"I´m a healer, Your Majesty. I don´t take lives or sentence people to death."
"So it´s life then?"
Gabrielle looked at the woman beside her, "Callias?"
Although the Captain was clearly uncomfortable, she returned Gabrielle´s gaze without wavering.
If Gabrielle was surprised she didn´t show it, but instead turned to look at Erinya.
The weapons master looked down at the table for a moment, before looking back up at her Queen.
"What!" The outrage in Zelei´s voice was clear. "Erinya, how can you say that after all what´s happened. I would expect this from Kelife," she gave the healer a sharp glance, "but not from you. Have you forgotten Leda already?"
"No, Zelei. I haven´t forgotten Leda and I never will," the weapons master´s voice was quiet but firm, "but killing those three soldiers won´t bring her back, nothing will. Besides, the only crime these men have committed is that they fought in a war. We don´t prosecute our soldiers for that, do we?"
"It´s hardly the same," Zelei´s voice was practically dripping with venom. "They attacked us and killed off half the village. They deserve to die! We need them to die to recover from this!"
Erinya just shook her head, "Perhaps, but people die in war and we attacked them first."
"That was self-defence!"
"True, but how would we´ve reacted if they´d taken prisoners and later executed them for nothing more than fighting on the other side."
"But that´s what war´s all about!" Zelei exasperated. "The victor makes the rules! It´s that simple! In the end it doesn´t matter who´s right or wrong. It´s who won that´s important."
"Okay, that´s enough you two!" Gabrielle cut through, giving both her subjects a stern look. "You´re not helping."
Zelei gave Erinya one last hostile glance before looking at her Queen, a vicious smile on her face.
"I guess it´s up to you then, my…Queen. You decide whether they live or die."
"I´m well aware of that, Zelei." Gabrielle´s voice was cold. "And I´d appreciate it if you didn´t use that tone with me, or I might have to find somebody else to lead the regular army."
Surprised showed on the Captain´s face, but only for a second.
"Yes, Your Majesty." She bowed her head slightly, "I apologize."
Gabrielle continued to stare at her Captain until Zelei looked away, then she turned her attention back to the three other people in the room.
"If you´d all leave me alone, I have to think this over. Come back after an hour and I´ll inform you of my decision."
They all rose and left the hut, except Callias who lingered at the door."
Gabrielle turned to look at the Captain, "Yes?"
"I´m sorry if my decision disappointed you, but I had to do what I thought was right."
Gabrielle gave the Amazon a tired smile, "I wouldn´t expect anything less from you, Callias."
The Captain nodded to herself, relief evident on her face. She started to leave, but paused again.
"If…if you need anything or anybody to talk to… Well, I just want you to know that I´m here that is…if you need or want…to talk or anything."
"Thank you, Callias." Gabrielle gave her a warm smile. "I might just hold you to that."
The Captain smiled briefly then hurried out of the hut, leaving Gabrielle alone. Gabrielle rose from her chair and walked over to the window. She drew the curtains back and looked outside. It was late afternoon and already the village was painted in shades of orange and red.
Autumn´s coming fast.
To her dismay she noticed that Zelei and Erinya had continued their argument outside and that several Amazons contributed eagerly to the debate. A small crowd was beginning to gather in front of the hut, all waiting to hear their Queen´s decision.
What I am going to do? Should the men live or die? I´d wish Xena was here, she… No! I have to decide this for myself, for my people. They rely on me and trust me to do the right thing. But what´s the right thing?
She sighed and moved away from the window and sat down on a chair.
Erinya´s right, but in some way, so is Zelei. They killed so many…but it was war. They attacked us and we attacked them. I don´t want to decide this, I don´t want to be the one who sentences them to die. If I do, I´ll be just as responsible for their deaths as the executioner. Actually, I´ll be even more responsible, their blood will be on my hands.
She absently tapped her fingers on the table.
I have to think of what my people need, what they want. This isn´t about me, it´s about them. I have to be strong… They need me to be strong.
She leaned forward and rested her head on her arms.
But I don´t feel strong.
She stayed in the same position and didn´t move till she heard a knock on the door.
The four council members stepped inside, all looking expectantly at their Queen.
"I´ll tell you outside."
They nodded and moved aside to let Gabrielle out. The moment the Queen stepped outside all voices silenced and all eyes turned to her. It was almost dark now and several fires were lit. The air was heavy with tension and suspense, and Gabrielle swallowed involuntarily. She felt a presence at her side and turned to look at Callias who´d come to stand beside her. The Captain´s face was expressionless, but Gabrielle was none the less grateful for her silent support. She turned back to face her people.
"I, as the ruling Queen of the Amazon Nation and with the authority bestowed on me, have decided to sentence the three captive soldiers to death. The execution is to take place immediately."
A roar of voices filled the square and several Amazons were hugging each other, tears running down their cheeks. Gabrielle´s face was blank as she turned to Callias.
"Captain, see to that it´s done and do it in private. I don´t want a public execution."
Zelei snorted, but a glance from the Queen silenced her instantly. Callias saluted and turned to the Royal Guards standing at the hut.
"Areia, Pellene. Come with me."
The three soldiers left in direction of the prison and silence fell once again. Hushed voices whispered and glances darted from the Queen to the prison and back again. Suddenly Callias emerged from the darkness, but without her soldiers. She walked over to her Queen and kneeled down.
"It has been done."
Cheering and shouting obscured any reply Gabrielle might
have had and she only nodded in acknowledgement. A soldier in the regular
army suddenly stepped forward and kneeled down and then, one by one, every
Amazon in the village kneeled down before their Queen. Gabrielle took in
the display before her, a strange smile on her face. Then she slowly walked
through the lines of kneeling Amazons, gently touching each of them on
the shoulder, before continuing towards the Royal hut and without looking
back, disappeared inside.
"Seeing something interesting?"
"Nah, not really."
Lykeas closed the door behind him and stepped over to Xena who was standing at the window looking out at the city. The sun had set hours ago and only a few flickering lights from the houses below were visible. They stood side by side for a while, enjoying the cool air and the gentle breeze that made the flames in the fireplace join into a slow, alluring dance with the shadows on the walls. Then Lykeas walked away from the window and sat down on the bed. He began to roll his head back and forth to loosen up his muscles and Xena turned her head slightly to look at him.
Lykeas grinned, "Please."
With a quiet sigh she moved over to Lykeas who scrambled to the middle of the bed, before lying down on his stomach. Xena straddled his hips and began kneading the stiff muscles.
"You´ll never learn, will you?"
"And miss this? No."
Xena smiled to herself and continued her task. Her mind began to wander and she couldn´t help but wonder how many times she´d done this before.
"So what do you think?" Lykeas interrupted her thoughts and she paused for a moment.
"I think it´s too much of a coincidence."
"Uhm, me too."
Their talk with the King had been interesting to say the least. Much to Lykeas´ surprise, Xena hadn´t had any scruples about telling the King everything that had happened and consequently why they were here. Polyidos had listened in silence, only interrupting a few times to ask for a clarification of one thing or another. He had paid particular attention when Xena mentioned the brown uniforms the soldiers had been wearing.
"Brown uniforms? With a small black insignia just above the heart?"
"Yes. Have you seen them?"
"Yes, I have. Several times actually. Three months ago, I heard rumours of a warlord crossing my kingdom and together with my army I went out to meet him. However, instead of attacking, he avoided us the whole time until he had left the territory. That was the first time I saw the brown uniforms. I didn´t think much about it until four weeks ago, I heard that another warlord was coming through. Again they avoided us and again, they wore the brown uniforms."
"Couldn´t they have been from the same army and perhaps been delayed, trying to catch up?"
"I thought so too, but about two weeks ago it happened again. Although this time it wasn´t a real army. It was several small groups of men, all heading in the same direction with no apparent connection, except the uniforms."
"Did the men look they were coming from battle?"
"Now that you mention it, yes they did."
"Have you heard anything about them since?"
"I was going to send a message to King Simmias to inquire, but when I heard that Xena, the Warrior Princess was in my Kingdom, I decided to wait."
"Did you think I was with them?"
"Forgive me. I suppose, I should´ve known better, but I have my people to think of and I take no chances when it comes to them."
"Don´t apologize, it´s not more than a few years ago, you´d have been right to be worried."
"I know, but let´s not talk about that. Instead I wanted to ask you, if you would consider bringing my message to Simmias since you´ll be travelling through his kingdom, and I know this is of great interest to you as well."
Without hesitation, Xena had agreed.
She moved away from Lykeas and went over to the fireplace to stir up the fire. Lykeas reluctantly resumed his former position, sitting on the bed. Xena remained standing at the fireplace unconsciously still holding the poker, staring straight into the flames. Then abruptly she turned to look directly at him.
"I´ve done something very stupid."
"Oh," was all Lykeas managed to say, slightly unnerved by the look in her eyes.
"But I´m willing to take the consequences," She continued, as if she hadn´t heard him. "I have to."
"I see," Lykeas replied, but in truth he didn´t have a clue about what she was referring to.
Then a thought struck, "Ohhh."
She smiled weakly at him, "Yes, ohhh."
He scratched his chin thoughtfully and watched as Xena began pacing the floor.
"Well, I think…" He paused, having no idea what to say. "I think, I should get some sleep. It´s gonna be an early start tomorrow."
Xena stopped her pacing, "Yeah, you´re right. I should do that as well.," but she knew she wouldn´t be able to fall asleep.
Lykeas got up from the bed and opened the door, then on a second thought, he looked back into the room. Xena was standing at the window again, staring out at the darkness.
She didn´t look at him. "Uh huh?"
"You know I´m awful, when it comes to stuff like…like that." He swallowed. "But if you ever… Well, I´m willing…willing to try, and at least…I can always listen."
A smile showed on Xena´s face, but the night was the only witness.
"I´ll keep that in mind."
He nodded to himself and closed the door behind him.
Three people stood in the castle´s courtyard which was bathed in the grey light of dawn. The King stifled a yawn and smiled apologetically at the two warriors.
"I´m afraid it´s been a while since I last was up at this hour."
Xena grinned, "Well, there has to be some advantages to being a king."
The King pulled out a scroll from a pocket in his white robe. "Here´s the message I want you to bring to Simmias." He paused for a minute and looked at them in a thoughtful manner, before continuing. "King Simmias is one of the nicest men I´ve ever met, but when it comes to politics…"
The expression on Polyidos´ face indicated he´d just made a decision.
"Simmias is greatly loved by his subjects, but it´s no secret among them that in reality he has little involvement in the affairs of the kingdom. Therefore, I´ll advise you to speak to his wife, Queen Phillinna, about these matters. For years she´s been the rightful ruler of the kingdom in anything but name, but under no circumstances treat Simmias with disrespect. He´s not stupid, he just doesn´t… Well, it´s hard for him to remain focused for a longer period of time."
Xena nodded, "Thank you for the advice, we´ll make sure to follow it."
She accepted the scroll the King handed her and placed it safely in Argo´s saddlebag. She hesitated for a moment before pulling out two scrolls of her own.
"I´d be grateful if you would see to that these two scrolls are delivered to the Amazons. Will that be possible?"
"But of course, I´ll send a messenger right away, it shouldn´t-."
The King was interrupted by the sound of hooves on the cobble and Charmides´ voice, protesting loudly. They turned to see Alexias coming towards them, dressed in armour and leathers, leading a horse behind him. Charmides was wringing his hands and kept dancing around in small circles, while still managing to keep up with the Prince.
"But, Your Highness, you haven´t thought this through. It could be dangerous, what would His Majesty think if… Ah, Your Majesty! I´m so relieved to see you. His Highness is determined to accompany the warriors and won´t listen to reason."
The King frowned and left Lykeas and Xena. He led his son out of hearing range and an animated debate began. Xena gave Lykeas an amused smile, but his attention was on the scrolls in her hands.
"What´s in the scrolls?"
"This one informs them of all what we´ve learned so far and what our future plans are."
"And that one?" Lykeas pointed at the slightly smaller scroll in the warrior´s other hand.
When she didn´t answer, he reached out and took it out of her hand. Xena´s eyes narrowed for a second, but then her face was a mask again. Lykeas ignored her expression and opened the scroll. He read the short text and then without a word, rolled it together again and fastened the string around it. He handed it back to her and their eyes met. The blue eyes didn´t show any emotion, while the black ones had a speculating and searching look to them.
They both turned to look at Polyidos who was standing next to his son.
"Alexias has set his heart on going with you to see Simmias. I am not happy with his decision, but he´s old enough to decide for himself, so I won´t stand in his way. Of course, it all depends on whether you´re willing to let him accompany you." He gave them a faint smile, "Don´t feel obligated to agree. Whatever you decide, it won´t change my opinion about you or lessen the gratefulness I feel."
Lykeas released a quiet sigh and looked at Xena, who only shrugged, obviously letting the decision up to him. He turned to look at Alexias, who was regarding him with both anticipation and badly hidden eagerness.
"How old are you?"
"You look younger."
"I know." There was a defiant edge to the Prince´s voice, but Lykeas paid it no attention.
"Can you fight?"
"Yes, I´ve been leading the-."
Lykeas raised his hand to silence the Prince.
"Ever killed anybody?"
Alexias nodded, but when noticing the warrior´s expression, hurried to give a more oral confirmation. "Yes, yes I have."
"The finest," the King interrupted proudly and put an arm around his son´s shoulder.
Lykeas´ gaze went from the King to Alexias and then back again.
He mounted Rarjan and looked at Xena who was already sitting on Argo.
The King gave his son a warm hug and Alexias endured it for a moment, before easing himself out of the embrace. He mounted his own horse and looked down at the King.
"I´ll make you proud, father."
"I´m proud of you already, Alexias… Be careful."
"I will." The Prince turned to look at Charmides, who was fighting tears. "Don´t worry, my friend. I´ll be back before you now it."
The chubby man blew his nose and gave the Prince a heartfelt smile.
"I´m counting on it, Your Highness."
Without further delay, the three riders left the castle.
It was three days after the execution and the Queen still hadn´t left her hut. She´d had her meals brought, but most had been sent back without being touched. Kelife had paid her a visit, but the Queen had assured her that she was all right and just needed to be alone. The Amazons had respected her wish, but as the third day turned into night, Callias decided she wasn´t going to play along anymore. She knocked on the Queen´s door and without waiting for an answer steeped inside. Gabrielle was sitting on the bed surrounded by scrolls and looked up from the scroll she was writing in.
"What is it, I said… Oh, Callias, it´s you. Look, I´m sorry, but I don´t feel like having company tonight."
The Captain just closed the door and stepped over to the bed.
"You´re gonna stop doing this to yourself."
"Do what?" Gabrielle´s voice was annoyed.
"Feel guilty. You did what you had to do and there´s absolutely nobody in this village, or the entire Nation for that matter, who think you made the wrong decision. They saw a strong and just Queen in a difficult situation, but you handled it with the firmness needed without betraying your heart, and they all respect you and love you that much more for it. You´re not afraid of showing doubt or weakness, but you´re not afraid of showing strength and resolution either when it´s required, and three days ago, it was."
The Amazon paused from her passionate speech to take a breath.
"Then why is it I can´t sleep at night." Gabrielle´s voice was barely a whisper.
Callias pushed a scroll aside and sat down on the bed. She reached out and took the quill from the Queen´s shaking hand.
The Queen smiled at hearing her name from the Captain´s lips for the first time.
"I´ve been a warrior all my life, and I can´t say that I understand all the things you must be feeling right now, but I do know that sometimes in life we´re faced with problems that forces us to react in a certain manner. We may not like it or approve it, but it´s not gonna prevent these things from happening from time to time, and as with all things beyond our control, we´ll have to compromise and adjust. The life you lived ten years ago is not the life you live today, and the person you were ten years ago is not the person you are today. The world around us changes and because we live in that world, we change with it."
Gabrielle smiled at the Amazon, "For a warrior, you certainly have a way with words." She sighed, "I appreciate what you´re trying to say, Callias. I really do, and I guess that some part of me agrees, but the thing is…"
"I made a promise to myself once never to take a life or to fight again. I may not have fought, but I´ve taken lives. Three defenceless men died because of me."
The Captain reached out and took the Queen´s hand. "You were a different person when you made that promise and in a different situation. It´s impossible to go through life without altering or revising your beliefs and priorities. Your priority this time was the Amazons and you acted accordingly. You began the healing of the emotional scars we all carry. You saw what we needed and gave it to us and if the time comes, we´ll do the same for you and that´s how it should be, because you´re our Queen and we´re your people."
"But what am I worth if I can´t stay true to myself?" Tears were slowly running down Gabrielle´s cheeks.
"You wouldn´t be feeling this way if you weren´t."
And with that, the Amazon pulled her Queen into a tight embrace. Gabrielle rested her head against the soldier´s shoulder and cried quietly. Callias moved her hand in small soothing circles on the Queen´s back, while whispering soft words of comfort. Most of her words didn´t make much sense or were impossible to make out, but it all worked to calm the woman in her arms and soon the sobs subsided.
Gabrielle moved away and regarded the blond Amazon with a small smile. "Thank you, I needed that."
Callias smiled in return, "It´s all part of a Captain´s duty. Whether it´s fighting off soldiers or offering a shoulder to cry on, I´m here to assist."
"I was hoping you were here as my friend and not as my Captain." Her words were playful, but her expression serious.
"Oh, I…" The Amazon hesitated, then grinned. "Let´s say I´m here as your friend and Captain."
"Works with me, "Gabrielle grinned in return, "but let´s not have anymore of those my Queens or Your Majestys, I never pull rank among friends."
"Well, I don´t know…"
"Almost never." The Queen interrupted, giving Callias a poor attempt of a menacing glare.
The Captain smiled, "Let´s compromise. I´ll continue to address you with your rightful title in public, but in private I´ll call you whatever you want me to. Is that a deal?"
"Deal." Gabrielle shook the soldier´s hand, "But you won´t have to call me anything but Gabrielle, although…" She adopted a sober expression, "I probably could get used to a couple of "as you wish, woman who outshines the beauty of Aphrodite," and "yes, you the most skilful of bards," or what about, "if you say so, my Queen of light and wisdom," wouldn´t that be appropriate?"
"Let´s not get carried away, shall we?" The Captain smirked, "I begin to think, you´ve been inside this hut for too long."
Gabrielle just smiled and for a while they sat in silence. Then Callias gestured to one of the scrolls on the bed.
"Care to tell me a story?"
The Queen´s eyes lit up, "I´d love too. I haven´t been able to tell my tales for quite a while now."
She moved over so Callias could lean against the headboard beside her.
"Anything particular you´d like to hear?"
The Captain thought for a moment, " I´m sure they´re all excellent, so why don´t you just tell me one of your favourites."
"Okay," Gabrielle looked at the scrolls before her. She reached out for one, but stopped herself. "I don´t need the scrolls to remember this story."
She gathered the scrolls and carefully put them on the floor beside the bed, before returning to her position at the headboard. She took a deep breath and her eyes took on a distant and faraway expression.
"It was winter and the weather was freezing. We´d been travelling for almost a week, when suddenly a group of…" She faltered.
Callias who´d closed her eyes when Gabrielle began to speak, opened them again to look at her questioningly.
The Queen gave her a quick smile that didn´t quite reach the green eyes, "I think, I´ll tell a different story instead."
The Captain´s eyes searched her face, "Okay…"
"I sing the song of Narcissus, the river god´s son and Echo, the nymph who loved him…"
Gabrielle´s voice carried softly through the dark
Slowly, a thought penetrated the heavy layers of sleep and made it´s way into Gabrielle´s mind.
She was about to sink under again when her consciousness made another attempt.
How can that be?
Reluctantly she opened her eyes.
The Captain was lying on her stomach, facing away, but with one arm over Gabrielle´s waist. Gabrielle´s face was practically touching the Amazon´s shoulder and her arm had taken a disturbingly possessive hold around the Captain´s lower back.
She eased herself away from the still sleeping woman and got to her feet. She had told several stories the night before and every time she´d wanted to stop, Callias had encouraged her to continue and the bard in her had willingly obliged, in spite of her exhaustion. Eventually they must have fallen asleep. She tried to stifle a yawn without success.
Apparently that wasn´t too long ago.
She studied the Captain for a moment and smiled to herself. The passionate and persuasive speech the Amazon had given her last night had done wonders. She knew she would never be comfortable with the role she had played in the three men´s death, but her feeling of guilt and frustration had, if not disappeared, subsided to a small ache she could learn to live with.
I did what I had to do. What they wanted me to do. I don´t like it one bit, but nobody´s ever said it´s fun to be Queen. I just hope, I won´t have to make another decision like that for a long time…preferably never again.
She sighed and wondered if it would be considered improper if she climbed back into bed beside the Captain and slept for a few more hours.
Hades, it´s not like I´m gonna tell anybody.
Her musings were abruptly interrupted by a loud knocking on the door and for the second night in a row, an Amazon entered the Queen´s hut without waiting for permission.
"Your Majesty, I won´t accept this any longer, I-." Zelei stopped in her tracks and a mocking smile showed on her face. "I see it´s true what they say about, "out of sight, out of mind." That didn´t take you long, did it?"
Callias who´d been woken up by the noise, leapt off the bed and approached the brown-haired Amazon dangerously.
Zelei crossed her arms defiantly, but did take a few steps back.
"Getting ambitious are we, Callias? Trying to sleep your way to the top, eh? Too bad it won´t do you any good as she won´t be Queen for much longer."
Gabrielle reached out and held back the fuming Captain. "What do you mean, Zelei?" Her voice was demanding and cold. "Is there a problem?"
"Yes, you!" The Amazon spat out. "I´m going to do something that should have been done for a long time ago."
"And that is?"
Zelei pulled out a dagger and threw it at the floor where it embedded itself only inches away from Gabrielle´s foot.
"I hereby challenge you for the right of Queen. Meet me at the practice field in two hours and if you don´t, I´ll see that as a surrendering of your authority as will the Amazon Nation."
Zelei´s eyes narrowed, "And if you do show up, it´ll be a fight to the death. Don´t expect anything else, I´ve no scruples when it comes to killing."
Gabrielle´s green eyes locked onto the Amazon´s brown. "I´ll be there, Zelei and now get the Tartarus out of here before I let Callias throw you out with your head first."
The Captain took a step forward, but Zelei raised her hands in contempt. "Don´t worry, I´ll leave now, after all, I wouldn´t want to spoil your last moments together, and I mean last."
She walked out and closed the door behind her. Then they heard her shout from outside, "Two hours, Gabrielle, I hope you enjoy!"
Gabrielle slumped down on the bed, an overwhelming sense of tiredness settling heavily in her body.
"Gods, how I don´t need this right now."
She gave the worried soldier a faint smile, "At least she had the courtesy to let me sleep a few hours before barging in here."
"My Queen… I don´t know what to say."
"It´s Gabrielle in private, remember? And you don´t have to say anything." She patted the bed and Callias sat down beside her. "We both know that I can´t decline the challenge, I won´t decline. Zelei as Queen would be just as bad as…" She stopped herself, not wanting to relive that particular memory.
"But, Gabrielle, she will try to kill you. I know Zelei and she´s not kidding. She will kill you!"
"Only if she defeats me." The Queen smiled weakly, "As the challenged, I´ve the right to choose weapons and I´ve seen her fight with a staff, I´m better than she is."
"A staff? You want to fight with a staff?" The Captain said incredulously.
"It´s the only weapon I know how to use."
They were silent for a long time.
"You could appoint a Champion…"
Gabrielle looked away for a moment, "I already have, but she´s not here."
"I see… Then you have to fight for yourself."
Gabrielle nodded, "I know, the Queen can only appoint a new Champion if her present one dies or freely renounces the privilege."
"Perhaps if Zelei would be willing to wait, we could send a messenger and-."
"No, Callias, we both know Zelei won´t agree to that and even if she did… I have to do this on my own."
"Gabrielle," the Captain looked at her with solemn blue eyes, "I swear, if…if she kills you, I´ll challenge her the moment you´ve drawn your last breath."
Gabrielle took the Amazon´s hand, "Callias, I-."
"I mean it, Gabrielle," she interrupted, "either she will die or I."
"If you do challenge her, I want you to promise me one thing."
Gabrielle looked into the soldier´s eyes, "Promise me you´ll challenge her for the Nation, not for me. I don´t want your death on my conscience too."
Callias placed a gentle kiss on the Queen´s hand.
"Get down from there!"
The warrior scrambled down from his horse, almost losing his balance when his feet hit the ground. He swallowed nervously as the dark man stepped closer and stopped only inches away.
"Did you deliver my message?"
The warrior nodded, "Yes, sir."
The messenger swallowed again, but the lump in his throat didn´t want to go away.
Black eyes narrowed, "Refused?"
"Yes, they said they would rather die than surrender."
"Really…"A hand smoothed out a black eyebrow. "Did you tell them what would happen if they didn´t"
"Yes, yes I did, sir. But I don´t think they believed me."
"Is that so…"
The dark man turned to the man standing on his left, "Orestes, get the prisoners."
The warrior nodded and disappeared in direction of the cages. The messenger wondered whether he was allowed to leave, but one look at the dark eyes told him he was not. The sound of hooves caused the two men to turn and their gazes followed the fast approaching rider. The black horse came to an abrupt halt before them. The rider looked at the messenger, "Ageon, leave us."
The man hurried away, and in spite of his burning curiosity didn´t dare look back.
The woman on the horse and the man on the ground, eyed each other intensely.
"What do you think you´re doing, Lykeas?"
"I´m going to make them surrender."
"By using the prisoners?"
"Didn´t I tell you no?"
The dark warrior only shrugged and blue eyes turned colder.
"I won´t tolerate disobedience."
"I thought you might change your mind. Hades knows you´ve done that a lot lately."
They both turned to look at Orestes.
"The prisoners…" The warrior faltered when he saw the look in the blue eyes. "The prisoners have been prepared."
"Take them back."
"But, Lykeas said-."
"Take them back!"
"Yes, Princess!" The man left immediately.
The two warriors stared at each other in silence. The wind brought with it the smell of smoke, horses and blood, and distant shouting and laughter could be heard blending in with occasional screams of pain, but neither paid it any attention.
"I don´t understand you, Xena. What is it you want?"
She didn´t answer.
"What´s wrong with you? It´s like I don´t know you anymore. What the fuck´s going on in your head?"
Her eyes snapped open and she shook her head to clear her mind.
"Where did you go?"
She shifted in the saddle and looked at Lykeas riding beside her.
"Did you fall asleep?"
She gave him a sheepish grin, "I think so. Gods, I can´t remember the last time, I fell asleep in the saddle."
"You really are getting old."
"Watch it, Lykeas. I can still take you on any day."
He returned her grin, "Only you, Xena. Only you."
He dug his heels into Rarjan and the horse galloped forward to catch up with Alexias who was riding further down the road. Xena took out a water skin and poured some of the water over her head, she didn´t want to risk falling asleep again.
"Are you coming?"
Lykeas had turned in the saddle and was looking back at her.
Without answering, she ushered Argo forward and joined the men ahead.
In spite of the practice field being surrounded by people it was eerily quiet, not even whispering was heard and all eyes were on the path leading to the village. Suddenly, like one being, the crowd parted to make room for their Queen as she approached the field, casually holding a staff in her right hand. Small smiles of encouragement followed her on the way, but nobody spoke and the silence seemed even thicker than before. Gabrielle´s eyes met Callias´ for just a second and she gave the Captain a reassuring smile. The Captain tried to return it, but failed miserably. Zelei was waiting impatiently on the field, a malicious smirk on her face. She had been informed of the Queen´s choice of weapon and was holding her own staff in a tight grip. It wasn´t her preferred weapon, nor was it the best weapon for a quick kill, but she had no doubt she´d find a way to end this soon. The Queen seemed to inspire that in her. Gabrielle walked out on the field, but stopped a few yards away from Zelei and turned to face her people.
"Amazons, today I was challenged for the right of Queen by Zelei and I´ve accepted the challenge. I don´t have to tell you about the rules of this ritual or the consequences if I lose."
She paused, trying to find a way to express her feelings.
"No matter what happens today, I want you all to know how proud I am of having been able to call myself your Queen. Your courage, strength and love have made me a stronger and better person and for that I´ll be eternally grateful. You accepted a stranger, a simple village girl as your Queen and offered your support, help and guidance whenever I was faced with problems or challenges…including getting into this." She gestured at her Amazon attire.
Her last remark, earned her several warm smiles and Gabrielle smiled in return. She wanted to say something more, but couldn´t find the words, so instead she looked at Erinya who nodded and walked out on the field.
"This is a fight for the right of Queen. It will continue till one of the participants have either surrendered, is incapable of fighting or have been killed. The chosen weapon is the staff and no other weapons may be used, nor may any other person interfere or assist in the fight, and the result cannot be disputed. The victor will be acknowledged as Queen of the Amazons."
She turned to look at first Gabrielle then Zelei.
"Are you both ready?"
"Very well then. Let the fight begin!"
Slowly the two combatants began circling each other. Gabrielle trusted her skills with the staff, but she was worried about Zelei´s greater strength and endurance. She wasn´t sure whether the Amazon wanted to end the fight as fast as possible or have a little fun playing with her. A powerful blow forced her to take a few steps back.
I guess that answers the question.
Zelei pressed her advantage and delivered a hit to Gabrielle´s knee. She managed to bring her staff down and block, but the force of the blow made her own staff slam against her leg and she cried out in pain. Zelei moved a few feet back and regarded her coldly.
"It´s not too late to give up."
Gabrielle gave her a challenging smile.
"That goes either way."
The Captain´s eyes narrowed and she charged again, this time going after the Queen´s head. Gabrielle ducked and thrust the tip of her staff into Zelei´s stomach. The Amazon groaned and staggered, but didn´t halt her attack. She aimed at Gabrielle´s head again, but as the bard brought her staff up, she changed direction and hit her hard in the chest.
God dammit, Gabrielle! You saw that coming a mile away, why didn´t you block it?
She didn´t have time to speculate as Zelei ducked under her staff and went for the kill. The bard barely succeeded in getting out of the way, and both felt and heard the staff as it passed only inches from her throat.
She wants to smash my windpipe.
Already the staff was getting heavy and Gabrielle´s skin was glistening with sweat, and she knew she had to stop being on the receiving end. The continuous blocking of the Amazon´s blows were tiring her too fast, and preventing her from finding her own rhythm. At the next blow, instead of blocking, she moved swiftly to the left and for a second, the Amazon´s entire right side was unprotected. Again she delivered at direct hit to Zelei´s stomach and this time all the air was knocked out of the Amazon. Gabrielle followed up with a blow to the Captain´s left hand and Zelei momentarily had to let go of the staff. However, within seconds she had recovered and the brown eyes darkened dangerously. She ran forward and, before the bard managed to react, used her superior weight to bring them both to the ground. The Amazon´s body landed heavily on Gabrielle and she heard her right wrist crack as it was caught between her back and the ground. Tears of pain came to her eyes and then she felt Zelei´s hands close around her throat.
"You should have given up when you had the chance, Gabrielle." The Captain hissed, "There´ll be no mercy now."
The pressured increased and the bard began struggling for breath.
"Why didn´t you choose another weapon? A sword would´ve been so much faster."
I don´t wanna die. Not like this.
Her vision blackened and her lungs burned.
She wrestled her left arm, which had been trapped between their bodies, free and with all her strength plunged her fingers into Zelei´s right eye. The Amazon screamed and immediately let go off her throat to cover her eye with her hands. Gabrielle pushed the Captain´s writhing body away and got to her feet. She swayed for a moment as the world began to spin, but managed to keep her balance. Zelei was rolling around on the ground, still covering her eye with her hands. Without a second thought, Gabrielle grabbed the staff in her left hand and stepped over to the Amazon. She planted her foot solidly on the Captain´s windpipe and Zelei´s body went still.
"Do you surrender!"
The Amazon´s face was contorted in hatred and pain.
"Do you surrender!"
Gabrielle pressed down harder on her throat and Zelei´s eyes bulged.
"Do you surrender!"
Still the Amazon didn´t reply.
She doesn´t think I´ll kill her.
The Captain´s well eye stared defiantly at her.
And she´s right.
Gabrielle unconsciously ceased some of the pressure and a smile began to form on Zelei´s lips.
But I have to end this…
She swung her staff and delivered a direct hit against
the Amazon´s temple, knocking her unconscious. The last of her strength
left her body and Gabrielle fell down on her knees. Far, far away, she
heard the cheering cries of her subjects. She dimly saw Kelife rush to
Zelei´s side and barely acknowledged Erinya declaring the fight to
be over with her as the victor. The only sensation she managed to focus
on was the strong arms of Callias, as the Captain lifted her up and carried
her back to the village.
"Nah, I´m full."
"No, thank you, I can´t eat another bite."
Xena smiled to herself as she reached out and took the last piece of meat, she wasn´t used to be the one who ate the most.
They had camped away from the road, taking cover behind a particularly nasty hawthorn thicket, and Lykeas had complained for twenty minutes about the thorns, which seemed to have been extra bend on getting themselves stuck into exactly his body. Needless to say, Xena had found the entire thing hilarious that is, till her hair was caught on a branch. However, the entire episode had helped to break the ice and Alexias was visible more at ease with the warriors, and had begun to actually talk to them.
"Are we gonna keep watch?"
Xena looked up from the meat at the Prince, "Yeah, I´ll take the first couple of hours and Lykeas will take the rest."
"What about me?" The indignant tone was not to be mistaken.
"Don´t worry, Alexias. You´ll get your share of watches. Just not tonight, okay?"
The Prince relented and moved closer to the fire. To be honest he was tired, and he knew that Xena must have been able to see it on his face. They had been travelling fast all day, hardly taking time to rest and he wasn´t used to that. It was only a couple of months ago, he´d managed to talk his father out of having Charmides accompany him whenever he went hunting or riding. Alexias prided himself of his skills as both rider and swordsman, and he´d also had the opportunity to prove himself on a few occasions, but he knew his experiences didn´t even come close to what the two warriors across him had been subjected to. Like everybody in Greece, he´d heard the stories of the Warrior Princess and he was dying to ask her about it, but somehow he knew it would be a bad idea. He also had to admit to himself that he was fascinated by the dark man, who´d rescued his life. It was obvious Lykeas and Xena were old friends and he couldn´t help but wonder about the nature of the relationship they shared or had shared in the past. Had Lykeas been one of her men? A soldier in her army? A lover…? Had they been friends even then, and if, how had he reacted when she began to change and ultimately left? These were questions he would like to ask as well, but again he sensed he´d overstep invisible boundaries. Besides they didn´t really know each other that well yet, but perhaps some day he would find the courage to ask and perhaps, just perhaps, they would answer.
He raised his gaze from the fire and noticed that they were both looking at him with slightly amused expressions. He could feel himself blush and he thanked the Gods for the darkness. They would never see him as anything but a boy if he kept blushing every other minute. Both Lykeas and Xena noticed the blush, but neither mentioned it, Xena finding it rather cute while Lykeas wasn´t sure he wanted to know the reason.
"You´re better known in these parts than we are. When do you think we´ll reach King Simmias´ kingdom?"
Alexias took a sip of water before looking at Lykeas, "Well, if we keep up the pace, I´d think we should get there in two, maybe two and a half days."
"Will we been travelling through your father´s territory the entire way?"
"Yes, well sort of. There´s a small piece of land between the two kingdoms that officially has no owner, but it´s only a mile or so."
"And unofficially?" Lykeas absently traced a long scratch on his left arm with his finger.
Alexias smiled, "The area is known for it´s exquisite yellow roses and since King Simmias loves roses…"
"So there´s never been any trouble between your kingdoms?" Xena inquired.
The Prince´s smile vanished, "No, we´ve never had any quarrels with Simmias, but…"
"King Kassander has on more than one occasion violated both ours and Simmias´ borders. Of course he has a perfect excuse every time and always retreats willingly."
The young man shrugged, "But both father and I think Kassander´s only waiting for an opportunity to attack. These provocations are meant to test us and see how far we´re prepared to let him go. I suppose he wants it to look like we made the first move so if a war starts, he´ll appear to be the one´s been wronged and consequently justified to invade."
"So you´ve never been engaged in an actual conflict with Kassander?" Lykeas asked, inwardly deciding that King Kassander was a man he could relate to.
Alexias was silent for a long time and Xena exchanged a quick glance with Lykeas, then the Prince spoke again, his voice loaded with emotion, but which exactly was impossible to distinguish.
"He murdered my brothers."
Xena looked at the young man in surprise and Lykeas did a fairly good imitation of a raised eyebrow. However, before they managed to ask any questions Alexias continued, this time his voice was unmistakably harsh.
"Of course, nobody´s willing to say it out loud, but I know…I know he had them killed."
He paused, but then spoke again, almost stumbling over the words, "Three years ago my brothers were out hunting close to the border between Simmias´ and Kassander´s kingdoms. Simmias has no children and he has always allowed us to use his hunting grounds whenever we wanted to, as long as we didn´t step on his flowers."
A pale smile followed the last remark, then faded. "When Polyidos and Natolemos didn´t return when they were supposed to, Simmias sent out a search party… My brothers had been beaten to death and then hung up in a tree. Kassander later claimed that a warlord had crossed his territories and must have been the one responsible, but we never heard or saw anything of any warlord."
"I´m sorry," Xena said quietly. "I know how it is to lose a brother."
She fiddled with her chakram for a few seconds, before getting up, "I´ll go check the perimeter."
"Why would Kassander have your brothers killed?" Lykeas´ voice portrayed genuine curiosity.
The Prince looked into the fire, "I…I don´t know. That´s why nobody believes me, they don´t see a motive."
Lykeas studied Alexias until the young man looked up and met his eyes.
Lykeas held his gaze for a while then leaned back down on the bedroll, an intrigued smile playing on his lips.
"Nothing… Just wondering."
"It´s healing nicely, my Queen."
Kelife wrapped a fresh bandage around Gabrielle´s wrist, "Don´t strain it too much or try not to use it at all, and it should be fine in a week or two."
She finished wrapping and leaned closer to take a look at the Queen´s throat.
"Any problems swallowing?"
"No," Gabrielle shook her head.
"It takes more than that to stop Gabr… I mean, Her Majesty speaking." Callias smirked and promptly received a slap on her thigh.
Gabrielle smiled innocently before turning her attention back to Kelife, "I haven´t had any problems with my throat, Zelei didn´t manage to do any real damage."
"That´s only because you stopped her before she got the chance," The Captain muttered under her breath, but Gabrielle heard her anyway.
"Exactly, Callias. I stopped her." She smiled at the soldier. "Don´t forget that."
The healer waited patiently for the moment to pass before clearing her throat, "Okay, Callias lay down." She gestured to the pallet beside her.
The Captain frowned, "Why, I wasn´t in a fight."
"No," Kelife replied, patting the pallet, "but I need to check your stitches. I want to make sure you didn´t tear any while carrying the Queen the other day. And speaking of that, didn´t I tell you not to do anything strenuous till after I had removed the stitches?"
"Well, " Callias reluctantly lay down on the pallet, a small grin on her face, "if I´d known Her Majesty would be that heavy, I might have thought twice about it."
"Hah, hah. I glad you both find that so amusing," Gabrielle said, giving the two smiling faces a stern look. "If you´re not careful, I may issue a law where I´m to be carried around all the time, and guess who´ll get the honour?"
The healer only smiled and lifted up Callias´ tunic to look at her wound. Gabrielle noticed a faint blush on the Captain´s cheeks and casually looked away to study the wall of the hut instead. The wall was covered by small bundles of herbs and dried flowers. The herbs drying to be used later for medicine and the flowers used to freshen the air, and drive out the smell of death that still seemed to linger in the healer´s hut. Gabrielle shuddered at the memory of the last time she´d been there. It had been the second day after the battle and she had just arrived after a few hours of sleep to resume her work, when Kelife had stopped her at the door. There had been no use for her help, none of the wounded had survived the night. Gabrielle shook her head, the image of the dead Amazons in the hut was something she´d never forget. She wondered how Kelife dealt with it.
"Okay, they look fine, but no more carrying around Queens, is that clear?"
Callias grinned, "I promise."
The healer gave the Captain a meaningful look, "Yeah right."
Gabrielle wasn´t quite sure how she should perceive Kelife´s remark and decided to change the subject.
"Yes," the healer absently replied while washing her hands in a bowl, "what about her?"
"How is she doing?"
"Oh," Kelife sighed, "she´s fine. She´s a pain in the arse and never listens to my advise, but else she´s doing just fine."
"I´m shocked, Kelife," Callias grinned, "I thought you loved all your patients."
"Well, believe me when I say that some of them are more loveable than others… Okay, get out of here so I can get back to my herbs."
She ushered her patients outside, but then just before they were about to leave, put a hand on Gabrielle´s shoulder.
"My Queen, there´s a possibility that Zelei will never regain her sight on the right eye."
Gabrielle´s face paled, "But you said-."
"I said she´s fine and she is, but I don´t think her eyesight will return." The healer gave the Queen´s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I´m telling you this because I´ve already informed Zelei, and I didn´t want you to be unprepared if she…well, we all know what she can be like."
Gabrielle swallowed and looked down for a moment, before raising her head and looking the healer straight in the eye, "I had no choice, Kelife. I know, what you as a healer must think, but if I had to do it all over again, I would."
"Oh no, my Queen, you misunderstand me. I´m not blaming you or anything. Actually, strictly between you and me," she leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, "I think she´s had it coming for years."
Gabrielle´s mouth opened, then closed, then opened again.
"Oh," she finally managed to say, but by then Kelife had already gone back inside, the thin straw wall only slightly muffling her melodic laughter.
"Close your mouth, Gabrielle," Callias grinned and began to lead her Queen away, "you´ll attract flies."
They stopped and turned to see Areia approach them, two scrolls under her arm. She bowed for the Queen and gave her Captain a small nod before handing over the scrolls.
"A man reached our border today. He said he was sent out by King Polyidos four days ago to deliver these scrolls to the Queen of the Amazons."
"Where´s the man now?"
"I take it he´s on his way back, my Queen. Apparently, he wasn´t expected to bring back a reply."
"Polyidos," Callias thought out loud, "isn´t his kingdom somewhere North from here?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, looking intensely at the scrolls in her hands. "Xena said they´d have to pass it to get through to Ister."
"I see. You may go, Areia."
The Amazon saluted and headed back towards the forest. Callias regarded the Queen questioningly, who still hadn´t made any attempt to open the scrolls.
"Aren´t you going to read them?"
The Queen didn´t respond.
"Oh, sorry. I was thinking about something."
She unrolled the largest scroll and quickly read the text, before giving it to Callias.
"It seems that everything´s going according to plan," the Captain said after a few minutes and returned the scroll. "It´s nice of them to keep us informed, I didn´t think they´d do that."
"No, neither did I." The green eyes were distant.
Callias looked thoughtfully at the smaller scroll and bit her lip, "Well, I´d better get going. I got some things to do."
Gabrielle gave her a somewhat poignant smile, "I´ll see you later then."
The Captain nodded and swiftly walked away. The Queen lingered for a moment before slowly making her way back to the Royal hut. Inside she sat down on the bed and for a while just looked at the scroll in her hand. Then, without conscious thought, she took a deep breath and unrolled the parchment.
I hereby renounce all privileges and duties as Champion of the present Amazon Queen, Gabrielle of Poteidaia.
I no longer feel capable of providing the protection and support that is required when holding such a position, and have therefore no other choice but to take the consequences and retire.
I do this freely and have neither been pressured nor influenced to do so by a third party.
As my successor I recommend, Callias, Captain of the Royal Guard, who trough her courage and loyalty have shown herself more than worthy for the post.
From the moment this document has been delivered to the Queen, I consider my responsibilities as Champion to be over.
Xena of Amphipolis.
Night had fallen and the first stars appeared, before
the Queen moved from the bed and walked outside.
In the last minute the horse managed to stop just before it would have run down a man walking on the road. They had just rounded a corner and out of nowhere an elderly man had appeared, walking in the middle of the road, oblivious to everything around him. Lykeas had some difficulties in getting Rarjan to stand still, the sudden halt having frightened the horse, and Rarjan danced nervously before slowly calming down.
"What in Tartarus do you think you´re doing? You could have gotten yourself killed or worse, injured my horse." Xena´s voice was harsh and it was clear she did´t really gave a damn if the man had been hurt, but that Argo´s faith was an entirely different matter.
The man was dressed in a perfectly white tunic and sandals. He looked up at her with blue-grey eyes that shone almost as much as his bald head in the afternoon sun. He gave her a warm and friendly smile and pointed at a white flower lying on the dusty road.
"I lost her, the wind took her right out of my hand." He bent down and tenderly picked up the flower, "I´m so glad I found you again," he whispered affectionately, before putting it into a small pouch hanging from his belt.
"Look, sir, I´m sure-." But before Xena could finish her sentence, Alexias has jumped down from his horse and enveloped the man into a warm embrace.
"My Lord, it´s so nice to see you again."
Xena stared at Lykeas who only shrugged.
"Ah, Alexias, my dear boy. It´s nice to see you too. What have you been up to lately? It´s been so long since you last came for a visit."
The Prince moved away from the embrace, but kept his hands on the man´s upper arms. "I know, sir. I´ve been busy with my studies and training," he noticed the puzzled looks from the two warriors, still on their horses. "But where are my manners, My Lord, may I introduce you to two of the finest warriors I´ve ever met, Xena and Lykeas and this," he gestured towards the little man, "this is His Majesty King Simmias IV."
The King gave them a dazzling smile, "It´s so very nice to meet you. You´re friends of Alexias?"
Before the warriors could respond, the Prince cut in, "They saved my life, sir. If it hadn´t been for them I´d have been dead."
The smiling expression on the King´s face disappeared and was replaced by one of sorrow. He put his own hands on Alexias´ and looked intensely at the young man, "I´m so glad you didn´t die, I don´t think I could´ve taken it, if you´d be gone too."
His sorrowful look vanished as quickly as it had appeared and he gave the two warriors another brilliant smile. "Let´s get going, I´m late already and Phil will be worried."
He began walking down the road humming for himself, occasionally stopping to pick up a flower or study a colourful stone. Lykeas looked at Alexias as the Prince returned to the saddle.
"That´s King Simmias?"
The young man nodded, "Yes, got a problem with that?" His voice was slightly defensive.
Lykeas looked down the road a huge grin on his face, "Nope, can´t say that I have."
He urged Rarjan forward and quickly caught up with the King. Alexias glanced at Xena, but the warrior was lost in thought as she stared at the retreating back of Simmias. Then she turned to look at the Prince.
"Is Queen Phillinna by any chance like her husband?"
Alexias gave her a reassuring smile, "No, they are quite different."
They joined the men ahead of them and began the slow journey to Simmias castle, constantly being delayed by an enthusiastic King searching for flowers in the ditch along the road or running off somewhere, chasing butterflies. Soon Xena was at the end of her tether and her mood wasn´t improved by the fact that Lykeas found the entire thing highly amusing, and even, much to Simmias´ delight, pointed out several flowers that the King might find interesting. Finally she shot him a look that if possible would have killed him right on the spot. Lykeas only gave her a pleasant smile in return and else ignored her for the rest of the trip. It was late evening before they reached the castle, and they were met in the courtyard by a servant, who gently but firmly, took the King by the arm and led him away. Another servant showed them to their quarters and announced that Queen Phillinna had asked the two warriors to join her in the garden later for tea, and until then, dinner would be brought to their rooms. After the meal, Alexias excused himself and went out in search of an old friend, and Xena and Lykeas found themselves alone in the room.
"I wonder what Phillinna´s like?"
Xena let out a long breath, "Me too, Lykeas. Me too."
And then they both broke down laughing.
A warm spicy, intoxicating scent lingered in the air and Xena paused for a moment, trying to pin down what it was. It was roses, no doubt about it. The sweet scent had reached her nostrils even before she´d entered the garden, but there was something else as well. Something…comforting. She frowned, not sure where that had come from, but it was true. The scent was full of the last warm rays of the evening sun, it whispered of days long gone and spoke of joys yet to come.
Okay, get a grip, girl!
The warrior shook her head, deciding she´d been out in the sun too long. She followed the path between the green hedges towering over her, feeling like she was entering another world. The path circled and turned constantly and when once she looked back, the castle had disappeared from her view. The gravel under her feet and the voice of a single bird singing was all she heard, and for just a second, she felt very alone. Then she rounded another corner and the path opened up and came to a halt in a round circle of grass. She noticed other paths ending and leading away from the circle as well, and wondered briefly where they led, before focusing on the woman, sitting on a white bench in the centre of the circle. The woman was dressed in a simple white dress with elegantly woven patterns around sleeves and neck. Her long blond hair hung loosely down her back, making a golden contrast to her pale skin. She looked up from the book she was reading, and dark green eyes found blue. A slow smile spread on her face and she gestured for the warrior to come nearer. Xena, suddenly feeling very self-consciousness, tentatively stepped closer. The green grass was soft under her feet and she didn´t make a sound as she closed the distance and sat down on the edge of the bench. The smile hadn´t left the woman´s face as she reached out touch the warrior´s arm.
"I´m so glad you could join me."
The simple touch on her arm, sent a wave of electricity through Xena´s body, and it was a while before she could answer.
"We have things to discuss." To her surprise her voice sounded hoarse, and she cleared her throat, before continuing. "We have a message from King Polyidos."
The woman leaned back and gracefully crossed her legs, and Xena noticed for the first time that the Queen wasn´t wearing any sandals, the pale skin seeming even whiter against the grass.
"I know." She spoke softly and looked at the warrior patiently. Xena mentally slapped her head and gave the scroll to the Queen. Phillinna read it in silence, her face showing no emotion, except a small nibbling on her lower lip, which Xena found almost too endearing. When finished, she folded the scroll again and put it down on the grass.
"I take it, we´re expecting another guest as well."
"Guest? Oh yeah, Lykeas should be here any minute."
Xena found she couldn´t hold the Queen´s gaze and let her eyes roam the hedges surrounding them, efficiently shielding them from prying eyes and ears. The sun had partly disappeared behind the high walls of green and the circle of grass was bathed in a glowing red light.
"Are we far from the castle?" Xena heard herself inquire.
"No, but the garden´s been designed the way that the castle isn´t visible from here." The Queen smiled, "Sometimes it´s nice to get away without really being away."
The warrior kept staring at the various paths leading away, keenly aware of the Queen´s eyes on her.
"Thank you for escorting Simmias home."
Xena turned to look at the woman, her brow furrowed. "Your Majesty, I mean no disrespect, but I think it´s a tad irresponsible of you to let your husband run around alone outside the castle," she hesitated slightly.
With a gentle nod the Queen urged her to continue.
"His Majesty seems to be a…a kind and caring man, and I wouldn´t want any harm to come to him."
Almost imperceptibly Phillinna´s features mellowed and her eyes took on a faraway look.
"You´re right, my husband is a kind and caring man, and I wouldn´t want anything bad for him to happen either, but…" She smiled and green eyes focused on the warrior, "I want him to be happy also and nothing makes him happier than searching the countryside for flowers."
Xena nodded, "I understand that, Your Majesty, but you shouldn´t let him leave unescorted."
"Ah, but he isn´t or usually he isn´t." She gave the warrior another smile, "Simmias sneaked out before dawn this morning, and we´d been searching for him all day when you brought him back."
A question burned on Xena´s tongue, but she wasn´t sure if she should phrase it. The Queen raised an eyebrow and silently asked a question of her own.
The warrior smiled a bit sheepishly, "I was wondering how… I mean, what does the people of this kingdom think about King Simmias and his…little hobby?"
"Xena," a warm shiver ran down the warrior´s back when she heard her name spoken from the pink lips, "my husband has been King for almost forty-five years and in all that time, people have never spoken one bad word against him. They know he loves them and that he cares about their sorrows and joys, so at the end of the day, it doesn´t matter whether he talks to his roses or not."
Xena thought she could see the trace of sad smile on the Queen´s face, but then it was gone.
"Has he…has he always been like that?"
"As long as I´ve known him."
The warrior studied the woman beside her. She didn´t seemed to be much older than her late thirties, and after Xena´s impression of the King that would make her almost thirty years younger than her husband.
A if guessing her thoughts Phillinna said, "I´m his second wife, his first wife, my sister, died ten years ago."
"Your sister?" Xena arched an eyebrow.
"Yes, my sister." This time a sad smile was clearly visible on the pale features. "Esther was a frail woman, but Simmias loved her very much. When she became ill and the healers said nothing could be done, she made me promise to look after him. She was afraid he´d fall apart without her."
"Yes, but marry him?" Xena couldn´t help but think that that was quite a request Phillinna´s sister had made. "Did you love him?" The blunt question was out before the warrior could stop herself.
"He´s a sweet man and he loves me dearly. What more could I ask for?"
Xena found there were several things she could think of
asking for, but remained silent. She looked at the Queen, but noticed the
green eyes had gone pass her and was looking at something behind her. Embraced
by, and almost hidden in the fast expanding shadows was Lykeas.
"Come sit down."
Lykeas stepped forward then hesitated for a moment before sitting down on the grass in front of them.
"Will you be comfortable there?" Phillinna asked. "I can have a chair brought?"
"No, no. I´m fine."
The Queen let her eyes rest on one, then another warrior, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Then her posture changed and she suddenly seemed both taller and more authoritative.
"So, what are your plans?"
"That depends on what you can tell us?" Lykeas cut in before Xena had the chance to speak.
The blond woman´s countenance softened and she smiled at him. "Why don´t you ask and I´ll do my best to answer. Then afterwards we can discuss any further plans."
"Okay," Lykeas replied, throwing a quick glance at Xena before looking back at the Queen. "The men in brown uniforms, have you seen them?"
"Yes, not personally though, but I´ve heard several rumours of large bands of men crossing the kingdom, all dressed in brown uniforms."
"Have you had any trouble with them," Xena inquired, deciding it was time for her join in.
"No, they have always avoided the populated areas. It seemed like they were only intend on crossing the territory."
"They headed North?" Both warriors asked at the same time, and the Queen gave them an amused smile, before turning serious again.
"Yes, they all headed toward the border between our and King Kassander´s kingdom."
"So they left your territory and entered Kassander´s?"
Phillinna nodded, "Yes."
This time, Xena was faster than Lykeas, "Have you heard anything about this from Kassander?"
"No," the Queen´s face was very serious now, "and that worries me. Kassander´s not the kind of man, who´d allow a warlord in his kingdom not even if they only meant to cross it."
"My impression exactly." Xena looked at Lykeas and he nodded his agreement, but before he could speak, a servant appeared from one of the paths, carrying a tray with three steaming cups. He bowed for the Queen and left the tray on the bench between the women, before disappearing down another path than the one he´d come from.
"Ah, tea." Phillinna took a small sip from her cup and closed her eyes. "Delicious."
The warriors did the same, and even Lykeas, who wasn´t too fond of tea, had to admit that the sweet, almost fruity taste was quite becoming. They drank their tea in a comfortable silence, both warriors noticing, but not responding to the sometimes curious, sometimes pondering looks from the blond woman. After a while, Phillinna put her cup back down on the tray, and relaxed back against the bench.
"So, now you know all I do. What are your plans?"
"I think we should take a little look around Kassander´s kingdom, probably check out the castle as well."
"Yes," Lykeas agreed, "I think so too. Alexias and I will leave tomorrow."
"What?" Xena drawled, looking at him, "What do you mean, you and Alexias will leave? What makes you think I´m gonna stay here?"
The dark man looked into her eyes, "Xena, you can´t travel through Kassander´s kingdom without being detected and subsequently hunted down. Our best chance to learn if the King´s up to something or not, is for us to come and go as quiet as possible, and we both know that he still has a price on your head." He held out a hand to stop her from arguing, "You would be noticed, Kassander´s neither a forgiving nor forgetting man."
He got to his feet and gave a small nod to the Queen, "I´ll inform Alexias of our plans."
He turned to leave, but hesitated and gave Phillinna an embarrassed look.
"That way," she smiled and indicated a path, "it´ll take you directly to the wing where the guest chambers are."
The warrior in question growled something unintelligible in return, and Lykeas left, a small grin on his face. The Queen hid an amused smile and straightened out a fold in her dress. She let her hand rest on the smooth fabric for a moment before looking back at the warrior.
"Can I ask you something?"
Xena tensed before leaning back, an almost defensive expression on her face that wasn´t lost on the Queen.
Phillinna gave the warrior a faint smile as if to reassure her that she didn´t bite.
"It´s just, when I heard who´d arrived I was surprised."
Brows furrowed, "Why?"
"I always thought…well, after what I´ve heard, I though you travelled with a bard and not another warrior. I mean, with all those stories about your deeds, I was certain that a bard had to be following you around."
The blue eyes studied the Queen for a long time, and for the first time in her life, the Queen suddenly felt the need to shift in her seat and look away, but she valiantly returned the gaze without blinking. Then the warrior ended the contact, and to Phillinna it felt like an almost physical connection between them had been broken.
"A bard did use to travel with me, but not anymore."
"Oh," the Queen tried to see Xena´s face, but the warrior refused to look up.
Silence, then Xena slowly looked up and gave Phillinna a bittersweet smile.
She rose from the bench and without hesitation disappeared
down one of the paths.
"I surrender, my Queen! I surrender!"
Gabrielle stepped away from the panting Amazon on the ground.
"Oh, I´m sorry, Erinya. I guess I got carried away for a moment there."
"Uh huh," the weapons master grinned in spite of her sore ribs, "I´d say so too."
Gabrielle reached down with her left hand and pulled the Amazon to her feet, Erinya looking at her with admiration in the eyes.
"I knew you were good with the staff, my Queen. You proved that when you fought Zelei, but I didn´t know you´re also capable of fighting practically only using one hand."
The blond woman looked at her wrist still wrapped in a bandage and then at the weapons master, "I have many skills. Besides," she grinned, "Kelife would kill me if I strained it."
Erinya rolled her eyes knowingly, "Tell me about it."
They left the practice field and returned to the village, stopping in front of the Amazon´s hut.
"Are you going to have your ribs checked?" Gabrielle asked, when she noticed Erinya wince slightly.
"I think I´ll wait and see. They don´t feel too bad."
"You´re afraid she´s going to confine you to bed?" the Queen teased.
"Exactly," The Amazon replied. "Personally, I think Kelife would prefer if she could all the warriors in this village to lie down on their backs and stay there."
An unbidden image came to Gabrielle´s mind and she couldn´t help but grin. Erinya looked at her blankly, then realization hit, "I didn´t mean it quite the way it sounded," she blushed.
"I know," The Queen smiled and started to walk away, "I´ll see you tomorrow morning."
The weapons master disappeared inside her hut and Gabrielle continued her walk through the quiet village. It was dark already and most of the Amazons had retired for the night, but the air was still warm and Gabrielle didn´t feel like sleeping.
Gabrielle froze for a second, then turned.
The Captain was standing only a few feet away, a dark leather patch over her right eye, the left staring at her intensely. The Amazon stepped closer and Gabrielle instinctively tightened her grip around the staff. To her great surprise, Zelei kneeled down.
"I want to apologize, my Queen."
"For what, Zelei?" The distrust in the Queen´s voice clear.
"For doubting you. You proved beyond doubt that you´re the rightful ruler of the Nation."
She rose and looked into the green eyes. The sceptical look on Gabrielle´s face didn´t disappear, but nonetheless she reached out and briefly shook the Captain´s hand.
"I´m glad you feel that way. I´m just sorry it had to come to this," she looked at the leather patch.
"Oh that," the Amazon nonchalantly replied, "I consider that a small memento of a great fight. A badge of honour you could say… Something I´ll never forget."
Two green eyes focused on one pale brown, then Gabrielle nodded, "Goodnight, Captain."
"Goodnight, Your Majesty."
Lost in thought, she watched the Amazon disappear into the night.
"You can´t trust her."
"I know," Gabrielle turned and smiled at the sight of Callias leaning against a hut, looking decidedly sleepy. "But I have to give her a chance, she deserves that and who knows, she may surprise us."
"That´s what I´m afraid of." Callias stepped closer and came to stand beside the Queen. "Just be careful, okay?"
The Captain stifled a yawn and Gabrielle smiled again, "Aren´t we getting enough sleep, Captain?"
"Nah," the Amazon smirked, "the Queen keeps me awake all night." She suddenly blushed and looked around, "I mean, with talking…when you tell your stories, I don´t mean-."
"I know what you mean, Callias. I know." Gabrielle laughed at the sight of the embarrassed soldier. "Don´t worry, if anybody heard you, I´m sure they are all green with envy by now."
The Captain smiled, "You´re probably right, every Amazon in this village would envy me."
"Oh no," Gabrielle said quietly, "I mean, they would envy me."
Callias opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again. Her eyes searched the Queen´s face, confusion evident on her own. Gabrielle returned the gaze without wavering, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. She wasn´t sure what she wanted to happen or not to happen, she was only aware of the small sting of disappointment she felt when the Captain turned to walk away.
The Amazon stopped, but didn´t turn around to face her.
Gabrielle´s mouth was suddenly dry and she had to moisten her tongue before continuing, "Please turn around."
"I…I want to see your face."
The Captain stood motionless for what felt like an eternity, then she resolutely turned around, the blue eyes surprisingly calm. Gabrielle searched the Amazon´s face and found what she was looking for. She stepped a bit closer.
"Would you like to spend the night with me?"
Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have been horrified by her frankness, but right now she didn´t care. She knew Callias would never make the first move and she also knew that for some reason, she desperately didn´t want to be alone tonight. The soldier swallowed and looked away, "I think you know the answer to that."
As response, Gabrielle reached out and Callias hesitantly
took her hand. Without a word she led the Captain to her hut and they disappeared
"Yep, they have definitely passed here."
Alexias dismounted and kneeled down beside Lykeas, "How many?"
"Hmm, too many for my liking."
Lykeas rose and studied their surroundings.
They were on small road cutting through a thick, dense forest, the trees so close it would be practically impossible to leave the road and take cover. It made Lykeas rather uncomfortable and edgy, but the road was the most direct route to Kassander´s castle, and it was also the route the foreign warriors had taken, so they didn´t really have a choice. They had left Simmias kingdom a couple of hours ago and had been travelling in Kassander´s ever since. As Lykeas had expected, guards had been posted at the border, but they hadn´t had any difficulties in avoiding them. Clearly they weren´t expecting any trouble and were more busy playing dice and talking than looking out for strangers.
Or perhaps, they´ve become used to strangers by now, with all those soldiers crossing the border.
Lykeas looked ahead, the road seemed to go on forever and when he looked back, it was the same.
Alexias studied the dark warrior lost in thought in front of him. It had been an experience, to say the least, to travel with him. In the almost twelve hours they had been on the road, Lykeas had hardly said more then ten words. All attempts by Alexias to start a conversation had either been ignored or cut short by the warrior. Not that Lykeas´ behavior had been gruff or hostile, he´d just been…distant. Xena had been pretty much the same on their way to Simmias, and the Prince could clearly picture the roaring silence there must have been around any campfire that Xena and Lykeas had shared. The thought brought a smile to his lips and he decided to make it a challenge to himself to see, whether he could get Lykeas to have an actually conversation with him before they returned to Simmias. The dark warrior turned and noticed the smile on the young man´s face. He frowned, but didn´t say anything. Instead he got back in the saddle and waited for Alexias to do the same.
"It´ll be dark soon. We´ll keep moving until we find a place to make camp. If you see somewhere suitable say so."
"Yes, sir!" In spite of the annoyance the Prince felt about being ordered around, he couldn´t help but grin at Lykeas´ surprised expression.
The warrior looked at Alexias for a long time, then the first smile of the day showed on his face.
"Let´s just get going, shall we?"
Almost two hours passed before the forest became less dense and they could, although with difficulty, leave the road to dive in between the trees, leading two less than enthusiastic horses behind them. They were all covered by scratches and spruce needles by the time they found an acceptable place to camp.
"Not much room." Alexias announced and looked around.
The clearing they had found was less than small, and already the horses took up so much space that there wouldn´t been room for a fire and for them to sleep, at least not a the same time.
"Gotta take what we can get," Lykeas replied with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
"Oh, I´m not complaining." Alexias hurried to say.
They removed the saddles from their horses and laid out the bedrolls. The Prince noticed they would be sleeping very close together that night, and somehow that made him feel both warm and cold inside. Lykeas sat down and rummaged through a saddlebag. With a sigh, he pulled out the dry meat he had brought with him from King Simmias, and handed some to Alexias who had come to sit down in front of him, their knees almost touching. They ate in silence since the Prince didn´t know what, if anything, to say and Lykeas seemed to be quite content with not saying anything at all.
"Want something to drink?" The warrior suddenly asked, almost startling the young man.
"Oh no, I´m fine."
Lykeas shrugged and took a sip from the water skin himself, before lying down on the bedroll. Alexias hesitated, then did the same. They weren´t exactly touching, but the Prince was sure he felt heat radiating from the man beside him.
"Will the horses be all right?"
Lykeas shifted to lie on his stomach, facing away from Alexias, "Yeah, they´ll be fine. They´ll go hungry tonight, but we´ll make it up to them tomorrow."
He closed his eyes and let out a small sigh and it was clear to the young man that the warrior was about to fall asleep.
Lykeas managed to remain still with closed eyes for almost two minutes, before he gave up.
"Alexias, will you please stop staring at me. I can´t sleep if you do that."
He turned his head to look at the Prince, who was indeed staring at him, a faint blush colouring his cheeks.
"Just go to sleep, okay?"
Alexias nodded and looked up at the sky instead, hands under his head. Lykeas made himself comfortable again and closed his eyes. He was tired and wanted to sleep. Although the journey that day hadn´t been particularly exhausting, the lack of cover had made it impossible for him to relax and he´d been constantly on edge, never letting his senses rest.
"You´re doing it again."
Lykeas sighed and turned to look at the young man.
"What is it? Is there something you want to ask? Are you worried about being here?"
"No." Alexias replied, the brown eyes looking slightly nervous.
"Well, what is it?"
"I…I just like to look at you."
"Oh…" Lykeas´ eyes darted away from the Prince´s face. "Well don´t. Not when I´m trying to sleep."
Then he resolutely resumed his former position, facing away.
And the dark warrior could swear Alexias was smiling.
"I don´t think I´ve ever seen so many roses before in my life."
The Queen smiled at the warrior´s remark, "Simmias is nothing if not dedicated to his hobby."
They were walking down a narrow path, surrounded by red roses on both sides. The air was heavy with the sweet smelling flowers, and if it hadn´t been for the light breeze, the scent would have been uncomfortable. The Queen was barefoot again and Xena had noticed that Phillinna hardly ever wore shoes or sandals. When she had asked why, the Queen had replied it kept her grounded to feel the earth under her feet.
"Phil! Phil! Come and see!"
Simmias suddenly burst out from the bushes and was gesturing wildly for them to come nearer. When he was certain they had seen him, he disappeared back into the green and red ocean. Without the slightest hint of surprise Phillinna dived in between the bushes after her husband. Xena looked sceptically at the roses and especially the thorns for a moment, then she sighed and followed the Queen.
It`s not like I got anything else to do.
To her surprise it only took her a few steps to walk trough the bushes and she found herself at the edge of a wide lawn. A few yards in the King and Queen was looking at something on the ground.
Do I really want to know what they´re looking at?
In spite of herself Xena walked out on the grass towards the eagerly gesturing Simmias, and the patiently listening Phillinna.
Gods! Why am I doing this?
The Queen looked up when she heard the warrior approach, and gave Xena an inscrutable smile.
"Look, Xena. Simmias has found a four-leaf clover."
Lykeas, you´re gonna pay for this!
"Is that so?" She leaned down and tried to show a bit of enthusiasm for the King´s discovery. Not that any more enthusiasm was needed, Simmias had more than enough of that for all of them.
"Ah, isn´t she a beauty, Phil? Isn´t she?"
"Very beautiful, dear. You´ve found a real treasure this time."
The King beamed, but then his expression changed, "Oh, I have to see to the white roses. I didn´t get to see them yesterday."
He turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him and disappeared in between the bushes again. Phillinna looked after her husband with an affectionate smile, but Xena thought she could detect something else in the Queen´s eyes as well. They resumed walking, this time toward the centre of the lawn where a small lake could be seen. Without any ceremony Phillinna sat down on the bank, close enough to the water for her feet to touch. Xena sat down beside her and after a moments hesitation pulled off her boots and lowered her feet down into the water.
"Are you bored, warrior?"
Xena turned to look at the blond woman, who´d lifted her face towards the sun, eyes closed.
"Is it that obvious."
The Queen chuckled, "Yes."
"I´m not really use to being inactive like this, I don´t like it."
"No, I could imagine. You seem to have been on the move for most of your life."
Phillinna opened her eyes and studied the warrior.
"Where do you see yourself in ten years?"
"Oh," Xena looked surprised, "I don´t know. I usually don´t think that far ahead, I prefer to live one day at a time."
"In your line of business, I suppose that´s a wise philosophy."
The warrior smiled, "Yeah, you could say so."
The Queen sighed and leaned back to lie down on the grass, "Sometimes I´d wish, I wasn´t queen."
"Don´t get me wrong," Phillinna squinted up at the woman beside her, "I love being able to do something for people, I love making this kingdom a better place to be, but sometimes… I don´t know, it´s like something´s missing."
Xena lay down beside her, "What do you think is missing?"
"I don´t know…no, that´s not true, I know what´s missing in my life."
"Passion," the Queen looked directly at the warrior, "passion is what´s missing in my life."
Xena looked into the green eyes for a long time, then she gave Phillinna a small smile, "I hope you find it one day."
An ambiguous smile briefly showed on the blond woman´s face, then she looked away, "So do I, warrior. So do I."
Xena closed her eyes and relaxed against the grass. The
feel of the sun on her skin and the warm water around her feet made her
drift off, and it wasn´t long before she was asleep, her dreams invaded
by another blond woman with gentle green eyes.
Gabrielle ran a tired hand through her hair and looked at the healer.
Kelife nodded, "Yes, we still need eighty people to reach the same number as before the attack, but I´ve heard that Amazons from all over the nation have offered to come and live here."
"That´s true," Gabrielle gestured towards the scrolls on the table. "The moment they receive an affirmative reply, they should be on their way."
"It´ll be nice to have a full village again."
The Queen smiled at Kelife, "I couldn´t agree more. Okay, back to business. Callias, how many soldiers do you need for the Royal Guard?"
The Captain looked up from the piece of parchment she had been studying, "I need at least twenty-five warriors, preferably more, to fill out the vacant posts."
Gabrielle nodded, "I see. Zelei?"
"I need all the warriors I can get, my Queen. The regular army has been reduced to almost a third of its original size."
The council members fell silent for a moment, all remembering the lives who had been lost in the battle. Then the Queen cleared her throat, "Erinya, how is it going with the training? How soon will your pupils be ready."
The weapons master bit her lip, "Three of them are almost ready to assume duty, but as for the rest I´m afraid it´ll be at least two more months before they´re qualified as warriors."
"Okay," Gabrielle gathered the scrolls on the table. "Erinya, continue your training as usual, but if possible try to speed it up a bit. Callias, you´ll get the first pick when the new warriors arrive, and the rest will be under your command, Zelei."
She looked around, "Any questions?"
They all shook their heads.
"Well, let´s call it a day then."
The council members rose and left the hut, except Kelife who walked around the table to stand beside the Queen.
"Let me see your wrist."
Gabrielle sighed, but willingly held out her hand, "It´s fine, Kelife. You really don´t have to worry about it anymore."
"I know," the healer replied, ignoring the Queen´s exasperated tone, "that´s why I´m going to remove the bandage."
Kelife unwrapped the wrist and nodded to herself, "Nice work, if I should say so myself." She gave Gabrielle a small pat on the back, "Try to stay out of trouble from now on, my Queen."
"I´ll do my best," Gabrielle grinned and the healer turned in the door, a pensive look in the grey eyes.
"I´m sure you will."
Gabrielle collected the scrolls and carried them to the hut used for storing documents, then she made her way towards the memorial grounds. She walked pass several small vases with flowers, before stopping in front of a newly planted olive tree. She kneeled down and with her hands removed the weed around the tiny sprout, then sat back on her heels, her eyes moist with unshed tears.
I miss you, Ephiny. Why did you have to die? I feel so empty inside, so alone.
She remained sitting for a long time, staring at the sprout as if it would supply her with the answers she needed. Only when her legs began to hurt, did she rise and, with one final look at the vases around her, leave the memorial grounds. She washed her hands in the bowl outside, and began to walk towards her hut, acknowledging the greetings of her subjects with nods and smiles. Outside the hut, she paused and let her eyes run over the village, a sense of peace engulfing her body.
It´s going to be all right now. Somehow, everything´s going to be all right.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her with a quiet sigh, it had been a long day. She kicked off her boots and was about to unlace her top, when she felt warm hands on her hips.
"I´ve missed you."
She smiled and turned around, "I´ve missed you, too."
Without further words, Callias lifted her up and carried
her to the bed.