I guess it does pay to have a conqueror around every once and awhile, Ephiny mused,
staring off the port side of the ship as it left the dock of Myos Hormus heading out to
the Red Sea. They had crossed the Mediterranean, landing in the exotic city of Alexandria
only days earlier. Taking no time for sightseeing, Xena led them quickly over land to
Ephiny laughed into the salty air remembering the look on the dockmaster's face when the Conqueror arrived in Clysma to commandeer her ship. It had been the same in Piraeus. Her Amazons made a very colorful and impressive escort for Xena, the Conqueror. They paraded into the city as though she were on a royal tour for all the world to see.
At first, Ephiny had balked at the pretense, refusing to escort the Conqueror into Piraeus as though they were her guards. However, when their display resulted in the use of one of the most luxurious galleys that she had ever sailed on to cross the Mediterranean to Alexandria, she quickly swallowed all objections.
Gabrielle had been right again. Xena knew how to make an entrance, and she also knew how to wield her power. By all rights, every ship in the dock belonged to the Conqueror. She could have taken any one of the merchant ships that were following the trade route to India, ordering them to abandon their cargo in favor of transporting the Conqueror and her royal escort. There was no need, however, to do so. Xena, it seemed, maintained a fleet of ships at the port in Piraeus and simply ordered her own private galley to take them across the Mediterranean to Alexandria -- one of the largest trade cities in her empire.
The spectacle worked so well, that they repeated the procession through Alexandria and into Clysma, where Xena commandeered an even larger and more elegant vessel for their journey across the Indian ocean. The only thing that left a bad taste in Ephiny's mouth at their success was the fact that Xena was resplendent in her silk robes and golden headdress, looking for all the world like she belonged at the center of an Amazon procession.
If Gabrielle hadn't been the one to suggest that she wear the outfit, Ephiny might have ripped that golden crown right off of her miserable head.
Ephiny followed the flight of a seagull as it drifted along an updraft caused by the billowing sails. The Amazons could have never afforded the sea route to India. They would have followed the Silk route instead, taking months to travel over hostile lands.
Yes, indeed, it must be nice to have the world at your disposal.
The seagull banked and flew across the bow of the ship, leading the amazon's eyes to the form of the Conqueror standing alone. She was leaning against the godhead, a wooden effigy of herself -- the resemblance remarkable. The carved statue tilted out from the deck over the water, pointing them onward toward their destination with a determined scowl.
Its beauty was matched only by the woman standing beside it.
Maybe it would fall on her, Ephiny wished with an evil snicker, her pleasure at the thought disappearing as she watched Gabrielle approach the dark woman with a smile.
Damn, damn, damn. She had been doing her best to keep those two apart, but she kept catching them together the moment her back was turned.
Ephiny wiped a bit of sea spray from her face and then made a determined bee line for the bow of the ship.
Xena leaned against the godhead and stared out at the ocean ahead of them. Her keen
eyes, accustomed to travel by sea, could easily make out the dim shape of land to the port
side as they sailed the length of the Red Sea heading for the Indian ocean.
It was good to be out at sea again. She had always enjoyed her time on the oceans on the world. Even her years as a pirate held fond memories, painful as some of them may have been. Enjoying the slap of the wind against the skin of her face, Xena pondered the number of oceans she must have had to travel to effectively conquer the world. She had no memory of the voyages, but she was certain she must have enjoyed each and every ocean crossing very much.
Xena closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it must have been like to have sailed in this royal galley at the head of an attacking flotilla, rushing across the waves of an ocean, unstoppable, toward their enemy and victory. Her heart quickened its pace just thinking about it, sending a rush of exhilaration through her veins and a flush to her cheeks. Xena breathed the sea air deeply, letting her nostrils flare to enjoy the excitement in the air.
"Hi, how're ya doing?"
The soft and unexpected voice caused Xena to whirl around in alarm.
Gabrielle held up her hands. "Hey, sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you." The bard smiled at the dark woman, wondering at the guilty look on Xena's face and the flush in her cheeks. "Am I disturbing you?"
"No, no," Xena said quickly, moving over to make some room at the bow by the godhead. "Just enjoying the view. C'mon, take a look."
At the expression of doubt on the bard's face, Xena motioned her over with her hands. "C'mere. It's perfectly safe."
"You sure?" Gabrielle asked with uncertainty, but taking a step closer nonetheless.
"Sure I'm sure. C'mon, it's beautiful," Xena coaxed with an encouraging smile.
Gabrielle was convinced and stepped up to the bow to stand right next to the godhead and peer out over the rail. The rush of wind picked up her golden locks and whipped them away from the bard's face. Xena smiled as Gabrielle's features lit up with pleasure.
"This is great!" the bard exclaimed.
"See, I told ya."
"I've never stood out like this before. Well, honestly, I've only been on a ship once, and that was to cross the Strymon. It didn't take but a few minutes and there was no wind like this, and certainly no waves. And the boat we were on was nothing like this."
A bright smile filled Xena's face as she listened to Gabrielle. Hearing the bard prattle on made her realize just how much she missed even the sound of her partner's voice.
"It was a rickety old boat. Didn't have but one sail and it certainly didn't have a godhead," Gabrielle commented as she rested her hand on the finely carved wood. Her eyes wandered up to the face on the statue and then widened in surprise. She whirled around to find the same face smiling back at her in amusement.
"It's you!" the bard blurted out. She turned back to study the carving of the face. "Or it's the Conqueror, I should say," Gabrielle added, noting the cruel scowl on the godhead's features. She turned to the smiling ruler once more. "You know, you're a completely different woman when you smile. You should do it more often."
"Oh, I should, should I?" Xena responded bemused, lifting an eyebrow.
"Yeah, and I kinda like that eyebrow thing you do, too."
"Oh really?" Xena said, raising the aforementioned brow a little higher.
Xena offered the bard the full extent of her smile. "Well, maybe I'll do it more often, just for you."
"Just for me?" Gabrielle answered with a grin of her own, "Really?"
Xena was beginning to wonder just how long they were going to stand there smiling at one another like two silly little kids, when the bow decided to take a sudden plunge and slice into an unexpected wave. The jolt sent Gabrielle tumbling toward the rail.
Without thinking, Xena wrapped her arms around her friend, pulling her away from danger. It took a moment for it to stink in before the warrior realized that she had her arms around Gabrielle for the first time in months and months. She let the moment last as long as she possibly could, reveling in the feeling of the bard's warm body against her own.
"Er ... thanks," Gabrielle said, pushing herself gently and rather a little too slowly away from the Conqueror's embrace.
At least, that's the way it looked to Ephiny. She had witnessed the entire thing as she approached the bow of the ship. And although she hadn't heard any of their conversation, the look in both of their eyes was enough to turn her stomach into knots.
"Trying to throw her over already?" the amazon leader asked loudly, announcing her presence to the pair.
The sound of Ephiny's voice caused Gabrielle to start. She pulled herself the rest of the way out of the Conqueror's embrace, assuming a much safer distance as she scratched at the back of her head.
Ephiny chose to ignore the guilty expression on Gabrielle's face and stared directly at the Conqueror, unimpressed by the annoyed look being flashed her way.
"Gabrielle, can I talk with you for a moment?" she asked, her gaze never leaving Xena's.
"Sh ... sh ... sure," the Amazon Queen replied, "what's up?" Gabrielle's face finally regained some amount of regal composure.
"Below," Ephiny ordered with a nod.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own.
Ephiny huffed. "Please?" she added, none too pleased at all.
"Certainly," Gabrielle responded in a very Queenly manner. But before leaving, she turned to Xena. "Will I see you at dinner?"
"I'll be there," Xena answered with a bow.
"Til dinner, then." Gabrielle returned the bow. "I'll be looking forward to it. And thanks."
"Not letting me fall overboard just then."
Xena inclined her head. "It was my pleasure," she said, watching with a small smile as Gabrielle walked away.
"I'll bet," Ephiny commented, giving the Conqueror one last long look before turning to follow her friend.
Xena watched Ephiny's back until she disappeared below deck. She stared up at the godhead, matching the stern expression with a scowl of her own.
"I will not throw her overboard," referring to Ephiny as she tried to convince her own image, "much as I'd like to."
Darfus paced back and forth along the dock of Clysma.
"How long do we have to wait?"
Alti sighed, tired of having to explain it to the soldier again. "We need to wait at least two days. I'd like to wait more, but that would give Xena too much of a headstart."
The Royal Commander fumed. Two days was an eternity when one was strategizing the movement of an army. And this battalion was hardly an army, at least not the numbers that he was used to working with. He could have these 300 odd men suited up and on the ships in half a day. And with no horses or heavy artillery, he could even beat Xena to Muzuris if the wind was right. Why wait two days?
"Why wait two days?" Darfus blurted, repeating the same question for the umpteenth time.
Alti whirled on the soldier. The Commander found himself choking as though invisible hands had grabbed him by the neck.
"I'll explain this one more time, Darfus. If you ask again, Satrina will be walking at the head of this army. Are you listening?"
Not too far away on the same dock, the slave smiled beautifully, hoping upon hope that the question might come up one more time.
Darfus attempted to choke out a gurgle of agreement, deciding instead to nod his head.
"I don't want Xena to know we are following her. She has the uncanny ability to sense my presence, just as I can sense hers. We dare not follow any closer or she'll know I'm on her heels. Do you finally understand?"
Darfus nodded briskly, gasping in great gulps of air when the invisible grip was finally released.
Alti sneered, "And if she didn't sense me, she would certainly smell you."
Satrina waited until the witch stomped away before she allowed the chortle she had been holding to leave her throat.
"What are you laughing at?" Darfus rasped. "She could probably sniff you out as well," the soldier commented as he rubbed his throat and marched away.
Satrina's laughter subsided as she looked out across the sea. "Oh, I wish that she would."
At sea, it was hard to tell where the ink of the night sky ended and the ocean began.
Sometimes, however, like tonight, the sky was so clear and the stars so vivid, one could
imagine they saw the heavens tumbling downward into the gaping black mouth of the ocean,
devoured by time and the ever surging waves.
Xena stared out from the railing at the stern, watching white waves flow behind them as they sailed forward to their destination. Two parallel lines of breakwater marked their passage, converging far off in the distance, at the point where sea met sky. The wind was high and their speed good. If all things stayed as they were, they would reach the port of Muziris, India by high noon tomorrow.
I can feel you following me, Alti, Xena mused as she squinted into the dark horizon. There was no sign of any other vessel present on the ocean, not as far as her eyes could see. But her inner sense -- that was another matter. She could feel the presence of danger, faint as it was, and knew that it could only mean the shamaness had not stayed behind in Corinth as instructed.
No matter, Xena thought to herself, she had figured as much. No doubt Alti had forced both Darfus and Satrina to accompany her, and that would have had the same effect as the witch staying behind. It prevented the pair from starting a revolt in Corinth that would only end up in causing a whole lot of bloodshed.
Xena pulled at a piece of silky black hair which had flipped into her eye. They had to be at least one, if not two days behind, which left more than enough time for Xena and her Amazon escort to make their way to Golconda. Once they reached the city, Xena could only hope that this stone and the Amazon's shamaness Yakut, could help her to put things right. If her plan worked, then none of this would matter at all.
The Warrior Princess sighed as she watched the white breakwater disappear into the distance. Strange, but she felt some comfort in knowing that, had Hercules not interceded in her life, all her dreams would have come to pass. If she had not changed, she would have ruled Greece and, not just Greece, the world. If only she could have done so without cruelty and fear, without the hatred which surely would have devoured her had Hercules, and then Gabrielle, not come along.
Perhaps it wasn't possible to have power of the magnitude that she and Alti coveted without the sacrifice of one's heart and soul. Xena stared at the blackness and wondered, if all things remained as they were, how long it would take for that darkness to overcome her again.
"What? During the day, you stand at the bow and watch where you're going ... then at night, you stare off the stern to see where you've been?" Gabrielle commented with a smile as she approached the Conqueror.
Xena turned at the comment, grinning as she considered the statement. "Yeah, I guess I do," she replied.
Gabrielle stepped up to the rail and stood beside the warrior. "Aren't you cold out here? Don't you ever sleep?"
"Yes ... and yes," Xena answered, then leaned an elbow against the railing, "don't you?"
"I was feeling a little queasy. I get seasick, kinda. Boats and oceans and I don't seem to get along, especially at night, when I'm below. I thought it would be better for me and everyone else if I came up and got some air."
The warrior chuckled sympathetically. "Sorry, I forgot about that. Here." Xena gently took a hold of Gabrielle's hand and turned it over, palm up.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the contact, but let the Conqueror proceed.
Xena placed two fingers from her other hand at a point on her wrist and Gabrielle jumped at the pressure.
After a moment, however, when the bard's queasiness subsided, Gabrielle looked at Xena with surprise.
The warrior grinned. "Feel that bump right there? Just put pressure on it, just like I showed ya. It'll settle your stomach."
"Wow! That's great! I really do feel better," Gabrielle said, watching where the Conqueror's fingers pressed against her pulse point with awe.
"Just be careful. This pressure point also has a habit of dulling the taste buds. Makes you eat things that you probably would never have eaten before."
"Really? Like what?"
"Just stay away from strange foods and watch what you eat. If you do that, this should help you get your sea legs in no time."
Xena held onto the bard's wrist, keeping her fingers against the pulse point probably a little longer than she needed to. She let herself enjoy the warmth of her friend's skin for a few more seconds, before withdrawing her touch.
Gabrielle didn't seem to mind at all.
Xena took a quick glance at the deck behind them and raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised Ephiny hasn't shown up to join us. She usually does the minute you and I are alone."
"I know, she's worse than a mother hen. But she's just looking out for my best interests."
"Why, is she afraid I'm going to take a bite out of you?"
"Maybe," Gabrielle replied, eyeing Xena speculatively. "You know, that man who stole the Chronos Stone, Iolaus, told me that you and I were really supposed to be friends."
Xena nodded and looked out to the sea. "That's right. The very best of friends."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but it's hard to imagine. Tell me, how did we meet?"
"I rescued you from being captured by slavers just outside of your hometown, Poteidaia."
"Really? That's funny. I really was captured by slavers just outside of Poteidaia. The only difference was that I was rescued by an Amazon raiding party. I ended up saving the life of their princess, so they made me an Amazon and, Terreis -- that was her name -- made me her sister."
"That's not much different than what happened in my time. Only your attempt to save Terreis's life failed. She rewarded your courage by giving you the Rite of Caste with her dying breath."
Gabrielle nodded sadly. "Terreis was killed here, too."
"Fighting the Centaurs?"
"No, we were allied with the Centaurs, fighting against you."
Xena let out an ironic snort. "Well, at least I managed to end the feud between Amazons and Centaurs here as well."
"You also managed to wipe most of us out ... Centaurs, too."
"So it seems," Xena sighed, keeping her eyes staring out at the black sea.
"Look, Xena, I don't pretend to completely believe what you are telling us here. You have to admit, it's quite a fantastic story. But I do know you seem to be truly regretful for all the pain and suffering you've caused."
"My regret won't put things right."
"But the stone will? What if it doesn't?"
Xena shrugged. "Then I'll have to come up with some other plan."
Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's forearm, forcing the Conqueror to look at her. "Like allowing Ephiny to assassinate you? Come on, Xena. If you know me as well as you say you do, you have to know that I'm not going to let that happen."
"Why not? It would be what's best for the world."
"Really? I'm not so sure about that. In all honesty, that's what I used to think. I even plotted to make that happen. But now ..."
"But now, what?"
"Now that I've gotten to know you," Gabrielle said, giving the arm under her hand a squeeze, "I think that maybe you wouldn't make such a bad ruler, if things keep going the way they are."
Xena allowed Gabrielle to keep her hand on her arm. She even took a step closer, unable to resist the chance to be close to the bard. "Listen to me, Gabrielle. Have you ever been attracted to something, something that you knew was absolutely dangerous, but you simply couldn't resist its pull?"
Gabrielle had no choice but to look up at the woman towering over her, her presence overwhelming, her eyes riveting. "You mean, like a moth to a flame?"
Xena closed the distance between them now, drawn by the hypnotic tension that was building. "That's exactly what I mean," she said, her voice a low, warm purr.
Gabrielle's eyes drifted closed, "Yes ..."
Xena found herself staring at the bard's soft, pink mouth -- at the beautiful face and hair that, despite the darkness of the ocean night, sparkled golden like the sun. It would be so easy, Xena mused, so easy to kiss her now, take her and make her mine. She could almost taste the salt of the sea air on her lips, feel the heat of her body against the cold of the night. In this moment, she could rule her world and have Gabrielle, too.
Xena opened her eyes. Their lips were barely a breath away. Gabrielle's sweet scent was filling Xena's senses, her own skin tingling where the bard's hand still rested. She could even feel the delicious pressure of soft breasts rubbing lightly against her cloak.
It would be so easy.
She couldn't do it. Xena pulled herself away, quickly putting an arm's distance between them. Gabrielle opened her eyes in alarm as though she hadn't been aware of her own actions.
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Gabrielle. You should stay away from me. I can't be trusted."
"Truer words were never spoken," Ephiny said, appearing as though out of nowhere on the deck behind them. They both turned in guilty surprise.
"Gabrielle, go below." When the amazon princess Queen to protest, Ephiny glared. "As military Queen, I'm ordering you to go below, Gabrielle. Now!"
With one last questioning look at the Conqueror, Gabrielle departed, leaving the Military Queen and the Destroyer of Nations facing one another, alone at the stern of the ship.
Ephiny studied the dark form of the Conqueror in silence. Her gaze was strangely calm as she took in the vivid blue eyes staring back at her and the wind-whipped black hair that danced around a sculpted face. A long cloak concealed the sharp sword at the Conqueror's shoulder and covered the rest of what Ephiny knew to be a tall, strong and incredibly seductive body adorned in tight leather and the bright brass of body armor.
"Stay away from her," Ephiny warned, her quiet gaze turned threatening before she stomped away.
"I don't trust her!" Ephiny yelled to a pacing Gabrielle.
"She doesn't trust herself!" the Amazon Queen responded in exasperation.
"Good! That makes two of us."
Gabrielle sighed. "I would never do anything to risk the safety of the Nation, Ephiny."
"I know that, Gabrielle," Ephiny stated as she sat down on her bunk. "I'm not worried about the Nation. But I am worried about you." The amazon warrior studied her friend with concerned eyes.
"Don't be, Ephiny. I can take care of myself. I'll admit, I'm attracted to her ... a little." When Ephiny started to comment, Gabrielle lifted a hand. "I said, a little. You have to admit she is a very attractive woman. But it's curiosity more than anything else, I think. This story of hers ..."
"You don't think it's true?"
"I don't know," the Amazon princess said thoughtfully and she sat down on the bunk next to her friend. "Whether it's true or not, Xena believes in it enough that she has changed her ways. I just don't want you rushing to judgement, even if this whole stone thing doesn't pan out."
"What do you mean, rush to judgement?"
"You can't kill her in cold blood, Ephiny."
"Yes, I can."
"No, you can't."
"Because I won't let you, not without just cause."
"And just what do you consider just cause, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle sighed and leaned her head on her hands. "I don't know, Ephiny. We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. I just don't want any itchy fingers drawing a crossbow aimed at her heart."
"I was thinking more of a dagger myself. Up close and personal."
The bard scowled at her friend. "You know what I mean."
"You're probably right," Ephiny said, mirroring her friend by leaning her head on her hands as well. "Besides, she would never let anyone get that close to her." The amazon warrior gave her co-leader a sideways look. "Except, maybe, for you ...."
"Don't even think about it," Gabrielle warned and she pushed her friend off the bunk.
"So, now what do we do?" Ephiny asked, peering from behind a tree as she
watched a group of local women walk by. They had set up camp not far from the main road
which led into Golconda. Xena had recommended sending a small advance scouting party to
assess the situation before marching into the city with a battalion of Amazons. Of course,
the Conqueror insisted on being in the advance party, and if Xena was going, then
Gabrielle was going, and if Gabrielle was going ... well. Ephiny would have preferred to
rest after the hot and sweaty march from Muziris, but here she was, with Xena, Gabrielle,
Yakut, and a few chosen others, in the heat of the midday Indian sun, hiding being a tree
and peeking at a road.
So much for advanced Amazon military tactics.
The thoroughfare was busy with market day traffic. Several groups of scantily clad women had sauntered by the trees and Ephiny raised her spirits by eyeing the intricate artwork on the skin of their bodies with deep appreciation.
"So, what are we going to do? Knock on the temple door and say: Hey! Give us your sacred jewel?"
"I could," Xena replied, ignoring the pointed look she received from Gabrielle, "but I won't."
"Then what are you planning to do?" the Amazon warrior asked with suspicion.
"Time for the Conqueror to make an appearance." Xena hid behind her tree and reached for her back, trying to unlink a small clasp on her armor.
"Here, let me help," Gabrielle offered, walking up to do the job. Ephiny pushed passed her.
"I'll do that," the blond warrior said, giving the princess a not so gentle nudge out of the way with an elbow.
The bard scowled but acquiesced.
Xena gave her back to Ephiny, taking a glance over her shoulder at the Amazon. "Send someone back to get your warriors."
The Conqueror's request sounded suspiciously like an order to Ephiny. She paused in her task and frowned. "There is no way in Hades my Amazons are going to attack that city!"
Xena sighed. "Ephiny, I'm not planning to attack anything. Xena, the Conqueror is about pay an official visit to the city of Golconda. She can't just stroll into the city, unescorted, like she was some kind of tourist or somethin'."
Ephiny tugged hard on the stubborn clasp. "I just don't want you getting used to being escorted around by Amazons, Xena."
Xena lifted her arm to give the amazon a bit more room. "I'm only doing it to get to the stone as quickly as possible."
"We know, Xena," the bard said, offering the warrior a warm smile, "don't we?"
The bard's eyes narrowed as she sent a glare Ephiny's way. The amazon warrior answered with a hard jerk of the clasp.
The clasp released and Xena lifted the armor over her head. She pulled her silken robe out from a pack at her feet and slipped the garment on. "My presence will get us an audience with their leaders quicker than doing anything else."
"And then what?"
"And then," Xena said, placing the crown of the Conqueror on her head, "we ask to see the stone."
"You're just full of questions, aren't you?" Xena said calmly as she adjusted the elaborate crown on her hair. "I don't know every detail. All I know is I have to get in there and get a hold of that stone ... as soon as possible." Xena paused in fastening the front of her robe, wondering how long they had before Alti caught up with them. The thought of the witch made the warrior tie up the front of her tunic all the faster. "Yakut, what will happen when I touch the stone?"
The young shamaness sniffed and shrugged her shoulders. That action and the fact that the shaman headdress she was wearing was too large for her head, made Xena realize just how young and inexperienced this woman might actually be. It was her own fault, Xena mused, as she was the one who had killed off the best of the Amazon leaders.
"I'm not sure," Yakut answered, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable under the close scrutiny of the Conqueror's intense blue eyes. "I know this, the stone is supposed to be cursed."
"Cursed?" Gabrielle asked. "What do you mean cursed?"
"I mean cursed, as in protected by a spirit. I don't know what would happen if you touched the stone, Conqueror, but I don't think it's a very good idea."
"Great," Ephiny commented, rolling her eyes.
Xena advanced angrily on the young shamaness. "What are you saying? That we came all the way out here and I can't even touch the stone?"
"Hey!" Yakut took a step away from the Conqueror with raised hands. The overly large headdress fell down a little on her forehead. "Ephiny ordered me to find a stone similar to the Chronos Stone. This one is as close as you're gonna get. The Third Eye of Lakshmi sits in the statue of Sita's head and watches over our destinies. I figured if something was wrong with yours, this Third Eye ought to know about it."
When the intensity of the Conqueror's glare did not abate, Yakut pouted. "These things don't come with written instructions, you know."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "All right. So, if it's not a good idea to touch it, what should I do?"
Yakut slipped the headdress away from her forehead with the tip of her finger. "If you can get close enough, just try looking into the stone. See what happens."
The Conqueror nodded. "So the plan is, I request an audience in the temple. I'll tell them I came to pay tribute to Vishnu or Shiva or Krishna or whoever. Once I get in the temple, I'll bow before the statue and offer ..." Xena looked around, searching for something that would work as an offering. Her eyes fell on the attractive necklace hanging around Ephiny's neck.
She pulled it from the amazon before Ephiny could blink. "I'll offer this."
"Hey!" Ephiny exclaimed, grabbing at the now empty spot on her neck. "That's my necklace!"
"It's very pretty," Xena stated as she admired the sparkle.
"Why not offer your fancy crown?"
Xena frowned, appalled at the suggestion. "This crown is a symbol of my Empire."
"That necklace was a present from Gabrielle!"
Xena looked at the jewelry with even more appreciation. "Really? It's very nice."
Gabrielle shook her head in amusement. These two were going to drive her to drink. "Ephiny, let her use the necklace. I'll get you another."
"I like that one!"
"I'll get you another!"
The blond warrior shot the Conqueror a dirty look. "All right. Just one more question, Conqueror. What if they don't let you in to see the stone?"
Xena took a deep sigh, not even wanting to think about the answer. "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it."
"Just don't think we're going to lay siege to this city to get it."
"That's not a part of the plan. But there is something we are going to need if this is going to work." Xena stepped away from the group. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?" Ephiny craned her neck around the trunk of the tree, trying to see what Xena was up to.
Xena stepped out into the road and ran her hands down the front of her beautiful, silken robes in an attempt to get out the wrinkles. "Well, the Conqueror cannot enter a city for a royal visit on foot. I need to arrive on something a bit more regal."
"More regal? More regal? What's more regal than marching in with an Amazon escort? It worked in Clysma."
Xena searched the incoming and outgoing traffic passing them along the road. There were merchants and travelers of all sorts, using many modes of transportation, but none seemed to satisfy the Conqueror's needs.
Ephiny grew impatient. "If you're looking for your guilded carriage, you left it in Corinth."
"No," Xena responded squinting into the distance. "I'm looking for something even more impressive." Her blues eyes sparkled when she spied the perfect answer lumbering toward them down the road.
"That!" she announced happily as she pointed, "is just what we're looking for."
The object in question slowly came into view above the heads of the many pedestrians traveling toward them along the road.
Ephiny's eyebrows shot to the top of her head. Gabrielle's mouth dropped open, speechless. And Yakut jerked so hard in surprise, her headdress fell down completely covering her face.
"I have to admit, she sure knows how to make an entrance," Ephiny commented,
glancing up from her position in the entourage.
"I'll say," Gabrielle replied, taking the liberty of a long and appreciative look at the incredible vision that was Xena, the Conqueror. The scant, colorful outfits and feathered headdresses of the Amazons only added to the spectacle of the procession as they marched into the city of Golconda.
The sight of a parade of a full regiment of Amazon warriors marching through the city's gates was nothing compared to the image of Xena, the Conqueror riding atop an elephant at the center of the escort. She sat upon the great beast as though she had been doing it all her life, moving with it's rolling gate and heavy steps as though she had been born to it.
The throng of the city's pedestrians parted to make way for the procession, forming two lines all the way into the center of Golconda. Their cheers and yells made even Ephiny hold up her head in pride.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and sent the bard a happy wink. The Amazon princess flashed a bright smile in return. She pushed her shoulders back and raised her head in an attempt to maintain her own regal aura. One hand held her staff which clicked against the ground in time with the elephant's slow gait, the other held onto the tip of one of the magnificent beast's long, billowy ears. The skin was surprisingly soft and fuzzy.
Xena looked down on the bard out of the corner of her eye, enjoying the way she held her head and walked with her staff. She was all Amazon princess, marching proudly, hair shining golden in the sun, until the elephant took the liberty of reaching around with its long trunk to give the bard's belly a gentle tickle.
"Hey!" Gabrielle cried out in surprise, swatting the soft, snake-like thing with her hand. The elephant must have liked what it felt, because it slinked its trunk around to tickle her again.
"I said, cut that out!" the bard pushed the appendage away.
Xena laughed and patted the elephant's head. She couldn't blame him one bit.
The procession came to a halt in front of what could have only been the great temple of the city of Golconda. A long row of stairs made of the flawless white marble led up to its grand entrance. Carvings along the columns and across the facade were intricate in their detail, depicting Rama and Sita and all the Hindu avatars in their various manifestations. Eloquent tapestries hung down from marble balconies, leading the eye upward to the spherical roof which curved into a spire and reached for the heavens, pointing the way to nirvana.
Xena felt the elephant shift into a comfortable stance, then she took a moment to discreetly study her surroundings. There were guards everywhere: lined up in front of the temple, positioned along the rooftops of adjacent buildings, even scattered along the inside of the city's fortress walls. This place was heavily protected, the temple obviously an important one.
With an order from Ephiny, the Amazon escort drew their swords, performing a series of intricate moves that brought them to attention. Xena raised an eyebrow. The display was very impressive.
The Amazon leader stepped forward and saluted the contingent of white robed men at the entrance to the temple, assuming they were the leaders.
"Xena, the Conqueror!" she announced with a loud and commanding voice, saluting the leaders once more and then turning to salute the Conqueror. She hated this part of the job, but she did it.
The announcement sent a wave of whispers through the crowd in the square.
Xena waited calmly atop the elephant, knowing that this was an important moment. India was a distant part of her empire, not as removed as Ch'in, but not as heavily allied either. Though it belonged to her, it remained to be seen how the people of a lesser city would react to her presence.
The priests seemed unsure. The sun reflected brightly off their white robes as they looked at one another with concern. Xena waited patiently, letting the majesty of the spectacle make the decision for them. It wasn't long until all of the men kneeled and bowed before their sovereign ruler.
The rest of the audience followed suit.
Xena breathed a sigh of relief and then vocalized a series of clucks which aroused the elephant to movement. Gabrielle and Ephiny had to step away as the beast bent both front legs and kneeled its immense bulk all the way down. Xena slid gracefully from her place on its back, wiped her robes, then glided to the stairs to talk with the city's leaders.
She gave a tug on the young shamaness's robe as she sauntered by.
"Come," Xena's low voice commanded.
Yakut's eyes grew round. "You want me to come with you?"
But the question only bounced off the back of the Conqueror's golden silk robe, she was halfway to the stairs.
Ephiny jerked her head at the shamaness, and so Yakut hurried after.
Xena glided up the stairs to the temple, knowing that the length of her robe made it appear as though she was floating. She had practiced the illusion many times.
Reaching the top of the staircase, she paused before the group of priests. They eyed her with an expression that Xena easily recognized as fear. The warrior resisted the urge to smile.
"Xena," one of the priests addressed her and bowed.
"That's Conqueror to you," Xena replied, answering in their own language. She felt the presence of Yakut stumble up beside her, but did not spare the young shamaness a glance.
"You honor us with your presence," another priest offered, also adding a bow.
Xena inclined her head and took a quick look at the carvings and illustrations which adorned the marble all around them.
"I've come to give a tribute to Sita," Xena said, motioning for Yakut to show them the necklace, "Lakshmi has been good to me."
The young shamaness looked at Xena blankly, not having understood the language.
"The necklace, Yakut, show them the necklace."
"Oh." Yakut reach under her deerskin cloak and produced the offering, which she showed to the priests.
The priest stared at the necklace without expression.
"They are rare and valuable stones from Greece, an Amazon symbol of courage. An appropriate offering for Sita, I thought."
All the priests smiled. Xena smiled. Yakut smiled, though she had no idea what she was smiling at.
"You cannot go into the temple," the priest in the center said, still smiling.
"You cannot go in," another confirmed.
"I've come a long way ..." Xena began, but the priest in the middle held up his hand.
"No women. It is a blasphemy."
Xena lost her smile and looked down at Yakut. The young shamaness was still smiling, not understanding a word.
She turned back to the priests, her expression not so delighted. "But you have a statue of Sita in there and Sita is a woman ..."
"Sita is an avatar and blessed above all others."
"You cannot go into the temple."
"It is a blasphemy."
The tense expression on the Conqueror's face made Yakut lose her smile. "Conqueror .... is there a problem?" Yakut asked softly.
Xena forced her face to relax, trying very hard to stop her hand from drawing the knife she had hidden inside her cloak and disemboweling them all. She looked down at her companion instead.
"Tomorrow, they said. We have to wait until tomorrow."
Yakut put the necklace back under her cloak and shrugged. "Oh, well, that's not so bad."
Xena turned her back on the priests and marched down the stairs. Yakut, taken by surprise by the abrupt departure, stumbled down a few seconds later.
Xena drew the sharpening stone across the edge of her sword with an angry swipe.
"I should already have that stone in my hand!" she fumed, staring into the darkness of the forest. She made another angry stroke across the sword. "I should have just walked in there and taken it."
The sharpening stone paused in its task. That was exactly what she needed to do. She couldn't tell Gabrielle and the Amazons she had been refused access, and she couldn't wait until tomorrow to try again. Alti was hot on their heels and there was no way in Tartarus she was going to let that witch get her hands on the Third Eye of Lakshmi.
Xena halted her sharpening and listened to the sounds of the Amazons cleaning up after the evening meal. Dishes were being washed, swords were being sharpened, conversations beginning around the various small campfires scattered throughout the forest. It had been a hard day's march to get here, and a stressful procession into Golconda. They should all be asleep in no time.
And when the last of the Amazons had been tucked in for the night, Xena would handle the situation as she should have handled the situation in the first place.
Curse or no curse, she was going to sneak into that temple and take the stone. Once it was in her hands, it was up to the Gods what would happen after that.
"Xena?" A soft voice called out in the night.
"Over here," Xena replied, putting the sharpening stone away her sack.
Gabrielle stepped out from the bushes and into the small clearing that Xena had retreated to after dinner.
"Hi!" the bard smiled. "Thought you might like some company."
"Sure, have a seat." Xena moved over a bit on the log she was sitting upon, making some room for Gabrielle. "I'm surprised Ephiny let you walk around in the woods alone."
"She's sharpening her sword," Gabrielle grinned. "Is that what you were doing?"
"Yeah. Old warrior habits die hard."
They smiled at one another, both finding a surprising comfort in their companionship.
"Xena," Gabrielle began, "Yakut told me you spoke to the Hindu priests in their own language."
"That's very impressive. How many languages do you speak?"
Xena bit her bottom lip and looked up at the trees. "I don't know. I never counted them. I tried to learn all the languages ..."
"Of all the lands you conquered?"
"Of all the places I'd been. I enjoy learning different languages. It seems to come easy to me. I was always good at that, even as a child."
"What's so funny?" Xena asked.
"I don't know. It's just hard to imagine the Conqueror as a child."
Xena picked up the leather sheath and slid her sword inside. "I am human, after all. I was born and raised just like everybody else, although my mother would probably like to deny that."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, suddenly feeling bad about the statement. "I was only trying to tease you. But the truth is, there are people who do believe that you are not human."
"That I'm a heartless monster formed out of clay? That Ares himself breathed life into me and placed me on the earth to lay waste to everything in my path?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"I've heard the story. There was a time when I almost believed it myself. The truth is, Gabrielle, that I have blood in my veins, just like everybody else. If you cut me, I'll bleed. And a sword through my heart will kill me just as surely as it will kill anybody." Xena looked at the sword in her hand and then tossed it to the ground.
"You're going to touch that stone, aren't you?" Gabrielle asked suddenly. "Your going to walk in there tomorrow and grab that stone right out of the head of the statue, curse or no curse. Am I right?"
Xena raised her head in surprise and stared at the bard. "Yes," she replied simply. "I have to."
"Why, Xena? Why would you risk your life in such a way?"
Xena raised her eyebrow. "If you hardly believe in my stone story, then how can you believe in its curse?"
"I don't," Gabrielle responded, "but I do believe there will be a roomful of guards who will happily put a sword right through your heart."
"They'll have to catch me first."
"You'll have nowhere to run ... in there." Gabrielle sighed and folded her hands in her lap. "Xena, once you grab that stone out of the statue's head, if it doesn't whisk you back to wherever you say you're from, then you'll be facing a roomful of Hindu guards. Too many, I think, even for you to handle alone. They'll kill you, Xena. Have you thought about that?"
"Then they'll be saving Ephiny the trouble."
"That's not funny. No one wants to kill you."
"I won't let them."
"You won't, huh? Maybe I should take you in there for protection."
Gabrielle grinned. "I'd go in a heartbeat, but somehow I don't think Ephiny will let me."
"Thank you for the thought, Gabrielle. But I wouldn't let you either."
The bard nodded. "I know." She moved a hair closer to the warrior. "Xena, why risk it at all? Maybe, this is what was meant to be, that's why it all changed in the first place. Why not leave things the way they are?"
Xena turned on the log so she could fully face the bard. "Gabrielle, why are you so intent on keeping things this way? I would think you, of all people, would like to see the reign of Xena the Conqueror come to an end."
"Because the reign of Xena, the Conqueror has already come to an end. You're not the same person, you don't have to rule in the same way. You can do a lot of good now, I'm sure of it. What I'm not so sure of is what would happen if you are killed. There is a world full of warlords bent on world domination. Any one of them would be a whole lot worse than you. That scary woman, Alti, comes to mind right now."
"If Ephiny heard you talking, she try you for treason."
"Ephiny can see the difference in you. She just won't admit it."
Xena shifted on the log, turning away. Even here, where Xena was the Conqueror, Gabrielle found a way to believe in her. "There are other reasons ... things you don't know, Gabrielle."
"Then tell me."
Gabrielle grabbed her shoulder and turned the warrior around. "Why? Why not? I hope you're not risking your life because you miss me as your friend?"
Xena looked guiltily to the ground. "I do ... miss my friend."
"But you don't have to travel through time to find your friend. Xena, your friend is right here, sitting beside you."
The bard grinned crookedly, "Yes, she is." But the warm smile faded. "Xena, please don't tell me your willing to risk the fate of the world because ... because of me?"
Xena remained silent for a moment, trying to think of all the reasons for putting things back the way they were. There were more reasons than just the desire for her partner, that was certain, but the truth was, to the warrior none were as important. But, she couldn't tell Gabrielle that.
"It's not just because of you. There are lives out there that have been changed. Some for the better, I'll admit, but others not. Most importantly, there is a man named Hercules ..."
"You don't recognize the name because he doesn't exist here, but he was hero to the entire world and more than that to me. When I met him, I was on the road to conquering the world, to becoming what you know now. He showed me a different way, and because of him, my life was changed forever. I don't know what happened to wipe his existence from the face of the earth, but if Iolaus risked traveling through time to steal the Chronos Stone, then it couldn't have been good."
"He has helped this world in ways that you do not know, Gabrielle. I owe it to him to try and put things right. But most importantly, I owe it to everyone. This world is not meant to be ruled by one person and one person alone. No good can come of it, and it never will, no matter who does the ruling."
As fantastic as it might sound, Gabrielle knew that everything Xena was saying was true. "So tomorrow, you're going to hold the Third Eye of Lakshmi in the palm of your hands."
Xena nodded. "Either I'll be able to use its power to heal this rip in time or I'll be standing there in a roomful of Hindu fanatics with their sacred stone in my hands. If that's not cursed, I don't know what is."
"Maybe I should go in there with you ..."
"I could distract them with my bard thing ..."
"I could explain what has happened ..."
"Send a signal to Ephiny if things go wrong ..."
"I said NO!"
Gabrielle crossed her arms angrily. "Xena, I'm not going to sit back and let you get yourself killed."
"I'm not going to get killed. Hopefully, it'll work just like the Chronos Stone."
"And send you through time to somehow change things back?"
"If it works, I won't forget this, will I? Forget you, I mean?"
Xena grinned, her eyes warming at the sight of Gabrielle's concerned face. "I don't know if either of us will remember any of this. But there is one thing I do know, no matter what the destiny, you won't forget me. And I could never forget you."
Gabrielle mirrored Xena's smile and placed her palm on the warm skin of Xena's thigh. The contact sent a thrill through the warrior, like being caressed by the sun on a warm summer's day. She should have discreetly pulled her leg away and broken the connection, but it just felt too good.
Xena's smile faded to a tiny grin as she arched her brow. "Isn't this where Ephiny is suppose to come in?"
"I made sure she would be busy for a while after dinner."
"Really?" Xena commented, letting the bard's hand stay where it was. "And what did you do to keep her off your trail?"
"I switched her sword for a dull one. She'll be sharpening it for hours."
"Gabrielle, a warrior knows her own sword."
"Uh uh," the bard answered, shaking her head. "You may be able to afford a custom sword, but ours are all standard Amazon issue."
"All the swords are the same?"
"Uh huh. All the weapons."
"All? Even staffs?"
Gabrielle nodded, "All the way down to the arrow heads."
"But I've seen your staff. Your staff is different from everyone else's."
"That's because I'm special."
"You certainly are," Xena commented softly, placing a large hand over the smaller one still her thigh. "I'm not too sure about this plan of yours, Gabrielle. A warrior like Ephiny knows her own sword. We better get back to camp, before she sends an entire patrol out after you. Besides, tomorrow is going to be a big day and we should get some rest."
"Oh, all right," the bard said with a disappointed sigh.
Xena gave the soft hand a pat and then rose. "C'mon, before Ephiny has a centaur."
The comment made Xena stop and think. "I mean a cow," she corrected with chuckle and extended her hand.
When Gabrielle took it, Xena pulled the bard to her feet and led her back to camp.
"WHERE IS MY SWORD!"
Both Xena and Gabrielle winced as they heard the cry. They walked into camp trying to look as innocent as possible.
"Somebody gave me a dull sword! Who switched my sword? GABRIELLE!"
The Amazon whirled around, searching the camp with enraged eyes. "GABRIELLE!"
Ephiny froze, spying her friend as she emerged from the woods hand in hand with the Conqueror. Hand in hand?
Ephiny's eyes grew wide with anger.
Gabrielle dropped the hand like it was a hot potato.
When the glare aimed itself at Xena, the warrior raised her palms in surrender. "Don't look at me. I didn't take it." The Conqueror brushed passed the fuming Ephiny as quickly as she could.
The Amazon warrior turned on the princess. "What do you think you were doing?"
"We were talking about tomorrow."
"Oh, you were talking about tomorrow, were you?" Ephiny asked, crossing her arms. "And I suppose you had to hold hands to do that?"
"No, Xena didn't have to take my hand. She could have just let me trip over that log and those rocks in the darkness there."
"Hummpf, yourself. Look, I'm tired Ephiny. What do you say we call it a night and get some rest. It's been a long day."
The bard walked off without further comment, heading toward their tent.
"It was long, but it sure wasn't dull," Ephiny commented, watching the bard as she walked away. "Hey! You better give me back my sword!"
Alti stood at the top of the hill, looking out over the valley below. In the distance,
she could see not only the lights of Golconda, but the twinkling of multiple small
campfires scattered throughout the forest just to the west of the city's gate. More
importantly, she could smell the scent of Amazon floating in the air. The sorceress
breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the fragrance of the dark night.
"I can smell them, Xena. But you ... I can feel you," the shamaness whispered hoarsely to the valley. "You may be a few hours ahead of me, but I'm going to get to that diamond before you."
Alti looked to the dark sky and studied the position of the moon.
"It is time," she announced to the restless spirits in the trees. "SATRINA!"
Alti turned her back on the view, facing their own encampment. "SATRINA!" she yelled, her hard voice seeming to rustle the leaves overhead in alarm. She could see the shadow of the slave step out of a tent and look up the hill questioningly.
"GET UP HERE."
Satrina dropped the flap of the tent as she stepped into the coolness of the night. She wasted no time sprinting up the hill to answer the shamaness's call.
"You summoned me, Alti?" the slave said a bit out of breath as she reached the top of the grassy knoll.
Alti smiled seductively. "Come here, Satrina," she said and beckoned her over with a long finger. "I want to show you something."
The slave took hesitant steps toward the witch, cringing when the woman placed an arm around her shoulder.
"It's time you and I had a little talk," Alti's coarse voice whispered in Satrina's ear.
"About what?" the slave asked. She tried to keep her eyes on the witch, but Alti guided her by the shoulders to stand in front, giving her a full view of the valley below.
"About your future," Alti answered.
Satrina looked out into the darkness and smiled. This was it. It was what she was hoping for. Alti was going to take her under her wing.
The scorceress rubbed the slave's shoulders, a dark light sparkling in her eyes. "I know you've always wanted to have the kind of power that Xena has, haven't you?"
Alti moved her head around to whisper into the other ear. "You've served her, studied her, even slept with her, hoping to learn all that you could. You gave your body to her, feeding her dark tastes, secretly believing that with the contact of your skin on hers ..." Alti ran a sharp nail along the smooth skin of the slave's neck, "... you might actually be able to absorb that power, and make it your own. Isn't that so, Satrina?"
The slave nodded again, trying to control the shiver of rising goosebumps that Alti's touch had produced.
"I think you must realize by now that Xena is selfish with that power. She doesn't share that part of her with anyone. I, on the other hand, live to share in that power. The question is ... what are you willing to share, Satrina?"
Satrina smiled. Finally, she was going to get what she had always desired. At last, the secret that gave women like Xena and Alti their incredible power was going to be hers. For that, she would give the witch anything she wanted.
"I can serve you far better than Xena ever did, Alti," Satrina said, pressing her body into the witch's, giving a promise of the services to come.
"Oh, I know you will." Alti's hot breath tickled against Satrina's ear, sending a cold shudder down her spine.
"Just tell me what you want and I'll do it." Satrina leaned her head to the side, giving the witch full access to a scrumptious neck.
Alti's eyes flashed in evil anticipation. "What I want?" She ran a thin and chapped hand over Satrina's shoulder, letting her bony fingers inch their way down to cup and squeeze a soft and ample breast.
"You'll give me anything I want?" The witch's fingers played with a taunt nipple for a few moments before giving it a hard squeeze.
"Yesss," Satrina moaned and leaned harder against the shamaness, rocking her hips seductively.
Alti's hand left the breast and Satrina moaned at the loss of contact.
"I'll tell you what I want," Alti whispered, pressing hard, dry lips against her neck. "I want your soul!"
The knife was so sharp, Satrina felt the flow of her own hot blood before the shooting pain of the slash. Her mouth opened to scream, but Alti had cut her throat through the vocal cords, almost to the spine. The slave lifted her hands, mouthing a silent scream at the sight of her own blood spilled upon them.
Satrina's last thought was how black blood looks in the night.
Alti caught the body as it fell, helping it to slip to the cold ground. She fell to her knees and worked quickly, using the knife to slice through the chest cavity. Then her own hands prodded through the gash to grab at the bone. With a hard tug, she cracked open the ribs. Speed was of the essence.
Her eyes glowed with delight at the site of the heart, still beating a slow and occasional thump.
The witch reached into Satrina's chest and pulled the heart out with both hands. She bit into the organ just as it beat its last.
The rush of life poured into the shamaness, its power flooding through her body and throwing her back onto the grass. She convulsed, resisting the urge to vomit and watched with unblinking eyes as the dark sky above her began to spin out of control.
Her body convulsed again and then a strange stillness ran through her limbs. She felt nothing, could move nothing, could see only the black sky and hear the steady sound of her own breathing hissing in her ears.
Just as she thought she would remain in this peaceful moment for eternity, a violent pain shot through the length of her body. As though an ungodly hand had ripped her own heart out from her chest, she was suddenly floating above herself, hovering amongst the leaves of the trees and looking down at the still oozing corpse of Satrina and her own dark form.
Alti laughed at the sight, a cackling laugh filled with gravel that echoed through the woods and caused the wolves nearby to begin to howl.
She knew she was not dead, but separated from herself and for only a short time. She had much to do and she had better get to it.
With a insidious howl, Alti's form shimmered briefly and then shot off into the woods, rocketing above the trees and whizzing away in gleeful circles, speeding toward the city of Golconda.
The statue of Sita sat in the center of the temple. The legs were crossed, arms lifted
in praise to Lakshmi. In the center of the forehead of a beautiful and serence face was
set a diamond. So large and so many were its facets that the gem reflected light the color
of a rich and mysterious blue. The slight smile on the lips of Sita only hinted at, but
never betrayed, the secrets that lay hidden within the sparkle of the Third Eye of
Alti materialized beside the statue, barely disturbing the dark quiet of the chamber. Her eyes darted quickly around the room, but the chamber was empty, the temple still. Not even the flower petals scattered at the avatar's feet had been disturbed by her presence.
She smiled and, wasting no time, reached for the stone.
The witch's hand paused. Was she imaging it or had this ugly statue just seemed to frown? Alti shook off the feeling, grabbed the edges of the diamond with the tips of her fingers and pulled. The stone slipped easily into the palm of her hand - almost too easily.
Alti looked down at the large blue diamond in her palm. It shimmered once of its own accord. And then again. And then the stone began to pulsate until a glow filled the temple chamber, engulfing the shamaness in a brightness that burned right through to the core of her soul.
Suddenly, the sorceress was travelling at a great speed down a tunnel of light, shooting through the corridor toward a destination even Alti didn't know. In all her dark years, she had never experienced such a power. She was being propelled at a dizzying speed, twirling and whirling helplessly forward. And then her flight slowed, until she finally stopped. She was hovering at an intersection as though the power that had been propelling her did not know which way to go.
She could see a fracture in the tunnel -- a rip, a tear. She floated slowly to the fissure and studied it. The tunnel appeared split in two directions and she was unable to travel forward any further or go either way. The witched stretched out a cautious hand to touch the flow of color and light that was seeping through one end of the fissure.
Alti's eyes widened.
It was Xena. She could see Xena on this side of the fissure, but it was not the Xena she knew - not Xena, the Conqueror. It was some other Xena that exuded so much goodness, it almost made the witch cringe. And the blond amazon was by her side - the one called Gabrielle.
Alti pulled back her hand and looked at the other side of the tunnel. There was a similar fracture with an equally similar flow of light. She placed her hand within that flow.
There was Xena again. On this side, there was no blond at her side, but there were plenty of bodies at her feet. Now here was the Xena she knew and loved.
Alti withdrew her hand and studied the two cracks watching as the flow of light seeped into the center of the tunnel and mixed. She reached out a hand to caress the combined flow.
Just as suddenly as she had begun the journey, she found herself back in the temple with the Third Eye of Lakshmi still in her hand and the statue of Sita staring at her, its smile somehow disturbing.
So this is why Xena was so hot to get this stone, Alti thought as she eyed the blue gem. Now it was all beginning to make sense: her strange behavior, the tearing down of the crucifixion field, the way she had been avoiding Alti for months, her obsession with the Chronos stone and its disappearance ... and her preoccupation with a certain blond amazon.
Yes, it was all beginning to make sense.
Alti looked at the statue and held up the stone. "Thank you, Sita," she said to the figure. "You've answered a lot of questions." She turned in the direction of the city's gate and to the Amazon camp that she knew lay beyond. "It was never about power, was it Xena? It's all been about time ... time and destiny."
She flipped the stone once in the air and chuckled as her long fingers closed around the Third Eye of Lakshmi.
"Well, your destiny is in my hands now, Warrior Princess."
And with that she twirled so quickly, her form became a blur of motion until it faded and finally disappeared completely. The temple was quiet and empty once more.
Until a shadow rippled along the surface of the statue of Sita. Blank, lifeless eyes turned dark and angry. Hard bronze coalesced into warm, tan skin. The apparition dropped her hands and stood, her enigmatic smile changing to a stern frown.
The image took one graceful step away from the altar, leaving a cold statue still sitting in its place. She lifted her arms, shimmered and then disappeared.
Like a kitten ... purring, Xena mused as she watched the sleeping form directly across
from her. Even in the darkness of the tent, she could see a few locks of golden hair
sticking out from beneath the covers, shining like a candle in the night. The bard was
asleep on the other side of the tent and snoring softly. What Xena wanted to do was crawl
into that warm bedroll and hold her partner in her arms, tucking her in close so she could
enjoy the vibration of those contented, soft sounds as she had on so many nights in the
Instead, the Warrior Princess studied the body lying between them.
Though there was no way Ephiny wanted them sleeping anywhere near each other, she also had not wanted Xena out of her sight. So, while she had insisted that Xena sleep in the tent, she promptly placed her own bedroll between them, keeping the two of them as far away from one another as the walls of the tent would allow. The military leader of the Amazons slept with her body facing the Conqueror, one hand on the hilt of her sharp sword and a knife in the other.
As though that could stop the Conqueror from taking what she wanted, if she desired to do so. Xena shook the thought out of her mind, concentrating on the steady rise and fall of the breathing of the two women beside her instead.
Her tent mates were obviously asleep, but Xena waited a while longer just to be sure before slipping out of her bedroll.
Sparing one last, long look at the peacefully sleeping bard, Xena split the seam at the rear of the tent with her knife and slipped away into the night.
Xena was a shadow floating along the streets of the city. A whisper of a breeze, a soft
scrape against a stone -- barely a sound marked her passage over the gate and down the
winding corridors and alleys that led to the great temple in the heart of Golconda.
She pressed her body into a dark alcove and smiled. Many a war could be won with such an act of stealth. A sharp knife and the right target could end a conflict before it had even begun; a monarch overthrown before his subjects could wipe the sleep from their eyes. Though Xena had taught and trained many assassins, none were ever as good as she, but that was because no one enjoyed it as much as she did.
It was something she had learned from Loa Ma a long time ago -- how to become invisible. Of course, Loa Ma taught her the skill for a different purpose, but like everything else Xena had absorbed in those early days, she had adapted the ability to blend into her surroundings to suit her own purposes. There was nothing more thrilling than sneaking past an opponent's defenses and standing at the foot of your enemy's bed as he slept with a knife in your hand.
Xena rubbed her itchy, and empty, palm against the skirt of her leathers. Best she get into the temple, get that stone, and put things right as quickly as possible.
With barely a sound, the Conqueror left the alcove, following the shadows along the wall as they led to the Temple of Lakshmi.
The main chamber in the temple was cold and empty. Xena eyed the rear of the bronze statue in the center of the room, feeling a strange stillness emanating from it. She walked silently and swiftly toward the sculpture, pausing just behind it to narrow her eyes in suspicion.
Something was wrong. There was an icy dread in the air and it was coming from the center of the room -- from the statue of Sita.
Xena tiptoed around the figure, noting the raised hands and half expecting them to drop and grab her. She paced to the front of the statue of Sita and froze.
The diamond was gone.
There was an empty, octagonal space where there should have been a stone.
The Third Eye of Lakshmi was gone and the statue did not seem happy about it at all. Nor was Xena.
"ALTI!" Xena cursed under her breath.
She backed away from the bronze sculpture and ran from the chamber, determined to get back to the Amazon camp before the shamaness did.
Happy and warm in her bedroll, Ephiny snorted at a tickle and reached up to scratch her nose, almost cutting it off with the knife she held still grasped in her hand.
"Shit!" she whispered, feeling the poke of the tip of the blade inside her nostril. She dropped the knife quickly and touched the tips of her fingers to her nose, half expecting to find blood. Luckily, she had only managed to scratch the itch.
The Amazon looked guiltily at the bedroll across from her, hoping the Conqueror had not witnessed the unwarrior-like display.
She didnt have to worry. The bedroll was empty.
"SHIT!" Ephiny yelped and jumped up from her blankets.
"Ephiny, whats wrong?" Gabrielle mumbled sleepily as she poked her head out of her blankets.
"Where is she?" the Amazon demanded of her friend, pointing to the empty bed. "Shes not in there with you, is she?"
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle protested, rising from the covers. "Dont be ridiculous!" The bard shuffled over and looked down at the empty blankets. "I have no idea where she is. Maybe she had to go ... you know ... relieve herself?"
Ephiny huffed and picked up her sword. "Not without me, she isnt."
Gabrielle grinned. "What? You gonna help her wipe?"
"Very funny," Ephiny replied and took two steps toward the front flap before turning to face her friend. "Dont you even THINK about leaving this tent to look for her. She doesnt need your help either."
The Amazon scowled and turned to exit the tent, almost crashing into the guard that was rushing in to enter.
"Ephiny!" the guard exclaimed, out of breath.
"What is it?"
The guard could not reply, taking huge gulps of air instead in an attempt to steady her breathing.
"Easy now," Gabrielle prompted, stepping up to calm the woman down. "Take it slow."
The guard nodded and smiled weakly, waiting until she had her breath under control before continuing to report. "Theres an army approaching just over the hill, less than a mile away."
"An army?" Gabrielle asked, looking at the woman with great concern. "What do you mean, an army? Whos army?"
"About 300 foot soldiers, no cavalry, and moving quickly, heading right for us."
"Indian?" Ephiny queried.
The guard shook her head. "No, Ephiny. Greek. Theyre flying the flag of the Conqueror."
Ephiny whirled on Gabrielle, the anger in her eyes flashing through the darkness. "I knew it! Gabrielle, this was a trap."
"I should have known! She lured whats left of the Amazon Nation into the open, onto foreign soil no less. Used us to help her find a powerful stone. By the gods! We led her right to it! All the while, her army is following close behind."
"I dont believe it, Ephiny."
"Have you lost your mind, Gabrielle? Or have you just lost your heart? Look at the empty bedroll! Shes gone to join her army, and if we dont do something quick, shes about to attack that city, get the stone, and wipe out the rest of the Amazon warriors and the last two leaders, all in one grand swoop! Ive got to hand it to her -- it was a brilliant plan -- had me fooled.
"No," Gabrielle said weakly, shaking her head in denial.
Ephiny took Gabrielle by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake. "Youre just another conquest to her, dont you know that?"
"This is all my fault."
"No, its my own damn fault. I shouldve know better," Ephiny said, shaking her head at her own stupidity. "Cmon, weve got to get out of here, and Ive got to get you to safety."
"What are we going to do?" Gabrielle said as she grabbed her staff and followed Ephiny outside.
Ephiny attached her sword to the back of her armor and smiled. "What we always do. Take to the trees. Were not going out without a damn good fight!"
The Amazon military leader cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled.
"TAKE TO THE TREES! PREPARE TO FIGHT!"
Xena slid silently around the last few trees, finally seeing the dim form of the rear of the tent in the clearing just ahead. Her return to the Amazon camp had been far easier than her departure.
No guards, she thought worriedly as she used a shadow of the last bush to mask her approach. Xena slipped a fingertip into the seam and opened it slowly, peering warily inside. The tent was dark and quiet. She opened the flap a little wider and searched the interior with bright and alert eyes. There were still three bedrolls inside, but all of them were empty.
Xena entered quickly and paused, listening with all her senses for any indication of what was going on. All was quiet -- too quiet. The Warrior Princess tiptoed her way across the tent, stepping carefully over Ephinys scattered bedding. As she approached the flap to the front, she quietly drew her sword -- its very slight metallic ring disturbed the unsettling silence. Xena held her breath and pulled open the door.
She was greeted by a smiling Alti and the knuckles of Darfuss fist as he slammed her right between the eyes. Xenas head snapped back from the surprise blow and she stumbled backward.
Darfus knew he needed to press his advantage quickly with Xena or the tables would turn. He rushed at her through the door of the tent, driving his fist first into her midsection and then crashing the metal spiked side of his gauntlet down on the back of her head as she doubled over. The blow sent Xena to the ground. Darfus wasted no time and kicked her in the ribs, grinning wildly at the sound of breaking bone.
By the gods, the Conqueror was down by his own hand! Darfus foamed at the mouth at the thought of it and kicked again.
"THATS ENOUGH!" Alti commanded. She grabbed Darfus by the shoulder and pushed him away. The shamaness stared at the unconscious form of the Conqueror sprawled out across the floor. "Thatll do ... for now." She grinned at the Commander and patted his face. "You did good."
Darfus smiled and licked his lips.
Alti knelt next to her fallen protege, noting the dark trickle of blood that was seeping from the corner of Xenas nose. The witch wiped at the blood with the tip of a finger and then licked it clean. "My turn next," she said and cackled.
The sound of her abrasive laughter made even Darfus back away a few steps in fear.
The first thing Xena became aware of was the bitter taste of blood in her mouth; the next thing she felt was the pain. Any attempt to move caused her ribs to scream out in agony. At least two broken, she though as she forced down the feeling of nausea and slowly opened her eyes. There were a pair of boot heels right in front of her nose. She must be on the floor. Another attempt to move brought more pain and the realization that her hands had been tied behind her back.
The boots shifted at her motion and their owner squatted to take a closer look.
"Finally awake? Bout time. Thought you were gonna be out til noon." Darfus stood and nudged her shoulder with the tip of his boot. "Get up," he ordered.
Xena swallowed a moan, choosing to growl instead. She gritted her teeth and shifted on her knees, refusing to let her captor know that she was in any pain whatsoever.
"Youre going to regret this, Darfus," she promised through clenched teeth, using the threat to mask her discomfort as she rose to her feet. Her ribs protested the action greatly, as did her pounding head. For a moment, darkness swam before her eyes threatening to engulf her.
"Need help?" the Commander offered with a sneer.
"Dont you touch me," the Conqueror warned. Xena stood and waited for the room to stop spinning before she opened her eyes. She pinned the man with a look that promised to kill him and his entire army.
"Wouldnt dream of it," Darfus replied, swallowing a gulp despite his bravado. "Ill leave that to Alti." He stepped to the rear, revealing a gloating shamaness standing to face her prisoner.
"Xena! How nice of you to join us," Alti said, thoroughly enjoying the pallor in the Conquerors face and the trickle of blood still leaking from her nose. "What happened to all your little Amazon friends? Scare them away already? No matter, well find them later."
Xena breathed a silent sigh of relief. Apparently, Gabrielle and the Amazons had managed to escape. Thank the gods.
"All right, Alti. I know how you love to gloat. So gwan -- get on with it," Xena said as she spit blood to the dirt. She wasnt sure if the sight of the shamaness or the pounding of her head made her feel like throwing up.
Alti chuckled and circled around her opponent. "Take a little stroll in the forest last night, Xena? Find what you were looking for?"
Xena stared at the witch, remaining silent.
Alti held up her hand. The sparkle of the giant blue diamond she was holding in it took Xenas breath away.
"Was this what you were looking for by any chance ... Warrior Princess?" Alti asked, slowly and carefully.
Alti stepped closer, lifting the gem higher, forcing the sparkle to fill Xenas eyes.
"Yes, thats what I called you, Xena ... Warrior Princess. I know whats going on now. The diamond told me everything. You were right to go after this stone, Xena. Its power is remarkable." Alti twisted the gem in air, letting a beam of sunlight burn through its center and split the dim of the tent into a shower of brilliant light. "And its beautiful, too, isnt it?"
Alti moved the gem closer, letting Xena study the many facets and planes of the glowing blue diamond. The witch brought her face close to the warriors, watching the way Xena was watching the stone.
"It told me all about you, Xena ... all about your destiny ... or destinies, I should say."
Xena tried to turn away from the stone, to stare at the sorceress, but its luster was too demanding, its lure too hypnotizing. She forgot all about the pounding in her head or the pain of her ribs as she stared into the midnight clear depths of the luminous blue stone.
"Youre a very lucky woman, Xena. It seems you have two destinies to choose from." Alti turned the stone to one side and brought it closer to Xenas face.
"You can follow the path of the Warrior Princess, with that pretty blond amazon by your side .... and in your bed." Alti laughed seductively. "Look deeply, Xena and see where that path will lead."
The clear center of the stone clouded and then the clouds coalesced into an image. It was an image of a cold, blue snow field and roman soldiers. There was a reflection in a shield, her own reflection. She was wounded and bleeding and being lowered onto a cross. Her head turned, as painful a movement as moving her head was now, and she could see that she was not alone. Another battered and broken body was being prepared for crucifixion. Xena watched as all her worse fears came true before her very eyes.
Gabrielle turned her head and smiled at her even as they tied her legs to the cross. Despite the horrific scene, her beauty took Xenas breath away.
The bards warm, green eyes caused the warrior to smile despite the pain that was coursing through her heart.
"Gabrielle ... you are the best thing in my life."
Her partners smile filled Xenas heart beyond anything she had ever known.
"I love you, Xena." The words were the kiss of forgiveness.
"I love you, Xena .... I love you, Xena ..."
The words repeated themself over and over as the picture in the center of the stone faded; the last visible image -- the pounding of a hammer as it drove a crucifixion nail home.
Xena felt her knees giving way. If not for Darfus, she would have tumbled to the dirt in a useless heap. The Commander held her up, forcing her to continue to look.
Altis upper lip quivered in a sneer. "Dont like that destiny, Xena? Well, Ive got another one for you." She flipped the stone around to the other side and pushed it into Xenas face. Xena tried to avert her eyes, but Darfus grabbed her by the hair, pulling her head back, forcing her to look.
Xena watched as, once again, the center of the blue diamond clouded and then cleared, a new image filling her vision.
This vision was of the great and invincible Conqueror, ruler of the world -- the greatest warrior ever known. Xena stood tall and proud, sword in hand and a cruel, small smile upon her lips as she stood in the middle of a vast battlefield. The Conqueror lifted her sword and pointed across a sea of slaughtered Amazon warriors littering the landscape as far as the eye could see.
Alti sidled up beside the warrior and chuckled. "So you see, Xena, you can turn goody-two-shoes, get the pretty blond and end up together on the cross, or you can keep things as they are. Of course, theres no blond Amazon in the Conquerors future -- theyre all dead, you see," Alti shrugged, " but you will live a nice, long life and rule the world while you do it."
Alti pulled the stone away from Xenas face and replaced it with her own leering one. "Now, why do I get this feeling that you traveled all the way here so you can switch to the goody-two-shoes path?"
Xena tried to swallow, wishing that she could sit down, but Darfus was still pulling her hair and holding her up. She strained at the bindings on her wrists, but they were too tight and she was too weak. "Because thats the way its suppose to be, Alti. I think you know that."
"Nothing is carved in stone, anymore, Xena -- if youll pardon the pun," Alti said with a smile. "After all, someone, somewhere, somehow messed it all up. And now the stone is in my hands." She flipped the gem once and chuckled. "And so is your future, it seems. What if I told you, there was a third option? One that Darfus and I like much better than either of these two."
At the statement, Darfus laughed heartily.
"Cmon, Xena, lets go take a look at a brand new day." Alti jerked her head toward the exit to the tent.
Xena really had no desire to go into the bright sunlight of the morning, but Darfuss knee in her back gave her little choice. The Commander pushed his captive forward. Xena stumbled through the flap and into the harsh daylight.
She had to close her eyes at the intense glare of the sun. After several blinks and a sharp tug on her head from Darfus, she looked out into the Amazon camp.
There were no Amazons anywhere to be seen. But there were two lines of the Conquerors own soldiers on either side of her, facing one another, forming a final path meant for their sovereign leader to walk.
"Time for the reign of the Conqueror to come to an end," Darfus stated. "And youre going to exit the only way a true warrior can."
"The Gauntlet?" Xena whispered hoarsely, a sense of inevitable dread filling her guts.
Darfus laughed in confirmation and shoved her forward. "Not much of a future in it, is there Xena?"
Xena stood alone to face the final walk of a warrior.
"At least untie my hands," she said, tugging weakly at the bindings.
But Darfus only laughed and gave her another push.
Ephiny shifted her position to a more secure one on the thick branch and squinted through the leaves of the tree.
What in the name of Artemis is going on down there? she asked herself as she watched the two lines of soldiers waiting patiently outside of the tent.
They had retreated into the trees, forming a classic crossfire formation that would place their archers in the best possible positions for an attack on the approaching army. Her Amazons were perched in the surrounding branches, camoflaged by leaves and ready to fire a downpour of arrows on the enemy once they were inside the perimeter of the camp.
By her own orders, Ephinys bow alone would be aimed at the Conqueror.
"Youre all mine, Xena," Ephiny vowed as she pulled the string of her bow taut and aimed the deadly arrow at the entrance to the tent. "Now, where are you?"
Their patient waiting paid off when the flap to the tent opened and Xena, the Conqueror was shoved out. Ephiny almost lowered her bow in surprise.
"Shes hurt!" Ephiny heard Gabrielle gasp from a branch in a tree close to her own. "Ephiny, shes a prisoner!"
Ephiny watched as the Conqueror staggered, apparently bound and injured. She was shoved to stand at the head of the long line of soldiers with Alti and Darfus leering closely behind.
"The Gauntlet -- theyre going to make her walk the Gauntlet," she heard one of her warriors comment. Indeed, it looked as though that was exactly what was going to happen.
"Good," Ephiny thought harshly to herself. "I hope they beat the stuffing out of her!" She lowered her bow, happy to let the Conquerors own soldiers do the deed for her.
Then she heard a shuffle in the trees. Gabrielle was trying to make her way down. The Amazon Commander held up a palm in an angry and silent order to cease.
Gabrielle was frantic.
"Ephiny! You cant just sit there and let that happen!" Gabrielle whispered harshly across the distance.
"Gabrielle ... SHUT UP and GET BACK!" Ephiny whispered back angrily.
"Her hands are tied and shes injured! Theyll beat her to death!"
Ephiny shrugged and leaned against her trunk, ready to watch.
The bard was furious. She glared at her friend in disbelief. "Ephiny, she didnt betray us! Without our help, she doesnt stand a chance! If you dont do something about this, I will!"
Ephiny looked at the scene before her. Xena was about to walk the Gauntlet. A fitting end for the Conqueror and justice would be served. But would it be a true warriors death if Xenas hands were tied? The Amazon leader suddenly felt a bit of compassion for the dark warrior standing before her own soldiers, about to take a final, very painful and brutal walk.
She looked at Gabrielle and nodded. All right then, she thought to herself. Xena had lived by the code of a warrior, she deserved to die by that same code - not beaten like an animal, with her hands tied behind her back.
Ephiny raised her bow and aimed.
I hope you really do have a heart, Conqueror," she thought as she slowly drew the arrow and aimed right for it.
"Time to meet your true destiny, Xena," Alti said, nodding to Darfus. The Commander, in turn, nodded to his own lieutenant and the officer raised his sword. Shifting to attention, the two lines of Gauntlet soldiers straightened their ranks as the remaining men thumped the ground with their spears and swords in lieu of drums.
Xena stood tall and prepared to take the final walk of a warrior. She took one step forward and paused, feeling a strange disorientation invade her senses. The world around her seemed to slow and falter. Altis evil cackle distorted and extended as though the seconds were stretching to an agonizing crawl. Xena turned her head to the shamaness and watched in wonder. Alti was laughing in slow motion.
It was then Xena realized a strange woman had materialized next to them: a strange and beautiful Hindu woman. Her long, midnight black hair framed an elegant and serene face. Dark tones painted her skin the color of a bronze statue. The woman raised her arms letting the gossamer thin scarf of her colorful sari flutter in a suddenly warm breeze.
"Xena," she said simply in greeting and smiled. Her voice was low and warm, like the wind rippling through the ephemeral fabric of her robes.
Xena looked at Alti. The shamaness was frozen in place. She looked quickly at Darfus, the commander was similarly as still as a statue.
"Whats going on?" Xena asked, turning to face the new arrival, noticing an empty hole in the middle of Hindu womans forehead. "So, youve come to collect the stone?" Xena surmised, smirking at the frozen form of her evil mentor, Alti. "The curse?"
"The Third Eye belongs to Lakshmi and no other," the apparition said, making a stern nod at the rigid Alti. "But your destiny belongs to you."
"Looks like I have no choice at the moment," Xena commented sarcastically, motioning to the line of soldiers and her own tied hands. "Who are you? Lakshmi?"
"No, I am not Lakshmi. I am her avatar, Sita," the manifestation replied. "And there is always a choice. The Third Eye has seen a disruption in the normal flow of your destiny -- a small crack, if you will."
"Some crack," Xena commented.
Sita shrugged. "It is easily repaired."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Repaired? Easily? How?"
"It is your destiny that has been damaged. Youve been wavering between two paths, Xena. You must choose -- one or the other."
"Easier said than done, Sita. Each one has its own consequences - and neither of them are good.
Sita smiled at the warrior indulgently. "Actually, whatever path you choose, your destiny remains the same."
Xena looked at the apparition incredulously. "How can you say that? In one, I am the Conqueror. In the other, Im just a warrior."
Sita shrugged. "A difference that makes no difference, is no difference."
Xena pursed her lips. Why was it that gods and goddesses always found it necessarily to talk in riddles?
"So, youre saying it doesnt matter which path I choose because either way, I end up hurting Gabrielle."
"This is about your destiny, Xena, not someone elses."
"But Gabrielles destiny is a part of mine." The warrior shook her head. "I cant choose. I dont want either of those destinies for either of us."
"But you must, Im afraid. There is no choice, but to choose." The avatar smiled patiently at the scowl on the warriors face. "The crack in time must be healed."
"So, to heal this crack, I need to choose which way I want my life to go?""
Sita nodded. "Your destiny does, after all, belong to you. Tell me which path you wish to walk and the crack will be healed. You need only choose."
"And the stone?"
Sita frowned and glanced at Alti. "The Third Eye belongs to Lakshmi and no other."
Xena nodded. She knew what her heart wanted; her heart wanted to be with Gabrielle. But she saw where that path led -- to the cross. And the other choice -- the other choice was to be the Conqueror. That path would only end up consuming her in darkness. And either way, it was Gabrielle who would end up paying the price. The stone may belong to the Goddess, but her destiny belonged to her -- no one was going to pay the price for choosing her own destiny but she.
Xena squared her shoulders. Alti was right. There was a third choice after all.
"I want the destiny that gives Gabrielle a long and happy life," she said to the avatar as she stared off into the trees, very aware of the fate that waited for her there.
Sita nodded and lifted her hands. "So it shall be."
Xena looked up at the trees, knowing full well that Ephiny was up there and had an arrow aimed at her heart. A gentle peace settled over her as the knowledge that Gabrielle would live a long and happy life filled her heart. Perhaps this was the best destiny for everyone.
The Conqueror smiled and nodded her acceptance.
Ephiny drew the bowstring back, slowly and carefully. The fingers of her right hand held the notch of the arrows end firmly in place as she pulled and rested the string against her cheek. With her left arm stiff and strong, she lowered the bow and aimed.
One deep breath to steady her sight and she would release. She could hear the frenetic voice of Gabrielle in the distance, pleading with her to stop -- not to shoot. Ephiny ignored it. She drew a breath and willed her vision to tunnel to its target: the heart of the Conqueror.
She could see Xena standing proudly at the head of the Gauntlet. Though the Conquerors hands were tied behind her back leaving her chest completely exposed, to Ephiny she still appeared a true warrior in every sense of the word.
She pulled back on the bow, stretching the tension of the string to its fullest. The sharp point of the arrow aimed, ready to fly, its mark clearly in sight.
And she froze.
Across the distance of the field and even though she was hidden within the trees, Ephiny watched as Xenas eyes left the soldiers before her and turned up to the very spot where she was hidden, perched in the branches and aiming at her heart.
And then Xena seemed to give Ephiny a slight smile and nod in approval. The Amazons resolve faltered.
For a brief moment, Ephiny could see clearly the courage and confidence inherent in the dark woman. Xena seemed to sparkle, like a priceless diamond, with strength and power enough to bathe the entire world in the light of a brave new day.
Maybe Gabrielle was right. There could have been hope for the world with Xena.
And then Ephinys attention was drawn to Gabrielle. She had left the trees and was running at full speed, knocking through a line of very surprised soldiers, and heading directly for Xena.
Hardening her heart, Ephiny cursed the Fates and let the arrow fly.
Time sped up and the arrow was let loose. Xena watched it hurl toward her. Her instincts told her hands to catch it, but they were both tied behind her back. She turned her chest fully into its path, ready to take the blow.
A blur of blond in the corner of her eye caught Xenas attention. In the next instance, her breath was knocked from her as she was thrown to the ground by the weight of the bards body. Despite the pain, Xenas eyes tracked the arrow as it flew by, missing them both completely, and embedding itself deeply, right in the middle of Altis chest.
The shamaness gasped in shocked surprise as the arrow thudded home, piercing her heart. She grabbed at the hilt with both hands and the blue diamond fell out of her grasp, to the ground, forgotten.
Sita caught the gem before it touched the earth, and stood smiling down at a speechless Xena. Then she and the Third Eye of Lakshmi disappeared.
Ephiny cursed her friend in three different Amazon dialects, then shook off the astonishment and cupped her hands to her mouth.
"COO COOOO!" she yelled, giving the order for the Amazons to attack.
A rain of arrows fell down upon Darfus and his soldiers.
Xena watched the avatar of Lakshmi shimmer once and disappeared. She turned her head to glare at the bard who felt as heavy as a full sack of potatoes laying flat on top of her.
"What do you think youre doing?" Xena demanded.
"Im saving you," Gabrielle replied and kissed her. Xenas eyes widened in shocked surprise and then closed, responding enthusiastically to the soft lips and tongue that were caressing her own.
She could have forgotten completely where she was until an arrow thudded into the dirt very near her left ear.
"Hmmmpf!" Xena pulled away and tried to look stern. "Gabrielle, were in the middle of a fight!"
"Thats Ephinys department," the bard responded and tried to pick up where they had left off.
Having no hands, Xena used her brute strength to roll them over, covering Gabrielles body with her own.
A few more arrows thwacked the earth close by.
"I think Ephiny could use a hand, dont you?"
Gabrielle pouted. "If you insist."
Xena looked over her shoulder and found her target. Darfus. She rolled off the bard and was on her feet in an instant, hurling herself at the man in an impossible move that had her flying through the air in a series of spins that seemed to defy gravity. She sent him tumbling to the ground, her own body crying in pain at the contact. The screams and shouts of soldiers dead and dying filled the air as arrows fell in a deadly downpour all around them.
Darfus rolled away from Xena and stood to watch his soldiers fall as wave after wave of arrows spilled their blood. The men, having heard no order to counter were scattering and fleeing the battlefield in panic.
He was about to yell an angry command when the Conqueror once again threw herself at him, sending him sprawling to the ground.
"Its over Darfus!" Xena growled as she kicked her lieutenant in his side. "I told ya, you would regret this."
Darfus tried to crawl away from the attack, and found himself face to face with Altis corpse. She was lying face up in the dirt, her features frozen in an expression of astonished agony and her hands still clutching at the shaft of the arrow embedded in her blood-stained chest. He screamed in anger and horror and jumped to his feet, sword in hand.
"Im gonna beat you with both hands tied behind my back," Xena sneered. A roundhouse kick hit Darfus in the side of the head, sending the soldier reeling.
Xena shifted. An arrow whizzed by, barely missing her and thudded nearby in the dirt.
"Come on and fight me, you ugly pawn of a third-rate witch," Xena spat. She kicked with her other leg, catching Darfus in the mid-section and breaking much more than two ribs.
Darfuss eyes glazed and the sword dropped from his hand.
Xena stood, watching the soldier falter. A dark and wicked smile worked its way across her lips. "If my destiny is to be the Conqueror, Darfus, then this is yours."
The hook kick was so quick, Darfus didnt even see it. It broke his neck cleanly and just as quickly.
Darfus fell to the ground, dead before his head ever hit the soil, while all around him his soldiers were crying out in alarm. An army of Amazons descended upon them from the trees.
Xena stepped back from the corpse, smiling at both the bodies of Alti and Darfus in satisfaction. Her nostrils flared as the smell of blood and death filled the air. Ducking to avoid a sword, she kicked out sending her assailant stumbling away.
All around her, Amazons were fighting Greek soldiers. Xena watched as the women were neatly dispatching what was left of the enemy. Those who had not been impaled by an arrow, were now falling under Amazon sword. It was a thing of beauty.
She sent another soldier to Hades with the help of a neck-breaking hook kick, happy to join in the fray even with her hands tied behind her back. Spinning around to search for another victim, the Conqueror froze.
Gabrielle was in the heat of the battle. The bard was swinging her staff with the precision of an expert, knocking away soldiers one after another before they could even get their swords close. The bard ducked under a strike and brought her staff around, sweeping her opponent off his feet. In the same fluid motion, another received a breath-shattering strike to the mid-section, followed by a blow to the side of the head.
She was beauty in motion, skilled at the staff far beyond the bard that Xena knew. The warrior was transfixed, almost allowing a sword strike to her back before her reflexes threw a kick that sent her attacker to the ground before she had even realized she had done so.
Xena looked up from the fallen soldier to find the bard surrounded by one too many men, even for the Amazon Princess.
Her instincts to protect her partner kicked into over-drive.
Two fast and strong strides forward and the warrior launched herself into the air, her warrior cry ululating across the battlefield. She flipped over the heads of Gabrielles attackers, landing on the back of one attacker and kicking the face in of another.
Gabrielle halted a swing in surprise and pulled back, watching the one woman force who was the Conqueror descimate the opponents around them with both hands tied behind her back. Gabrielle leaned on her staff and relaxed, smiling at the warrior while she worked.
There wasnt a part of the Conquerors body that wasnt a weapon. Xenas head butted one man unconscious and her shoulder broke the ribs of another. A sidekick took out two followed by a sweeping roundhouse that sent three to eat the dirt.
Suddenly, there was no one left standing but Xena and the bard.
The warrior looked at Gabrielle and smiled sheepishly at the bodies littering the ground all around them.
"I thought you could use a hand," Xena said with a shrug.
"Your hands are tied," Gabrielle replied. "I hate to think what you could do with them untied."
Xena smiled wolfishly. "Untie them and find out."
Gabrielle was about to retort when the smile on Xenas face vanished. The bard was ducking even as Xena was yelling the words, but the knife was already spinning for her. Xena threw herself at her partner, her arms straining against their bindings in an attempt to catch the blade, but the rope held fast.
At the last moment, Xena twisted in mid-air, knocking the bard away and took the blade in her own body instead.
The last thing she felt was a painful thud as she hit the ground and then, the world went black.
Xena felt much too warm and much too comfortable to be waking up, wounded, in the dirt and blood of a battlefield. She opened her eye a crack. There were bedskins covering her and a warm body lying beside her. Xena reached out a tentative hand and drew back the skins just a tad.
The top of a golden head peeked out.
The warrior ran her fingertips lightly along the silky blond strands and then slipped her hand under the cover in a search for familiar skin.
She had no trouble finding some.
As soft as silk and as warm as the summer sun -- her bard was lying right next to her. Xena shifted over to get close and buried her nose in the luscious hair. It was definitely Gabrielle; she would know her scent anywhere.
Sighing, she pulled the bard as close as she could and let her hands travel an expanse of delicious skin.
"Hmmm," Gabrielle mumbled, shifting to fit her body into the warrior's.
Xena smiled contentedly and closed her eyes.
They popped opened only a moment later, her mind jumping to alert at the realization that she no longer felt the pain of her broken ribs. Never mind the ribs, what was the Amazon Princess doing in the bed of the Conqueror? She sure didn't remember getting them here -- and that was not a thing she would have forgotten.
Xena lifted her head and inspected her surroundings.
They were in a forest, camped in a clearing under the cover of a large tree. The sun was up, a breeze was blowing causing the leaves overhead to dance, birds were chirping; the forest was alive with the sounds of mid-morning.
For a moment, Xena thought perhaps she was dreaming. Then an impatient snort followed by an insistent thump of a hoof brought the warrior's attention to a very annoyed mare.
"Argo?" Xena stiffened in surprise.
"XENA!" the bard jerked awake and sat up, pushing the covers away in alarm. "Xena?"
Gabrielle's long hair swung from side to side as she looked around. She found her partner laying in the bedroll and staring at her, apparently as confused as she was.
"By the gods!" the bard said as she laid her palm against her chest and tried to catch her breath. "That was some dream!"
When Xena didn't respond, Gabrielle shifted in the bedskins to look at her. "Xena, are you all right?"
"I ... I ... don't know. I think so," the warrior mumbled uncharacteristically.
Gabrielle became alarmed. "Xena what is it?"
Xena sat up and wiped her hand across her brow. "I don't know. I think I had a bad dream."
"A bad dream?"
"I think it was a dream."
Gabrielle scratched her head. "I had a pretty strange dream myself," she said with a chuckle, "I was an Amazon Princess and you were ruler of the world, if you can believe that."
Xena's eyes went wide. "WHAT?"
"You were ... I don't know ... this Conqueror person ... and I was saving your life. It was kind of nice to be saving your life for a change, I must say." Gabrielle smiled at her partner, but when Xena didn't return the smile, the bard became concerned. "Xena, what is it?" she asked, laying her hand on Xena's arm.
"I had the same dream ... I think."
"The same dream?"
Xena nodded. "Yes, I dreamed exactly the same thing as you."
"Great," Gabrielle commented, "not only do we cycle at the same time, but now we are dreaming the same dreams." Her voice faded off as her attempt to ease the concern in her partner's expression failed. Gabrielle recognized the look on Xena's face. "What? You don't think it was a dream?"
"I don't know."
"If you don't think it was a dream, then what do you think it was?"
Xena pressed her lips together and squinted her eyes in thought. "I'm not sure."
The bard looked around their camp. Everything was where it should be. The campfire was cold, but just where they had build it. Argo was tethered nearby, a little annoyed at the late hour, but still there. Their packs were in their places -- nothing had been disturbed. Not even the half-eaten meal which they had abandoned the night before in favor of making love had been disturbed.
Gabrielle grinned at the memory. "Xena it was just a dream."
The warrior was not satisfied. "I'm not so sure about that."
"Well, what else could it have been?"
"I'm not so sure about that, either."
Gabrielle huffed. "Xena, you are always finding enemies behind every tree."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Xena responded, arching a brow.
"It means, sometimes a dream is nothing more than just that ... a dream -- no matter how vivid it may seem." Gabrielle tossed the covers aside with every intention of getting up and getting dressed.
A strong grip on her arm stopped her cold.
"Now what is it?" the bard asked.
Xena's expression had become deadly serious.
"There's somebody behind those trees."
The bard rolled her eyes. "Hardy, har, har ... very funny, Xena."
Gabrielle moved to stand, naked to the world. Xena pulled her down and drew the covers back over their bodies just as the intruders stumbled through the trees, into the clearing. They were both sweaty, disheveled and anxious, and very much out of breath.
"Hercules," Xena stated calmly.
"Iolaus?" Gabrielle's eyebrows rose and disappeared beneath her bangs. Hercules and Iolaus had caught them in bed ... in the same bed. She pulled the covers a little higher in an attempt to cover them both. "What are you doing here?"
"Xena, are you all right?" Hercules asked with more than a little concern in his voice.
"I'm fine," Xena replied as she looked at herself and Gabrielle, "I think."
"Wow! We were really worried," Iolaus commented and wiped the sweat from his face as he sat on a log.
"Worried about what?" Gabrielle asked.
Hercules looked at his partner uncomfortably. "It's a long story."
Iolaus nodded in agreement. "Yeah, a long story."
"A long story, huh?" Xena repeated, giving her own partner a tiny `I told you so' smile. "We'd love to hear it. Why don't you tell it to us over breakfast?"
"Breakfast?" Iolaus asked, his eyes turning bright at the mention of food. "That's a great idea. I'm starving." Iolaus looked up at Hercules. "Sounds good to me, right Herc?"
"Yeah, sure, sounds great," the demi-god replied and sat down on the log.
The conversation halted to an uncomfortable silence as both men tried to not to stare at the two beautiful women sharing a bed.
Gabrielle shifted nervously under the covers. "Well," she said, a little indignantly, "what are you waiting for?"
Iolaus furrowed his brow. "Why breakfast, of course."
Xena raised a finely arched brow. "Iolaus, we have to get dressed first," the warrior stated shifting her eyes to indicate their condition in the bedrolls.
Hercules eyes widened in surprise, noticing for the first time that not only were Xena and Gabrielle under the skins of the same bedroll, but they were without a stitch of clothing to boot.
"Right," he blurted, standing in a rush and pulling his partner up with him, "of course. You need to get dressed because you're still in the same bed ... in bed ... and naked ... I mean ... not dressed ... yet." He looked down at Iolaus's blond head for help.
"Yeah, right," Iolaus chimed in, rubbing his palms on his pants, "We'll just go get a couple of rabbits. You two get dressed and get the fire ready. All right, then?" He nodded to Hercules. "Let's get going."
Hercules nodded enthusiastically. "Right. Just finish what you were doing. Um, I mean take your time ... oh Hades ... we'll be back in a little while with two nice ... big ... fat ... juicy ..." his voice trailed off as he watched Xena grab a hold of Gabrielle's hand and smile, " ... rabbits."
Let's go," the demi-god said quickly and they rushed away.
It didn't take the sharp hearing of a warrior princess to be able to make out their whispered musings as they hurried off.
"Herc, did you see what I think I saw?"
"Come on, Herc, you know what I mean!"
"You know ... they were in bed!"
"So what? We woke them up."
"Yeah but Herc, they were naked ... and in the same bedroll, for Zeus's sake!"
"That doesn't mean anything, friends do that all the time."
"Oh they do, do they?"
Xena and Gabrielle burst into laughter as the voices disappeared into the forest along with their friends.
Iolaus tore off the meat of yet his third leg of rabbit, ignoring the juice that was running down his chin. Xena had lost her appetite somewhere around the point in the story where, despite Iolaus's best efforts, Callisto had managed to kill Hercules's mother, thus changing the course of history ... specifically, her history.
She hadn't eaten a bite since.
Iolaus threw the bone into the fire pit and reached for the last leg. "Umm, do either of you mind if I have the last leg?" he asked, pausing before he grabbed it.
"No, you go ahead. I've lost my appetitite," Gabrielle answered for them both.
"Suit yourselves," the blond warrior replied and bit into the juicy flesh with gusto.
"So, you used the Chronos Stone you stole from me, I mean the Conqeuror, to return to the past to try and save Alcmene from Callisto again?" Xena asked, anxious to hear the rest of the incredible tale.
Iolaus nodded and replied around a mouthful of rabbit. "This time, I managed to get her out of the barn just in time, but ..."
"But?" Garbrielle gulped.
"Well, I had to get her out of the barn before Callisto blew it to bits!" Iolaus said loudly, almost defensively.
"Obviously," Xena drawled.
Iolaus threw Hercules a sideways glance. "I couldn't help it. She was moving a bit slow -- she was pregnant, you know."
Xena sat back and sighed impatiently.
"I had to move her along, so I shoved her out of that barn with one last push, just as Callisto threw the fireball!" Iolaus wound up and threw an imaginary fireball over all of their heads. Gabrielle followed it's path with her eyes.
"It's a good thing I did that too, otherwise we'd both be cooked rabbit!" Iolaus looked at the half-eaten bit of charred bunny in his hand and suddenly lost his appetite. He threw it into the fire. "We both fell to the ground and I covered Alcmene with my own body as pieces of the burning barn fell down all around us."
"That was very brave, Iolaus," Gabrielle commented.
Xena nodded, "You saved Alcmene, and Hercules in the process ..."
"And managed to crack the Chronos Stone right in half," Hecules added.
Xena lost her grin.
"I couldn't help it. I fell on the stone and Alcmene fell on top of me. You were a big baby, Herc! Now that I think about it, I don't know how Alcmene carried you around for nine months ..." Iolaus's voice faded under Hercules glare, "at any rate, the stone broke right in two."
Xena and Gabrielle glanced at one another.
"It's a good thing Hercules got himself out of that void. If he hadn't used the power of Zeus's thunderbolts to come back in time to help me out, I'd still be stuck there."
"What did you do?" Gabrielle asked.
Hercules shrugged. "I just used a little elbow grease."
"He fused the Chronos Stone back together again with his bare hands," Iolaus finished proudly, mimicking the action with his own smaller ones. "It was as good as new, or just about. You can still see the crack, but it works just fine. We used it to get us back here. Then we rushed to find you."
"I was worried ..." Hercules began.
"What? That I was still a warlord?" Xena asked, a little offended.
Hercules frowned. "No, but I was worried that you might have been affected in some way."
"Well, I wasn't," Xena stated, standing. She was upset, and wasnt about to admit to Hercules that breaking the Chronos Stone had resulted more than just a bad dream.
"Good," Hercules replied, standing as well. "Then I guess everything is back to normal."
"I guess," Xena mumbled and walked away.
Hercules raised his eyebrows at Gabrielle. "What is she upset about?"
"Well, for one thing, you just told her that she came very close to being a vicious and cruel conqueror of the world. I'd be a little upset too, if I were her." Gabrielle smiled apologetically at her friends. "I better go talk to her."
The bard stood and followed after her partner.
Hercules sat back down on the log and looked at his friend.
Iolaus had a strange look on his face.
"And what's wrong with you?" the demi-god asked.
"Ya know, for a second there, I thought Xena was mad that we had changed things back."
Hercules sighed. "Ioalous, when are you going to believe that Xena has changed?"
The blond warrior shrugged and reached for another piece of rabbit.
Xena stomped through the woods, pushing branches and leaves of bushes angrily out of her way as they blocked her path.
What was she so mad about? That had she not met Hercules, she would have continued on a path of evil until she had conquerored the entire world? Or was she angry that she was no longer the Conqueror?
Neither, she answered herself, slowing a little as she came to a small stream.
She was upset that this was not the destiny she had intended to choose. Sita had said that her destiny was her own choice, and she wanted the one that gave Gabrielle a long and happy life.
If what Alti had shown her in the stone was true, then this path would lead them both to crucifixion.
Xena watched the water flow in the stream. She studied the clear mountain rivulet as it wound its way around rocks and under logs in a never ending and unstoppable flow.
She had asked for the path that would make Gabrielle safe, especially from her. Had Sita given her that path? Did this mean they were safe from crucifixion? Or had Hercules interference by mending the stone disrupted the avatar's influence?
Or had it all just been a dream?
Her musings were halted by the sounds of her partner stumbling after her through the woods.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out, happy to have caught up. "What's wrong?"
The warrior smiled, hoping it would put her at ease. "I'm sorry. I just got a little upset over the Conqueror thing."
"Xena," Gabrielle walked up and put her arm around her partner, "you were never meant to be the Conqueror. And even if Iolaus had failed and we had remained stuck there, you would have changed. You would have ruled in the name of the greater good, I'm sure of it."
Xena huffed. "Eventually, you mean ... thanks to you."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, one of us was fated to change you -- either Hercules or me. It doesn't matter to me which one of us came first ... that is, as long as I'm the one who ends up with you in the end."
Gabrielle watched as Xena's scowl turned soft. The warrior placed her arm around her partner's shoulder and squeezed. "All I want is for you to live a long and happy life, Gabrielle."
"Well, good. I'm glad to hear it. Because there is no way that I'd do either ... not without you, Xena."
Xena stared at her partner thoughtfully for long moments until her eyes wandered back to the waters of the bubbling stream.
She felt Gabrielle shift closer into her arm and sighed as the bard lay her head against her shoulder.
Sita must have given her what she asked for and so that meant the image in the stone Alti showed her must have been a lie. No doubt, the witch had concocted the vision on both sides of the stone towards her own evil end. If not, Sita would have allowed that arrow to hit its intended mark.
Xena felt a weight lift away from her shoulders. The specter of crucifixion disappeared from her thoughts, as a dream fades with the early morning light.
Yes, this was the way it was meant to be ... and everything else must have been just a bad dream.
"Happily ever after," Xena said softly as she leaned over to give the treasured blond head a small kiss, "happily ever after."
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