The guard shook his head again, trying to rid himself of the sleepiness threatening to claim his body. He was tempted to just close his eyes and lean against the tree beside him, but he knew that not even a couple hours of sleep was worth the punishment he would receive if he was caught sleeping on duty. He sent an angry stare at the dark sky above him. Why did he always end up with the graveyard shift? Besides, in his opinion it was a waste of time keeping watch with all the soldiers stationed in and around the castle. A man would have to be both stupid and tired of life to try and get near the castle walls. He had to hand it to the Persians, although they were acting both superior and contemptuous toward him and his fellow Greeks, they most certainly knew how to secure an area and fight a battle. They had emerged from every conflict as the victor, except of course, the soldier snickered to himself, they hadn´t been able to defeat the harlots down South. It had been an unforeseen defeat and Kassander had been furious, but in spite of the plans that had needed changing and the heavy drills all the soldiers had been subjected to as punishment, there hadn´t been a single Greek in Kassander´s army who wasn´t secretly pleased with the Persians débâcle. After all, it was Persians. They could be tolerated as long as they served the means of the King, but the moment the conquest had been completed, they would be expandable. A small voice in the guard´s head pointed out that it might not be so easy to get rid of the Persians when everything was over, but he pushed it away. King Kassander would make sure things went according to plan. He had no love for the King, but he trusted him to be able to control the foreign soldiers. Kassander was not a man who liked to share, whether it was gold, women or land, he considered it his rightful property and may the Gods have mercy on any man who thought differently. The guard yawned again and tried to occupy himself with counting the tents scattered all over the plain in front of the King´s castle. He had counted ninety-seven before his chin fell down to his chest, and his body slumped against the tree.
Dark eyes watched the soldier slowly slide down the trunk of the tree, to end up sitting on the ground, the spear, having fallen out of his hand, lying a few feet away. Then the eyes left the reclining guard and searched the plain in front of him.
Fifty-three campfires. At least a hundred tents, and then there are the soldiers inside the castle. I guess that answers the question if Kassander´s up to something or not. He´s been hiding Persian soldiers on his lands for weeks. That´s why we didn´t hear about any major troops movements. There haven´t been any. They split the army up in smaller bands and travelled the country as warlords and thugs instead of professional soldiers. I wonder for how long this has been going on? And does he expects further reinforcements from Persia?
A dark figure emerged from the shadows of the forest and came to a halt before the sleeping guard. A cold, calculating stare ran over the soldier´s body.
Will he be missed?
Lykeas stepped closer and pulled out a dagger.
No matter, he won´t be found.
A soft voice broke the silence.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Gabrielle lifted her head to look into the Captain´s blue eyes, "I´m sorry, Callias. I didn´t mean to wake you."
The Amazon reached out and traced a tear with her finger, "You have been crying."
When she didn´t get a reply, she hesitantly began to move away from the Queen, but Gabrielle tightened her grip around the other woman, "Please stay."
Although insecure, the Captain complied and carefully wrapped her arms around the young Queen again.
"Have…have I done something wrong?"
Gabrielle lifted her head from the Amazon´s shoulder, "No, no, Callias. It´s me, I´m…it´s just…"
"You miss her?"
It was more a statement than a question.
"She´s not coming back, I knew it all along. She´s not coming back." The tears were flowing again.
Callias swallowed and tried to ignore the ache in her heart, "You don´t know that."
"Then why should she renounce her championship?" The green eyes were both pleading and apprehensive, waiting for an answer.
"I didn´t know she had."
"Nobody does. I haven´t told anybody yet."
The Captain closed her eyes for a second, feeling every sob from the Queen cut deep into her soul. She didn´t know what to say. She was afraid that if she said something it would be wrong, but she was also afraid what would happen if she didn´t. She could feel Gabrielle snuggle closer and she instinctively tightened her hold around the slender body. They lay together in silence for a long time, both relishing the closeness. The room was bathed in darkness and the only sound was the quiet, rhythmical breathing of the two women. The crying had subsided and Callias suddenly felt a tentative hand caressing her stomach. Her entire body tensed, but she didn´t move away. The hand travelled higher, but just before it reached its destination, another hand came down and gently pulled it away.
Gabrielle raised her head and tried to see the Amazon´s face, but the Captain was looking away.
"Gabrielle, I think, I should leave."
"I don´t want you to leave."
Callias gently, but firmly eased herself away from the Queen and out of the bed. Gabrielle sat up and watched the Amazon as she searched for her clothes in the darkness. She finally managed to find her tunic and dressed, before turning around to face the Queen. She could barely make out the graceful figure of the woman sitting on the bed, the green eyes studying her intensely.
"I don´t want you to leave."
"I have to."
"No." The figure rose from the bed and stepped down on the floor. "No, you don´t."
"Gabrielle," Callias began, unconsciously taking a step back, "you´re hurting and confused. I don´t-."
"Yes, I´m hurting, Callias." The young woman stepped closer, "But…"
A flicker of doubt showed on her face, then it was gone.
"But I´m not confused."
She stopped in front of the Captain, their bodies almost touching. Gabrielle reached down and took the Amazon´s hand, placing it over her own heart.
"Can you feel that, Callias? Can you…? Do you still think you have to go?"
The Captain felt the furiously pounding heart just beneath the smooth, warm skin. She began to speak, but was silenced with a finger on her lips.
"Don´t you want me, Callias?"
"Yes, Gods, I want you so much." The voice was raw with passion and Gabrielle felt every word rekindle the fire in her loins. She let a single finger trace the Captain´s lips a few times, before reaching down to pull the tunic over Callias´ head. She slid her arm´s around the Amazon´s neck and drew her down for a kiss. Just before their lips met, the Captain hesitated.
"I don´t want you to hate me in the morning."
Gabrielle leaned closer and whispered into Callias´ mouth, "I could never hate you, Callias. Never."
Their lips met and all further conversation was forgotten.
Walking soundlessly between the trees, Lykeas only paused once to wipe the blood from his hands, and clean his dagger. When he reached his destination, he dived out from between two trees and Alexias jumped.
"Damn you, Lykeas! Don´t do that!"
"Shh, not so loud." The dark warrior looked around, "We have to get going. Are the horses ready?"
"Yes, I left the saddles on as you told me, but…" The Prince looked eagerly at the man before him, "Aren´t you gonna tell me what happened? Did you find out what´s going on?"
"Yes," was the only reply.
"I said we should get going, didn´t I? We´ll have time for chit chat later."
Lykeas gave Rarjan a gentle pat, then mounted. Alexias watched the warrior in silence, anger mixed with annoyance showing on his face. He had been furious with Lykeas that he wouldn´t allow him to come with him to Kassander´s castle. He had even threatened to follow him when he left, where to the warrior had replied that in that case, he´d just have to tie him to a tree. The look in the black eyes had made it perfectly clear that he wasn´t kidding.
"We´re gonna ride all night, I want to get to the border as fast as possible."
Alexias shifted in the saddle, then the brown eyes widened, "Lykeas, blood! There´s blood on your clothes."
The warrior didn´t even glance down, "I know."
Then he kneed Rarjan forward and soon rider and horse were moving down the road in a relentless pace. The Prince hurried to follow suit, but it took him a few minutes before he caught up with them.
The ride that night was one Alexias would never forget. The trees on either side cast harrowing and unnatural shadows on the road, and several times did he feel his horse stumble, barely managing to keep her footing, when invisible bumps and rocks abruptly got in her way. A strong wind blew against their faces, driving tears from their already hurting eyes. The endless pounding of the hooves against the ground and the howling wind penetrated his head, and always, without mercy, did he feel every shock, every tremor from the horse beneath him multiplied in his body. The landscape around him passed in one long blur of grey and black, and when dawn finally arrived, the last coherent thought in his mind was not to let go of the reins, and no to lose sight of the rider in front of him.
Lykeas forcefully reined in Rarjan who almost reared.
Only years of training prevented Alexias from heading right into the warrior and horse that suddenly occupied his path. In the last second, he managed to change course and bring his horse to a halt.
"Are you crazy!? I could have-. "
"Shut up and look!"
The Prince stared ahead of him, trying to see through the grey mist. One by one ten silhouettes appeared out of the early morning light. In a slow, leisurely pace the men on horses came closer until they were right in front of them. A strong, muscular man with steel like eyes and grey hair and beard, leaned forward in the saddle. The cold eyes went from Alexias to Lykeas and then back to the Prince.
"Well, if it isn´t the young Alexias. What are you doing here so early in the morning? And not to mention on my land?"
The Prince´s jaw tightened, "I apologize for entering your kingdom without permission, sir. My friend and I were chasing a deer and got so caught up in the hunt, we didn´t notice we had crossed the border."
"Is that so?" The King replied slowly, almost tasting every syllable. His gaze came to rest on Lykeas. "And who is your friend?"
"This is Lykeas," Alexias replied before the warrior could speak, "he´s staying with me at Simmias´ castle."
"Oh, so you´re visiting Simmias. That explains it, I did think you were a bit far from home to be hunting deer near my border."
Kassander´s eyes once again took in the sight of the dark warrior, a frown appearing on his face.
"Do I…know you?"
"Hmm, you seem familiar somehow." The King replied, but then shrugged and apparently dismissed the thought. He turned to look at the Prince again.
"So, Alexias, how is your father doing? I do hope he´s in good health."
"My father´s just fine, thank you." The young man was incapable of keeping a slight edge out of his tone, but Kassander appeared not to notice.
"I´m glad to hear it. And Simmias, that sweet old man, how is he? I trust he´s still tending more to his flowers than to the affairs of his kingdom?"
"His Majesty is also in good health and when it comes to the affairs of the kingdom, Queen Phillinna is more than capable of handling that."
"Ah yes, the fair Phillinna. So she´s still the one wearing the trousers. Well, well, if it works for them…" The last remark was obviously meant to provoke some kind of reaction, but neither Alexias nor Lykeas spoke. The King´s manner grew threatening, but the words were still uttered in a voice sweet as honey.
"I see no deer with you. You weren´t successful?"
Kassander eyed Lykeas thoughtfully.
"You don´t talk much, do you?"
Black eyes stared directly at him, "We lost track of the deer this morning. We were just on our way home when we met you."
"Funny, I´ve been hunting myself together with a few friends," he gestured casually at the riders behind him, "and we didn´t see any trace of deer. Come to think of it, we didn´t find any trace of other hunters either."
"I try not to leave a trace."
The King crossed his arms, "You must be good then."
For minutes the two men just stared at each other. Then Kassander slowly made room for them to pass and indicated his men to do the same.
"You must be anxious to get back. I shall keep you no further."
Lykeas and Alexias rode past them and the Prince looked back and gave the King a small nod.
"I wish you a good day, sir."
"You too, Alexias, you too."
They pushed their horses into a gallop, and the last thing they heard was Kassander shouting, "Tell your father, I´ll be visiting his kingdom soon, very soon actually."
Alexias glanced at Lykeas, "I didn´t think he´d let us pass. I thought he´d see right through us."
The warrior gave him an obscure look.
"Oh, but he did, Alexias, he did."
"Took you long enough."
Lykeas closed the door behind him and slumped down in the chair next to Xena´s. She was sitting in front of a large tapestry, picturing scenes from a long forgotten battle. Without glancing at Lykeas, she continued. "So, you didn´t get into trouble?"
Lykeas smiled to himself, black eyes studying the tapestry, "No, no I didn´t."
They were in the West wing of the castle which was the least inhabited part. While waiting for news, Xena had spent most of her time exploring the castle, finding the West wing to be the place she was most likely to be left alone. The endless waiting without having anything to occupy her had not become her very well, and even the Queen, who´d grown very fond of the warrior´s company, had respected her wish for solitude.
"I hear you beat half of Simmias´ soldiers in one-to-one combat."
"I was bored," Xena nonchalantly replied, "besides, it was only a third, the rest declined."
She turned to look at Lykeas, the blues eyes conveying more than her words, "It´s been kinda dull around here while you were gone."
"Well, I´m back now."
She gave him a quick smile, then changed the subject, "So the Persians are involved?"
"Hmm," she looked at the tapestry again. "I take it Kassander hasn´t changed?"
Xena put her palms together and tapped them against her chin, "I heard from Alexias that you ran into him on the way back."
Lykeas nodded, "Yes, it was unfortunate." His brow furrowed, "Although maybe it wasn´t such a bad thing after all."
Xena raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Now he knows we´re on to him. It´s quite possible that´ll make him speed up his plans and try to complete the conquest sooner than he´d expected. Perhaps sooner than he´s ready for."
"It´s a possibility. He´s definitely arrogant enough."
"Yes. I don´t think he minds us knowing…that´s why he allowed us to continue. He probably likes to flex his muscles at us, thinking we´re no threat to him."
"Are we? A threat to him?"
Lykeas´ eyes lingered at the tapestry for a moment before turning to Xena., "Not in manpower, but when it comes to fighting, the people who´ve the most to lose always put up the toughest fight."
Xena nodded, her eyes distant, "I remember."
"No matter what, "Lykeas continued, "we have to act soon. We can´t allow Kassander to receive further reinforcements from Persia. The situation´s bad enough as it is."
"You think we should mobilize an army?"
He looked at her, "Don´t you?"
"We´ll need both the armies of Simmias and Polyidos and even that may not be enough."
Lykeas leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply, "I´ve seen the armies and they are both adequate, but neither have been into battle for a very long time. They´re all too comfortable, they have grown soft. They need to be disciplined and trained. They need to be reminded that they´re soldiers, not chambermaids."
Xena shot the warrior beside her a watchful glance.
"And I take it you plan to be the one who reminds them?"
An equivocal smile appeared on Lykeas´ face, then it was gone.
The Queen walked slowly along the line of Amazons, inspecting each warrior carefully. The soldiers stood tall, staring straight ahead, not a single muscle moving. Gabrielle smiled inwardly and turned to look at the Captain.
"You´ve made a fine choice, Callias. I´m confident these warriors will be a valuable addition to Royal Guard."
"Yes, my Queen. I think so too."
Gabrielle continued her walk, this time past a slightly larger group of Amazons. Some of the warriors were very young, had probably only recently completed their training, but all, without exception, carried themselves with a confidence and pride that instantly endeared them all to the Queen´s heart. When she reached the end of the line, Gabrielle stopped in front of the last warrior. The Amazon was obvious perplexed by the sudden attention, but did her best to appear indifferent.
"What´s your name, soldier?"
"Rheia, Your Majesty."
"And how old are you, Rheia?"
The warrior´s mask slipped for a second and her expression became defensive, "I´m twenty, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle hid a smile, "So, Rheia. Do you think you´re worthy of serving the Nation as a soldier?"
This time Gabrielle barely managed to disguise her amusement.
"I´m glad to hear it, soldier."
She turned to face the rest of the warriors.
"Do you all think you´re worthy of serving the Nation as soldiers? Protecting the villages, defending what´s ours?"
"Yes, sir!" They all replied as with one voice.
Sparkling green eyes briefly rested on another Captain.
"Although, Callias had the first choice, I think you have something to be proud of Zelei."
The Captain stepped closer and gave the Queen a small bow.
"They´re excellent warriors, my Queen. They´ll make us all proud."
"I´m counting on it."
She faced the warriors again, "I want to welcome you all to the village, your new home. Huts have been prepared and are ready to be used. You´ll be informed of your duties and shifts by either Callias or Zelei, depending on your regiment, and if you have any further questions you´re free to ask any Amazon in the village. And that includes the Queen," she added with a friendly smile and even the toughest soldier had to struggle not to return it.
"Oh yes, one last thing. A celebration to welcome you all will be held tonight, but remember to check with your Captain first to find out when you´re expected to be on duty. I don´t want any drunks guarding the village, is that clear?"
"Very well," Gabrielle smiled. "You´re dismissed."
One by one the new warriors left the practice field to find their assigned huts. Some only staying long enough to change before heading out, others lingering inside, already contemplating how to decorate and furnish their new homes. Callias walked over to stand beside the Queen and together they watched the last soldier leave the field.
"That went well."
"Yes, it did, didn´t it."
"You have become quite good at this queen thing. You seemed very relaxed and confident."
"Oh," Gabrielle grinned, "I don´t know if I´m relaxed, but I definitely feel confident." She paused, "It´s a nice feeling."
"I´m glad to hear it."
"So…" Gabrielle reached out to dust off some non-existent fluff from the Captain´s shoulder, "Is the Head of the Royal Guard on duty tonight?"
"Well," Callias replied, her voice suddenly an octave lower, "I think you´ll have to check with the Queen about that."
"The Queen, you say…?" Gabrielle smiled seductively, her hand still resting on the tunic and the blond Amazon felt her pulse quicken.
"I´m sure she and I could come to some kind of understanding. After all," appreciative eyes roamed the Captain´s body, "I´ve heard she´s a very generous and caring person… Very giving…"
Callias swallowed hard, "Funny, I´ve heard that too."
Gabrielle let her hand run lazily down the Amazon´s arm, a teasing smile playing on her lips.
"I´ll see you tonight then, Captain."
She left the practice field, leaving a rather flushed
soldier to consider the location of the nearest water hole.
For the tenth time that evening, Phillinna stepped over to the window to look out, then headed back to the fireplace, before finally coming to a halt in front of the people seated around the table.
"Is there no alternative?" She asked, her eyes troubled, but her voice firm.
"I´m afraid not, Your Majesty. I don´t see we have any possibility, but to fight."
The Queen looked at her General, biting the inside of her cheek, "You´re absolutely convinced about this, Nicanor?"
The General nodded, "Your Majesty, we have dealt with King Kassander in the past, even if we tried to negotiate with him, even if we reached an agreement, got his word. You know he can´t be trusted."
"Yes, but war!" Phillinna exclaimed. "I don´t want the people of this kingdom to be hurt. I don´t want to take away their husbands and fathers, their sons and brothers. Isn´t there any other way?!"
Green eyes sought out black, "You´re sure it was Persians you saw?"
"You´re convinced they´ll attack?"
"It´s just a matter of time."
The Queen went back to the window and stared out for a long time. Not until the impatience emanating from the other people in the room was almost perceptible did she turn around.
"Okay, if you´re all certain it´s the right thing to do I´ll support you with troops, and I´m sure Polyidos will do the same when he hears about this."
She looked at Alexias who nodded, "I´ve already sent a messenger to my father asking for assistance."
"Good," Phillinna replied and started to walk towards the window again, but stopped herself in the last minute. She turned to face the warriors at the table.
"I want a straight answer, no evasions or probabilities. I want to hear your exact opinion and nothing else. Do we stand a chance against Kassander?"
Xena looked at Lykeas who was staring down at the table, obviously lost in thoughts.
"Well…?" The Queen was becoming impatient.
"After what Lykeas has told me, we have a fair chance with the combined forces of your husband and King Polyidos."
"A fair chance?" Phillinna looked resigned at Xena, "Is that as good as it gets?"
"I´m afraid so," the warrior replied quietly.
The Queen closed her eyes briefly and let out a small sigh, "I´ll go inform Simmias. I don´t want him to hear about this from anybody else."
She left and the faint scent of her perfume was all that remained.
Nicanor rose from the table, "I should get going as well. I have a lot of work ahead of me with the soldiers."
Lykeas abruptly raised his head and looked at the red-headed General.
"I´d like to assist you with the training of the soldiers."
"Uh, sure," Nicanor said uncertainly. "If you think you´re up to that."
"Oh, but I am," he answered, "I´m very up to-."
"Lykeas, can I talk to you for a moment?" Xena´s voice cut short the warrior´s reply.
Dark eyes met with blue, then darted away.
"Will you excuse us for a minute?"
Both Alexias and Nicanor got the message from Xena´s tone alone and quickly left the room.
The warrior rose from her seat and walked over to stand in front of Lykeas.
"What do you think you´re doing?"
Xena reached out and raised his chin so she could see his eyes.
"Lykeas…" This time her voice held a clear warning, "Whatever you´ve got planned, forget it!"
His jaw clenched, "I don´t know what you mean."
Blue eyes narrowed, "Don´t play with me, Lykeas. I know you too well for that."
"I swear," he looked directly at her, "I´m not planning anything."
She gave him a dubious look, "Are you sure?"
His gaze never wavered, "Yes."
Xena stepped away and leaned against the wall, her eyes never leaving the dark man´s face. Time passed slowly as they watched each other in silence. Lykeas began to feel uncomfortable and rose from his chair.
"I should get going."
He looked at her as if waiting for some kind of response.
"Yeah, I guess you should," Xena finally answered. "They´re probably all in great need of some proper battle and tactics exercises."
That brought out a smile on Lykeas´ face.
"You´ve no idea! I´ve never seen anything like it." The grin broadened, "I´d wish, I had some really skilled warriors to use as an example. Nothing motives a man to learn faster than being humiliated."
Xena smiled in return, "Where are the Amazons when you need them?"
Lykeas who had been heading for the door, stopped and turned to look at her, an intrigued smile slowly spreading on his face.
"Of course! Why didn´t I think of that myself. I´ll sent a message to the Nation to request for soldiers. I´ve no doubt that several of the warriors will be more than thrilled by the prospect of avenging the death of their sisters."
Xena stepped closer.
"I won´t let you do that. The Amazons have suffered enough. They don´t need another war right now."
"Ah, Xena." Lykeas said, studying his fingernails, "I don´t think you have anything to say in this matter. Besides, all I´m gonna do is to present them with the problem. It´s up to them to decide what to do about it."
He looked up.
"Or perhaps that´s not the reason why you don´t want the Amazons to come?"
Xena´s face became a mask, and again they stared at each other in silence. Then Lykeas awkwardly reached out to touch her arm, his voice surprisingly gentle.
"I´m sorry, I shouldn´t have said that."
She tolerated the touch for a moment, then stepped back.
"It doesn´t matter."
"Yes, it does… I´m sorry."
She looked into the black eyes, then nodded.
He gave her a pale smile, then left.
"Don´t touch me!" The young man growled dangerously. "You said you wanted to talk, so talk!"
The blond woman withdrew her arm, her brown eyes filled with both sadness and regret.
"I never meant for this to happen. Please believe me, if I could do anything to change the past I would."
Cold eyes studied the nervous woman.
"Nobody wants that more than me, Naiari, but since it isn´t possible, there´s really no use in talking about it, is there?"
"I meant to come for you, I meant to take you away from-."
"Just like you meant to be with my mother for the rest of your life!?" His eyes were mere slits, "It seems to me you have a problem with keeping your promises."
"I loved your mother."
"Don´t say that!"
The Amazon hesitantly reached out again, but the young man angrily slapped her hand away.
"I said, don´t touch me!"
He closed his eyes briefly, making a conscious effort to calm himself down, then he continued, "You sent for me, I´m here. What do you want?"
"I…I wanted you to meet someone." The blond woman turned towards her hut, "Sweetie, would you come out for a minute!?"
The door opened and a young, blond woman stepped outside. Naiari affectionately put her arm around the young Amazon, who eyed the stranger in front of her suspiciously.
"Sweetie, I want you to meet somebody very special."
She gave the man a nervous smile, but the black eyes regarded her callously.
"Ephiny, this is Lykeas, your brother."
Brown and black eyes narrowed instantly.
"My…brother?" The blond woman finally spoke, "I don´t have a brother."
"Okay, you´ve had your fun, Naiari. I´m leaving now."
"No please, don´t go!"
The Amazon forgot all caution and grabbed the young man´s arm.
"Please stay, I want-."
A fist connected squarely with the woman´s jaw and she was knocked to the ground.
"You lost your right to tell me what to do a long time ago!" Lykeas spat out angrily, hovering over the Amazon below him. "You betrayed her! You left her to a life in Tartarus. Don´t think I´ll ever forgive you for that!" He reached down and roughly pulled her up by the hair.
"You´re lucky I don´t kill you." The words were spoken through gritted teeth and Naiari shivered by the sight of the black eyes, so reminiscent of the woman´s she had once loved.
Suddenly Lykeas became aware of a sharp blade, pressing hard against his neck.
"Let go of her."
The blade pressed harder, breaking the skin.
"I said, let go of her!"
Out of the corner of his eye, the dark man studied the young woman behind him. A look of utter contempt showed on his face, then abruptly he released the Amazon who fell to the ground.
The blade disappeared from his throat as Ephiny rushed to her mother´s side, but before she could reach the Amazon, she was violently grabbed from behind and hurled against the hut. In two steps, Lykeas was over her. He caught her by the throat and pushed her head against the wall, their faces only inches apart.
"Don´t ever threaten me again." The voice was cold, but eerily calm.
As reply, Ephiny spat in his face. The dark man´s first reaction was an indulgent, slightly amused smile, but then the grip tightened.
"I´ll let that one pass for now."
He let go of her throat and she slumped to the ground. His impassive eyes rested briefly on the two women, then he turned and walked away.
Lykeas shifted uneasily in the bed.
Suddenly a plain appeared before him, alive with soldiers. Tents, horses, wagons, chariots and men as far as the eye could see. The blood red sky made an imposing curtain to the scene played out on the plain, as the soldiers, all as one, left what they were doing and lined up before him. Their armour and weapons were polished to perfection, their bearing was proud and confident. Their grey and black uniforms were clean and free from patches, their boots shone in the red light. Then in one fluid motion, they simultaneously brought their hands up and saluted. Lykeas felt a slow smile spread on his face.
"This is what you want, isn´t it?" A low voice whispered into his ear.
The presence beside him had appeared from out of nowhere, but to the dark warrior it was as familiar as the beating of his own heart.
"You know it is," he turned, black eyes gleaming. "It´s what I´ve always wanted."
Blue eyes returned his gaze, "I know."
"Lykeas wake up! They´re expecting you in the armoury."
The knocking on the door paused and the warrior scrambled out of bed.
"I´m coming, I´m coming."
Still half asleep, he stumbled out of his room and down
Nothing could bring me closer,
Nothing could bring me near.
I suffer the dreams of a world gone mad,
I like it that way and I know it.
I know it well, ugly and sweet,
That temper madness with an even extreme.
I lost myself in sorrow,
I lost myself in pain.
I lost myself in clarity,
Memory, leave, leave.
I´ve longed for this to take me,
I´ve longed for my release.
I´ve waited for the calling
To leave, leave.
"No emperor has the power to dictate to the heart."
- Johann Friedrich Von Schiller, 1759-1805 AD
For the last two days, the view from the castle had been obscured by a never-ending rain, pouring down and instantly soaking anybody who was unfortunate or foolish enough to be outside. It seemed to the people in the castle that they were never really dry. No matter how many fires that were lit and how many windows that were sealed, the heavy, humid air seeped through every crack, every crevice making everything from bedlinen to clothes feel damp and uncomfortable. The rooms were dank and chilly and, unrelenting, following people wherever they went, was the ever present sound of dripping water created by hundreds of drops of water falling from ceilings to floors. It was enough to drive even the most stable person crazy and by the third day, everybody was walking on eggshells around each other.
Walking down an empty corridor in the West wing, Xena contemplated their situation. She doubted that Kassander would try anything as long as the weather was like this. The visibility outside was next to nothing and all the roads had turned into streams of mud days ago. Hopefully, the rain had also helped to lower the morale among Kassander´s soldiers and made them short-tempered and discontented, something that might come in handy later.
A damp breeze against her face brought her out of her reverie, and she looked ahead to see an open window further down the corridor.
Gee, as if it wasn´t wet enough already. I´d wish people would remember to close the damn windows.
She purposely walked to the window, but just as she was about to slam it shut, a movement outside caught her attention. She leaned out over the wet window-sill and looked down at the courtyard below her. At least fifty soldiers were heavily engaged in combat drills, oblivious to the pouring rain. She leaned out further, her eyes searching for one specific man. And there he was. Standing in the middle of the yard was Lykeas, watchfully supervising the action around him, black eyes never missing a single movement, a single thrust.
"No no no! Strike, retreat and then advance. If you advance directly after the last blow, you leave you entire right side exposed to the enemy. One more time and this time, I want to see it done correctly! You won´t get a second chance with Kassander´s soldiers."
For how long Xena watched the scenario below her, she didn´t know, but gradually the men´s movements became co-ordinated and effective, and by the time it took her to realize she was drenched and move away from the window, they were fighting as good as any soldiers she had ever had. She rested her back against the wall and closed her eyes, the constant sound of swords meeting swords and Lykeas´ curt commands filling her head. Suddenly she became aware of a faint scent of perfume close by, but didn´t open her eyes. She heard the low, whispering sound of fabric sliding over the floor, and felt the slight change in the air as a person came to stand beside her.
"He seems to be enjoying himself."
Xena opened her eyes to look at Phillinna, "He is."
"And that worries you?" The Queen said, considering the warrior beside her.
"What makes you think that?"
Phillinna shrugged, "I don´t know, call it a hunch."
Xena´s face remained impassive, "Lykeas knows what he´s doing."
"Oh, I´m sure he does, but do you?"
"I don´t know what you´re talking about." The annoyance in Xena´s voice was clear.
The Queen seemed to acknowledge the warrior´s unspoken warning and refrained from asking further questions. In stead she closed the window and started to walk down the corridor, pausing after a few steps to look back at the dark woman.
"Are you coming?"
Xena let out a small sigh, but nonetheless abandoned her position against the wall and came to walk beside the Queen. They strolled the length of the West wing in silence, and not until they had reached the end and turned around, did Phillinna speak again.
"We received news from Polyidos this morning."
"Oh?" Came the distant reply.
"Apparently the messenger he sent to the Amazon Nation returned last night."
The warrior didn´t respond, but the blue eyes had become keenly alert. The Queen looked at Xena as if she expected a reaction, but when it didn´t come, she continued.
"The message was from the Amazon Queen herself, and it said that it had been left up to the individual Amazon, whether she wanted to fight this war or not, provided their absence wouldn´t compromise the safety of the Nation."
Xena nodded, she had expected that much.
"So it seems like we can be expecting their arrival any day now."
Phillinna shook her head in disbelief.
"Amazons! In my castle! Who should have thought it?"
"Well, they´re pretty easy to deal with as long as you show them the proper respect."
"I´ll have to begin planning accommodation right away. The rooms must be ready when they arrive."
"Don´t make yourself too much trouble," the warrior grinned. "The Amazons don´t require much comfort, after all, they´ve lived in huts all their lives."
Phillinna looked at her in astonishment, "Even the Queen?"
The blond woman looked like somebody had just told her that pigs could fly.
"Well, that may be, but she´ll definitely not be living in at hut while she stays here, that´s for certain."
The Queen was abruptly turned around and found herself face to face with the warrior.
"What do you mean?"
"Err…" Phillinna looked at Xena in confusion. "What I said, the Amazon Queen won´t be living in a hut if I have anything to say about it.
"The Queen is coming here?"
"Yes, didn´t I mention that?"
Xena became aware of her firm grip on the blond woman´s arms and promptly let go.
"No, you didn´t."
"Oh well, now you know."
Phillina noticed the disturbed look on the warrior´s face, but chose not to mention it. In stead she continued her walk down the corridor and like before, paused after a few steps to look back.
"Are you coming?"
"If everything goes well, we should enter King Simmias kingdom by tomorrow evening."
Gabrielle nodded, "Okay, that sounds good."
She smiled at the sight of the totally drenched Amazon before her.
"You better go change before you catch a pneumonia."
"Hum!" Areia snorted. "I´m pretty sure it´s too late for that, besides, I doubt there are any dry clothes left."
She gave the Queen a quick smile to take the edge of her words, pushed the tent flap aside and stepped out into the rain again. After the warrior had left, Gabrielle gave her surroundings a sceptical look. She wasn´t too sure that the tent wouldn´t be washed away by morning. Under any circumstances, the canvas was soaked and water kept seeping through. She doubted there was a dry spot left.
They had been on the road for days and by the third day it had started to rain, and it hadn´t stopped since. Even Zelei and Erinya, who prided themselves of being made of tougher material than the rest of the world, were beginning to look forward to a dry room in a dry castle. They had camped for the night in a forest, placing all the tents under the trees to keep them out of the rain as much as possible, but since everything was soaked already from the days before, Gabrielle suspected it wouldn´t make much of a difference. She sighed and sat down on the pallet, the skins beneath her uncomfortably damp. She opened a round leather case, and pulled out the scroll to read it once again.
When the message from Lykeas had arrived, she had been torn what to do. She knew that several Amazons would jump at the opportunity to get revenge, and if she had to be absolutely honest with herself, the idea of getting back at the Persians and avenging Ephiny´s death appealed to her too. However, she´d been far from convinced it was the right, or for that matter, the smartest thing to do. The Amazons didn´t really need another war so soon. The village was just beginning to return to what it had been before the attack, and people had only just begun to come to terms with what they´d lost and move on. She wasn´t sure if another confrontation with the Persians would provide some kind of closure or instead rip open old wounds. She hadn´t discussed the message with the council, knowing full well how each of them would react. In the end, she´d decided to leave it up to the individual Amazon. She had allowed a total of forty warriors to leave the village if they desired. Who the forty should be, they´d have to decide between themselves. Things had gone pretty smoothly, until she had announced that she´d lead the warriors to Simmias´ castle. Both Callias and Zelei had been against it, although for different reasons and Kelife had also tried to talk her out of it. Gabrielle had patiently listen to each of their arguments, but couldn´t be swayed. She had dismissed them by saying it was the Queen´s duty to lead her warriors, and by that she´d considered the subject for closed. They had respected her wishes, albeit grudgingly.
Gabrielle sighed and put the scroll back into the case. She knew very well why it was she wanted to lead the warriors. It was what Ephiny would have done, and somehow she couldn´t help but feel that she owed the blond Amazon to do it for her. Ephiny had died for her people and Gabrielle wasn´t about to expect anything less from herself. There was no way she´d send Amazons into battle and then stay home and twiddle her thumbs. She had made her choice. She would be the Queen her people needed her to be; face the difficulties, make the tough decisions and deal with the consequences. Nothing more, nothing less.
A moist breath of air made her look up and she saw Callias enter the tent., the Amazon Captain looking very much like a drowned rat.
"Oh, is it still raining?"
"Hahaha," the blond woman replied while trying to wring out some of the water from her hair and tunic. "Glad to see you haven´t lost your sense of humour."
Gabrielle patted the pallet and Callias obligingly came over and sat down. The Queen rummaged through her belongings and pulled out an almost dry towel. She positioned herself on the pallet behind the Captain and began to dry her hair.
"Have everyone been settled for the night?"
"Yes," the Amazon replied, letting out a small contented sigh, "and the guards have been posted."
"They must have been thrilled."
Callias grinned at the memory of the guards´ expression.
"I have no doubt that I´ll be in their prayers tonight… Although," she continued after a small pause, "I do feel a bit guilty. Some of them looked really miserable and I could have replaced one if I´d wanted to."
Gabrielle stopped her ministrations with the towel for a moment.
"You have nothing to feel guilty about, Callias. You´ve taken more than your share of watches."
She began to dry the Captain´s hair again, but a thought caused her to stop.
"Actually, you´ve taken an unusual high amount of watches on this trip… Why is that?"
The Amazon didn´t reply right away, but then shrugged.
"I guess, I just wanted to keep busy, the rain´s been driving me crazy."
"Is that so?"
Gabrielle rose from the pallet and kneeled down in front of Callias, trying to catch her eye."
Reluctantly the Captain looked up and their eyes met.
"I may be wrong, Callias, but it seems to me that you taken any opportunity that presented itself to avoid me."
She searched the Amazon´s face.
"No, I… It´s not that… I…," Callias stumbled over the words. "I haven´t been trying to avoid you… I´ve just…"
"You´ve just what?" Gabrielle asked softly, putting her hand on the blonde woman´s knee. "Tell me."
The Captain looked down at the hand on her knee, "Nothing. I´ve just wanted to do my share, that´s all."
The Queen slowly removed her hand and sat back on her heels.
"Then why not tonight? Why did you decide not to volunteer for guard duty tonight?"
"Because we´ll arrive at King Simmias´ castle tomorrow."
The words were spoken so low that Gabrielle first wasn´t sure the Amazon had spoken at all."
Callias looked up, a bittersweet smile on her lips.
"Things will change from tomorrow."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. For a while they just looked into each other´s eyes, the rain outside providing a steady rhythm to accompany their thoughts.
"I know that…" The Captain trailed off and the Queen gave her a small encouraging smile, painful realization and remorse written in the green eyes.
The blond Amazon gave her a pale smile in return, then spoke softly, "I…I wanted my last time with you to be special. I wanted always to be able to remember this moment as being perfect."
"Oh…" Gabrielle exhaled.
The Captain broke eye contact and looked down at the ground, and silence once again occupied the tent. A myriad of conflicting emotions were racing through Gabrielle´s body. Pictures and images from the last couple of months filled her mind, and she had to look away. Then, simultaneously, the two women looked back at each other. Without a word, Callias slid down from the pallet to the ground and wrapped her arms around the young Queen, who in return put her arms around the Amazon´s neck, then, with a maddening slowness their lips gently met.
"Hey, look!" Areia pointed at the sky. "The clouds are spreading."
Rheia looked up, a slow smile appearing on her face, "It´s about time. I´ve missed seeing the stars."
As the two guards rejoiced at the sight of the clearing sky and the ceasing rain, somewhere else a soft voice whispered, "Perfect?"
"Not bad, not bad. One more time though, I want to make sure you got it."
The soldiers gave the dark warrior a disbelieving look, but the expression in the black eyes quickly drove all thoughts about arguing away. The relatively short time they had been subjected to Lykeas´ gruelling training had already taught them that complaining only made matters worse. The warrior would show an almost uncanny patience when it came to teaching them a new technique, a new tactic, not minding having to act it out for them again and again, but when it came to complaints or provocative behaviour he was ruthless. He tolerated no bad attitudes or challenges of his authority, and he´d only had to make an example once. No one had disobeyed or questioned him since.
They were on a field a few miles from the castle, Lykeas finding the courtyard too confining, had the moment the rain stopped persuaded Nicanor to move the practice outside. Officially, the General was in charge and the men were under his command, but as he watched the dark warrior with the soldiers, and saw the worshipping looks that followed him around, he knew that without as much as a fight, Lykeas had taken over the army. He might still be their commanding officer, but their loyalties and respect now lay with the dark man, and he had no idea what to do about it. If it hadn´t been for the amazing results Lykeas had achieved with the soldiers and the gravity of the situation, Nicanor would have spoken to Queen Phillinna about it. But as the situation was now, he didn´t feel he could allow himself to complain, besides he was afraid the Queen would dismiss it as jealousy and rivalry between two warriors, and perhaps begin to doubt his capability as General. So he hadn´t voiced his concern or mentioned his dilemma to anybody, also because deep inside he knew that he was jealous, although he swore to himself that that was not the reason for his discomfort.
At first he´d thought he was the only one who was aware of the development, but gradually he´d noticed that the other warrior, Xena, always seemed to be around when Lykeas worked with the soldiers, the blue eyes never wavering from the dark man. On a few occasions, she´d almost given Nicanor a heart attack when she from out of nowhere suddenly had appeared beside him. He had no idea how she did it or how she managed to disappear again without him ever seeing it, but she did and it all contributed to his uneasiness.
He looked around, but didn´t see any sight of the warrior now. He knew it was a useless thing to do since if Xena didn´t want to be seen, she wouldn´t be, but he couldn´t help himself. He wondered if Lykeas was aware of all the attention he received, somehow he doubted that anything escaped the dark warrior´s notice.
"Nicanor, you´re dreaming."
The General jumped as Lykeas suddenly stood beside him.
"Oh, sorry. Did you want anything?"
The warrior tilted his head slightly and studied the redheaded General through half-lidded eyes.
"I want you to go through the drills I´ve just showed with the men. They know what to do, they just need to practice them a few more times."
"Oh, do you have to be anywhere?" Nicanor asked, praying his voice didn´t sound too hopeful.
Lykeas just gave him a sweet smile.
"Yes, I´m going to accompany the Amazons to the castle."
"The Amazons? Which Amazons?"
The General looked in the direction the warrior was pointing, and his jaw fell as he saw a large group of female warriors step out from the forest on the other side of the field.
"I´ll see you later, Nicanor. Make sure they know the moves by tonight."
And with that he left the stunned man behind him and walked over to meet the Amazons, a faint smile briefly showing on his face.
"Hey, Gabrielle, it´s been a while…"
"So the moment the roads become reasonably passable again, we´ll head out."
Gabrielle nodded and looked at the warrior walking beside her.
"Have many soldiers do we have?"
"Hmm, well, with your Amazons we should reach a total of 1300 men."
"And Kassander? How many men does he have?"
Lykeas gave her a small smile, "Do you really wanna know?"
He nodded, "That bad."
They continued down the road leading to the castle, the forty Amazons behind them, moving practically soundlessly.
"So how have you been?"
"Fine and you?"
The Queen had to smile at Lykeas´ usual eloquence.
"Oh, I´ve been just fine too. The village is starting to return to normal."
"That´s nice," the warrior replied noncommittally.
"Yes, yes it is," she paused for a moment then continued in a slightly lower voice. "I think, I´ve started to really get the hang of it."
"I never doubted you would."
Gabrielle looked at him in surprise, but he was staring straight ahead.
"Do you really mean that?" She asked, half fearing his response.
This time, he turned his head to look at her, an almost puzzled expression in his eyes.
She gave him a warm smile which he hesitantly returned, then he looked away again.
The huge oak tree gates opened in front of them with a loud, creaking noise and revealed a courtyard filled with people.
"It take it they´re expecting us?"
"Seems like it," Lykeas´ brow furrowed. "Nicanor must have cut the training short. I´ll have to talk to him about that."
Gabrielle didn´t like the look in the dark man´s eyes, but pushed it aside as she followed him over to a gracefully looking woman, surrounded by a few guards.
"Your Majesty," the warrior spoke to the blond woman, "may I have the privilege of introducing you to Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation."
He turned to look at Gabrielle, "And this is Queen Phillinna, wife of the honourable King Simmias."
Phillinna gave him an amused smile, then turned all her attention back to her peer.
"It´s so very good to finally meet you, Your Majesty. I´ve been looking forward to your visit for some time now."
Gabrielle replied with a small nod, then smiled.
"I´ve been looking forward to meeting you too. On our journey through the kingdom, we´ve heard nothing but kind words of you and your husband."
The Queen acknowledged the compliment with another smile, before getting back to business.
"Rooms have been prepared for you and your escort, and I hope you´ll find them to your satisfaction. Tomorrow, we´ll have a small banquet in your honour, but for tonight nothing have been planned. I trust you must be tired after the long travel and in need of rest."
"Yes, I do think we all could need an early night tonight."
"Fine, I´ll have you shown to your chambers right away… And before I forget," she added, looking at Lykeas. "The General wishes to speak to you about something."
"Did he mention what?"
The Queen gave him a sheepish smile, "Probably, but I didn´t pay much attention. He sort of lost me after `reverse pincer movement´."
"Fair enough, " Lykeas smiled good-humouredly, "I´ll go find him."
While they had been talking, Gabrielle´s eyes had been searching the courtyard, one by one dismissing every person she saw.
I know she´s here. I can feel it.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason she looked up and was instantly caught up in an intense blue gaze. The people around her just faded and disappeared as she recognized the figure in the window high above the yard. She couldn´t make out the expression on the warrior´s face, instead she felt how her body was trapped on the spot, held there by the unblinking stare.
A gentle hand on her arm brought her out of the trance.
"Your Majesty, I´ll lead you to your chambers."
"Oh, yes, of course." She absently replied to the servant,
glancing back to the window, but there was no sight of the warrior. She
allowed herself to be guided away by the servant on one side, and with
Queen Phillinna eagerly talking on the other. Lykeas remained in the courtyard
for a moment, the black eyes focusing thoughtfully on the empty window
above, then he shrugged and went out to find Nicanor.
Gabrielle sighed and shifted once again, but to no avail. Sleep simply wouldn´t come. She opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling, willing her mind to unwind and her body to relax, but no matter what, she remained fully awake and restless. For a while she traced the delicate patterns above her, before she with a deep sigh, pushed the covers aside and got out of the bed. She quickly dressed and quietly opened the door out to the corridor.
"Your Majesty? Is everything okay?"
"Yes, Areia. I just can´t sleep."
"Oh," the Amazon replied. "Do you want me to get you anything?"
Gabrielle shook her head, "No thanks, I think I´ll just go for a walk."
She instantly read the expression on the guard´s face and hurried to speak, "No, I don´t need an escort. I´m sure, I´ll be quite safe in here with all the soldiers around."
Areia grinned, "As you wish, My Queen, but you better not tell the Captain."
Gabrielle smiled in return, "Don´t worry, my lips are sealed."
She said goodnight to the guard and aimlessly began to stroll down the corridor. As she passed a half open door, a fresh, sweet scent caught her attention, and she pushed the door open and looked outside. In the dim light between dusk and night, she could barely make out a gravel path surrounded by tall hedges on either side, leading away from the door. The scent coming from the garden was both intoxicating and inviting so with no further ado, she leisurely began to walk down the path, enjoying the light breeze and the coolness of the air.
For how long she walked, she didn´t know, but at the time she finally reached the end of the path, the sky above her was dark and the stars had appeared. Sleep still hadn´t arrived, but she decided to return to her chamber anyway and perhaps get some writing done. She had been terribly negligent when it came to writing during the last couple of weeks, but she really hadn´t had the time, and besides, it wasn´t like there had been much to write about. She rounded a corner and ran almost headlong into Xena. She gasped and moved a few steps back. The dark woman was almost hidden in the darkness, but Gabrielle thought she saw a flicker of emotion cross Xena´s face. As she studied the tall figure before her, she felt her heart rate speed up and unconsciously she moistened her lips.
"Hello, Gabrielle." The low voice spoke.
"Xena," was all she managed to reply.
"You look well."
Gods! What in Tartarus is going on here? This is not like I expected it would be. You´d think we weren´t more than old acquaintances who happened to meet again.
With the last thought, Gabrielle felt a silent fury built inside her, but whether it was directed towards Xena, herself or them both, she didn´t know.
She could feel the blues eyes run over her face and body as if trying to memorize each detail.
"So… How have you been?"
Gabrielle had to shake her head incredulously.
"How do you think I´ve been? You left! Without as much as a goodbye."
"I though it´d be better that way, easier."
The bard immediately recognized the slightly defensive tone of the warrior´s voice.
"You thought it´d be easier?"
Gabrielle looked away for a moment, then looked straight back at Xena.
"For whom? You?"
"Well," the bard replied dryly, "at least you´re honest."
The warrior took a step closer, her voice earnest, "I´ve never lied to you, Gabrielle."
A poignant smile briefly showed on the blond woman´s face.
"That may be, Xena, but there are so many things you haven´t told me, so many things you keep hidden that it really doesn´t make much of a difference."
"I´ve only tried to protect you."
"No, Xena. It´s not me you´re protecting, it´s you."
The dark woman moved back a little, widening the distance between them, and for a few minutes neither spoke, but just looked into each other´s eyes. Then Xena looked down, her voice barely above a whisper. "What is it you want to know?"
"Oh, Xena…" Gabrielle said in disbelief, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. "It´s not that simple. Do you expect me to…"
She stopped herself when she noticed the warrior´s suddenly guarded expression.
"Okay, if you think it´s…" She paused again, trying to make eye contact. Reluctantly, Xena looked up and the bard took a deep breath.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, why did you pull away? Why did you feel you have to leave?"
"I told you back then, it´s why I´m here. I had to find out what was going on."
Gabrielle bit her lip, "If you want to do this, Xena, then at least be honest with me. You know that´s not what I was asking."
The warrior nodded to herself, then spoke, "Okay… Ask me again."
The bard was about to repeat her question, when another, more insistent one entered her mind. Once again she waited until the blue eyes were looking directly at her.
"You never intended to return, did you?"
Xena opened her mouth as if to protest, but no words came out. Gabrielle greeted the silence with quiet resignation. "I didn´t think so… Why?"
"I…I…" The warrior´s voice was suddenly shaky and hesitant, "I didn´t want you to hate me."
The blond woman regarded her with both confusion and frustration on her face, "Why would I hate you, Xena?"
"It was all…it was all too much."
The words came fast now.
"I couldn´t deal with it all. I meant to be there for you, I really did. You needed me and I let you down and what did I do about it? I let you down even more. It´s just… I didn´t understand… And then everything with Lykeas…I… It brought back so many memories and I had to… And you and Callias seemed so…" She trailed off, breaking eye contact.
Gabrielle looked at the warrior, trying to make some sense out of her ramblings.
"You let me down…?" She asked tentatively. "What do you mean?"
Xena let out a long breath, then straightened up. "I betrayed you."
"In what way?"
The warrior swallowed, "The night with the celebration."
"You mean…you…" Gabrielle said, understanding slowly showing on her face.
Heavy silence lay between them for a long time.
Xena shrugged uncomfortably, "I was drunk, angry, hurting…miserable. I know it´s no excuse, but it´s-."
"It doesn´t matter." The bard interrupted.
"It doesn´t matter. You have nothing to feel guilty about."
The warrior´s eyes narrowed, "I don´t understand."
Gabrielle looked at her, feeling both numb and eerily calm inside. She walked past Xena and managed to put a few yards between them, before the warrior´s voice stopped her.
"You and Callias?"
Even though she heard no sound, the bard didn´t
have to turn around to know that Xena was no longer on the path behind
Lykeas walked quietly down the corridor, his mind far away. It hadn´t taken him long to find Nicanor, but it had taken him considerably longer to make sure that the General didn´t ignore or disobeyed his instructions again. Nicanor´s stubbornness annoyed him and Lykeas didn´t like to be annoyed, and usually people had always gotten the message pretty fast. Unfortunately, the General did have a few points that the dark warrior couldn´t ignore. Lykeas had no actual authority over the soldiers or any real right to give orders, especially not to Nicanor, but those issues were not important in Lykeas´ eyes, and inwardly he thought it wouldn´t be long before those minor complications had been put right.
Besides, it takes more than being a General to lead an army. Just being their commanding officer doesn´t mean they´ll sacrifice their lives for you or follow you to Tartarus and back. They have to love you to do that… Or fear you.
He came to the end of the corridor and realized that in his musings he´d taken the wrong way. The corridor that was supposed to lead him to his chamber had instead led him to an old wooden door, the oak so old it was almost black. He looked back down the way he´d come, but didn´t really feel like walking back, so with a shrug he opened the heavy door. It opened up to reveal a dimly lit room, torches randomly attached to the walls. The room was long and almost empty, a few armchairs and a woven carpet, reaching from where he stood to the door in the other end, being the only furnishing. As he stepped into the room and his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he discovered which room it was he´d entered. On both walls hung several portraits, some showing more resemblance to King Simmias than others, but to Lykeas all of them, without exception seemed to be staring right at him, reproach and disapproval in their eyes..
The portrait gallery. How nice…
He ignored the staring portraits and casually walked down the carpet, trying to repress the feeling of being watched.
"Uncanny, isn´t it?"
Lykeas jumped and spun around, black eyes blazing.
"Don´t you ever do that again!"
Callias gave him an amused smile, "Feeling a bit jumpy, are we?"
The warrior just scowled, the humiliation of having being caught unaware stung and was starting to make him angry. The Captain read the expression and decided to find a safe topic.
"I hear you´ve done wonders with both Simmias´ and Polyidos´ armies."
Lykeas removed a few strands from his eyes.
"It didn´t take much. They were all terribly out of shape."
The Amazon nodded, "I know, but still."
He shrugged, somehow unwilling to accept the compliment. For a while they stood uncomfortably in front of each other, not knowing what to say or what to do. Then Callias cleared her throat and gestured at the paintings.
"I feel like they´re staring at me, judging me, condemning me. I´ll never understand why they have to paint them like that."
Lykeas followed her gaze, "Yeah, I know what you mean." He smiled briefly. "This would be the perfect room to bring people before they were to be tried. If they had anything to feel guilty about, they´d crack in a second."
The Captain grinned, "True, this is exactly a place that´ll make people feel guilty, whether they have done anything to deserve that or not."
She paused, and although her eyes were still mischievous, Lykeas was sure he detected a hint of something else in the blue depths.
"So, Lykeas… Do you have anything to feel guilty about?"
A smiled curled at the edge of his mouth and he returned her gaze without difficulties.
The smile broadened.
"But…what about you, Callias? Have you behaved yourself?"
The mischievous glint in the Amazon´s eyes disappeared and an almost undetectable look of sorrow took its place, but the dark warrior noticed. Callias saw the smile on Lykeas´ face fade away and she saw sympathetic understanding emerge in the black eyes. Angry with herself, Lykeas and the world in general, the Captain looked away.
"So… What´s this thing with Zelei?"
"Zelei?" Callias repeated in confusion. "What about her?"
Relieved to have left dangerous ground, Lykeas gladly elaborated.
"Her eye? What happened to her eye?"
"Oh," a proud smile showed distinctly on the Amazon´s face, "the Queen beat her."
"What!" The warrior exclaimed in disbelief. "Gabrielle did that? You´re kidding me, right?"
The Captain shook her head, Lykeas´ amazed, but pleased expression chasing away any anger she might have felt by having her Queen´s abilities questioned.
"No, I´m not. Zelei challenged her for the right of queen and of course Her Majesty accepted… And the rest is history."
"I´d wish I´d been there." The warrior replied with a wishful look in the eyes. "I sure would have liked to see that."
"Well, I for one hope, I´ll never have to see it again."
Lykeas regarded Callias thoughtfully.
"You probably won´t have to. Not now…with Xena around and all."
"I know." The Captain answered quietly.
They didn´t speak again as they studied the portraits
on the walls, the looming and flicking shadows making the ancient faces
seem to glow with both life and soul.
A handle quietly moved and a door soundlessly opened. Blue eyes swept over a darkened room, showing no surprise at the sight of knocked down chairs and roughly treated pillows lying all over the floor. A figure moved inside the room, stopping just a few feet away from the now closed door. The eyes went from the discarded items on the floor to the dying embers, barely noticeable in the fireplace. Then the figure took a single step forward, the eyes now resting on the small form in the bed, half hidden by covers and darkness. For a moment the person lingered, then she took another step towards the bed.
"Why don´t you just ask me?"
If the intruder was startled by the sudden voice from the bed she didn´t show it.
"What do you mean?"
A soft whispering of cloth was heard as the woman in the bed shifted, "The reason why you´re here. Why don´t you just ask me?"
For a long time there was only silence, then a low voice finally spoke.
"Did it begin while I was still there?"
Xena let out a breath she didn´t know she had been holding.
"It happened afterwards?"
"Yes." Gabrielle paused for a moment, trying to find the blue eyes in the shadows. "When you renounced your Championship."
"And now? Are you…together?"
The warrior´s question came so fast that the bard doubted Xena had even heard the last part of her answer.
"No, no we´re not."
Xena stepped closer till she was standing at the edge of the bed, and now Gabrielle was able to see the warrior´s eyes shining in the darkness.
"Why not?" The voice was fully detached, not a single tone betraying the dark woman´s thoughts.
The bard sat up and leaned back against the headboard, her face also unreadable.
It was clearly not the answer Xena had expected and she was about to speak again, when Gabrielle interrupted her.
"It was Callias´ decision and although I didn´t…agree right away, I know now it was the right thing to do… I guess it shows, she knows me better than…than I do myself."
"What do you mean?"
The bard shrugged and a sad smile crossed her face, but the warrior didn´t see it.
"She knew I could never love her…not the way I love you."
Xena raised her head abruptly, but didn´t speak and Gabrielle continued, her voice tired and wistful.
"Did you really think, I would be able to forget you if you left? Did you think, I would fall in love with somebody else? That anybody could take possession of my heart the way you do by just looking at me?"
The warrior opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Instead she sat down gingerly on the bed, as far away from the bard as possible.
"I thought it was for the best." Xena finally managed to whisper.
"You were so happy in the village, they accepted you even though you didn´t want to fight, they needed you and you them. They would protect you, care for you… I didn´t want to take you away from them again, and then the thing with-."
"I don´t want to know her name." Gabrielle interrupted and the warrior gave her a remorseful and ashamed smile.
"I never knew her name. She was killed in the battle the next day."
Silence fell again, but before it started to become uncomfortable, Xena continued, this time emotion evident in her voice.
"I always hurt you. No matter what, I always end up hurting you."
The bard felt the words deep in her heart and she moved down the bed till she was able to reach the warrior´s hand.
"Not more than I hurt you, Xena. Don´t you ever forget that. Nobody is ever fully to blame, it´s never only one person´s fault."
The warrior looked down at the pale hand resting on her own.
"Maybe not, but sometimes, I wonder…"
Gabrielle suddenly felt a small shiver run down her back and with her other hand raised Xena´s head so she could see the warrior´s face.
"What do you wonder, Xena?" She asked gently.
"I wonder… I mean, we´re so different, sometimes I wonder if… With all the pain and…and all the hurt…I wonder if it´s all worth it."
Calm green eyes looked into blue, "And which conclusion do you reach?"
Xena sighed, a faint smile appearing, then disappearing again from her face.
"That it doesn´t really matter what I think or what I do."
"Why not?" The bard´s quiet voice encouraging the warrior to continue.
"Because I can´t live without you."
A beautiful smile showed on Gabrielle´s face and she leaned closer.
"That´s all I wanted to hear. It´s the only thing, I´ll ever want to hear."
The warrior looked at her uncertainly.
"Are..are we okay?"
"No," the bard shook her head, "but we will be."
Taiko's Scrolls Of The Xenaverse