(and legal stuff): No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug
habit. <G> Although I wish I could say Xena and Gabby are ours,
they are not. They belong to MCA/Universal last we heard. This story
however is ours and ours alone. There's a lot of violence but not too
graphic. Alt sex, you bet! If you are too young, read no further. If
you live some place where this may not be kosher, read no further.
However, if you are open-minded, old enough and live in a progressive
neighborhood . . .enjoy! Nothing poetic is our’s, belongs to unknown
author. Thanks to Kamouraskan, Jlynn, Mary and the Bardic Circle for
the beta. Email the author's at CNWinters@hotmail.com or MurphyCG881@aol.com
The idea of being around Romans made my skin crawl as we got closer to the voices.
Pompey and Brutus, I knew those voices all too well.
"Hello boys," the Conqueror greeted the surprised men. A ring of ten of them stood up as Gabrielle and I dismounted. I had my sword hand ready at my side, as did Gabrielle. Both men turned and gave a Roman salute to her.
"Drop your arms, fellas. No need to hail Caesar in these woods. Besides, I’m not Roman - and I never will be."
Pompey acted as if he was going to say something but stopped himself. Finally he did manage the courage to speak. "Conqueror, what brings you out on a night like this? We were camping for the night, planning to pay you a visit at first light." Pompey said with that smug grin I despised.
Gabrielle laughed heartily making all the Romans jump at the sound. "You were going to pay me a visit where you? How sweet." The smiling expression fell in an instant. "State your business, Pompous." He lost his smile and I bit my lip. "Romans do not belong on this soil, especially uninvited ones," she growled and I could see her jaw clinch.
Pompey put a hand under his chest armor and reflexively I put my hand on my chakram prepared for anything. Even after he pulled out a scroll with a Roman seal on it, my hand continued to stay in place.
Gabrielle leaned over to grab it. "Let me guess?" She put the scroll to her head. "Caesar either wants to meet with me or no.... He has drawn out a treaty showing Rome’s good intentions?"
That time I let a small snicker out.
"Whatever it is Pompous, I'm not interested. Unless this guarantees his head mounted on my main gate." She threw the scroll at Pompey's feet.
I swear you could see the veins sticking out of his neck. He was ready to implode in his anger. I had to smile.
Gabrielle mounted the horse so we could leave and I followed suit. "Give old 'divide and conquer' a message from me." She looked at Brutus. "He steps one sandal on Greece soil and I will send my legions to mop the area with Rome’s blood." Her voice was so deep and deadly, it made us all swallow the lumps in our throats. Inside she was still the poetic bard but with a much different agenda.
"Yaw!!" She kneed the horse into a gallop. "Hope you're ready for a great battle, Xena," she yelled over her shoulder. I held onto her tighter.
We both stayed quiet for the rest of the ride back to the palace, heavy in thought.
My mind kept going back to when I first had a run in with Caesar. I was so naive and he used that against me. Gabrielle had handled that much better then the old Xena would have. I would've read that scroll, and probably fallen into whatever trap he had made like I did when I was young.
I found myself rubbing one of my legs in remembrance.
"Ahh..no, no. Just thinking." Her eyes moved forward once more.
"Care to share?"
Was she actually asking my opinion? Was she actually beginning a conversation?
"You’re not going to trust Caesar, are you?" Gabrielle began to laugh so hard I had to steady her on the horse. I too began to chuckle. "I’ll take that as a no."
Gabrielle gave a sigh. "Oh Xena. I must admit you do amuse me at times, whether intentional or not."
From what happened earlier in the woods. That was obvious. But I didn’t speak the words out loud.
"For the record, no. I don’t trust Caesar. There’s only one reason those men are that close. They’re casing us . . . But what I’d like to know is HOW did they get so close?" Gabrielle pauses a moment. "I can assure you - heads will roll and not just Roman heads."
"I hope your Regent isn’t one of them."
"Why do you say that?"
"I like her." Gabrielle turned back to look at me and I could have sworn I saw a touch of jealousy in her eyes. I felt the need to explain further. "I mean I admire her as a warrior and a person. After you left from our sparing session we spoke briefly. She seems like a good person."
Gabrielle was quiet for a long moment. "She’s the only one I truly trust." It came out just above a whisper and I had to admit I was relieved to learn the ax wouldn’t fall on her. But I was also speechless by the fact that Gabrielle had confessed something to me. If she trusted Ephiny and I could win Ephiny’s trust then . . .
All too quickly we were approaching the southern gate to find Ephiny waiting for us.
"Conqueror, there are reports of Romans close by."
We trotted up and dismounted. "I know. We had a run in with two of Caesar lackeys and a few of their cronies. They were even nice enough to send me a scroll I didn’t bother to read." Gabrielle chuckled and tapped me lightly in the stomach. "You know us poor women, we’re so easy to fool with empty promises." Gabrielle and her Regent laughed, as I mustered a smile.
The stable man took our horse and we all made our way into the palace. I could see Gabrielle's mind working. "Ready my legions for battle and send word to Queen Melosa. With Romans walking about, you know they will try to round up slaves. I want our sisters safe."
"Word has already been sent. Solari personally saw to it."
Gabrielle stopped and a look of true compassion crossed her face as she turned to Ephiny. "I’m sorry your visit was cut short."
"It needed to be done," Ephiny nodded. "No sorrows."
"Well, after this is over I’ll have Melosa release her for a months holiday, if that’s alright with you."
Ephiny looked about as shocked as I did. Gabrielle reached out and tipped up Ephiny’s chin. "Be careful, Regent, or you might start catching flies."
Ephiny gave me a look of disbelief and I just shrugged. Gabrielle began to walk again and quickly Ephiny and I race to catch up.
"Send another team out to Amazonia. Be sure the Amazons inform the Centaurs in case we need them as back up. Also be certain that a message is sent to Chin to alert them. I want Lao Ma to bring a portion of her troops here as a precaution to the east. Understood?"
The mention of Lao Ma sent a shiver up my spine. If she comes, she might blow my cover. But then again perhaps I never existed in her eyes either. But I know she has the 'sight' – an ability to see things others can't. Would I be one of those people she reads? And if so would it upset the balance I'm trying so hard to maintain?
Ephiny nodded formerly. "It will be done. Word is, she was arriving this week personally to see you anyway."
"With luck perhaps she’s brought black powder with her." Gabrielle then turned her attention to me. "Next we move into phase two of battle, Caesar has his troops on their way here. I’m sure of it. So make sure the outposts on all side are alert and battle ready. I want shifts to be every four candle marks to keep the men fresh."
I listened to the plans Gabrielle had given. She seemed to know how Caesar worked all too well. To my surprise, I felt jealousy brew in my soul. Borias’ voice rang in my head.
"I understand your anger with her, Cyane. But Xena’s not like you and me. She thinks with her will-- not her reason. You must have warriors in your camp with the same weakness."
That was the one great downfall of my youth; I leapt, and then looked. Ares was right, she did think and never underestimated a task. Gabrielle was the person I dreamed of being, back in those cold dark days.
"Are you listening, Xena?" I was brought out of my musing and stared into angry green eyes and a missing Regent.
"Yes, Gabrielle." Her eyes turned icier, but I didn't care. Right now all I was feeling was defeat.
"Alert the troops then get some rest warrior, we have a busy day tomorrow. And night. " She kissed me, but I just couldn’t kiss her back. I couldn't be her toy.
For a spilt second as she pulled away, I saw regret in her eyes. Then her mask went back into place. She left me without another word.
I stood there and felt as though I had no air to left breathe. I slammed my fist into the wall feeling like a trapped animal once more. A flash appeared from behind me. 'Great, just great, this is all I need.'
"Speak fast, Ares." I turned to see his smirking face.
"She's a good fuck, eh?"
I lost it and kicked him in the face this time, and the bastard couldn't stop me. He fell backwards and I landed on him.
"Face the facts, Xena You can't win her back. Your ploy to get into her breeches blew up in your face." I loosened my grip and found our positions quickly reversed. "Come on, Xena! Even you can see she's a superior warrior. She’s far better then you ever were - she thinks things through. She had those shackles in mind and what to do the second she invited you to her haunt." He smiled. "What were you thinking? Hmm? Something about making love?" He got off me, and stood up. "Can you honestly tell me her dark side didn't turn you on? Just sparring against her had you all wet. And I must admit I can relate. When she and I spar - SWEET MOTHER OF ZEUS! Face it Xena – you've lost." He laughed as he disappeared, leaving me in my numb state on the floor.
I finally made it back to my barrack, unsure of how I had even gotten there. I was too lost in my thoughts. I collapsed in my bed and wept; no longer able to hide my emotions. My mind took me back to times with my Gabrielle.
"It's over-- or is it? Xena? Do you ever? Do you get the feeling that sometimes-- nothing is really over? You know, it just-- keeps coming back around, but it's-- it's wearing a different face. It's-- it's the same underneath. Do you know what I mean?"
"Sure. I was trapped in a cycle of violence and hatred. And no matter how I tried to break free, something always pulled me back-- until you."
"No, it's true. You talk about trying to find your way, but to me, you are my way."
"How can I be your way, when I-- I'm lost, myself?"
"I'm searching for answers, too. But how we look for them doesn't matter-- as long as we look for them together-- you and me."
I just got her back after watching her fall into that forsaken pit. Then I remembered the last time Ares tried to win Gabrielle from me.
"You have to like her style-- the focus-- the intensity-- the ability to learn and adapt. She is just-- incredible. I can't believe I took her for granted for so long."
"You're just using Mavican to get to me, Ares. It won't work. Why don't you give up on me?"
"Xena-- I have given up on you. And what makes you think I was talkin' about Mavican?"
"This is about Gabrielle. You're not testing Mavican. You're after Gabrielle."
"You're not jealous? I mean, despite what Mavican thought, I have been thinking about your heir. And who better-- than one you trained?"
"You leave her out of this."
"Arrogance! There's the fire-- there's the anger you lost Xena."
"She'll never follow you."
"Well, she hasn't heard my offer yet. And, anyway-- how well do you really know her, anymore? Well, I guess we'll find out-- when she kills Mavican."
Gods, this time Ares found the perfect way to get her. I should have known he would never stop until he had her. I turned on my side and clutched my head. I saw another flash in my room, but I was too tired to bother to look.
"Ah, you poor warrior babe." Dite sat by me and put a hand on my head.
I still said nothing. A moment passed and she spoke again.
"Listen, Xena. Ares is only out to throw you off the track. He hasn’t won. As long as you stay alive he knows there’s always the chance you can win Gabrielle’s heart. He knows that." I took a deep breath and looked at her. Sometimes Aphrodite can be the smartest God in the lot.
"We both know what you and the mean bard did tonight wasn’t love. It was lust - plan and simple. Be honest. Didn’t you want that to happen? To be taken by the Conqueror? She was only giving you what she thought you wanted." I closed my eyes.
"I’ll admit, thinking of her battle lust was arousing to me."
"You need to show Gabby you want her heart, and not some bondage fuck. Don't get me wrong. At times a little 'yes mistress' it can be fun. But how can Gabrielle love, when she's never known it Xena?"
"I’m not sure if I’m capable of teaching love."
"Don’t sell yourself short, warrior. There’s a lot of love in there," she said, tapping my breastplate. "What would you give for her? What would you sacrifice? Would you risk all like she’s done in times past?"
Dite smiled at me. "She's scared of you. You're making her feel things she has never felt before. That’s making her more defensive. So take your time and use your heart. Show her the love that you have for her…Love's the key, toots - always is and always will be." She bubbled up and I couldn’t help it, I smiled at this. She stood to leave and I grabbed her hand.
"Thank you." I felt better now, sorta. Something in my soul told me there was more to it then just love. Ares is not that foolish to make it that easy…but then again.
"I know Ares really bummed you out but like I said . . . He’s the same old loser. He just wants to convince you that you can’t win." She looked up for a second. "For the record, Gabby is pacing her room right now, but it’s not the Romans that have her nerves on edge." She winked conspiratorially. "Get some rest, tall dark and deadly, and don't let big bro get you down." She gave me a peck on the cheek and flashed out. As a result I felt sleep claim me with thoughts of Gabrielle.
'I love you, my bard.'
I’m not sure how much time had passed after I woke back up. But the sound of knocking on the chamber doors pulled me from my bed. I opened the door to find Ephiny rapping on the guard’s doors, making each of us rise. My sword was on my back before she came to my room.
"What’s going on?"
"We’re moving out," Ephiny explained. "We’ve got reports that Caesar has massed more troops in the North and the Conqueror doesn’t want to take any chances. We attack this morning."
Ephiny turned to leave and I watched as Callisto smiled and waved at me from the end of the hallway. If every there was a chance to kill Gabrielle and get away with it, this was her chance. I gently pulled Ephiny by the arm. I didn’t know if I’d won her confidence enough yet but I didn’t have time to question it further.
"Don’t look," I began, "but at the hallway’s end —one of the other royal guards —Callisto, the blonde- I don’t trust her, Ephiny. Will Gabrielle be going into the battle too?"
"Her Highness is at every major battle, Xena."
I swallowed hard. "I’m assuming she’s well protected."
"That’s why she has her royal guard."
"And what if some in her guard wanted to kill her?"
"As her second in command, I never leave her side – never – unless ordered by the queen herself. I would die before someone took her life."
"You’re that devoted to her?"
The old Ephiny wouldn’t have to ask the question. But this Ephiny was as fiercely loyal as the one I knew, even if she had no memory of me.
"I am without a doubt, but as I said, I believe others in our company are NOT to be trusted."
"Callisto, umm?" Casually, Ephiny glanced down the hall to get a better look. I simply nodded and made an approving sound. "I’ll keep my eyes open."
I could have gotten into my thoughts on Najara but at this time she wasn’t an obvious threat. Stopping Callisto was my main goal aside from winning Gabrielle’s love. But I realized too that I couldn’t win the love of a dead woman. So I had to play things carefully.
"Thank you my Regent," I told her respectfully.
Ephiny only gave me a nod and went back to her task of assembling the guard. When we got outside I saw Gabrielle already waiting on her steed in full battle gear. I must admit she looked magnificent . . . commanding. She hopped from the horse as someone was led over to her. It was a cloaked figure and when they approached each other I could see Gabrielle’s grin grow wider. Upon seeing that grin I watched the hood drop. Immediately my jaw follows.
Autolycus stopped before Gabrielle, giving her a respectful bow before taking her hand and kissing it in a very gentlemanly fashion. I was too far away to hear the exchange between them but it looked as though he’d been in Gabrielle’s ‘circle’ for quite sometime. I could see by the way she held herself in his presence. She seemed much more ‘casual’. I wanted to know this story but I didn’t want to break from the growing regiment without a reason. I decided perhaps a bit of truth might do the trick.
I took several long strides over and I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be as I made my way to the pair. Gabrielle looked first in my direction and when her smile didn’t fade at my approach I felt a bit more comfortable. When she waved me over I felt much more at ease.
"Xena, come meet Autolycus," she announced. "Autolycus, this is the newest member of my royal guard."
"Good choice," he nodded. "I’m sure she could take down her fair share of Romans and then some." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
I took the offered appendage. "Likewise, but I think we’ve met before. That’s why I came over. You looked like someone I met years ago in Thrace."
"Perhaps," he grinned politely before turning to Gabrielle as he finished his statement. "I do get around."
"Oh that he certainly does," Gabrielle chuckled. "Autolycus is one of my most trusted spies, not to mention one of the best."
"One of the best? Forgive me for correcting you your Majesty, but I AM the best."
Oh yeah. The more things change the more they stay the same, I considered with a grin. He had that cocky grin that I realized I had missed. Instead of turning brutal for the ‘disobedience’, to my surprise Gabrielle chuckled.
"The only thing bigger than Autolycus’ ego is his . . ."
Autolycus gave a slight ahem in response to Gabrielle for letting her sentence hang. With a coy grin she finished by adding, "appetite for nut bread."
"Well, that too," he conceded, stroking his chin.
I was curious now. "So how did he come into your service, Milady?"
"He was a thief," she said bluntly, her grin still in place. "I was on a campaign in the east and every other night items kept coming up missing. A few weapons, a few sets of body armor. But when he took my nut bread that was the final straw."
Autolycus chuckled too. "But since I’m so witty and engaging, she decided to keep me around after she FINALLY managed to catch up to me."
"I will admit," the conqueror smiled. "I did find him entertaining. The men wanted to gut him but it was a waste of potential. So I made him a deal."
"That’s right. I work for her Majesty. Stay loyal and she would see I wouldn’t want for anything. She’s kept her side of the bargain and I’ve kept mine. It’s been what? Five years now?"
Gabrielle looked upward as if she was totaling the years. "I believe so," she nodded. "I have to admit that when I hadn’t heard from you this month I was worried."
"About what? Getting caught?" He smiled. "Only one person was quick and smart enough to catch me."
Gabrielle turned to me. "Autolycus is very smooth. He’s knows all the right things to say and when to say them. Speaking of which, what news do you have for me from Rome?"
"Oh, the same old, same old. Caesar thinks he’s a God. He’s promising people things he’ll never deliver. Athens is going to fall. So on and so forth."
"The usual, huh?"
"You got it," he grinned. "But I did learn something of interest. I’m not sure what it could spell in the future."
"Caesars’ right hand man - Brutus - he’s running for Senate and gaining quite a bit of support. It seems to have driven a wedge between the daring duo. I’m not sure if that would be important but I do know that Brutus oversees many of Caesars’ troops in the Northern battles and his last orders were to head west."
"But scouts have seen troops to the north . . . Divide and conquer," Gabrielle muttered. "This is quite interesting."
"I have a feeling that this little riff could work to the Greek advantage. Because if-."
"Caesar is counting on Brutus to stay put and wait for our troops, Brutus might get itchy to steal Caesars’ thunder and rush ahead."
"Exactly." Autolycus grinned.
"Then that means that there would be no back up of Roman support," I offer. "The Romans will all mass in one area."
Gabrielle grinned as Autolycus waved his finger. "She is good," he chuckled. "Where did you find her?"
"She came to me actually," Gabrielle replied. I could tell there was something deeper behind the words as she spoke them, but she didn’t elaborate.
"Well if you don’t mind me saying," Autolycus addressed both of us. "With looks and brains like those she could visit my bed chamber any time she likes - day or night."
"She’s off limits."
Gabrielle’s voice was firm and all joking left her face. For the first time since the friendly exchange I saw Autolycus' mood shift. He wore the look I saw in others when they had contact with Gabrielle's bad side - fear mixed with respect. He could joke with her. Laugh with her. But some things were not up for discussion. Apparently I was one of those things and everyone in the circle knew it. He gave a respectful bow without making a single noise.
"Xena, would you please get the Regent immediately? I have a new idea for this battle."
With a respectful bow I made my leave to look for Ephiny. I wasn’t sure what she had planned but I did know that even Caesar wouldn’t see it coming.
I found Ephiny in the stables making sure all the horses had the right armor and rations for battle.
"Regent?" Ephiny turned to look at me.
"The Conqueror requests your presence." She nodded towards me, then said something to the blacksmith, briefly before walking back my way.
"Xena, make sure that the smithy re-shoes that horse before we head off. Argo has a tendency to be bitchy when her shoes are bothering her." The Regent walked out and I was left there catching flies with my open mouth.
I walked over to the last stall with a growing grin. There she was. 'My’ Argo.
"Hey, girl." She whinnied as if even in this world, she knew me. I buried my face in her mane and thought of home.
"I see you have good taste in horses as well, Warrior." I jumped slightly.
"I thought you had to talk with Ephiny, My Lord?"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at me as she examined my affection for her mare.
"I said what I needed to, and now I came to check on my battle horse." Argo whinnied and gave Gabrielle a little nudge. "How's my girl?" Argo nudged her again and the Conqueror chuckled, bringing out an apple she had hidden in her armor. "Never could hide anything from you." She chuckled once more and turned her attention to me.
"She’s smart. How long have you had her?"
Gabrielle thought. "Around ten moons now, I only use her now for battle. She’s well trained and I trust her with my life. Rest of the time she’s free to roam. She's such a free spirit. But she always comes home in the end." We both gave her a pat.
After a brief silence she asked, "You ready to deal with Rome, Xena?"
My mouth went dry and I'm pretty sure I had a nice sneer on my face.
"I see you have the same love for Caesar as I do."
"I know he's an egotistically lying, crafty bastard."
She laughed loud at this and I worried. "Gabrielle, you must be really careful with him."
She eyed me. "One thing that I've learned over the years, Xena, is never take anything for granted or underestimate anyone." She sighed. "Caesar thinks my greatest flaws are my emotions. I feel things - be it anger or joy. To him, he thinks he can use this. But feelings aren’t the worst thing a warrior can experience."
"What’s the worst then?"
"Indifference. Because if you don’t care then you have nothing to fight for."
"So how will you handle this battle?"
"Caesar wants that one great battle that will make him a part of history. But we’re not the ones who will give it to him. Brutus will."
I was obviously confused and it showed on my face. Gabrielle gave a slight chuckle before continuing.
"First, we have to get his entire army here. The key to destroying Caesar is his belief in his destiny. That and Brutus’ impetuous nature, trying to upstage Caesar. Brutus also believes he has a destiny. So when fates collide it can be a dreadful thing…for Rome that is."
She has an interesting take on Caesar. One I had never truly considered. I remained quiet as she went on.
"I know Caesar, and right now he's probably thinking I'm drawing him into a trap where he can flank our troops. Brutus will be the good field general and await his order. But that won’t happen."
I looked at her at a loss. Would he fall for that?
"Shh Warrior. You see in past battle my troops have impersonated his. You keep your friends close, Xena, but your enemies closer. I have a fair hand in Rome although Caesar doesn’t know it. When he sees troops in the valley in Roman attire . . ."
"He'll make the mistake of thinking they are his troops."
"Exactly. He’ll charge in thinking Brutus is trying to upstage him again. When Brutus sees him going in full force he’ll think he’s being shut out of the glorious victory. That wouldn’t help poor Brutus’ standing in the Roman Senate."
"And he’ll rush in too." I grinned.
"At which point we turn the tables. I get my men pulled back and I let the mortars do their job. Less of my men will die because we won’t have to do as much hand to hand combat in this battle. And even though Caesar sees MY emotion as my downfall . . . in truth it will be his arrogance and Brutus’ thirst for power that will do them in."
I considered a plan forming in my own mind. "What we have to do is make sure both Roman armies are led into the middle while making sure ours are on the outer parts to attack all."
"That'll be a hard task, but not impossible." Gabrielle agreed, but my nerves were still on overload.
"Conqueror?" Ephiny stood at the door.
We both walked to greet her, when a man carrying way too much for one person, nearly knocked us over. I was ready to take his head off when Gabrielle stopped me.
"Joxer?" The man froze, dropping his load of saddle packs and turned, falling to his knees.
She motioned for him to stand. "You ready for battle?"
He stuck his chest out proudly. "Aye, Conqueror. And a grand battle it will be." I looked him over and he seemed to be a bit more rugged looking than I was used to.
"Back to work with you then." She clasped his arm in parting.
"He's a tad slow wit wise, but he’s dependable in battle." We continued walking over to Ephiny and all I could help thinking was, ‘Joxer?? How is that possible?’
"Scouts say that Caesar’s Army is still heading full force from the West and Brutus’ forces are candle-marks ahead of his coming from the North."
"Good, good. Caesar will be in the middle first to deal with a clueless Brutus. Are our Sisters ready? What of the Centaurs?" Gabrielle was clearly in strategic mode
"Melosa sent word that the sisters are behind Caesar's forces and Tyldus is keeping an eye on Brutus', waiting for your signal. Catapults are in place with the Centaurs. The Amazons will stop them from retreating. They are in the forest, located in the trees."
"Advanced troops will perhaps be here in time. But she’s a good 5 candle-marks behind with the majority of her soldiers with her."
"Very well then." She acknowledged the Regent and I. "Shall we go teach Caesar a lesson he won’t live long enough to enjoy?" She smiled at us both. Ephiny and Gabrielle walked outside and I stood in the doorway.
"Coming, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll be right there, I want to make sure Argo's shod properly." She gave me a smirk and walked off with the Regent. I knew in my soul that Gabrielle’s knowledge of battle should have made me sick to my stomach, but I found myself in awe. I watched as she yelled orders to some of the solders.
"Conqueror? Conqueror?" A small voice called out to her. Gabrielle found the voice quickly with a smile. An adoring smile that only a mother would have for her child. Hope ran to her with a small package, Gabrielle scooped her up and kissed her while taking it.
"Put your mask back on, Gabrielle." I muttered to what I thought was to myself. This was one of many reasons I’d sent Solon away. What if I slipped like Gabrielle just did? Right then the hairs on the back of my neck tingled.
"My, my what a beautiful child." I stiffened as Callisto continued. "If I didn't know better I would say she looks an awful lot like...hmmm." She tapped her chin with her finger. "Well, you know, dear." She gave me that wild smile of hers.
"Before this battle's over, you'll be at the end of my sword," I promised.
"Oh, Xena, I swear every time you threaten me it just makes me all gooey inside." She laughed, going to her horse and leading her steed out. "Make sure you stay safe out there." She blew me a kiss and rode towards the other guards. My temper was slipping. Now Callisto knew about Hope, which meant that Najara must have told Callisto at some point. Son of a Baccache, I thought. Sure, Callisto would be with me, but Najara would be with Hope.
I had a flashback to when I felt Gabrielle had betrayed me, and Solon died. Ares knew how to play on my darkness and I did the unspeakable.
"Nice vocal! But you sure can't dance to it. Look, I feel your pain OK -- but how much longer before you start doing something about it?" Ares said.
"My son is dead, ya soul-less bastard! What can I do about that?"
"Just goes to prove what I've been telling you all along-- no good deed goes unpunished-- saving people, defending the weak, trusting someone who betrayed you." He puts a hand on my shoulder.
"This whole atonement kick you've been on lately -- it's not you. You're full of fire -- bending the world to your will -- full of rage. And revenge. Accept it; embrace it. You know what to do -- who to kill." Gods, he knew what buttons to push.
I saw myself hold her battered body above the cliff as I screamed.
I paced the stable shaking, 'think Xena think.'
I looked back out as Gabrielle gave Hope one more squeeze before shoeing her off. Was Ares going to try to pull the darkness out of Gabrielle? Could he do it and would she be able to come back?
"Hope?" I called for the little girl; she saw me and smiled. I knew Gabrielle was watching, but I had no other choice.
"Yes, Xena?" Her face was just like her mother's and I felt an ache in my chest.
"I need you to give your Grandmother a note from me please, as fast as you can. Don't let anyone see this note other then her. Please, it's important." She nodded yes and I walked to my horse and grabbed a scroll and quill from it quickly.
I sent her off with the promise again not to show anyone and to get it to Cyrene fast. I had to warn Mother someway, but I couldn't stay because I had to watch Callisto with Gabrielle. Gods, I felt like I was trapped between crossbows.
"Is the Conqueror’s horse ready?" I yelled making the smithy jump.
"Yes-s, ma’am," she stuttered and walked quickly off.
I grabbed the reins to Argo and led her toward Gabrielle, who had a cold look on her face as I got closer. I tried to give her Argo's reins, but her arm came out quickly and her hand was around my throat.
"What is your fascination with the child?" Her voice was low.
"I've grown close to her Grandmother Cyrene, and wanted Hope to give her a note just in case I don't return?" I barely got the words out. Her grip dropped and she let out a battle cry and leapt on Argo's back.
"Don't worry, Xena. After all, you are the best." Her face was still like ice. "Saddle up!!" she yelled, and took the lead.
I mounted my horse and Ephiny pulled up by me. "The Conqueror wants you up front with us."
We trotted off in silence, catching up with Gabrielle and Autolycus in front.
"Remember, whoever runs into Brutus, you may beat him senseless, but don't kill him. I have plans for him. As for Caesar . . . he’s mine." The person breaking the silence was not Gabrielle, but truly the Conqueror looking forward to battle. I found this rather arousing and I mentally slapped myself for that thought.
"Yeah, well, you remember to come back safe and sound. You’ve still got a contract of ours to fulfill," Autolycus gave her a wink, bringing his horse to a stop just shy of the gated entrance.
I expected him to join us for some reason, but I realized quickly he would not. If Autolycus were to keep his livelihood, it wouldn’t do much good for the Romans to spot him chatting up the Conqueror.
I turned in my saddle to look at our forces. Behind us were my fellow Royal Guards on horseback. Callisto and I locked eyes briefly. Behind them were the wagons with the catapults, then rows of horsemen with bows; her archers - half dressed as Romans; the other as Greeks. Then behind all of this there were the foot solders and I spotted Joxer on the far right. This wasn't even the full army, but very impressive indeed. In my old days I would hate to run into this kind of force. With the Amazons and Centaurs ready on two sides, by the Gods…
We continued to work our way to the battle in silence and I sent a prayer to whoever would listen that we’d all make it safely. Well except for Callisto, I considered in afterthought. It seemed like only seconds, but long moments later we had our positions. Gabrielle gave Ephiny the order to have the ‘Romans’ attack. From the bushes she watched the hill above. First a few scouts appeared at the top, but then a man I knew quite well made his appearance too. Caesar was dressed in his golden armor with a telescope watching the engagement below. For her part, Gabrielle had her telescope fixed on Caesar. I watched the two of them, but the growing smile on Gabrielle’s face held my fascination.
"He’s falling for it." There was something feral about the grin she had, as if she was a spider watching a fly heading toward her web.
I looked back to the hill to see Caesar pointing and pushing a few of his men around. He was falling for it indeed and he didn’t look very happy that Brutus was going to ‘steal’ his battle with Athens. I took a deep breath. It wouldn’t be long now. As soon as Caesars’ troops began their charge down the hill, Gabrielle’s attention left him. I’m sure she had faith in Ephiny to lead that battle. Instead of focusing on him, she shifted her eyes over to the far ridge where she expected Brutus’ troops to be sitting. Sure enough within a matter of moments Brutus’ behavior began to mimic Caesars’ from moments before.
As Brutus’ men lined up at the top of the hill, I watched Gabrielle raise her hand to her own troops behind her. Once the enemy began their charge downhill into the valley I watched her signal the flaming arrows. Then the arrows went up, all of her Romans and Greeks charged up the hill toward us. Leaving a mix of Caesar and Brutus’ troops below. With another wave of her hand, the catapults began to fire into the valley. The darkened sky lit up like daytime and I could hear the screams from the burning men below. War was hell without a doubt. I knew that the Roman advancement had to be stopped for the good of Greece, but as I looked over the smile that appeared on Gabrielle’s face, it chilled me.
She wasn’t smiling because the battle was going her way. She was enjoying watching those men die. I knew that smile. I wore it many times in my youth. Sometimes it still haunted me in my dreams, but here it played on Gabrielle’s face naturally. Too naturally. And it scared me. I couldn’t look anymore at her, and I went back to watching the battle unfold. I witnessed as her troops tried to escape the fireballs wrecking havoc below. One soldier caught my eyes as he tripped trying to come up the hill.
Gabrielle gave her next order to charge and I knew that the man would be trapped below. It was Joxer. As the troops marched double time in formation to the battle below, I raced ahead as fast as I could to where he had fallen. I brought my horse to a halt and somersaulted from the saddle to land near his feet. His laces had somehow become tangled in a dead, rotted tree root. Quickly, I pulled my sword and swung watching him wince below me. The blade sliced through the laces and he pulled his foot out with ease. With only seconds to spare, I pulled him up to my horse as I jumped back. Together we raced down the hill into the battle.
"You saved my life," he yelled. "I must repay you."
"Look after the Conqueror," I ordered him. "If you see that blonde woman guard get within ten feet of her, make sure you kill her."
"I don’t understand," he replied.
"You don’t have to understand. Just do it."
"You have my word." He nodded, although he didn’t know why.
The more eyes one had on Callisto the better.
As we made our way down the hill, I watched as Ephiny, true to her word, raced through the mess, taking down Romans left and right in her attempt to get back to Gabrielle’s side. Something else in my favor, I was sure. As long as Ephiny was nearby, that meant that Callisto had three of us that she had to get through. As I looked back towards where the Royal Guards fought, I could see that she wasn’t focused on the battle. She was focused on Gabrielle. And she knew, just as I did, that if there was any chance in her killing the Conqueror and getting away with it, the time was now.