The night birds were singing and fluttering under the eves of the villa when Xena awoke to answer natures call. Not surprising since the Lion seldom drank as much as she had this night. She did not bother to dress but padded out naked to the latrine beside the villa. After the heat of the day the cool night breeze coming off the ocean felt exhilerating on her bare skin. She paused on the way back to breathe in deep the smell of the sea and admire the magnificence of a clear starry night and a half moon that hung precariously close to the dark water. Before Gabrielle the Warrior Princess hardly noticed the beauty of the world around her. Nature was just an obstacle to overcome or another factor to be considered in her plans. But now as she enjoyed the wonderous view she could feel the bard standing beside her, feel the pressure of her mates hand as it squeezed hers. The Lion smiled.
"Yes beloved," she whispered. "It is beautiful."
Xena entered her room and washed her hands. As she approached the bed she caught a faint sound of snoring. The noise aroused her curiosity because it did not seem to eminate from where she expected, the bedroom across the hall. Odyseus' bedroom. She went into the hallway and followed the sound. It led her down the hall to the dining room. The room was lit only by moon and star light, the candles all having burned out. The Warrior Princess could see the dark shape of the King sitting in his chair at the head of the table, his head lolled to one side, a steady deep snore coming from his slightly open mouth. She approached and lifted the tall pitcher resting on the table in front of him. It was empty. When she went to bed it was more than half full. The Lion looked at her friend and sighed. With a sad face she reached out and carressed the mans head and cheek. He awoke with a start and his head came up and he blinked at Xena with bleary eyes.
"What, huh, what?" the King mumbled. His eyes focused a little. "Xena?"
"Time for bed Odyseus" the Lion said quietly.
"What uh," the King looked around, "I'm not in bed?"
"Afraid not." Xena put the drunken mans arm around her shoulder and lifted him out of his chair.
Odyseus rubbed his face and his eyes finally focused. He looked at the Warrior Princess, silhouetted against a moonlit window. He could see the round firm curve of her breasts, the nipples erect from the cool sea breeze, the muscular shoulder, the finely chisled outline of her strong, beautiful face.
"Ahhh Xena," he sighed with a smile, "such a wonderous sight you are in the starlight. Apollo would give me his chariot of fire to see through my eyes right now."
The Lion grinned.
"Please my friend, "she said, "be careful with that honeyed tongue of yours. You could get us in a lot of trouble. Gabrielle has a real temper and a wicked way with a staff."
"Oh come now" Odyseus said, a smile in his thick voice. "The Great Lion fears no one. You'd protect me."
Xena put her arm around the King's back and started walking him toward his bedroom.
"Odyseus," she said, "I'd be on Argo headed for Chin. You'd be on your own."
The King laughed. "Well then. I'd just throw myself on Gabrielle's mercy and beg forgiveness. She has such a good heart. She'd forgive me."
The Lion snorted. "You're right, she'd forgive you. Me, I'll write her a letter after I get to Chin."
Xena and Odyseus entered his bedroom and the Lion deposited her burden on the bed. The King's shoulders slumped and his eyes lost their focus. Xena knelt and unlaced a sandal and pulled it off. She was unlacing the other when a hand was gently placed on the top of her head.
"Pen, stop that and come to bed," the King mumbled.
Xena did not look up. She finished with the sandal and picked up the mans legs and put them on the bed as he instinctively laid back. As she watched he slowly rolled on his side and his arm went out to pull his wife close, but it found only emptyness. He mumbled something the Lion could not understand and the arm fell to the bed. Xena sighed and her hand went to the tattoo on her arm. 'Is it selfish to want to be the first beloved?' she wondered. Then she padded back to her bed and fell asleep and had a most vivid dream, of a small bard from Potadia, whose redblonde hair blew wildly around her beautiful glowing face, in a strong ocean breeze, on a perfect summers day, as they walked on a jeweled beach, hand in hand.
The sun was a few candlemarks above the horizon. An orange glowing ball that promised another hot day as it rapidly banished the chill of the autumn night. Gabrielle was standing by a large cart hitched to a pair of placid oxen absorbed in the scroll she was reading, a careful inventory of the goods that each wagon was to carry in the Amazon army's supply train. She was determined to double check everything before the army marched. Her warriors would not want for anything because she had failed to properly oversee the loading. It pained her greatly to see that the handwriting on the scroll was Lentilia's. The old Chief had been a tremendous help to her Queen as Gabrielle organized the resources of the Nation for this day. The bard felt keenly the hollow place left by the disappearence of her calm, able presence.
The bard's head snapped up in shock at the sound of the familiar voice calling her name. She looked down the main street of Pyra in the direction of the sound. The line of supply wagons stretched down the Corinth highway past the edge of the village, all of them pulled over to the side of the road so warriors could march past on the other. A fine team of matched draft horses approached the Queen down the cleared lane pulling what looked like a brand new wagon groaning under the weight of the supplies piled high in the wagon bed. A very serious looking young warrior rode along beside the wagon and on the wagons bench sat a very annoyed looking Herodotus. With a stunned face the bard handed the scroll to the young aide at her elbow and walked up to the wagon as her father hauled back on the reins and brought the vehicle to a stop.
"Gabrielle," the old man barked, "would you tell this young woman," he pointed at the Amazon warrior beside him with a nod of his head, "that I am in fact your father. She's told me more than once in the last ten leagues that if I'm not your father she's going to cut my throat as a spy."
The bard looked at the warrior.
"Thank you" she said as she came up to the side of the wagon. "He is my father. You've performed your duty well. You may return to your post."
The warrior made a slight bow in the saddle. "Yes my Queen, with your permission?"
Gabrielle nodded and the woman pulled her horses head around and took off down the road at a gallop.
"Well," Herodotus said as he watched her go, "I'm glad to be rid of her. I think she would've really killed me."
"Oh yes daddy," Gabrielle said, a shocked expression still on her face as she looked up at her father, "she would have certainly killed you. Now by the gods what is all this? What are you doing here?"
Herodotus looked down at his daughter and smiled.
"Can't a father visit his children?" he said. His hand slapped the seat of the wagon. "What do you think of the rig? Brand new. And the horses are a matched set. Sisters. Not too shabby for an old farmer. Your father has a little style after all."
The bard shook her head with stunned confusion. Her gaze shifted to the contents of the wagon. The front half of the wagon bed was stacked high with sacks of wheat and barley. She moved around toward the rear. In the back half were sacks marked lemons and oranges and tall clay jars with foreign lettering that the bard recognized were medicinal oils from Egypt. She pulled back a stack of blankets and found underneath a dozen small sacks marked with the names of rare herbs and spices that could all be used in making salves and medicines. Herodotus climbed down from the wagon and walked around to stand beside his daughter.
"Daddy," Gabrielle said, and there was anger in her voice, "what have you done? These things cost a fortune. I know. I've been trying to buy them in Athens and Corinth." The bard looked at her father and there was color in her cheeks. "What have you done?" she said again slowly.
A certain hard edge came to the old mans eyes. He shrugged.
"I thought you might have some use for these things" he said. He looked at the line of supply wagons. "It looks like I'm just in time to join the parade."
"Daddy," the bard said glaring, "A war is about to begin. You shouldn't be here now."
"A war?" Herodotus said with mock surprise in his voice. "Now how could that be? I certainly wouldn't have known a war was about to start from the letters your mother and I have been receiving this summer."
Some of Gabrielle's anger turned to embarrassment. She felt like she had been caught stealing raisins out of the sweet jar at home.
"Well," she stammered defensively, "I didn't see any reason to worry the two of you. There isn't anything you can do about it."
"Where in Tartarus is the teamster for this wagon!!" a harsh warlord voice demanded. "I want it out of the road right no..."
Xena stopped in mid sentence as she got close enough, mounted on Argo, to recognize Herodotus and Gabrielle at the back of the wagon. Her eyes wide with surprise she jumped down and approached.
"By the gods old man," she said with a shocked grin on her face, "where did you come from?"
The old farmer stuck out his arm and Xena shook it warmly.
"Well," the man replied, a slight smile on his face, "I just came to visit my daughters, but Gabrielle doesn't seem too happy to see me. It seems a war no one bothered to tell me about is just starting."
"All right daddy," Gabrielle said, exasperation in her voice, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. But that still doesn't explain all this. You can't possibly afford all these supplies. What have you..."
"Gabrielle!" a stern voice thundered, a father speaking to his wayward daughter.
"Yes sir?" a small voice answered before the bard could stop it.
"Have I ever discussed my finances with you in the past?" the stern voice demanded.
"Then I can't imagine why you think I will today" the old farmer said in a manner meant to end the conversation.
Gabrielle's face stayed red. She took a deep breath. She was not a little girl any more! She was a Queen! She looked at Xena but the Warrior Princess had on her warlord mask that hid every thought and emotion. The bard took another breath. The conviction rose in her chest. She was not going to be dismissed by her father today. She was going to speak what was on her mind regardless. She looked into her fathers hard brown eyes.
"Daddy," she said slowly, evenly, fighting her emotions," I don't know how much you've spent here but you're going to be paid back, every dinar."
Herodotus looked deep into the emerald eyes of his eldest daughter. A person of stubborn strength and resolve stood before him. A little girl no longer, but a woman and a Queen. A father felt his heart ache with pride, and regret. Regret that he could claim no part in the transformation. That his daughter had become a woman without him and there was no one to blame but himself.
"Of course you'll pay me back" he said, his eyes softening. "You'll be at the farm every spring and fall for years to come paying me back." The old man looked at Xena. "Both of you. And for interest you'll have to spend a week with me fishing." He flashed a little smile. "It's always the interest in these deals that kills you."
The bards face stayed red.
"No daddy," she said, iron in her voice. "You'll get hard money. Every dinar. You've sweated out your whole life on that farm. I'm not going to take all that hard work away from you."
Herodotus let out a burst of air in frustration and shook his head. "Gabrielle I..."
But before he could finish his sentence the bard suddenly threw herself against him and hugged him with all her strength. "You shouldn't be here daddy," she said in a thick, emotional voice, "but I'm glad you are. Thank you for this," she whispered, "thank you."
The old man slowly put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her close. A thick, calloused hand came up and gently stroked her silken redblonde hair. He wanted to say 'you're welcome' but the words could not get past the lump in his throat. Finally Gabrielle let go and stepped back. She rubbed her runny nose with the back of her hand.
"Well," she said, looking at Xena, "this has to stop. We have so much to do today. I think the Warleader wants this wagon out of the road. The army is about to march."
The Lion nodded her head.
'' Do I have time to make a quick inventory of the supplies to add to my list?" the bard asked.
"If you hurry" Xena replied.
"I will. Tia!" the Queen called. Her young aid, who had been hanging back, waiting patiently, instantly was at her mistresses side. "Get in the wagon and call out what you find. I'll write."
As Gabrielle and Tia began their inventory Xena grabbed Herodotus' arm and pulled him several yards down the road.
"So," the Lion said, "how did you know to be here, and how did you know what we needed? I know Gabrielle never mentioned anything in her letters home."
The old man frowned at his daughter-in-law. "I can read a map Xena" he said with a certain offended disgust in his voice. "All of Greece knows that the Carthiginians are in Vonitsa. Athenian recruiters have been to Potadia twice already this summer and fall offering bounties to our young men if they will join the Athenian navy to row the war galleys. Half a dozen have taken the money. And you don't have to be a military genius to understand the Farsala ford is the key to everything."
Herodotus' eyes narrowed as he stared at Xena.
"And I knew that my daughters were not going to be bullied by anyone without a fight. I'm just glad that I got here in time to be of some use."
"How did you know what to bring?" the Warrior Princess asked.
The old man smiled. "I'm not a total hick Xena, I have friends in the big city. I knew Gabrielle or her agents would be in Athens trying to buy supplies for this war. My boyhood friend Zenon went to Athens years ago and became a successful grain merchant. As soon as I finished the harvest I went to Athens, bought the horse and wagon and with Zenon's help I talked to all the merchants around the city finding out what you had been having trouble buying." Herodotus laughed. "Don't ever trust an Athenian merchant with a secret Xena. They'll talk about anything if you buy them a drink."
The Lion smiled, then her smile faded and her eyes became dark and serious.
"Old man," she said. "I truly appriciate what you've done for us. But you should understand. A war is about to start. I expect to win. I always do. But nothing is written in stone. If we lose the battle that is coming the Carthiginians will...well" Xena left the rest of her sentence unsaid.
Herodotus looked at Xena with steady, unblinking eyes. His gaze shifted to Gabrielle, writing furiously with the scroll propped up on her knee as her foot rested on a spoke of the wagon wheel, then back to the Lion.
"Then Xena," the old farmer said in a calm voice. "I'll be right where a father wants to be, where he should be, where I should have been for years and wasn't. I'll be with my daughters."
The Warrior Princess stared hard at the old man, her jaw muscles flexing, the way they always did when her mind was completely focused.
"All right Herodotus." she said finally in her deep warlord voice. "This is not the farm. I command here. As long as you follow orders you can stay. If not I'll have you hog tied and hauled out of here. Is that clearly understood?"
The old mans eyes narrowed as he returned Xena's gaze. His face became granite.
"You're enjoying this aren't you?" he rumbled.
Xena's eyes did not waver but the corner of her mouth twitched up a little.
"Maybe" she said.
The man took a slow deep breath and there was a grumbling sound in his throat as he let it out, like a bear growling. But Xena could see her father-in-law's eyes soften.
"Okay, Warleader," he said in a quiet voice, "I'll follow any order you give me but one, I'm not leaving. Good enough?"
"Good enough" the Lion answered with a slight nod of her head.
Herodotus' eyes shifted again to his daughter and the lines in his face deepened with a fathers worry for his child. He reached out and grasped the Warrior Princess' arm.
"Xena, she looks so worn out and frail. I've never seen her so thin. Is she ill?"
The Lion did not look back at her mate. She did not need to. She knew only too well how the bard appeared. She shook her head and sighed.
"Yes," she said. "She's sick of war. Gabrielle has seen more than her share of violence and death travelling with me. But never before has the responsibility for it been on her shoulders. The lives of so many depending on her judgements." Xena's face became tense with concern as she looked at Herodotus. " She feels everything so deeply. She stopped eating months ago. And these last few weeks she's stopped sleeping. She just lies awake with her head on my shoulder, thinking. She's burning herself up with worry. I'm almost glad the war is here. It means that one way or another this burden will finally be lifted from her."
There was a long moment of unhappy silence as the father and mate worried about the woman they both loved. Finally Xena broke the dark brooding cloud that was forming around them by clapping her hand on Herodotus' shoulder.
"I shouldn't say it," she said with a grin, "but I am glad to see you old man."
"Of course you are" Herodotus answered immediately. "Why wouldn't you be? I'm easily the handsomest man in twenty leagues." The old farmer looked around. "I'm sure all these other women are glad to see me too."
The old man and the Lion then did something they often seemed to do when they were together. They laughed.
Immediately after Xena's return from Ithaca Gabrielle called a Council meeting and announced her decision for war. The Warrior Princess presented her plan. Murise stood and brought up all the problems that Odyseus had forseen. The Lion did not get angry, they were valid points and she answered them the best she could. Finally Murise sat down. For all of her doubts there was no shortage of iron in the woman. It became obvious to all that she would rather fight with a flawed plan than not fight at all. Like the Princess, the Chief of Trikkala loved the idea of the Amazons and could not live without it. Her whole life had been lived on one Amazon principal. Death before dishonor. The whole Nation's death if neccesary. Her conviction did not waver now. The other Councilors, some reluctantly, placed their faith in the Queen and the Warleader. The vote in support of Gabrielle's decision was unanimous, war. After the bard adjourned the meeting and the Councilors left she gave her mate a hug and kiss and then went for a long moonlit walk down by the river. She found a log close to the bank and she sat and listened for a while to the sounds of life. Frogs croaking, crickets chirping, night birds singing, dragon flys humming, fish splashing as they lept out of the water after insects. Finally the bard put her face in her hands and wept. Wept bitterly for the women who would soon lose these sounds forever. 'If we are doomed to lose this war Artimis,' she prayed. 'Let the first death be mine. If I can't lead my people well in life then let me lead them in death.' Suddenly a strong arm wrapped around the bards shoulders. Without looking Gabrielle turned and buried her face in Xena's chest. Together the mates sat on the log all night, without a word spoken, Xena gently rocking Gabrielle, her chin on top of her head, till dawn found them with its promise of new life. The bard pulled back and the Lion put her hands to her cheeks and wiped the tears gently from her eyes with her thumbs.
"I've used up todays allotted time for crying." Gabrielle said quietly. She took one of her mates hands and kissed the palm. "Time to go to work."
The days of late summer went by quickly and slowly. Quickly for Xena, slowly for Gabrielle. The Lion travelled ceaselessly, from village to village, overseeing the training of the village companys with an iron hand. Building their strength and confidence while teaching them the tactics of the phalanx and how best to counter them. Seeing that every warrior understood how to properly use her unfamiliar hoplite shield and her role in the battle line. Several times she broke away from her training schedule to spend a couple of days checking on the progress of the engineers in building a servicable path from the mouth of the Akheloos river to the highway. Time seemed to fly by for her, her mind and body completely focused on her goal, victory. It was energizing to the Lion. She slept less and felt better than she had in years. Every day was a new mountain to climb and the Great Lion of Amphipolis was the greatest mountaineer in the world. She knew in her soul that she was created for challenges like this.
Gabrielle spent most of her time closeted with Lentilia in the royal quarters handling endless piles of scrolls that defined the economic life of the nation as she tried desperately to squeeze out the money or trade goods necessary to equip her warriors for modern warfare. She made trades with greedy arms suppliers that literally made her sick to her stomach knowing how outrageously unfair they were to her people but she was competing with all of Greece for weapons and armour as everyone responded to the Carthaginian threat. She made several trips to Athens and Corinth trying to fill gaps in her list of necessary supplies and always came back with less than she needed. The Nation was closing in on bankruptcy and the bard felt a rising sense of desperation. Sometimes she wondered if they could survive victory any better than they could defeat. Lentilia and Ephiny watched her lose weight and finally agreed that they would take turns being with Gabrielle at every meal, begging, urging and pestering her to eat. The days dragged by for the bard, and when Xena came home to train the Farsala company she always seemed to be away on her trips. Weeks went by without the mates seeing each other. Finally, as summer turned to autumn, they actually wound up in the same room together, by accident.
Xena decided to stay an extra day in Farsala to watch Ephinys' cavalry train in the great open meadow on the south side of the town. It was a throughly impressive and satisfactory display. The troopers wheeled and manuevered in perfect syncronization to Ephiny's every command. And the prideful arrogance that the troopers displayed was exactly what the Lion wanted to see. She wanted to see one hundred wolves ready to descend on the sheep and murder them without conscience or pity. Under Daria's glaring eye and harsh demanding voice she saw them. When Ephiny rode over and pulled up beside Xena, who was sitting on Argo, the Lion growled only one word. "Perfect." Ephinys face showed no reaction to Xena's appraisal but inside her heart swelled. Her pride in her accomplishment was complete. More than she even realized, she wanted the approval of Greece's greatest warrior for her work. She finally felt ready to lead her warriors into the inferno.
The Lion was packing her few personal possesions in the royal quarters, about to leave for Kalvia after reviewing Ephinys troop, along with most of Farsala, as it marched through the town to its encampment, when the door opened and Gabrielle, covered with a layer of dust from her trip with Lentilia to Corinth, walked in. Ephiny was behind her, having seen her pull up on her horse outside the Council Hall. The Princess always laughed to see the bard gingerly get on and off a horse. There was no time these days for walking and Ephiny had found her Queen a gentle gelding to ride but Gabrielle still did not trust horses.
The Lion looked up with surprise. "Beloved" she said with a broad smile only Gabrielle ever saw. The Princess was somewhat shocked to see how truly expressive of emotion the Warrior Princess' face could be when she let down her guard for a moment.
"You are still alive," Gabrielle exclaimed as she hurried over to her mate and wrapped her arms around her. "I was beginning to wonder beloved."
The Warrior Princess hugged her mate hard then pulled back and brushed some of the dusty hair out of the bards face and put her mouth on Gabrielle's. Ephiny went and sat down in a chair against the wall and tried to pretend she was not there. Finally the lovers pulled reluctantly apart. The bard stroked Xena's cheek.
"I'd almost forgotten what you taste like my love. You taste like life itself to me." she whispered.
Xena smiled and brushed her nose against her mates. "You are my life" she whispered back.
Gabrielle looked into Xena's face and her eyes clouded.
"You look tired beloved," she said. "You're not leaving again are you? You're going to stay awhile and rest right?"
The Lion was surprised at the bards words. She hardly felt tired. In fact she felt completely fit and ready for anything.
"Well, actually," she said slowly, "I should be in Kalvia right now. I stayed an extra day to see Ephiny's cavalry. I was just about to leave."
The bards shoulders slumped. Her face seemed to wilt.
"I thought you might need some rest" she said in resignation.
Xena looked at Gabrielle uncertain what to do or say. She was due in Kalvia. They would be wondering where she was.
"Xena does look tired, very tired." The Lion looked up to see Ephiny approaching. The look on her face said 'you're an idiot Warleader.'
"In fact," Ephiny continued. "I think she should take three or four days off and go to that fishing hole over by Trikkala we found last summer and get some real rest. I think the Queen should order her Warleader to do just that. Right now."
Xena's eyebrows beetled together with annoyance at the Princess but Ephiny glanced at the bard and then back to the Lion with a 'wake up stupid' look in her eye. Xena finally looked at her mates drawn, weary, dirt stained face and woke up.
"I am tired" she said. She smiled. "If the Queen orders me to go fishing I guess a loyal Amazon warrior could hardly refuse. Everything is in order in the Nation right now. I could take a few days off." Xena stroked the bards face and looked in her green eyes. "Of course I'll need someone to cook the fish. You know if I do it myself I'll just wind up sick."
"Oh Xena," the bard said, rubbing her cheek against the Lions hand, "would that be responsible, both of us being gone?"
"Hey," Ephiny said sharply. "A vote of confidence in the heir apparent by the Queen would be nice right now. You don't think I could handle things for a few days Gabrielle?"
The bard turned around and looked at Ephiny with true gratitude in her eyes.
"You know that's not what I meant. I just meant..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off and she turned back to her mate. "Could we Xena, could we get out of here for a few days?" The desperation in the bards voice shook the Warrior Princess. Had she lost her connection to Gabrielle so much in these last months that she did not realize how her mate was suffering? The Lion put her hand behind the bards head and pulled her to her breast.
"We're leaving at first light so pack what you need" she said. Then she grinned. "While you're packing I'm going to get the big tub filled and we're going to have a good soak and start out in the morning clean and fresh."
The bard put her arms around the Warrior Princess and held her tight, like she was the last tree in a raging flood and if she let go she would be swept away to oblivion.
Xena peeked from behind the tree trunk at the rider coming up the trail. As the horse passed beneath her she silently walked out on a branch and with perfect timing jumped off and landed behind the rider and wrapped her arms around her.
"So where have you been?" Gabrielle said. "I've been expecting you to ambush me for the last half a league. I was getting worried you didn't care anymore."
Xena snuggled her face in the bards fine redblonde hair then moved around and licked her ear.
"Ambush is all about surprise" she whispered. "I surprised you by not ambushing you sooner."
"Or you were too busy enjoying your fishing to worry about poor Gabrielle's hurt feelings that you hadn't come out earlier to waylay her" the bard said.
The Lion smiled. "Or that. You can pick either one."
Gabrielle grinned. "Once again Xena, that golden tongue of yours knows just the right words to pick me up out of my misery."
"I'm always here for you my friend" the Lion nipped her mates earlobe. "Always here." After a pause Xena asked, "How was the adoption ceremony?"
The bard took a deep breath and frowned at the memory.
"That was so embarrassing" she winced. "I totally forgot Trikkala's adoption ceremony was today. Thank the gods we showed up completely by accident at the right time. I love presiding over the yearly ceremony in each village. I would have never forgiven myself if I had missed this one. I think it's the most important thing I do as Queen. Sanctifying before the village and Nation the formation of new Amazon families. I love to see the look in the eyes of the women as they hold their children and repeat the oath of adoption. It always moves me deeply." The bard laughed. "Plus I get to hold all those kids and give them a kiss whether they want one or not. Some of them sure give me a funny look. I don't have a mustache or anything do I?"
Xena laughed. "Not hardly."
As Gabrielle's brown gelding walked along the narrow trail between the towering oaks and maples of the forest the Lion pulled the bards long hair to one side and began softly kissing the back of her neck. Xena's hand around the bards waist moved slowly up till it was over a breast pressing gently, feeling the nipple harden with excitement through the cloth of her blouse. The bard closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure. After moving over to the other breast and giving it a light squeeze the hand moved down Gabrielle's belly and began to worm its way with exquisite delicacy into her skirt. The bard put her hand over Xena's.
"Hey there lover," she whispered, "just how far do you intend to go? We'll be to the pond soon."
"We don't have to wait that long beautiful" the Lion whispered in Gabrielle's ear and then she ran her tongue around inside it. "I'll have you shivering right here in a moment."
The bard frowned with doubt. "I don't know beloved. I've never done this on a horse before. With my luck the animal will bolt in the middle of things and we'll both break our necks. As much as I love you Xena I'm not sure that's how I want to be found."
The Warrior Princess kissed the bards ear. "It'll be alright. Borius and I had sex on a horse all the time. In fact I think Solon was conceived on a horse."
"Oh that's good Xena. That's romantic," she said. "Bring up the acrobatic tricks you could do with your former lovers. I'm sure a warrior like Borius could do a lot of things I can't do."
"Maybe" Xena smiled. "Are you jealous?"
"Nooo," the bard said with a tinge of sarcasm, "what would I be jealous about? You mean the fact that you've had more lovers than a lion with her own pride while I've had two in my whole life, and one of those was just for one night. What would I be jealous about?"
The Lion hugged Gabrielle close and kissed her neck. After a moment of silence the bard took her mates hand from her waist and kissed it. She let out a little sigh.
"I do wonder sometimes Xena," the bard said, "if I... if I..."
"Satisfy me?" the Warrior Princess completed her mates sentence.
Xena put her cheek against the bards and moved her head up and down rubbing their skin gently together.
"Let me tell you something beautiful," she whispered with emotion. "No one has ever moved me the way you move me. No one has ever touched me the way you touch me. No one shares our bed Gabrielle. When I love you there's only you. I don't see anyone else. I don't feel anyone else. You fill up all my senses and my heart. My dreams have only you in them my beloved mate. Only you."
Gabrielle put her hand on the side of Xena's head and pressed their cheeks together.
"Love me Xena," she whispered. "On a horse, in a tree, on the bottom of the ocean, anywhere you want beloved. As long as it's you there's only ecstacy."
"Xena stop" the bard giggled. "Xena that tickles."
The Lion moved the little twig with a leaf at the end from between Gabrielle's round buttocks and up the small of her back. The bard wriggled her whole body as the leaf moved slowly forward.
"Xena that really tickles," she laughed.
When the leaf reached the nape of her neck the bard suddenly rolled over and grabbed the leaf in her teeth and pulled it from the twig.
"Hey, that's mine" Xena smiled. The Warrior Princess laid her naked body down on top of her mates and grabbed the leaf with her own teeth. For a moment they both laughed and pulled back and forth till the leaf tore in half. The Lion carefully took the leaf out of Gabrielle's mouth with her fingers and spit out her own half. Then she settled her lips on the bards and experienced again the pure pleasure that her mate gave her. The taste of her mouth and her excitement. The aroma of her breath. The smell of her passionate body. The feel of her soft skin. The sound of her breathing and the words of love she spoke as she reached release. And those eyes, those emerald green eyes that burned with desire and passion and set her own desire raging like a lightening strike in a dry forest. After so long, too long, the Lion felt Gabrielle's heart beating again beside hers. The sensation filled every empty space, every lonely gap of her soul. 'Odyseus was right' she thought as she pulled back and studied her beloved's features, her eyes closed and a smile of pure contentment on her face, 'you connect me to humanity, in your arms I'm whole.'
"Thank you Gabrielle," the Lion whispered.
The bard opened her eyes. "For what?" she asked, her green orbs still intense with passion.
"For loving me."
The bard smiled and wrapped her arms around her mate and pulled her down with all her might.
"Do you feel my heart beating beloved?" she whispered.
"Yes" Xena answered.
"My heart was created for you Xena. It's yours as much as mine. It was made to love you. It always will. And I always will. Thank you for loving me back."
"I do beautiful, "Xena whispered, pulling her head back so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes. "I do. Always know it. Always believe it. There's only you."
They kissed for a very long time. Finally Xena rolled off the bard and took a deep breath. Gabrielle snuggled into her arm.
"Gods I've missed you" the bard said in a low voice. "So much."
"And I you" Xena answered.
For a candle mark there was silence as the lovers rested in each others arms. Xena breathed deeply the smell of the pines that surrounded the beaver pond where they had spent the afternoon fishing,
talking and laughing together for the first time in months. A hardness and distance from others that had been building in the Lion these last weeks, a focus on the discipline of death that made the lives of others seem more like material to be manipulated and molded, pawns to be manuevered, instead of people of flesh and feeling, was all melted away by one evening with the bard. The miracle of Gabrielle had occured. The Warrior Princess was in touch again with the other half of her soul. As she absently ran her fingers up and down Gabrielle's arm as it lay across her chest, her cheek on top of the bards head, Xena found herself thinking only on the pleasure of life.
"Gabrielle," the Lion said quietly," when are we going to start a family?"
Xena felt the bard jerk with surprise.
"Xena, beloved," Gabrielle stammered as she pulled back and raised herself on an elbow to look at her mate. "you know I want to start one. Very much. But how can we think of that now?"
The Lion gazed into her lovers eyes and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand.
"Because we must" Xena whispered. "All this work and planning and training and worry, all focused on death. It's time for us to think of life again beloved. To plan a future for ourselves that has the promise of life. When we get back to Farsala will you go with me to the temple to put our names on the adoption list? Are you ready to think about life after this war?"
Gabrielle's face beamed, a sight as beautiful as any the Lion had ever seen, and she pulled herself on top of Xena and kissed her with passionate tenderness. "Yes Xena, I'll be beside you in the temple," she whispered, "I'll be beside you always."
The bard began kissing down Xena's neck and onto her chest. She moved slowly over till Xena's left nipple popped in her mouth. She nipped it and tickled it with her tongue as it hardened with excitement. The Lion laughed.
Gabrielle looked up with a questioning face. "What?"
"Always the left one, never the right" Xena smiled.
The bard looked at her mate through narrow eyes. "So what are you telling me? The other one is jealous?"
"Maybe" Xena replied.
Gabrielle grinned. "Well there's a reason for that." The bards left hand slid down Xena's stomach and between her legs. "I think I'm better with the left hand but," she started to pull her hand back but Xena's caught it and put it back in its place.
"No, no," the Lion laughed, "the right nipple will just have to stay jealous. Never mess with success."
Gabrielle giggled, then she sighed as she looked on the open, unguarded, dazzling smile and the soft blue eyes that gazed back at her. "You make me happy Xena," she whispered, then her eyes narrowed wickedly, "now lets see what I can do for you."
Soon the little forested valley echoed to the sounds of gasping and panting and laughing and the pleasure of love.
The sun was a quarter of the way through its journey when the Warleader was finally satisfied that everything was ready. She galloped Argo up to the front of the supply train where it stopped at the western edge of the village. She looked over at Herodotus sitting on the bench of his wagon, Cassandra beside him. The old farmers face was red, the way Gabrielle's face got when her temper was up, and he was glaring at the Lion. The warrior at his side seemed perfectly calm and content with the world. The Warrior Princess noticed that the load in the back of Herodotus wagon looked much better organized than it had been. She winked at the old man. He mouthed something that she was sure was obscene but that she did not quite catch. It might have had something to do with the marital status of her mother. Xena smiled to herself and looked down and scratched Argo in that special place behind her ears. Then the tall dark woman took a deep breath and the smile disappeared, replaced by the iron mask of the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess, the Great Lion of Amphipolis. She straightened in the saddle and flexed her powerful shoulders and adjusted her weapons till they were perfect. She gave Argo a tap with her heels and the warhorse stepped off with a steady loping stride down the dusty highway through Pyra. On the left were the carts and wagons of the supply train. On each sat two women, a driver and an assistant, who would help with the animals and loading and also become a litter bearer and aid to the healers when battle came. All young and strong, they were women who had not quite made the battle line of their village. As the Lion rode past the drivers and helpers sat up straighter, shoulders back and heads high, all of them feeling a thrill of pride race through them as they admired the incredible martial presence of their Warleader. Felt her dark, dangerous charisma, her promise of success.
On the right the women and children of the village were gathered along the road and between the huts. Some held babies against their shoulders, faces covered against the dust and sun. Many of the children waved as Xena passed, eyes wide with wonder at the sight of the legend their mothers had told them stories about before they slept. More than a few had mothers about to fight, and perhaps die, under her command. The Lion refused to think of such things. The upturned faces that she passed were just a blur. A Warleader had only one thought to focus on, victory. She had learned long ago the only thing sadder than a battle won was a battle lost. Her responsibility to these people was to win. The consequences and tragedies of that victory would have to be dealt with by others.
Xena came to the east edge of Pyra and in the empty, freshly harvested fields to the north and south of the highway were drawn up in company columns the Army of the Nation. The Lion pulled Argo up in front of Queen Gabrielle, who was standing patiently beside the road, a golden bronze helmet with a great green horsehair plume sticking from the top on her head, her staff in her hand at her side, but Xena noted sourly that she still had no breastplate. The bard had come up more than fifty breastplates short in equipping her army and she stubbornly refused to wear anything in the way of protection that all of her warriors did not have. Behind the Queen stood the Royal Bodyguard. Six warriors, one chosen for the great honor from each village by its Chief. They each had a red silk sash tied around their right arm to mark their special duty and status. None wore a breastplate, a gesture of respect and solidarity with the Queen that they had decided among themselves.
The Lion looked down at her mate.
"Queen of the Amazon Nation," she said with quiet intensity, "the Army is ready to march."
Gabrielle nodded and strode into the road followed, in two lines of three, by her Guard. Xena walked Argo down the highway as the bard looked over at four women holding great curled rams horn trumpets. She bowed slightly toward them. They put the instruments to their mouths and with a great gulp of air blew with all their might. The horns blared out together deep and resonant, calling the warriors of the Nation to their duty. Each warrior of the Amazon army carried a sword on her back and a shield strapped with a long leather strip over her left shoulder, each polished to a bright sheen. On her right hip rested a skin of water held by a strap over her neck. In a loose sack thrown over her right shoulder were two days marching rations. All wore a bronze helmet and all but fifty a bronze breastplate, more than forty pounds of battlegear. As the companys came to attention at the sound of the horns there was a distinctive rattling of metal and equipment that made the Warrior Princess' blood surge through her veins. It was the music of an army ready for battle. A music the Lion had not heard for a long time and that she had not realized until this moment how much she missed.
The Warleader nodded at Zoe, who with the death of her grandmother had been appointed by Gabrielle to lead the Farsala company until after the campaign when a new Chief would be chosen.
"Leeeeeft face!!" Zoe screamed.
The company smartly turned as one and faced left.
"Fooorward march!!" the young leader bellowed.
The company marched out of the field and onto the road.
"Halt!! Riiiiight face!!" Zoe commanded.
With a snap of bodies and a clinking and rustling of gear the company, in column three across and sixtyfive deep, faced west down the Corinth highway, ready to march to its destiny. The bellowed orders were repeated five more times as the Army formed on the road. The companys were in the Amazons traditional marching order, their place in line determined by their order of founding. After the Farsala company came Murise and Trikkala, then Chief Nita and Kalvia, Alexa and Lamia, Essenia and Larisa and finally Chief Ashita and the company of Pyra. A column of over a thousand warriors, nearly half a league long. At the head of each company, standing on either side of the Chief, were two drummergirls with a hide covered drum held under the arm and a single stick with a wooden ball at the end to beat the cadence of the march. Gabrielle turned from her place at the front of the Army and nodded at Zoe. The Chief looked at her two young drummers.
"Route march cadence" she commanded.
The two girls began a steady rythmic boom, boom, boom, that the other drummers along the line quickly picked up. The Queen put up her arm,.
"Army of the Nation," she commanded, "forward... march."
As she dropped her arm and stepped off the words "forward march" were shouted up and down the line. The column started forward with some jerks and starts and stops but quickly the warriors found the rythm of the drums and the tramping of their sandal clad feet became a percusive sound of its own that nearly drowned out the beating of the drummers. As the column entered the village Zoe sang out the traditional Amazon marching song. Almost immediatly a thousand voices were singing at the top of their lungs, the beat of the song matching the cadence of their feet. The women and children of Pyra watched mostly in silence as the warriors passed. A few called out greetings and encouragement to friends they recognized. Others repeated over and over in a loud voice "Artimus be with you all". Finally, at the end of the line, came Ashita and the warriors of Pyra. As they entered the village there was a stir in the crowd of onlookers. Women and children crowded close to the marching column to see a mate or parent, to look in their eyes and shout "I love you" or reach out and touch them for perhaps the last time. The dust kicked up by the marching feet became thicker and thicker but no one seemed to notice. Many of the women had tears muddying the dirt on their faces but the children were too caught up in the spectacle of it all to understand the emotions of the moment. They skipped along beside the warriors waving and shouting "goodbye mommy, goodbye".
At last the Army cleared the west edge of the village. The Warleader, who was trailing along on Argo at the end of the column, nodded at Cassandra as she passed the commander of the supply train. The old warrior stood and waved her arm once over her head and pointed forward.
"All right Herodotus," she said, "let's go."
"Hey, get up there!" the old farmer called and he chucked the reins. With a jerk the wagon started forward and he guided it onto the road. Slowly the supply train, one wagon at a time, followed him out onto the highway. The people of Pyra cleared back from the lane, mothers shouting for their children to come back and stay out of the way. Finally, after a dozen candle marks, the last wagon passed the edge of the village and the army slowly receded into the west till all that could be seen was a towering cloud of dust that lingered on the horizon well into the afternoon. Many women stood in the fields on the west edge of town, each wrapped in her own private thoughts and fears, watching till the cloud was completely gone. Then they slowly walked back to their huts to resume the daily routines of their lives, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening in their small village world. But in Pyra, and Kalvia and Trikkala and Lamia and Larisa and Farsala, people looked at one another and all shared the same terrible frightening feeling. It was like there was a shortage of oxygen in the air. Somehow it was difficult to breathe.
Xena stopped at the entrance to the Council Hall and used the knife from her boot to scrape off the clinging clay mud of the street from her shoes. It had been raining for two days but now in the deepening dusk the sky could be seen clearing and a few stars were finally visible. The Lion had just arrived from Kalvia where she had been putting the company through intense drilling, unsatisfied with the state of their readiness. But in the last couple of days, marching and practicing their battle skills in a driving storm, she had seen the improvement she wanted to see. Now, with Argo safely stabled and cared for, she hoped to share a hot meal and maybe a hot bath with her mate before she left again.
She finished cleaning her boots and the guards at the entrance came to attention as she opened one of the double doors and entered. Inside Xena found Gabrielle sitting on one of the green Councilor chairs, her back to the entrance, looking through a pile of scrolls on a large table that had been placed in the middle of the semicircle of chairs. The table was heaped high with parchments.
"Lentilia?" the bard said, annoyed. "Where is that report from Chief Nita on her surplus of draft horses. We could have her send them to Larisa and use less oxen that way. Oxen are so slow on the march."
The old Chief lighted the last torch in the room then looked over to answer her Queen. When she spotted Xena she smiled and started to speak but the Warrior Princess hushed her with a finger to her lips. The Lion tiptoed carefully up behind the bard and with a sudden jump wrapped her arms around her mate and kissed her on the neck.
The bard reacted with cool nonchalance.
"You're getting old lover," she said. "I heard you coming all the way."
Xena snorted, then moved her head around and kissed the other side of Gabrielle's neck.
"You wish," the Lion said. "It's just that my leathers are finally drying after two days and they're creaking. A good oiling will take care of that. Age has nothing to do with it."
The bard patted Xena's arm.
"Keep telling yourself that sweetheart," she said with a little smile, "keep telling yourself that." Then she took the Warrior Princess' hand and kissed it and pressed it to her cheek. "Welcome home beloved" she whispered.
"Glad to be home," the Lion whispered back. "How about after we eat we fill the bath with hot water and have a soak?"
Gabrielle kissed Xena's hand again and made a little growling noise in her throat. The intensity of it caught the Warrior Princess off guard and she laughed out loud, something she seldom did in front of anyone but family. Lentilia smiled to hear the sound of it. The old Chief cleared her throat to draw the attention of the Queen and Warleader.
"I think we've acomplished enough today don't you my Queen?" she said.
Gabrielle smiled at her friend.
"Yes, we've done a lot, let's call it a night and start fresh in the morning. Thank you Chief."
"You're welcome my Queen,'' Lentilia replied as she headed for the door. "It's good to see you Warleader,'' she smiled as she passed Xena.
"And you,'' the Warrior Princess nodded. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Lentilia opened the door and left.
Gabrielle pulled Xena down onto a chair beside her and turned so she could see her mate.
"You're training schedule is done now isn't it?" she said, more as a statement of fact than as a question.
"Yep," Xena answered, stretching and flexing her back and shoulders and neck. The dampness of the last few days, living in her wet leathers, had made her muscles tight and sore and her bones crackle. 'Perhaps I am getting old' she thought idly.
"Harvest will start as soon as the ground dries, all the warriors will be needed in the fields for the next three weeks," she said, "and when it's done..."
"The Carthaginians will come" Gabrielle interrupted with a sigh, her eyes downcast to the floor.
The Lion shrugged.
"That's what I've anticipated all along," she said matter of factly. "They'll want to sieze the ford before winter so they have it secured come spring when campaigning season starts. They don't want to have to try to guess when the Athenians and Spartans will march. They've waited this long because they want us to harvest our own crops before they come to steal them and feed themselves over the winter." The Lion smiled an ironic smile. ''One of the first rules of war beloved is 'let your enemy do as much of your work as possible.' As soon as the harvest is done they will march, before any freak late fall snowstorm can come along and make the highway impassable."
Gabrielle put her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. She looked at her mate with weary, serious green eyes.
"Are we ready Xena?" she asked quietly. "Have we done everything we can? What more can I do?"
The Lion took her mates other hand and squeezed it.
"You've done an incredible job Gabrielle,'' she said. "We're ready."
For a candlemark the mates sat quietly, looking into each others eyes, letting their hearts speak emotions that there are no words for. Finally the bard lifted Xena's hand and kissed it.
"At least you'll be here for a few weeks beloved," she said. "It'll be wonderful to have you next to me in bed for more than one night at a time. I've forgotten what that's like."
"That would be nice," the Lion said, "but I'm afraid I have to go again. Well before dawn in fact. I only have time tonight to share dinner and a bath and a little sleep, then I'll be gone, eight or nine days probably.''
Gabrielle let out a little shocked burst of air.
"Xena, where are you going that would take that long?" she asked, astonishment on her face.
"Well, it's time I did a recon of Vonitsa," the Lion said, as casually as if she were announcing she were going to the food hut to get a snak. "I need to get a troop count, see how far along their preparations are, see if they are trying to cook up any surprises for us, most of all I want to find out who their commander is going to be. Knowing your enemy is also one of the rules of war."
Gabrielle took in a short hard breath, like it was difficult to breathe. The lines around her eyes deepened and her face flushed hot with tension and emotion. Xena suddenly stood up and gave the bards arm a gentle pull.
"Come on beautiful," she said, ''let's go over to the food hut. I could smell pork cooking when I was tending Argo. Thessala will be cooking tonight." The Lion grinned. ''Let's eat until we explode."
Xena pulled again on Gabrielle's arm but the bard took her hand out of her mates. Her green eyes stared at the Warrior Princess dark, worried and intense.
"Xena," she said slowly, ''this mission, isn't there someone else you could send?"
The Lion looked at her mate.
"Gabrielle," she said soothingly, "I'll be fine. I've already done one recon there. I have it all planned out. It'll go without a hitch." The Lion smiled. ''And even if it doesn't I've never run into trouble I couldn't get out of, you know that. Now come on beloved, let's eat."
Xena took a few steps toward the door but the bard did not move. The Lion stopped and looked back at her mate with a questioning face. Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out.
"Xena," she said. "Surely there is someone else you could send on this mission? Someone else that could gather the information you need?"
The Lion's eyes narrowed a bit.
"Well of course," she said evenly. "There's always someone else. But this is an important mission that has to be done. The best person for the mission should go. In my judgement as Warleader I'm the best person. I know what I need and I'm better able to do the job than anyone else. I'm sure you would agreee with that wouldn't you?"
There was a moment of tense silence then Xena's eyes softened.
"You know I'm right Gabrielle," she said in an almost pleading voice, ''now let's not waste anymore time we could have together." The Lion put out her hand. "Let's go."
The bard put her arms at her side, forcing herself not to give in to her instinct to reach out and take that offered hand.
"Xena, beloved," she said tensely, "of course you're the best person for the job. But there's a larger issue here. You're the Warleader of the Nation. I've put the lives of the people in your hands. Only you can lead us through the battle that's coming. You're the indispensible person here. Not me, not Ephiny, you. The Nation can't survive without you." The bard took a breath. ''This mission is too dangerous Xena. We're risking more than we have to gain. You shouldn't go."
The Lion's eyes narrowed more this time and and her voice had an edge.
"Perhaps in your judgement it's too risky, but not in mine," she said. "I've spent my entire life judging risks and so far I haven't been wrong. I'm still alive. I can accomplish this mission Gabrielle. I'm not going to send someone less able who'll just get themselves killed. Then we lose the warrior and the information. That's foolishness." The Lion paused for a moment and her jaw muscles worked the way they did when she was tense. "I should go on this mission. I think you should trust my judgement."
The bard forced herself to breathe. She felt like an elephant was standing on her chest. The color in her face deepened, but the green eyes never wavered as they stared into Xena's blue.
"I do trust your judgement," she said in a low, intense voice. "When it was just the two of us I was always content to follow your lead. But..." the bard hesitated and forced in a gulp of air, " but I'm a Queen now. I've accepted the responsibility. I decide what's best for the Nation. It's my judgement that matters here. The final decision, and the final responsibility, is mine alone. Xena, beloved,'' Gabrielle's eyes appealed to her mate as she whispered the words, ''the risk to your life and the Nation's is too much. You cannot go."
The Lion's eyes narrowed to ice blue slits. Her face became an iron, almost threatening, mask.
"Is that an order?" the Lion growled in her throat.
Gabrielle let out a little hard breath.
"Yes," she said with a nod.
Xena took a deep breath and the bard knew full well the volcano of anger her mate was struggling to control.
"Queen Gabrielle," the Lion rumbled finally, pronouncing each word carefully and forcefully, ''you're making a mistake. The intelligence I need from this mission is vital to us. I told you, I'm not going to lose this war. I'll do what I must to win it, with or without you. When I get back we'll talk about where we go from here."
The Lion turned on her heel and started for the door. Just as she reached it the bard said sharply, "Xena!"
The Warrior Princess stopped and looked back.
"If you leave this valley" Gabrielle said slowly, "don't come back. If you do I'll have you arrested and charged with disobeying a direct order. Under Amazon law the penalty is death. The law applies equally to all Xena. Even to the Great Lion of Amphipolis."
Xena took a hissing breath through her teeth and her eyes flashed like cold, hard, blue diamonds.
"Don't threaten me Gabrielle," she said in a barely controlled growl, an octave lower than the bard had ever heard before, ''don't ever threaten me."
The bards face turned a deeper red but the green eyes still did not waver.
"I'm not threatening you Xena," she said, raw emotion in her voice. "I'm informing an Amazon warrior, who took an oath of obedience to lawful authority, of the consequences of her actions."
There was a moment of awful silence, then in a hoarse whisper Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what are you going to do?"
"It's going to be a busy night, I have a lot to do" she replied coldly. "I'm going to go get something to eat."
And with that the Lion disappeared through the door and it slammed behind her. Gabrielle's entire body trembled at the sound.
Continued...Part 3 (Conclusion)
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