"Do you see that? Do you see what's happening?" Artemis said angrily. Athena glanced at the scrying bowl but said nothing. "Look Ath, look at what's happening to my Amazons. They're going to kill Xena. You know she won't go down without a fight. Dozens of my children will die. Are you happy now?"
"Artemis, please calm down. No one will be killed. Xena will fulfill her duties and protect Gabrielle. Look, already they've been intimate. Surely you can't think that she'd-"
"What? That she wouldn't sell Gabrielle out for money? For power? You haven't been paying attention. She's not loving my child, she's using her to gain control of the Amazons. Can you imagine the pain Gabrielle is in? You don't hear her, Athena. You don't hear her begging me, pleading with me to help her get her Xena back. It tears me apart to stand aside and let this continue." the Moon Goddess stormed over to the table and slammed her fist down again on the model of her sister's beloved Athens, which now looked more like a pile of rubble than Greece's most prosperous city. "Whatever you were thinking has failed, Athena. Please, lift this spell. Give Gabrielle back to my Amazons where she'll be safe. I don't care what happens with Xena anymore."
"Artemis, if we do that than Ares has won and all of Greece is lost. Do you think that he won't send Xena and her army after the Amazons? This isn't just about Athens or even one mortal. He wants war. He wants to destroy all that we love and cherish in the name of his own personal pleasure."
"I don't care! I'll protect my Amazons."
"Like you have so far? Artemis, your Amazons are scattered throughout Greece. Small villages that barely survive, many of them don't even live in their villages anymore. Your once proud and strong women are now just small groups living off the land. You couldn't stop that from happening any more than you can stop Ares from one day destroying all of your children with his forces if he gets Xena back. The only way to keep that from happening is to keep her from returning to him. Gabrielle is the key to that. Please, you must be patient."
Artemis leaned against the table and sighed. "I hate this, Athena. I hate this more than you know."
Convinced that she had the queen under her control, Xena continued to formulate her plan to control the Amazon warriors and turn them into her own personal army. She questioned Gabrielle endlessly about the strength of her force, their loyalty to her, any special skills that they possessed. Gabrielle used her bardic skills to provide just the right lies to make the warlord believe her. After two days of questions mixed with carnal pleasures, Xena was certain that she not only could take control of the army with little to no problems, but that she also had complete control over their queen. Gabrielle made no attempt to refuse her advances. The warlord suspected that the smaller woman was falling in love with her, especially after one particularly passionate session. Spent beyond anything she ever remembered, Xena was almost asleep and swore she heard the young woman whisper that she loved her. She opened her eyes but Gabrielle had rolled over and the warlord decided not to pursue it. Now in the darkness of night, Xena stared up at the ceiling and thought about her own feelings toward the young queen. Gabrielle was supposed to be just another pawn in her quest for control. Yet Xena felt the young woman slipping past her defenses. Already she found herself wanting to learn more about Gabrielle, she found herself being more gentle with her sexually and touching her more often. Perhaps it was possible to have her as a true lover. Certainly it didn't seem to bother Gabrielle that she was a warlord. Even the fact that she was still being held hostage didn't seem to matter to the young woman. She made no mention of the ransom except to say that she was queen and the Amazons would do as she commanded and believe whatever she said. Gabrielle had even worked out a story that she swore would be accepted. The two Amazons that Xena had battled in the tavern were traitors attempting to assassinate her and they made up the story of the ransom in order to protect themselves. By the time Gabrielle had finished explaining her story to Xena, the warlord was convinced that it would be believed and everything would work out the way she planned. The bard even suggested that they go to the village early to further support her story instead of showing up on the day the ransom was due. In actuality, Gabrielle feared that the Amazons would have something planned and hoped that by showing up a day early that they would be able to avoid any confrontation before she had a chance to speak to Ephiny.
Xena insisted that Gabrielle ride in front, partially so she could keep an eye on her in case it was a trap and partially so she could run her hands up and down the queen's thigh whenever she pleased. The warlord was still amazed at how strong her desire for the young woman ran. The way Gabrielle looked at the height of her passion was something that Xena never tired of seeing. And the way the queen made her feel...well that was something special in itself. It was as if Gabrielle put every ounce of her being into giving her pleasure and Xena's body responded time and time again. Gabrielle's breeches had been left behind on the first day, something that the warlord was now glad about since it gave her the freedom to explore without barriers.
The trail they were on ran above and parallel to the main road, affording Xena a clear view yet still allowing them to remain unseen. The warlord's hands were busy under Gabrielle's skirt when they approached the edge of a ridge. Without warning, Xena removed her hands from their warm, wet playground and reached for the reins with one hand to stop Argo and used the other to cover Gabrielle's mouth. "Don't make a sound." she whispered into the bard's ear. As quietly as possible, Xena slipped down and helped Gabrielle to the ground. Together they looked over the ridge to see what had triggered the warlord's senses. On the road below them, a wagon containing a half-dozen young women was being led by three scruffy looking men with four heavily armed men on horseback following. Xena motioned for Gabrielle to move back away from the edge. "Slavers." she said quietly. The bard nodded in agreement and the memory of her Xena rescuing her from a similar fate so long ago filled her mind.
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle whispered, assuming that Xena would intervene.
"They haven't seen us yet. We can wait until they've passed." she replied, her concern at the moment getting to the Amazon village.
"Xena, you can't just leave those girls without any help. You're all that stands between them and a life of slavery. Please, you have to do something." she pleaded. Xena looked from her to the wagon and then at the ground. She had purchased slaves from time to time herself. She was always fair to them and eventually all of them earned her freedom from her. All of them, of course, except for those that betrayed her trust. Those she dealt with the same way she dealt with disloyal soldiers, swiftly and severely. She looked at the men, calculating the different ways she could attack and what the possible outcomes would be. There was no way she could attack them alone, the men were both in front and behind the wagon. The girls would be vulnerable to at least one of the groups. The only way to pull it off was to have Gabrielle help her. Was it worth the chance? She didn't know these girls, they meant nothing to her. If she used the queen to help her and she was killed, there would be nothing for her to either ransom to the Amazons or use to gain control of the women warriors. Yet if she didn't help, the young women in the wagon were certain to be sold into a life of slavery, most likely to men not as fair in their treatment as she had been. It came down to Xena making a decision, do nothing and allow six innocent girls to be condemned to a life of living Tartarus or risk ruining all her plans to save them. Xena knew that if she didn't try to save them, no one would. Gabrielle was right, she was the girls' only chance.
"Get your staff." she whispered. "Go down the ridge, over there." she pointed to a gradual incline that would leave Gabrielle safely behind the slavers. "When I release the girls, get them to run back down the road. Their village is less than a half-candlemark away." the bard moved to retrieve her staff when she felt an iron grip on her arm. She turned and for the briefest instant thought she saw something familiar in the blue eyes of the warlord. "Be careful." Xena said, her face betraying no emotions. Nonetheless, Gabrielle swore she heard the briefest hint of concern in the warlord's voice.
With her sword in her hand, Xena removed her cape, leaving it on the ground next to Argo. She motioned for Gabrielle to go ahead and descend while she kept her eyes on the slavers. Once she was certain the queen was on the road behind the group, Xena moved down an incline much steeper than the one she sent Gabrielle down. The warlord ended up on the edge of the road ahead of the wagon. She hid behind a tree until the wagon was almost on top of her. She threw her chakram vertically at the wagon just behind the horse's hind quarters, slicing through both the reins and the harnesses. The wagon came to a dead stop, tipping backward and sending the occupants sprawling out onto the ground while the horses took off, happy to be away from the man with the overenthusiastic whip. Xena let out a shrill cry, startling the portly man who was trying to get to his feet. She somersaulted through the air, landing feet first against his chest at the same moment she caught her chakram. "Run!" she yelled to the confused girls as she sent her chakram sailing again, this time at the four men on horseback. Three fell but the fourth one saw the weapon coming and ducked in time to avoid joining his friends in the world of unconsciousness. Xena had no time to deal with him as the other two men that were leading the wagon unsheathed their swords and advanced on her. One swift kick to the head of the portly man made sure he would remain out for the duration of the fight. She flipped off of him and landed between the two sword wielding men, twirling her own weapon while her eyes narrowed. "Come on, boys. You like to take young girls from their home, let's see you stand up to a real woman."
Gabrielle brought her staff around in a defensive position while the girls ran past her. "Keep running and don't stop until you get to your village." she yelled, her eyes never leaving the behemoth of a man who was advancing on her, sword drawn. One girl stumbled just before her and Gabrielle was left with no choice. She gripped her staff tightly and ran forward until she was between the man and the girl. "Meddling bitch!" he swore as he raised his sword. She brought her staff up just as he swung down, the force stinging her hands. She swung as hard as she could, catching him just below his ribs. He didn't flinch, but stopped and grinned at her. "Uh oh." she said softly, her eyes darting back to see if the girl was still there. Thankfully she had gotten up and ran after her friends, not daring to look back to see what the big man would do to the little woman with the stick.
Xena wiped her sword on the shirt of the dead man and looked back in time to see Gabrielle backing up under the force of the behemoth's blows. Knowing she would never reach them in time, Xena let out a yell and threw her chakram forcefully. The large man howled in pain as the round disc sliced through his left shoulder. Unfortunately it was not in time to keep him from knocking Gabrielle's staff from her hands. He lifted his leg and connected his boot against the bard's chest, sending her flying backwards to the ground. In the back of his mind he knew he was a dead man but he was damned if he wasn't going to take the meddling bitch with him. He towered over Gabrielle, certain that the tall woman would never reach him in time. He raised his sword high above his head, determined to impale the wide-eyed blond. Xena looked at the scene before her, the behemoth standing over the now helpless bard. In that instant all thoughts of Amazons, dinars, or power were replaced in her mind by the overpowering need to protect Gabrielle. She threw her sword with all her might. The behemoth felt the burning sensation and looked down in amazement at the blade sticking out of his chest, covered with his own blood. The bard scampered back out of the way as he fell forward, his eyes revealing his surprise and shock the instant before his lifeless body hit the ground with a mighty thud.
It took a few moments for Gabrielle to get her rapidly pounding heartbeat under control. She looked at the dead man, sword sticking out of his back, chakram from his shoulder, and realized that Xena hadn't reached them yet. She got to her feet and looked ahead to find the leather-clad woman on the ground, leaning against the wheel of the wagon. So concerned was she that Xena might be injured, Gabrielle didn't bother to retrieve her staff as she ran to her friend's side. What she saw when she got there stopped the bard in her tracks. She had expected Xena to be covered with blood, no doubt all of it from the men now lying dead in the road, but she didn't expect the thoroughly confused look on Xena's face. Gabrielle quickly knelt down next to her. "Xena? Xena, are you all right? Are you hurt?" she fired off the questions in rapid order while her hands roamed up and down the leather-clad body looking for any sign of injury.
"Gabrielle?" she reached up to touch the side of the bard's bruised face and her heart broke when she saw Gabrielle flinch. Everything came back to her in a flood of memories, from surviving the gauntlet and saving the baby all the way through the throwing of her sword with all her might to save Gabrielle. She looked at her best friend's face, remembering how each and every bruise got there from her own hand, her own fist. She remembered tying Gabrielle up, holding her own sword to her best friend's throat, the battle in the tavern, everything. Her blue eyes welled up with unshed tears. "Gabrielle." she wanted to apologize, to tell her best friend that she didn't mean to hurt her, that she wasn't the monster that the bard had been with the last few days. All she could do was look helplessly at the green eyes looking down at her and wonder why Gabrielle didn't run away with the girls when she had the chance.
"Xena?" she asked tentatively, her heart skipping a beat at the look of recognition in the warrior's eyes. "It...it's really you, isn't it?" she put her hand to her mouth as her own tears started to fall. "Oh Xena, it is you. It's really you." unmindful of the blood and gore that covered the warrior's body, Gabrielle threw herself against Xena, holding her as tightly as she would a piece of driftwood in the harshest ocean storm. "It's you, it's really you..." she said over and over, her tears falling unchecked against the warrior's neck. All the fear and frustration of the past few days caught up with the young queen. Finally knowing that she was truly safe with Xena at last, she found herself unable to stop crying. "Hold me." she choked. Xena complied immediately, grateful for the contact and certain that she didn't deserve the beautiful creature in her arms. She shifted slightly, pulling Gabrielle onto her lap. For the next half-candlemark they sat there, neither woman able to control the steady stream of tears that rolled from their eyes.
Eventually Gabrielle pulled back and looked at her. "Xena, what...what exactly do you remember?" she asked tentatively. The warrior thought carefully before answering.
"Nothing, Gabrielle. The last thing I remember is holding you when you were scared. You...had a bad feeling, right?" she asked, although she knew the answer. She remembered every detail, every heart-wrenching detail of what she had said and done.
"Uh...yeah...Xena, that was almost a quarter-moon ago. You...you don't remember anything?" Gabrielle wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
"No...I don't remember anything except that suddenly we were here, in a fight. I don't even know why." she lied.
"Xena, I know a cave not far from here...there's a small pond nearby where we can wash up. Let's go there. I'll try to explain what happened." the warrior nodded, grateful that Gabrielle wanted to go back to the cave and not head for the Amazons. They walked over to retrieve their weapons before Xena whistled for Argo.
"Do you want to ride?" she asked, uncertain of just how close Gabrielle wanted to be to her anymore. She had done so much, so very much to hurt her. Xena couldn't even bring herself to think of how she seduced and used Gabrielle, it hurt too much.
"Actually, I'd rather walk if you don't mind." it seemed so long since she'd been able to just walk alongside. Xena nodded, trying not to let the hurt show. 'You're scared of me, aren't you?' she thought to herself as she mounted Argo. She almost turned the horse in the direction of the cave when she remembered and stopped herself.
"Over there. There's a path up to that ridge and there's a trail from there." Gabrielle explained, pointing to the ridge where they first spotted the slavers.
They moved along in silence, both women caught up in their own thoughts. Gabrielle alternated between being happy that her Xena had been returned to her to being terrified that the warlord would return to being worried about what would happen when the Amazons found them. She had no intention of returning to the village anytime soon, especially with Xena. Gabrielle hoped that they could get far away from the village and she could communicate with Ephiny through a messenger until things were settled. She worried about Solari and Eponin, but worried about Xena more. She remembered how the women warriors reacted when Terreis was killed. They wanted to declare war on the Centaurs and then when they discovered the truth they went after Krykus with blood in their eyes and vengeance in their hearts. If they went after Xena, Gabrielle knew she'd be powerless to stop them, even as queen.
Up on top of Argo, Xena was lost in her own thoughts. She had no idea what happened to turn her into a warlord again or how she managed to regain her memory, although she suspected that somehow the gods were involved. It made no difference to her though. She was the one that hurt Gabrielle. It was her hands that caused all the bruises, including the nasty looking shiner the bard still sported. Xena looked down out the corner of her eye to see the bruise again. No longer the deep purple, it was still black and blue with a yellow tinge around it. She wondered if she had broken any bones in Gabrielle's face with the force her blows. She closed her eyes in pain as she replayed the scene in her head over and over again. Gabrielle crying for her to stop, to please stop hurting her. 'How can you stand to be near me, Gabrielle?' she thought to herself. 'How can you stand to be this animal that hurt you so much? That hurt your friends? Our friends?' she replayed the scene in the tavern, Gabrielle risking her life to protect Eponin and Solari. In her mind's eye she
saw her chakram flying through the air, slicing into her friend's leg over and over again. The scene changed to Gabrielle lying naked beneath her, begging for release. It was too much for Xena to bear and she shook her head visibly to remove the thought from her mind. Gabrielle noticed but said nothing, unsure of what was going on in Xena's mind. She thought that the warrior was simply still trying to figure out what had happened in the last few days. The bard decided to concentrate on the story she would have to tell Xena about what had happened the last few days, what lies she would have to come up with to fill the gaps in time. She debated about telling her about the battle in the tavern, finally deciding that it could wait until another time, especially since she planned on getting them as far away from the Amazon village as possible. She had no way of knowing that Xena had other plans.
Xena removed her armor, weapons, and boots and stepped into the pond, letting the water wash away the stench and gore of the recent battle from both her and her leathers. She painfully noted that Gabrielle decided to get the fire going instead of joining her, despite the fact that the bard was just as filthy as she was. Xena had no way of knowing that the young queen simply needed more time to come up with a story to tell her. The warrior was certain that Gabrielle just wanted to be as far away from her as possible. She looked down at her hands, now balled into fists. 'As far away from these as possible.' she thought to herself.
She found Gabrielle in the cave pulling scrolls out of the saddlebag along with her clothes, silently confirming both of their suspicions that the gods had been involved in Xena's amnesia. The bard tossed her a clean shift before grabbing her own clothes. "I'll go wash up and then we can eat and talk." she said as she headed for the pond.
Both her body and clothes clean, Gabrielle returned to the cave to find Xena staring at the fire, lost in thought. "Hey, why don't I get dinner started. You must be famished." as if on cue, the bard's own stomach grumbled. Xena forced a smile.
"Sure, Gabrielle. That sounds good." in truth, the last thing the warrior was thinking about was food. All she thought about was what she had done to hurt the bard during the last few days, and the wrath of the Amazons that she would soon face. She had no doubt that Gabrielle would want to head for the village, to be free from the monster that had terrorized her, used her, even raped her. Yet looking across the fire at the young woman heating up the last of their biscuits, Xena sensed no anger or fear from Gabrielle. Indeed, the bard acted as if nothing at all had happened during the last few days.
They ate their meager dinner in silence, but the tension was palpable. Gabrielle afraid that Xena wouldn't believe her lies and the warrior afraid that the bard would reveal the entire ugly truth to her and then announce that she was leaving her forever. 'I certainly would deserve it.' Xena thought. 'I deserve to be handed over to the Amazons, to face my crimes and the punishment they choose for me, no doubt death.' her only consolation was that she was certain that Ephiny wouldn't make Gabrielle carry out her sentence. Only when neither woman could stand the silence any more did Xena speak. "What happened?" a simple question but one which required a thousand answers. Gabrielle took a deep breath and took a long swallow from the waterskin before speaking.
"From what I can tell, the gods took away your memory. You can't remember anything from the last few days? Nothing at all?" Gabrielle had to be certain of that before she started her story. Xena shook her head, nervously waiting for the bard to tell her in full detail all the horrible things she had done. Gabrielle licked her lips and looked into the fire. She knew she wouldn't be able to lie if she looked Xena in the face. "Well, you remember my bad feeling and how I needed you to hold me..."
"Yes, that's the last thing I remember."
"When I woke up the next morning, it was as if we didn't know each other, like all your memories had been wiped away. You had no idea where we were or what we were doing out there. You didn't even know who I was." she continued to stare at the fire. "I think Ares was trying to bring you back to him. All my things were gone, the scrolls, my spare clothes, even the lamb." Xena now noticed the small wooden toy sitting in the bard's lap, small fingers gently stroking it. "I didn't know what to do so I suggested that we head for the Amazons. I thought maybe Saras would be able to help."
"Gabrielle, when we made camp, we were less than a full day from the Amazons. Why haven't we reached them yet?" she noted that the bard had made no mention of waking up and finding herself tied up.
"Oh, Argo was favoring one leg and you suggested that we camp here for a few days to let her heal up. You said you didn't want to push her. We were heading for the Amazons today when we came across those men. They were kidnapping women from the nearby village and we stopped to help them." Gabrielle felt her skin flush and prayed that the warrior wouldn't notice her nervousness at the lies.
"Where did you get all those bruises? Those are too old to be from a fight today." Xena realized that Gabrielle was completely lying to her, avoiding any mention of the tavern or even that she was a warlord again.
"Oh those." the bard laughed as if they were nothing. "We ran into some bandits just before Argo started limping. I guess I wasn't as careful as I usually am."
"Oh." Xena said quietly. 'Are you afraid, Gabrielle? Are you afraid to tell me the whole horrid truth? That I beat you, hurt you, took you? Are you so scared of me now that you have to lie?' she thought. "So I guess we're heading for the Amazons now?" she asked, fully expecting the bard to lead her to whatever trap was waiting.
"Oh no." Gabrielle exclaimed a little too forcefully. "Now that you're better I thought perhaps we'd head west, go visit Athens or something. There's no need to visit the Amazons right now." she silently feared that Xena would push the issue knowing how much she usually wanted to see Ephiny whenever they were in the area.
It was Xena's turn to stare at the flames. She understood exactly what Gabrielle was trying to do now. Protect her. 'How can you do this, Gabrielle? How can you not only stay with me but try to protect me from the punishment I deserve? You won't even tell me the truth about what happened. After all that I've done to you, you still want to keep me safe. I don't deserve your love, Gabrielle. I deserve you hate, certainly, your anger and your fear, but not your love. It doesn't matter if the gods were involved or not. I'm still a warlord, an animal that deserves to be taken down for what I've done. I can't let you do this. I just can't.' "All right, Gabrielle. If you want to go to Athens, then we will."
"Really?" the bard said excitedly. "Can we leave first thing in the morning? I promise I'll get up." she wanted to put as much distance between them and the Amazons as possible once they found out that Xena wouldn't be returning her hostage as planned. Gabrielle had no doubt that the women warriors were already looking for them and would be out in full force once the noonday sun showed no sign of her.
"First thing, Gabrielle. I promise." she just didn't promise where they were going.
Sleep came easily to Gabrielle for the first time in almost a quarter moon, content with the knowledge that her Xena was back. The hug before bed was gentle and warm and she felt safe again in her warrior's arms. She tried not to think about what had happened between them sexually, knowing in her heart that it would never happen again. The warlord Xena had used her in an attempt to gain control of the Amazons, but the sad truth was that her Xena never wanted her in that way and never would. She would have to be content with the memories of their passion. She hugged the wooden lamb close to her body and let the memories of their first winter solstice together calm her into slumber.
Xena laid awake long after the bard had fallen asleep. She crept over and studied Gabrielle's face in the firelight, letting each fading bruise stab through her heart. "You didn't deserve this." she whispered, letting her finger barely brush over the shiner as her vision blurred with unshed tears. "You didn't deserve to be beaten and you don't have to try to protect me. I know what I did and I'm ready to face it. You won't have to lie for me anymore." she leaned forward and placed the softest of kisses on Gabrielle's forehead before grabbing the saddlebags and heading for her own side of the fire.
Gabrielle woke to the smell of fresh rabbit cooking on the fire. "Mmm, smells good." she yawned.
"That's because you woke up before I had a chance to burn it." Xena replied, forcing a smile. This wasn't going to be easy. Already she was tempted to just run away with Gabrielle, run far away from the Amazons and her past and just be with the woman she loved. She took another look at the shiner on the bard's face and it strengthened her resolve. She was doing the right thing, she told herself. This was the right thing for Gabrielle. Satisfied that the rabbit was done, Xena pulled it off of the spit and split it between them. She also handed Gabrielle a cup of tea. "Here, I made you some tea. It's a little strong, sorry." she deliberately made it strong to hide the taste of the extra herbs she had added to it. She watched as the bard quickly ate her breakfast, washing it down with the tea. Xena pushed her food around on her plate, having absolutely no appetite. Before Gabrielle could get up, the warrior stood and took her plate. "We can take care of these later."
"Later?" she asked, watching Xena scrape the dirty dishes and put them into the saddlebag. "I thought we were going to get an early start towards Athens." she stood up and immediately felt dizzy. In an instant Xena was there, lending her a steady arm to help her back down to the ground. "Xena? I don't feel so good."
"Shh, you'll be fine. Everything will be fine soon." she said soothingly, cradling the bard in her arms.
"Xena?" the green eyes opened wide with realization. "You...you did something." her head swam and her vision blurred. It was a battle to maintain consciousness.
"I just gave you some herbs to make you sleep for a while. You'll be fine. Saras will know what to do." she watched Gabrielle's eyes close despite the bard's best efforts to keep them open.
"Saras..." she mumbled. "No...Amazons...trap." her head fell limply to the side. Xena pulled her into her lap and held her close.
"I know, Gabrielle...I know."
"What is she doing?" Artemis yelled as she stormed into Athena's realm. "I thought you restored her memory."
"I did." the Goddess of Wisdom replied, already knowing what her sister was upset about.
"Then why did she drug Gabrielle and why is she going after the ransom?" the Moon Goddess roared.
"Artemis, I don't think she is going after the ransom. I think she's turning herself in to the Amazons."
"What? That's insane. They'll kill her for what she did to them, to their queen. It's a suicide mission. I'm going down there right now and putting and end to this madness."
"You will do nothing of the sort." both goddesses turned to see Zeus standing there. He waved his hand and they were joined by the surprised Ares. "I've had enough of this nonsense. The three of you have been using those mortals like toys." the blond bearded god glared at his son. "You. This obsession you have with Xena is utterly ridiculous. She's just a mortal." he turned to his favorite daughter. "Athena...I would have expected better from you. Taking away her memory, subjecting that poor girl to a warlord like that. What were you thinking?"
"Father, I was just trying to-"
"You were trying to best Ares and you used mortals to do it. Well, you won, you proved your point. It's over." he said authoritatively.
"But Father..." Artemis interrupted. "Xena's walking into a trap. We have to do something."
"I've been watching, Art. From what I can see, the former prodigy of Ares is doing this willingly. She no doubt is aware that your Amazons are waiting for her. If she chooses to face them, then she must have her reasons. I won't allow you..." he looked at Ares and Athena. "...any of you, to interfere."
"But we've already interfered." Athena protested. "We have to set things right now."
"Enough!" Zeus roared, his deep voice reverberating off the walls of Athena's realm. "I'm telling the three of you to leave her alone." he looked at the Goddess of Wisdom. "Athena, all you did was remove her memory, you didn't make her a warlord. The things that she did, she did of her own volition." he glared at his son. "No matter how much you would like to take credit for Xena, her actions were her own." he turned back to his daughters. "I've watched what she's done over the summers. The wars, the looting and killing. So far she's never had to truly pay for her crimes. Perhaps it is time. Artemis, once she crosses the border onto Amazon land, you are the only one who can touch her and I'm telling you right now, stay out of it." he glanced at the table covered with rubble. "And this!" he threw a thunderbolt at the table, destroying it. "I would have expected this from my God of War, but from you, Artemis? I never thought you were so vindictive. It's over, now. Do I make myself clear?" he looked at each of them, receiving silent nods of understanding. "Mortals aren't as helpless as we think. Perhaps if we stopped interfering in their lives so much they wouldn't have as many problems." he said before turning to his son. "And you...I think you and I need to have a little talk." with that, Zeus disappeared, taking Ares with him.
Xena stopped less than a candlemark from the Amazon territory and dismounted, the limp bard in her arms. She sat down and leaned against a thick tree, Gabrielle in her arms.
She opened the waterskin filled with the drugged tea and slowly forced as much of it down the unconscious woman's throat as she dared. She was confident that the bard would not wake up until sometime tomorrow. By then Xena was certain that she'd be visiting Hades, this time with no return ticket for Charon's boat. She tilted Gabrielle's head back to study her face, the blue eyes deliberately avoiding the shiner. Xena didn't want to remember her that way. She ran her fingers over the full lips, remembering how she kissed them forcefully when she seduced Gabrielle. She pulled the bard up and lightly brushed her own lips against them, reveling in their softness. She ran her fingers through the golden locks, her thumb across the soft cheek. She kissed the closed eyelids and returned to Gabrielle's lips one last time before tightly hugging the woman she loved against her. The strong, stoic warrior felt the lump in her throat and refused to stop it, letting the tears fall down her cheeks. "I love you Gabrielle. I'm sorry I never told you. I'm so sorry." she buried her head in the bard's neck and let herself cry until no more tears came. Xena sniffled a few times, looked up at the position of the sun, and wiped her eyes. "I guess it's time." she said sadly.
The scout reported what she saw to Ephiny. That Xena was on her way, the queen either unconscious or dead in her arms. In the span of a few heartbeats, the warriors and archers were all in position in their pits or in the trees. Crossbows were cocked and ready, swords were out of their scabbards and in the hands of the ready warriors. Ephiny and Ilanna crouched in the darkness of their pit, the blond ruler holding her crossbow and praying to Artemis not to have to use it. She listened to the bird calls from the advance scouts and tracked the progress of Xena toward the field. It became extremely quiet and every woman on the field tensed and waited for the final signal, the one that would alert them that the woman holding their queen hostage was in the middle of the circle.
Xena watched and listened as she crossed over the border. She knew the sounds she heard were not birds, but rather the warning calls of the scouts. She guided Argo straight into the middle of the field, where a large chest filled with dinars sat in wait on a chariot. She looked around without moving her head, trying to spot the hidden warriors that no doubt were waiting for her. Seeing none meant nothing, she knew they were there. She pulled Argo to a stop right next to the chariot. She heard one last call and watched as dozens of squares of earth lifted to reveal warriors and archers, all aiming at her. She held Gabrielle in her arms and remained still. The Amazons exited their pits and formed a well armed circle around her. Ephiny removed her bird mask and leveled her crossbow at the raven haired woman. "Xena! Put Gabrielle down or I swear to Artemis I'll kill you myself." No one dared move, all knowing that their queen's life was in the hands of the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. Xena opened her hand and let Argo's reins fall loosely to the ground.
"Argo, down." following her master's orders, the golden mare knelt down until Xena was able to step off without letting go of her precious cargo. She stood several paces away from Ephiny and knelt down, gently setting the unconscious woman on the ground. The blond ruler watched as Xena stood and took two steps back from Gabrielle. Ephiny swore that she saw the leather-clad woman mouth the word good-bye.
"Back away from her...more." the blond ruler ordered, motioning with her crossbow. Xena did as instructed, taking four steps back. She watched as Saras and two assistants carrying a litter broke through the circle and surrounded Gabrielle. Within heartbeats they had the queen on the litter and whisked her away to the healer's hut. No one missed the glaring black eye on the unconscious woman and all knew who was responsible. Xena felt the angry eyes of the Amazons focused on her and waited for the sound of arrows to come whizzing at her. Ephiny took a step forward. "Put your weapons down...Now!" everyone held their breath as Xena reached for her chakram. They all knew just how dangerous the flying weapon was in her hands, Eponin was evidence of that. A collective release of breath was heard as she tossed the chakram harmlessly on the ground in front of Ephiny. It was followed by her breast dagger. Xena made certain to make her movements appear as non-threatening as possible, but also knew that when it came to her, even the most innocent looking movement could prove deadly should she chose it to be so. She pulled her sword out of the scabbard and darted her eyes about the crowd in front of her. Archers' fingers twitched on their crossbow triggers, warrior's swords were out in front of their bodies, just waiting for the word to attack. Xena turned the sword around in her hand until she was holding the blade rather than the hilt and tossed the weapon on the ground with the others. Although weaponless, the Amazons knew that Xena was still quite formidable and kept their distance lest she suddenly turn and become violent. "Down." Ephiny ordered. Xena glared at the blond ruler for a moment before lowering her head and kneeling down in front of her. She heard the sounds of warriors moving toward her from behind and quickly found her arms bound behind her. Fairly certain that the threat was over, Ephiny lowered her crossbow and moved until she was between Xena and her weapons. The blond woman's eyes burned with anger. "Xena, you are under arrest for crimes against the Amazon nation. For the kidnapping and ransoming of our queen and for the physical assault on two of our warriors." she nodded to the warriors behind Xena. They reached down and hoisted the raven-haired woman to her feet. Ephiny motioned them back and stepped in so only Xena could hear her. "I don't know what you did to Gabrielle, but I swear you'll pay. You'll pay for Eponin, you'll pay for Solari, and you'll pay for our queen. She trusted you and you betrayed that trust." she nodded to the warriors standing behind Xena. "Take her to the jail."
Six warriors stood guard as Xena's armor and leathers were removed. They dressed her in a simple tunic and skirt before fastening the manacles to her ankles and wrists. Xena's arms were suspended above her, forcing her to remain standing to avoid straining her shoulders. Despite the extraordinary restraints, two guards stayed outside her cell door when the others left. Xena looked at the thick chains, the unusual manacles, and the large granite slab. She had no doubt that they were made especially for her. Even though she didn't plan on escaping, the warrior noted that the Amazons had made certain that it wasn't even a remote possibility. Xena was frankly surprised that they even bothered to capture her. It didn't matter, she thought to herself. Once they found out what she had done to Gabrielle, she'd be dead soon enough.
Saras sniffed the waterskin retrieved from Xena's belongings and examined the multitude of small pouches of herbs. Ephiny waited impatiently, her eyes moving from the unconscious queen to the healer and back again. Finally her patience broke. "Saras, will you tell me what's going on?"
"From what I can tell, she's been drugged."
"I could have told you that." the ruler said in an exasperated tone. "Is she going to be all right?"
"She'll be fine. From what I can tell, she's just in a deep sleep, no doubt to keep her from escaping from Xena." the healer said bitterly. "There's nothing we can do right now. We just have to wait for her to wake up."
Darkness had fallen long ago. Xena's legs ached and her shoulders burned from being left in a standing position for so long. She opened her eyes when she heard the hushed whispers outside the cell door. The door opened and five Amazons entered. The guard shut the door behind them and walked away. "Hello Xena." the largest Amazon said as she pulled on a leather glove, then covered it with a glove made of chain mail. "My name is Gryne. I'm a friend of Eponin's. You remember her, don't you?" she flexed her gloved hand. Xena stared at the Amazon, her face revealing no emotion. The first blow split her lip. "You remember how you sliced her leg open? How you left her there to bleed to death?" the next blow struck just below her ribs, the force enough to lift the tall warrior off the ground. "Just another victim of the warrior princess, right?" another blow. "Just a simple flick of your wrist and that damned weapon of yours ruined one of the finest warriors the Amazons have ever known." another blow. "You like to inflict pain? You like to see people begging you for mercy? Did you enjoy beating our queen?" each question was followed with another punch from the gloved hand. Even without the glove, the smithy's punches would have caused damage. "She trusted you and now you'll pay for betraying that trust." the other women moved closer and Xena steeled herself for a long and painful lesson in Amazon justice.
The night was quiet save for the occasional owl hooting off in the distance. Eponin rolled onto her side and watched as the young queen began to stir. The stocky warrior reached over to the small table next to her bed and lit the short candle, adding the barest hint of light to the room. "Xena?"
"Gabrielle, it's Eponin." she watched the bard try to sit up, only to fall back down from the dizziness. "You're safe now."
"Wh-where's Xena?" she sat up slowly and looked over at her Amazon friend, realizing now that she was in the healer's hut in the Amazon village. Eponin bit back the harsh remark she wanted to make because of the concern she heard in the queen's voice.
"In the jail. They took her there after they rescued you."
"Res...no, it's all a big mistake, Ep." she tried to stand up and had to lean on the table for support. "I've got to see Ephiny."
"Gabrielle, it's the middle of the night. Eph will be here in the morning." the stocky warrior moved to the edge of her bed but knew better than to try and sit up. "Please, get back in bed. You're safe here."
The bard instead moved closer to Eponin and waited for her to move back before sitting down on the bed next to her. "How are you doing?" she asked gently.
"About as well as can be expected considering what Xena did to me." she shrugged. "I'll probably never be able to walk normally again." Gabrielle couldn't see the damage beneath the sheet and bandages, but vividly remembered all the blood at the tavern. She put her hand on the stocky warrior's shoulder.
"Ep, I know it seems hard right now, but it will get better." she looked off into the dark shadows of the room.
"What happened, Gabrielle? She was your best friend. What caused her to do this?" she motioned toward her leg and at the queen's eye, the bruise still visible in the dim light.
"I don't know for sure, but I think the gods were involved somehow. Ep, you have to know that Xena would never-"
"How can you defend her? How can you sit there and tell me that she wouldn't do this? Look, look at what she did to you." she reached out and touched the edge of Gabrielle's cheek. "How can you forgive that?"
"Because I know her." she said firmly. "Ep, you don't know her like I do. What you saw in the tavern, well...that's not Xena."
"That's where you're wrong, Gabrielle. That monster in the tavern WAS Xena. God or no god, it was still Xena. Are you so blinded by your friendship that you can't see that? Once a warlord, always a warlord." she said bitterly.
"She changed, Ep. Xena gave up that life and was fighting for a better world."
"Yeah and I'm sure the world is a much better place now that I can't walk." she snapped back. Gabrielle lowered her head.
"I wish there was a way to take back what happened to you, Eponin. I suppose wishing won't make it so." she said softly.
"Nope, it doesn't." the stocky warrior responded, refusing to go easy on her queen. "It won't matter now anyway. Her days of terrorizing you and attacking those who would try to protect you are over."
"What are they going to do to her?"
"Depends on what she's charged with and what the verdicts are. I don't think she'll see freedom for quite a while, though, if ever."
"But I'm the queen, can't I do something?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, you are the queen. You're queen of the Amazons." Eponin's voice rose in relation to her outrage and anger. "You have a responsibility here. When you accepted the right of caste and later on the mask of queen, you accepted the responsibility that came with it. Don't think you can just waltz in there and pardon her. We're not talking about some minor crime here. She kidnapped you, held you for ransom, physically assaulted you, attacked two Amazon warriors trying to protect you. Gabrielle, she held you hostage, how can you possibly think of helping her? You have a responsibility to us, to your subjects. Being queen isn't some kind of game, Gabrielle. We've all sworn to protect you, with our lives if necessary. It isn't too much for us to ask for you to act like you care about us." she knew her words were harsher than necessary, but she had to make the young queen understand.
"I do care, Eponin. I care about every Amazon. But I also care about Xena." in a softer voice she added "I love her."
"Gabrielle..." she gentled her tone. "Did it ever occur to you that perhaps your love for her is blinding you to the truth?"
"Did it ever occur to you that your anger and self-pity is blinding you?" she shot back angrily before getting up and returning to her own bed. Neither woman spoke to the other for the rest of the night even though both found sleep to be impossible.
Continued - Part 4