ORIGINS

Chapter 39 - 41

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

Chapter 39

The gate closed on a throng of Prestians, in mufti, or in uniform, some clutching small bundles, looking to the woman warrior for a sign that all would be well. Xena affixed a confident grin to her lips and spoke to her men, fresh blood on their swords, the gleam of battle-lust still in their eyes, mirroring her own. She had liked that action.

"Well. We whipped their arses good," she said with a grim chuckle. "Radec won't soon forget what you men are made of." They returned her smile, and one lad yelled: "Or our woman, either!" He meant no disrespect, and she nodded to accept the accolade.

The civilians were not all so forgiving; the battle-bond had not been forged with them. "You've brought destruction to our country Xena," a woman accused. Xena saw the woman clearly; she held a small child. You have a right to be angry, Xena thought; I have done as you said, but try to put it where it belongs. She wouldn't defend herself; she didn't have to.

"We wanted the brown-shirts off our streets, didn't we? Xena has done that for us." This was Laepita, distinguished by the blood-stained white cloth wrapped around her head wound. "Do you think there's no price to be paid for justice?" she finished. Xena nodded a second time, then turned Argo to the castle, wondering whether someday, soon, they would all see this as her fault. The tapestries did not record how this would be resolved,

who would be victorious, or whether she would be regarded as hero or villain. It mattered little, after all, she admitted. Few opinions mattered to her, and Gabrielle would only know that in the end, she had lost to the darkness. Sorry, Gabrielle, she muttered to herself.

She listened to the grim toll as she dismounted, surrounded by a coterie of officers. By some miracle no troops loyal to Pres had yet died, though several had sustained severe wounds. Radec had lost more, by far, but still his numbers had grown, as the mercenaries had entered his headquarters. That couldn't be helped, Xena told herself, as she filtered information from her lieutenants. Nothing much had changed for the castle garrison, they had three score more troops, and twice that number of refugees from the town. That would put a strain on the food stores, but she knew to the bushel how much was available, and had no worries there. This would not be an extended siege. They had the River Pres at their backs, providing water, and a source of fish. It also served as a moat, the steep bank leading from the river making an attack from that quarter all but impossible. At the same time, it could be a means of exit, at least until Radec found a way to blockade the river.

Her first command was for boats. Women and children, the elderly and whatever other civilians wanted to leave, were to be taken down river by whatever boats could access the river bank behind the castle. A half dozen men were sent to take that message to the docks, while word was passed within the castle compound. Anyone who chose to stay would be pressed into service. She knew that other refugees would be crowding the roads headed for the border. They were on their own; she couldn't spare the troops to give them escort, and her troops would serve as unwelcome magnets for Radec's men.

In her past she had laid siege far more often than suffered it. She had never had a civilian population to defend during a siege. To some extent her experience was an advantage, she knew every move Radec would attempt to bring the town to its knees. She knew how she would thwart him.

Everything happened so easily now, queries were made, decisions rendered, commands issued with a sure cadence. No uncertainty, no seeking peaceful solutions, or permission to act. Radec had struck, and she would strike back. She was in her element. This was war, and she had been born to lead men in killing each other. So easy once that's accepted. She limped across the compound, still the vortex of activity, yet alone in the crowded courtyard. She felt eyes watching her, but not the anonymous eyes of the crowd. Callisto. She resisted looking around, knew the blonde would be well hidden. She sighed, and tried to dismiss her from her thoughts. The only thing predictable about Callisto was that she would be unpredictable. She would also be fuming. She had left the feast the night before because she couldn't bear to hear of Teremon being the next king. She would be spitting blood now, to think of me as queen, Xena thought, hoping she would be content with hating her, and leave the boy alone. Happy that Gabrielle was safely out of Prestia, and out of her life; no more reason for Callisto to target her. She hoped.

By the barracks, cookfires had been lit, and men looked up from their chores as she walked by, Tarimides at her side. They would eat well tonight, and their talk would be of her, they would sleep well, and many dreams would be of her. She remembered walking among other troops, in stunning black leather, a battledress which parted to show her thighs. The warrior temptress. One buff soldier caught her eyes. A fresh slash was on his cheek; he would wear the scar proudly. From her store of disjointed battle-memories, a picture of him stood out, leaving his horse to save a woman who had fallen in the street. He had taken the slash and completed his task. She gestured to him and he approached, uncertain how to greet the warrior queen. "You fought well," she said grasping his arm. She held it for a long moment, while her blue eyes spoke to him. If she was a warlord, and not a queen, she would have taken him to her bed, this very night, to sate the battle lust which had been kindled in them both. She smiled seductively, and he understood.

The scene was replayed at other fires, and at the bedsides of wounded men. She gave to them a kind of love, and it flowed back to her. She knew how they would see her now. She had been damn good in the first real action they had witnessed. In the safety of the campfire, her deeds would grow.

Gods, what I could do with an army like this, professional, disciplined, well-equipped and uniformed, she thought, remembering how much of her time as a warlord had been spent obtaining the money and supplies she needed to maintain an army. A good part of the rest had been given to training and disciplining the rabble that had filled the ranks. Cruel, greedy savages, many of them. It was the warriors among them who had made victory possible. And I had led those scum, she mused, molded them into an effective force. Even the lowest of them had served a purpose: terrorizing the population, when she unleashed them. She didn't doubt that there were villains, even traitors among these men in the uniform of Prestia, but their numbers would be small. This service was not about loot, and the chance to be brutal. She was glad to have a command like this, once, anyway. There had been a brief time, against the Horde...There had been honorable soldiers under her command then. She had still found herself reverting to near-barbarity, in that short time. She stood still for a moment, remembering, acknowledging what she could be. Only Gabrielle had called her back from the edge of darkness. There was no Gabrielle here now. It would end as had been ordained from the beginning. That brought an odd comfort; the long struggle against her own nature would be over soon. She was glad Gabrielle wouldn't be here to see it. She was glad the gods had forsworn Prestia. She didn't need Ares showing up to gloat.

She saw a friendly face when she entered her suite of rooms: Salmoneus, who smiled, and moved aside to display a table set for a queen. "Thought you might be hungry," he told her.

"I might be," she admitted. "Give my mind a little time to catch up with my body."

"You've gotta be hungry," he insisted. "What did you eat today? A half dozen olives and a crust of bread?"

She looked at the lavish spread. "Salmoneus there's enough here to feed a regiment. Haven't you heard? There's a war on. When we've eaten, take the remainder were it can do some good."

"I've eaten," he said. "Delicious. There's some of that walnut sauce you like, and some liquamen - " he broke off at her look. "Before you count on leftovers, consider that you'll have a guest." She looked a sharp question at him, one eyebrow raised. "One of the Amazons got left behind, somehow." She shook her head in annoyance as he went on. "I thought you might want to speak with her."
She had turned away, moving to ease the tension from her neck and shoulders, a hand resting on the thigh wound, which she only now took time to acknowledge. "Salmoneus, just see to it that she's on one of the boats, I don't want to see her, whoever she is."

"But - "

"Salmoneus," she stopped him, "I have barely enough time to eat and bathe, and I'd like to do both of those things alone." She gave him a withering glance, as if daring him to object. "See to it that she's fed, then get her on a boat. I don't need Ephiny bitching at me -" That would never happen again. The thought struck her suddenly, and she spoke more gently to Salmoneus. "Just see that she gets out of here safely."

He didn't move. Gabrielle had told him not to mention the name of the Amazon, and he'd pushed as hard as he dared. Xena sipped from a cup of wine, then asked: "Now what?"

"The coronation. The Ministers, the Advisory Council of Citizens, think you should have a coronation ceremony." She rolled her eyes. "A ceremony? In a town under siege? I don't think so."

"I told them maybe after this little crisis is over."
"Yeah, Salmoneus," she said with a bitter smile. "When this is over. Just don't count on making your fortune from the concessions." He forced an uncertain smile, knowing now that she expected the end of the crisis to include her own demise.

"Salmoneus." She spoke slowly, as if voicing an opinion while it formed. "No ceremony. But maybe...I should have the crown." She shrugged. "I've taken the title, maybe the trappings will help it work." She beckoned him closer, and outlined a plan.

"Gab, she wouldn't go for it." Gabrielle was still in the tapestry room, waiting to hear the outcome of Salmoneus' mission. "Refused to see any Amazon; if you'd let me use your name..."

"She would have refused anyway." More adamantly, if anything, Gabrielle thought. "But she is going to see, me, Salmoneus."

"I knew you'd say that, " he said with trepidation. "You're not just gonna march in there, are you Gab? She's got a lot on her mind, and not much time."

"I know Salmoneus, that's why I sent you down first, to gauge her mood. Don't worry, Xena will have no reason to blame you," she assured the man. "especially since you won't know my plan. Except for this: I'm not leaving on any boat."

It was near midnight when the last boat left the bank, seeking the swift current mid-stream. Xena had gone to see them away, noting with approval that few able-bodied men

had boarded. The torch-lit boats soon would be out of Radec's reach. Tomorrow, he would cut off the river escape. She rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. So much still to do. She walked back to the castle in the midst of a quiet throng, men and women who had just sent their loved ones down a dark and swirling current. They looked to each other with small smiles of hope, fear playing in the darting eyes which refused to light anywhere too long. Xena reached her senses out to them, heard the stifled sob of a young mother, watched the deep swallow of a new husband as he wondered if he would see his bride again. Someone had soiled his pants, from fear most like, and the odor reminded her of the battlefield phenomenon. Yet fear hadn't driven any of these people away. Someone stumbled against Xena, and apologized, as he realized whom he had jostled. She held his arm to hold him still, and hushed his words with a finger to his lips. He was startled at the gentle touch of the fierce warrior-monarch. She said nothing, but sent him on his way with a smile. Apologizing, to me? She shook her head in wonder and regret. How many people like this, just people, trying to get through life, had she destroyed? For what? It had never been about money. Power? Just because she could? She couldn't think beyond that, and it made her ashamed to remember the number of graves dug by her sword. She limped on determined to hear, smell and feel everything of these people, her people. Like a mother attentive to the infant slumbering beside her, she sought to know them all.

Despite the late hour, the remaining civilians were gathered in the courtyard, beneath a low balcony that opened from the private rooms of the monarch. Cletus still occupied those rooms, and he looked up with interest when Xena, Salmoneus in her wake, made her way through them to the balcony. She was not smiling, neither spoke, but sudden understanding showed in his features, and he rose from his seat.

Xena stepped onto the balcony. No guards accompanied her, but a skirl of pipes sounded her appearance. The unexpected sound stirred her, as always, and brought a flush of color to her face. She quirked a smile of appreciation to Salmoneus, the showman, who stood unseen in the doorway. She knew the troops, they knew their jobs. These people before her had their own roles to play, and she had to ready them.

She had stepped moments before from a hot bath, and the scent of rose water mingled with her leather, but the crowd didn't know that. They did know that the tall woman, with raven hair was beautiful. Torch light reflected off the high cheek bones, and danced in the blue eyes. The utilitarian battledress shone softly with a rich luster; it molded to her and defined her, letting them see the power that resided in that still form. The garment was like its wearer, someone in the crowd thought, made more beautiful by its honorable wear. The nicks and scratches, like her own scars, badges of honor. Light glinted off the freshly polished breastplate with each slight movement, dazzling them anew. And there was something more: radiant in its brilliance, the bejeweled crown of the realm rested on her dark head, the sapphires pale reflections of the pools which looked out at them. Many of them had seen her before, as Princess Xena, walking the streets of Prestia, lamed, but graceful nonetheless. Now, to all of them, she seemed magnificent, and she was their queen.

She raised a hand and the crowd hushed. She spoke, and her smoky voice revealed the fires that smouldered within her. "Men and women of Prestia," she began, "this morning, King Cletus was your monarch; tonight, I have that honor. This morning, you woke in your homes; tonight, you will sleep in stables, and sheds." The quiet voice grew more urgent now, and grabbed the crowd by its throat: "This morning Radec dreamed of controlling the throne of Prestia; tonight, Radec's dream is dead. He will never control me!" she promised in a fierce whisper that carried to every corner of the courtyard, and waited until the full-throated voice of the people had clamored its approval.

"Some say," she went on at last, "that I broke the centuries-old peace of this realm. I reply this: there was no peace, while men in brown shirts shoved decent people aside; tonight, those men are burying their comrades, and soon they shall follow them to Tartarus. Centuries ago, Pres Prima led your forebears here to live in peace." They knew this story well; it gave them comfort. She omitted the old warlord's vile crimes, which they liked to forget. "I look at you, and see a people with peace in your hearts, but the blood of warriors lying dormant in your veins. Your mothers and fathers long ago crossed the River Pres and carved a nation out of the rocky soil. Without the aid of gods or mortals, Prestians planted a garden of plenty, and vouchsafed it to their children, and their children's children. You want me to give your kingdom back to you. I can't do that," she told them solemnly. "The brave men in your army can't do that." She paused and her eyes moved from face to face; each man, each woman, would feel she spoke to that face alone. One face turned away; the torchlight played off golden strands for a moment, and Xena's eyes lingered, searching for the hidden face. She tore her eyes away, and continued her survey of the crowd. "We can't give your peaceful kingdom back to you, but we can and will, help you take it back! I speak as one with the blood of Pres Prima in her veins. His blood calls to you, demanding that you not break faith with your children! Give me your trust, and together we will restore the peace, for countless generations yet to be born. Are you with me?"

They could only answer yes. The response was a visceral cry, as farmers and tradesmen, shopkeepers and homemakers, accepted the clarion call to arms. They cheered Xena, cheered their history, and cheered their own courage, yet to be tested. At last the cries of 'Prestia', and 'Pres Prima', faded, and one name rose from their throats, in a steady chant, almost erotic in its intensity: "Xena! Xena! Xena! Xena..." She felt the rhythm in the chorus of voices and her blood pulsed with fervor through her veins, responding to their excitement. Why do I love this so? she asked herself, even as she acknowledged the answer.

Behind her, Xena heard a small cheer. She looked to see Teremon, in the arms of his father, learning how to be a king.

Xena gave the crowd a smile now, lips closed, eyes narrowed, a slight twist to her mouth, as if she shared a secret with them. They were relaxed and confident; they would walk to the moon if she would only lead them. Xena took them all in again, and suddenly the smile was frozen on her face, and her breath caught for a long moment; she recovered, and basked in the frenzy, for a bit, looking hard for the face she had seen, or thought she had seen. It couldn't be Gabrielle, she told herself, it was just a trick of torchlight and shadows, yet it had seemed so real. She reached for a moment to the marble railing, and swore at the pain which threatened the whole performance.

Chapter 40

This morning I couldn't wait to see Gabrielle; tonight I know I'll never see her again.

It seemed impossible that so much had happened in so little time. Since the last sunrise, she had deposed a king, engaged in battle, overseen an evacuation, and addressed her people as their queen. My people. She shook her head; it still seemed impossible, but there it was. Still seemed impossible that Gabrielle was gone for good; yet that was so.

She slipped wearily out of her battledress, and lay gratefully on her bed, drawing the sheet halfway up her body, bidding the screaming wound in her thigh to be quiet. For the first time in many nights, she looked forward to closing her eyes: Gabrielle would no longer be a part of her nightmares.

"Xena was magnificent." Salmoneus lifted a glass of wine in tribute to the woman, even as he hefted the official seal which was suspended from a chain around his neck.

"Xena was scary," Gabrielle responded. "She was magnificent," she conceded, "but she was more scary. Xena enjoyed that too much. It's that power thing, it...excites her. How does she give that up? It's what got her in trouble long ago."

Salmoneus looked at her in distress. "Gabrielle I don't know. I do know she makes a terrific monarch. Maybe this will all work out. She'll save these people from Radec and survive," he ventured, "and settle down to be a benevolent ruler. Xena the Great," he pronounced, gesturing expansively, as if writing it across the sky.

"Save these people. Maybe." Gabrielle's face showed her doubt. "I wish I could believe she'll survive. I worry about her having this kind of power. Especially in the mood she's in. Salmoneus, she has nothing else. Just this mission she's on, and these people all waiting for her to pull off a master stroke." She paused, remembering the awesome image on the balcony. "They all love that icon she's created for them. They don't know the Xena I love," she whispered. "Xena will lose herself in that image. I have no doubt that she will save them. I also know that it's my mission to save her. Salmoneus," she said with sudden decision, "I need to talk to Xena, as soon as it can be arranged."
He breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank the gods! I hate deceiving her. Tonight is not good. She needs to get a few hours sleep before she starts the new day. Tomorrow, stay close by, I'll get a message to you."

"I'll be in the area of the barracks set aside for the wounded. I thought I might as well make myself useful." She moved to the door of Salmoneus' room, then turned and spoke uncertainly. "If she refuses to see me, just tell her...tell her that I'll always love her."

Xena came from sleep to wakefulness in a half-breath. Without turning, before opening her eyes, she said: "Hello, Callisto."

The blonde was amused. She nodded from her perch on the open window ledge. "Good evening Xena. You're not surprised to see me?"

She sat up, turning slightly to face her sister, who was silhouetted by the moonlight. "I asked myself, 'Xena, what would make your day complete?' You were the answer, Callisto." She smiled without humor.

"Your guards down below had no objection to my coming up to see you. Don't they know our history?"

"If you wanted to see me, I knew you'd find a way, Callisto. Thought I'd save you the bother of persuading them. Some of them have families."

"Oooh! The humanitarian-queen. How noble. Funny, isn't it Xena? After all you've done, all you've been, you end up queen of a peaceful little realm."

"Sometimes you get lucky." Now she smiled. Callisto noted the self-contempt. "Luck?" she snickered in reply. "Where's the justice?"

"Not in this world, Callisto."

Callisto uncoiled her spare frame and advanced toward the bed, smiling at the dark warrior, puzzled that Xena was so relaxed; Callisto was used to creating apprehension, at least. She sat on the edge of the bed, hip-to-hip with her older sister. A cool breeze had begun to blow, bearing with it the scent of campfires, and jasmine from the garden below.

Xena hadn't bothered to cover herself, and Callisto watched her nipples become erect as the breeze touched them. She moved her eyes away with a studied lack of haste, and smirked as she evaluated Xena's performance.

"You're really very good, you know. You almost had me convinced you didn't want the crown; and you have those fools down there thoroughly convinced that they'd be thrilled to die for you." She looked at Xena closely, as if seeing her for the first time. "What is your secret?" she asked.

"Callisto, if they die, it won't be for me."

"Tch, tch, Xena." She clucked her disapproval. "All those years of being a deceptive, manipulative bitch have had an interesting effect: you even lie to yourself. But let's look at the facts: you appeal to them as a blood-link to their heroic past, and almost rape them with your glance, your husky voice," she paused and traced the curves of Xena's lips with one finger. "That wasn't a sisterly smile you showed them."

What Callisto said was true. No one had every spoken it aloud to Xena before; but that was merely technique. "This isn't about me, Callisto," she insisted. "They're fighting to save Prestia; I'm just a symbol."

"Like a flag?" she inquired. "And when they've won this little battle for you, what? Do they fold you and put you away? Or are there some other little goals you have in mind? Like wars of conquest, maybe?"

Xena smiled. "You think I just want the army?"

"I confess, for the first time, I'm not quite certain what you want. I always knew you didn't want that goody-goody life on the road with the brat. What happened, Xena. You just got bored?" Xena didn't reply, but worked to return Callisto's steady gaze. "I never could see the attraction there," Callisto went on. Just believe it's over, Xena pleaded silently; leave Gabrielle alone.

"Have you considered that maybe I just want to be queen?" Xena asked, to move the conversation along. "Issue humane proclamations? Oversee the passage of laws to benefit the people, without oppressing them?"

Callisto hooted. "You, Xena? People would travel for miles to watch the Warrior Princess play at benevolent despot. Until the first time someone crossed you; then the knives would be out. They'd see the woman behind the fašade." Xena contributed a bitter laugh. "Think you'd do any better?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"There'd be one big difference, Sis. I'm more honest than you. They'd know from the beginning how I am."

"We know each other too well, Callisto," she conceded. "Why not? We're spawn of the same monster."
"You really hate him," Callisto observed with interest. "All this stuff about the 'blood of Pres Prima in your veins' was just part of the show?"

"You got some reason to love Cletus, Callisto? What's he ever done for us?" Xena asked in a voice tinged with bitterness.

"He's the reason we're here, isn't ..." Callisto's voice trailed off. "Oh," she said with sudden insight. "That's the problem, isn't it? We're here." She brightened at once. "But the only the problem there, is you."
"Right," Xena grinned, and nodded, then the grin twisted into a sneer. "I keep forgetting. I'm doing permanent penance for Cirra. Endless apologies for something that can never be forgiven." Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, and for a moment she gripped her bottom lip with her teeth. "But Cirra didn't make you who your are, Callisto. Just as Cortese and other things -"

"Julius Caesar," Callisto happily supplied.

"Yeah; Julius Caesar. They didn't make me what I became. They just awakened me. They were drawn to the blood of Pres Prima like bees to nectar; like me to you. I came and stirred your blood, Callisto. If it wasn't me, it would have been someone else, something else."

"You're saying that the blood of this warlord - "

"Not any warlord Callisto. He defined the word. His barbarities make us look like - "

"Like Gabrielle?" Callisto suggested.

"Like Gabrielle," she echoed without emotion.

"So blood alone makes us monsters, Xena? I thought we made our own Tartarus?" she asked, using Xena's own words against her.

"I've been reassessing a lot of things Callisto, and I think the rules don't apply to us. We're special, you and I," she confided. "Ares just found us a little too attractive."

Callisto was determined to hide her bewilderment. "Something about wearing a crown give you new insights into your nature, dear?"

"*Our* nature Callisto. Don't you find it an overwhelming coincidence that the woman who destroyed your life in one day of fiery violence is your sister? Then there are the obvious similarities, apart from your attempts to emulate me," she said with a touch of pride. "I love battle. So do you. Battle?" she snorted in derision. "Wanton killing. There was a time I found that exciting." She raised an eyebrow in query, then laughed softy as Callisto made no reply. "We both know how you feel. I've been in your body. You've been in mine. We wore each other like gloves," she observed, remembering the sensation of inhabiting the lithe frame before her. "Your moves in combat are almost as good as mine." She hurried on to silence the protest that sprang to Callistos's lips. "Almost," she insisted. "I think Ares likes me better. Best. Maybe it's that birth order thing. Someone had to be the favorite." She spoke to Callisto, but the blonde noted that her eyes had drifted away, as if she was speaking to herself. Then Xena's gaze bore into her. "Don't feel bad. You're the second worst monster in the family. Ares must prefer you to Krykon," she said with contempt.

Callisto wasn't sure she followed the point of Xena's discourse, but spoke up. "Teremon's not a monster."

"Neither were you, at his age," Xena rejoined. "Neither was I. Teremon just hasn't met his 'Xena' yet. Or maybe it was some god who took pity on him, and made him blind before he could take up the sword. Look at Krykon. Vicious scum. I doubt he's much with a sword, he prefers the weapons of a coward. Otherwise, he'd be a warlord, too. But we're the favorites," she confided. "Ares called us to himself when we were very young."

"Sure, Xena," Callisto sneered. "Just another way to evade your guilt."

"Evade guilt? Callisto, I've worn guilt like a hair-shirt for years."

"Oooh, sorry, Xena, I'm forgetting your precious nightmares. You had a good one last night, huh? At least it started out good. I admit I was disappointed when it ended." She saw the surprise in Xena's face. "Oh yes, I was there. I watched you thrash around. Very entertaining. I think I like you best when you're vulnerable." Callisto moved to touch the place under the sheets where her seared initial lay. Xena moved more quickly than Callisto imagined possible. Suddenly the dagger sheathed at her waist was in Xena's hand, and she was on her back, the bronzed warrior, naked, with the sheen of sweat on her body, kneeling over her. One arm trapped Callisto's arms above her head, the other flicked the knife, and a long lock of Callisto's hair was severed. "This is all I needed for a keepsake," she grinned, grabbing the lock, and thunking the knife into the door as if in one motion. Callisto expelled a shrill cry of rage and squirmed to free herself, but Xena held her grip, pinning the slight blond with her greater size and strength.

"Callisto, you haven't been listening." Xena watched Callisto's struggles with amusement. "You can't beat me. I'm older, I'm bigger, I'm stronger, I'm faster," she hissed. "And I don't have time to play your games." Callisto relaxed against the bed, and wondered at a Xena she didn't know.

"Too busy stealing a throne from a blind child?"

"Just taking what's mine, Callisto. He'll get over it. So will you." She touched Callisto's cheek with her free hand, and brushed an errant curl from her forehead. "Life can go on a long time, Callisto. You might forget this ever happened, if you live long enough. If Ares leaves you alone."

"But you're his 'favorite', Xena," she began. "Why would Ares - "

"Because you're part of the game, too. His game. Our threads are woven as close as this, Callisto," she breathed into her ear. "We are so alike. No two people on earth could understand each other better than you and I. Listen." She lowered her chest to touch Callisto's and was still. "Our hearts beat together."

Callisto felt the weight of Xena on top of her and heard one heart beat. "I still hate you Xena, with every beat of my heart," she responded, suddenly afraid of what she couldn't understand.

"You should. To really understand me, is to hate me." Xena's head nodded, brushing against Callisto's shoulder. Then she stopped and her lips brushed Callisto's cheek in a soft kiss. Callisto shuddered. "That wasn't a sisterly kiss, Xena. Is this how it was for you and the little bard?"

Xena released her arms and rose. Suddenly self-conscious about being naked, she gathered the sheet and covered herself, turning her face so that Callisto couldn't see her bite her lower lip against the pain that suddenly assaulted her. "Hate me, Callisto, just don't get in my way," she warned darkly.

"Xena," Callisto began in a reasonable tone. "I still have a lot of unfinished business with you." The blonde warrior sat up and watched her older sister, who seemed to have suddenly lost the fearsome strength she had felt moments before.

"I know your plan, Callisto: to destroy everything I love. Only you're too late. There is nothing left in my life. My mother is a whore. Gabrielle betrayed me, deceived me, time and again." A twisted smile broke the utter desolation etched on her face. "I guess you could still take vengeance against poor Argo."

"There is Solon," Callisto reminded her. Xena moved her shoulders in a half-shrug.

"What's the point? He stopped being my son long ago. Besides. I don't see you killing your nephew. You'll have to settle for this Callisto: when I leave this world, I'll be alone." She lay her head back on the pillow, and closed her eyes, clearly dismissing her visitor. "You can come spit on my bones," she ended.

Callisto sat bemused, and not a little upset. She was used to leading the conversation, and here Xena had taken all initiative, and talked about...what? Shared blood? Ares? Callisto didn't see the point. It seemed to her that her nemesis was losing it. Yet she had just taken over a kingdom, with apparent ease. This Xena was one she hadn't seen before, and it unsettled her. She was still weighing her options, when a sharp rap sounded at the door.

Xena sighed audibly, and glanced quickly at the first streaks of dawn which broke the darkness. She glared at Callisto, and pulled on a robe while she called an answer to the knock.

Tarimides entered. "Majesty, - "

"Xena," she corrected him.

"Queen Xena," he compromised. "Forgive my intrusion." He nodded to Callisto. "There is some activity outside the walls, I thought..."

"I'll be right there." He left her to dress, and Callisto watched as the familiar gear was restored to the familiar body. "You've got a war to fight, Xena, so I'll leave you to it. I'll be watching with interest," she promised.

Xena looked from the parapets to where Tarimides indicated a knot of activity. Brown-shirts. They worked by torchlight, partially shielded by a long row of thick wooden planks, lashed together, and had erected a high scaffold. As she watched, a dark form was hoisted by rope to the top of one scaffold. In the dim light, she made out the figure: long straws protruding hair-like from under a bramble crown. 'Usurper-whore' was lettered on a parchment hung about the things neck. "Long time since I've been burned in effigy," she joked to the men around her. "Better than being burned in person." The men guffawed. A flaming arrow was sent in to the thing and its purple robe became visible in the flames which engulfed it.

Xena held out a hand. "Bow," she demanded, and an archer slapped one into her palm. She notched an arrow and sent it zinging to sever the rope which held her effigy. It fell on the men below, showering them in sparks and bits of burning straw. The soldiers on the parapets cheered, while Xena watched the renewed activity as a new figure was affixed to a rope and hoisted up. It was already ablaze, and illumined itself. It seemed to be wearing a large white apron, with 'Amazon -lover' painted crudely on it in big letters. Then, oddly, it seemed to move. This was no effigy, she realized; a man struggled against the ropes which bound him, writhing in pain as he was engulfed in flames. A gag muffled his screams, until it too was burned away, along with his lips. The world seemed to freeze as all became aware of the horror before them. Only Xena moved, notching another arrow and finding her mark in the doomed man's heart. Her face was impassive as she turned. "I want volunteers. We're going outside the walls, and we're taking no prisoners."

Chapter 41

It was not yet light when the small party rappelled down the sheer face of the castle wall, and moved with stealth to the front of the building. There was the bold camp of the brown-shirts, still chortling over their apparent triumph. They felt their flanks were secured by the sentries patrolling the perimeter of the castle, watching all known places of egress. They didn't know that their comrades on the right flank had already poured their blood into the dirt around the castle.

Xena wiped her bloody knife on the pants of the last sentry, then approached the corner of the castle wall, her slitted eyes taking in every motion, her ears hearing the merest whisper. The brown-shirts sat secure behind their plank fortress, stealing peeks at the castle walls. One of them moved from safety to relieve himself on the still smoldering effigy; Xena took three long, silent steps then launched herself to soar on a low trajectory at the man, whose neck was broken by her kick even as he fumbled inside his pants. She looked over her shoulder at the small band of men with her, and showed white teeth in a feral grin. If they had ever believed that killing was hard she was dispelling that myth now. She seemed almost eager to reach her next victim, and in truth she was. She had recognized in the charred corpse the innkeeper who had expelled Radec's men to make room for her and the Amazons. He had paid a high price for that, and Radec's men must know that retribution was swift and sure. Every man present for the atrocity would die.

She couldn't see through the plank wall, but could hear the raucous boasting. She heard her name used in a vulgar context, and a warm pleasure swept threw her, as she anticipated their surprise. What the men heard was a sudden thump against the planks, as her booted feet pushed off to execute a somersault above there heads, and she landed behind them, sword drawn. She didn't wait for them to draw weapons; this was not to be a fight of honorable peers. They were vermin, and she had come to destroy them in their nest. Now she emitted her ululating cry, as she showed them the means of their death, letting it flash above her in a dazzling display of motion before it struck her first victim, slicing open his soft belly, and letting his entrails spill out. He would take longer to die than the innkeeper. Her men came on the scene as she chose her next victim, a quick- mover who drew his sword, only to watch it fall to the ground at the end of his long arm, which thudded into the trampled earth. He was still staring in disbelief when the blade ripped through his throat.

A half-circle had formed around her now, and various weapons were tentatively poked at her, as the remaining men weighed the chances of escape if they turned to run. "Come and get me, boys," she urged as she knew what they considered. "Didn't some of you have big plans for me?" she taunted, as she spun, her back to them for a second, inviting attack, then meeting the attack with a backward thrust of the sword, lodging her blade deep in a chest. As she dislodged the blade an assault came, and she dropped low, her back still to them, so that two men overran her and she reached out long legs to trip them as they went by. She snatched up a fallen sword and whirled two blades above her before sticking one blade in each of the fallen men. There was no defeating this demon-queen, the rest decided, and turned to face instead the soldiers of Pres who waited their turns at combat. With satisfaction Xena watched as the Queen's Own cut off the feeble retreat, and piled up the corpses in the front of the planking, beneath the scaffold. From the parapets came a cheer for the good day's work. Xena lifted the jar of oil which had been used to light the effigy and the innkeeper. She sprinkled it over the pile of corpses, pausing only briefly at the man with the gut wound, who still clutched his viscera and moaned softly. He, too, was doused with oil, then she touched a torch to the mound of flesh and watched the faces of the men around her as it burned. They would do anything for her now, she knew, anything for Prestia.

Gabrielle heard the commotion as the rest of the barracks did, and joined a contingent on the ramparts to await developments. She had only heard of the effigy, and the live immolation, but the stench of human flesh lingered in the air, making her gag. She had never overcome her revulsion at that. Doubted she ever would. Silently they waited for some response from the warrior queen, who, it was said, was preparing retaliation. She heard the familiar cry and found its source immediately, turning her head to watch the distant plank wall. She could almost picture what was happening behind those planks. She felt no apprehension over Xena's safety, but as the ghastly bonfire was lit, her heart sank. The front gate was opened and a procession led by Xena came inside the walls, bearing the corpse of the innkeeper. He was to be buried with honor as one who had fallen for his monarch. His charred features were hidden from public view, and his features didn't reveal whether he was pleased with his sacrifice. Gabrielle saw only the blood-splattered woman, her grim visage illumined by the torch she held. Hurry, Salmoneus. Get me in there, Gabrielle pleaded, as she returned to her nursing duties.

"It worked. But we can't play it that way forever. We need to act, not react." Xena was back in her rooms, eating a hasty breakfast with Tarimides and three other commanders.

"Majes - that is, Xena, we have the patrols out." Xena had ordered that the area immediately in front of the castle gate be kept secure during daylight hours, so that the traditional daily gatherings by the public fountain there could continue. "We control our own front yard," he continued. "Any of the brown-shirts who dare show their faces in town will be dealt with."

"Dead, Tarimides, " she corrected him. "No prisoners is the policy, remember that. It still doesn't address the main issue. This rebellion against me is lead by a two-headed serpent. Cut off the heads and the thing dies."

"Radec won't show his face; nor will Glaucon," Tarimides observed.

She shrugged, but said nothing. If they won't come to me. I'll have to go to them, she decided. She stood abruptly. "When the patrols return I want a full report. Now, I need to visit the wounded."

She was glad at least that she had no fresh casualties to report, and was certain that none of the wounded were in danger of dying. The barracks were as old as the castle, but clean, and well-ventilated. Cletus had been a soldier's monarch for much of his reign, and did what he could to make them comfortable without making them soft. The small infirmary had never been needed for battle-wounds, and the number of necessary beds had always been small. The royal-healer had been enough to see to their ills. Soldiers had been impressed to serve as nurses in the past, but now the available civilians made that unnecessary. Men and women alike tended to the infirmary, looking after the small number of initial casualties, and working to convert more space for use if it became necessary.

Xena entered, and the staff rose for the monarch. She greeted them solemnly, stopping to inquire after the wounded, and ask if the infirmary needed anything. The officer in charge assured her that they were well equipped, and organized. He was a soldier, with little knowledge of the healing arts. He respectfully suggested that the whole place be turned over to the young Amazon who seemed so capable - . He broke off at the look on Xena's face. He feared he had angered her, yet her face seemed contorted more by pain than rage. He offered her a chair. She refused with a sharp head shake, and asked where she could find the Amazon. They turned a corner and she came into view even as she asked the question.

Xena's breath caught at the sight in the doorway. "Xena," the bard said calmly, as if she had been expecting this visit. "Leave us," she said to the officer. He waited until Xena nodded dumb assent, then left the small room, closing the door behind him. Xena's mouth had dropped open; she looked dumbfounded at the girl. Gabrielle laid down the linens she was folding and gestured. Xena stepped further into the room, still speechless, her eyes on the small blonde. At arm's length she stopped and found her voice. "I looked for you, early...when was it? Yesterday? Ephiny said you were gone," she managed.

"Not really," Gabrielle grinned, then shared a small fear: "Ephiny will be wild when she finds out." She paused, then asked quietly, "Why were you looking for me?"

The situation caught up with Xena suddenly. "Gabrielle, you shouldn't be here. You should have left with the flotilla. I told Salmoneus..." she looked around as if expecting to find Salmoneus there.

"I wouldn't go." She shook her head. "Don't blame Salmoneus. And I won't leave now. Not that it's possible," she said resolutely. "So. Answer the question. Why were you looking for me?"

Xena's voice made no sound with her first attempt to speak, so she calmed herself and tried again, looking anywhere but at the green eyes that seemed to bore into her soul. "I wanted to tell you I've been a fool; I've wronged you Gabrielle," her head shook slowly from side to side. "I'm sorry I doubted you." Her voice almost broke; she paused and looked at Gabrielle at last, seeking forgiveness in the clarity of those green eyes.

"Xena?" She reached up to take the warrior's face in both hands. "Is it over? Can you trust me again?" Xena nodded fervently and waited for the smaller arms to encircle her, before she dared clasp Gabrielle in the embrace she had missed for so long.

"Good," Gabrielle breathed, "I've missed you, Xena." They didn't move for long moments, content to revel in the feel and scent of remembered love, Xena's head snuggled in golden hair, Gabrielle finding the firm, soft flesh above the warrior's armor.

A favorite spot.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered, the sound muffled by fragrant tresses, "how can you stand to be near me? I've been so awful to you."

"Xena," she replied, not moving from the smothering embrace, "I never understood, I still don't; but I knew you were being just as awful to yourself. Somehow, that made it easier. I never believed that you had stopped loving me." She pulled away to watch Xena's face. "I just saw you in such pain...Why did you persist in hurting yourself so badly?"

A groan threatened to escape her then; she bit her lip to hold it back. Gabrielle led her to a small bed, where she made the warrior sit. "I thought, I really thought I would die, then Gabrielle, and I didn't care," she acknowledged. "I couldn't stop thinking about you, and yet, I couldn't go back to you..." She stopped, nearly doubled in pain. Her eyes closed, and one tear slid down her cheek. "It hurt worse than this, Gabrielle." She pressed a large hand to the source of pain. "I remember thinking, when this first happened, that I'd prefer this pain to that heartache." Gabrielle sat beside her, and began to unfasten her breastplate. "Xena, you need to see a healer," she said firmly.

"No it's all right. Comes and goes," Xena gasped.

"It could get you killed," Gabrielle said, immediately regretting her words. A pall seemed to settle over the room, and she gave the warrior a quick kiss. "For luck," she said. "Funny, it's always worse in quiet moments. Like now." With gentle urging Gabrielle made her lie back, then stretched out beside her, her head cushioned on a leather-clad breast, half her body lying on top of the dark-haired woman. "Feels better already," Xena observed, a slow smile creasing her features. She sighed. This was bliss. The world outside this room seemed to have vanished. One more thing needed to be said. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmmm?" came the contented sigh.

"You were right. I never stopped loving you."

For a brief time they lay just holding each other; words could wait. Xena's thoughts were like a path strewn with boulders, making what she had at this moment impossible. So she refused to think of anything. She fixed her mind on the words Gabrielle had said: 'I've missed you.' She shook her head when the first knock came at the door.

"In a minute," Gabrielle called, then smiled at Xena. "Your subjects need you, Queen Xena."

Xena ducked her head, as if ashamed of the title. "I have a lot to do, Gabrielle, I'm sorry."

"I know. You had quite a morning," she replied. She said no more, but both women thought of the pile of burning flesh. Xena wiped her hands on her tunic, and sat up, suddenly wondering what she was doing here. Gabrielle felt her discomfort and sat up beside her. "I'm kind of busy too," she said quietly. "This place might see a lot of traffic in the next few days."

"I'll try not to let that happen, Gabrielle," the warrior promised solemnly.

"I know you will," Gabrielle assured her. She picked up the breastplate and fastened it in place. "Now, go do your duty, Xena, and leave me to mine."
"Gabrielle, we need to talk - "

"I know. I'll come by later. Send word when you're free." Xena nodded, happy to put off the reckoning, if only for a time. The knock came a second time. Xena swore softly, stood, then bent and found the bard's lips with her own. For a moment she would have given up all of Prestia for that touch, then a third knock came, and Gabrielle pulled away. "I'll see you soon." Xena stepped into the corridor, and was once again swept up in the swirling currents of the crisis.

"How did Gabrielle fare on the road?" Ephiny asked with a relaxed smile, certain she would have heard long ago if the princess had broken any important body parts. It was late morning, and the advance party had finally been in contact. Ephiny waited, and the answering silence alarmed her. The scouts looked uncertainly from one to the other, as if afraid to speak. "Ephiny," one ventured at last. "Gabrielle's not with us. We weren't even out of the city when she complained of a headache and said she'd just slow us down. She turned back right away." Solari was entering the tent as the woman spoke and watched Ephiny's expression change like a windswept-sky: puzzlement, fear, anger, and understanding followed in rapid succession as Ephiny worked it through. The scouts hadn't followed that process and waited in apprehension until Solari reassured them. "It's all right. She - we had a miscommunication." Her lips were tight as she dismissed them and turned to Ephiny. "Can you believe it?"

Ephiny looked in sympathy at the angry woman and shrugged. "Can you believe anything else? When she asked to leave with the advance party didn't just the slightest doubt of her intentions creep into your thoughts?"

Solari swore softly. "Yes!" she admitted. "But I never seriously believed she'd be so irresponsible."

"How is it irresponsible Solari? She finished her official duties. Now she's attending to personal business. How would you have reacted if she had made her intentions clear?" Solari scowled in reply. "That's what I thought," Ephiny said smugly.

"So what do we do about it?"

"Do?" The blonde curls shook as Ephiny made her decision. "We do nothing. Gabrielle has chosen to stay with Xena. Even if she can't be with Xena. We respect that choice."

"Xena? The woman won't even look at Gabrielle."

"Solari, I can't explain, right now, but I think it might all be okay between them," she said remembering the eager woman who had sought Gabrielle by first light the day before. "I'm more worried about what else might be going on in Prestia." She remembered the busy warrior who had definitely been hatching some plot, and hoped, whatever it was, that it worked as well as her other plans.

"I'm told she even wore the crown," Glaucon sneered. This alone seemed to justify the hatred the woman excited in them both. It was more offensive than being named traitors by official proclamation.

"Never mind; I'll teach her a lesson in protocol very soon," Radec replied, savoring the image he had formed of the usurper-bitch groveling at his feet.

No brown-shirts had survived the bold encampment outside the castle-gate. Glaucon's spies reported what they surmised. The news was not heartening. "Most of them dead at the bitch's hand," Glaucon finished.

Radec had no doubt that what he said was true. He had long known Xena as a capable, ruthless killer. He had underestimated her ability to be a charismatic symbol for a nation. He wondered briefly at the outcome if he had maintained his pretence at alliance longer. Let her seize power, then a quiet assassination...Pointless to speculate, he decided, setting the thought aside. Especially considering the caliber of assassin he had settled on. Glaucon was not worth his pay. Xena, and Callisto had both run rings around him. His brown-shirted troops seemed to be doing no better. Except in weight of numbers they were outmatched by Xena's troops in every way. How had things gone so wrong? Weeks before, he had held Prestia in his grasp, dictated to the monarch, and was poised to name his successor. Then the bitch had come and undone years of groundwork with a few bold strokes. He should have stuck a sword in her when he first imprisoned her in the dungeon. The memory of how she had turned the tables then still left a bitter taste in his mouth. His white fingers worked the fibers of the scroll he held, as if he were wringing the life out of the meddlesome bitch.

Glaucon watched silently. His stock had fallen far with Radec. It might be best if he just rode away from the mess. Radec didn't look likely to survive the Warrior Princess. Still, his fortunes were tied to Radec, the accumulated wealth of long years' toil invested in properties and concerns centered in Prestia. He would be riding away from more than Radec. Still, he would be riding away with his life intact. His reputation was another matter. The trio of women had made him play the fool at every turn. Gabrielle in Amphipolis, Xena at the Inn of the Four Gardens, and Callisto...just the thought of the wiry blonde darkened his thoughts. To leave her with her heart still beating was not possible for him. He caught up with Radec's words.

"...treachery is the key. The bitch is still the problem, and force of arms is not the solution. We can keep her occupied, off balance, reacting to us, too busy to take the initiative. Then we spring our surprise. She'll never even see it coming." He looked out the window to the distant turrets of the castle, where the X-emblazoned standard served as a grim reminder of his formidable opponent. "At last I'll have her," he hissed.

It was late afternoon of another long day. Gabrielle had finished a plate of cold food, and sat back in her chair, tired, but reluctant to doze. She had waited too long to be with Xena again to sleep the time away. Across the room, Xena ate absently while studying maps and directing the efforts of subordinates. Gabrielle watched closely, noting with approval that the limp was much less pronounced than usual. An odd sort of wound, she mused, recalling that it seemed worse in repose than in moments of action; and there was something else Xena had said, something that struck her at the time, but she had been too distracted to think about. What was that?

Xena looked at her over the back of a soldier as he bent over a map; she smiled, but there was a hint of guilt in her eyes, that made Gabrielle sad for her. The tension that had seemed to drain from her just hours before was back, putting an edge in her voice, and making her features hard. Gabrielle gave her a grin and a wink in return, a quick assurance that things were okay. Impatiently, she waited while every caller took Xena's attention from her. At last they were gone, and Xena poured over the maps alone, occasionally looking at the darkening sky through the window, as if able to see things there. Gabrielle wondered if the people of Prestia were worthy of the efforts she was making on their behalf; she doubted it. They were certainly not worthy of Xena dying for them.

"Xena." The dark head snapped around. "You need a bath, and you need your bed."

"Bed?" An eyebrow raised quizzically. "It's the middle of the day, Gabrielle."

"I can read the sun, Xena. I can also read your face. It says it's time for bed. The war,"

she shuddered at the word, "will still be here when you awake."

"Rebellion," Xena corrected her.

"Rebellion, then," Gabrielle amended. "That word doesn't make me feel a whole lot better."

Xena looked at the bard with a smile, but it hid a world of impatience. "Gabrielle, at times like this, some things can wait, and some things can't. Sleep can wait."

"And what can't wait?" the bard persisted.

"Predicting what people might do; thwarting their plans before they get underway. Radec's not hard to figure," she said almost to herself. "In his situation, I probably wouldn't be hard to figure." She grew distant; her eyes drifted back to the maps.
"Oh, really? What would you do, in Radec's situation?" Gabrielle asked, to maintain contact.

"Attack the townsfolk," the warrior answered with a decisive nod. "Those that have stayed in their homes. Some of the families of the soldiers couldn't make it from their quarter of the city when this broke out. The soldiers won't sit here in the castle knowing that their families are in danger." She looked at Gabrielle. "That's what I'd do, effective, efficient. Puts your own troops at very little risk, and it keeps your opponent too busy to seize the initiative. I can't imagine he'll do differently." She studied the bard's face. "You don't like to hear that."

"What? The reminder that you used to be an unscrupulous, brutal warlord? Key words, Xena: 'used to be'." She crossed to where the warrior stood by the window, and nestled close to her. "You aren't that person anymore." Xena let the smaller woman take her arm, and didn't move when she rested her head against her chest, but Gabrielle felt every muscle tense, until bands of iron bound the woman. Xena allowed herself a moment to feel the soft skin against her own, before saying what had to be said.

"Gabrielle," she began. "You know what I did this morning?"

"I know the essential facts," she replied, trying not to recall the sensations of being a witness.

"You saw me light the fire?" she asked.

"Yeah." There was a long pause. "Xena, it's not as if they were burned alive."

"One of them was."

"Oh." Gabrielle worked hard to make no reaction.

Xena knew why she said nothing more. "You don't have to pretend, Gabrielle. I know how that must make you feel." She lifted the bard's unresisting hand from her arm and took a small step away.

"Why did you tell me that Xena?"

"You stayed behind to be with me. You should know what your choice means. Who I am. Now." Gabrielle's fair features were impassive; she looked across the courtyard, seeing nothing. Xena grew uncomfortable as the minutes passed. Finally she said: "He should have been dead. When I saw that he wasn't...it was too late. I had said no prisoners. My men were watching. They had to know that I meant what I said." It sounded like a poor reason, she admitted to herself, even as the words came out.

"I hate it that you did that Xena."

The simple statement was like a lash across the warrior's face. The dark head bobbed in understanding, and she found herself saying the words she had prepared. "The roads to the border are not yet impassible. Dispatch riders can still get through. I'll send an escort with you. Ride Argo, she'll keep you safe." Her voice was soft, huskier than normal. Gabrielle looked at her perplexed. "Where am I going?"

"Knowing Ephiny," Xena continued, "she'll slow their progress when she realizes you stayed behind. You should catch them in a day or two. Once you've crossed the Pres- "

"Xena, I'm not going anywhere," she said firmly, with a small shake of the head. "I just got you back. Why would I want to leave you now?"

Xena looked straight ahead, at the same nothingness Gabrielle had focused on. "Gabrielle, before this is over, I'll be called on to do more things that you'll hate. You don't need to witness...everything." Her voice trailed off.

"Called on? By whom?" the bard challenged.

"I don't know," she mumbled. "By circumstances, Gabrielle. I can't control what Radec does. If he chooses to terrorize the population, I have to respond."

"Respond? Tit for tat? Atrocity for atrocity? He kills one man, you kill...how many was it? Ten? A dozen? The number grows in the time it takes to cross the courtyard. And that's just your personal tally," she added, trying to keep anger out of her voice, but unable to hide her fear. Xena heard it and softened the response that was on her lips.
"Gabrielle, I can't let the enemy camp outside the door," she reasoned. "Cletus lost control of his kingdom because he was too soft. I won't make that mistake. I had to make a statement."

"You chose to make a statement, Xena. You could have chosen to make a different statement."

"No." Xena's voice was surprisingly loud in the still room. "I wanted to make myself clear. Radec understands only one language, and I speak it." The blue eyes, touched with slate now, narrowed, and her lips were compressed in anger. Gabrielle knew the look was for Radec, but it pained her, and she turned away. "Gabrielle, that's why it's best that you leave now." I can't stand to have you turn away from me, she thought. Leave now, while you can still stomach me.

"You want me to leave because you're meeting Radec at his own level, and you don't want me looking over your shoulder," Gabrielle said plainly.

"You won't want to see it," she said with dead-certainty, a half-pace and a world away from the bard.

"Do you think it will be any easier for me to hear about it? New tales of the Warrior Princess and her ruthless brutality in Prestia? The only person you're being easier on is yourself Xena," she accused. "You won't have to face my reminders that you're better than Radec."

"Better? Am I?" The question startled Gabrielle, and she turned back to gauge Xena's mood.

"How can you ask that Xena? Would I have spent these years at your side if you were no better than Radec?" The question demanded an answer, and Xena had none. She said instead: "You always gave me hope that I could be better, Gabrielle, but, these past days..." she paused, as if living the moments again, "I've enjoyed every moment of action: that running battle through the streets, and this morning," she nodded, remembering. "I came alive. It was thrilling." She let Gabrielle see the passion in her eyes, and the woman understood the problem. How to argue against that?

"As long as there are men like Radec, Xena, I guess there will have to be people like you, that enjoy the fight, but fight against evil," she countered. "I know you. I'm sure you didn't love the death-dealing."

Xena considered. How could a battle be separated from death? "Maybe I don't love death," she conceded, "but it's not hard for me to kill. In a little while, we're going outside to bring in the townsfolk. Those bastards in the brown shirts will get in the way. I'll kill as many as I can. Happily."

"You don't have to rub my nose in it, Xena," Gabrielle said, irritated and a little puzzled at Xena's insistence.

"Yeah, Gabrielle, I do. I sometimes wonder just who you think I am, what I am. If you knew - "

"What? You think I'd be on the first horse out of here? Out of your life? Try me," she challenged. Now they got to the point. "Tell me what you are."

"Gabrielle, you know," she said with a pained expression. "I've spent most of my adult life, wallowing in evil. Following Ares. What does that make me?"

Gabrielle considered her response carefully. This subject had to be broached sometime.

"It makes you a woman who's stronger than the God of War."

"Gabrielle - "

"Xena, I've seen you defy Ares to his face. You've crossed swords with him, outsmarted him, helped him regain his godhead. You've done everything but spit in his eye, and I don't doubt that you'll do that someday. He might have claimed you as his own, Xena, but he'll never have you," she hissed, with fervor.

"You've seen the tapestries?" Xena's eyes held surprise, and a touch of relief, Gabrielle thought; she was happy not to be alone in this anymore.

"Yes, Xena. I've spent hours with those musty hangings. Not worth the cloth it took to make them. Now, they'd make a great bonfire."

Xena's mouth twisted in a momentary grin, then she shook her head. "It wouldn't change anything, Gabrielle, it's all true, about Ares, and my illustrious, bloodthirsty forbears. Everything is suddenly explained; it makes sense, for the first time, why I became what I did, why I can fall back into that so easily. Why I'll never really escape Ares," she ended in a flat voice.

The green eyes rolled in exasperation. "Xena, have you heard a word I've said?" It suddenly seemed to Gabrielle that Xena hadn't heard.

Gabrielle covered the half-step between them and looked up into the warrior's face. "Xena, I don't get it. How can you so easily fall into believing those tapestries? They tell you you're under Ares dominion, so you surrender, and act the part? They tell you you're doomed to die here, so you get busy digging your grave? "

"They just...I don't know...my life finally makes sense," she repeated.

Gabrielle almost felt herself grow in stature as she rose to meet this lie. Inches from Xena's face, one hand on each bracer, she demanded that Xena see the truth. "What in your life makes more sense since you came to Prestia, Xena?"

"Why I was a warlord; why I can be that way again, so easily." She didn't pull away, and Gabrielle could feel her body quiver as she struggled to make sense of what she was feeling. "Lots of people in this world are victims, Gabrielle. Most of them just go on with their lives. I went on a bloodletting rampage. Don't you think I wonder where that came from?"

"There was more than Cortese in your past, Xena. You had Atrius..." She gripped Xena's arms to keep her from pulling away. "And from what I gather, you didn't really start the blood-letting until after Caesar, well you know. Niklio told me," she said, in reply to the question in Xena's face. "I guess he thought it was okay to tell; you were dead at the time."

"Doesn't matter," Xena murmured quickly, but her eyes avoided the bard.

"You had a lot of pain to deal with Xena."

"Dealing with pain; that's a nice way to put in Gabrielle," she snickered bitterly. "That's what Callisto's doing too. In the best tradition of our family. That's the point Gabrielle, Callisto and I found the same solution to pain. That's not what you would have done."

"We don't know that, Xena," she protested.

"When Perdicus died - when my sister murdered him - " she amended, "you got past it."

"Because I still had you."

"Nice try, Gabrielle; and when I died, you would have gotten past it. You were going to be fine." Why did I come back? she suddenly wondered.

"Okay you've made your point. We react differently. What does that prove?" Gabrielle asked, tearing Xena away from what she guessed to be a dangerous thought.

"I'm not trying to prove anything, Gabrielle. I just want to understand what it's all been about before - "

"Before what?"

"Never mind."

"Before you die? Again? Come on Xena, I've read the tapestries. I know you fully expect to lay down your life for Prestia in the near future. Today, or tomorrow. Now that's something I'd love to understand: why you'd sooner die in the service of an old man you profess to hate, than live on with someone you love."

"It's not for Cletus," she objected.

"You owe Prestia nothing," Gabrielle said emphatically.

"I didn't choose this, Gabrielle," was her terse comment.

"You choose to accept it every minute you stay here." Xena had not heard this voice often, and she looked at Gabrielle as if seeing her for the first time, as she continued : "You're choosing to accept this burden of saving a kingdom, no matter the cost to yourself. Or me."

That got Xena's attention. "Gabrielle," she began helplessly -

Gabrielle went on. "And I don't understand why you seem so determined to prove that you're - " she hesitated, "evil. You know, I almost think the tapestries are some sort of license to let go. An absolution from all responsibility. 'I couldn't help.' Is that it?

Are you looking for permission to give in to the darkness? Is it easier to surrender than to keep fighting it?" Sensing she was near the truth Gabrielle plunged on. "Xena, you must get tired of that struggle. I've seen how hard it can be. But somehow, I thought that, together, we were winning!" She looked at her hopefully, still holding the arms in white-knuckled hands. She was dismayed at Xena's question.

"Were we winning Gabrielle?" she asked with a hint of incredulity. "Sometimes I couldn't tell. My first instinct was still to land my fist in someone's face, or stick a sword in his gut. Sometimes it was a real strain not to do that." She stopped suddenly, and looked around for a seat, settling on the low divan near the window.

"Are you in pain, Xena," Gabrielle asked with concern.

"Usual. Not too bad."

A sudden thought came to the warrior. "Ever think that maybe I defy Ares just 'cause I don't like being told what to do? Hate the idea of a warlord who outranks me?" she said with a sardonic smile, waiting earnestly for Gabrielle's reaction. Anxious that she understand; although Xena wasn't sure she quite understood herself.

"Like Pres Prima defying Zeus?" Gabrielle asked, aware now of the depth of Xena's obsession with her Prestian roots.

"Yeah."

The blonde sat next to Xena, faced again with needs she could hardly understand, let alone know how to fill. She took a large hand and pressed it to her cheek, as if intuiting something from the feel of the warrior alone. This was her duty she guessed, the price she paid for having this marvelous partner. For that's what she was. Difficult, enigmatic, maddening, yes, but also warm, tender and courageous. Loving. Undeniably worthy of a lifetime of devotion. She'd have to muddle through this mess somehow.

"Well, I don't think you're anything like Pres Prima, but if he gives you an easy out... I just never thought I'd live to see you take the easy out," she goaded.

"Easy? Gabrielle, this isn't so easy. I can fight Radec's evil, because I know evil. I was evil," she echoed. "I'm trying hard not to be evil now," she assured her solemnly. "I'm just going as far as necessary to break Radec's power."

"Well, it looks to me like one last walk on the dark side before you die. And by the way," she hurried on," you promised me you wouldn't do that again. Die. If you do you'll leave me permanently pissed off at you."

"I know. I'm sorry. I wish there was another way...."

"But we have to follow the story the way it's woven in thread?"

"Gabrielle, as prophecy those hangings bear a lot of weight. They're uncanny. Why depict me as the 'lamed warrior'? I wasn't that until I came here; why show Amazons in the streets outside? How could anyone guess, centuries ago, that the 'lamed warrior' would be involved with Amazons."

"Okay," Gabrielle prepared to argue against her. "Um? Amazons. Lucky guess," she decided. "Wouldn't it make sense for a woman warrior to be involved with Amazons? They are, after all women warriors. Xena, remember, this is all interpretation."

Xena smiled at her eagerness to help, then put her to the test. "Gabrielle, interpret away the last panel." Her face held a grim challenge, and a plea for help. "Please."

Gabrielle dismissed the reading she had given Salmoneus, and forced a new interpretation on the image. "Okay, a lamed warrior, some lamed warrior, it doesn't have to be you, is lying on the plains outside the city, but she isn't dead yet; and those birds aren't birds of prey, they're...owls! Yeah, owls, sent by Athena to succor her chosen one." She looked up in triumph, to see Xena regarding her doubtfully, but with a crooked grin lighting her face. "How do you do that Gabrielle?"

"What?"

"Make me forget everything else."

"That's my job, Xena. Every once in a while you need a smack on the head, and I'm the one who gets to do it." She forced a grin in return, though she didn't feel like smiling. "Left to your own devices, Xena, you can be awfully hard on yourself." She brushed the dark hair away from Xena's face. "So we're not doing that anymore." Xena looked at her blankly. "I'm your shadow, Xena. Where you go, I go. Not every minute, I know that's not practical, but at all those significant moments, I'll be there." She smiled at the understanding that dawned in the wounded eyes. "But I need a promise. Two promises. You keep talking to me, Xena" she instructed fiercely. "And don't die. Make those tapestries a lie." Xena began to shake her head, seeing only a vain hope in the bard's words. Gabrielle stopped her with a kiss. "If not for yourself, will you do it for me? Please."

"I'll try," she whispered after a moment, then let herself be swallowed in the green eyes, before Gabrielle pulled her head to rest on her shoulder. If she had thought about it, she would have known that this is what she felt as a child, when she let go and allowed her mother to make things all right. But she wasn't thinking; she was feeling loved and comforted, and vaguely wondering about the scent of roses that seemed to infuse the air. "Gabrielle," she said, hoarsely, "What I told Radec. It wasn't true...about Cirra." her head moved almost imperceptible from side to side, her voice implored the bard to believe her.

"Shh, Xena, rest. I knew that wasn't true," Gabrielle lied, as relief pounded in her heart.

Chapters 42 - 44

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