"Do you want to move on?" Gabrielle asked, sipping her cider.
"Huh?" Lost in thought, Xena had barely touched the rather bony half of a roasted chicken she had ordered for lunch.
"I was thinking there's no real reason for us to stay here. I mean ... nothing left to find out about Prusias and Cylon, right? Unless, of course, you consider the food around here a major attraction." She dipped a piece of bread in the greasy stew and took a bite.
"No," Xena said. "I consider Alcibiades a major attraction." She caught Gabrielle's scandalized look and chuckled. "Not like that, Gabrielle. Let's hang around for a day or two."
Her tone made Gabrielle wonder if she had a plan of some sort. She was about to ask, when the doors groaned and clattered, and a group of men in crimson and gold uniforms walked in.
The hum of conversation in the dining room died almost immediately as everyone -- the middle-aged mom-and-pop innkeepers, the patrons, the serving girls -- turned to look at them. Even in the half-darkness, Gabrielle could tell that these victorious warriors were not in a mood to celebrate; their faces were either expressionless or grim, and one, a russet-haired young man with a line of caked blood across the bridge of his nose, looked both absent and dejected.
"Any decent food in this establishment?" one soldier asked gruffly.
"And wine. The strongest you got," added another.
The mistress of the inn waddled toward them and hurriedly led them to a corner table. As they sat down noisily, eyes turned away and the ordinary sounds of the inn picked up again.
The two women resumed their meal without saying another word. Xena's face was blank, her body visibly tense.
"Dammit!" The voice from the corner table rose above the general din, causing another awkward if brief silence -- broken by a crash that sounded like a mug being slammed down. Gabrielle turned furtively and saw that the speaker was the russet-haired soldier whose downcast look she had noticed before. "I can't believe he's gonna do this!"
The others spoke to him quietly, evidently telling him to pipe down. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other; then, the Warrior Princess slowly rose and walked to the soldiers' table. Gabrielle followed, suspecting this wasn't going to be friendly.
"Hey." Xena stood behind the man who had raised his voice. He turned and looked at her indifferently. He was no more than twenty, and seeing him up close, Gabrielle was struck by the misery in his face and his eyes.
"What do you want?"
"What is Alcibiades going to do?" Xena asked.
He turned away and gulped down some ale.
"Come on," she said gently. "Tell me. What's going on?"
"Get lost, lady," said another soldier, a strapping man with dark, greasy curly hair. "Curiosity killed the cat."
"Yeah, well, I've got nine lives," she drawled, her lip curved in a well-practiced sneer. "Besides, stubbornness killed the ass."
The man rose, leaning on his brawny arms, and glowered at her.
"Who do you think you are, bitch?"
In the silence that fell over the dining room, somebody's spoon clanged jarringly on the side of a bowl.
"Someone who doesn't like her time wasted," Xena snapped. (Here we go, thought Gabrielle.) In the flash of a second, her hands flew up, and the man was wheezing and clutching convulsively at his throat.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain -- if you've got one. You'll be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell me -- "
"He's going to have my brother beheaded," the younger man blurted out.
Xena whipped around, her eyes boring into him. Then, she turned back and jammed her fingers into the other soldier's neck. He took frantic, shuddering breaths, glancing at her with a mix of fear and hate and rubbing his throat.
"Whoever you are, you got some nerve," said another one of their comrades, starting to rise from the bench. The man next to him, somewhat older than the rest, grabbed his arm and nodded toward the chakram on Xena's hip.
"Man, that's Xena," he said in a half-whisper.
"Xena, the Warrior Princess, you dolt."
Xena ignored the men's stares -- awestruck, hostile, or both -- and spoke to the young soldier.
"What did your brother do?"
He turned away, pursing his lips. Gabrielle took a step toward him and touched his shoulder. He flinched and looked up.
"Maybe we could help," she said. "What's your name?"
"Dion... My brother's Melesias." He took another gulp from his ale mug and sighed. "In the battle we fought yesterday, there were some men who ran..." His voice trembled and broke off.
"Three of them are to be executed, as an example to the others," cut in the older man who had recognized Xena. "Tomorrow at noon."
"He didn't even run," Dion said in a hoarse whisper. "I saw it. I swear..."
"That's Alcibiades," grunted the man Xena had put the pinch on, his voice still raspy. "Off with your head first, ask questions later. Can't expect him to bother with the details."
Xena was already striding toward the door. Gabrielle nodded to the soldiers and dashed after her.
"Xena -- ?"
She turned around, her face hard with determination.
"Wait for me back here, Gabrielle. There's something I need to do." She took another step toward the door, then stopped and looked at the stunned proprietor. "Does this town have a temple of Ares?"
* ~ * ~ *
The temple, on the edge of town, turned out to be a small, neglected shrine -- crumbling steps, cobwebs in the low doorway, thick dust everywhere, dry leaves and bits of plaster and ceramic strewn all over the floor and the altar. As she breathed in the musty air and felt the dankness seeping into her bones, Xena wondered if the worship of Ares had never been a big deal around here, or had never recovered after his too-widely known bout with mortality.
She stood with her back to the altar and leaned back on it, gripping the cold edges.
"Ares," she said.
She waited a couple of minutes and called out again, louder, "Ares, I need to see you."
Blue light flashed in a corner and Ares stepped out, casting a fastidious look around.
"You know, this is almost as bad as your old farmhouse," he said. "At least now I can fix it up a little."
He waved an arm. Instantly, the dust and debris were gone, the altar was draped in scarlet velvet with two silver goblets standing on it, the oil lamps and candles came to life, and the dank chill was gone from the air.
"I'm impressed," said Xena, looking unimpressed. "I had no idea you were so good at housekeeping."
"I'm glad I can still surprise you." The War God sauntered up to her and brushed her cheek with his knuckles, reaching over to pick up one of the goblets.
He froze for a moment and gave her a wary look.
"Your special warrior, Ares. The commander of your favored army. A man who orders his archers to shoot his own soldiers if they start to retreat."
Ares pressed his lips together, scowling, then took a sip of wine and swirled it in his mouth.
"And now," she continued, "he's going to behead three men because they ran under a surprise attack. Or maybe they didn't even run but some of their comrades did, so he's going to use them as an example."
"They're warriors, Xena. Warriors die."
"On the battlefield -- not on the chopping block like criminals ... like cattle." She put her hands on his shoulders, forcing him to look her in the face. "You've been mortal, Ares. You ever wondered what it's like, to wait for your execution? Suppose those warlords had gotten their hands on you back then." His eyes flickered; she was getting to him all right. "Knowing that if it's cloudy the next morning, you'll never see the sun come up again. Knowing that in a few hours you'll be on your knees, tied up like a hog, and the last thing you'll ever see in this world is your executioner's boots. Praying to the gods that his hand is steady and he does the job in one stroke -- "
He jerked his head. "What do you want me to do?"
"Curb your bloodhound," she said quietly and firmly, stepping back. "He's gone too far."
He lowered his eyes, then looked up again, having regained his chilly composure. He touched her chin with the tip of a finger.
"You're breaking the rules."
"When you don't like something I'm doing, you're supposed to stop me, Warrior Princess. Not ask me to stop."
"You want me to take on Alcibiades," she whispered. Suddenly, the suspicion was nagging at her, like an annoying buzz she couldn't shut out, making her head spin for a moment. "Is that what you're up to, Ares? You're setting me up to fight your best man?"
The slight mockery in his face gave way to a flash of annoyance, and then he stared at her heavily, pursing his lips.
"Xena. I swear, I'm not setting up anything. I just can't help you."
"You mean you won't," she said bitterly.
"I mean I can't," he snapped, his voice rising. "I gave Alcibiades my word. He likes doing things his own way, and I promised I would not interfere with his decisions -- as long as he keeps winning. The only thing I can do is replace him."
"With a challenger who beats him in single combat," Ares said, his eyes fixed on her. "And takes over his army."
He caught her mute stare and gripped her hands. "Xena, I won't lie to you. I would get a huge kick out of seeing you fight Alcibiades. But" -- he enunciated each word as if speaking in an unfamiliar language -- "I did not set this up."
She looked at him probingly. Once, it would have been just like him to engineer this kind of scheme, to lure into serving as his Warrior Queen by convincing her it was for a good cause. But maybe, even in the old days, he would not have lied to her quite so brazenly. And after everything that had happened between them ... Even that time when his games with the Amazons nearly cost her daughter's life, he made no attempt to use Eve's plight to manipulate her, Xena -- and somehow, she had instantly believed his assurances that he hadn't meant to get Eve involved. If she could take his word for it then, surely she could trust him now.
"All right," she said softly.
He sighed and drew her closer, his eyes half-veiled, his lips opening for the kiss.
"Not here, Ares." She gently extricated herself from his arms. "And not now. I need to get ready for the fight."
* ~ * ~ *
The tall woman warrior rode into Alcibiades' camp with the blazing sky as her orange and crimson backdrop, the gold of the dying sunlight glittering in her black hair. The soldiers who were outside, busily going about their tasks -- sharpening weapons, polishing armor, eating, cooking, cleaning pots and pans -- or killing time with songs, bawdy stories and gaming, dropped whatever they were doing and gaped at her. For much of the day, the camp had been abuzz with rumors that the Warrior Princess was in the area, and hushed murmurs of "Xena... Xena..." quickly made the rounds. More men scurried out of the tents to take a look at the woman on the golden mare who rode past them, seemingly oblivious to the stares and the whispers.
Invisible to mortal eyes, the God of War stood in the middle of the camp and watched, excitement surging to his throat. As always in her moments of glory, he felt intoxicating pride and admiration mixed with desire -- not slaked but magnified by the knowledge that every inch of skin under that leather and armor had been caressed by his hands and his mouth. But this time, it was different: In a few hours, Xena would be at the head of his army. That she might lose to Alcibiades barely entered his mind.
The irony of it. All the things he had done to make her join him as his Warrior Queen... He scowled slightly at the thought of those things, which gave him a very un-godlike queasy feeling -- dammit, he had been only doing his job! -- and forced it away. Anyway ... this time, he hadn't done anything to get her to take over his army, and here she was, about to do it of her own free will.
He wondered suddenly if that was true. No, he didn't lie to her when he told her he hadn't set it up. But maybe thoughts of Xena had lurked somewhere in his head when he gave Alcibiades his terms: the Macedonian could have his favor and his loyal troops and the freedom to act as he pleased -- as long as he agreed that at any time, Ares could order him to fight a challenger, and to cede leadership of his army if he was beaten. If not Xena, who?
Well, so what if he had vaguely considered it. Surely it was all for the best. She was about to fulfil her destiny, to become the warrior she was meant to be: not a warlord but a true leader, building a united force out of the scattered armies of Greece -- a force capable of standing up to and taking on the Romans. She herself agreed it was a worthwhile goal. (And she'd do it without hurting and killing any more people than she had to -- he might as well admit that it mattered to him now.) Everything was going to be all right. And the tiny knot of unease coiled somewhere inside his chest ... that was just another of those incomprehensible mortal emotions that didn't mean a thing.
Xena dismounted outside Alcibiades' tent, decorated in the crimson and gold colors of his army. Sensing Ares' presence, she flinched almost imperceptibly; he was tempted to reach over and touch her, but then decided that he shouldn't disrupt her focus. Just to watch was thrilling enough.
"I need to see Alcibiades," she said to the guard outside, turning her trademark steely gaze on him.
The man swallowed.
"M... my lord Alcibiades said he didn't want to be disturbed, ma'am."
"Well, that's just too bad," Xena said evenly. "I'm here to disturb him."
The guard cleared his throat, evidently trying to decide if he was more scared of his commander or of this lone woman in the midst of an army camp.
"And you are -- ?"
"Xena, the Warrior Princess."
The soldier fidgeted for a moment, then gingerly lifted the flap of the tent and said shakily, "M-m-my lord?"
Curious to see his protégé's reaction, Ares took himself inside the tent, whose interior seemed almost too luxurious for a warrior: plush Persian rugs, a mahogany table with an inlaid mother-of-pearl ornamental pattern that sparkled gently in the yellowish light of the oil lamps, bejeweled goblets and bowls. The sight of Alcibiades' latest war trophy on display -- Prusias' shield mounted on a pole, still spattered with dark dried blood -- was almost jarring in the midst of such soft opulence.
Alcibiades, reclining on a heap of pillows, lifted his eyes from the scroll in his hand; oddly, he looked as if the intrusion weren't entirely unexpected.
After a moment, he asked in a chilly voice, "Are you deaf or disobedient?"
"B-b-beg pardon, m'lord," stammered the soldier. "Xena, the Warrior Princess, wishes to see you."
Alcibiades' eyes flashed, and he sat up in a swift, alert motion; judging from his lack of surprise, he had heard that Xena was nearby. He cast a quick look about and picked up several more scrolls scattered in front of him. To Ares' mild astonishment, they turned out to be Gabrielle's tales of the Warrior Princess. Well, well, well -- Alcibiades was smart indeed, getting to know the enemy even before he could be sure that she was the enemy ... though, of course, he still had to go. The scrolls reminded Ares of the bard, and he wondered fleetingly how she had reacted to Xena's decision.
Alcibiades put the scrolls in a carved wooden box, then rose and put on his sword belt. Even without armor, he cut an imposing figure in his dark crimson leathers. He smoothed his blond wavy hair and stroked his beard, as if trying to think if there was anything else he needed to be ready for his visitor.
"Send her in!" he called out.
Xena entered the tent and stopped. For about a minute, she and Alcibiades stood silently, eyeing each other. Then, the Macedonian's thin lips curved into a half-smile.
"Xena of Amphipolis," he said, with a hint of a sneer in his voice. "The legendary Warrior Princess."
"Alcibiades of Macedonia," Xena replied, mimicking his tone. "Ares' favorite commander."
"You know," he said, scrutinizing her so brazenly that Ares felt like frying him on the spot, "it is an honor. One hears so many rumors about the Warrior Princess, one never quite knows what to believe. First, it was that you were dead ..."
"Then, it was that you killed the Olympian gods. " Her face remained inscrutable. "And that you were the mother of the infamous Livia, who -- "
"Are you planning to write my biography?" she asked in a suave voice.
Alcibiades glared at her, and then broke into a fake hearty laugh.
"Well, I see that one rumor was true: you are as good with words as you are with weapons. Which makes you interesting company." With a broad sweep of his hand, he indicated a bench. "Would you care to sit? Some wine, perhaps?"
"Thanks," she said. "I don't drink on the job."
"What's the job?" he asked.
She smiled enigmatically.
"Actually, it's your job I'm here to discuss."
After a pause, he said, "Go on."
"Tell me something, Alcibiades. You sentenced three men to die for running in yesterday's battle." She looked down. "I won't question your right to do that ... but are you sure they are guilty as charged?"
"You mean, did I have a scribe standing in the middle of a battlefield taking down the names of those who were running? No."
"And how did you happen to pick those particular three?"
"My senior men brought them in. That's all the evidence I need."
Xena steadily met his smug stare.
"Tell me, Alcibiades -- if you punish the guilty and innocent alike, how does that stop a soldier from running? Right now, he knows he could end up getting shortened by a few inches whether he does anything wrong or not."
"Maybe he'll make sure that the men next to him don't run," Alcibiades parried calmly. "Or don't stay on their feet very long if they do."
Xena shook her head, and at least for a moment sadness shadowed her eyes. "Don't you think that to be a truly great leader, you need to inspire loyalty as well as fear?"
"But I do inspire loyalty, Xena," Alcibiades said. "You see, the men who are sentenced to die aren't terribly popular with the others. One's a know-it-all and a show-off who's had a bit too much learning for a common soldier, another's a whiner, and the third's a smart-aleck who likes to do things his own way. Why do you think the other men pointed the finger at them? Because they can't stand them. You might say I'm following the will of the majority where it really counts."
Arms folded on his chest, he looked expectantly at Xena. Her face showed no emotion.
"About your job, Alcibiades..."
"What about it?"
"I know about your deal with Ares. You don't take orders from him, but he can replace you with a successful challenger."
"And you're the challenger." He nodded, unsurprised.
There was a brief silence. Then, Alcibiades said, "Tell me, Xena, is it true that years ago, Ares framed you for murder to force you to lead his army?" She lowered her eyes, her cheek twitching almost imperceptibly. "And that later, he had the Furies drive you mad and tried to make you kill your own mother, all to get you to join him?"
Ares felt torn between the desire to rip Alcibiades' head from his shoulders and a grudging admiration for his cleverness.
"And now," Alcibiades continued, smirking, "you want to fight me and take over the army of Ares ... because you care so much about three soon-to-be-dead losers you've never met?"
"I'm curious, Alcibiades. Is it part of your deal with Ares that the challenger must give you a full accounting of the reasons for her challenge?"
"Certainly not. I merely wanted to point out that you may be walking straight into Ares' trap."
"I've walked straight out of his traps before," she replied with a small catlike smile, and Ares knew it was for his benefit. "But I do appreciate your concern."
"Very well, then." Alcibiades straightened out his shoulders, throwing his head back a little and jutting out his chin. "I can't say I'm not looking forward to some action with the Warrior Princess." (This time, Ares was barely able to keep from making an appearance and knocking the leer off his face.) "So, when and where is our date? Here at the camp? Shall we put on a good show for my men?"
Xena looked at him thoughtfully.
"Do any of your officers know of your agreement with Ares?"
"Only my second-in-command, Phaleron. Warrior priest to the God of War."
"He'll be our witness, then," Xena said. "About two miles east of here, over the hills, there are three great oaks by the riverside. I'll see you there at sunrise tomorrow."
* ~ * ~ *
The clouds covering the sky were turning from black to a soft grey, but there wasn't enough daylight to even peek through the tiny window in the room at the inn, weakly lit by a sputtering oil lamp. Xena sat on the bed, unhurriedly putting on her boots and then her gauntlets. Her face was perfectly emotionless; of course, she knew he was there, and she knew that he knew it -- but she was not going to acknowledge it just as he was not going to make himself visible, no matter how much he longed to kiss her, to run his fingers through her hair. Ares wanted to tell her how proud she made him, but something about that felt wrong. He thought of telling her, again, that he hadn't set this up and that she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do; but that would have been protesting too much. Eventually, he gave up on trying to make sense of the emotions bustling inside him, and just watched her.
The door squeaked open and a rather haggard-looking Gabrielle shuffled in, wearing a nightshirt and carrying a steaming mug that gave off the sweet scent of apple cider. With a wan smile, she handed the mug to Xena; the Warrior Princess took it, giving her companion's hand a light squeeze, and the corner of her mouth curled up as she almost smiled back.
Xena drank her cider in long gulps, occasionally pausing for breath, and put the mug down.
"I'm ready, Gabrielle."
She picked up her sword, slowly ran a finger along its newly-sharpened edge, and put it away in the scabbard as she rose from the bed.
"Please let me come along," Gabrielle said.
"No." Xena shook her head. "I challenged him. You know I have to do this one on my own."
With a sigh, Gabrielle helped buckle her armor, and then the two women stood looking at each other, one face drawn and anxious, the other dangerously calm. They embraced rather stiffly, Xena stooping at an awkward angle, her cheek resting against Gabrielle's for a few brief moments.
"Good luck," Gabrielle said in a stifled voice.
Xena ran a hand over her short hair.
"You'll be okay -- right?"
The Amazon bard nodded.
"I know you'll always do the right thing, Xena." The look in her eyes said that she wasn't so sure, even as she smiled bravely.
Xena turned around and walked out of the room.
* ~ * ~ *
When the Warrior Princess arrived at the three oaks, Alcibiades and Phaleron -- a tall, dark-haired man with a curly goatee who would have looked imposing next to almost anyone else but Alcibiades -- were already waiting for her under the bloated gray sky.
"Xena," Alcibiades drawled suavely, in a tone that managed to be transparently insulting while remaining overtly polite, even reverent. "It is good to see you again so soon."
"The pleasure's all mine."
"An honor to meet you, Xena," Phaleron said coldly but respectfully, with a slight bow of the head. She turned to him.
"You must be Phaleron."
"I am Phaleron, yes."
"Warrior priest to Ares."
"It is my honor to serve the God of War," he said, his impassive eyes flickering for a moment.
"And you know of the agreement between Alcibiades and Ares. A warrior, with Ares' approval, can issue a challenge to Alcibiades. If the challenger wins, Alcibiades relinquishes command of his army."
"I know the terms. As second-in-command to Alcibiades and priest to Ares, I am here to witness the contest."
The air under the oaks shimmered, and there was a whooshing sound that all three warriors knew well.
"I'll witness it myself," Ares said.
Dismounting hastily, Phaleron knelt before him.
"My Lord Ares -- "
"Get up, get up -- we can dispense with the formalities." Ares waved brusquely, and Phaleron rose to his feet. "Before we get started, let me make one thing clear. This is a fight to the victory, not to the death. Got that?"
Xena looked down, unable to suppress a smile, while Alcibiades stared at his patron god with an impudent sparkle in his pale grey eyes.
"Ares, I am touched by your concern for my welfare. Assuming, of course, that it's my welfare you're concerned about."
Phaleron shot him a rather nasty look.
"I'm not in the habit of letting great warriors die a pointless death," Ares said evenly. "Now, let's get this show on the road."
The contestants dismounted and took their positions.
The murmur of the oak leaves died down for a moment, as if the wind itself were holding its breath.
The clash of swords exploded even before the word had left Ares' lips.
The Warrior Princess and the leader of Ares' army were well-matched; what advantage he had in size and muscle was offset by her speed and agility. After a few minutes, when both were already bleeding from nicks on the arms, Alcibiades delivered a powerful kick that made Xena stagger; a second kick sent her flying, and she landed flat on her back. He leaped toward her, ready to strike or to hold her at the point of his sword -- but just as he reached her, she rolled over and sprang to her feet, in time to parry his blow.
Alcibiades snarled in frustration, swinging at Xena again. This moment of blind rage was enough to give her an opening. A shrill, ululating "A-yi-yi-yi-yi" sliced through the air, startling her opponent enough to keep him from collecting himself. She spun around and kicked, knocking the sword out of his hand and up into the air, then leaped high to catch it and flung it so far that he had no chance of retrieving it without going through her first. Alcibiades snatched a long dagger from his belt, but as Xena advanced on him, all he could do was avoid the weave of her sword -- until his back was up against one of the oaks, the tip of her blade pointed at his throat.
"I don't think you want to do anything with that little weapon of yours, Alcibiades," she said, her voice twinkling with mockery. Breathing hard, the Macedonian looked back and forth from her to Ares, and then let the dagger fall. "Good boy. Now, I think this is your cue to give up."
Alcibiades glowered at her, biting his lip, and finally lowered his eyes. Then, his hands jerked upward toward Xena's sword -- but before he could grab it, his legs were kicked out from under him and he went down hard, even as a blow to the head with the flat side of her blade nearly knocked him out. He sprawled on the ground blinking dizzily, the point of the sword at his neck once again.
Ares clapped his hands. He remained outwardly dispassionate, with only a faint flicker of emotion -- pride and adoration and perhaps a shadow of uncertainty -- crossing his face.
"Phaleron," he said. "Salute your new leader."
The warrior priest dropped to one knee and pressed a hand to his chest.
"Xena of Amphipolis, I shall be proud to serve under your command."
"Good for you." Xena took a deep breath as she sheathed her sword. For a moment, her eyes met Ares'; then she looked back to Phaleron, who had risen to his feet. "Are you ready to take some orders now?"
"Yes, my lady." He wasn't quite able to hide his surprise.
"Very well, then. The three men who are sentenced to die at noon today are pardoned. When you return to the camp, you are to release them, give them whatever pay they are owed, and let them go home."
"Yes, my lady. Anything else?"
"From now on, no peaceful villagers or townsmen will be forcibly recruited into this army. Back at camp, you will put that down on a parchment and seal it." She gestured toward the silver ring on Phaleron's hand bearing Ares' emblem, a skull and a sword. "And keep the wording simple."
"Yes, my lady."
"And one more thing."
"After you've carried out those orders, I give command of this army back to Alcibiades of Macedonia."
Both Phaleron and Alcibiades, who was sitting up by now, gasped audibly. Ares gaped at Xena, his mouth hanging open in a manner most unbecoming a god. She turned to him.
"This is within my rights, isn't it?"
"Yes, I -- I suppose so," he said, shaking his head. "Yes, it is. But -- "
"Then I think that will be all."
Ignoring the stunned stares that followed her, she went to untie her horse and got in the saddle.
"A pleasure meeting you, Phaleron," she said. "Oh, and Alcibiades?" She squinted at her defeated adversary, smirking a little. "You'd better behave yourself, or I just might rescind that last order."
* ~ * ~ *
On the road back to town, Argo stopped abruptly and reared up, and Ares flared into visibility a second later.
"You are something else," he said.
She gave him a smile -- a little smug but also sensuous and dreamy, ultimately intended more for her lover than for the God of War.
"I'm glad I can still surprise you."
"Always." He paused, stroking her thigh. "But you know, Alcibiades could have some nasty surprises in store for you. How can you be so sure that you've won?"
"Maybe I can't be," she said, suddenly serious. "But I won't lead your army unless I have no other choice, Ares. Right now, I still had a choice."
"So after all this time, you still feel you have to trick me."
She darted a quick look at him, sensing the bitterness underneath the playful tone.
"If I had told you what I planned to do, would you have gone along with it?"
Ares eyeballed her silently, then shrugged.
"I don't know."
"Well, there you go," she said softly, putting her hand on top on his.
In the next moment, he was in the saddle behind Xena, his arms wrapped around her. Argo whinnied nervously.
"So," he murmured huskily into her ear, "shall we go somewhere to celebrate your victory? Unless you're in the mood for some horseplay right here."
She laughed, almost instinctively leaning into him.
"Not now, Ares." She shivered as his fingertips brushed her neck.
"What's the matter?" He kissed her shoulder, nipping a little at the skin. "Feel like teasing me out of my mind?"
"Umm -- not really." Xena forced herself to open her eyes. "I just need to get back to the inn ... Gabrielle is waiting for me."
"Is she worried?" Ares asked in the same low, sensuous voice, still holding her close.
"You tell me."
"You mean -- worried that I might lose to Alcibiades?"
"No." He took her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. "That you might lose to yourself. To the part of you that loved it when you were in command, even for a few moments. The part of you that didn't want those moments to end."
His soft whisper suddenly seemed to be everywhere, filling the air, enveloping her; she didn't know if he was using his powers to make it seem that way, or her own mind was playing tricks on her. With an effort, she pushed off and turned around to face him, an angry glitter in her eyes.
"What are you trying to do?"
"Me? Nothing." He smiled, brushing a strand of hair away from her face. "Just explaining why Gabrielle might be worried."
"She has nothing to worry about," Xena said firmly. "Now, get off my horse."
"What, not even a kiss?"
He gave her a mock wounded look that made her laugh in spite of herself. She leaned toward him and kissed him hard on the mouth, only to pull away almost immediately.
"Go on," she said. Then, when there was nothing left of his presence but a few wisps of blue smoke, she added, "Pick me up at the inn at noon."
When Xena got back to town, the damp grey heaviness of the air had turned to a small drizzle. Riding up to the inn along the muddy street, she spotted Gabrielle sitting on a bench outside, hunched over a scroll in which she was writing. After a few moments, the bard looked up and craned her neck, apparently not for the first time. Seeing Xena, she bolted to her feet. The look on her face was one of joy and, unmistakably, of relief.
* ~ * ~ *
"Are you going to concede that I've won?"
There was a touch of lazy amusement in Ares' voice.
"Come on, Xena, give it up. You have nowhere to go."
"Oh, I'm -- still pondering a couple of options."
"Stubborn as ever."
"You'd expect nothing less," she said, looking up with smile.
Ares cocked an eye at her.
"Are you sure we're talking about the same thing? This is just a game."
"Isn't everything -- to you?"
"Ow." He leaned back, laughing. "A definite hit."
Xena chuckled and went back to staring at the ivory figurines on the checkered board.
Nearly two months after her fight with Alcibiades, things were back to what passed for normal. She and Gabrielle were still on the road; she and Ares were still having their interludes, though he had largely steered clear of Gabrielle ever since the battle against Bellerophon. Alcibiades, who had kept a low profile for a few weeks following his defeat at the hands of the Warrior Princess, was on the move again; but one no longer heard stories of peasants or artisans being dragged from their homes and threatened with death or slavery unless they joined his troops. Yet somewhere in the back of Xena's mind lodged the suspicion, if not the certainty, that the drama between her and Alcibiades was far from over -- that this was only an intermission, and that along with her, both Ares and Gabrielle were waiting a bit tensely for the next act.
For the moment, at least, things seemed fairly relaxed. She and Ares were spending the evening in his latest idea of a romantic spot -- in the mountains, amidst rocks that gleamed white in the moonlight almost like marble statues of strangely shaped creatures. For extra light, Ares had conjured up a glowing sphere that floated in the air, giving this rock garden even more of a fantastic look.
After a few more minutes, Xena was forced to admit defeat. Ares waved away the game pieces and flicked a finger at the ball of fire, making it dissolve in a burst of orange sparks. Xena lay back on the fur spread and stretched, idly wondering if she wanted to sleep or to make love to Ares again. He put a hand on her stomach and she closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of his touch through her leather tunic. She waited for his hand to move either higher or lower, but he let it rest where it was. Finally, she lifted an eyelid -- and saw something in his face that instantly made her alert.
She sat up.
"What is it, Ares?"
He bit his lower lip and looked away.
"I have some news for you."
"What kind of news?"
So this was it.
"Spit it out," she said. "What's the bastard done now?" Whatever it was, the guilt would be hers to bear because she had the power to stop him, and did not...
"Nothing yet. But he's gearing up to attack your Amazon friends."
He spoke quietly, but the words reverberated in her head like a scream.
"You mean, Varia's tribe." Her own voices sounded like a stranger's.
"They don't have a chance... not after the battle against Bellerophon." He said nothing, still avoiding her eyes, and then she whispered, "Why?"
Ares shrugged. "The goal is the same as always, Xena. Build up the strongest united army there can be in Greece, and lead it against Rome. He wants the Amazons fighting under his banners. If they won't join him, he'll destroy them." He finally glanced at her. "If you're thinking about your no-forced-recruitment clause, forget it. It only applies to your precious peasants, not warriors."
"I know that," she said tersely, back in control by now.
They sat in silence for a while, the white rocks their mute witnesses. As much as Xena cared about the Amazons, she knew that wasn't why it hurt so inside her chest. Gabrielle would hear about this, and with her sense of duty to her nation, she would inevitably get involved. And it's killing you inside...
"What are his plans?" she asked, businesslike.
"His army is camped near Abdera, waiting for word back from the Amazon council on his offer. His messengers should get back in two days with the answer."
"And the answer is no, of course."
"Right. And as you know, Alcibiades doesn't take no for an answer."
"So once the messengers get back, he starts moving."
She turned to him, her face as chilly as the pale moon overhead.
"Tell me, Ares -- since I've challenged Alcibiades and won, do I have the right to take over his army any time I want?"
He gave her an odd look, as if he didn't quite know whether to be gleeful or sympathetic.
"You do, as far as I'm concerned," he said finally. "Alcibiades, on the other hand, might not agree. Of course, if he makes any trouble for you, I could -- "
"No." She rose abruptly to her feet. "Don't do me any favors, Ares. Just take me back to camp. If I leave tomorrow morning, I'll have time to catch up with him outside Abdera."
"You could stay with me until morning." He looked up at her, his eyes almost pleading.
Xena shook her head.
"Give me a little time, Ares," she said bitterly. "A girl needs to get used to the idea of living as your Warrior Queen."
Ares pursed his lips and stared at her; for a moment, he seemed about to say something. Then he came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, and took them into the dizzying swirl of air and light that was nothing new to her by now. When the ground was solid under her feet again, he took her hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it, and vanished without another word.
Shaking herself to get rid of the effect of his presence, Xena looked to where Gabrielle was asleep in her bedroll. The fire had nearly burned out but its remnants cast a reddish glow on her still form, somehow making her look very young and fragile, almost like a girl lost in the woods.
Everything would be okay, she told herself. She wasn't really joining Ares as his Warrior Queen. She would simply take over Alcibiades' army and lead it against the Romans, and that would be it -- just one campaign. Maybe Ares had a point back when he told her that some day, he could be on the side of something she wanted to fight for. In a year at the most, it would be over, and she would resign her command. The Amazons would be all right ... and so would Gabrielle.
She went over to where she had tied up Argo, got her bedroll and began to spread it near the dying fire. Despite her efforts to be quiet, Gabrielle stirred and muttered sleepily, "Xena... ? You're back....?"
"Yeah." She managed to keep her voice steady. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."