Nicanor felt how his foot slipped on a small stone and the brief scraping sound that followed rang out loudly in the night. His heart which had already been working overtime for the last ten minutes, picked up an even faster pace and he had to stop. He inhaled softly, almost not daring to let the air out of his lungs again, afraid that it might sound too loud. He glanced around him and more felt than saw the countless shadows moving silently down the slope, seeming almost like one huge predatory being. A cold breath of wind blew the hair from his face and he shivered lightly, this night was the coldest yet. Reluctantly, he put one foot ahead of the other and started to descend the slope again, all the time praying he wouldn´t step on a stone or some gravel that would cause him to fall. A sound now would be catastrophically, they were close enough to see the faint light of the few campfires still burning at the outskirts of the enemy camp, and although Nicanor knew it wasn´t possible, that it was all in his imagination, he´d swear, he could see the shadows of the guards moving around, patrolling the area. He felt like a thousand pairs of eyes were staring at him, like a thousands breaths were held back, waiting…waiting. He shook his head angrily and began to move faster so not to break the line. Suddenly, as if an unspoken order had been issued, all movement stopped. The General could feel his pulse race in his ears as he tried to see through the darkness, frantically trying to guess what it was that had happened. And then he saw it, their shadows on the ground became darker and started to float gently over the land. With wide open eyes he lifted his head and stared up at the sky.
No… The moon.
The dark clouds above seemed to dissolve and to fade as the bright light of the moon penetrated the night.
Not now… Please Zeus! Not now!
He almost didn´t dare to look away, knowing full well what he would see once he did. He would see everything. He would see the endless lines of soldiers, covering every inch of the grassy slope on their way down, their faces and any other bare skin painted black, making their eyes shine with a supernatural light. And if he looked back towards their camp, he´d see what looked like a dark forest looming at the edge, as if ready to move, swallowing everything on its way. Of course it wasn´t a forest, it was rows and rows of horses and riders, all waiting, deadly silent for the signal to attack. He tore his gaze away from the sky and looked ahead, seeing how the pale light of the moon swept over the plain towards them. Slowly, but relentlessly it came closer and closer, already bathing the enemy camp in its light and then it disappeared. Nicanor looked up and although he couldn´t see it, knew that all over the plain hundreds of heads were doing the same. The sky was dark, the moon having succumbed to the thickness of the clouds once again. Instantly they moved forward, this time in a faster pace. If the moon had appeared once, there was no telling when it would appear again.
Almost there, almost there, almost there…
Suddenly a roaring laughter filled the air and Nicanor heard the entire army take a collective breath and then the world around him caught fire. Simultaneously all over the plain, powerful explosions were heard and enormous bonfires lit of the night, the flames hungrily reaching for the sky. The General spun around and felt how his heart almost stopped beating; they were trapped. The entire infantry was trapped inside a deadly ring of fire where the walls were made up from roaring flames almost six feet high. A dark, suffocating smoke filled his nostrils and his eyes immediately began to water. From everywhere around him, he heard people coughing and gasping for air, some slowly dropping to the ground while others started to run around, desperately searching for a way through the fire.
Even if they manage to get out… It won´t do them any good… Kassander´s waiting on the other side.
He felt his throat constrict as he tried to take another breath and almost cried out from the excruciating pain in his lungs. He sank down on one knee, fighting the dizziness in his head and then, above the raging flames and the screams of the trapped soldiers he heard a voice call out, a voice that seemed to be carried by the wind, penetrating the air.
"Xena, will you get your arse down here! Now!"
It was Lykeas´ voice.
Xena heard the words loud and clear and a feral grin showed on her face.
Oh, he sure knows how to put it.
Dark waves of smoke rose from the plain below her and the warrior saw how the horses around her began to dance nervously, thrusting their heads up and down.
"Okay, listen! We have to get Kassander´s army away from the fire, so our soldiers have a chance of passing the flames! There´s no use in them getting free of the fire, only to be cut down afterwards. Is that clear?!"
Without waiting for an answer of any kind, she forcefully kneed Argo forward and was instantly followed by the first row of the cavalry. The heat from the fire burned her skin and the roaring flames almost drown out the noise of hundreds of thundering hooves. Xena drew her sword and leaned forward, practically lying down on Argo as rider and horse dived into the inferno.
Lykeas´ eyes darted frantically, but controlled from left to right, searching for just the smallest opening in the wall of fire. Every breath felt like he was inhaling the flames themselves and a steady stream of tears was running down his cheeks. The smoke made it almost impossibly to see and he kept stumbling over men lying on the ground, some of them breathing and something of them not. Suddenly, his ears picked up the sound of horses approaching, soon followed by the sound of metal meeting metal.
Ah good, the cavalry´s arrived.
He smiled to himself and went down on all fours and began to feel his way through the smoke.
"Get up! You can do it! Get up or I´ll kill you myself!"
The soldier groaned, but managed to get to his feet.
"I want you to help me find all the men who´re still well enough to fight. Tell them to head North, in the direction of Kassander´s camp and wait for me there. If everything goes the way it´s supposed to, the Persians should be driven away from the fire soon and that´ll give us an opportunity to pass the flames."
"But we´ll burn if we try that," the swaying soldier croaked out, rubbing his irritated eyes.
"We´ll burn either way," Lykeas stated flatly. "Get to it! You got five minutes."
The man fell to his knees again and started to crawl away, feeling in front of him with his hands. Soon all the soldiers who were capable were on their knees, searching for their comrades. Lykeas noticed some men stop and try to shake a couple of motionless bodies back to life.
"Stop that!" He cried out and immediately started to cough violently, "Le-leav…leave the dead and unconscious alone, we only have time to find the living."
After what felt like an eternity, the warrior made his way towards North and was soon met with the sight of a small group of soldiers, huddled close together.
"Is that it?" He whispered in disbelief, then raised his voice. "Are you all that´s left?"
A young man, whose face was red and sporting several blisters nodded, "The rest didn´t move."
Lykeas turned his head and squinted against the orange flames that seemed to moved closer and closer.
It´s up to you now, Xena.
Again, Xena tried to drive Argo in between the soldiers and the flames, but again the horse reared and danced backwards.
"Whoa girl! I know it´s hot, but we have to get the men away," Xena whispered, knowing full well that her horse couldn´t hear her through the noise. Suddenly she saw the soldiers closest to the fire spin around and their formation fell apart as familiar battle cries cut through the night.
Ah, I see the Amazons haven´t lost their touch.
With brutal and merciless efficiency, the warriors sliced their way through the first row of soldiers. The heat was scorching their backs, their arms were hurting from the strain and every time an enemy soldier went down, another one came from out of nowhere to take his place, but not once did they falter, not once did they retreat. The insane and all consuming craving for revenge blazed in their eyes and drove them forward, and soon the Persians began to move away from their position at the fire, leaving the immediate area around it unguarded. Xena didn´t wait to see if the infantry emerged from the flames, but forced Argo around and rode directly into the nearest group of soldiers, scattering the men all over.
Lykeas dived into the fire, instantly feeling the flames burn his skin and the small hairs on his arms wither from the heat. He closed his eyes and just kept running, praying he didn´t lose sense of the direction.
Much sooner than he´d expected, he was through. He almost lost his balance as the great force of the heat suddenly lessened and he fell forward, just managing to support himself with one hand. He was in a lot of pain, feeling like the outer layer of his skin had been violently torn from his body and his lungs were burning, but he was alive. He unsheathed his sword, cursing silently as the hilt burned his hand and looked around. He could see the main battle was taking place further away and was about to run towards it, when a horrible scream nailed him to the spot. He turned around, hardly noticing the gasping soldiers who´d managed to run through the fire with him and looked at the flames. A man was running around madly in the midst of the fire, desperately searching for a way through.
"Just run." Lykeas tried to shout, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. "Don´t wait, just run."
The soldier screamed again as his hair started to burn and several of his fellow soldiers averted their eyes, incapable of watching any more. The man, now screaming constantly, fell to the ground and started to roll around, but he only managed to spread the fire to his clothes. As the scream lost all semblance of a human sound, Lykeas swallowed and looked away. The harsh smell of burning flesh entered his nostrils and suddenly the image of Ephiny´s funeral pyre filled his mind.
"Come on, move it! We still have a battle to fight!"
Without looking back, the soldiers started to run toward the battle raging ahead of them. As they got closer, it became easier to see what was going on, but it still took a while before the warrior registered the sight that greeted him, his foggy brain trying to cope with and sort out all the information at once. The Persians were retreating. It didn´t happen fast and it was taking the cavalry and the Amazons everything they had and more, but the Persians were retreating. A thought managed to penetrate the confusion in Lykeas´ mind.
Then the earth shook beneath his feet and he turned around
and bloodshot, watering eyes widened as they took in the sight of more
than three hundred well armed men, marching toward him. The soldiers came
from the camp, from Kassander´s camp and the warrior instantly recognized
the stately figure riding in front, leading the army behind him. It would
only take them a few minutes to walk around the fire and come to the aid
of their kinsmen and then… Lykeas looked at the sword in his sooty hands
and then looked back up at the approaching army. He let out a small sigh
and as he started to move towards it, a peaceful smile appeared on his
Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the approaching army and the lone figure walking out to meet them.
Gods! He´s finally lost it!
"Lykeas! Wait, you can´t-."
The sudden appearance of a Persian on a horse cut short her words, and for a minute she lost the warrior from her sight as she angrily thrust her sword deep into the rider´s chest. Without giving the Persian a second look, she yanked her sword free and turned Argo around, but before she managed to find Lykeas again, a small wave of soldiers suddenly broke through the Amazon ranks.
Damn! We don´t have the time for this.
"Callias! Erinya! You´re on your own now, we have to regroup! Kassander´s coming!" She stood up in the saddle, trying to get the attention of the men around her, "The left wing stays here, the rest of you come with me!"
She was pleasantly surprised to see the centre and the right wing of the cavalry immediately break away and begin to follow her toward the approaching army. Riding ahead of the cavalry, Xena felt the heat carried with the wind against her face, promptly followed by the smell of smoke and blood. She barred her teeth in a savage grin and tightened the grip around her sword.
Here I come, Kassander. Have you missed me?
She felt the adrenaline course through her body and let out a chilling cry, hearing how the riders behind her picked it up and multiplied it.
She laughed out loud, "That´s right men! Let´s show those bastards who they´re up against!"
Lykeas abruptly stopped and was quickly overtaken by what was left of the infantry. Unseeing eyes stared at the passing soldiers´ backs as every thought of moving forward left the warrior´s mind.
He felt an old familiar tremor run through his body as pictures and images from many years ago raced through his mind.
She´s back… She´s come back, she´s with me again.
He turned around and stared directly into blazing blue eyes that seemed to scorch and burn everything that got in their way. He took in the sight of the impressive warrior thundering towards him, closely followed by more than two hundred men on horses and then he smiled. The smile on the dark warrior´s face, instantly cleared the haze in Xena´s head and an expression of horror showed on her face.
No, Lykeas… No.
Argo felt her mistress slack the reins and uncertainly slowed down a little, before Xena regained her equilibrium and picked up the pace again. She saw Lykeas´ brow furrow and then, for the shortest of seconds, a deep sadness filled the black eyes before it disappeared and he turned away.
Feeling strangely detached, Lykeas felt and heard the cavalry beginning to close in on him and he looked ahead to see that Kassander had almost rounded the fire and was about to head directly towards the ridiculous small part of the infantry that was left. Then, from out of nowhere, enormous clouds of smoke abruptly swallowed up Kassander and his army and Lykeas lost them from his sight. The smoke was followed by a new wall of fire as hungry flames fed from the sudden increase in the force of the wind.
Lykeas felt the cold wind sweep down from the plain behind him.
The wind has…
He closed his eyes as hundreds of horses finally overtook him and didn´t open them till the earth had stopped moving beneath his feet.
I think the wind…
Even from a distance, he could see the flames rise higher and higher and still there was no sight of Kassander´s army.
I think the wind has changed.
He took a deep breath and realized the air was clean and free from smoke.
Yes, the wind has indeed changed.
Kassander desperately tried to turn his horse around, but the mare was in the final stages of panic and acted more like a wild beast than a well-trained horse. All around him, he heard his men shouting and screaming, some cursing their horses, others crying out in pain when they were swallowed up by the flames. Suddenly a huge cloud of smoke engulfed them and the King´s horse reared, and Kassander had to press his knees hard against her flanks and hold on to the reins tightly not to be thrown off. Feeling how breathing became more difficult, the King forcefully kicked his heels into the horse and finally managed to turn her around, but instead of seeing the clear route back to the camp, he stared directly into another wall of fire. He was surrounded. The mare was now shaking violently and her body was covered in sweat as she danced nervously from side to side, the brown eyes rolled back in terror.
"You stupid horse!"
Kassander kicked her again and tried to push her forward closer to the flames, but the horse only backed further away.
"Fucking beast! Move damn it! Move!"
His eyes were watering constantly now and the heat was scorching his skin, but still he kept a clear head.
I can manage this. I just need to break through the ring of fire, it can´t be that wide. I can do this! There´s no reason to panic, I can do this!
The sound of renewed fighting coming from somewhere behind him told him that those of his men who´d managed to escape the fire were now heavily engaged with defending themselves against the cavalry.
That bitch! I was so close, I was almost there.
He started to cough violently and the horse used that single moment of distraction to rear again, and with a surprised shout Kassander felt himself lose hold of the reins and fall backwards, landing on the grass with an unpleasant sound of cracking bones. A sharp pain starting in his right knee coursed through his body and dark spots danced before his eyes as he tried to get back to his feet, but somehow his right leg didn´t seem to be functioning properly and he lost his balance and sank helplessly to the ground again. For a second he stared up into the dark sky obscured by smoke and fire, then he rolled himself over and started to crawl towards his horse, trying to ignore the horrible pain in his knee every time it made contact with the ground. The loop of fire around him had tightened considerably and he knew he had to get out now, already each hissing breath was followed by violent coughing fits and he was starting to feel dizzy and had problems thinking straight.
I just have to get back in the saddle, then everything will be okay. I just have to get back in the saddle…
As he was within two feet of the horse, the terrified animal was suddenly hit by a couple of flying sparks and she abruptly changed direction and without any regard for her master ran headlong into him, knocking the King to the ground. The horse frantically tried to find a way out, but the flames were too close and all she accomplished was running around in smaller and smaller circles. As Kassander opened his eyes and stared up at the sky, he knew his neck was broken. As he smelled the hairs on his head beginning to burn, he knew he wouldn´t escape the flames. As he watched his horse make a last desperate attempt to get out, fail and then turn around and run directly towards him, he knew he was going to die. Almost the moment the flames spread to his clothes, the horse trampled over his broken body and as his vision faded and the pain disappeared, Kassander considered himself lucky.
At least, she didn´t kill me.
The flames swept over the plain with no abandon, swallowing
anybody who came within their reach. The Persian soldiers trapped by the
fire on one side and by enemy soldiers on the other, died before they had
a chance to lay down their weapons and surrender and the rest soon turned
and ran, only to be mercilessly hunted down by Greek soldiers. Hours later,
the only thing that was left of Kassander´s camp were ashes, but
that too was soon blown away by the still increasing wind, and as Xena
made her way back up the slope followed by the survivors of the infantry
and the cavalry, the smell of burnt flesh had almost disappeared as well
or, as she thought to herself, maybe they had just gotten used to it by
"You´d think that the battle had taken place here and not down there," Lykeas commented quietly, absorbing the carnage around him. "Why did they have to bring all the dead here? They should be kept away from the wounded."
Callias nodded and looked at her bandaged arm while adjusting the sling at her neck.
"I know, but they were in a hurry and…" She paused briefly and looked away from the bodies placed on blankets on the ground. "Some of them were hard to identify and they didn´t want to make any mistakes and… I suppose some one them were alive when they were first brought here."
They stepped aside as another stretcher was brought inside the large tent reserved for people hurt in the fire. On the stretcher was a badly burned soldier, his skin black and charred.
The Captain swallowed, "I think that was General Nicanor."
Lykeas wrinkled his nose, "I think so too. Let´s get out of here."
They walked out of the tent and found themselves surrounded by chaos. Everywhere people were running back and forth, carrying stretchers or supporting those who were capable of walking on their own. Almost everybody were sporting more or less bloodied bandages, leaning on crutches or running around aimlessly searching for friends. Lykeas squinted towards the rising sun and let out a deep breath. Apart from a few scratches, sore muscles and the fact that he was feeling like he´d be roasted over a slow fire, he was unharmed.
"How´s the arm?"
Callias raised her well arm in resignation, "Fine, except that it itches like Tartarus."
"You were lucky, if the arrow had hit your shoulder, the joint might never have functioned properly again."
The Amazon nodded, barely managing to get out of the way of another stretcher. "Yes, I know." She cast a glance ahead of her. "I better go report to the Queen now, it seems like most of the dead have been accounted for."
She started to walk away, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"How many did you lose?"
"Seventeen and five are critical."
"They did well."
"Of course, they did," Callias spoke quietly. "They were Amazons."
Lykeas watched the blond woman leave and then turned to walk in the other direction.
He stopped and waited for the soldier to reach him.
A young man from his part of the infantry came to a halt before him and saluted. Lykeas awkwardly raised his hand.
"Don´t… What can I do for you, Lyssander?"
The soldier pointed to a nervously looking man standing a few yards away, "He says you asked for him, so I decided to bring him to you." The young man shifted from the left foot to the right. "I wasn´t sure if he spoke the truth and I didn´t want to risk anything."
The warrior glanced at the farmer who´d taken off his hat and was gingerly looking around with wide open eyes, all colour having left his cheeks as he noticed the bodies lying close by.
"You did well, Lyssander. I´ll take it from here."
The soldier saluted again and this time Lykeas returned it, hiding a wry smile.
"Oh yes, sir, before I forget. Xena´s looking for you."
"She is?" The warrior licked his dry lips. "Okay, I´ll go find her afterwards."
The young man nodded and hurried away and Lykeas turned his attention back to the farmer, indicating with a finger for the man to come closer.
"We found him, sir."
The farmer shook his head, "There was nothing we could do."
"I see." The dark warrior rummaged through his pockets and handed a couple of dinars to the man. "Go get yourself something to eat."
The farmer´s eyes lit up as he studied the coins in his hand. "Thank you, sir. If you ever require my services again, I´ll be-."
"Yeah, yeah," Lykeas dismissed the man. "Get out of here."
He sighed and started to walk back to the camp, his features
hardening. There was something he had to do.
Xena washed the blood of her hands and looked around for something to dry them in, but all she found was a torn and bloodied piece of cloth.
That looks like an Amazon tunic.
She let her eyes run over the many bodies in the tent, but didn´t find what she was looking for.
She turned her head to look at an elderly man kneeling on the ground beside a soldier.
"I´ve heard you´re skilled in the art of using pressure points, is that true?"
She stepped closer and looked down at the mutilated body beside the old man, "Yes."
"Can you do something for him?" The healer gestured helplessly at the soldier. "I´d like to give him some herbs for the pain, but I…" He exhaled slowly, "But I need to save them for those who have a chance of surviving…"
"He´s still alive?" The warrior asked incredulously, taking a closer look. From the look of it, the man couldn´t possibly be alive, but then she noticed a faint hissing sound and realized it was air fussing out from the holes in the soldier´s lungs.
"Barely," the old man replied and wiped his forehead, smearing blood all over. "Is there something you can do?"
Xena kneeled down beside him, trying no to look at the soldier´s frozen stare.
"Yes, but it´ll probably kill him."
The healer smiled bitterly, "Does it matter? He´s dead already." He rose to his feet. "Do what you think is right, I´ve other patients to attend to."
The warrior stared at the soldier on the ground. His face was contorted into an inhuman mask of pain and horror and his right arm was severely burned, tiny flakes of charred flesh falling to the ground, creating a small pile of black ashes.
Xena´s gaze left the man´s arm and strayed to a spot on his neck, then she leaned forward to gain better access. A minute later, the soldier had drawn his last laboured breath. She remained in a kneeling position for a few minutes, staring ahead of her without really seeing anything, then she felt somebody watch her from behind and she turned her head.
"You wanted to see me?"
She rose to her feet and stepped over the bodies on the ground until she was right beside the warrior.
"Yes, I need to talk to you about something."
"Then let´s go outside, I can´t breathe in here."
She followed Lykeas outside and was surprised to see it was a few hours past noon, she´d been tending to the wounded for more than ten hours. The chaos that had followed immediately after their return to the camp had lessened considerably and a more controlled and disciplined atmosphere filled the air.
"You look tired."
Xena rolled her head to loosen up her stiff muscles, "I am."
"How are things?"
"Unpleasant," she gave him pale smile. "The fire claimed many lives this morning and will continue to do so for at least a couple of more days."
He nodded, "But it saved us too. It took care of half of the Persian army…and Kassander."
"Have they found his body?"
"What´s left of it, they have."
The warrior studied the man before, first now noticing the drawn lines around his eyes and the constant moistening of his lips.
"You got pretty close to the flames too."
Lykeas smiled briefly, "I´ve no eyebrows left."
Xena returned his smile and raised her hand, but then left it fall back down. She looked into his eyes and was painfully aware of the fact that he had to look away for a second before he could return her gaze.
Not now… I have to see to other matters first, but then…
"Otherwise you´re okay?"
"A few scratches," Xena gestured absently to her left side, "nothing serious."
"I went to see Gabrielle," Lykeas continued tonelessly. "I know you´ve been tied up with the wounded and she with the Amazons, so I thought I´d tell her everything was fine."
"Thank you." The warrior smiled warmly. She´d wanted to go see Gabrielle the entire day, but simply hadn´t had the time. "I really appreciate that."
He shrugged, "No problem, I don´t have your healing skills and after I´d finished bringing in the dead and wounded, there wasn´t anything else to do."
Lykeas straightened up and their eyes met again.
"We have a traitor in our midst," he stated flatly.
"I know…that´s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about."
"Alexias´ body was found earlier this morning, his throat had been slit."
"Damn," Xena cursed quietly. "That poor kid, he didn´t deserve that."
"No, he didn´t," Lykeas replied calmly, then looked towards the tent. "You better go back in there, they need you."
"What about Alexias and the traitor?"
After a moment´s hesitation, the dark warrior spoke, "I´ll take care of that."
Then he turned and started to walk away.
"Lykeas, only bring them in. Don´t take the matter into your own hands."
He looked back at her and gave her a somewhat sarcastic grin.
"Ah, Xena… Would I do that…?"
"He left about two hours ago, I thought you knew."
Xena shook her head in disbelief, "No, no I didn´t."
Damn! Damn you, Lykeas!
Erinya sceptically eyed the distraught warrior before her, she didn´t quite understand the dark woman´s strong reaction.
"He probably won´t be gone for long, it shouldn´t take too long to secure Kassander´s castle."
Xena looked away from the Amazon for a moment, absently studying the coarse canvas of the tent before continuing, "How many men did he take with him?"
The weapons master scratched her chin, "About a hundred or something like that, I told him he couldn´t bring more or the camp would be left defenceless."
"He wanted to take more with him?"
"Yeah, but I said he had to settle for what was left of his part of the infantry, besides that should be enough. The castle must be practically abandoned and even if there are some Persians left, the soldiers are more than capable to deal with them, After all, Lykeas did train them well."
Xena smiled bitterly, "Yes, he did, didn´t he?"
The Amazon´s eyes narrowed slightly, "Is there a problem?"
The warrior only shook her head, "Did he leave a message?"
"Well, he didn´t say anything to me," Erinya spoke slowly, her eyes searching the tall woman´s face, "but he might have left something in your tent, I saw him leave it earlier today, just before they headed out."
"Okay, thanks, I´ll check it out."
She cast a last glance around the tent, her gaze resting briefly on all the bodies lying on makeshift pallets or on the ground, then she walked out closely followed by the weapons master.
Outside dusk had started to drive away the already feeble autumn warmth and Xena shivered involuntarily. The camp was eerily quiet. Usually after a hard fought battle, soldiers liked to unwind, throwing away all caution and restraint, vigorously celebrating the victory and the fact that they were still alive, but tonight was different and the warrior didn´t like it. As much as she found some of the men´s behaviour after a battle repulsive or straight out silly, she preferred it to the heavy, despondent silence that hung in the air, smothering all attempts at merriment.
"It was a hard fight," the Amazon spoke quietly as if reading Xena´s thoughts. "One thing is to have your friends killed in battle, another is to watch them burn alive."
"Eventually, they will celebrate and drink themselves into oblivion, but it´ll take a day or two."
"Yeah," the warrior fell silent. "I guess so."
Erinya gave her a gentle pat on the back and started to walk towards the Amazon camp.
"Are you coming? I know Her Majesty has been looking for you."
"Yes, in a minute. I just have to do something first."
"Okay, I´ll tel her you´re on your way. Goodnight, Xena."
"Goodnight," the warrior replied distantly, lost in thought.
You promised me, Lykeas. You swore, you weren´t planning anything. You promised me…
As she stopped in front of her tent, she closed her eyes briefly and an unbidden voice filled her head.
You broke a promise too once, remember? And he let you, didn´t he? He never called you on it... And now, after all these years, what will you do if he does?
She opened her eyes and looked up at the dark sky, surprised that she had to blink a few times to see clearly.
Please Lykeas… Don´t put me in a situation where I have no choice. You deserve better than that, we both do…
She swallowed and stepped inside her tent, stopping dead
in her tracks. Tied to a chair and fully gagged, one pale brown eye staring
furiously at her was Zelei.
Gabrielle looked inside the warrior´s tent only to find it empty and bathed in darkness. She frowned and started to walk towards the stables, although she had searched the place only ten minutes ago, but she couldn´t help herself. She hadn´t seen Xena the entire day. At first they had both been fully occupied with the wounded and after the worst had been taken care of, Gabrielle had spent the remains of the day with the surviving Amazons, holding a quiet and private memorial servive for those lost in battle. That was an hour ago and ever since she had been out looking for the warrior after she had failed showing up in spite of the message she´d had delivered through Erinya.
The bard quickly looked through the stables, already knowing that Xena wouldn´t be there, but she didn´t know where else to look. The moment she´d heard that Lykeas had left, she´d raced to the stables and although she wouldn´t quite admit it to herself, had been more than a little relieved to see that Argo was still there. Then she´d checked all the tents with wounded and even went as far as to the followers´ camp, but the warrior hadn´t been anywhere to be to found and nobody had been able to tell her where she might be. Gabrielle paused before the Amazon camp and looked back down the lines and lines of tents and the countless campfires where small groups of soldiers sat eating or sharpening their weapons in a deadly silence. No laughter, no voices were heard and the bard sighed. More than anything she wanted to be away from the sights and sounds of war. She wanted to leave the all consuming violence and what it did to people behind her and just keep on walking until the memories of the dead and wounded had been erased from her mind. But most of all… She shivered and pulled her coat tighter around her, most of all she wanted to forget the screams of the terrified soldiers trapped in the flames and the sickening smell of burnt flesh. She pulled herself together and walked the rest of the way to her tent and stepped inside, and was only a little surprised to find the warrior sleeping on the pallet, still dressed in her bloodied and dirty leathers. A single oil lamp was lit and the small flickering flame caused the dark shadows in the corners where the light couldn´t reach to seem even darker. The bard quietly pulled a chair closer and watched the pale light teasingly move over Xena´s features, making it appear like the warrior was awake and moving, the bronze skin almost glowing, and then without warning, she started to cry. Silently at first, but then the sobs became louder and blue eyes snapped open. The warrior blinked a few times, momentarily confused before her exhausted mind took in the sight of the crying woman next to her, and she groggily sat up and pulled Gabrielle onto her lap, wrapping her arms around her. For a long time they sat like that, the silence only broken by occasional sobs from the young woman and Xena´s softly whispered words, more meant to comfort than to make sense. Finally, she felt the tension starting to leave Gabrielle´s body and she placed a kiss on the tousled blonde hair.
"Wanna tell me what that was all about?"
She heard the bard sigh and felt the arms around her neck tighten and then Gabrielle looked up to gaze into concerned blue eyes.
"It´s a bit embarrassing actually," she began, trying a half-hearted smile, "I really don´t know."
The warrior gently wiped the remains of the tears away with her thumb, patiently waiting for the bard to elaborate, but when nothing came she stopped and searched the face before her.
"You sure? Did anything happen to upset you?"
"You mean besides the fact that I´ve just witnessed the most bloody battle in my life, lost nineteen of my warriors and watched men being brought in, who, if the Gods had any mercy, should have died from their burns on the battlefield? No, Xena, aside from that nothing has happened to upset me."
She gave the warrior another pale smile to take the edge of her words, but still felt the arms around her stiffen.
"You shouldn´t have been here, I should have-."
"Shhh," Gabrielle put a finger on the warrior´s lips, "don´t say it. It was my choice, remember?"
She snuggled a bit closer.
"And I´m going to be okay, really I am," she continued as she noticed Xena´s doubtful expression. "Tomorrow, I´ll be as strong and as efficient as I need to be, but right now…"
She leaned up to kiss the chapped, but still amazingly soft lips, "Right now, I just want you to hold me, if that´s okay."
The warrior´s only response was to pull the young
woman closer, burying her face in the silky hair.
The Counsellor scrambled nervously away from the dark man hovering over him. Lykeas grinned, revealing white teeth before sitting back down in the chair. He reached down and took the goblet standing on the ground beside the chair and took a few gulps, black eyes studying the shivering man over the brim of the glass.
"So…" The warrior let the wine swirl in his mouth for a moment. "Are you going to tell me what I want to know or do you want another round?"
Pindar looked down at his singed and drenched clothes and then shot a nervous glance at the dark flowing river a few yards away. His burned hands nervously clenched and unclenched the wet mud on the river bank and he closed his eyes, trying to shut out the image of the reclining predator in front of him. He more sensed than heard a movement and instantly a hand closed around his throat.
"Don´t close your eyes on me!"
The Counsellor tried to swallow, but the grip around his throat was too tight and instead he opened his eyes to stare into the dark face above him.
"Did I tell you to close you eyes?"
Pindar managed to shake his head and a smile slowly spread on Lykeas´ face then he let go and went back to sit in the chair, gesturing to the soldiers who had rushed forward in case their leader needed any help with the interrogation, to step back again.
"Look, Pindar… It´s Pindar, isn´t it?"
The Counsellor nodded affirmatively, afraid that his voice might betray him.
"All I want to know is how many soldiers, Persians or otherwise, Kassander left to guard his castle when he left. You see," he pointed mindlessly over his shoulder at the tents placed further away from the river, "I have about a hundred men with me and all taken into consideration that should be enough, but…"
He took another sip from the goblet and stood up.
"But it´s best to be careful, isn´it?"
He stepped over to the man still lying on the ground and knelt down beside him, ignoring the foul smelling mud smearing his knees. "So you must understand how pleased I was to hear that Counsellor Pindar, Kassander´s most trusted servant, had been handed over to my men by a group of farmers."
He smiled coldly.
"Really, Pindar. Did you expect you could just hide in a barn like that? Did you really think that any of your precious King´s subjects would have anything to do would you, much less protect you? They can´t avenge themselves on Kassander because he´s dead, but you…you are the next best thing. "
The smile broadened.
"You must know that every man and every woman in this kingdom hate Kassander from the bottom of their hearts, and that everywhere we have passed so far, we´ve been treated like saviours instead of conquerors."
He leaned closer and whispered into the Counsellor´s ear, "They cheer for us, they offer us food and gifts even though they hardly have anything themselves…due to your King´s taxes of course…but they don´t seem to care… We are heroes to them."
Lykeas rose and looked past the river, staring out into the dark night, an almost astonished expression on his face, then it disappeared and he gazed back down at the quivering man below him.
"So tell me, Pindar. What do we have to expect when we reach Kassander´s castle?"
"Not much," the Counsellor said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice. "Those who haven´t run off already are sure to do so the moment they hear you´re coming." He paused for a second, "The King has inspired a lot of things in people over the years, but loyalty has never been one of them."
The dark warrior nodded to himself, "And what about the Persians?"
Pindar shrugged, "They´re most likely gone. The High King must have heard of the defeat by now and has probably withdrawn the remains of his troops to avoid having his part in the war exposed and thus spare himself the humiliation of becoming the laughing-stock of every Greek city state… Persians don´t like to be laughed at," he added silently, more to himself than to Lykeas.
"See," the warrior roughly patted the Counsellor on his bald head. "If only you´d told me that right away, we wouldn´t have had to go through that nasty thing with the oil and the fire."
He smeared a line of mud down Pindar´s cheek, "I bet you were happy the river was so close by."
The man ignored the comment and feeling strangely calm and peaceful looked up into the black eyes.
"What are you going to do with me?"
Lykeas tilted his head slightly, pursing his lips.
"Hmm, that´s a good question…"
He was silent for a few minutes, then turned around to face the few soldiers standing behind him.
"The farmers who brought him here, are they still around?"
A young soldier eagerly stepped forward, "Yes, sir. I think so."
"Ah good," the warrior looked down at the man at his feet.
"Tell them, I have a present for them… Something to show them how much I value their services."
He poked Pindar in the ribs with his foot.
"I´m sure they´ll know how to…to…appreciate
this small token of gratitude."
Gabrielle lifted her head from the warrior´s shoulder and looked into tired, but awake blue eyes.
"Can´t you sleep?"
"Nah, I guess I´m too exhausted to sleep."
"Maybe it would help if you actually closed your eyes."
"You think so?" Xena chuckled quietly and pulled the bard closer.
"Yes." Gabrielle slid her hand under the thin cotton shift and gently caressed the warrior´s stomach.
"Uh, I´m not so sure that´ll make it easier for me to fall asleep."
The young woman smiled and stilled the movements of her hand for a short moment, then continued.
"Why don´t you tell me what´s bothering you? If you do that might help you sleep."
She felt Xena take a deep breath as her eyes left the bard´s face to stare out into the darkness of the tent. Gabrielle propped herself up on her left elbow, continuing the soothing motions on the warrior´s stomach with her other hand.
"Is it about Zelei?"
Surprised blue eyes returned to her face, "I didn´t know you knew about that."
The bard smiled sadly, "It´s hard to keep a secret in a camp, particularly when at least a dozen of people saw her be carried all tied up out of your tent, kicking and screaming."
"Yeah, she did deliver some good kicks," Xena gingerly touched a dark bruise on her thigh, "but the screaming part isn´t true, Lykeas had gagged her as well."
The warrior didn´t find it necessary to mention that she´d actually removed the cloth from Zelei´s mouth for a few seconds, but the raging obscenities coming from the Amazon, had quickly instigated her to gag her again, if only for the Captain´s own safety, since most of the curses uttered by Zelei had been about Gabrielle and Xena hadn´t been in a one of her most indulging moods.
"Do you believe she betrayed us?"
The bard´s quiet words pulled the warrior out of her reverie and she sighed, "Lykeas seems to think so. He left me a message in my tent with his reasons for apprehending Zelei." She reached out and started to play with Gabrielle´s hair with her left hand. "They seem pretty convincing to me, besides, Alexias´ axe was found in her tent and she hasn´t been able to come up with a plausible explanation for the period of time she was gone from the camp the day of the battle, which happens to be around the same time Alexias disappeared so… Of course, I´ll have to question her some more and other factors may appear, but yes, I do think she did it. After all, she had both motive and opportunity."
She felt the bard´s hand on her stomach stop.
"I feel so sorry for Alexias, he was such a sweet boy. He didn´t deserve to be murdered like that he…" Her voice broke and she cleared her throat. "It makes no sense, Xena why would she… She saved my life! If it hadn´t been for her that Persian might have succeeded in kill-."
"Hey!" The warrior interrupted firmly, rolling onto her side to face the young woman.
"Don´t say that, I´m sure that wouldn´t have happened. You would have found a way." She removed a few blond strands from Gabrielle´s eyes. "I know you would," she finished more gently. "You always do."
"I just don´t understand why she hates me so much." The pain in the bard´s voice was clear. "I´ve never wanted to hurt her."
"Hate defies reason," Xena spoke softly. "As does love."
For a moment the two women looked into each other´s eyes, then they both smiled.
"I love you, Xena."
The warrior reached out and pulled the bard even closer.
"I love you too, Gabrielle."
They lay like that for a long time and Xena felt herself starting to relax as Gabrielle´s hand resumed caressing her stomach and she closed her eyes.
"So if it isn´t Zelei that´s bothering you, what is it? Is it Lykeas? Are you worried about him?"
The warrior slowly opened her eyes again and turned her head to look at the woman beside her. Gabrielle gave her a little smile.
"Why don´t you tell me, Xena? Why don´t you tell me everything that happened back then."
The warrior turned her head away. "There isn´t much to tell."
Gabrielle reached out and gently turned Xena´s face back to her.
"Why don´t you tell me anyway."
"I´m not a bard, Gabrielle. I don´t know how to tell a story."
Gabrielle smiled inwardly at hearing Xena´s statement echoing words uttered by another dark warrior in what seemed to be a very long time ago.
"I don´t want you to tell me a story." She reached out to trace a cheekbone with her finger, "Just…just tell me about you and Lykeas… Tell me whatever you think is important."
The warrior rolled onto her back and stared up at the coarse canvas above her, only half acknowledging the faint sound of rain drops starting to fall.
"When I first met Lykeas he was just a kid, I mean, I was hardly more than a kid myself, but Lykeas… Lykeas was just a…."
"Yeah, something like that."
Xena pushed the covers down to her waist and absently started to rub the material between her fingers.
"I still remember walking through the forest on our way from Amphipolis, we were heading towards Athens to…" The warrior trailed off for her moment, her eyes staring right through the canvas. "Anyway, it was late afternoon and we´d just entering a small clearing when…well, I felt something and I looked to the other side and there he was, standing partly hidden behind the trees, looking directly at me."
The hand playing with the covers stopped, then resumed its twitching motions.
"We just looked at each other, I don´t know for how long, but it must have been for quite a while though because at some time the people with me started to become impatient, anxious…they wanted to move on."
"What happened then?"
A strange, almost curious look showed on Xena´s face.
"I don´t know what it was he saw in my eyes or what he thought he saw, but then he…he smiled."
"Yes, he smiled and then he walked out from the trees and stopped right in front of me."
"Who are you?"
"My name´s Lykeas… And you are?"
"Not that´s it´s any of your business, but… I´m Xena."
"And where are you going with all these…fierce warriors behind you?"
"I see…Athens… Mind if I join you?"
"I didn´t want him to come along, he was too young and I didn´t have the time nor the patience to become his babysitter."
"Why did you let him then?"
"I soon realized that Lykeas didn´t need a babysitter."
The warrior lifted her left arm and tucked it behind her head using it as a pillow.
"The fact that he´d been raised in an Amazon village had ensured that he was very skilled in the use of arms and at that time…well…at that time my so-called army could need all the practice it could get so…"
"So you allowed him to join you?"
"Yes." A faint smiled played on the dark woman´s lips. "After a brief demonstration…"
Gabrielle tried to become more comfortable, but her elbow was starting to hurt so she sat up on the pallet instead, looking down at the warrior lying beside her.
"Did you become friends right away?"
Lurid blue eyes found green and a look of puzzlement crossed Xena´s face.
"I…I don´t know when we became friends… We…we just did. He understood what it was I was trying to do, what it was I wanted, even before I knew it myself. I think he just waited for the day when I´d realize that I wanted more…more than… He never said to me that something couldn´t be done or…or that it shouldn´t be done. He always…" The warrior stopped, apparently not quite sure of what she was trying to say.
The rain outside became stronger and the sound of heavy drops hitting the canvas chased away the silence momentarily occupying the tent. Gabrielle exhaled slowly.
"And when you the day arrived, when you realized you wanted more, what then?"
"He was there…by my side. He told me he was glad he wouldn´t have to wait any longer."
"What was it he wanted?"
Xena turned her head away and stared back out into the darkness.
"Everything…just like me. He wanted everything."
"And…" The bard hesitated slightly, trying to formulate the right words. "And you think he still does?"
A deep sadness filled the blue eyes.
"Yes. And I…I can´t let him."
She sensed his approach and moved around the campfire so she could see him. He stopped a few steps away, an unreadable gaze searching her face for a moment before he closed the distance to the fire and sat down.
"Thanks for coming."
He shrugged, staring into the flames that only partly managed to illuminate the dark face.
"You knew I would."
She gave him small smile, but as he raised his head to look her into the eyes, his expression was contemplating, waiting and not friendly.
"I´m sorry about the things I said… I shouldn´t have, it´s just…you really pissed me off."
This time something resembling a smile showed briefly on his face.
"It´s okay. I said some pretty stupid things myself."
He fell silent and she knew he was waiting for her to continue, to tell him why it was she´d wanted to meet him in the middle of the night, far away from their camp, but the well rehearsed speech she´d been saving for this particular occasion, had abandoned her mind the moment the warrior had sat down on the opposite side of the fire, and she could only look into those emotionless black eyes…No, they weren´t quite emotionless, she could see that much, there was something there, but what…?
"I´m getting cold, Xena. If I´d known this was going to be an all night conversation, I´d have brought a blanket."
She took the not so subtle hint and licked her lips a few times.
"I can´t do this anymore, I won´t. I don´t want to-."
"I know," he interrupted flatly. "It´s been pretty obvious that your heart hasn´t been into it lately."
The warrior smiled, but the smile didn´t quite reach her eyes. "Some people would say I don´t have a heart."
"Well, they´d be wrong, wouldn´t they?"
He looked away to avoid her eyes before continuing, "What are you gonna do? You can´t just leave like that, they won´t let you."
"I´ll think of something."
She saw a brief flash of white as he grinned to himself, "Yeah, you usually do."
He slowly turned his gaze back to her, a question in his eyes.
"I´m…I´m sorry things didn´t work out the way we´d planned. I know it meant a lot to you."
"Not more than it did to you."
Xena looked down at her hands in her lap.
"True, at the time it was everything to me."
"I´m tired, Lykeas, I´m so terribly tired. I just want it all to end, I want to get it over with."
"You´re not going to do anything stupid, are you?" The alarm in the warrior´s voice was painfully clear.
She shook her head sadly, "No, at least not that. I don´t have the guts."
For a long time the quiet crackle of the fire was all that was heard.
"I guess, I´ll be leaving then."
"You don´t have to, Lykeas. They all respect you, most of them fear you. If you want to, you can take over, have it all for yourself."
"I don´t want it all for myself, I want you there with me." For a moment his voice sounded almost like a sulking child, then he continued in a slightly more collected, but nonetheless bitter tone. "You said you would, you said we´d have it all."
"You sound like I promised you the world."
He looked her square in the eye.
"Well, you did, didn´t you?"
Lykeas watched the dark water flow by and blinked a few
times to lose the rain drops that clung to his eyelashes. The rain had
soaked through his clothes hours ago and his body shivered every time the
cold wind swept over the plain. He pulled his knees up and rested his chin
on them, trying to control the chattering of his teeth. The night was silent
except from the heavy drops of rain and the occasional sound of waves brushing
against the bank. He raised his head and closed his eyes, feeling how tiny
streams of water started to run down his face and down the hollow of his
throat, only stopping when they reached the smooth material of his tunic.
He lowered his head again and moist, unblinking eyes stared out into the
darkness. A slight tremor ran through his body and gooseflesh appeared
on his arms, but the cause wasn´t the rain or the cold, it was the
images that filled his mind.
TO BE CONTINUED…