Armageddon’s Arrival By Schawny-boi

armageddons arrival

Armageddon’s Arrival
By Schawny-boi

 

Warlord/Conqueror Fan Fiction

Teaser: Xena and Gabrielle are sent into the future by Ares to stop the world from ending.

Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and company are the sole property of MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and whoever else owns em’. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this just for fun piece of fan fiction.

Timeline is right after the events of “Is there a Doctor in the House” Xena, is just starting down the path of redemption, and Gabrielle is a study in innocence.

Love is a many-splendored thing as the movie title suggests. The story depicts a budding romance between Xena and Gabrielle. No massive sex scenes, but plenty of deep moments, thoughtful conversations, loads of cuddles, and a few chaste kisses between consenting adults.

Language – A bit coarse in parts, not overly vulgar.

I’m late to the party, having just stumbled into some great sites for Xena fan fiction. As I read one awesome story after another, I felt guilty in that I was reading all these great stories, but not contributing by writing one. The result of that realization is this story meant as my way to give something back. It’s a different kind of tale, one which I hope you will enjoy. A darker story line overall, could be controversial, but it does have some light moments.

The quotes and some of the dialogue points between characters can be attributed to Shakespeare’s the tragedy of Julius Caesar, which served as inspiration for the story.

Thank You to Kerrie for taking the time to help in proofreading the story.

Feedback…hopefully not too harsh for a first attempt at writing a tale such as this:

schawnyboi@gmail.com

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“Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!
Let not a traitor live!”
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar-Act III Scene II

 

Prologue

In the darkness a low rumbling shook the Earth beneath his feet.

Wide eyed he looked into the Northern sky as one after another rockets lifted off; the red orange glow lighting up the night sky above, the color reflecting off the faces of his men.

The man fell to his knees, his slender frame crumpling to the ground as hazel eyes stared up into the night sky. Soon the nuclear detonations would begin.

“I failed…”

The words spoken with a tone of utter defeat, completely resigned that this was the end of the world.

Chapter 1

“Xena!”

Gabrielle squirmed in their bedrolls trying mightily to escape under the onslaught of tickling fingers.

“Do you yield?” The low sensual voice sounded in her ear with a hint of devious glee.

“Okay…Okay!” the smaller woman managed between giggles. “I yield!” she managed gasping for breath.

“All too easy…”

Gabrielle let out a huff of faked indignation, as a smug smirk slowly formed on the warrior’s face. Deep green eyes looked into blue and for a moment time stood still. The bond between the two was quickly becoming all-consuming. Gabrielle steadied herself; this perhaps would be the moment they both would have the courage to declare themselves more than friends, to announce their true feelings. Suddenly she felt the body above her tense “Xena what’s….”

“Ares!” The name left Xena’s throat accentuated with a low dangerous growl as she pulled away from Gabrielle. Those loving blue eyes turned cold in an instant as she regarded the God standing before them.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Before the warrior could respond to the typical snide comment, Ares fell roughly to the ground, as his knees suddenly gave way. Never had Ares looked so worn, so… weak.

“Ares” Xena called out warily, raising one eyebrow pensively noting the God’s eyes were closed, his breathing heavy.

“Give me a moment, will ya?” Came a very tired response from a suddenly all too human looking deity.

Xena used the moment to rise up from the bedroll and don her worn brown leathers as Gabrielle reached for her own clothing, the smaller woman dressing hastily under the covers.

Opening his eyes, the God couldn’t help but be amazed by Xena as she stood before him. Truly she was the finest warrior ever created. He relished her tall, strong body, which had an aura of pure power. Just being near her seemed to give him the strength to sit up and lean against a nearby tree. For a moment, he thought about making another witty comment, but decided against it as he didn’t want to anger Xena as he desperately needed her help. As those blue eyes of hers studied him Ares debated how to broach the subject; typical bravado or humility? This time, quite uncharacteristically, he chose humility as much as it pained him to do so.

“Xena, I need your help…” he began softly, his eyes cast downward leaving hers.

“What happened this time Ares?” Xena began harshly. “Or, should I ask what little game you came here to play?” As he looked upward again, Gabrielle quickly picked up on the God’s lack of typical bluster.

“If you think, after all you’ve done…” Xena continued taking a menacing step forward “that I’m actually going to help you…” “Xena….” Gabrielle’s soft voice rose behind the warrior, eliciting a raised hand from the tall woman, ordering her silence.

“It’s not what you think.” Ares rasped, still trying to regain his strength. Even with all his powers, the woman was intimidating. In his weakened state he certainly didn’t want to raise her ire.

“Then what is it!?” Xena snapped. “What’d ya do this time?” The warrior quipped “Piss off the Godly family somehow? Is that why you look so worn? Did you finally get the butt kicking you deserve for all your stupid schemes?”

“Xena…” Gabrielle’s voice came up again behind her again as the small woman slowly stood, straightening her brown skirt before moving over to put on her boots. “Perhaps, we should hear what he has to say first?”

The warrior let out a pained sigh. Typical Gabrielle, the woman always looked for the best in people, or in this case Gods. She was willing to listen and probably would even give another chance to the God who had created so much havoc in their lives.

“Alright…” she finally stated, against her own better judgment.

Ares looked past Xena for just a moment, to give Gabrielle a tired smile; before his view was suddenly blocked by the warrior’s imposing form.

“Look…” the God began, raised his hands slightly in a weak act of surrender as his eyes warily traveled up the length of her tall body “I know I have a lot of nerve to come here…”

“Ya got that right.” Xena growled.

“And I wouldn’t have, if the situation wasn’t so grave.” Ares continued undaunted as his strength continued to return. The God cast his gaze downward again, letting out a pained sigh, sure that what he was about to say would cause a firestorm.

“Xena, the world is ending.” He finally blurted.

The words struck her as being so completely ludicrous Xena erupted in derisive laughter.

“I think he’s serious” The strawberry blond stated flatly as she came along side the tall warrior.

“Sure he is.” Xena snorted, turning to sit and pull on her boots.

“Trust me, I can appreciate just how crazy it all sounds” Ares began as he slowly got his feet under him again. “I’m not playing a game, or attempting some type of scheme.” He continued.

“Hope it won’t hurt your feelings if I say I don’t trust you” Ares watched as a sarcastic pout formed on the warrior’s lips. Moving away from him, she sat eyeing him warily.

“Fair enough, just hear me out, okay?”

“Okay” Gabrielle said softly, her willingness to listen earning her a withering glare from Xena.

“I’m still trying to piece it all together, why the Fates have acted in this way.” The two women looked on curiously as the God ran his fingers though his dark hair and sighed. “What I do know is this timeline will end approximately two thousand seasons from now.”

Xena’s laugh rang out again “Well, too bad I won’t be there to see it!” she stated in a gleefully mocking tone.

Ares growled in frustration. “You don’t understand!” he suddenly yelled, before swaying at bit from the exertion in his weakened state. His condition gave Xena pause as she looked at the God. Truly, she had never seen him look so worn; yet she wasn’t about to go running to help him.

“This timeline, the future, its all interconnected.” He began “When time ends in the future, it ends here as well” “Think of it…” The God paused letting out another sigh as he tried to state his argument in a way the two women could understand. “Think of time as… as a long piece of rope, lots of fibers weaved together.” “Like a tapestry?” Gabrielle offered. A brief open honest smile brightened the God’s dark features. Gabrielle’s experiences of listening to and telling stories as a bard gave her the knowledge of the fates loom. “Right!” Ares encouraged. “And what happens when you pull on a loose thread on a tapestry?”

“The whole thing unravels?” Gabrielle answered hesitantly

“Exactly!” Ares tone took on a note of praise. “Like a tapestry pulling apart or a rope flailing apart. The end of time in the future will slowly unravel the entire timeline”.

“So let me get this straight…” Xena began, her words causing both Gabrielle and Ares to look in her direction. “Some event in the future happens, ends the world and the whole timeline begins to self-destruct?” “Including the time we are in?”

“Yes!” Ares stated exasperated. “As the world ends in the future, this world”, the God raised his hands to indicate everything around him. “This timeline will end. Time isn’t linear, its strands are woven together; different realities hinge on the choices made.”

Standing to her full imposing height, Xena narrowed her eyes at the God. “So, if the world really is going to end, why aren’t all the other Gods charging to the rescue?” “Why do we just get a visit from you? Hmmm?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Gabrielle could see anger erupt within the God of War. “Because they are cowards!” he roared. His dark nature now rose to the fore. “Even Zeus cowers from the Fates and their loom. They accept the Fates’ decree, choosing to meet their end; going like lambs to the slaughter!”

“Then nothing can be done.” Gabrielle’s words tinged with sadness in the knowledge that even the gods dared not tempt the Fates and the tapestry they saw fit to weave.

Gabrielle’s solemn pronouncement caused Ares to bellow in rage. “Why do I even bother!?” He turned suddenly pointing a finger at Xena who stood before him, not the least bit intimidated by the waves of anger rolling off the God. “You of all people should believe that mortals can control their own destiny!

“I do” the warrior stated firmly, refusing to drop her eyes from the Gods dark gaze.

“I’ve been forced to admit that some mortals can accomplish the impossible because of you.” The God conceded. “Xena, you can accomplish the impossible, you can succeed where everyone else, including me has failed!”

“So you’ve tried to keep this event in the future from happening” It was less of a question, and more a statement of fact. Now the pieces were fitting together. Ares had tried and failed; now he was reduced to begging for her help.

“Yes, Xena I have. I’ve interfered as much as I’m allowed. The Fates seem to have eyes everywhere! Look, I found a decent enough warrior in the future and manipulated events as best I could behind the scenes to bring him to his destiny. Yet every attempt so far has ended in failure. This is my last chance to affect change.”

“Why the sudden concern Ares?” Xena probed, stepping up to the God. “When did you ever care about humanity?”

“Perhaps, I finally developed a soft spot for mortals” Ares offered flatly. His statement of unexpected altruism caused Gabrielle to let out a soft chuckle.

“More like you are scared.” Xena offered, her statement causing the God of War to bristle. “If the world ends, maybe your pathetic existence ends with it?” His eyes told her all she needed to know. “That’s it, isn’t it?” she taunted.

The God said nothing in his defense, which caused Xena to break into a humorless smile.

“But…” Gabrielle interjected, breaking the sudden silence. “Let’s say that we succeed. What happens then?”

“The world continues.” Ares answered succinctly.

“How would it continue?” Gabrielle pressed. “What would the timeline be then?”

Ares sighed, looking over at Xena, he saw no support. The little Blonde was extremely annoying, yet quite smart.

“There are always certain intangibles…” Ares offered vaguely.

“Even he doesn’t know what might occur if the timeline changes Gabrielle” Xena stated with a wry smile. “He is as much a part of time as we are.”

“We will have to think about it…” Xena offered, unwilling to make a snap judgment, without talking to Gabrielle first. In the past, she would have made the decision without consultation with anyone. Their newly forming… relationship… had changed all that. For the first time in a long time, Xena cared for more than herself. That fact was quite unsettling to the ex-warlord. Feelings for anything, or anyone on her part had always ended in tragedy.

Ares grumbled, angry at having been reduced to begging mortals for help. Before either woman could respond further, he was gone.

“Men at some time are masters of their fates
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”-Cassius
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar-Act I Scene II

Chapter 2

“Colonel?”

Sebastian looked up from his field maps, the Brigade had been in combat now for nearly six months without respite, they like the entire U.S. military and its coalition partners were stretched thin, struggling to hold onto captured territory in China. Now, finally, they would get a chance to rest and regroup acclimating new draftees from the states to warfare in Asia.

“What is this Halloween?”

Next to him Xavier snickered at his attempt at humor. However, Sebastian refused the smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He noted how the taller dark haired woman narrowed incredibly piercing blue eyes. A small shudder went through Sebastian, his instincts telling him she was someone not to be trifled with. Next to her stood a smaller strawberry blond haired woman whose green eyes were wide as she intently studied her surroundings. Where the tall woman radiated an aura of dark guarded intent, the small wisp of a girl seemed quite innocent and open.

“Major,” Sebastian chastised the man standing next to him as he sat at the table. The tone of Colonel Reeves voice caused his second in command to fall silent. Without rising, Sebastian returned the enlisted man’s salute.

“These two were found in the perimeter apparently lost. Least that’s what they told us anyway. Surrendered without incident, No identification, They had these on ‘em.” The man stepped forward placing a sword in a leather sheath, quite a few daggers, and a round metal frisbee looking thing on the table.

“Corporal?”

“Yes sir?”

The Colonel leaned back in his chair, his hazel eyes studying the two women intensely “I wonder if you don’t consider that staff to be a weapon?”

The man leaned forward a bit, following Reeves eyes to the small woman.

“You mean her walking stick?”

“Yes.”

“I…” the man began

Sebastian let out a long pained sigh. “Very well corporal, dismissed.” With another salute the man stepped out of the tent into the night. Sebastian frowned seeing the obvious smirk on the taller woman’s face.

“Major”

“Sir?”

“Let my commanders know we will be on the move first thing tomorrow. I trust you can spell out the details for them?”

Sebastian knew Xavier wanted to stay and find out more about these two oddly dressed women. Too bad, he would have to wait. Command Sargent Kavanagh started to follow the Major out of the tent to do the real work of preparing the brigade to move.

“Kavanagh…” Sebastian’s voice was subdued.

The Sargent halted his progress.

“See to it that the Brigade is ready.” Words spoken softly, well understood by the old non-commissioned officer meaning he should quietly correct any missteps by the Major. The same thing the gruff old sergeant had done for a very new Colonel Reeves not so long ago.

A small smile twitched at the Sargent’s lips, “Of course Colonel.”

As his C.S.M. left the tent, The Colonel took a long moment to study the two women standing before him. The tall one was dressed in brown leather with long boots. On top of it all she wore armor. Being very tall and obviously quite strong, the woman made for an imposing sight. The smaller one had a rust colored top, the same colored skirt and shorter brown boots. As his eyes moved over to her, she allowed a tentative smile to cross her face.

“No identification…” after a long silence from the two Reeves continued, “You do have names, don’t you?”

“My name is Gab…”

Before the little woman could finish the taller one suddenly spoke. “Are we to be considered prisoners?” Sebastian noted her voice contained a very treacherous edge. For some reason his mind drew up the image of an animal sizing up its prey, readying itself to strike. The very young Colonel found himself shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

“Indulge me for a moment as I remind you of some facts.” Sebastian parried, unwilling to directly answer the question. “One, you are found within my defense perimeter. Two, you are both dressed rather strangely to say the least. Three, I don’t know many people who carry these types of weapons.” Sebastian extended his arm allowing his hand to sweep over the weapons placed before him. “Shall I continue?” he suddenly asked, hazel eyes meeting blue.

“Can you?” The tall woman asked.

“I could” Sebastian retorted, “I think you get the idea though.”

Damn you Ares! Xena cursed to herself. The God of War had popped them right into danger without giving her any information or time to adapt to her surroundings. Both she and Gabrielle had decided warily that what Ares had told them was probably the truth; as his actions were uncharacteristic of the God. What bothered her was the fact that Ares never did anything that didn’t benefit him somehow. However, she couldn’t piece together what that benefit might be, beyond simply saving his skin. There had to be more to it.

The moment they had agreed to go, the God had just caused them to appear. They were promptly ambushed by the strange looking men with paint on their faces and funny clothes. Xena’s first instinct was to attack, thinking the Horde had taken over the world of the future. She thought better of it, deciding on getting information first; one should always know the enemy. She had allowed their capture and search as irritating as it was. Besides, it seemed the men taking them into custody had no real weapons just strange things they pointed at them. Cross bows? She pondered, they had a trigger, but where were the strings and arrows? Both she and Gabrielle could understand the language, as crude at it was. At least Ares had given them that.

“I ask again…Are we prisoners?”

Sebastian stood. The woman was not to be dissuaded. Nevertheless, he would ask the questions and control the conversation.

“And I ask again, you do have names, don’t you?”

“I’m Gabrielle.” The smaller woman blurted out suddenly causing the taller woman to roll her blue eyes in annoyance. Sebastian smiled at the blond. She seemed cheerful, despite the tension of the situation. What stuck him more was the fact she held out her hand for him to shake, even taking a tentative step forward.

“A pleasure to meet you Gabrielle, I’m Colonel Reeves” Walking slowly around the desk he took the offered hand and shook it gently. “Sebastian Reeves” he said quite pleasantly using his first name to try and put the young woman at ease. A low barely perceptible guttural growl from the dark haired woman caused him to drop his hand away and step back.

“And you?” he asked the tall woman continuing in his most friendly tone.

“Diana,” the woman said curtly. Sebastian noted how Gabrielle’s eyes widened just momentarily. He concluded the taller woman was lying, but he would let it pass for now.

“A distinct pleasure Diana”

Always one to be aware of manners, Sebastian waited for the taller woman to offer her hand for him to shake.

No hand was offered.

The warriors eyes fell upon a Roman styled eagle insignia perched upon the man’s shoulders. Had Caesar conquered the world? Did he fulfill his so-called destiny to rule an empire? Had the wickedness that was Rome lasted thousands of seasons into the future? She felt the hatred build within her. Damn that man and his destiny! Where there was evil, Rome was usually the cause! At her sides, she clenched her hands in anger.

As if instinctively feeling the fury rolling off the woman, Sebastian stepped back changing tact. “Forgive my manners. Would you like something to drink? Water? Coffee?” he asked. “Maybe some tea would be more to your liking?”

“No!”

“Yes”

The young Colonel couldn’t help but chuckle as the two women looked at each other; Diana glaring down at her smaller companion. “Gabrielle, you want one of each?” Sebastian said jokingly. “No…” the strawberry blond blushed, “just some water please.” She wondered what this coffee was.

“I’ll see to it.”

Sebastian left the tent for a moment. Perhaps this show of trust would relax Diana a bit.

“Gabrieelle…” Xena snarled.

“I’m sorry Xe… um, Diana just that I’m really thirsty.”

With a sigh Xena looked around the tent. The Warlord questioning them kept a spartan, yet ordered tent. He was a slender man, shorter than she was. Of course, most people were. He had to look up at her when he moved close. Xena grinned inwardly… Her height was usually intimidating and she had learned to use it to good effect. Blue eyes moved to an object leaning against the leg of the makeshift table. A curved sword nestled in a worn sheath rested there.

“Diana,” Gabrielle began only to be silenced as a young man entered the tent bearing oddly shaped metal cups filled with water and left just as quickly. He watched as Gabrielle greedily gulped down the contents of the cup.

“I took the liberty of getting you water as well.” Sebastian stated matter of fact from his position at the tent flap behind the two women.

As he stepped aside, allowing the private to slip by him. Sebastian’s face took on a puzzled look. He suddenly figured what Diana was waiting on. The woman was leery of him and his intent.

“I assure you its just plain water.”

The smaller woman’s eyes suddenly bulged in fear before taking a small sip out of her cup; while Diana merely looked down at her companion with a smirk upon her face. Sebastian moved around the two and leaned against the map table. “I’ve instructed the sergeant waiting outside to take you to a tent for the night.”

“So we are prisoners.”

“I prefer to use the term guests.” Sebastian stated in a positive tone. “I will assign no guard to watch you, but I would caution against leaving as you are near a war zone.” Tomorrow, should you wish, you may accompany us on our journey to a nearby more permanent base. I hope you will choose to do so.”

Xena took a step forward, bringing her close to the man who was leaning casually against the battered table. Leaning over to place her water cup on the table behind him slowly, her blue eyes looked deeply into his. Rising back up she placed her hands firmly on her hips, towering above him menacingly.

“And if we choose not to?” the words rolled threateningly off her tongue. Xena was satisfied when the warlord before her swallowed nervously. Standing he walked around the battered table to be nearer his sword she supposed and further away from her, before he spoke again.

“You will be free to go. While that might be a decision I may regret later, given the way you are dressed and the fact you have no identification on you. We will be moving out of this area. However” the soldier allowed himself a wry smile. “You are welcome to stay behind to wander the forest, perhaps to be captured by the enemy?” Truth be told, Sebastian had enough troubles without worrying about these two women. “You will allow me to keep your weapons until tomorrow morning.”

“We could be spies…” Xena offered dangerously. Not pleased by the fact of having to leave her weapons in this man’s care.

“I think not.” Sebastian countered, rather enjoying this mental sparring session between him and this Diana or whoever she was. “The Chinese and North Koreans aren’t in the habit of dressing spies in odd costumes of leather and metal. Kinda defeats the purpose of attempting to blend in as spies like to do. What are you anyway, some kind of Warrior?”

Silence greeted his question as the tall woman simply glared at him across the table. After a long moment the warlord looked away his eyes leaving hers.

They always look away, Xena mused.

“We don’t mean to cause any trouble.” Gabrielle offered, clearing her throat slightly mid-sentence.

“I’m sure you don’t…” Sebastian earnestly replied leaning slightly to look around Diana in order to see the small woman.

“You however…”

He paused as Diana’s eyes, pinned him.

“Are most certainly trouble,” He finished.

Chapter 3

Gabrielle watched as the warrior paced restlessly back and forth within the confines of the tent. She could tell that Xena’s frustration was rising and frustration sometimes led to an outright burst of anger from Xena. Staring down at her boots, Gabrielle believed being quiet might just be her best option at the moment.

Her mind went over all the amazing things she had seen! Carts moved on wheels without animals pulling them, strange orbs in the ceiling that lit up tents much like candles would and men dressed in odd clothing, with odd looking weapons. How strange the future was! Gabrielle wondered what other amazing things she would see.

“Damn you Ares!” Xena suddenly bellowed, causing Gabrielle to jerk as she sat upon the cot.

“Sorry…” the warrior mumbled, seeing that her relentless pacing was only making Gabrielle uncomfortable. She couldn’t help it! Xena felt caged, not knowing what might happen next. Was this man the warlord she was supposed to help? Who were North Koreans? Chinese, Chin, she had experience in Chin that at least could be a reference point. What of the uniforms? Her sharp mind quickly recalled every detail. The clothing the men wore had such strange patterns on the fabric, both on the tunic and trousers. And what was a U.S.? What did the letters U and S stand for? The Warlord’s uniform had other patches as well, what was a Ranger? Airborne? This entire situation was beyond her control and Xena liked having control over every situation.

“Xena…”

Gabrielle’s soft voice pulled the warrior out of her thoughts.

“Everything will work out, right?”

Slowly the little woman stood, pausing only to straighten her skirt before moving over to slip her arms around Xena. As Gabrielle hugged her close she could feel how tense Xena was; as the embrace wore on, the strong body relaxed slightly as powerful arms held her close. Xena always marveled at how something as simple as Gabrielle’s touch could calm her angst, could soothe her so completely. She had always inwardly hated being touched before, just putting up with it to placate people. At one point in her life the only used she had for emotions was to have power over people. A touch, a kiss, even sex was just one of many tools she had used to exercise control. It all was a means to dominate, to manipulate, to use others in order get what she wanted. Now this innocent woman in her arms had changed all that.

“I don’t like any of this Gabrielle” Xena groused.

“I can tell, just from watching you” The smaller woman hugged her closer. “The important thing is that we are together.”

Gabrielle’s heartfelt words caused Xena to finally relax completely. “I know it looks bad,” Gabrielle continued… “But I think the guy in charge means well.”

“Oh?” Xena stated crossly. “Now how do you figure that?”

Gabrielle lifted her head to smile up at the warrior. “We aren’t locked in some dungeon, he didn’t place any guard around us.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered if he had…” Xena muttered, causing Gabrielle to giggle.

“Why didn’t you just tell him your real name?” Gabrielle said the words low, learning from Xena that there were always ears nearby listening intently. “Why Diana?”

“Never give your opponent all the information.” Xena thought for a moment. “Diana seemed the best choice, I’ve had some experience being called Diana…” She shrugged innocently at Gabrielle’s knowing smile.

“Still…” Gabrielle persisted, “I think he is a good person at heart.”

“You always see the best in people Gabrielle.”

Xena picked out the footsteps moving to their tent and tensed up immediately. Shifting position, she moved Gabrielle behind her.

“My apologies for interrupting”

“You aren’t interrupting” Gabrielle said quite pleasantly peeking out from behind Xena. The young man before them broke into a smile for a moment, until he looked up at the scowling warrior.

“I..uh..”

“What!?” Xena glowered at the man.

“The Colonel thought you might like these?” The slight man stated softly, offering up some clothing folded neatly in his hands. “I’ve got fatigues, as well as warm coats and boots.”

“Something wrong with what we have on now?”

“No…noth…nothing wrong; The Colonel…”

“His title is Colonel?” Xena stated questioningly. “The man with the Roman Eagle on his shoulders is a Colonel?”

“Roman Eagle?” the kid asked innocently, still standing at attention at the tent flap clearly having no idea of what she was talking about.

“Thank you for bringing us some clothing” Gabrielle stepped around Xena, moving to take the bundles from the man. “Any chance we might get some food?” Blue eyes rolled in exasperation. “Absolutely” he stated rather chipper, “I will see to it.” The young man smiled at the friendlier woman. “You are in luck as we are getting hot prepared food for once. Glad to not have to eat another M.R.E”

“A what?” Xena’s hand moved up to touch her temple. Gods, she was getting a headache.

“Meal Ready to Eat?” the kid offered.

“Well whatever is being served, we would gladly accept” Gabrielle said cheerily. Xena couldn’t help but sigh; Gabrielle was always hungry.

“Yes Ma’am”

As the soldier left, Xena picked up the clothing. “What strange things these people wear.” She grumbled.

________________________________________________________________________

“So what’d ya learn?”

Before him, Xavier stood offering a salute.

“Not much” Sebastian returned the salute, before continuing to sign the endless paperwork his Corporal shoved in front of him. Requisitions, transfers, supply lists… a never ending pile of garbage needing his signature in triplicate before heading upward in the bureaucracy of the Army for final approval. He wondered for just a moment what Alexander the Great, Hannibal, or Caesar, would make of all this paperwork. Armies of the past seemed far less burdened. Sebastian doubted Napoleon ever signed paperwork, requesting cotton swabs.

“You didn’t place any kind of guard on them?” Xavier asked somewhat incredulously.

“I have a feeling that placing a guard on them would be useless. Besides, I want to build up some trust.”

Suddenly the papers flowing in front of him stopped. “Did we finally reach the end of the pile?” Sebastian looked up, seeing the glint of mirth in the corporal’s eyes.

“Yes sir”

“Thank God!” Sebastian stated with a sigh while dismissing the man.

“I would think a guard would have been appropriate. Especially considering the way they are dressed. The soldier escorting them to the tent said the two looked at the camp as if they were seeing something like this for the first time.”

Sebastian leaned back in his chair considering Xavier’s words, first time… he thought…first time…

“No,” Sebastian stated firmly leaning forward again.

“May I remind you Colonel once again, that this is highly irregular. Sebastian, the General already hates you, even the smallest breech of established orders could mean your command.”

“Major, to be a good commander, you must be willing to take risks.” The look on Xavier’s face told Sebastian that his new second was not convinced.

“I hear you actually gave them the option of not coming with us?” Xavier pressed, “Colonel that is certainly not standard Army procedure when dealing with suspicious individuals. Shouldn’t we interrogate them?”

“They will choose to go with us.” Sebastian countered. “Interrogation would be…” Sebastian paused, eyes seemingly far away for a moment as he thought of the tall imposing Diana. “Useless in this case”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I have a gut feeling…”

With that Xavier threw his hands up in frustration. “You know, someday one of these gut feelings of yours will be wrong and I can’t wait to be around to see it.”

“Perhaps you will, but for now I want you to talk the short one, called Gabrielle. I need more information. She looks to be quite chatty.”

“Just how will I do that?”

“Figure it out Xavier; I’m sure she will be pleased by your company.” Sebastian smiled up at the Major from his seated position at the table. “A smooth talker like you should have no problem getting information from her.”

“I would rather talk to the tall one.” The smug grin on Xavier’s face caused the smile to fade from the Colonel’s face.

“Tread lightly there Major. I have a feeling she would and could break you like a twig.”

“Your confidence in me is reassuring Colonel” Xavier stated with more than a hint of derision. “Are you saying this tall woman spooks you a bit Sebastian?” Xavier goaded

“Were I to allow myself fear; I believe that woman should be feared.” Xavier’s posture became less relaxed. Sebastian, it seemed, was serious.

“Just speak to Gabrielle, Major. I want more information.”

“Very well, as you wish Colonel. Will that be all?”

Sebastian stood, gathering the belt to which his pistol was attached, placing it around his waist. He then took a moment to move the weapons found on the two women off the corner of the table and into a nearby storage trunk. Finally, he tucked the battered sheath holding his own sword under his arm.

“No…”

“Find out what this thing is for me” Sebastian held up the round metal disk with the sharp edges for a moment before also tossing it into the trunk. “I want to know who uses such a distinctive weapon. This thing is so unique; it could be the albatross around that woman’s neck. Trace it, and we may find out who she is. Anyone who carries something like that would be noticed. Use your self-proclaimed fabulous network of contacts Xavier.”

Turning, Sebastian made for the entrance of the tent.

“Now where are you going?” Xavier huffed in annoyance.

“To check the perimeter,” Came the curt reply.

Chapter 4

Gabrielle made a face as she tasted the food on the metal tray. Whatever it was looked like meat, but sure didn’t taste like it. The vegetables were at least decent. Xena had been especially quiet, hardly touching her food. She knew Xena pretty well; the warrior was formulating some plan.

Suddenly Xena stood. She had to get out of the tent for a while. Gods! She knew so little about this time! These people!

“Gabrielle stay here okay?”

“But…”

Xena’s quick look in her direction booked no further argument.

Unwilling to change into her new clothing, the warrior drew strange looks from the men. Where were the fires for warmth? How was food cooked? She asked herself gritting her teeth, silently cursing Ares and more so her own stupidity for going along with his plan. She could live with the consequences of her decisions, but if anything happened to Gabrielle…

The warlord was as good as his word; no guard followed her as she walked past the edge of the camp and into the tree line beyond. With a wry smile, Xena shifted her position once she had gotten out of sight of the men. Stealthily she crept, changing direction, moving back towards the camp.

Silently, Sebastian slinked up on the fourth checkpoint. They were far enough from the fighting that he really didn’t fear any type of attack, yet he always planned for the worst-case scenario. In the field, even miles behind the lines, a commander should never let his guard down. He didn’t rise to become the youngest full Colonel in the Army by being foolish. Well that and many of his first commanders were long dead and gone, victims of war.

With a smirk, he moved behind two soldiers who had no clue he was there. Crossing his arms, his eyes scanned the wooded area beyond; his ears didn’t pick up on any noise out of place. All was quiet. Just as cautiously he turned. Sebastian scanned the terrain behind him. He had the distinct feeling of being watched.

Moving quickly, yet furtively, he tried to dismiss the thought of eyes upon him. Walking to a secluded open area nearer the camp, Sebastian drew the katana sword, going through the warm up routine taught to him as a boy long ago. The drills learned by memory at the temple helped him to clear his mind, though Xavier often chided him about the uselessness of a sword in modern warfare. Well, up until he used it in some tough close in fighting helping to liberate coalition prisoners of war in North Korea. Slowly his speed increased, his muscles following a pattern they knew well.

Suddenly he stopped, eyes searching…

Leaning against a tree, the dark haired woman was watching him, those blue eyes shining in the moonlight. By God, she was absolutely beautiful… and armed. Somehow seeing her there with all her weaponry didn’t strike him as all that surprising.

“Impressive…” Xena called out from her position. This warlord displayed an eastern style of fighting. The warm up he performed was one she vaguely recognized from her time in Chin, though the sword was certainly from Jappa. She casually began to walk toward the man, long graceful strides covering the distance quickly. Sebastian fought the sudden urge to take a step back as the woman approached. Tall… lithe… There was a definite swagger of confidence about her, a power, a danger…

“Thank you…” his eyes moved up meeting hers as the woman before him crossed her arms over her chest. “The Major, scolds me often about keeping a sword around in the age of modern warfare.”

“Then this Major is a fool.”

Sebastian broke contact with those blue eyes. Forcing a smile he slowly moved to sheathe his sword, taking a step back from the woman despite himself. He didn’t know what to make of her, questions swirling in his mind. “I see you found your weapons?” he asked.

She offered no answer, only a smirk lit upon her lovely dark features.

“You know…” Sebastian began thoughtfully. “At some point you may have to trust me enough to open up about who you are.” The enigma surrounding this very dangerous woman beckoned to him, made him want to know more, to understand her.

“Trust has to be earned,” she responded in a low tone.

“I agree.” Sebastian stated in honesty “But… one of us has to take the first step to build that trust. I’ve taken that first step, showing you proof we have no ill intent toward you and your friend.

“And because of that I haven’t killed you… Yet” She retorted evilly.

“The night is still young” Sebastian countered, an attempt at levity, which caused the woman’s lips to hint at a smile.

Xena appraised the warlord in front of her. He clearly wasn’t a fool. His army was organized, the soldiers moved with confidence, with purpose, their uniforms and weapons appeared to be well maintained. All those attributes displayed by the men were the result of discipline created by having good leadership, quite unlike many of the warlords she faced in Greece. Was he trustworthy however? All she really wanted was to complete her task here and try to get back to her time. Was this man the key to helping her do just that? He certainly didn’t have the bluster she associated with a warlord. Of course, many of the warlords she faced in her time had an overabundance of self-confidence, but little else to actually back up their ego. She could just kill this Colonel; she thought, maybe take over his army? No, as easy as that might be Xena dismissed the thought, believing she might be playing right into Ares hands. He had tried before, impersonating her father Atrius, attempting to resurrect her old warlord ways. Besides, she needed this peculiar man, at least for the moment, if only to learn about the new ways of warfare in this time. However, nothing ruled out a bit of fun; perhaps she would see what the man was made of?

Sebastian watched as the woman’s hand moved to unsheathe her sword. With a low scraping of metal the polished blade was free of all restraint.

“Are you up for a little sparring, Colonel?”

Her voice sent another chill down his spine. She was trying to intimidate and Sebastian concluded she was doing a fine job of it. His instincts forged over years of training bristled, warning him of the jeopardy he was in. The woman in front of him twirled her sword effortlessly in one hand, the well-used blade whispering through the night air; the incredibly toned muscles of her body standing out in the shinning moonlight.

“With swords?” his question forced a surprised laugh from the tall woman.

“What else would we use?” she asked smiling.

“Well, perhaps something without razor sharp edges.” One of his hands moved up finger pointing at her weapon.

Again she laughed. “I promise to go easy on ya.” A mocking point, followed by a smug grin, painted her features.

“Of course…” he began attempting to be nonchalant. Knowing full well he wasn’t succeeding by the somewhat amused look on her face. “Those under my command call me Colonel,” Suddenly the woman let out an irritated growl and Sebastian realized his mistake, she assumed he was placing her in with his soldiers. “Please!” he hastily added, finishing the sentence quickly “won’t you just call me Sebastian?”

“Very well… Sebastian…” she stated in a chillingly low tone, a devious smile graced her undeniably gorgeous face.

In an instant her blade was on the attack. He barely had time to draw his sword, to use the back of the katana to block the strike. The blow was withering and Sebastian was glad his feet were solidly planted or he might have been thrown off balance by her very first strike. The training by the monks flowed from memory as he swung his blade around in a classic counter move. Xena, flipped his blade sideways as she effortlessly parried, knocking it away with contemptuous ease. In that second, her blade moved away from her body, she was open! No, Sebastian hesitated for only a moment, she was baiting him… The opening was too obvious and Sebastian did not pursue. With a wicked laugh she was upon him again. Each of her sword blows, he managed to parry, difficult as it was, his eastern based training focused on offense. European swordplay of parries, cuts and thrusts was frowned upon in the East. Sebastian was forced backwards, as he attempted in vain to find a way to go on offense. She was far too quick and agile; each time he managed any type of direct attack, she skirted easily out of the way, her sword meeting his, blocking it with another withering strike. Sebastian remained undaunted, patience he hoped, would be rewarded. Many a student at the temple lost a sparring match simply because they tried to force an opening. Jumping up, he managed to miss a strike aimed for his legs. Her sword whistled thought the air just under the heels of his boots, before doubling back causing him to duck low as the evil shrill of that polished blade cut through the air and went over his head. Standing, he barely was able to block a cut aimed at his back as she moved around him, bringing his sword up behind him the nick of time; his feet moved spinning his body around to face his opponent again.

Then the realization hit him… She was simply toying with him. She knew all of his techniques.

As if reading his mind, the woman smiled broadly. With a grace Sebastian had never before seen, she moved, continuing the onslaught against him.

The sounds of metal clashing echoed though the camp, bringing the curious out of small tents to see the commotion. Soldiers lined up on the gentle slope above the two, watching in silence as the rounds of attacks and defensive maneuvering continued. Many of the veteran’s had been witness to the few times Colonel used the sword in extremely close combat. Now their eyes widened in amazement as he was driven back, fighting to hold his ground against the woman. Being soldiers, bets were quickly placed on who might win the fight, whispers and cash exchanges swept through the ranks.

Weaving to the left and then right to avoid her sword, Sebastian knew he was out classed, yet the training, the spirit of the monks whom had given him a sense of purpose growing up as a child would not allow him to submit.

The woman suddenly launched herself directly into the air, flipping over his head. Sebastian was shocked to hear a hellish cry erupt from her. Before he could turn and set his stance, a solid kick landed directly in his side. Another twisting mid-air roundabout kick robbed his hand of the sword as his legs failed him. Collapsing to the ground, the infantry officer found her leather boot suddenly placed directly upon his chest. With a loud gasp the air was forced from his lungs as she slammed his back against the earth. Sebastian’s eyes slowly rose, from that brown leather boot with its interlocking laces, upward along one long toned silkily muscular leg, past leather and armor, to the perfection of that beautifully dangerous face. Her lips were curled in a snarl as her blue eyes glinted with deadly intent. An instant, later the look faded, and a stoic mask fell upon the woman’s features. “Not bad…” she praised. The tip of her blade tapped the side of his cheek, the cold flat broad side of her sword against his skin serving as a very vivid reminder of her superiority.

Chapter 5

Gabrielle was bored…

Xena’s sudden departure had left her alone in the tent with no diversion. Normally, she would have protested being left behind, but it was always best to choose ones battles. She would make Xena take her next time.

Movement of the tent flap caused her to jump to her feet. Upon his entrance, she immediately recognized the one called “Major”

“I apologize for the intrusion. Am I interrupting?” he asked, flashing a smile.

“Not at all…” Gabrielle answered. Glad for the company, as she was just sitting in the tent waiting anxiously for Xena to return.

“Army food not quite up to your liking?” Xavier asked with a gleam of humor in his eyes as he took in the sight of the full trays on a small side table.

“It’s okay…” Gabrielle lied.

“Ah. I’ll take that as a no.” Xavier let out a warm chuckle. “Mind if I sit?”

With a nod from her he moved to sit on the cot opposite hers. Gabrielle noted a distinct frown on his face as he surveyed the clothing the Colonel had provided.

“Friend out for a walk?” Xavier asked, already knowing the answer. Her tall friend’s absence gave him the opening he needed to probe Gabrielle for information.

“Yes, but she should be back soon.” Gabrielle replied quietly, moving to seat herself on the cot opposite his, placing as much distance as she could between her and the man she barely knew.

“It’s Gabrielle is it?”

“Yes…”

Xavier let out a small sigh. “You know Gabrielle; the whole camp is filled with rumors about you and your lovely friend.”

Instantly, her mental defenses went up. This was no cheerfully friendly visit; this Major was here for information. Information he hoped to glean from her. Suddenly she wished Xena was here with her. Come on Gabrielle, she chided herself. You can do this; you helped Meleager defend your home village without Xena. Certainly you can talk to this guy without giving much in the way of information. Xena was always reminding her, rather sarcastically, of how good she was at talking.

“Oh?” Gabrielle stated softly with a sweet honest smile. “We don’t mean to cause such uproar.”

“Well…” Xavier began with a chuckle. “Having been around Colonel Reeves for many years, I’m quite used to things not being quiet.”

“The Colonel is your leader?” Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Xavier answered succinctly.

“Would you mind telling me where you both are from?” Gabrielle noted the smile upon his face, but it was just a façade. She knew people well; his interrogation of her had begun.

“Greece.” Gabrielle said trying to be casual, Gods, I hope there is still a Greece, she thought suddenly.

“I see… You are a very long way from home.” Xavier stated casually, his face still warm, his intent not. You have no idea… Gabrielle thought ironically. At least her home still existed in some form. The realization of a Greece, suddenly made her sad as she realized her sister, mother, and father… were all long gone in this time. She didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

“Where about in Greece are you from?” Xavier asked in his best conversational tone.

“Oh, just a little no name backwater town,” she replied blocking his attempt to pin her to one place.

“And your friend?”

“The same…” Gabrielle looked him in the eyes and smiled. She was telling the truth, perhaps not all the truth, but she certainly hadn’t lied to the man.

“How about you?” She asked, attempting to turn the conversation away from the focus on her and Xena. She was unprepared to answer questions, not knowing exactly what Xena would think of her giving out information to the man.

“I’m from New Mexico.” He replied. Xavier noted her odd quizzical expression. “You know the United States?” he joked, while one of his fingers touched the letters U.S. on his uniform patch.

“Oh…” Gabrielle’s voice trailed off for a moment. Before he could ask another question she continued, cutting him off just as he was about to speak.

“And the Colonel? He is also from the United States? “

“Yes…” Xavier attempted to answer succinctly again, but the slight woman before him quickly moved to the next question.

“New Mexico?”

Xavier let out a sigh; the girl was good, attempting to block him from asking questions, trying to force him into long answers; long enough answers to buy time for her friend to get back. Very well he thought, Sebastian wanted him to build trust and here was the opportunity.

“Well, yes and no…” he began. “You see Sebastian spent most of his life in both China and Japan; his father was an ambassador to both countries. So, he grew up attending schools in China, and then went to school in Japan, before coming to the U.S. for college. We both met at a small military school in New Mexico.

“You’ve been friends for many years?”

“Yes,” Xavier’s tone dropped as his frustration showed. He had hoped to get more out of the girl. “I consider him a friend as well as commanding officer.”

“Oh…” Gabrielle knew by his tone that he wanted to know more about her. It was time to come up with another stall.

“Diana and I have been friends for a little while now,” Gabrielle’s voice took on a pleasant, very happy tenor as her mind recalled all the adventures they had been in despite their relatively short time together. “Perhaps, not as long as you and Sebastian have known each other,” She offered.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure, but it seemed their relationship had changed after the events surrounding the war between Thessaly and the Mitoans. Xena was amazing! Single handedly, she had convinced Marmax to agree to negotiations with Thessaly. Xena had ended an entire war. Of course, the warrior told Gabrielle repeatedly she couldn’t have done what she did without her help.

Afterward, as she recovered from her injuries from the fighting, Gabrielle noted how Xena seemed to dote on her. The first sign of things being different was how Xena took her arm as they walked out of the temple of Asclepius. Gabrielle dismissed the touch completely at the time; sure her friend was only helping. She had only noticed because Xena was never one for touchy-feely stuff, being the tough warrior type. Gabrielle had often thought it might have been the families they were born into? She had a family that showed love by being huggy; however, perhaps that wasn’t the case with Xena. Toris sure didn’t seem all that friendly; of course with all Xena had been though it wasn’t surprising how she wasn’t likely to offer many comforting touches. Sure they had sat together at times, comforted each other when need be, but after the Temple incident things had changed.

Xena would purposely sit right next to her by the evening fire, before the events in the temple that rarely would have occurred. It was always Gabrielle who had moved to Xena’s side. Xena’s bedroll was placed nearer to hers. The warrior became even more fiercely protective of her, as if afraid that Gabrielle might just disappear suddenly in a puff of smoke.

Beyond that it was a touch, a glance, a feeling. The warrior who was stoic and unapproachable allowed Gabrielle slightly past the façade, past the emotional defenses, and see the real Xena where before that only had happened for the briefest of moments. What Gabrielle saw was a woman who was really quite fragile, someone who had spent years distrusting anyone and everyone, especially those who tried to get close to her. Xena was far more disposed to lash out against others; especially those whom she felt were betraying her trust. Xena, Gabrielle reflected, must have suffered much disloyalty to have to build up so many walls within to keep from exposing any emotion. The warrior covered any and all emotion with stoicism, yet underneath the ice she was very passionate. At times that passion could still overwhelm, could break though all the icy walls built to hold it. After such moments, Xena would feel remorse, thinking it a weakness that she had let an errant tear fall when the feeling became too much. With just her poor words, Gabrielle had slowly begun to convince Xena that every now and then it was good for the soul to be soft.

“Gabrielle?”

“Hey… Gabrielle?”

Xavier watched as the girl pulled herself back to the present moment, her deep green eyes focusing on him again. Whatever he had said had triggered a good memory judging from her smile.

“Thought I lost ya there for a moment,” Xavier smiled. “You were pretty deep in thought.” Gabrielle’s smile was infectious, and he found himself smiling back.

“What are you doing?”

Xavier nearly hit the canvas roof of the tent. Lurching off the cot, he faced the scowling dark woman standing at the tent flap. He hadn’t even heard her!

“How did you…” he began…

“Out!” Fierce blue eyes locked onto him, then narrowed. “Now!”

Moments later Xavier found himself roughly thrown out of the tent. It was highly undignified for an Army officer to be tossed on his ass, however Sebastian was right, the tall woman just demonstrated that she was more than able to break him like a twig. Brushing himself off, Xavier stood for a moment, glaring at the soldiers looking at him as they tried to hide smiles. Gathering up what was left of his dignity, Xavier headed back toward his tent. The encounter had made him all the more eager to find out more about the two, plus he still needed to investigate the Frisbee thing.

“Xena…”

The warrior felt arms work their way around her waist from behind as Gabrielle gave her a hug. The tension and angst from the evening faded instantly as Xena turned slowly, one of her hands moving fingers gently running though strawberry blond hair.

“Are you alright?” Xena’s voice filled with concern.

“Yes…” Gabrielle looked up into those lovely blue eyes. “He wanted information.”

“Such as?” The question came out in a growl, irritation tingeing the warrior’s voice.

“He wanted to know where we came from.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him Greece.”

Gabrielle watched as Xena’s eyes widened, she could tell the questions the warrior was about to ask.

“I guess there is still a Greece, because he recognized the place.” “He wasn’t able to get the names of the towns we grew up in. I kind of made him explain stuff so he couldn’t ask more questions.”

“So you used your gift of gab on him?” Xena chuckled. “What did you get out of him?”

Gabrielle began to relate what happened in the conversation to Xena as the two moved to sit upon on one of the two cots in the tent. “So he learned his fighting skills in Chin and Jappa.” Gabrielle’s words only confirmed Xena’s hunch about where Sebastian had learned to fight. “I thought his fighting was Eastern in origin when we sparred tonight”

Gabrielle suddenly perked up on the cot next to her.

“Xena! You sparred against this Colonel tonight!? Why didn’t you say anything!? Are you okay?” Gabrielle’s eyes darted over the warrior, looking for any signs Xena was hurt. She had to look close, as Xena was good at covering any pain she might be feeling. Wide eyed, yet satisfied that Xena was okay; Gabrielle wrapped her arms tightly around the warrior.

Gods… Xena thought… She cares about me so much.

“Hey…” The warrior voice became soft, soothing as she felt Gabrielle shaking against her. Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand slide along her cheek before two strong fingers settled under her chin to tilt her face upward. A callused thumb moved across her cheek, wiping a tear.

Hers… her… friend Gabrielle.

The thought was a pleasant one to Xena. Especially after years of feeling alone, even when surrounded by people. She had led armies, conquered lands, pillaged mercilessly, been surrounded by others, and yet still felt completely alone. What was it about Gabrielle? How could her presence be so soothing?

“Oh, Xena, I was just thinking as the Major was speaking…”

“Thinking about what?”

“Thinking…” Gabrielle sniffled, “that I never had the chance to say goodbye to Lilia, or Mother and Father.” As one of Xena’s arms draped around her, Gabrielle’s voice broke as she continued to speak. “I may never see them again. I…”

The warrior rested her chin on Gabrielle’s head, enjoying the softness of strawberry blond hair. “Believe me, we will get home again. You trust me?”

“Completely,” the soft yet sure response as the smaller woman buried her head against Xena’s shoulder. Home… Gabrielle considered, perhaps her home now was really with Xena.

“Come on, let’s try and get some rest.” Xena scanned the tent, trying to find something they could use as their bedrolls were absent. The warrior smiled down at Gabrielle as her practiced fingers expertly undid the catches on her armor. Small hands glided down her tall frame, gently pulling away the armor plate, before guiding her to sit. Slowly, Xena’s armored knee pads were removed as Gabrielle turned her attentions on unlacing the Warrior’s boots. Small fingers worked the laces, before Gabrielle’s hands gradually pulled the boots off, then took a moment to massage the warrior’s ankles, which tended to be sore after a long day. “Gabrielle, you don’t have to… “ Xena began. “I know.” the fair woman replied, smiling up at warrior as she continued her efforts, ears picking up on a low purr borne out of pure contentment from Xena.

________________________________________________________________________

“Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them; it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.” -Cassius
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar-Act I Scene II

Woken at 3A.M., Sebastian felt a headache stirring as he stared at the decoded message lying on his desk. He was under order to divide his forces, sending the larger part back to base, while leading the smaller group into the worthless grasslands of Western China. The area was completely lawless as the Chinese had withdrawn forces further east to protect important bases and cities from the coalition of nations aligned against them. Now the region was awash in roving bands of thugs, stealing from the meager villages made up of sheep and goat herders. He couldn’t help, but wonder why command suddenly was troubled about the area. Sure, stealing and plundering were terrible, but why send in his men now? This stuff had been going on from more than two years without any real concern from the higher ups. Hell, plundering and stealing had been going on in warfare since the beginning of time. He didn’t necessarily see the need to stop these bandits now. Just win the war, set up a stable government, and the problem if roving thugs could be handled by some lawful authority. Yup, just win the war and set up a government… he mused sarcastically. Piece of cake! Too bad there seemed to be no single leader strong enough to bring an end to the madness of war.

Putting vague ideas of solving the world’s problems aside, he considered the issue of dividing his brigade. The idea of dividing his force before possible enemies was sheer stupidity. The orders were clear, no objection tolerated. He was to move into the area, locate the bandits, and eliminate the threat. Perhaps command thought sending his whole brigade in would cause the Chinese to react?

With a sigh, he slumped back in the chair, his mind moving away from the issue at hand to what had happened. He had lost, been beaten quite effortlessly in fact. That woman could have killed him and Sebastian knew it. The look in her eyes as he lay before her on the ground told him she certainly was capable. Yet, she had been quite gracious, helping him to his feet, giving him a slight smile. True to form as taught, he had offered his sword to her, honor bound after being not only beaten, but humiliated. She refused the sword, and seemed mildly amused by the display.

Never had a fight gone so badly for him so quickly. In mere moments, she had disarmed him, knocked him on the ground, and could have sent him into the afterlife quite easily. Sure he had been beaten before, but this was different, her skill set was far above his. Certainly, his ego was bruised, but as the warrior monks of the temple had instructed, when one is confronted by a superior, the inferior must learn and improve. She was superior, there was no question of that, it was just that Sebastian was not used to being the inferior.

Who was she?

Where did she learn those fighting skills?

Why was she here?

“You wanted to see me sir?” Sebastian looked up at Xavier and gave a quick salute. It was early, 03:30 and Xavier aptly looked like a man roused from a good sleep.

“New orders” Sebastian stated gruffly while standing to hand the Major the note.

“You will take the listed companies back to base; there you will be in charge of training the new arrivals from the states. Sebastian watched as the color drained from Xavier’s face and smiled. “You wanted the promotion Xavier, now you are in command, time to earn your pay Major.”

“Sir I…” Xavier stopped unable to complete the thought as suddenly the weight of command fell upon him.

“I am to take 100 men and move into this area.” Sebastian pointed to the map. “Eliminate these marauders or whoever they are. Command believes these bandits are small in number and poorly trained. Naturally, I want my most veteran troops to be placed with me.”

“Sir, not to complain, but shouldn’t it be me going?” Xavier asked. “Why would the General order you to go while I return to base? Why not send the whole Brigade?”

Sebastian shrugged, “I follow orders, having no choice in the matter. However, there must have a reason, even if I can’t figure them at the moment. Now, meet with your company commanders quickly, roust em’ outta bed and give them their orders.” “I want you on the move.”

Xavier liked the sound of those words. My company commanders, he thought. “Yes Sir!” Sebastian watched as Xavier flashed a smile.

Sebastian noted that prideful smile. “Remember Major,” he began warningly, “Command is a double edged sword, you get the glory, but also the blame when things go wrong.” See to it that your men arrive safely, that is your priority.”

“Of course sir,” Xavier’s smile faded slightly.

“So…” Sebastian rose, changing topic. “What did you find out about our guests?”

“They are from Greece”

“And?” Sebastian stated exacerbated, hands out wide at his sides.

“That’s all…”

Xavier cringed as Sebastian looked at him incredulously.

“Sir, you were right.” Xavier began almost pleadingly, trying to cover for his lack of information. “The woman is quite chatty, and I barely got a word in edgewise.”

“Not only chatty, she’s smart!” Sebastian chastised. “She probably kept you talking like a dummy so she wouldn’t have to answer your questions! So now they know even more about us than we them! Good work Major!” Sebastian stated snidely, “Makes us look like amateurs! What about that hoop weapon? Got any insight into that Xavier?”

“It’s a weapon used in Ancient India. A Chakram”

“That’s all you know?!” The Colonel threw his hands up in exasperation, “Thank God I have you as my second in command! What would I ever do without you?” Sebastian rebuked harshly. “What!? Ya Google that?”

“You throw it”

“Really?!” Sebastian mocked. “No Shit Xavier? A frisbee looking thing! Of course you fucking throw it! I wanted you to search the data base of incident reports for a description of someone using one!”

“Colonel, that woman is dangerous!” Xavier changed tact, throwing caution to the wind. “I heard she kicked your ass.”

The frown on Sebastian’s face gave Xavier an inner moment of glee, Lo, how the mighty have fallen, he thought with satisfaction. Finally, Sebastian had lost at something.

“Speaking of ass kicking, I understand she tossed you out of her tent and onto yours.” Sebastian retorted, with a smile that galled Xavier. He could see the anger in the man before him.

“Sir I…”

“Get your men ready Major!”

“Yes sir!” Xavier was enraged at being dressed down by his commanding officer and his face showed it.

“Major.”

“Sir?”

“Get Kavanagh in here”

“Yes sir”

Xavier stepped back toward the exit, fuming. Your time will come Sebastian, he reflected. This unit will be mine to command.

“Oh, and Major…”

Xavier’s eyes met Sebastian’s, roiling anger clearly evident.

“Don’t get lost on the way to base. Google directions if you have to!”

With a salute, his incensed friend was gone.

First time in control of a unit this large, Sebastian thought. Hope all goes well Xavier.

Chapter 6

The stirrings of the camp woke Xena long before dawn…

There she lay, unwilling to give up the warmth of Gabrielle next to her. Even the woman’s little muted snores were cute. It always amazed her how Gabrielle could tangle that small body of her so closely next to her. Years of being a warlord had caused Xena to sleep lightly. Her senses tuned to any change in the environment. Yet little Gabrielle could intertwine with her as they slept without Xena even noticing. She could have put a stop to Gabrielle cuddling up next to her, but didn’t have the power. It was as if her very body needed Gabrielle’s touch, craving to be near her. Xena found that with Gabrielle close, even the frequent nightmares caused by her past deeds as a warlord had slowly faded into more pleasant dreams.

With a slight smile, the warrior stared absently into the darkness above as her mind recalled the vivid peaceful dream of her Lyceus, and Toris fishing in their favourite lake near Amphipolis. Lyceus’ words from so long ago, still running through her mind.

“Gods Xena!” the boy exclaimed wide eyed while looking up at her with innocent awe. His finger pointing at the large number fish she had caught. “You are the best at everything! I’ve never seen anyone able to catch fish the way you do!”

In the darkness of the tent, Xena’s smile turned to a smirk as she recalled Toris glowering at her from behind little Lyceus as he spoke. She had won their bet, catching more fish than him. Xena had hoped her mother would be pleased with the catch, now able to scrounge a dinner together for her customers at the inn, even in these lean times which had been exacerbated by the roving bands of warlords. Not given to handing out praise, Cyrene had stated what they had accomplished was “satisfactory.”

“You were always so jealous Toris.” Xena murmured in the darkness, turning her thoughts back to her brothers. Where Lyceus had idolized her in everything, Toris had despised her in everything. Never had her older brother been able to beat her in any contest. Oh and how that fact infuriated him! Course Xena’s needling him constantly about his failure to win hadn’t helped the situation any. With a frown, she acknowledged that the seeds of the conflict between her and Toris were planted in childhood. It was only natural for him to argue with her about what they should do when Cortese attacked, they had always disagreed. At least you were consistent Toris, Xena whispered sadly, “What would have happened if I had just gone with your plan?”

No… she thought… someone had to resist, had to lead, I made the decision.

Unwilling to follow that last thought where it would inevitably lead, Lyceus’ death and the darkness of her warlord days, Xena occupied her mind with carefully extricating herself from Gabrielle’s embrace. The coldness of the night touched her satin skin as she slid out from the strange bedrolls used by these people. The little metal pull thing worked far better than laces to draw up the sides into a cocoon of warmth. They decided to just sleep on the floor, not wanting to be separated on the cots. Pulling the little metal thing down, the bedroll covered them pretty well, one under, one on top.

Xena needed to organize a plan, figure out what needed to be done, and get back to their time. Slowly and carefully, she slid away, smiling as Gabrielle contentedly murmured her name. The warrior let out a disgruntled sigh as she picked up the strange clothing brought to them the night before, dressing in the predawn darkness. Where is the armor? She wondered.

______________________________________________________________________

As the sun began to light the horizon, Sebastian watched as units fanned out under Xavier’s command. The Colonel’s intense scowl and fierce hazel eyes stated clearly his internal dislike of what was happening. Dividing my force, he thought… “Worthless” he muttered. No man approached him save one… Kavanagh. The soldiers moving past could almost feel the dour mood emanating from the man.

“Yes Sergeant.” Reeves stated without looking at the man.

“With the Colonel’s permission, I’d like to stay with the force heading out to take on these bandits.”

“I told you to stay with the rest of the brigade.”

“Beggin, your pardon sir, but it seems to me my place is with you.”

“And just who will babysit the Major?” Reeves asked as his eyes tracked to Kavanagh.

“I’ve got someone lined up.”

“I see, so you intend to babysit me then?” Reeves voice was flat, devoid of emotion.

“Been doin’ that for going on three years now Colonel.”

Finally Reeves broke into a slight smile. “Yes you have. Very well, come with us then.”

With a smile, Kavanagh was gone.

Might as well let him go, Sebastian thought, I need all the help I can get. He growled absently as he stood on the rise before vocalizing what he thought of his commanding general, “Idiot!”

“Who is this idiot?” A velvety voice caused Sebastian to flinch. Wide eyed he whirled around to see Diana. “Dammit!” he barked. He hadn’t even heard her step up behind him! “How did you…” he began. “I have many skills.” She replied, knowing his question before he could finish it.

“Yes, believe me, I’ve noticed.” Sebastian replied with a sigh.

Lovely, beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, powerful… deadly… words just didn’t begin to describe this woman. There was a charisma about her…

She stood before him dressed in fatigues, and not one bit less intimidating. Like him, she was also wearing a coat, unlike him with a pistol at his side; she had found a way to strap her sword to her back and her Chakram frisbee thing was hooked to her side. The dark hair spilling over her shoulders and a lack of a service cap was certainly not regulation. Years of being in the army made him note that almost unconsciously, but Sebastian wasn’t about to argue the point as she most definitely was not under his command.

“Let me guess…” Diana began sarcastically “The idiot is the one who ordered you to split your force.” It was less of a question and more of a statement. The look which crossed the man’s face gave Xena all the confirmation she needed. “How…?” She cut him short with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, the majority of these men are moving south while you have small advance parties scouting west.”

“You are an amazing woman.” Colonel Reeves stated honestly.

“Explains your mood,” Diana replied, humorless eyes locked onto him. “No good commander likes to divide his force unless absolutely necessary.”

“You have experience with command?” the man before her asked pointedly.

“Perhaps.” She stated ambiguously.

Fair enough, Sebastian thought, he was avoiding telling her whose order was breaking up his command, and she was still avoiding revealing anything about her past. However, he now gathered she had command experience.

“I do admire your tactics.”

“Tactics?” Sebastian questioned, his eyes locking with hers.

“Absolutely, like a good commander, you distract your main opponent, me, as your second in charge moves in attempting to pry information from Gabrielle. All the while you sit back looking for any weaknesses.” Sebastian eyes broke from hers. Turning, he faced away from her, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m sure I have no idea what you refer to.” He stated flatly, knowing exactly what she was talking about.

“Don’t you?” Diana fairly snorted behind him. A chill went down his spine as she moved closer to him, leaning over him, her voice dropping in register. “Leave Gabrielle out of this, she’s an innocent. Should anything happen to her, I would be most… displeased.” The chill through him returned once more as her breath touched his ear.

“You misunderstand me, madam.” Sebastian stated quite honestly, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack as he remained staring forward. “You mistake only needing information with ill intent.”

“I will be the one to decide what type of information to share.” Her velvety voice purred near his ear. “It would be a shame if you decided to force the issue.”

Sebastian turned his head to the side, his back still turned to her, eyes catching a glimpse of the dangerous enigma behind him. A direct confrontation was not how he wished to start the day, most certainly not with this woman.

“I am quite sure, based on the events of last evening, that we both know I’m not able to force information from you.” Making no fast movement, he turned to face the woman. “Nor do I wish to.”

Xena noted his attempt to de-escalate the situation, straightening; she smiled down at the man without warmth. Gabrielle had certainly been a good influence on her, she thought. In her warlord days, the man would have already been dead.

“So…” Sebastian continued, thankful to be able to change the subject. “Have you made a decision? You are more than welcome to move with the bulk of the force back to base. Perhaps go with the rest of us westward, or take your leave of us altogether?”

“We choose to go with you, west.” Xena stated matter of factly, before walking away briskly before Sebastian could add anything more to the conversation. The warrior headed back to her tent… and Gabrielle.

Chapter 7

“It’s not funny!”

“I’m sorry…” Xena tried to apologize, while stifling another chuckle.

“Maybe they have some smaller sizes?” she offered.

Before her, Gabrielle stood in her far too large clothing which hung on her slight body.

“Some of us aren’t like you, you know!” the smaller woman said indignantly, “We can’t just pour ourselves into anything and look great.”

Xena had to smile. Despite her chiding, Gabrielle was offering a compliment, albeit backhanded. “Hang on Gabrielle,” the warrior put her arms up slightly, her hands outward in a mild surrender.

Moving quickly to the tent flap, Xena grabbed the first soldier she could. “You!” she bellowed as one hand balled the front of his uniform, pulling the man to her face. “What’s your name?” The man swallowed as blue eyes narrowed at him “Uh… Thomlinson, ma’am”

“C’mere! Uh, Thomlinson.” Xena spouted sarcastically.

Pulled into the tent, his eyes adjusted to the sight of the woman before him dressed in way too large fatigues. Unconsciously, a smile formed on his lips.

“It’s not funny!” Gabrielle repeated loudly, stomping one foot adorably.

“You think something is funny?” Suddenly two strong hands balled up the fabric of his uniform and Private Thomlinson felt his feet leave the ground as he was effortlessly lifted by the threatening dark haired woman.

“No… no, not at all…” he muttered, staring directly into very icy pale blue eyes. He was glad he just had made a trip to the latrine or he would have lost the contents of his bladder. “Good lord!” he blurted. “You’re strong!”

The hands holding him suddenly released and he dropped to the ground unexpectedly, stumbling back, landing squarely on his butt.

“I want you to find me a smaller uniform Thomlinson.” Xena stated while advancing on the man sprawled on the ground before her. “NOW!” She roared.

“Ye… yes ma’am!”

Gabrielle watched as the guy scrambled out of the tent as fast as possible. “You certainly have a way with people.” she commented as Xena turned to her, the warrior’s face feigning innocent sweetness.

“I’m sure he will find a smaller size.” Xena stated pleasantly.

“Guess that’s a nice way of saying I’m kinda short?” Gabrielle always scrunched up her nose in the cutest way possible. Xena just couldn’t help moving to wrap her arms around her. Gabrielle immediately buried the top of her head just below Xena’s shoulder. “Well, you are little.” The warrior stated teasingly. Words which earned her a gentle back hand to the stomach. Xena let out an exaggerated huff, as she stepped back pretending to double over slightly, earning her a giggle from Gabrielle. Course, that movement by the warrior meant their lips were tantalizingly close, and Xena wanted badly to steal just one little chaste kiss but… friends don’t… straightening, the dark beauty smiled, one hand moving, fingers brushing through silky blond hair so sweet and innocent, Xena thought, as the little one’s gorgeous green eyes looked up to meet her own.

“Little one…” Xena muttered, suddenly liking the sound of it.

“Did you just call me little one?” Gabrielle’s nose scrunched up again as she looked into the warrior’s eyes

“Well I can’t exactly call you tall one, now can I?”

“Xena!” Gabrielle protested, “I’m not that short!”

“Compared to what?” the warrior deadpanned.

“Hey! Not funny!” Gabrielle attempted to fake indignation at being called little one, but couldn’t quite pull it off, instead breaking into laughter.

Xena let that wonderful laugh fill her ears. Lately, she had wondered what might have become of her life had she only met Gabrielle sooner. Would the goodness which flowed from the… little one… in waves have changed her? Would she have given up the evil, the attempts at conquest, to do good instead? Or… would Gabrielle have been just another of her victims?

Gabrielle watched as expressive blue eyes turned sad suddenly.

“Hey…” One small hand moved, fingers brushing a beautiful cheek tentatively before falling away.

“Sorry… I was just thinking about what we need to do.” Xena covered.

“What’s the plan?” Gabrielle asked while tiling her head to one side inquisitively.

Xena let out a sigh, “Really, I think our only option is to follow this colonel. Ares said he located a warrior, maybe this is the guy.”

Gabrielle nodded her agreement,

“I just can’t fathom why Ares popped us here and left us without any information on these people.”

“Perhaps he couldn’t?” Gabrielle offered softly.

“Maybe…” Xena drew in a breath. “Gabrielle, whatever happens will be dangerous.” “Please, stay close huh? I…” Green eyes watched intently as the warrior swallowed hard, her body fairly trembling with pent up emotion “I almost lost you once; I don’t think I could handle losing you again.”

In that moment of silence, Gabrielle hugged Xena tightly once more.

________________________________________________________________________

Xena turned her attentions to learning this new art of war.

The calculated movement of the warlord’s army was quite impressive.

Xena recognized the pattern, small advance scouting parties moving forward, assessing threats, and moving using terrain as cover. All designed to create an early warning bubble around the main force. They may be thousands of seasons in the future, but movements of armies hadn’t changed. Know what is around you, gather as much information as you can, don’t be caught by surprise.

For three weeks the army moved with little or no contact. Those caught on the edges of the perimeter were questioned quickly, the threat level was assessed.

Xena observed the man, this Colonel, he was clear thinking, calculating. Piecing together scraps of information into a full view of what lay around him. Judging his command style, she rethought her earlier assessment; perhaps she wouldn’t have killed him in her warlord days. Dagnine was an idiot, and she had tolerated him. Course, Xena thought, she did have a hint of a temper, perhaps even acted a bit rash at times in her warlord days. A sardonic smile crossed her face.

The warlord had provided them with a strange type of armor, which covered the most vulnerable areas of the body. She noted while the men wore helmets, the Colonel wore none, stating he felt it impeded his ability. Xena herself chose not to wear a helmet, trying not to laugh or even smile as Gabrielle put hers on.

Other innovations amazed both her and Gabrielle. The men had a device, a loud talky thing which they could speak into and it would talk back. Using it, the warlord could receive instant information as well as control movement of his men. No need of runners to relay messages. Not to mention all of the bits and pieces of equipment attached to their odd uniforms.

Xena was well aware of the brutality of war; the speed of this new type of warfare did take getting used to. Not only did information move faster, but attacks seemed to as well. From the brief skirmishes in the western forests, she could see how quickly death could call.

What about re-supply? No foraging parties went out, no game was brought back. The men ate packets of food, horribly tasting packets of food. Xena worked, gathering information in unobtrusive ways. How weapons worked, why men wore what they did. This age of warfare made cover and camouflage necessary. The age of the sword, the magnetism of the charge had ended long ago, now men stalked each other, killing stealthily. It all seemed so cowardly, hiding while shooting these advanced clattering gun powder crossbows at one another. Warfare should be you against your opponent, in the open. From their conversations, Xena surmised the warlord colonel felt the same way. Where was the honor in this new style of fighting?

She worried most for Gabrielle, worried that she might fail at protecting her. Xena knew her own overconfidence had almost cost Gabrielle her life in the temple of Asclepius; arrogance had led her down the path which had almost taken Gabrielle from her. Pride had allowed her to believe that not only could she stop a whole war, but also protect Gabrielle at the same time. It had almost become the perfect Pyrrhic victory, Xena ending the killing of war, while sacrificing the most important person in her life.

Now that they were out in the midst of action, Xena’s most recent nightmare had returned. Always the same, Gabrielle lying before her dead, Gods how she had tried to save her! Hippocrates trying to console her, saying Gabrielle was in a better place, only to be roughly shoved away. Galen, Marmax, Hippocrates, all watching her with sympathetic eyes. At the end of the dream, she was always alone, the temple dark, deserted, her sobs over Gabrielle’s dead body echoing off the walls. That particular nightmare had disappeared for awhile, now its reappearance greatly troubled the warrior. A bad omen?

Xena would wrench awake from countless variations on that dream, sighing in relief seeing Gabrielle next to her.

She recognized that the loss of Gabrielle could lead to the realization of her other great fear; falling back into her warlord ways. Gabrielle had such a brilliant inner light of goodness. A light so bright it even managed by contact to illuminate a small candle of hope within the warrior’s dark heart. Xena had believed her heart was so filled with hatred and rage that nothing could ever penetrate it. She had tried before to drag herself from the darkness, only to be pulled back. Gabrielle’s goodness stood as a barrier, like a dam holding back flood waters, preventing the evil from taking over once again. However, Xena knew that should something happen to Gabrielle, that small flickering candle shedding light within her might just be blown out.

The darkness that would follow, the sadness, the overwhelming rage, would swallow her whole. The Destroyer of Nations would assuredly return… her wrath unbound… seeking revenge…
________________________________________________________________________

“May I sit?”

Sebastian flinched.

“You would think I’d figure a way to know when you are sneaking up on me.”

Looking up at her, he shook his head absently while sweeping an arm out to indicate she could sit anywhere.

Xena smirked down at the man before sitting, stretching her long legs out she rested her back against a tree. Together they faced forward, looking out upon the vast stretch of grassland beyond, framed by cliffs, a tiny village in the foreground.

“You are frustrated…” she began.

“Yes.”

“Why?” Xena asked, already knowing the answer.

“Because the people I’m after know enough to stay out of reach. They know the landscape better than I do.” He spat bitterly, “I’m out here chasing ghosts. I’m being led on by them.”

Xena only nodded. These bandits couldn’t help but notice a force this large.

“Soon it will be worse as command has ordered me into the wide open grasslands.” A definite deep frown formed on the man’s face as he gestured to the far off open area absently. “No cover, out in the open, flat terrain, very little support, cut off… if I were the bad guys, I’d wait and ambush me there. Hell, I don’t even know how many bad guys there are.”

“You seem to have thought this through.” Xena offered vaguely.

Sebastian let out a sigh at her words. “Experience is a good teacher. Had to learn quickly, or get men killed foolishly.” Better than anyone, Xena knew the truth behind his words. She had made plenty of mistakes.

“I have noticed,” he continued changing subject, “you seem quite at home surrounded by soldiers. You have an air of command.” He had noted the confidence about the woman as she had moved about the camp. One simple nod of approval from her was enough to make the men work at least three times harder at a task, all in the effort to please her. Perhaps another commander would take umbrage at the way his men fawned over Diana, not Sebastian. He welcomed competent leadership and this mysterious woman certainly knew what she was doing.

“Some have to work at leadership; it appears to come naturally to you.” Sebastian finished

Oh, if you only knew… Xena thought while sitting silent, unwilling to give the man any information. He didn’t seem surprised by her lack of response.

“You know, I would have thought perhaps after the past weeks you might trust me enough as to tell me more.” Sebastian didn’t press for information, changing tack, his questions now were a gentle reminder that he still wanted to learn about both her and Gabrielle.

“I find myself wondering why you would trust me as you do.”

Her return question hung for a long moment as Sebastian thought.

“I wish I had a clear answer for that.” He began honestly. “I’ve learned to trust my intuition. My instincts tell me you are here for a reason.”

“What reason?” Xena leaned forward a bit, studying him, hoping he could offer some insight into what her mission was.

“For the life of me, I don’t know.” His response caused her to slump back grumpily against the tree she was leaning on.

“That night you challenged me to a sparring match, Sebastian continued, “you could have killed me, yet you didn’t. No one sent to inflict harm would have spared my life. That fact alone allows me to trust you.”

For a long moment the two sat silently, thoughts consuming them, before Xena changed tack, returning to the problem at hand.

“Have you noted those cliffs beyond?” Xena probed.

Again she had watched his style, noted his meticulous scouting, but was steps ahead of his thought process. Ares had once told her no mortal could match her skills at strategy or her prowess on the battle field.

“Yes.” He stated offhandedly.

Sebastian had not only noted them, but knew them thoroughly, his men giving details of the cliffs, the waterfall flowing down from them, the herding village at the base of the falls, the ancient Buddhist temple cut into the rock face.

“Would make an idea base for these marauders.” She added casually.

“I agree,” Sebastian sat up slightly, shifting his back against the tree he leaned on. “But we’ve found no clear evidence of them being there.”

“Perhaps they are showing you what they wish you to see.”

Her statement piqued his interest.

“Possibly, however, charging into a village, innocent villagers…” Sebastian began listing reasons not to assault the village directly.

“No…” Diana cut him off.

“Draw them away, ambush them.”

“Of course!” he muttered, slightly embarrassed by the fact that he hadn’t thought of it earlier, “How stupid of me.”

“No…” Diana corrected. “Sometimes solutions elude us.”

Sebastian turned to look at Diana.

“I’m glad you are on our side.” He stated, words spoken without guile, Diana’s simple observations now serving as impetus for his creating a plan, Sebastian still needed more information, and luckily he knew just the man for the job.

Despite her usual impassiveness, Xena allowed herself a smile for the man. “Take some time and think things over.” Slowly she moved to stand “There may be an opportunity here Colonel,” she said knowing he would be planning an attack, “and I’ve learned one important thing about you.”

“And that is?” His face took on distinct puzzlement as he looked at her.

“You want to win, not just some of the time, all the time. That’s good.” Xena winked down at the man. “Because,” she continued “I always want to win, no matter the odds stacked against me.”

Sebastian watched as Diana turned to walk away. Taking a step, she suddenly halted. “Spar with me this afternoon Colonel.” It was an order. Her graceful steps picked up again as she moved away from him, leaving Sebastian to again shake his head.

________________________________________________________________________

“Hi Thomlinson.”

The young soldier looked up from cleaning his rife to see Gabrielle standing in front of him.

“Hello.”

He said the word a bit warily, eyes moving around her, looking for that scary woman.

“She’s not with me…” Gabrielle said simply as if reading his mind.

“Mind if I sit?”

“No, not at all.” Displaying manners, the small kid stood, Gabrielle was a bit taken aback that he was far shorter than she was. Strange she hadn’t picked up on that before, course when she was in the tent wearing too large a uniform, well; she hadn’t been too focused on anything else. No wonder the kid was spooked by Xena, she was intimidating to begin with, to those of a shorter stature doubly so.

Gabrielle suddenly realized he was waiting for her to be seated.

“I wanted to apologize,” she began sitting quickly

“For what?” he asked with a smile as he also moved to sit again.

“When we first met, I was a bit rude.” Before her he waved his hand light-heartedly, “that was weeks ago. Besides, can’t go to war not havin’ clothes which fit right.” His smile struck her, Gods, he was so young! He’s just a boy! Gabrielle knew she looked younger than she actually was, but this boy looked far too young to be fighting. Short cropped blond hair with brown eyes, he looked every bit an innocent.

After weeks in the field, Gabrielle felt that these men at least had accepted their presence. They were looked upon with more than just a modicum of suspicion however; the respect or better yet, the fear of Xena had caused no direct spoken comments.

“I wanted to ask where you are from.” Gabrielle watched as he smiled, perhaps recalling home.

“Virginia.” the boy answered rather wistfully.

When Gabrielle didn’t respond, he began to laugh. “You know, Virginia, the United States?”

“Oh…” was all she could manage, having no clear idea of place. This United States was rather confusing, Gabrielle wished for a map, to see what it looked like. Her eyes caught him looking at her rather dubiously and decided she better move the conversation forward.

“Come from a big family?”

“Well,” he began, while reassembling his rifle finished with his cleaning.

“My Momma remarried, an I got a step-sister an a step-brother older than me. Really, it’s just my Dad, Momma, an me.”

Gabrielle could hear the longing in his voice, could tell he missed his family terribly. She could sympathize, missing her family, especially her sister Lilia, though not as much when she was with Xena.

“How did you end up here? Long way from home.” she offered tentatively.

He watched as an encouraging smile formed on her face, a very sweet, honest smile offered to him freely.

“Well, I got drafted into the army when I turned 18, right outta high school.”

She wondered two things, what was a high school, she was sure it had to do with learning, and secondly, what was a draft. Gabrielle decided to go with a question about this draft.

“Draft?”

“Yup, got called up by the government to serve in the army, my family sho was sad to see me go. You’re right; China is long way from home.” Gabrielle watched as the boy’s sadness deepened. “Been in the army for a year now, had to do things I’m not always proud of…” his voice trailed off a bit. She watched as memories engulfed him. “I have tried to forget…” he finished pausing for a hard swallow. “Mind you, it had to be done…” he defended, as if answering some internal challenge from his conscience about his past deeds. “Just wish folks could get along, seems all we do is fight with each other.” The boy’s eyes dropped, staring down, unwilling to meet hers. “At times, I wish there was someone out there who could put an end to all this fightin’, make us get along.”

His words sounded so tragic, his pain so real that Gabrielle instinctively reached out a hand and touched him on the arm, an action which earned her a smile.

“Did the Colonel draft you?”

Thomlinson let out a little laugh. “Nah, Army drafted me, just got myself assigned here. I like the Colonel though.”

“Why is that?” Gabrielle asked, all she had seen from warlords was pillaging and destruction. This kid didn’t look like the pillaging type. Course, what did the pillaging type look like? She thought.

“He tries to look out for us, tries to keep us from getting hurt. I mean, it’s war, people die, but seems like he values us, tries to keep us alive. The first Colonel I served under in another unit was mostly interested in gettin’ himself promoted. Didn’t really care what happened to us. All he cared about was moving up, and I was glad he did only cause’ we didn’t have to deal with him.”

A warlord who had redeeming qualities? The Colonel did seem very nice and was always quite polite. Strange, Gabrielle thought, as usually warlords were a pretty nasty lot. But then, there was Xena after all, she had redeemed herself, well, mostly redeemed anyway.

“Well, got to finish getting ready for duty.” The boy’s words brought her out of her thoughts. She smiled; her face tilting upward following him as he stood.

“Hope we can talk again, maybe you could tell us all another one of them stories of yours?” He asked rather pleadingly. “I’ve never heard of half of the people in em’ but they sho are interesting.”

“Sure!” Gabrielle replied with a smile. “I’d love to.”

He found himself smiling, her kindness was contagious.

Chapter 8

“Such men as he be never at heart’s ease Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous”.-Caesar
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – Act I Scene II

Xavier sat in the plush leather chair rather anxiously.

“Did he suspect anything?” The seated officer in front of him asked.

“Of course he did!” Xavier blurted, the words came out a little too accusatory.

“Don’t forget to whom you speak Major.” The general warned.

“Sir,” Xavier began in a conciliatory tone. “Sending him out, a full bird colonel, with so few men, is going to raise his suspicion.”

The Major leaned back, the leather creaking under his shifting weight. Before him sat the commander of the 4th Army, General Dan “Drake” Mullins, his first commanding officer before Mullins was promoted and Sebastian assigned to the unit.

The General had a fine eye for furnishings. He sat behind a huge mahogany desk, with matching shelves, and richly paneled walls. Those walls were adorned with photos of him and the movers and shakers of U.S. Government. Senators, members of the House of Representatives, Governors, and, of course, him with President Buchanan, all standing next to the General, smiling wide for the camera.

“Ah, yes…” Drake murmured while leaning back in his chair. “The great Sebastian Reeves.” Contempt filled the General’s voice. “You know, in three years of war he’s racked up quite a few nicknames. What do the Chinese call him?” A humorless smile crossed the man’s face. “The Ghost… appearing, attacking, and disappearing again into the mists? “The master of maneuver”, our press calls him, out-witting opponents, single handedly saving the day like a modern day superman.” Mullins’ words ended with a definite tone of disgust.

“Or how about this one Xavier, the latest… “God of War.” He earned that one by forcing three Chinese brigades to surrender after trapping them in a closed valley. Hell, you were there! Must be hard to come out of the shadow of such a well-known hero? Especially a man like Sebastian, the guy’s got a trunk load of fancy medals. Course you’ve always been in his shadow, haven’t you? Ever since you both met at that military school, eh Xavier? Wasn’t he your squad leader back then?”

“Yes” Xavier stated angrily. His eyes attempting to burn holes within the man seated behind the desk. Undaunted Drake continued, “His shadow has kept you from achieving your own greatness.” “I can just imagine it now,” Drake taunted, “You the wide eyed cadet, him the picture of confidence.” “Sebastian beat you at everything then as he does now; he gets the glory and rank, while you sit in the shadows. You play the part of second in command quite well. Maybe that’s all you are good for Major. Second best?”

Now, let it work… Drake thought, watching his verbal barrage stab at the man before him. Xavier’s face had slowly contorted in various degrees of fury with each passing word uttered by the general.

Envy – thou art the ruin of many a man.

“By sending him out there to track these marauders, you risk exposing our arrangement!” Xavier stated, attempting to move the subject away from his failings.

“I think not.” Came the retort. “Look, I know better than anyone that Sebastian is like some dammed bloodhound when he gets his mind set on something. This will work to our advantage.”

“How?” Xavier couldn’t fathom any advantage to this situation.

“Have you considered this from my perspective? It’s gotta look like a battlefield death, I don’t want some drawn out investigation. Sebastian is known in the States, the propaganda machine has worked him into a hero.” The look on Xavier’s face expressed doubt.

“Dammit man!” Drake’s fist slammed upon the desk. “Don’t you see? Every time that fool does something heroic and gets his name in the papers back home, I’m under more pressure to recommend him for promotion! Imagine the danger we will be in with him as a general! Besides that, with his name constantly in the papers, there is no room for mine! This war is my vehicle to the Presidency! Like Eisenhower or even Kennedy!” Drake fumed, “Sebastian’s stupidly heroic exploits are taking the spotlight off me!”

“You shouldn’t have sent him on that mission to liberate that prisoner of war camp in Korea.” Xavier stated bluntly.

“I THOUGHT HE WOULD GET KILLED!” the general roared, rising up he leaned over the desk, red faced. “I DIDN’T THINK HE’D PULL THE RESCUE OFF! THANKS TO YOU XAVIER, HE SURVIVED!”

“How was I supposed to know at the time you wanted him dead!” Xavier defended vehemently.

“Listen, this is a win-win for us!” Drake got himself under control again. “Sebastian’s known for taking foolish chances. If a bullet finds him we win! Dead men can’t find out about our activities. With him outta the way the road is clear for us!”

Drake, smiled down at Xavier for a moment. “I also know you’ve become accustomed to the money these bandits are making for us by selling Chinese treasures. How does your wife like the new beach house in San Diego?”

Xavier’s eyes widened in silent acknowledgement of that truth, shipping art and other treasures out of China was making them a fortune.

“General, this scheme of yours can easily backfire” Xavier began. “Why not just transfer the man and be done with it? Any other command would be happy to accept him.”

“And let him continue to rack up successes on the battlefield and increased fame at home?” Drake countered. “No, Sebastian is a sanctimonious do-gooder, whom I detest. I’d rather him dead and out of the way.”

“Xavier, I have reason to send him to the area.” Drake agued, “Washington expects me to send my best commander, and that, unfortunately, is Sebastian. I’m under pressure having not done anything about the lawlessness of the region because it worked to my advantage in hiding my operations. Secondly, these bandits have gotten a little too big for their britches. Not content to take their cut from stealing treasures, they now have branched into the sexual trade.”

“You mean they are taking people to be sold into prostitution!” This time it was Xavier’s turn to rise out of his chair.” His anger was now unrestrained, both he and Sebastian had been witness to the horrors of the sex trade in their time fighting. “That was never part of our arrangement!” he bellowed.

“Now you find your moral high-horse, Major?” Drake laughed contemptuously.

Xavier found himself pacing, much like Sebastian did when agitated.

“You really are upset by that news?” Drake was amazed. “Who cares about some dammed bandits trafficking scrawny village nobodies? We are making a profit on every sale.”

“I never imagined it would go this far…” Xavier muttered, in contempt.

“It has… it’s even deeper than you think Major. Sebastian can’t be allowed to ruin this for us.” Drake stated calmly, offering his solution to their troubles. “So our hero Sebastian kills some bandits, taking a bullet in the process. I’ve told my contacts exactly where Sebastian will be; the mercenaries will mount a surprise attack, maybe some shot will get him. I’ve let it be known among our friends in that unit he leads that a handsome cash reward can be gained by the man who kills him. Hero dies, bandits dead. Dead do-gooders like Sebastian can’t interfere with my plans. With Sebastian gone, the way will clear for us to continue to get rich, and me to set up my run for the Presidency after the war.”

“No matter that innocents may get killed… and if this grand plan fails, mighty general?” Xavier sneered.

“Then we fall to plan “B”.”

“You bust him in rank for allowing a very dangerous, completely unknown woman into the unit?” Xavier stopped pacing, looking over at the general who laughed again.

“Has it occurred to you that this woman may just be another of Sebastian’s spies? The man has a way of attracting loyalty from ordinary peasants. Those peasants could tip him off to our activities.”

“That woman is no peasant.” Xavier warned, “She is one to be wary of.” Xavier found himself becoming more and more obsessed with the tall woman, and the trouble he thought she would cause. Sebastian had told him often to trust his instincts; right now those instincts were screaming a warning about the woman he had met back in the transit camp.

With a wave of his hand Drake dismissed the whole idea. “No, Plan B is you killing him.”

Xavier nearly stumbled back in shock.

“You want me to kill him?!”

“Oh the irony of it, eh Xavier? Didn’t Shakespeare write a play where the loyal friend kills his leader for the supposed greater good?” Drake teased.

“Julius Caesar…” Xavier spat. “This is not the greater good!” he argued. “This is avarice, this is malicious, and this is treacherous! As I recall from English Lit, things didn’t work out all that well for Caesar’s killers.

Drake didn’t want a debate on Shakespeare; rather he pulled the envy card once more. “After all Sebastian has kept you from, deep down you still have a few stirrings of loyalty.” Xavier could hear the mock admiration in the general’s voice.

“Very well…” Drake sighed. “I’d rather you do it, but I’ll offer you an out. If this woman is as dangerous as you say, perhaps make contact with her; use her as a means to an end.”

“Get her to do my dirty work.”

“Yes Major, should it come to that. Remember, unlike Sebastian, I will reward your continued loyalty with more than useless friendship. I can and will advance your career to new heights, while ensuring you have plenty of cash in your pocket. You could even be there to ride my political coattails into office… Senator, Vice-President, perhaps?”

Xavier stood looking out the windows past the General for a moment, considering his options. He found himself hoping that Sebastian would be killed by these bandits or the men in his unit, so he wouldn’t have to do it. If he were to make the attempt on Sebastian’s life, Xavier knew he would have to plan it well, as he would get just one chance to pull it off. If he gave an incentive, would this Diana take him up on his offer? Clearly the woman could kill with contemptuous ease.

“Oh… just in case…” Drake added absently as Xavier moved to salute in order to make his departure. “I’m making sure to place men who will be loyal to you only in a reformed brigade. If all else fails, they can handle the dirty work.

“Choose Xavier.” Drake began, eyes focused on the man before him. “Sebastian or me?”

A moment passed.

“You of course,” Xavier stated softly.

“We must get him out of our way Xavier. He could be our downfall.” Drake warned;

“Yes sir.”

Chapter 9

Sebastian sat watching as the two sparred against each other. He knew in a few moments he would be next. Days of getting his butt kicked, but he was learning volumes. At least in Diana and Gabrielle, he found people who liked to spar with outmoded weaponry. Xavier and his troops thought him more than a little eccentric for owning a sword. Weren’t commanders supposed to be a little eccentric? He thought Diana certainly was… least he didn’t carry some dammed ivory handled pistol like Patton had. Now that was truly… eccentric.

“Gabrielle, plant your feet apart, distribute your weight evenly.” Diana instructed, her sword moving, hitting the staff Gabrielle was holding with a dull thud. The blows weren’t anything close to full speed or full force, only meant to train. Diana was moving through each set of strikes slowly. Attack, defense, counter… over and over the sets moved, as Diana moved the pace faster, each move gaining speed.

Footsteps approached behind.

“Atapolev.”

“At your service.” a Russian accented voice stated behind him. Sebastian smiled as the Polev sat down next to him on the log.

“How’s my favorite C.I.A. operative?” Sebastian asked jokingly.

“Shhhh! Could ya keep it down, I’m working here!” Polev whispered in annoyance.

Sebastian took a moment to look at the man sitting next to him. Dressed in plan Chinese styled clothing, he certainly blended in; well, except that he was far from Chinese.

“How’s the goat herding going? Nice outfit by the way, pick it out yourself?”

“Very funny,” Polev’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he used one hand to rake his dark mustache. “I’m an undercover art buyer, by the way.” He stated in mild defense of his dress. For a moment the two sat observing the sparring session. “What? Supplies running so low, that you have people fighting with swords and sticks?” Polev quipped.

“Did you come here to tell me something Polev, or just try your hand at comedy?”

“Hey, you asked me to be here and by the way, you know your perimeter defenses have a few holes in em?” The agent spouted derisively.

Sebastian chucked. “You’re in the C.I.A. Polev, I should hope you can slip by my men and get into my camp. Don’t they teach you guys how to sneak into places in spying 101 or something?”

“You know, if you were anyone else…”

“You wouldn’t be doing me this kind of favor.” Sebastian finished.

“Seems like a fair trade off to me.” The colonel continued stretching his legs as he sat on the log. “Without me you certainly wouldn’t have passed any classes at school.” Sebastian smiled stickily sweetly over at his old friend.

“Well…” “It’s a bit more than that and you know it…” Polev said with a sigh. “If I had known you would be constantly calling in favors, I would have told you to leave me in that Korean interrogation camp.”

“Wanna go back?” Sebastian chided.

“Hell, no!” came the retort. “You of all people know what those places are like, shit; you got the lash marks on your back to prove it.” Polev knew he had brought up a bad memory by the look on Sebastian’s face and instantly regretted the remark.

“What have you got?” Sebastian’s voice became cool, detached…

“Your suspicion was right, that little village is a clearing house for stolen everything, mostly art, but I have a feeling it could be more than that. They have big ole military trucks in a large well hidden cave to the west of that Buddhist Temple. I made a deal with em, posing as the middle man for a wealthy Russian buyer.”

A thought crossed Sebastian’s mind, if these bandits knew he was in the area, why not load the art onto the trucks, clear out, and wait for him to move on. Or was it a trap?

“I see…” An idea suddenly caused Sebastian to smile. “Tell me, did you happen to notice where the keys were for these trucks?”

“Whoa, wait just a second.” Polev’s eyes flicked up into Sebastian’s. “You aren’t thinking…”

“Yes…”

“You’re gonna steal trucks!? For what purpose?” Polev didn’t wait for an answer. “Look Sebastian, they know you are lurking around out here. Don’t kid yourself, they are well armed, mortars, heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, the works. A mix of mostly American, but to include Chinese, and Russian weaponry, seems they have a good supplier.”

“Who is the supplier?”

“I couldn’t ask those types of questions and keep my cover!” Auto rasped low. “I was supposed to only be concerned with art, remember?”

“Guess I’ll have to take the village.”

“You go in there Colonel, and lots of villagers could die. Human shields and all, I’m telling you these guys ain’t nice. Look, I also think something is going on in that old temple, something bad. I couldn’t get in there to find out though. The network of caves in those hillsides goes for miles. This thing stinks, Sebastian, it stinks to high heaven, this smuggling ring has connections. You’re messing with more than you know.”

“It’s always something…” the Colonel muttered in a decidedly frustrated tone.

“I will make sure keys are in the ignition.” Polev finally added, believing he had a hunch about what Sebastian was gonna do.

“Got any more insights?” the Colonel asked.

“Yeah, you’re as ugly as ever, and I’m sick of traipsing though Western China without a good bed or a warm shower.”

Sebastian couldn’t help but smile. “Aaw, spy work getting to ya?” one elbow moved out connecting with Polev’s ribs gently.

“Look, do one more thing for me…”

“One more…” the spy began a witty comeback on his lips.

“Hush… that woman over there, dark hair.” Sebastian’s eyes moved, glancing over at the warrior.

“Yeah?”

“See what you can find out about her. Uses the name Diana, I doubt that’s her real name. Trace her description and that round weapon thing hanging on her hip and we will know who she is. That weapon is very distinctive and noticeable, might have to do some serious research in the ole C.I.A. database.”

“Right, look for a needle in a haystack.” Polev, said while giving a mock salute. “I doubt a description of a round weapon will be in any reports.”

Sebastian waited for the outburst from his friend and wasn’t disappointed.

“Wait! You mean to tell me we are having this meeting in front of people you don’t even know!” The spy could barely contain himself. “Dammit man, you want to get me killed? Xavier doesn’t even know about my real job and you have me show my face in front of them!”

“I trust them…”

“Oh ho! Well now!” Polev rocked back on the log, slapping a knee, “That makes it all alright then! Golly, thanks for the reassurance, o’ mighty master of maneuver!”

“Quit with the stupid nicknames Polev,” Sebastian’s patience was thin, his voice reflected it. “I should start charging you by the hour Sebastian.” Polev, scolded undaunted, as his fingers moved to rake his mustache once more. “Also,” Sebastian continued undeterred. “Fake some paperwork for me. Give Diana rank in the Army.”

“What!?” he spouted in a near yell of surprised shock, causing the two women to stop sparring for a moment to look in their direction. “You call yourself a spy!?” Sebastian whispered harshly while smiling at the two innocently.

“Well, excuse me Colonel, but faking rank for people you hardly know is a big deal.”

“Are you saying it can’t be done?”

Polev huffed indignation. “We are the C.I.A. remember?”

“Good, make her a Lieutenant Colonel.”

“Hell, why not a General?” the spy jibed

“Seriously, Polev, you have a future in stand-up after the war.” Sebastian’s voice started light before taking on a more serious tone. “Fake some rank, and some personal history so I don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions. Oh, and give em Greek sounding last names, make something up.”

“Why Greek?” Polev asked his face one of confusion.

“I’ve learned they are from Greece.”

“Well, this is all Greek to me.” Polev quipped. “As you wish Colonel, I will send word back, post haste.” Polev’s voice betrayed the fact that he thought the idea was dubious at best, however liberating so many undercover agents from the prisoner of war camp meant Sebastian got whatever he wanted as payback. The man had friends in key positions across the China and the U.S. “What about the short blonde?”

“Gabrielle.” Sebastian stated.

“Yeah, Gabrielle. Pretty name, fits her somehow. Is it real?” The spy asked.

“Yes, think so.”

“Let me guess, fake rank and history for her as well?”

“Yes, Polev…” Sebastian drawled.

“What do you want her history to be? Her rank?”

“I dunno!” “Be creative; make her a lieutenant or something. After all, you are the C… I… A.” Sebastian mocked, pausing between each initial for emphasis.”

“Okay…” Polev’s voice trailed off. “Be careful, would ya?”

“Getting sentimental?” Sebastian’s lips tugged at a smile.

“I’m serious Sebastian, we’ve lost far too many friends in this war, and I’d hate to lose you as well.” “I’ll be careful… Polev,” Sebastian’s eyes tracked to the man. “Buy that art; make sure those bandits load it into those trucks in the cave.” “I’ll try to get the taxpayers a good deal on the art.” Polev smirked.

With that the spy stood, moving away, slipping discreetly back into the tree line, leaving Sebastian to watch rather pensively as Diana continued to instruct Gabrielle on the art of fighting with a staff.

Chapter 10

With a loud huff of air, Sebastian once more landed squarely on his back, his sword rattling to the ground in the distance. He lay on the ground for a moment; eyes closed, trying to recover from having the wind knocked out of him.

In the distance he heard distinct a distinct yet muffled giggle.

Turning his head, he tried to manage an annoyed look over at Gabrielle as she sat on the log in the distance. The look didn’t work as the giggles intensified.

“Hey, I didn’t laugh at you, you know!” he wheezed in Gabrielle’s direction before being hauled up on his feet again by the front of his fatigues.

“Good lord! You are strong!” he managed to say to Diana, in the midst of being manhandled.

“So, I’ve been told.” she responded, moving back, swiping her polished sword at the grass absently as if from boredom. The woman hadn’t even broken a sweat!

“Xen…” The sweet blonde’s mouth snapped shut with an audible click. By Xena’s instant glare, Gabrielle instantly knew she had slipped up big. “It’s alright Gabrielle.” Sebastian stated calmly before that crushing blue eyed glare turned on him.

“Look,” he managed “We both know Diana is not your real name.”

“Oh?” the woman’s, voice rose as she clearly took umbrage at his remark.

Sebastian smile faded as blue eyes narrowed on him.

“I’m not the enemy here… Xe… n…” He smiled while drawing out her name. Sebastian hoped she’d at least tell him her real name.

“Xena.” She said curtly.

With a “Z?” Sebastian asked with far too much glee evident in his voice.

“An X.” She spat out angrily.

“Ah, first real clue as to who you are. Fits you better than Diana.” Sebastian backed away, walking over the get his sword.

“Xena… I’m sorry… I… I really tried to keep it a secret.”

The warrior kept her scowl for a moment, before relenting as Gabrielle moved close, one small hand reaching out, touching her arm gently. “I’m sorry it just slipped. We were all just having such a good time, you know?” Xena didn’t know what she was most upset about, Gabrielle’s slip or the look of delight on Sebastian’s face.

Gabrielle watched as the scowl slipped and a small smile formed.

“S’okay.” the warrior muttered.

The Colonel watched as the two women stood close, gazing into each other’s eyes. Dammit, he had gotten this new tid-bit of info after Polev had left. No wonder she had covered her real identity. With a distinctive name like Xena, she’d be easy to trace.

“Well, now…” he began, wanting to leave the two, feeling as if he were suddenly intruding on a private moment. The women suddenly looked at him as if snapping out of a trance. They both looked slightly embarrassed, having forgotten for an instant that he was even there.

Sebastian began to back away, with a polite nod. “You know, things to do, armies to run…”

“Hold it!”

He stopped, watching as Xena turned slightly, draping one arm over her smaller companion, as she raised her sword, pointing it directly at him. The woman was the very definition of intimidation.

“I wanna know what your spy said.”

“Spy?” Sebastian stated innocently, his face taking on the sweetness of an altar boy.

“Don’t play games with me…” Xena growled.

“Alright, alright…” He moved his hands up as if to ward off her rising irritation.

“Yeah, he’s a spy.” Her sword dropped

“Why meet you in front of us?” Gabrielle’s question was honest and direct. Not only was she endearingly charming, but there was a very sharp mind behind those green eyes.

“Because,” Sebastian stated for the umpteenth time, “I trust you both.”

“Why?” Xena asked…

“Because I do…” Sebastian watched as Gabrielle broke into another smile.

If you knew my history, you certainly wouldn’t trust me, Xena thought. I’ve murdered, plotted, built up false trust in those around me, all for conquest. Past images of the deeds done by the Destroyer of Nations flickered in her mind’s eye for a moment.

Still, perhaps Gabrielle was right in constantly urging her to trust this Colonel. Maybe the idea had some merit as the man seemed honorable. Of course they couldn’t just say who they really were could they, Sebastian would think them crazy.

Dropping the matter of trust for a moment, she brought up her question again, “What did he say?”

“Much…” Sebastian began. “Things you will be informed of when you attend the meeting with my officers tonight.”

“I’m not one of your soldiers Colonel.”

“Would you like to be?” Sebastian asked seizing on the opening provided by the woman.

“No.” Gabrielle’s voice cut into the conversation, causing Xena and Sebastian to look at her for a long moment. The smaller woman’s voice was adamant, Gabrielle, it seemed, wanted Xena to play no part.

“Here is my problem Gabrielle.” Sebastian changed tack, believing that if he could just convince this sweet woman, Xena would accept his offer. Gabrielle had a way of divining a person’s true intent by focusing in like a laser on the words they chose to use in argument. Qualities of a very good lawyer, he thought absently. Well chosen words, spoken with honest conviction would sway her. Sebastian had to construct the right argument.

“I’ve got two people in this camp who I know very little about.” he began after a long silence. “The longer you two stay unknown, the more questions I have to answer. Questions I have no answers for.” He looked at Xena, paused to let that bit sink in. “With rank you blend into the army and questions can be avoided. Follow my thinking?”

“It makes sense.” Gabrielle stated softly. If this would help them complete whatever they were sent here to do, then maybe what Sebastian was suggesting was necessary. A gentle squeeze on her shoulder caused her to look up at Xena, Her worried eyes meeting soft blue. I’m going to need to reassure her later, the warrior conceded inwardly as she gazed into those troubled eyes.

Xena was very aware that Gabrielle liked nothing about her moving into the ranks of this warlord, but the warrior could see the upside, she would be able to wield power. The former warlord conceded quite readily to herself that she liked the idea of power, always had. People obeying your orders without question, what wasn’t there to like about that? No better feeling in the world…

Except for being with Gabrielle.

Xena’s new life of roaming the countryside helping others was a way to atone for all the evil she had perpetrated on innocents, innocents like Gabrielle. The image of Gabrielle as one of her victims was always a sobering one. That picture alone seemed to do more now to keep her on the straight and narrow path than any of the other altruistic desires to make up for her past. Roving free, unburdened, was also good; as was the satisfaction of helping others, but yet if she were to rule, couldn’t she help so many more? Remember, the darkness, her newly minted conscience began, the vengeance upon others, the inherent corruption power brings. But with Gabrielle with me, Xena posed the internal counter argument, I would have that light I missed as a ruthless warlord, a conscience filled with goodness to guide me into doing what is right. Lyceus could have been that light. Look what happened to him, her conscience rebutted.

The warrior’s train of thought was interrupted by the expectant look on the Colonel’s face.

“Okay I accept, what do you want us to do?” Xena’s tone was wary, but resigned. She just hoped this was something they needed to do on the way of getting home again.

Xena thought she should, in all fairness, have a debate with Gabrielle in some quiet moment, a debate about the possibilities of accomplishing the greater good as an enlightened ruler. She could already hear Gabrielle’s arguments against it in her mind.

Chapter 11

“Gentlemen…” Sebastian looked up from his map for a moment. “Ladies…” He nodded in acknowledgement of the presence of the two women. As the officers turned, Xena offered a derisive smile to the group. At his side, Sebastian caught a hint of a smile from his Command Sergeant Major, Kavanagh.

“Now let’s get the introductions out of the way so we might get down to business. The Lieutenant Colonel here,” Sebastian pointed over to Xena briefly, “has been assigned by command to ensure this unit remains in top fighting shape and retains its brutal efficiency.” Sebastian continued as their eyes fell upon him once more. “She comes highly recommended, with a list of victories in battle which puts us all to shame.” Course, Sebastian had no idea if that boast was true, but his gut told him it probably was. “She’s been observing all of us, including myself, in the last few weeks and has several suggestions to help us improve. In case there is any doubt among you, she is my second in command. I shouldn’t have to mention, but I will,” Sebastian added bluntly, “that what she says goes without question gentlemen. You, and your men, will show her every courtesy her rank demands, or she will most certainly beat courtesy into you. You will treat her aide no differently, the lieutenant here.” one of his hands raised, waving absently toward Gabrielle.

As his officers turned again, Sebastian saw Gabrielle’s eyes widen in sudden shock, having been caught off guard. That action on her part almost caused him to laugh out loud. Despite her stoic features, it appeared Xena was having the same problem as well. Granted, Gabrielle as an officer was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch as the woman oozed sweetness. Still, she had a sharp mind, and with continued training, he imagined she could certainly hold her own, she definitely had an excellent teacher in Xena.

Before him was one of his most inexperienced captains and a handful of lieutenants who were charged with leading very green troops. Sebastian had wanted veterans, but command had suddenly ordered that he take these men. The Colonel was beginning to believe all these events were becoming more than just simple coincidence. At least some of his higher non-commissioned officers, like Kavanagh, had experience in battle.

“Look,” Sebastian drew their attention to the map. “Intelligence says these guys are smuggling various kinds of treasures out of China for wealthy buyers. Their base unfortunately, is this little herding village here. We will endeavor to keep civilian causalities to a minimum.” A finger pinpointed a dot on the map. “Now, I know, transport trucks of all types are here in this cave on the western side of these cliffs. The plan is simple – classic diversion.” Sebastian’s eyes met those crowded round the map. “One small detachment will sneak into the cave and steal a couple of trucks laden with stolen art.”

“Sounds risky…” Captain Bauman muttered.

“It is.” Sebastian replied. “My belief is, like all thieves interested in profit, they will give chase to try and recover the goods. Once far enough from the village, we ambush, right about here.” A finger picked a spot marked on the map by his scouts, a convergence of well-worn wide herding paths. “Meanwhile, the other half of the unit, sweeps into the village lightning fast,” a hand swept over the attack routes, “rounding up the rest of these guys before they can mount any defense.”

“Shouldn’t we just attack in force? They wouldn’t be able to withstand a full attack anyway.” Another man asked.

“And risk more of our own causalities; give them time to set up for a defensive battle, perhaps kill innocent villagers in the process?” a low voice suddenly questioned. Eyes darted back to the new second in command who stood, arms folded across her chest as she casually leaned against a tree.

“Exactly why we need this diversion, then.” Gabrielle suddenly spoke up in support of Sebastian’s plan, drawing less than pleased looks from the assembled group. She slinked back just a little, only to bump into Xena. Having the warrior near gave Gabrielle the sudden courage to glare right back at the officers.

“I will lead the group creating the diversion,” Sebastian began…

“You?”

Xena’s question gave the Colonel pause.

“Yes.” Sebastian replied, his eyebrows rising slightly in challenge

The group of officers parted before the woman as she moved closer. Graceful and daunting, Xena strode directly toward Sebastian as the group of men hastily backed out of her way. “I will ensure your diversion works as planned.” She stated succinctly.

“You?” Now it was Sebastian’s turn to ask one word questions.

“You are in charge of this entire operation, Colonel.” Xena began, her hands moving to her hips. That lovely rich silky black hair of hers shone amazingly in the setting sun. “You should stay with the majority of your men, in the attack on the village.”

Good lord! Sebastian thought. He had just promoted her, and the woman was already starting to argue with him! Something told him that were she in his place, Xena would have no qualms about taking on the diversion, leaving him back in command. Glancing behind her, he noted the questioning looks on the men, how he would handle the challenge, from the new second. Hell! He always volunteered himself to do these sorts of things, Xavier thought he had a death wish; more likely was the fact that Sebastian didn’t want his men killed on overly dangerous missions.

“I volunteer to lead the mission, Colonel.”

Sebastian’s eyes moved away from Xena for a moment. The woman in front of him didn’t even bother to turn.

“Not a chance, Jaxon.”

The other officers let out a brief, burst of laughter at the bumbling lieutenant’s expense.

“You think you can handle it?” Sebastian asked softly, his eyes meeting Xena’s

A smirk crossed her face, “Oh, I think I can handle it.” She mocked with a bit of a pout, her words stated with obvious confidence.

“Very well then,” Sebastian stated with a smile that was more challenging, than friendly. “The mission is yours madam, I leave the planning to you, whatever you need will be at your disposal. I will require only that you tell us at what time a small contingent of troops need be in position here…” Sebastian pointed to a spot on the map as Xena’s eyes narrowed on the spot indicated, “To ambush those chasing you while we begin the main attack.” The officers behind suddenly breathed an almost comical sigh of relief as the tension between two strong wills was diffused. Keeping his eyes locked on Xena’s for a long moment, Sebastian continued.

“The rest of the unit, including me, will move out tomorrow, 0800 should do.”

“Why during broad daylight?” another question popped up.

“I want those thieves to believe we are leaving the area, we are gonna make a big show of it too, highly visible. Then we double back at night. I want men placed along this ridge here, positioned in case of a counter attack by hidden bandits.” Sebastian’s finger traced upon the map as his officers crowded forward to look. “The rest will follow me into the village, for what I hope will be a very brief fight.”

“We will await a flare from you signaling us to begin the attack Madam.” Sebastian stated rather gruffly while glancing up at Xena before him.

“You know your assignments?” Sebastian asked the assembled group, pausing for a reply. “Any other questions?” the colonel asked with another pause, “Comments?” Silence.

“Very well,” Sebastian concluded. “Organize your men, memorize map positions, and be sure to know what to do.”

“Act, don’t react.” Gabrielle mumbled to herself.

“Dismissed.” Sebastian stated with a flick of his hand.

Murmuring, the officers moved away, tasked with getting men and equipment ready to move. Sebastian returned his gaze to the map, but found himself thinking of Xavier sitting back at base, probably warm and snug. Here he was in the wastelands of China, playing cop.

“Sir, might I have a word?”

“What is it Baumann?” Hazel eyes looked up to the tall Captain before returning to the map, the sun was setting and the perfectionist in Sebastian wanted to be sure of every detail in the fading light of day.

“Sir, the new officers assigned to this command…” The man paused, causing Sebastian to look up again, just as the sun left the horizon.

“What about em?” the Colonel asked distractedly, irked the daylight was fading so quickly.

“Sir, ah, perhaps you didn’t take notice.” Baumann paused again.

“What!?” Sebastian’s loud, annoyed tone caused the man to flinch.

“Well sir, the men have kinda noticed that those two, well… they are close, so to speak.”

“Close?” Sebastian prodded, understanding where the conversation was heading.

“Ah, you, you know, close?” Baumann hinted. “They ah, well… sleep…”

“And this concerns you, Captain?” Sebastian asked, cutting the man off as darkness continued to creep across the landscape.

“Yes. Not natural close.”

Sebastian visibly bristled at the remark. “Ah, I see, and killing people wantonly in war is natural? Allow me to make this clear, Captain.” Sebastian leaned in, “I am conducting an attack in a war. I have precious little time to care about whatever degree of “closeness” you are hinting these two share.”

The Colonel stepped forward suddenly, looking up with a scowl at Baumann as the man took a step back. “Let me give you a bit of unsolicited advice.” Sebastian began, “In this world, should you be lucky enough to find someone who can tolerate you, much less care about you, I suggest you hold onto them tightly, no matter who they are, because it all can disappear in an instant.”

“Drop the matter, Baumann.” Sebastian barked. “Got it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Spread the word. I don’t want it discussed.”

“Yes, sir.”

As the man departed, Sebastian couldn’t help but think of his own sister, she had been scared practically to death attempting to explain her lifestyle choices to their mother and father. He recalled Shari running her prepared spiel by him before facing their parents. Mom had wanted to be understanding, still very disapproving of her daughter, but loving her all the same. His dad wanted to hear not one word more from Shari’s mouth about who she chose to love. He expelled her from his life and the family that day, being more worried about how it would affect his potential political career more than anything else.

His sister being shut out of the family forced Sebastian to make a choice, an easy one. He had kept in touch with Shari, sending her cash to keep her in college, prodding her to do well in school, and most importantly, lending her support. It had been tough, scraping enough cash to pay for her college, taking out the occasional loans, despite her scholarships, to keep her from accumulating too much student debt. With higher rank came pay increases he could use to help her. Course Sebastian had always lived simply, which made extra money available. The unkindest cut of all had been her parents’ refusal to show for Shari’s graduation. Mom wanted to be there, dad made sure she wasn’t. Shari e-mailed him consistently, worried about him constantly. He would go see her in Boston after the war. Maybe even see the architecture firm where she worked.

Course he had to survive the war first. Suddenly the thought struck him, would it really matter if he did? Survive to fight in another war concocted by politicians. He had to admit, keeping the boy Polev had tucked into the unit safe until the end of the war was the only real motivator at this point. And up to now, he had done a piss poor job of that task. Kid was determined to be a hero.

“I’m just so very tired.” Sebastian suddenly said aloud, while bringing the map before him closer, trying to see in the fading light. It felt like he had been under intense pressure his whole life having to deal with his father.

Shari was slightly younger than he was, he being the eldest child and son. His father had always wanted him to succeed and had been overbearing, shuttling him off to Chinese, then Japanese schools. Sebastian thought it was a means for his dad to keep him out of the way. He didn’t even think his father knew, or perhaps even cared, that he had sent his son to temple schools which espoused humanistic learning coupled with martial skills. Maybe he did, after all, at 18 he was shuttled off to a U.S. military school, feeling very much like a foreigner as his whole life had been spent far from American culture.

Even his mother finally gave up, divorcing his overbearing dad, and then marrying a decent fellow. Least Shari and his newly acquired young brother by marriage had mom. Sebastian seemed to have neither parent growing up. His world was a temple school.

“Enough with the pity… and talking to myself.” Sebastian chastised. In the midst of a war zone his thoughts shouldn’t wander so. Had he not been preoccupied, he might have perceived the attentive blue eyes observing him from the deep shadows of the departing day.

Chapter 12

Gabrielle lay on her back, snuggled up in the sleeping roll, watching the stars far above the trees. The same stars, yet different, and different positions than she remembered. Odd, she thought, chalking it up to the fact that she had never been out of Greece. The stars would look different in another part of the world. It was much like this time, people were the same as far as she could tell, most were rather self-absorbed, others plain mean, same as in her time, only the ways in which these people lived were different. People never changed, even with the passage of time.

“Hey, you gonna hog the whole bedroll?”

Gabrielle looked up in the direction of the familiar voice. Outlined against the glittering stars, a dark form stood. With a cute snicker, Gabrielle dutifully scooted over, as Xena slipped into the sleeping roll. In an almost unconscious move, Gabrielle tucked her head against Xena’s shoulder as the warrior lay on her back. The tension within Xena, tension built up over the course of the day, evaporated instantly, and released in a single sigh of contentment. Others were noting this “closeness” as that imbecilic captain had stated. Perhaps an open conversation about this… this… was what they had together moving past just plain friendship?

“Xena?”

“Yes…”

“I’m worried…”

“About the attack?” the warrior queried.

“No…”

“Then about what?”

“You…”

“Me?”

“Yes, I…” the little one paused

“Come on Gabrielle, what is it?” Xena asked gently.

“Well, I just was worried; I don’t want you to like being a warlord again.”

“Not gonna happen, Gabrielle. This is a means to an end. If I can help win this battle, then maybe we are one step further to getting back home again.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle’s tone betrayed her, she wasn’t convinced, yet she pressed her small frame against Xena, snuggling up to her, feeding off the warrior’s never waning warmth.

“Hey, remember my dealings with Mezentius? Didn’t I say then that I wouldn’t fall back into my old ways?”

“Yes, I remember. Guess you are right.” Gabrielle voice was low, tipping off just how tired she was. Moments later the little one had fallen into a deep slumber, her even breaths began washing over Xena. Ah, to have a clear conscience, the warrior thought. How easy it was for Gabrielle to fall into dreams.

Xena closed her eyes, mulling items over in her mind, waiting for Morpheus to come for her. She hadn’t been entirely forthcoming; it was a bit more than a means to an end. The truth was that part of her did like having authority, Sebastian had said it himself… she had an air of command.

However, she hadn’t outright lied, with Gabrielle next to her as a guide Xena wouldn’t fall back into her old warlord behavior. She could lead, could conquer, and could rule… justly. Gabrielle would be there to help, to help control her… darker impulses… Gods! The earlier internal arguments raged again within her mind. It was all so temping! Almost as tempting as when Ares had impersonated her long lost father, all to win Xena’s returned allegiance to his ways.

“Remember Lyceus…”

As the words floated though her mind, Xena growled softly in annoyance at her niggling conscience. The situation wasn’t germane; she was so young then, foolish. She wouldn’t allow Gabrielle to be placed in the danger Lyceus had.

“But you already have put her in danger, recall the temple… she nearly died…”

Xena’s brow furrowed, though her eyes remained closed. It won’t happen again, I can protect her she thought; now I know just how much she truly means to me. Why must we live as vagabonds? Scraping by dinar to dinar? Is that the life she deserves? I could do so much more for her, for others!

I can create order, the warrior thought; I could create a better world. Look at the world as it is now, how it was in my time, divided. Such a waste! One strong will always prevails anyway. Why not my will as opposed to some complete fool? I know I’m far more intelligent, far more cunning, and have learned so much about compassion from Gabrielle. When we return to our time, couldn’t I create the foundation for a lasting just empire? End war? End suffering?

“You would be a tyrant.” Her conscience rebuked, “Forcing others to obey your command. Betraying all the gains made in your quest for redemption.”

Funny how the voice of Xena’s conscience was sounding more and more like Gabrielle.

No! It wouldn’t be like that! Xena argued back internally, I’ve learned so much from Gabrielle, I… I could be a just, merciful, gentle enlightened ruler.

“The road to Tartarus is paved with good intentions. Absolute power corrupts people. Would corrupt you…”

No! Not me, not this time, it all could be so different, Gabrielle would stop me, would help me!”

I wouldn’t be what I was.

I wouldn’t be the monster I was.

Before any further scathing self-examination could occur, sleep unmercifully claimed her.

Within the prison of dreams, she gazed on the blood soaking her hands. Blood from the thousands she had killed. Blood that refused to wash away.

________________________________________________________________________

“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war!”-Antony
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act III Scene I

The blackness of night was only interrupted by flashes of lightning from the oncoming storm.

A lone figure crept slowly along the rock face, slipping into the crevices for concealment. The two louts who had been guarding the entrance to the cave were dispatched within moments; just a two fingered push against a pressure point, 30 odd seconds later, and bodies slumped to the hard ground.

Normally she tried not to kill them, Gabrielle preferred that. They had agreed that Xena would kill only if left with no other choice. The circumstances were far from normal, and this was war…

The black camouflage she wore worked equally well in the pitch dark of the cave. The bandits were attempting to cover activities at night by not allowing any means of light unless necessary. Blue eyes hunted, easily cutting though the darkness, stealthily seeking out targets with negligent ease. Slipping between two large parked carts, the warrior’s lithe body was lit up momentarily by another lightning flash. The white light filtered throughout the cave, exposing the positions of the men. When the guards looked through the parked trucks, toward the flashes of the storm outside, the space was empty, all appeared normal.

They had spaced themselves out, using small lights to see in the darkness. Like cattle culled from the herd, they were easy pickings for the warrior.

The guard closest had his neck snapped cleanly from behind by calloused strong, yet unnervingly beautiful hands. With just a slightly audible crick, the man fell. She hadn’t used that method to kill in quite some time. The tried and true techniques learned as a warlord were still… useful.

The next found his eyes looking up into icy blue as his legs went out from under him as a lovely hand covered his mouth forcefully for the last moments of his life. He lost himself in the cold blue depths of his killer, diving into the endless black pupils. Within the blackness flames suddenly raged. Unable to move, or scream, the man succumbed quietly; the gates of the damned yawning wide, laying claim to his soul.

The last heard a soft a silky deep voice telling him to “Say hello to Hades for me.” He didn’t have time to wonder who Hades was, dying even before his body softly thudded to the earth. The last of them, six guards, two outside, four inside, dispatched in moments. Bodies easily lifted, hidden behind crates within the cave.

Xena scanned the area one more time, eyes moving over the rows of different sized parked carts. With an eerily silent step, she moved toward the outside of the cave, wanting to let the others waiting to know all was clear, wanting Gabrielle to know she was okay. The image of the little one biting her lip nervously in worry caused Xena to smile inwardly.

How she cares about me.

Loud footsteps halted her progress; mutely she slinked back into the shadows, intense eyes following as attentive ears pinpointed the location of the sound, a sharp mind instantly planning alternative actions should her handiwork be discovered.

A slight smile touched her lips as she observed the man, jingling keys, placing them in the carts or cars… whatever they called them.

The spy.

Using a small dim flashlight, Polev moved from truck to truck, placing keys in the ignition, turning them slightly to be sure they would fire up the engine when needed. He thought Sebastian was out of his mind, attempting this plan to lure these guys out from the village.

Moving around to the next truck, Polev found a hand quickly wrapped around his mouth, a knife in his throat. An ominous sounding voice whispered in his ear.

“Ah… Sebastian’s spy…”

His body shook with fear.

That wisp of hot breath caused his hair stand on end. Despite the chill of the night air, a slight sheen of sweat formed on his brow. He knew better than to struggle, if she wanted, the woman behind him could end his life.

“Now promise me you’ll be a good boy and not try anything if I release you.”

Polev quickly nodded his head in the affirmative.

“Good, cause if you do, you won’t live long enough to regret your mistake.”

Another emphatic nod of agreement from Polev caused the hand to uncover his mouth and the knife to leave his side.

“How many?”

“How many what?” Polev asked softly, turning quite gradually to face the specter which had slipped up on him. She stood before him, dark as sin. The woman’s face coated so well that only the white along with the blue of her eyes shone in the shadowy cave.

“How many bandits?”

“Look lady, no offense, but…” The next few words died as his throat was suddenly in the grasp of one very strong hand. Polev attempted to speak but one gasp followed by several gurgling noises were all that managed to escape his throat.

“Spy, I have little patience at the moment.” Xena began, “Do I gotta spell it out for you? How… many… bad… guys… are… in… the… village?” Every word was accentuated, the sentence punctuated at the end with low menacing hiss from the woman.

The hand slackened from around his throat momentarily, before dropping away completely. Polev attempted to regain some of his lost composure, one of his hands moved to his throat, rubbing it gently, while another straightened his shirt collar.

“Bout… he squeaked, before self-consciously clearing his throat. “Bout 100.” he said again in a more normal tone “There were far more, but they disappeared into the woods, this afternoon. I couldn’t get a handle on what they were doing.”

His words caused Xena to narrow her eyes for a moment. She had a good idea of what those bandits might be planning, but it was too late to change course now. Guess we’ll see how well Sebastian can improvise, she thought.

“Wait here spy.” Xena commanded, the tone of her voice serving to nail Polev’s feet to the ground. He wasn’t about to defy the woman in front of him. Slowly, with a grace he had never before witnessed, she silently moved, disappearing back into the dark which embraced her like an old friend.

“All clear.”

Gabrielle almost got a yelp of fright out before Xena’s hand gently closed over her mouth.

“Shhhh!”

“Sorry, Xena.” the small woman whispered as the hand gently fell away. Gabrielle’s eyes darted over to the four other soldiers with them. All of the men looked as if they had almost wet themselves, as startled as they were by the sudden appearance of the warrior.

“It’s clear. Let’s move.”

Creeping back into the cave, the men moved quietly to the trucks. Nine men in all, two up front, one in the back armed with a rifle, grenades, and extra ammo. As silently as possible they got into the cabs of the olive painted American military trucks. Without frills, the trucks were basic transports with massive canvas tops behind the cabs. The canvas tied at the sides was supported by a frame underneath which arched over the bed. Once in, the men waited for the go ahead from the commander to start the motors and get moving. Once Xena started her truck, they would as well, roaring out of the cave with her in the lead.

“C’mere spy…” Xena appeared again as if a wraith. One of her hands snaked up Polev’s shirt, suddenly balling it together, dragging him to the truck in which Gabrielle sat nervously waiting in the passenger seat, her eyes wide as she surveyed at all the knobs, buttons, and pedals. Polev absently thought for just a moment how it was that the small woman could manage to be so endearingly cute even wearing fatigues and camouflage face paint.

Returning to the present moment, Polev forced himself to look into the frightening azure eyes. “Lady, not that I don’t want to go with ya, but I’m not really much of one for handling big trucks and getting shot at…” Polev pleaded. “Mostly not into being shot actually, I’m a spy, not a getaway driver!”

“Shut it! Nobody said anything about you going along, spy.”

Polev suddenly smiled, his body relaxed, causing Xena to roll her eyes.

“Show me how to get this cart moving.”

“Cart?” the spy queried.

“Yeah, you know…” Xena waved her hand dismissively at the vehicle. “I wana make it go.”

“You mean to tell me, you’ve never driven a truck?!” Polev’s tone belied the fact that he thought she was kidding. That is until another growl from Xena told him she wasn’t. “Wait, you really don’t know how to drive? Fer cryin’ out loud!” Polev threw his hands up in the air. “I gotta have a talk with Sebastian about the caliber of people he sends on important missions; didn’t you know this job required driving? Who doesn’t know how to drive anyway? Don’t try to tell me you are Amish or somethin’? Only driving horses and buggies?”

Xena was about to use the fingers to the throat just to get the spy to shut up for a moment, when she heard a hint of mirth from inside the truck cab. Turning, she glared at Gabrielle for a moment. “You wana make it go?” Xena asked grumpily. Duly chastised, Gabrielle ceased, but her companion’s eyes told Xena that Gabrielle found the situation endlessly funny. “I’m sure this whole thing is gonna end up in one of her scrolls somehow.” The warrior ruminated.

“Look you poor excuse for a spy, I’ve got no time for this, just show me how to… drive!” Xena hissed, trying to use the correct word while pointing to the truck.

“Okay, okay! Here…” Polev opened the cab door softly, the interior lit from a light on the ceiling.

Clutch… brake… gas… his hand darted quickly, pointing out the strange push levers on the floor. Polev looked up to see the woman eyeing him quite suspiciously. “What?” he blurted in exasperation before it hit him. Oh for the love of…! The spy threw his hands up into the air, “How can you not know this stuff lady?! Ya act like you’ve never even ridden in a dammed vehicle before!” Polev rasped angrily in the dark cavern “This one all the way to the left side makes the truck shift gears, using that stick in the middle of the cab.” His finger moved to the center, pedal, “And this makes it stop.” And finally he pointed to the pedal on the right side. “This one makes it go.”

“Here, get in, eh?” The spy used a hand to sweep towards the cab. For an instant, Xena gave him her most devastatingly intimidating look, narrowing those eyes at him. Rattled but undaunted, Polev continued as the beautiful woman climbed into the cab and slid behind the wheel.

“Now, grab onto the steering wheel,” He watched as the woman hesitated slightly, “you know, that hoo ha right in front of you that makes the truck turn?” Xena ignored the obvious condescension from the spy. Reaching forward, she wrapped her hands on the smooth surface. “Now the key, hanging there, starts the engine.” Polev continued. Immediately one of the woman’s hands went to the dangling bit of metal hanging out of the slot. “Whoa… whoa… whoa… there! First, push in the clutch, and then start the engine.” He nodded approval as Xena’s left foot moved to the pedal, depressing it. “Now, when you do start the engine, let the pedal out slowly to get the truck rolling, once ya got ‘er moving, shift gears adding speed by stepping on the gas.” Stepping down from the running board, Polev reached to close the door.

“As soon as you get moving, I’m gonna go raise a ruckus. Get as many of ‘em chasing you as possible. Good luck.” Polev began somewhat dubiously, adding “Yer gonna need it…”

That last bit earned him another damning look from the dark haired woman as she started the engine. The other two trucks started at well, the big engines roaring to life. Xena promptly let out the clutch and the truck lurched forward, engine dying.

“Too fast!” Polev yelled out, “Start ‘er up again and let the clutch pedal out slow!” Xena fired up the engine once more. Letting out the pedal slowly, the clutch or whatever it was worked, and the cart/truck moved forward. Despite the situation, Xena couldn’t help but smile slightly as Gabrielle let out a little yelp of glee as they started moving. “By the Gods Xena!” the young woman cried out in wonder. “No ox needed!”

“Help!” the spy suddenly yelled, running from the truck. “Someone’s stealing my cargo!” Polev ran though the web of smaller caves where the thieves were sleeping. “You gotta stop em!”

All around him, men began to stir, grabbing various weapons, unsure of what exactly was happening. All they heard was a very angry art buyer who was screaming about his cargo being stolen and them not receiving payment. As the first stumbled into the cave, they watched three big trucks moving off into the grasslands.

Polev watched with a smile, as far as diversions went this one, by some miracle, looked to be having the desired effect. Walking though the semi-dark cave, he paused for a moment, eyes skirting back and forth. His fingers snapped up a few pieces of ancient jade jewelry encrusted with semi-precious stones. Quickly pocketed by deft hands, “No one’s gonna miss this.” he muttered with a smile as lips moved to whistle a tune as he disappeared into the cave network.

Inside the cab, Xena depressed the go pedal, but the truck wasn’t really gaining speed, instead there was just a huge increase of noise.

“Ya gotta shift the gears!” Tomlinson’s voice drifted up from behind in the bed, reminding the warrior of Polev’s instruction. Xena slammed the clutch pedal thing down once, and then let it up while moving the stick with the knob on top, furiously trying to get the cart moving faster. Unexplained grinding noises came from under the floor as Xena wrestled to find what Polev had called gears. Suddenly the whole truck lurched forward as evidently one of the gears was located. A quick glance over at Gabrielle found the woman holding on for dear life. “Hey, we’ve been through worse!” Xena attempted reassurance as she turned her eyes back to the countryside. “If you say so!” The words were rushed in a very loud, very worried retort by Gabrielle. A sudden bump caused both women to lift into the air momentarily. Gabrielle letting out a yelp of pain as her head connected with the roof of the cab.

“Gods on Olympus!” Xena bellowed, “How do these people know where they are going?” Squinting her eyes into the blackness ahead, the warrior thought she could make out a path.

Gabrielle looked over into a mirror attached to the door, “Xena!” “The other carts have torch light coming out of the front!” “Well…” Xena murmured, exasperated blue eyes searched franticly over buttons and knobs. Twisting a nob caused two things to move across the windshield, doing apparently nothing but scraping annoyingly.” “Ah, hold on,” the warrior mumbled, shifting gears again as the truck slammed into another huge bump. At least they were picking up speed. “Yeah!” Xena roared in triumph as the torches came on, suddenly lighting the path. She glanced over at Gabrielle sporting a smug grin, a grin that faded rapidly as Xena noted the dour look on her passengers face. “What!?” she asked in vexation, “I’m doing the best I can here ya know!” She attempted to shift gears again.

Gabrielle remained unconvinced.

In the back of the truck, Tomlinson could see more headlights appearing to be pulling up fast behind the three truck convoy. “Here they come!” he yelled, attempting to let the poor driving Lieutenant Colonel know what was happening. He had already had the wind knocked out of him being slammed against the side of the metal truck bed. The second major bump had almost thrown him out completely. Raising his rifle with trembling hands, the young soldier thought momentarily about telling the new officer, when this was all over, that she might want to brush up on her driving skills. He thought better of it considering her fearsome demeanor. That and officers always thought they could do no wrong, not wanting to hear about their mistakes from a lowly soldier like him. Course, his brother was an officer who did want to hear about mistakes, his included. Maybe the rule didn’t apply equally.

Two bullets hitting the back bumper of the truck caused Tomlinson to fire a short series of shots directly at the windshields of the oncoming little pickups loaded with men.

Suddenly the door mirror next to Gabrielle shattered as a bullet tore through it. A strong hand grasped her shoulder and she let out a yelp. Suddenly she found herself roughly pulled down, her head landing in Xena’s lap.

“Stay down!”

Gabrielle was too stunned to answer, her hands wrapping around one of Xena’s legs.

The rough terrain made for poor marksmanship as the bandits in the pursuing trucks attempted to get a clear shot. The advantage for the moment rested with the defenders, as the soldiers were able to lie upon their stomach and take aim.

Tomlinson heard Gabrielle’s shout again in the main cab and could only hope she was okay. No time to think about it now, taking aim he fired six rounds directly into the windshield of the smaller Toyota truck racing up alongside. He believed at least one of those bullets might have hit its mark as for a split second he thought he saw the windshield suddenly become coated in a spray of blood. His instincts were correct, the little truck suddenly swerved violently, right into the path of the transport behind. In an instant the steel bumper of the heavy truck connected with the Toyota’s front end. The smaller vehicle was violently slammed out of the way, pitching over; the men in the back bed were thrown as the truck suddenly went end over end finally stopping shrouded in a vast cloud of dust.

“One down…” Tomlinson muttered, his body now shaking from a surge of adrenaline. Another small truck raced up to the transport behind and he watched as two men managed to jump onto the larger truck. Barely hanging on to the side of the big transport, the bandits attempted to move forward towards the cab. Wiping the adrenaline fueled sweat from his eyes, Tomlinson pointed frantically as a lightning flash lit up the scene, attempting to get the driver’s attention. It worked, as Corporal Sanchez, the driver, threw the wheel hard over, crushing the legs of two men between the transport and the second little truck pursuing. As the little truck veered right, more rounds left Tomlinson’s M-16, slamming into the front of the little truck, releasing a puff of barely visible steam. He had hit the radiator, but doing that was not enough to slow ‘em down at the present moment. Suddenly the canvas top of the following truck peeled away, a corner had been released by the soldier inside and the wind had done the rest, tearing the top back, it fluttered in the night air. A hail of bullets erupted, moving down the bandits piled in the back of the truck, crammed in as they were; none could raise a rifle in time. The second truck’s tire blew, followed by an explosion caused by a grenade thrown into the cab. Engulfed in flame, the truck careened off the path.

Another in a seemingly endless stream of small chase trucks raced forward engine howling with exertion, it managed to navigate the rough terrain, making it past a stunned Tomlinson who watched as men leapt onto the side of his transport. Attempting the same maneuver, he released the ties holding the canvas top, suddenly the entire top tore away and before he could raise his rifle, a fist socked him directly in the jaw. Stumbling back, he just managed to grab the side of the bed or he would have been tossed out and probably ended up under the wheels of the transport following.

Xena felt a sudden sense of dread. Glancing over at the mirror, she saw a bandit hanging onto the side of her truck, a weapon in his hand. Sliding along the truck handhold by foothold, he was nearing the cab.

“Gabrielle! Grab the wheel!”

“Are you crazy? I can’t!”

“Steer the Gods be dammed thing!” Xena bellowed.

Gabrielle watched as a hand holding a weapon suddenly snaked through the open driver’s side window. A round went off, one bullet blowing a hole through the screen ahead of the steering wheel. As she lunged up to grab the wheel steering the cart, Gabrielle’s ears were filled by Xena’s piercing war cry. The warrior slammed the driver’s side door open, catching the man’s hand with the door frame, flinging the pistol away into the night. Shifting position Xena turned, balancing her left leg on the running board as her right hand grabbed the now open driver’s door.

The big transport instantly began to slow the moment Xena’s foot left the gas. The warrior landed a hard kick in the man’s side as he hung on the side of the truck, wrenching him free. Falling away, he screamed out, only to be abruptly silenced as his body went under the wheels of the smaller truck alongside the transport.

“Gabrielle! Push on the gas! The pedal all the way to the right!”

“I…” Green eyes looked over at Xena for just an instant, eyes filled with fear.

“Do it!” Xena commanded, her mane of black hair blowing wildly.

The order caused the Gabrielle to fully slide up behind the wheel while using her tip of her right toe to push the pedal down.

The sudden slowing of the truck’s momentum had allowed Tomlinson to act. He leapt forward, throwing his larger attacker back against the crates filled with stolen goods. As Gabrielle hit the gas again, the momentum went with the bandit. The man forced Tomlinson down, thick hands slid round the soldier’s neck, as he struggled valiantly to free himself.

Xena made a decision as the smaller vehicle raced up alongside again.

“Gabrielle, stay here!” the warrior shouted.

“Where would I go!?” the woman shouted back in amazement, her eyes tracking to where Xena should have…

“Xena!” She shouted at the open space where the warrior was a moment before. Craning her neck back, Gabrielle saw the horrifying sight of Xena hanging onto the hood of the small truck, having leapt moments before. “Xena!!!” Gabrielle managed to yell out again in panic, before another huge bump forced her to pay attention to the little bit of packed road the cart was rolling over as the driver’s side door slammed shut beside her.

In the back bed, the bump helped Tomlinson shove his attacker off, losing his helmet in the process. As the man lunged forward again, a knife was embedded in his gut up to the hilt. Tomlinson had the presence of mind to pull it from his side the moment the man was forced off him. He felt the man’s blood course over the hand holding the knife. Rough hands grabbed the smaller soldier’s head, slamming it against the metal bed of the truck. Before he passed out, Tomlinson twisted the blade deep into the man’s gut, the bandit’s screams sounding in his ears.

The thug behind the wheel tried desperately to get the woman in front of him off the hood by violently throwing the wheel back and forth. Still she managed to hold on! He watched as an evil sneer formed on her lips. The driver imagined that was the type of scornful smile the devil would use in welcoming new souls into hell. In a flash of motion, she was above him, on top of the cab, leaping into the crowd of men in the back bed, backhanding them, tossing them, and kicking them out of the cart as room allowed. In groups, they landed in the grass, several breaking bones as they tumbled along the ground, carried by momentum.

A gentle tap upon the back window caused the driver to look up into the rear mirror into the chilling eyes of the raven haired woman. Glass abruptly shattered and a dagger’s blade swept across his neck. His hands left the wheel moving upward, vainly trying to halt the flow of blood.

Gabrielle caught sight of the small truck suddenly veering away then crashing on the side of the road.

“Xena!”

Without a second thought, she slammed her foot onto the middle pedal, locking the wheels of the cart and almost sending it tumbling over as it careened to a stop in a cloud of dirt, the engine lurching violently as it died. Behind, the other trucks managed to come to a halt. By the narrowest of margins, they missed plowing into the back of the truck ahead. Still, Gabrielle managed to knock her forehead pretty hard on the steering wheel. For a long moment, she sat getting her bearings, the daze slowly leaving her.

“You’re a worse driver than me.”

Gabrielle eyes filled with tears as she took in the sight of Xena standing on the sideboard, looking in at her through the driver’s side window.

“Thank the Gods!”

Gabrielle flung the door open as Xena stepped back, her boots touching the packed ground. Small arms wrapped the warrior in a tight embrace.

“I thought…”

“I’m okay Gabrielle…” The little one felt a strong arm envelop her as fingers moved over the developing bump on her forehead, checking to see if she was okay.

For a moment, the two stood in the torch lights of the trucks as soldiers positioned for an ambush in the grass moved forward, surrounding them in the near darkness, a red flare suddenly went up into the night sky.

“Damnedest thing I ever saw!” Kavanagh’s words caused Xena to look away from Gabrielle for a moment. “Ya didn’t even need us, wiped em all out before you even got here!”

“No… some of those bandits may still be alive…” The warrior’s voice became more ominous. “I want you to pick some men, and then move back along the road,” Her voice dropped to a chilling low, “and kill any bandits still alive… kill… them… all.”

“Understood?”

“Yes Ma’am.” The Sergeant’s voice was solemn. Calling out names, fifteen men were picked and the group moved off, leaving the two women alone for the moment.

“Xena?! You, you can’t just order them killed!”

Gabrielle’s voice illustrated her emotions, first showing shock at what the warrior had commanded, and then changing to resolve.

“I can and will…”

“Xena, it’s not right! They’re probably hurt!”

“Listen to me!” The Warrior Princess snarled. Before she blurted out something she would regret, Xena took a long moment to calm her emotions. “Gabrielle, you have such a good heart.” She finally began in a conciliatory tone before her voice turned icy. “Those men wanted to kill us, wanted to kill you. They…”

“So you get to decide who lives and dies?” Gabrielle’s biting question, cut directly to the heart of the matter.

“Yes!” The warrior hissed curtly. The look Xena gave her unnerved Gabrielle, hardness suddenly filled blue eyes, the usual warmth toward her replaced with coldness. “Right now there are no good choices, only lesser degrees of evil.”

With that Xena stepped away, roughly brushing past Gabrielle.

“Captain Baumann.”

“Yes Ma’am?”

“Change of plan. Those bandits are going to counter attack the village; I am going to take the rest of these men, slip behind them, wiping ‘em out when Colonel Reeves forces their retreat. You will go with me, after ensuring our men in the trucks are alright.”

“Counter attack?” Baumann stated skeptically. “The Colonel already knows about the possibility of a counter attack. “Our orders are to proceed directly to the village.”

“Like I said Captain,” Xena’s patience was ebbing with every moment. “I am changing the plan.” She growled. The man was not to be put off. “With all due respect Ma’am, the Colonel wants…”

“Who is in command here?” He felt her fingers under his chin, suddenly they clenched down painfully, twisting his head so his eyes looked directly into hers.

“Who… is… in… command…. here?” Xena asked again in a low menacing tone, punctuated by another flash of lightening, followed by a slow rumble of thunder.

“Y- Y-You are Ma’am.”

Baumann watched as a slow smile touched the woman’s lips, a decidedly unfriendly smile.

“Correct Captain. Now move!”

Chapter 13

The red flare went up as the rain began, standing in stark contrast to the murky blackness of the night.

The troops moved as one.

Sprinting down the slope, 100 men swooped down, entering the village on two sides, catching the bandits completely by surprise. Many died where they stood, unable to grab a weapon in time. From hovel to hovel the men moved, searching for any bandits who might be within. The troops found frightened villagers, grasping onto one another, shivering as they clung together in small groups. Holding on to each other being the only safety they could manage to find in the mist of such chaos.

Sebastian caught sight of the bandits attempting to retreat into the cave opening, the entrance to the Buddhist Temple

“Cut them off!” he bellowed, gesturing to his men.

Caught in a blistering crossfire, the bandits fell with nary another step forward.

“Lieutenant! Take two squads, get in that temple, and root out any enemy left inside.”

“Sir.” was the Jaxon’s only reply as he hustled in the most ungainly run imaginable toward the temple.

“I liberate this village in the name of the Republic.” Sebastian muttered rather absently as he checked his pistol to be sure it was ready.

Too easy… the young Colonel thought. Swiftly a chill caused by pure dread filled his whole body.

Sebastian immediately went on the move, shouting orders, moving through the scattering men. “I want a perimeter set up here and here!” Sebastian pointed. “We need defensible positions. Interlock your fire positions toward that ridge. Get that 50 cal set up! Line up those Claymore mines there to cut em down as they come down that slope.” Men scattered with urgent purpose.

In the mist of moving toward the temple to redeploy the men inside, Sebastian halted, looking down he noted his Lieutenant crouching silently beside over the body of a dead man as the rain pattered against the ground.

“Are you hurt Jaxon?”

“Jaxon?” Sebastian voice up ticked in volume.

“N-no sir.”

“What is it then?” he asked impatiently.

“I…”

Sebastian nodded, mostly to himself, in understanding as he monitored the progress of the men as they made preparations for a possible attack. The young lieutenant was crouched over what was probably his first kill in war. “Would have been him or you… I’d rather it be you that survived.”

“Unfortunately…” Sebastian began as he helped the lanky man to his feet. “You don’t have time to think about it now.” Grabbing Jaxon’s shoulders from behind, the Colonel shoved him roughly toward the men entering the temple. “Focus your mind on the present situation; if you survive this fight, then you can wallow in reflection.”

Sounds of battle came from the ridge, the distinctive sounds of weapons, and the screams of men. White flares suddenly illuminated the night sky as men clashed within the tree line.

Sebastian knew by the sound that his defensive line was breaking. What had happened? The position was solid and should have held. It had to be the inexperience of his men in stopping a fast counter attack. A sinking feeling enveloped him, these so called bandits were far too well trained and there were more than he expected. The whole exercise had been a trap to lure him into the village, then attack. Easy to see that, but the training of the bandits was higher than what a simple band of thieves should be. Sebastian wished he was up there, fighting alongside those men, rallying them to stay in place, getting the satisfaction of wiping out some of the enemy before they killed him.

He couldn’t…

Forced to stay with his own men in the village Sabastian waited, knowing the battle would come to him. When the attack came, he would be sure to exact vengeance for those men dying on the ridge.

Running, he crouched next to the sergeant holding the detonator. “Steady…” Sebastian whispered next to the man as the shadowy bandits appeared at the edge of the slope. His set rifle teams within the village opened up, scoring hits forcing the bandits to crouch down back amongst the trees.

“Steady…” Sebastian said again as the man beside him fiddled with the detonator slightly. “Wait for them to mass together, to make a run for the village.”

On cue, a huge crowd of men broke for the village. Screaming and firing wildly, they approached over open ground. A mistake… Sebastian heard the distinctive sound of the .50 caliber machine gun opening up.

“NOW!” the Colonel roared, and the Sergeant squeezed the detonator. Mines stuck into the ground on metal stakes went off, sending waves of shrapnel horizontally through the air, jagged bits of metal tore through the approaching men. On the ridge beyond, Sebastian heard the sound of Claymore mines going off in a second explosion, probably wiping out enemy reinforcements moving up behind the first force to sweeping into the village. It seemed part of his defensive line had managed to hold.

His own Claymores had easily taken down many of the opposing bandits. The other half, bleeding and mangled, had managed to make it into the village. Close in fighting now occurred. As the lightning storm reached its peak, men driven by adrenaline and bloodlust railed against each other in waves. So close that aiming a rifle was near impossible.

Flipping one man over onto his back, Sebastian grabbed his dagger out of his boot and struck at the edge of his attacker’s Kevlar armor, the thin blade slicing into the heart through his ribcage. A spray of blood trailed behind the blade as Sebastian removed it. With negligent ease, the same dagger was tossed, embedding itself into the leg of another attacker, enabling his soldier to gain the upper hand in the fight. In moments the bandit was hit across the face with the butt of a rifle, falling back, the enemy was shot, losing blood rapidly, he lay screaming amidst the chaos of the fighting. Lasting for only a few moments writhing alone on the ground before death stilled him.

The enemy, sensing the tide of battle turning, struggled to extricate from combat and run. Sebastian moved forward almost casually, grabbing his dagger out of the dead man, then using his pistol to kill any enemy foolish enough to charge him, many did… too many. Close aimed bullets whistled past his ear as he continued walking, eyes alternating between the enemy rising to challenge him and the bandits who were bolting away in mass. Most were cut down by machine gun fire as they ran across the open field, desperately attempting to get to the safety of the tree line. Sebastian guessed roughly a quarter made it. He grunted in dissatisfaction as some of the bandits had managed to elude either death or capture.

“I want this village secured.” Was the only order issued as Sebastian slowly made his way up the long now muddy slope to the ridge where his men had been placed. Arriving at the ridgeline as dawn began to light the horizon, he scanned the carnage for only a moment before bellowing orders to get those who could be saved back to the village. Those who had been killed eventually would have their bodies transported back to base, then home to families. Families that would mourn a loved one, lost to the vagaries of a war thousands of miles away from home.

“Lieutenant Morales.”

“Sir?”

“As the only officer surviving; you will organize a defense on this ridge as we get the wounded back to the village.” The man was clearly overwhelmed, but Sebastian didn’t many options as they were stretched very thin.

“Do you think they will attack again sir?”

“No, they ain’t coming back,” After a long pause Sebastian added, “The rest of them got away. Just organize the defense in case I’m wrong. Send out what scouts you can to make sure what’s around us and I want a full report detailing everything that has occurred.”

“Yes Colonel.”
_____________________________________________________________________

Xena’s lips parted as a devilish smile revealed perfectly white teeth.

The bandits were moving directly toward them. Loudly moving though the soggy terrain, nursing injuries, conversing noisily, trying desperately to figure out what to do next, they clearly wouldn’t expect the ambush she had set up. The only hitch in the plan was that Baumann and his little detachment had been… lost.

“Gabrielle, I want you to stay here and stay down.”

“Xena, I can…” her companion began in a whispered protest.

“No, stay here,” the words came out quite a bit harsher than Xena intended. Gabrielle’s scowl at her was proof. “for me?” the warrior added far more gently.

Gabrielle still didn’t like the idea, but acceded to the request. “Okay.”

“Xena.”

“What?”

“Please don’t kill them.”

The warrior let out a long painful sigh and closed her eyes. How could she convince Gabrielle that killing in war is a necessary evil?

“Gabrielle, they are the enemy.” Xena began.

“Are they our enemy?”

The warrior bit her lower lip, Gods! Gabrielle was not one to give up. “Listen, we must get home. I told you, if this is the path we have to take, I will gladly take it. I assure you, they would show us no mercy, and as difficult as it is, we mustn’t either.”

“Couldn’t we at least try? You know, to reason with them?” Sweet green eyes caught the light of the new day as Gabrielle meet Xena’s stern gaze.

“No, if there were any another way, I would do it.” Xena’s eyes tracked to the oncoming bandits, feeling Gabrielle’s eyes still locked upon her. That nagging conscience popped up again within the warrior. Are you so sure? What if she’s right? It asked within the confines of Xena’s thoughts. What if there is another way? Or are you settling back into the old darkness? Practicing warlord ethics?

The warrior pushed such thoughts aside with a slight shake of her head; this was no time for moral arguments! “The world is not always as we desire it Gabrielle.” Xena stated firmly yet gently. With a gesture, she began the attack.

It was a lopsided, straightforward affair. Men packed together always made for an easy target.

Finding the rifles these men used to be cumbersome and worthless. Xena preferred to use her sword and chakram as well as the occasional dagger. These modern fighters were too reliant upon their technology. Tried and true techniques, learned, practiced, and applied efficiently would always make the difference in battle.

The moment the ambush began, Xena’s techniques in the art of war were on full display. The lead bandit was impaled by a dagger to his neck. Instinctively reaching for the blade, he managed to yank it from his throat even as he took his last breath. Dulling eyes beheld the weapon in his hand as he lay upon the earth. A quite beautiful, yet worn, silver inlaid engraving of a large “X” was prominently displayed in the middle of the handle.

Chapter 14

“Alert those incoming Medivac helicopters and get a landing zone set up.”

Most of the men who could be treated were being readied for the long flight back to a surgical hospital. Sebastian wiped his hands with a red tinged rag, absently noting how difficult it always was to get dried blood out from under fingernails.

“I see you survived…”

Turning, Sebastian took in Xena as she approached with the men she had picked to ambush the bandits running from the battle. Covered in dust and dirt from the fight both she and Gabrielle had been in, Sebastian noted that the dark haired woman’s hands were tinted the same shade of red that was under his fingernails.

“Well, that’s a warm greeting.” he stated sarcastically. “Casualties?”

“None with the first group that went on the first attack with me,” Xena stated flatly while a hand moved to itch her cheek. Moving her hand back she frowned at the charcoal black camouflage residue on her fingers. “Don’t know about the second group.”

“What do you mean the second group?” Sebastian queried.

“After the chase,” The warrior began gruffly. “I ordered Kavanagh to take a detachment and go back and eliminate any of the surviving marauders.”

“You mean murder…” Gabrielle stated softly while staring down at her boots, yet not so softly that both Xena and Sebastian couldn’t hear her words.

“Gabriellleee!” the warrior growled. Before she could say more, Sebastian cut in.

“And then?” he asked pointedly.

Gabrielle was both shocked then angered that the Colonel didn’t seem to care that men, albeit thieves, had been summarily killed. Sure they were bad guys, but murdering them outright was plain wrong.

“I took the rest of the force, calculated the route the bandits would take when you beat them back and set up an ambush. It would appear your Captain Baumann and his men got… lost.” Xena emphasized the word lost, indicating she didn’t see how that could have happened.

“Brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” for the first time since the operation began a wide smile graced Reeves’ exhausted features. “Not only did you surmise what these bandits were up to, you knew what to do.”

Tired of witnessing the fawning admiration in the Colonel’s eyes for Xena’s efforts, Gabrielle vented her anger. “Don’t either of you two care that men were just… just killed outright?!” Gabrielle would no longer hold back. Her eyes met Xena’s, and despite the warrior’s obvious glaring disapproval, Gabrielle wasn’t about to back down. “What about respect for life, about justice?”

“Much has happened to this unit in the three years of this war before you two happened along.” Sebastian countered. “There is no respect for life in war. You want justice?” He asked Gabrielle patiently, his own lofty idealism having crumbled long ago. “The man with the gun delivers justice here.”

Suddenly Sebastian turned to walk toward the entrance to the old temple. “Walk with me if you will?”

Moving quickly, the Colonel moved up the worn path toward the stone steps of the temple. Those villagers nearest his path immediately dropped onto both knees as he approached with Xena immediately to his right and Gabrielle trailing slightly further behind.

“Qǐchuáng!” Reeves bellowed out, causing the villagers to look up at him wide eyed. Stepping to one side, he grabbed a boy by his shoulders hauling him up to his feet. “Get up!” He ordered again in Chinese.

“Can’t you see how scared they are?” Gabrielle challenged.

“Yes, seen that look a thousand times.” Sebastian replied in what Gabrielle found to be an unnervingly conversational tone, “Still, I won’t have them kneeling before me like I’m some sort of…” “Conqueror.” Gabrielle supplied, cutting the man off before he could finish the sentence.

“Aren’t you though?” She challenged.

Gabrielle’s pointed question gave Sebastian pause and the man stopped walking. Next to him Xena visibly stiffened, her teeth gnashing together in anger. Slowly the warrior looked back over her shoulder to stare down at Gabrielle, who most certainly knew that term was one of many applied to Xena when she was a warlord.

“At the moment, yes,” Sebastian answered in a dejected voice, before starting to walk forward again. “Come, I have something I need you to see.”

Gabrielle stood defiant as Xena continued to glare at her for a moment more before resuming her walk to the temple. With a sigh, the smaller woman followed.

Stepping into the dim recess, the three stood, eyes adjusting to the light. What she witnessed before her caused Gabrielle to gasp in horror.

Huddled in a shivering mass on the floor, pressed against the side walls of the temple, were groups of people dressed mostly in rags. Just children really, they looked to have been beaten repeatedly, many with wide bruises and a few with deep cuts running along their bodies. Wide terrified eyes darted to and fro as soldiers moved around them. If approached by one of the Colonel’s men, they would shrink back, filled with pure dread, shaking uncontrollably as the men attempted to treat their injuries.

“Who… who are they?” Gabrielle managed as her heart broke in sympathy for the huddled mass before her.

“Victims of human trafficking,” Sebastian stated with a shake of his head. “The bandits make a profit on each body sold.”

“Slavery.” The complete scope of Xena’s anger was mirrored in the way she said that one word. Exactly the thing she had saved Gabrielle from when she took on Draco’s men. 2,000 cycles on and it still existed, humanity hadn’t changed.

“Essentially yes,” Sebastian offered. “Each one of these unfortunates would have been sold to the highest bidder, most likely to be used as sex objects, be it in a brothel or somewhere else.” Compassion caused Gabrielle to move forward, gently she pushed past Xena to stand in front of the taller woman.

“So…” Xena’s velvety voice was suddenly close to Gabrielle’s ear. “Still think it wrong to have killed those responsible for this?” Before Gabrielle could think to answer, Sebastian placed one hand lightly on her shoulder.

“Do you think you can help dress their wounds?” he asked.

“I… I… don’t even know the language…” Gabrielle began.

“No,” Sebastian conceded, “but I’ve watched you these last weeks, you know the language of compassion better than anyone. Look at ‘em, rightfully alarmed by my men. You have a far better chance of reaching them, just by showing the compassion which comes so natural to you.” Gabrielle took a moment to look back and up into Xena’s eyes. Amazing, Gabrielle thought, how the very eyes which had glared at her moments ago had softened. “G’wan.” the warrior stated softly. With a deep breath, Gabrielle moved, diving into the suffering all around her.

“What will become of them?” Xena asked, her voice lowering as she stepped nearer, standing alongside Sebastian watching the man shake his head with sadness. “For now, I can get them fed, take care of physical wounds, and get them to a temporary care facility. The army won’t spend too much effort on them with a war on and millions displaced. If no relatives are found, they will simply be released when strong enough, having to fend for themselves.”

“Pillaging is one thing; armies have been doing it since time eternal.” He began unapologetically. “In the vastness of war, stealing of items can be easily overlooked. In the sea of blood which surrounds us, no one will give a damn about ancient Chinese art until well after the war. Human trafficking is quite another. A group selling kids into sexual slavery for profit.” Reeves stated. “Since I’m the law here for the time being, I want to get to those who ordered this.”

Pure rage overtook the warrior, although her face became a stoic mask, inwardly she fought to contain the urge to lash out at anything and everything. Xena had no reservations about having killed these bandits, now only wishing she would have had more time to torture them before doing so. She would make up for it when she found their overlords.

“Colonel?”

“Yes Sergeant?” Reeves stood with his back to the man.

“E.T.A.” on the next group of helicopters is 20 minutes.”

“Good, you know the drill, next set of wounded men, and then we start evacuating these kids.”

“Yes sir.” The man paused “Ah, Captain Baumann has returned with sergeant Kavanagh in tow.”

Turning, Sebastian glowered at the man. “About dammed time,” He grumbled, striding out into the daylight again. “Tell him to get his ass over to me immediately!” Xena was left to wonder about what helicopters were. She figured like everything else, the knowledge would come soon enough.

Taking a moment for a protective look in Gabrielle’s direction, Xena noted the rather fierce glance she received from her companion. Well, as fierce as beautifully cute Gabrielle could manage. Still, it expressed exactly what she thought of these latest developments and Xena’s role in them. There was a small fissure between them, the warrior could feel it. Two people with vastly different views on how to deal with the situations they had found themselves in. Xena ran long fingers through her hair, letting out a sigh of frustration as her eyes cast downward, absently studying her boots for a moment. She needed to talk with Gabrielle, however being sure to really listen to her concerns, to not continue to so hastily decide on matters. Doing such would only cause the fissure between to widen into a chasm.

At times, Gabrielle could be maddening, always debating the right course of action, listing the pros and cons. So unlike me… Xena thought, I rush in where others fear to tread. Their personalities could not be any more different, so opposite in many ways, yet they somehow meshed with each other.

Leaving those thoughts, the warrior focused on the present. She was tired, a tad hungry, desired a bath, and unfortunately, couldn’t have any of those things at the moment. Stepping forward, Xena waded into the mass of the wounded, only to find that things were very well in hand. She could see that patients were categorized by the extent of their wounds. Clean linens were used; wounds were uncontaminated, “Not bad.” Xena grunted, after spending some time observing the techniques, her own recent actions in the temple of Asclepius springing to mind as she wandered looking over the wounded. Finding a basin of clean water, she stooped for a moment to wash the blood from her hands and the gunk off her face.

Scanning the area, as she wiped her face dry, Xena noted one villager who hadn’t yet seemed to have gotten any treatment. His rather large form sat huddled against the far wall of the temple, clothing torn and quite bloody, his face obscured by the simple Chinese hat designed to protect from the sun. Slowly she moved toward him, not wanting to startle the man, yet annoyed as to why he hadn’t been assisted at all. Those thoughts dissipated the moment her skin began to crawl.

“Ares…”

The brim of the hat tiled back to reveal the face of the dark god, who smiled brilliantly up at the warrior. “What is it about me? You always know seem to know when I’m around. I must have quite a presence.”

“You say presence, I say stench.”

“Ow!” The god stated in mock hurt, while moving to stand. The peasant rags suddenly morphed into the deity’s trademark black attire.

“How dare you drop us into a situation we had no knowledge about! With people we know nothing about!” Xena growled stepping forward while one of her hands moved, one long finger pushing accusingly into the Ares’ chest.

“Look, I’m sorry, I truly am,” he began.

“Right, sure ya are.” Xena countered sarcastically.

“Xena, it had to be done that way, I couldn’t risk letting the fates in on what was happening by flagrantly using my powers. Besides…” his voice trailed off as he took her hand in his, running one thumb over her luscious fingers, before raising them to his lips for a gentle kiss. “You seem to be doing quite well.”

The warrior felt the War God’s power flowing around her in waves, the intoxicating, addicting feeling of pure supremacy which rolled down her entire body. Despite herself, Xena let out a pleasured sigh, closing her eyes, as Ares’ dark influence touched every fiber of her being.

Suddenly she came to her senses, jerking her hand away. Stepping back, she regarded him with narrowed eyes, her mind disgusted by his charms, her body hating the loss of feeling the new space between them generated. Instinctively she turned her back on him.

“Xena, Xena, Xena…” Ares mused. “Why do you fight what you know to be true? You were always destined to lead. Here you are playing the dutiful second. And…” the god added mockingly, “You playing second is oh so cute, by the way. Why not just take command and be done with it? Not like you haven’t done such a thing before.”

“You don’t control me Ares.” She countered tersely.

“No one can.” The god admitted while sliding closer to her turned back. Her body began to respond again to the power emanating off him in waves. His hands moved up, touching her shoulders, causing her to sigh as the feelings returned in full force.

“Your thoughts betray you. There is a part of Warrior Princess who desires to rule.”

“No…” Xena managed weakly.

“You’re Xena, You’d end war, end suffering…” Ares used the old temptation.

Flashes of memory, well known to the warrior, flickered across Xena’s consciousness.

The Destroyer leading armies, fighting with skill, bending the world to her will, and annihilating those who dared to oppose her.

Abruptly Xena pulled away again, as the image of a very disappointed Gabrielle suddenly appeared in her mind. Ares sighed in frustration behind her. “Always back to the short annoying blond aren’t we? I don’t get what you see in her.”

“Leave it be Ares!” the warrior threatened

“Jeez,” he complained, “for somebody who hasn’t even consummated this budding relationship, you sure have feelings for her.”

“Drop it!” Xena commanded, unnerved that he picked up on her feelings for Gabrielle, feelings she was struggling to get a handle on. “My choices are my own! Certainly not open to debate by you!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he began dismissively, “you forget I know your thoughts, Warrior Princess. It’s sweet you want to spare Gabrielle’s innocence and youth. Still, you can’t deny that you have thought of returning to your warrior ways.” Ares began, shifting the conversation back. “I, of course, applaud the idea, my Warrior Princess, no…” Ares paused with a grin “My Conquering Warrior Empress, who one day will rule an ever expanding empire.”

“So, this was just another trick to get me back, Ares!” Xena spun around, anger filling her eyes. “That’s all it was! You worthless bastard!”

“No!” he countered forcefully. “Listen to me!” he bellowed, “I’ve never lied to you. I’ve done much I regret in my dealings with you, mostly trying to force you back into the fold underhandedly… but… I have never lied to you.”

Xena considered his words, her anger abating just a bit. They were truthful, even tinged with what amounted to a second unexpected statement of apology in so many minutes.

“What I don’t understand, is what you get out of this.” She asked, hands moving to her hips as she glared at the god.

“Never could fool you, Xena. You know me so well.” A brilliant smile graced his dark features once more. “Why, I get a continuation of this war of course! It’s so delicious! Think of it, back in time, wars were usually a pretty local affair, petty stupid warlords, squabbling in little ole Greece. In this time, war involves millions! It’s become a whole industry built solely on death and violence! What War God wouldn’t like that?”

“Then why have me stop it?”

“Xena…” Ares’ tone became one of gentle scolding. “I said I wanted you to help stop the world from ending, not stop this war.”

“You conniving, manipulating….” Xena roared. Her intense glare of hatred forced him to hold up his hands in mild surrender. “It all fits now! You started this whole war and now it’s spun out of your control! The Fates aren’t even involved!”

“Whoa. Whoa… hold on!” he pleaded. “Yes they are!” he protested.

“Oh no!” the warrior bellowed, advancing one menacing step toward the god. “So things got a little out of hand and I’m supposed to help you clean it all up!”

“I can’t betray who I am, any more that you can Xena. I’m The God of War, how could I not want conflict? Or want it to continue? Sure, I helped get the ball rolling, just like every other war I’ve helped start.” He raised his hand, palm upward as if to illustrate his contriteness. “The problem is that these people have a weapon that is absolutely majestic in its destructive power, yet so destructive it can end all life.”

“Quit speaking in riddles Ares!” Xena challenged.

“I’m not, as you will soon see. You are in the right place at the right time Xena. The world will end unless events can be changed.”

“Yeah, the events you set in motion!” Xena bellowed. “You’d think Gods would know about unintended consequences!”

Without warning, Ares leaned up against the back wall of the temple, looking very tired.

“Are you alright?” Xena asked harshly, yet her face betrayed real concern, which caused Ares to smile.

“I’ve got to go…” the deity stated in a huff of breath, not wanting to expose his and every other Olympian god’s weakness, no worshippers, no temples, no power. Only the power from the previous fighting around him kept his powers at a minimum.

“One last thing Xena.” Ares managed, “I know you love the blondie,” Ares said the word love as if naming a terrible disease, “and she undoubtedly loves you, and is loyal to you. But… you should trust Sebastian, he wouldn’t ever dream of betraying you. Unlike so many other people, the word betrayal is not part of his vocabulary. I guess, were I interested in such things,” the god prefaced, “I’d be inclined to look upon his sappy loyalty, as a real strength. Plus, he’s smart. Of course, no mortal can match that razor sharp mind you have Warrior Princess.” Despite the patronizing smile, the look in Ares dark eyes, told her he wasn’t just offering flattery.

“You could use Sebastian Xena.” Ares stated with a hint of a smile.

“Imagine what it would have been like, having someone with his qualities second to you in your warlord days, eh?” Ares continued rather conspiratorially, “All you ever had next to you Xena were scheming, backstabbing small minded little men who did more to keep you from fulfilling your own destiny than anything else. You couldn’t run everything personally in your ill fated attempt to conquer the known world. You had to place some trust in others to do your bidding. And what became of it? They constantly betrayed you.” He stated smugly, answering his own rhetorical question. “Darphus even went so far as to have you run the gauntlet in his betrayal.” Ares smiled arrogantly as he noted Xena’s face twist in rage from the memory he had helped dredge up.

“If you had just fulfilled your destiny Xena, the destiny to rule the world, this chain of events we find ourselves in never would have happened.”

“You don’t know that for certain…” A slight touch of uncertainty flavored Xena’s voice.

“Don’t I?” Ares countered. “Why do you think I try so hard to win you back? To help you find your true self again. To have you fulfill your true destiny.”

Ares managed to force himself into a standing position with great effort. Xena found herself in the very odd spot of holding back from grabbing the deity to help him up.

“You and I both know your own destiny, my warrior, can only be achieved when others fully submit to your most formidable will. Why, Gabrielle could even be there to help you rule… wisely.” He conceded with a bit of a sneer. “A just lasting empire…” Despite herself, Xena allowed the god to raise her hand to his lips again to press a gentle kiss to her fingers as a parting gesture. She was surprised that the feeling of power that always flowed from him was far less pronounced. “Sebastian could be a great help to you, He is just pawn, a means to an end.” Ares paused before he added the word “Empress…” in an ever so sensually seductive tone.

“Funny thing…” he finished with a gleam in his dark eyes. “How our greatest strengths, can be used against us, to become our greatest weakness.”

With a muted blue flash he was gone.

Xena let out a long calming sigh, attempting to expel the effects of Ares’ presence from her mind and body as her now unsupported hand dropped limply to one side. She hated his scheming, his manipulating, yet was still drawn to him by the simple fact that she was a warrior and he the War God. The power which surrounded him was… exhilarating.

Ares was offering clues as to what she should do in his usual cryptic manner; never would he just come out with what had to be done to fix his mess. Xena closed her eyes, rolling back Ares’ words, pondering his intended meaning, trying to sort through all the garbage he always spouted to obfuscate his true message

“Xena?”

A small hand on her forearm and the warmth which spread from that touch pulled Xena from her thoughts. Blue eyes took on a deeper hue as the warrior gazed down.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Xena replied with a huff of breath, “Just had a chat with our favorite War God.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened big as saucers as she looked up at Xena, causing the warrior to smile.

“Wha-What did he say?” “I didn’t see anything… what does he want us…”

A single elegant finger pressed upon Gabrielle’s lips, silencing her.

“You and I will talk about it later, away from listening ears.”

That same finger moved to touch the cute little tip of Gabrielle’s nose for just a moment.

“Okay?” Xena asked softly

“Kay,” An even softer response.

Chapter 15

“Will wonders never cease?!”

Gabrielle’s tone of amazement caused Xena to smile as they both watched the bladed machine rise up into the air carrying the last of the victims of the marauders who had controlled and terrorized the village. The late afternoon light glinted brilliantly off the metal as the bird moved off into the distance. Before that, another huge metal machine had flown over. It had blades spinning as men inside pushed huge pallets out the back. Parachutes, as Sebastian had called them, allowed supplies to reach the ground without being damaged. What Xena saw before her was proof of what she had always believed. Someday, humans, using their own intelligence, would free themselves from the influence of Gods.

“Colonel?”

Sebastian turned and eyed the man, clearly unhappy.

“Baumann, when I say report immediately I mean it, what part of that did you not understand?”

“Sir I…”

“Stow it!” Sebastian began, causing Xena to smirk at the poor Captain from her position behind the commanding officer. Baumann’s mouth snapped shut. Ares might have inferred that she just take over and perhaps she still would, but the warrior couldn’t deny that at the moment, she was definitely having fun in her position as second. The Colonel could intimidate when need be. Xena always had regarded fear as one of many useful tools of control; Baumann’s unease at the moment was proof of that.

Perhaps Ares was right. She could put Sebastian to good use.

“Need I ask as to the reason it took you so dammed long to get back from your little escapade?” Sebastian barked at the man. “And you, Kavanagh!?” he asked watching as the Sergeant moved to a rigid attention.

“Sir, the Lieutenant Colonel got us lost in the wilderness, east of here, we had to back track to rejoin you here at the village. She ordered Kavanagh to search out and then kill all of the surviving bandits from the truck ambush. On her own, she then attacked the retreating bandits who wiped out the forces Morales led on the ridge!” Baumann spat out his words in a very accusatory tone, a tone which displeased Xena. “She ordered Kavanagh to kill men who should have been taken as prisoners!” he continued “Then she acted without any order from you, wiping out the rest of the bandits!” The fun was over. Looking down Xena found no support from Gabrielle, whose eyes where fixed upon her challengingly. Gritting her teeth in anger, Xena moved, beginning to take a step around Sebastian, her menacing stare pinning the Captain in place. How dare this man challenge my authority? The warrior’s inner voice fairly howled with righteous indignation. She advanced on the man, thinking a lesson in pressure points would be most useful in illustrating why her orders should never be questioned. A swift arm out to the side by Sebastian halted her progress. Baumann couldn’t help but swallow hard as a very irritated growl like sound rose from the woman’s throat.

“Wait!” Sebastian barked. “Is that blood yours!?”

Gabrielle’s eyes flicked over to Tomlinson, and then back to Sebastian as the Colonel took in the stained bloody front of the soldier. She took note of the concern Sebastian’s eyes held, how the shock of seeing Tomlinson rolled over his face if just for an instant.

“Not mine sir,” Tomlinson began shakily. “I’m alright.

“Very well, get yourself cleaned up.” Sebastian ordered. Gabrielle saw relief, however minute, on the Colonel’s face.

“Yes sir.”

“Let me see if I heard you correctly Baumann.” Sebastian began anew after the interruption. “The Lieutenant Colonel here ordered Kavanagh to take the surviving bandits back to our present position for interrogation. On the way back, they attempted escape, leaving him no other choice but to…” “Kill them all.” Xena rumbled, finishing the sentence icily. Sebastian’s eye brows rose as the chill from her words seemed to pass directly through his spine. “Then she was ambushed by the retreating bandits, from the failed counter attack on our position here and had to act accordingly.”

“Does that sum it up Captain?” He asked regaining composure.

“But he said…” The words trailed off as Gabrielle caught another stern gaze from Xena.

“Yes sir…” Baumann stated quietly after some time as his eyes locked with the second in command testily before falling to the ground.

“Excellent…” Sebastian’s tone became pleasant. “Good work Captain, I commend both your and Kavanagh’s actions and look forward to reading your reports.” He finished with a smile while dropping his arm.

“Dismissed Baumann.”

“Yes sir.” The Captain watched as the imposing Lieutenant Colonel crossed her arms over her chest, smirking down at him with satisfaction. He thought absently that she had be over six feet as she towered over most everyone. Wild viper of a woman! Coiled and ready to strike!

“Well, at least you know to keep your mouth shut.” Reeves glared at Kavanagh.

“Get!” Reeves snapped annoyed. “Shoo!”

As the men scurried away, Gabrielle found her emotions warring against logic. She hated seeing anyone, even bandits, being murdered so callously, yet after seeing those children huddled in the temple after having been so abused, it seemed the Colonel was right about justice. No… no, she couldn’t let herself slide into that thinking, killing was still killing and killing was wrong. Wasn’t it?

“Colonel?”

“What?!” Sebastian exclaimed in a frustrated aggravation which caused Xena’s smirk to become more pronounced. Oh good, the warrior thought, back to the fun.

Lieutenant Morales hesitated in his approach for a moment before pressing on. Sebastian relaxed, even smiling inwardly, after seeing what Morales had in tow behind him.

“Sir, we found this man in the forest. He was unarmed, but did his best to avoid getting captured.”

“You have no right to detain me.” Polev began in his best heavily shattered, Russian accented, yet understandable English.

“I’ll define what rights you have…” Xena suddenly challenged, causing Sebastian’s lips to twitch into a thin smile for a moment. The woman was nothing if not exceedingly intimidating.

“What is your name?” Sebastian asked.

“Anatoly Budnikov.”

“You could be giving us any name.” Xena stated stepping in front of Sebastian, taking over as Gabrielle watched in silence as the situation played out before her.

“I have no reason to lie.” Polev replied in an unmistakably spooked tone of voice.

“You also have no reason to be found traipsing through a forest in the middle of nowhere, now do you?”

“I…”

“Yes?” Xena asked abruptly, cutting him off, her voice icily smooth, and completely terrifying as she locked piercing eyes on the man.

“I just buy art!” Polev blurted, clearly unsettled by the penetrating gaze of the woman.

“I see. You buy stolen art…” Xena corrected, allowing a vicious smile to grace her features, a smile which showed brilliant white teeth. “I hope for your sake you aren’t lying to me,” her voice sharply dropped in register to a low ominous hiss as she leaned toward the man. “Because, I have ways…” a deliberate pause… “Rather painful ways,” Xena’s hand rose up, one long finger running sensuously down the left side Polev’s jaw, “…of ensuring I find out the truth.” She finished leaning in so her lips were very near to his ear. “Get in that cave,” she whispered, “and root out which of the soldiers in this unit are planning a mutiny against your friend. I will be there later… to help…” Polev was sure the men in the cell wouldn’t like the type of help the dangerous woman was planning on giving.

Suddenly Xena’s eyes broke contact as the warrior turned from the spy, her black hair whipping in the breeze.

“What do you want me to do with him?” Xena deliberately paused as she looked at Sebastian for a long moment before adding a mockingly nice “Sir.”

“Chain him alongside the other riff-raff we found in the caves, Morales.” Sebastian stated matter of factly while waving his hand dismissively. He could barely keep from laughter when Polev leaned over to look at him wide eyed.

“Well played!” The Colonel said earnestly. And frightening, he thought.

“Figured you’d want him to get some information out of the rest of that lot you have locked up.” Xena stated while fully turning to face the Colonel.

“Exactly,” Sebastian stated in brief explanation. “I’ve got the men rotating out cleaning up by the waterfall.” He continued changing subject. “However, both you and the Lieutenant here are welcome to use the hot springs we found in the cave network behind the temple to clean up. I’ll see to it that you have some privacy. Get some food and rest.”

“Lieutenant?” Gabrielle asked, looking about before realizing it was her, Sebastian was referring to. The glee in Xena’s eyes told her the warrior thought the gaffe was amusing and Gabrielle couldn’t help but blush.

“Very well… and then?” Xena questioned.

“I’ve got reports to file. Command is hot to know what’s happening here, having sent me a pile of coded messages. Perhaps you will do me a great favor and deal with the local village elders tomorrow. They are waiting for me to give audience to their concerns.”

“I think you would be better suited to…” Xena scoffed.

“As always, your help is much appreciated.” Sebastian called back as he walked toward his makeshift command area in the cave network.

Xena could just feel Gabrielle smiling behind her back.

“Not one peep, Gabrielle.” Xena stated in her most threatening tone, only to get a quite audible snicker from the little woman who so solidly held the warrior’s heart.

It gave Xena pause…

Gabrielle may not always agree with the actions she took, and certainly wasn’t afraid to challenge her decisions, but under it all the little one first and foremost cared for her.

Chapter 16

“Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;
To sell and mart your offices for gold to undeservers.” – Brutus
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar-Act IV Scene III

“Why can’t I find anyone who can do a job right?!”

Xavier watched as Drake Mullins stood behind his desk, looking up with hands raised the air as if imploring some higher power to intercede on his behalf.

“I had 300 mercenaries! And here… here!” Drake paused to snatch up the printed messages off his desk. “Here I read field reports from Colonel Reeves stating he has wiped out the bandits in the area completely, except for a handful of leaders found hiding like rats in the cave! Can’t someone just kill that bastard!?” he roared imploringly. “That man is on the cusp of finding hard evidence about our activities Xavier! If he does, we go to jail for a long time!”

“If I may be so bold,” Xavier stopped to clear his throat when Drake’s eyes focused on him. “It was wrong of you to underestimate him again. Sebastian isn’t stupid; he took his time, scouted well, and was able to defeat your men quite handily.”

“Well, Xavier I’ll mark you down as Sebastian’s number one fan!” Mullins spat.

“I’m just pointing out that your plan was flawed, and that he is an intelligent commander.”

“No.” Drake stated with a menacing grin. “The scheme worked perfectly, except for the failure to kill Reeves. I’ve managed to wipe clean almost my whole network of spies and informers, anyone who could use their knowledge against me… against us.” Mullins corrected. One hand lifted, finger pointing directly at the major. “Now you will go in there and finish the job!”

An epiphany struck Xavier as he sat staring at the general. “You aren’t really mad about losing your mercenaries, no; you wanted those men dead all along. You are upset that they didn’t manage to kill Sebastian and all of his soldiers! That’s the reason for the elaborate scheme.

“Golly Xavier, you figured it all out on your own did ya?” Mullins stated condescendingly.

Xavier chose to ignore the slight, “Still, you’ve left us open to being exposed by Sebastian as art thieves and human traffickers!” he accused.

“And traitors.” Mullins added.

“What do you mean traitors?” Xavier asked.

Mullins stated it flatly. “I’ve got contacts with the Chinese.”

“Now you are working with the enemy?!” Xavier tried to absorb it all

“No, we are working with the enemy.” Drake corrected. “God man, are you blind!? Who do you think has been supplying us various treasures all this time?”

Xavier sat in stunned silence for several long moments as he tried to absorb it all.

“That woman our patrols picked up before I was ordered here.” Xavier leaned in meeting Drake’s gaze. “I tried to tell you she was dangerous. She is probably a spy, gathering information on us!”

“Nothing that grand Xavier,” Drake chucked. “From her file, she seems to be some infantry officer. Evidently she was a special transfer from the States, plopped directly into my command.” Shuffling though papers on his desk the general pulled out a personnel file.

“Diana Alala.” Xavier muttered. Alala, odd last name, Xavier supposed it was Greek.

“What about the short one called Gabrielle?” Xavier asked still flipping through Diana’s file, “Certainly not infantry material that one.”

“Gabrielle Karme.” Drake stated flatly while handing over the other file. “Quartermaster Corps.,” Drake shook his head, “Probably checking up on how we use supplies, as idiotic as that sounds. So your dangerous woman turns out to be just another infantry officer accompanied by a bean counter.”

“Sir, no officers would show up in a military camp dressed like they were.” Xavier explained. “It doesn’t make sense!”

“Hell, Sebastian was probably playing a prank on you! Get a little laugh at the expense of his second, oh wait,” Drake paused with a smile “His third in command. Seems this Diana Alala is a Lieutenant Colonel, Xavier.” The general watched rather amused as Xavier quickly grabbed at the personnel file again, flipping up papers he had only skimmed through earlier to locate Diana’s rank. Once found, Xavier seethed in anger, “so much for loyalty, eh Xavier? How do you feel about your dear friend Sebastian now? He has another as his new second in command.” Mullins watched as pure hatred shone on Xavier’s face. Hell, I didn’t even know this was going to happen, the general thought. Mullins didn’t like not being informed of the appointment. Was Washington onto him?

“So what do we do now?” Xavier managed though his fog of anger.

“Plan “B”, you kill him. Plenty of opportunities for that in a war zone, just slip behind him and shoot the man in the back of the head or something.” Mullins watched as Xavier slumped at hearing what was expected of him. As much as Xavier hated Sebastian for stalling his ambition, the man was still unwilling to take that final step to be rid of him. Loyalty is always such a sappy weakness.

“Or,” Mullins added with a sigh, realizing Xavier was having difficulty committing to killing Reeves himself. “Work with this Diana woman, if you feel she is trustworthy. Get her to kill him. Offer her riches; offer her promotions, hell, offer her a little command on a gorgeous Pacific Island to ride out the war. I don’t care what you offer, just get rid of Sebastian!”

“Kill him Xavier, along with all of our people who survived the battle, got it?”

“Understood…” came the soft reply.

“Good, remember you aren’t in this alone.” Mullins reminded, “You now have new men ready to act on your command, men whom you will then train to take over the operation of our looting once Washington’s attention dissipates. If all else fails, work with them to wipe out all who could cause us trouble. I’ve selected these men carefully, told ‘em about the money they will make. We will use these new men, just as we did the select group in Sebastian’s old command. Once these new guys get comfortable, we wipe em out, and start fresh once more. Top of the list now, Sebastian and the solders he has left. Add this Diana woman to the list if she won’t turn and work for us

“Your unit leaves by convoy tomorrow, 0500.”

“Yes sir.”

Chapter 17

“Gods Xena! Have you ever felt the likes of this?”

The two women luxuriated in the circulating pool of delightfully warm water created by the cascading spring flowing down the rocks within the cave. Several of the strange electric torches illuminated the space, the light reflecting off the roiling waters, dancing across both walls and ceiling.

“Gabrielle, I think the idea of the camouflage was to use it to cover your skin, not to get it deep inside your ears.” Xena’s brows creased as she concentrated on getting the wet rag into the nooks and crannies to get the black gunk out.

“Sorry Xena.” Gabrielle began “Feels so good to have it cleaned out though. Thank you.” She finished in quite a chipper tone.

“Thank me when I get the other ear cleaned.” One of Xena’s hands perched palm down on the top of Gabrielle’s head, gently tilting it over to the right so she could get the cloth into the left ear.”

Xena’s code in her warlord days was one in which never expected more from her men than she was willing to do. If she told them to bathe in cold river streams, she did as well. However, technically, she wasn’t in charge. That fact let her conscience allow the enjoyment of the warm water if only due to a technicality. After all, hadn’t she been ordered to use the pool by her commanding officer? Ares had said she was good at playing the dutiful second in command, so who was she to upset the apple cart by disobeying a direct order? The smug look on the warrior’s face mirrored her inner satisfaction at rationalizing the luxury of a warm bath.

“Xena?”

“Hmmm?”

“Want to talk about what Ares told you?” The little one asked quietly.

Xena went from a smug smile to a frown in an instant.

“Yeah, he told me Artemis decided it best to have you unite all Amazon tribes across the known world under your wise rule.” The warrior stated slowly with a tone of deadly seriousness.

“Xena!! Not funny and he did not!” Gabrielle snorted, punctuated by laughter.

“Really, what did he say?” Gabrielle prodded again knowing the warrior was stalling even as Xena finally managed to get the gunk out of her ear and moved on to the next task of washing her hair and back. Xena’s every touch felt so luxurious on Gabrielle’s skin. What would such a beautiful woman as Xena ever see in a simple village peasant like her? The thought saddened Gabrielle.

“Well…” The warrior drawled, ending with a sigh.

“We are in the right place at the right time.” Xena began by getting the easiest portions of the conversation out in the open. “We are in a position to stop the chain of events which will end the world, events which I’m now sure Ares caused.”

“You mean?” Gabrielle asked with anger in her voice. “This was all Ares’ doing?!”

“Yup, that’s what we get for believing him.” Xena growled. “We decided to help and are now cleaning up his mess. No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Figures…” Gabrielle sighed deeply. “Did he give some clue as to what we are to keep from happening?” she pressed.

“Here, now you do my back.” Xena stated flatly, having finished with Gabrielle’s. The warrior wondered if the little one had noticed that her cleaning was taking longer and longer, the tall woman enjoying every little brush of her fingers against Gabrielle’s skin. As she moved in the water, Xena’s heart melted, seeing the wide smile Gabrielle displayed.

“Did he?” Gabrielle asked again as her hands went to work, washing Xena’s back.

“Hmmmm?” the warrior said absently, her nerve endings sparking from every little touch from the little one.

“Oh,” Xena suddenly came to her senses. “Well, Ares is always fond of talking in riddles which leaves us with no clear sign as to what we are looking for. Said we should trust Sebastian.” Xena added almost as an afterthought.

“I told you that from the beginning…” Gabrielle said with a hint of triumph.

“Yeah, yeah…” Xena said while nodding, the light playing off the silky stands of her long dark hair. “He also spoke about betrayal.”

“Betrayal?” Gabrielle stated the word questioningly, as her hands moved to wash Xena’s hair with this odd stuff called shampoo. Why not just use soap? She wondered absently for a moment as the goop filled her palm. Xena hadn’t asked for her hair to be washed, Gabrielle just liked to, enjoying the guilty pleasure of running her fingers through the ebony strands. “What does any of this have to do with betrayal?” She asked as Xena crouched down in the water so Gabrielle could reach better.

Now for the difficult part of the conversation, how would she explain? Xena took a long breath as she ordered the argument in her mind, choosing how best to say the words she felt. Difficult to do with the little one’s hands feeling so luxurious in her hair. Conviction and doubt were at warring within her as to how Gabrielle would react. Course, she could just leave out the part of the conversation in which Ares had tempted her to become a warlord again, along with the claim she would become an empress.

Empress…

That one word held such allure. She could be Empress of the Known World. Power to hold, to wield…

“Xena?” Gabrielle prodded sweetly, instinctively knowing the warrior was deep in thought.

No, to not tell Gabrielle everything would be a lie, albeit one of omission.

“He tried to tempt me back into being a warlord again.” And I’m tempted to become one again…. she thought left unspoken. “He said if I had just fulfilled my destiny when I was a warlord, our whole timeline up to now would have been different.” Not wanting to hear or see Gabrielle’s immediate reaction to her words, the warrior dipped her head under the water, rinsing out her hair.

“Oh…” Gabrielle finally managed after Xena had turned under the water, rising up to face her little one, blue eyes searching into deep green. Worry is in those eyes, the warrior noted. Worry for me, the thought caused her heart to ache.

“He’s done that before, you know, tempt you.” Gabrielle said softly while she searched for any clue as to that the warrior was thinking behind that terribly stoic mask. “How does that relate to betrayal?”

Xena’s shoulders slumped. “He inferred that the reason I failed in my past attempts at conquest was that I was betrayed by everyone I placed any modicum of trust in. The betrayal of those around me, kept me from what Ares calls my destiny, ruling over Greece and even beyond. Course,” Xena said dejectedly, “he always fails to mention that I’ve done more than my own fair share of treacherous acts.”

“You are more than the sum of your past Xena,” Gabrielle stated softly one small hand clasping the warrior’s. “Look at all the good you do now.”

“If I’ve done any good at all, it’s because I have you with me.” Xena’s hand left Gabrielle’s, moving up, the back of the warrior’s fingers gently grazed the cheek of the little one. Gabrielle leaned into the touch, her eyes closing as she felt her heart soar with… with… love… for the dark warrior.

“Gabrielle, I…”

“What is it?” Deep green eyes sparkled as they opened, looking up.

“Sometimes…” Xena began anew, trying to find a way to put into words the thoughts which had been bubbling up as of late. Gabrielle watched as the taller woman let out a sigh then pressed her lips together.

“When I look back at how evil I was in my warlord days, it makes me realize how much I’ve learned since then, how much I’ve learned from you.” Gabrielle let a tentative smile light her features. Before she could respond, Xena pressed one long finger upon her lips for a moment. “Remember when I told you once that I used to only see villagers, or anyone weaker than I, as victims?”

“Of course, but that was long ago, you are different now Xena. I’ve been witness to how you use your skills to help others, like how you are now helping these people in this strange time we are in.” Gabrielle let a full dazzling smile grace her features.

“Yes, but lately I…” Xena faltered a bit as Gabrielle’s smile faded.

“Lately?” Gabrielle prodded; still Xena noted how there was only sweet loving innocence shining in those eyes.

“Lately, I can’t help but think if we couldn’t do more…” Gods! Xena thought, why can’t I just come out with it? The tall warrior took a deep breath, plunging into an explanation of what she had been thinking lately. “It’s just you and I Gabrielle, against every small-time warlord who hurts and kills innocents. The cycle of violence will never end if it is just us two fighting for the greater good, and Greece continues to suffer as there is only so much we can do. I once rode with a guy named Zagreas, a complete imbecile, yet he hurt, and still hurts so many for no reason other than liking violence and feeling of power that mindless destruction gives him.”

Gabrielle’s smile disappeared completely. “You are tempted to go back to being a warlord.” Her voice reflected sadness, yet amazingly those green eyes held not a trace of condemnation, holding on to an inner light caused by her love for the warrior. Gabrielle’s heart was troubled, knowing Xena to be an extraordinarily intelligent, highly skilled warrior, a tremendously dangerous woman. If she committed to the path of conquest again, there was no doubt that all of Greece and beyond would be forced into submission.

“But Xena, the darkness within,” Gabrielle argued softly, “the temptation to use power to suit your own ends. Your taking power by force would hurt others in the same matter as this Zagreas, does by mindless looting. Would it not? Look at all the events that have taken place since we arrived.” Gabrielle stated. “Is it right for you to decide alone who may live and who may die?”

Xena side-stepped Gabrielle’s allusion to the bandits she had ordered killed, choosing to speak on the larger idea of creating a better world. “But Gabrielle, you said it yourself; there is a difference between the law and justice. Once I hold power, I could enforce laws fairly to avoid the vengeance style justice we’ve encountered and I’ve used in my own past. I could create order, protecting the people of Greece from those who only desire to enslave us. Worthless small-time warlords I’ve known such as Zagreas, Talmedus, or worse Draco, who only want power to have power, unwilling to use it to better Greece.” Xena stated gently “I could stop them all. Isn’t what I want just an extension of the greater good? “If I don’t, if fighting continues between these petty warlords, Greece will continue to be divided against a very united and powerful Rome.”

The warrior’s hands moved, palms gently cupping Gabrielle’s cheeks. “Most importantly, I have you little one, your inner goodness, your compassion, will serve to keep me on the right path. I wouldn’t fall back into being a monster, with you by my side.”

“Gabrielle, you…” Xena had to swallow before clearing her throat before she proceeded “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.” Speaking those words was extraordinarily difficult for a woman who had spent years building up inner emotional walls to keep people away, to keep from being hurt again.

“I… I am?” a whispered question.

“You are… I… I love you so much…” a heartfelt, open, and truthful response.

Xena swiftly turned, gracefully stepping up and out of the water as it cascaded down her powerful form. The brusqueness of the move puzzled Gabrielle, the smaller woman, stunned, not understanding the warrior’s inner state of turmoil.

She loves… me? Someone who was as intelligent, as beautiful, as amazing as Xena was… could actually love… me?

Xena toweled herself dry, unable to face Gabrielle as emotion roiled within. As she moved to dress, the warrior wanted nothing more than to take Gabrielle in her arms, to show her physically the love she felt toward her. Nevertheless, by what right did she, a bloodied ex-warlord, have to take away the woman’s innocence? Touches, a hug, even a kiss? All well and good, but was it right to take it any further?

She’d robbed so many others like Gabrielle of more than just their innocence, having burned and pillaged as they could only stand watching helplessly as she took away the lives of those they loved. Just a flick of her sword or orders given without so much as a second thought had caused thousands to become victims of the Destroyer’s hate filled rage.

Was Gabrielle right then? Xena pondered, with even the best of intent, would having power eventually corrupt? The darkness would only win were I left without Gabrielle’s light. I need her…

Dipping her head back in the water, Gabrielle washed out the last remnants of soap from her hair before she too stepped from the water. Getting a towel she dried off in silence, her heart singing with joy in the knowledge that the warrior loved her. Yet her conscience was intensely troubled about what could happen if Xena commanded an army again.

Watching mutely as Gabrielle dressed, Xena knew the subject was far from closed. Quietly, the little one poked her head up through a strange fitting green cotton top, her bare feet padding under the splotchy colored pants she wore. Gabrielle frowned, her shoulders slumping slightly as she looked down at the black boots, not wanting to pull them or the weird sock things back onto her tired feet. Her mind swirling with all Xena had told her.

“Hey…” the warrior called softly

“Hey what?” Gabrielle asked, not bothering to look up.

Xena could tell her little one was suddenly running on empty. Everything they had been through had caught up to her.

“You hungry?”

“No,” Gabrielle looked up this time as she answered, Xena noting the dark lines under her eyes, “too tired to be hungry.”

“Whoa, you are tired then!” Xena teased.

Gabrielle scowled up at her.

“C’mon…” Xena stated, pulling Gabrielle into a warm hug. “How ‘bout you and I get some rest?” As Gabrielle was getting things set up for the night, Xena stalked the perimeter and found the men dutifully on watch, all was as it should be. Sure, she could check with the Colonel, but instinct told the warrior that if she were needed, Sebastian would no doubt find her. The man was probably trying to get in a little much needed rest himself. She knew his habits, he’d be sleeping lightly and be up periodically during the night.

Xena chose a relatively comfortable spot, placed well back in the caves, separated from those who would listen if her little one wished to continue the subject the warrior had broached earlier. The sleeping rolls covered them now, warding off the inherent dampness of the cave, Gabrielle had long finished combing out both her and the warrior’s hair. Xena found she was able to relax in that simple touch, closing her eyes as the brush slid though her dark hair. She really didn’t need her hair combed, perfectly able to do it herself. It was something the warrior allowed, knowing Gabrielle, for some reason, simply enjoyed it.

Reaching to turn off the torch, Xena sighed as pitch darkness surrounded them. The warrior relaxed fully, feeling Gabrielle cuddling up into her, fitting perfectly against her taller form. Xena could tell Gabrielle hadn’t fallen asleep yet, feeling her fight to stay awake, no doubt thinking though what had been said earlier

“I don’t get it.” Gabrielle stated softly. “How do the betrayals you faced in the past relate to what we are doing in the here and now?” That question was not one Xena had expected.

“I haven’t pieced that together just yet. Could be a betrayal of Sebastian, like I was once betrayed when leading an army, the same thing might happen to him.” The warrior stated while draping an arm over the smaller woman as she snuggled in even closer, placing her head on Xena’s shoulder. Damned Ares and his riddles! She always figured them out; it was probably just plain fatigue which was keeping her from unraveling the enigma about weapons.

“Xena…”

“Hmmmm?”

“Is being a warlord again really what you desire?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you said…”

“I know what I said, but I’ve not committed fully to the idea, fair enough?”

“Fair enough. I just don’t want people to be hurt. I don’t want you to do things you regret. I worry about what you may be tempted to do.” Xena could feel the trepidation in Gabrielle’s voice, knew Gabrielle was far from being convinced that Xena once more holding power over others was a good idea.

“I know little one.”

“Xena…”

“Yesss…”

“Do you have to keep calling me little one?”

“Sorry, I can’t help it, seems to fit you, and well…” Xena’s voice trailed off…

“Well?” Gabrielle prodded sleepily.

“It’s really cute.”

“Did the big bad warrior just say the word cute?” Gabrielle chided.

“I did, got a problem with it?” Xena teased.

“No,” Gabrielle began with a little chuckle. “I’ve never, ever heard you use the word cute to describe anything.”

“You’re cute, little one.” Xena said softly, smiling as she felt the heated blush sweep over Gabrielle.

“Um, I guess if you like it, you can keep calling me that. Just maybe, could you keep it between us?” Gabrielle said while burrowing into Xena’s protective warmth even more.

“Very well, just between us.”

“Good night Xena, Gabrielle paused for a long moment. “I do love you, I…” a long pause “I have for a very long time.”

“Love you too little one.” The words were said reverently by the warrior.

With those words, their friendship had just developed into being something far more.

Chapter 18

“for we are at the stake,
And bay’d about with many enemies;
And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.”- Octavius
Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – Act IV Scene I

“Listen you sniveling little ingrate!”

“Xena…” Gabrielle’s small hand on her forearm gave the warrior pause.

The meeting with the local village leaders had not gone well from the start. From the first moment, the condescension from the village council made Xena fume with anger. The council, it seemed, felt slighted to be required to talk to a subordinate of the Colonel, and a woman at that.

Gabrielle didn’t know what Xena was saying in Chinese, heck, she didn’t even know Xena could speak Chinese! The woman she… loved… was such a mystery! From the low timbre which accompanied the warrior’s words, things were on the verge of taking a turn for the worse.

That and how Xena was treating the guy in front of them.

“Xena, um… he’s turning a little blue, I think.” Gabrielle pleaded for a degree of mercy for the hapless man. With a pronounced sigh, the warrior abruptly let go, allowing the man to stumble back on the packed earthen floor as his feet contacted the ground again. The unfortunate focus of Xena’s ire gasped for air as he rubbed his throat, the deep breaths sounding impossibly loud in the filled but deathly silent council hut.

“Gabrielle, I will not stand here and be berated for my being a lowly second in command or for being a woman! I will not scrape and bow, making apologies for their village being damaged, or for us not stepping in sooner to end the abuses the bandits perpetrated here. Actually, right now I doubt we should have helped to liberate this miserable little stink hole of a village!” The warrior bellowed. “By the Gods! If I had known what a pain these people were going to be, I’d of…”

“Have patience Xena.” Gabrielle encouraged softly stopping the tirade. “They’ve been through a lot.” The little hand squeezed gently against the strong forearm.

“And we haven’t?!” The tall dark warrior retorted. Oh, just wait until I find Sebastian! Xena thought, her mind rifling through a veritable treasure trove of ideas on how she could torture the man for having her talk to these aggravating people.

Gabrielle tugged on Xena’s fatigues just a bit, bringing the warrior’s anger etched face down a bit closer to her level. “I know it’s trying on your nerves, but perhaps attempt to placate them a bit? Showing a touch of sympathy for their suffering on your part is not a weakness. Tell em we wana help.” The smaller woman pleaded.

“I refuse to stand here any longer listening to the drivel these people are spouting!” Xena snarled, anger closing her ability to hear Gabrielle’s words. “These spineless milksops are going to find out that from now on they will do as I say and be quick about it!”

“Is this how you intend to act should you rule over others?”

Xena’s posture became rigid as she drew up to her full imposing height. Her ire now redirected solely onto Gabrielle. “They will show me due respect.” She stated in a menacingly low hiss. Gods, did nothing change? Xena thought inwardly. Thousands of cycles in the future and people still displayed such dismal narrow mindedness!

The smaller wisp of a woman had no fear at all and continued undaunted.

“Xena, not everyone sees your actions in the same light as you do. We know you did the right thing by helping to rid this village of bandits, but these people cannot divine your noble intent. They only know cruelty. Right now your actions are not convincing them that we mean to act in a manner any different from the bandits. Earn their respect by showing compassion for what they’ve been though.

“Look at them Xena,” Gabrielle prodded gently, “look at the fear in their eyes, as they wonder what further harm you will inflict.”

Xena’s azure eyes moved slowly away from Gabrielle, settling on different villagers in the packed hut. As the warrior’s intense gaze moved, each individual in turn gave telltale signs of fear, their eyes dropped to the floor. Heads slumping downward, shoulders hunched forward. All signs of submission borne of fear, fear of her.

Gabrielle’s words were biting, but correct in their assessment. Her temper had gotten the best of her. Duly chastised, the warrior also dipped her head ever so slightly in subtle recognition of Gabrielle’s wisdom.

“Xena, you have such a strong will, you always fight to do what is right for all no matter the odds against you. Sometimes, your temper rises to match the intensity of that will.” Gabrielle’s voice dropped to a whisper and she went up on her toes as Xena instinctively leaned in a bit. “Be soft; speak gently to them as you do to me, my brave warrior.”

“As you desire, little one,” Xena replied softly to the one she had come to love, before turning away to address the council in a more relaxed, more civil tone of voice. She would need these villagers to understand what would soon be happing around them.

Despite the damage to her ego, Xena knew the truth was that if she were ever to rule and rule justly, she needed Gabrielle’s help. On her own, she would fall into the terrible ways of the Destroyer. This meeting with the villagers had just proven it. She had only been a hairs breath away from unleashing her temper completely. Hercules might have placed her on the path of redemption; Xena mused, Gabrielle had the more arduous task of keeping her there. How Gabrielle gracefully managed to put up with her dark moods and rancorous anger humbled the warrior.
________________________________________________________________________

Sebastian stood within the confines of the caves studying reports in his makeshift command area. All morning his men had been busy, filling in action reports as well as cataloging all the artifacts within the cave network. It seemed the subterranean maze was endless. Gold, silver, and jade jewelry, coins, fine china, scrolls, silk screens, elaborate furnishings, ancient gold and silver inlaid weaponry and thousands of precious stones of all sizes were but only some of the amassed treasures. Money, the root of all evil, he mused.

While the artifacts intrigued him intensely, especially given his background, Sebastian’s mind was preoccupied with more immediate matters. As was his style when in thought, the Colonel paced slowly back and forth. Arms folded across his chest, head slumped forward he paced in even steps, pondering the rash orders issued from 4th Army Command.

After his normal exercise in the early morning, Sebastian had intended to clear his mind a bit by running though his sword drills. Unfortunately, when you are in command, free time is a very precious commodity. Even now he would still prefer to be practicing the new drills Xena had given him instruction on. The skill level of the woman was amazing and he was determined to learn all he could. Despite her fearsome demeanor, the tall warrior was incredibly patient when offering instruction. Hard work and demonstrated skill was always praised by Xena. However, a wrong stance or ill advised attack move on his part was immediately pointed out in word or action. Sebastian preferred his mistakes corrected by word, but had to admit, a solid kick or backhand from the warrior, served to enlighten him rather quickly as to why a move should not have been attempted.

One thing was for sure, he wasn’t about to try that flip she did, good way to break or at least badly sprain an ankle if he landed wrong. As he paced, his sword resting in its scabbard, knocked against his leg.

“You send me to talk with a bunch of squabbling little villagers again and I swear I’ll…”

“Ah! the meeting went well then?” Reeves cut in as he looked up, asking ever so chirpily, knowing full well the woman before him hated every moment spent in the council hut as much as he would have. There she stood, hair flowing free as usual; sword on her back, and the hoop chakram thing firmly ensconced on her hip.

“They want us to help rebuild the village.” Gabrielle stepped around the woman in front of her with a hint of annoyance on her features as Xena had been blocking the entrance. Noting the irritation, Xena looked down sheepishly in apology.

“I see.” Sebastian began with a nod of his head. “Well, guess that means I will need to put someone in charge of the rebuilding.” His eyes moved to Gabrielle.

“Me?” Gabrielle squeaked, causing Sebastian to smile.

“I can think of no one better suited to the job.”

“But…”

“I second that.” Xena’s smile of delight caused Gabrielle to glare up at the warrior.

“But…” Gabrielle began again

“No complaints now.” Xena continued “Get that bumbling goof to help you. What’s his name?” she asked Sebastian.

“Jaxon.” the Colonel stated with a slight chuckle.

“Yeah, Jaxon,” Xena continued “round up thirty or so men to help. Just do what the villagers want done.” she stated encouragingly.

“Their homes should probably be fixed first.” Gabrielle began.

“Officer thinking Lieutenant,” Sebastian praised. “You’ve got plenty of men who are well rested and will do as you order.”

The thought of ordering the gruff soldiers around caused a wave of doubt to wash over Gabrielle. Xena instinctively felt the hesitation. “Hey…” Gabrielle felt a hand fall upon her shoulder. “Show confidence and you’ll have ‘em doing what you want in no time.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle sounded more confident that she could do this, after all, wasn’t she an Amazon Queen?

“Nothin’ to it!” Xena urged.

With a hesitant smile up at Xena, Gabrielle found the support she needed in those blue eyes to walk out of the cave and being helping the village.

“Now what… sir?” her second mockingly fake respect for his rank in so many hours was not lost on Sebastian. In fact, it caused him to smile as he walked around the table toward the entrance of his little command nook within the cave system.

“Walk with me.”

He stopped when Xena continued to block the entrance, smile fading as he looked up. Sebastian fought the instinctive shiver as blue eyes regarded him from above. Amazing how those expressive eyes could be filled with such warmth when speaking to Gabrielle, yet so cold the next moment.

“Please…” he stated, fighting against even the slightest waver in his voice. “I have something I’d like your opinion on.” Sebastian couldn’t have known it, but Xena’s estimation for the man went up one notch. He clearly understood she was the superior warrior, yet he refused to back down, or let fear of what she might do to him.

“Very well.” Xena stated flatly with a slight smile while moving slightly to allow the smaller man to walk past.

They moved though chamber after chamber of stolen loot. Vast piles of treasures, gleaming in the darkness as light from electric torches danced across gleaming surfaces. Xena noted that lines were being run to hook up fixtures with the gleaming bulbs.

“We’ve found quite a collection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art and artifacts.” Sebastian explained. “From ancient times to more modern eras. Command insists we categorize the objects, but neither I, nor my men are art conservators, so I’m at a loss really. We are just writing vague descriptions and getting this stuff sorted and then packing it.”

A small collection in a tray being carried by a soldier caught Xena’s eye. Stopping the man she silently picked up an intricate piece, running the tip of one long finger over its design as the soldier watched.

“Lao Ma.” The warrior whispered sadly.

“Find something of interest?” Sebastian asked, walking back towards the woman.

Xena immediately put the piece back on the wooden tray, urging the soldier with a gesture to continue what he was doing. “No.” she stated curtly while turning. “Is this what you wanted me to see?” If it was, this was a fool’s errand, and Xena hated wasting time.

“Hardly.” Sebastian stated while turning to continue walking.

After weaving though more tunnels, some in which Xena had to duck down quite low to get though, she found herself standing in brilliant sunlight. They stood in a boxed in canyon, framed by cliffs on three sides. Walking further in the tall grasses, Xena allowed herself to be led up to what appeared to be a quite ordinary feature at the end of the canyon, a rock slide.

For a moment, the two stood looking at the piles of boulders and debris before Xena broke the silence. “This is what you wanted me to see, rocks?”

“Yes…” Sebastian stated without turning to face her.

“It’s a fake.”

“Oh?” the man before her asked, “You’re certain of that?

“Yes. The casual observer might miss it, but the signs are everywhere.” Xena stepped forward, pointing upward to direct the man’s gaze. “No indication of a slide by scoring on the hillside. The vegetation is completely intact. No indentation in the hill to indicate where these rocks once were. Not only that,” Xena continued, dropping her hand. “Heavy, what was the word? Trucks… were here as well, I stepped into the grass covered ruts left behind as we walked up.”

“Course, you already knew that, didn’t cha?” Xena chided.

“I did have thoughts along the same lines as you when Tomlinson dragged me out here this morning. I wanted your opinion, as you would most certainly notice a faked rock slide.”

“That was very observant of him, a lowly… Private… and all.” Xena made sure to get the rank correct. “I would think he should have just reported his findings to his direct superior instead of going right to the top.

“Oh, he did.” Xena caught the hint of a smile as the man turned back to the cliff, hands clasped behind his back, still studying the faked rock slide. “Nothing came of it, so he brought it to my attention directly. Quite brave on his part really, as most of the lower enlisted men would rather not risk irritating me by wasting my time on some unfounded gut feeling.”

“Question is…”

“What is being hidden behind those rocks?” Xena cut in

“Exactly. Whatever it is, it must be quite valuable to go to all that trouble. And I am going to find out.”

Suddenly the man turned, and walked a pace or two back toward the warrior.

“Something else is bothering me. Something I can’t quite sort out.”

“And that is?” Xena asked, folding her arms across her chest as she looked down at Sebastian.

“A chain of events, which taken individually, mean nothing, but when put together add up to more than coincidence.” He paused to take in the expression on the warrior, finding the usual stoicism. Well Sebastian, he thought, you brought up the subject, might as well see it though.

“One…” he let out a long sigh before continuing. “I’m ordered to split my force, never a good idea.” He watched as the warrior only nodded. “Two, with the most rudimentary of resources, I’m sent chasing after some bandits, whom I’m told are crudely armed, and poorly trained.”

“And they were the exact opposite.” Xena offered. “Not only that, but there were far more bandits than you were led to believe.”

“Right,” Sebastian began to pace. “Had it not been for your quick thinking, a large portion of them would have escaped to attack us again.” Outwardly, the warrior barely acknowledged the praise from the man; privately she was glad to have made a difference.

“Three,” Sebastian continued. “Now command is racing to deploy the rest of my brigade here.”

“So, after sending you out with meager support, suddenly your superior sends the rest of your men back to you.” A wry smile crossed the warrior’s face. “You think this has all been some scheme.”

“I don’t know what to think.” Sebastian huffed.

“But you believe something is wrong, nevertheless.”

“I can’t help but think it.” He stated exasperated. “It’s not enough that I have to worry about fighting the Chinese, or dammed marauders. No,” Sebastian continued irately, “now I find myself concerned about a series of events which still could mean nothing.” Reaching into his fatigues, he pulled a group of carefully folded, newly decoded messages Polev had given to him, handing them without comment to the imposing woman.

Xena shuffled though each paper, eyes gliding over confidential orders.

One shapely feminine eyebrow rose…

“Notice something about those being deployed this way?” Sebastian stated questioningly. The warrior noted the word transfer after many names.

“You have a unit made up of new men.”

“Exactly, all transfers from other units in the 4th Army. My unit has been decimated, men I know moved out, while…” “Being replaced by unknowns.” Xena finished. Something was truly amiss. She didn’t believe in coincidence.

“What’s this mean at the end?” She asked, pointing to the bottom of the last paper. “Beware the ides of March?” she said when, he leaned into look.

“Hmmm?” Sebastian began distractedly, “Oh, that. Nothing but gobbledygook placed at the end of the message to confuse the Chinese, who are listening. From the play, Julius Caesar, I recall.” Funny Sebastian thought, another coincidence as today’s date was March 12. Three days until the infamous Ides of March.

“What?” Xena’s tone betrayed inner anger. “A… play… about Caesar?”

“Yes.” Sebastian answered rather confused, “Relatively well known play I suppose,” he added nonchalantly, “it means nothing in relation to the message.” “I see…” Xena stated coldly. The warrior forced herself to relax, though inside she was fuming. That damnable, conniving bastard of a man! He had a whole play written about him! She would have to find this play, undoubtedly filled with lies. Perhaps she would read it for… amusement.

“Finally there is you…” Sebastian began “It is time for a moment of truth between us, and since you won’t tell me anything; I’ll show my cards, so to speak.”

Sebastian swallowed as blue eyes narrowed predatorily.

“Think of it, in the mist of it all these strange… coincidences, you and your friend appear. That weapon on your hip…” Sebastian shuddered slightly as the woman looked down, fingers casually touching the shining round hoop with intimidating intent. “Xavier told me that it’s called a chakram, a unique weapon to say the least. So I believed I could trace who you were by finding out about this weapon. I mean, how many people carry one of those around? Xavier told me it originated in India. Still doesn’t help. Polev was supposed to be gathering info; instead he’s chained in a cave with bandits.

“And you also believe he won’t be able find a thing.” Xena’s voice was gloating, mocking the man’s failed attempt to find her true identity. Inwardly, she applauded his efforts, his initiative. “That’s why you are telling me all this.” “Correct.” the curt response from the Colonel, “Perhaps you were sent in to gain my confidence?”

“So, you don’t trust me after all. Why Colonel, your actions pain me so.” Xena’s expression took on one of a scornful pout for an instant before turning cold.

“Still, you misunderstand my intent.” Sebastian continued after a nervous swallow as her eyes locked upon him. “Allow me to restate, I do not mean to accuse, but see it from my perspective, strange events… odd orders and transfers. You’ve been invaluable, yet amidst it all I know little about you. I only want to gain some knowledge about you madam.” “Though devious means.” Xena countered, as the papers she held found a home within a pocket of her fatigues.

“You would do no less.” Sebastian retorted, standing his ground as she moved to loom over him. “I told you that I would be the one who would decide what information to share.” a growling irritated response from the woman.

“Look, as much as I hate to break up this fun conversation,” Polev had appeared out of the cave network. “I thought you both might want to know what I’ve managed to get so far.”

“Could you both stop glaring at each other for a moment?” the annoyed spy asked.

“How did you get loose?” Xena finally stated as she regarded the man.

“Please, no lock and chain is going to hold me. I’ve been puttering about for some time.” Polev waved a hand dismissively. “Colonel,” he continued, after casting a condescending smirk at the tall woman. “I was able to trace those weapons in the caves despite the obvious attempt to disguise the serial numbers.”

“And?” Sebastian replied expectantly while beginning to pace slowly again.

“They belong to our very own 4th Army.”

Sebastian glowered at the man. “Hey, now don’t kill the messenger,” Polev began… “I…” “Who ordered them and who received them?” Xena cut in.

“The answer to that is being worked on as we speak. Seems my superiors are now quite interested in the happenings out here. Every bit of communication passed within the 4th army is now being looked over. I told you this thing stank, Sebastian.”

“How high does this go?” Xena asked

“From the looks of it so far, high up, very high up. Not only that, I believe that members of our very own army are behind these stolen treasures.”

“You are usually right about these things Polev.” Sebastian stated with a sigh.

“Usually?” the spy snapped back with a smile, while raking his mustache.

“I’ll take my leave of you both, I’ve got spying to do, you know. Foiling this thing could really advance my career! Oh and…” Polev turned to face Xena. “Your interrogation techniques are the best I’ve ever witnessed.”

“Yeah, sure.” Xena said dismissively as the man backed away.

“So…” she stated to Sebastian.

“Betrayal…” he stated, dejectedly. “Army officials conspiring together to steal art for profit.” Sebastian threw his hands up in the air in frustration, “Weapons being funneled to bandits, people being enslaved, the end result of all this being the deaths of very good men, my very good men. It’s a betrayal of the faith placed in those who lead.”

And… if my hunch is right, this is only the beginning. Xena thought. The warrior resolved in that moment to let events play out further. She already knew some of the players, but letting things go on appeared to be the best way to discover all those involved.

Silence reigned for a long moment as the two stood thinking. “We will have to be willing to do whatever is necessary should circumstances demand it.” She stated.

“I agree. We will do what we must.” Sebastian wholeheartedly agreed.

“You’ve never heard of the play about Julius Caesar?” he asked unexpectedly after another silence.

“No…” she groused.

He watched as her brows knit, her anger oddly apparent at the very mention of a play about Caesar. You’d think she knew the man personally, Sebastian thought as she suddenly turned back to the cave entrance walking briskly. And she didn’t like him much.

Chapter 19

Gabrielle climbed a ladder to roof level. After some serious instruction, the men had been able to begin repairing the thatch roofs on some of the huts. Good thing too as it appeared that a line of storm clouds was approaching from the west, their dark billowing shapes rolling towards them. How could these guys have absolutely no clue as to how to do this stuff!? She thought. This was the most basic skill of any decent villager who wanted to remain dry when the rains or snows hit. Course, perhaps in the future, people didn’t have to thatch? An interesting thought, perhaps something else had been invented? She didn’t doubt it, seeing all the new wonders in this time period.

The old thatch has been stripped down to its barest layer – a dry and musty thin coat of straw. She was glad that the thatch was still in reasonably good shape, just a few holes here and there. Thankfully, the men had been able to create some new timbers for the repairs to be placed on. She picked up a spar – a thin branch of split wood that had been tapered to a point at each end, and twisted it in the middle into a V shape, getting ready to staple the thatch into place.

The thatch, made up of bundles of water reed, had been already collected by the villagers
She watched as Jaxon clumsily clipped the binding off a bundle, sitting the reeds on the roof. “No, the flowery ends face up.” She corrected, trying not to look down at the ground far below. “What difference does that make?” he asked irritated. “I can’t believe we have to do this stuff,” he whined “after all, we are fighting men, we don’t do home repair for a bunch of backward villagers!” Gabrielle sighed, tamping down her own irritation, as unknown to Jaxon, she was one of those “backward” villagers he was so disdainfully referring to.

Gabrielle managed to haul up the legget which looked much like a spade to the soldiers working along the roof. She could tell the villagers had taken excellent care of the iron head. Turning it over, she explained why there was a honeycombed surface punched out of the surface. “See” she explained in a cheerful voice. “The grooves catch the butt ends of the reeds.” Managing to keep her good mood, even after Jaxon’s eye roll, she began to thump the legget up against the reeds. “You gotta do this in order to get the butt ends into a smooth surface of thatch.” She instructed.

“Okay…” Gabrielle let out a sigh, knowing there was still more to do. Unlike Lieutenant Jaxon, most of the enlisted were paying rapt attention. She guessed it was because they would be doing the work and didn’t want to get things wrong and have to start over. Gabrielle demonstrated the shearing hook which looked like a left-handed scythe, used to shear the ears off the reeds. Painstakingly, she began to work her way up to the ridge of the roof, trying not the think of her height off the ground. She worked to pin the thatch down tightly with some spars, creating a double layer of thatching at the ridge “See, nothing to it!” Gabrielle exclaimed proudly, as she finished the roof patch. “Now you guys have a go at it and cover the next area.” Her eyes tracked to Tomlinson who happened to be smiling quite sweetly as he regarded her.

“Amazing you know how to do this.” He stated almost in awe over Jaxon’s further complaints in the back ground. Grabbing a bundle of reeds, he began to work next to Gabrielle to get the next layer down. “I’ve always been one for hands on stuff,” he began conversationally. “Never was one for book learning, like others in my family.”

“Haven’t heard you talk much about them. Beyond the basics.” Gabrielle stated casually as she continued to work.

“Nah, guess I haven’t.” Tomlinson continued as he passed yet another bundle of reeds to his new lieutenant. “Not usual for someone like me to talk casually with officers Ma’am”

It dawned on Gabrielle that she was now part of this army as an officer and was being accorded officer treatment. Much like her being named Queen of the Amazons. A title by which she claimed right to rule, yet was never quite at ease doing. So very different from Xena, who command flowed from naturally.

“Well, we are working side by side so I guess we can relax that rule a bit for the moment.” She said with a smile. “Be awfully boring if I was just giving orders, no conversation in that.”

“Okay Ma’am.” he stated.

“Gabrielle.”

“Ma’am?”

“Call me Gabrielle for the present.” She stated softly.

“Yes… M… Gabrielle.” He responded with a very open, very refreshingly honest smile.

A long moment passed as he handed yet another bundle of reeds up to her.

“Tell me about your family.” Gabrielle asked again conversationally.

“Well, we’ve lived all over, now my mom and pop live in Virginia. My mom was divorced, then married my dad years back and so I have an older step-brother and a step-sister.

“Uh huh…” She muttered encouragingly while continuing to work. Gabrielle knew she could just leave the men to the job, as she was an officer and all. A glance over at Jaxon, and she noted how he stood giving orders, while the men worked. Yet Gabrielle’s own upbringing just wouldn’t allow for it. “Hard work is its own reward.” Her father had said. She never quite figured out what he meant by that, but both she and Lila had worked pretty darn hard at home. She guessed the reward for all that work was having a bit of free time to imagine herself off having adventures. Boy! If her family were here to see this adventure! She mused, saddened by the thought.

“My step-sis and step-brother always said I was as much of the family as they were. No division between us just because we had a different father.” His words pulled her back from her musings. “That makes me think highly of them, that they see you as part of the family.” Gabrielle’s hands moved expertly. Already they were halfway through the second patch job.

“What does your sister do?” She asked quietly while moving more thatch into position.

“She’s an architect, designing buildings in Boston.”

“Sounds like she had an amazing job.” Gabrielle replied. Boston? A city she supposed.

This whole futuristic world amazed her. All this amazing technology, things she would have never dreamed existing, all right here waiting to be explored. Fantastic machines, medical miracles of every kind! Yet, Gabrielle thought with sadness, we still fight with each other, still kill each other. Things never really change.

“And your brother?”

“Oh he’s…”

There was a pause which piqued Gabrielle’s attention. She was good at reading people and Tomlinson’s face was expressive, like hers. He appeared to be flummoxed at the moment, unsure what to say. A tell tale sign of a secret being hidden.

“In the Army.” The kid finished.

“Really?” Gabrielle offered nonchalantly, wondering how much she should pry.

“Well, looks like this patch is almost finished.” Tomlinson said wanting a quick change of subject. Gabrielle looked into his eyes for that brief moment, seeing the heartfelt desire that she not press with more questions. He would be forced to lie.

Perhaps it was something she should mention to Xena…

_____________________________________________________________________

“Join the Army, see the world… move rock…” the man nearest grumbled

“Quit yer damned whining and get em cleared.” Kavanagh bellowed. “Ya don’t see either them Colonels over there complaining!”

Inwardly, the Command Sergeant Major had to wonder a bit about the sanity of moving rocks about to see what might be behind ‘em. Like some game of hide and seek gone horribly wrong. Course, after 23 years in the army, he’d just about seen everything possible. Certainly he had now, watching the newest officer in the unit move rocks out of the way. Her strength seemed equal to ten men. It was effortless for her to pick up and chunk boulders out of the way. Of course such a display by her caused the men’s egos to get the better of ‘em. Try as they might, no man, not even the Colonel who was in the best of condition, could keep up with the pace as she set.

“Didja need a moment?” Xena asked

Sebastian looked into the amused blue eyes.

“Do you ever break a sweat?” he asked.

A smirk from the tall woman was his only response.

“Take 15 minutes.” He called out, hearing audible groans of relief.

The plan was a simple one, attempt to move just enough rock to create a passage into the cavern. A rough barrel vault of rock overhead would hold the rest above in place allowing them to get in and see what was being contained within.

“Kavanagh!” Sebastian bellowed.

“Colonel?” The man walked up, an expectant look on his face.

“Here we go…” Sebastian muttered. Not privy to what the man was thinking, Xena showed uncharacteristic patience to see what he was planning.

“Kavanagh, how long have these men been with us?” Sebastian asked, knowing the answer. His Sergeant Major was clearly puzzled by the question, but left questioning behind and simply answered.

“Majority of these men have been with us less than two months, Colonel. All of them newbies at the war business. Younguns they are, mostly 18, 19 years old or so, all green recruits, officers included except yourself and the Lieutenant Colonel here.”

Sebastian nodded his agreement while the dangerous woman next to him casually crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes narrowing at the Sergeant as if she knew something she wasn’t telling.

“Kavanagh, I want you to sound out every one of these men, find where their loyalties lie.

“Loyalties sir?” Kavanagh inquired, shifting his feet slightly.

Now the hard part, Sebastian thought while his eyes glanced over at the woman next to him, noting the stoicism upon her face. She would be the best card player ever to hit Las Vegas. Her features gave nothing away.

“Kavanagh, do you trust me?” Sebastian inquired plainly. No time to tiptoe around the subject now. “You know I do Colonel, we’ve both seen many a terrible thing in this war and thanks to you, men have managed to stay alive.”

“Not all of ‘em.” Came the subdued response.

“You’re only human Colonel, ya can’t save everybody.”

“Yes, well,” Sebastian moved to change the subject not wishing to delve into the men killed as a result of his orders. “Kavanagh, I have a feeling that something is wrong.”

“Somthin’ ta do with us being sent out here undermanned?” The Sergeant replied, catching onto the possible reasons behind the Colonel’s questioning. One of Xena’s eyebrows quirked up as she listened to the man.

“More than just that, I think we stumbled onto something here that the higher ups would rather remain covered up.” Sebastian allowed the statement to sink in, Kavanagh was smart. “You mean to say those men sent to reinforce us, aren’t gonna be our friends.” The Sergeant replied, more of a statement than a question.

“Talk to these men, I wanna know who I can trust.”

“As you wish Colonel, might I ask what your plan is?”

“All in due time.” Xena’s chilling velvety voice stated.

“Sir…” Kavanagh began changing his tack toward the practical, stopping to nod his head in deference to the new second in command. “Ma’am… forgive the impertinence, but even if all these men declare loyalty to you we’ve only got 60 or so. Those comin’ at us have thousands.”

Sebastian had to smile; impertinence in Kavanagh’s vocabulary was akin to yelling out What the hell are you thinking!? “We will do the best we can with what we have.” Was the only reply that Sebastian could think of, it would have to suffice.

Kavanagh was unimpressed, doubt written clearly upon his face.

“What shall we do then Sergeant? Give up?” Sebastian stated emphatically. “We weigh the pros and cons and decide the rational thing to do is just surrender?”

“No.” Came the quiet answer from the top enlisted man.

“No…” The Colonel’s hazel eyes locked on to Kavanagh. “I may be irrational, but so help me, even if I have only a corporal’s guard I will make some endeavor.”

“I will find who you can trust among these newbies.” With a nod, Kavanagh moved away to begin mingling amidst the men, beginning his task of finding those whom would not question even the most unusual orders issued.

Sebastian let out a long sigh, head slumping forward.

Chapter 20

Gabrielle walked out from the darkness of the cave passages into light of the setting sun, looking intently for Xena. The work on the village had taken the entire day, but they had managed to finish. Amazing what you can accomplish with enough people she thought, as a smile formed upon her face. The work was most certainly not enjoyable, but the men had been willing to learn, mostly happy for the distraction from normal soldier stuff as they had called it. Even the village council had seemed moderately impressed with the work. As sunset approached, men got ready to guard the perimeter, pausing to put the funny paint on their faces and get their crossbows or… rifles as they called them, ready.

Seeing the warrior hard at work caused Gabrielle to smile, albeit confusedly as she continued to walk to the work site, through the tall grasses as the light painted the surrounding cliffs a brilliant red.

“I think we’re almost through.” Xena stated, eager to see what exactly was on the other side of these rocks. She was just about to move back into the passage when she felt a small hand upon her back, knowing instantly who it was, which brought a smile. How did little Gabrielle always manage to walk up without her even noticing? Usually her finely honed senses would have picked up anyone moving behind her, her body tensing to strike if need be.

“Mmmm, Xena?”

“Yessss?”

“Why are you moving rocks?”

The men nearest to the warrior let off a little chortle, finding humor at the guileless question.

“To see what’s behind them.” Xena quipped. Gabrielle’s expression spoke volumes about what she thought of the slightly smart-alecky vague answer.

“I can see into the cavern.” The man in the lead shouted back, flashlight lighting up the rock. Anticipation ran thought the assembled men who separated before the tall woman who stepped forward, peering into the darkness of the created passage before stepping in.

“Xena!”

Gabrielle watched as the warrior’s silhouette stopped, turning slightly in the darkness.

“What?”

“It’s dangerous, that’s what!” The smaller woman stepped forward. “One wrong move and the whole thing could cave in on you!”

The tone of Gabrielle’s voice was one of unmistakable anxiety born out of a very honest concern. It gave Xena pause, how rare it was to have someone who really cared about what happened to her. All her past conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, were no match for Gabrielle’s pure loving concern. No one had cared about her for so long. Now this one lone village girl did care. Gabrielle, who time and again had pulled Xena back from the darkness, tapping into a nobility she thought all but gone within her.

“She’s right you know.”

Sebastian’s words rang true. Xena didn’t need or want to take the risk worrying about what would happen to Gabrielle should she die in this future time. However, if she expected these men to accept the risk of collapse, she should as well.

“It will be alright Gabrielle.” The warrior called back

“I…” the words meant to be spoken by Gabrielle faltered. She wanted to say, be careful… because… I love you, but it remained unsaid. Why couldn’t she say it? She wanted to, why wouldn’t the words just… was it the newness of what they both were feeling?

Her eyes caught a flash of a smile from Xena, just a hint and it was gone. Somehow it seemed like the warrior knew what she was trying to say before she disappeared into the opening.

“Stubborn…” Sebastian muttered, the comment directed solely at Xena who was busily studying the small boulders at the end of the narrow passage. A wall of rock was illuminated by the beams of the torches the men carried.

“Yes.” Xena stated curtly in response with no remorse. “I am.”

“Now if I just…” Strong hands felt along the rock, pressing against certain spots, Xena’s sharp ears listening for the subtle shifts from the pile above. Finally, after several unbearable moments of tension, blue eyes tracked to Sebastian as Xena’s hands found the rock she believed was the linchpin holding up the wall.

“Alright, you men, out.” came Sebastian’s order.

“Sir?”

“Now!”

As the men moved past into the daylight, a slight grin formed upon the lips of the warrior.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Xena watched as Sebastian swallowed hard and steadied himself.

With a sudden hard shove, the pile of rocks caved outward with a loud rumble as they fell.

“Xena!”

Gabrielle’s cry rang out as a wave of dust erupted from the passage entryway. In moments, she sprinted forward, only to be caught by strong arms. “Lemme go!” she bellowed, a right foot connecting with Kavanagh’s knee, causing the man to lose his grip. Ignoring the howl of pain behind her, she rushed headlong toward the entrance which was obscured by floating dust, only to run into, and bounce off, one very dusty Xena. Gabrielle landed right smack on her bottom.

“Ouch!” she yelped, feeling like she had just run into a wall.

“Are you alright?” Xena regarded her for only a moment, standing there hands on hips, looking absolutely toweringly beautiful even when covered in layers of dust. She leaned over to help Gabrielle up.

“I thought that… well, I heard the rumble and then the dust, and… I…” The words were mumbled as small arms wrapped around Xena in a desperately tight hug. Tears spilled down, leaving trails on Gabrielle’s cheeks.

“Hey, I’m fine.” The warrior’s strong arms surrounded her smaller companion, creating a layer of warm security around Gabrielle who snuggled in fiercely. The surrounding men looked on rather amused at the sight of these two officers. Amusement which dropped quickly when Xena’s eyes pinned them, men found the most interesting rocks at their feet to look at.

“Xena…” the small woman whispered.

“Yes…” Gabrielle felt the timbre of the low exotic voice as she hugged Xena

“I love you.”

The warmth from those words spoken by Gabrielle spread though the warrior’s body and time stood still for a precious moment.

“Kavanagh! Get me a light and Get in here!”

Sebastian’s words from the passage jolted the old Sergeant into action. Limping forward, he grabbed a flashlight and moved into the passageway.

“What happened to you?” Sebastian asked, concerned seeing the limp.

“That new Lieutenant kicked me.” The look of embarrassment upon Kavanagh’s face begged the Colonel not to press any further.

“She did, did she?” The Colonel couldn’t help but smile. “How did that come about?”

“You two just gonna stand there?”

Two sets of eyes looked back at the hunched over warrior filling the passageway. For the moment the two men looked like schoolboys who hadn’t done their homework.

Sebastian and Kavanagh found themselves shoved out of the way as Xena pushed through, followed by Gabrielle whose smirk at the men spoke volumes. The warrior crawled though the opening into the darkness beyond.

“More carts?” Xena asked looking at the huge wheels.

“Carts?” Sebastian asked, getting his feet under him in the darkness.

“Xena.” Gabrielle’s words were hushed as her hand landed upon the warrior’s arm. Instinctively, the tall woman leaned over just a bit. “They call these trucks remember.”

“Oh my God…” Sebastian muttered in pure shock.

Xena’s eyes tracked to him, noting his stunned, spooked expression in a darkness cut only by flashlight.

“It’s a mobile missile launcher…” Kavanagh added his voice trailing off ominously; even he was surprised by this find.

________________________________________________________________________
You say you are a better soldier: Let it appear so; make your vaunting true, And it shall please me well: for mine own part, I shall be glad to learn of noble men. – Brutus

Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar-Act IV Scene III

Sebastian hunched over, arms leaning on the table, intently studying the chart. He hadn’t been able to sleep, deciding instead to try to figure out how to get out of the mess he was in. Eyes blurring from staring at the topographical map before him, he sat suddenly, slumping ungracefully down in a makeshift chair.

“What looks to be three Russian Nuclear Mobile Missile Launchers parked in a cave with warheads intact…” he muttered to himself. Sebastian believed they, like all the art would be sold to the highest bidder. “Unable to get a response about the find from command…”

“Stolen art treasures… traitors working within the army, a conspiracy borne out of greed which seems to reach to the highest levels.”

“The dissolution of my own unit…”

“Xavier…” Sebastian paused, a deep sadness reaching into his tired eyes… “Untrustworthy? Involved in this? Could it be?”

All four were things Sebastian never felt he would ever have to face. Thought the last seemed to hit the hardest. Sebastian bore a deep grief at the thought of a good friend being a traitor. A man he had known for years being involved in selling art, weapons, and the worst offence, people? “Could it actually be?” he muttered, “Xavier, the man who saved my life, rescued me from a prison camp, a traitor?

Never before had he faced total defeat. The men heading this way were not to be trusted, Kavanagh was entirely correct, even with every single man on his side, pulling every trick he knew, they were still up against something along the line of 5,000 men.

“There’s no way to win.” Sebastian said softly, accepting his fate. Perhaps he should just hand himself over and be done with it. Why kill men needlessly? Maybe they could live to fight another day?

“I don’t accept defeat.”

His drained eyes tracked to the imposing woman before him. Courtesy caused him to stand wearily to face her. Why he did so, Sebastian couldn’t quite figure, he was the commander, yet he found himself standing in her presence. Manners aside, he certainly would not have done so for anyone else in the unit. It was the inner charisma of the woman before him; her mere presence necessitated respect.

“Xena, what I’m about to face…” Sebastian began. “is… unprecedented. I’ve got a tiny number of mostly green troops, facing an overwhelming force. I’ve been in bad spots before but this…”

“There are always choices.” The warrior stated flatly as she moved forward to lean over the map. After having to deal with hand drawn maps as a warlord, Xena could appreciate the precise drawn lines of topography, obviously done with some type of modern device. It was far too exact for any human hand.

“This?” she asked curtly while one long finger pointed to a specific meandering line which stood out as having been hand drawn on the map.

“Narrow access path, used by shepherds.” Sebastian let out a defeated sigh which earned him a devastating glare from the warrior.

“Perhaps I was mistaken about my earlier assessment of you.” Xena stated as she straightened to her full height crossing her arms over her chest.

“Pardon?” Sebastian was caught off guard by the remark.

“What happened to the man who told Kavanagh, no matter what he would make some endeavor?” The warrior asked in a slow drawl as she moved slowly around the map strewn table to a position behind him. Duly chastised, Sebastian found himself fuming, yet said nothing. What could be said in his defense? Those were his words.

“You don’t want to win.” She stated accusingly, causing the man before her to visibly bristle further. The anger got the best of him; three years under the strain of war overwhelmed his ability to stay quiet. “You know dammed well I do!” he snarled, yet he didn’t turn to face her. Immediately he feel silent again, embarrassed at reacting to her baiting him so.

“Then act like it!” she bellowed back as she stood behind him. “Causes are only lost when people give up! Any commander can be defeated, especially an overconfident one! Any force, no matter how large, can be routed. Quit thinking in terms of numbers against you; think in terms of how you can use numbers to your advantage!”

Xena took her time, waiting behind the man to judge his reaction. Would he give the characteristic shoulder slump of the defeated? Or would he react the way she hoped, with resolve. A slight smile touched the corners of her mouth when his spine stiffened as he moved to a position of full attention.

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t apologize, improve.” She answered, cutting him off curtly.

Agonizingly slowly she moved from behind, her eyes pinning his as she moved back to the table, stretching out her long arms and placing her hands palm down, she leaned in against the table, tearing her gaze away from him to return to the topographical map as he continued to stand in silence.

“Every good commander has doubts Sebastian…”

He watched as her elbows bent, her gaze settling on the map, those blue eyes flicking over the surface.

“Doubt keeps us honest.” She stated, eyes never leaving the map, that razor-sharp mind sorting options. “Doubt ensures we plan for every possible scenario.” She continued. “Doubt safeguards against underestimating the enemy.”

“However.”

Sebastian watched as she pushed away from the table, rising to her full height and moving toward him. One elegant finger moved to poke him in the chest as those hard deadly eyes regarded his.

“Doubt can also paralyze, which causes us to second guess our actions, leaving us open to defeat. In order for us to get through this, we must minimize doubt. Great commanders refuse to allow doubt to paralyze their actions. We must commit fully to winning the upcoming battle by any means necessary.”

“Can I count on you commander, to do what is necessary?” She asked.

“Of course.” He replied without hesitation.

“Now, Sebastian,” Xena began again while moving to lean upon the map table once again. She looked up for a moment at the pulsing electric bulb powered by the diesel generator outside the caverns, annoyance written upon her features directed at the poor lighting arrangement. One hand rose gesturing, urging him over to the table.

“Ma’am?” He asked respectfully. Unconsciously, with that one word, Sebastian had just deferred to her as would a junior officer when addressing a superior. One of Xena’s eyebrows rose up slightly, unseen by Sebastian at she continued to study the map. A subtle shift and authority was now hers.

“Tell me,” an elegant hand swept over the map. “How you plan to deal with the situation commander.”

Clearing his throat slightly, Sebastian leaned in a bit.

“My idea is defensive, as we lack the ability to go on offense.” That statement earned a noncommittal grunt from Xena. “We would have the advantage if we controlled the higher ground, using these points; here?” he asked questioningly while a finger moved pointing at a single position. Silence followed as the blue eyes of the new commander flicked over the map. “Here, as well as here,” Xena added, pointing out areas Sebastian hadn’t thought of while nodding her approval of his general idea. She knew the attackers would need to fight uphill to take positions, a distinct advantage to their men. The lay of the land would act like a funnel, causing attackers to bunch together, another decisive advantage. Both worked to negate the advantage of the larger force.

“And we will funnel them along this narrow herder’s path, splitting their force here at the various forks in the path.” It wasn’t a question, a statement of fact from Xena, whose mind was steps ahead. “We will use every advantage your modern weaponry, as cowardly as it is, gives us Sebastian.”

My cowardly modern weaponry, Sebastian thought, as if I invented it. As if some of these killing machines haven’t been around since before World War I.

“The devices you call mines strewn along here.” She pointed, jolting him out of thought.

“Yes Ma’am.” He answered. Didn’t most everyone call them mines?

“You will place mortars here, and here.” The finger moved again touching positions upon the map. As her touch left the map, Sebastian marked each for reference in the morning.

“Heavy machine guns, your 50 calibers as you call them, here to sweep them as they bunch along the path. Their numbers will cause them, to bog down, to become easy targets. You see?” Xena asked her eyes flicking up to Sebastian. “What they believe to be their greatest advantage we will use against them.”

“Yes.” Sebastian nodded emphatically as he continued marking positions. She made it all look simple he thought, realizing the locations Xena was casually pointing out would wreak havoc on attacking troops.

“Once in this position,” Xena continued, “this cave here,” her finger touched a spot, “Should be your command point, it has the benefit of being centrally located giving good communication access, as well as quick shelter for wounded. If you scout to the far end of the cave, you will find it opens through a very narrow access point back into the labyrinth we stand in currently. Good for use in a sneak attack.”

Sebastian’s mind spun! Only someone who had scouted the position could have possibly known that small a detail. He had no idea the cave was there let alone known it tied back to this point. She had recognized where to place forces all along.

He straightened up from the table wide eyed to find Xena looking back at him with a telltale smirk on her lovely features.

His feeble attempts at planning paled before her ability to envision the tides of battle. Xena had instantly known positions to place men in, knew where he would position weaponry for maximum effect, and knew the terrain far better than he did. It didn’t need to be said, he had stated it before, but Sebastian was glad this wickedly intelligent charismatic woman was on his side in this mess.

Xena stood to her full intimidating height before him. “Begin preparations on this defense position tonight, as in this very moment, commander.”

Any and all sense that Sebastian was once in charge dissipated. He acquiesced with a slight nod, his eyes never leaving hers.

“If I may?” he said quietly.

“Yes?” came Xena’s interested response, clearly wanting to hear the questions her new second had about the plan. Despite a fearsome demeanor, she had always wanted questions, they offered her a chance to consider something she might have missed, and served as a learning opportunity for her commanders.

“This…” his hand moved over the map. “is still a defensive plan at heart. Would you agree?”

“Perhaps.” She said in a non-committal tone. Xena could foresee his line of thinking. She didn’t conquer half of Greece by accident, no; it was by being able to think ahead of her own commanders as well as the enemy. To clearly see her goal amidst the carnage of battle “Were I you,” She smiled, genuinely at the man, “I believe I would want to know how we will provoke them into attacking?”

“Yes Ma’am.” He stated awestruck.

“Humans are inherently aggressive animals commander; I will prod them into an attack. Leave that to me.”

“As you wish.” Sebastian replied with a respectful dip of his head.

“Do you happen to know the date tomorrow?” Xena asked by chance, changing the subject swiftly.

“14th Ma’am.” a crisp reply, after a moment of silence as his mind adjusted to the new line of questioning.

“And the month?”

He was taken aback at the question, she didn’t know the month?

“March, Ma’am.” he answered, attempting to not allow his disquiet to show.

“March… March…” Xena muttered. Peculiar name, she thought absently. These modern people had such strange names for things. Suddenly, those blue eyes lit in recognition “Martius mensis. Month of Mars.” she muttered. Named after the worthless Roman God of War whose pleas for her to join with him were just plain embarrassing, she was Greek, and would never join with any of Rome’s degenerate gods. She suddenly snorted derisively to Sebastian’s consternation.

“Pardon?” he asked.

“Nothing, Commander.”

With that, Xena moved to the entrance.

“Oh, and Sebastian…” She added.

His eyebrows rose expectantly

“Don’t call me Ma’am. Xena is sufficient for the moment.”

With that she was gone.

Chapter 21

Retracing her steps thought the damp corridors of the caverns, Xena came back to the little nook with its bubbling pool where Gabrielle had made their comfortable nest. Quietly, so as to not wake up the smaller woman, Xena snugged down next to her in the semi-darkness. Her eyes watched the low pulsing bulb hanging haphazardly from the ceiling. Far away blue eyes were consumed with thought.

“Everything okay?” Gabrielle’s soft voice penetrated those thoughts.

She couldn’t, wouldn’t lie, wouldn’t gloss it over.

“This is going to be a close run thing.” The warrior stated bluntly. “Odds are really against us.”

Gabrielle chucked unexpectedly.

“What’s so amusing?” Xena asked as her little one scooted closer.

“Aren’t the odds always against us? What’s new about that?”

Gabrielle could feel Xena’s movement as the warrior allowed herself a silent laugh at the remark.

“Still it will be dangerous; the wild card will be what will happen once Sebastian moves those supposedly loyal to him out to the defensive positions. Gabrielle, I may be forced to do more things which I know you find unpleasant.”

“I know you do what is right when the time comes.”

Gabrielle felt those strong arms wrap around her. “You always have such faith in me.” Xena whispered in a small ear.

“Yes I do…” the soft response from the smaller woman.

“Gabrielle… I… ah…” the warrior hesitated, gathering her thoughts. Patiently, Gabrielle waited in silence. Was Xena going to tell her it was a bad idea for them to build a deeper relationship? It was after all quite reasonable, really, what could someone like Xena really see in a plain village girl? The warrior felt Gabrielle’s body tense up next to her, a physical reaction readying for bad news.

“Hey…” Xena whispered softly arms hugging Gabrielle tighter for a moment. “Relax wouldja?”

“Xena, I’m not a naïve village girl anymore.” Gabrielle blurted, “Well at least I’m not completely naïve. I understand that I haven’t seen the world as you have, and probably compared to that I’m…”

“Gabrielle…” The warrior began.

“…awfully plain in comparison…”

“Gabrielle…” Xena tried again

“I mean I’m nothing special in comparison to you because you are the single most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. And…”

Strong fingers touched the side of Gabrielle’s chin, gently turning her head slightly. Before she could even think to react, lips touched hers. The feel of Xena’s lips upon her own was indescribable, unbelievable, unimaginable! When Xena pulled away, Gabrielle shocked the warrior by launching upward to meet those lips again, if only for a few more moments.

“Why Gabrielle…” Xena drawled playfully, “you are full of surprises.”

Caught, Gabrielle closed her eyes and blushed furiously, tucking up against the warrior

“Now that I have your full attention, little one, let’s put this to rest, shall we?”

One sea green eye peeked open, looking up at Xena.

“I want to be with you, Gabrielle, I desire to only be with you, and I want no other beside you.”

The ex-warlord felt the tension in the smaller woman fade instantly with a long sigh of relief as Gabrielle turned to wrap her arms tightly around Xena who used every bit of willpower to hold back from doing more, this was not the time or the place.

“Mine…” Xena huskily declared, a sudden possessive menace tingeing her voice, blue eyes narrowing. Gabrielle felt one of the warrior’s strong hands tighten its grip against her

“Yours…” Gabrielle stated softly, yielding freely to Xena’s will.

Graceful long fingers gently ran though reddish blond hair. “When this is all over, and we are back in our time, I think we need to take a vacation from the business of the greater good. I want to focus on our feelings for each other.” It was remarkable, in an instant the darkness that had consumed Xena dissipated completely, leaving only gentleness. Such a fascinating duality to the warrior, Gabrielle thought. Xena felt the smile that shone on Gabrielle’s features was worth more than the whole world and all of its riches.

“Gabrielle, what’s happening between us, what’s happening here, it has me questioning…”

“About?” Gabrielle asked after the warrior wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
Wavering…

Xena hated indecisiveness, the back and forth arguments replaying over and over within her mind. Would she conquer, would she rule? Despite her earlier noncommittal declaration and deep reservations, it was as if events were pulling her in the direction of ruling, no matter her feeling on the subject. At some point she would have to commit fully.

“I’m uncertain when it come to my fitness to rule over others.” Xena began, “I… I don’t have the patience, or the temperament. I worry my baser instincts would come to the fore and I would end up being a tyrant. Although I know I’d be successful in conquering an empire, leading armies is far easier compared to ruling.”

Gabrielle was stunned by the blatant honesty behind such an admission. Xena was nothing if not honest in her dealings with others, and even more importantly, with herself.

“Your mind is made up then.” The smaller woman asked gently.

“I still feel I…” the warrior paused avoiding the direct question, “We could do more, to help others, but I don’t know what that would be.”

Xena could see the obvious question in those lovely green eyes.

“Lots of things are rolling though my mind,” The warrior explained. “My actions here, my past actions… at times I feel ill suited to rule. My own temper works against me.”

“But you are suited to running an army.” Gabrielle stated. “What’s the difference?” she asked.

“In a well-trained army, I order a man to do this and he goes about the task without question. He recognizes that I am the superior, that my will reigns supreme, and not wishing to test my resolve, he completes the task. All good soldiers understand there is a superior, whose orders must be followed. There no discussion, no compromise, a good army has a mindset of obedience. If a man is foolish and challenges me, he dies by my hand for resisting my will. That is the natural order among soldiers. In a position of ruling it is the opposite, all men, even the most incompetent, covet the power a sovereign holds, thinking they are superior. Those men want the trappings of power without understanding what every good soldier knows, to give orders, one must first learn to follow orders.”

Gabrielle lay silent for a moment, pondering what Xena was telling her.

“So Sebastian…” she began.

“Is a good soldier.” Xena stated bluntly. Gabrielle thought it only made sense, having noted Sebastian listened intently as Xena spoke, not just fawning admiration, he was trying to learn.

Another long silence ensued, only broken by the flowing of water within the cavern pool.

“Xena?”

“Hmmm?” The warrior felt she knew what the next question would be

“Then by your own description Xavier…?” Gabrielle prodded further

“Is not a good soldier… prideful, unwilling to accept or learn from a superior.”

“You’ve taken over running this army, haven’t you?” Gabrielle suddenly stated quite candidly.

“Possibly.” the word was, punctuated by a wry smile from Xena. Gabrielle was an astute observer. Xena fell silent as one of Gabrielle’s small hands rose, a finger tracing the warrior’s beautifully soft lips.

“Xena, I want you to know that as much as your dark nature worries me when you assume a position of power, the very fact that you question your ability to rule eases my reservations. Always remember that whether you wish to lead armies, or rule empires, or remain as you are, I want to be with you. I only ask that you take my opinions to heart and consider them fully before taking action. Don’t give in to your baser instincts.”

“What have I done to deserve your love? Such devotion?” the warrior whispered, while taking hold of Gabrielle’s delicate hand.

“Just by being you.” the simple heartfelt reply.

________________________________________________________________________

“Words before blows: is it so, countrymen?” – Brutus
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act V Scene I

Dawn broke after a long night of preparation. In the light of a full moon, men had scratched and clawed deep defensive positions out of unyielding dirt. Left to his own devices, Sebastian would have rather left such arrangements to the light of day. Yet Xena had implicitly stated she wanted the work finished immediately.

… and she was in command.

Strange how it just seemed to be so natural to him that Xena should be in command.

Sebastian rubbed his eyes, squinting against the sudden burst of light as the sun rose over the horizon. He had helped the men fix positions, having given them a quick break to get some chow. Now he stood at the small cave entrance pointed out by Xena earlier, his body screaming out its desire to get some rest as well.

“Colonel.”

Sebastian turned, hearing the Sergeant’s voice behind him.

“Yes, Kavanagh what is…”

Immediately, shocked confusion etched Sebastian’s features. “Kavanagh what are you…”

“Shut up!” the sergeant bellowed, raising the pistol in his hand a bit higher.

Sebastian’s mouth snapped closed with an audible click of teeth gnashing together. He stood, straight, raising his chin slightly in defiance.

“Ah, Colonel, I’m sorry it had to end this way, you’re a good man, yet there is a wide gulf between us.”

“You’ve been part of this whole conspiracy since the beginning.” Sebastian’s statement struck Kavanagh as funny and he chucked, confirming his role as traitor.

“Why?” Sebastian asked.

“Isn’t it obvious? Money!” Kavanagh stated, unwilling to wait for an answer. “Do you have any idea how little I earn in this army?”

Sebastian nodded.

“Yes, I suppose you would.” Kavanagh conceded “Well, this little scam has made me and my family back home rich and I wouldn’t want my gravy train ruined by your misplaced sense of duty. After seeing the little trap you have placed here, I decided it was time to act. Killing you now makes things so much easier.”

“Why are you just now getting around to killing me Kavanagh? Why not before, there were plenty of opportunities in the mist of battle.”

“Well, I thought you’d have been dead by now and all, but you just keep on living. Got more lives than a cat, you do.” The Sergeant stated with a hint of admiration.

“Traitor and coward.” Sebastian confronted.

Kavanagh roared with laughter. “Oh, no Colonel, you will be the traitor. Running an illegal scheme to sell stolen art.” the surprised look upon Sebastian’s features caused Kavanagh to laugh once more. “Please, you weren’t even born in America, you were raised in China, studied in Japan, how hard could it be for us to brand you as a traitor? As for me being a coward, ah, we both know that ain’t true, I just prefer to not get my hands all bloody if I don’t have to.” He joked humorlessly. “However, I do want to thank you for leading us all over Eastern China, so I could make contacts to get art.”

“Everyone has been against me this whole time.” Dejection tinged Sebastian’s voice. Outmaneuvered, he thought. Pin the blame for all this on me, have a quick investigation to confirm the lie, then continue profiting by looting.

“Don’t take it so hard Colonel, ya did your best, the deck was just stacked against you. Pity we have to kill all these men.” Kavanagh waved the pistol absently, gesturing to his surroundings “Tying up loose ends ya know.”

“We?” Sebastian asked, noting Xena’s unmistakable form rising up silently behind from within the darkness of the cave. His eyes didn’t move away from the Sergeant as the warrior crept silently closer, the darkness she walked out of appearing loath to release her.

“And wouldn’t you like to know all involved?” Kavanagh taunted.

“Yes.” Came the velvety dangerous reply directly behind.

Before the man could swing around completely, fingers jabbed at his neck. Immediately Kavanagh dropped to his knees, a sluggish line of blood began seeping slowly from one nostril, the pistol dropping from a useless hand. Sebastian’s eyes widened, mouth gaping, yet unable to make a sound, so in shock at what he was witnessing.

“I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain.” The warrior began as Gabrielle peeked out from behind, staff in hand. “You’ll be dead in 30 seconds, unless I release you.” She slinked around the man with effortless grace. “Tell me who else is involved.”

Kavanagh’s face contorted in a mixture of pain, rage, and incomprehension as to what had happened to him. Eyes looked up at the tall woman who so casually moved to place hands which could be both gentle yet deadly on her hips.

“20 seconds…” She stated absently. “Don’t tell me there is honor among thieves Kavanagh. Is keeping your master’s identity secret from me worth your death?”

“Xavier…” Kavanagh wheezed, Sebastian dipped his head slightly, having gotten confirmation of what he had hoped wasn’t true.

“And?” Xena prodded, “Who else?” A beautiful sculpted eyebrow rose expectantly as she waited for a moment. “Hmmm?” the warrior nudged.

“Mullins…”

Deep blue eyes darted to Sebastian. “Commanding General, 4th Army.” He explained succinctly, still trying to comprehend that was happening. One jab at the neck and she…

“Who else!?” Xena demanded, her eyes turning back to regard Kavanagh as the man’s difficulties in breathing and speaking mounted. His hands twitched, muscles in his neck convulsing as he panicked, seeing his own death fast approaching.

“Xena… he’s…” Gabrielle tone indicated her mounting concern. One sharp look from the warrior stopped the smaller woman’s protest. She dropped her gaze, clasping her hands together in front, staff leaning against her shoulder. Gabrielle understood the meaning behind the pointed look; this was one of the unpleasantries that Xena had warned about. She wondered how many more of them were ahead.

“Who?” The warrior roared, leaning in toward the kneeling man, a sneer upon her face.

Kavanagh’s mouth moved soundlessly for a moment, “Men… on… way…” he gasped.

Now at least she knew who the head rats were, but still there were more conspirators to be rooted out.

Xena straightened, a look of contempt painting her features as she watched Kavanagh for only a moment more. In that moment, Kavanagh knew his death was certain. An icy gaze fell upon Sebastian.

“Report, commander.” She ordered.

Sebastian came to attention, pushing down a mind numbing fear of the woman who could so easily kill. “We have completed entrenching positions for the men, as well as placing the mines and mortars as you….” A groan from behind Xena caused Sebastian’s eyes to flick over, in time to see Kavanagh’s dead body topple unceremoniously forward into the dirt. “…wished.” Sebastian finished, swallowing hard and attempting to temper his shock, a sheen of nervous sweat appeared on his brow. Quickly his eyes moved back toward Xena whose stoic features betrayed nothing.

“Good…” she purred, eyes moving past him to the men gathering around them. Natural curiosity had led them to witness Kavanagh’s final moments. Without another word, Xena brushed past Sebastian, clasping her hands behind her back, eyes scanning over the men coldly.

“So… it has come to this…” The comment from the warrior drew a guarded look from the assembled men as Sebastian watched, now firmly ensconced in the position of second in command. Xena continued forward, walking with a confident swagger as the men parted before her, then surrounded her tall form. “By now you must realize that by taking up these positions, that there could be only one enemy for you to face.” She continued, turning slowly to look at each man directly. “You’ve made the choice to fight for right, to put your lives in peril to perform your duty as soldiers, as men.”

“It’s true then, we fight against our own?” one spoke.

Xena’s eyes tracked to the man, a cold smile played upon her lips. “The only thing those men have in common with you is that they wear the same uniform. Why, you heard it from Kavanagh himself, did you not? A traitor, a man you know, is in command of those heading this way. Those who come to fight you do so only to kill you all so they may continue to fill their pockets. Why, I bet they’ve been promised a share in the loot you’ve all seen within the caverns. They want to sell weapons to the highest bidder.” She paused, eyes turning cold. “Want to continue selling helpless children into bondage.” The ex-warlord sneered in disgust. “Men who would prey upon the helpless deserve no mercy.”

Gabrielle looked on anxiously as murmurs rolled though the men. Her eyes darted to Sebastian. What was it with soldiers anyway? If he was worried, he didn’t show it, confidence painted his features. Xena’s effect on people, she mused with a smile, instilling self-confidence in those around her.

“Look here!” Xena bellowed, holding up a stack of folded paper dramatically, before shoving it at the nearest man to grab. “Read how those coming to face you are, to a man, new. Your friends, comrades in arms who once fought beside you, transferred away to make way for mercenaries! Men who have no honor, who kill for profit, come now to face you on the field of battle!” Xena bellowed, rage painting her features. “Traitors!” She roared, “Betrayers! Conspirators! Cowards all! We should let not a one of them live!”

With a long sigh, the warrior dipped her head, “Forgive me,” she said quietly, “The evil of such men stirs my emotions; anger is driving me past reason.” Her voice gentled, “My heart is with those men of honor both you and I knew, friends who died fighting against butchers.” On that last word, her voice changed again suddenly dropping to a dangerous hiss. She roughly pushed though the circle of men, moving to a position past both Sebastian and an amazed Gabrielle very near the lifeless form of Kavanagh. The warrior kept her back to the men, who packed together to be the next to see, to read the orders. Gabrielle noted the looks on these men, the building anger as each page was examined.

For a long moment, only the whisper of the wind and the shuffling of paper could be heard.

“Yet, perhaps I say too much?” Xena began again. Her head turned, hair whipping wildly in the breeze, eyes regarding the men over her shoulder as her back remained turned.

“Perhaps I speak to those willing to commit the very same crimes? Men such as this…” One of the warrior’s boots nudged the dead Sergeant’s body. “…vile creature. A man, who, if had I not stopped him, would have killed your Colonel in cold blood.”

“No!” A man yelled defiantly to a general chorus of agreement.

“He was a traitor! Another shouted.

Xena turned, fists clenched at her side. “Then follow me! Fight with me!” One hand moved behind her back, drawing her sword. The polished steel caught the rising sun, shining brilliantly. “I raise my sword against conspirators!” she roared. As the men chanted her name, Xena knew now was the time to spring the trap upon the fifth columnists within this unit.

Gabrielle watched in trepidation as the men cheered with abandon, willing now to follow any command Xena gave them. The woman she loved once again took up the mantle of warlord.

Gabrielle believed she could just hear Ares’ triumphant laugh, being borne to her by the wind.

“Why, now, blow wind, swell billow and swim bark!
The storm is up, and all is on the hazard.” – Cassius.
Shakespeare – the Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act V Scene I

Chapter 22

“Bind them tightly.”

With quick obedience, Xena’s men moved to kneel beside the five, tying legs and ankles to wood, before stretching arms out painfully, lashing them as well with rough rope. The rest of the men stood watching in a rough circle around the crosses, with villagers watching curiously behind. The morning sun shone on the horizon, bathing the worn carvings on the old temple front as well as the raised stone entry steps in a brilliant penetrating light. Upon those stone temple steps stood the new commander in all her dark glory, hair whipping in the breeze, her eyes watching the proceedings before her, standing with a most casual air. A step further back and to her left, stood Sebastian, as well as Lieutenant Jaxon, both taking in the horror of what was unfolding before them. To her right, stood a shaking Gabrielle who was in the middle of pleading her case.

“Xena!” “Please…”

The officers watched as the tall woman’s posture changed, becoming more tense.

“Gabrieeelleee…” Xena growled, cutting the protest.

“Xena… you can’t…” Gabrielle huffed in revulsion.

Whirling around, the warrior caught Gabrielle by the arm, pulling her roughly beside her away from her commanders and up into the entrance of the temple.

“Xena, you’re hurting me!” Gabrielle cried out

“Out!” The warlord bellowed at the handful of men packing supplies. With a scuff of boots on stone, they flew past and though the temple door.

Pulling Gabrielle around, Xena bent slightly at the waist to look to smaller woman in the eye. “I am in full command now!” she growled while placing her hands upon Gabrielle’s shoulders, “You are not to question my actions in front of my troops!” Those blue eyes bore right into Gabrielle’s soul.

“I will not stay quiet when I see wrongs committed!” Gabrielle retorted in defiance. “Think about what you are doing! You are about to crucify those men! You act as judge and jury, condemning them to a horrific death! That is not the Xena I know! That I love!”

“They are traitors!” Xena howled out in protest, “The lowest, most baseless form of humanity. They would kill us, all of us! They would kill you and not give a moment’s thought to it. Death is too gentle a punishment for such insects! How often must we argue the point Gabrielle?! We are at war!”

“War is just a convenient excuse to justify evil!” Gabrielle spat back. “Do you not see the agony you are about to inflect on those men?!”

For a moment, as they stood facing each other, strong hands lowered to the smaller woman’s arms, began to tighten, for a moment those blue eyes sparked with pure anger, and in that moment Gabrielle was truly afraid.

Xena, saw that fear, recognized it as the same fear she had witnessed in the eyes of her victims of the past, in the eyes of the villagers now. She had reached the point of causing fear of her to take root in Gabrielle. A wave of sadness hit the warlord. Gabrielle perceived it as well, could tell by the gentling of blue eyes.

Xena suddenly stood up to her full height, turning to blink away the tears she didn’t want Gabrielle to see.

“I can’t help what I am, Gabrielle…” Xena husked. “Wicked.”

“No, you’re not!” Gabrielle snapped back, watching as Xena’s shoulders sagged, wearily.

“Oh yes I am… it’s always there,” Xena chucked humorlessly, “the darkness, as you say.” Xena remained turned, head down, arms crossed. “Right below the surface it lies, pacing back and forth, furiously looking for any means to gain release. I fight it, I try not to listen to its demands for blood, for vengeance, yet it never tires, patiently waiting for the right moment to regain control.”

“No, you are stronger, you’ve beaten it.” From behind, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior, who stiffened, then turned to gaze down upon the smaller woman. One powerful hand slowly reached out, fingers gently gasping Gabrielle’s arm, a thumb tenderly sliding over the freshly bruised skin as Gabrielle’s eyes tracked down, gazing at the blotches in the outline of fingers, before drifting back up to meet Xena’s blue.

“Have I beaten it Gabrielle? Have I really?” the warrior asked. Not wanting to hear Gabrielle’s answer, knowing what it would be. Xena paced away a few steps, keeping her back to Gabrielle.

“I’ve never told you…” Xena said after a long silence. “I was crucified.”

“What!?” Gabrielle rushed forward, one small hand reaching out fingers touching Xena’s arm. “How did that…”

“Caesar…” Xena stated flatly. “A tragic story which I will tell when there is time… I trusted him and he betrayed me. So you see, I know exactly what I am about to inflict upon those men. I know all about betrayal, having been schooled by the best.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena turned, her gaze drifting away from terrible memory to focus the smaller woman. “Can’t you see the reasons why I’m doing this? My plan hinges on this.”

“Is there no other alternative, then? No words I can use to dissuade you?” Gabrielle asked sadly. “Will you not listen to my judgment on this matter?”

“No…” With that one word by the warlord, the smaller woman dropped her head in sadness, an act which broke Xena’s heart.

“Gabrielle, you don’t have to witness this…”

“I will.”

“You will hate me for what I’m about to do, if you don’t already.”

At that, Gabrielle raised her head, her eyes meeting Xena’s

“I could never find it within my heart to hate you. You, who saved me from a life of slavery, you who gave me a life of adventures I never could have imagined in my most vivid dreams, who saved me from death’s grip, whom I’ve learned so much from.” Gabrielle leaned into Xena’s touch as the warlord cupped her cheek. “I’d never hate you.” She whispered.

“Then we will go do what we must.” Xena finally managed to say as her fingers caressed Gabrielle’s cheek.

“But at what cost?” the little one replied softly.
________________________________________________________________________

“Colonel, this is insanity!” Jaxon argued.

Sebastian remained silent, eyes forward, his lack of response grating.

“Sir, those men are about to be crucified! It goes against every rule of war in the Geneva Convention.” The young Lieutenant stepped in front of Sebastian, wanting to make his superior see reason.

“Rules of war.” Sebastian muttered, smiling bitterly at the irony of the words, his eyes drifting away to look upon the occupant of one particular cross.

“We could be brought up on charges of war crimes!” Jaxon pressed. “You must take back your command and end this madness!” He found the front of his fatigues clasped firmly in Sebastian’s right hand. “You dare lecture me on war crimes?!” he shouted “You think those troops coming at us will have any concern for the rules of war? They will wipe us out and not think twice about it! We are in the fight of our lives here Jaxon! Failure means you and I and everyone else will be lined up and shot! That woman is now our only hope to make it through this! I know not what you plan to do, but I… I… will remain loyal to her until the end!” With a forceful shove, the Lieutenant stumbled backward, as Sebastian released the front of his fatigues. “Loyalty is all we have left.” The new second stated bluntly. “The only thing we have that those facing us lack.”

“Are we ready?”

Startled, the two officers turned to see both Xena and Gabrielle standing behind them, the warlord studying them intently.

“Yes.” Sebastian stated matter of factly.

“Good.” The warlord walked past with her usual confident swagger to a position ahead of the two.

“Captain Baumann,” she called out while placing her hands on her hips “Lieutenant Morales, Sergeant Lyman, Corporal Boyd, Private Dien and Private Tomlinson.” Gabrielle’s eyes flicked to Sebastian’s back at the sounding of that last name. “No…” she mouthed silently. “You have all been charged with sedition.” Xena continued “Before sentence is passed,” the warlord smiled darkly, “I will listen to your pleas.”

“You have no right, no authority!” Morales screamed, lifting his head to see the woman leisurely walking toward him. “You’ll hang for this!” Hanging… Xena reflected, while gracefully striding down the stone steps… a favored punishment in Britannia.

With a crook of her finger, Xena motioned for Sebastian alone to follow; as he did, Gabrielle took his place next to Jaxon’s side.

“This is madness!” Jaxon whispered.

“Total madness…” Gabrielle agreed.

“Sebastian, you will pass on my thanks to these villagers for the fine craftsmanship of these crosses.” Xena stated conversationally as she picked up a heavy ball-peen hammer lying by the first cross and took a knee. “And on such short notice as well.” she added.

“You are accused of sedition against a superior officer.” Words calmly stated to Morales.

“Are you guilty?” One feminine eyebrow quirked up

“You have no authority!” Morales repeated, screaming out the words as his eyes watched Xena pick up one long iron spike, twirling it between her fingers while flashing an evil smile. “I demand a trial!” he wailed, struggling against his restraints. “I want the evidence against me presented to a jury!”

“Evidence?” Xena stated in an unnerving tone which caused the man to fall silent. “You want evidence? Elaborate for all here, Morales.” The warlord raised one hand, gesturing outward to the assembled soldiers. “Tell us how you ordered the men in your defensive line to charge forward during the attack on the village? You defied a direct order from your commanding officer to remain in a defensive position. You purposely killed good men and allowed the bandits to sweep into the village. Odd, that you were the only one to remain completely unscathed in the fight while men died around you. Did you laugh as those good men died, Morales? Looking back now, as you are about to be impaled on a piece of wood, you have to ask, was it all worth it?”

The man squirmed under her gaze, “No…” A dispassionate rebuttal left his lips, serving to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the warlord. “No,” Xena lips moved to a tight smile for a moment, “It wasn’t worth it, Morales. Amazing what I learned from those bandits we had shackled in the cave, before they departed this life.” Xena’s piercing eyes looked to Sebastian, seeing the shock register on his face as he realized the full extent of her shrewdness in being able to ferret out plots and disloyalty. Xena was truly a formidable woman.

“Now, Sebastian…” Xena motioned for him to take a knee beside her. As he did, she continued. “Allow me to educate you on a proper crucifixion. You see, many botched attempts have the man nailed to a cross just though the palms of the hands.” The second swallowed nervously, as Xena dragged the iron spike across the palm of Morales’ hand. “The problem of course is this” she tapped a spot in the center of the palm, “is far too weak to hold a body up. The flesh and small bones of the hand cannot hold the weight; it rips away, hence the need to tie the body with rope for support. Now this is properly done.” she continued pointing to the ropes with the spike. “If I were to spike his hand now, he’d be in agony for days before death, but at least he would stay put on that cross. So…” The warlord paused, searching for the precise phrasing, “Unfortunate… to see a man tumble off a cross, the spike tearing though his feet as he plummets to the ground. You end up having to go thought the process again, nailing him back up and all. I like things done right the first time, wouldn’t you agree, commander?”

Sebastian nodded in silent shock.

Morales’ terror caused his breathing to become uneven, jerking, gasping breaths racked his frame as wild eyes darted back and forth between the two, pleading for help, yet finding none.

“A more merciful way to kill is the spiking of a man near the wrist. See the bones there?” Xena asked clinically while touching the area with the tip of the spike. How they have a small gap? A spike driven here…”

The metal head of the ball-peen hammer flashed in the sunlight for only a moment before being brought down crushingly on the set spike steadied in Xena’s other hand. In one devastating blow, it was driven though Morales’ wrist and into the soft pine wood.

The man howled as the pain arched though his body. His screams punctuated by calls to some singular deity. It was all too much for Gabrielle, who buried her face in her hands, unwilling to look. How had it come to this?

Guess that one god thing caught on, thought Xena casually, stepping over the man, moving to the other side to continue her work, ignoring the man’s cries. “Now you’ve got to be asking yourself, Sebastian, why is the wrist more merciful?” she continued “Well, if done right, the spike cuts though the blood flow channels, and the man dies more quickly. Plus the bones are strong enough to hold the weight of the body.”

A second hit from the hammer, the other wrist. A second, now hoarse, scream erupted from the man.

“The legs should always be… crossed,” Xena smirked, “makes it easier to break both with a well aimed strike. Course…” the hammer rose again as Morales wailed pitifully, his eyes following the hammer as it rose in Xena’s hand. Another metallic ring heralded the beginning of a new set of painful cries from the man. “The feet do require a longer spike. Breaking the legs is a kindness, hastens death.” Xena instructed her new second “It’s more merciful to break the legs when the prisoner is prone on the ground, but I don’t really feel that generous today, we’ll break ‘em when they are raised up. Gutless worms deserve as much.”

“The ropes are useful in other ways.” Xena continued, noting the paleness of Sebastian, his horror filled gaze. She snapped her fingers before his eyes. “Pay attention commander, I don’t have the patience to repeat myself. You four,” she gestured at the men standing nearest.” “Raise him up!” She ordered, standing up, while offering a hand to a rather woozy Sebastian so he could steady himself as he got to his feet. The soldiers went into action, two stepping behind the cross, levering it up while the others in front heaved on ropes tied to round metal rings secured into the wood near Morales’ hands until the base slid into a hole in the earth.

“Now, where was I?” she stated, kneeling before Baumann’s cross, “Ropes?” Sebastian offered shakily. “Yes of course.” Xena smiled, “Hold on to that thought, commander.”

“Captain Baumann.” the name pleasantly stated by the warlord before her voice turned cold as she explained the charge. “You are accused of sedition against a superior officer.”

“Are you guilty?”

“No!” the man cried, sobbing the word out, tears streaming down his face.

“No?” Xena questioned, allowing feigned shock to grace her lovely face.

“Yes you are.” Xena stated, ever so gently using her thumb to gently wipe one of the man’s tears away, while keeping her voice soothing, almost as if she were trying to calm a newborn colt. “Tell the truth Baumann,” she cooed; “Tell all here of your guilt. The truth can be so… liberating.”

“No…” he whimpered. “No…”

Xena’s features changed from gentle understanding for the man, to hardened anger. The clang of metal sounded, followed by a shriek of anguished pain as a spike was driven home.

“Recall Baumann,” Xena said rather clinically over the screams, “how you argued with me vehemently when I changed the attack that night outside the village. I disrupted your plan, didn’t I? Could it be that you, along with Boyd and Diem were trying to race back to the village and kill loyal men in the confusion of battle? Betcha you got promised a hefty little sum for killing ole Sebastian, huh? That’s why you scurried off like the cockroach you are instead of helping kill your friends the bandits.”

Two more iron spikes and Baumann’s cross was raised skyward, the man on it having mercifully passed out from the pain.

“Ropes right?” Xena queried Sebastian as she continued to fulfill her task with sinister purpose.

“Yes, I believe that is where, ah, you had left off.” Sebastian stumbled through a reply. He had seen many hellish things, but what was happening here was beyond comparison. His mind scarcely could imagine how or where Xena had picked up this terrible knowledge. From the pages of history perhaps? The Romans liked to use crucifixion as punishment.

“As I was saying…” Xena moved to stand before the prone crosses of Boyd and Diem. Hands on hips, one holding the ball-peen, she studied the two young men, merely boys of 18 seasons or so, easily swayed by those in authority. Still, a part of her couldn’t help but enjoy soaking up the fear emanating from them as they stared up at her in terror. “…Ropes are necessary when nailing though the palm Sebastian, not needed if by wrist. I prefer to use them either way, as once a man is tied down I needn’t go though the extra effort of holding him while a spike is driven.”

“Boyd and Diem.” Xena paused to look up absently at the blazingly clear blue skies. The heat of the day combined with blood loss would soon take its toll on the men she had spiked. “You know the charge.” An elegant hand waved dismissively over the two

“Are you guilty?” Xena stated rather uninterestedly.

“Yes.” The two men stated in unintentional unison. It would have been comical except for the situation.

The warlord regarded them, eyebrows raised in mild surprise. Seemed few ever admitted guilt; however, the sight of the other two men on a cross was a powerful incentive to be truthful. “What were you offered for your betrayal?” she asked.

“A promotion.” Boyd replied earnestly as the second man nodded assent.

“An offer of a promotion is all it took to betray your commander. Your stupidity knows no bounds.” The warlord sighed miserably. The ability to turn loyalty with a simple bribe, Caesar would surely recognize that old trick, as he had mastered it. These two were young, gullible; a chance glance back at Gabrielle by the warlord found the woman, her teary eyes peeking over hands, silently begging for some degree of mercy.

“For your honesty in admitting your guilt, I commute your sentence to ten lashes of the whip.” The men’s expressions were inscrutable as they didn’t know if whipping would be better or worse punishment. “Get a post set up,” she ordered, “strip their backs and tie em up, one at a time, hands above the head.”

“Yes Ma’am.” The nearest man stated obediently,

Xena cringed.

“Sebastian, tell the men to call me Xena, not Ma’am. I despise that term.”

“It’ll be done.” The man stated as she passed before him, before moving to the last cross.

“Now we come to you, Tomlinson.” The warrior smirked down at the boy. “Not much to ya kid. Sebastian,” Xena gestured down at the boy while turning her head to look at the second, “you shoulda had em’ make a smaller cross for this one, a waste of wood.”

“You are the traitors!” he shouted. “You’ve turned against your own people!”

“Here is the noblest one of them all.” Xena suddenly said, pointing at the boy, shocking Tomlinson into silence. “All the rest of the conspirators acted out of jealousy, of greed. Only he acted honestly and for the general good.”

“Spare him then.” The words were so softly spoken, that even Xena’s keen ears had trouble picking them up. Sebastian had chosen this moment to speak, unwilling to bear the burden of the kid being hurt, yet torn by the fact that Cody had turned against him.

“What was that, Sebastian?” Xena kept her back turned, regarding the boy.

Sebastian cleared his throat hesitantly.

“Speak up!” Xena turned her head, eying the man over her shoulder.

“I would ask you to spare him then.” The second stated clearly.

“No!” Tomlinson jerked at his binds, “I’d rather die than be a traitor like you!”

“Why?” the warlord asked, ignoring the boy, turning to face Sebastian.

“As you say, he was acting out of conviction.” Sebastian argued. “True…” Xena’s head cocked to one side as she pondered what to do. “He didn’t actively participate in their schemes, only joining them when it became clear to him exactly who we would be fighting.” She justified. Sebastian fidgeted rather nervously, shuffling his feet. “He believes honestly, this was the course he should take.” He added.

“And?” She asked, turning to him, wondering how far the man’s loyalty went, would he reveal a secret she already knew, or would he make another excuse. She already planned to show the boy more mercy than she had done for Boyd and Diem. Yet Xena wanted Sebastian to tell the whole truth, to trust her in the telling of that truth.

“He’s family…” Sebastian finally stated in a near whisper. “Step-brother.” He couldn’t continue to meet Xena’s gaze and dropped his eyes. Inwardly, Xena was pleased; the man was loyal, as Ares had said. So Gabrielle’s intuition had been right.

“You allowed him to be assigned here, didn’tcha?” She asked. One long finger slid beneath Sebastian’s chin, applying pressure, forcing him to raise his head to look up to find her eyes. “Family wanted him to be looked after, Polev made sure he was assigned here.” He explained as her finger left his chin.

Sebastian’s eyes looked past to meet Tomlinson’s and it dawned on the boy just exactly what the two were discussing and his face contorted in anger, “Damn you!” he shouted venting his fury at Sebastian for telling the secret.

“I see.” Xena replied as the boy behind her struggled hopelessly against his restraints. “Your heart was in the right place.” Her hand moved to fall upon his shoulder “Must’ve torn you up inside to send the boy out to do dangerous tasks. Couldn’t show favoritism, the men would’ve been suspicious.” his eyes met hers again. “And if he were killed, you’d have spent the rest of your life reliving that moment, hating yourself for it, wishing you could have changed the past.” Xena’s words were so filled with regret, Sebastian couldn’t help but think she had some insight into his dilemma.

“He must face some punishment.” Xena stated flatly.

Her eyes shifted, taking in Gabrielle, as she walked toward them. The small woman took a moment to look up at the two men impaled on the crosses; a shudder of revulsion rolled though her small form, causing Xena an almost physical pain. How would Gabrielle ever really be able to forgive her this act?

The little one placed her hand on the warlord’s forearm, but said nothing as her eyes pleaded with Xena to show some mercy for the boy. “He will suffer, not for his naïve loyalty, but for the ultimate act of cowardice, turning against family.” The warrior stated softly, looking into her eyes. Even with a slight reconciliation with her brother Toris, Xena managed to forgive, but she couldn’t forget. Betrayal was the Mount Olympus of all sins. So many had hurt her, hurt those she loved, all though disloyalty. Like a plague, it had spread though Sebastian’s command, she would continue to root it out, teach a severe lesson all those who had chosen to be dishonorable.

With a flick of the wrist, Xena beckoned men around the cross. “Raise him up!” she ordered looking away from those sea green eyes, watching the boy struggle as his cross rose.

“Your sentence for betraying your own family is to weather the elements lashed to that cross for a full cycle.” A full cycle? Sebastian wondered, not having a clear idea about what that meant.

“Thank you…” Gabrielle whispered as she stood next to Xena.

“It’s not over yet.” The warrior stated sadly. “Gabrielle, I need my whip.” Pale blue eyes moved to regard the smaller woman who stiffened at the request.

“We do what we must.” Xena reminded.

Without a word, Gabrielle turned, not wanting Xena to see the tears as she moved to the cave, to fulfill the request.

“Sebastian, get some men, bring Kavanagh’s body here.” The warlord ordered, her eyes drawn past the man, looking at Gabrielle’s retreating form.

“May I ask the purpose?” Icy blue eyes turned on him.

“I want his worthless hide on a cross with the others. Plus, it will give you a chance to practice what you have learned commander.” Sebastian’s breath hitched ever so slightly. “Oh come now!” Xena berated. “The man’s dead! When you come back, I have one final lesson to give.”

“It will be done.” He replied, chastising himself internally for a moment of weakness, as unpleasant as it was, treachery must be dealt with. He stood for a long moment at attention before the warlord waved a hand, dismissing him.

Chapter 23

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” – Brutus
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act IV Scene III

The crack of the long whip sounded in front of three raised crosses, followed by a cry of pain.

One man was long dead, relieved of the suffering the others were enduring. Three nailed, one tied. One cross lay on the ground, seemingly waiting patiently to be put to use.

Tomlinson’s strength had waned surprisingly quickly; breathing heavily, he tried to hold himself up, to relive the painful pressure with every breath. At least his legs were still whole, unlike Baumann and Morales. The witch had broken both their legs while coolly instructing his bastard of a brother as she did so. The sun overhead had burned him in the endless hours of day, his throat like sand. The yelled taunts directed at anyone near now came back to haunt him as he could barely speak. In the distance he spied dark storm clouds approaching. As the sun moved lower, he could see the lightning flashes, dared to hope rain would find him. Where his voice had failed him, his eyes burned into Sebastian, who had turned to look up at his step-brother as the whip cracked again.

“Damn you…” the boy mouthed with cracked lips.

Gabrielle counted the strokes, flinched at each crack of that whip, hearing each scream. Her eyes, unwilling to look at Boyd, instead fastened themselves upon Xena. As much as her stomach turned at each stroke, she also knew the warrior was going easy. Knew firsthand just how strong Xena was, and knew she wasn’t using a tenth of that strength. If she were, those men would be filleted by the time she finished.

9….

10…

She breathed a sigh of relief, tears staining cheeks, glad it finally ended.

Xena turned, coiling the whip with practiced ease, her hand roughly wiping, smearing the excess blood, a brutal sort of conditioner for the leather. “Take them in the temple; get a healer to tend those wounds.” Sebastian moved, motioning to Jaxon and others, bringing them out of their stupor to fulfill the order.

The warlord looked to Gabrielle, expecting condemnation in those green eyes, finding instead, only a deep sadness.

“Come…” spoken softly, together they walked soundlessly into the temple.
________________________________________________________________________

The rain fell, drenching the boy on the cross; tilting his head, he opened his mouth, allowing the precious fluid to soothe his throat. Beside him, the rain battered dead men.

Jaxon had finally managed to pull the Colonel inside the temple and out of the pouring rain. By now, every man in the unit knew the full story of why Sebastian would be so concerned for Tomlinson. Pulling himself together, he oversaw the last preparations for the battle ahead. Jaxon prompted him to rest, begging him to eat something, promised he’d make sure the last of the men and supplies would be moved out.

For a long moment, Sebastian simply sat, meal hardly touched, eyes blank. This was a nightmare he couldn’t wake from. All he could hope was that the end would justify the means. Standing, he shuffled over to a pile of ancient scrolls the men had found within the caverns. Haphazardly gathered, they had been dumped into this part of the cave. His hand passed over one or two, lifting them up, until he felt something brush against his boot. Finding a scroll there, he picked it up, unrolling it gingerly. Sebastian began to read. It was ludicrous to do so, but he read on anyway. A temporary diversion, meant to calm his racing mind before he had to report to Xena that all was ready. He also wanted to ask, to beg on his knees if necessary, for her to cut the kid down as he had suffered enough.
_______________________________________________________________________

Two women sat silent as the smell of fresh rain permeated the nook in which Sebastian once had his command.

“Gabrielle…” Xena finally broke the silence. “I wish…”

“Don’t!” The smaller woman’s features were drawn in anger. “I go where you go!” Tears fell from her eyes, as Gabrielle fairly shook from the emotions roiling within.

The warrior stood, moving toward Gabrielle, who fell into her strong arms.

“I’m so very sorry little one.” What else could she say?

“And so am I.” Gabrielle agreed, “But never once think that I don’t love you, despite it all, despite being unable to fathom why you would chose such torture, I can’t help what I feel.”

“I’m glad you can’t understand it” The tall warrior rested her chin upon Gabrielle’s silky hair. “I hope you never understand it.”

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered.

“Yes?”

“Don’t let the darkness take you completely.” The smaller woman said, muffled within Xena’s embrace.

A slight clearing of a throat caught their attention. The warlord straightened, pinning the man with a glare, while moving around Gabrielle, dropping a possessive arm around shoulders of the smaller woman.

“Yes commander?”

“All is ready.” Sebastian reported.

“Remember, you must hold that position, give me time to work.”

“I will, until the last.”

“Let us hope it does not come to that.” The warlord stated gruffly. Xena’s eyes moved to Gabrielle’s for a long moment before speaking. “Cut down Tomlinson, drag him in.”

Relief shone upon Sebastian’s face. The kid wouldn’t be out there all night, drenched and fighting the cold.

With a nod he moved back from the entrance to comply as Jaxon came up behind him, a grave look upon his face. “Colonel…” A note was shoved into his hand. “I’ll get him down.” He stated knowingly as he backed away, receiving a grateful look from Sebastian. “Jaxon…” The Lieutenant turned, coming to attention as he faced the warlord. “Give the kid clean clothes, food, water, but lock him up. I want to…” Xena paused. “Talk with him later.” Jaxon nodded respectfully, taking that as his cue to leave.

Xena watched as her second turned his attention to the decoded message, reading it, his features became serious. Silently, he moved to hand the report to his new commander whose blue eyes scanned the message.

“Explain.” She stated flatly

Sebastian was confused; certainly she understood what the message stated? Her impatient glare caused him to speak. “The President… my commander,” he clarified seeing her odd look, “has been assassinated.” It struck him that Washington was a full day behind, March 15th, the irony. “The whole U.S. military around the world is on full alert. I would venture that bombers are in the air, missiles at the ready in case some country wishes to exploit the moment of lost leadership.” It dawned on him why Xena wouldn’t necessarily understand the message. Perhaps, as crazy as it seemed, what he had read was true. The hand holding a rolled up scroll now tapped his leg, drawing the attention of the warlord.

“And that?” Xena queried, eyes narrowing as she noticed the odd expression upon Sebastian’s features.

It was now or never…

“Just some ancient scroll I happened across.” He answered as her hand rose expectantly and he handed it over. Sebastian paused as Xena unrolled the parchment carefully, eyes scanning the delicate Chinese script. Gabrielle looked on warily at the sudden tenseness of her warrior. “Evidently it was written during the reign of Lao Ma.” Sebastian continued.

“What does it say?” the smaller woman asked.

Blue eyes flicked up to Sebastian studying him in silence, when no response was forthcoming, Gabrielle’s gaze also moved to Sebastian.

“A warrior woman…” he began, “Quite tall, very imposing, long dark hair, with piercing blue eyes. An attempt to reform a vengeful Warrior…” he paused, “Princess…” Gabrielle’s eyes widened in shock, “A fantastic tale,” Sebastian continued, “of miraculous healing by Lao Ma from broken legs. Unfortunately, much of the scroll has been lost to the ages, but did I get the gist of it?”

She knew what he was inferring, “I should remove you from command for having lost your mind.” Xena retorted. “This,” she held up the scroll. “Is some tale from thousands of seasons ago meant to entertain.” she bluffed.

“Did you know, her campaigns in Greece are required reading?” Sebastian, attempted a disinterested tone, changing tack, not wanting to confront her directly as his commander might make good on that threat. After what he had seen today, remove in her vocabulary most likely meant an unpleasant death. “Her military strategies,” he pointed to the scroll, “are studied, whole commentaries written about her tactical genius.” Xena’s usual stoicism couldn’t overcome the shock showing on her face at Sebastian’s words.

“All the historians agree, she was…” he thought a moment, considering how he would phrase his words, “Greece’s most able commander, a hair’s breadth from taking Corinth. An Empire would have been gained had that one city fallen. From the piecemeal notes left by her contemporaries, there was little doubt Athens would have fallen had Corinth surrendered.” A sneer painted the warlord’s features. She didn’t like being reminded of that loss; never did she accept defeat, still being haunted by the loss of Corinth. At what might have been…

Her response to his words was telling, despite her visible anger, Sebastian pressed onward, as it was too late to stop now. “She had a powerful effect on those she knew, or came in contact with; the result being that much was written down about her life. Why, Caesar’s own commentaries speak rather smugly about his using her trust in him as a weapon. After betraying her, Caesar left her on a beach to die by…” he paused. “Crucifixion.” Now at last, Sebastian found the reason for her hatred of the man. Seems she really had known Caesar… and knew the ways of crucifixion.

Holding his hands up palms outward, Sebastian meekly surrendered as the warrior took a threatening step forward, only to be held back by Gabrielle’s gentle touch. “I only state what has been written.” Sebastian said apologetically, “I make no judgments. Ironic really, a man who used betrayal as a weapon was killed by conspirators, chief among them someone whom he thought of as a close friend.” A feral smile now touched Xena’s lips. Caesar dead by assassination, how perfectly fitting for the well-practiced backstabber.

“Then the beginning of a path to redemption, recorded for the ages by a close… friend.” Sebastian’s eyes moved to Gabrielle who gasped. “However, that group of writing abruptly ended, the last recorded words a tale ending with a near loss of someone this Warrior Princess cared deeply about.” Gabrielle stood, mouth suddenly agape.

“I find it most interesting that the description of the woman in that scroll fits you perfectly.” He commented vaguely, resisting the smile tugging at his lips seeing the expressions written upon the faces of both women.

In the silence that followed, Xena turned, stalling for time as she walked around the battered table in the center of the space. Sitting in the chair behind it, she propped her legs up on the table, crossing them at the ankles. Suddenly her skin began to crawl… oh great, she mused sarcastically as a flash occurred in the corner of the little command nook. Before she could speak, Ares pressed a finger to his lips. The warrior’s eyes darted to Gabrielle, and then to Sebastian, they hadn’t noticed, and were still waiting in silence for her response. Ares could be seen by her alone.

“Told you he was smart…” Ares said arrogantly as Xena’s features became taut with anger. The god dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Okay, okay… so I kinda pointed him in the right direction by helping him a little in finding that scroll. Maybe put it in his head that he should trust you. Still…” the god’s arms rose, hands out as he flashed a gleaming smile. “He’s got a point, you are the best ever, and without you, my Warrior Princess, Greece has no hope.” The smile faded and his look became deadly serious. “2,000 plus seasons of violence could be wiped away by you. Why, just ask him,” Ares goaded, “what happened to our Greece in those 2000 seasons. Why do you think I try so hard to win you back?” he asked. “This isn’t just about me.” He smiled at her incredulous reaction to his words. “Okay, not all about me,” he backtracked slightly, “it’s about Greece. Only you can save Greece. That is your true destiny, to use your abilities not just for the greater good, for a person, or a village, but for the entire known world.” Ares’ dark smile reappeared as he said the word again… “Empress…”

With that he vanished…

“A string of coincidences…” The warlord stated matter of fact, after a long pause, knowing that Sebastian didn’t believe that for a moment. “It intrigues me though.” She offered with a smile. “Perhaps, when this is over, I will read these… stories.”

“Of course,” Sebastian nodded his agreement nonchalantly. “What are your orders?” his lips quirked a bit, “General.” Gabrielle looked on warily as Xena’s smile broadened. Oh, yes… the warlord thought, he does understand.

“Go to the defensive position; make sure all is ready. I will be there later to conduct a final inspection.”

Xena watched as Sebastian came to attention, offering a salute for the first time. Waving it off nonchalantly, she stood as he departed.

Ares, the conspiracy, assassinations…

“Gabrielle?” Her little one stepped forward as the warrior moved a hand up, fingers rubbing her temple. “Yes?” a small hand touched the warrior’s back.

“I have a terrible headache.”
________________________________________________________________________

Waking, he saw the woman before him, involuntarily flinching at her close presence.

In the shadows, just on the periphery of light cast by the pulsing bulb she stood, tall and wicked, cruel blue eyes shining menacingly.

“Well, well… awake at last.” She purred.

Tomlinson moved again, the chains holding him rattling. How long had he been out? It was impossible to tell time within this hellish cave. At least feeling had returned to his extremities. The numbness was nearly gone, Jaxon practically had to feed and clothe him after coming down from that cross, as Cody wouldn’t allow his step-brother to help, to even come near.

“Nothing to say?” A chuckle erupted from the witch.

Hateful eyes looked up.

“You know, if it weren’t for Sebastian pleading your case, I’d have whipped that streak of insolence right out of you.”

“Bitch!” he spat. Suddenly he was backhanded so hard his head snapped back, slamming against the rock wall, bright spots clouding his vision.

“Careful boy…” the warlord hissed, “That cross can be put back to use.” Seeing truth in those cruel blue eyes, he looked away.

“You know…” Xena began, walking away from him, seeming to intently study a pair of manacles hanging from the ceiling on long chains. “I can see Sebastian’s nobility within you.” The chained man behind the warlord snorted loudly, contemptuous of the remark. “However, unlike you, he is able to see things as they truly are. You are blinded by a false sense of duty toward men who are responsible for all we’ve gone though.”

“My duty is to not betray my own country, to not fight my own people!” he yelled.

Xena let out an aggrieved sigh. Turning toward Tomlinson, she took a step towards him.

“Use your head boy!” she growled, “Look around you; do you think Sebastian placed all this here?” Xena’s arms rose, indicating their surroundings. “Do you think he’s behind all that has happened? That your Colonel, who does everything he can to protect his men, to protect you as family, would turn against his own on a whim? He must have good reason!”

“This all happened after you arrived.” the boy accused. “You turned him against us, turned those men against us.”

This is hopeless, Xena thought; the kid is so filled with ideas of duty that he can’t see past his own nose.

Least I can use his anger…

Walking forward, Xena lowered herself until her face was mere inches from his. “You hate me.” She whispered with a heartless smile.

“Yes.” he hissed. Instinctively, he scrambled back further against the wall; trying to get away from her dreadfully intimidating presence.

“Want revenge, don’tcha?” she taunted, watching as his breathing picked up, his muscles tensing. “I killed three of your… friends. Tell me, did you consider them friends?” she prodded, “Did you feel helpless watching them die?” Xena could feel the hatred flowing off him, a part of her reveled in it, soaking it up. “What about the two I had whipped?”

Tomlinson’s face became etched with rage.

“I’m here before you,” she teased “right in reach, now’s your chance.” She thrummed. “Put all that hatred you feel for me into one good solid punch.”

He hesitated, disconcerted by her.

“Do it!”
_______________________________________________________________________

Sebastian stood outside the shallow opening, the full moon painting the landscape. Just two short miles from the village center, he tried to envision the flow of battle, much like Xena. The attackers would come up the steep slope, attempting to use the tree line as cover. Seeing no option, they would mass and run forward across open ground, there they would be most exposed…

“Commander.”

He nearly jumped a foot into the air at the sound of that voice. Spinning, he found Xena clearly smirking at him in the moonlight. How the woman loved doing that to him! Next to her, dwarfed by her towering presence, was a very small, very defeated Tomlinson. Unbound, he stared meekly at the ground; it seemed, at least in Xena’s company, his will to resist was all but broken.

“Keep him tied up, till this is over.” She ordered. Without a word from Sebastian, men jumped to do her bidding, leading the kid away. “How are the other two?”

“Recovering,” Sebastian reported, “tied, face down on cots. He raised his hand gesturing to the small opening she had walked though, “You wish to see them?” he stepped forward, only to stop as Xena waved her hand, dismissing the idea.

“What happened to you!?” he stuttered, seeing the dark patches on her face illuminated by the silver light, clear swelling showed around her left eye.

“You know, that kid packs quite a punch.” Xena chuckled. “Not to worry, I’ve been through worse. All part of the plan.”

He nodded, concerned, as her eyes moved to sweep the terrain, noting the positions of the entrenched men. “Now we complete this ruse, and draw our target in.” Her eyes locked with his in the moonlight for an instant. Moving away, the warlord sat on an out cropping of rock at the entrance of the cave; leaning back, she stretched out her long legs.

“You pieced my past together well.” She complimented. “I can’t help but be impressed.”

“Thank you.” He offered hesitantly, while shifting nervously. The woman had just admitted who she really was. This was the Xena of legend, arguably a commander who could be ranked as one of the most brilliant, most charismatic, and most brutally efficient military leaders in the history of the Western World. In Sebastian’s mind she was the best in the history of the entire world. He weighed the enormity of who it was now casually sitting before him. She couldn’t have known it, but she had been an unseen mentor to him, the writings on her strategies, her cunning in battle, were read avidly by him in the temple school growing up. A young lonely impressionable youth, who once dreamed of the glories of ancient battles, was now conversing with a woman he once knew only as myth. Her deeds so amazing, many believed the warrior known as Xena had been completely made up, no more than a collection of deeds of various warriors, meshed under her name. Some said she was no more than a character in some ancient epic, existing in the mind of bards as means to tell a moral tale of good and evil.

“Whatever you read about me, I can assure you the reality is far worse.” She cautioned. After witnessing all that he had, Sebastian didn’t doubt it.

“Now that you know who I am, tell me, Sebastian, how did this war begin?” She asked quietly. Clasping his hands behind his back he looked pensive for a long moment. “How do these things always start… one country invades another and everyone piles on.”

“Mmmm…” Xena muttered, wanting him to continue the explanation.

“Well, North Korea up and invaded its neighbor South Korea, soon everyone joined in,” he explained, “obligated by alliances, countries picked sides and off we all went into war. Perhaps, you’d like a world map, General?” he asked. “to… review?”

“Yes.”

Ducking into the cave, he pulled out maps, folding a few up before walking back and handing them to the warlord.

“Tell me,” she began after a long pause, “What is it about those missiles, as you call them that causes you worry?” “They can be launched,” he explained, “fly hundreds of miles, strike targets, and kill millions.” The name of the weapon came from her time, she mused, the destructive power from this era.

“I see. A weapon that can level whole cities.” the warlord was amazed at the destructive power. Ares spoke of such a weapon.

“We sit on the brink,” Sebastian explained his fear. “One misstep and those weapons might be used.”

“Because your leader is dead?”

“Yes.” he sighed, looking down. “I’m sure everyone is edgy in the States, fearful of what may happen next. One launch anywhere in the world would be tracked, could cause a response.”

“And the world ends?” Xena asked, eyes intent upon him.

“It is a strong possibility with the right events.” he confirmed. “The weapons in the cave are supremely dangerous in the wrong hands, especially now. There they sit in a cave unguarded, weapons powerful enough to level cities.”

“What of Greece?” She asked, turning the conversation unexpectedly, wanting to verify Ares’ claims. “How has history treated my Greece?”

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum.” He replied. Xena shook with sudden raging anger, unnoticed by Sebastian, his attentions focused on relating the information. “Greece was conquered, subjugated by an all-powerful Roman Empire whose legions swept around the Mediterranean or sea mare nostrum as they liked to call it. 147 or so emperors later, the Empire fell to a band of Germanic tribes after years of inner decay.”

“And then?” Xena asked through clenched teeth.

“Controlled by the Byzantines, overrun by Ottomans, the great Muslim Empire, oh, the Assyrians…” he ticked off ancient invaders on his fingers. “The Germans…” he listed after a pause, thinking about World War II. Images of that Nazi Swastika flying above the ruins of the acropolis in Athens flashed in his mind. Xena seethed, thinking of her Greece, her home battered and abused by invaders, her people suffering. “But Alexander the Great had a good run.” Sebastian admitted after the fact.

“Enough.” she growled.

He prudently fell silent, judging her mood, changing the topic of conversation after a long silence.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he paused as she suddenly smiled knowingly in the moonlight. “How did you, get here?”

“Help from Ares and an ugly green gem.”

He thought for a moment calling up history, “Ares… as in…” he began, when Rome conquered Greece, Roman gods merged with the Greeks. Or were all these gods all the same, just with different names? As if his mind didn’t have enough to think about, multiple gods, various names, it was confusing to say the least.

“Uh…” he began falteringly

“Yesssss.” She drawled impatiently

“An ugly green…” he finished hesitantly

“The Kronos Stone,” she cut him off, “that stupid rock is nothing but trouble. It enables the holder to move through the threads of time.”

Time travel, ancient gods, he thought, it was undeniably crazy, a one way ticket to an asylum, but yet here was Xena, the Xena… sitting right before him.

“Do you have a plan, Sebastian,” she asked, creating confusion in the man. “After all this?” she clarified.

“Well, somehow I doubt the Army is gonna treat me well, they tend to frown on what’s about to happen here. That is, assuming the world survives this latest war. Guess I’d have Polev help me disappear into a life of hiding. Cody would be more than happy to turn me in at this point.” Sebastian couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“Pay him no mind,” The warlord said while standing, “He’ll come around.”

Xena walked to the entrance, then turned toward him, the moonlight highlighting her features, making her eyes all the more brilliant. “Serve me well in the upcoming battle and I may have an opportunity for you.” Her lips curved up a bit “I always reward loyalty. Plus, I would hate to see your martial skills wasted in a life of hiding, or squandered because you were sent to death.”

“Thank you, General.”

“Gabrielle will be joining you here, as soon as the scouts pick up the approaching force.” The warlord continued without acknowledgment of his words. “Her being here is the best and only option at this point for the plan to work. I hold you personally responsible for her safety.” Her voice took on a tone which filled him with dread. Heaven help him if Gabrielle were hurt.

“Understood.”

“Don’t fail me.” Xena warned menacingly.” Her hand rose, a finger pointing directly at him. Without another word, she turned, silently vanishing into the darkness. It was almost ethereal how the woman moved. Sebastian let out a nervous breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.

Chapter 24

“Prepare you, generals: The enemy comes on in gallant show; their bloody sign of battle is hung out, And something to be done immediately”. – Messenger
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – Act V Scene I

“She’s dead.”

“She is not dead! I wouldn’t let her.”

Xena woke, eyes wide…

That Hades of a dream again! One hand moved, fingers running though long raven locks. They were in the cave, safe within the cave; Gabrielle was curled up next to her. The little one facing her, head tucked under the warrior’s chin, fingers of one hand tightly clutching the soft green top Xena wore. She could feel the smaller woman’s breath gently brushing her neck. Whatever omen the gods warned by this reoccurring dream, Xena would go to any length to ensure it never came to fruition.

“Mine…” the warlord growled softly, lips close to a small perfect ear.

“Yours…” Gabrielle mumbled dreamily, as one of the warrior’s strong arms moved to drape protectively over her sleeping form.

Winding her way back though the caverns, Xena found Gabrielle fast asleep. In one hand a quill, in the other, parchment. As tempting as it was, she hadn’t read the words; Gabrielle’s writings were hers alone, unless she chose to share them. Instead, Xena had gently pried them away, neatly tucking them into her leather bag. While Gabrielle slept on, Xena spent candle marks viewing the maps given her by Sebastian. The Known World of her time was rather puny compared to the scope of this map. Huge land masses separated by vast oceans, countries, mountain ranges, huge lakes, rivers with odd names, fired her imagination.

The land mass called Africa on the map stretched far beyond the now meager looking ancient Egyptian Empire. What resources did that vast land alone hold? What of the huge lands beyond the seas? Xena could foresee the treasures, the resources, of the entire world, laid at the feet of her victorious Greece, used to protect Grecian culture from ever being overrun by invaders. Caesar… the warrior mused as her azure eyes sparkled; thy ambition was far too limited.

She heard the man before he appeared at the entrance.

Standing at attention, he waited. Eyes straight ahead, smart enough to not look upon the two women.

“Yes?”

“The scouts report a large force moving to this position. At present speed, they should be here by late afternoon.”

“Present speed?” Xena inquired.

The man smiled slightly. “Whole lot of ‘em coming in by truck convoy. Having a hard time of it, no roads for those big trucks to ride on, terrain is giving ‘em fits.”

“Have they any forward scouts?”

“None Ma… I mean, Xena.” He quickly corrected. “Craziest thing I’ve seen,” he continued, “Whole force, moving though unknown country, without any kind of forward lookout.”

With a smile of understanding, the warlord nodded. Complacency. Their commander was truly over confident. “Corporal, I want all observers pulled back to the defensive position, we abandon this village, starting now.”

“Yes Xena.” The guy saluted and was waved off.

A gasp of surprise caused Xena to look down into wide green eyes. “Xena, my gosh, what did…”

“All part of the plan Gabrielle.” The warrior said gently.

“I know, but I didn’t think you’d let yourself get knocked silly by him!” Gabrielle’s hand moved up, faintly tracing the edge of the bruising. “Well, it had to look convincing, didn’t it?” Xena retorted playfully.

“Yes, but…”

An eyebrow quirked up. “But?”

“I don’t like seeing you hurt, that’s all.” The honest admission caused the warrior to smile. “Just a scratch,” she assured. “Now, you know what to do?”

Gabrielle suddenly looked absolutely crestfallen. “Yes,” The sound of pure sadness tingeing that voice. “But I don’t like it.”

“I don’t either.” Gabrielle felt strong arms hug her gently. “I don’t want to be separated from you little one.” the warlord let out a sigh, “If there were any other way I’d…”

“I know you would Xena.”

“Now you listen,” The warrior’s tone became serious. “You stay back in that cave, don’t go out till this is over, understood?”

“Xena, I can…”

“No!” the word came out in the form of a growl. “I want you safe during this. I don’t want to see you hurt.” It would destroy me… the warrior left unsaid.

“Okay.” Gabrielle clasped Xena’s strong hand as they lay beside each other. “I’ll do as you say, only because I love you.”

“And I love you.” A gentle smile from the warrior.

Chapter 25

“Good God!”

Xavier stood in open mouthed shock, dumfounded at the sight before him. This, this was beyond all reason!

“Baumann, Morales, Kavanagh…” he whispered. “Crucified!?…” My friends! He could scarcely believe it! Anger welled up at witnessing what had happened.

“Sir?”

Xavier turned, eyes taking in a very battered Lieutenant Colonel supported by two enlisted men. Her head was down; matted black hair covering her face.

“Look at me.” He ordered.

Xena raised her head slowly, wincing in pain, as her eyes met his.

“What happened here?” Xavier asked, the warrior noted the Roman eagle insignia on the shoulder, the worm had been promoted.

“He’s crazy.” She began rushing her words. “Kept talking about traitors, he tortured those men, wanted them to confess they were part of a plot.” she rasped, “They screamed for mercy!” Xavier watched as she swallowed hard, attempting to get steady upon her feet. “Easy… easy now.” He comforted, touching her shoulder. “He?” Xavier asked. “Sebastian Reeves!” she roared, swaying slightly for effect. “He nailed them to crosses, left them to die. He’s gone totally mad,” her eyes flashed with rage, “he believes you are a traitor…”

“I don’t care what he believes!” the man before her yelled suddenly, silence followed as he tried to regain his temper. “There are three men hanging here and four crosses…” he stated while trying to gain a hold on his emotions. “The last one was for me.” She let that statement sink in for a moment. “But he ran out of time, you were too close, had to get the fools who choose to follow him to some sort of safe position.”

“Where?” Xavier asked coldly.

“I’m not sure.”

“Major!” he yelled

“Sir?”

“I want three companies readied to be sent out tomorrow. Search in all directions. We are hunting Sebastian Reeves and his men. When found I want them rounded up! Have the men place our supplies inside this ugly temple and get the camp set up.”

“Yes Sir.” The man began to move.

“Wait! Get someone to cut these bodies down, bury them.” he waved at the crosses unwilling to look any longer at the men behind him.

“Yes Sir.”

“And the smaller female officer sent with you?” Xavier asked, studying the tall woman’s features for any kind of deception.

“Taken as a hostage.” she spat angrily.

“Well, looks as if you got yourself into a mess, being transferred here.” Xavier began, eyes looking over the woman, this Diana. Even battered and beaten, she still had an intimidating feel about her. “Bet you’d like to get at the bastard who caused all this?” he asked with a smirk.

“Oh yessss…” she hissed evilly, eye lids narrowing at Xavier, “I would.”

“Ah… um…” he stammered, caught in that gaze. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and ah… you can tell me more about what happened here.”

“Of course.” She smiled a rather unfriendly smile.

________________________________________________________________________

“Colonel, you’d better come take a look at this.” Sebastian looked up, meeting Jaxon’s eyes in the semi-darkness of the cave. He had been trying to reason with his step-brother, having no success, even with Gabrielle’s help. Where her patience was endless, his was gone.

“Right.” Sebastian stood, looking down at a very resigned Cody Tomlinson. “You will remain tied up until you see reason.” He expressed coolly.

“Then I will be tied up for a long time.”

Next to him Gabrielle let out a pained sigh.

“Look after him would you? And please, please stay here, don’t go out into this.”

“Okay.” Was her only response, those green eyes moving to meet his, “Hopefully,” Sebastian began “this will all be over soon.”

Her eyes dropped away, finding Tomlinson’s for a long moment.

“Let’s hope.” She finally said, almost in a whisper, as Sebastian moved to the narrow cave entrance.

First ducking down, and then dropping to a crawl, the two men moved up to the forward entrenchment amidst the camouflaging foliage. “There sir…” Jaxon pointed, “See there?” In the distance, men could be seen, walking towards them as if they had not a care in the world.

“Any others spotted on our flanks?” Sebastian asked.

“No sir, it’s just them coming at us. Gotta be almost a full company, with what’s coming up behind ‘em.” A pair of binoculars was handed over, Sebastian looked through them. True enough, another cluster of men was ambling up behind.

“These guys could use some work in stealth.” Sebastian muttered, getting a snort of nervous hushed laughter from the nearest camouflaged men around him. The light of day was quickly beginning to fade, things were aligning perfectly.

“Okay, here’s what we do.” Sebastian’s eyes flashed with almost gleeful anticipation.

______________________________________________________________________________

Alas, my lord, your wisdom is consumed in confidence. -Calpurnia
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act II Scene II

Xena could just barely, barely keep her disdain for the man in front of her in check. Instead of using all resources to find and attack the enemy force he knew to be out there, Xavier had used all available man power through the night and into the following day to clear the cave where the missile launchers were kept. He hadn’t approved sending out the first patrols until late in the day. His excuse was an order from his superior to keep the weapons safe, which Xena knew was a lie. If anything, they were being prepared for movement. She had wanted a quick battle which these poor troops would all be committed to, then suffer a stinging setback. Now it looked to be a more drawn out affair.

Here lay Xavier, on the steps of the cave, his men sloppily lazing away in their pathetic excuse for a camp. These were not trained soldiers; these were opportunists, here because they smelled riches. The fool might believe he was in command, but these men would turn in an instant. He was as naïve as she once was in her younger days; believing men would remain loyal to her through anything, too stupid to understand that nothing was farther from the truth. Knowing human nature was her greatest advantage.

Xavier’s eyes tracked over to her. “You are a bit eccentric like Sebastian, carrying a sword plus that chakram thing. The sword I get, but I don’t know much about that hoop.” “Perhaps,” she said gently, “I can arrange a demonstration?” Xena smiled sweetly enough, but Xavier caught the undertone of menace in her features. Didn’t worry him, this woman and Sebastian were fools, using weapons from another age. She would be put to his uses, and then discarded when this was over. In the meantime, he thought, she would be a fun toy to play with. “You know, I could use a good officer such as yourself.” Ah, let the bargaining begin, Xena mused. “Why thank you Colonel,” she replied, “I’d be honored, but don’t your superiors have the real say in the matter of me joining your unit?”

“Oh…” Xavier began as he sat up, turning toward her, “I’m on very good terms with my superior, I’m sure I could work something out.” He smiled, moving one of his hands to rest on her knee. “You know, those awful fatigues, don’t do you justice, as strikingly beautiful as you are.”

It took all of her considerable will, to keep from killing him where he sat.

“It’s a shame that all these treasures are to be given back to the Chinese Commies.” He sighed dramatically. “Millions of dollars, tucked away in those caves, and here we are supposed to hang onto it until the end of the war, just to hand it back to those who started this whole conflict.”

“Seems unfair, were you to ask me.” She purred encouragingly, placing her hand on his, finger bones break easily with good technique such as hers. If his hand moved further, she would use said technique. Already, she knew what he would offer. Greed was an old tack; he was going to offer her a percentage. Those who care greatly about riches always assume everyone else does as well.

“Very unfair,” Xavier stated in a voice tinged with desire. “Think of it realistically,” he continued, “a few of those treasures sold by us would be missed by practically no one. I propose we take them,” his hand squeezed her knee gently, “sell them, and get rich. I could cut you in on the deal, if you were to help us against Sebastian. When the moment is right, I want you to kill him. Get rid of him for me, and I’ll cut you in on the profits. I mean, look at all the terrible things he’s done to you, you’d have revenge against him and profit to boot.” Xavier justified.

The coward wanted her to do his dirty work.

“Sounds interesting indeed,” A gracious fake smile shone upon her lips. Xavier’s eyes drifted over her, a leering smile clearly stating his other intent. “Let us be partners then?” he asked, leaning forward a bit. She knew what he wanted; men were so predictable. One of her elegant fingers rose to touch his lips. “And what of the missiles?” she asked sweetly. “Those certainly aren’t art treasures.” “Oh…” Xavier hummed as her finger enticingly moved across his lips, before tracing along his jaw delicately. “Those will garner even more money than all the treasures in the cave.”

“Aren’t they dangerous?” Xena asked, eyes widening, innocence marking her face. His laugh galled her, stating plainly that he though her as naive “Yes, but with loads of money coming our way, I’m inclined to risk it.”

“Are you in?” he asked leaning further, his lips moving to touch hers.

“How could I not be?” Xena burred, as he leaned over to her, her mind clicking off all the ways she could pummel the life out of this loathsome little man. In those seconds, she came up with a hundred ways to kill him, fast as well as slow. Thinking about the slower ways of achieving his death though something… like the gauntlet, was quite enjoyable, and gave her a quite a sensuous grin.

She sighed inwardly, the things I do for the greater good, she mused as his lips neared.

The unmistakable sound of gunfire in the near distance caused Xavier to sit back suddenly, much to the Xena’s barely hidden relief. The man’s confusion was clearly evident. As if he didn’t understand that sending out patrols could actually lead to encountering the enemy? Moron!

“What’s that!?” he asked stupidly while standing, turning toward the sound as men in the camp did the same.

Xena could only roll her eyes, as she casually stood as well. How could this man be so brainless? Certainly he had the opportunity to learn, or did his own arrogance cause him to disregard basic lessons of war?

“It would appear that your men have found their target.” She stated the obvious, watching amusedly as the man’s hands balled into fists. “Well, then, I’ll make short work of this! Sebastian is as crazy as he is stupid, thinking he can hold back an entire brigade!”

Xena’s hopes for a quick battle were suddenly revived.

“Major!”

“Sir?” The man ran forward, wide eyed, clearly this was his first taste of combat. Imbeciles and idiots thought Xena, chucking inwardly.

“Get all companies ready, we move up to attack immediately.” Xavier’s smile of confidence was exasperating. “Sir, shouldn’t we at least scout the position? Reports coming back state the enemy is well entrenched.”

“I don’t care how well entrenched they are!” Xavier bellowed, “He can’t win against our numbers!”

“Yes sir.” The man ran off, Xena watched as orders were given, men roused up, noting how they shouldered weapons with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Yes indeed, she thought, I may be in command sooner than I thought.

________________________________________________________________________
“Now, Antony, our hopes are answered: You said the enemy would not come down, But keep the hills and upper regions; it proves not so: their battles are at hand; They mean to warn us at Philippi here, answering before we do demand of them.”- Octavius
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – Act V Scene I

On the mountainside, Sebastian was amazed at the poor discipline of the men he was firing upon. Unwilling, or unable to grasp the concept of cover, they ran headlong into his fire.

“Sir!” Sebastian turned his head slightly, ceasing his fire, as Jaxon ran up stooped low, before falling down on the ground beside him. “My God, they just stand right up and run at us!” the Lieutenant stated the obvious in the form of a yell as the big machine guns in the log bunker blazed to life again. “Jaxon, telling me this was cause enough for you to leave your position?” Sebastian asked watching as those attacking fell upon the goat path in a heap as rounds found them.

“No sir, the mortar teams are antsy, wondering why you haven’t ordered them to fire.”

“Tell them they will get their chance.” Sebastian stated flatly, “They are our surprise in waiting. Tell them to hold fire until I give the direct order, understood?”

“Understood.” Jaxon made a move to crawl away.

“How many?” Sebastian asked, grasping the man’s arm.

“How many what?” Jaxon yelled back.

“How… many… casualties?” Sebastian asked, carefully enunciating his words.

“None sir.”

Sebastian only nodded; the fates of war were on their side for now. What was left of the enemy finally had the sense to fall back. His men took the opportunity to line up precise shots at the backs of retreating men, killing and wounding still more as they ran. Hit men fell forward, limbs splaying out as they tumbled to the ground.

“Cease fire!” he yelled, his radio man conveyed the order to scattered positions. So far better than hoped, he thought as his nearest men let out a cheer of triumph. Only two of his positions had actually opened fire, the rest remained hidden to be revealed on the next assault. They had just begun to face the enemy, but this was a confidence booster for the men, showing they could hold against superior numbers. Though soon far more troops would attack. Now with the guns silent, the screams of the wounded and dying echoed across the battlefield. Sebastian had neither the means, nor the inclination, to help the enemy wounded.

“Jaxon, get some men, re-supply our line pronto, plenty of ammo as we’ve got loads of it, got it?”

“Yes.” The lieutenant nodded. “But sir,” he asked, “It’s late in the day, surely they wouldn’t attack a still largely unknown position in darkness?”

“Let’s hope they will.” Sebastian countered with a smile lit up by the setting sun which shone upon his camouflaged features.
________________________________________________________________________

“Would you like a bite to eat or maybe some water?” Gabrielle asked, letting out a relieved breath, hearing the fighting beyond the cave entrance taper off. Best of all, no wounded men were coming in. Xena had taught her well, she had the necessary items ready to treat men, but she was glad to have no need of them, just yet anyway.

“No.” Tomlinson replied curtly.

“Are you sure?” she pressed, “You haven’t had anything for quite some time. Boyd and Diem had a good meal.”

“I’m sure!” he barked, in anger. “I refuse to be helped by the likes of you. All of you are traitors!” the kid yelled out toward the cave entrance.

“I’m so tired of hearing that word.” Gabrielle sighed, “Or any combination involving the words betrayal, traitor, conspiracy,”

“The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” Gabrielle could see the disgust within him, hate for those he thought were against him.

“You know,” she stated casually, “you remind me of something, something which happened to me once.”

“Really?” He groused sarcastically.

“I remember when I was just a girl, back in my hometown…”

“You’re gonna tell a story?” he asked incredulously, “Right now?”

“Why not?” Gabrielle answered teasingly, “You have somewhere to go?” As frustrated as he was, Tomlinson had to laugh at the truth of those words.

“Okay then.” Gabrielle chucked. Launching into her short tale, voice lifting as she began painting a picture using words.

“As I was writing one day, a wild bee from the neighboring hills flew into my room and at intervals during an hour or more I caught the pleasing hum of its flight.” Gabrielle chose to ignore the rolled eyed expression Tomlinson gave her. “You see, the little creature realized that it was a prisoner, yet all its efforts to find the exit through the partly opened shutters failed.” A beautiful smile caused by reminiscing crossed her face as she recalled home in Greece, precious scraps of parchment laid upon her desk, bought with every dinar she could scrape together. “When I was ready to close up the room and leave, I threw the window wide, and tried at first to guide and then to drive the bee to liberty and safety, knowing well that if left it would die as other insects there entrapped had perished in the dry atmosphere of my room. The more I tried to drive it out, the more determinedly did it oppose and resist my efforts. Its one-time peaceful hum developed into an angry roar, its darting flight became hostile and threatening.”

Tomlinson had no idea where this woman was going with this, but was enjoying her melodic voice, her honest expression, and the moment of her hands, as she traced the flight of this imaginary bee.

“Then it caught me off my guard and stung my hand – the hand that would have guided it to freedom. At last it perched on a pendant attached to the ceiling; beyond my reach of help or injury.”

“The sharp pain of its unkind sting aroused in me rather pity than anger. I knew the inevitable penalty of its mistaken opposition and defiance, and I had to leave the creature to its fate. Three days later I returned to the room after a visit to family outside town and found the dried, lifeless body of the bee on the writing desk. It had paid for its stubbornness with its life.”

“Serves it right for stinging you.” The boy stated with honest conviction.

Gabrielle smiled sadly. Revenge, people always want revenge.

“But you see,” she continued. “To the bee’s short-sightedness and selfish misunderstanding I was a foe, a persistent persecutor, a mortal enemy bent on its destruction; while in truth I was its friend, offering it ransom of the life it had put in forfeit through its own error, striving to redeem it, in spite of itself, from the prison-house of death and restore it to the outer air of liberty.

Tomlinson sat for a moment, eying the woman. “There is a moral here isn’t there?” His eyes shone with amusement. “You are likening me to a stubborn bee, aren’t you?” His laugh echoed in the cavern.

Gabrielle quirked up a little half smile, “Cody, I know Sebastian cares for you.” The kid looked up, shocked for a moment that she would call him by his first name.

“It doesn’t justify what he allowed that…” he caught himself, just barely from saying the word, knowing that the evil witch had a friend in Gabrielle. “…to do what she did to us.”

“I… I don’t…” Gabrielle began haltingly. Doubts encircled her, was there something, anything she could have done to change what had happened, to stop the series of events that had taken place? “…like seeing people hurt.” She finished softly.

“Yet you stood by, allowed her to do what she did, just like Sebastian.” The kid quipped, albeit gently.

What he said was true, Gabrielle had to acknowledge it, if she were to be truly honest. “I allowed it.” she shamefully admitted, not even trying to justify her actions by listing for him how strenuously she had objected to Xena, knowing the words would ring hollow.

“All I can hope is that you will see that what happened here, as horrible as it is, was for the greater good of all.” She had finally said it, and in doing so, came to a dark place Gabrielle had hoped to forever avoid. She had just justified torture and death in the name of the greater good.

Chapter 26

“…they could be content to visit other places; and come down with fearful bravery, thinking by this face to fasten in our thoughts that they have courage But ’tis not so.”- Antony.
Shakespeare The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – Act V Scene I

Flares arched up into the night sky, each hissing as it slowly fell back to earth, setting the battlefield alight in flickering white.

Men’s shouts raged across the field, only to be cut short as bullets hit their mark.

“Hold…” Sebastian spoke calmly into the radio mike pressed against his lips as those manning the mortars listened on the other end. “On my command…”

All night the attacks came. All were markedly haphazard, showing a lack of discipline mirroring a disorganized command. Waves of men would hit in one direction, easy targets for his gunners who would proceed to drive them back into the tree line. Once there the enemy would hunker down, firing wildly uphill, into well entrenched positions, unable to throw grenades as the incline was far too steep. Flares would then light the men up; and one after another they would fall, easy pickings for trained shots.

Then the scenario would repeat…

Another direction…

Driven back again….

If they had rushed at once, attacking from three sides, they might have taken his position. Sebastian’s men, well… Xena’s men gladly took advantage of their enemy’s mistake.

Another set of flares arched up, movement at the far left flank caught Sebastian’s eye, now, finally, came a new direction of attack. A twitch of a smile from Sebastian as the first mine went off. Several more sharp explosions as more attackers stepped into trouble. The scene was ghastly, men writhing on the ground clutching a bleeding stump, all that was left of a leg having been blown off. He soon lost count of how many mines went off, how many men were wounded, nor did he care. In his mind these men facing him were getting what they deserved.

Now, in the light of flares, he could finally see some organization start to take hold, Attackers lay on the ground lit by flickering light, by the hundreds, it seemed. These men were finally driven to work together, ready to move as one in a last ditch attempt to wipe him out before the sun rose.

Xena had noted the mortar positions on the map; Sebastian placed them exactly, pre-sighting every position for maximum effect. Now in this moment, the timing was perfect!

“Fire!”

Behind, further up among the boulders, the telltale thump of mortar tubes could be heard, the gathered enemy heard the rounds arching toward them, tried to break for cover, any cover, but they were completely exposed. Six rounds, followed by six explosions, all devastatingly effective.

The men below rallied, running forward with a desperate yell, to be mowed down by Sebastian’s final surprise of the night. Guns in two hidden emplacements opened up. Raked by fire both forward and to their sides, men dropped en masse. The will to fight broke, and their more numerous attackers gave up and ran.

Everything thus far had occurred exactly as Xena had envisioned.

“Jaxon!” he yelled out as the mortars ceased fire. The Lieutenant crawled over, as the dawn broke, light finding a field littered with more bodies, both dead and alive.

“You’re hit.”

“Nicked my arm, nothing bad.” The man looked worn, tired as Sebastian was sure all the men were.

“First, get that looked at, second, get food and supplies to the men, third, tell the men to keep watch in shifts, so they can grab some rest. Got it?”

“Yes sir”

“And you Colonel?” Jaxon asked, “You gonna eat and get rest?”

“In a bit, first I need to check on our wounded, see how our positions held up. Now get!” Sebastian made a shooing gesture with one hand causing Jaxon to smile.
________________________________________________________________________

“A whole dammed brigade and we can’t take one hill!” Xavier’s fist slammed down on the table in front of the assembled officers. The men shuffled their feet, anger painted their expressions.

“Sir,” the nearest man spoke. “They are well entrenched up there, good interior lines. We can’t spread out and encircle as the terrain doesn’t allow for it.”

“We have the advantage of numbers!” Xavier shouted in frustration

“The terrain negates that advantage.” Major Litz responded. “We got funneled into a killing zone. Perhaps if you had been there, sir…”

“I don’t have to be there!” Xavier roared, “I am a colonel!” A finger touched the black eagle on his shoulder. “I order you; you take orders and do the job! Must I come up with every strategy? Can you not think for yourselves? I never ordered a general retreat! If we had kept attacking, the position would have been ours!” Xavier paused. “The attacks were uncoordinated!”

“Sir,” Litz continued to justify, “this is a brand new unit, the men hardly know each other and aren’t used to working together.”

“Then they better get used to working together!” Xavier snapped back. “I haven’t time to play nursemaid to a bunch of green troops! Dammit! We don’t even have forward observers up there! They could be up to anything!”

Xena’s stoic features hid the inner glee she felt. Standing in the back, leaning against the wall casually she knew these men were losing faith in Xavier’s leadership. Now all she needed to do was to capitalize on the anger, the frustration the men were feeling, and offer an alternative.

“Luckily for you idiots,” Xavier condescended, “I’ve got a solution, being put into place as we speak.” Xena pushed off the wall, now paying rapt attention. “We will use artillery to bombard their position, before we attack again tonight.”

“What of the dead and wounded up on that hill?” the man in front of Xena asked. “Certainly we should…”

“We don’t have time to worry about them!” Xavier cut him off. “They pay the price of failure!” he barked. “As you all will, should you screw up again!”

Xena’s lips twitched up a bit, decidedly angry faces now looked upon the worm that had no clue where leadership was concerned. He was making her coup all too easy. Now she needed to do something that would make these dimwits around her understand her dislike of Xavier, and her willingness to take command.

Xavier snatched up a square bit of paper, scribbling for just a moment, before folding it in half. “I need this delivered to those asses up on the mountain side” Those around the table looked at each other. “Under a temporary flag of truce.” He added, trying to get any of them to volunteer.

“I’ll do it.” Xena finally spoke after the long pause, stepping forward; she butted her way roughly through the assembled group, one hand out ready to take the note.

“See?” Xavier began as he handed her the paper. “All you brave men, and a woman, of all people, volunteers to take the job!” Xena narrowed her eyes for a moment. Pompous ass! The only satisfaction she got was the angry looks directed at Xavier from the men around the table. The coup would happen, but first she needed to go check on the position Sebastian was in after the fighting, urge the men on, and to make sure Gabrielle was okay.

“Take Major Litz with you,” Xavier ordered with a wry smile “to observe.” Xena’s eyebrow quirked up at Xavier’s order, “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he paused with a smile, “but I don’t quite trust you fully.” As the assembled officers looked on, the warrior straightened up to her full height, eyes scanning over the disgruntled men. Xavier had just given her the moment she was looking for. “Well, I’ll have to remember that Xavier. Lesson one…”she continued, “trust no one.” Several of the men in the room nodded to her just ever so slightly. Xavier was quickly digging his own grave. With a flick of her wrist she roughly snatched the note out of Xavier’s hand, moving out of the room. “You will address me as Colonel, or Sir!” he shouted. “You haven’t earned it!” was her retort. “You’ve not been dismissed!” Xavier shouted at the empty space, much to the quiet amusement of the other officers.

Major Litz stood like a lost puppy for a moment, eyes darting back and forth between the entrance and Xavier. Finally he worked up the courage and walked out, stepping quickly to keep up with the intimidating woman.

________________________________________________________________________

Sebastian opened his eyes to find Tomlinson attempting to burn holes though him with his. “Cody, stop eyeing me like that, you look about as scary as an old pampered housecat.”

“He’s just being stubborn.” The humor in Gabrielle’s voice was evident as it cut though the semi-dark of the cave, the light coming from the entrance outlining her form.

“Like a bee.” The kid quipped.

“What?” Sebastian shook his head. “Never mind.” Getting his feet under him he groaned slightly as sore muscles protested. “Shouldn’t have slept so long, how are our wounded?”

“Dead!” Cody said suddenly angry. “Got what they deserved!”

Sebastian ignored the remark, walking gingerly over to Gabrielle, as other men slept on around them. “You did what you could. With your help, Boyd and Diem felt decent enough to beg me to return to duty.”

“What about the men still out on the battlefield?” She asked. “We should do something for them; we can’t just let them die out there.”

“I don’t give a damn about what happens to them.” He said coldly, shocking her with his callousness.

“Gabrielle,” Sebastian placated, placed his hands on her shoulders. “I understand the desire to help.” He conceded, “However, they are the enemy.” Gabrielle had heard that before from Xena, but before she could speak up he continued. “Look around you; we barely have enough room to treat our own men in this narrow cave. Our supplies have to be used for our own. I can’t call in more supplies or evacuate any of our wounded. All I’ve got is one corpsman plus you, patching up men. Our best alternative to help them is to get Xavier to agree to some sort of ceasefire.”

“Sir.” Jaxon approached.

“Yeah?” Sebastian answered tiredly, watching Gabrielle’s shoulders slump forward in defeat as his hands left them.

“Tall, dark, and dangerous is waiting outside.”

“Who?” Sebastian asked not fully comprehending what the man was telling him, “You know, Xena?” came the reply. Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Anyway she’s outside, standing next to some fella under a flag of truce.” Jaxon, paused. “Evidently she… demands,” he emphasized the word, “to speak with you.”

Gabrielle’s sad disposition suddenly changed and she started to move rapidly toward the cave entrance.

“Whoa… whoa… whoa!” Sebastian halted her by lightly grabbing onto her arm. “Patience is a virtue, Gabrielle. Let me go first and make sure all is okay, and then you can go talk with her.” He breathed a sigh of relief when she nodded her assent to the idea as it would be his head were Gabrielle to be hurt. He moved to the cave entrance, followed closely by Jaxon and Gabrielle. Stopping just within the light of the entrance, he stopped, turning his head, eyes focused directly on Jaxon. “Look, should something go wrong out there, you are in command.” Sebastian couldn’t help but smirk, as the man swallowed audibly. “Stay put for now.” he instructed again before stepping out.

Major Litz had never been witness to such carnage! Men were shredded by bullets, legs, arms blown off. Blood soaked the pathway they had walked up, so much so that the crimson liquid’s flow had cut channels into the dirt. Men who still clung to life reached up as they passed, begging for water, for help, while others only cried for death to take them. The mass of dead and dying men, strewn haphazardly across the terrain had caused him to lose the contents of his stomach. He had retched, falling to his knees as he did so. Litz looked up, before vomiting once more, only to see the tall woman looking down upon him impassively. When finally he finished, she had unceremoniously snagged him by the back of his fatigues, hauling him up, dragging him with her like some rag doll.

Now they stood in the mist of the enemy, him still holding a white handkerchief, waving it slightly.

“I think they get the idea.” Xena drawled, standing slightly behind him. Quickly he shoved the scrap of cotton in his side pocket. Seeing the object of Xavier’s wrath emerge into the open, Litz suddenly thought to end the battle with one shot. Then they could get onto more important items, like divvying up the spoils in the caves.

“We can end this right now!” he rasped to the woman directly behind him, one hand itching to move to the pistol on his hip. “Just one clean shot at Sebastian and our problem is solved.”

Behind him, Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Is that some kind of joke?” she said with sarcastic anger. “With dozens of rifles aimed at us? That’d be smart! Besides,” she said coolly, “It’s time for your end.”

Before he could ask what she meant, Litz was grabbed from behind, in an instant his head was pulled back as the razor edge of the chakram was drawn across his throat.

Sebastian stopped his progress, mouth gaping open as the man ahead fell to his knees, blood gushing out from his throat. Litz’s hands went up, pawing his neck, trying piteously to stem the flow of blood. He could do no more than let out a gurgle, his mouth trying to form words in that last moment before falling forward, a pool of red continuing to flow from his corpse.

Gabrielle’s gasp was clearly heard in the silence.

Sebastian’s hands moved outward, meant as a calming gesture to steady any jittery men in positions around him. He watched as Xena nonchalantly wiped the blood of the edge of her chakram with the white handkerchief snatched up from the dead man’s pocket before clipping the round weapon back on her belt. Involuntarily shuddering at the causal ease of her kill, he walked the few remaining steps until he stood before her.

“General.” a subdued, quite nervous tone in took hold of Sebastian’s voice, while his head dipped in respect to the woman before him. She surprised him by slowly moving to clasp his arm in hers in a kind of handshake. “You’ve all done well!” Her words, said loudly, along with her grasping his arm caused the men to let out a cheer as their faith was reaffirmed. The soldiers around then did something Sebastian never would have tolerated under any other circumstance: they stood, walking forward almost reverently, inexplicably drawn in by the sheer charisma of the woman. She was ruthless, extremely brutal in her measures, yet undeniably loyal to the men pledged to her in service. Stepping back unobtrusively, Sebastian watched as Xena moved, clasping hands with various men, patting shoulders, speaking a few words of encouragement. Men stood proud as her eyes met theirs, smiled boyishly when offered praise by her, and their confidence in their ability to win, even against overwhelming odds, soared due to her. Just by observing these few moments, Sebastian knew these men would do any task she asked of them, their loyalty was hers.

Perceptibly, Xena’s gaze softened. Following her eyes, Sebastian looked past Joxer to see Gabrielle step forward. Where the men’s hearts clearly belonged to Xena, Xena’s own heart, Sebastian observed, belonged solely to Gabrielle. As a hush fell over the men, little Gabrielle walked forward, to be embraced lovingly by Xena.

“Alright,” Sebastian’s voice rose in authority. “Back to position.”

With a nod from Xena, the men reluctantly dispersed, almost as reluctantly as Xena seemed in releasing Gabrielle from her hold.

“We’ve got a new problem.” The warlord stated, while handing over the note penned by Xavier. Unfolding the scrap of paper, Sebastian’s brow furrowed as he considered the words.

“What is it?” Gabrielle asked edgily, keeping one arm firmly across Xena’s waist, while the warlord draped an arm across her shoulders.

“He’s giving Sebastian here until sundown to surrender unconditionally or he will use something he called artillery against him.” Xena explained. She had an idea, but wanting to know more about this artillery was.

“I guess the closest thing to it would be the catapults of ancient times.” Sebastian explained, fingering the note absently. “Large guns which fire exploding shells, we’d be hard pressed to hold up against that. They can bash most any fixed position to pieces given enough time. Could be worse, Xavier must not have been able to call for air strikes.” Gabrielle’s eyes looked up at Xena. “What do we do now?” she asked, with deep concern. The warlord hugged her in reassurance, thinking a moment. Xena pointed at the note held by Sebastian, “He twice underlined a word, written at the bottom there.”

“Degüello” Sebastian translated, “No quarter. If I don’t give up before sundown, Xavier will allow us no further opportunity to surrender.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “You mean he will…”

“Kill em all.” Xena smirked.

“Too much of that has happened already.” Gabrielle muttered gloomily.

Xena sighed, confirmation in a way of Gabrielle’s comment. “Well, like a poor commander, Xavier has given you time to prepare for this artillery. I’d say it’s time for us to use that little access tunnel to our advantage.” Xena’s eyebrows wiggled deviously.

Chapter 27

“He was killed? how in the hell did that happen?!”

Xavier stood dumbfounded, surrounded by his senior officers round the battered map table.

“Well…” Xena drawled out as her hands moved to her hips confidently. “I’d say it proves that it’s never a good idea to drawn your pistol and try and take out an enemy officer, under a truce.” Eyes shifted back to Xavier, wondering what the man would do with this bit of news.

Xavier thought for a long moment, head dipping down as his arms crossed his chest. Her story was plausible, but it didn’t do anything to bolster his trust in the tall woman before him. Truthfully, he didn’t know enough about Litz personally to gauge whether he was capable of such a thing. Sebastian had always spent time with his men, with his officers, getting to know them as people. He, on the other hand, regarded people much as Mullins did, mere cogs in a machine, used to get a goal accomplished. People were akin to grains of sand, useless individually, but together they could be molded, used to get something done, and then easily discarded. Litz was just another grain of sand.

“Stupidity has a price.” Raising his head, he eyed the woman. Didn’t matter if she was being truthful or not really, like Litz, she was replaceable. “Leaves more money for the rest of us!” he spouted, to uneasy chuckles.

Standing fully, he scanned the room. “You know what to do?” Wary nods from the men around the table.

“And if this next attack fails?” Xena challenged. “What then?”

“It won’t.” he growled out.

“It’s a reasonable question, Xavier,” Xena continued seizing the advantage, irritating the man by calling him by his first name instead of by rank. “I mean the last plan didn’t work so well,” She continued, “Hundreds of bodies litter that mountainside. The new plan calls for the very same type of attack the last did.”

“The howitzers being hauled in by helicopter will…”

“You know what I think.” Xena cut him off, eyes pinning the man as one her hands rose, a finger pointing accusingly at the man. “I think you are trying to kill off as many of us as you can.”

“That’s outrageous!” he yelled.

“Is it?” she bellowed back. “You just said it yourself, the more of these men get killed, the more treasure is left for you! You don’t give a damn about these men!” Her eyes darted to the various commanders in the room, by the looks upon their faces, the seed of doubt now was blossoming.

“How dare you challenge me? I am in command here, not you!” Xavier’s features were etched in rage, one fist pounded the table. “I will hear no more of this! You have your orders and they will be carried out! All of you are dismissed!”
_______________________________________________________________________

“Throw me another charge!”

When the barrage started, Sebastian and company were already moving through the cave network. The trickiest part had been getting to the temple; it had required them to move from the caves into the open. 100 plus feet of open space needed to be crossed again with very little cover. Once these charges went off, everyone would know of their presence and no amount of sneaking would help them. They would have to fight, moving along the rock face to get back into the caves and even back to their position. He had been startled to find almost no guard at all. In the well lit encampment next to the village, men seemed to be taking it easy. Seems Xavier obviously felt the odds of a sneak attack behind his lines were low. If he weren’t so glad to find a lack of guard, Sebastian might have had time to feel offended at being held in such contempt. Xena’s foresight in planning this whole operation left him in awe. The only worry in her mind about the implementation of the plan was him leaving Gabrielle under Jaxon’s protection. While she liked Jaxon well enough, she was forced to agree Sebastian should lead the sneak attack, having the most experience.

Within the old Buddhist temple, C-4 charges were set and primed. Explosives were strapped around the rock pillars, placed within ammunition crates, jammed into the cracks and crevices above the temple entrance. Thanks to the stock piles pilfered from the caves, his men had more than enough to destroy the entire temple and the majority of Xavier’s supplies with it. She had also instructed him to place charges in a few of the caves filled with treasure. While it struck him as odd at that moment to destroy artifacts, he had obeyed. Blow the temple, run back into the cave network, detonate charges in the cave and collapse the access tunnel to his position.

Sebastian didn’t know exactly how many of the enemy were outside in the darkness, he only knew the howitzers firing on his position were close. The reports from the guns as they fired sent small shudders through the rock walls of the temple. With 10 plus men dead or seriously wounded, five with him on this mission, only 40 or so held the position. It was a dangerously low number of men trying both to carry out the sneak attack and attempt to hold off the larger force on the mountain. Even with all the advantages of terrain, Sebastian worried they would be overwhelmed and killed. Gabrielle among them.

The thought of Gabrielle being killed if the position on the mountainside collapsed spurred him on. It wasn’t just Xena’s warning to take care of the girl through this mess, it was the fact that Gabrielle was truly a light of hope in the darkness of war. If Xena pulled men to her by charisma and sheer will, Gabrielle touched their hearts with her gentle kindness. Sebastian had witnessed too many innocents killed in this conflict, he was determined that Gabrielle would not be added to their number. Especially as devastated as Xena had appeared in having to leave Gabrielle behind for this whole plan to work. The intimidating woman had lost her composure for a moment, becoming suddenly all too human in his presence as she spoke of her worries for Gabrielle’s safety.

Sebastian strung the detonator cord out from the spool as the men retreated from the temple. With a momentary bow and a whispered apology in the direction of the carved stature of the enlightened one, he was the last to leave the temple. Once out as the men took up position, he wired the detonator from a safe enough distance.

He spied an opportunity…

“On me!” Sebastian rasped, with as much volume as was prudent.

“Sir?” four men dropped to a knee round him, shadowed in the moonlight.

“When this thing blows, we are gonna take out those howitzers, and create some confusion.”

White as smiles shone all around him. “Very good sir.” Lynn whispered.

“Lynn, I want, you, Cole, and Nunez to be on point, run forward and kill those manning the first gun. Nunez, you know how to set charges to disable cannon?”

“I think so.” the man replied.

“You think so or you know?”

“I know.”

“I’ll take your word then.” Sebastian continued, “Once finished setting the timer on the first charge, sprint to the next gun position and repeat, when done, hightail it back to the cave entrance, got it?

“Understood.”

“McClure, Jenner and I will attack the encampment.”

“Just us!?”

“Yes just us, you see anyone else with us?” Sebastian asked with sarcasm. “We have the advantage of surprise.” He assured the men “Got those grenades?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good, we run right into the camp. You and McClure toss grenades into the tents, I’ll cover you, when the third howitzer is disabled, we all run back to meet up at the cave entrance. Questions?”

Silence from the men.

“Okay, good luck.” he set the timer, arming the detonator. “Let’s go!” Running at full speed, the group split in two directions.

________________________________________________________________________

Jaxon, Gabrielle, and all the other men sat huddled together deep within the mountain. With each shell explosion the rock shuddered, dust and small particles loosened by the blasts filtered down upon the group. In the pitch black of the cave the atmosphere was tense, Jaxon heard prayers, however most sat silent, tensely anticipating the order from him to rush out when the bombardment ended. Even Tomlinson was quiet, not by choice, rather one of the men had gagged him to shut him up.

A direct hit above shook the cave fiercely. Gabrielle huddled up against Jaxon all the more. “Easy…” he muttered to her. “Barrage will be over soon.” Jaxon’s voice rose in volume on the last part, in order for the men to hear him.

“Yeah…” one man’s voice answered back in the dark. “And then comes the hard part.”

“You’re too ugly to live forever, Menendez.” Another quipped to general laughter.

“I…” Gabrielle began softly next to Jaxon, her voice gaining strength as she realized all men were suddenly quiet, attempting to listen to her despite the bombardment “I was thinking about a story, a simple tale.”

“It was favorite tale back home in Greece.” She continued.

“I’d love to see Greece…” a voice said wistfully.

“Well, just start walking due west, few thousand miles and ya be there!” The sarcasm of the voice caused men to chuckle again.

“Perhaps someday you will see Greece, but I would suggest an easier way than walking to there from here.” Gabrielle replied to the voice in the darkness to the general amusement of the men. “Or maybe you should?” she pondered aloud “It would be another of life’s adventures to tell your grandchildren about.” Despite being unable to look into the men’s eyes, or see their features, Gabrielle could feel the emotion those words elicited from these men. Like all those caught in war throughout the ages, they wished for home.

“Tell us this story then, Gabrielle.” Jaxon urged, wanting any distraction to take anxious minds away from the shelling above.

“Once a dark furred fox and her friend, a red haired kitten, met on the outskirts of a tiny village,” Gabrielle had to smile as she heard a distinct groan emanate from Tomlinson, despite being gagged.

“This is a dangerous place,” said the little kitten. “Infested with dogs,” the kitten explained fearfully. “Who will enslave us or even may eat us! We should look to stay somewhere safer.” “Don’t you worry” said the fox. “Those dogs need to be taught a lesson, and I know a few ways to do it.”

“Just then they saw a large pack of dogs coming!”

“Goodbye, friend,” said the little kitten. “I’d better be going. Unlike you, I know only one way to get away from dogs and that is to climb up a tree.” And with that the kitten sped up a tall tree. The savvy fox knew that was a poor idea as the dogs would gather round the tree, waiting there for her dear friend to grow hungry and be forced to come down. As the dogs came nearer, the fox realized now was the time for her to demonstrate the tricks she knew to get away.”

Another hit above rattled the cave; men cringed, pulling themselves up into as small a space as possible as they leaned against the rock walls.

“The leader of the dogs was confident that the outnumbered fox would soon be theirs for dinner! The kitten watched helplessly from the tree as the fox raced off, running as fast as her legs would allow.

“Spotting a cave, the fox ran in, much to the amusement of the now even more confident dogs, who believed they had trapped their prey.”

Despite an increase in the rate of shelling, the men sat enthralled by the simple tale, the shifting of Gabrielle’s voice as she took on the persona of the characters. A few chuckled at the analogy to their own situation being painted into a story by young woman.

“But you see, the fox knew this cave better than most, and her dark fur blended in well with the blackness in the cave. While she moved nimbly, the larger heavier dogs found themselves trapped in hidden pockets of quicksand. Yelping and crying they perished, their size and numbers working against them within the narrow confines of the cave.”

“You are safe now.” said the dark fox as she helped her little friend down from the tree. “What happened to all dogs?” the kitten asked. “I saw you run into the cave with the dogs fast behind, how did you survive?”

“My friend,” replied the dark fox. “As large as the dogs were in both size and number, they couldn’t overcome one thing.”

“What’s that?” asked the amazed little kitten.

“Pride.” Purred the dark furred fox, her lips curling back into a smile.

The men were so wrapped in the tale, for a moment silence reigned.

“The shelling is stopping!” the yell coming from the far off entrance to the cave.

In an instant the men jumped up, weapons and boxes of ammunition at the ready, they spilled out into the night.

“Gabrielle, stay here, don’t go out.” Jaxon ordered amongst the noise. “Keep Tomlinson company. If…” his voice faltered, “If we don’t make it, you run back and hide in the network of caves.”

“But…”

“No, buts!” he said sternly. “If we fail, hide and wait for your dark fox to find you.” In the seriousness of the moment, Gabrielle couldn’t help but smile.

With that, he left her, to obey Sebastian’s final order… to hold until the last.

In the darkness, Tomlinson managed to loosen the ropes holding him just a tad more.
________________________________________________________________________

Xena moved up, just with the troops, standing in the front, she was the only one of Xavier’s commanders who led men instead of hiding back behind the lines. When the explosions tapered off men rose, warily moving to attack in the now deafening silence.

Seconds later shots rang out, cutting though the cool night air, eliciting a groan from the attackers. The shelling hadn’t worked. Men who had boasted earlier of this being something they termed a cakewalk after witnessing the devastation of the shell hits, found they had been deluded in their thinking. In the wreckage of the entrenchments, her men had set up firing positions and were slicing through the attackers.

Xena gritted her teeth, Sebastian was taking too long! Her men were weakened in number, they could be taken. Perhaps she could at least take out a few of these men, even the score a bit? Her hand gracefully dropped, unhooking her chakram. Raising it, she was about to let it fly when an explosion sounded in the village below. With a sigh of disappointment, she re-hooked the weapon, smirking at the confusion of the men around her.

“They are attacking our base!” she bellowed. “Follow me!” With that she ran down the mountainside. Men turned, following her clear order.

Barreling down the path, men ignored all reason. No shouted order from Xavier or any other officer could halt the panic as the attacking line collapsed back. Once in the village, Xena capitalized on the confusion. Leaping up on a stone ledge, she pointed to the camp.

“They are in our camp! Get them!” she roared. Men surged forward, engaging imaginary foes.

Chaos unleashed! Men clashed, unsure who was friend or foe amidst the tents, killing each other with abandon, mindless blood lust having taken hold of their actions. Xena let a wicked laugh bubble up as a series of explosions ripped though the command caverns, creating yet more bedlam. “Perfect!” Another wicked laugh.

Setting her feet she jumped, tucking into a neat flip. As her boots touched the ground, the warrior delved into the chaos, her sword slicing into any man unfortunate enough to come within range of the blade. With a sweep of her arm and a flick of the wrist, the charkam flew screaming though the air, decapitating two men neatly. Silhouetted against the now burning tents she moved, a predator among prey, her lust for the feel of battle driving her to even greater heights of slaughter. She was sublime, gracefully meting out death to those fool enough to challenge her supremacy in the art of killing.

Withdrawing her sword from the midsection of one man, she spotted Xavier running frantically towards one of the convoy trucks. She moved in his direction, clearing a path forward with her now blood encrusted sword.

A wicked laugh rose from the warlord, “Run to your master! Puppy!”

The shout caught Xavier’s attention and his head whipped round. For a moment, all was still as blue eyes filled with malice met his. Horror-struck, he tried to run all the faster, endeavoring to reach the closest truck, desperate to get away. Already his officers had led a coup, attempting to kill him in the anarchy which had taken hold. The chakram was released again, this time slicing though the back of Xavier’s leg before circling back to the waiting hand of its master.

As order was slowly restored to the camp, Xena absently twirled her sword in one hand, the blood upon the blade spattering the ground as she walked with casual confidence toward the pitifully whimpering man. Unable to call upon the strength needed to get his good leg under him, Xavier’s attempts to crawl forward ended as a boot filled his field of vision.

“Where do ya think yer goin’?”

He looked up into a most beautiful face, lit from the flames of the camp, yet marred by an evil sneer of disgust. “You wouldn’t be trying to escape now would ya?” Xena asked with a chuckle as confused men filed up surrounding the two. Xavier’s eyes fell away from her searing gaze, chin drooping down, only to be caught by the edge of her sword and tipped back up, forced to meet her eyes again.

“Are… are you…” Xavier stuttered, trying to ask the only question on his mind. An impatient quirk of an eyebrow forced him to finish the thought. “…gonna kill me?” He swallowed heavily as the beautifully evil woman cocked her head to one side, seeming to think about it for a moment.

“Nah.”

She smiled, feigning pity for the man, giving him a moment of hope. Xavier found himself smiling back up at her in return, a rather stupid smile born of pure relief. He might just be able to bargain his way out of this yet.

“Not yet anyway.”

His smile faded.

“I’ve beaten you Xavier, and now I’m gonna take your army.” Her features hardened, removing any hope of mercy in the man.

“Time to go nighty-nite!”

A sharp kick from Xena’s boot slammed against his head, rendering him unconscious. His body thudded to the ground before the men.

The crimson blade rose, tip pointing out, challenging any man dumb enough to try his luck against her. As Xena slowly turned, her eyes swept over the mercenaries. A long glare fell upon Xavier’s officers who had pushed to the front. “I’m taking over this army.” She stated coolly. “Any objections?”

Silence greeted the question.

“Well, I must say, you all learn quickly. Good.” Her sword hand dropped, “Lock him up, I have use for him later.” a finger pointed to Xavier’s prone form, “Take care of the wounded, get this disaster of a camp cleaned up, and I want officers to follow me.”

The men stood stunned, looking at her in a daze.

“NOW!”

Men scampered to do her bidding.

Two separate armies taken over in as many candle marks, she mused walking to the cave, surviving officers in tow. Gotta be some kind of record.

Chapter 28
“Come, poor remains of friends” – Brutus
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act 5 Scene 5

A small shout went up from the men stationed in the wrecked entrenchments as Sebastian and company emerged from the cave into the dim light of morning.

For a moment, they all paused, including Gabrielle, watching the sun peak up over the horizon. Glad to see another day.

“Report.” the word spoken so softly, it barely registered as a command to Jaxon.

“In all, 20 now dead, 5 critically wounded but still alive, thanks to the efforts of Gabrielle. With your return we have 30 men fit for duty.”

If they attack again, how will we manage to hold this position again with 30, Sebastian tiredly ran a hand though short cropped hair.

“Too bad you missed us in action, Colonel,” Jaxon preened “we sure were a sight to see.”

Sebastian smiled at the comment. “Any sign of the enemy?”

“None sir, they’ve deserted the field.”

“I see.” Sebastian took in the men around him. “Gentlemen, your actions these past days have been exemplary. I intend to recommend you all for promotion.” A pause, “In whatever army we end up serving.” A few wry chuckles erupted.

“Jaxon, same as before, rations to the men, re-supply the positions with whatever we’ve got left and…”

“Sir!”

“Yeah?”

“Forward scouts report a man approaching waving a flag of truce.”

“Again?” Sebastian asked.

Menendez shrugged.

“All right, you know the drill; get in position, weapons ready in case of some trick.” Sebastian turned to Gabrielle. He didn’t even get the words out, before she cut him off. “I know… I know… stay here.” She grumbled.

No rest for the wicked, thought Sebastian as he once more walked out to meet some emissary sent by Xavier. As worn as he was, he had to admit some curiosity as to what this messenger had to say. Hadn’t Xavier made himself clear, no quarter? What could be said after a message like that?

He was shocked that the Captain saluted him, before handing over a written note. Before he could open it fully Gabrielle was standing at his side.

“I thought I told you…”

“I don’t always follow orders well.” She replied before he could finish,

“Xena is aware of this trait of yours?” he asked while reading the note, a smile beginning to form on his lips.

“She puts up with it. What’s it say?” Gabrielle asked, leaning over to peek at the parchment.

He handed her the note, as the men looked on curiously.

“Seems those facing us have a new commander.” Sebastian began loudly in a jovial tone the men could hear. “And **She** demands our surrender.”

Wild cheers went up amongst the men.

A loving smile touched Gabrielle’s lips as one of her fingertips delicately traced the stylized “X” at the bottom of the note. Gabrielle recalled Xena once telling her that as a warlord, the only missives ever sent were demands of surrender. Never did the warlord negotiate, either surrender and hope for some degree of mercy, or be conquered and be shown none.

“Tell your commander we accept her terms.” Another salute, this time it was returned by Sebastian.
________________________________________________________________________
“Casca, you are the first that rears your hand.” – Cinna
Shakespeare- The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act III Scene I

Xena strode with a definite swagger up to the top of the steps of the now ruined temple. She had learned early on that a warlord had to look the part. Although she would have rather worn her leathers, she acceded to the norms of this time by continuing to wear her fatigues as well as immaculately polished black boots. However, the sword now strapped to her waist, and the charkram at her hip clearly announced her skills were many.

Scanning the camp below, she noted a far higher degree of efficiency. Through the remainder of the night, the area had been cleaned, the wounded evacuated, and a new discipline had taken hold. In speaking with her highest ranking officers, she had decided to remove one who argued loudest against giving Sebastian a chance to surrender. He had found her dagger suddenly implanted in his chest. His death quelled any more arguments concerning her plans. As he died, she reiterated the point that she alone would deal with Sebastian. He and his men were not to be touched.

The reality was these mercenaries had no reason to argue with the terms she set forth. The remains of the treasures would be split among them; she had patiently explained that Sebastian and his remaining men would be cut out of the deal as the cost of their insurrection. With a large number of men dead, the survivors would profit handsomely. Even now, men moved in and out of the cave network, loading treasures onto the trucks for transport. Having no real sense of loyalty, except to money, they had agreed to the idea of loading the trucks and disappearing into the vastness of China and Russia. In the midst of war, they could easily convert treasure to gold, buy fake identities and live the rest of their lives in comfort. The missiles were hers to do with as she wished. Agreement on that point was unanimous; the mercenaries had no way to stealthily move the monstrosities anyway.

All they had to do in return was to leave General Mullins to her.

Activity in the camp halted as the mercenaries stopped to watch the ragged group approaching right on cue. Despite their worn and tattered appearance, Sebastian and the men he led on the mountainside held their heads high. Xena felt a certain pride for these ragged men who were clearly loyal to her; in every instance they had met her expectations. Followed her commands, shown initiative, and ruthlessly attacked their enemy. What more could a warlord wish for?

Now for a few last formalities, the mercenaries would expect it, and Xena needed to do it in order to solidify her position as leader of these thieves. The warlord hoped that Gabrielle would also understand her actions. What would soon happen here her little one would again find abhorrent.

The bedraggled group halted just below the first of the steps up to the temple. Single file they lined up, the last carrying the wounded upon litters. Sebastian moved to stand before the men, Jaxon a step behind to his right, Gabrielle behind to his left. Xena could tell by looking into Gabrielle’s eyes that she wanted nothing more than to run up those steps and hug her. The look Xena gave Gabrielle in return abruptly extinguished those ideas, told her to wait. The disappointment etched on Gabrielle’s countenance, pained Xena deeply.

Seemed all she ever did was hurt Gabrielle.

Xena waited as the mercenaries loosely filed up behind the group.

“You’ve chosen wisely.” Xena’s hands moved to her hips as she looked down upon Sebastian and his motley group. “I have to admit, although you were the enemy, I can appreciate your skill in fighting.” She conceded.

Wordlessly, Sebastian accepted the compliment with a deep bow of respect, displaying an implicitly eastern sense of honor to the woman gazing down at him. While his men behind still held their heads up in pride. Sebastian dipped his, eyes lowered to the ground, another eastern based act designed to show deference to a superior.

“Look at me commander.” Xena commanded. Sebastian’s head rose up, eyes meeting hers.

“Your will submits to mine.” One of Xena’s hands left her hip, a most elegant finger extended, pointing to a spot directly in front of her.

Sebastian understood now that there was more happening here than just a show for these mercenaries. Xena had rooted out conspirators, had masterminded the victory over a superior force, had ruined Xavier’s plan, and kept Cody safe. Through it all, she had been loyal to the men she led. Now she expected be repaid in full with a public demonstration of what would amount to an oath, giving her his complete loyalty.

Slowly mounting the worn steps, Sebastian could not help but recall his days as a youth studying in the temple school. How many times had he respectfully submitted to his Sifu in China who instructed him in the ways of martial arts, his Sensei in Japan who patiently imparted reverence in him for the deadly katana. Like them, he would bow to a superior.

Reaching the area Xena pointed to, Sebastian fell upon one knee, and then most gracefully extended prone. Well versed in eastern ways herself, Xena extended her right boot, and Sebastian’s forehead moved to rest upon its tip gently.

Xena’s eyes flicked up to see hesitancy among the surrendering men. After a moment, one by one they too took a knee before her. All the men save one, Tomlinson, who stared at the warlord in anger. The boy’s insolence would be his undoing. Still, even that couldn’t diminish the feeling of raw power which engulfed her in the moment and was undeniably gratifying to her darker instincts. Prone before her was a man now pledged to her will, whom she would mold into a master fighter, an ruthless enforcer of her will following her every order, as she conquered an empire.

Moments later that luxurious feeling of power departed, as Xena watched Gabrielle hesitantly fall to a knee. Witnessing her Gabrielle kneel in a submission not of force, but from love, tore at Xena’s emotions. No… no Gabrielle would never again be required to submit in such a way.

“Rise.” Xena commanded, waiting as Sebastian, his men… and Gabrielle got to their feet before her.

One of the warlord’s hands fell upon Sebastian’s shoulder; Xena displayed a most genuine smile as she reached behind as one of the men stepped forward. Suddenly in his hands rested his sword, neatly tucked in its sheath he had thought lost. “You are now officially promoted to my second.” Xena scowled as the men behind her balked audibly.

“You got a problem with that?” she asked in a menacing tone, eyeing the men over her shoulder. No problem was voiced. “Good.” She hissed. Sweeping her right arm outward, she indicated where Sebastian should stand. There he moved, taking up a position to her right and one step behind. Dagnine… Theodous… and others had failed her, now Xena felt sure, this man… Sebastian would not.

A crook of her finger caused Gabrielle to quickly bound up the stairs to be engulfed in a hug by Xena. Convention be dammed, the warlord wanted to make sure all knew Gabrielle was under her protection. No man would touch her little one. If they tried, the penalty for the indiscretion would be death.

“So…” Gabrielle whispered in her ear. “You’ve decided then.”

“Yes…” Xena whispered back hearing the tinge of sadness in Gabrielle’s words. “You will see Gabrielle; together we will build a better world, you and I. But… I… I’ll need your help little one.”

“Mine?” Xena asked gently, afraid of the answer.

“Yours.” Gabrielle replied.

For a long moment the two stood gazing at each other, Xena’s fingers moved of their own accord, gently running though the strawberry strands of Gabrielle’s hair. Suddenly those azure eyes hardened as the warlord’s other hand rose, giving the signal.

“Bring out the prisoner!” One of the officers yelled from behind.

Gabrielle felt a queasy sinking feeling take hold of her; body tensing as she anticipated that something terrible was going to happen. With all the horrible events she’d witnessed, Gabrielle found herself wishing they had never listened to Ares’ pleas for help. Xena’s first instinct to shun the god was the correct one, given hindsight. Gabrielle had been the one to listen, to urge action, now here was the price of her choice.

Xena could feel the tension radiating off Gabrielle. “We are nearly to the final act, my little one.” the warlord whispered while leaning over, her lips coming near a small ear. “Soon we will be home again.” The smaller woman could only nod, wondering what would happen then, it seemed bit by bit the Xena she knew was slipping away and she was unable to do anything to stop it. Gabrielle’s mind searched for some way to jolt Xena back to her true self, as when Ares had pulled the trick of impersonating Xena’s father. Was there some way to still reach her love and pull her back from the abyss? Or was fighting, conquering and ruling always Xena’s true destiny?

“Sebastian.”

“Yes, General?”

The other officers surrounding the warlord looked at each other in confusion. Her uniform rank was clearly a Lieutenant Colonel, yet this man called her General? The woman was truly a riddle, as she had informed them earlier her name was Xena, not Diana as Xavier had said.

“I want twenty of your men, in two lines of ten facing each other.”

“As you wish.” moving down the steps, Sebastian quickly organized the men, grabbing Cody, shoving the boy back to be grabbed and held by Jaxon. The wounded were quickly taken into the cave. Looking up, Sebastian caught sight of Xavier being hauled down the steps. He stumbled along, being held upright by two men, one on either side, who had a firm grasp on each arm. The man’s face was marred by one huge mottled bruise running from a bloodied ear to his jaw. Xavier’s nose was clearly broken and an eye had completely swelled shut. One leg had been crudely bandaged, the cotton soaked in red. As horrible as his one time friend looked, Sebastian could find no pity for him. Had Xavier prevailed, he could easily imagine himself standing in his place.

“Hold him right there.” Xena pointed to a spot next to the beginning of where her men were lined up. Beginning to walk down the steps, she found her forearm lightly grasped by Gabrielle.

“Please, don’t do this, Xena.” She implored. “Show mercy.”

“I have none to give.” The reply from the warlord, as hard blue eyes flicked down to where Gabrielle’s hand touched her, and then back up. Dejectedly, Gabrielle pulled her hand away.

“Little one…” Xena began, instantly regretting her harsh look

“I will stay.” Gabrielle muttered.

“No, I’ll meet you in the cave.” The smaller woman understood the tone in Xena’s voice. There was to be no argument allowed now. No listening to her counsel. Gabrielle’s head dipped and she trudged away.

“We are gonna play a little game, Xavier.” Xena called out while strutting down the steps to stand before the haggard man. “It’s called The Gauntlet. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” she asked, one side of her most lovely lips quirking up just a bit.

Xavier said nothing, embittered, his body sagged in defeat between the men holding him, one good eye watching the dark woman. How such beauty could be combined with such evil intent was beyond him.

“No?” she purred sweetly at his lack of response. “Well, like any game, The Gauntlet has a few rules, easy really.” She flashed anything but a compassionate smile at him. “Ya see, all you have to do is walk between these men.” The warlord turned her back on him, swaggering down the line between the men, as if to demonstrate how ridiculously easy it would be. Her sword flashed as it was drawn from the scabbard. “You get past this line here,” the tip of that polished sword drew said line in the powdery dirt, “and ya go free.” Another heartless smile greeted him.

“Now…” she continued while sheathing her sword with practiced grace. “Ya gotta be thinking, what’s the catch here right? Because, despite that pea sized brain of yours Xavier, I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure there’s a catch.”

Again, no response from the man

“Well, the catch is that these fellows here, you know, the men you were sent in to kill? They are gonna try and kill you before you cross the line.” Xavier groaned, seeing the smiles of malicious glee which appeared on the faces of the men on either side of him. “But, you get a break here as well Xavier; because I’m not gonna let them use any weapons, besides fists.” She paused, “Maybe an occasional boot.” Xena added flippantly

“Sound fun?” Xena’s dark eyebrows quirked up slightly in jest at her question.

“And wouldn’t you know it, look who gets to greet you first.” Xavier followed her pointing finger to find Sebastian standing immediately to his right. “The man you wanted me to kill. Ironic, huh?” a beautiful smile, “Sometimes fate just up and kicks you in the ass.”

“You psychotic bitch!” Heads jerked up at the vulgar outburst from Tomlinson, still held in Jaxon’s grip. With a guttural growl of annoyance, Xena stalked toward the boy.

“Ya done it now kid.” Jaxon scolded.

Cody began to seriously reconsider the outburst as Xena approached, looming up over him due to his far shorter stature. The boy saw his death written in her countenance as one of her hands grasped his shoulder, a momentary flicker of pain shone in his eyes as she touched him. “Manners, manners…” Xena tsked, her eyes locking onto his, Cody found it impossible to look away. “Never interrupt when I’m working, I don’t like distractions. We’ll talk more about it later.” Tomlinson’s body suddenly slumped forward. Only Jaxon’s grasp kept him upright.

“Take him in the cave. I will deal with the pip-squeak later.” She ordered, Jaxon moved to comply; hauling the boy onto a shoulder, he walked away. Sebastian let out a little sigh of relief, the kid was still alive, despite his constant foolishness in challenging Xena. That kid was playing with fire.

“Begin!” the warlord bellowed out.

Xavier tried to plead despite his aching jaw, “Sebastian, I never intended…”

“No more lies!” His fist bashed into Xavier’s jaw, breaking bone. Stumbling back, a hard boot kick broke two ribs. Screaming in pain, Xavier attempted to use the momentum of the kick to tumble forward and get closer to the line in the sand. A fist caught him squarely in the gut, while another slammed into his broken jaw again and Xavier spit out globs of blood as he fell to the dirt. Another kick slammed into his broken ribs, driving the bones into a lung. Reduced to crawling his way forward toward the line, Xavier’s hands clawed at the dirt as he inched forward. His leg erupted in fiery pain as a boot slammed down on his wound. Still he tried to get to that line, slowly moving closer despite murderous blows falling upon him. Kicked so hard, he felt his shoulder dislocate, Xavier rolled over, his gasps filling the silence. Another kick slammed him, rolling onto his stomach again, he struggled forward. Reaching out, his shaking hand moved, fingers reaching, trying to cross that line.

A boot crushed those fingers, stopped his progress.

“Ah… ah…”

The velvety taunt from the warlord caused a groan to cross bloodied lips. Hauled up to his feet, Xavier’s good eye blinked, attempting to focus on the evil standing before him.

“Sebastian got to go first, I get to go last.” Xena purred, eyes flashing “And to think, I almost had to kiss ya.” Despite his blurred vision, Xavier caught the look of disgust on her features. Her hand rocked back and Xavier was backhanded so hard his neck snapped, his dead body falling limply to the earth.

“Take his corpse and toss it in a hole somewhere!” Xena commanded, gesturing at the dead man with one hand. Silently two of her men grasped the dead body under the arms, dragging him off. Xavier’s legs dragged, leaving a trail in the dirt. “You men get cleaned up,” Xena sniffed, then wrinkled her nose, “nothing worse than a foul smelling army.”

Turning, she walked up to Sebastian. “You know,” she remarked casually, while grabbing a small rag from her pocket, wiping Xavier’s blood from her fingers. “Everyone has their preferences. I happen to like a good kill.” She tossed the rag at him.

“Now only one fish left to catch.”

With that, she stalked off, men scurrying out of her way.

Chapter 29

All the quiet rebukes from Gabrielle still echoed in her mind.

“Must you kill them?”

“Are they our enemy?”

“Xena, don’t allow the darkness to take you completely.”

“Xena, it’s not right, you can’t just kill those men! They’re probably hurt!”

“So you get to decide who lives and dies?”

And the latest, from their argument this evening…

“You enjoy torturing people!”

Xena’s retort to that encapsulated her feelings on the matter. “Traitors are the lowest form of vermin! They must be eradicated in the most brutal way possible to discourage others!” “But to use such violence, where will it lead?” Gabrielle asked. “I use violence to make a point; it is a tool Gabrielle, one I employ when needed.”

“Will more suffer when we are home again?

“Empires are not built by peace and understanding!” Xena roared, regretting now that she had let her temper overcome her, calming herself for a moment, she continued. “When I am finished, any suffering caused will be justified by the greater good of all. I have the opportunity to build the largest, most prosperous, and longest lasting empire in history. Any brutality I mete out is justified by that single goal. Think of the world!”

“If… if…” Xena began hesitantly, unsure if she wanted to know the answer to the question. “If you feel so strongly in your opposition to the decisions I’ve made, to what I must do in Greece, perhaps it’s best if we…”

“No!” Gabrielle’s forceful response was accentuated by her wrapping her arms around the warrior. “Xena, don’t ask that of me, don’t cut yourself off from me through some misguided sense of honor.” Gabrielle tucked the top of her head against a strong shoulder. “We have a connection, you and I. I feel it when you are near, long for it when you are gone. I shall go on loving you and hating you until Celesta comes to claim me. Only she could separate me from you.”

Now in the predawn darkness, Xena sat alone on the temple steps, watching the remainder of these mercenaries prepare to depart with what was left of the treasures. They would all be gone by the time Mullins arrived.

The nightmare again… this time the dream about Gabrielle’s death had been so vivid in its intensity that Xena woke with tears streaming from her eyes. In this latest variation, Gabrielle had faded from sight, leaving Xena alone in the darkened temple. Xena resolved to do everything possible to keep Gabrielle from danger this day. After they ended the conspiracy with Mullins’ death, all would be fine.

Her mind turned to other matters, once the wounded had been evacuated and the remaining supplies accounted for, Sebastian had tried to counsel his young naïve pup of brother. Xena had looked on stoically, choosing to listen and observe after having woken him from her pressure point induced sleep.

The two were not close, had very little in common, and conversation between them was strained. The extent of their connection was that of weak family ties, no deeper. Sebastian’s views on what had happened were much akin to hers; treachery had to be rooted out. Cody despised all the bloodletting, blaming Xena for all that had transpired. The boy’s hatred of her was quickly becoming all consuming. If he were anyone else… but he wasn’t, so the boy lived, under guard until she figured what to do with him when this mess was over. Kid wasn’t much of a threat, anyway.

General Mullins had been easy to provoke into making a personal appearance. Her curtly worded messages about assuming command after Xavier’s death had been met with a flurry of messages. The basics of which confirmed in her mind the type of man Mullins was, unconcerned about losses, his thoughts on riches. When told of the men dividing up treasures, he not only ordered it stopped, but announced he would fly in for an inspection. All too easy, thought Xena, all too easy.

“I woke and you weren’t there, I was worried.”

Gabrielle’s voice shocked her out of thought.

“I couldn’t sleep any longer.” Xena had to smile at the sight of her little one, boots untied, splotchy pants, green cotton tee on, the front of her splotchy top unbuttoned, hair a disheveled mess.

“I just don’t get why you always have to wake so early.” Gabrielle pouted. “It’s like you enjoy punishing yourself.” Gabrielle shivered slightly in the chilly predawn air, fingers moving to button up her top.

“C’mere,” Xena beckoned with one hand. Settling the smaller woman on the step below her, she placed her long legs on either side, Gabrielle scooted near; her back up against Xena, as she leaned in, long arms encircled the little one.

“Today’s the day huh?” Gabrielle muttered, enjoying the bodily warmth of the warrior who surrounded her

“Yes.” spoken wistfully by the warrior.

“I’m glad… wana go home.”

“Me too…”

Xena smiled, realizing Gabrielle had fallen back to sleep. This moment, with Gabrielle resting safe in her arms, gave the warrior a sense of peace she could find nowhere else.
________________________________________________________________________
“When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. – Calpurnia
Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar Act II Scene II

The three double bladed helicopters landed, kicking up billowing waves of dirt. The villagers, silent witnesses to all the killing and destruction, did as Xena asked in their first meeting; they stayed out of the way. Now, standing in the doorways of their huts, many wondered what exactly would happen next. The village elders had met quietly, discussing the portents illuminated in the stars these past nights, readying their people.

As the doors to the big machines opened, Mullins and his entourage stepped out. Xena’s eyes narrowed; there was something familiar about the man, like the familiarity of Jaxon, a familiarity she couldn’t quite place. His walk was confident as he moved closer. Mullins’ skin was darker toned, lean but strong, his features framed by short cropped dark hair. Xena was amused by the cockiness of the man, he would soon realize as all the others had… that she was full of surprises.

He stood before her with hands on hips, three cute little stars on each of his shoulders, dark brown eyes sizing her up. He looked like he expected her to do something. Next to her, Jaxon cleared his throat slightly. Leaning in a bit closer, he whispered. “You are supposed to salute him.”

Xena raised a hand, wiggling her fingers, adding a smile just to gall the man.

“I can see just why those art treasures were stolen!” he bellowed. “You have no discipline! Just as weird as Sebastian was, with your sword, and…” His eyes took in the charkam at her hip… “Whatever that thing is. What the hell am I supposed to tell Washington, Colonel? That my eccentric female officer allowed priceless art treasures to be taken from right under our noses by our very own men! That she allowed hundreds of men to die! I should have your head on a platter for this!” Xena continued to smile challengingly, refusing to be cowed by this worthless blowhard of a man who was clearly unnerved by her demeanor.

“I’ve been a bad girl, haven’t I?” Her voice held a threatening edge.

Though she didn’t show it, Xena was glad to see Sebastian’s spy poke out from behind a group of men, looking extremely uncomfortable in the army clothing he was wearing. His slow nod told her all she needed to know, the trap was in place. She just had to play along one last time.

“The only reason I’m not removing you from the possibility of a future command is that, despite all the bungling, you’ve managed to keep, the missiles safe!” He continued “Who knows what would happen should those fall into the wrong hands?”

“Oh, I agree, very dangerous weapons.” The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “That could have been sold to the highest bidder.”

Mullins’ features betrayed shock, if only for a moment. “Well, lucky for us, I’ve got men here with me who understand how to take care of these missiles and can get them back to base in one piece.”

Mullins’ eyes flicked over to Jaxon, “And you are?” Before he could speak, Mullins waved a hand dismissively. “Never mind.”

With a grunt he walked over to do a show inspection of the men, her men, who stood at attention, eyes ahead, weapons ready, they would move on her command. Xena swaggered behind; amused as the man pro forma inspected her troops. As with any army she had run, these men were clean, uniforms well maintained, confident in their demeanor. After all they had been through together, why wouldn’t they be? Of course, Mullins had no idea these men were loyal only to Xena, believing them to be the last of his mercenaries who had wiped out Sebastian’s force.

“She’s in charge of this platoon?” Mullins turned to ask Xena, incredulity in his voice.

“Yes.” Xena stated warily.

“What’s she gonna do to the enemy? Kill em with cuteness?”

Gabrielle scowled; Mullins turned back in time to see it and roared with laughter. Xena’s hands balled into fists.

“Shall we take a look at those missiles?” He asked, “I want them on the move as soon as possible. That way we can all get out of this stinking village and back to civilization.” And, then kill you, and these men he added mentally.
________________________________________________________________________

Within the caves, Cody Tomlinson finally managed to work his recently retied hands free, with a smile he rubbed his wrists, before working at the restrains wrapped round his ankles. The same rope had been used time and again to bind him. Over the last few days, he had patiently worked some give into the rope. Now his effort had paid off. Cody knew he had to hurry if he were to stop the witch from doing any more damage. She was deranged, casting some spell over others to do her bidding. He would stop the madness by killing Xena and in so doing, make his country proud of his actions this day.

Sneaking though the vacant caves, Tomlinson immediately went in search of the supplies he needed, a rifle, couple of clips of ammunition and the boy was soon crouching at the entrance of the caves, confusion etching his features. Were it not for the large helicopters sitting peacefully it would appear the encampment had been abandoned and left to the villagers. Understanding dawned on his face, he knew just where to find Xena, Cody turned, moving back through the cave network.

Sebastian let out a pained sigh, wishing they could just kill Mullins and be done with it, having grown weary of the subterfuge. Yet Polev had landed in a fancy black helicopter yesterday to convince Xena that his plan would work. All they had to do was create a diversion; his agents would then move to arrest the arms dealers traveling with Mullins.

Polev explained that the General would be taken into custody, arms dealers arrested, Sebastian and his men would be cleared of wrongdoing. All would be wrapped up in a neat little bow for the people back in the States. Polev chided that Sebastian should write a book about the whole adventure.

Unconvinced, Sebastian had urged they kill the whole lot of them. Gabrielle had respectfully opposed his view, using considerable skill in arguing that there had been too much violence already, that a trial was needed to show clear guilt so the men could return to their families back home without fear of reprisal for their actions here. Her argument was sound and he couldn’t help but be impressed with her logic. All that mattered really was what Xena decided and she had agreed with Polev and Gabrielle.

“So be it.” Sebastian muttered absently. Once Xena had given the order, he was duty bound to fulfill it. His job was to create a simple diversion, having to stay in hiding as Mullins arrived as he was supposed to be dead. In the cave entrance opposite where the missiles sat, he waited, eyes scanning the terrain, for signs the group was approaching, hazel eyes flicking up every now and then to watch inky evil black clouds fast approaching. Flashes of lightning danced among the billowing folds, arching from cloud to cloud. Each flash revealing a wicked reddish tint deep within the blackness, it unnerved him, having never seen such a phenomenon before.

Tensing, he noted movement as a large group approached, Xena leading the way with Mullins behind. As the group approached, the sun was blotted out by the clouds, and the day turned dark. As the wind picked up, the rumble of thunder was now directly overhead as the flashes increased in intensity. Sebastian’s eyes darted down, glancing at the grenade in his hand. When he pulled the pin and threw it, the thing would explode in a non-lethal way, meant to daze an enemy needing to be captured alive.

Xena watched disgustedly as Mullins’ eyes lit up as he took in the missiles.

“Alright,” the General indicated the launchers by pointing, “Get over there and see that all is in order.”

Men sprinted forward, climbing over the launchers, checking the equipment; when the machines were fired up, Mullins’ smug satisfaction was clearly evident. The big diesel engines on the three launchers revved loudly as hydraulics were put to use raising the missiles, tips moving to point up at the dark, roiling sky.

Polev’s agents and Xena’s men surrounded those inspecting the launchers, covering their movement into position with casual curiosity.

Keys were turned in locks, metal covers removed, and a dazzling array of lights lit, the men evidently performing a simulated sequence for a launch to be sure all was in working order.

A nod from one of the arms buyers sealed the agreement they had with Mullins. I may have lost the treasures, he thought, but the cash from these weapons will make up for it.

Now he just to kill what was left of the mercenaries, along with the two women. One of his hands dropped to casually rest on the pistol holster strapped to his side, Xena tensed, noting the move, her own hand reaching for the chakram, unhooking it from her belt, in so doing she gave the signal to Sebastian. Further back Gabrielle scooted a bit closer to Xena, pursing her lips together in nervous anticipation of what was to come next.
________________________________________________________________________

From his position, Sebastian readied the grenade. Pulling the pin and discarding it, he got ready to toss it; when released, the last safety feature would pop off and 15 seconds later all hell would break loose.

The signal was given…

“Stop!” Sebastian froze at the known voice. Turning his head slowly to look back he took in Cody standing there, rifle raised, finger nervously twitching on the trigger.

A choice… fulfill Xena’s order, or surrender.

Sebastian flicked the grenade away.

The boy screamed in anger, lurching forward unthinking, focused on the grenade, as if he could run and grab it, willing it not explode if he got hold of it. Sebastian used the moment to kick out, catching Cody in the leg; as the kid tumbled, the rifle fired.

The grenade went off.

Mullins jumped at the noise, hearing the shot he pulled his pistol from its holster while stumbling back. Raising the weapon, he was thrown off for a moment by the second noise, an explosion. Sensing his confusion, Xena brought up the chakram in her hand with a flash of motion, preparing to use the weapon.

“NO!”

Gabrielle suddenly filled the space in between Xena and Mullins.

Mullins fired…

Gabrielle let out a strangled cry as the bullet hit her, her body limply hitting the ground. For a split second, Xena and Drake Mullins stood still.

A howl of rage erupted from Xena. Before Mullins could gather his wits to fire again, the warrior slashed the sharp edge of the chakram brutally across his throat, cutting the flesh away, severing the man’s spine.

Mullins’ headless body fell.

“Gabrielle!” The warrior hit her knees, the round weapon falling from her hand. “No, Gabrielle… no…” Xena sobbed as men fought around them. Pulling Gabrielle near, Xena’s strong arm moved behind to support the woman she loved. Green eyes opened weakly as one of Xena’s hands moved to press against the wound in Gabrielle’s abdomen, trying to stem the flow of dark blood.

“Why didn’t you stay back in the village like I asked?” Xena sobbed, “Why Gabrielle?!”

“Not always so good at doing what you say…”

Xena hugged her closer; blue eyes darted over to assess the wound.

“Can’t feel my legs.” the smaller woman rasped.

“Gabrielle, come on, you’re gonna be fine.” Xena reassured, trying to cover her own rising panic.

“I… love… you… Xena…” A smile crossed the little one’s lips, sea green eyes closed gently, and the smile faded.

“Gabrielle… come on now, you’re scaring me!” Xena rocked the small woman gently as she held her close.

In the cave opening, the shot from the rifle missed Sebastian completely. “Damn you!” he roared, spinning as he bounded to his feet; a boot flying out kicked the rifle away from Cody’s hands.

The boy drew his knife, moving to a fighting stance. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” He cried.

“What you wanted is irrelevant.” With a well-timed flick, Sebastian slapped the knife away while his other hand roughly pulled the boy forward, deftly maneuvering his arm up and behind his back, slamming the kid against the rock. Cody screamed out in pain as his arm twisted behind his back.

“Any concern I once had for you, any compassion I felt for you, is gone.” Sebastian growled behind the boy. “You are dead to me!”

With that, Sebastian yanked Cody out of the cave, keeping the boy’s arm pinned behind his back as he walked toward where the men were gathered.

“Come on, Gabrielle; don’t do this, wake up.” Xena hugged Gabrielle closer as a wad of cotton linen was shoved into her hand by Jaxon, kneeling close by. The warrior pressed it against the wound, the white gauze immediately turned crimson. “Come on, wake up like before. In the temple, remember?” Xena pleaded, voice unsteady. “Come on, wake up.

Frantic blue eyes darted up, scanning over the assembled men, sympathetic eyes met her gaze. Battle hardened fighting men now fought to hold back their own tears as they witnessed the scene.

Gabrielle’s breathing slowed, short rasps for breath…

“No… no… no! Not like before!” Xena screamed in anguish as thunder rolled

“She’s close to death.” Polev said softly, his hand moving away from checking Gabrielle’s pulse, which was fading quickly

“You don’t know anything!” Xena shouted, unable to stop the words she once said before, embedded in her nightmares they spilled from her lips unbidden. “Don’t you listen to him. Come on, I know you’re in there – prove it. You can show him.”

Sebastian came up behind Polev as the man stood to back away from Xena, he motioned for the spy to hold onto Cody. The boy stopped his struggles, seeing Gabrielle in Xena’s arms.

Sebastian quietly took a knee near Xena.

A sudden blue tinted flash caught the men’s attention. A fearsome looking man appeared, attired in forbidding black leather. Casually he walked toward them, dark eyes locking with theirs. Men stood hypnotized, although some did manage to hesitantly begin to raise rifles. The striking man smiled, lips quirking up, surrounded as they were by a neatly trimmed goatee, to reveal gleaming white teeth. One of his hands moved to rest upon the hilt of a sword at his hip, the other made a sweeping motion and men dazedly parted, clearing a path.

Gabrielle’s breath slowed further, her thread of life nearing an end.

“Don’t leave me.” Xena sobbed, her dream having become reality again. “Don’t you leave me! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

“Wake up!”

“Wake…”

“Xena… Xena… Xena…” The familiar snide condescending voice of Ares sounded in her ears, causing the Warrior Princess to look up.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, love is an affliction of the weak. That love only leads to heartbreak. Yet you never learn the lesson.”

“You sorry bastard…” Xena sobbed, leaning over to touch Gabrielle’s forehead with her own as she continued speaking. “You caused this to happen…”

“No,” he replied, “The choices you made did.”

“I’ve no time for semantics Ares…” Xena straightened up slightly as she remained kneeling, Gabrielle’s limp form held firmly against her. Fingers coated with Gabrielle’s blood moved up to gently stroke strawberry locks away from the pale face.

“Just leave me…” she whispered a soft entreaty to the god. “Let me be…”

“Now is that any way to treat someone who can help?”

Xena’s eyes darted up. “You… you can heal her.” Hope shone in those blue eyes.

“Yes…” he smiled darkly, “Athena gave me her blessing… owed me one for leaving her precious Athens alone. So yeah, I could help,” Ares paused, “should I choose.”

“Then heal her!” Xena yelled. “Please…” she whispered.

“Everything has a price Xena.” He warned darkly. “Are you prepared to pay it?”

“Yes,” the warrior whispered without reservation, “anything for her.” How she wanted to yell at Ares, tell him she and Gabrielle were in this mess because of him, that they had done all that was necessary to keep the world from ending. Doing that would have wasted time, time Gabrielle didn’t have.

Kneeling, one of Ares’ hands moved to the bloody lesion, pressing against it as he closed his eyes, concentrating. Moments later the hand moved away, pure shock registered on the men’s faces, as the wound was completely healed.

Gabrielle suddenly let out a groan, causing Xena to exhale in unbridled relief. Sea green eyes opened, slowly focusing on beautiful teary blue eyes looking down upon her.

“You’re crying, why?” her little one asked gently, a delicate hand moving up, fingers brushing away a tear from a lovely cheek.

“Tears of joy, my love.” The warrior whispered, “They are tears of joy.”

“Touching…” Ares remarked, standing up, “In a sickening, stomach churning sort of way. Can we cut the lovey-dovey cuddle time short?” He asked, worried his powers would ebb again soon. “You and I have still have business to attend to, my Warrior Princess.

Xena glared up at the god, before letting out a sigh of acceptance.

“Xena, what does he mean?”

“Think you can stand?” Xena asked, evading the question for the moment.

“Yes, I think so.” Gabrielle looked around confused by all the soldiers standing watching her with bleary eyes.

“Xena?”

“Yes?”

“Why’s everyone staring at us?”

“You don’t remember?” Xena asked.

“Well, I remember running toward you and…” Suddenly recognition of what had happened dawned on the smaller woman. Her eyes traveled down to see the bloodied clothing she wore, the red soaked gauze, and then she noticed the blood on Xena’s fingers.

“Was I…” Gabrielle swallowed. “Did I…” she trailed off.

“Close,” Xena answered, “but you’re alright now.”

“How am I healed? I felt the pain and…” Gabrielle watched a bit of sadness creep into those expressive blue eyes. “Xena, you mean to tell me Ares…”

“Yes.” Gabrielle saw the god smirk at her.

“Oh, no! Xena, you told me once that Ares never…”

“Does anything unless it benefits him somehow.” Xena finished the sentence.

“You made a deal with him.” Gabrielle surmised as a wave of dread crashed over her facial features.

“Had to, couldn’t stand by and let you…” Xena swallowed hard, unable to say the word, the raw emotions of what had nearly happened were too near the surface.

“Oh Xena.” Sadness enveloped Gabrielle.

“I’m waiting, Warrior Princess!” Ares called out impatiently.

“Don’t do this…”

“I must, Ares held up his end of the bargain.”

“No…”

“I gave my word.”

The warrior moved, helping a shaky Gabrielle to her feet as they both stood. Squaring her shoulders while rising to her full height, Xena paced to a position directly in front of the God of War. Their eyes met, as lightning flashed. She knew what he wanted, same thing he always wanted, only this time he would get it.

“You will be my chosen.” Ares proclaimed, flames of war dancing within in his dark eyes.

“Kneel before me.” He commanded.

“Nope.”

“Xena.” Ares growled.

“I’ll accept being your chosen.” The warrior growled back, as she stepped a tad closer. Ares was always unnerved by the depth within her pale blue eyes. “But I kneel before no one.” glancing down, he saw one of her elegant fingers pressing into his chest. “And that includes you, War God.”

This woman was incredible! His smile returned.

Taking a half step back, Ares slowly drew the Sword of War. The sound of metal scraping as it was slowly pulled from its sheath, made the men’s nape hairs stand on end. The sky darkened further when the blade was freed of its confinement.

Men glanced up for a moment, spooked by the sudden cry of three enormous black vultures circling high above.

The broad side of the blade was brought down first onto Xena’s left shoulder, tapping it gently. The mere touch of that blade sent a jolt of dark energy though the warrior.

“I give you my blessing, as my chosen one.”

The sword moved to tap Xena’s right shoulder

“To vanquish all enemies from the fields of battle.”

The sword moved back to once more tap her left shoulder.

“Henceforth you fight for my greater glory.”

Xena felt the symbol of Ares, which she knew to be the plumed Greek helmet and spear, burn itself into the nape of her neck.

Gabrielle watched the transformation with horror as Xena’s hands balled into fists, her body quaking with Ares’ dark power as arcs of lightning shot overhead. Looking deeply within the black pupils of her eyes, the god witnessed a flicker, as the flames of war ignited within her soul.

Ares was ecstatic at the turn of events, especially since he had only wanted to use her skill to keep this war going and stop the Fates’ prophecy from coming to fruition.

At long last Xena was back in the fold, holding the power of his chosen! She would conquer, fighting glorious battles to build a mighty empire in his name; his dark power increasing with each of her victories.

Tears filled Gabrielle’s eyes as she silently prayed to the Fates, to any god who would listen, for some alternative, some way to reverse what was happening. The Xena she once knew was now encased within a shroud of darkness.

“Xena.” Three voices rose in melodic resonance causing all to turn.

Upon a small rise three women stood.

“Uh oh,” Ares groaned, “Time for me to go.”

“What the…?” Sebastian whispered. “Okay, we’ve all just seen the God of War,” he glancing at the wide eyed men, Polev included. “So who are those three?” he asked as he supported a frail Gabrielle.

“The Fates.” the smaller woman said ominously.

“God… of… War.” the women intoned, each speaking a word as the storm clouds roiled above.

“Your… father… awaits… you. He… is… most… displeased.

The deity went from intimidating to cowering in an instant. “I can explain!” he yelled. As lightning flashed fiercely, he simultaneously vanished.

“Xena… you… dare…. raise… your… hand… to… challenge… fate?”

“You,” Xena pointed accusingly at the three, “have no right to end the world.”

“Endings… create… new… beginnings.”

“Neither gods nor fates have any right to make choices for mortals.” The warrior stated with a confidence born of conviction. “Human beings alone determine their fate. War or peace, good or evil, to cause suffering or have joy, the choice of one or for the other rests solely in human hands.”

“Then… we… shall… honor… the… choice… you… make… warrior.”

“Xena!” Gabrielle screamed, voice echoing hollowly as she faded away.

Sebastian’, hands swiped at empty air as the woman disappeared directly in front of him. He looked dumfounded at his hands for a moment, then up into the hard icy eyes of Xena. He dipped his head, believing, despite the circumstances, that he had failed her.

Xena raised her fists in rage as she turned back to the Fates. “You will bring her back!” she roared, Ares’ dark gift rising to the fore.

“You… do… not… order… fate… warrior.”

“Please bring her back to me.” Her voice changed, became meek, pleading. “I beg you! Please!”

The three Fates gazed at each other for a moment.

Finally they spoke.

“Perhaps… in… the… life… you… have… chosen… warlord… you… may… yet… find… the… other… half… of… your… soul… once… more.”

With that, they vanished

Xena fell to her knees, sobs shaking her frame.

“Gab-ri-elle… Gab…”

Sebastian moved, taking a knee near the warlord. Watching as deep sorrow slowly morphed into rage as the woman rose to her feet.

“I have failed you, General.” He said softly.

“No… I failed her.” Xena corrected.

Her malevolent gaze fell over the assembled men, all upon seeing her eyes fell on one knee. Polev, his men, and the arms dealer captives included, so powerful was her glare.

Xena allowed the darkness to sweep her soul, all compassion within burned away to be replaced by vengeance.

“I prophesy to you…” She began solemnly, “Until I find my beloved, I shall be a curse upon mankind. Fierce warfare will cover the world.” Her tone rose in volume. “Blood and destruction will be so common and familiar that mothers will merely smile when their sons are cut to pieces by the hand of war! People’s capacity for sympathy will grow tired and weak from the sheer quantity of cruel deeds!” Xena yelled out in anger. “The world will pay with blood to sate my rage!”

“I am the Destroyer of Nations.” She finished ominously.

“Rise, commander.” Sebastian did so, flinching as he looked at the rage etched into Xena’s face.

“I want those missiles launched at the largest targets they will reach. After all,” she smiled wickedly, “Who am I challenge fate?” she stated in a mocking tone.

“General…” Sebastian began, horrified at what she was ordering him to do. Anything more he wished to say was wisely left unspoken as a dagger flashed into her hand, the blade touching his throat.

“Whose will do you serve?” She purred dangerously.

“I serve you.” He stated aware, of his actions on the temple steps

“And who do you obey?” She pressed

“I obey you.” He responded.

The dagger moved to tap the tip of his nose. “That’s right. Don’t forget it.” The warlord purred. “Now, get to work.”

Epilogue

In the darkness, a low rumbling shook the earth beneath his feet.

Eyes wide, he looked into the northern sky as one after another rockets lifted off, the red orange glow lighting up the night sky above, the color reflecting off the faces of his men.

Soon nuclear detonations would begin.

“I failed…”

Sebastian fell to his knees, his slender frame crumpling to the ground as hazel eyes stared up into the night sky. The words sounded with a tone of utter defeat, a complete resignation that this was the end of the world.

Behind him Xena laughed, yanking him back on his feet. “You know what they say, all good things gotta end.”

A flickering light cutting though the dark caught the attention of the group. A shimmering whirlpool of energy floated in mid air.

“Perfect timing.” The warlord stated flippantly.

“What is it?” Sebastian asked in amazement.

“Our ticket home.” Xena replied, “Provided by my benefactor, the God of War.”

Xena stood before the men, glad to finally be back in her familiar brown leathers, boots, and armor. Her chakram flashed in the moonlight at her hip, the familiar weight of her sword comforting as it rested upon her back. The clothing of her beloved Gabrielle had been packed gently away along with her scrolls in the saddle bags over one shoulder. Her Amazon staff placed reverently upon the ground near where the warlord stood.

“Listen up!” she bellowed, hands moving to hips. “We’re leaving.”

Her hand rose, finger pointing to the vortex. Her men hesitated, fearful of the swirling portal. “Or, stay here and watch the world end and you with it.” She offered.

The first group of men nearest the vortex trod carefully forward, disappearing one after another, souls reincarnating as they meshed into a new timeline.

The three remaining arms dealers brought in by Mullins who launched the missiles in fear of disobeying Xena’s orders, now stood wondering what would become of them.

“Thanks for the help, boys.” The warlord said facetiously, “Couldn’t have launched ‘em without you.” Her chakram seared though the air, cutting all three of their throats with precision. “Your services are no longer required.”

Catching the round blade as it arched back, Xena stalked over to Polev, casually wiping the bloody weapon on his fatigues. “Three in a row, didja see that?” she asked, the trembling man standing in front of her. “Now who says I’ve lost my touch?”

“Certainly not I.” Polev blurted tensely.

“You know, I never had a chance to give you my thanks for the driving lesson.” Xena purred. Polev cleared his throat, “Yes, well, you know me, always doing anything I can to help.” The warlord nodded in feigned agreement with the man, “How noble of you.” she mocked. “I have need of a good spy in my line of work.” She stated flatly while clipping the chakram back on her hip.

“Line of work?” he asked.

“Taking over the world.” She responded with a feral smile.

“Oh… well, now,” Polev began seeing an avenue for his own survival. “Not to brag, but I’d say I’m the best spy around. The king of spies.” He added nervously. “King of spies.” Xena repeated the boast, her hands moving to absently fix Polev’s errant uniform collar which was sticking up. Having those deadly hands so near his neck caused Polev to sweat profusely, despite the cool night air.

“You’re hired then.” She said eyes meeting his. “Don’t fail me; I’d dislike having to kill you.” Using her thumb, Xena gestured for Polev and his men to pass though the vortex.

Cody looked up from where he sat, tied up again as the warlord stopped in front of him, flashing a grin down at him. “Least you were consistent, gotta give you that.” She stated while bending her knees to move down to his level.

“Sebastian is resigned to leaving you here kid. You really pissed him off. But ya see, I’ve always enjoyed challenges.” Her hand reached out, fingers tweaking one of the boy’s cheeks. “Take him!” she ordered. Two of her men, hauled him up, one tossing him upon a shoulder.

One after another, the last of the group disappeared. “Empress… I like the sound of it!” Xena stated with a laugh. “Time for a new beginning!” she sneered, while shoving Sebastian into the swirling vortex.

“I’ll find you again, my true love.” Xena swore before stepping through.

As soon as she did, the vortex disappeared,

The villagers watched the sky vacillate above as the earth rumbled below their feet. All traces of the foreigners ever being present in the village disappeared, their equipment vanishing, deaths never occurring. History was rewritten.

Silence…

Villagers returned to their huts, all was well.

THE END

((Thank you for reading; I sincerely hope you enjoyed the story. I’d like to write part two should people like this story line enough for me to do so.))

7 thoughts on “Armageddon’s Arrival By Schawny-boi

  1. ha come on !.. what’s not to like ?.. It’s a really good story, action, suspense, a bit of romance, and of course this well thought time plot. I do like it, i want a sequel and i’m quite sure i’m not the only one ! 🙂

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a kind compliment on my story. I was worried because this is the first time I’ve written a story like this. I do want to begin writing on the sequel soon. May take me awhile to finish, but I hope to post it as I enjoyed writing this story.

    • Part II of the series is coming along nicely. Apologies for it taking so long, I write pretty slowly. What I think will be fantastic is the art I’ve commissioned to go with the story. Part II is epic in scale so I’d planned to release it in segments.

  2. The Second story in the series, Armageddon’s Arrival: Vengeance of the Destroyer is now posted on fanfiction.net. author schawnyboi

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