comprehension flashed over her brother's face.
"They're retreating!" Toris screamed in frustration.
"I know that! But Brasidias isn't going to end this with a simple surrender." Xena did her best to repel attacks without wounding any more than she had to.
At last they penetrated the final ring around Cleon. These were the most skilled swordsmen in the Athenian army, and although they were tired and their loyalties sorely tested, for they knew now that they had lost, they refused to go down without defending their leader. Brasidias' sword whipped through the air, the frenzy taking him beyond tactics and into a deranged fury. It proved effective on most but for the skill of the guards encircling Cleon, it was merely a new challenge.
Another sword found it's mark on Brasidias' flesh, he lashed out wildly against it, propelling himself nearer and nearer the object of his crazed desire. But in his haste to defeat every Athenian, he left his back unguarded to the one man he most wanted to kill. Cleon sensed the irony and raised his sword high. In the instant before he struck the death blow, he recounted his position: leader of Athens, the most powerful city in the world; leader of the Athenian army, the mightiest force in the world; about to kill his equal, the commander of the Spartan troops in plain view of his most trusted generals. It would be enough, Cleon decided, for he knew the moment he let loose his sword, the victory would be short-lived and he would be descended upon by every Spartan trampling this land.
He should never have taken the instant to relive his glory, Xena needed no time to assess the situation, she stepped up and killed Cleon, ignoring the immediate sense of satisfaction it gave her, and withdrew her blade from the dead man in a single swift jerk of her arm.
She turned, expecting to fend off another Athenian guard. Instead, Brasidias rushed toward her, both hands on the hilt of his sword held high overhead.
"Brasidias, what are you doing?" She sidestepped him, letting his momentum carry him past her. "Hey, I'm on your side!"
"You killed him!" The rage let loose, all barriers fell taking him beyond humanity toward the insanity of the gods. "He was mine!" he screeched, coming at her again.
And again she parried his attack, though the strength of this man possessed was beyond her ability to fight forever. A circle of gawkers formed around them. Among them were Toris, Pleistoanax, and Cleridas, as well as Eponin, Solari, Procne and Procris.
"Brasidias, listen to me," Xena tried to reason with him. "It's over. Look! The Athenians have given up!"
Brasidias swayed from side to side, his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce. "This was my war to win. You never should have been here. How dare you take him from me!"
"What? You mean Cleon?" it finally dawned on Xena what Brasidias was talking about. "He was going to kill you! I saved your life."
"You took it. You took it from me. You have no idea what you've done." Spit collected at the side of his mouth, his hair stood on end from the blood and sweat. "There's only one way to fix it now," and he lunged at her once more, driving his sword in front of him, taking a moment to aim this time.
She used the hilt of her sword to block him, deflecting his blade past her head, out of the way, but she couldn't do anything about his body. He slammed into her full force, knocking her to the ground. Quicker than she was ready for, he pulled a dagger from his belt, she had only instinct to rely on and when he sliced down to her throat. She went for the elbow, changing the angle of the blade so it pierced his own skin from the neck to the collarbone. Spitting his blood from her lips, she rolled out from under his body.
Pleistoanax and Cleridas stood over her, both with swords drawn, both poised to take her life as she had done with their commander's. They stared at each other for a heartbeat.
"Ares infected him, and he wasn't going to stop until he'd slaughtered all of them. Is that what you want the Spartans to be known for?" Xena made no move to defend herself physically, though she might be able to beat the two of them, the hundreds more surrounding her would be beyond her abilities and beyond her desire to defeat.
"Think about it," she continued, "before you do anything as rash as Brasidias was planning to do."
Pleistoanax pulled his sword back first, followed quickly by Cleridas and they each extended a hand to help her up. Muddy, bloody, and bruised, not bad, she thought to herself. "Why don't the two of you find one of the Athenian generals?"
Pleistoanax barked an order to Empedias, "Bring Nicias and Thucydides."
One Athenian walked, the other clung to the two Spartan guards helping him along. The ambulatory one spoke, "I am Nicias, I speak for Athens. Today's battle is yours."
Pleistoanax smiled and extended his arm, grasping the Nicias' just below the elbow. "I hear your words. On this land, Sparta reaped the victory. You are now my prisoner."
As they hauled Nicias and Thucydides away, Pleistoanax approached Xena. "You and your... friends... fought well today. I enjoyed watching your blade dance."
Orders were given, camp once again to be constructed on the strong hill, all wounded to
the infirmary. Amazingly, 600 Athenians died on the battlefield that day while Sparta lost
but seven: six soldiers and Brasidias. Pleistoanax instructed a battalion to dig graves
and clean up the land. The Amphipolitans deserved not to have such a gruesome reminder of
the battle fought on their doorstep.
Ephiny and Gabrielle went to the field hospital as soon as they woke, and were put to work treating the minor wounds that trickled in. As the morning wore on, more serious injuries arrived along with word that the battle wrought chaos. It looked good for the Spartans but no one could say why for sure, and anytime someone tried to describe what they'd seen, it sounded more like the confused ramblings of an unorganized mass than a potential victory.
During one lull, Gabrielle found an empty cot and sat with her back against the wall, knowing she'd already pushed herself further than she had the day before but willing away the exhaustion her body felt.
"Have some tea."
Gabrielle popped her eyes open, "Ephiny, you startled me."
"Sorry, but here, drink this." Ephiny handed her a steaming mug, Gabrielle sniffed first and smiled.
"That ought to perk me up." She took a few sips, it was too hot to drink quickly. "Ah, thanks."
"You're welcome. Now, how do you feel?"
"You ask me that after handing me a concoction to give me a good jolt? Must know I won't leave, so I'll tell you: I'm tired." She glanced over at her rumpled friend, "But I think you are, too."
Ephiny pulled a cot over next to Gabrielle's, it squeaked along the wooden floor. "Yup," she said sitting on it as Gabrielle had, back leaning up against the wall.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Why are you here? Why aren't you out fighting. I'd have thought for sure you'd rather not stay behind."
In this case, I don't think the truth will hurt. "I was ordered to stay behind," she smiled as she said it.
"Ordered? Who gave you an order?" Gabrielle scrunched her nose thinking. "I thought I was the only one who outranks you," she added with a kind twinkle in her eye.
"Well, let's just say that someone convinced me it would be better to stay," Ephiny enjoyed making Gabrielle figure it out.
"Xena? How dare she tell you what to do!" Mostly, Gabrielle was just surprised Ephiny would go along with it, having no doubt Xena told her to stay out of the fray in consideration of position Ephiny held in the Amazon Nation.
"Well, in this case, I think it was the right thing to do." Come on, Gabrielle, think it through.
"You? You gave up, just like that? How can you, an Amazon Warrior, think staying behind was the right thing to do. Now me staying , I understand, because you know I..." she stopped. "Oh," and she blushed lightly, embarrassed by the whole thing.
"Actually," drawled Ephiny, "I was pretty tickled when Xena gave me the job. She doesn't usually entrust your safety to anyone but herself, you know."
"So you stayed behind... just in case... to protect me." And why would I think for an instant that Xena wouldn't have thought about that? Silly me. "Thanks."
"Thank her when you see her," Ephiny tracked a thumping noise, two men dropped a third onto a cot by the door, "Work to do. Come on, Queen Gabrielle."
A short while later, Gabrielle wrapped a man's wrist, broken blocking a friend's fall. "See, Lampon tripped over this guy and was about to go down hard, and I caught him but then I was falling too, and, it just sorta happened."
"I'm glad you were able to help your friend," Gabrielle told him sincerely.
"Yeah, and then he made me come here, and I told him I didn't want to because I wanted to watch that wild woman beat up Brasidias."
"Wait. What woman?" Gabrielle asked, a tremor of fear passing through her.
"You know, the Warrior Princess. She and Brasidias got into a huge fight." He twisted his arm, his wrist held immobile, "Not bad, thanks."
"Tell me about this fight you saw," Gabrielle urged, trying to be calm on the outside while her insides were wobbling.
"I didn't get to see it, that's what I've been trying to say. Lampon pulled me away just as it was getting good."
Gabrielle hunted around the room, looking for someone who could tell her more, someone who'd come in more recently than the soldier with the broken wrist. At that moment, however, the wounded poured in one after the other, distracting her from her task. What Gabrielle hadn't realized was that the battle was over and those who had waited to see it end could now get their injuries taken care of. And Athenians, some wounded beyond hope were brought in alongside the Spartans. Gabrielle thought it meant a catastrophe for everyone. Without knowing more about the so-called fight between Xena and Brasidias, her mind jumped to all sorts of conclusions, none of them easing the tension building inside her.
The two Spartan field doctors had their hands full and still more soldiers needed immediate attention. Gabrielle shifted roles from nurse to doctor without being given a choice. She and Ephiny tried to help one another, but too often they each stood over a table and sewed a deep gash or extracted an arrow. Every time a new body was laid on the table in front of her, she thanked the gods it wasn't Xena's.
A loud commotion at the door caught everyone's attention. Thucydides and Nicias, what was left of the Athenian command level stood on either side of Xena, filthy from the mud and blood. A triumphant roar filled the room. Xena had led them to victory and now she brought them the spoils of war, the hides of Thucydides and Nicias.
Gabrielle watched as Nicias and Xena helped Thucydides to a cot, then set back to work on the man in her care, wiping away tears that spilled without permission. She sewed carefully, taking tiny stitches just as Xena had taught her, pausing to wipe her cheek on her shoulder with greater frequency. One last stitch, her hands began to shake, tremors born of the intensity released, she made herself finish but knew she couldn't face another. Turning to find solace somewhere she took one step and bumped into a warmth she knew, could recognize in the dead of night, and she latched on.
Xena led her into a supply closet, shut the door, and sat with her on a pile of crates. This mode, she realized, she could handle. It didn't scare her. She enveloped the bard with her long arms and held her, letting the tears flow as long as they needed, rocking her gently.
"Sorry," Gabrielle pulled away, again embarrassed, this time rattled by dragging Xena away from where she was needed.
"It's okay." Xena smoothed her thumb across Gabrielle's cheek. "Marks from my armor again." She wet her thumb and wiped it across the indentations.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, "Xena, I got so scared. I heard something about a fight between you and Brasidias, and then no one could tell me anything else, and I just started thinking about what could have happened..."
Xena pulled her into another hug. "It's okay." Gods, Xena, can't you think of anything else to say to her? "Brasidias went crazy, and I know in my bones that Ares was behind it."
"Ares?" Gabrielle asked, this time not pulling away, but staying put with her cheek pressed against Xena's chest.
"He paid Brasidias a couple of visits. I'd should have known he was up to something," Xena ran her fingers up and down the bard's back, trying to coax tight muscles into relaxing.
"So what happened?" Gabrielle finally asked, not sure she wanted to know but she did need to know.
"Brasidias wanted to slaughter them all, he didn't want to accept that the fight was over. Cleon was dead, the Athenians were on the run, and he still wanted to kill everyone."
"So... you took care of him?" Please don't tell me you thought the only way out was to kill him.
"Well, I was his intended victim."
"Why you? You didn't do anything to him, did you?"
"I saved his life," Xena told her. It held no heroic proportions, it was merely a fact, one recorded as simply as counting the number of arrows to fly off mark and into a tree stumps.
"You saved his life so he wanted to kill you? That doesn't make any sense," Gabrielle hated hearing that people did things so wretched. She had no comprehension of their motives, no understanding at all.
"I saved his life," explained Xena, "by killing Cleon as he was about to be-head Brasidias. Brasidias wanted to kill Cleon himself so badly, that he cracked, came after me with a vengeance." Xena stilled the hand that had been softly passing over the bard's back. "I didn't want to kill Brasidias, but I didn't have much of a choice."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, saw the regret was real, "Then what happened? You kill the leaders of both armies? No one must have liked that."
Xena returned the look, unadulterated, true to the core. "Well, fortunately, it wasn't difficult to convince Pleistoanax and Cleridas that Brasidias had gone insane. They saw it themselves. Otherwise, I'd have suffered the same fate."
Gabrielle blinked a few times, trying to get that picture out of her head.
"Come on," Xena stood up, pulling the bard with her. "We should give them a hand out there. You up to it?"
"Yeah, sure. Thanks, Xena."
It wasn't long before Xena enlisted Gabrielle's help, the familiar routine giving them a sense of grounding. Nasty gashes cauterized, crossbow arrows dug out or pushed through, broken bones set and splinted. They rarely had to ask for something, they just knew what to do and who would do it. When Xena looked up to ask for fresh bandages, Gabrielle was already there handing them to her. If the surroundings hadn't been so horrifying, the aftermath of a bloody battle, they might have enjoyed themselves.
The worst of the cases taken care of, Gabrielle made the rounds, changed bandages, cooled a heated brow with a damp cloth. She moved from bed to bed, heedless of who she tended until she sat down and recognized Thucydides. She had seen him last seated by Cleon while a prisoner in Eion and although Nicias had told her Thucydides coined the phrase "the most violent man in all of Greece" in reference to Cleon, he was still an Athenian, and to her on this day it meant the enemy. She fought the revulsion and touched him, cleaning the wound on his leg and re-bandaging it.
"You're in good hands, I see." Nicias had returned to see to his friend.
"Not much of a talker, though," Thucydides said. "I thought you said she was a bard."
"I am," Gabrielle told him.
"Don't you be kidding her, Thucydides, she's been through a lot." Nicias, also the enemy, seemed quite the gentle man. And yet you wear a military uniform, mused Gabrielle. The two have always been mutually exclusive in my mind.
"Gabrielle," Nicias sat by her and spoke diplomatically. "I have a favor to ask."
She sat up, not pleased by the sound of that prelude. When the familiar hand came to rest on her shoulder though, she relaxed. Xena had been watching her closely since she sat by Thucydides. When Nicias came in and spoke to the bard, Xena decided it was time to hear for herself what Nicias had come to say.
"A meeting is about to being. I want you to be there," Nicias explained.
"What kind of meeting?" this question from Xena. "She's quite tired and I was about to send her home."
Nicias answered her, but spoke directly to Gabrielle, "It is a meeting between Pleistoanax and Cleridas, and me and Thucydides if he's feeling up to it."
"I am," Thucydides replied.
"Daithus will be there to speak for the Amphipolitans, we'd like you to be there to speak for the Amazons, Gabrielle." Nicias smiled, "and because you've shown me you are a wise woman, one who admires peace more than war."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and got a smile in return. "I'd love to go," and
she felt Xena's hand give her a reassuring squeeze.
Nicias ushered the bard into a small room adorned by one large table and little else. On one side sat Pleistoanax and Cleridas, she met them for the first time, as well as Chionis and Philocharidas. The last two never spoke but both took detailed notes throughout the session. On the other side of the table, Nicias joined Thucydides who propped up his leg on an extra chair. He looked a bit pale but the hope he carried outweighed any pain he felt. Their note takers were Pythodorus and Hagnon.
Daithus sat at the head of the table, he invited Gabrielle to sit at the other end. Four parties, two represented by only one voice each, but their task would be mediating. The Spartans and Athenians each had four representatives.
Daithus, as head of the Council of Amphipolis, began the session, "Welcome friends. Today we will forge an agreement that will shape the course of history, that will carve the path each of our lives will take. It will not come easily and I implore all of you to say your peace and then let another answer you with his own tongue while yours is held in silence. We must hear each other before we can compromise with each other. And for any man who does not believe that such negotiations are a series of compromises, I ask that you let it be known so that we may replace you now. I do not wish to wait until we are near an agreement to find out that one of you will keep us from it by your own pigheadedness!"
Gabrielle felt the early twinges of a headache. Why am I here? This is between the Spartans and the Athenians. The Amazons have nothing to do with it. I wish Xena wouldn't have let me come. Actually, she never said anything, did she? Well, then, it's my own fault that I'm sitting here.
Realizing Pleistoanax had been talking for some time, Gabrielle tried to focus on what he said. "...and they even spread rumors that Aristocles, my brother of blood, bribed the priestess at Delphi to give oracles to my own Spartan people to restore me to the throne."
He's a king? Gabrielle once again bemoaned the fact that she often knew too little about the politics of a given situation, this one topping the list of 'I Really Should Have Known More About These Things Before I Jumped In.' So he's a king who was exiled until the Oracle at Delphi told the people to bring him back. If a peace really does come of this, I'll have to leave an extra offering for her in thanks.
Now Nicias rambled on about "...if ends are to be achieved, it will be by avoiding risk, trusting as little as possible to fortune."
So, wondered Gabrielle, did he just tell Pleistoanax that he shouldn't be listening to oracles? Is that what he meant by not trusting fortune? Of course, he could be saying that it's only through open and honest communication that this peace can come to life, that people have to sit down and talk to each other, work it out. I can't say I disagree with him on that one.
"That attack came by order of Cleon, himself!" Thucydides roared. An ambient din disappeared. A constant background noise of scratching and murmuring had been going on, getting louder and louder, but Gabrielle only noticed it when it was gone. Now it was too quiet.
Thucydides spoke again, this time in his normal tone, "My leg pains me, gentlemen. My frustration is centered below my knee, not in my heart."
"Still," Nicias came to his defense, "What he says is true. That attack was ordered by Cleon. I would not have done so."
"Is that an excuse?" asked Cleridas.
"Perhaps it is, in some degree. But it is also a simple statement of fact. Cleon was not himself, not for the last several months. He became driven like a madman and he wove such a tight net around himself, no one of the Assembly could wrest power from him." Nicias sighed. "I had but one small victory in the Assembly," he looked to Gabrielle and smiled, "And I am glad it was that one."
"The debate about Mytilene?" Pleistoanax asked. "Yes, I heard about that." The two leaders regarded each other, their gazes were open and plain, hiding nothing from the other. Progress, thought Gabrielle.
Pleistoanax put his matching cards on the table. "The same can be said of Brasidias. He was not himself at the end."
"We all witnessed that," said Thucydides, "though some of us didn't have a front row seat."
Yeah, and remember Xena got you out of that mess, Gabrielle reminded them silently.
Daithus, who had taken on the task of stopping them every so often to sum up what had been said, rose to speak. "It has been agreed that Brasidias and Cleon let themselves be touched by the madness power can sometimes bring. What is to guarantee it will not happen again to one of you in this room?" He did not speak it as a threat, it's purpose was to guide the discussion into the next round.
"I have known Brasidias for many years," said Cleridas softly, eyes rooted to the table before him. "If you had told me a year ago of what happened in the last weeks, I never would have believed it possible. I never would have believed Brasidias would become... an assassin, a murderer... he wanted the lives every Athenian on that field."
"And I can say the same for Cleon, though it has been longer than a year since I noticed the change," Thucydides reminisced. "Something in him changed, I could almost name the very day it happened. And it came before he fashioned his position in our government." He let go a single, soft, cynical chuckle. "And they say power corrupts. For Cleon, it must have been the taste of power, the promise of what it would bring."
Two men, divulging the secret of their souls, recounting the destruction of two old friends.
"Who is to say it won't happen again?" Daithus asked the pointed question, diving into the crux of the dilemma.
"Because," said Gabrielle speaking for the first time, "Athena and Ares poisoned the souls of Cleon and Brasidias."
All eyes were on the bard. Daithus questioned her, "You speak the truth?"
"Athena manipulated Cleon. She disguised herself as Sophia." Nicias put that explosive bit of information on the table.
Pleistoanax followed with his, "I saw Ares myself more than once. Brasidias worshipped him."
"Then it is true," Daithus said, with tinges of awe, of disgust, of lingering incredulity. "But we mortals cannot stop them. They have the power to do this to anyone."
"Yes they do," Gabrielle feeling the truth of that down to her very soul. Yes, they do. "But I have reason to believe that Athena won't be committing such atrocities in the near future, and Ares won't have a need to with Athena out of the picture."
"And yet that is hardly a guarantee," remarked Cleridas, almost under his breath.
"There are no guarantees when the gods are involved. It's just something we learn to live with," Gabrielle summed up.
"She speaks the truth," Nicias said, letting his gaze travel to each man sitting across from him, "but this agreement is among men. We can guarantee our own good intentions. I, for one, do not intend to let the threat of intervention take me off course. This war must come to an end. And in light of the information Gabrielle has brought to the table, I believe it will be a much easier task than I anticipated when I first walked in this room today."
Pleistoanax agreed, "The last months of hardship were orchestrated by the gods. It is something I do not wish to believe but feel in my heart that it is true. Why else would we drive ourselves to war against each other?"
"For land," replied Nicias. "Men have fought for less, will fight for the same in the future. Of that I have no doubt."
"That's still an issue, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked, emboldened now to believe she could make a difference in these talks. "You each hold land the other once claimed."
Nicias and Pleistoanax regarded each other's eyes. They had a good long stare, not sharing their intensity with anyone else, though those around them could feel it. Pleistoanax spoke first, "Either we agree to return everything to as it was before the war, or we agree to keep everything as it now stands. I can see no other solution."
Nicias chewed on the inside of his upper lip, "If we agree to leave everything as it now stands, we will have given this war value and prepared the way for many more to come."
Pleistoanax smiled. "You are a wise man, Nicias."
"Some have said so, others have not," Nicias spoke matter-of-factly, as if there was truth in both representations.
"But," Gabrielle piped in, her soft voice carrying easily, "that doesn't fix any of the problems that precipitated your struggles. Merely parsing out ownership of land to either Sparta or Athens still leaves many people in a position they disdain."
"Do you have a suggestion?" asked Thucydides.
Gabrielle's heart pumped a bit faster, her breathing came in quick, short pants. "First, I would suggest," emphasizing the word, "that all of the temples fall under neither government's purview. They belong to everyone, they should be governed by their own laws according to the customs of the place."
Pleistoanax and Nicias in unison said, "Agreed."
"And," Gabrielle continued on shaky ground as she was thinking on her feet, "There should be a guarantee that any future disagreements between Sparta and her allies, and Athens and her allies be settled in a court of law and not on a battlefield."
"Agreed," spoken more quickly and by everyone around the table.
"And," the sweat broke out on her brow, she clamped her hand down on the edge of the table against her dizziness, "When you return all of the cities back to their original status," gods I hope I said that right so I didn't offend anyone, "you should do so with the provision that all inhabitants are free to decide whether to leave or to stay and that they make take all of their property with them."
"Agreed," in chorus around her.
"And," she was certain she would pass out, her knees wobbled even though she was seated in a chair, "If any foreign party invades Athenian territory, the Spartans must come to Athens as allies, likewise if the invasion is on Spartan soil, the Athenians must aid Sparta." That should keep everyone else second-guessing the wisdom of starting another war.
"Agreed," spoken heartily, spirits gradually lifting as they could see the final proposal coming to fruition.
"And," I hope this isn't too much, but it's the only way to make it last, "The treaty must be renewed every year by a Spartan delegation going to Athens and an Athenian delegation going to Sparta." They have to see each other as mortals, as humans tilling the soil, curing leather, and raising families.
The four scribes worked together, making four copies of the treaty. One for Pleistoanax and the Spartans, another for Nicias to take with him to Athens, a third for Daithus to hold in Amphipolis to honor their place in the negotiations, and the last for the Amazon Nation and her leader, Queen Gabrielle.
Once scribed and signed by all parties, each person stood one by one, and said these words, "I shall abide by the terms of this treaty honestly and sincerely."
Pleistoanax and Nicias walked out together, holding their copies of the treaty aloft. Gabrielle could hear the cheering, even through the rushing in her ears. Next, Cleridas and Thucydides left, Daithus helping Thucydides though the historian's giddy state left him quite able to walk on his own. Finally the scribes left and Gabrielle found herself alone at the huge table. She put her head down for a moment just to catch her breath.
"I'm proud of you."
Gabrielle pulled her head up and looked around. Xena stood behind her. "Hi," the bard said, her voice now betraying the exhaustion she felt. "How can you say that? You don't even know what happened."
"I sat with one ear to the back wall." Xena smiled, confessing something she didn't view as an indiscretion. "I heard everything you said."
"Well sometime you'll have to tell me if I made any sense. I can hardly remember anything that just happened," Gabrielle let her head fall back down onto her hands, arms crossed on the table.
"Oh, I think you'll be hearing about it a lot, Gabrielle." Xena reached down and picked her up. "But bedtime's in order now."
"Hey, put me down!" Xena dropped her like a hot poker and quickly took two steps back. Sighing, Gabrielle said, "That's not what I meant, Xena. I'm sorry. I just didn't think it would be... dignified for me to be carried out. That's all." Gabrielle extended a hand to her, Xena slowly accepted it, their truce in place for the moment.
"Can I walk you back?" Xena asked, no sarcasm in her tone.
"Yes, thanks. I'd like that."
Xena let Gabrielle stroll ahead of her, she deserved it, and had great difficulty accepting congratulations for her part in the battle. Yeah, sure, I killed a few people, she thought to herself, but I never could have done what Gabrielle did today. I ended a battle, she ended the war.
A tray of food had been left by the bed. Gabrielle sat by it but ate only with Xena's prodding. "I know you said you're too tired to chew, but you need to eat something."
"Okay," Gabrielle replied, in a daze from all that had happened. The war was over? Why didn't it feel that way. She finished an apple, and a few bites of cheese and some olives.
"Come on," Xena smiled, pulling her up from the chair and walking her three steps to the bed. "You can go to sleep now." She unlaced Gabrielle's boots and the bard kicked them off.
"I'm too tired to sleep," Gabrielle murmured as she lay back and closed her eyes. She heard footsteps walking away, "Hey," she looked at Xena, "where are you going?"
"I..." her arms fell by her side. "didn't think..."
"Come on, Xena. This is your bed!" I'm much too tired to argue this, thought Gabrielle. "Just sleep here, okay? I just want... to know where you are."
"Okay," Xena answered. "Let me go tell everyone that I got you home safe and sound."
Gabrielle fought the urge to make her promise to come back. She doesn't need a leash right now, she told herself. "Thanks, Xena."
And when she turned over later that night, her hand instinctively reaching for the
other person who'd shared her bed for what seemed like a lifetime, she was there.
Gabrielle fell back asleep and slept dreamlessly the rest of the night.
Continued in part 3
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