Lykeas awoke with a thundering headache. He remained lying on his back for a couple of minutes before slowly, very slowly sitting up on the bed. Fortunately the room stopped spinning fairly quick and after a few deep breaths, he managed to stand. He noticed he was still fully closed and sighed in relief, he wasn´t sure his stomach would have approved if he´d have had to bend down and pick up any clothes. He opened the door and squinted against the harsh light of the sun. It was noon, but the village was practically deserted and Lykeas came to the conclusion that he wasn´t the only one, who´d had slightly more to drink than good was. He let the fresh air caress his face and wash away the ache in his head and soon he began to feel more like a human being again. He closed the door behind him and began walking to the stables, deciding that a short stop to see Rarjan was in order. He hadn´t had the change to ride for weeks and knew the horse missed their trips together just as much as he did. Halfway there he noticed Zelei coming from the other side of the village, a sour expression on her face. He ignored her and walked passed the Captain inside the stable. For some reason unknown to him, Zelei followed him inside. He could feel her eyes at his back, but continued to stroke Rarjan´s mane, whispering quietly to his horse.
"It was quite a show last night." Zelei´s voice interrupted the silence.
Lykeas didn´t turn around and briefly argued with himself whether he should answer. He knew he´d probably regret it, but he couldn´t stop himself.
"I don´t know what you´re talking about."
"Oh, then you must be the only one," Zelei answered and Lykeas more felt than heard her step a bit closer. "I´m talking about the little display between our Queen and her warrior."
The way she spat out the word Queen didn´t escape Lykeas´ attention and he slowly turned.
The Captain pleased with herself for getting his attention continued, "I don´t think Xena got lucky last night, do you? From the look on the Queen´s face when she left the celebration it must have been a very cold night for the Warrior Princess. Or perhaps it´s just a game they play, to get their juices flowing. I bet our little Queen loves it when she is thrown on the floor and thoroughly fucked all night by her warlord."
Lykeas raised his hand to smooth out an eyebrow.
"You know, you really shouldn´t talk like that."
He knew Zelei was trying to provoke him and he also knew that it was working. The Captain put her hands on her hips.
"Oh, and why not?"
"Because it´s your Queen you´re talking about and she demands your respect whether you like it or not and…" His voice was soft, but cold, "She…is also my friend and I won´t have anybody talk about a friend of mine like that."
He stared at Zelei and for a moment the Captain could swear she saw something in the black eyes, but before she could identify it, it was gone and replaced by his usual unreadable look. He walked pass her and left the stable. Zelei suddenly felt disappointed, she had begun to enjoy this confrontation and didn´t want it to end just yet. She quickly followed him outside and fell into stride beside him.
"She may be your friend, but she´s no more Queen of the Amazons than I am, although I´m more likely to be qualified than she is. Hades, everybody in this village is more qualified than she is."
Lykeas stopped and turned to look at the woman beside him, but didn´t speak.
"The Amazons doesn´t need a leader, who´s too weak to fight and refuses to defend what´s ours. She´s not even a real Amazon, this charade should´ve been brought to an end long ago."
"Zelei…" The warning in the dark man´s voice was clear.
"Oh, come on, Lykeas," the Captain smirked, "An Amazon has to be willing to fight for what´s hers, and from what I´ve heard, even that crazy mother of yours knew that, although I´ll admit it didn´t do-."
Her legs disappeared from underneath her and she cried out in surprise as she fell to the ground. Before she knew what had happened she felt a heavy weight on her chest and a hand closing around her throat. The grip tightened and she tried to throw the body off her, but to no avail. Her pale brown eyes stared into the black ones above her, only inches away from her face. A second hand locked around her throat and her vision began to blur, obscured by a red fog. Her hands which until then had been on Lykeas´ chest trying to push him away, moved down to her throat, her fingers frantically struggling to loosen the grip. As her strength left her and her body began to go limp, Lykeas leaned down and whispered, his mouth almost touching her ear.
"You´re gonna die now."
"Lykeas, get off her!"
Zelei barely registered her Regent´s panicked, but commanding voice.
Lykeas slowly turned his head and stared into the brown eyes. Ephiny saw a myriad of emotions briefly run across his face, then painfully slow, he loosened his grip around Zelei´s throat and stood up. For minutes the only sounds heard were the hoarse gasping and coughing from the Captain, who was still lying on the ground, her face deadly pale. When her breathing had calmed, Ephiny stepped forward and pulled Zelei to her feet, then moved away again, to study the two persons in front of her.
"What in Tartarus was that about?" Her voice cold and controlled, practically oozing authority.
Lykeas´ gaze had never left the Regent and didn´t do so now.
"Zelei and I… We had a little…disagreement."
His eyes rested briefly on the Captain before returning to Ephiny.
"She said that…strength was the best weapon and I said…speed was… I was just proving my point."
The Regent´s eyes narrowed, barely able to control her anger, but she didn´t say anything and turned to look at Zelei.
"It´s that true?"
The Amazon Captain looked away, "Yes," her answer sounding strained, her throat still recovering from the abuse.
Ephiny looked at one then another.
"Is that all you have to say?"
They both nodded in reply.
"Zelei, go get Kelife to look at your throat and then come to my hut, I want to talk to you."
The Captain nodded again and hurried away.
"And you, Lykeas, you´re gonna remain inside the guest hut for the rest of the day. You´re not to leave under any circumstances, and if necessary I´ll use force to keep you there. Is that clear?"
He looked at her with the so familiar veiled expression,
not one movement revealing what he was thinking. Then he gave her an almost
imperceptible nod and left in the direction of the hut. Ephiny´s
eyes followed the dark man til he disappeared from her view, then shook
her head in a mixture of frustration and confusion.
Inside the hut, Lykeas took off his leather tunic and the thin tunic of wool he was carrying underneath. He kicked off his boots and threw himself on the bed wearing only a short pair of breeches. This was going to be a bad day, he just knew it. Lying on his stomach he lifted one then another shoulder, trying to loosen up his tense muscles. He could feel a painful ache where his spine ended and his skull began, and knew without any doubt that he would be having the headache of a lifetime within the next couple of hours. He heard his door open, but recognizing the steps didn´t turn around.
"Let me help."
He moved over and felt the bed shift slightly as the warrior positioned herself on the bed, straddling his hips. She began throroughly and efficiently to work out the knots, occasionally moving a hand up to press down on the sore muscles between neck and head.
"Gods, Lykeas! You have to learn to relax. Your muscles are like stone."
She found a particular painful area and he squirmed underneath her.
"It´s supposed to. If you´d only follow those neck and shoulder excercises I told you about, this wouldn´t be nescessary."
"I forgot," came the noncommittally reply.
"Well, don´t come complaining to be me then, when you have one of your headaches."
Lykeas just smiled against the pillow. Xena continued her now more gentle ministrations in silence and Lykeas felt himself slowly begin to drift off.
"I´ll kill her."
"No, you won´t." His voice muffled from the pillow and his mind wondering how it was that Xena always seemed to be fully aware of everything that happened.
"You´re right, I won´t… But I´d really like to though, she´s been bothering me since our arrival."
"Well, she won´t have the oral skills to bother you for a while, I´ve made sure of that."
"I know," Xena´s hands stopped and she absently counted the scars on Lykeas´ back. "What exactly was it all about."
Lykeas managed to shrug. "She…she said something about Gabrielle that she shouldn´t have."
"I suspected that much," Lykeas could feel the warrior tense against him. "Maybe I´ll kill her anyway."
She felt Lykeas move underneath her and she lifted herself off of him and sat down on the end of the bed. Lykeas sat up with his back against the wall, pulling his knees up and resting his arms on them.
"I don´t think Ephiny would be too understanding if she was suddenly one captain short," he said with a small grin. "But you´re right, it´s tempting."
Xena gave him a menacing grin in return, her mind going through all the appealing things she felt like doing to Zelei and, she admitted to herself, to another captain as well. For a while they were both silent, Lykeas gaze distant and thoughtful, and Xena´s focused on the jagged scar marring her friend´s lower abdomen from just above the navel to the hip. Then reaching a decision, she cleared her throat.
He turned his attention back to her.
"Back when…I mean, when you left…"
"Yes?" He repeated calmly, but she could see the black eyes had become keenly alert.
"Well, I just want you to know, I´m sorry about…about what happened and everything."
He looked at her in silence and she couldn´t read his expression.
"I know… I know things didn´t turn out the way you wanted them to. I know you must feel I let you down, but I swear… I didn´t mean to. I really wanted it, just like you, but then…" She trailed off, feeling very uncomfortable by the blank look on his face.
"Things change, Xena." He said softly. "And it´s not like it came as a total shock… I mean, I sorta saw it coming."
She looked away, unable to hold his gaze. He reached forward and gave her hand a gentle squeeze before returning to his position against the wall.
"It´s okay. It may not have been what I wanted, but…" This time it was him who looked away. "In the end, I just wanted you to be happy…one way or the other."
Xena looked at him, startled by this unlikely emotional response from the dark warrior. She knew he would be terribly embarassed if she commented on it, so instead she just gave him a warm smile.
He shrugged and looked away again.
She waited till he had returned his eyes to her.
"I want you to be happy too."
"Yeah well, I-."
His was interrupted by the sound of running feet outside and several voices shouting. Xena shot up from the bed and stormed outside, Lykeas close behind on bare feet, pulling the leather tunic over his head. Several Amazons ran past them to the village square and Xena and Lykeas wasted no time in following them. A crowd had already gathered and they pushed their way thorugh till they were almost face to face with a panting Amazon warrior. Xena grabbed the woman´s arms to get her attention.
"What?! What is it?!"
In spite of clearly having run for several miles, the Amazon was white as a sheet.
"The…The soldiers are coming!"
"The soldiers? Are they on the plain?"
The warrior shook har head and a strange expression entered her eyes.
"No… They are in the forest… They are coming here!"
Xena narrowed her eyes trying to make sense out of the panting soldier.
"But how can that be? What about the border patrols? Why haven´t they notified us?"
Tears began to flow from the warrior´s eyes.
"They…they´re dead. They were ambushed. They were butchered by the soldiers. We…we could hear their screams…even through the forest."
The Amazon sank to her knees, shock and disbelief written on her face.
"By the Gods! Those screams, I can still hear them."
Xena stepped away from the despairing woman, a cold, calculating expression in her eyes.
"Okay, listen up folks! You all heard her. I want to see all warriors and anybody else capable of fighting back here fully armed in two minutes. I want somebody to get the Queen and the children into safety, and I want-."
She never got to finish her sentence for in that moment
hell broke loose and death made its entry into the village.
Soldiers stormed in from all directions of the village and immediately the sounds of battle filled the air. The Amazon´s in the square were scattered as three men on horses rode between, cutting down warriors as they went by. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw Lykeas spin on his heels and sprint the way back to his hut, narrowly ducking a spear from a soldier suddenly appearing between two huts. With a low curse, Xena unsheathed her sword, her chakram and armour were still in the hut, but she didn´t have the time to worry about that as one of the riders moved directly towards her, raising his sword. She waited until the last moment then jumped to the side, grabbing onto the soldier´s leg and pulling him off the horse. The soldier barely managed a shout of surprise before Xena plunged her sword into his chest.
Inside the hut, Lykeas went straight for his sword and without boots or armour returned outside. The village was chaos. Everywhere people were either killing or being killed. Amazon warriors, some only partially dressed were engaged in fighting with fully armed soldiers, while riders kept coming through, their swords slicing through unguarded flesh on their way. And all the time, in a neverending stream, enemy soldiers kept coming. Lykeas saw Xena standing on the same spot where he had left her, bodies scattered all around her. Right now she was slowly forced back by four soldiers in brown uniforms, but before he could move, he heard the air sing and he instinctively ducked. A sword penetrated empty space where his head had just been and he kicked out behind him, grinning in satisfaction when he felt his bare foot connect with the soldier´s groin. He turned a saw a young man, sinking to his knees, clutching his private parts. Without thought, Lykeas swung his sword, almost separating the soldiers head from his body. With an animalistic cry, he turned and ran forwards, letting himself be swallowed whole by the mayhem of screams, blood and death.
Still groggy from sleep, Gabrielle stumbled out of the hut. Her eyes widened in shock as she saw a young Amazon run pass her, a soldier on horseback closing in from behind. Gabrielle screamed out a warning, but was too late. A spear penetrated the Amazon and for a second she was still, before her body fell off the spear to the ground. The soldier roughly moved his horse around to stare into the green eyes of the Queen. His face lit up in a bestial grin and he dismounted, drawing his sword. Gabrielle took a step back, but found herself with her back against the hut. A strange calmness entered her body. Forgotten was the chaos around her, silenced were the cries and clangs of metal, and the smell of blood and smoke disappeared. She only saw the broad, bearded soldier rapidly close the distance between them. Her eyes locked onto his face, her gaze never wavering and her back straight, the only indication of fear being the tight clenching of her jaw. The man was so close now that she could smell the sour odour of sweat coming from his body. He raised his sword and she closed her eyes.
Forgive me, Xena.
Ephiny placed her foot against the dead soldier´s chest and yanked her sword out. Promptly another soldier charged and she brought her sword up to block. She had been caught off balance and the powerful blow made her sink down on one knee. Pressing his advantage, the man angled his sword to stab her from above, but then stared in disbelief as his intestines slipped out from the horizontal cut in his stomach. He dropped the sword to press his hands against the wound, his brain marvelling at the surreal experience of feeling his own intestines between his fingers. Then he fell to the ground and the last thing he saw before he died, was the bloody dagger in the Amazon´s left hand. Ephiny got up and caught a short glimpse of Kelife ushering the children down a narrow path between two huts, before her attention was drawn to a horse thundering towards her. She ducked to the left, but felt s sharp pain in her left arm as the rider´s sword sliced through the flesh. She felt the blood run down her arm, but didn´t have time to look as the rider charged again. The dagger left her hand in one fluid motion and sank deeply into the man´s throat, and with a gurgling sound he fell forward, then sideways down the horse.
Zelei found herself cornered by three men and her grip tightened around the axe. She knew she had to even the odds fast and she swung the axe. She felt a cruel satisfaction as she watched the blade sink into the thigh of the closest soldier. He screamed and fell backwards, blood splashing out from the vein that had been opened. Zelei turned her attention to the soldier with the sword, shifting her axe from hand to hand, her face contorted into an inhuman grimace.
Leda screamed out in pain as the sword penetrated her heart and all light disappeared from her eyes.
A white hot pain made Callias´ eyes tear up, but she didn´t halter her approach. In a haze she saw the Queen close her eyes and the soldier in front of her lift his sword to deliver the fatal blow. With an impossible force drawing both from adrenaline and pain, she threw herself against the soldiers side, causing them both to fall. The man cried out in surprised and anger, and tried to shake the Amazon off him. Callias tightened her grip around the man´s chest, trapping his arms down his sides. She knew if she let go she would die. She could already feel herself begin to lose consciousness from the pain in her side. A warm liquid drenched her tunic and it took her foggy brain a few seconds to realize it was her own blood. She felt her grip around the man weaken, and as he felt it too, he pushed her off him and got to his feet. He plunged his sword against her chest, but an inch before it should have penetrated her, Callias felt her body being pulled out of danger, her shoulder almost dislocating from the force of the movement. Xena stepped over the bleeding Captain and closed in on the soldier. Her face was smeared with blood, the blue eyes glowing and her entire body radiated primal power. The soldier knew he was dead even before he felt the blow.
Lykeas spun around and found himself face to face with Ephiny. They both only just managed to stop their swords inches before they would have met. Ephiny gave him a strange smile.
"There´s no reason to make this harder than it is already."
He couldn´t help himself and smiled in return.
Side by side they sliced, plunged and cut their way through the next ten soldiers. Lykeas´ arm was crying out in complaint every time he raised the sword to deliver another blow, and blood and sweat kept running into his eyes, obscuring his vision. Suddenly seemingly out of nowhere four soldiers emerged and began circling them. Ephiny turned till her back was against Lykeas´ before charging. Lykeas kicked the sword out of the first soldier´s hand, ignoring the excruciating pain in his foot, and let out a chilling laugh as the sword flew through the air and impaled another soldier from behind. He heard a low groan, and out of the corner of his eye, saw Ephiny step away from the dying man at her feet. He quickly discarded the second soldier and searched the square for his next opponent, when he felt the slight warmth against his back disappear. He turned and his eyes widened as they took in the sight of Ephiny slowly sinking to the ground, an arrow penetrating from her chest. Their eyes locked and time stood still as black and brown mingled for the last time. Lykeas saw life fade from the brown eyes and Ephiny fell forward, her body convulsing a few times, before lying still on the bloody grass.
Lykeas stared, his entire body motionless. He didn´t
hear the soldier behind him before his head exploded in pain and he spiralled
Open up my heart and see what´s inside,
Take a look inside me, inside my mind
And you´ll see my heart is broke in two
´Cos I´ve seen the real you.
Images of violence fill up my mind,
And you see the silence, feel it inside
And you´ll see my heart is broke in two
´Cos I´ve seen the real you.
So sad we seem, so far we´ve been
She knows the scene
And I see your heart is broken too,
´Cos I´ve seen the real you.
"The only abnormality is the incapacity to love."
- Anaïs Nin, 1903-1977
Xena´s gaze briefly rested on Ephiny´s funeral pyre as she passed, but the warrior didn´t slow down. As she was embraced by the forest, she stopped and took a deep breath, relieved to be free of the smell of burnt flesh. The forest around her was quiet and the rattling of leaves when caught in a breeze was all she heard. She followed Gabrielle´s trail without making a sound of her own, until her eyes saw a familiar figure sitting against a tree, knees pulled up under her chin and arms wrapped around them. She took a few steps closer and although she could swear she didn´t make a sound, Gabrielle raised her head and looked directly at her. Their eyes met and for a second neither moved, but then Gabrielle bolted up and buried her head against Xena´s chest, her arms going around the warrior´s neck. Xena had to take a step back to regain her balance, before wrapping her arms tightly around Gabrielle´s waist, pulling her as close as she could. How much time passed as they stood together, locked into a fierce embrace, Xena couldn´t tell, but she didn´t care. All she concentrated on was the woman in her arms, crying quietly. As she felt Gabrielle begin to relax and loosen her death grip around her neck, Xena put a finger under the bard´s chin to raise her head. Gabrielle looked up and the warrior gently began to wipe away the tears, the calloused fingertips remarkably soft against Gabrielle´s cheeks. Without a word, Xena led Gabrielle back to the tree where she had been sitting earlier and sat down with her back against the trunk, pulling the bard down on her lap. Gabrielle leaned back and rested her head against Xena´s shoulder, shifting slightly sideways so she could put her arms around the warrior. She used all of her willpower to ignore the hollow ache inside and instead focus entirely on the strong arms holding her. Xena raised a hand and let her fingers run through the bard´s hair in a slow, comforting caress, repeating the motion over and over again. She felt the tension slowly leave Gabrielle´s body and bent her head to plant a light kiss on the blond hair.
"I miss her."
Xena left her lips rest briefly on the silky hair before answering, "I know."
"It´s not fair." Gabrielle´s voice breaking slightly.
Xena lifted her head, staring up at the sky, "No."
Gabrielle tried to snuggle even closer to the warrior, if possible she would have crawled inside of her and never come out again.
"Why did so many have to die?"
Xena knew it was a rhetorical question, Gabrielle only
speaking her thoughts out loud, even so, she didn´t have an answer.
Many had indeed died. Two thirds of the village, including the warriors
from the other villages, had been killed in the nightmarish battle that
had taken place three days before. The Royal Guard had been practically
extirpated and more than half of the regular army had been wiped out as
well. Of the warriors patrolling the border, none had survived. Even after
the battle was over, more than two dozens of Amazons had succumbed to their
injuries, in spite of Kelife´s frantic attempts to save their lives.
The only bright point was that none of the children had been hurt, and
that was the one thing everybody focused on when the pain in their hearts
became too much. They had lost their Regent, but the children were alive.
They had lost lovers and friends, but the children were alive. Although
to some it was a small comfort as they watched loved ones die in their
arms. Almost immediately after the battle, funeral pyres had been lit in
spite of protests from the relatives, Kelife insisting it should be done
to avoid any epidemics. For two days the sky over the village had been
darkened by smoke, a darkness reflected in the eyes of the survivors. The
bodies of the enemy soldiers had been gathered in two big piles away from
the village and then put on fire, nobody lingering to watch the flames
do their work. Three men had been captured before the army retreated and
were know held in custody, their future faiths as yet unknown, but Xena
doubted it would stay that way for much longer. Too many had died and Xena
knew she would have to question them soon, now all the funeral arrangements
were over, and people would begin to concentrate on something other than
their immediate grief. What happened to the men after she had questioned
them was none of her concern, but it was Gabrielle´s. She sighed
and looked at the bard, now sleeping in her arms. Tonight she could grieve
like anybody else, but when dawn arrived, Gabrielle would have to leave
her safe haven in Xena´s arms and step out to become the leader her
people needed her to be. Xena knew in her heart that Gabrielle would find
the strength required, but she was mortally afraid of what it might cost
the young woman in the end. Without loosening her hold, she managed to
get to her feet and began walking back to the village, the bard still sleeping
in her arms.
"We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way, and frankly I don´t care which, but I think you might do."
Xena´s face was only inches away from the terrified soldier tied to a chair. When she didn´t get a response, she turned to look at the other two captives, who were also tied to their chairs, a malicious grin on her lips.
"Don´t think you´ll get anywhere with this silent routine of yours, I know you can understand me."
She walked behind them and smiled at their futile attempts to turn their heads to see what she was doing. She bend close to the first soldier and whispered seductively into his ear, "You know, I don´t really need three of you to get what I want."
She moved to stand behind the next soldier and leaned forward again.
"Actually, one of you will be enough to tell me what I want to hear."
She stepped behind the last man and practically purred.
"So…you do the math."
She walked around to face them again and noted to her satisfaction that her words had been understood. She smiled pleasantly at them, the smile never reaching the blue eyes.
"But, of course, I´m not inhuman or anything," she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, "so I´ll let you make the decision."
The soldiers´ faces paled as their minds went beyond the ingratiating tone of her voice and the meaning of the words struck.
"It´s your pick," Xena gave them another sweet smile, "I´ll be back in fifteen minutes to hear, who you´ve decided should live."
She walked to the door and opened it, but lingered in the doorway, turning to look at them again.
"Make the most of it."
Xena paused outside the hut and closed her eyes, willing the adrenaline coursing through her veins to disappear. She needed to stay focused and not lose sight of her objective with this small performance.
But damn! It feels good.
Her ears picked up a sound and she turned to look at Callias. The Amazon Captain was leaning heavily on two crutches, the low afternoon sun making her blond hair shimmer with a reddish glow.
Even on crutches, I can´t deny she´s beautiful. At least Gabrielle has good taste…although she did choose me first. Guess her judgement must have improved along the way.
The last thought released a sudden, sharp pain in the warrior´s chest, but not once did her face betray what she was feeling. She raised an inquiring eyebrow at the Amazon, who obviously was trying to gather her wits and say something.
"Do you think they´ll talk?"
They both knew that this wasn´t what she wanted to say, but Xena just shrugged.
"Eventually. Eventually they all talk, it´s just a matter of time."
Callias nodded and cleared her throat while Xena waited patiently, suspecting that the Captain was about to approach the subject she had come for.
"I…I wanted to thank you for saving my life."
The warrior´s face remained expressionless, prompting Callias to go on. The Amazon was clearly feeling uncomfortable, but her gaze never wavered, and, although reluctantly, Xena couldn´t help but feel a great deal of respect for the decisive Captain. It took courage to face an angry Warrior Princess. Of course, Xena didn´t feel angry, instead a strange, all-important sense of calmness had settled inside her body, but then again, Callias couldn´t know that. The Captain cleared her throat again.
"Well, I just wanted you to know that I´m in your debt, if there´s anything-."
"No, you´re not," the warrior interrupted.
The Amazon looked puzzled.
"What…what do you mean "no"? You saved my life, I owe you." Her face hardened, "It´s a question of honour, and I wouldn´t feel comfortable by just letting it slide by and pretend it never happened."
"You have already repaid me."
"What?" Callias narrowed her eyes in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"You saved Gabrielle´s life." The warrior´s voice was very quiet. "And for that I can never repay you. You owe me nothing, whereas I will forever be in your debt."
Xena walked away, leaving the Captain to stare at her
back in astonishment.
The people in the council´s hut were quiet, all digesting what they´d just heard. Xena was leaning against the wall, her arms crossed and waited impatiently for somebody so say something. The occupants in the room were the same who had been there weeks before, except for the empty chair, constantly reminding everyone of what had happened. The only new addition to the council was Kelife, who sat in Xena´s chair, after solemnly having declined to sit in the Regent´s, and nobody had felt the need to argue. Lykeas fidgeted in his seat and Xena knew the silence and inactivity was beginning to bother him.
"Do you believe they tell the truth?" Erinya asked, a small frown on her face. "It sounds almost too fantastic."
Xena stared dispassionately at the weapons master.
"I would think that the battle we experienced the other day is proof enough. It make sense…at least to me."
"I take it that´s because it´s the way you would do it?" Zelei smirked, watching the dark warrior with half closed eyes.
"Probably," was all the answer she got.
The room was fell quiet again until another captain broke the silence.
"So what you´re saying is, is that these people are trying to conquer Greece by taking one small piece at the time."
"Although," Callias continued, "that by that rate it would take forever to finish."
"Yes, but it´s practical," Xena replied, her gaze resting on the Amazon´s face. "If a foreign force invades and conquers a huge part of land, they´ll be met with fierce resistance everywhere and even old enemies as Sparta and Athens will forget old grudges to unite and drive them off Greek soil."
She looked around in the room to see if they were still following her.
"But if they instead take their time and only take one city here, one kingdom there and wait till things have settled down and people gotten used to having them around, perhaps even welcome the new rulers, then nobody will see them as a serious threat until it´s too late. They will be able to slowly and gradually expand their territory before anybody realizes what happened."
"That would require enormous resources."
Xena looked at Lykeas, "Yes, resources we all know the High King of Persia possesses."
"I don´t think that any Greek would take kindly to a Persian army invading his country, "Zelei objected. "No matter how slow they take it."
"Oh?" Xena slowly turned her head to look at the Captain. "Do you think any man in this country would have raised an eyebrow if the Amazon Nation had succumbed to a Persian Army? Do you think they would be too worried if the Centaurs´ territories were taken as well? And what about the Islands? Or if some of the so-called kingdoms ruled by nothing more than petty murderers were to fall into their hands? Would they care enough to assemble a costly army and risk the lives of their young men? Trust me, to most Greek men if something takes place further away than the walls of their cities, it might as well not take place at all. Besides, they would make sure it didn´t appear as a Persian army. It´ll be sponsored and equipped by Persia, but most of the soldiers will be mercenaries and officially Persia will claim to know nothing of it."
"Will they return and try again?" Gabrielle spoke for the first time, staring down at the table.
"Here?" Xena inquired and Gabrielle nodded. "No, they soldiers said their orders were to take the Nation with as few casualties and as fast as possible, and if somehow things didn´t work out, they were to retreat and meet up with the main force."
"And where´s that stationed?"
Xena looked at Lykeas, uncertainty showing on her face, "That´s the funny thing, they claimed it should be somewhere north of the river Ister."
"But that´s crazy! It´s too close, an army of that size would have been noticed."
Xena let out a small sigh and nodded, "That´s exactly what I don´t understand. How come we haven´t heard anything? Troop movements of that size can´t possibly have gone undetected."
"What did the prisoners have to say about it," the weapons master asked, a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Ah, " Xena shrugged in disgust. "They didn´t know or they claim not to know and frankly I believe them. They are all too low in the hierarchy and, in my opinion, too stupid to have been informed. They are apparently all kept on a need to know basis only."
"Perhaps they are lying?" Zelei gave the warrior an innocent smile.
"No, I don´t think so."
"Well, I guess you´d know what you´re talking about. After all, I´ve heard you can be rather persuasive when you want to or at least were…back in the good old days."
Xena found herself getting increasingly tired of the Captain´s attitude, and mentally she wondered why of all the people who´d been killed, Zelei couldn´t have been one of just them. She caught Lykeas staring at her and she returned the almost invisible smile on his lips, they were clearly thinking along the same lines. Callias, who was also fed up with her colleague, decided to change the subject.
"So what, if anything, are we gonna do about it?"
Xena´s eyes flickered to rest at Gabrielle before she returned her gaze to Callias.
"I don´t know what you are gonna do, but I´m going north."
"What do you mean?" All eyes in the room fell on the Queen.
"What I said, I´m going north," Xena´s jaw tightened. "I´m going to Ister to see for myself what´s going on and if necessary do something about it. There´s no way I´m gonna let an army, Persian or not, get foothold on Greek territory. It´s just too close…it´s too close to home."
Even Gabrielle had to look away from the intense fire
burning in the blue eyes, and she looked down at her hands in her lap,
and saw to her surprise they were curled tightly into fists.
"When are you leaving?"
Gabrielle was sitting on the bed in the Royal hut looking down on her hands, and Xena who had been leaning against the wall, took a step forward, but stopped herself.
"In a day or two."
"I´m not coming with you."
The words were spoken so quietly that Xena had to strain to hear them, and even though she had been prepared, they cut deep into her heart. She closed her eyes briefly, but even with her eyes close she could still see the blond woman on the bed, looking desolate and pale.
"I can´t leave them," Gabrielle continued as if she hadn´t heard the warrior speak. "We lost so many, more than half of the huts in the village are empty, they need me. The Gods only know if I can do anything to help them, but I at least I have to try… I can´t abandon them, I won´t…not right now."
Xena leaned back against the wall, her legs suddenly feeling weak.
"I know;" was all she managed to say.
Gabrielle looked up and in spite of her words, Xena could see the doubt written all over her face, and she took a decision.
"You should stay, they need you here, and if anybody could do anything to help them it would be you."
The bard gave her a weak smile, then her expression changed slightly and Xena saw something in the beautiful green eyes, she couldn´t quite define.
"If I…" Gabrielle looked down at her hands again for a second, then looked up, "If I asked you to stay, would you?"
I can´t, Gabrielle… Don´t you see that?
"I have to go, you know that."
For a moment it looked like the bard slumped further down on the bed, then she straightened her back.
"Is Lykeas going with you?"
"Yes, and maybe also Areia. She said there wasn´t any reason for her to stay here anymore."
"I´ll talk to her if you don´t mind, I don´t want people to leave, although I sure knows it´s tempting, but if this village is ever going to return to some semblance of normality, I´ll need people to stay. I don´t want the village to die out, I owe Ephiny that much."
"I understand that."
For a while silence hung in the air, then Xena headed towards the door. Gabrielle looked up at the movement.
The warrior turned.
"The prisoners, they have to die, haven´t they?"
"It´s not my decision, Gabrielle. It´s yours. I…I can´t help you with that. The Queen decides who lives and dies in the Nation, not me."
Gabrielle looked away from the blue eyes looking at her, afraid that if she didn´t, she would say to Tartarus with her resolve to be there for the Amazons, to be their Queen in more than name only.
"If you want, you can appoint a new Regent…" Xena´s voice was hesitantly and uncertain.
"No, I´m not going to run from my responsibilities again."
The bard´s face was determined and Xena suddenly didn´t see a young insecure woman on the bed, but a confident and passionate Queen loyal to her people beyond any doubt. Her heart both warmed and froze at the thought.
"You should probably send for help from the other villages for supplies and let it be known that anybody who might be interested to come and live here are more than welcome to do so, that way the village will be populated faster. You should also ask for at least 50 warriors, so you have some kind of defence and I think it´d be wise, if you ever have any doubts to ask Kelife what she thinks. She seems like a reasonable person to me, also keep a look on Zelei. She´s a troublemaker and I…" Xena suddenly stopped, afraid she had overstepped her boundaries, but Gabrielle just smiled.
"Thank you, Xena. I´ll keep that in mind."
The warrior nodded in relief and absently ran a hand through her hair.
"Well, then… I´d better go find Lykeas."
She put her hand on the door, but didn´t open it.
"Callias is a good woman, you should rely on her, too."
Xena closed the door quietly behind her.
Walking through the village, Gabrielle felt her throat constrict again. Although days had passed since the attack, she still hadn´t gotten used to all the visible reminders there were left. A small fire had erupted and luckily only two huts had burned, but the charred remains where still there. She shivered from the thought of what could have happened if the direction of the wind had been any differently. In so many ways they had been fortunate, but it was hard to believe when you saw the still recovering wounded limping pass on crutches or heard the cries of pain from the healer´s hut, and then there was the never ending line of relatives and friends paying their respects to the death at the memorial grounds. Even from a distance you could smell the flowers which had been planted there and were meticulously tended to by those who had been left behind. The worst of it all though, was the sense of hopelessness and despair that hung in the air and seemed to take hold of everyone in the village. Gabrielle knew she had to do something, but to be honest she didn´t know what. She desperately wished Ephiny was there, she needed the subtle and friendly guidance of her Regent, but she wasn´t and now Xena was leaving as well.
Although, she knew the reason why, she couldn´t help but feel there was more to it than that. Xena had behaved differently after the battle, not hostile or annoyed, that Gabrielle could deal with, no, she had been withdrawn and distant as if she had already left in her head. The warrior had slowly pulled herself further and further away. She was never cool or unfriendly and had stood by Gabrielle when she needed it most, but now after the funerals were over and the time to live again had begun, the warrior had become resigned and silent. It was a mood Gabrielle didn´t understand the reason for and it scared the Tatarus out of her.
I´m losing her and I don´t know why.
As she neared the practice fields, she saw Xena and Lykeas sitting on the fence with their backs to her. Before she could step any closer, Xena turned her head and looked at her, their eyes meeting for the briefest of moments, then she spoke quietly to Lykeas, before sliding down from the fence and disappear in the direction of the stables. Gabrielle felt like she had been punched in the stomach, and just stared after the warrior. Lykeas shifted on the fence and turned to face her. She slowly turned her gaze to him and he gave her a faint smile.
She didn´t answer, but stepped closer to climb onto the fence beside him.
She could feel his eyes search her face.
"Are you all right?"
She had to smile at his hesitant tone of voice, and wondered for a second how he would react if she told him how she really felt. He´d probably rather face a pack of starving wolves, then having to listen to the emotional problems of the Amazon Queen.
He nodded to himself and she could tell he knew better, but obviously didn´t know where to go from there, and most likely didn´t want to either. A thought suddenly struck.
"But what about you? How are you doing?"
"Oh, I´m fine. My head´s healing nicely." He gestured to the stitches barely visible above his right ear. "Xena´s always said I was terribly thick headed, but it sure came in handy this time."
He smiled at her again and Gabrielle realized he hadn´t understood her question.
"No, I mean, how are you doing…" Gabrielle strained to find the right words. "How…how do you feel about Ephiny? I mean…" She faltered and could almost see the walls go up in his eyes.
For a long time he just looked into her eyes, and Gabrielle had the unpleasant feeling he was trying to read her mind, and even worse, succeeded in doing so.
"I´m sorry she died." He then said noncommittally. "I know she was your friend."
"She was your sister."
He stared at her and the slightest hint of emotion flickered across his face, but whether if was anger or something else she couldn´t tell.
"It doesn´t matter anymore what she was, Gabrielle. She´s dead."
He jumped down from the fence.
"I´ll leave you alone. I know you have a lot to think about."
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling another burden settle on her shoulders.
"You´re right, I can´t believe how I could forget that for a second."
"Probably because you wanted to. That´s usually the way it works."
He lifted his hand in a half-hearted greeting and as he began to walk away, and Gabrielle suddenly found herself becoming angry at his lack of response, her mind refusing to believe he could be so cold.
He turned, his face expressionless once again.
"You´re not fooling anybody."
His eyes were suddenly filled with such a sadness that Gabrielle forgot all about what she had intended to say.
"I have no intention of fooling anybody, Gabrielle."
He left her there, sitting on the fence, staring after
Xena carefully opened the door to the hut and looked inside. Gabrielle was lying on the bed fast asleep. She was fully dressed and a few scrolls were scattered around her and some had fallen down onto the floor. A single candle illuminated the room, bringing shadows to life and making Gabrielle´s hair shimmer in a soft glow. For minutes the warrior just stood motionless, watching the young woman on the bed. She wanted to be able to remember this moment forever. She wanted always to be able to recall the beautiful, pale face and the soft, slightly parted lips. She wanted to remember the sound of her breathing, the scent of her hair and most of all, she desperately wanted to see into those hazel eyes that always took her breath away, making her lose sight of everything else around her. In that moment Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena almost shrank back when she saw the beautiful eyes looking back at her, and felt how she was slowly losing herself in the depths of them. Without a word, she left the hut and the woman inside. She hurried through the village, suddenly desperate to reach the forest. She avoided the guard there and dived aimlessly into the darkness. She broke into a run, but no matter how fast she ran, she couldn´t shake the dull ache in her heart. When she finally came to a halt, she was panting and her body covered by a light sheen of sweat. To her surprise she noticed her legs and arms were covered by several cuts and scrapes from thorns and branches. She hadn´t even noticed it happening while running. The moon emerged from the clouds and bestowed the trees around her with patches of black, grey and silver, the colours shifting whenever the leaves were caught in a breeze, but the warrior paid it no attention. When she had finally regained her breath and the beating of her heart had stilled, she began to slowly walk back towards the village, her feet not making a single sound on the soft ground. As she stepped out from two trees, she saw Gabrielle. The bard was standing with her back to the warrior, her eyes searching the forest. Xena didn´t dare breathe as the young woman slowly raised her head and turned to look at her. She felt how all her senses were brought back to life the moment their eyes met. She felt the warm wind against her skin, she heard the rattling of leaves from the trees around them, and she sensed the presence of the small animals hurrying through the bushes a few feet away, but somehow it seemed to come from far away, and it all paled in comparison to the intensity she felt radiating from the woman in front of her.
The word was spoken softly, almost a caress and the warrior felt a shiver run down her back. She wanted to speak, but the words died on her tongue.
"Xena, I don´t understand…" Gabrielle´s voice nearly broke and the warrior had to restrain herself from taking the bard into her arms.
"Why do you…" She stopped and looked away for a moment.
"Don´t you love me anymore?"
This time her voice was barely above a whisper and now it was Xena who looked away, unable to hold her gaze.
"What´s happening? What´s wrong with you?"
The bard was angry now and took a few steps closer
"Look at me!"
When the warrior didn´t comply, she closed the remaining
distance between them and put a hand under her chin, forcing the dark woman
to look up. The bard´s green eyes shining with fury and frustration
were in stark contrast to the emotionless blue looking back at her. Gabrielle´s
expression hardened and without a word she wrapped her arms around Xena´s
neck and crushed her lips against the startled warrior´s. The blond
woman´s tongue forced its way into Xena´s mouth and as her
grip around the warrior tightened, Xena felt her knees go weak. Involuntary
her arms went around Gabrielle´s waist and she felt herself melt
into the searing kiss. Bodies interlocked, they sank to the ground, tongues
and mouths never ceasing the relentless assault. Xena pushed Gabrielle
down onto her back and lowered herself to cover the bard´s body with
her own. Their kisses and touches became frantic and desperate. Clothes
were torn from bare skin, and demanding hands and mouths sought claim to
each other´s bodies with a frenzy and urgency that drove all other
thoughts away. It was only the two of them together and nothing else mattered.
They clung together unable and unwilling to let go even for the briefest
of seconds. Afterwards, without having spoken a word, they fell into an
exhausted sleep in each other´s arms. When Gabrielle awoke the next
morning, she was covered by a blanket and her clothes had been neatly placed
in a pile beside her. There was no sight of the warrior.
The first couple of days passed in silence. Lykeas occasionally threw a glance at Xena, but the warrior stared straight ahead, oblivious to everything around her. They rode fast and only paused when it was absolutely necessary for them to catch a few hours of sleep, or to give the horses a rest. The road they were following was in a remarkable good condition, a testimony of the fact they had left no man´s land behind them and entered a kingdom. Three kingdoms separated them from the river Ister. The first two were minor ones, ruled by Polyidos and Simmias, men Xena had heard little, but nothing bad about, and she doubted they would have any problems passing their territories. The last kingdom, however, was another matter. King Kassander was known as an arrogant and proud man, and if one first found oneself on his bad side, there was no turning back. He was hungry for power and wealth, believing himself to be a direct descendant from Achilles and wanting nothing more, than having his name branded into history for all times to come. On more than one occasion, when still a warlord, Xena had sacked his villages and robbed him off his gold, and although it was years ago, she knew he still had a price on her head. If she were to fall into his hands, she would be executed on the spot.
Or perhaps I should consider myself lucky, if that´s all he´d do to me.
She looked at Lykeas and tried to remember if he had ever been with her on one of her many raids in Kassander´s kingdom, but she couldn´t remember. As always, when she thought back to her past, it was hard to distinguish one village from another, and one kingdom from the next. There had been so many and she hadn´t cared. It all came together in a mist of blood and smoke, and only a few scenes were clear and unmistakable. Scenes like Cirra and Corinth, her encounter with the Horde. These were images she would never forget no matter how much she tried, and in some way she supposed it was only fitting. She turned to look at Lykeas again. He´d been at Cirra with her, but she doubted he would remember if she asked him. He noticed her look and gave her a questioning glance in return, but she looked away.
Maybe one day…
She was abruptly brought back to reality by the sound of a scream coming from somewhere ahead of them. Without a second thought she pushed Argo into a gallop, barely registering the look of surprise on Lykeas´ face as she thundered down the road. Lykeas sighed and brought Rarjan into a gallop as well, quickly closing the distance between them. As they came closer they could hear the sound of flowing water and soon after they saw a river cutting through the land ahead with only a small bridge to bind the road together. A young woman was standing on the bridge, sobbing uncontrollably. When she saw them coming, she frantically gestured towards the water, and Xena practically jumped off Argo and ran to the young woman without losing a step.
"My baby! My little girl´s in the water. Please help her, she can´t swim!"
Xena looked down at the roaring water and swallowed when she saw a small form appear on the surface for a few seconds, only to be dragged under again by the current. She swiftly removed her armour and sword and was about to jump into the water, when the small from appeared again. The river had pulled the girl further away, but even from the distance she could hear the low thud as the small body was crushed against a rock sticking out of the river, and Xena knew without a doubt that the little girl was dead. She stepped away from the edge and the woman looked at her, terror and denial written on her face.
"What are you doing? Please help her! She can´t swim."
Xena reached out to the woman, but she shrank away.
"Why won´t you help her? Don´t you understand, I can´t swim either! Please, she needs your help. The other man was willing to help!"
The warrior´s brow furrowed and she grabbed the woman around her wrist.
"What other man? Is there somebody else in the river?"
When the woman just stared at her without answering, Xena turned to look at Lykeas, who was still sitting on Rarjan.
"Lykeas! Can you see anybody in the water?"
He rose in the saddle and let his eyes search the river.
"No, but the current´s awfully strong. If anybody´s in there he´d have been dragged further away."
"Take a look, will you? I´ll try to get the girl out."
Lykeas shrugged and left the road to ride parallel with the river. Soon the river narrowed and the current became less dangerous, but there was no sight of anybody. Just as he was about to return to the bridge he saw something in the middle of the river, clinging to a branch that had been trapped between two rocks. For a few seconds he just took in the scene in front of him, then an almost resigned expression crossed his face and he slid out of the saddle. Discarding amour and weapons on the way, he ran the last yards to the river, before jumping straight into the water. Immediately he felt the strong pull of the current and realized too late that he had underestimated its force. Before he managed to take another breath, he was dragged under the water again. He fought the panic that was rising inside him and willed himself to relax. It wouldn´t do either of them any good if he lost it, and somehow, of all the different scenarios Lykeas had pictured himself dying, drowning in a river while trying to rescue a stranger hadn´t been one of them. Just before he thought his lungs would explode, he felt the current release him and he shot through the water, towards the surface. Finally he was able to breathe again and he drank in the air so forcefully that his head began to spin. When he had himself under control once more, he realized he was able to tread water and remain on the same spot. He had been pulled further to the other side of the river, and apparently the current was less strong there. Still, by the time he was close enough to reach the man holding onto the branch, he was practically drained of all strength and had swallowed more water that he´d thought humanly possible. He grabbed the man´s arm, but didn´t get a reaction.
Oh fuck! Don´t say I have to get him back to the bank on my own.
He shook the man a few times, but except from fluttering of eyelids there was no response.
Just great! Just great! Remind me to thank you for this one, Xena.
He gave up his attempts to wake him up and put his arm around the man´s chest. With a powerful kick of his legs, he pushed them away from the rocks and with only one arm free, he started to swim back to the bank. After what felt like forever he entered shallow water and could reach the bottom with his feet.
"I got him."
Strong arms, lifted the man out of his grip and Lykeas felt how the last strength left his body. He slumped under the water, only to feel a hand pull him back up.
"Oh, no you don´t."
He smiled at the sound of Xena´s voice and felt his body be half dragged, half carried out of the water.
"Don´t think for a second you can deny me the pleasure of teasing you with this noble deed. If I didn´t know better, I´d say you´d just done something heroic."
Inspite of the playful words, the concern in Xena´s voice was evident and Lykeas felt a faint warmth enter his otherwise freezing body.
"So that´s why you pulled me out. You were afraid you wouldn´t get the change to bother me with this."
Xena gently placed Lykeas next to the other man on the bank.
"Exactly, your reputation´s been totally ruined. If you´re not careful people might actually think you´re a nice guy."
"Uh, we wouldn´t want that to happen, would we?"
Lykeas replied, just before slipping into unconsciousness.
Xena threw a couple of branches on the fire before sitting down on her bedroll. She grabbed her sword and began the slow, meticulous task of sharpening the blade. Not that it really needed it, she always kept it in perfect condition, but there wasn´t anything else to do. Her gaze fell on the two men lying on the other side of the fire. Lykeas hadn´t been hurt in the river, just gone out cold and still was, but by now she suspected his state of unconsciousness had turned into sleep, so she wasn´t worried. The other man, although he was hardly more than a young boy, had received quite a few bruises and cuts, but nothing too serious and he would be fine in a couple of days. After dragging them out of the river, she had made a fire and gotten rid of their wet clothes and covered them with blankets. She´d had a hard time with the young woman who´d lost her daughter, and if it hadn´t been out of respect for her loss, Xena´s temper would´ve flared several times. She had managed to retrieve the small body from the river and had accompanied the woman home. The woman´s village had only been a few miles away so it hadn´t taken too long, and immediately after having delivered the woman into the care of her husband and mother, Xena had headed back to the river. She hadn´t been too happy about leaving Lykeas and the boy alone, but she couldn´t let the at times hysterical, at others catatonic woman go home alone. To her great relief Lykeas´ weapons had still been where he´d left them, she wouldn´t have liked having to tell him they were missing. After taking care of Argo and Rarjan, she had made camp on the bank, caught a few fish and was now waiting impatiently for her patients to wake up. A small movement made her look up from her work and look at the young boy. His head moved slightly and a small groan escaped his throat, before he slowly opened his eyes to look around. Brown eyes widened as they took in their surroundings and came to rest on Xena. He sat up with a start, only to discover his current state of nakedness and frantically wrapped the blanket closer together. A furious blush showed on his cheeks and Xena had to fight not to laugh.
"Don´t worry. I swear, I didn´t peek."
The young boy blushed even more from her last words and this time Xena couldn´t suppress a smile.
"Who are you?" He finally managed to say.
"My name´s Xena and sleepyhead there beside you is Lykeas."
The young boy removed a few light brown strands from his eyes and looked at the man beside him. Then suddenly remembering, he turned his gaze back to Xena.
"The girl! The girl in the river! Did she make it?"
Xena shook her head sadly, "No, she died… Did you know her?"
"No, I didn´t. I was on my way home when this woman came screaming about her little girl had fallen into the river. I wanted to help." He cleared his throat to get rid of the lump he felt there. "I guess, I wasn´t much of a help."
Xena gave him a reassuring smile, "You shouldn´t blame yourself for failing, only for not trying. You risked your life for somebody you didn´t even know that´s nothing to be ashamed of."
"So did he." The brown-haired boy gestured towards Lykeas. "And he succeeded."
"True, but it´s the intentions that counts and I´ll bet your intentions were a lot more honourable than Lykeas´ were."
She gave the still sleeping form an affectionate smile, "Lykeas doesn´t rescue people on a regular basis, only when he´s in the mood for it."
An uncertain smile showed on the young boy´s face, obviously not quite sure how he should interpret her last remark.
"Will he be all right?"
"Oh yeah, he´s just sleeping. Nothing to worry about."
Xena studied the young boy closer. He´d light brown hair and gentle brown eyes. He was slender of build, but there was nothing frail about him. He was well muscled with the right proportions and would in time grow into a beautiful man. They way he spoke and his entire manner, made Xena wonder whether he was royalty or perhaps the son of a wealthy merchant. Guessing her thoughts he reached out and Xena hid a amused smile and shook his hand.
"I´m sorry, I should have presented myself sooner. My name´s Alexias, I´m the son of King Polyidos."
"Nice to meet you, Alexias."
She was about to say something more, when Lykeas stirred under the blanket and slowly sat up. He rolled his neck from side to side before focusing on the young boy beside him. Alexias reached out and after quick glance at Xena, Lykeas shook his hand.
"I´m Alexias, thank you for rescuing me, that was very courageous."
Lykeas face took on such an awkward expression that Xena laughed out loud.
"See, I told you, Lykeas. Your reputation will never recover from this."
He gave her a crooked smile.
"Perhaps not." Without a second glance at Alexias, he stood up. "Where are my weapons?"
Xena reached behind her and tossed the weapons to him. "They´re all here, but…," she paused. "Lykeas?"
"Not that I mind the view, but perhaps you should consider getting some clothes on, you´re embarrassing our guest."
Lykeas looked down at his naked body and then at the young boy, who was blushing furiously again while staring into the fire.
"Oh…" He gave Xena a suave grin.
He got dressed in his now dry clothes and picked up Alexias´ and handed them to the boy. The boy just stared at his clothes, then Xena and then Lykeas. Xena arched an eyebrow and Lykeas tilted his head slightly.
"Uh… Would you, I mean… Could you…turn around?"
Early the next evening they arrived at the gates of King Polyidos´ castle. In spite of several protests from the young Prince that it wasn´t necessary, Xena and Lykeas had decided to accompany him home to his father. It wasn´t that much of a detour and besides, neither warrior thought it would be a bad idea to have the King on their good side. Alexias´ horse had disappeared after he left her at the river, so the Prince had been riding behind Xena on Argo all the way, since there was no way Rarjan would accept a second rider.
Polyidos´ castle had been built in the middle of the city on a slightly higher level that gave a good view of the city and the lands surrounding it. It wasn´t the most grand or the most impressive castle, Xena had ever seen, but the solidly built houses in the city and the carefully maintained roads, spoke volumes of the King´s wealth and care for his subjects. When they rode through the city toward the castle, people everywhere bowed their heads for the young Prince or shouted friendly greetings and wishes of good health to him and his father. Clearly the people cared as much for their King as he did for them. When they finally arrived, the gates were immediately opened and they rode into a huge courtyard that belied the small size of the castle from outside. Barely had they dismounted before a small, chubby man came running towards them as fast as his small legs could carry him.
"Your Highness! Your Highness! I´m so relieved to see you again! His Majesty has been so worried since your horse returned without you." The man stopped to take a few much required breaths.
"We´ve all been worried, I can´t tell you how happy I am to see you again. I trust you haven´t been hurt?" The last remark was followed by at suspicious glance at Xena and Lykeas.
Alexias stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on the sweating man´s shoulder.
"I´m just fine, Charmides. I haven´t been hurt. Actually," he gestured towards the warriors, "these two people saved my life. If it hadn´t been for them, I most likely would have drowned."
The chubby little man´s eyes widened at the Prince´s words and he rushed to shake first Lykeas´ then Xena´s hand.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! The Kingdom of Polion is in your debt. If it hadn´t been for you… Uh, I don´t even dare to think the thought." He clapped his hands together and from out of nowhere two servants arrived.
"Proklos, Praklos, show these two heroes to our finest guest chambers and from this minute, I hold you responsible to see to that their every request and every need are taken care of, is that clear?"
The two men, who were obviously twins, nodded and then spoke in unison.
"Yes, sir. We´ll see to it right away."
"Oh, hold on just a minute, we´re actually-." Xena began, but was stopped by Alexias.
"Please, I know you must be anxious to move on, but my father will be devastated if he didn´t have the change to thank you for your deed. Please..," he said again, when he saw the doubting looks exchanged between the warriors. "Just stay for one night. Your horses will be able to rest and I know my father will like to talk to you, it´s so seldom we get any visitors from the South."
Xena shrugged, "I guess it can´t hurt, just one night."
"Okay," Lykeas said, "a nice, warm bed isn´t something I willingly decline."
"Capital! Capital!" Charmides was practically jumping up and down on the spot. "We have the softest beds in the Kingdom. Proklos and Praklos will take you to your rooms and I´ll see to that your horses are being cared for. Dinner will be at eight, but don´t worry a servant will be sent to notify you. Uh…is there anything else…?"
The little man scratched his chin in a thoughtful manner, "Oh yes, we´ll have new clothes brought to your rooms, so you don´t have to worry about that."
Lykeas began to open his mouth, but Alexias put a hand on his arm, "Just humour him. When Charmides is like this, there´s no way of stopping him." He smiled at the dark warrior, "You can wear whatever clothes you like."
Charmides frowned at this, but didn´t say anything.
"Uhm," Lykeas said, looking rather overwhelmed. "Okay, but I´ll take care of my horse. Rarjan doesn´t take kindly to other people."
"As you wish. The stables are over there. I´ll show you."
"No, Your Highness. I think it´ll be better, I you pay a visit to His Majesty and inform him that you have returned. He´s been very worried."
Alexias nodded, "You´re right, Charmides. I´ll do that right away."
He gave a small bow to Xena and Lykeas, "I´ll see you at dinner then."
Charmides began leading them towards the stable, but Xena
lingered at moment to look around. It was a very beautiful and apparently
friendly place they had arrived at, and she was actually looking forward
to meeting the King, who was responsible for it all. As she hurried to
catch up with Lykeas and Charmides, she noticed Alexias standing on the
top of the stairs leading into the castle. The young Prince was staring
after Lykeas with an expression, Xena knew all too well. It was the same
expression she had seen on the face of a young, green-eyed village girl
in what seemed to be a completely different lifetime.
"It´s quite a place they got here." Lykeas looked around, clearly appreciating what he saw.
"Uh huh," Xena agreed and dropped down on the bed with a small sigh. "Is your room the same?"
"Yep, the view is different, but else it´s the same."
The guest chambers were small, but beautifully and richly decorated with wall paintings and tapestries. The marble floor was inlaid with mosaics picturing scenes from hunting and war, and a huge fireplace took up almost the entire wall opposite the bed. A skin from a bear was placed in front of the fireplace and to the left of that was a small table and a chair.
Lykeas rose from the chair and stepped over to the window. The view from Xena´s room was of the city and the route they had travelled all day. His own view was of the Royal Gardens and was quite stunning if one cared to look which Lykeas hadn´t. He turned and leaned against the wall next to the window to look at his friend. Xena was lying sprawled out on the bed and was still wearing her armour. She opened one eye and looked at him.
"It´s almost eight, don´t you think you should get ready for dinner?"
"Ah, but I´m so comfortable." She raised her arms before letting them fall back on the bed. "I could stay here all night."
"Well then, at least get cleaned up. You stink!"
Xena opened the other eye. "I do not!"
"Do -." Lykeas stopped himself and gave Xena an angelic smile. "I see your range of conversation hasn´t improved much over the years."
"You should talk," Xena said good-humouredly and slowly sat up on the bed. "But I guess, I do smell a bit."
She disappeared out of a small, almost hidden door next to the bed and soon Lykeas heard the sound of splashing water. With a deep sigh, he slumped down on the bed and closed his eyes. He could get used to this.
He was woken up by a sharp knock on the door and propped himself up on one elbow.
Proklos or Praklos, Lykeas couldn´t tell the difference, peeked inside.
"The dinner is ready, miss…uh, sir." Lykeas gave the servant a conspiratorial smile.
"You can call me miss if you want to."
"Don´t play with the servants, Lykeas," Xena chided with a smile, coming out of the bathroom.
Lykeas winked at the servant and rose from the bed, "I´m never allowed to have any fun."
They were led through several corridors and colonnades before they arrived in front of a heavy oak tree door with two guards on either side. Praklos, as it had turned out to be, knocked three times on the door and it was promptly opened from inside. They stepped inside into a surprisingly small dining hall, it was more of a room than a hall and Xena was pleasantly surprised. She always felt extremely ridiculous when seated at the end of the preposterous long tables some royalty used, having to shout her lungs out to converse with her dinner companion at the opposite end. Fortunately that wouldn´t be necessary tonight, as the table was only meant for six or eight people and the chairs had been placed close together at one end. The man sitting at the end of the table rose from the chair and walked around the table to meet them. He was middle-aged, but there was no sign of grey in his black hair. He was dressed in a white tunic and a purple robe. His dark brown eyes scrutinized them in a reserved but friendly manner, and Xena was suddenly glad she did take the time to clean up. The heavy oak tree door behind them closed with a bang and both warriors jumped. The King raised his hands as if to reassure them.
"Don´t worry, Praklos always does that. I gave up years ago to get him to close it quietly."
He smiled at them and they returned his smile, not knowing what else to do.
"So you´re the two people my son owe his life." He paused for a moment, searching for words. "I´m eternally grateful for what you did. As long as you live you´ll be honoured and welcome guests in my kingdom."
He stepped closed and stopped in front of Xena, studying her up close. Xena began to feel uncomfortable and shifted from one foot to the other. Perhaps this wasn´t such a good idea after all."
"Xena…" The word lingered between them. "Xena…" The King spoke again, practically tasting the word. "So you´re Xena."
Xena returned his gaze without blinking. "Yes." Her short reply didn´t hide the tension she was feeling.
"It´s a pleasure to meet you." The King reached out and Xena barely managed to hide her surprise as she shook his hand.
Still holding onto her hand the King continued, "I´m a great believer in letting bygones be bygones." He smiled at her slightly suspicious expression. "Guests in my home don´t have to worry about anything but whether their beds are too soft or the food too salty."
He smiled again and Xena gave him a relieved smile in return, she was starting to like this man already. He moved to stand in front of Lykeas and solemnly reached out again.
"Thank you for saving my boy."
Lykeas shook the King´s hand briefly. "Uh, don´t mention it."
"Ah, but I will." The King replied and began walking back to the table, "and as often as it pleases me."
He sat down and gestured towards the chairs, "Please sit down, my son should be here any minute if Charmides isn´t keeping him with one of his lectures."
As on cue a knock sounded and the soldier standing at the wall reached out to open the door and Alexias stepped inside. His eyes swiftly surveyed the room before coming to a hold on Lykeas.
"Good, Alexias. Right on time, come and sit down.
Alexias walked around the table to sit on his father´s right, opposite Xena and Lykeas. The King clapped his hands once and immediately the room was invaded by servants carrying dishes, plates and bottles of wine. Almost as fast as they had appeared they disappeared again, the only proof they had been there, being the now fully loaded table. Xena eyed the huge amounts of food in front of her. Gabrielle would´ve thought she´d died and gone to the Elysian Fields. Suddenly she had to swallow and reached out for her glass. The King followed her example and raised his glass.
"A toast for the heroes of the day, Xena and Lykeas, who rescued what´s most precious to my heart."
They toasted and began to eat. Their conversation was friendly and harmless, but Xena couldn´t shake the feeling that the King was waiting for the right moment to approach more serious matters. Lykeas didn´t talk much and enjoyed most of the meal in silence. A couple of times when he looked up, he caught Alexias staring at him and every time the boy looked away, a faint blush on his cheeks. After they had finished the servants appeared again and cleared the table. Then they returned with four glasses and a decanter and not until they had left, did the King speak again.
"Well now, I´ve had a pleasant meal in pleasant company, but now I think it´s time you tell me why you´re here, and afterwards I may have something to tell you.
Taiko's Scrolls Of The Xenaverse