To thee, my god, Ares, thou terrible one,
To thee, high founder of my house, I call!
Oh! - send thy brazen carriage down to me:
Here where the walls of cities and their gates
Crumble at thy advance, destroyer god,
Oh! - send thy brazen carriage down to me.
-- Heinrich von Kleist, Penthesilea
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Ares, Gabrielle, Bellerophon and Argo are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal; the other characters in this story are the author's own. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
WARNING: This story is rated NC-17 for the graphic depiction of consensual sex between a man and a woman and some graphic violence. If you are under 18, if this is illegal where you live, or if this offends you, please find another story to read.
Author's Notes: My thanks to Tango and Sais 2 Cool for their very helpful comments on the draft version of this story.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Smith (1963-2002), who so brilliantly brought Ares to life on Xena: Warrior Princess. Farewell, Kevin. In our hearts, Ares will always be immortal.
My thanks to Tango and Taleen for some very helpful comments on the draft version of this story.
"It didn't have to end this way..."
Somehow, of course, it always had to end this way.
The half-mortal son of Artemis -- far more mortal than he had thought -- looked down in shock at the crimson flow from the gash in his belly, and then up again at the dark-haired woman warrior before him.
"Oh yes." Blood bubbled on Bellerophon's lips. "It did."
He staggered and fell backward.
As life faded from his still-open eyes, Xena knelt over the prince's body. She could ignore the sting in her upper arms where he had slashed at her but not the dull ache in her heart. This man had been driven not by greed or power-lust but by revenge for his mother, the goddess she had to kill to protect her own child. And she had offered him every way out, every opportunity to end the cycle of killing...
Now that it was over, the need to focus fully on her adversary and on the fight -- that total focus she had learned from Ares years ago -- was gone, and she could let her surroundings drift back into her consciousness. Everything here seemed so ordinary: the clearing lit up by patches of sun shining through the trees, the sounds and ripe smells of the woods. Everything except for the blood on the grass ... and several men lying dead on the ground.
"Come on -- get up!"
For a second, Xena didn't recognize the voice. Then she whirled around, and felt as if a cold hand had clenched inside her chest: it was Gabrielle, pursuing one of Bellerophon's men. The soldier stumbled and sprawled on the grass. The Amazon bard gave a yell, her face distorted, and raised her sword.
The scream made Gabrielle stop and turn.
"It's over," Xena said.
An almost puzzled look crossed Gabrielle's face. She glanced down at the cowering man and slowly lowered her sword. Then, a little unsteadily, as though she had to make a conscious decision every time she moved a foot, she walked toward Xena.
"You won," Xena said. If only she could make it sound as if she meant it. The treacherous moisture was welling up in her eyes and threatening to spill over.
Gabrielle shook her head.
"I don't think I did," she said in a small voice. She seemed so much older than just a few days ago, and yet for a moment she looked like a lost child. "With each battle, I lose more of myself..."
Xena's own words from the day before echoed in her ears: "Just doesn't seem like the Gabrielle I know." Not the Gabrielle who, all those years, had been her link to innocence, to the goodness that she wasn't sure she could ever find in herself... This was the warrior who had led her fellow Amazons in a desperate mission to rescue the kidnaped Varia -- who had stormed the beach at the Helicon fortress under a pitiless hail of arrows, leaving behind the wounded who cried for help; rallied her depleted troops for a final battle that she knew many would not survive; thrown a dead comrade's body to the sharks because it was the only way to distract them and save the living. What was there to say now?
"War is tough on the soul, Gabrielle..."
Just then, Xena felt the back of her neck tingle, and almost in the same instant heard the "whoosh" behind her and saw the telltale blue flash. Gabrielle's eyes widened, and there were scattered gasps from the Amazons who were gathering to celebrate their hard-won victory.
Xena clenched her jaw and muttered, the words coming out as a hiss, "Ares... this is not a great time for a date."
Getting no answer, she turned around. The God of War stood motionless, his arms crossed, an absent look on his face. Xena had seen this look before, with just a hint of a not-quite-human glow in the dark eyes; she knew that he was feeling the intoxication of combat, the energy of war that fed his powers. She had accepted the fact that this side of him existed, whether she liked it or not.
But this was different.
Ares was staring at Gabrielle.
He walked toward her, right past Xena. His nostrils flaring, his gaze slid over the blood that spattered Gabrielle's neck and chest, and then rested on her face. He held out his hand.
"Gabrielle... You're feeling it, aren't you..."
The bard flinched back, her eyes terrified and pleading.
"You're a true warrior now..." he continued, his fingers brushing against her cheek. After a brief pause, he said something else; but Xena didn't hear the words, either because his voice had dropped so low or because of the angry pounding in her ears. She walked over to Gabrielle, took her by the shoulders and moved her aside. Then, as hard as she could, she hit Ares in the face.
* ~ * ~ *
It had been more than ten months since the day when Xena met Ares at the funeral of a young soldier who had helped him in his mortal days -- since the night when she realized that the God of War now had far too much humanity in him for his own comfort, and when so many years of games and denied longing ended in a moonlit field.
Over that time, they'd settled into a routine that had come to seem almost normal. They rarely made plans; it's not as if she could know in advance when she was going to be busy busting some slavers' heads or defending some village from bandits or rescuing some silly girl from a cult of homicidal maniacs or battling some other breed of evildoer. When they were together, Xena had no idea if she would see him again in two days or in two weeks. Sometimes, she'd call him; usually, she would pick up his presence when she was getting settled in her room at an inn, or when she and Gabrielle were setting up camp or having a meal by the fire or riding along a deserted stretch of road. Often, in a little contest of wills, she waited for Ares to show himself and he'd wait for her to acknowledge him. When Gabrielle was around, she was liable to lose patience first -- having noticed the telltale smile struggling to break out on Xena's lips -- and snap, "All right, Ares, come out already." Finally, he'd flash into view, lounging by a tree or sprawled on the grass, and once perched casually atop Argo. ("Get down, you bastard," Xena snarled and threw a harmless rock which he made a show of ducking; she didn't know for sure if she was genuinely irked or just giving him the reaction he wanted.)
They spent some of their nights at an abandoned fortress in Thrace which he had gone to ridiculous lengths to turn into a romantic hideaway -- plush rugs on the floors, oil lamps adding their golden shimmer to the glow of the hearth, satin and furs and down pillows on the vast bed, trays of fruit and delicacies on ornate tables. The first time he brought her there, Xena had to fight back a burst of laughter and was tempted to tell him he'd forgotten the rose petals, or to ask if he got his decorating tips from Aphrodite. Instead, she said with a low chuckle, "You'll be wearing silk next," only to turn around and see him in a loose, long-sleeved black silk shirt and matching pants; his grin gave way to an open-mouthed gasp when she reached out and rubbed the smooth fabric on his chest. She smiled wickedly and told him that of course she meant white silk, and he bent down to kiss her neck and whispered, "Ooh, you're really pushing it now." As Xena closed her eyes and sighed at his caress, she felt her body being freed from the confining leathers and enveloped in what turned out to be a pale yellow robe. "Ares ... I do believe you're going soft," she purred, knowing he wouldn't miss such an opening for lewd repartee; and indeed, as he carried her to the bed he breathed hotly into her ear, "Not where it matters."
She was adamant about staying away from his temples and his halls on Olympus; she never explained why, and he never asked. So he took her to other places: a tiny island overgrown with dazzlingly lush vegetation; a rugged spot on a seashore, where Xena found herself oddly moved by the sight of a twisted tree reaching toward the sky from the edge of a barren cliff high above the crashing waves; a grotto filled with luminous, gently rippling sea water whose reflections bathed the walls and the low arched ceiling in such magical blue that it literally took her breath away.
That the God of War could appreciate such loveliness was only one of the ways in which he had managed to amaze her in these past months. Once, as they sat by a waterfall on a moonless night, he lifted a hand and Xena watched, rapt, as his finger traced an intricate weave of fiery lines in the darkness, much like the designs with which the Celts decorated their weapons and jewelry. The pattern lingered in the night air, its orange glow lighting up the mist that rose from the waterfall, and she finally said, with genuine wonderment underneath the teasing tone, "I didn't know you were so ... artistic!" -- and he replied, giving her shoulder a light squeeze, "Hang with me for a while and you may find out more things you didn't know."
At times, to be sure, Ares would live up to Gabrielle's jibe about how their romantic evenings would consist of dinner and swordplay, and cajole Xena into giving him a good workout with swords or in hand-to-hand combat. But once, when she ribbed him about caring only for the mindless rough-and-tumble side of warfare, he arched an eyebrow at her and, with a snap of his fingers, produced an exquisitely carved set of chaturanga, the Indian game in which the players maneuvered a small army of pieces on the board with the aim of capturing the opponent's king. During her time in India, Xena had mastered it well enough to rise to the challenge, and it soon became a favorite pastime of theirs, though Ares still couldn't resist a bit of mischief if the game dragged on too long. The pieces would change positions or vanish altogether while he'd give Xena his best mock-innocent look. Once, he managed to throw her completely off-balance, first with shock and then with helpless laughter, when the ivory and ebony figures suddenly came alive -- the knights' tiny horses rearing up, the miniature elephants trudging across the board in violation of all the rules, and Xena's queen gesturing invitingly to Ares' king.
While she couldn't share in his life -- and preferred to think about it as little as possible -- he proved surprisingly willing to share in hers. He would sometimes spend a whole day with Xena and her companion, acting so much like the mortal Ares they remembered that Gabrielle didn't mind much, not even the evening he picked her just-finished scroll as the target for his wit. He'd hang around their campsite, bantering with them, or quietly watching his love as she went about her ordinary tasks. There were times when she could almost forget that he was a god, until they went for a swim and she couldn't help noticing how his hair didn't get wet. He only used his powers once -- when Xena, busy skinning and gutting a couple of rabbits, half-facetiously told him he might as well make himself useful if he was going to be underfoot; he winced and shuddered theatrically, then picked up the rabbits one by one, rolled them between his palms and handed them to her fully roasted. ("Great," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "A walking, breathing grill... every housewife should have one.")
A couple of times, he tagged along when the women passed through a town, and even on trips to the market. On one such occasion, Xena teasingly asked if he was going to help buy food for supper; the War God looked at her, his lips twitching with amusement, then wandered off to one of the stalls and came back to present her with a large, gaudily colored box of candy. He seemed to truly enjoy this slumming, as Xena came to think of it; he attracted attention, of course -- female attention in particular -- but no one would have pegged him for anything more than a very imposing warrior. Maybe, she thought, he was trying to experience what things would have been like if he had been part of her life as a mortal.
He tried joining her in her work, with much less success. Twice, he went with her and Gabrielle in pursuit of marauding gangs that terrorized the countryside; the second time, he stopped in the middle of the fight, slid his sword back in the scabbard and, with a conspicuously bored look, waited for the women to finish up. When a few of the thugs were dead and their surviving comrades were tied up and ready for delivery to the local magistrate, Ares rode up to Xena, saluted her with three sarcastic claps, and informed her that, all in all, he'd much rather watch her gut fish than waste her warrior skills on undeserving swine.
Moments like these reminded her of the gulf between them; yet there were other times when she was equally certain that there was no gulf they couldn't bridge.
So far at least, the fulfilment they found in their encounters seemed only to increase their mutual hunger. There were nights when they gave in to that hunger the moment they were alone, mouths meeting in a bruising kiss, bodies slamming into each other, tongues thrusting and parrying in a quick prelude to an almost animalistic coupling. Or they could draw out their sensual play forever, lying slightly apart and running their fingertips over each other's skin, caressing everywhere but where they craved it most, occasionally letting their lips touch, until it was almost too much to bear. Vaguely, Xena knew -- though she didn't think much about such things -- that, fast or slow, rough or tender, their lovemaking was never just about sex; it was about everything they could rarely, if ever, express in words.
She wondered sometimes if he was happy -- and if she was.
She wondered, too, if she had made the right choice.
She thought about it when, once in a while, ghosts of their run-ins from the old days would come calling. One night in their Thracian love nest, he asked her to put on a dark blue dress with golden buckles and a bodice trimmed with sparkling beads. In that instant, her mind took her to another room, another night many years ago: Ares had whisked her out of a filthy jail cell after he'd framed her for murder, in the first of his schemes to force her to rejoin him, and brought her to some castle to make her his irresistible offer and had her wear a dress much like this one.
The memory sat like a cold heavy lump in her chest. Ares wanted to know what was wrong; when she gave in and told him, he looked down with a scowl and tossed the dress aside, letting it disintegrate in a faint shimmer. "I was the God of War, Xena," he said grimly, lifting his eyes again (it only struck her later that he spoke in the past tense). "I wanted my star employee back on the job." She didn't quite know what to say to that, and couldn't help shivering when Ares put his arms around her and whispered, "I'm glad it didn't work." The ghost still hung around, even when they were in bed later that night making love -- until he suddenly stopped and stared at her, then covered her face with frantic kisses, pressed his cheek to hers and groaned, "I'm sorry, Xena... I'm sorry..."
The past was one thing -- but she had to deal with the present as well, every time a war broke out somewhere and she tried to figure out if Ares has a hand in it. More and more often, too, Xena heard news of Alcibiades of Macedonia, the current protegé of the God of War, who was consolidating his military might with an eye to going up against Rome. At the same time, he was gaining a reputation for cruelty -- toward provinces and towns that did not welcome his idea of Greek unity, men who resisted conscription into his army, and his own soldiers whose performance or obedience was not to his satisfaction. When she raised the subject with Ares, he stared at her heavily and said, "It's war, Xena. You want to do something about this, go ahead."
There was one night, a few weeks before the battle at Helicon, when she had almost made up her mind to leave him.
Having drifted off to sleep in the afterglow of gratified passion, Xena was jolted awake by a dream that had something to do with battles, and thought at first that she was still dreaming -- she could hear the distant sounds of war cries, neighing horses, and clashing metal. Next to her, Ares was sitting up, his eyes fixed on something that cast a faint flickering light on his face.
She looked up and stared in disbelief. Before her was something like a window that had opened up in the air; a window in which, she realized, Ares watched a scene unfolding somewhere at that very moment. A city was under attack: In the unnatural light of torches and burning projectiles launched from catapults, soldiers in crimson and gold uniforms climbed up giant wooden towers that had been wheeled up to the city walls, then leaped over the battlements and slid down on ropes while archers on the towers' top platforms gave them cover. The men on the other side were doing a fairly good job of holding back the assault when a terrified voice cut through the din of the fight, screaming, "The gates! They're at the gates!" The vision became blurred, and then shifted into an image of the city gates swinging wide open. A few dead bodies lay nearby, next to a blazing barrack. So the big offensive was merely a diversion -- allowing scouts from the attacking army to get inside the walls, take the guards by surprise, and open the gates.
Soldiers were streaming into the city now; at the head of the troops rode a tall warrior with blond locks falling from under a plumed helmet, quite handsome except for the unpleasantly thin, straight line of his mouth. Xena remembered the descriptions she'd heard: it was Alcibiades.
Just over a hundred of the city's defenders came galloping toward the gates, and their leader, a burly man with a grizzled beard, charged Alcibiades. He was a skilled fighter despite his age, but he and his vastly outnumbered men were merely delaying the inevitable. Within minutes, Alcibiades knocked his opponent's helmet off, evaded a last desperate blow and, with a harsh yell, split open his skull. As the older warrior swayed and crumpled to the ground, his remaining soldiers dropped their weapons. The Macedonian king thrust his sword toward the sky, in a sharp yet strangely graceful gesture; his cry of triumph was echoed by thousands of voices, and a forest of blades shot up in the air. It was hard to tell whether it was blood or fire that made the metal look red.
Xena looked at Ares, and felt her skin crawl. His lips were parted in a bright, feral half-smile; his eyes were sparkling. It was sickening to think that just a few hours earlier she had been making love to him, kissing those lips, staring into those eyes. But there was something even worse: she knew that part of her wanted the War God the way he was now -- and that she herself had been riveted by those images, had felt the drunkenness of battle and the exhilaration of victory. Whatever had possessed her to think that she could resist the darkness in him when she still had so much of it in her own soul? She had to get away from him, or she would lose herself; she had never been more certain of anything in her life.
Then she saw Ares flinch. It was as if a cold blast had hit him in the face, wiping off that horrifying smile, making his mouth tighten and his eyelids droop. She looked into the portal. One of Alcibiades' soldiers was crouched on the ground, clutching at his stomach and failing to stop the blood that gushed through his fingers and over his hands; his eyes were big and almost surprised, his mouth frozen in a silent howl.
With a ragged sigh, Ares moved his hand, obviously about to close the portal. Xena put her hand on top of his and he turned with a start, as if he'd just remembered that she was there. She saw the hurt in his eyes and remembered how he shouted that night in the field, "Dammit, I'm not supposed to feel this way!"
"Ares.." she said softly. "The people in the middle of all this ... they can't shut it off."
He clamped his lips together and sank back on the pillow.
Meanwhile, two men had come up to help their wounded comrade; when they tried to move him, he jerked wildly, with a hoarse shriek that was barely human. They finally managed to lift him up, using a cloak as an improvised stretcher, and carry him off. One of the soldiers shook his head and said, "He's done for."
The image faded slowly. In the dim light of the small fire in the hearth, Ares stared at Xena and gave a resigned little shrug; almost imperceptibly, the corner of his mouth twitched and his eyelashes quivered. Then he pulled her toward him in a tight hug, and she held him and didn't want to ever let him go.
And still she was scared. That was partly why, in this showdown with Bellerophon, she had tried so hard to resolve things peacefully, had even considered sacrificing herself to let Artemis' son satisfy his vengeance if he would leave the Amazons alone (though she had a strong hunch that Ares, whose offer of help in the matter she had firmly rejected, wasn't about to let that happen). Sure, the spirit of War would always be in her, and without it, she wouldn't be able to fight for any good cause; it was useless to pretend otherwise. But could she trust herself to keep that part of her under control, in its place? Perhaps she had never been fully confident of that -- and now that she was with Ares...
Except that sometimes when they were together, she saw something in his face, his eyes, his smile that she never thought she'd see in the God of War: pure happiness, untainted by malevolence or cruelty or cynical glee. And sometimes in those moments, she felt the same clean joy within herself, and knew almost beyond doubt that what they had was good and right.
* ~ * ~ *
Ares reeled from the impact of her blow. Xena found herself grimly hoping it hurt, and wishing she still had the power to make him bleed.
He rubbed his face and blinked, slightly dazed.
"Get away from her," Xena said in a low voice that teetered on the brink of a scream. "Get away."
He looked at Gabrielle and then back at Xena, and dissolved in a blue flare without another word. The Amazons let out a collective breath.
Xena turned to Gabrielle and put a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes were filling up with tears again.
"Gabrielle ... I'm sorry. I should never have let that happen."
The young woman was about to say something when one of the Amazon leaders called out, "Queen Gabrielle!"
"Your people need you." Xena turned away, struggling to get a grip on herself, torn between pride and agony as Gabrielle walked over to the remnants of her troops, locked forearms with Queen Varia in the traditional Amazon salute, and said steadily, "To a strong Amazon nation."
The other women repeated the pledge in hushed tones, and the Warrior Princess whispered it too. The Amazons, she thought wistfully, would never accept her as one of them, and that would always be something of a barrier between her and Gabrielle -- but at least her dear friend had a community of her own, even if she herself did not, and for that Xena was grateful.
She wondered if her display had tipped off any of the Amazons to her special relationship with the God of War. Well, let them gossip, she thought; it was over anyway ... wasn't it? She could never forgive herself if the son of a bitch sank his hooks into Gabrielle. It had to end.
* ~ * ~ *
Dusk was creeping through the grove outside the Amazon village, wrapping the leaves in a soft veil of grey. Xena walked briskly, sweeping aside the branches that got in her way, until she stopped at the edge of a field and took a deep breath.
At the Amazons' request, Gabrielle had taken them back to their lands and agreed to stay for a week or so. After the devastating battle at Helicon, they needed the leader who had been with them through that ordeal. Now she was occupied with the tribe's business, and while Xena had things to do as well -- helping care for the wounded who had made it home, training young warriors to replace the fallen -- she couldn't shake the feeling that she was just tagging along. It had been only two days since their return, and already she was getting restless. Dimly, she knew that it wasn't just because she was stuck on the sidelines.
Xena looked around and shivered. This was this field where, nearly a year ago, she had confronted Ares after learning that Varia, the woman seeking her daughter's death, was his protegee; this was where he had laid his hand on her, making her sway with pleasure as the heat of his newly regained godly power spread through her body, and then told her that fable about the scorpion and the swan. The scorpion would always sting because that was what it did. And yet a short while later, she saw something different in him, something better. Had she been wrong? Maybe ... maybe not ... either way, he was bad for her, he was dangerous...
... and he was here.
She turned to see him lounging by a tree in a pose of studied nonchalance, arms crossed, head cocked, eying her with a smile that managed to be disarmingly boyish and lascivious at the same time.
"Come here often?"
Xena gave him a chilly look. "Last time I did, you were trying to get my daughter killed."
That slapped the smile off his face. Ares eyed her guardedly, and finally said, "Well. I guess this is not a good time."
She took a deep breath; best to do this quickly. "There's not going to be a good time, Ares. Not again."
"What are you talking about?"
In the silence that fell between them, she was very aware of the breeze rustling through the leaves and the tall grass, and the chirping of oblivious birds overhead.
Then he asked, "Why?"
"Because ... it's wrong, Ares. Wrong for me and wrong -- " she looked away -- "for Gabrielle."
"What are you talking about?"
In spite of her best efforts, her voice was shaking. "I'm talking about you messing with Gabrielle."
"Messing?" His eyebrows went up. "Have you lost your mind? What, you think that I was -- "
"This is worse," she said through clenched teeth. "Sniffing at the blood of slain men on her -- "
Ares straightened his shoulders, his face suddenly cold and unreachable. "You know what I am, Xena. When warriors get drunk on battle, I feel it with them, and what I get from that is -- " His voice rose and his jaw trembled a little, the mask slipping. "It's something you'll never understand! If you didn't want me to be like that, you should have -- " he trailed off abruptly.
"So maybe it's not your fault." Xena stood before him stiff-backed, her eyes lowered. "I'm not blaming you. I just can't be with you anymore, Ares. I've been willing to accept this side of you... maybe too willing," she whispered, almost as an aside to herself. "I never thought it would touch Gabrielle."
"Dammit, Xena -- "
He sounded more angry than hurt, and that made it easier. "Good-bye, Ares."
"Good-bye? Just like that?"
She finally forced herself to raise her eyes -- he was scowling, his mouth tight -- and allowed her voice to soften. "We've had some great times together and I -- I'm glad we did." She paused and added, looking away again, "I will miss you."
He didn't try to follow her as she walked off.
* ~ * ~ *
The council meeting was over, and Gabrielle made her way back to the cabin she and Xena shared for the duration of their stay with the Amazons. In the clear, moonless night, there were only a few fluttering torches to light the streets of the village, but it was enough for her to see the shields trimmed with black bands on the doors of those cabins where one of the dwellers had fallen in the battle at Helicon.
She thought of the subtle change in the way the other queens and princesses treated her now: more respectful than before, even deferential, but also more distant. It wasn't surprising; she had led them to victory, but at what cost? The memories pushed their way into her head, as they had so often over these past days. The relentless fire of the catapults ... "We're going to die! We're all going to die!" ... Telling the women that the way to honor their dead was to fight on so the deaths would not be in vain ... "More of us may die today" ... The anguish on Xena's face... "Gabrielle, I can see that you're in pain." -- "Half of my tribe lies dead on the beach. Now, I have to be as cold and ruthless as I can be." ... The moment when she nearly struck down the enemy soldier at her feet, and was stopped only by Xena's cry ... And then Ares staring at her -- Ares as she'd never seen him before, with eyes like embers, with that strange look on his face, totally focused on her and yet far away.
She had felt pure terror at that moment. Perhaps it was because, in a way, she'd gotten so used to Ares. Sure, she still found it hard to understand Xena's relationship with the God of War; his intrusions often irked her, and she hated to admit it but she felt resentful -- jealous -- when Xena went off with him. Yet she had also come to feel almost comfortable around him, almost to like him ... almost to forget who he was. When she faced him in that clearing after the battle with Bellerophon, she knew she was truly looking in the face of War -- far more inhuman than Ares had been when he killed Eli, then tried to lure her into his fold, and then nearly killed her. But what frightened her even more was that Ares, this Ares, was drawn to something in her. "You're feeling it, aren't you... You're a true warrior now..."
The Amazon bard stopped, breathing deeply. She had been a warrior for a long time now, hadn't she? Ever since she went on a rampage in the prison yard at Mount Amaro, killing those Roman soldiers in a blind rage ... and there had been so many battles after that -- when she and Xena fought the temple warriors after Eve's birth, when they faced Athena's army at Amphipolis... Except that this time, she hadn't just shed enemy blood but sent her own sisters to die. Don't leave us... She hunched her shoulders and walked on. Was that what it was all about, being a true warrior? Or was there something else, something she had felt on that day that she'd never felt before -- not just rage, not just ferocious determination to protect Xena and herself and those she loved at all cost, but a kind of ... thrill? Had she enjoyed it?
Gabrielle pushed open the door of the cabin. Xena sat on a low bench mending a rip in one of her boots, lips pursed in concentration, tugging much too hard on the needle and thread.
"Hey," she said. "How was the evening?"
"It was long." The attempt at lightheartedness fell flat, and Gabrielle sighed and sat down to take her boots off. "Just finished discussing who will take in which of the --" she was going to say "orphans," but stumbled and finished a bit awkwardly -- "children." She put away her sais. "Oh, and Xena, Cyane thinks some of the girls you're training are too young..."
"Let's see what Cyane says" -- Xena gave the needle another yank -- "the next time they need fighters." Then she lifted her eyes, and Gabrielle felt a tug at her heart when she saw the pain in them. "Gabrielle ... I'm sorry."
Xena was silent for a moment. "That business with Ares."
"Xena -- it's not your fault," she said, too hastily.
"Maybe it isn't." Xena turned away. "Maybe it is. He's not going to be around anymore, Gabrielle. Not if I can help it."
"What are you saying?"
"I told him it's over."
Gabrielle gave her a questioning look. "Because of me?"
"Maybe you were right all along, Gabrielle. Maybe it should have never started. He's still everything I've spent all these years trying to put behind me." Her voice dropped to a near-whisper, her eyelids fluttering. "I almost forgot about that ... and what happened out there was a reminder." Xena rose abruptly, walked over to Gabrielle and knelt by her side, taking her hands. "You were a reminder. I'll never let it get to you. And I'll never let anything -- anyone -- get between us ... I promised you that."
Gabrielle touched her face.
"Xena -- " She faltered, her eyes darting away momentarily. After a pause, Xena asked, "What?"
"Everything will be all right."
* ~ * ~ *
They had slept late; when Gabrielle got off her cot, light was already streaming in through the small window and slanting across the cabin, tiny specks of dust dancing and swirling inside the sunbeam. At the sound of her moving around, Xena opened her eyes and stretched.
"'Morning." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the sun, then turned -- and stifled a gasp. "Xena... I think we, uh, you had a visitor..."
Xena sat up abruptly, and Gabrielle could see, with resignation and without much surprise, the flash of joy in her face before it turned to a glare of icy disapproval. There was a purple flower lying on the coarse brownish blanket.
Gabrielle came closer and sat on the bed as Xena picked up the flower. It was big enough to cover her hand, its large, dark, fuzzy outer petals curling downward, the tender folds in the center opening up to reveal the deep velvety core with a pinkish little stem. Looking closer, the bard noticed that the purple was shot through with a delicate spider web of gold. Was this a piece of exotic earthly flora, she wondered, or a marvel conjured up by Aphrodite in some Olympian version of a hothouse? Had Ares actually picked it out? She tried to imagine such a scene, but her imagination failed, and she couldn't help giggling.
Then she saw Xena fingers clench around the flower -- about, she realized, to rip it to shreds. Before she could even think, her hand flew protectively toward it and she blurted out, "Xena -- don't! ... it's beautiful..."
Xena's lips twitched into an unhappy smirk. "Then why don't you take it."
Gabrielle twirled the flower in her hands, then put it down on the pillow. She sighed and fidgeted, looking down, and finally said, "Xena..."
"I need to tell you something."
"Something about Ares?" Xena jerked her head up and their eyes met.
"Did you hear what he said to me ... back there?"
"What, about being a true warrior? Oh, Gabrielle ... don't tell me you're flattered..."
She felt herself blushing. "No, after that."
Xena stared at her uneasily, waiting.
"He said, 'And it's killing you inside.'"
There was a pause as her words seemed to hang in the air between them. Xena didn't move a muscle but her pupils seemed to widen slightly.
"And Xena -- he looked ... different. Like he was feeling bad for me. Like -- all of a sudden, there was something human about him again."
With a barely visible nod, Xena touched the flower on the bed.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
Later, when Gabrielle was helping Xena buckle her armor, she said, "Xena, if you never saw him again, you know that I wouldn't be crying. But -- I just thought I had to tell you this."
Xena turned and held her in a tight, tense hug.
"I'm glad you did," she said quietly. She stood still for a moment, then went back to the bed and picked up the purple flower, stroking the petals with her fingertips -- suddenly giving Gabrielle a strangely mischievous, almost guilty look before she slipped Ares' gift inside her breastplate. Gabrielle sighed, and finally worked up the nerve to ask, "Will you be ... here when I'm back?"
Very quietly, she said, "I don't know, Gabrielle."
Well, that answered the question.
* ~ * ~ *
She knew he was watching her the whole time while she was training the young Amazons; walking back to the cabin in the gentle light of the setting sun, she had no doubt she would find him there.
As she threw down her sword, she heard the swoosh behind her and then felt his hands on her shoulders, the soft heat seeping into her sore muscles -- damn, it was good. He nuzzled the nape of her neck, and Xena couldn't help leaning back into him.
"So..." he murmured. "My ditzy sister is right -- flowers do work."
His low, sensuous voice sent warm vibrations through her body but she managed to pull away a little and turned around, smirking. "Well, actually, I expected a different kind of gift from you..." He gave her a quizzical look. "Like a severed head or something."
The God of War grinned. "A lovely thought. But much too messy." His eyes twinkled. "So, are we on again? Or ... do you want me to get down on my knees and beg forgiveness?" He knelt on the bearskin on the floor, his hands sliding down to her hips, and when his lips touched the skin above the rim of her boot she knew what sort of apology he had in mind.
"Ares..." She made an effort to shut out the effect of his wet kisses traveling up her thigh. "Don't -- I need to talk to you about ... something..."
"So talk." His voice was muffled. "I can listen."
"Mmm... You are ... such an arrogant ... bastard..." Xena closed her eyes, leaning on his shoulders.
"Yeah," she heard him mutter, "but I'm so good at everything I do." Her laugh broke off when she felt his breath between her legs and then his mouth, nibbling at her through the soaked fabric of her undergarment, making her squirm. There was no point in trying to fight this; she would only give him the satisfaction of defeating her. "Take it off," she said in a harsh half-whisper. His fingers jerked at the laces on her hip before he ripped the linen cloth in half and licked her almost roughly. Her knees were buckling. He could draw this out for what seemed like hours sometimes, but now she could sense his impatience as he swirled his tongue around her nub and sucked it hard -- it felt good, so good that for a moment nothing else mattered, and in just a few seconds she came in a violent spasm.
She sank into his arms and lay panting, shuddering with small aftershocks of pleasure. He kissed her neck, reaching for the straps of her armor.
"No god tricks?" He did his best to give his tone a droll touch.
"No god tricks." She opened her eyes and sighed while he undid the buckles, letting her breastplate drop on the fur-covered floor. The flower fell out too; Ares took it, shook his head and flashed a knowing grin at Xena, brushing his lips against the soft petals before tossing it aside and moving down to take off her boots.
"I've missed you," he said huskily.
Xena chuckled and sat up, reaching to touch the buckle on his belt, and then watched him swallow convulsively as she moved her hand lower.
"So I see."
"Gods ..." He gasped. "Look what you do to me..."
"Me and anything that moves," she said lightly, leaning forward to kiss him -- his mouth still tasting of her, his beard and mustache moist and marked with her scent -- while she worked at the fastenings of his pants. When she broke the kiss, he dropped his head on her shoulder, breathing in shallow, irregular puffs.
"I'm afraid that ... right now I'm ... all out of snappy comebacks," he said through clenched teeth.
She managed to pull the leather down over his hips and he helped her, kicking the pants away along with the boots. She wanted to touch him, to revel in the feel of him, but he was already pushing her down on the rug, his mouth claiming hers in a greedy kiss. "I want you now," he said, his voice thick, and she raised her hips to meet him as he thrust into her. It didn't even matter if she came this time; the pleasure she felt now was different -- not a rising tension that demanded release, but a steady warmth -- the pleasure of his arms around her and his weight on top of her, of being filled by him, of seeing his face like this with his eyes blurry and his mouth loose, of the sounds he made. "I've missed you," he said again, moving faster, slamming his hips into her, his every breath an almost agonized groan. She ran her hands down his back, and he shuddered wildly and shouted her name and then lay still, sliding down to nestle his head between her breasts. Xena held him, stroking his soft hair, and mouthed soundlessly, I've missed you too.
Aloud, she said with a sigh, "Let's go somewhere else."
* ~ * ~ *
Some time later, having just made love again, they were lolling about on their spacious bed in the Thracian fortress. Xena reclined on her side, an ornate silver tray in front of her, eating venison roasted with exotic fruit; Ares watched her, sipping his wine. After a while, he reached over, ran his hand up the side of her leg and started stroking her inner thigh.
She shot him a wry glance. "I'm not done yet."
"Neither am I," he said, bending forward to kiss her shoulder.
"Do you ever get tired?"
"I'll let you know if I ever do."
"I would have thought you'd be tired of me by now," she said, knowing she wasn't being entirely playful.
"You're good for another week or two."
Then he leaned back, stared down into his goblet and was silent for a while. When he spoke again, all the levity was gone from his voice.
"Xena -- "
"What?" she asked warily.
"I -- " Ares tapped on the side of the goblet. "I -- " He finally looked up at her, chewing his lip. "I don't want you to -- to -- leave me."
The subject had come up before, a few months earlier, when he'd tried to get her to go back for one of Odin's golden apples.
"Ares, I..." Her throat clenched with painful tenderness. "I don't -- I can't ..."
He scowled, lowering his eyes again, and said quietly, "If you love me..."
"'If you love me, you'll do it?' I think you just gave a whole new meaning tothat line." Done with her meal, she moved the tray aside and he waved his hand at it, sending it away. She slid over to him and touched his face. "I can't become a goddess, Ares ... I wouldn't be me anymore."
He pulled her into a frenzied kiss, as if it were their last, and then abruptly pushed her off.
"Do you know what that means for me, Xena? Imagine if you loved a man and -- you waited for years -- and then you were finally together -- and you found out that he would die in a week. That's what the rest of your life is to me when I've got eternity before me..."
"They say that we all come back," she said slowly.
"So I'm supposed to spend eternity tracking you down when you are reborn, and praying to who knows what powers that I can bring back your memories of ... us." He fell silent, reaching up toward her but not quite touching her.
"Ares." She ran her fingers through the dark soft hair on his chest. "I'm not dying yet... can't we just, for now -- make the best of it?"
There was another silence, and then he asked, "Do you love me?"
She had never said it to him. Now, she opened her mouth -- but ... Maybe she didn't love him. Or maybe saying it would be a final surrender, a surrender that she couldn't allow herself with the God of War. She could still fall back on flippancy; in that, they were alike.
"I sleep with you, don't I?" She gave him a lopsided little grin and kissed him. He moved to embrace her, his breath quickening, but she held his arms down.
"No," she whispered, "let me pleasure you."
With a sigh, Ares lay back. Xena circled her tongue around a hardening nipple and teased it with gentle bites, rolling the other one between her fingers before she moved her mouth over it. As always, she savored the slightly tangy taste of him, the heat of skin, his response to her -- soon, he was gasping and lifting his hips, trying to rub against her -- but this time some part of her remained aloof from her senses, still too mindful of the conversation they'd just had, and of the one she had been putting off.
Slowly, she kissed her way down his chest and his flat belly, and then pressed her lips to the moist tip of his cock. As he cried out hoarsely, Xena wondered if he had other women. She realized that she didn't like to imagine anyone else seeing him like this, so out of control, so lost to pleasure ... so beautiful. Did that mean she really ... ?
Brushing the thought aside, she bent her head down, flicking her tongue along his shaft a few times before taking him in her mouth. She hoped that by now she had gotten his mind off the subject of her mortality; but then he murmured, running his hand through her hair, "Xena... I don't want to lose you... ever..."
That painful tenderness was tugging at her again, tightening inside her chest. At least this time, she didn't have to say anything -- and at least, in the next few minutes, Ares wasn't very articulate.
Afterwards, Xena slid up and lay in his arms for a while, both of them silent. Finally, she disengaged herself and sat near the edge of the bed, wrapping herself in a crimson sheet, hugging her knees.
"Ares... You have to promise me something."
"Leave Gabrielle alone. Flowers won't do it next time."
"I'm not doing anything to Gabrielle and you know it."
"You tried to recruit her before."
The God of War rolled his eyes. "Don't you know that was mostly to get to you?" He paused and added, "Though I have to admit, the Battling Bard has surpassed my expectations."
"Ares." Her voice was as chilly and hard as the look in her eyes. "She doesn't belong to you."
"She doesn't serve me directly. But she's a warrior, Xena."
And it's killing you inside... Xena shivered and wrapped the sheet tighter around herself, lowering her eyes.
"She wasn't meant for this," she said, speaking more to herself than to Ares. "She wasn't meant to -- to kill..."
He sat up.
"Well, if you're looking for someone to blame, don't look at me."
"You mean it's my fault," she said in a small, hollow voice -- suddenly scared, not defiant. "I turned her into a killer."
He shrugged. "You pulled her into your world."
"I tried to protect her..."
"Did you really?" There was a faint touch of sarcasm in his tone. "You were too stubborn to accept my help when she went up against Bellerophon's army."
It was true, Xena thought. She closed her eyes, gripped by a quiet panic, as if something horrible were creeping up on her and she couldn't get away. Gabrielle was the purest thing in her life, the friend who was always there, the soulmate who had helped her stay the course as she sought atonement for her dark past -- and, by and by, her own darkness had caught up with Gabrielle.
She felt Ares' fingers brush her face, and put her hand over his.
"Take me back," she said. "Please." She noticed his nervous look and moved closer to kiss him. "I'll see you soon, Ares. I just ... need to go back right now."
* ~ * ~ *
"You know the funny thing about being high up in the mountains like this?"
"Hmm ..." Xena grinned wryly. "The way down is as much of a pain in the ass as the way up?'
The women had been riding at a slow trot along a mountain path since dawn. The sun stood high in the bright cloudless sky, glittering in the treetops on the mountainside, flooding the valley below.
"Everything is so small from up here. The trees, the houses ... they look like I could just pick them up and put them in my saddlebag..."
"You're such a pack rat."
"And when you see people, they're like tiny dolls in a toy box ... but there they are, going about their lives."
"That sounds like the start of a new scroll." Xena glanced at Gabrielle, warmth twinkling in her eyes.
"Maybe." Gabrielle laughed. "Just think, the people down there won't even know they inspired a scroll."
"Well, maybe some of them will read it," Xena said.
"Hey -- maybe even you will."
A new scroll... Gabrielle remembered how she had tried to write down the story of their battle with Bellerophon, only to find that she couldn't finish it. She didn't feel like laughing anymore.
They rode on in silence. A few minutes later, Xena brought Argo to an abrupt halt and signaled to Gabrielle to stop.
"Gabrielle -- do you hear that?"
"Um ... maybe," said Gabrielle. "If you tell me what it is I'm supposed to hear."
"I think some little soldiers in that toy box are having a fight."
Xena's face was drawn into a mask of intense focus.
Gabrielle listened, but all she could hear was the soft rustling of leaves in the breeze.
"You think that's Cylon's and Prusias' army down there?"
"Could be." Xena released the reins and gave Argo a light kick. "Come on, let's go a little further."
More than two months since leaving Amazon lands, Xena and Gabrielle were on their latest mission in Thessaly, not far from the Peneus river. Two powerful warlords, Cylon and Prusias, were rumored to have joined forces in the region; they needed to figure out what the warlords were up to, and just how urgent it was to stop them.
Now Gabrielle heard the sounds too, coming from below -- still distant, but indeed the unmistakable noise of a battle: the shrill whinnying of horses, the grunts and shouts of men, the clanging of swords and spears and shields. And then, looking down, she saw the two armies battling face to face. From this height, they did look almost like toy soldiers, except that they swarmed and clashed with a fury that was all too real.
"All right," Xena whispered. "Let's move lower so we can get a better view."
Slowly, cautiously, they made their way down a winding path through the evergreens. Xena pointed silently to a ledge that made a good viewing spot, close enough to see the faces of the combatants.
"Over there." Gabrielle pointed to a stocky, broad-shouldered, red-bearded man galloping through the battlefield and waving his sword, his face distorted with rage. "That looks like Prusias. Didn't they say he has a shield with a golden dragon on it?" She covered her eyes from the sun, peering down, and then gave her companion a puzzled glance. "Xena, do you think they're fighting each other?"
"No," Xena said. "Take a good look, Gabrielle. One of these armies isn't just a warlord's army. The uniforms."
Everywhere on the battlefield, men in a motley assortment of outfits were fighting soldiers in crimson and gold. Turning back to Xena, Gabrielle was startled by the expression on her face: her jaw rigid, her lips pressed to a thin line, her eyes veiled. She looked bitter and resigned, as though she had just seen something she had both dreaded and expected.
"Xena... what is it?"
She spat out the name, making it sound like some particularly offensive curse.
Gabrielle gasped. "The army of Ares!"
Xena tossed her head, as if trying to shake off unwanted thoughts.
"Well, now we know one thing -- why Prusias and Cylon pooled their armies," she said. "They'd heard that Alcibiades was headed here. I bet they're trying to stop him from reaching the river crossing."
"Is that really Alcibiades' army? It doesn't look very large."
"He probably didn't think he'd need his full forces to take the valley."
Gabrielle shivered, struck by another thought. "Xena -- do you think he's here?"
The Warrior Princess gave her a chilly look. "If he is, he's not close enough for me to sense him. And anyway" -- she chuckled unhappily -- "if he's here, he won't even notice me ... us."
They looked down again. Whether it was Ares' favor or superior skill, the luck of the battle clearly seemed to be with Alcibiades' men, who were pushing the warlords' army further and further back. Then, Gabrielle noticed some strange movement in the grove on the other side of the battlefield, and gave Xena a quick nudge; but Xena had seen it, too. The lush greenery quivered and billowed, and dozens -- no, hundreds of warriors streamed out and charged the flank of Alcibiades' army, like a dark wedge slashing into a crimson and gold spread. Taken by surprise, seeing their comrades fall next to them, the soldiers on that flank were visibly panicking -- and finally, some of them faltered and ran, getting others caught up in the stampede. Cylon's and Prusias' men, who had been obviously waiting for the ambush, took advantage of the moment to throw themselves into the fight with renewed vigor and push back Alcibiades' troops.
"There he is," Xena said quietly, putting a hand on Gabrielle's arm. For a second, Gabrielle thought she meant Ares, but Xena pointed toward a tall blond warrior in gleaming armor, with a plumed helmet -- Alcibiades, of course, trying to steady his horse and control his troops at the same time. The warlords continued their charge. About a minute later, confusion all around him, Alcibiades grabbed a crossbow from his saddle and shot an arrow in the air. It flew high, trailing two long ribbons attached to its shaft -- one black, one scarlet.
"A signal to retreat?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.
Seconds later, she felt Xena's grip tighten on her arm, and heard her sharp intake of breath. One of the fleeing soldiers swayed and fell, clutching his side; then the one next to him went down, and still another. The arrows that struck them down came from a group of crimson-and-gold-clad archers on horseback at the top of a hillock. Gabrielle watched as they took aim and shot again; it took nearly a half-minute before the full meaning of what was happening sank in and she felt cold, then numb. "His own men..." she whispered. "He's ordered his archers to shoot his own men if they run..."
An absurd thought flashed dimly through her mind: If only it wasn't so sunny. The sun had no business shining on such things. A day like this had no business being so beautiful.
The retreat had come to an abrupt halt, some soldiers tumbling down when those further behind failed to stop quickly enough and slammed into the ones in front. There was another hail of arrows, deliberately aimed, it seemed, to fall just short of their target -- not injuring anyone this time but flying close enough to make a point. With no way out, the men were turning around, perhaps preferring to die at the enemy's hands than to be killed by their own.
Gabrielle finally took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Xena's face was full of such pure revulsion and fury that it troubled the bard almost as much as the scene unfolding below.
"Let's go, Gabrielle," she said in a quietly seething voice.
The momentum of the battle seemed to be shifting back in Alcibiades' favor; his warriors, whether driven by loyalty or desperation or both, were on the offensive again. But Xena clearly had no intention of staying to watch this through to the end.
As the women got back to the path and resumed their journey, they could still hear the fading sounds of the fighting below.
By sundown, when they arrived in the town of Perati down in the valley, the battle was the talk of the streets and the inn. Alcibiades had carried the day after all, though not without heavy losses. Prusias was dead and Cylon had bought his life by agreeing to serve Alcibiades, as did the warlords' surviving men. The victorious army had made camp less than two miles away from the town.