All other characters and the story itself belong to the author and may not be used without permission. The lyrics to the song "Indian Strings" by Suede and "Leave" by R.E.M. are used without permission and again, no copyright infringement is intended.
Violence Warning/Disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Sexual Violence Warning/Disclaimer: There are vague references to sexual violence in this story, but nothing graphic.
Love/Sex Warning/Disclaimer: This story depicts love/sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same sex. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.
Author's Notes: : This story can be said to take place at the end of the fourth season, but have practically nothing to do with any events of that season and therefore stands on its own. Iīve shamelessly messed up Greek history and geography with my own imagination to use for my own personal benefit, but since the show does that constantly, I guess itīs all right. I want to thank, MyWarrior, for all the time and patience sheīs invested in this project. Her encouragement and comments have been invaluable. This is my first attempt at fan fiction and I hope youīll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. Comments/feedback are more than welcome at email@example.com.
This oneīs for Susan, whoīs always in my heart.
Copyright © 1999 by Day.
"It is a lovely thing to live with courage, and die leaving an everlasting fame."
- Alexander the Great, 356-323 BC
The young man stood in the darkness of the night watching the funeral pyre. His handsome face was almost hidden in the shadows and only, when a particularly bright flame flickered and ate its way through another piece of wood, did it illuminate the dark eyes staring straight into the fire without blinking. A hand rested absently on the hilt of a sword strapped to his waist while the other was by his side curled into a fist, clenching and unclenching without the conscious knowledge of its owner.
The wind shifted and, as his eyes began to water, he recognized the distinct smell of human flesh burning, in spite of all the herbs and dried flowers the Amazons had decorated the pyre with. Suddenly he felt dizzy and he grabbed onto the wall of the hut he was standing next to, the rough straws digging into his hand. A beautiful voice filled the night followed by a single flute and, for a moment, it was as if not only all the muffled cries of the shadows closer to the fire silenced, but the air itself seemed to halt and waver as if unsure how to react. The young man tried to breathe, but the air felt hot and sticky and he was choking. Suddenly he sensed a hand on his shoulder.
"Lykeas, are you all right?"
He swallowed slightly and nodded, feeling the air return to his lungs.
"Yeah?just got a bit dizzy. Thatīs all."
He spoke in curt, abrupt sentences, a habit he had whenever he was unsure of something or lost in thought. The person next to him recognized it for what it was, and took a step closer, awkwardly putting her arm around his shoulder. She felt him stiffen just for a second before forcing himself to relax into the touch.
They stood together in silence, listening to the song, watching the pyre succumb to the flames. As the song finished the woman noticed a small figure leave the circle around the now dying fire and disappear into the forest that surrounded the village. Blues eyes locked onto black ones and the faintest hint of a smile showed on the manīs face.
"Youīd better go to her. She needs you."
"Youīll be okay?"
The voice was hesitant, but the eyes had already left his face and were searching the forest, looking for a familiar figure.
"Yeah, Iīll be fine."
The woman gave his shoulder one last squeeze before leaving him, crossing the clearing where the pyre had been in a few long strides and disappeared into the forest.
For a few heartbeats Lykeas watched the spot where the lean, graceful form of Xena had melted into the darkness, before he returned his gaze to the place where only an hour before the beautiful pyre of one Amazon Regent had been. Now there were only faint glowing embers left. One by one figures disappeared from the scene, some huddled close together, others lingering by themselves for just a moment before they, too walked away, leaving Lykeas alone. Having made certain there was no one left, he stepped closer till he stood directly above the embers, feeling the still surprisingly powerful heat against his skin. Small snakes of smoke dancing in a suddenly chill breeze made his already irritated eyes water again, and he had to blink a few times to focus. Then slowly, almost mechanically, he pulled out a small knife from his boot and began to cut off a few locks of his pitch black hair. When satisfied with the amount of hair in his hand, he returned the knife to the boot and looked back down at the embers. As he opened his hand and saw the hair floating for a second in the breeze before falling down upon the embers, he spoke quietly, more releasing a breath then speaking actual words.
"Iīm sorry, Ephiny."
Then without hesitating or lingering, he turned, walked out of the circle and was gone, leaving the fire to die in solitude.
THREE MONTHS EARLIER
Xena was happy to feel Greek soil under her feet once again. The trip to India had put a lot of strain on both her and Gabrielle in more ways than one, and just breathing the familiar scent of the Greek night made her feel considerably better than she had for weeks. She looked to her left and couldnīt help smiling at the sight of Gabrielle walking next to her with an unmistakably sleepy expression in her eyes. They had been pushing themselves rather hard all day, but Xena had been very anxious to get back to more familiar territory and Gabrielle hadnīt seemed to mind as long as she didnīt have to ride. The landscape they had been travelling for most of the day had been rather open and hilly with only an occasional tree or bush to offer shadow or protection. Xena wouldīve liked to find a more protected and secluded place to camp, but another glance at the bard told her theyīd better stop now.
She reached out and gently touched the bardīs shoulder.
"Letīs stop and settle for the night. You look like youīre about to drop."
"That sounds great," Gabrielle replied with a smile.
"I think Iīve been more or less sleepwalking for the last couple of miles."
Xena chuckled and led the bard over to a small gathering of bushes. It wouldnīt offer any kind of real protection, but at least she wouldnīt feel compelled to check her back every other second. It didnīt take long before they had a small fire going and the bedrolls put out next to each other on the ground. Gabrielle lay down on her stomach, hands under her chin, watching the fire. Xena came over from where she had been grooming Argo and sat down next to the bard with an audible sigh of contentment. Gabrielle turned her head slightly and looked at her.
"Youīre real happy to be back arenīt you?"
Xena nodded and reached out to caress the bardīs hair.
"Itīs been an eventful trip."
"You could say that again," Gabrielle said quietly and looked back to the fire.
"For both of us."
Xena started to say something, but changed her mind and instead reached down to pull Gabrielle up into her arms. With a small sigh Gabrielle nestled comfortably in Xenaīs embrace and rested her head against the warriorīs shoulder. Xena knew she should go out hunting for dinner or at least get some dried meat from one of the saddlebags for them to eat, but right now moving was the last thing she felt like doing.
A few moments later the bard was asleep in Xenaīs arms and the last lingering thoughts about getting up disappeared from her mind.
Too tired to even eat. Thatīs gotta be some kind of record.
She felt a bit guilty about pushing the bard so hard, but pushed the thought away.
Iīll make it up to her in the morning.
Startled, Xena looked out into the night. She must have fallen asleep holding, Gabrielle. And now for some reason she was awake again.
Yeah, some reason, she thought as her keen hearing picked up the faintest noise of somebody moving carefully through the bushes higher up the slope.
I gotta be more careful. I should know better than to fall asleep like this.
She carefully eased herself away from Gabrielle and gently lowered her down onto the bedroll. She considered for a second if she should wake her up, but decided against it. Judging from the noise there was only one person moving, and Gabrielle needed all the rest she could get. Besides, if she couldnīt take care of one person anymore without help, she had some serious soul searching to do.
Yeah right, like that would ever happen.
She moved quietly out to the left, away from the camp. Although there were hardly any embers left of the fire it wouldnīt escape the strangerīs notice, unless he was both stupid and blind. And since Xena didnīt really feel like a gambling woman when it came to Gabrielleīs safety, she decided to be the one who made the first move. The stranger was moving quietly, if a bit carelessly, and Xena couldnīt help but grin. This was going to be easy. Suddenly all noise disappeared and only the sounds of the night were heard. Xena felt a sudden urge to kill all the cicadas of the world as she strained to hear anything that would give away the strangerīs location. It annoyed and confused her that she couldnīt hear him until she realized what was happening. The stranger was listening as well. He had somehow heard her coming, although, she couldnīt quite believe how that could be possible, and now he was waiting for her to make a sound and reveal herself. For the next few minutes the silence of the night was only broken by the occasional sound of an animal sneaking through bushes and the damned cicadas that simply didnīt know when to shut up.
This is ridiculous. Iīm not standing here the entire night listening until one of us drops from exhaustion.
A part of her was rather impressed by the strangerīs skill, but another part, and a much bigger one for that, just wanted to grab him and throw him down the slope. Hard! Just as she had decided to make her move a quiet voice broke the silence.
"Xena? Is that you?"
The voice froze Xena to the spot for just a second.
Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes and then immediately closed them again. It was only dawn and there was really no reason she could think of why she should get up before it was absolutely necessary. Besides, Xena loved those early hours and the peace and solitude it gave her, so she might as well sleep a little more. She subconsciously began to listen for the small sounds of Xenaīs morning rituals. How she would remain on the bedroll for a few seconds, with her eyes still closed before she would get up noiselessly and stretch her body, releasing a quiet sigh. Then she would get into her leathers and walk carefully, so not to wake her, to where Argo was and?
Wait a minute!
Gabrielle suddenly realized that she wasnīt hearing anything of the sort and sat up quickly looking around the camp. There was no sign of Xena, nor any indication that she had slept there at all. Gabrielle distinctly remembered falling asleep in Xenaīs arms and fought to ignore the small sting of fear she felt in her stomach.
Calm down, calm down. It isnīt as if itīs the first time she hasnīt gone to sleep or wandered off somewhere. She probably was too exhausted to sleep, and besides she knows how to take care of herself. She probably just went for a walk or something.
In spite of her own reasoning, Gabrielle couldnīt help worrying as she got to her feet and noticed that the fire was out and had been for hours.
Thatīs not like Xena, sheīs always so concerned whether Iīm too cold. Not that that was a likely scenario to ever happen. Gabrielle smiled, in spite of herself.
She noticed Argo a few feet away nibbling on a bit of grass she had found underneath a bush.
Well, at least she canīt be too far away.
Just as she had decided in which direction to go searching for the warrior, she heard her voice coming from the other side, and she turned around to face her. A perfect look of reproach and mock annoyance on her face.
"Xena, why do you always have to?"
She stopped dead in her tracks as she realized that the warrior wasnīt alone. Standing next to her was a young man, perhaps only a few years younger than Xena. He was dressed in black leathers and armour with a deadly looking sword strapped to his waist. In his right hand he was holding an unstrung longbow and a quiver full with arrows could just be seen behind his right shoulder. Gabrielle let her eyes fall to his boots which were made out of soft leather and continued her gaze up his bare legs till the knees where his leather tunic began. She didnīt stop there, but continued upwards the lean, muscular body till her eyes met the strangerīs and she found herself looking into the blackest pair of eyes she had ever seen. It was difficult to make out where the pupils stopped and the irises began. His bronze face was framed by tossed black hair and in spite of a long thin scar running from just below the chin down the throat, Gabrielle couldnīt help but think.
Gods, this man is beautiful! I wonder if Iīm still dreaming.
"Gabrielle," Xenaīs voice interrupted the bardīs musings.
"I want you to meet an old friend of mine, this is Lykeas. Lykeas, this is Gabrielle."
"My pleasure," the stranger said in a low, melodic voice as he reached out and took her hand.
"So, youīre the one whoīs responsible for all the great tales involving Xena."
Gabrielle could only nod at first, but then she found her voice again.
"Oh, itīs so nice to meet you. I donīt get to meet many of Xenaīs past friends. Usually people from her past are more interested in trying to kill her then walking down memory lane."
The last comment resulted in two dangerously high raised eyebrows and a small chuckle from Lykeas. "Yeah, I could imagine."
Xena, finding the line of conversation rather unnecessary, began gently but firmly to push her two friends towards the camp.
"Letīs get another fire started and breakfast ready before we go down any kind of lane if you donīt mind." "Good idea," Gabrielle said as if she suddenly remembered something.
Xena went for the saddlebags and Gabrielle began to make the fire, but felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Let me do that."
Without really knowing why Gabrielle complied and took a few steps away and faster than she had ever thought possible the fire was burning brightly again.
"Youīre good at that," she said with admiration in her voice. "How do you do it so fast?"
"Well," Lykeas said smiling, "I guess I just donīt like being cold."
Xena came back with some dried meat and fruit and sat down next to Gabrielle, who had gotten herself as comfortably close to the fire as she could get without getting burned. Lykeas sat opposite them at a slightly more bearable distance to the fire.
"Iīm sorry that I canīt contribute with anything for breakfast," Lykeas began, looking at Xena. "But Rarjan disappeared from me yesterday with all my belongings."
To Gabrielleīs surprised Xena laughed out loud.
"Do you still have that beast of a horse!? I was sure he wouldīve gotten you killed long ago."
"Well," Lykeas smiled a bit sheepishly. "Heīs not the same horse that you knew. This one is the son of the old one. Iīve had him for a couple of years now."
Xena shook her head in disbelief.
"Iīll never understand why you kept the old one in the first place. He was more trouble than he was worth. I canīt recall all the times he ran off or tried to throw you."
"Yeah well," Lykeas said. "He had a lot of good qualities too. He was the fastest and most endurable horse Iīd ever seen. And his son has those qualities in equal measure.
Unfortunately," he paused and caught Gabrielleīs eye, "he also got all the bad ones and they seem to have tripled in him."
Gabrielle couldnīt help but laugh at the image of a big, bad horse throwing off the dark warrior in front of her.
"I hope I get to meet him soon. Perhaps I can teach him some manners."
"Thatīs probably too late by now," Lykeas replied dryly. "Iīm quite sure heīs a lost cause."
"Donīt be too sure about that," Gabrielle said, giving Xena a look.
"Iīm very good at reforming old, stubborn, war-crazy?uhh? horses."
Xena leaned over slightly, giving Gabrielle her best stare.
"So Iīm a horse now am I?"
"Oh no...no. Thatīs not what I meant," Gabrielle exclaimed, pretending to be worried by Xenaīs menacing glare.
"All I meant was that when it comes to certain things I have a real good touch."
"That you do for sure."
Xena leaned closer and looked Gabrielle straight in the eye. Gabrielle could feel a blush appear on her cheeks and was for once speechless. Lykeas watched the playful banter in front of him with a slightly amused, if not puzzled smile. Remembering they werenīt alone Gabrielle pushed Xena away and turned her attention back to Lykeas.
"So how did the two of you meet?"
Lykeas glanced quickly at Xena, who was suddenly fully engaged in a piece of dried meat.
"I used to ride with her."
For a second Gabrielle didnīt comprehend, then realization hit her.
"You mean you?" She trailed off.
"Yeah, I was in her army." Lykeasī eyes locked on Xena.
"I used to ride under the banners of the Warrior Princess."
For a moment the air was heavy with silence. Then Xena cleared her throat.
"But thatīs a long time ago. He left my army even before I did."
Gabrielleīs gaze went from Lykeas to Xena and back again.
"Hey, itīs okay. Itīs not a problem," she began.
"Iīd sort of guessed it already. I mean?itīs not like you look like a fisherman or anything."
"Nah," Lykeas replied. "Thatīs more Xenaīs department."
The tension that had been forming between them disappeared again by this last remark and the trio ate their breakfast in silence, one caught up in thoughts and the two others in memories. When they had finished their meal, Gabrielle began to gather their belongings and put them back into the saddlebags before fastening them to Argoīs back. Lykeas slowly rose to his feet and started dusting himself off. Suddenly he felt a familiar stare at his back and he turned around to see Xena watching him with a speculative look in her eyes.
"So? Where were you heading before we ran into each other last night?"
Lykeas just shrugged.
"Nowhere really? Iīd thought about perhaps visiting Pella, but nothing definite?Why?"
"Nothing, just curious."
They stood a moment in silence in front of each other.
"And you? Where are you heading?"
"Weīve been thinking about either going to visit our families or?" Xena faltered, "or the Amazons."
Lykeas nodded to himself.
"Thatīs right. Iīd heard that they had gotten a new Queen?. Itīs quite a travelling companion you have there," he continued and looked at Gabrielle, busy with feeding Argo an apple.
"Bard, queen and tamer of horses all in one."
"Yeah, sheīs quite something."
Xenaīs smile lit up her face and Lykeas couldnīt help but return it.
"Whatīs so funny?"
Gabrielle had turned towards them and was looking at the two warriors with questioning eyes.
"Did I miss something?"
They shook their heads simultaneously.
"No, just walking down memory lane. And speaking of walking," Xena looked back to Lykeas. "When do you think that monster of yours that you call a horse intends to return?"
"Oh, well," Lykeas scratched his cheek. "Probably sometime tonight. He usually doesnīt stay away too long."
"Uhum," Xena replied, raising an eyebrow. "If you say so. Though, I seem to recall a certain day when-."
"Thatīs was his father!" Lykeas interrupted, "And he just got lost? It happens."
"Yeah, sure," Xena went over to Argo and nuzzled the horse between her ears.
"You wouldnīt do something like that, would ya girl?"
Gabrielle had watched the entire exchange with quiet amusement. It was nice to see Xena relax and make fun again, and she realized with a rueful smile that itīd been quite a while since she last experienced this playful side of the warrior. Lykeas, feigning hurt, looked resigned towards the sky.
"Rarjan loves me very much. Really he does?He just has a lot of?of personality."
"That goes without saying."
Xena gave Argo one last caress before she put one foot into the stirrup and swung herself up. She shifted in the saddle and looked down at him.
"You wanna join us for a while? Just till Rarjan shows up?"
Lykeas found himself the target of both the expectant gazes of Xena and Gabrielle, and after a few seconds he relented.
"Sure, why not? Guess itīs not gonna hurt anyone."
He looked at Gabrielle.
"Need a hand to get up?"
"Oh no, Iīd much rather walk, and frankly itīll be nice to have someone to talk to, who isnīt either three miles ahead of me or three miles behind me. Or three miles above me," she added with a playful smile at Xena.
"Gabrielle gets dizzy stepping over a bump in the road," Xena retorted.
"Itīs her luck she isnīt any taller than she is, or else sheīd be constantly staggering around, falling over whatever came in her way."
Lykeas starred at the two women till they both returned their attention to him and a smile flickered across his face.
"As much as Iīm enjoying this little war of?words. Do you think we could get going now? After all, I have a horse to find."
It was midday and the scorching heat from the sun was slowly but surely draining all energy from the three travellers. They had tried to take it slow and remain in shadow as much as possible, but itīd still be awhile before the landscape changed into actual forest, and there was no protection along the dusty road. Xena looked up at the blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Her leathers clung to her hot and sweaty body, and not for the first time that day she wondered why it was she loved wearing them so much. She had removed most of her armour an hour ago, realizing that she wouldnīt be much good in a fight anyway if she passed out from heat stroke first. Her main concern, however, was their lack of water. They only had one water skin left and it was less than half full. It would hardly have been enough for just her and Gabrielle, and even with Lykeas drinking just enough to prevent from dropping, they would run out soon. The only spring which location she knew for certain was at least 20 miles further ahead. It would take too long.
She turned in the saddle and her heart cringed at the sight of Gabrielle stumbling only to be caught in the last second by Lykeas. She desperately let her eyes search their surroundings for any sight of shadow. Her eyes came to rest on a rock hovering slightly over the road further ahead. It wasnīt much, but it was something.
"Lykeas," she turned to look at her friend
"You and Gabrielle are going to stay here by that rock," her head indicating the direction and Lykeas eyes followed slowly, squinting against the sun.
"Iīm gonna ride ahead to the spring and refill the skins. It shouldnīt take too long."
Itīd better not, she added to herself, looking at Gabrielle.
"It wont provide much shadow," Lykeas managed, his voice hardly more than a hoarse whisper.
"Not for now," Xena agreed. "But when the sun begins to descend itīll get better and if you move around the rock following its shadow, it should be okay."
Lykeas only nodded, there wasnīt really anything he could say. Xena dismounted and without a word swept the bard into her arms, and carried her the last of the way to the rock. Carefully she put the bard down against the hard rock, its shadow barely covering half of her face. Gabrielle smiled weakly at her.
"Gods, Iīm thirsty. I think Iīd even settle for that horrible port of yours."
Xena leaned downward and let her lips brush the bardīs forehead. The skin felt hot and moist and she could taste the salt on her lips.
"Iīm afraid youīll have to make do with water for now," she said, feigning a cheerfulness she didnīt feel. "I doubt that any spring in this area provide anything else than that, but Iīll have a look around."
"Come back soon, will you?"
Xena felt the silent plea go straight to her heart.
"Of course," she leaned forward and kissed the bard again, "nothing could keep me away."
"Good," Gabrielle smiled and leaned back against the rock, closing her eyes.
Walking back to Argo where Lykeas had been standing holding the reins, she took the last skin and handed it to him.
"Make sure she drinks."
Then she mounted and looked down at her friend.
"I donīt know how long itīll be before I get back, but it wonīt be before dark."
"Xena," Lykeasī voice was quiet. "You donīt actually think Iīm gonna let you ride non stop for hours in this heat without any water. You wouldnīt last a mile."
"Lykeas?" Xenaīs voice did nothing to hide the aggravation she was feeling. "I donīt have much of a choice do I? Look at her!"
They both turned their gaze to the reclining bard.
"She needs it more than I do."
The words were spoken softly and Lykeas looked at her with understanding in his eyes. He reached up and touched her leg just beneath the knee.
"You know very well that Gabrielle and I will last much longer without water than you will. We wonīt be moving and we have a decent bit of shadow thatīll only improve in time."
He patted her leg.
"Donīt make me get rough on you."
Xena opened her mouth to give an angry retort, but slowly closed it again. She knew he was right. She didnīt have to like it, and she most certainly didnt, but he was right. Grudgingly, she accepted the skin he handed up and returned it to its place in the saddlebag. For a moment she held his gaze and then, nothing more than a whisper.
"Take care of her."
With one last look at the bard, Xena dug her heels into Argoīs side, the horse jumped forward and they soon disappeared in the dust of the road.
Lykeas watched the last clouds of dust settle and dissolve before he turned and walked back to the rock. He removed the quiver from his back, and took off his armour before he sat down next to the bard. Gabrielle was pale, her face covered in sweat and she hadnīt opened her eyes or in any other way indicated that she was aware of his presence.
She opened her eyes and turned her head towards him. She blinked a few times and then gave him a weak smile.
"Insisting that she take the water. She can be so stubborn sometimes."
Lykeas let a hand run through his damp hair and turned his gaze to where Xena had disappeared down the road.
They sat in silence, their breaths subconsciously falling in to the same laboured rhythm. A wave of nausea suddenly washed through Lykeasī body and he had to control himself so as not to throw up. A hand touched his shoulder.
"I bet you feel just as bad as you look right now."
She was rewarded with a small smile.
"Yeah well, green doesnīt really go with my eyes."
"Oh, I wouldnīt say that, but perhaps a less sickly looking colour would be better."
"Iīll remember that the next time."
The nausea finally passed and Lykeas leaned back against the rock, relief evident on his face. Gabrielle was feeling both tired and thirsty. She didnīt remember ever being so thirsty before in her life. Her throat was feeling like a piece of parchment, and she didnīt even have any saliva left to moisten her tongue. Her head was heavy and her eyes burning, but most of all she wished that the world would stop spinning. It was making her rather dizzy. She closed her eyes.
"Hey, Iīm not sure you should sleep right now."
Lykeasī voice brought her back to reality.
"Youīre right?itīs just? Iīm so tired."
"You could tell me a story. That would keep us both awake."
Gabrielle tried to gather her thoughts and come up with a suitable story, but her mind was in turmoil and she couldnīt concentrate.
"Iīm afraid Iīm not really capable of telling a story right now," she paused and looked at Lykeas. "But what about you?"
"Oh, Iīm not really a storyteller. I have no imagination, Iīm much more of a listener myself."
"It doesnīt have to be a story. Tell me something about yourself. Tell me?tell me how you and Xena met, we didnīt get to finish the topic last time."
Gabrielle could feel Lykeasī eyes search her face, and again she had to marvel at their blackness. It was almost uncanny. Whether he found what he was looking for or not she couldnīt tell, but after a while he turned his gaze to his right boot, and picked out a small knife. He played with it for another few seconds before looking back at Gabrielle.
"I met her shortly after the attack on Amphipolis. She was on her way to Athens with some of the kids who had decided to follow her and I just tagged along."
Gabrielle looked at him with amusement..
"You were right. Youīre not much of a storyteller."
"Told you so."
Gabrielle decided she wasnīt going to pass down an opportunity to learn more about Xenaīs past, particularly when her source of information was an old friend, and not an old mortal enemy which was the way it usually worked.
"Come on. You can do better than that. What were you doing before you followed her? What about your family? They just let you leave? You canīt have been very old at the time?"
"I was fourteen."
Gabrielle digested the new information for just a second, her curiosity soaring to new heights.
"Thatīs even younger than when I left home. Did your parents really allow you to go? I mean? Mine were less than happy when I told them. And why did you want to go in the first place? Although, I can kinda understand that," she trailed off, a distant expression in her eyes.
"Well, I didnīt really have a family at the time and I had nowhere else to go so?"
He was playing with the knife again.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand on his. She was about to speak when she noticed him staring at the small bracelet she hand on her right wrist.
"Thatīs Artemisī Bracelet isnīt it? The one that only the Queen is allowed to wear. The one that signifies you as her chosen."
Gabrielle removed her hand in surprise.
"Yes, thatīs right. How did you know? I mean, not a lot of outsiders know about that and, no offence, but least of all men."
"My mother was an Amazon."
Gabrielle didnīt know what to think about this last revelation. Usually when an Amazon gave birth to a boy, he was given away to a farmer and his wife to raise as their own. They usually didnīt tell them about their origins, and they were certainly not taught any Amazon customs or traditions. Something wasnīt right. As if sensing her confusion Lykeas continued, his eyes never leaving the knife.
"I wasnīt given away or raised by the Centaurs?but thatīs a long story? And itīs a long time ago."
"You donīt have to tell me if you donīt want to."
Gabrielleīs voice was soft and soothing, and Lykeas found himself slowly raising his head to look at her.
"There isnīt much to tell."
"Tell me." The voice was a plea, a whisper and a command, and Lykeas couldnīt help but comply.
So thatīs what Xena sees in her? Sheīs so much stronger than she appears.
He tried to hold her gaze, but soon his eyes flickered back to the knife in his hand.
"My mother was an Amazon. From your village, actually. I guess itīs true when they say itīs a small world."
"Well, apparently, and this is something Iīve been told so I donīt know whatīs true and whatīs not, but apparently, my mother and her lover became involved with another woman. This other woman was in love with Naiari, that was the name of my motherīs lover, and Naiari wasnīt quite oblivious to the womanīs attentions."
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a second. Loversī quarrels between Amazons wasnīt news to her and usually everything worked out in the end, but sometimes?Well?sometimes things got ugly.
She opened her eyes again.
"Were they joined? Your mother and this Naiari?"
"Yeah. So Iīve been told."
"What happened?" The question was barely audible, Gabrielle feeling she wasnīt going to like the answer.
"It came to a fight. My mother almost killed the other woman and she was banned from Amazon lands for life. Naiari wanted to follow her, but my mother wouldnīt let her, besides she had a young daughter to think of so?"
For a moment his hand stilled, then he began playing with the knife again, this time digging it into the ground.
"My mother loved the Amazons and she was heartbroken that she could no longer live among them, so she did the only thing she could think of. She went to Lemea."
"Lemea?" Gabrielle wiped a drop of sweat from her left temple.
"Whatīs that? A city?"
"Well, it was more of a small village. It was founded by a group of exiles from the Nation, who couldnīt bear to live their lives as anything but Amazons. And through the years it grew, more exiles came and a small community was created."
"Iīve never heard about that village before."
"You wouldnīt have. It doesnīt exist anymore? Besides is not really a subject that comes up around Amazon campfires very often."
"What happened then?"
For the time being all thoughts about being thirsty had disappeared from Gabrielleīs mind.
"On her way to Lemea, my mother ran into a troop of soldiers on their way back to Athens. They just passed, but later that night one came back and?and raped her? That man was later to become my father."
Gabrielle felt her heart ache for the dark warrior next to her and she reached out to touch his shoulder. He looked up, confusion in his eyes. She thought he was going to move, but instead he just dropped his eyes back to the knife.
"Anyway, after he was?done, he told her never to forget his name, never to forget how it was to be with a real man and not some unnatural harlot."
Gabrielle could feel him tense at the last words, and she gave his shoulder gentle squeeze. She felt she should say something, offer comfort, but she couldnīt find the words.
Lykeas continued, his voice even and void of any emotion.
"When she came to Lemea she was allowed to settle down and make herself a home. They never turned anyone away? Perhaps they should have."
He looked up at the sun.
"We should move?"
Gabrielleīs mind had been far away and hadnīt quite returned to reality.
"The sun has moved and so have the shadows. If we move around the rock to the right thereīll be more shadow."
"Of course?of course, youīre right."
They got up and moved themselves and their belongings a few feet to the right. When they were settled, Gabrielle reached out again and took the knife from Lykeasī motionless fingers. She put it down on the dry grass in front of them, then turned her gaze to him, trying to make eye contact.
"Are you going to tell me the rest?"
He didnīt look up.
"Are you sure you wanna hear the rest? I mean?it isnīt really that interesting?and as I said before itīs a long time ago."
"Okay?if you really want to? "
His hand went out to pick up the knife again, and Gabrielle didnīt try to stop him.
"In spite of Lemea being founded by Amazons it wasnīt like the villages you know. You have to remember that most of the exiles were there for a reason, and not just because they wanted to live somewhere else. They honoured the Amazon traditions and regulations, but mostly in name only and I think they all felt more or less abandoned by Artemis. Although, I guess it should be the other way around."
His throat was burning and he desperately wished he had something to drink.
"Lisisis, the self-appointed leader of the village, took a liking to my mother and decided she should live with her. At that time my mother was only a few weeks away from giving birth and didnīt have the strength to go hunting for herself, and since nobody else was going to do so, she agreed and moved in with her. Lisisis was not a?a kind woman, but to give her credit, I think she really loved my mother in her own way. At least thatīs the only reason I can think of for her to?" He trailed off for a moment, then continued.
"The night my mother gave birth, something went? something went wrong. I tore something inside her on my way out and they couldnīt stop the bleeding. She died a few hours later."
"What was her name?"
Gabrielle suddenly felt compelled to know the name of the woman, whoīd experienced so much pain in such a short time.
Lykeas looked up into her eyes.
"Lykeia." A small smile flickered across his face, then disappeared.
"They named me after her."
For a few moments they were both silent as Gabrielle tried to absorb all she had heard. She knew that even though she was the Queen of the Amazons there were still a lot of things she didnīt know much about, Amazon history being one of them. She couldnīt help but wonder why nobody had ever mentioned Lemea before, why it had never come up in one of the many conversations about customs, traditions and simply living your life as an Amazon she had had with Ephiny.
"Tell me the rest."
Lykeas, who had been chewing on a nail, looked at her with weariness in his eyes.
"Iīm usually not this talkative."
She just looked at him and he gave in with a small shrug.
"My motherīs death changed Lisisis. She had been cold before, but now she turned outright?well? unpleasant. Iīve been told that first she wanted to kill me right after the birth, but for some reason she spared my life, and because of the rather unusual circumstances regarding Lemea, I was permitted to stay. Not that I think anybody gave a damn anyway, but still."
He paused and was silent for several minutes, and Gabrielle knew by instinct that she shouldnīt push it. After all, living side by side with an ex-warlord for four years had given her quite some insight into the human mind. Still, she was surprised when he spoke again.
"I spent the next fourteen years of my life in Lemea. I soon learned to fight for myself, and I guess thatīs something Iīll always be grateful to Lisisis for. She taught me a lot about?about life. She taught me that if you donīt control your life somebody else will, and if youīre strong enough you can treat anybody the way it pleases you. She was very good at proving?proving a point."
He leaned back and tried to become more comfortable against the rock.
"When I was about twelve things had started to change in Lemea. The village was slowly being divided into two fractions. One wanted to live more like they had before. They wanted to live by the laws and regulations followed in the Nation, and they said they wanted to be the children of Artemis once again. The other half, however, wasnīt interested in changing things and that group was led by Lisisis. Small confrontations kept erupting, but nobody was really able to get the upper hand. Things sort of stayed like that for two years, and probably wouldīve for a lot longer if something hadnīt happened."
He raised his head and blacked locked onto green.
"I was on my way home from hunting. I donīt recall what Iīd shot,? guess it doesnīt matter anyway. When I reached the village centre Lisisis jumped me. I donīt know why, she was drunk, but she usually didnīt?bother me in public. But that day she did. When she wasnīt having fun anymore, she stopped and walked towards the tavern. I remember a small crowd had gathered; crowds gathered easily in Lemea."
Lykeasīvoice had dropped an octave or two.
"I donīt know what went through my head in that moment. What exactly made me get up and follow her. It wasnīt the first time something like that happened? Perhaps it was because everybody saw it?. One thing is being humiliated in private, itīs quite another thing to be so in public."
His brow furrowed as if contemplating an interesting dilemma.
"Anyway, I jumped her from behind and broke her neck. She was dead before she hit the ground."
His voice was so matter-of-fact that Gabrielle at first didnīt think she had heard him right.
"You mean?you killed her?"
"Uh huh. I thought that they wouldīve had me executed on the spot for killing an Amazon, but apparently Lisisisī death was all it took for the other fraction to gain control of the village, and I was allowed to speak for myself at the first public hearing Lemea had ever witnessed. I didnīt really have much to say, but a few others spoke out on my behalf, and since nobody had had any love for Lisisis, I was permitted to leave the village with my belongings under the condition that I never put a foot on Lemean ground again. As if I wanted to? Well, I travelled on my own for a week or two, before I eventually ran into Xena, and thatīs how we met."
Gabrielle averted her eyes for a moment, she couldnīt look at Lykeas right now. Her mind was trying to come to terms with all she had learned, and another part of her simply didnīt want to believe that any Amazon would deliberately hurt an innocent just for the fun of it. The name Velasca suddenly popped into her head and she forced the thought away.
She looked up at him again and was surprised to see him smile at her. He reached out and gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
"Itīs a long time ago, Gabrielle."
She opened her mouth to speak, but Lykeas raised his hand to silence her.
"Shh, do you hear that?"
"Hear, hear what?"
Gabrielle could only hear the wind in the bushes and the few birds the sun hadnīt chased away.
"Itīs a horse and itīs coming this way."
Gabrielle suddenly heard the faintest noise of hooves coming from what sounded to be the direction they had been travelling earlier that day.
"Thatīs not Xena. Is it?"
"Nope." A smile lit up Lykeasī face.
The red sun was slowly setting to the West as rider and horse hurried down the dusty road. The red light was making the landscape shimmer in a supernatural glow, battling with the shadows for domination, but the warrior had no interest in admiring the sight. Even the singing of the cicadas which had increased in volume steadily for the last hour, failed to get her attention. The cool air of the night was slowly, but efficiently driving the heat of the day away, and an occasional shiver would run through the warriorīs body as it adjusted to the new temperatures. Her damp hair and leathers felt uncomfortable against her skin, but as she recognized a certain sharp curve of the road ahead, all thoughts of discomfort left her mind. She was almost there. When she finally arrived at the rock, the sun had lost its battle with the shadows and gone into hiding for the night. Almost before Argo had stopped moving, she jumped out of the saddle and ran toward the small flicker of a fire. The sight that greeted her made her pause and stare for a few seconds. Gabrielle was lying curled up on her side with her face towards the fire. A grey wool blanket covered her body and Xena could just make out the shape of a bedroll underneath her. She was sleeping peacefully, eyelids moving ever so slightly as if dreaming. Shadows danced across her face, and golden highlights played in her hair making it seem like a small fire of its own. It was the most beautiful sight Xena had ever seen. She stepped closer, careful not to wake her and sat down next to the sleeping form on the ground.
"Iīve taken care of Argo."
Xena looked up, and as he stepped closer, the fire revealed the dark silhouette of Lykeas.
"She and Rarjan are just getting to know each other."
She took the saddlebags he handed to her.
"So Rarjan finally showed up?"
"Yep," he smiled, revealing a row of white teeth. "Couldnīt be without me any longer."
"What about the water?"
Lykeas pointed towards a water skin almost hidden behind Gabrielle.
"I had one in Rarjanīs saddlebag and there was just enough left, so?"
"But I sure am glad that youīre back with some more."
She handed him one of the water skins and he took a few deep draughts before he returned it.
"Gabrielle, sheīs all right?"
Lykeas nodded and leaned back against Rarjanīs saddle.
"Yeah, just pretty exhausted."
Silence as the fire crackled in symphony with the cicadas.
"She means a lot to you, doesnīt she?"
"She dictates the beats of my heart."
Lykeas looked up in surprise, an indefinable expression on his face.
Xena just shrugged and smiled a bit sheepishly.
"She does that to me."
Then to avoid his gaze, she got out their bedrolls and tossed one together with a blanket to him, before she put out the other behind Gabrielle and covered them both with a blanket. With a small sigh she put her arms around the bard and pulled her close. Gabrielle turned in her sleep and buried her head in Xenaīs hair.
"Goodnight;" Xena whispered, feeling the familiar joy of just being close to the bard.
"Goodnight," Lykeas answered, rolling out the bedroll and then returning to his comfortable position against the saddle. Soon the quiet breathing told him that Xena had fallen asleep, but it wasnīt till the black eyes had watched the last of the fire disappear and die that he himself found some rest.
They had travelled a good time past noon when they were attacked. The day had begun peacefully enough with breakfast and pleasant conversation, and when they had been ready to leave, as in an unspoken agreement, Lykeas had joined them. Xena had been riding a few feet ahead of Gabrielle and Lykeas walking next to each other, the latter holding Rarjanīs reins in a firm grip. Nothing significant had happened during the first early hours, and they had all been pleased to see the landscape turn more vigorous and rich for each mile they travelled. But now they suddenly found themselves more or less surrounded by six men.
Xena knew she hadnīt been paying attention. For the last mile or so, she had felt an all too familiar uneasiness, but she had been reluctant to allow her instincts to take over and spoil her good mood. However, now she wasnīt left much of a choice. As the men began to circle them, a ferocious smile crossed her lips and she threw a glance backwards to see her smile mirrored by Lykeas.
"Donīt get any closer boys. Iīm not in the mood for a fight today."
The men didnīt even halter their approach and a huge, savage looking man holding a battleaxe in his left hand, turned his head and gave his comrades a toothless grin.
"Too bad that we are, ehh boys? Or perhaps you two ladies could get in the mood for something else, while we get rid or your little friend thereuugh?"
He didnīt get to finish the sentence and stared in disbelief at the still vibrating arrow sticking out of his throat before he fell heavily to the ground.
"Nice shoot," Xena commented as she released her chakram and took out the man to her right.
"Likewise," Lykeas replied as he threw his bow to the ground and drew his sword.
"To your left!"
Xenaīs foot connected squarely with the jaw of a third bandit, who had been intent on stabbing her from behind, and he dropped with a groan.
"Thanks, but Iīd have gotten him anyway."
"I know," Lykeas grinned. "Just speeding things up a bit."
All while the fighting had been going on, Gabrielle had slowly been backing away till she suddenly felt her back come up against a hard, smelly surface. She turned and saw a thin, lanky man reach out for her with a triumphant grin on his face.
"I got ya now, missy."
She dodged his hands and took a few steps away from him.
"I donīt want to fight you."
"That just makes it easier for me, missy."
Behind her, Gabrielle heard the sound of another body hitting the ground, closely followed by a second.
The man pointed his sword at her and took a step closer.
"Now come here, little girl, why not make it easier for us all. Iīm not gonna hurt ya...much"
"I told you, I donīt want to-," a body flew through the air and landed heavily on the manīs chest, bringing them both to the ground, "-fight you."
Xena brought her elbow down against the manīs head and he went out cold. She got back on her feet and dusted a bit of sand from her hands and clothing.
Gabrielle nodded, though she was experiencing an unpleasant sensation run through her body. She couldnīt quite find the exact word to describe it, but it was something in the range of?uselessness."
"Thanks for your help."
Xena gave her a little smile.
"Hey, thatīs what Iīm here for."
Then she turned serious, her eyes searching the bardīs face.
"But it would be nice if youīd?"
She interrupted herself before she said something she might regret.
"Nevermind," she reached out a patted Gabrielleīs shoulder. "Iīm just glad you werenīt hurt."
Then she turned and walked back to Lykeas, who was busy cleaning his sword.
"How many dead?"
"Four," he answered. "And the rest wonīt wake up for a while."
"Good," she said and got back into the saddle.
"Letīs move on."
She looked back at Gabrielle, who hadnīt moved from the spot.
"Gabrielle? Are you coming?"
The bard looked up, a strange expression in her eyes.
"Oh, sorry, just lost myself for a while there."
In a matter of seconds they were back on the road.
By the time they reached the outskirts of the first forest they had seen for days, it was decided without much discussion to stop and make camp. Although it was still early evening, everybody felt like they deserved to relax and enjoy themselves for a while. As Xena took care of the horses and Gabrielle prepared camp, Lykeas went out in search for water. They still had plenty of water to drink, but all of them felt in great need of a bath. They were covered by dust and sweat and their clothes clung to their bodies, making them all feel uncomfortable and dirty. Lykeas left his sword and armour with the others, but brought his bow along with him in case he should come across some game, since he was getting increasingly tired of dried meat. Ten minutes later and a mile further into the forest, three rabbits hung from his shoulder and the hunter was feeling rather pleased with himself. That had been easy. He wondered if he should shoot another since Gabrielle seemed to be capable of eating quite a lot, but decided against it. He was too exhausted and unless it jumped right into his arms, he didnīt want to bother with catching another.
Suddenly he noticed the ground under his feet become softer and less dense. The almost invisible path he had been following broadened and he found himself at the bank of a small lake. It was surrounded by tall trees all the way round, and only a few rays of light penetrated the moist, green darkness. Lykeas dropped his bow and quiver, removed several knives and daggers from various places on his body, put the rabbits on the ground, took a deep breath and jumped into the lake fully clothed. The water was cool and felt wonderful against his skin. Unfortunately, it was also full of water lilies and duckweed so it wouldnīt do for them to drink, but for the horses it would be just fine. He swam around for a few minutes, avoiding duckweed whenever possible and not until he had thoroughly removed the last traces of dust and sweat did he return to the camp dripping wet. Xena heard him approach and looked up.
"Looks like you found some water."
"Yep, too dirty to drink, but very nice for a swim."
He sat down next to the fire in his still wet clothes and placed the three rabbits next to him on the ground.
"Itīs only about a mile south from here, you canīt miss it."
"Sounds wonderful!" Gabrielle exclaimed grabbing a towel. "Iīve wanted a bath for the last week!"
"And needed it too," Xena smirked, finding a towel for herself.
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and disappeared into the forest. Xena waited for a second then looked at Lykeas.
"We may be a while."
Lykeas looked up from the rabbit he had started to clean.
"Sure, just take your time. Iīll start dinner while the two of you?get cleaned."
He smiled innocently at Xena, who couldnīt help but blush just a little.
Then she returned his smile with one of her own and headed in the direction of the lake.
It didnīt take her long to find the small lake and see that Gabrielle had already taken residence in it. For a second she considered whether she should follow the same procedure as Lykeas and jump in with her clothes on, but the sight of Gabrielleīs clothes lying discarded on the ground quickly drove the thought from her mind. In no time she was out of her leathers and made a perfect header into the lake. Diving under the water, she didnīt surface till she was right next to the bard, who looked at her with mild amusement.
Xena wrapped her arms around the bard, pleased that she could reach the bottom with her feet so she didnīt have to tread water.
"Do you mind?" She leaned forward and took an earlobe into her mouth, biting slightly.
"Uh huh, not really," Gabrielle said, feeling quite distracted by the warm lips, now slowly travelling down her jaw. "But what if Lykeas shows up?"
"He wont," Xena said, continuing her journey to the other tasty earlobe. "Besides, you can hide behind me if he does."
"How noble," Gabrielle smiled, putting her arms around Xenaīs neck. "But what about you?"
"Oh," Xena replied, feeling a rapid beating pulse against her lips. "Heīs already seen me naked."
"He what??" Gabrielle began, but her words were cut off by a hot mouth and then tongue demanding entry. As her mouth complied and Xenaīs skilled tongue and hands drove her last coherent thoughts away, she made a mental note of returning to that particular topic in a not so distant future.
"This is good!"
Lykeas looked at the bard, "Thanks, but it really isnīt that hard to make."
"No, but really," she continued, her eyes looking appreciatively at the stew in her bowl. "This really is good! Until now I thought it was against the laws of nature for a warrior to be able to cook."
Xena arched an eyebrow, but decided not to begin fighting a losing battle.
"Sheīs right, Lykeas. It tastes great."
He put his own bowl down on the ground and tried to appear indifferent, but couldnīt hide the pleased expression showing on his face for just a second.
"Well, I guess I just donīt like to go hungry, and dried meat does tend to get to me after a while so?," he trailed off, hoping they would change the subject.
Xena, recognizing his mood, decided a change of conversation was in order and began searching her mind for something to say, when she was beaten to it by Gabrielle.
"So, I hear youīve seen Xena naked?"
Xena felt the water sheīd been drinking go down the wrong pipe and began coughing violently. Gabrielle just looked innocently at her.
"Did I say something wrong?"
Lykeas looked down for a moment, grinning to himself.
"You sure know how to become the centre of attention," he then said, and turned his eyes to Xena, who was still coughing.
"Well, I am a bard after all? So? Have you?"
Xena finally calming down enough to speak, looked at the bard with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
"Oh yeah, all the time. We used to be all over each other, tearing each otherīs clothes off with our teeth. People used to call us the busy bongo bunnies."
This caused Lykeas to laugh out loud and Xena had a very hard time not cracking up, seeing the bardīs rather stunned expression.
Lykeas had to dry his eyes and clear his throat a few times before he could look at Xena again, and even then the corners of his mouth kept curling up.
"Yeah right! No donīt worry, Gabrielle. Itīs nothing of the sort. I just used to take care of Xenaīs wounds whenever necessary and she took care of mine. After a while you donīt even notice it anymore."
He looked at Xena and they exchanged a quiet smile, making Gabrielle feel a bit left out.
"Iīve pulled more arrows out of that body, and sewn more gashes than I care to remember."
"Yeah, me too," Xena replied and they looked at each other again, sharing another enigmatic smile.
They were all silent for a moment. Then Gabrielle decided to change the subject once again.
"So, back then, you were a regular member of Xenaīs army?"
"Naah," Lykeas chased away a mosquito. "Not really. I would ride with them for a couple of months, and then I would leave for a couple of months, and then, I would come back again for a couple months. It was sort of an on and off thing."
"Why didnīt you stay?"
"Iīm not much of a?a peopleīs person. I tend to get restless after a while, particularly if Iīm constantly surrounded by tons of people. It just gets?it gets too?too crowded."
Xena looked at Lykeas with interest, she remembered well when this particular restlessness took hold of him and the consequences of it. Even then, when he had tried to explain to her why he had to leave?again, she hadnīt quite understood. But she had always let him go, knowing that he would eventually return, and that she couldnīt stop him even if she wanted to. It had been one of the few things she had actually looked forward to back in those days, Lykeas returning from wherever he had been.
As if suddenly feeling uncomfortable, Lykeas got to his feet.
"Iīll go check on the horses."
Gabrielle looked at Xena with confusion in her eyes.
"I didnīt offend him did I?"
"No," Xena got to her feet as well. "Itīs just, he usually doesnīt talk this much. Or at least he didnīt."
She smiled at the bard.
"It does take a bit of getting used to."
She started to walk in the direction of the horses, then looked back at Gabrielle.
"I think Iīll check on the horses as well, shouldnīt take long."
Gabrielle nodded, wondering if she had missed something important.
Lykeas was slowly grooming Rarjan when Xena arrived, and for a while they stood in complete silence, bestowing each horse with gentle affection. Xena was the first to break the silence.
"Gabrielle and I have decided to pay a visit to the Amazons."
The only indication that he had heard the words was a slight pause of the hand ruffling Rarjanīs mane.
"It should take us about a month to get there if everything goes well."
Still no response.
"Iīve heard that the area before Amazon lands has been quite harried by robbers and troublemakers lately."
Lykeas nodded, heīd heard that too.
"Itīd be nice in case of a fight that thereīd be two to fight them instead of one."
"What about Gabrielle?" The voice was even, betraying no emotion. "Doesnīt she know how to fight?"
Xena sighed, "She did? I mean, she still does, but she doesnīt want to use a weapon anymore. Not even in self defence."
This caused Lykeas to turn his head and look at her.
"No, but sometimes Iīd wish I were."
Xena absently ran a hand through her hair, then looked straight at her friend.
"If something happens on the way, if weīre suddenly surrounded? I can take care of myself, but I canīt also look out for Gabrielle at the same time, especially when she doesnīt want to defend herself," she paused, breaking eye contact.
"If something were to happen to her?"
The words hung in the air and Lykeas studied his feet for what felt like an eternity, before returning his gaze to Xena.
"Iīll accompany you as far as the border, but thatīs it."
Xena nodded to herself, "I understand that."
Their eyes locked, each searching the otherīs face for something that neither found.
Xena watched in silence as Lykeas made his way back to the camp.
The huge dark grey stallion began nervously to shake his head and roll his eyes. His hind legs moved uncertainly a few steps to one side, then the other before trying once more to back out of the stable. Lykeas reached out again to recapture the reins which had been pulled out of his hands by the last panicked movement by the horse.
"Shh, itīs okay, itīs okay, Rarjan. Nothingīs gonna hurt you. Itīs just me, calm down, itīs just me."
He continued to speak quiet, reassuring nonsense to Rarjan while stroking the horseīs mane gently, and slowly the horse stopped shivering and pushed his muzzle against Lykeasī neck.
"Thatīs right, boy. No reason to be afraid."
Carefully he led the horse to the end of the stable and into a stall. The terrified stable boy, who had run for cover when the grey stallion suddenly went crazy, anxiously peeked trough the stable door.
"You shouldnīt have touched him," Lykeas said, without turning around. "Heīs nervous around strangers."
"Wonīt happen again!" The boy exclaimed and tentatively stepped a bit closer.
"You got that right."
Lykeas removed saddle and bridle and then turned to look at the boy.
"Iīll take care of him later, so thereīs no need for you to get near him again."
The boy was visibly relieved by those words and the colour began to return to his freckled face.
"Okay, thatīs probably for the best," he paused and let his eyes admiringly run over Rarjan.
"Heīs a beauty though, too bad heīs so jumpy. He must be real hard to keep in check?"
Lykeas looked up, "Nope, weīre one of a kind," and with that he gave Rarjan one last pat and walked out of the stable. The boy eyed the horse nervously and then returned his attention to the other horse that had been stabled, and which, to his great relief, behaved much more amiably.
"What took you so long?"
Lykeas eased himself down onto the bench next to Xena.
"Rarjan had one of his moods, I had to calm him down again."
"Argoīs all right?"
"Oh yeah, just fine, behaved like an angel."
Lykeas looked around him and slowly took in the surroundings. They were in a tavern that looked and smelled like any other tavern heīd ever been in. Tables and chairs scattered around the room, dark wooden floor and walls, and more or less inebriated patrons talking and shouting while finishing one ale after the other. Gabrielle returned to their table in the back of the room and pulled a chair close to Xena.
"The foodīs on its way."
"What did the owner said about you telling a few stories tonight?"
"Well," Gabrielle shrugged. "He said that personally he would love it, but that some of the people tonight tended to be very?uh unruly and heīd better not risk it."
"Weīd protect you," Lykeas interposed and scrutinised the crowd once again. "Shouldnīt be a problem."
Gabrielle smiled at him, "Thatīs all right, Lykeas. I think, Iīm too tired to tell stories tonight anyway, besides, it kinda ruins my concentration having to duck chairs and mugs all the time."
"That only happened once!" Xena emphasized. "And I got them to behave didnīt I?"
"That you did."
They smiled at each other and Gabrielle moved her chair a bit closer.
The food arrived together with three mugs of ale, and they ate quickly and in silence, all being too hungry to talk.
When they were finished, Lykeas and Xena quietly discussed which route to take to the Amazons, while Gabrielle let her thoughts wander.
She couldnīt really say that sheīd been surprised when Xena had announced that Lykeas would join them for the rest of the way, but she wasnīt quite sure what to think of it. She liked the dark, reticent warrior with the captivating eyes and didnīt mind him accompanying them. It was Xenaīs motives she was questioning. She knew that ever since she had decided not to fight anymore, it had put more strain on Xenaīs skills than she would like to admit. The feeling of uselessness sheīd experienced the other day hadnīt disappeared and together with that came a feeling of guilt. Was it fair towards Xena? Gabrielle sighed and shook her head, sheīd been down that path of thoughts before and knew it wouldnīt supply her with any answers.
Xena looked at her with questioning eyes.
"Yeah, just tired."
"Well, it is getting late, we might as well turn in for the night. Itīs going to be a long day tomorrow."
Xena rose to her feet and held out a hand to Gabrielle, who also got up.
They looked at Lykeas and he smiled.
"I told you, Iīll be fine. Thereīs no reason for us to spend the money for two rooms, when I can just as well sleep in the stable? Actually, I think, I might prefer that."
He shoved them toward the stairs.
"Go ahead, get some sleep. Iīll see you in the morning."
They said their goodnights and disappeared up the stairs, leaving Lykeas alone in the tavern.
He began to make his way towards the bar, when a woman stepped out in front of him. She was not quite young, but still beautiful with dark blond hair and grey eyes appraising him from head to toe without showing the least bit of embarrassment.
"Hey stranger, looking for some company?"
A smile curled at the edge of his mouth and he was just about to speak when he noticed the grey eyes looking invitingly at him. A feeling heīd thought long forgotten hit him with full force and he couldnīt suppress a shiver.
"No, Iīd rather not."
He stepped around her and hurried towards the door, leaving the woman to stare at his retreating back in confusion.
Xena stretched her long frame out on the bed and sighed. Usually she would prefer to sleep outdoors under the stars, but she had to admit that it did hold a certain attraction to sleep in a nice, warm bed once in a while.
Must be getting old.
She turned to look at the bard busy brushing her hair.
"Let me do that."
Gabrielle smiled in reply and sat down on the bed with her back to Xena. Xena got up into a sitting position herself, leaning against the headboard. She reached out and pulled Gabrielle closer till their thighs were touching and took the brush offered. For long moments they were silent, both enjoying the feeling of closeness and the gentle ministrations of the brush.
Gabrielle sighed in contentment and let her fingers draw idle patterns on Xenaīs leg.
"I could get used to this."
They fell silent again and Gabrielle let her eyes wander out of the window towards the dark sky, sprinkled with shining, white stars.
"Itīs beautiful outside tonight."
Xena looked up and followed the direction of the bardīs gaze.
"Yeah, I guess it is."
Gabrielle smiled at the usual prosaic response from the warrior, some things never changed.
"Do you think Lykeas is all right? I feel a bit guilty about him sleeping in the stable."
"Well, if thatīs the case, why donīt you get out there and get him. Iīm sure he wonīt mind taking your place in the bed with me."
Xenaīs voice was low and teasing and Gabrielle gave the warriorīs thigh an affectionate slap.
"Better watch your mouth or I might just do that."
Xena chuckled quietly and continued to brush the bardīs hair. It didnīt really need brushing anymore, but neither woman felt the need to break the spell of the moment, it had been too long since they last were able to relax like this.
"It must be strange?," Gabrielle trailed off, lost in thoughts.
"To be all alone in the world like that, not having any family at all. To be the only one."
It took Xena a second before she realized Gabrielle was talking about Lykeas, and before she could stop herself she blurted out.
"But he does have some family left."
Gabrielle shifted and turned to look at the warrior, who had gotten a strange, almost guilty expression on her face.
"What do you mean? I thought he?," once again she stopped herself, a thoughtful look in her eyes.
"His father?" She asked hesitantly.
Xena shook her head, her expression darkening.
"No, heīs dead."
When she didnīt elaborate, Gabrielle began to go over in her head all the things she knew about Lykeas and his past life. Then it hit her.
"Naiariīs daughter! Lykeasī mother and Naiari were joined and that would?according to Amazon law?that would make that girl Lykeasī sister!"
Xena looked at Gabrielle in surprise. She hadnīt thought that Gabrielle knew anything about Lykeasī background.
Or at least not that part.
He must have told her, but he usually doesnīt talk much and especially not about his past?but then again?Gabrielle can be very persuasive when she wants to.
She nodded, mentally kicking herself for starting this conversation in the first place.
"Yeah, Lykeas has a sister."
"Who is it?! Anybody I know?!"
Gabrielleīs eyes looked eagerly at her and Xena could already imagine the ideas going through the bardīs head. Ideas of a happy family reunion, tears and laughter, happiness and joy. Unfortunately, Xena knew better. She wondered if there was any way out of this. If she could somehow avoid answering the question, but one look at the bardīs determined face shattered that hope. She looked into the green eyes.
"Yes, you do know her? Itīs Ephiny. Ephiny is Lykeasī sister."
For minutes the bard just looked at her. Her stunned expression would have amused the warrior if the circumstances had been different, but they werenīt and Xena didnīt really feel like laughing in that particular moment.
"Does he?does she?I mean, do they know?"
At this, Xena couldnīt help but let out a joyless laugh.
"Oh, yeah. They do."
"How come? Why hasnīt Ephiny ever mentioned this? Or Lykeas for that matter? He must know that Ephiny is a friend of mine."
Xena shrugged, not really knowing how to phrase her next sentence.
"Well, they donīt really have much to say to each other so?"
"Whatīs that supposed to mean?"
The bard looked incredulously at her.
"And how come youīve never mentioned this before? You seem to know so much about it!"
"Iīd hoped it wouldnīt come up."
Xenaīs voice was flat and even and Gabrielle instantly recognised the warning signs, but couldnīt let it go that easily.
"Gee, Xena," the unforeseen turn of events and the warriorīs reluctance to elaborate further was slowly getting to her, and she didnīt bother to hide the exasperation in her voice.
"Itīs not like is something that would just pop up in a conversation is it? Particularly, when you consider that I at most times have to pull every single word out of you, and even then, that hardly qualifies as a conversation!"
She saw the warrior cringe at her words and instantly softened. She reached out and took Xenaīs hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"You could have told me, you know. Perhaps we could have done something to bring them together, perhaps when we get to the Amazons we could?"
Her words were cut off by Xena, putting a finger gently to her lips.
"Listen to me, Gabrielle. I know you just want to help and I love you for it, but some things are better left alone. Whatever relationship there exists between Lykeas and Ephiny, itīs how they have decided it should be? And is not up to either of us to change that."
She removed her finger and instead began playing with the bardīs hair, enjoying the feel of it between her fingers.
"I know you just want the best for both of them and under other circumstances I might agree, but Lykeas?Lykeas, well? he can be? he can be difficult. Heīs had a rough life and tends to act accordingly."
Xena paused, not knowing how she could make Gabrielle understand without saying more than she wanted to.
"Shhh," Xena silenced the bard once again and looked into her eyes, the blues irises shining in intensity.
"I want you to promise me that you wonīt mention this to Lykeas, and when we get to the Amazons, I want you to promise me not to push him. Can you do that?"
"But Xena, I-."
"Please, Gabrielle, can you promise me that? Promise me that you wonīt push him?"
It was more Xenaīs tone of voice than the actual words that told the bard this wasnīt a point to be argued, and she leaned forward and gave the warrior a kiss on the forehead.
Their earlier good spirits had disappeared and they got ready for bed in silence, Xena battling with her conscience and Gabrielle with her increasingly insistent curiosity that wouldnīt let the matter go. As the lay in the bed, they didnīt talk, but just held each other till sleep came and claimed them both.
The man leaned against the wall in the alley and did his best not to lose his dinner. After a few deep breaths the dizziness and nausea disappeared, and he began to feel more like himself again. A certain edginess he knew all too well entered his body, and he wondered if there was any chance heīd find release that night. As he searched his pockets for money, he noticed a graceful shape hurrying down the alley towards him. He moved closer to the wall, trying to melt into the shadows. When the figure reached his part of the alley, it stopped and looked hesitantly around, the moonlight revealing the face of a dark blond woman.
Oh yeah, most definitely a woman!
She looked nervously around again, before suddenly hurrying, almost running, down the alley once more. Without thinking, the man stepped out from the shadows, pulled a knife and after a few running steps caught up with her. He hooked his arm roughly around the womanīs neck and with the other, pressed his knife to her throat.
"Not a word, lady or itīll be your last."
The woman let out a small shriek, but quickly silenced when she felt the knife press harder against her skin. The man looked around, but couldnīt find a more suitable spot, so he took a quick decision and pushed the woman against the wall. Heīd just have to hurry then. The woman looked at him in silence, tears running down her cheeks, her breaths coming fast and shallow. The look in her eyes excited the man beyond anything heīd felt before, and he cursed having to use one hand only to open his trousers, the other holding the knife firmly against the woman. Finally his belt relented and the trousers fell to the ground around his ankles. With his free hand, he began to lift the womanīs skirt, ripping the cloth in his eagerness to feel her skin.
If heīd paid attention, he dould have noticed the womanīs eyes widening and her sharp intake of breath, but he was too caught up, having finally reached her undergarments. Suddenly he felt a hand around his neck, the touch was soft, almost caressing and in his arousal and confusion he didnīt respond instantly. Then the grip changed and he felt how his windpipe was in the immediate danger of being crushed. A warm breath in his ear, a soft voice speaking quietly.
"Letīs drop the knife, shall we?"
The lack of oxygen to his head was beginning to make his vision fade, and the excruciating pain in his back from what he first now realized must be a dagger drawing blood, made it impossible for him to gather his thoughts, and the knife fell from his numb fingers. He felt himself being pulled away from the woman, dagger and hand never easing their pressure. The woman began to slide to the ground, but the soft voice spoke again.
"Donīt ! Get out of here, now!"
She obeyed immediately and took a few steps away, before she stopped and turned to look at her rescuer.
"I..I.. Thank you, if you hadnīt?I?"
"Just get out of here!"
She shrank back from the force in his voice, then she turned and ran blindly down the alley.
"Well, what are we going to do about you?"
The voice had returned to its soft, caressing tone.
"Did I tell you to speak? Nah, I didnīt think so."
Suddenly the man found himself with his back against the wall, his eyes for the first time taking in the sight of the voiceīs owner. Dark eyes met his own frightened gaze, and he felt another wave of fear wash over him, when he saw them narrow and an eerie smile form upon the manīs lips, and he knew with an ice cold certainty that he wouldnīt live to see the sun again. The dagger was now pressed against his throat, while the manīs other hand was absently tucking a lock of black hair behind an ear.
"You now, I donīt like rape. I actually think itīs one of the most monstrous thing you can do to another person?To take control of somebody like that?To bend their wills?To take away their independence, to force them into submission? It just canīt be forgiven."
The dark eyes staring at him seemed if possibly even darker by those last words, and the man swallowed, feeling his Adamīs apple move against the dagger. The last thought to ever enter his mind, before he felt the dagger break skin and slice his throat, was that the man had never raised his voice and somehow he found that amusing
Lykeas looked down at the man collapsed at his feet, then he bent down and cleaned his dagger in the manīs shirt. When satisfied with the result, he returned it to his belt and walked quietly out of the alley.
The first three quarters of their journey to the Amazons went peacefully with nothing out of the extraordinary happening. Every once in a while, they came across a small group of thugs foolish enough to attack them, but Xena and Lykeas never had any problems disposing them, and all in all it was a quiet and relaxing trip. It was not until they were within 70-80 miles of Amazon lands, they began to come across tracks belonging to considerably larger bands. When they came across a particularly heavily trampled down area, Lykeas and Xena simultaneously dismounted their horses, leaving Gabrielle to peek down at them from Argoīs back. They knelt together on the grass and studied the tracks.
"At least 200 men have been here, but only a few with horses."
Xena nodded and looked around. They were still out in the open country, surrounded by grassy hills and small gatherings of trees. They wouldnīt reach forest for the next couple of hours.
"They are headed toward Amazon lands."
"Yeah, " Xena nodded again. "I was afraid of that."
"Perhaps theyīre just passing," Lykeas offered, not really believing it himself.
Xena gave him a weak smile.
"That would probably be too much to hope for."
They sat in silence, each running different scenarios through their minds.
"Are we in trouble?"
They both rose and turned to look at Gabrielle, whoīd climbed down from Argo and was now looking at them with worry in her eyes.
"Weīre not, at least not for the time being, but the Amazons may be," Lykeas answered, rolling his head from left to right, trying to loosen up his neck. "Have your Amazons done anything to piss anybody off lately?"
"Thatīs usually not the way it works, Lykeas," Gabrielle replied angrily.
"Itīs the Amazons, who canīt be left alone. All they want is to live in peace, undisturbed by intruders."
"If you say so."
"Okay, quit it," Xena interrupted. "Thatīs not helping and we need to decide what to do now."
"Xena," Gabrielle stepped closer and put her hand on the warriors arm. "If the Amazons are in danger I have to be there. I have to help them."
"Oh yeah, and what exactly would you do? Tell the soldiers to kindly go away because you donīt want to fight them? Iīm sure theyīll all have a good laugh before cutting you down."
"Cut it, Lykeas! "
Xenaīs voice held a very clear warning and for a moment the eyes of the two warriors met, neither willing to back down or look away. The tension between them was almost perceptible and Gabrielle subconsciously backed off a few steps. Lykeasī eyes narrowed, then he looked away.
"Iīm sorry, Gabrielle."
"Itīs okay," Gabrielle hurried to say. "I guess weīre all a bit tense."
She turned to look at Xena and could see the warrior forcing herself to relax..
Fow a while the three of them just stood there, neither saying a word and Lykeas avoiding eye contact with both of them.
Gabrielle cleared her throat.
"I know, I probably wonīt make much of a difference, but if the Amazons are in danger I want to be there with them. Itīs my duty to be there."
Her words were meant for both of the warriors, but her eyes never left Xenaīs face as she desperately tried to read her mind. Xenaīs face was a mask and not a single movement betrayed the turmoil she was feeling inside. One part of her perfectly understood Gabrielleīs decision and wouldnīt have expected anything less from her, but another part just wanted to grab the bard and get the Hades out of there, before anything could happen. Gabrielle gave Lykeas an imploring look and he looked away again.
"Iīll help you get there if you want me to," then he walked back to the horses, leaving the two women alone.
"Xena?" The bard reached out again, but somehow didnīt dare to touch the warrior.
She looked down at the grass, scorched by the sun.
"I donīt know if?"
She finally raised her head and met the bardīs inquiring gaze.
"You sure about this?"
"I am sure, Xena, and you know that."
This time she didnīt hesitate, but reached up to cup the warriors face in her hands.
Xena looked into her eyes for only a second, before she gently, but swiftly moved away from the bardīs touch.
"Okay, letīs go then."
As the bard watched the warriorīs retreating back, she felt a small tingle of fear, but this time it wasnīt for the Amazons.
They rode quickly now, the horses thundering through the landscape, the wind playing with their hair and clothes. Xena was in the lead with Gabrielle hanging on for dear life. Lykeas was right behind them, Rarjan never more than a few yards away. Only when the last rays of the sun had disappeared and the first bright stars become visible on the sky, they slowed and then finally stopped completely, both horses shaking with exhaustion and steam coming out of their mouths. Xena slid down from the saddle and reached up a hand to help Gabrielle down. Lykeas had already dismounted and was checking Rarjanīs hooves.
"Weīll camp here tonight, it should be safe, but no fire."
Gabrielle nodded and began to remove the saddlebags from Argo. When finished, Xena took Argoīs reins and led the horse over to Lykeas.
They were in a small clearing of something that hardly had enough trees to be called a forest, but it was the last cover they would have before reaching the Amazon border, so Xena didnīt complain. Everything was better than being out in the open. If was bad enough they would have to travel open country for an hour or so tomorrow with all the soldiers running around. She hadnīt lost track of the soldiers till the very end of the ride, when they apparently had decided to take a slightly different route.
As if reading her mind Lykeas said, "theyīve gone more to the east."
They led their horses to the outskirts of the clearing and began to brush them down.
"Itīs easier for an army to travel the eastern route. It`s more open, not so many trees."
"I know," Xena looked at him. "I guess thereīs no doubt now, where theyīre heading."
"No, guess not? What are your plans for tomorrow?"
Xena took a deep breath and shook her head slightly.
"I donīt know yet, it depends on what that army decides to do."
"Any idea who they are?"
"No, at first I thought it was just some warlord out for new territories, but from what I can tell from the tracks they leave behind itīs not. This is so much more organized. This is a real army, disciplined and efficient."
"Yeah, I thought so, too? I wonder why itīs so small though, 200 soldiers and a handful of horses are not a lot."
"Perhaps they think, they donīt need more."
They both stopped brushing and looked at each other, Xenaīs face blank and Lykeasī expression unreadable.
"Is it a threat to the Amazons?"
Xena didnīt answer right away, going over what she remembered from her visits there in her mind.
"Yes and no," she finally said. "Itīs not a threat to the entire Nation, but itīs most certainly a threat, and a serious one for that, to a single village."
"Too bad, the villages are so far apart."
"Yeah, too bad."
They fell silent for a few minutes, caught up in their own thoughts while continuing to care for the horses.
"I guess that means they have their eyes on one particular village and not the entire Nation,?at least not for now."
"That sounds likely."
"So? What are you going to do about it?"
"Iīll find out when I get there," and with that the discussion was closed and they didnīt bring up the subject again for the rest of the evening, in spite of Gabrielleīs many questions.
The next morning the warriorsī moods hadnīt changed and Gabrielle was feeling more and more frustrated for each shrug and vague reply she was subjected to. From what she could put together of the sparse information she did receive, she realized that at least one village would be in a very serious situation if attacked, and from the worried glances exchanged, she also knew which village they thought it likely to be. It also became clear to her that neither Xena nor Lykeas had any idea what to do about it, a fact that either warrior would rather die than to admit.
They rode in silence and soon headed out into open country. Their pace was swift, but controlled, eyes constantly searching the land for any sign of movement. Around midday they reached the foot of the last grassy hill before the border, and they dismounted, beginning a slow climb to the top, leading the horses behind them. Just before they reached the top, Xena halted and let go of Argoīs reins.
"We better stay down from here. Lykeas, will Rarjan be able to wait here with Argo?"
Lykeas looked at his horse and nodded.
"Yes, I think so. Heīs been quite relaxed for a while."
They more crawled than walked the last way to the top, the dry grass and thistles scratching bare skin. Xena lay down on her stomach and separated the high grass in front of her to look down at the plain below them. The plain was alive with movement. Men were moving around, talking, sparring, eating and cleaning weapons. Tents had been put up in two parallel lines and a small paddock for about 20 horses had been built. Xena sighed to herself. She hadnīt had any doubts before, but seeing it with her own eyes made it unpleasantly real. These men were preparing for battle. She looked past the plain to the other side, to the dark, almost threatening looking forest that marked the beginning of Amazon territory. Just a few miles in, an hourīs walk tops, lay Gabrielleīs village. She turned her head to look at the woman next to her, and could tell from the pale face that Gabrielle had realized that as well. Her gaze went from the bard to Lykeas, who managed to shrug even lying down.
"Itīs up to you now."
Gabrielle gave him an angry look.
"How can you say that? Itīs my people that are in danger. They need all the help they can get."
"Iīm not sure they would accept my help even if I were to offer it," he replied dryly.
Gabrielle stared at him in disbelief.
"I donīt get you. Donīt you care at all? Your sisterīs is in danger for Zeusī sake! Doesnīt that mean anything to you!"
Instantly the warrior next to her froze and his eyes narrowed dangerously. Xena immediately reached out and put a protective hand on the bardīs shoulder.
Lykeasī own hand went up to angrily smooth out an eyebrow, repeating the motion over and over, his eyes never leaving Gabrielleīs face.
"What means something to me?and what doesnīt?is none of your business."
He voice was low and restrained and Gabrielle felt a shiver run down her back.
"I told you, Iīd follow you as far as the border, and Iīve done that. Iīve done my part."
Gabrielle began to speak again, but Xena grabbed her arm and started to pull her back down toward the horses. Gabrielle could feel the tension radiate from the warriorīs body and her arm was held in an iron grip. She almost stumbled over a tussock from being pulled so fast after Xena, and she felt her own temper beginning to flare. Reaching the horses, she pulled her arm abruptly from Xenaīs grip, her green eyes darkening.
"What in Tartarus do you think youīre doing?"
"No! What do you think youīre doing! I told you never to bring that up!"
The anger in Xenaīs voice silenced Gabrielle instantly, but only for a second.
"I know what I promised and I donīt care! Itīs my people, my friends, weīre talking about. They need our help and we need to be there with them. We canīt do anything for them by just watching from afar. Lykeas knows that and so do you!"
"I know that, but what do you want me to do! Tell the soldiers to move so we can come through and assist their enemy. Or, as Lykeas so accurately put it, ask them to kindly go away!"
"You donīt have to patronize me."
Gabrielleīs voice was low, the frustration and hurt in it clear to them both..
"I know we canīt do that, Iīm not stupid. But I also know that we need to get to the village and warn them."
Xena took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down, but she could still feel the anger running through her veins and her voiced sounded strained and dry.
"They probably know already. Itīs hard to sneak up on an Amazon, particularly a whole village full of them."
That earned her a pale smile from Gabrielle.
"Thereīs no use in fighting about this either that wonīt help anybody."
Suddenly Xena spun around, and a few yards away was Lykeas, staring at them with unreadable black eyes. His gaze went pass Gabrielle to lock onto Xena, who returned it without blinking. The two warriors stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, before Xena looked away. Almost immediately, Lykeas turned and began to walk towards Rarjan, who was dancing nervously having sensed the tension.
Xenaīs voice sounded strange to Gabrielleīs ears, almost pleading.
"We need your help?I need your help."
He paused in his step, but didnīt turn around.
Gabrielle watched in bewilderment as Xena closed the distance between them, and hesitantly put a hand on his shoulder.
"Please," this time her voice was so low that only Lykeas heard the word.
"I need your help."
"Donīt say that."
"Lykeas?" Xena could almost feel the conflicting emotions running through his body.
"After this is over Iīll never ask anything from you again. Youīll never have to see me again, if you donīt want to. Iīll leave you alone."
"You know thatīs not want I want."
He turned to look at her.
"You know what I want."
Xena met his eyes which were shining with a fire she knew all too well, and to her surprise she suddenly felt the same fire engulf her body. She shook her head to clear her mind and to avoid looking into those burning eyes.
"You know I canīt do that. I wonīt do that, not anymore."
"I know." His voice held a sadness and frustration that made Xena look at him again.
"Will you help us?"
His hand began to reach up to his eyebrow again, before he stopped himself.
"Okay? Iīll help you get to the village, but I canīt?"
He paused, looking towards the hill as if his eyes could see through it and behold the forest on the other side.
"But I canīt guarantee what will happen once we get there."
Side by side, but never within reach, they walked back to Gabrielle.
"Thatīs insane! Youīre insane! Thereīs no way thatīs going to work."
"Got a better suggestion?"
"Well, thatīs settled then."
Xena gave Lykeas a triumphant smirk and after shaking his head to himself several times, he gave her a small grin in return."
"Youīre crazy, you know that?"
Xena got up from her comfortable spot in the grass, a wicked grin on her face.
"Whereīs your sense of adventure, Lykeas? This is nothing compared to some of the things we did in the old days."
"Yeah, well, but somehow that seemed a little less serious if you know what I mean?"
"I know," Xena replied, her face suddenly severe again. "But this is going to work, it has to."
Gabrielle rose slowly from the grass and stood next to Xena, keeping a little distance between her and Lykeas.
"Let me see if I have understood this correctly. You want us to wait till dark, then climb down the hill with the horses, then sneak through the camp, across the plain till we reach the forest without getting caught?"
"Uh huh," Xena replied, a smug grin on her face. "Of course weīll have to create a little diversion first, but eotherwise you got it right."
Gabrielle shook her head, but like Lykeas before couldnīt stop herself from smiling at the warriorīs confidence.
"Heīs right, you are crazy."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "
Then she looked up at the sky
"Itīll be dark enough in two hours time, so make sure youīre ready by then."
She turned and left them alone. Lykeas started to follow, but Gabrielle held out an hand to stop him, letting it linger in the air an inch away from actually touching him.
"Lykeas, about Ephiny?," the bard trailed off, hoping for some kind of response from the man next to her. When she didnīt receive any she continued, "Iīm sorry about the things I said, I was out of line. Itīs just, Iīm so worried about them."
Lykeasī gaze slipped pass Gabrielle to rest on Xena methodically going through Argoīs saddlebags.
"She shouldnīt have told you."
"I know and she really didnīt mean to." The bard switched her weight from one foot to the other.
"Itīs my fault, I sort of coaxed it out of her. We usually donīt keep any secrets from each other."
"Is that so?"
He looked at her and, for a second, she thought she saw a derisive glint in the black eyes, but before she could say for sure it was gone, and replaced with the by now so familiar unreadable and contemplating gaze.
Continued in Part 2.