Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Ren Pic, SR, RT, JS, LL, ROC and all the other initials in NZ. I continue to use them because so far no one has come to my house and set fire to it. As long as that does not happen I will assume they do not mind too much. However if I ever smell smoke I will cease and desist immediatly.
This story has some rather explicit same sex sex and a couple instances of extreme violence. Minors should not read this story and those that still think like minors should not read it either.
I encourage reader response. This is my most serious story yet and I want to know what you think of it. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Good or bad tell me what you think.
IMPORTANT NOTICE. AT THE END OF THE STORY IS A SHORT WORD FROM THE AUTHOR. PLEASE READ.
This is the last story in an arc that starts with The Fortress, The City, The Journey, Meg's and now,
THE LION'S WALL
BY JIM KUNTZ
Gabrielle's breathing came in long deep explosive pants. "Yesss." she whispered in a low primal voice of pleasure. "Yesss." pant. "Yesss." pant. Faster and faster till finally there was one long deep gutteral sigh of ecstacy. When all the air was out of the bards lungs she took a couple of quick gasps to keep them from collapsing and then she let out a long pleased laugh that came up from the deepest part of her heart. Xena started kissing her way toward Gabrielle's mouth from between the bards legs. When she reached her bellybutton the Warrior Princess used the tip of her tongue to lightly tickle the inside of it. Gabrielle giggled and stroked Xena's long black hair.
"Why do you always do that?" The bard asked through a grin.
"Because I like to hear you laugh. It pleases me."
Gabrielle's emerald eyes sparkled like jewels and she looked deep into the perfect clear blue of Xena's.
"Then I'll laugh often." She whispered. "As long as I'm with you it's easy to do."
Xena began kissing again, up between the breasts, stopping to give each erect nipple a little nip, then the neck and finally she found a hungry mouth that attacked hers like a glutton devouring lunch, with passion and heartfelt satisfaction. At last the Warrior Princess pulled back to catch her breath and she rolled off the bard and lay on her back beside her. Gabrielle snuggled into the crook of the Lions arm and laid her arm across Xena's chest.
"Is there anything else I can do to give you pleasure beloved?" The bard asked seriously. "Anything?"
"Yes. Let me have a good nights sleep. I'm exhausted."
The bard frowned slightly.
"Oh Xena." She said. "I've seen you on a battlefield. You never get tired."
"Gabrielle." The Lion replied, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "On a battlefield I have terror to energize me. There is nothing like the fear of death to keep you up and moving."
Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes and stroked her cheek.
"But there is no fear here." She said quietly. "Only love." Then Xena smiled that special smile. "And love gets tired sometimes and needs a rest."
The bard looked at the Lion for a long moment with adoring eyes, then suddenly she smiled.
"Alright, alright. I get the message. You're getting old and can't keep up. No problem. Greece has plenty of cold streams for me to jump into."
The Lion scowled.
"I didn't say anything about getting..."
"What a beautiful sky it is." Gabrielle interrupted, turning her head to gaze up at the stars. "This was a great idea to come up here and spend the night. After three weeks sleeping at Meg's I was beginning to miss the stars myself."
Xena let out a disgusted burst of air and then laughed. She looked up at the endless expanse of blazing suns putting out a milky light so bright you could almost read a scroll by it. She let her mind drift aimlessly. She wondered if the simple love of one human being for another could really make an impression on such majestic vastness. The two friends gazed a long time together at the overwhelming immensity of it.
Finally Xena whispered. "What do you think Gabrielle? Do you think our lives and what we do with them will really matter in the end. Compared to the timeless beauty of the universe?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and blew it out. Then she looked at Xena staring up into space.
"Yes," She said slowly. "I do. I can't tell you why I believe it Xena. But I do. Our lives are too incredible a gift to be meaningless. There is some deeper mystery and purpose to us that transcends even the understanding of these petty Gods that plague us. That is why it's important that we use our lives properly and not waste them following the ways of hatred and evil."
Xena sighed deeply and Gabrielle knew what she was thinking. The bard propped herself up on her elbow so she could look into the Lion's somber face. She reached out and stroked Xena's cheek.
"Life is a journey beloved." She said quietly. "It's not where you start or the bad things that happen along the way that count. It's what you learned and where you are headed when the journey finally ends that matters. These last four years no one has given more of their heart, mind and body for the greater good than you. And our destinys are one my dearest love. Soon the whole world will know the depth of our commitment. And together we will help each other find the right path so that when our journey ends we will be headed in the right direction. A direction that will give our lives meaning in the universe."
Xena looked at Gabrielle's beautiful face in the starlight and wished that time would stop so this vision of perfection would be here forever for her to gaze upon. Finally she put her hand behind the bard's neck and drew her close.
"You are my path." She whispered and she kissed the bard with the gentleness, tenderness and connection that only true lovers feel when they touch.
Xena sat up and threw a few of the small logs she had piled at the edge of their bedrolls onto the dying campfire. It was turning into a chilly night for midsummer.
The Lion looked at the bard and smirked.
"I hope Joxers ear isn't swollen in the morning for the ceremony. You were pulling on it so hard I thought it might come off."
"Well it would serve him right." The bard said, sitting up, her face reddening. "I've never been so mad at him. Do you have any idea what they were doing?"
"It's not hard to guess. I saw you pull him out of the bath house by his ear and start yelling at him. While your back was turned Meg snuck out and ran into the back door with nothing on but a rather crude imitation of your green blouse and a staff. Have you noticed she's getting a little rounded belly. I think that is so attractive, to see life growing like that."
The bard scowled.
"Don't change the subject. I listened at the door a moment before I went in. They were playing some stupid game about Hercules rescues Gabrielle from the Minitour. He was babbling something about now that he had killed the beast he was ready for his reward. Did you see he had on that shirt like the one Hercules always wears?"
"I noticed. I guess we were both lucky he still had on his pants."
Gabrielle scowled harder.
"It's not funny Xena. It's disgusting."
"Oh Gabrielle. Don't be such a stick in the mud. They were just having..."
The Lion regarded the bards face for a moment.
"...a really sick time. Yes indeed. Really sick. What's the world coming too?"
Gabrielle continued glaring at Xena.
"Well, you may not have seen it," She said, "but I did. In one corner of the bath house under some towels was a wooden chakram and some leathers."
"Really?" Xena replied in a weak voice and she turned her head so Gabrielle could not see her smile.
"Well, does this mean you're not coming to the wedding tomorrow?" The Lion asked.
"Of course not!" The bard replied, her anger instantly gone, surprised Xena could ask such a stupid question. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away. I've only been working for the last week on the dress I'm going to wear. I feel like I'll be representing the Nation as well as myself so I want to have the right look."
"Yes, well, I wish you would've let me see it." Xena said.
"No. I want it to be a surprise for you as well." Gabrielle smiled a provocative smile. "Sometimes a little mystery in a relationship is good."
"Uh huh," Xena said. "I'll take your word for it. Anyway, since you're going to dress up as Queen of the Amazon I would like to give you something."
Xena crawled over to the saddlebags and withdrew a small pouch from one. She crawled back and sat next to the bard. Carefully she pulled out an exquisite shell necklace with tiny shells at the top and each one after progressively bigger, the colors and size carefully matched on each side. Yet even the biggest shell was smaller than the fingernail on your little finger. The amount of hard, delicate work it must have taken to make was breathtaking. Gabrielle stared stunned. Finally the bard looked at Xena.
"I knew you were making a necklace," She said hoarsely. "but this is incredible."
She took the object from Xena and carefully tied it around her neck. It hung down just to the cleavage of her breasts. The Lion smiled.
"It's a pale imitation of the beauty of the wearer." She said.
"No my love." The bard answered. "It's a perfect reflection of the beauty of the maker."
Gabrielle took the Warrior Princess' hand and kissed it and pressed it to her cheek.
"Thank you Xena." She said with glistening eyes.
The Warrior Princess smiled that special smile only Gabrielle had ever seen.
Xena threw a blanket over them and they cuddled, each finding that special comfortable position so that they could sleep together in each others arms without disturbing one another. After a brief silence Gabrielle said.
"It's going to be a lovely wedding tomorrow at the Hestian temple. I'm so glad Leah agreed to preside. They are getting off to a wonderful start."
Again there was a short silence.
The Warrior Princess smiled. "Still here."
"Do you think any about our own joining?"
The Lion brought her hand up and cupped it around Gabrielle's cheek and brought her face close and kissed the bard's ear.
"Yes I do think about it." She whispered. "How about you?"
"Only when I'm not thinking about touching you." The bard whispered. Then she giggled. "Which means, I guess, that I don't really think about it at all."
Gabrielle turned her head and smiled and Xena smiled back and kissed her. The bard made a happy little sighing noise. Then her face became serious and her eyes found Xena's.
"You know beloved," She said with quiet intensity, "once we're wedded we can have all the family we want. Adopt as many girls as we care too."
Xena took a deep breath.
"Uh." She said weakly. "Just how many are we talking here Gabrielle? Approximately?"
The bard's face was serious but her eyes smiled.
"Well, I was thinking six or eight."
Xena took another deep breath.
"So we're talking then in terms of..." The Lion hesitated and her jaw muscles flexed, "...a litter?"
"Well," Gabrielle replied, the slightest hint of a smile on her face, "I don't think I would have put it quite that way. And I don't know. The number could be negotiable. Maybe we could just start with two and see how things go."
The hint of humor disappeared.
"I just wanted you to know what I was thinking Xena. I want to raise children beloved. I want them in our lives. I think I have enough love in me to give them what they need to be strong and healthy. I want that experience for us."
Gabrielle hugged the Warrior Princess' close.
"And I want to know what you think Xena?"
The Lion breathed slowly and deeply for a few moments, then she took the bards hand and kissed it.
"We haven't had much luck with children in the past, have we my love." She said quietly.
Gabrielle's face clouded. She let out a sharp, pained, burst of air.
"I'm not going to let Hope take away everything Xena. That whole terrible disaster was wrong from the moment she was conceived. It took me a long time to recover but I'm not going to be defeated by it. This time I'm going to do things right." The bard took a deep breath. "I'm going to do things right Xena!"
The Warrior Princess kissed the bard's hand again and pressed it to her cheek.
"Gabrielle, Hope was never your fault. Never. I know who you are, beloved. I know your quality. I know how lucky your children would be to have you as a mother."
Xena again kissed Gabrielle's hand, then her eyes drifted up to the stars and there was a silence.
Finally the Lion sighed. "I don't have any such confidence in myself." The bard started to say something but Xena continued. "You know what the greatest irony of my life has been Gabrielle?"
"No." The bard replied softly.
"It's that I have been a spectacular success at everything I've ever tried. Everything that is but what's truly important. Compared to the mountain of my failures, my accomplishments are a molehill. I failed Lyceus. I failed Lao Ma. I failed Borius." Xena's voice cracked. "I failed Solon. I've failed everyone who ever loved me. My greatest terror beloved is that one day I will fail you."
Xena sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
"To... to bring children into my heart. To have them love me." Xena sighed so deep the bard thought her chest would collapse. "What have I to offer them but failure."
Gabrielle turned her head and buried her face in Xena's shoulder while hugging her tight. At last she eased her grip and looked up to see the Lion staring into the night.
"What have you to offer?" She asked. "You mean besides an everyday example of courage, honor, selfdiscipline, sacrifice, loyalty, and all those skills that you could teach? Then how about this. You could teach our children how to love another person with their whole heart. Teaching them that lesson alone would be enough to give them a chance at happiness. You are my mate Xena. In a few months we will leave the past behind and start building our future. I think our future will include the sound of children fighting and laughing and crying and being their naturally obnoxious, wonderful selves. What do you think?"
Xena looked a long time into Gabrielle's emerald eyes, then she reached out and brushed away a few strands of redblonde hair that had blown across her forehead.
"I think" She said quietly "we should start with two, just to see how it goes."
Xena paced impatiently before the door of their room at Meg's. She stopped and looked out the small window cut in the wall of the hallway. From the shadows on the ground she could tell the sun was near its zenith.
"Gabrielle." She called in a loud voice. "We are not going to be late for this wedding."
"Xena I am hurrying." An exasperated voice answered.
The Warrior Princess paced back and forth a few more times then stopped and started pounding on the door.
"Gabrielle, if you don't come out of there I'm going to break the door down and carry you..."
The door swung open to reveal the bard standing in the entrance. The Warrior Princess took a step back, her eyes wide, taking in the vision before her. The dress was a deep forest green, ankle length, at the waist a thin leather belt, dyed gold, was tied to one side, the extra length allowed to dangle down to the knee. The sleeves came down the arms and ended in fine embriodery around the wrists. The neck was cut to reveal the slightest hint of cleavage. Over it hung Xena's shell necklace. Her hair was done in fine blonde ringlets to frame her face, Xena's favorite way to see her. A garland of white daisys perched delicately around her head.
The bard smiled brightly.
Xena just gazed at Gabrielle for a long moment with eyes full of love and pride. She put out her hand. The bard took it.
"Shall we go?" The Lion said quietly.
Gabrielle bowed her head slightly, the way a Queen does. Xena led her down the steps and they walked through the restaurant together side by side and hand in hand. The working girls of Meg's, all busy putting up decorations and preparing the dining room for the reception and feast after the wedding, looked up and shared smiles. Several of them waved at Gabrielle and signaled their approval of the handsome couple with an appreciative nod of their heads. The bard smiled shyly back and winked. The Lion seemed oblivious of such things, but anyone who knew her could see the extra bit of pride in her bearing and the clint of pleasure in her eye.
Outside Xena helped Gabrielle up on Argo, then jumped up behind her. With a gentle chuck of the reins and touch of the heels they were off down the road at a steady trot. The two leagues to the Hestian Temple were quickly covered, Argo weaving expertly through the noontime traffic of the main Delphian thoroughfare with hardly any guidence from her mistress. As Xena pulled the great warhorse up in front of the Temple Joxer bounded out of the white marble building and down the half dozen steps to the street. He grabbed Argo's bridle.
"Guys, guys!" He said in a squeeky, almost panicky voice, looking up at the friends. "I was really getting worried here. We're about to start. Let's go okay."
He made a sweeping motion with his arm for them to get down. "Come on guys let's go, go, go!"
Xena jumped down and helped the bard dismount. Gabrielle's feet had barely touched the ground when Joxer let go of Argo's bridle and without another word bounded back up the steps and disappeared into the Temple.
Gabrielle watched him go and then looked up at Xena and sighed.
"Well," She said with a pained grin. "I guess the dress made a real impression huh?"
The Warrior Princess smiled back.
"Guess so. Anyway, I like it."
The last word was hardly out of Xena's mouth when Joxer again burst out of the Temple and bounded down the steps. He stopped in front of Gabrielle, breathless, and grinned that Joxer grin.
"You look beautiful Gabby." He said with obvious sincerity. "Absolutely beautiful."
He looked at Xena, her armour polished to its brightest shine, her leathers oiled black and supple, her hair carefully brushed and arranged around her head and shoulders by Gabrielle, her weapons spotless and gleaming.
"You look good too Xena." He shrugged. "You know, like you could wipe out a whole Roman Legion by yourself."
"Uh huh." The Lion said through pursed lips. "Thanks."
Joxer grabbed the bards hand.
"Now would you guys come on. We're going to be late!"
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand.
"You heard him." She said through a smile. "You're holding things up here Xena, let's go."
And the three of them bounded up the steps into the Temple.
The ceremony was simple and quiet and the feeling of joy and love that radiated from the bride and groom touched everyone in the room. Leah presided with her customary dignity and grace. Thata and Tully stood by the bride, both of them beaming. Xena and Gabrielle stood by the groom. As Joxer and Meg repeated their vows of love and commitment to each other the bard slipped her hand into the Warrior Princess' and both their hearts raced to feel the touch of the other at this scared moment. Finally the marriage was sealed with an exchange of small gifts and a kiss. Leah pronounced a blessing from Hestia and smiled warmly as she gave them each a peck on the cheek for luck. Meg embraced her two old friends and they could feel her trembling with emotion. Joxer got a long hug from the bard while Xena pumped his arm. The Lion chuckled to herself as she noticed the slightly stunned look on Joxers face, like an ox hit between the eyes with a mallet.
A chorus of a dozen Hestian Virgins began singing an ancient love song acompanied by a lyre while young initiates formed two parallel rows from the alter to the door of the Temple and strew rose petals in the space between for the newlyweds to walk on. Joxer took Meg's hand and kissed it and looked deep into her blue eyes. Meg smiled her happiest crooked smile and caressed his cheek. Then they started down the path between the young women. Tully and Thata came next followed by Xena and Gabrielle.
Once outside on the steps the whole little wedding party, except for Meg, who was grinning behind a hunched shoulder, let out a collective gasp. Standing beside Argo, held by a young groom in red jacket and white pants, was a magnificent black stallion. As big as the old warhorse, the stallions head bobbed up and down with spirit and nervous energy, its shining ebony body glowing with pent up power. Joxer looked at Meg with eyes as big as saucers. Meg smiled sheepishly and shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head, then impulsivly threw her arms around Joxers neck and hugged him tight.
"Joxer the Mighty doesn't walk." She whispered. "My husband rides, his head as high as the mightiest King."
Joxer put his arms around Meg and squeezed her so tight it took her breath away.
"If I lived in a hole in the ground in the desert I would be a happy man," He whispered back. "as long as my wife was with me."
Joxer pulled his head back and looked deep into his wife's eyes.
"I...I love you Meg." He said, a touch of wonder in his voice. "I love you."
Meg's chin quivered and her blue eyes became soft. She took small short gulps of air, like it was difficult to breath. Gabrielle closed her eyes and asked Artemis to help her friend. Xena stared into space with her warlord mask on, her thoughts for no one else to share.
Meg put her hands on either side of Joxers face.
"I..." She took a deep breath." ...love you my husband."
She let out the air then took in a quick breath.
"I love you my husband."
The words came out much easier the second time. Then she pressed her lips to Joxer's. Thata and Tully smiled dreamily at each other. The bard wiped her nose with the back of her hand and said a quick thank you to the Goddess. Xena's eyes shifted to Joxer. Joxer pulled his mouth back from Meg and he caught the Lions look and he made the slightest nod of his head. With the tiniest hint of a smile in her eyes the Warrior Princess returned his nod.
After seeing Argo and Bucephelus, Joxers name for his new stallion, safely stabled and comfortable, Xena entered Meg's. The building was packed with people, regulars of the restaurant and the brothel all enjoying the free food and drink Meg and Joxer were supplying in plenty. A head table had been set up for the wedding party along the back wall and Xena went and took her seat beside Gabrielle. A steady stream of wellwishers came by to congratulate the newlyweds and these two people, for so much of their lives ignored, belittled, outcast, greeted each of their guests with such warmth and goofy good heartedness that soon the whole room was infected with the mood. The Lion and the bard watched for a long time and then Gabrielle turned to Xena with shining eyes and whispered.
"They will have the best kind of marriage. They make each other better. I pray that we can do that for each other Xena."
The Warrior Princess brought her face close and let her nose rub Gabrielle's.
"I know that we will." She said.
Finally the girls stopped serving food and the tables were crowded against the walls to clear a space in the center of the room for dancing. A small ensemble of lutes and pipes and drums set up in one corner and Joxer led his beautiful new wife onto the floor for the first dance. Truth be told it was not a graceful exhibition of dancing, but it was energetic and joyful and the guests clapped along enthusiasticly with the beat and cheered thunderously when it was done. Then began the serious dancing of a classic Greek wedding. The men around and around in one circle. The women in another. The beat slow at first but constantly building til it reached a crescendo that turned the dancers into whirling dirvishes of excitement and erotic energy.
Gabrielle joined in from the first dance, abandoning herself to the music and the moment. Xena watched from her seat at the head table, slowly sipping her wine while noticing Gabrielle's every movement and expression. Several times as the dancing went on Gabrielle invited Xena with her eyes to come out and join her but the Warrior Princess only smiled and motioned with her hand that the bard should just go on and enjoy herself. Gabrielle could not help a sigh of disappointment even though she would have been surprised if the Lion had accepted her invitations. At last as afternoon turned into dusk the leader of the musicians called for the traditional last dance of the reception. Everyone was free to choose their own partner by grabbing a napkin from a table and asking someone special to share it, for the dance was performed while each dancer held one end of the cloth. Husbands asked wives, old friends asked each other, some of the regulars of the brothel asked a favorite among the girls. Joxer and Meg moved to the center of the room to take the first turn around the floor.
Gabrielle watched everyone pair up. An old gentleman, a regular of the restaurant she had talked with several times over the last weeks, came up and gallantly asked her to dance. The bard smiled and patted his arm and politely refused, claiming exhaustion. As he left she wiped some sweat from her brow, sighed, turned and ran into a tall, blackhaired stonewall. She bounced back a step and started to say 'excuse me' then realized who she had run into. Her eyebrows knitted together.
The Warrior Princess held out her hand, with a napkin in it, bowed ever so slightly from the waist, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle's, and smiled...shyly.
"Would Gabrielle," She said quietly, "Queen of the Amazon Nation, do me the singular honor of dancing with me?"
The bards eyes sparkled. She took in a sudden deep breath, then put her leg back and courtsied so low her knee almost touched the ground.
"The Queen of the Amazon Nation," She said slowly and deliberatly, after she had risen, "would be most honored and pleased to dance with the Great Lion of Amphipolis."
The bard grasped the end of the cloth napkin and turned to watch the newlyweds. The music began and Joxer and Meg slowly worked their way around the room with only a few minor missteps in the intricate pattern of the dance. When they had completed a circle all the other dancers flooded onto the floor and joined them. As in all Greek dances it started slowly and built steadily in the speed and passion of its rhythm. As Xena matched steps with Gabrielle she could not take her eyes off the bards. The green emeralds seemed to shine at her with a blazing brilliance she had never seen before, or even imagined possible. And she realized with a start that the feeling was back. The feeling that she was falling into those green pools of love. She did not fight the sensation. She reveled in it. She felt breathless, overwhelmed. She felt...young. As if bathing in those pools were washing away years of grime and dirt, guilt and regret. She felt rejuvenated, as if life were just beginning and it was going to start this time with true love at her side and a blank scroll before them that they would fill up together with the glorious stories of their deeds, and their love.
Suddenly the Lion was aware that the music had stopped and the crowd was clapping and cheering for the newlyweds who were standing in the middle of the room, hand in hand, smiling and waving at everyone around them. But Xena could see only Gabrielle. She pulled the bard to her and wrapped her in a hug. Then she bent her face down and kissed those familiar lips but they were not familiar at all. Xena felt as though she were kissing them for the very first time and it sent a thrill through her that touched her soul. She laid her cheek on top of Gabrielle's head and stroked her blonde hair.
"I love you so much." The Warrior Princess whispered.
Gabrielle could not force any sounds out of her throat. The emotion she felt at that moment was far past anything that words could express. So she hugged Xena with all the strength her small body could muster till her arms were exhausted with the effort.
The crowd stopped cheering and began to break up. Some leaving, some returning to their tables for more eating and drinking. Joxer and Meg came over to the friends.
"Well guys, what'd ya think?" Joxer grinned. "Great reception huh?"
Xena smiled and nodded.
"It was a great reception." Gabrielle answered. She slipped her hand into Xena's and squeezed. "I've never had so much fun in my life."
The two friends walked Joxer and Meg out of the restaurant and through the blue curtain to the bottom of the stairs leading to the newlyweds bedroom.
"Can you guys watch the place for us?" Meg asked. "It'll be a while before we run out of ale and chicken." Meg smiled. "I'm sure that bunch out there won't want to leave till every drop is downed and wing is scarfed."
Xena and Gabrielle grinned and nodded.
Joxer grabbed Meg's hand. He smiled wickedly.
"I think it's about time wife we..." He turned his head and let his eyes travel up the stairs.
Meg matched Joxers grin.
"I think so too husband."
They started to turn but Gabrielle touched Meg's arm.
"Before you go I'd like to say something." She said.
Everyone looked at the little bard who took a moment to look each of them in the eye.
"A long time ago," she began, "Xena told me there are two types of families. The ones you are born into and the ones you create with your love."
Gabrielle took the Warrior Princess' hand. "Xena and I became a family."
The bard looked at Joxer and punched him in the arm.
"Ouch" Joxer mouthed silently and grabbed the spot.
"Then this goof came along and was annoying and troublesome and annoying," The bard smiled. "I said that. And also," the smile disappeared, "he was loyal and caring and kind and always brave when we needed him to be brave. He became our brother, as much loved as any brother can be. A part of our family."
Gabrielle looked at Meg.
"Now our brother has a wife. An amazing, goodhearted woman who seems to grow every day right before our eyes. I can't imagine what you see in this bum," The bard winked at Joxer and punched him in the arm again, "but I'm glad you do because I see him growing everyday too. We're very proud Meg that you decided to become a part of us."
Gabrielle put her hands behind her neck and looked at Xena. The Lion knitted her eyebrows for a moment questioningly, then her eyes smiled and she made a slight nod of her head. The bard untied her shell necklace and tied it around Meg's neck while Meg looked at her wide eyed. Gabrielle put her arms around her new sister and hugged her tight.
"Welcome to our family Meg." She said. "We love you."
Meg's body began to tremble. She looked at Xena. The Lion stepped up and put an arm over Meg's shoulder and lightly touched her cheek to Meg's.
"You are very welcome." The Warrior Princess whispered. "You're not alone anymore Meg. Your family stands with you. Always."
Meg sniffed and a tear dropped from one eye, followed by another. She looked at Joxer, who was grinning proudly, his chest puffed out like a peacock, then at the two smiling friends.
"I...uh...uh..." Meg took a deep breath. She wanted to speak. She tried again but only puffs of air escaped her mouth.
Gabrielle touched her arm.
"Meg, don't make a speech. Just say 'I love you too'."
Meg smiled through her tears.
"I love you too." She whispered.
The bard smiled brightly.
"Okay, now you two can go upstairs and do all kinds of nasty, disgusting things I never want to hear about." She said.
"Last one in bed has to wash the sheets." Joxer yelled and he tore up the stairs with Meg in hot pursuit trying to grab hold of his shirt to slow him down, both of them laughing like children let out for recess. Xena watched them disappear then she turned to the bard and smiled.
"I don't know Gabrielle. Pretty soon I'll have to carry around a scroll with all the names of the people in my family so I don't forget anyone." The Lion's face became serious. "I remember not so long ago when there was no one on the list. Not even myself. I didn't care if I lived or died."
The bard put her arms around Xena's waist and looked her in the eyes.
"Hatred is death, beloved." She said. "It always lies alone in the grave it digs for itself. Love is life. It's always growing and multiplying. It's never alone. It never dies."
Xena put her arms around Gabrielle.
"It seems I'm to be consort to a philosopher Queen."
"Well, I better be something or the Great Lion of Amphipolis will lose interest in me."
"Beloved, the day I lose interest in you is the day I lose interest in breathing."
Gabrielle went back to the ovens to see if Zephia needed anything and to bring her a tall cup of her favorite wine. Xena relaxed into her chair at the head table, her back to the wall. She sipped from a mug of ale and watched with growing interest as four men entered the restaurant and found an empty table in a corner away from everyone else. They were dusty and looked tired from a hard days travelling on horseback, judging from the shine they had on the seats of their pants and the riding boots they were wearing. All were well armed with swords on their backs like Xena's and daggers in their belts. But they wore no armour or any markings or insignias that might identify them as professional warriors. 'Hoping to freeload a meal' Xena thought. She shrugged. There was plenty of food left. The sooner it was gone the sooner she could curl up with Gabrielle. Still, her eyes went back to them again and again. Something about them made the back of her neck crawl.
Gabrielle appeared and sat down beside her.
"Zephia is exhausted." The bard said. "I told her to go to bed. What's left of the food should be gone soon. We can clear the place and go to bed ourselves."
The bard grinned and rubbed her leg against Xena's under the table. The Warrior Princess grinned back but then her eyes went again to the strangers in the corner. Gabrielle followed her gaze.
"Hmmm." She said. "I haven't seen them before. Any ideas?"
"Why so interested?"
"Well," Xena said slowly. "something's just not right."
The friends watched Xenobia bring some plates of food to the group and set them out.
"When they called Xenobia over and joked around with her I could hear a little of their conversation. They're Greek alright. No hint of accent in their speech, but look at their clothes." Xena said.
Gabrielle concentrated on their appearance.
"I've seen those boots before." She said.
"Yep. They're common among the tribes that live on the great steppes north of Chin. And that cap the one on the far left is wearing. Lots of peasants in Chin wear that type of cap. And that ivory handled dagger the one on the right has. I've seen that design. It comes from the mountains north of India. I passed through there on the way to Chin."
"It seems we have been honored by a visit from world travellers." Gabrielle said.
The friends talked quietly and shared some bread and cheese as the evening wore on and they waited patiently for the food to run out. They watched as Xenobia went through the blue curtain holding the hand of the man with the Indian dagger. Gabrielle smiled at Xena.
"I guess you have to admire her ambition." She said. "She can't go a day without making some money."
Xena smiled back. "Yep."
Finally the bard tired of sitting. She took Xena's cup and her own and went across the room to the keg of ale to freshen their drinks. When both were full she started back. A man approaching with his own cup and too many cups already inside him stumbled clumsily and bumped into Gabrielle. Ale spilled out all over the front of her dress.
"Oh no!" The bard cried in dismay.
"Oh, uh, oh, sorry." The man said, wiping at her dress with his hand.
"Just quit, okay." The bard said, pushing away his hand, her temper rising. "I'll take care of it."
A husky man with tattos on his bare forearms and a scar above his eyebrow, who had been sitting in a drunken stupor a few feet away, suddenly stood up.
"See what you did you drunken oaf." He said harshly. "You ruined the nice ladies dress. What's wrong with you!"
He took a step and pushed the first man hard on the shoulder. The man stumbled back but then anger clouded his face. He started to move forward but Gabrielle jumped in front of him.
"Now gentlemen," She said. "there's no reason to fi..."
Both men shoved her out of the way at the same time. She stumbled back into a table and sat down on a big slice of cherry pie.
"Hey!!" The man who was sitting at the table yelled. "I was going to eat that!"
He jumped up and dived on top of the two men wrestling each other on the floor. This seemed to be the signal for a general eruption of drunken brawling in the room. Food and fists flew everywhere for no particular reason except that it seemed the thing to do. Xena watched with disinterested distain for a few moments. Then seeing that Gabrielle was too busy wanging some unfortunate on the head with a wooden plate to bring any ale she decided to get her own fresh cup. She carefully made her way across the room picking her way over, around and between the struggling bodies. She picked up a cup lying under the keg and filled it and took a long drink. She expertly dodged several plates of food that whizzed past her head like a boxer slipping punches. She was about to start back for her seat when something went splatt on the back of her head. She reached back with an astonished look on her face and felt her hair and then examined her hand. Sticky tomato juice and seeds covered her palm. Her face twisted with anger. She took a deep breath and a terrifying war cry erupted that froze everyone in the room.
An unlucky man who happened to be passing the entrance to Meg's was knocked down by the first of a half dozen bodies that came flying out the door. Out of every exit people poured out of the restaurant into the street before they were thrown out. Finally the last man went sailing out the door and landed with a thud on top of several others. Xena slamed the door behind him, then she reached back and felt the sticky juice in her hair again.
"I hate when that happens." She whined. "Gabrielle you're going to have to..."
She turned and there in the center of the room was the bard, ale dripping from her hair and face. Her dress soaked through. Her left cheek smeared red with bits of cherry pie. The wooden plate still in her hand. Gabrielle was glaring at Xena.
"How nice of you to join the party." Gabrielle said with barely disguised sarcasm. "It was getting dull till you arrived."
Xena struggled hard to keep a straight face. Finally she shrugged.
"Better late than never."
The bard cocked her head to one side. "Isn't that so true. Better late than never. Wish I would've thought of that."
Gabrielle dropped the plate and wiped some of the berries off her face.
"Well, I guess we better head for the bath house and clean up."
"Guess so." Xena said.
The bard looked at the Warrior Princess and a strange smile came over her face. Xena eyed her suspiciously.
"So I'm a stick in the mud huh. Well I have a game for you. We'll play the Lion rescues the bard from the Minitour and I get to be the Lion and you play the bard."
Gabrielle started walking toward the blue curtain. Xena fell in beside her.
"I'm not going to play that!"
"Because Gabrielle you'll stand there laughing while the monster kills and eats me and then you'll ravish the beast like some wanton hussy."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle said. "I don't really see a downside to that. Let's go for it."
"See how you are."
"Seriously Xena. It's my game. I called it. Are you going to play or not?"
"Gabrielle," The Lion whined. "I cannot pretend I'm you."
"And why not?"
"Well, for one thing. I can't pretend I'm that short."
The bard stopped and glared at Xena.
"Oh, that was funny. So funny. That goes right into my scroll of Xena humor. When I get enough little quips I'm going to make a thousand copies and sell them as a sleep aid. We'll be rich."
Later in the evening Xenobia went to the bath house to clean up but the peals of laughter coming from inside told her it was fully occupied.
The Lion stroked the bards cheek.
"Gabrielle, wake up."
"Huh, what?" The bard popped open a sleepy eye. "Xena?"
"Get up. Something is happening. Get dressed. I'll meet you out front with Argo as soon as possible."
Gabrielle responded to the urgency in Xena's voice and sat up on the edge of the bed.
"What's happening?" She asked.
"Don't know." The Lion said as she left the room. "But we're going to find out."
When the bard walked into the restaurant through the blue curtain she was surprised to see that none of the girls were working to clean up the mess from the previous evening. Some were crowded at the front window. Others at the open front door. All seemed to be anxiously peering out at the happenings on the street. Gabrielle went to the front door and pushed past Irene and Zephia onto the front steps. The sight that met her eyes was startling and disturbing.
Small clots of men in breastplates and helmets with their round shields strapped to their backs and ten foot spears on their shoulders were making their way down the dusty main thoroughfare. Hopolite infantry. The citizen soldiers of Delphi all headed toward the great main gate of the city. Alongside many of the men walked a wife or sweetheart with an anxious look on her face. Some carried an infant or small child. Suddenly the deep steady pounding of martial drums assaulted the bards ears. She looked up the street to see a line of drummer boys appear around a corner six blocks down. They were followed by a column of foot soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, six across and fifty men deep, every man in full armour, his spear on his shoulder. A fully formed phalanx with its standard bearer proudly carrying its standard in front of the column. Gabrielle watched with sad fascination as the warriors in the street cleared to the side and the phalanx marched past in perfect step. Behind came a cloud of women and children, some with tears staining their dusty faces.
When the mass of people cleared Gabrielle spotted Xena standing with Argo across the road. She ran to them dodging among the stragglers trailing the column. When she reached her the bard grabbed the Warrior Princess arm.
"By the Gods Xena. What is it? What's happened? Is the city being attacked?"
"The old man at the stable," Xena replied, "said that street cryers came around just before dawn announcing a full mobilization of the city militia. The rumor is a barbarian invasion. That they are already attacking the walls of Athens. But you know I have no faith in street rumors."
The Lion watched as more groups of citizen soldiers walked past followed by their loved ones and she shook her head.
"Still, I have the most terrible feeling about all this Gabrielle. I need to know what's really going on. So we're going to the King's quarters right now and find out."
The bard looked at Xena with wonder. She knew they had never met the King yet the Lion took it for granted that he would see her immediatly even at this critical hour. And the truth was Gabrielle did not doubt that he would.
Xena helped the bard up and then leaped up behind her. Argo made her way slowly against the flow of traffic till they could turn off the main street and head down a side road where the warhorse could increase her pace to a trot and soon they pulled up in front of King Althades Royal Residence. It was a huge stone fortress of a building three stories high and two blocks long. At the main entrance a corporal and four guards stood at attention while a steady stream of sternfaced couriers, officers and important civilian bureaucrats passed in and out under the corporals watchful eye. The Lion jumped off Argo and helped the bard down. She then approached the Corporal who was eyeing her suspiciously.
"Halt and identify yourself." He barked when she got close, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"I am Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis and this," she looked at the bard. "is Gabrielle, the Queen of the Amazon Nation. I urgently need to see the King. I believe I may have information useful to him."
"Yeah, well, I've heard the names before but I don't know you two from Aphrodite and Artimus." The corporal answered with a humorless smile on his face. "The King is busy today and so am I so why don't you ladies just move on."
Xena walked up into the corporal's face, her nose hardly an inch from his, her cold blue eyes flashing. The man tightened his grip on his weapon and the warriors behind him put their hands on their swords.
"Corporal," the Lion's voice rumbled like an approaching storm. "My information may be critical to your city and King. Perhaps you would be wise to let some higher authority make this important decision rather than take on the whole responsibility yourself. Being at the bottom of the chain of command can have its advantages."
The corporal stared a long moment into the eyes of the predator before him and then suddenly took a step back.
"Menius!" He barked.
"You're in charge of the gate. These two don't pass till I get back. Understood."
Without another word the corporal turned on his heel and disappeared through the entrance into the residence.
The bard looked at Xena and smiled.
"A keen understanding of the military mind?"
The Warrior Princess looked back with pursed lips.
"A warrior his age who's still a corporal doesn't like responsibility."
The bards smile got wider.
"Like I said, a keen understanding of the military mind."
The friends walked down to the end of the residence and Xena tied Argo's reins to a long hitching post. Half a dozen other horses stood at the post, several of them extremely lathered.
"They should have someone here watering these animals." The Lion said reproachfully, mostly to herself.
They walked back to the entrance and leaned against the wall and watched silently the steady stream of grim faced couriers and officers hurry in and out. After several candlemarks had passed a tall husky man in full, brightly polished armour with a helmet sporting a tall red plume suddenly burst out of the doorway followed closely by the corporal.
The friends straightened and when the man spotted them he immediatly approached.
"You must be Xena, the Great Lion." He said matter of factly.
The Warrior Princess made a slight nod.
"And you are Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation?"
The bard bowed formally.
The man bowed in return.
"I am Epides. First aid to General Antillius, King Althedes Chief of Staff. I've been sent to bring you to the King at once. Please follow me."
Without another word he turned and strode quickly back into the building, Xena and Gabrielle a step behind. They passed through a long foyer and then turned left down a broad hallway. Men, military and civilian, hurried past them while every ten paces a guard stood at attention, eyes alert and examining everyone. Finally they came to two great wooden doors with six warriors standing almost shoulder to shoulder in front of them but as they approached the guards parted and one of them pushed back a door. Epides nodded at the soldier as he passed and said quietly, "they're with me." The warrior nodded back and held the door as Xena and Gabrielle passed through. The room they entered was huge, the Kings formal reception hall. At the opposite end from the doors was a stone platform topped with the Kings ornately decorated, gold guilded throne. But the chair was empty, as was the room. The three figures walked quickly across the hall, their steps echoing on the stone floor. They passed the platform and around behind the throne they came to a small door with a guard on either side. Epides approached the warrior on the right and whispered something in his ear. The man, who had been eyeing the Lion and the bard suspisciously, nodded, then reached over and unlatched the door and pushed it open.
Xena and Gabrielle instantly recognized the room they entered as the King's private council chamber. A long oak table with half a dozen chairs on either side dominated the center of the room while on the wall to the left was a intricately detailed and finely illustrated map of Greece that extended from floor to ceiling and covered half the wall. In front of the map, his hand on his chin, his eyes focused intently, stood King Althedes, a short stocky man with a gray mane down to his shoulders and a full beard as gray as his hair. However his stance was erect and powerful, his shoulders back and his arms and legs thick and muscular where you could see them under his armour. A step behind him stood four senior advisors all staring at the map as intently as the King. Along the opposite wall a dozen aides patiently waited to be summomed or consulted. Also along the wall stood two young warriors whose different colored tunics and armour made them stand out. Xena recognized them as members of the Athenian cavalry. Young sons of the rich nobility, for only the sons of rich men could afford to equip themselves with the expensive weapons and warhorse needed to be in the cavalry.
Epides motioned for the two friends to wait and he approached General Antillius, standing directly behind the King, and whispered in his ear. The General peeked over at Xena and Gabrielle then stepped up to the King and whispered in his ear. King Althades immediatly turned and motioned to the Warrior Princess and the bard to approach. As they drew close the King offered his arm to Xena. Eyebrows all over the room shot up at this shocking sign of respect and familiarity. A King of a great Grecian city state treating a person of non royal blood as an equal. The Lion took the arm without a thought. Expecting no less.
"Xena. It's a pleasure finally to meet you." The King said warmly. "Priestess Leah told me of the service you did her and this city several years ago. I wish you had remained in the city so I could have thanked you then."
"Thanks were not needed Your Majesty," The Warrior Princess replied, "we were happy to be of use to Leah and the Hestians."
Althedes released Xena's arm and turned to the bard and bowed formally.
"I have heard many stories of the proud and fierce Amazon," The King said. "but none of them mentioned the beauty of their Queen. An oversight that needs to be corrected."
The bard returned the bow.
"The King of Delphi is a gallant gentleman." She answered, then she smiled puckishly. "It's a shame about his poor eyesight."
The King guffawed loudly and several of his advisors chuckled quietly to themselves. Althades bowed again to the Queen of the Amazons in appreciation of her wit. Then he turned a serious face to Xena.
"I was informed you might have important information for us regarding this emergency." He said.
"I may Your Majesty," The Warrior Princess replied, "but I won't know for certain till I have heard what message you've received that has brought on this drastic mobilization. I'll know immediately if my information can be of use to you and if not I'll withdraw and waste no more of your precious time."
The King looked over at the two Athenian cavalrymen. One of them smartly stepped forward and Althades beckoned him to approach with a nod of his head. The young warrior marched across the room and presented himself with a bow, his helmet tucked under his arm, his eyes alert and intelligent.
"This is Leander of the elite Athenian cavalry. He and his companion arrived just after midnight with a most disturbing message."
The King nodded at the two friends.
"Repeat your news sir, for the Great Lion and the Queen of the Amazons."
Leander made a curt bow.
"I was given this message," he began, "and bid deliver it by Pericles, leader of the High Council of Citizens of Athens. We have received dispatches from the commander of the permanent Athenian garrison at the pass of Thermopolye reporting the following. Twelve days ago refugees from Macedonia and Thrace began streaming through the pass claiming an immense barbarian tribe was rolling over their lands looting and burning and killing everything in their path. The commander immediately sent out a force of forty cavalry to investigate. They returned to the pass eight days ago. They reported that after a sharp skirmish with a force of barbarian horsemen, during which they captured one, they took position on a high hill overlooking the Thracian plain. There before them far as the eyes could see were trails of smoke rising from burning villages and through a billowing dust cloud an entire nation could be seen on the march. The cavalry commander estimated the number of people, men, women and children, in the hundreds of thousands, all riding horses or in horse drawn carts. Great herds of cattle and horses were being driven along on both flanks of the column. They were only able to observe for a few candlemarks before another force of barbarian horsemen attacked and drove them back."
"The garrison commander, at the order of Pericles and the Council, sent out emissaries to contact the barbarians and discover their intentions. The emissaries were brutally slaughtered by the first barbarians they met. Only two wounded survivors returning to the pass four days ago. Refugees continue to report that the barbarians are moving straight for Thermopolye. The prisoner has been of no use as a source of intelligence due to the language barrier. The only information gained so far is that he calls his people the Hesviti. The best estimate of the Council is that the main body of the Hesviti will reach the pass four days from today. Athens has mobilized its entire military force and the army should reach the pass by forced march today. Sparta has also mobilized and the Spartans should reach Thermopolye late tomorrow. The Council urges you, at this hour of dire peril, to come to Thermopolye with all the men and supplies you can muster and aid us in turning back this threat to our very existance. The fate of Greece lies in the balance."
The Athenian bowed sharply.
"The same message was sent to all the cities of Greece."
"Leander," Gabrielle asked quietly, "was a messenger sent to the Amazon Nation?"
"Yes Your Majesty. I know for a fact that Lestus and his brother were sent to the Amazons."
"Thank you Leander." The King said. "You may withdraw and await my orders."
The young warrior bowed and marched back to his place beside his companion.
Xena had listened to the message while staring intently at the map of Greece on the wall. Now she turned to Althades.
"It's everything I feared Your Majesty," She said quietly. "everything I feared."
The room was silent as death as every ear focused on the Lion's words.
"The Hesviti are the largest and fiercest tribe of the Mongoli people who live on the great steppes north of Chin. They live by plunder and plagued the farmers of Chin for centuries till they finally built a wall hundreds of leagues long to keep them and all the other tribes of the Mongoli out. I know it's hard to believe Your Majesty but we've both seen it with our own eyes."
Gabrielle nodded gravely beside Xena.
"I was living with another tribe of the Mongoli twelve years ago, just about to head back to Greece," the Warrior Princess continued, "when the Hesviti suddenly disappeared into the emptiness of the great steppe. The rumor among the other tribes was that the pickings around Chin were getting too hard to come by and that they were headed west for greener pastures. Then two years ago we all started reading the propaganda dispatches from Rome and Ceasar about his great battle along the Rhine in the Hurtegen Forest. Do you remember King Althades?" The Monarch nodded. "They said the barbarians all fought on horseback armed with bows and a sword. And that during the battle their flights of arrows blotted out the sun but Ceasar used the forest and broken terrain to rob the horses of their advantage in mobility and he forced them back across the river after three days of fighting."
Xena shook her head and said under her breath 'the bastard is good.'
"The dispatches called the barbarians the 'Helvitii' but I suspected at the time it was just a latin corruption of Hesviti. I hoped that they would head north into the unknown lands or just turn around and head back for Chin but it's apparent now that for the last two years they have been marching down the Rhine and the Danube straight for us."
Xena paused a moment, took a deep breath and sighed. Then she looked straight into the King's eyes.
"Hesviti, roughly translated, means human beings. These people believe they are the only human beings on earth. Everyone who is not Hesviti is a sub human who exists only to be plundered, raped, enslaved or killed. I don't know if the idea of mercy to outsiders even exits in their thinking. I was invited to join their tribe after I slaughtered a dozen of them. I believe they found it facinating that they had run into someone with even less regard for the lives of others than they have. If the Hesviti force the pass Your Majesty, by winter Greece will be a smoking wasteland with half the population dead and the other half condemned to a life of vile and wretched slavery. The Athenians are right. The fate of Greece now hangs in the balance."
The silence in the room was deafening. No one moved. Finally the King cleared his throat and turned and studied the map on the wall for a few moments.
"By forced march we can be at the pass in three days." He said quietly, almost to himself. Suddenly he turned to his advisors.
"Galen." The soldier beside General Antillius came to attention. "Sweep the city. Find every shield, no matter the condition and load them on carts. I want them transported to the pass as quickly as possible. Facing archers every warrior will need a shield. Some of the men from the poorer contingents won't have one. We will provide all we can. See to it personally Galen. Now."
The officer bowed, turned on his heel and left. Xena nodded approvingly.
"Sound thinking King Althades."
The man felt a little rush of pleasure surge through him. He was surprised he could still feel flattered after so many years as King. But to be complimented by the Great Lion of Amphipolis. What warrior did not live for that day.
"Xena," The King said, lowering his voice so only the friends and his chief advisors could hear, "we both know an army cannot fight and win being run by committee. Once the armies of Greece are assembled an overall commander in chief will have to be chosen. Someone whose leadership off the battlefield and generalship on it is well known and unquestioned by everyone. And also someone with no alligence to any particular city or faction. Someone to judge the situation on the cold hard facts without bias to anyones special interests. That description, Great Lion, fits you. When the Kings and Generals get together at Thermopolye I want to propose your name as Supreme Commander of the armies of Greece. I think it very likely you would be acceptable."
Xena, who was staring at the map deep in thought, did not react immediately. Gabrielle's face became flushed as her heart raced with pride. Her skin actually tingled and the suspence of the moment was so intense she could not breath. Finally the Warrior Princess looked at the King.
"Such an honor comes only once in a lifetime." She said slowly as her hand found Gabrielle's. "Only one other event in my life will ever compare with it."
Xena made a slight bow.
"You have my permission, King Althades, to tell the Kings and Generals of Greece that I will accept the position of Supreme Commander, if offered."
The King smiled and nodded once.
"But now Your Majesty," Xena said quickly, "you have many problems to solve and I have something I wish to look into before I head for Thermopolye. I shouldn't be more than a day behind you, if that. Good day King of Delphi, and good luck."
The Warrior Princess turned and swept out of the room so suddenly that people, including the King, were stunned by the abruptness of it. Gabrielle scrambled after and did not catch up till Xena was in the hallway outside the throne room.
"What's the rush?" She said breathless, loping along beside Xena's long strides.
"We need to find those four men we saw in the restaurant last night. The world travellers."
Xena looked down at the bard troting beside her and a little smile flashed across her face.
"Just go along with me on this one beloved, okay. I'll explain everything later."
"Fine by me." Gabrielle replied.
Xena skidded Argo to a halt in front of Meg's and jumped down.
"You may need your staff." The Lion said as she helped Gabrielle dismount. "I'm going to talk to Xenobia while you're getting it."
The bard nodded and hurried into the building followed closely by the Warrior Princess. All the girls of Meg's were sitting around two tables in the still uncleaned restaurant, tense worried expressions on every face. Xena went straight to Xenobia, whose face seemed the most tense and worried of all. Before the Lion could speak a word Xenobia blurted out.
"Xena, is it true? Do the barbarians eat babies as a delicacy and do their women bathe in the blood of sacrificed virgin slaves to make themselves beautiful and fertile?"
"Well, you don't have to worry on either count Xenobia." Someone said. No one laughed.
"No they don't." Xena replied. "Who told you that?"
"The man I was with last night. He told me all sorts of stories. He's been out all over the world. He said he's even lived with the barbarians. Seen the things they do with his own eyes."
"But he was Greek wasn't he?"
"Oh yes," Xenobia answered. "Definitely Greek. Wouldn't say where he was from though. Kind of close mouthed about things like that. He left way before dawn. Said he was going to bed down with his friends at the stable and leave at sunrise."
"Did he say what stable or where he was going?"
"No, but I said he could sleep here if he wanted and save the walk but he said it was just a short walk. He didn't mind."
Gabrielle appeared through the blue curtain with her staff. Xena motioned for her to follow and out the door she went. When the bard reached the door she almost ran into the Warrior Princess, who was standing on the front steps, her hands on her hips, staring at Joxer. The new husband was astride Bucephelus, who was standing nervously beside Argo. Joxer had on his rusty old armour and helmet, his sword dangling by his side. Meg stood between the two warhorses, her hand tightly laced with her husbands. The newly weds looked back at Xena.
"They've called out everyone Xena." Joxer said, his eyes focused and determined. "I don't belong to the local militia yet but I'm as responsible as any other warrior to do my part. I know you'll be in the middle of whatever is going on so I'll just go with you."
The Lion stared hard at Joxer for a long moment but his eyes never wavered. Finally she put her arms down.
"Alright." She said quietly.
Meg looked up at her husband with teary eyes. He bent down low and stroked her cheek and whispered words of encouragement. Xena went to Argo and leaped up. Before she could help Gabrielle up Meg came around and they shared a long warm hug.
"Be careful." Meg whispered.
"I will." The bard whispered back, then she put her hand on Meg's belly. "I can hardly wait to hold this one in my arms."
After Gabrielle was up behind Xena Meg put her hand on the Warrior Princess leg and looked up at her with beseeching eyes. Xena looked down and smiled.
"Don't worry Meg." She said. "I'll get him home safe. I promise."
"No Xena. Promise you'll all come home safe. My little girl," Meg smiled weakly, "I know it's going to be a girl, needs all of her family around her. Promise me Xena."
Xena covered Meg's hand with hers and leaned down and looked deeply into blue eyes that matched her own.
"One way or another Meg, we will always be around that girl. She's part of us and we're part of her. Always."
"Joxer," she said, "where is the nearest stable?"
Joxer looked around.
"Well it's uh, well, it's old Festus' place."
"Nope," Xena said. "That's where I've had Argo. They weren't there. What's next closest?"
"Petrus' stable, five blocks over and one to the left." Meg said.
"Then that's where we start." Xena pulled Argo's head around. "Let's move."
The Warrior Princess had hardly said ten words when Petrus started nodding his head. He pointed out the four stalls used by the strangers horses. The Lion quickly examined the dirt floor of each then climbed back into the saddle in front of Gabrielle.
"One of their horses has a split in its shoe. We can track them."
Xena looked at the sun, a quarter up in the sky.
"They left at dawn but they have no reason to think they are being followed. Hopefully they aren't in a hurry. But we are. Let's go."
The trio went back to the main thoroughfare and headed for the great gate of Delphi. Argo and Bucephelus were crowded to the very edge of the road by a tremendous traffic jam of carts and wagons slowly making their way out of the city piled high with hastily gathered supplies. The sounds of cursing drivers, officers shouting orders and several loud, angry arguments filled the air, along with a choking cloud of dust. Finally they squeezed through the gate. In the open fields on either side of the road the army of Delphi was beginning to take shape. Nearly ten thousand men being formed into column one phalanx at a time. The road was still full of wagons as far ahead as the eye could see through the dust. Xena abandoned the highway altogether and let Argo canter along in the high grass beside it, Bucephelus right behind. At last after two leagues they came to the head of the slow moving supply train, a contingent of cavalry leading the way at a walk. Once past them Xena guided Argo back onto the road.
"Xena," Gabrielle asked. "How can we possibly track anyone on this road? It's too heavily travelled for that isn't it?"
The Warrior Princess rubbed some of the dust from her eyes.
"Of course. I'm hoping we don't find any sign of them Gabrielle. It means I'm completely wrong and we're just wasteing our time. That would make me very happy right now. But we'll see, we'll see."
After six leagues at a steady trot the friends came to a fork in the road. The main highway continued straight ahead. A smaller, less well maintained and travelled lane branched to the left. The Lion slowed Argo to a walk and guided her left. She began studying the roadway carefully as they went, noting every track. After half a league she pulled Argo up and dismounted. On one knee she closely examined a horses shoeprint. When she regained the saddle Gabrielle could feel the heightened tension in her lovers body as she put her arm around Xena's waist.
"A split shoe?" The bard asked.
"A split shoe." The Lion replied tonelessly. "But I could still be wrong."
She turned to Joxer.
"Come on man, keep up!" She barked.
Joxer looked at Gabrielle with a confused, hurt face. He was not falling behind. The bard sighed. She could see the signs plainly enough. Something was seriously wrong and the Lion's temper was building like a thunderstorm. Only time would tell how violent it would be.
After five more leagues at a quick canter the road branched again. The new lane was little more than a well worn cart path. It veered to the left and headed straight toward the looming mountains of the northern Peloponese range. Xena steered Argo onto the path and slowed her to a walk. The terrain became rougher and more undulating. They passed outcroppings of rock and isolated pockets of scrubby trees. After two leagues the lane crossed a small, shallow stream. Xena's head swiviled and she drew a deep breath.
"Smell that?" She said.
Gabrielle took a breath.
"Yes, horse dung."
The Lion stopped Argo and dismounted. She walked quickly along the creek to the right through knee high grass, her eyes glued to the ground as she went. Joxer pulled Bucephelus up beside Argo and watched the Warrior Princess silently with Gabrielle. After a few dozen yards Xena bent down and examined something closely. Then she walked slowly around in a circle, stopping several times to examine things hidden in the grass. Finally she headed back for Joxer and the bard at a quick jog. Gabrielle felt her own body tense to see how dark Xena's face had become. She had not seen it like that in a very long time.
"Joxer get down." The Lion commanded as she approached. "We're watering the horses."
Xena helped the bard off Argo.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked.
The Warrior Princess let out a disgusted burst of air.
"Four fresh piles of manure and a split shoe. They stopped here to eat and water the horses. They're only a few candle marks ahead of us now and they don't seem to be in a hurry. We could catch up but if they bolted when they saw us we could never run them down. Their horses are too fresh."
Xena looked down the road. Several leagues ahead a high, heavily wooded ridge rose up like a wall. She pointed toward it.
"The path here runs to that ridge, then turns right and runs parallel for a league or so till it crosses over through a break and then runs back parallel again past here before it turns north again. Like a U. If we go straight over the ridge we can ambush them on the other side. The climb will be hard on the horses but we have no choice. I have to know what those men know."
Gabrielle, who had been listening intently, looked Xena in the eyes.
"This has something to do with the Lion's Wall doesn't it? I know it's around here close somewhere."
The Warrior Princess put her hand gently on the bards shoulder and the briefest smile flashed across her face.
"You do know everything about me, don't you my love." She said quietly. "Yes, I'm afraid these men are headed to the Lion's Wall. It's too much of a coincidence that the Hesviti have arrived and these Greeks with Mongoli riding boots and caps from Chin show up at the same time."
"Wall? Lion's Wall? I've never heard of a Lion's Wall." Joxer said. "What's going on guys?"
Xena looked at Joxer.
"Well," she sighed. "You're in it up to your eyebrows now so I guess you should know what it's about. Gabrielle could you water the horses? We have to go."
The bard nodded, gathered Argo's and Bucephelus' reins and led them to the stream.
"Well Joxer," Xena began. "it's a long story I'll make short. When I broke with Borius my army was small. I rampaged all through this area collecting tribute from the little villages, burning those that didn't cooperate. But after a year I had squeezed them dry and I had a hard time finding new recruits with such a limited population to draw from. I needed to take the army to the great Thracian plain where I could expand it with warriors from all the different tribes living out on the steppes. But of course once I passed through Thermopolye the Athenians or Spartans could slam the door to Greece closed behind me."
"I'd heard rumors that the shepards in the high hills of the Peloponese knew of a path through the mountains that flanked Thermopolye and emptied into Thrace. So I went into the hills with a couple of lieutenents and started working my way through shepards till I found the right one. An old man who had lived in those hills for seventy years. Probably the last man in Greece who had used the path. He was a tough nut. He wasn't going to tell me, until I put my chakram to the throat of his beautiful ten year old granddaughter. He could see in my eyes I would do it. And I would have too."
Even Joxer could hear the pain in Xena's voice. She sighed.
"After he showed me the way I killed him. I couldn't have him warning anyone. Then I took my army out through Thermopolye and two years later, the army doubled in size, I reentered by the shepards trail and descended again on Greece. After I left this area the local villages traced back the way I had come and at a narrow place in the bottom of a canyon with sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high on either side they built a wall, like a dam across a river, to block the trail. And they built a barracks behind it. The villages take turns sending men up for a month at a time to guard it. Usually a dozen or so. The place is so strong defensively fifty warriors could hold it against fifty thousand. They call it the Lion's Wall."
"Uh, do you think the barbarians know about this secret trail and wall?" Joxer asked.
The Lion's eyes glittered like cold blue diamonds.
"I don't know Joxer, but I promise you, I'm going to find out."
Argo and Bucephelus skidded to a stop in front of the ridge after an all out gallop. The three friends dismounted and began climbing the steep, rocky, timber covered slope, the horses panting behind them. Xena led the way, carefully choosing the easiest path for the horses to follow. In several places they literally had to drag the balky animals over particularly rough stretches but finally they reached the top. It was too thickly wooded to see anything of the road or the countryside so they paused only a moment for a drink from a waterskin before plunging down the other side. The Warrior Princess found a dry gully cut by rainwater that made the trip down much quicker, almost too quick when Argo lost her footing and slid twenty feet, knocking down the bard and almost running over her. Only Xena's digging in her heels and hauling back on the reins with all of her strength saved the warhorse from plunging further and injuring herself.
At the bottom the Lion tied the horses reins to a tree and ran down the road looking for any sign of the strangers passing. After a hundred yards she stopped and waved for Gabrielle and Joxer to come on. When they arrived she pointed to an outcropping of huge rocks that protruded out of the ridge and slightly overhung the road.
"They haven't passed yet." Xena said with a satisfied shake of her head. "We'll get in those rocks there and take them as they pass."
The Lion looked at her two companions with narrow, predator eyes.
"We need one of them alive, and I don't want any of them to escape. There's no place here for mistakes, do you understand?"
Gabrielle and Joxer grimly nodded. Xena nodded back and they climbed into the rocks.
Hardly a candlemark went by, the three friends crouched tensely back from the road behind a boulder, when they heard the steady clop of approaching hoofs on the dry lane and the sound of voices. Together they took a quick peek over the rock. The first two men rode side by side talking. The next two rode in single file behind the first. With hand signals Xena motioned that she would go for the first two, Gabrielle should take the third and Joxer the fourth. They nodded that they understood. Judging the sound carefully the Lion waited to the last moment then scrambled up the boulder and with a piercing warcry launched herself into space. The bard came right behind, her staff in her hand, and jumped with a scream of her own. Joxer slipped as he climbed. Desperately he crawled on hands and knees to the edge of the rock and threw himself heedlessly in the direction of the last rider. The horse shied away and Joxer missed, landing with a thud on his face. But all the sudden, unexpected commotion, like being suddenly set upon by a predator, was too much for the animal. The mare began bucking wildly and screaming in terror. Finally her rider was sent flying and came down with a sickening crack on the back of his neck.
The bard judged her jump well. She went behind her target, corraling him by the neck as she flew past dragging him from the saddle. But she landed awkwardly and her staff was jarred from her hand on impact with the ground. Her opponent recovered immediatly from his shock and came to his feet with the long dagger from his belt in his hand. Gabrielle scrambled on hands and knees to recover her weapon but the man had the angle and cut her off. With a wicked grin of triumph he began to advance on the bard as she regained her feet. She focused herself completely on the knife, as Xena had taught her, ready to dodge and block. She watched the blade draw back ready to strike then suddenly the man holding it stiffened with a reflexive jerk. The point of a knife appeared in the front of his neck and a trickle of blood spilled down his chest. He gurrgled and staggered a step, then fell heavily forward on his face as the last gasp of life escaped his lungs. Gabrielle stared stunned for a moment at Xena's knife buried to the hilt in the back of the man's neck, then she looked up. Twenty feet away Xena had her knee planted firmly in the back of one of her targets pinning him to the ground.
"Are you all right!" She called.
The bard let out the gulp of air she had been holding in her lungs.
"Yes, I'm alright."
"Search him." the Warrior Princess said. Then she pointed with a nod of her head to the right. "Then him."
Gabrielle looked to see Xena's other target lying face up in the road motionless.
"Joxer!" the Lion yelled. "What's the situation with yours?"
"He's uh, he's dead." Joxer answered as he kneeled beside the body. "Broken neck."
"Search him too then get over here."
At that moment the horse that had been bucking and thrashing in fright stopped and took off back down the road at a full gallop. The other three horses, who had been milling about like lost sheep, decided that looked like a good idea and they sped after the mare, the four of them disappearing in a cloud of dust.
The bard swallowed, closed her eyes and pulled Xena's knife out of the dead mans neck, wiping the blood on his shoulder. Then she rolled him over and searched him. She found nothing but a few personal possesions. She walked over to the man lying in the road. He was alive but the swelling knot on the side of his head said he would be unconscious for some time to come. His pockets held nothing of interest. The bard went and joined the Warrior Princess just as Joxer walked up. Xena had her captives hands tied behind his back and he was lying with the Lions knee in his chest.
"The other guy is out. He won't be joining us for awhile. I didn't find anything." Gabrielle said.
"I did." Joxer said simply and he handed Xena a parchment. "I found it in my guys belt."
The Lion and the bard looked at it together. It was a map. The roads and villages of the surrounding area all carefully marked. Also several of the dots marking towns were larger and had a circle around them. Walled cities. The friends could easily see the location of Delphi and trace the roads to where they were at this moment. It was a good map. And in the upper corner a road was drawn that went into the mountains and ended with a slash. The bard looked at Xena and the Warrior Princess nodded. Then they both looked down at the unfortunate under Xena's knee.
"Nice map." The Lion said. "It looks freshly made. You do good work."
"I, uh," The man summoned his courage. "My friends and I were just going to visit some relatives in the next village. Why have you attacked us?"
Suddenly Xena's hands flashed out and pinched both sides of the mans neck.
"I just cut the flow of blood to your brain." She said calmly. "You'll be dead in moments unless I release you. Now why are you here and what do you know of the Lion's Wall?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Blood began to appear under the mans nose. "We're here to visit some relatives. I'm telling the t,t,truth."
He struggled and his eyes began to glaze. Finally with a disgusted snort of air Xena released the pinch.
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and there was uncertainty in her eyes.
"Maybe he's telling the truth."
The Lion stood up.
"No, he just called my bluff. He's my only source of information. He knows I won't let him die."
Xena looked in the bards eyes.
"Go and get the horses Gabrielle. We'll be leaving very soon."
The look on the Lion's face sent a chill up the bards spine. She looked down at the helpless man on the ground who was watching them with wide eyes.
"Xena, I don't think..."
"Please Gabrielle." The Lion interrupted sternly. "Now."
The bard suddenly felt like there was a vise around her chest. She started taking deep breathes. She glanced at Joxer who was staring at the prisoner with a tense look on his face. Finally taking a last long deep breath she forced herself regretfully to move and she started down the road for Argo and Bucephelus.
The bard had just untied the two horses and led them out on the road when a horrified, agonized scream assaulted their ears. Both horses started at the terrible sound and Bucephelus pulled so hard Gabrielle lost her hold on the horses rein. The high strung animal trotted away a few steps and stopped. The bard went after him cooing soothingly but everytime she came close he trotted away again. Finally Gabrielle gave up the game before he spooked completely and ran. She mounted Argo and went to get Xena and Joxer. As she rounded the slight curve of the road against the ridge she could see the two of them. They were standing over the prisoner who was lying on his side his legs pulled up in the fetal position, his hands still tied behind his back. She pulled the warhorse up and dismounted.
"Bucephelus was startled and got away." She said not mentioning what startled him. "He won't come to me. If we don't get him under control quick we'll lose him."
"Dammit" Xena said under her breath. The look on her face was darker than Gabrielle had seen in years. "Alright," she said louder. "I'll go get him. Wait here."
"What happened?" The bard asked. "What did you find out?"
"Joxer will fill you in." Xena answered as she leaped aboard Argo. "I'll be right back."
She pulled the warhorses head around and dug in her heels leaving in a cloud of dust.
Gabrielle looked at Joxer. His face was ashen.
"Well?" She asked quietly.
"Uh, well, uh." Joxer took a couple of deep breathes to steady himself and he forced his mind to concentrate. "Well, he's a Greek mercenary. So are his friends here. They were serving in a mercenary phalanx with Ceasar and his legions at the battle of the Hurtegen Forest. After the battle nine of them deserted together and joined the barbarians, the Hesviti. Seems that two of them are men who came from Chin with Xena and Borius when they came west all those years ago with their army. They're barbarians like the Hesviti and speak their language. They were with Xena when she came through the shepards path and know the way. They promised to show the Hesviti how to conquer Greece in exchange for all the gold and loot each of them can carry on a pack horse. Eight of them came through Thermopolye mixing with the refugees nine days ago and they went straight to the wall an massacred the garrison. That was five days ago. Now these four have been out mapping the area while the other four hold the wall. He said they expect a force of five or six thousand to reach the wall this afternoon or tonight. One of Xena's old warriors is guiding them."
Gabrielle let out a long gasp of dismay. Then she looked at Joxer with a slight flicker of hope.
"Five or six thousand doesn't sound like so many. Not to conquer all Greece. Surely they can be contained."
"That's what I said but Xena said that's not the point. Once the armies at Thermopolye find out that these Hesviti are burning and looting at will here the Kings like Althades will have to bring there armies back or the men will just desert in mass to come and protect their families and villages. Either way morale at the pass will collapse in arguing and dissension and after letting things boil for a week the Hesviti will attack with everything they've got and once they force the pass Greece is lost. She said we have to stop them at the wall or it's the end."
The bard shuddered to her very soul. It all seemed so overwhelming. The disaster that was staring them in the face. Her knees felt weak. Suddenly the man at her feet shifted a little and let out a soft moan. She looked at him closely for the first time since returning. His face was pale with shock. He seemed barely conscious of what was happening around him. The bard had seen that face many times on men badly wounded in battle. She looked at Joxer.
"What happened?" She asked quietly, wanting to know but wishing at the same time that she could just turn away and never know.
Joxers face, if possible, became more ashen. He started breathing in little gasps.
"Well uh, Xena, she uh," Joxer took a sudden deep hard breath and then he forced the words out. "She did what she had too. He wouldn't answer her questions. Kept lieing about relatives. So she put some pinch on his legs so he couldn't move them then she slit open his pants at the crotch. She got a rock about the size of a fist and she put it between his legs and pulled out his balls. He started begging and pleading but he still wouldn't answer her. Maybe he didn't believe she would do it. So she took out her sword and smashed one of his balls on the rock with the hilt. Like smashing a grape. He scre..., ah" Joxer's voice broke at the memory. "he screamed and Xena was about to smash the other one when he started telling us everything as fast as he could get the words out."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to make her mind go blank.
"She's here." Joxer said quietly.
The bard opened her eyes to see the Lion galloping up on Argo, Bucephelus running behind on a lead rein.
"Let's go!" She called. "We have no time to waste."
Joxer ran to his horse and mounted.
"Gabrielle come on." Xena said impatiently when the bard did not move.
"We can't leave him here like this." Gabrielle said slowly, staring into Xena's eyes.
The Warrior Princess settled into her saddle and stared back at the bard.
"Yes we can." She said just as slowly. "He's bleeding internally. It's ten leagues to the nearest village. He won't make two before he collapses and dies. We have no time to waste on him. We only have time to try to prevent the catastrophe he and his friends are bringing down on our homeland. Now let's go."
Gabrielle walked over to Xena then suddenly pulled the dagger from her boot.
"We're not leaving him like this." She said with iron conviction in her voice.
She approached the prone man and rolled him on his back. He looked at her with dull, emotionless eyes. Gabrielle took a long deep breath and started to bend down, the knife moving toward his jugular. Whooooshing. The chakram whizzed by her ear and buried deep in the mans chest. His body jerked and he let out a gasp of pain and surprise, then his eyes fixed open in their sockets and his heart stilled. Gabrielle shuddered, then took a breath to steady herself. Silently she pulled the weapon from his chest, wiped the blood on his shirt and went over to Argo. She put the dagger back in its place, handed the chakram to Xena, then was helped up onto the warhorse. The Lion guided the palimino over to the bards staff. She bent down, picked it up and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Mercy?" The Lion asked without looking at her friend.
"I don't know." The bard answered tonelessly. "Does it matter?"
"Not a bit." Xena replied. Then she looked at Joxer. "Come on man. Don't let that nag fall behind." Then she dug her heels into Argo's side and they were off in a cloud of dust at a full gallop for the Lion's Wall.
As the leagues melted away and the sun moved inexorably across the sky a hundred plans went racing through Xena's mind. And all of them were rejected. The problem came down to a simple matter of math and time. To survive Greece needed forty or fifty experienced, well armed warriors to be at the Lion's Wall by dark and there seemed no hope of that happening. None at all. A black, almost suicidal despair began to settle on the Lion's soul. Perhaps all that was left was to leave Gabrielle and Joxer behind and go to the wall herself. She would wade into them and kill them as long as strength lasted. She would make sure the bastards remembered the Lions name for years to come. The thought of it brought a grim hopeless smile to her lips.
Then as they crested a grassy treeless ridge the Warrior Princess spotted something in the distance across a long wide green valley. On the opposite ridge and to the south a long narrow cloud of dust rose high into the afternoon sky before dissipating into towering wisps of smoke. Xena brought Argo to a skidding halt, stood up in her stirups and let out her wildest, loudest warcry, waving her arm in the air as she did.
"By the gods Xena!" Gabrielle gasped after almost falling from the horse. "What is it!"
"Do you see that Gabrielle?!" The Lion shouted, pointing to the dustcloud in the distance. "Do you see it?!"
"Yes I see it." She replied, squinting her eyes to see it more clearly. "What does it mean?"
"It means we have a chance beloved! We have a chance! Only a column of infantry makes a dustcloud like that. And headed down that road toward the main Delphi highway it can only be the Amazons. Ephiny must have had them force marching since before sunup to have gotten this far already. What a leader that woman is!"
The bard smiled as Xena settled back into the saddle.
"Yes." She said in a whisper to herself. "She will make a most glorious Queen."
Joxer pulled Bucephelus up beside Argo.
"What is it?" He asked, shocked by all this sudden stopping and yelling.
Xena grabbed the black stallions bridle and pulled him close.
"Do you see that column of dust Joxer? That's Ephiny and the Amazons. She'll have a small force of cavalry with her. Tell her that she must double mount her best warriors and come to the Lion's Wall with all possible speed. Run the horses into the ground if necessary but she can't waste a moment. The infantry will have to follow as quickly as they can. Do you understand?"
Joxer caught Xena's excitement. His head bobbed up and down and he smiled that goofy, happy smile. "I understand, I understand."
Then instantly Xena's face changed. It became somber, almost wistful, the eyes sad somehow. She reached out and grabbed Joxers shoulder and pulled him to her.
"If it's a girl her name is Gabrielle. Do you hear me. Gabrielle." She said softly.
Joxer pulled back with a start. He looked at the bard and then at Xena. Panic flooded through him. He felt himself begin to shake.
"Xena, no, Xena," He stammered. "Gabrielle is Queen of the Amazons. She should go to Ephiny. She can have my horse and I'll ride with you."
The bard leaned over and took Joxers hand.
"Xena and I face our destiny together my brother." She said quietly, looking him in the eyes. "Always together. It can be no other way. Your destiny is waiting in Delphi. I know it's going to be a happy one." The bard smiled. "Now go and tell Ephiny to hurry."
"But, but..." Joxer started to stammer but Xena snapped her reins on Bucephelus' hindquarters and shouted "GO!"
The stallion took off like a bolt from a crossbow and Joxer had to struggle not to lose his seat. Finally he steadied and galloped away across the valley without looking back.
The two friends watched him go for a moment then Xena took Gabrielle's hand from around her waist and tenderly kissed it.
"Are you ready my beloved?" She said softly.
Gabrielle kissed the back of Xena's neck and laid her cheek against it.
"Always beloved. Always."
"Then let's ride." The Lion growled. "You know how I hate to be late for anything." And she dug her heels into Argo's flanks.
The leagues went by quickly as they galloped across the broad valley and up the opposite ridge, then two shallower depressions were crossed. Finally atop a narrow ridge they struck a seldom used trail that turned north into the mountains.
"How far?" Gabrielle asked in Xena's ear.
"Seven or eight leagues." The Warrior Princess answered.
The bards legs were soaked with Argo's sweat and she could see foam dripping from the great warhorses lips.
"She needs a rest." Gabrielle said.
The Lion did not answer but dug her heels into the palimino's ribs when she felt her pace slacken.
"Xena!" The bard shouted.
"At the wall, Gabrielle, at the wall!" The Lion shouted back.
The ridge became the bottom of a V shaped valley as mountains loomed up on either side. Even at the bottom the slope of the land was up and the strain on Argo was unmistakable as she struggled to maintain her pace. Her breathing became loud and labored, like a broken bellows, and her neck and chest lathered. As they approached the head of the valley she slowed and Xena did something she had never before done with the great horse. She used the length of her rein and snapped it hard on Argo's flank. The animal jumped with surpise and resumed her breakneck gallop, her breathing becoming even more difficult, if that were possible.
"Please Xena, she's dying!" Gabrielle begged.
The Lion said nothing but the bard could feel the rigid tension in Xena's body. It was like having her arm around the waist of a marble statue. Gabrielle could not help herself. She began to cry.
The narrow valley turned into a canyon, the floor barely a hundred yards wide, unscaleable rock wall towering up on both sides. The grade became steeper. Suddenly Argo stumbled. Xena pulled her head up with the reins and for a moment she regained her footing. Then her front legs collapsed. She fell forward on her chest and neck and almost went head over heels before thumping down on her side and skidding to a stop. The friends went flying, landing in a heap a few yards away. The Lion was up immediately on one knee beside Gabrielle looking for any injury.
"Are you alright?" She asked anxiously as she ran her hands down the bards legs. Gabrielle, who was lying on her back, sat up and shook herself.
"Yes, I'm alright, everything works."
The bard looked over at Argo and fresh tears burst from her eyes. She scrambled to her hands and knees and crawled the few feet to the prone animal. The palimino's air came in and out in short, heavy, painful bursts, her nostrils flaring, her lungs filling steadily with fluid. Gabrielle gently rubbed the horse's neck as Xena knelt beside her.
"Oh Xena, what have we done?" The bard whispered with a heaving chest.
"We haven't done anything." The Lion answered, her voice flat, emotionless, dead. "I alone am responsible for this. For all of it. Now the friends I love must pay the price to help me fix it."
The Lion looked at Gabrielle with hollow, haunted eyes.
"Alti said I would become 'Destroyer of Nations'. If we don't stop the Hesviti at the wall her prophecy will come true. I will have destroyed Greece. It's still more than a league to the wall Gabrielle. We have to run."
The bard did not move. She seemed to be lapsing into shock. Xena grabbed her arm and shook her roughly. She put her mouth an inch from the bard's ear.
"Run!!" She screamed.
Gabrielle took a couple of deep breaths and she looked at Xena. Her eyes focused.
"Alright." She sighed. "Alright."
She got to her feet, picked up her staff that was lying a few feet away and started up the canyon at a sprint. The Warrior Princess watched her go for a moment then turned back to Argo. She ran her hand down the palimino's neck, then scratched her in that special spot.
"I've failed another friend I love." She whispered. "Please forgive me Argo. If there is an Elysian Fields for horses you have earned your place many times over. Goodbye old friend," Her voice cracked. "Goodbye."
In one lightning motion Xena pulled the dagger from her boot and plunged it into the great warhorse's jugular. Argo started and a long spurt of blood erupted from her neck followed by a shorter one. Then the horse lay her head on the ground and her body relaxed into death. The Lion pulled the knife out and looked at her hand. It was covered with blood. Slowly she brought it up and touched the back of her hand to her cheek, smearing it with the red liquid of Argo's life. Then she wiped the blade on the ground, replaced it in her boot and took off after Gabrielle at a dead run.
The sun was down to the rim of the canyon, the light halfway up the opposite wall of rock from Xena and Gabrielle. They advanced slowly in the deep shadows toward the barracks, Xena in the lead. Behind the two story building was the wall, forty feet high, fifty yards long, built at the narrowest point of the canyon. Firmly anchored at each end to the walls of rock. A dam against invasion. But the friends could see that the gate in the middle of the wall stood wide open. Just as they reached the corner of the building a man appeared on the wall above the gate.
"Tzu Chi!" He shouted. "Tzu Chi!"
The friends flattened against the building out of sight. The door to the barracks opened and a short thick man with jet black hair and almond eyes stepped out and looked up. The man on the wall gestured excitedly back with his arm.
"I can see them, at the end of the canyon, I can see them!! They'll be here in a few candlemarks. We've done it!!"
Tzu Chi waved his arm then did a little victory jig.
"We're going to be rich Demetre." He called in accented Greek. "Rich beyond our wildest dreams! I'll bring some wine up and we'll celebrate!"
The man on the wall grinned and waved and then disappeared. Tzu Chi went back into the barracks.
Xena and Gabrielle edged along the front of the building to the door. The Lion silently drew her sword. She looked back at Gabrielle.
"Ready." She whispered.
The bard grimly nodded and tightened her grip on her staff. The Lion took a gulp of air then burst into the barracks. Tzu Chi, a jug of wine on his finger, froze in shock in the middle of the room. His eyes dialated like he had suddenly come face to face with a horrifying apparition from the past. But Tzu Chi was no coward. He instantly recovered and threw the jug at Xena. She ducked and it shattered against the door post showering the bard with wine as she came through the entrance. The Mongoli use the moments respite to draw his sword.
"Paulus!!" He shouted as he parried the Lion's first thrust. "Paulus!!"
Gabrielle saw the mans eye flicker for just an instant toward an open door to his left. She ran to it as Xena and Tzu Chi furiously attacked each other and flattened herself against the wall beside it. She heard a mans running steps and just as he appeared she snapped her staff in his face. His legs flew out and he crashed to the ground on his back, his sword flying. He did not move.
The swordplay between Tzu Chi and the Lion was brutal and deadly. His skill nearly matched hers. Finally she parried a thrust and gave the man a savage front kick that sent him smashing against a wall. Before he could recover Xena's blade sank deep in his belly, pinning him. His eyes bulged with horror as the raven haired vision of death brought her face inches from his.
"A child of the plains," Xena whispered the old steppe saying in perfect Mongoli. "should know better than to count his winnings before the race is over. You never know when the leader will step in a hole and break his leg."
Xena withdrew her sword and Tzu Chi sank to the floor, his eyes open, fixed and now forever sightless.
Xena looked quickly around.
"Two here." She said. "One on the wall. We're missing one. I'll go up. You search here. Hurry."
Xena raced up the stairs attached to the far wall. Gabrielle stepped over the unconscious man in the doorway and prowled carefully through the next room. It was a sleeping area. Bunkbeds lined each wall with a long table in the center. Twice she stepped over large dark stains on the wooden floor. Blood from the massacred garrison she suspected. She found nothing. She hurried back to the main room, stepping over the prone man again. Xena was just coming down the stairs.
"No one home." Gabrielle said.
Xena snorted disgustedly.
"Well, let's hope he's up on the wall with Demetre. I don't like having people unaccounted for." She said.
Just then the man in the doorway let out a gasp. He rose up on one elbow and put his hand on his face. He desperately tried to focus his eyes and make sense of the world spinning around him. Xena walked quickly over and twirled her sword once in her hand. Gabrielle turned away and closed her eyes, wishing she could close her ears as well. The man died with a surprised grunt as the Lion expertly thrust her blade between his ribs to the heart and then withdrew it.
Xena hurried to the door followed by Gabrielle.
"I'll take care of the man on the wall." The Warrior Princess said. "Both of them I hope. You go and close the gate and lower the potculles, then join me." Xena put her hand on the bards shoulder. "Be alert. That fourth man could be anywhere."
Gabrielle nodded and the Lion looked her in the eyes and gave her the briefest of smiles, then she was gone, sprinting for the stairs as the far end of the wall.
The bard took a good look around. The sun was below the rim of the canyon now and the shadows were deep. Nothing moved except Xena, who was just starting up the stairs. Gabrielle ran to the great wooden gate. Looking through the opening she could see the head of the column of Hesviti horsemen not three hundred yards away down the canyon marching toward her. Grunting and straining she closed one thick oak door, then the other. She pulled the wooden peg that held up the iron crossbar and it fell securly into place. She then went over to the large winch that raised the iron grate of the portculles.The lever to release it was plain enough but it was high up and hard to reach and had considerable weight on it from the winch. The bard put down her staff and using both hands she put all her strength into it. After two attempts it had not budged. She stopped and took a half dozen deep breathes. 'I can't fail now' she thought to herself, 'not now'. She summoned up all of her will and attacked the lever. It moved a little, then suddenly released. The heavy iron grate came crashing down in front of the wooden doors with a satisfying metallic clank. The bard let out a relieved burst of air and turned toward the barracks. An arrow pierced her right breast and went through her lung. The point came out below her shoulder blade. She took a step back in shock. 'By the Gods, what happened!' she thought. She tried to scream a warning to Xena but her lungs were empty. No sound came out. She collapsed.
After a few moments a man approached warily from the shadows, his bow strung with another arrow. When he got to the bard she did not move. He let the tension off the string and put the bow down. His face twisted with anger.
"I saw what you did in the barracks bitch!!" He kicked Gabrielle savagely in the ribs. She did not react. "You died too easily!"
The man let out a bitter breath and then forced his mind to focus. He turned to the winch, spit on his hands and got a good grip on one of the prongs. With all his strength he pulled down and moved it one notch. He let up and rested a moment. Then he gathered his strength again and pulled down with all his might. It just started to move when a staff smashed into the back of his head. He staggered and turned in time to have the staff smash into his face. He fell on his back. Gabrielle rained blows on him till his head and face were a bloody mess. She finally stopped when she was overtaken by a coughing fit. Blood trickled from her nose and sprayed from her mouth with each painfull convulsion. At last she sank to her knees and then fell back motionless.
When Xena reached the top of the stairs she took a quick peek over the edge and down the wall. In the deepening gloom of dusk only Demetre, halfway down the wall watching the approaching Hesviti, was visible. 'Damn' the Lion said under her breath. Then she took the direct approach. She stepped up onto the fifteen foot wide walkway and started toward the Greek mercenary like she was about to greet her best friend. She was halfway to him when he turned.
"Tzu... what in Hades."
The man took a couple of steps back as the dark apparition continued to approach. He pulled his sword..
"Who in Tartarus are you?" He demanded hashly.
"Death." Xena said quietly unhooking her chakram.
Demetre took another step back then with a yell attacked. The Lion ducked his first swing then stepped inside his attempt at a backhand and blocked it with her arm. With a lightning backhanded motion of her own she cut the mans throat to the spine. He dropped to the ground like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
Xena dragged the body back from the battlements of the wall to make room for the fight she knew was coming. As she did she heard the portculles come rattling down. 'That's my girl' Xena thought with a smile and she went to the battlement and peered out. The column of horsemen had stopped a hundred or so yards away, out of effective arrow range. Three riders approached at a trot. They stopped in front of the gate only a few yards from the wall. Xena ducked down and sat on her haunches, her back against the wall.
"Tzu Chi, it's Subati, are you up there?" A voice called in Mongoli. "Tzu Chi why did you close the gate?"
There was a silence. Then the sound of talking though the words were too quiet for Xena to understand.
"Paulus? Demetre? Phidius? Is anyone up there? " This time the voice spoke in accented Greek. "What's going on? Open the gate now."
Again a silence. Then conversation. Only this time louder and more intense, almost angry.
"Enough of this." A different voice said in Mongoli. "Bring up a scaling ladder and let's find out what's going on."
Xena let out a disgusted burst of air. "Damn it." She said under her breath. She had habored a vague hope that the Hesviti would not bring any siege equipment since they expected their traitors to have the wall secured for them but that hope was now dashed. The Lion heard a horse gallop away. She peeked over the wall again. The horse and rider were halfway back to the column. The other two men sat below her on their horses waiting. Subati was easy to spot with his strange mixture of Greek and Mongoli clothing and the brass helmet on his head that no child of the steppe ever wore. Seeing him there, one of her old soldiers about to bring Greece to ruin and destroy the lives of a million people her anger flared out of control, anger at him and at herself. In one blurr of motion she unhooked her chakram and let it fly. It hummed down true as always and buried in Subati's chest. He gasped and looked down in horror recognizing instantly the instrument of his destruction. "Xena" formed on his lips but he never spoke the word as he slid from his horse dead.
Xena hunched down again behind the wall and she heard the other horseman gallop away. 'I wonder if the Hesviti will thank me for saving them a packhorse full of gold' she thought. Then she heard orders being shouted for storming parties to form and archers to dismount and prepare to move up. Xena looked over to where the steps emptied onto the wall. 'Where is Gabrielle?' she wondered. She went over to the opposite side of the wall and leaned over the battlement. The shadow of the wall hide everything directly below in inky blackness.
"Gabrielle." She called. "Gabrielle get up here quick."
Her call was answered only by silence. Fear welled up in the Lion but she had no time to act on it. She heard behind her the order being shouted to loose arrows.
"Gabrielle cover!!" The Warrior Princess screamed then she turned and raced back to the outer battlement and threw her body down and pressed herself as flat to the wall as humanly possible putting her arm up over her head as she did.
The arrows, fired almost straight up, came raining down like hail on the walkway. They sounded like hail as the iron arrowheads struck the stone, clattering noisily. The attack came in waves, a shower of shafts, then a pause, then another shower of iron tipped wood. The Lion counted. Five, six, eight, ten. On the eleventh shower she felt a pain in her exposed calf and looked down to see an arrow sticking in her flesh. When the attack ended she carefully removed the iron tip. The wound was not deep, 'only an annoyance' she thought. After fourteen she heard the order for storming parties to advance. Again Xena looked at the stairs. 'Gabrielle where are you?'
The Lion stood up and looked over the battlement. Five ladders, carried by ten men each, were racing up to the wall evenly spaced along its fifty yards of length. Xena knew she could not let herself get trapped in the middle of the wall with warriors coming at her from two directions at once. She raced to the end with the stairs. The end of a ladder appreared over the battlement a few feet away. She patiently waited till she judged the first man was halfway up then she reached out and with all her might shoved it over. She moved to the next ladder. The first warrior had almost reached the top when Xena leaned out and stabbed him in the neck with her sword. He lost his grip and fell with a scream. The Lion pushed the ladder over as arrows zipped past her head.The warrior on the third ladder had reached the top and he parried Xena's first thrust but she followed through with her shoulder and knocked him backward into space. He fell against the man following him and they both dropped out of sight as the Lion pushed over the ladder. The warrior from the fourth ladder was already on the walkway and he rushed at her screaming his warcry. She took a step and launched herself in a tight flip over him. She came down on the head of the man from the fifth ladder, smashing the shocked man to the ground. She finished him with a thrust through the throat then she stabbed the next man as he reached the top and pushed over his ladder. She turned just in time to parry the thrust of the warrior from the fourth ladder. When he blocked her return thrust she used the opening to smash her forehead into the bridge of his nose. He dropped to the walkway unconscious. She cut the legs out from under the next man who had just reached the top of the wall and was trying to jump down. He fell back with a scream and she pushed over his ladder.
Xena let out a breath and turned toward the other end of the wall. As she did an arrow struck her just above the breastplate she wore. It went through her shoulder sliding along her shoulderblade on the left side. The Lions arm went limp for a moment from the shock. At the other end of the wall the first ladder had been put back up and a archer was balanced on top of the battlement readying another arrow. Instinctively Xena reached for her chakram but to her dismay she remembered where it was. She was to far away to stop him before he shot again so she focused her mind on trying to catch the next one, although in the increasing darkness that seemed an unlikely possibility. Just as he raised his bow to shoot a figure appeared on the edge of Xena's focus and a staff smashed down the warriors weapon and then the bard did a reverse pivot and swept the mans legs out from under him. He fell back and disappeared. The Lion raced down the wall and shoved over the ladder before another warrior could reach the top. She could hear an officer shouting for the men to fall back and regroup.
Xena turned to ask Gabrielle where in Tartarus she had been all this time and almost tripped over her. The bard was lying at her feet on her back gasping like a fish out of water. All the air left the Warrior Princess' lungs in a moan of shock as she saw the arrow sticking from Gabrielle's chest and the blood that soaked her clothes and covered her nose, mouth and neck. What effort of will it had taken to climb those steep stairs in this condition the Lion could only imagine. She dropped down to lie next to Gabrielle.
The bard shifted her head a little between painful gasps to look at Xena.
"Sorry I'm late. I know how you hate that." She said.
Xena smiled and gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek.
"Better late than never." She said.
The bard laughed, then coughed painfully. Xena put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and pressed her cheek against her loves'. When the bard finally could catch a little breath she smiled weakly.
"Sorry about the tomato. Sometimes you just get so full of yourself."
Xena smiled back.
"That's alright." She said. "I knew you threw it."
"You did not."
"Oh Gabrielle. Of course I did." Xena said softly as she tenderly brushed back some blood matted hair from around the bards face. "Who else in that room would have had the nerve to throw a tomato at me."
Gabrielle gasped for oxygen and her eyes lost focus for a moment. Xena's heart stopped and her body trembled uncontrollably but the bard found some air and her eyes focused again.
"I'm sorry we'll miss our first night together as mates." Gabrielle whispered. "I was going to do some things to you you would have remembered the rest of your life."
Xena could hardly breathe herself but somehow she smiled.
"Well my love. I had some things planned myself I think you would have remembered."
The bard smiled between gasps.
"Oh Xena, even on the wedding night you have to be competitive."
"It's just me Gabrielle. Can't help it."
The bard started panting desperately. There was no more room for air in her fluid filled lungs. Xena began trembling again uncontrollably.
"Oh Gabrielle, Gabrielle," She whispered hoarsely as she stroked her cheek. "Do you understand how much I love you."
With the last bit of air in her lungs Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes beloved. As much as I love yo..."
Xena watched as the light faded from those emerald eyes and they fixed open and lifeless. The Lion buried her face in Gabrielle's neck and her body convulsed as she felt her heart being ripped in two in her chest. She understood at that moment what it was to die. And now that she had tasted it she longed for it. Longed for it. But then at the edge of her consciousness the sound of the Hesviti intruded on her misery. She could hear them screaming their warcrys. Pumping themselves up for another attempt at the wall. She took a deep breath and pulled herself away from the bard. Then she looked back at the open eyes. Gently she put a finger on each and closed them. She brought her face close to Gabrielle's ear.
"Sleep now beloved. Sleep, and dream of me. And when you awake I'll be there. For no power on earth or in the heavens can prevent it Gabrielle. No God or demon. I swear it on my soul."
Then she kissed the bards lips one last time.
The Hesviti had a plan this time. They had discovered how few defended the wall. Four ladders grouped together appeared on the battlement close to where Xena stood beside Gabrielle. But where was the fifth. 'Aren't you clever' she thought. The Lion broke off the arrow that protruded from her shoulder and tried to work it but it was almost useless. And for the first time she noticed how much blood she had lost. Her arm and side were covered with it. She shrugged.
"We're past that now Gabrielle, aren't we." She said.
The Lion took a couple of very deep breaths and she let the fire in her soul that she had for four years tried to temper and quell, for her own sake and Gabrielle's, come roaring to the surface unfettered. She let herself become the living embodiment of rage. She made no attempt to throw down the ladders but waited impatiently for the warriors to appear on the wall so she could attack them like a lion let loose among the sheep. The men at the bottom of the ladders thought it was raining bodies on them as men came crashing down. On the wall it became difficult to fight for all the corpses that had to be stepped over. Four, seven, nine, twelve. However it was not all onesided. A serious slash appeared on Xena's thigh and one warrior had the satisfaction of burying his blade deep in the Lion's side before he was beheaded. But finally no more would go up the ladders. Xena leaned against the battlement pale as a ghost from blood loss and dizzy with exhaustion. But at the other end of the wall a ladder appeared and quickly a warrior was jumping down on the walkway. Xena watched him approach with a feeling of profound disinterest. He was taller than her, built like an ox with bulging neck and shoulders and arms as thick as the axle on a cart. He carried a two handed broadsword and from the symbol stitched in his cap she knew he was a high officer in the Hesviti. Perhaps even the second in command sent by his commander to break this deadlock and finally clear the wall. Xena was past any emotion, drained of everything, yet as he got close something at the very core of her personality stirred. Her competitiveness. If this is the best they have Xena was going to find out how good he really was. She rolled over for no one. Even when she did not care anymore if she won or lost. Lived or died. With a growl he attacked. Xena parried his blows but each one knocked her back a step. His strength was incredible and hers was ebbing. 'He can feel my weakness' she thought. 'He's going to back me in a corner and smash me down with brute power'. Xena's mind desperately searched for an answer but there was none. The man made no mistakes. Just pushing her back toward the wall of rock where she could be pinned and finished. Then the fates made things interesting. As the man pushed Xena back past Gabrielle's body he stepped on her staff and slipped. For an instant he was vulnerable and the Lion pounced. Her blade slashed on his hands, cutting off several fingers and forcing him to drop his weapon. Then she sank her sword in his belly but before she could withdraw it he had hold of her arm and he yanked her to him in a death hug. As he sank to the ground he reached behind him and pulled out a small dagger from his belt and buried it in Xena's back. She grunted with pain. She found her knife in her boot and stabbed up under the mans ribs to the heart. He died without a sound.
Xena struggled to breath. Her body had reached the end. She pushed herself out of the dead mans grip and lay on the cold stone walkway taking slow shallow breaths. It was full dark now. A cloudless night. The stars were blazing and brilliant overhead.
"What a beautiful night it is Gabrielle." Xena whispered. "I know how you love a night like this. Let's just watch it together okay."
On the other side of the wall the Lion could here officers whipping up the warriors for another attempt. They would be coming soon.
"I've failed beloved. You and everyone. Greece is lost." Xena sighed and tears fell from her eyes. " Why is death taking so long. Even Hades doesn't want me I guess." Her tears fell faster. " Oh Gabrielle my beloved, come and hold me. There are some burdens even the Lion can't bear."
Then suddenly she heard it. The wild high pitched cries of the Amazon. Ephiny. She was telling them to hold on. She was almost there. Xena's vision clouded and she felt the blackness coming for her but she took a deep breath and forced it back.
"No, not yet." She whispered. "In a moment but not yet. Xena has one more task to perform before her journey ends."
Ephiny raced up the stairs closely followed by Joxer, then Eponin and Keola. At the top the Amazon leader took a quick scan of the situation. She could hear the Hesviti outside the wall reaching a fever pitch. She turned to her captains.
"Eponin, your section center to the left. Keola, yours center to the right. Stay low and don't show yourselves. Don't give their archers any targets. Let's go."
Joxer ignored all this and pushed past Ephiny.
"Xena, Gabrielle!" Joxer called frantically. "Where are you. Gabrielle, Xena!!"
He stumbled over bodies in the dark. So many bodies. Then from the corner of his eye he caught a flash of blonde hair. Amazons ran past him finding a place on the battlement as he zeroed in on the hair. Holding his breath he slowly approached till he was right over Gabrielle. Despite the blood her face looked so peaceful. He knelt down and put his hand on the shoulder of the body that was lying face down on the bard, her face buried in Gabrielle's neck. He pulled back. Xena's eyes were closed and her face seemed as peaceful as Gabrielle's. Under neath her chest Joxer saw that the Warrior Princess had her hand firmly laced in Gabrielle's. Joxer picked the two hands up in both of his and pressed them to his cheek.
"Oh no," Was all he could say as the tears fell down his cheeks. "Oh no. Oh no. Oh no."
Ephiny stood a few feet away watching. She sank to her knees as if Atlas had suddenly shifted the weight of the world to her shoulders. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the cold stone and she began to wail, wail the death song of a Queen. The warriors crouching along the battlement picked up the song till all were wailing as each prepared themselves for the violence to come. Outside the Hesviti continued to screech their own song of death. And the sound bounced and echoed through the canyon and built in volume until it resounded over all Greece. The sound that heralds the death of Kings and Princes. Queens and the Lions of the earth.
The end of The Lion's Wall.
For my friends whose kind support I have received with this series of stories please be assured I have not finished with our heroes. Look for a new story to begin in May. The bard has not finished whispering her stories in my ear as I dream.