My power depends on my glory,
and my glory on my victories.
Dawn broke over the forest, throwing a lacework of pale light over scenes of an army preparing to move out. Sounds of metal and wood and disembodied voices in the dark gained form, becoming visible: spoons clinking against mess tins, the heavy clatter of spears, the terse words of Amazons as they armed themselves.
Gabrielle wandered between tents and suspended hammocks among the trees: a smile here, a word of encouragement there, until her face ached from the effort. She was their queen, supposedly rallying them for the battles ahead. In truth, she wished only that she could stall some more. Perhaps there would be word from Xena, saying that she'd managed to convince Livia and the Romans to pull back. But Xena thought she had plenty of time. She was not counting on the Amazons' advance, and Gabrielle knew could not hold them back any longer.
She halted in front of a cache of spears. Two women from a Northern tribe, dressed in the traditional fringed garb, began to dismantle it as she watched. They handed out the weapons one by one to a line of Amazons snaking past. Gabrielle clamped her jaw shut, stifling the impulse to shout at them to stop, to wait. What good would it do? The cache continued to shrink. Each Amazon in turn took her spear, raising it once in a curt salute before walking away, every movement radiating excitement and resolve. They would not wait another day. Gabrielle knew she had delayed the march as long as she could; if she showed any more reluctance, the Council would simply transfer her command to another queen. No, they marched today.
Panic rose in a thin wave in her chest as the last row of the spears was handed out. Desperately, Gabrielle tried to think through it. She had to warn Xena. Before it was too late, she had to warn her. Only there could be no question of sending a message to Rome's army. The Council of Queens would think it treason on her part, not to mention utter stupidity. They'd lose the advantage of a surprise attack. She could imagine their voices now, telling her that her first responsibility as their leader was to her nation, not to Xena. There could be no message.
But there had to be a message!
Gabrielle stilled, thinking. Wait a minute. Wasn't she Jana, sent to the Amazon lands to find Semra's missing baby? A baby she wasn't meant to find, but that had been part of the now-obsolete plan... It could work. Gabrielle's shoulders sagged in relief, and she smiled so brightly that the last Amazon to pick up her spear gave her a surprised look. A little embarrassed, Gabrielle sobered and turned away, but the grin returned unbidden when she spotted Varia coming towards her, looking very pleased. The Amazon wore the same lightweight leather for the march as Gabrielle did, and a sword across her back. Her face, too, was painted in the same way; two diagonal slashes of red on each cheekbone and a line between the brows, a warrior's marks. She returned Gabrielle's greeting, clasping her arm, and beamed. "You were right about taking the extra time to train them." She nodded at the activity all around, "It's already paying off. We're moving fast, even in this terrain."
"We are." Gabrielle's anxiety returned, her smile slipping away. What little 'extra time' her stalling had bought was dwindling quickly, swallowed by the speed of their advance.
"I'd thought you were stalling, you know," Varia said apologetically. "I thought you just didn't have what it takes. I'm sorry I doubted you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle struggled to keep her expression neutral. "Thanks; I appreciate that." She would never have thought that Varia's admiration would be more difficult to handle than her previous mistrust. And here she was, about to betray this faith that Varia and the others had placed in her.
That, or betray Xena.
"Get them moving," she said to Varia, "I'll be right back."
When Varia had disappeared in the direction of the command tent, Gabrielle wandered a little further into the forest, until the sounds of the camp receded into the distance. She could write her message here, if she was quick... and if she had thought to take some parchment and ink. She cursed and began to look around.
There! A branch overhead had snapped at one point; after a few tries, Gabrielle managed to peel off a reasonably sized piece of bark. Squatting to pick up a small sharp-edged stone, she scratched a few words on the inside of the bark, paused to read them over, then added several more before rising to her feet.
There was no one within earshot, but Gabrielle kept her voice low, just in case. "Ares!"
Her throat was dry, but her palms were moist and cold. She fidgeted nervously, rolling and unrolling the message, unsure which possibility she dreaded more: Ares appearing, or leaving her to wonder if he'd heard.
Nothing happened, so Gabrielle raised her voice, "Ares, I need to talk to you!!"
A quick blue-silver flash left him standing in front of her, looking irritated. Gabrielle let out a small sigh of relief. Ares crossed his arms, "Looks like we need to talk about expectations. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not the Genie of the Lamp."
"We had an agreement."
"Exactly, had. Past tense. Obligations discharged, finished."
"Not quite." Swallowing her nervousness, Gabrielle held Ares' dark gaze. "You were meant to help Jana look for Semra's baby. Well," she held out the message. "Jana just found her. And she wants to tell Semra."
She knew by the flicker of surprise in Ares' face that she had him. He'd do it! Gabrielle could not restrain a little smirk, ridiculously pleased that she'd managed to outmanipulate the God of War. She pushed the message towards him.
Ares heaved a long-suffering sigh, and took it. He eyed the bark sceptically, "Still taking it out on the trees, I see."
Gabrielle flushed. "It was all I had." Then, before she could lose her nerve, she asked the question that had been gnawing at her for weeks: "How's Xena?"
Ares gave her an odd look, and Gabrielle almost thought he'd answer, but then he said, mockingly "How do you think she is?" and before she could think of what to say to that, he'd disappeared.
"Ugh." Gabrielle almost kicked the tree in frustration, then thought better of it.
How did she think Xena was? Fighting for Rome, playing some ridiculous role, trying to save her daughter... alone. And now this. Gabrielle winced at the familiar feeling in her gut guilt. Great. She supposed that was Ares' revenge for her manipulation. Could she really trust him? He was, after all, the God of War. Yet seeing him hadn't made her think of war at all. For some reason, it made her think of Eve. Something in Ares' eyes had been like a quick glimpse of that lost time before the ice, when she had caught him singing to his daughter...
Gabrielle sighed. Perhaps even the God of War could have some loyalty.
* * *
Ares slumped into his throne, the piece of bark still in his hand, and glared at the assorted weaponry on the walls, then at the torches. Most of them roared into flames. Their red-gold tongues crackled nervously, coughing up sparks that floated up, winking out before they could reach the distant ceiling.
Ares tightened his fist around the message. Damn the blonde! Why did she always get in the way? The God of War was not supposed to have loyalties. Sticking to one side in battle was a waste. Battles were by their nature unpredictable things, and the most unlikely of commanders could suddenly show potential and rally against the odds. Who cared what side they were on, when he could exalt in their victory? He wasn't Athena, who for all her wisdom could hardly ever find a 'righteous cause' to back, and so spent most of her time weaving. Athena missed the point. Righteous causes didn't win wars, battles did, and having loyalties meant interfering with battles. He wasn't in the habit of doing that. It would be like cheating in a game against himself. Oh, he could load the dice, give a warrior a fighting chance, but to personally decide the outcome of a battle? Where was the fun in that?
The blonde just didn't get it. Xena did; Xena wasn't expecting him to interfere. Their arrangement was fair: Gabrielle had had her chance to stop the Amazons. The rest of their deal had nothing to do with Gabrielle, but would that ever stop her? Ares scowled at the thought. Not a chance. No, she was just going to shove messages into his hands like he was her personal post-box!
He looked up from the message, to the massive doors in the wall opposite. This was the main chamber of the Halls of War: no castle or palace, but a labyrinth of vast caverns hollowed out from an ordinary-looking mountain in Thrace. The thick stone walls were faced with the blackest marble, veined thinly with red as though oozing slow trickles of blood, and even with all the torches burning, the chamber was still half-dark. The torchlight added gleaming patches of red to the statues and weaponry on the walls. Heavy red drapes moved lazily in the stiff air, but so deep inside the mountain they hid no windows. Those enormous doors, too, were little more than decoration; they opened to a dark corridor that stopped abruptly at a rockpile. Years ago there had been an exit, through a narrow cave concealed between cliffs dropping down into the foaming sea. Now it was a shambles of tumbled rocks overgrown with scraggly saltbush, and Ares had no interest in fixing it up. No mortal would find him here, and these days, no god would dare to look. The Halls of War were far more to his taste than the airy whiteness of Olympus. More private, too.
He held out the message. The bark was rough; he unrolled it carefully, without quite knowing why he bothered, and stared at the scribbles. Reading this was pointless; despite the bard's elevated opinion of her own cleverness, he had a good idea of what it would say. He read it anyway.
Ares rolled his eyes. Even leading an army the size of several lesser-known nations had not dampened Gabrielle's enthusiasm for flowery prose.
Know that your daughter's fate rests with the council of my peers, who are united in their anger, and seek to destroy her.
Unless she destroys them first, Ares thought. He tossed the message over his shoulder in the general direction of the fireplace. That, too, was pointless, because even before he heard the bark hit the stone floor, he knew that he wouldn't burn it.
The trouble was that Gabrielle turned out to be surprisingly good at the warrior thing. When she had taken over the Amazon command, he'd thought that she would make a few strategic blunders, wring her hands, then leave the world domination to professionals. Then, while the Amazons squabbled over their leadership issues, Xena could have carried on with her grand plan and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, Gabrielle had formed her army, wooed the Council, tamed Varia, and even sweet-talked the Centaurs into an alliance. In fact, she was looking more and more like a real Amazon queen every day. One of the ancient ones, the ones who could actually win a war without Xena's help. And what a war!
Ares felt a hunger shudder through him; he shut his eyes. The Amazon warriors against Rome. The greatest war in centuries, maybe even in history! He could almost taste it: the metal heat of blazing armour, tide after tide of it; the harsh guttural screams of battle "Charge!"; the scorched earth; the feral brightness in their eyes as they called on his name. And Xena, riding into the fray, wild and unstoppable at his side, dealing destruction like the best of sacrifices, offering it to him with the same fierce abandon he knew in return. Xena, sharing his kills and letting him share hers, burning his whole being with the power of their union until he was the one screaming her name Xena!
Ares jammed his head back against the throne and exhaled a cynical smoke ring, complete with the curved bit in the centre. The hazy chakram didn't last long. Xena, Xena, Xena. That was the problem with this picture. It wasn't Xena. Ares drummed his fingers on the carved armrests. It was all very well to think of her riding with him into battle, fray, abandon, and all the rest of it but right now, there was a piece of bark two paces behind him that said he was going to put a stop to this war. He could say good-bye to it the moment Xena laid eyes on that message.
Unless she didn't.
Thoughtfully, Ares waved a hand in front of him. A circlet of blue lightning crackled into the air before his eyes, at first only as big as the palm of his hand, then spreading outwards, growing like a slick of oil on the surface of a black pond. When it was near as large as the span of his arms, it rippled, turning hazy, then slowly filled with an image.
Xena and Livia were riding side by side, following the first cohort of troops out of the tall wide gates of Dyrrachium. Morning sunlight glinted off helmets and shields as the legions marched out of the city, eagle-topped standards flapping brightly in the wind. Xena was in her gaudy Roman armour, naturally, just as Livia was. Even their horses matched. Ares felt a jolt of acute discomfort at the comparison. Oh, there could be no doubt that they were magnificent, easily eclipsing the glittering sea of steel around them. But... together like this even if both had their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, staring straight ahead together, they were no longer quite Xena and Livia. They were a team.
Quite deliberately, Ares focused on Xena, edging Livia out of the picture for the moment. It made Xena appear closer. Her hair whipped out from under the helmet in long strands. She turned her head abruptly and looked directly at him. Ares' heart skipped a beat. Xena's eyes narrowed, almost hiding their blue. Before he could stop himself, Ares reached out and touched her cheek. Lightning sizzled across the portal, and to his astonishment, Xena blinked and recoiled. It took a moment to realise that she had merely heard Livia call her.
Ares leaned back, watching them talk. He felt curiously remote from it, and it wasn't just the second-hand view. He even made mental notes: Livia's studied nonchalance, carefully denying all connection with barbarian lullabies and the shattered wine pitcher back in the villa; the warmth in Xena's eyes as she said something that made Livia laugh and shake her head.
Why did she never look at him that way? They had been so close for those few moments in Dyrrachium, sitting by their daughter's side. Her voice had called to him, only to him; Ares felt a painful tug of longing at the memory but then she had glanced at Livia and drawn back from him, as if it was all his fault.
There was Gabrielle's message, Ares remembered with rising irritation. His mind painted a picture more vivid than the portal before him: Xena taking it from his hands with scarcely a look in his direction, exchanging a few quiet words with Livia, casting worried looks towards the distant Amazon forests... And finding some way to call off this war without so much as a thankyou.
He was the God of War, for Fates' sakes! He would not be reduced to the role of a carrier pigeon!
Ares pulled back his arm and shot a burst of fire right through the portal. It sizzled bright-red across the room, melted a shield into a bubbling mess, bounded off the wall behind it and screamed back, past his face. He didn't flinch when it impacted behind his throne. There was a hiss, and a satisfying crackle of wood in fire. In front of him, the breach in the portal wavered and healed closed, with a noise like the swish of a blade sliding into a scabbard.
The view changed. Ares could see the Amazon army, too far below to distinguish faces, advancing west. Then the Roman army, marching east in a column of dust. He hadn't done this in too long, he thought, seating himself more comfortably in the throne. This was, after all, his job. The faint scent of burnt bark reached him; Ares flared his nostrils slightly, wincing, and caught himself wondering if he could put the stupid missive back together. Hastily, he squashed the thought. Anyone who needed his help didn't deserve it. Not even Xena.
Xena knew the rules.
The advance continued. The Romans moved with solid, lumbering inevitability that disguised their swiftness. Towards them, so far that they were visible only to the God of War, came the wildly undulating lines of the Amazons. The Amazons didn't so much march as melt into the landscape; with thrilling speed, they disappeared in valleys and poured over hills, while the Romans marched on heavily, closer and closer, and closer again.
The sight was mesmerising.
Ares was vaguely aware of the passage of time, human time, with nights and days. Darkness came and the armies became constellations of firelight in the wide expanse of land, until daylight brought the colours back and the movement resumed. A perfect thing to watch, two great rivers rushing to meet in a violent burst of power. It was exhilarating. Ares let it flow through him, drinking it in thirstily, anxious that it could end before he'd had his fill.
The anticipation of the conflict itself became almost unbearable; days no longer passed quickly but stretched into long hours, and yet the God of War knew that the armies had not slowed their advance. He urged them on anyway. Sometimes odd thoughts intruded into his watching, images of faces that were vaguely disquieting. The Roman general, oblivious to something important. A dark-haired woman, beautiful but always frowning, troubled. A blonde Amazon, biting her nails anxiously as she stared at the horizon. Ares had the oddest sense that they were all waiting for him.
A message. The Amazon had wanted him to deliver it. She had no comprehension of the power she was dealing with, no sense of the greatness of the river which she led. She was blind, but he he could see everything, laid out perfectly in the palm of his hand, there for him to crush, or to set free. The power of it made him giddy.
The message. A ploy to distract him; he knew all about it and dismissed it with ease. The God of War didn't lose focus that easily. The message was supposed to stop this war. How could anyone stop it? It was a force of nature, he wasn't directing it or causing it, but he was enjoying it. The Romans the Amazons the Romans again, and soon, very soon, they would collide and the rush of power he would feel would sweep away all the troubling faces, the Roman girl, and the Amazon, and...
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