Alexias leaned casually against a pillar as he watched Lykeas go through yet another manoeuvre with his father´s and King Simmias´ soldiers. Again and again did he guide them through the complicated set of movements, stopping only to point out an error or praise a particularly well executed blow. Whenever a soldier made a mistake and the warrior brought it to his attention, the man looked like a dog chided by his master, and Alexias could swear that one of them had actually blushed from embarrassment. But every time, one of the soldiers did something that earned Lykeas´ praise and respect, the man would practically glow and look at the warrior with pride and adoration in his eyes. The young Prince couldn´t remember any of the soldiers ever looking at his father or their generals like that, and as he continued to watch the training he began to feel the same pride inside of him that was so clearly showing in the men´s eyes, whenever they were acknowledged by Lykeas.
"Alexias, you got a moment?"
"Uh, sure." The Prince answered, hoping he hadn´t been caught staring.
"I want you to try and avoid me for as long as possible."
"Avoid you?" Alexias said and stopped in front of the warrior.
"Yes, I want to demonstrate that sheer force doesn´t win a fight or a battle for that matter. Speed is essential as well and since you´re the youngest and fastest here, I want you to help me."
"Sure." The Prince replied not quite sure whether he should be pleased by Lykeas´ words or not.
"Okay, this is what I want you to do. I´ll keep attacking you, but you mustn´t fight back. Just keep avoiding me, and only if you see an absolutely safe way of disarming me then you can try it."
The warrior paused then continued, his voice lacking any vanity or pride and was simply just relating facts. "It´s not likely to happen though, so after a while, I´ll make an opening which you then can try to take advantage of. But…" He looked seriously at Alexias, "be careful, don´t get carried away. I don´t want to hurt you."
The Prince gave him a strained smile, cheeks flushing with both annoyance and embarrassment, "I´ll try my best not to."
Lykeas who had been studying something behind him, turned to look at the young man again.
Gabrielle stepped out of the shade of the colonnade to get a better look at the activity before her. She wasn´t exactly sure of what they were doing, to be honest she thought it looked like some kind of ritual dance, but judging from the look on the soldiers´ faces, she could tell it was not. Lykeas kept charging and the young man she had been introduced to the other day, kept avoiding the attacks, staying clear of the sword.
I suppose it´s good for something.
She looked down at the sandals she was currently wearing to hide a smile, she knew from experience that warriors didn´t like to be made fun of.
"It may be funny now, but it won´t be quite as amusing tomorrow."
Gabrielle turned and looked guiltily into the gentle blue eyes of her Captain.
"What do you mean? What happens tomorrow?"
Callias´ brow furrowed, "You mean they haven´t told you?"
"What?" The Queen exasperated. "What haven´t they told me?"
"We´re heading out tomorrow. Our scouts have informed us that King Kassander is on the move, and we can´t allow him to be the one who picks the battlefield. He has far too many advantages as it is already."
Gabrielle was silent for a long time, lost in thought and not even the encouraging shouts from the training field behind her or the intense stare of her Captain, managed to make an impact in her mind.
"It suddenly seems so real," she then spoke quietly. "Back in the village and even on the way here, everything seemed so far away, so theoretical and unreal."
Callias scrutinized the woman beside her, "Do you regret coming here?"
"No." The Queen answered without hesitation. "No, I belong here."
She bit her lip thoughtfully, looking at the activity on the training field without really seeing anything. "Callias, I want you to gather all our soldiers within the next hour, I want to speak to them."
An uncertain and slightly uncomfortable expression showed on the Amazon´s face.
"What about, Your Majesty?"
Gabrielle frowned, "Why do you ask? I´ll tell you together with the rest."
Callias fiddled with her belt, her unease increasing, "It´s just…if you´re going to make any announcements, I´d like to know about it beforehand."
The Queen crossed her arms, "And what exactly do you mean by that?"
The Captain straightened up and looked Gabrielle directly in the eye, "I mean that I would hate having to argue with the Queen in front of the warriors."
"And why would you want to do anything like that?"
The Queen´s voice was controlled, but the Amazon could easily detect the anger behind the words.
"Because the Queen might want to announce that she intends to lead the warriors into battle herself, and there´s no way I´ll be able to allow that."
"It´s not in your power to allow or deny me anything," Gabrielle spat out. "You´re only my Captain and I am your Queen. You have no claim on me."
Callias´ entire body visibly stiffened, but she continued to speak in a calm, if slightly tense tone.
"That may be, Your Majesty. But don´t you think that your people have a right to see you again, a right to want you safe and alive. They´ve lost one Regent already, they don´t need to lose another… And as to not having any claim on you… Trust me, I´m fully aware of that."
Gabrielle cringed at the last tersely spoken words, her anger disappearing as quickly as it had arrived, but it was too late.
"Do what you have to do, Your Majesty. I´ll make sure the warriors are ready for you in an hour."
"Arh… Alexias. Didn´t I tell you to be careful? I tould you, I didn´t want to hurt you."
This time, Lykeas´ voice cut through the haze in
Gabrielle´s mind as she watched Callias walk away.
Gabrielle looked back in surprise and found that she´d walked right past Lykeas sitting in a window frame without even noticing him.
"Oh, Lykeas. I didn´t see you."
"I noticed." He slid gracefully down to the floor. "You were far away."
"I have a lot on my mind." She looked at him. "Want to walk with me for a while?"
Side by side they walked down the quiet corridor, the only sound being their steps on the hard stone floor.
"I´m going to speak to my warriors today."
Gabrielle smiled to no one in particular, "I´m not so sure anymore."
Lykeas glanced at her, "I´m sure you´ll think of something."
They reached the end of the corridor and as if in mutual consent sat down on a bench placed under a window overlooking the garden. The bard sighed quietly and leaned against the wall.
"Remember the last time we sat together like this?"
The warrior scratched his cheek absently, "Yeah, we were waiting for Xena to come back with the water."
"A lot have happened since then."
Lykeas shrugged, "I guess so."
Gabrielle gave him a pleasant, but resigned smile, "Sometimes I wonder if anything matters to you at all, Lykeas. In all the time I´ve known you nothing seems to be able to get to you or surprise you. You just acknowledge everything that happens with a shrug and go on with your life."
He looked at her with confusion in his eyes.
"What else am I supposed to do? It´s not like I can change anything that´s happened already, so I might as well just accept it."
"Does nothing ever get to you? Have you never felt regret or wished you had the power to undo certain events?"
He shrugged, as Gabrielle knew he would.
"Haven´t we all? But wishing things don´t make them come true."
The bard looked at him intensely. "Tell me something, Lykeas. What do want most in the world? What do you wish for more than anything else?"
He avoided her eyes, "Ohh… I don´t know…"
"Come on, I know there must be something."
"Well… There was something once…"
He looked up and Gabrielle was surprised to see a flicker of sadness in the black eyes.
"It doesn´t matter anymore, it´ll never happen… At least not the way I wanted it to."
The bard gave him a small smile, "No matter how much I push you, you´re not gonna tell me, are you?"
He smiled in return, "No."
She nodded to herself and they both fell silent for a few moments.
"Can I ask you something else?"
He let out a long breath, but didn´t seem annoyed. "Sure."
"Has Xena ever surprised you?"
His brow furrowed, "I´m not sure I follow?"
"I mean," Gabrielle elaborated, "has she ever done anything you didn´t expect her to?"
"Uhm…" Lykeas thought for a minute or two, "I don´t think so. Why?"
"Nothing really, just curious."
"Okay…" The warrior looked at her questioningly, but the bard didn´t speak again, and Lykeas decided to continue.
"I´ve known Xena for a long time and I think I know her pretty well by now. I´m familiar with the two…uh…extremes of her personality. I knew her back in the old days and I can see how she is now, and then I know all the grey zones in between. So no, I don´t think, she could do anything that would surprise me."
"Does the same thing go for her when it comes to you?"
"Probably," he replied, the dark eyes seeing right through her. "Sometimes, I think she knows me better than I do myself."
"I know the feeling."
He just smiled and looked out of the window, seeing things
with his mind instead of his eyes.
It wasn´t yet dawn, but the castle was humming with activity. Everywhere people were getting ready for leaving or saying goodbye to loves ones, not knowing if they would ever see them again. One by one, battalions stepped forward, and not until they had been thoroughly inspected by Nicanor and Lykeas were they allowed to leave the castle and regroup outside. Xena was sitting on Argo in the courtyard, surrounded by an ocean of people moving back and forth, shouting greetings or talking quietly. A movement caught her eye and she turned in the saddle to see a determined troop of Amazon warriors make their way through the crowd, people quickly stepping aside for the imposing women. Without really looking, Lykeas waved them through the gate, obviously not bothering to inspect them.
"Okay, the cavalry next!" He shouted trying to make himself heard through the noise. "I want all soldiers in the cavalry outside with their horses within the next five minutes!"
If possible, even more activity erupted as men ran for the stables, but amazingly fast the courtyard emptied as the highly professional warriors returned with their horses and rode out of the gate. Nicanor handed a piece of parchment to Lykeas, and then followed the riders outside. The dark warrior let his eyes run over the paper then nodded satisfied to himself. He looked up and caught Xena´s eye and with a remote smile, he made his way through the now considerably less crowded yard over to the warrior.
"We´re just about ready." He spoke as he came to a halt beside the golden mare. "As soon as the supply wagons have been prepared, we´ll be out of here."
Xena´s eyes rested briefly on his face then resumed their inspection of the people around her.
"That´s fine," she answered absently and Lykeas looked at her curiously.
"What are you looking for? Or should I say…who?"
"I didn´t get a chance to speak to her yesterday." The blue eyes anxiously searched the courtyard again. "I thought she´d at least come and say goodbye."
"Oh, you mean…" Lykeas began, then stopped himself. "Ohhhh…"
The warrior abruptly turned her attention back to him, "Ohhh what?"
The dark man returned her gaze, his face suddenly blank. "I thought you knew."
"Gabrielle´s not staying, she´s coming with us."
Xena didn´t speak immediately, but Lykeas had no trouble reading her expression.
"To meet Kassander?"
The hand holding Argo´s reins tightened its grip.
"Does she… Does she intend to lead the warriors into battle herself?"
"I don´t know," Lykeas answered, the black eyes intensely studying the woman above him. "All I know is that she´s coming with us, but what else she might have planned I can´t say."
Blue eyes locked with his.
"She´s fighting again?"
It wasn´t really a question and although the dark man knew an answer wasn´t required he nodded, "Yes, I believe so."
Xena looked away, staring towards the horizon where the colourful beginnings of a sunrise could be seen.
"She didn´t tell me."
She was silent for a moment, then looked down at the man on the ground.
"Where is she?"
"She went with the advance guard a few hours ago. We´ll meet up with them tonight."
Xena´s eyes narrowed, "Why didn´t you tell me?"
"She asked me not to." Lykeas replied dispassionately. "She knew you´d do anything to make her stay."
"Doesn´t she understand, I just want to protect her!" The warrior exclaimed, frustration, anger and something Lykeas couldn´t quite put his finger on written all over her face.
The dark man sighed deeply.
"Look, Xena, I know you just want to protect her and so does Gabrielle, but don´t you see it´s not working? It seems to me that if you had your way, you´d prefer to keep her locked into a room and never let her out again, but what kind of life is that?"
"You don´t understand-."
"Oh yes, I do." He interrupted before she could get started. "I know you hate not being in control, not being able to predict or anticipate anything that might happen, but nobody´s capable of that. Not even you, Xena."
His voice became more gentle.
"You´ll have to accept that sometimes things just happen for no reason, and that over and over again situations will occur that you can´t control or change. If Gabrielle wants to follow us to Kassander there´s nothing you can do about it. If she decides to lead her warriors it´s her decision. If she gets hurt…," he looked straight into the warrior´s eyes, "or killed, then it´s not your fault."
A sad, pale smile showed on Xena´s face.
"It doesn´t matter what you say, Lykeas. Even if Gabrielle´s killed falling from a horse, and I´m a thousand miles away when it happens, I´ll feel like I´m to blame. Nothing will ever change that…. It´s both my blessing and my curse."
She looked away again, her eyes focusing on the sunrise,
and this time Lykeas didn´t have anything to say and even if he´d
had, she wouldn´t have heard him.
With an incredible speed, surprising even Xena, the army moved through the countryside. Even though the cavalry wasn´t taking it easy, the infantry and the supply wagons had no problems keeping up, and Lykeas smiled inwardly. He´d done a good job. He was riding in front with the cavalry together with Xena and Nicanor. The Amazons were right behind them on foot, all eager to meet up with the advance guard and their Queen. Behind them came the combined infantry of King Simmias and King Polyidos, a force making up almost 800 men of both archers and swordsmen. A short distance after them, the wagons transporting food, water, medicine and people not directly involved with the fighting like healers and craftsmen followed. Also a fair amount of fortune hunters and farmers wanting to fight had joined them on the way, and after a heated debate, it had been decided to let them come along. Lykeas had been displeased with the decision, not wanting amateurs in the army, but Xena had pulled him aside, quietly pointing out that it wasn´t his army, and that General Nicanor and to some extend Alexias were in charge. The warrior had only scowled, already unhappy with Polyidos´ decision about letting his son lead his troops, and the King himself remaining in his castle. Xena wasn´t too thrilled with that decision either, knowing full well that at some point inevitably either she or Lykeas would have to step in for the inexperienced Prince, and she didn´t particularly like that prospect. She wasn´t exactly sure what it was she was worried about, she just knew that she was, and the look in Lykeas´ eyes whenever he looked back at the endless rows of men following them, did nothing to appease her feeling of foreboding.
I´ll have to talk to him. Soon.
She slowed Argo down a little till she was riding side by side with the dark warrior. He acknowledged her presence with a brief nod, but then stared straight ahead again. Xena didn´t know how to begin the conversation she knew they needed to have, and for the next many miles they rode in silence. When she couldn´t stand it no more, she turned to look at him.
"Nice weather today."
He looked at her, a slightly bemused expression on his face. "Yes, very nice."
Xena slapped herself mentally, this could take all day.
"We should reach Kassander´s border by nightfall."
Lykeas let a hand run through his damp hair, then nodded. "Yes, I know."
Okay, enough of the small talk. Get down to business!
She took a deep breath, and she could see that he was becoming aware of the nature of the conversation, and immediately, the walls she knew so well went up. She guided Argo more to the left, away from the main force and after hesitating shortly, Lykeas followed on Rarjan. For a few more minutes they rode without speaking, instead giving each other an occasional surreptitious glance. Then Xena closed her eyes and let out a small sigh, before opening them again.
"Yes?" He answered casually, but she recognized the guarded tone of his voice.
"If I ask you something, will you give me a straight answer?"
He was silent for a long time, not granting her the eye contact she was trying to make. Then suddenly he spoke, still staring at the horizon.
"You know, I won´t lie to you." He slowly turned his head and their eyes met. "But before you ask me anything, let me ask you something first."
She looked at him and was surprised to see a small flicker of…something in the black eyes, before it disappeared and his face yet again became a controlled mask.
"Okay, what do you want to know?"
"If you get the answer you expect, what are you going to do about it?"
His voice was pleasant and calm, but Xena felt a cold shiver run down her back. She tried to speak, but couldn´t find the words.
What exactly am I going to do about it? What can I do? What am I willing to do?
She could feel his eyes search her face with an almost frantic desire to read her mind, then simultaneously they both looked away.
"Please don´t ask me that question." The whispered words reached Xena´s ears only.
"I have to." She answered just as quietly.
"But not now." His voice was almost pleading and she swallowed hard.
"Okay, I´ll wait… For now."
"That´s all I ask."
They didn´t talk more that day.
Gabrielle watched as the open country around her quickly transformed into a disciplined campaign of war. Tents were raised, fires lit and guards posted. Everything was to be ready when the main force arrived and not a single man stood idle around, all were engaged in some kind of activity, some of them more obscure to Gabrielle than others.
"Your Majesty, your tent has been prepared."
"Thank you, Erinya." The Queen smiled at the sole Amazon she´d allowed to accompany her when she left with the advance guard. "When do you think the rest of the army will arrive?"
The weapons master squinted at the hastily reddening sun, "In about an hour or so, I´d say. Depends a bit on their speed, but definitely not more than two."
Her eye caught something at the other end of the camp, "If you´ll excuse me, My Queen. I have a few things to attend to."
"Of course," Gabrielle answered readily, "don´t let me keep you."
Erinya gave her a small nod and left. As she watched the Amazon´s determined stride and the efficiently working men around her, Gabrielle began to wonder if she´d made the right choice.
I´ll probably be more of a burden, an inconvenience than any real help. Why did I think, I needed to be here? Who is it exactly who is supposed to need me?
She angrily pushed the thought away, this was neither the time nor the place to feel self-conscious and helpless. She would have plenty of time for that later, particularly when Xena arrived.
She felt guilty not telling the warrior about her intentions, but she knew without a doubt that Xena wouldn´t have let her go, and the ugly argument that would have followed was something Gabrielle could do without right now. Something they both could do without. They hadn´t really had the possibility to speak again after their conversation that late night, and the few times they´d been in the same room together they had both acted like polite strangers, nervously trying to gauge the other´s mood and feelings. She wondered briefly what Xena would say to her when she arrived, if she would say anything at all. Even though Gabrielle feared the harsh words the warrior might have for her, she feared the silence even more. Silence was always a bad sign when it came to Xena, and taking the last couple of months into consideration, Gabrielle wasn´t sure she knew what the warrior was thinking or feeling anymore, something she´d always known in the past.
She walked to the corner of the camp where her tent was and stepped inside. It was almost empty with only a pallet, a chair and a table inside, but Gabrielle didn´t care. She liked comfort as much as the next person, but it had never been essential to her. If it had, she couldn´t have travelled with Xena for as long as she had.
I wonder if we´ll ever travel together again…
She was about to sit down on the pallet when she heard somebody clear his throat outside.
"Uh… Your Majesty?"
Gabrielle recognized the voice and smiled, "Come in, Alexias."
The young Prince lifted the tent flap and came inside, giving her a shy smile that the Queen found most endearing.
"I just wanted to make sure you´d been settled all right, I know it isn´t the most grand of surroundings."
"Don´t worry, I´m perfectly fine and probably a lot more comfortable than most of the men outside."
"Well, you should be," Alexias solemnly pointed out. "You´re royalty after all."
Gabrielle couldn´t help but think that Alexias had to one of the most formal persons she´d ever met, but she supposed it was something that came naturally when brought up as a prince. She sent him another disarming smile and she could see him relax a little.
Oh, so there is a human being underneath all those layers of propriety.
"Come sit down," she pointed at the chair. "We might as well spent some time talking, since it´s clear that neither of us are needed right now."
He looked at the entrance of the tent for a moment, then sat down in the chair, an almost sheepish expression on his face. "Yeah, I do feel a bit useless right now."
"Don´t worry," Gabrielle laughed. "You´ll get used to it soon enough."
When she noticed him pale and the angry look in his eyes, she hurried to continue, "That was a joke, Alexias. I was only kidding."
He managed a strained, but heartfelt smile, "I know, I´m sorry. It´s just…I´m so used to being questioned and doubted all the time that it only takes an innocent remark like that to trigger all my defence mechanisms…and usually at the most inconvenient of times."
"I know what you mean."
He looked at her thoughtfully, then smiled. "Yeah, I guess you do…. It´s not always easy being around self-reliant, reserved and stoic warriors."
Gabrielle laughed out loud, "Tell me about it! Just getting them to speak with you requires more stamina, strength and patience than all the Gods combined could muster."
Alexias laughed as well., "Yes, patience is a good thing to have."
"Yes," she nodded, suddenly serious. "It´s essential."
A shout from outside made them both jump up and leave the tent.
"They´re coming! The General has arrived!"
The fading sun had released the shadows of the night as the rest of the army came to a halt just outside the camp. Most of the soldiers would have to sleep under the open sky the first night, as there hadn´t been either time or men enough to prepare tents for everyone, but the night was warm and nobody seemed to consider it a problem. Makeshift stables had been prepared for the cavalry´s horses, and a couple of hours went by till every soldier had had their horses stabled and cared for, several men lingering a few moments brushing and talking to their faithful animals.
As the peculiar silence created from hundreds of people close together trying to be quiet began to settle over the camp, Xena left the stable. She stood for a while, watching the flickering fires and the occasional brief flash, when flames were reflected in weapons and armour. She heard the low mumbling and the sometimes hastily suppressed laughter. She saw men move about, walking from tents to fires to join in the circles around the light, and small groups of soldiers standing close together talking quietly.
Gods! How long has it been? Four years? Five? Ten?…Was it ever like this?
She began to walk slowly through the camp, avoiding the campfires, staying in the shadows. Once in a while, she would come across a soldier who´d give her a small nod or respectful smile, but nobody ever stopped or tried to strike up a conversation with the warrior.
Some things never change.
At one time, she felt sure she was being watched, but as she spun around there was nobody behind her, and her feeling of unease disappeared soon after. As she had walked the perimeter of the camp, she stopped, not knowing exactly what to do next. Hesitantly, not quite willing to acknowledge it, she began to walk towards the Amazon part of the camp. As soon as she came close, she could feel the difference. Instantly the feeling of being watched returned, and this time she knew it wasn´t her mind playing tricks on her. Two warriors materialized in the darkness before her and after a wordless exchange, they moved aside and allowed her to step in between the circle of tents. Only a single campfire was lit and not more than a few Amazons seemed to be still up and about, but Xena knew differently. Only a few would be sleeping, the rest would be out somewhere guarding their area or assisting the other soldiers posted at the outskirts of the camp. Keenly aware of the many pairs of eyes following her, Xena came to a halt outside Gabrielle´s tent.
This is stupid, she´s probably asleep already or maybe…
The thought persistently entered the warrior´s mind in spite of her efforts trying to ignore it.
Maybe she isn´t alone…
She began to regret ever getting near the Amazon encampment and wanted to leave, but in a rare case of indecisiveness, the warrior stayed, both willing and unwilling to take the next step. For some reason, she felt that more depended on her next choice of action than anything else ever had. Any other decision she´d ever made in her life seemed to pale and become insignificant in comparison. The fear of what might happen if she entered or didn´t enter, settled as a heavy weight upon her shoulders, grounding her to the spot. Minutes slowly ticked by, but Xena didn´t notice and neither did she notice one particular pair of eyes that studied her with an intensity outshining anybody else´s. Then in one fluent movement, the warrior disappeared inside the tent.
Callias had to blink a few times, before she realized that Xena actually had entered. After the long period of indecision, the warrior´s sudden movement had surprised her.
No, not surprised… I knew she would…eventually.
The Amazon walked further into the shadows where she´d been standing and sat down on the grass, pulling her knees up to her chin. She knew it would be better if she got up and away from the tents, perhaps replacing one of the guards posted at the outskirts, but somehow she found she was unable to move. She absently watched her hands as they pulled at the grass, almost feeling like they were detached from her body.
If she hadn´t… What would I´ve done? Stopped her? Gone to sleep, pretending never to have seen her or…entered the tent myself?
Callias was suddenly startled to feel a warm moisture fill her eyes, blurring her vision and she blinked angrily a few times.
It doesn´t matter. It doesn´t matter at all.
She got to her feet and walked out of the Amazon´s encampment.
Except to me… .
For the briefest of moments, clear blue eyes lingered,
then the Captain disappeared into the darkness.
A strange, but somehow familiar sensation awoke Gabrielle from her sleep. She opened her eyes and wasn´t the least bit surprised to see the warrior, sleeping soundly in the chair a few feet away from the pallet. Her head was leaning on her left shoulder and the part of her face that wasn´t hidden by the dark hair was faintly illuminated by the early morning light. The odd contrast of dark and light caused Gabrielle to remain still under the covers, not wanting to wake Xena before she had memorized every feature, every line of the for once so peaceful and relaxed face.
I´d wish she would look like this more often… When she´s awake...
The warrior stirred and Gabrielle knew Xena had sensed her gaze even in sleep. Eyelids fluttered and surprisingly alert blue eyes met green.
"Morning." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly, noticing the look of panic crossing the warrior´s face and the eyes darting to the entrance of the tent.
"I´m sorry, I didn´t mean to-."
"It´s all right," the bard smiled again, holding up a hand to silence her. "I don´t mind… Actually, I´m glad you´re here."
Xena gave her a tentative smile in return, started to say something, but stopped and looked down at the ground instead. Gabrielle searched her mind for something to say. It wasn´t that she couldn´t think of anything, quite the contrary, there was so much she wanted to say, but she wasn´t sure whether it was the right time to do so or if it would be appreciated if she did.
"Are you angry with me?"
Blue eyes found hers again and the warrior shook her head slowly. "I was, but not anymore."
The bard´s brow furrowed, it wasn´t quite the answer she´d expected. It wasn´t worse…just different.
Xena smiled weakly. "What´s the point? I´ve no right to tell you what to do…or not do, for that matter. If you feel you have to be here, if you think it´s right for you, then who am I to argue?"
She paused, taking a deep breath before continuing. "I know at times, I´ve been… Well, acted like a jerk, treating you like you were a little girl or…something…something in danger of breaking at the smallest touch. I know that and I´m sorry, but…"
She stopped again, a pained expression on her face.
"It´s just so hard… I never want to see you hurt. I´m terrified by the thought… That I might…"
"Might what?" Gabrielle spoke softly.
"That I might…might lose you."
The bard pushed the covers aside and rose from the pallet, before kneeling down next to the chair, gently covering Xena´s motionless hands with her own.
"I know, Xena. I know. I´d wish there was something I could tell, something that would ease that fear, but there isn´t. Neither of us control our own destinies and if something happens then…"
She squeezed the warrior´s hands, wondering if it was a tremor she just felt.
"All I can say is that, if the Gods are willing, in fifty years when I look back at my life with you, there won´t be a single moment of regret. In spite of all the pain and hurt we´ve experienced, and all the obstacles we undoubtedly will encounter in the future, I will never, ever regret loving you and I´ll always be grateful for your love in return." She turned Xena´s hand and placed a soft kiss in the palm. "Don´t you ever forget that."
She could feel the warrior´s burning gaze and looked back up.
"Whatever I do, wherever I go, I do it willingly and because I choose to. It might not always be the right choice or the wisest, but I still have to… It´s impossible for me not to… Do you understand?"
Xena nodded almost imperceptibly, one hand reaching out to caress Gabrielle´s hair lightly.
"I do understand, I think I always have…but that doesn´t make it any easier."
The bard smiled sadly, surprised by the electrifying impulses the warrior´s gentle touch sent through her body.
"Do you think it´s easy for me to see you fend off thugs everyday? Fighting other people´s battles to keep them safe, risking your own life in the process? Always sacrificing yourself, not only for me, but also complete strangers. Trust me, Xena… I know all about that fear. I live with it too. It´s with me when I´m awake and when I´m asleep. Sometimes it´s so close, I feel like I´m going to suffocate, other times it´s so distant I can pretend it doesn´t exist."
She smiled again, but this time the sadness was gone.
"But it´s my choice… It always was and always will be."
The hand in her hair stilled, then a hoarse voice whispered. "Your choice…"
The bard felt how she was drawn into the intense blue eyes, clouded with unspoken emotion.
"Yes, Xena…my choice."
She leaned up and pressed her lips briefly against the warrior´s before sitting back on her heels.
"You are my choice."
The air in the tent was tense, hot and stuffy, but whether it originated from the harsh sun burning through the canvass or the angry stares exchanged between the people inside, Gabrielle wasn´t sure. She sighed quietly and leaned back in the uncomfortable chair. She was sweaty and miserable and felt the first warning signs of a headache just behind her left temple. It had been a long morning and apparently it was turning into a long afternoon as well. At first the war council had gone smoothly. Responsibilities had been delegated, a hierarchy established that everybody seemed to be able to live with, although the bard had noticed a few dark expressions. Then different defence tactics had been discussed and even that the various warriors and soldiers had been able to agree upon, but then a seemingly innocent remark by Callias had caused the fragile unanimity to crumble.
"Okay, since the basics have been decided let´s get serious. Do we wait here for Kassander to attack or do we go out to meet him? Both options have, in my opinion, their cons and pros, but we have to make up our minds now and start preparations for whatever we agree upon. We all know we´re running out of time and I don´t want to be caught unaware."
The Captain´s words had lingered in the air for a moment, nobody willing to speak as all had sensed that this matter wouldn´t be as easy to settle as the rest. Then the red-headed General had spoken, his eyes going from Xena to Lykeas then Gabrielle before repeating the motion.
"I think, we should wait for him here. We know this area and won´t be exhausted after days of marching like his troops will be when they arrive. We should stay."
He´d crossed his arms over his chest as if daring somebody to contradict him, but the nervous moistening of his lips betrayed the tough countenance. Xena had shot Lykeas a glance, but he seemed not even to have heard Nicanor speak, the black eyes tracing the random flight of a bee trapped inside the tent. So she cleared her throat and without looking at anyone in particular said, "I disagree, I think we should move further North. This plain is too easy to surround. We´ll be sitting ducks."
Gabrielle sighed again, remembering the warrior´s words. Needless to say, things had gone downhill from there. They had all had their turn, each arguing for their specific point of view or agreeing with somebody else´s. The bard knew that the rest of the occupants in the tent probably didn´t considered her to be fully objective or independent, but to her, Xena´s words had made sense and when it had been her turn to speak, she´d supported the warrior´s suggestion, ignoring Nicanor´s badly veiled disdain. The only one who had yet to voice his opinion on the matter was Lykeas. During the argument, Xena´s eyes had continuously come to rest on the dark man, her expression questioning, pondering, but Lykeas hadn´t once indicated he was aware of the attention bestowed on him.
As the heat in the tent increased and exhaustion and resignation began to show on all faces, the discussion quieted down until it completely ceased, leaving people to study each other in silence. Xena felt a drop of sweat begin to roll down her throat and she angrily wiped it away, this was getting them nowhere and they were wasting precious time. Time they couldn´t afford to waste.
"As much fun as this has been, I think it´s time to make a decision and any decision will be better than sitting around doing nothing."
Heads nodded and a low mumble of consent was heard. The warrior took this as a good sign and continued. "I know, I have no direct authority over you, Nicanor. I can´t order you to do as I say and I´ve no intention of doing so either."
The General seemed to breathe a little easier.
"But I do think, I´m right when it comes to this. After all…" She paused, making eye contact with the reluctant soldier. "I do have a bit of…of experience when it comes to warfare."
Although the words were spoken quietly, to Gabrielle they seemed to drown out any other noise. She felt Xena´s eyes upon her and looked up just in time to see a brief expression of uncertainty cross the bronze features. The bard gave her a small, private smile meant for the warrior only and for the briefest of seconds something resembling gratitude appeared in Xena´s eyes before she turned her attention back to the General.
"I´m aware of your…your reputation." Nicanor spoke slowly, his face showing no emotion. Then he straightened up, "But I´m still in command and I think that-."
"I´m sure that if the situation was properly explained to Queen Phillinna, she would side with Xena in this matter," a soft voice spoke.
Their eyes turned to Lykeas who was still looking at the far corner of the tent, tracing the path of the bee. Xena´s eyes bored into him till he finally relented and met her gaze. Unspoken questions and answers were passed between the two warriors in that brief moment, the exact meaning of the exchange reserved for them only, then Xena nodded to herself.
"I do believe you´re right, Lykeas."
Her voice was free from any emotion whatsoever, but the General´s eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Are you saying you´d question my command and judgement in front of the Queen?"
"What makes you think she´d listen?" Nicanor´s voice was strained and he cleared his throat a few times.
The warrior shrugged, "A hunch."
For a minute the General said motionless, then he abruptly stood up, causing his chair to fall over in the process.
"I see I´ve been outnumbered, I´ll do as you wish… But under protest and I intend to voice that protest to Her Majesty when we return."
"That´s your prerogative," Xena replied calmly, watching Nicanor make his way out of the tent. "If we return…"
His back stiffened and he paused shortly before disappearing
out of the tent.
As Lykeas slipped out of the tent, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Lykeas, wait a minute…"
"Sorry, Xena." He smiled apologetically. "I don´t have time right now. I have to make sure that my part of the infantry is getting ready. We´re moving on tonight, remember?"
Xena didn´t let go of his shoulder. "That´s what I wanted to talk to you about…"
"Later, Xena." He gently, but firmly removed her hand. "Later."
She watched him walk towards the part of the camp where the infantry was and her brow furrowed slightly. She noticed a movement to her left and saw Zelei and Alexias exit the tent, followed shortly by Gabrielle and Callias. She saw the Queen reach out to halt the Captain and they exchanged a few words which Xena couldn´t make out. She tried to appear indifferent, but felt how her eyes seemed to lock onto the two women before her, trying to interpret both conscious and subconscious body language.
Okay, I really don´t need this.
With renewed determination, she looked away and began to walk in the direction of the stables. She had to prepare Argo.
"Xena?!" Gabrielle calling her name made her first pause, then slowly turn around to face her.
"Will you be busy with preparations all day?"
The warrior´s eyes rested on the impassive face of the Amazon Captain, before focusing on the Queen.
"I don´t know, probably. Why?"
Gabrielle stepped closer and lowered her voice, "I thought we might meet up somewhere and…"
The Queen gave her a small smile, "And talk."
Xena sighed, "Gabrielle, haven´t we talked enough these last couple of days to last us a lifetime?"
She instantly regretted the words as she saw the light in the green eyes fade.
"Gabrielle, I´m sorry. I didn´t mean it like that."
"It´s okay," she answered dismissively, already starting to walk away. "I guess, I´ll see you later then."
Xena followed the slender form with her eyes and more than anything wanted to run after her and take her into her arms, but she remained motionless. When Gabrielle disappeared out of her sight, she involuntarily looked away and found herself caught up in a gaze of blue steel. The Captain tilted her head as if studying an interesting phenomenon and Xena felt her anger rise.
"Got something on your mind?"
Callias wasn´t the least intimidated. "You´re such a jerk sometimes."
The warrior grimaced, swallowing a few angry words she knew she´d regret later.
"I don´t think this is any of your business." She then spoke tersely and started to leave.
"I love her."
Xena abruptly turned around, seeing both defiance and sadness on the Amazon´s face.
"If it wasn´t because I know her heart will always belong to you, I´d fight for her and her love."
The warrior felt her anger gradually disappear as she looked into the calm blue eyes. "I know that." She trailed off, feeling she should say more. "What…what do you want me to say?"
"Nothing." Callias replied, "I guess, I just wanted you to know."
"To keep me on my toes?" Xena said, managing a weak smile.
"Maybe…" The Captain answered, briefly returning the smile
before turning serious again, "Maybe."
Kassander was furious and his otherwise brave Counsellor took a few steps back which turned out to be a wise decision as a mug promptly crashed against the stone wall where seconds before the Counsellor´s head had been.
"Say that again! I´m sure, I didn´t hear you correctly the first time."
"Uh," Pindar swallowed, "I´m afraid you did hear me right the first time."
The King stalked around the table until he was standing directly before his Counsellor, then leaned closer, hovering over him by almost a foot.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. We won´t be able to cross the river for at least another two days. The rain has made it far too powerful. We´d be certain to lose men."
"We don´t have two days!" The huge man shouted angrily and Pindar closed his eyes. "The longer we wait, the more we allow Polyidos and Phillinna to take control and adjust to the situation. I won´t have it!"
The Counsellor felt the King move away and decided that a small peek would be safe.
"I understand you concern, My Lord, but we still outnumber their forces by three to one. Even if they had all the time of the world, they wouldn´t be able to defeat us."
"Numbers aren´t everything." Kassander replied thoughtfully and Pindar felt the hair at the back of his head rise. The King´s expression wasn´t one he felt comfortable with.
"Besides," Kassander continued, fingering with his grey beard, "I´ve heard certain rumours that I want to have verified."
"Oh, what have you heard, My Lord?"
Steel grey eyes bored into the Counsellor and Pindar shifted uneasily. The fire in his King´s eye was a fire he´d seen far too frequent lately, but he knew better than to address it.
"I´ve heard," Kassander spoke rigidly, the grey eyes now distant, but the fire remained. "I´ve heard that Xena is riding with their army."
"Yes," the King spat out, "the one and only."
He walked over to the window and looked out at the fields belonging to the farmer in whose house, they were currently staying. Kassander wasn´t too fond of sleeping in tents and when his army had camped late last night, he´d sent a few soldiers out to find an appropriate place for him to spend the night. They had come back bearing news of this farm and the King had decided to honour the farmer with his presence, whether the farmer wanted it or not.
"I always knew this day would come."
"What day? Which day?" Pindar asked tentatively, hoping he hadn´t missed any of the King´s words. Kassander wasn´t fond of repeating himself either.
"The day," the muscular man licked his lips, "the day where I get to kill the Warrior Princess."
"Oh… I thought she had stopped that, I´d heard she had changed."
"Hah! Nobody changes that much! I´m sure the moment she feels the rush of battle and tastes the blood of her enemies, she´ll shift right back into destroyer mode." He smiled dangerously, "And I´ll be there, waiting for her."
He turned back to the window, "She owes me, Pindar. She owes me so much."
The King was quiet for a while, then in one swift motion turned to look at his Counsellor.
"W-What?" The now totally confused servant asked, "I´m afraid, I don´t follow."
"How many men?" Kassander continued impatiently, "How many men do you think we´d lose if we tried to cross the river today?"
"Uhm, uh…" Pindar opened and closed his mouths a few times. "Why do you ask?"
"Why do you think?"
Realization hit and the Counsellor spoke earnestly, "Persia won´t allow it."
"Bah Persia! Persia is very far away, Pindar. The High King has no way of stopping me if I decide to do it."
"Then the Persian generals, the Persian soldiers or you own men for that matter. They´ll follow you into battle, but not into a senseless death, drowning in a river."
"We´ll see about that," The King said confidently. "The Persians are so worked up on honour that if I challenge them, they might just do it to prove they´re not cowards. Those idiots!" The disdain in the voice was clear. "And when it comes to my own men…"
"Yes?" The thin Counsellor´s face was suddenly pale.
"Who says they´ll have a choice in this matter? Either they cross the river with me or they´ll wish they did."
Pindar looked confused, "You mean, you´ll allow them to stay?"
"No, what I mean is that I´ll personally skin everyone of them who refuses to come with me. Farmer!"
The King´s sudden cry made the Counsellor jump.
"Is there more ale? I want more ale!"
The forced tempo down the narrow road, reminded Alexias vividly of the last time he had travelled that route, but this time there was an even more frantic feel to it all. It was one thing for two riders to follow the road cutting through the thick forest, it was quite another for a whole army to do so. Every man and woman in the army moved forward with a determination and haste that by far surpassed anything the young Prince had ever witnessed before, but then again, he knew the reason for it. If they were trapped on the road, if Kassander surrounded the forest, they would be slaughtered. There was no way the cavalry or the archers could be optimally used on the narrow road, and even the infantry would be hindered by the sheer lack of space. It was more than likely that in the confusion that would undoubtedly follow, they´d end up hurting each other instead of the enemy soldiers. That was why they hurried and that was why no one ever complained of exhaustion or requested a rest. Their goal was a plain on the other side of the forest almost halfway inside of King Kassander´s kingdom. From the plain the land slightly lowered so the King would have to fight uphill which was one of the reasons for Xena wanting to have the battle there. The chosen battlefield was only three days away from Kassander´s castle, but when moving with an army it might take the King almost a week to get there, and the warrior knew that he´d also have to cross a river on the way, and she hoped it might delay him further. Although personally she doubted the King would wait. She hadn´t known him to be a patient man back in the old days, and she didn´t think that had changed much. She wondered if her presence would benefit or complicate the matter for her friends. She knew they needed her help in the upcoming battle, but she also knew that Kassander might be even more eager to destroy them when he heard she was fighting for his enemy, that is if he didn´t know already. News travelled quickly, too quickly for her liking and she had started to…
Her thoughts were interrupted by Lykeas who´d suddenly appeared at her side.
He noticed her expression and gave her a knowing smile, "You think too much."
"What!" She shouted through the deafening noise of horse hooves and clanking metal.
"You think too much." He repeated, this time loud enough for her to hear.
She shrugged, "Can´t help it."
"What!" She shouted again, but he just shook his head and kneed Rarjan forward to catch up with the cavalry which was leading the army. Xena saw him disappear in the dust clouds before her and took a deep breath that almost caused her to choke from the sand and dirt in the air. Her eyes had already been watering steadily for the last hour and her tongue felt like a piece of parchment, but she didn´t allow herself one sip of water, acutely aware they might need it more later. They needed all their strength when facing Kassander and still that might not be enough. She pushed the thought away, deciding there would be enough time to worry about that later, besides there were other things that occupied her mind.
It was always Gabrielle. A bittersweet smile crossed her face, but none of the riders around her noticed. Right now, Gabrielle was further behind, travelling with the Amazons and the part of the infantry that was under Alexias´ command. The warrior could easily picture the bard walking erect and proud, the staff held tightly in one hand while the other might be supporting one of her warriors, offering them a drink from the water skin or perhaps telling a story or two. Her face would be flushed from the exertion and dirty from the dust and her hair would be damp with sweat, but her eyes would be shining with an even brighter intensity than usual. She would moisten her lips subconsciously several times, a small innocent gesture that had always caused Xena´s knees to weaken.
I wonder when I´ll see that again.
She sighed and turned her concentration back to the road
ahead of her. They should be able to see the plain soon.
A few hours after midnight the new camp had been established and the familiar, tense silence fell over the area. Xena was standing at the North end of the camp, looking down at the dark country before her. She had volunteered for midnight duty, although she didn´t have to, but she knew her mind and body hadn´t had the time to unwind after the hard ride, and sleep wouldn´t come to her for at least a couple of hours. She felt edgy and restless, almost hoping Kassander´s army would appear since the endless waiting had started to get to her. Everything would be better once he showed up and she had something solid to work with. Something that would also provide her exhausted mind with some much needed rest from all the speculation and wondering she´d done lately.
The warrior´s quiet, but sudden command startled the stranger who´d been approaching almost soundlessly, but only for a minute.
"What do you want, Callias?" She asked in a tired, but calm voice.
The Amazon stepped out of the shadows and blinked a few times to accommodate for the bright light from the campfire.
"I´m here to relieve you."
"That won´t be necessary. I´m fully capable of taking a few more hours."
"I know you are," the Captain tried to see the warrior´s face in the darkness, "but there is no reason for you to do so."
Their eyes finally met and Callias continued, "This isn´t your fight only, Xena. We´re all here to do our share."
For a moment Xena thought about arguing, but decided against it. Her relationship with the Captain was awkward enough as it was, there was no reason to aggravate it further by getting into a pointless argument.
"You´re right, thank you."
If the Amazon was surprised by the warrior´s acquiescence she didn´t show it, but only nodded briefly in acknowledgement. Xena began to walk away when a thought caused her to turn around and face the Captain, who looked at her questioningly.
The warrior wasn´t quite sure how she should phrase the question or if she should voice it at all.
"Do you know what Gabrielle´s intentions are?"
Callias moved a lock of blond hair behind an ear, "What do you mean?"
"Do you know if she intends to lead the Amazons into battle?"
"I take it you don´t."
Xena bit back a sharp remark and counted to ten before continuing, "I wouldn´t ask you if I did, would I?"
The Amazon didn´t reply right away, her face impossible to read.
"No, I don´t know what the Queen´s plans are. She hasn´t told anybody about them," she paused for a second, "or at least she hasn´t told me."
"Are you sure?"
A somewhat amused smile flickered across the Captain´s face, "Yes, Xena. I´m sure."
The warrior nodded and started to leave again, but was held back by Callias´ voice.
"Why don´t you just ask her?"
Without an answer, Xena walked back to the camp. She quickly came to her tent, but stopped outside. She really didn´t feel like going to bed. She threw a glance at the tent placed a couple of feet away from hers. She was tempted to go inside, but the tent was dark and not a sound was heard. She doubted that Lykeas was sleeping, but in case he was, she wouldn´t take the risk of waking him. He needed all the rest he could get and she knew from experience that the smallest sound or movement would wake him up, so with a sigh she abandoned the idea of any further conversation that night and stepped inside her own tent. In spite of the darkness, she immediately realized she wasn´t alone and it only took her a second to find out who it was that occupied the chair in the middle of the tent.
The bard rose from the chair and closed the distance between them.
"Are you busy?"
"Do you have to be anywhere?"
"No." Xena replied uncertainly, not quite knowing where Gabrielle was heading.
"Do you plan to run out on me any time soon?"
"No!" The warrior´s voice was irritated now. "Gabrielle, where´s all this leading."
The bard reached out and took the dark woman´s hand, "I´ll show you." And with that she led the dazed warrior to the skin covered pallet and pushed her down into a sitting position.
The bard felt the familiar shiver she always felt when Xena spoke her name and gently put a finger on the warrior´s lips.
"Say my name."
"Gabrielle?" This time the question was more outspoken and the blond woman shook her head.
"No, say it properly."
With the tip of her tongue, the warrior brushed the soft skin of the bard´s finger, then she looked up and deep blue met smoky green.
They both smiled, one feeling it against her finger, the other seeing it with wistful eyes, and then Xena pulled the bard down onto her lap.
"You´re not going anywhere?"
The warrior shook her head, her mouth suddenly too dry to speak.
"You´ll be here when I wake up?"
Xena nodded, but Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. "No, say it."
"I´ll be here, I promise," the warrior rasped, trying to swallow.
The bard slid her arms around the dark woman´s neck and felt Xena´s go round her waist.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
The words halted the young woman´s approach and she leaned back slightly to study the warrior´s face. A smile mixed with both pain and joy appeared on the bard´s face, before she moved forward, resting her head on Xena´s shoulder.
"Don´t you ever forget that."
Later, neither could remember who it was who had spoken
those words, but at that time, it didn´t matter.