I heard Callisto screeching to my right, slicing through any Roman in reach. Her eyes were deadly, only looking forward towards Gabrielle. My own lack of focus got me on the receiving end of a slash on my left arm and one pissed off Conqueror. I watched as Gabrielle eased her blade out of the soldier who had been about to take me out.
"Get your mind in the battle, Xena!" she said through clenched teeth, kicking the dead man off his horse and moving to her next target.
Ephiny caught up to us as we flanked Gabrielle, galloping full out with arrows and catapults flying above. It was complete and utter chaos and I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest.
I glanced toward the top of the hill where Caesar was sneering. He waved his hand and half the hilltop was filled with his archers.
'Son of a Bacchae!' I said to myself. We’re all sitting ducks. "Archers!" I screamed out loud.
That got Gabrielle's attention. She just glanced up and laughed and took down the Roman she was engaging.
I watched as she puts two fingers in her mouth and let out an ear-ringing whistle that cut through the catapults projectiles flying over our heads.
Dropping down from the trees came a group of Amazon Warriors, making quick disposal of Caesar's archers. I turned toward Caesar. He had a look I've never seen before. I imagined the same expression shown on his face at his assassination. He completely lost all composure.
"Conqueror!!!!!!!!!" he screamed and started to run toward Gabrielle, leaving his men to fend off the amazons themselves.
Time seemed to be moving eerily, slowly. My head turned to Gabrielle and I watched as she jumped off of her horse, taking a soldier’s head off in the process. She was covered in blood with an ice-cold grin on her face. A look of hatred...
Ephiny was engaging Brutus on the ground. The air was thick with the smells of smoke and blood and each catapult strike made my nerves jump. I turned my attention as Pompey decided to jump off his mount, tackling me to the ground.
'This is madness, this is madness.' Went over and over in my head, my demons taunting me. Pompey had me down his blade pressing into my neck, but I was fighting my thoughts more than him. 'Why should I fight this? This world is better for Gabrielle.' My demons reasoned.
'She's succeeding where you failed. She will win against Caesar when you were too weak to.' Flashing before my eyes were the visions of seeing Gabrielle enjoying kill after kill, and after each one the light in her eyes was dimming with each lost life. Then I saw my Gabrielle, full of wonder and life. The young woman who would ask me how the stars got into the sky. The woman who tried to find the good in any person. The woman who believed it me and never once, even in the darkest time ever gave up on me. Now that person was full of hatred. A second later I there was another flash.
It begins very small,
Seems like nothing much at all.
Just a germ, just a speck, just a grain.
But the seed has been sewn,
And before you know it's grown,
It has spread through your life like a stain.
And its power will strangle your love and your joy.
And its hunger consumes-- for it lives to destroy!
"Hatred, Gabrielle, that's what we're fighting -- hatred."
'No, I'll never quit. I'll never give up.' I told my demons and I felt that beast inside me awaken. I looked Pompey right into his eyes while forcing the blade with ease from my throat.
"NOOOO!" I screamed and threw him off and flipped up. I blocked a blow to my right, then left, then a overhead strike. We locked blades and he pulled a dagger from his belt. Grabbing his wrist I pinned him in a stare, squeezing and twisting. He screamed as his wrist gave, dropping the dagger. I brought a knee up between his legs. He let another scream loose, lowering his sword enough for me to knock it down while I plunged mine into his chest.
Then I knelt down, ducking a head shot from behind, twisting enough to stick Pompey's dagger in the Roman stomach. By the time I was done, there were six dead men laid at my feet.
I looked towards Gabrielle and my chin nearly dropped. She was engaging Caesar. He might have had more power, but Gabrielle was almost as strong. To her advantage she was quicker, with more skill. She blocked a swipe at her left, kicked out and took his right knee. He backed up enough so she could drive in her blade up the hilt in his shocked body.
'By The Gods. She killed him. Gabrielle conquered Caesar.
She slowly pulled her blade out and he crumpled at her feet. She let out a great battle cry, raising her blade over head. The troops rallied with her, but then I noticed the only Roman who seemed to be alive still was Brutus. Ephiny finished hogtying him, then joined in the cheer.
I stood there in a sea of dead Romans like a statue.
"Good battle Xena." Ephiny slapped me on the back and smiled. We both looked up to the hilltop where Gabrielle was still cheering. Right then my world slowed to a halt once more as Ephiny and I both saw the flash of blonde charging from behind Gabrielle and heard a scream that would break a ear drum.
"GABRIELLEEEEEE!!!!!!" I screamed.
She stopped her cry and looked calmly at me but didn't even flinch as she turned around to face Callisto. Ephiny and I were running full out, but there was no way we could stop it. What was more frightening was that Gabrielle refused to take a defensive stance. I watched as Joxer kept his promise. He jumped out trying to protect his Conqueror and Callisto sliced right through him like he wasn't there. Gabrielle still didn't move.
"Why isn’t she moving?" Ephiny asked breathlessly as we raced side by side.
"Guilt?" I whispered. Feeling guilty is probably one of the worst emotions I've felt in my life. It can make you do foolish things because you think it's for the best, that it will end any pain. In reality it causes different sets of guilt and pain and it's usually the person you love the most that pays for that mistake.
"Letting justice be served," I said aloud.
Callisto reached her target, and raised the sword that would split Gabrielle in half. Gabrielle finally drew her sword, deflecting the blow. She stood her ground as Callisto circled her until Ephiny and I arrived.
"Stand your ground, warriors." Gabrielle said calmly, holding her sword to her side.
Callisto laughed. "Oh, the good Conqueror. What happened to you? One day you just decided to be a kind ruler?" She continued to circle.
"Something like that." Gabrielle let her shoulders drop.
"And all the shattered people your soldiers left behind are now supposed to cheer you, is that it?" I remembered this conversation, one of many dealing with Callisto. A time I almost lost Gabrielle to darkness.
"From here on out all I want on my hands is Callisto’s blood, Xena."
"Gabrielle, leave Callisto to me. You need time to mourn." Truth was, I was scared, she had that look I did was Lyceus was killed.
"I have the rest of my life to mourn. I want to see her dead, Xena!" The look she gave made me shudder.
" I won’t help you destroy all the ideals that you live by."
"My ideals were a lie. I thought love was the strongest power on Earth. What a fool. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty, Xena."
"Gabrielle, if you’re taken over by hatred, Callisto wins."
"Xena, wake up and look around you! The little innocent Gabrielle is dead, and there’s no getting her back. Just teach me how to use a sword, so, at least I stand a fighting chance. Please."
I could never say no to her.
"OK. Again. Again. Again! I’m gonna kill her. Again! Teach me. Teach me! Teach me. Again. Again! Teach me how to kill her, Xena. I’m gonna cut her open and watch her bleed. I’m gonna kill her, Xena! Teach me how to kill her!."
I felt at that moment like something was squeezing my heart, and it was the first time in my life I prayed to any God.
"If anyone’s listening you know, I’m not much for praying. But I don’t know what else to do. I was ready to give up once, and.. and Gabrielle came into my life. Please don’t let that light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn’t stand the darkness that would follow."
I was brought out of my memory by Gabrielle’s voice speaking to Callisto.
"What happened to you was terrible. It was my fault and I'm sorry-."
She didn't let Gabrielle finish her sentence.
"Oh... well! That makes all the difference. And now, we can be the best of friends." She spits at Gabrielle's feet. "That’s what I think of your apology." She attacked, but as Gabrielle blocked each blow, Callisto becomes more frustrated. "Fight me Conqueror! I’m not afraid to die, if that’s what you’re worried about. What about you, Conqueror? How would you feel to see your creation die by your hands, hmm?"
I could feel Gabrielle’s will cracking, so I spoke. "Don’t listen to her, Gabrielle. You can’t torture yourself forever for what she’s become."
Callisto gave me a sickening smile. "No, of course not. No, it’s not her fault that I dream every night of my mother’s screams coming from my burning home! You tell me Conqueror, do you sleep well at night?!"
Listening to Callisto recite her conversations with me to Gabrielle suddenly became too much. I felt my entire body shake and beads of sweat form on my brow. My voice was lost.
"No, I don’t." Gabrielle’s voice was low and soft.
"It wasn't the Conqueror’s fault, you bitch." Ephiny charged but I didn't have time to stop her. Gabrielle turned to look at her friend.
"I said stand your ground!"
Callisto took advantage and swung down, slicing Gabrielle's back.
"No!" Ephiny and I both moved to go to her.
"Stand your ground or you'll both be fighting me instead!" she managed through clenched teeth. We both stopped in our tracks, as Gabrielle straightened up to face Callisto again. By this time a group of soldiers began to circle us, watching the display.
"They may have been your men, but the blood is on your hands!" Callisto's attacked again.
Each word Callisto spoke, cut more into Gabrielle then her sword ever could. I winced each time at those very same words when they were spoken to me. Gabrielle deflected another blow and spoke.
"You're right, it was my fault. I was drunk half the time and ignored the signs of the uprising in my forces. By the time I sobered up and caught on, the damage was done." Gabrielle's eyes held unshed tears.
"I don’t want reasons Conqueror. I want your head!" Callisto countered as she swung. Almost on instinct Gabrielle deflected the blow. The strike wasn’t powerful. There was no advance within it, simply deflection. The group listened closely as Gabrielle’s voice got very small.
"We rode for days," she began as the two women continued to circle each other. "I spent hours trying to catch up to those bastards, each and every town they touched..." She choked a bit but kept her eyes on Callisto. "Each town was worse then the last one we tried to salvage. I might have a reputation of being cold hearted, but never could I allow the torture of innocents. A time long ago my family was subjected to this type of torture, and I swore, I would not allow that to happen to anyone else." All of us there were at a loss for words.
Gabrielle threw her sword down and held her arms out to the side. "If my death brings you peace, then so be it."
I eyed Callisto. "If she takes a step near you Gabrielle, I'll strike her down myself," I said.
Gabrielle didn’t pay attention to my words. She only spoke to Callisto. "A very wise friend by the name of Lao Ma once told me the only way to stop violence was through love and forgiveness. I’m willing to forgive you for this sin and allow you to leave with your life. But if you step foot in my kingdom again . . . You’re a dead woman."
"But she doesn’t understand love and forgiveness. She won’t stop until-" My words were interrupted.
"Enough of this sickening display of valor." Callisto was looking at me as her chin trembled. I was stunned. This was the first display of any emotion other than anger I'd seen her give. Gabrielle’s words had weakened her for a moment. We all stood there waiting to see what would happen. I thought for sure she would regroup and attack.
"I refuse to make you a martyr, Conqueror." Much to our surprise, she threw her sword on the ground as well. "See? You made a monster with integrity. And I’m touched you find yourself so noble but I do know the truth. You’re a beast! But I won’t make you a hero by taking your life." She flipped onto a nearby horse and took off, tears staining her face.
We all just watched her leave, but my hearing picked up Gabrielle saying in less then a whisper. "Sometimes I really hate playing Conqueror."
Gabrielle gave a deep sigh and picked up her sword. She broke the tension by shouting orders to us. "Ephiny? Have the men get this battlefield cleaned up. Have my healers tend our wounded and bring Caesar to the dungeon and Brutus to my tent."
Ephiny and I looked at each other, confused. "Caesar?" Ephiny asked.
"I didn’t kill him," Gabrielle answered. "I have plans for him. If he lives through the night that is," she says in afterthought. "Send messengers to find out how the Centaurs and Lao Ma are."
Ephiny nodded with a salute before leaving.
"Gabrielle, let me look at the wound on your back."
She raised an eyebrow at me. "You a healer too, Xena?"
"My, my. We have many skills."
I almost tripped when she said that. We got to her tent and she started to take her armor off. I found myself rushing over to help her. It was a reverse case of deja vu. How many times did Gabrielle do the same for me all these years?
"It's not bad," she added. "Just nicked my shoulder. Armor took the worst of it." She sounded very tired. When I removed the armor and the shirt underneath the sight before me stopped my efforts for a moment. Gabrielle was scarred badly by a whip. I realize it must have been from the attack on her village. I wanted to reach out and touch them, tell her I was sorry for all her pain but I quickly pulled myself together.
"Still going to need a few stitches," I said trying to stay focused on the current wound.
I looked around for a kit.
"Enjoy the battle, Xena? Told you Caesar wasn't much to worry about." I stayed quiet and tended to her wound. Part of me was still in shock that she won against him, and another part was in awe. Most of me was worried about how quickly Gabrielle gave into guilt.
"My town was attacked by your men also." I felt her stiffen. "But I know it wasn't your fault and you helped whoever you could. You even brought those men to justice."
"My justice, Xena." She turned her head to glance at me. "I killed every last one of them."
"I don't blame you, Gabrielle. Callisto is so blinded by her hate that it tainted her judgment." I reasoned.
"I was in her shoes at one time and I sought justice. Why should she not have that right?" she countered.
"You went after the people who hurt you, Callisto is not-."
"I was responsible for those men, Xena. They were my men!" One thing hadn’t changed; she was still very stubborn in this world.
"Conqueror?" Gabrielle put her shirt back on when Ephiny walked in with a tied Brutus.
"What's the word, Regent?"
"Tyldus reports things went well. No deaths, a few injured. Melosa reports we lost three sisters. Lao Ma’s advance party reports all is quiet and she should be here for the celebration tonight."
"Very good." Gabrielle nodded. "Our sisters fought nobly, so let’s make sure that the after life knows it. Make sure they have royal pyres and see that a healer tends to Tyldus' men." Ephiny bows, leaving Brutus standing there.
"Now I have to decide what to do with you, Brutus." I stood there like a good royal guard and watched Gabrielle work. She was making the poor man squirm.
"Conqueror? Maybe we can come up with some type of arrangement?" He was very nervous. Gabrielle just raised an eyebrow and looked deeply into his eyes.
"What would you have to offer? Rome?" She looked rather amused.
"An alliance." He stuck his chest out, but sucked it back in at Gabrielle’s laughter.
"Alliance, you say? Hmm… since you are on my land and the only Roman left standing, I find that offer rather . . . intriguing."
"There are still Roman forces under Anthony's control. I could go back and plead your side, discourage anymore Roman invasions."
Brutus was always a rather weak man.
"All right Brutus, but under one condition." He took a sigh of relief and I looked at her like she lost her mind. "You sign your name to this scroll, stating what you just said." His eyes widened. "Let's just say I had a feeling this would be your offer and took liberty in having two decree drawn up - one for Greece and one for Rome. Sign this right now, then stamp your ring’s seal at the bottom."
Then her eyes made me shudder.
She set the scrolls down and held a quill out. He wasted no time in signing and dipping his ring into the wax to show his Roman seal. Gabrielle smiled while rolling up the scrolls. "Well done, and now for my part. Ephiny?" A blonde head peeked in.
With a mighty swing of Gabrielle’s sword Brutus’ head came clear off his body. My gasp caught in my throat as the blood covered the tent walls and the Conqueror. I sat stunned for a moment but I soon noticed that Ephiny seemed unaffected. She didn’t even flinch. Walking inside, she took a position next to Brutus’ slain body. "See that our new ‘friend’ makes it safely to Rome would you?" Gabrielle added. She swung again. This time separating Brutus hand from his body.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?" I implored.
"Dividing and Conquering, Xena." She paused and faced me with a flash of mischievous green eyes. "Literally," she chuckled looking at Brutus decapitated body. She handed me the scroll as Ephiny began to pull his corpse from the tent.
"I assume he fell for it?" the Regent smiled.
"Hook, line, and sinker."
I unrolled one of the scroll and read, then I looked up at them both. I must have looked like an idiot with my mouth hanging open. The scroll said that he had sided with Greece and turned his back on Rome to escape persecution. In other words, Gabrielle managed to label Brutus as a traitor to Rome. I was speechless.
"Is Mark Anthony still with Cleopatra?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Yep, and she's showing him a grand time on the Nile like you asked."
I watched the two of them interact. Gabrielle tossed Ephiny Brutus’ hand. Ephiny too seemed the least bit phased. I, however, felt the need to vomit.
"Good. Send a messenger to Egypt with one of the scrolls along with his ring finger. Send the other scroll to Rome with his head. As for the rest of him . . . do what ever you want but get it out of here. " Gabrielle turned at me now but my mind was still reeling from what I witnessed moments before. She murdered Brutus. Not in the heat of battle but in cold blood as a way of betrayal. I forced my eyes to meet hers. "Something the matter?" she asked, sensing my discomfort.
"No, my Conqueror," I answered quickly.
Should I confess or try to continue with the charade? My Gabrielle was always smart but this one was intuitive beyond belief. "I’m sorry but I just didn’t expect you to do that."
"And what should I have done, Xena?"
"Kept your word."
I regretted the sentence as soon as it left my lips. She would probably take my head off next.
"Certainly," she grinned. She began to stroll through the tent as she continued. "I let him go. Then he returns to Rome. He double crosses me and returns with even more men for the next battle. As a result, more of my men die and I risk the chance of Rome overtaking Greece."
"I hadn’t considered that," I confessed.
"Was it heartless? Yes. Was it underhanded? Absolutely. Will it protect this empire? Without a doubt." Gabrielle leans on the desk across from me folder her arms under her chest. "I will do what I need to ensure Greece’s survival. This is war. What did you expect? Glamour? There are no good choices here, Xena. Only lesser degrees of evil."
I was so blinded by my lust for battle and survival against the horde I said the same words to her. But I also realized in an instant that I lost a part of myself that weekend. And it was Gabrielle that pulled me back from a decent into darkness. Would I have the power to do the same for her? She might have won the battle but I could see that Gabrielle was lost.
"Look Xena. Here’s the plan. Only Anthony remains now. The Senate will turn on each other and Roman against Roman is much better than Greek against Roman. We just sit back and watch Rome destroy itself from inner conflict and lack of leadership. The best won battles are the ones you never have to fight yourself."
There truly is a method to her madness and more now than ever I was confused. This Gabrielle had her demons but she was an effective leader. She was doing her best to provide for her people. Should I take her away from all this? Was Ares right? Is this Gabrielle better than the other? Our enemies are slain. Her daughter is alive. Many of our friends are alive. My mother is here too. But what’s the trade off? There’s no Lila or Sara. There’s no Virgil. Joxer’s life in this world is now gone. As for Najara, she’s Gabrielle’s consort. Then there’s Evie. She doesn’t exist in this world. Neither does ‘my bard’. And although she was an effective leader, Gabrielle’s soul was tortured far worse than the scars that my Gabrielle had endured. I was wondering what action I should take when I heard Gabrielle speak to again, pulling me from my thoughts.
"Now that the field is being cleared and the wounded and dead tended, we might as well check a few last things and head back for the celebration."
Ephiny and I followed her back out.
"Soldiers of Greece!" Everyone there froze at the sound of her voice and listened. "You fought well today, you fought for freedom and won. Now our generations shall reap this benefit. You all should be proud." Roars of cheers went up. "And now… we shall go home to a huge feast!" More cheers as we continued to follow Gabrielle.
She went to each and every face that was there and gave them a pat of thanks for their hard work. I watched as she showed compassion to the wounded and held a dying Amazon. Then she went and studied each and every soldier she lost to make sure she never forgot their faces.
The last body she uncovered was Joxer’s. There is where a bit of her mask fell and a tear slipped down her face.
"Ephiny? Make sure his pyre has honors and that his family is taken care of. Anything they want, they can have." She sniffled, and put a dinar in his hand. "Make sure Charron gives you a smooth ride, my friend."
As Gabrielle walked away I found myself unable to move. I looked at Joxer’s expressionless face. I felt an inadequacy. I was unable to save him in this life as I was in the other. And I felt myself mourning all over again. As I did, I wondered how much more mourning would I do before all of this ended one way or another. I turned around to see Gabrielle getting ready to lead Argo away and I proceeded up the hill double time to join her.
It was early evening by the time we reached home and the scouts must have sounded our arrival. Torches lit the path to the very happy citizens who decorated our return with rose petals. No one said a word other then nodding occasionally at the crowd. The aroma coming from the castle made my own stomach grumble. The cooks were getting ready for the big feast. I smiled when I remembered that my mother was one of them. Joxer was now gone in this life but my mother still remained. We got our horses stabled, and I realized I was quite tired, my adrenaline wearing down.
"Conqueror?" Ephiny approached. "I think before the feast we should deal with the soldiers," she smirked.
"Ahh yes, have them relieve themselves and meet tonight for the feast. Make sure they know to bathe too." Ephiny gave the orders, much to the men’s pleasure.
"Good battle, Xena," Ephiny nodded to me. I bowed my head in respect.
The voice was a foreign one to our circle but I recognized it just the same.
"Yes, my consort?" Gabrielle sighed as she turned to face Najara.
As I also turned, the nut’s eyes were on me and not Gabrielle. But I refused to look away. Realizing that she couldn’t win the staring contest, she turned back to Gabrielle.
"I have a bath drawn and waiting for you, love."
She walked over, giving Gabrielle a kiss that was supposed to be on the lips, but Gabrielle turned her head and the kiss hit her cheek instead. Najara wasn't happy and her stare landed back on me. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "See you tonight, ladies."
It made me sick seeing Gabrielle led off by her.
"She's a real head case, isn't she?" Ephiny asked, whispering up to me.
"Other than the fact she has little voice telling her what to do? No."
Ephiny chuckled at my equation but I’m still unable to pull my eyes away from the leaving pair.
"Will you be enjoying the bordello, Xena?"
My surprise forced me to turn and face her. "You have a bordello here?"
"Absolutely. You know how Gabrielle feels about rape, and after battle the men all go through battle lust, so this is sort of a solution. You’re welcome to partake if you like." Oh Gods, what if Gabrielle has my battle lust? The thought of her with that... Well, that put any fire in my loins out.
"No, I'm rather tired and I just want to wash up."
She patted me on my back. "Then I'll see you tonight. It'll be a grand affair."
I watched her retreating form.
It felt good to have some quiet time. My nerves were shot and my soul was shaking, I was a mess inside. Right now more then anything, what was bothering me was the idea of Gabrielle with Najara. I felt more and more like I was losing this battle for my bard. I sat in my bath water and cried, crying more out of frustration then anything else. I don’t know how long I sat there but the water had become cold. I ducked my head back, wetting my hair, when a knock at my door brought me out of my misery. It was one of Gabrielle's servants.
"The Conqueror wishes your presence, ma’am?" she squeaked.
"I'll be right there." I dried quickly and dressed, my heart beating fast again. I stood outside her chamber door for what seemed like an eternity.
"You going to stand out there forever, Xena, or come in?" I heard her chuckle through the door. I cracked her door open, not knowing what to expect.
"You wanted to see me?" My mind was thinking she would be raging with lust.
'Gods, what if she wants me to watch her and that…!?!'
But what I found was completely the opposite. She was standing by the window with a glass of wine looking into the evening sky, just starting to fill with stars and the setting sun. I noticed that on her table she had a mixture of scrolls scattered all around.
"Something wrong Xena?" She smiled.
"No, no. I just..." I was a babbling fool.
"You thought I would be fucking my wife senseless?"
No words. I just nodded with a guilty smirk.
"I noticed you didn’t go to the bordello," she countered.
"There’s nothing there I want," I answered honestly.
"After a battle the last thing I want is sex, strange as it might sound. To me, sex is a beautiful act and should not be tainted by battle."
"No disrespect, your Majesty, but I’m not sure if it was a beautiful act that took place between us in the woods the other night."
She smiled and motioned her glass to me in a toast. "As they say in Gaul, touché."
"If you agree with me, Conqueror, what would you call it?"
"You mean the other night…in the woods?"
I simply nodded.
"Lust at its finest, Xena. Not sex. Not love. Just carnal ‘I want you. You want me. Let’s get it on’ lust. Be honest Xena. You felt it."
"It wasn’t what I hoped for."
"Are you saying you didn’t enjoy it?" Gabrielle chuckled.
I gave a bashful grin. "I’m not saying that."
She handed me some wine and I gulped it down. "Well, after a battle I try to find peace, some type of comfort. So I usually read some of Sappho's works or look at the stars and dream." She blushed. "I know. It's silly… especially since I'm expected to have the raging limbo with cravings for bondage but..." I interrupted her.
"Far from it, in fact, I think it's wonderful, Gabrielle." The eyes I was looking into were my bard’s.
"So how do you handle the battle lust, Xena?" She sounded very small.
"Sex usually, but today I wasn't in the mood." I just wanted this subject to drop. "So what do you need of me? Not that I'm complaining."
She looked out the window. "I just wanted to see you."
You know that feeling in your heart the first time the person you love says the words? That giddy thumping? I swear if she didn’t think I was totally gone, I would have back flipped through the room. She wanted to be with me and not the nutball! I set my glass down and walked to her.
She looked at me, leaning in and kissed me softly before looking back at the night sky. "You see that, Xena?" I looked up to where she was pointing. "It looks like a big dipper."
"A dipper?" I smiled at the memory, in reverse, but still sweet.
"Yeah, you know like one of those cups that you draw water out of a bucket?" We both looked back up.
"It looks, it looks like a bear to me." My voice was on the husky side.
"A bear?" She looked at me like I lost my mind.
"Yeah." I countered.
"How do you get a bear?" I was really amusing her.
I moved behind her and began to point as whispered in her ear – my breath tickling her lobe. "Look at it. Look, there’s the body. See? The little ears, and tail…" She laughed softly at me.
"If you say so, Xena." We both chuckled now before a quiet settled over us and our stargazing. If I was going to teach Gabrielle the way she taught me, now had to be the time.
"You know one of the wonderful things about life Gabrielle?"
"Times like right now where two people can see the same thing but find something totally different in it. But in the end, both can be just as beautiful. Life is always our perceptions more than the actual incidents that happen."
"Is that so?"
"Explain," she says with a smile as she turned to face me.
"Well I could kiss you right now. I could make another declaration," I begin as my fingertips run her jaw line. "It would be a wonderful event. But in the end how you perceive my actions are what matter most. I could even raise another point too if I dare."
"Let’s hear it."
"Well from my perspective I find it quite interesting and flattering that you're standing at your balcony sharing this beautiful sky with me instead of your consort. I’m honored and I’m hopeful. So although you deny that there’s nothing more than ‘Let’s get it on’ lust here, I have to assume it’s something more, something deeper. So tell me Gabrielle, conqueror of my heart, what’s your perception of me?"
She fell silent and turned to look out the window. I took time just to look at her. She was in her Royal gown and when the wind caught her hair just right, my breath was taken from me. This Gabrielle looked older and regal but with more lines around her eyes. Regardless, she was still beautiful.
"At times I think you’re a crazy woman with a death wish," she grinned playfully. "At other times, someone who doesn’t know what she’s asking herself to get into. You saw what I’m capable of today. So I wonder why you’re still here?"
"I’m yours. I follow your orders and I was summonsed here."
"I thought that’s what you would say." She turned back toward the window and I knew I had to recover.
"However," I continued. "When I got my orders to join you, I rushed here as quickly as I could. I wanted to see you again despite any orders."
A long silence passed between us.
"I'm sorry if my actions with Brutus disappointed you, Xena." The confession surprised me.
"I won't lie, Gabrielle, you did shock me today." Though it was more like she scared me half to death.
"Xena, I didn't get to be the Conqueror of the known world by being kind."
"I know that. I-."
"Do you?" she interrupted me. "I have to be ruthless. Kill first, before my enemy can kill me. Too many lives depend on me, Xena." She walked from the window to the desk, pouring herself more wine.
"What about your soul?"
She stopped in mid drink. "A part of that dies each time… to where I doubt I have one any longer. But this is the life I chose." She finished that glass and started on another. "I chose to let hatred and revenge take my life and now I pay the piper with my soul."
"Gods, Gabrielle" I hung my head, trying to control my emotion.
"Save your tears or pity, Xena. A lot of times I enjoy the ruthlessness." She gulped down another glass and moved to the door. "Now we have a party to go to." She exited and I began to follow when I got that familiar sick feeling that stopped me cold.
"I was wondering when you would pay me a visit next."
"I'm here for the celebration."
I turned towards a very happy War God, but said nothing. "Oh Xena, more tears? If I didn’t know better, I would swear you’re turning into the bard, the lowly sidekick. Even sounding like her. Tsk, Tsk, such a show of utter weakness is so unbecoming of the great Warrior Princess." He circled me and sat on the desk; I still hadn’t said a word.
"Come on now, Xena, I think you know deep down Gabrielle is better off in this universe. She has such power to change the world, make it better. After all isn’t that what you’ve both been fighting for all along?" He snapped his finger acting like he was hunting for the right word. "The greater good?" he laughed, standing behind me now.
"She’s a great ruler, just and true." He was so close to me, I could feel his breath in my ear. "She’s managed to take out any threat towards mankind. Caesar’s the latest conquest." He wrapped his arms around my waist. "You have any idea what she’s having done to him right this moment? Hmm, Xena?" I shuddered at his voice dropped. "Torture is a too kind word for it. She sure can make my blood pump." He let loose an animalistic sound and swiveled to face me.
"For the grand finale, he’ll be the main attraction at the party. I think you’ll enjoy what she has planned for him." I just raised my eyebrow. He crossed his arms in front of himself and looked me over. He sighed, sort of frustrated at me for not giving into his torment. "I’ve got a deal for you, Xena. Let’s just say even now I have a small soft spot for ya."
I smirked at that. "And what would that be, Ares?"
"Since you’ll never win Gabrielle, I thought you’d be a better choice as her partner then Najara. Frankly between you and me, her and her one too many voices are freaky even for me." He smiled, waiting for my reply, but it was my turn to smirk and circle him. "I thought she was a better choice for Gabrielle? Since she did kick my ass that one time."
I tapped my chin. "Since I’ve been in this Gods forsaken world you created, I’ve been doing nothing more then thinking and you’re right about one thing so far."
He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Here I do sound like Gabrielle, because in the other world she was my voice of reason. Breaking through each and every torturous demon I had. She never gave up on me even though I gave her many reasons too. And I bet, in fact I know…she wept for my soul many times. I caught her doing it when she thought I wasn’t around." I turned my back to him and looked out the window.
"At first I hated this feeling. I did feel weak. Being in Gabrielle’s shoes now, I know she probably felt the same way." I fell silent and thought about it. How many times did my bard hear she was my weakness? I turned towards him. "You know what I’ve come to realize Ares? Me being able to comfort, or yes, even cry for Gabrielle’s soul, means I’ve changed. I no longer believe I’m this unfeeling monster you helped created years ago." My hearing picked up him grinding his teeth.
"So I have to thank you for that, Ares. Which also means if I can learn a lesson in this world, so can Gabrielle. Isn’t that why you made me this offer?" I gave him a huge grin.
"Gabrielle still has her soul and she just needs to have someone believe in her just like I did back then. And that thought is making you quake in your leathers, isn’t it?" My stare went icy as well as my voice. This time he shuddered as I practically stalked up to him like a wild cat giving him a peck on the cheek.
"Thanks, but no thanks, Ares." I walked out the door, but not before hearing cursing and lighting bolts crashing in the room.
‘Gods, that felt good.’ I whispered, making my way to the gala. I froze in my tracks as I saw Gabrielle talking with Lao Ma. Memories flooded my mind.
"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and
understand the great mystery of things, Xena."
I was so blind back then; the ignorance of youth. One of a very few times in my life someone cared and I was too filled with hatred to see.
"Why would you help me?" I spat and she just smiles at me.
"I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman capable of greatness."
I didn't know what to feel.
That was the moment. I could've done it right there. I could've just let go and buried all my hatred forever. That was my chance and I blew it, but if I didn’t follow the path I did, I would never have met Gabrielle.
"Oh… wha?" I stumbled out of my musing to an amused Conqueror and a puzzled Lao Ma.
"Are you feeling well, Warrior?"
Sigh. This was like the tenth time she’d caught me when my guard was down. "No Conqueror, you just caught me in heavy thought."
She chuckled. "Apparently so. I would like you to meet the great Lao Ma from Chin."
Seeing Lao Ma again after all these moons, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. It’s difficult seeing your first love after all those years. It’s even more difficult when she has no memory of you. As usual, she said nothing at first. I knew she was looking into my soul as she looked into my eyes. I found myself giving a bow of respect, which she returned.
"Lao Ma, this is Xena," Gabrielle continued. "One of my newest guards. She’s quite the warrior. She showed incredible courage and spirit today."
Lao Ma paused a moment. "It’s wonderful to meet of woman of such nobility as yourself Xena. You’ve had some difficult journeys I feel."
"Yes I have," I told her honestly.
"But you are finding your peace slowly. That is very commendable." I watched Lao Ma turn to Gabrielle. "Now if only her Highness could be as fortunate."
"I’m as settled as I’ll ever be," Gabrielle grinned.
"I think a journey east would do you well, Conqueror. Perhaps a vacation of the body would help the mind."
"I’ve been east, Lao Ma. You know that."
"Ah yes, but you haven’t been to all the places you could reach."
Gabrielle and I both knew that Lao Ma wasn’t talking about geography. Those places are deep within Gabrielle and I speculated that Lao Ma tried to show Gabrielle and failed as she did with me. However, Gabrielle was smart enough not to make the mistake I did when I left Lao Ma’s side. Gabrielle was not an enemy of Lao Ma. I would have enjoyed engaging Lao Ma in conversation a bit longer. At least until the blonde psycho appeared at Gabrielle’s shoulder.
"Lao Ma," Najara began. "It’s wonderful to see you. It’s been quite some time."
"Yes, it has." Lao Ma replied.
There’s something odd about Lao Ma’s appearance. It’s almost as if her airy demeanor stiffened when Najara arrived. Lao Ma always did have the sight. I wondered what Lao Ma’s interpretation of Najara could be. I was sure by the look of her body language at this moment it wasn’t too favorable but she was masking it well.
I spotted Ephiny entering the hall with Solari on her arm. Good. The perfect escape.
"If you’ll excuse me your majesty I would like to have a word with your Regent about the battle today," I announced.
"By all means," Gabrielle nodded.
I took Lao Ma’s hand and offered a gentle kiss. "Pleasure to meet you," I said respectfully.
"Likewise, Xena," she answered politely.
I left them to their conversation and approached Ephiny. She wore a smile as she saw me draw near. Solari also had a grin for me. My two old friends. Alive. I had to admit that this life certainly had its advantages.
"May I have a word with you in private, my Regent? It won’t be but a minute."
I hope I hadn’t offended Solari, but this conversation was best left to only Ephiny’s ears at the moment.
"Certainly," Solari offered. "I’ll see to our drinks." Ephiny gave Solari a light peck on the cheek before she left.
"So what’s on your mind, Xena?"
"The Consort, actually," I began.
"The Consort?" The surprise in her voice showed on her face as well. I found myself grinning as her smile became very sly.
"Nothing sexual, my Regent. I assure you."
"What about the Consort?"
"Before the battle I mentioned something about Callisto?"
"Which proved to be right. You fear the Consort is a threat to the Conqueror too?" Ephiny asked.
"I have no physical proof but I believe that Callisto was working with Najara."
"But why would the Consort harm the Warrior Queen?"
I shrugged. "Maybe the voices in her head are telling her to do it."
"We all have voices in our head, Xena," Ephiny countered.
"Yes, but they don’t go around telling us ‘the future’ and we don’t ‘pray’ to those voices. We use them as a guide between right and wrong. There’s a bit of a difference between our conscience and Najara’s Djinn." Ephiny didn’t reply. "Tell me I’m wrong," I prodded her.
A grin slowly worked its way to Ephiny’s face. "I know what you mean. It is odd. I’ll give you that. But Najara has been very faithful to the Conqueror. There was much anger in Gabrielle when she first came to the Amazons. When her campaign moved east and she found Najara . . . She changed."
I was intrigued. "What do you mean she changed?"
"Gabrielle was no longer looking for a cause to fight. She was fighting for a cause. Najara began to balance her a bit. She showed her a different way."
The way. Why did that damn phrase always come back to haunt me? "And what way would that be?"
"The way of a true warrior. One that’s deadly in battle but not sadistic as Gabrielle had become. Najara changed that. And don’t let the royal attire fool you. She could best anyone in this room in battle with the exception of Gabrielle . . . Even you, Xena. But I have to agree that lately . . ."
"What?" I couldn’t hide the urgency of my voice.
"Both of them are changing. Not just Najara, but Gabrielle too." The inquisitive look I gave Ephiny made her continue. "Najara seems edgy and ‘paranoid’. Gabrielle seems more introspective."
"Yes, she seems like she spends more time in thought lately and I highly doubt that it’s the affairs of state that she’s concerned with. I know that she’s taken you as a lover. I’ve said nothing to Najara nor would I. But since that time Gabrielle seems more like her old self, but blended with the new woman she has become."
I find myself getting more confused. It showed on my face and Ephiny continued.
"She was always quick to anger but lately her outbursts are more frequent again, especially since your arrival. But on the same coin, I see that she smiles more now than . . . well, ever. It’s as if she’s always going to extremes with no happy medium." I’m not sure what to say when Ephiny adds, "you’ve had an effect on her, Xena. I don’t know how and I’m not sure why, but you’ve got a power that even the great Caesar himself could never have over her."
"And that power would be?"
"Fear. Not a fear of you but a fear of herself, it seems."
I watched as Solari finished up her conversation with Gabrielle and Lao Ma and headed towards us again. "Well, what of the Consort? What can we do?"
"I can’t separate them but let me have a word with Gabrielle tonight before she’s had too much wine. I’ll see if there’s any problems."
"I would appreciate that," I nodded respectfully.
Ephiny cocked her head and examined me carefully. "I must admit, Xena. You sound more like a Consort than a guard."
I grin. "Maybe in another life I was. Thank you, Regent Ephiny."
"My pleasure, Xena," she said, offering her forearm. "You’ve fought well today and proved yourself in my eyes. I’ll see what I can do."
With another nod to Ephiny and one to Solari, I made my way over to the banquet. As I grabbed a plate, I began to look at the huge spread before us. Pig, fowl, vegetables from the far reaches of the known world filled the long rectangle table. As I put some food on my plate, I looked up to see my mother bringing out more loafs of bread for the guests. She gave me a warm smile that drew me over. I remembered that I had yet to disclose how I managed to be ‘her’ Xena. With everyone at the party, it seemed like a good time to get into the details and I made my way over.
Before joining her in the kitchen area, I turned around to see Ephiny leading Gabrielle from her circle, which included Lao Ma and Najara. It appeared that true to her word Ephiny was going to speak with Gabrielle regarding our conversation. Feeling a bit of relief, I gave a sigh and followed my mother into the kitchen.
As I walked inside, I looked around to see if anyone else was present. The cooks were quite busy with their preparations, so I took my mother by the elbow and led her to a quiet area away from the bustle.
"I owe you an explanation. It’s going to be difficult to believe but this world, this ‘reality’, isn’t real at all," I began.
She had a confused look on her face but I continued.
"Ares, the God of War, created this world. In the real world, you stopped father from killing me. I went on a rampage as a teenager and spent the next ten years of my life living in anger over a warlord who destroyed our family. I met Hercules, who showed me that I could be a noble person and then a short time later I met Gabrielle. She was a farmer’s daughter who wanted to travel on adventures. Years later, she and I became lovers. When I decided to do the ‘right thing’ in life, Ares spent years trying to woo me back to him but I resisted. When he realized he would never have a shot at me he aimed for Gabrielle who was becoming a fine warrior in her own right. He didn’t succeed with her either. So as a result, he created this place where Gabrielle rules as his queen. He gave Gabrielle ‘my’ life and raised her as his Conqueror."
Still my mother made no movement, but her face creased in concern.
"It’s difficult to believe, I know. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought I was crazy. Some days it feels like I’m losing my mind here, but I’m being honest."
My mother then reached into her pocket and scribbled a note. I read it as she handed it back. It only had three words. ‘I believe you.’
I felt as if I might cry again upon reading the words. It felt like a weight had been lifted since I was able to share my secret with someone. Not only that though. Someone believed me. I reached out to hug my mother when we both turned to the crashing of the kitchen door.
Gabrielle stormed over with Ephiny following behind her. She pulled a dagger from her waist and backed me against the wall with it. The blade felt cold under my chin.
"My Lord, please," Ephiny begged.
"Enough!" she shouted to her Regent. Her cold eyes turned to me. "Now I realize that you have a grand attraction to me, but I have to wonder what your true intentions are by undermining my bond-mate."
This is not what I expected. I watched as Najara and Lao Ma took a place inside the kitchen door. I knew I only had one chance to get out of this alive and her name was Lao Ma.
My eyes fixed on Lao Ma’s and almost as if they were magnets, she walked over to stand next to Gabrielle.
"Please, my Conqueror," Lao Ma began. "Put the weapon down. Xena means you no harm."
"Everyone out of here now!" Gabrielle shouted. The kitchen cleared with the exception of my mother, Ephiny, Najara and Lao Ma. She turned around to look at her bond-mate. "I said now!"
Najara’s eyes flashed, but she did as she was told. Ephiny, however didn't move and she conveyed a look of apology to me. Praise Aphrodite that Lao Ma held her ground. Now I was concerned for my mother as Gabrielle’s wrath focused on her. Without warning my mother reached out slowly and took the dagger from Gabrielle’s hand. She managed to form a single word – muffled but the intent clearly heard.
Gabrielle’s eyes held a fury that I had yet to see in all her raging. I watched as Lao Ma reached out and gently touched Gabrielle’s shoulder.
"This woman has served you greatly, Gabrielle. Do her no harm."
Gabrielle expelled a deep breath and hung her head down. "Please go," she told my mother. Immediately my mother looked to me, and I nodded letting her know I would be okay. Only then did she hand the dagger to Lao Ma before walking out to join the others.
It seemed like forever as the three of us stood in a silent circle with Ephiny observing from the outside. Gabrielle’s eyes never left mine. Without a word, she walked past me and out the door.
"I’m sorry Xena. I’ll talk with her," Ephiny said before following her Lady. I leaned on a nearby table hanging my head wondering how things could go so wrong so quickly.
"What we sow in this life, we reap in our future lives. This is what some call our 'karma'."
I looked towards Lao Ma.
"What?" I asked.
"You don’t belong here do you?" Her voice was always very calming to me.
"No," was all I could manage as she pinned my eyes with her stare.
"You and Gabrielle... You both walk a path together, your souls are intertwined." She seemed rather intrigued.
"How…?" My voice shook; she smiled and patted my arm.
"It is the beauty of the universe, Xena. Each being has its place. Each has a meaning, each drawing on the other to complete its totality. When Gabrielle introduced us earlier, I could see her soul is complete when she is with you. As is yours with hers."
"She’s my soul mate." As soon as I was able to gather my wits together, I explained everything to her. I concluded and took a weary seat on a nearby stool at the counter. Lao Ma who always moved with such grace, seemed to breeze by me and take a seat across from me.
"I see, no wonder she’s been on edge since my arrival. I thought for certain her Consort was to blame - that she felt they no longer had a place together, but I see it is much deeper …" She looked at me and then stopped briefly. "You are making her feel again and that is scaring her worse then anything in her life. She hates that feeling of losing control, Xena."
"The more time goes on while I’m here, the more I feel I should have left things as they were. She was happy here until I showed up and all I’ve ever wanted for her is to be happy." It was feeling like being torn to pieces inside.
"You don’t believe that, do you?"
I shrugged. I wasn't sure what I believed at the moment. The woman I loved more than life itself, just had a knife to my throat and I was explaining this to my greatest mentor who was long since dead. What could I believe right now?
"No one is guaranteed happiness," Lao Ma smiled with a mischievous grin I knew quite well from years ago. "Life just gives us the time and space. It is up to us to fill it with joy and meaning. Gabrielle hasn't felt these emotions since she was a child but I do believe with my very being... You’re the one to give her that joy…Even if she herself doesn't realize it."
We both fell silent and I could feel Lao Ma continuing to examine me.
"When I first met Gabrielle, the Conqueror . . . she was so lost, so full of mistrust and hatred. She was too blind to see anything clearly. After a moon had passed, I managed to see that the light in her heart was still there, aching to be set free." She rose and began to stroll along, clasping her hands behind her back in reflection. She peered out the window.
"I knew she had the heart of a poet, a storyteller, and asked her one day to express it in a scroll. She jotted something down rather quickly, then she got very angry with me for asking her to do so. What she wrote was beautiful. She is Greek, you know? If she were a man, I would say she would be more popular than many of the playwrights in this day and age, but only if she used that talent . . . The request stirred something within her. Something that frightened her . . . She left Chin soon after and I didn’t hear anything from her for years." Lao Ma inhaled then spoke some of Gabrielle's writings aloud. "My face is a mask I command to say nothing, shrouding the fragile feelings, hiding in my tortured soul." Lao Ma cleared her throat and turned to me. "Even to this moment I remember her words….For a glimpse in time there, lying before me, was the person without the title of Conqueror. And it frightened her until that fear turned to anger."
"Just like now?" I sounded more like a child then a woman.
"As it is now," she agreed.
"I don’t know if I can do this! Be Gabrielle in this time and find the right words to express? I don’t know if I’m that strong a person."
Lao Ma gave me a gentle smile. "Come now, Xena, we both know you are strong, and not just physically." I couldn't help but grin at her response. She was correct and I was starting to sell myself short. I said it often but how much did I believe it: I have many skills. My strength was one of them.
Lao Ma continued. "Besides was it always words that your Gabrielle used in her quest to get closer to you? Think very hard now, warrior, and remember this: Anyone can proclaim to love you, but it takes someone very exceptional to show it through action."
"She was a true friend who understood my past," I answered softly. "Even if she hadn't lived it herself. And she believed in my future and accepted me, just the way I am." The fear coming from my voice shocked me.
"You don’t think you can be that kind of friend to her? Accept her? Believe in her? A very wise friend once said that no one can truly believe in herself unless someone else believes in her first. Be that person that believes in Gabrielle and it will set you both free."
And if I do that you'll be dead, I thought silently. And mother. And Ephiny and Solari. She glided gracefully from the kitchen and left me there to think.
"She's right, you know?" I heard a soft voice call from behind me. "She's a very wise woman for a mortal."
I turned around to see Aphrodite. "I'm not sure what I can do. I don't know where to begin."
"I heard Ares’ little offer," she grinned. "He's running scared. You're closer to Gabrielle's heart than you think."
"This coming from the Goddess of Love? Can I take that as a 'given'? I mean sure I might have Gabrielle's heart, but that's if she doesn't slit my throat before then."
Aphrodite put her hands on her hips. "Sometimes you can be a real drama queen, you know that? So you thought she was gonna kill you – big deal."
"That knife at my throat was not an illusion, Aphrodite."
"No, but the reason it was there was."
"Meaning, sweet pea didn't want to kill you." The love goddess chuckled. "She wanted to scare you, to test you, to see if you would 'buckle' under the accusation that Ephiny said you made…I'm proud you didn't, because it brought you one step closer to her heart."
I rubbed my temple. It had been a long day and I had to admit I couldn't decide which was more tiring – the battle with the Romans earlier or the racking my brain was experiencing trying to figure out Gabrielle.
"You'll find the way, Xena. Think about what Lao Ma said," she instructed as she started to vanish, "Think hard."
And think I did . . . for a long time. I’m not sure how I made it back to my barrack, not sure when I fell into a fitful slumber. Visions, so many visions.
"So this is Cirra. It’s beautiful." Gabrielle smiled.
"To me, it’s the ugliest place on Earth." Such guilt ravaged me then.
"I don’t think you should keep punishing yourself for what happened." She always looked out for me.
"I didn’t come here to punish myself. I wanna understand why."
"Why what?" She sounded confused.
"Why it happened. Why I was who I was. And how I can ever atone." Or will I ever?
"You’ve changed, Xena. Like this valley. Once it was a place full of death and violence. But now it’s full of beauty and life. The same kind of change has happened to you."
"I wish that I could see it that way."
I tossed and turned on the pallet but the vision never let up.
"When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen." M’Lila said and then I heard Gabrielle’s voice.
"Xena? I know you can hear me, wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I can’t be, not now. You can’t leave me. I know it’s not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I’ve never known before, and it scares me. Xena, above all just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just, fight to come back. This world needs you. I need you."
The one person who believed in me, loved me and I took the easy way out; hurting that very same person. I felt very selfish, unworthy and wanting something that I hadn’t wanted in a long time. I wanted to live.
I had a memory of one conversation I had with Tara. She was a lost kid and reminded myself of me at that age.
"My father said I couldn’t change, one big lost cause." I felt so badly for her.
"That is not true, you are what you do. You can re-create yourself every second of your life." I think that was the first time I noticed Gabrielle was rubbing off on me.
Then the visions take me away to the murder of Thelassa. I gave up then as well, and Gabrielle paid for that mistake along with so many others over time. Even though it turned out I didn’t murder her, I still feel so much guilt for taking her innocence away.
"Xena, if you're looking for redemption, you're not gonna find it there." Right then I felt Shark Island wasn’t enough punishment for me, but it gave me an odd sense of peace.
"I'm not looking for redemption any more. Gabrielle, we're always talking about your spiritual quest. You say that you need something to make you feel complete. Well, so do I."
I slowly found consciousness and Lao Ma's words came back to me. It wasn't what Gabrielle had said during all my 'battles' and private hells, it was what she had done. Anyone else might have turned away but she stood strong beside me on that Cirra hillside. Anyone else might have left me for dead but Gabrielle battled a power hungry Amazon with her friends to bring me back. Anyone else would have let me serve my life sentence for my crimes but Gabrielle disguised herself and came to the island to try to heal my soul. It wasn't really her words at all. It was the action she put behind them all. And didn't I tell her once that I was more a woman of action?
But I didn't have much time to reflect on this new knowledge. I bolted upright as sounds of Gabrielle screaming and things breaking brought me to my feet. Without worrying about the consequences, I burst into Gabrielle's bedchamber. Najara was on the floor as Gabrielle raised her sword above her head about to strike. I reacted on instinct to save Gabrielle – not her body, but her soul. I ran over and threw myself on top of Najara.
Najara looked as stunned as Gabrielle, and I had to admit, at the moment I was more stunned than both of them. I wouldn't say that out loud. I realized that I did have a purpose and it had little to do with saving Najara's life. By the sway of Gabrielle's body above us I could tell she'd done even more drinking after leaving the kitchen.
"Get out of the way, Xena!" she warned.
"Don't, Gabrielle," I pleaded. "If you kill your bond-mate in a drunken rage, your soul would be lost . . . and there would be no going forward from there."
Gabrielle looked like she was going to cry, the sword shaking in her grasp. Slowly I moved away, bringing Najara to her feet with me. "Thank you," Najara whispered.
"Don't mention it," I replied but in my mind adding, ‘you nutcase’. "Why don't we all get some sleep? If you would, my Conqueror, I'd like to escort you back to my barracks for the rest of the evening. Najara, please stay here. You can both discuss things tomorrow when clearer heads prevail." I paused and added the word, "Please?" Hades, it always worked on me when Gabrielle did it.
Gabrielle lowered the sword and stormed from the room. Najara and I both released a sigh. Without looking in her direction I started toward the door. "I'll bring her back in the morning, Najara. Get some rest."
"Xena," she called out. Reluctantly I stopped and turned to face her. "Thank you."
I'm not sure what possessed me but I found myself walking back to stand inches from her.
"Let me spell something out for you, Najara. I don't trust you. I don't like you. I don't think you're fit to shine Gabrielle's boots. And if I thought her killing you would play little part on her mental state, I would have let her drive through you as quick as she could. But I know better. I didn't save you tonight, so don't thank me. I came to save Gabrielle."
I started to make my way again when I heard Najara's voice call out, a bitter edge to it. "You realize, as Consort, I could challenge you in the Arena, if I so wish."
"I wouldn't put it past you and your 'Djinn' to do that. But until that day comes," I added, "Stay the hell away from me and I'll stay away from you. Deal?"
"Being a royal guard won't that be a bit difficult?" she taunted.
"I don't think your stay in this kingdom will last much longer," I answered with a cocky grin. I began to shut the door behind me, "Sleep well, Consort."
Upon closing the door, I heard Najara's frustrated wail and the sound of something else crashing behind the door. Okay, it was terrible of me, but I couldn't help but smile. Besides, playing passive for Gabrielle's affections wasn't getting me anywhere. I might as well be upfront and perhaps spur Najara into an inappropriate action that would be her undoing. Najara was just bad news and always would be in my eyes. ‘She also kicked your ass’, I reminded myself. But I realized that during our first encounter I underestimated her ability. I turned my back on her, which as a warrior was a critical mistake. I wouldn't be turning my back on her this time. One way or another I'd keep my eyes and ears on her as much as I could.
Now I had one huge pressing matter waiting for me in my barracks. It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Gabrielle took off with her sword still in hand. Being as drunk and angry as she was, I knew I’d be in some trouble. I stopped outside my door and was shocked at the fact my hands were shaking. When I opened the door, I was more than startled to find her sitting in a chair with a glass of wine and her sword leaning on her right knee facing the door.
"Tell me, Xena." She gulped her wine then threw her glass into the wall. "Why would you care if I gut my bond-mate or not?" She stood with sword in hand and moved towards me. "It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way." Her voice was very harsh.
"Why would you want to kill her?"
"That is none of your concern, Xena. Now I ask you again. It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way. Am I right?" Her voice was like ice.
"And watch more of you die inside? No thanks."
She smirked at me, then took the hilt of her sword in hand, ramming it into my stomach. I didn’t spend much time crumpled over, since she raised me back up with the tip of her blade at my throat.
"I’m not really sure what game you are playing with me, Xena, but I’m growing tired of you questioning me all the time. I should kill you right here." She emphasized that by making me more aware of what was sticking at my throat.
"If that brings you peace, Gabrielle, then do it." I tilted my head back more, exposing my neck. She huffed, dropping her blade down and moved back towards the table with wine.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
She sat with her wine, glaring at me. "I don’t love you, Xena. Nor will I ever."
It might have been more merciful if she’d run me through with her sword.
"You see, I know nothing of love and doubt I ever will." She gulped her wine down. "So you’re wasting your time."
The last sentence sounded like it came from a fragile child and not the Conqueror. She went for another glass of wine but I moved across the room and took the goblet and flask from her. "Please, Gabrielle. No more tonight."
I expected a fight – a backhand, some angry words – but nothing came. She simply sat back down in the chair, looking defeated. She looked broken, battered – the woman who just destroyed the Roman Empire.
"There was a time in my life, I felt the very same way you do. I can't take your guilt away, maybe cause there's nothing I can say that can take away that feeling you have. You wanna know that what you did in life was for all the right reasons, but with that pain in your gut and the weight on your shoulders, the best you can come up with is that it was a good day of fighting. Not just in the battlefields, but also in life. But as hard as it’s been you've gotta know that it's for a reason. All this is for a reason. Otherwise, what's the point, right? I was asking myself that same question not too long ago. What I do know is that is makes a big difference if someone believes in you, gives you courage and strength. It can even teach the hardest of souls to love." I stared her right into the eyes. "I love you with all my being and I believe in you with all my heart, Gabrielle. And I can't sit back and watch you slowly destroy yourself any longer."
She was quiet for a moment, bent over slightly, staring at her boots. She inhaled deeply. I could tell she was trying to control her emotion. She lifted up her head and looked at the ceiling, fighting back her tears. I wanted nothing more than to pull her in my arms and give her comfort. I hoped I had chosen the right words, the words that Gabrielle would have used to comfort me. I wanted to add more but instead she began to speak.
"There was a great battle we had here a couple moon’s ago, against the Persians."
I sat on the floor in front of her to listen.
"The blood bath raged on for days. They were relentless and I was growing tired of it all. Tired of the cold, the death… just so tired." She sniffled and took another breath.
"One night they got the element of surprise on us. I lost many good people… I remember I slipped on some lose earth, winding myself, and right in front of me was a Persian ready to sever my head from my body. As time stood still, my mind thought how easy it would have been just to let him do it. Some sorta redemption for all those I’d conquered. But the warrior part of me held strong."
"It had nothing to do with the warrior in you. That wouldn’t have been redemption, Gabrielle. It would have been the easy way out of things. You never took the easy way out in your life, that’s why you fought."
"You don’t think my demise would make many happy? The price of my life, to pay for anyone I wronged, Xena?"
"I bet there would be certain people that would take pleasure in your death, mine too. What I’m saying is all the good things you do outweigh the bad. You can do a lot more alive to change things for the better, than being dead. It’s a hard, slow and at times torturous, but in the long run, it’s worth it. You will find our redemption." I knew she wasn’t buying any of this.
"Tell me why you have people that serve you with such loyalty? Don’t tell me it’s fear either. You have many people who would fight and die by your side because they believe in your cause. Think of that soldier, Joxer, who died. He charged in to save your life – not out of fear, but out of respect." I put my hands on her knees, but she still wouldn't meet my eyes.
"Gabrielle, you were a child when evil came and took your innocence away. You conquered the world not out of anger or greed. You conquered to make sure other innocents don’t have to go through what you did. Gods woman, why would my moth… Cyrene treat you like her own daughter?" I was hoping I covered that slip, but…
Before I could answer, there were crashing sounds and bone chilling screams. One of those screams was all too familiar. Gabrielle and I took off towards the noises. As we got closer, I noticed it was coming from the kitchen area. When we got there it was sacked, the huge pot in the fire was overturned and mess in every direction.
"Gods! Cyrene? Hope?" Gabrielle sounded panicked. We got to their sleeping chamber and froze. The room was torn apart, and there was blood everywhere. Sitting in the corner was my mother holding a bloodied Callisto.
"Mother, what happened? What did she do?" I asked while looking the two of them over. She was so distraught, with no way to communicate. Quickly, I looked around for a quill and scroll. Gabrielle began to search too, but a way to communicate with my mother wasn't what she needed at that moment.
"Hope!" Gabrielle yelled looking around the room. "Hope, answer me!"
My mother snapped her fingers to get our attention and pointed to a larger chest near the door. We both watched as Gabrielle fearfully made her way with cautious footsteps, afraid of what she would find. Once there, she lifted the lid and we heard small whimpers.
"Don’t hurt me," the little voice cried. Gabrielle dropped down, scooped the child up and held her close. Upon realizing it was Gabrielle, Hope tightened her grip around Gabrielle's neck.
"Did she do this?" I moved my eyes from Gabrielle back to my mother and Callisto. My mother shook her head fiercely. I couldn't understand what happened.
"Some men came in," Hope said, her tiny voice shaking. "The blonde woman fought them."
"I couldn't see them," Hope answered. "Grandma hid me in the trunk. I-I-It was real loud and then real quiet. Then you shouted my name."
Callisto didn’t move and appeared to be dead or close to it. Her chest hardly moved. I moved closer down to examine her. She'd taken one Tartarus of a beating.
"Xena?" Callisto barely got her eyes open.
Callisto coughed up some blood. She was bleeding from the inside and I knew there wasn't anything that I could do to stop that kind of injury.
"Had to come back," she grinned.
"Why? You were banished," I asked.
"Conqueror saved me," she said struggling with the words. "Had to come back . . . Najara wants Hope – the daughter dead. No heir . . . Save them, Xena. . .No more dead children or mothers . . ." She began to cough slightly before she slumped in my mother’s arms, her eyes glazed over. Hope’s cries got louder; my mother's tears were falling and I found I was crying as well…because in this world, Callisto found peace. And once more Gabrielle had succeeded where I had failed – she managed to save Callisto's soul. Running my hand over Callisto's face I closed her eyes. I turned to find Gabrielle still clutching onto Hope, her eyes closed tight in relief. When the child began to calm down a bit, Gabrielle spoke to her.
"Are you alright?"
Hope pulled back and looked at Gabrielle, totally ignoring the question.
"Are you my mama?" her tiny voice asked in disbelief. Gabrielle swallowed a few times and softly answered.
"Yes, but you can't tell anyone, sweetheart."
"But why can't I-?"
"I'll explain later." She didn't add more. Instead she turned to my mother on the floor holding Callisto. "Are you injured, Cyrene?" she asked.
My mother shook her head no. Gabrielle just gave her a nod, tightening her hold on Hope. I watched as Gabrielle carried Hope away from the slaughter. That would have to be dealt with later. Now that Najara was in her full-blown nut mode, and on the loose, things had gotten more dangerous. It might have been two men that arrived, but I knew in my very bones Najara was behind it. My poor mother was still holding Callisto, so I carefully picked the fallen woman up and made my way outside. Two guards suddenly appeared and immediately I became suspicious. Where were they when the fighting was going on, and what took them so long to get there? I rested Callisto's body gently on the floor as they came over.
"What happened?" they asked in harmony.
"You tell me," I replied.
"What do you mean?" the first guard asked.
"Why were these women and a child attacked here by two men, without your knowledge?"
They looked guiltily at each other as Gabrielle returned alone. "Well," the second guard began. "We were at our post but then Horiatius…wanted to be…alone…so we…"
He faltered while trying to describe his lovers tryst with the other guard. Apparently, Gabrielle had heard enough. She pulled her knife from her boot and spun him around. Before I realized what was happening, she stabbed him directly in the heart, killing him instantly. The blade was removed quickly and she used it to slit the other stunned man's throat. I watched as he clutched his neck, gurgling as he tumbled to the ground atop the other. Two men lay dead in the kitchen with Gabrielle breathing hard, her rage bubbling over.
I was shocked – completely shocked - at what had transpired. I also realized that if they were the ones to blame, we couldn't get any information out of them now. Gabrielle's anger had totally blinded her to that fact apparently.
"Now what do we do?" I asked her.
"What do you mean?"
"They might have been involved, and if not, you just killed two innocent men."
Gabrielle grabbed my collar, bringing us nose to nose. "If they were guilty, they're dead now. And if they weren't off fucking, this wouldn't have happened. Either way they're useless to me."
She began to make her way into my mother's quarters and I followed. "Pretty tough way to prove a point, wouldn't you say?"
She spun around on her heels and faced me. "Understand this, Xena. I don't tolerate failure. No matter how you look at it, these two 'guards' were dead men the minute they let someone lay hands on my cook and my daughter. Maybe it was their hands, maybe it wasn't - in the end it doesn't matter. They failed and they paid the price. Now be useful and fetch me a quill and scroll, so Cyrene can tell us what happened."
I found my voice muted and my feet rooted as she finished her journey into my mother's chamber. When I was able to make it in, Gabrielle and mother were picking up some of the mess so we all could sit.
"Hand her the scroll and quill, Xena." I did what I was told, then went to sit in the chair near my mother.
"Cyrene, in all the years we have known each other, you have never lied to me. Tell me how Xena is your child and why you never told me."
I wasn’t ready for this. My mother looked between Gabrielle and I; then wrote. I had no idea what she was going to say and she knew she couldn’t tell the truth. Gabrielle kept her eyes on my mother while ignoring my stare as the minutes passed. She finished and handed the scroll to Gabrielle, taking my hand for support.
"We just figured out the truth the other night, Lord Conqueror. You know I thought years ago Atrius killed my child, but the bastard sold her." Gabrielle read aloud, and then looked me in the eyes before continuing. "Other than her having the name I gave my daughter, the more we spent time together and talked, things started to make sense." My mother patted my hand and started to cry mouthing, ‘my child’ to Gabrielle.
"Ok Cyrene, enough on this topic for now." Inside I was sighing with relief, but I knew this was far from over with. I felt awful that my mother had to lie for me. Would Gabrielle believe this? Did Mother tell her everything, including carrying my young body to the family tomb?
"Tell us what happened today, who attacked you?" She handed the scroll back. This time Gabrielle was looking at me while Mother wrote, I could tell her mind was turning. Again we waited, with the sound of the quill scratching being all that was heard. When she finally handed the scroll back, Gabrielle read it out loud once more.
"I was getting some things ready for morning while Hope was telling me a story. Outside the kitchen area, I heard two men talking, maybe they thought of me as deaf instead of mute. One kept mentioning about the Conqueror’s daughter. Right then my hackles rose, so I hid Hope quickly in the trunk in our room. Just got the lid closed when the door was smashed in. Two tall men with black hoods asked me where Hope was. When I couldn’t answer, and they wouldn’t let me near my scroll. They began to sack the place. The last place they went after was the trunk. I began to struggle. One knocked me down and was ready to run me through when I heard this scream. That’s when the blonde woman showed up, wounding the one who was attacking me. I guess she wasn’t aware of the other man in the room. When she turned, he shoved his sword in her gut. She just smiled at the man. Another scream, twirled her sword, which scared both those men to death, because they ran like Hades himself was after them. She then turned to me and I saw how bad the wound was. She fell into my arms muttering ‘no child should have to suffer.’ That’s when you and Xena came in."
"Mother, did you recognize the voices of those men?" She just shook her head.
"Cyrene, I want you to stay in Xena’s room until we get to the bottom of this." My mother reached for her scroll and wrote quickly then handed it back.
"Where is Hope? I’ll sleep in my own bed, thank you. Also, I have to prepare the meals of the day. No one is going to scare me out of my daily life, Sprout."
Gabrielle face flushed a bit. "You haven’t called me ‘Sprout’ in ages, Cyrene… Hope is being guarded by Ephiny and Solari in their chambers . . . Gods woman, you’re so damn stubborn."
My mother stood with a grin, giving her a peck on the cheek. We stayed a candle-mark helping her clean the mess until she pushed us out the door so she could work in peace. I didn’t think any of us would get sleep as dawn was approaching and a new day about to start. The entire time, Gabrielle was quiet and in heavy thought.
"Dinar for you thoughts?" She looked at her chamber door like a freightened child.
"I hate feeling scared, Xena."
I knew it was a big acknowledgment for her.
"You fear not knowing who ordered the attack?" I asked, deciding to remain factual for the moment, avoiding any emotional upheaval a heavy debate might cause her.
"I have an idea who ordered it, but I need to be sure. No, what I’m fearing right at this moment is that tiny person laying in my Regent's bed."
"Why? She seems to be a child with a good head on her shoulders. She’ll understand." But after I spoke, my heart fluttered, remembering Solan.
"You don’t understand, Xena. How will a tiny child understand I had to leave her to protect her from those who might hurt me?" Right then, my armor cracked.
"I do understand, more then you know." My voice shook and I was losing any signs of composure.
"More secrets you’ve kept from me, Xena?"
I swallowed hard, considering a starting place. "Between you trying to kill me every turn and the battle, I just haven’t had the time to think about it," I shot back. This was still a sore spot for me and it was hard for me not to show anger. "I had a child when I was much younger, a son. I had to give him up when he was only a few hours old . . . To protect him from those who would hurt me by hurting him . . . It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make."
"Did you ever see him? Did he know of you?" My anger faded when I looked into her eyes. No matter how much Gabrielle was in pain, if someone else was in more, they were more important to her. This Gabrielle was no different, and her face showed such compassion.
"I saw him a couple times as he grew, but he never knew that I was his mother."
"Sometime I wish I would of done as you did. I should have sent Hope away to be safe. I was selfish wanting to at least see my baby grow."
This conversation was rather difficult, if not odd. Here I was talking with the very same person whose child killed mine. In this world Hope was as she should have been; in every aspect she had the soul of Gabrielle. It took us so long a time to work through all the pain we caused one another. I still have visions and guilt. It was easier to blame Gabrielle for everything, when some it, if not most, in hindsight was mine.
"Don’t say that, Gabrielle. You did the right thing and there isn’t a day that goes by that I hadn’t wished I’d found a way to keep Solan close." My chin was trembling. "He died never knowing his mother, or that she loved him." I broke down and she pulled me into her arms and rocked me in her smaller frame.
"I’m so sorry, Xena." She whispered words of comfort until all my tears were shed. We heard someone clear their throat. Solari was standing at the door.
"Someone is calling for you, Conqueror."
Gabrielle caressed my face then on her tiptoes gave me a peck on the lips. Gods I love this person so.
"We’ll talk more, Xena. Right now, come with me. I need all the support I can get."
It’s funny how a little person can make a Conqueror weak in the knees.
We walked into the room, greeting Ephiny. In the bed we spotted a tiny body with wide-awake green eyes.
"We'll be at the empty barracks should you need us, Your Highness," Ephiny said with a bow. Gabrielle nodded to them and I watched as they left. Gabrielle's sigh was deep as she made her way over to the bed.
"How's the prettiest girl in Athens doin'? You calmed down a little?" Gabrielle asked.
"Now I know why you always call me that," Hope replied coldly. Seemed Cyrene and Gabrielle weren't the only gals in this kingdom who could be stubborn. Hope came by it honestly.
Gabrielle took a seat on the side of the bed, close to where Hope was wrapped up tight. "Well, it's true, you know?" Gabrielle grins. "You are the prettiest girl, and not just because you're my daughter."
"You never told me. Don't you love me?"
I watched as Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to keep it together for Hope's sake, maybe even her own. "Yes, I love you, Hope. That's why you never knew. If people found out who you were they would have tried to hurt you or steal you long before tonight. You have to know that is the ONLY reason why I never said anything. You've always been my 'hope' – the reason that I go on."
"I just don't understand. Why would people hurt me?"
"How do I explain this?" Gabrielle asked herself before facing Hope again. "I'm not as nice to other people as I am to you and your Grandma Cyrene. People who I've hurt would try to get even by hurting you. And I didn't want that to happen. So if I keep the secret that you're my daughter then . . . it helps keep you safe."
"So, I can't tell anyone?"
"No, sweetheart, you can't. It's too dangerous."
"But if no one knows, then why did those men come after me?"
"Because I do have people, people that are close to me, who know you're my daughter. I think they tried to harm you."
"Did Xena know?" She looked at me and I nodded.
"Yes she did, but she didn't send those mean men."
"Then who? Najara?"
This I wanted to hear.
"Honey, you don't have to worry about who it might be. Just stay close to Cyrene, Xena and Ephiny. I trust them. They'll all look out for you. And I'll find out who it is. I promise you."
"Why should I believe you? You haven't told the truth since I've known you."
It was spoken with a child's innocence and I prayed that Gabrielle 'the Conqueror' wouldn't see it as an act of defiance and become enraged. The alcohol was wearing off at this point, but I also knew that regardless, Gabrielle had an ugly temper. I held my breath. I only released it when I heard Gabrielle give a light chuckle.
"You're my daughter, alright," she grinned. "You make a good point, but consider this Hope: Haven't I always been good to you?"
"Haven't I always made sure that you had enough food, clothing and academic studies?"
Hope nodded again.
"So why wouldn't I find out who tried to hurt you and Grandma?"
Hope gave a nod once more. "That's true."
Gabrielle rose up and kissed Hope on the forehead. "So this is our secret, okay?"
"Okay, Mother," Hope grinned mischievously as Gabrielle flashed her a disapproving glare. "I never called anyone mother. I just wanted to say it once." Not only was Hope stubborn, she had her mom's sense of humor and timing too.
Gabrielle's scowl slowly turned into a grin and I watched as she tousled the hair on Hope's crown. "I'm going to leave now, sweetie, but I'll see that Regent Ephiny and Solari return here to stay the night with you, okay? Xena will keep watch over you until I get back alright?"
By her excited nod, it seemed to make Hope quite happy that she'd be in my company. "I like Xena a lot."
Gabrielle looked over to me and smiled. "Yeah, she's growing on me too, I have to admit. You do as she says, okay?"
"Yes, my Conqueror," Hope replied.
Without haste, Gabrielle left the room and I made my way over to take Gabrielle's spot on the bed.
"You know that your mom is only doing this because she cares, right, Hope?"
"Yeah I think so. I mean . . . I've heard talk. Some people have said the things she's done but I never thought it could be true. I mean, she's always so good to me and Grandma."
"Well, 'the Conqueror'," I winked conspiratorially which raised a grin form Hope. "She doesn't trust many people and she's had a difficult life. Much more difficult than ours. She's got walls."
"Yeah, the castle is huge," Hope remarked.
I tried not to chuckle at the fact that Hope missed what I meant. "Well yeah, it is a big place, but I mean in here," I said, tapping my chest. "She doesn't let many people into her heart. You and your Grandma are lucky because you both have a special place there so don't forget it."
"I think you have a special place too, Xena."
"I don't know about that." I tried my best to grin.
"It's true," Hope insisted. "She gets puppy dog eyes sometimes when she watches you. That's what Grandma calls it anyway."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"Oh, she never does it when you're looking at her. Only when you're not . . . Are you going to be the new consort someday?"
"She has a consort," I replied as diplomatically as possible.
"Well, yeah, but you're more fun."
I couldn’t hold back this time. I laughed out loud and I found myself leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "You're somethin' else, Hope . . . Why am I more fun?"
She gave a shrug. "You like me. I don't think Najara does. Did you notice how when I mentioned Najara, Mom didn't answer me?"
Add observant to Hope's list of many similarities.
"Yeah, I noticed," I answered honestly.
"Do you think it's her?"
Oh boy, now what do I say? "I think you should take your mom's advice. Stick close to the people she trusts for the time being until we get things figured out, alright?"
Hope grinned. "Xena?"
"You didn't answer me either."
"Maybe that is your answer, Hope," I grinned back.
"I should avoid Najara?"
At all costs, I thought. But I didn't want to frighten the poor child either. "I think you should and make sure you're always with your Grandma, no matter what."
I heard the door open and I darted up, my sword at the ready. I lowered my stance as I watched Gabrielle walking back in with Ephiny and Solari.
"Glad that's not an itchy trigger finger attached to a cross bow," Gabrielle grinned.
I smiled as I re-sheathed my sword. "Just wanted to be ready for anything," I told her.
"Which is why you're a royal guard," she nodded. She walked over to the bed again, giving Hope a kiss on the head. "Ephiny and Solari will stay here with you tonight. So try to get some sleep."
"What about Grandma?"
"She's in her quarters. I asked that she move elsewhere for the night, but she refused."
"Grandma is very stubborn, just like me." She giggled and we all smiled at her.
"I'll be staying in Xena's quarters."
Hope started to pout. "Why can't you stay with me?"
Ephiny looked to me and I could feel every heart in the room break at the request.
"If you stay with me it might cause people to think I have more of an interest in you than I should," Gabrielle answered. "We can't take that chance, Hope. Not with you being so young and defenseless. When you're a bit older and I have a chance to train you, then things will be different. I promise."
"Can you start now?"
"We'll see," Gabrielle replied. "But for now, you go to sleep and get some rest. Ephiny will bring you to me in the morning and I'll see that you get to your grandmother okay. Goodnight Hope," Gabrielle told the young girl, and gave her another kiss on the head.
As Gabrielle started to leave, I followed. She paused a moment at Ephiny's side. "Lock the door tonight and let no one in but me. Understood?"
"Yes, Your Highness," Ephiny nodded.
"You get some rest too. We'll have a busy day tomorrow."
Without comment, Ephiny nodded as we walked out. As soon as the door was closed, true to her instructions, we heard the door lock. Slowly and wordlessly, we made our way to my barracks.
As I opened my door, Gabrielle rested her hand on my arm. "Thank you for everything tonight, Xena. After the way I've treated you lately-."
"Please, no apology needed. I'm just glad everyone is safe. We'll get to the bottom of it Gabrielle."
"I hope so . . . for all our sakes."
Gabrielle and I were awakened by the shouting of someone in the hallway. They were crying and incoherent, their words coming out as jumbled sobs. We both dashed to the door and flagged down the hysterical man.
"Slow down! Slow down! What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked the man, grabbing him by the forearms, giving a light shake.
He took an unsteady breath. "The cook!"
"The cook? What about the cook?"
I felt my face go as white as Gabrielle's.
"The cook is dead?"
There had to be some mistake. But since Gabrielle asked the question, she didn't believe it either.
"I came down to begin the breakfast preparations. When Cyrene wasn't up, I knocked on the door – no answer." The man paused to get his breath.
"Then what?" Gabrielle asked shaking him a little harder than necessary.
"I-I-I thought she might be ill, so I went inside. She was on the floor. Her throat cut."
I didn't want to hear anymore. I raced to her quarters. He had to be wrong. He had to be mistaken. Maybe she fell and hit her head. Maybe she was just unconscious. I was barely aware that Gabrielle was following me. Once at the door I paused and took a breath, trying to steady myself for what might be on the other side. Gabrielle however didn't stop. She pushed past me and into the room. I couldn't see much except for Gabrielle's hand that shot to her mouth. Next came her cries.
"Oh dear Gods! Nooo!"
I felt frozen. Should I go in or should I stand outside? Without any further thought, I held my breath and entered. I still wasn't prepared for what I found.
Blood in a large puddle encircled my mother who lay on the floor. Silently I cursed the assistant cook for being correct. Gabrielle was now kneeling at her side examining her body, the red of my mother's blood soaking up into Gabrielle's white sleeping shift.
"Why didn't you listen to me!" Gabrielle shouted at my mother's corpse. "You should have come with us! You stupid, pig-headed woman!"
I jumped at every word in her rant. I knew Gabrielle was angered. Not so much by my mother's objections to come with us but by the fact someone had taken her life. But she had to blame someone. She had to have some outlet for her anger.
I was in shock. I couldn't cry. I told myself it wasn't real and, in truth, that was the case. None of this was real. My first instinct was Ares. Ares made this world and perhaps this was his way to get my dark side to come out and play for his amusement. Gabrielle was still in a puddle of tears on the floor as I started to look around the room. Looking for something, anything that could tie Ares to what happened. But nothing looked out of the ordinary . . . in fact . . .
"Gabrielle," I call down to her. "Look around this room."
I started to examine things closer as she came to her feet wiping her eyes. Slowly her hysteria began to subside and she was taking it all in like I was.
"It's as clean as when we left it," she said.
"Cleaner. There was no struggle here. That means…"
"Cyrene must have known her killer," Gabrielle finished for me.
That ruled out Ares. My mother mentioned him, but she had never met him face to face. With the events that transpired earlier that evening, she would have fought any man, or woman, that appeared in her room unannounced. But everything was in its place. No overturned furniture, nothing thrown toward the door in defense. Her quill and ink sat upright on the edge of her nightstand. I looked to Gabrielle and suddenly her eyes filled with concern.
She raced out of the room and I quickly followed. Within moments we arrived at Ephiny's door, pounding for her to let us in. Solari opened the door quickly.
"Where's Hope?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's here in bed," Solari nodded behind her. "What's happening?"
Gabrielle nearly blurted it out but quickly caught herself when she saw Hope sitting up in bed wiping the sleep from her eyes. She couldn't say anything in front of the young girl. Obviously the callus conqueror still had a heart somewhere inside her chest as to spare the young girl's feelings by simply announcing it.
The cook, Gabrielle's keeper and the woman that had raised Hope, was now lying dead. She was the same woman that raised me, I remembered although she hadn't known the experience. At that moment, it hit me. She was dead. My mother was dead. I was going to lose my composure and I quickly turned away and walked a few paces down the hall. I began to cry as a sickening feeling swept over me. I couldn't hold it together. I bent over and heaved, the contents of the prior evening’s meal expelling from my stomach. Solari and Gabrielle watched. Solari was now growing more unsettled.
"By the gods, what's happened?" she whispered.
Hearing Gabrielle whisper the cook was dead to Solari, came to my ears like a fog. I tried to take a couple steps to get away. I just wanted to run. Be anywhere but here with them watching me. My legs failed me, buckling, slamming my back into the wall and I slid down, letting out a wail that surprised even me. I should have known better, I should have made her come with us, and I failed my mother again. I hit my head into the wall and screamed again. I didn’t care who heard or was looking.
I guess me being out of it and Gabrielle and Solari in shock, no one heard Hope walk up.
"Why you crying, Xena?" My head snapped up to see a concerned face that looked like my bard, but in a tiny form. I couldn’t form any words, and the more I tried, the harder the tears came.
She came over and crawled into my lap and held me.
"Najara hurt Grandma, didn’t she?"
Perceptive child. So much like her mother. Unfortunately, more perceptive than her mother since Gabrielle allowed Cyrene to be alone. I feel a twinge of anger at Gabrielle. She should have put up more of a fight, let her stay with us, anything. But I realize quickly it wouldn't have mattered. I knew Mother. And obviously, so did Gabrielle. Instead of dwelling on it or saying anything to Hope, I just nodded and pulled her closer.
"Is she dead?" The tiny voice in my arms quivered as I nodded again.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Maybe she's just pretending. Maybe she's-."
"She gone Hope," I told her. "I'm sorry but she's dead."
She pulled back from me a bit to study my watery eyes. Recognizion seems to take hold for her.
"She was your mama wasn't she Xena?"
I nodded slowly.
"I’m sorry your mama’s gone. You just found her like I just found my mama. That's not fair."
"Life isn't fair sometimes," I tell her.
"You have her eyes and smile, you know? When I see you, I see Grandma." She started to sob. "Why does she have to be dead? I want my Grandma."
"Me too, little one, me too." I held her close again and rocked her. I became aware that Gabrielle and Solari were still watching. Hope turned her head and looked right at her mother.
"I don’t care if anyone wants to hurt me, I want a mama. Please say you want to be my mama." That broke through Gabrielle. She dropped down on her knees and opened her arms. Hope flew out of mine and into hers. Gabrielle scooped her up and placed kisses all over her face.
"I’m so sorry, Hope, so sorry," she kept saying over and over to her baby.
I knew what I had to do; first things first. I stood, leaving Gabrielle and child, making my way back to Mother’s room. If anyone was going to clean her up and ready her for the pyre, it would be me.
I picked her up and carried her into the kitchen, laying her on the table. I went outside and told the guard nothing was to disturb me until I was finished. I got rags and filled pots with water.
Starting with her face, making sure I got off all of the blood.
"Oh, Mother. This is the second time I’ve lost you, and both times I never got to tell you how I feel." I rinsed the rag out, telling myself this wasn’t real. Still in either world, she was gone from my life.
"The dead can hear our thoughts, so I guess this is good enough time as any, huh?" I found a healer’s kit my mother kept in her room for emergencies. I started to close her neck wound as I talked to her. Odd doesn't begin to cover the feeling of the sensation that went through me.
"It took a long time for us to heal our relationship. You were so angry for the loss of
Lyceus and I held so much guilt." The tears were forming again in my eyes, making my task harder. "And then later, after I realized my true place at Gabrielle's side…I spent all that time helping people, saving people, traveling village to village. And the ones that mattered most – you, Joxer, even Gabrielle's family – I couldn't save them. I wasn't there. Just like I wasn't here last night."
"I never had much time to tell you how much I loved you. I was hoping in this world, I could make you feel it since I failed in the other. After all, every kid needs their mom." I swallowed hard and wept. I missed my mother, I missed my son and I missed my old life. Gods, in all these moons, I never thought I would ever think that.
In my other world, I was fine as long as my bard was there. She is my light, the person who taught me I was still human. In this dark world I had to watch the very same people suffer, people I have grown to care about here. In this world, how long would it be before LaoMa, Ephiny and Solari were dead? Sure, Hope was in this world and existed as a normal child and not the spawn of an evil, tormenting god. But Eve never would exist so was it worth the pay off? Is watching Gabrielle drowning her sorrows in rage and alcohol worth the price? No, it's not. And I just wanted to go home. It wasn't perfect but it was right. Right for Gabrielle and right for me too. Somehow I had to get us back there. Back to Eve, back to Lila and back to Sarah and Virgil, whom I considered my niece and nephew. Not by blood but by love; just as my mother had laid claim to Hope.
I finished my task and heard the door open. I was ready to take whoever’s head off, but…
Gabrielle made her way in, giving me a weak smile. She knelt down by Mother’s head.
"Gods, I‘m going to miss you." Suddenly I felt like I was intruding, so I tried to make my way out of the room.
"Xena, don't go?" It came as a question. As if I wouldn't stand beside Gabrielle if need be. Like I could just walk away from her of my own free will. I couldn't leave Gabrielle but I could respect her wishes to share private time with my mother. I stopped by the far table and sat giving her some space yet never leaving. She turned back to Mother.
"You were more then a cook to me, you were the mother I lost years ago. I can’t remember how many times you stopped me from making mistakes because my mind was clouded with my anger." She sniffled.
"How many times did I take you for granted?" She gave a sad sigh. "I didn’t tell you enough how much I love you. You took such good care of Hope and I. I’ll make you proud, Mother." She stood and gave Cyrene a kiss, turning towards me. "I promise from here on out to do the right thing – for everyone my life touches."
Gabrielle called toward the door, "Guard!"
Quickly a man darted inside to stand by the door. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Is Caesar still alive?"
"I'm not sure your Highness. He's still in holding. We know you had plans for him last night that got cut short but-."
"Have him released."
"But your Highness…"
"You heard me. See to his wounds the best you can. We won't endanger our people by taking him to Rome ourselves. So be sure to hire a service to deliver him back to the Romans. I want him out of Athens by nightfall. Understood?"
The guard looked confused but nodded anyway. "Yes, Your Highness."
The guard briskly left to see to Gabrielle’s commands and a guilty grin hung on her face. "Do you know what I was going to do to him last night?"
I simply shook my head, not sure if I wanted to hear but knowing I had to anyway.
"I was going to put his death on display at the victory celebration. I was going to start by cutting off his fingers. Then his limbs and finish with his head after I showed him his heart . . . When I was finished, I was going to have his remains shipped back to Rome."
I found myself tongue-tied for a response but in all honesty I wasn’t surprised by the admission.
"Somehow I think Cyrene would disapprove," she said with a grim chuckle. She walked to the other side of the table, folding her arms across her chest. "Somehow I think I do now too."
I wasn’t sure what to say so I decided being silent was best for the moment.
"You know," she continued, "when Cyrene gave me the brief reason on how she was your mother, it didn’t add up. I was going to question this later, but Hope saw something that I’m just now seeing. Those beautiful eyes of yours and that smile are from the only person who really loved me, especially at my worst. I’m so sorry, Xena, I should have known better, I should have protected her, and now it’s too late." She hung her head and I rose and walked over to her. Without asking, I wrapped my arms around her.
"It’s not your fault. She was a stubborn woman and you were respecting her feelings. Neither one of us thought there would be another attack, not this soon." I didn’t think the nut would have the guts to do it herself. After a few moments of just holding Gabrielle, I cleared my throat and spoke. "I have her ready for the pyre."
I looked at her strangely for the sudden outburst.
"Can you carry her body and come with me?"
I nodded and lifted her weight. It was difficult to carry her as I followed Gabrielle along the hall to several flights of stairs going down towards the dungeon area. I had no idea where we were going or why. We got to the end of the stairway, and Gabrielle reached up, taking the torch on the wall, then pulling the torch mount. The wall slid open and there was another room there.
We walked for a bit until we came to another room, a huge one. Inside, there were six stone coffins; the very last one, open. The tomb was well kept from what I could see, but I was still unsure. I think Gabrielle sensed this.
"This is my family’s burial chamber. When I finished conquering what I could, one of the things I had made in the castle was this. I went with some of my soldiers back home and unburied my parents and sister and brought them here. Didn’t want some petty thug digging at their bones, trying to make a profit."
She motioned me over and I placed my mother, our mother, inside. I wasn't sure what to say as I watched Gabrielle playing with the stone lid. She cleared her throat and spoke in a soft voice.
"When I met Cyrene, she was in a bad way. Those soldiers who betrayed me, killing her sons…" Her eyes had more sorrow. "Your bothers." She took a deep breath.
"I loved Cyrene from the start and one of her wishes was for me to bury them here. So I did," She added as she pointed to three coffins, noting each. "Lyceus. Toris. And the last coffin here for her when it was time. I was praying it would be a long time before I had to place her here. I have to admit – there were times I hoped I never lived to see this day, wishing she'd bury me first." I walked to the last coffin, and gently placed my mother in it.
I looked over to the two beside her. One had Lyceus’ name and the other was Toris’. Emotion struck me again and I couldn’t hold it back. A simple "Thank you," was all I could muster.
I looked past Gabrielle to a woman standing in the doorway. An Amazon priestess came into the room to purify it and make sure my mother was blessed. Gabrielle walked up to mother and placed a dinar in her hand.
"Safe passage, Cyrene, I love you." She kissed her head.
Word must have gotten out, as a few of mother’s close friends came in said their good-byes. As the last member left, Gabrielle and I spoke before we had the lid closed.
"Bye Mother. Take care of Joxer for us." I gave her a kiss. As the soldiers placed the lid on, Ephiny came in.
"Any sign of my bond-mate?" Gabrielle asked coldly. Right then my sorrow turned into anger. I wanted Najara’s blood.
"No signs yet, Conqueror. It’s going to be tough since she knows the ins and outs of the whole castle."
Gabrielle sighed. "Make sure every soldier is on alert. The ones who favor my Consort, kill them."
"Gabrielle?" They both turned to look at me. "When we find her, I want her. She’s mine in the arena. I'm issuing a challenge for her seat as Consort if you'll have me." There would be no debate on this and my voice made that clear. Gabrielle said nothing as we left. I turned, giving my mother’s resting place one last glance.
"First things first, Xena. We need to take today to mourn, then the issue of Najara will be dealt with." Gabrielle broke the silence. "Ephiny, you have your orders. If I’m needed for anything, I’ll be in my chamber." Ephiny nodded and left. Gabrielle turned to me. "I would like for you to spend time with Hope and myself, but I would understand if you need to be alone."
"Umm, I need to be by myself for a couple candle marks, I’ll stop by later. Besides, I think you need to be alone with Hope for a bit."
She nodded. "I know. I’m just not sure what I can say to her, Xena."
"Just listen to her, comfort her and let her know you’re there. That’s probably the best you can do for her right now."
Then she did something I wasn’t ready for. She pulled me into her arms and held me. I buried my face in her hair and for a small moment in time, I felt like I was home.
"We’ll be waiting for you." She gave me a peck on the cheek and left. As I watched her leave, I had that feeling again.
"Show yourself, Ares."
He materialized in front me, shaking his head. "Damn, Xena . . . I didn't expect this."
Was that actually remorse I saw on his face? "Oh really?" I asked in a ho-hum voice.
"Yeah, I didn't think she'd do it. I didn't think she'd kill your mother. That was cold."
"So Najara did do it?"
Ares chewed on his lip and then nodded. "Yeah . . . When I chose her for Gabrielle I figured it would really get your goat, you know?"
"Yeah I know."
"Well, I forgot she's . . . a bit nuts."
"Hey! I've got a stake in this too, you know?"
"Well, why don't you explain?" I told him with a push to his chest.
"The wacko is making a mess! I liked Gabrielle the Conqueror and truth be told, Xena, I wouldn't care if you stay here and live out your life at Gabrielle's side. I have the world right now. But with that nutcase around, she's put things in motion that . . . well, things I don't like."
I grinned. "Like the fact that Gabrielle is tearing down her walls with the loss and the threat that Najara now poses. Like the fact that I'm getting closer and closer to Gabrielle's heart and buying a ticket out of this world for us? Give it up, Ares. I know love is the key. That's something you don't understand and could never understand."
Ares took a step closer to me. "Are you really going to challenge her in the arena?"
He paused. "I wish you wouldn't."
I laughed out loud. "Now there's a shock."
"Seriously, Xena. You haven't seen this woman fight."
"I've battled Najara before," I told him as I started to walk away.
"Not this Najara, you haven't."
I stopped and turned around. "Why are you telling me this?"
He gave me a grin. "Even though Gabrielle's now my Warrior Queen, keep in mind you'll always be my Warrior Princess. It's a fact – I gotta thing for ya . . . Just watch yourself out there."
"You know, I almost believe you care, Ares…Almost."
"Yeah, I know you've got good cause to doubt me," he nodded. "I don't blame you. But consider this, Xena. Whenever you needed me to do the right thing…when it came right down to the wire…didn't I try my best to do right by you? Like I said, watch yourself."
He vanished before my eyes and before I could issue a retort.
I spent the rest of the day combing the castle with no luck. I realized that, other than the fact nothing was disturbed, we had no true means to tie the events back to Najara. I knew she did it. Gabrielle knew she did it. Even Hope knew she did it. But in a land with laws like Gabrielle had, we had to prove that she did it and that was something we just weren't able to do.
I could however, challenge her hand as Consort. That was within the law and it was one way to eliminate her, even if Ares didn't want me to challenge her in the arena.
Eventually, I had to get back to Gabrielle's chambers. There was a ceremony of some sort and I had to declare before Greece that I wanted and deserved the Conqueror's hand. When I arrived at her room I was surprised to find her alone.
"Where's Hope?" I asked upon entering, expecting to find the young girl there.
Gabrielle turned and instead of her daughter, I saw a wine flask gripped in her position. She'd chosen the drink over her daughter. I knew that Gabrielle found solace with a wine glass many nights but it wasn't until looking at her, this very moment that I realized just how much.
"I let Ephiny take her," she said as she poured herself a glass, another of many I assumed by the sway of her body.
"Do you really think it's wise to be drinking at a time like this?" I asked her.
"Do you really think I care?"
My anger boiled over. I darted over and knocked the glass from Gabrielle's hand, spilling the contents all over both of us and shattering the glass in the process.
"You should care," I hissed. "Moth-…Cyrene took care of that child night and day and now you just push her off to Ephiny when you should be the one here for her?"
"You don't understand!"
"Yeah, I do," I replied, lowering my voice. "You're hooked. On the drink. And you'd rather spend your life in a blurry haze than see things for what they are. I've seen great men ruined by it. Obviously great women are susceptible too."
"Stay out of my affairs, Xena. It is not your place to tell me how to live."
"You call this living?" I said, starting to get angry again. "It's not living. It's running. Running from your past, running from your present. Did you plan on getting so drunk that you're seeing two of me right now, or was it just going to be one glass to 'calm your nerves' that ended up being ten?"
"I could have your head-."
I grabbed her by the hair and tackled her to the floor. I grabbed my breast dagger and raised it to strike her. With my other hand I covered her mouth. "I could have your head too," I told her. "So could Najara if she walked into this room right now. Anyone could. Don't you see? If you want to keep living you have to stay sharp right now."
Gabrielle glared, turning her head, forcing my hand to move away.
"Maybe I don't want to keep living," she whispered. "Maybe I wish it would all be over. No more betrayals. No more battles. No more losses. No more anything…Go ahead, Xena. Do it….Slash my throat. Stab my heart…You pick…Just end it."
I dropped the dagger and bent over, placing a searing kiss on her lips. "No," I told her after I pulled away, "I'm going to conquer you instead."
I saw the fear in her eyes. It wasn't fear of me. It was the fear that so many others had been telling me about – that fear within Gabrielle herself. I moved away slightly and tugged her into a sitting position, my lips reconnecting with her. She pushed me away but I refused to give up. This time my whole body returned and covered hers. We hit the ground with a loud thud. I continued to kiss her lips and her neck under her weak protests. She pulled me by the hair, trying to get me off of her and that's when I heard her start to cry.
"What are you afraid of?" I whispered in her ear, nearly crying myself.
"Everything!" she sobbed. She tried to move but I refused and she cried even harder.
"Why are you afraid of me?" I asked. I shook her body when she didn't answer. I knew either I would break down another wall or be on the chopping block by sundown. But I decided being passive wasn't getting me anywhere. "Tell me!" I ordered her with another shake.
"You promise too much," she answered.
Promise too much? I didn't know what it meant and a paused just a moment, but enough for Gabrielle to flip me over on my back. She snagged the dagger and swiped toward my neck but I quickly lifted my hand letting the wrist bracer take the blow. I grabbed her own wrist and twisted it nearly to the breaking point. She winced in pain but it was myself that truly ached. I didn't want to hurt her but I had to make her see.
"What's too much?" I asked. When she didn't answer I moved her wrist just a bit more. "Tell me what's too much!"
"Loving me forever," she answered. I felt the fight drain from her body and the dagger fell from her fingers. "No one will ever love me and if I'm lucky enough that they do, it certainly won't be forever…Ask Najara, if you can find her."
I let go of her wrist and instantly I received an uppercut across my jaw that snapped my head back. She stood up with a wobble as I rubbed my cheek and tried to shake it off.
"I'm not Najara," I told her, moving to a sitting position. I watched her chuckle as she stumbled toward the bed.
"No, Najara has more sense than to disrespect me the way you have tonight."
"No," I argue as I rise to my feet. "It's not about disrespect. Najara doesn't love you enough to point it out. Najara doesn't care about anything more at this point than getting your throne."
"Oh and you do?"
"I do." I nodded.
"Prove it," Gabrielle challenged.
How do I prove I'm not after her power? Instantly it comes to me and I give a small grin. "Leave with me. Tonight. We'll get a wagon and we'll take Hope. We'll go and not look back."
"You're crazy," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head. "And do what? Travel the countryside? Oh, here's an idea! We'll go from town to town helping the yokels with any little problems that might come up. We can survive on their charity. Or even better, I could get a few 'gigs' at a couple of taverns telling stories. I am a bard you know." She started to laugh again.
"It would be a better life for you. I'm sure of it," I answered sincerely. "And it sure beats the hell outta sitting here and watching you drink yourself to death. What are you afraid of, Conqueror? Finding a better way, maybe? Finding out that somewhere in your shallow heart there really is a free spirit and lover of humanity tucked inside? You say everything scares you but the truth is there's only one thing that scares you…and that's yourself. I know. I've been there."
"So what turned it all around, Xena?" she asked me flippantly. "Love?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. And a smart, young woman, brilliant beyond her years, actually."
"And where is she now?"
"She's dead," I answered, honestly. My Gabrielle was dead. "But she lead me to you," I added. "I can't explain it. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you because I remember your words. Trust isn't a luxury you can afford. But know this, Gabrielle: We are two halves of one whole and I know that together our courage could change the world."
"Now that was a mouthful," I told her, surprised by my own wordiness.
She gave me another ‘she’s lost her mind’, look. All I could do was sigh and drop my head in frustration. She walked to her desk grabbing another flask of wine.
"No!" I smacked the wine out of her hand. She released a back-hand, sending me flying backwards watching in slow motion as she jumped and landed on top of me. In my mind I thought for sure that this would be my end, but she leaned over, crushing her lips against mine.
"What are you doing?" She pulled back, raising an eyebrow.
"If you don’t know, I must be doing it wrong." She tried to kiss me again, but I jerked my head away.
"What, Xena?!?" She slammed her fists on the floor by the sides of my head.
"Not like this. Not again. I can’t, Gabrielle."
"Oh, come on, Xena, you know you want this. Want me." She tried again to kiss me and I pulled away once more.
"Yes, I want you, but not like this. I want your love, to make love with you. Not another fuck session."
"Can you love me?" I asked. "No bondage. No…walls. Just you? The real you?"
I watched as she hung her head then rolled off of me. I had my answer.
"I didn’t think so," I muttered. All I felt was utter defeat.
"I can’t give you something I don't understand." We both fell silent; my heart was being ripped into pieces. "Xena?"
"Would you hold me?"
There, on the Conqueror’s bedchamber floor, in the middle of the broken glass and wine I turned and held her close. The abundance of alcohol clamed her, she was out not long after I pulled her near.
"I love you." I whispered into her ear letting the night claim me too.
The nightmare of this life must be over soon.
Morning came too quickly, and a loud knock woke us both up. I felt stiff and by Gabrielle’s groan, she was as well and quite hung over. We both slowly stood, and Gabrielle stumbled towards the bed. "Come in."
Ephiny popped her head in to peek at us.
"It looks like you can use this." She came in holding a skin of water and I bet it had herbs to help with her headache.
"Oh Gods, thank you." She took a long drink, making a face at the taste.
"This tastes like shit."
"You play, you pay." Ephiny pointed out, getting a growl in reply.
"Did you want something, my smart-assed friend?"
"Hope is calling for you. She didn’t sleep well at all last night." Ephiny looked at me. "You look like something ran over you." She smirked.
"Gee, thanks." I walked to the full-length mirror to see the bruise on the right side of my chin from a well-placed backhand.
"Tell her we’ll be right in after we get cleaned up," the body on the bed spoke.
"I’ll do that." Ephiny chuckled and left.
I started for the door when the body spoke again.
"Where do you think you’re going?"
"To my room for a bath and fresh clothes."
"Why don’t you stay here and bathe?" It sounded like a plea more then an order.
"I don’t think that is very wise. I’ll see you soon." I didn’t give her a chance to reply. I closed the door behind me. I just needed time to think.
By the time I was cleaned and changed, I made my way back to Gabrielle’s chamber. I heard Ephiny talking with the Conqueror, and it made me stop in mid-knock.
"Are you really going to let Xena challenge Najara?"
"No, I can’t chance Xena getting hurt. So, my friend, I want you to carry out my wishes." I heard a scroll being unrolled.
"Gabrielle, I can’t do this. Don’t ask me to do this." Ephiny sounded very alarmed.
"You have to, it’s the only way. Xena’s a good warrior, but Najara’s better." I clenched my jaw tight.
"She deserves better then this life, she’s so full of love." There was a pause. "I’m asking you as a sister, please fulfill my wishes."
"Please." Gabrielle sounded very desperate.
"Alright. So when does this happen?"
"Dawn tomorrow." I couldn’t take it any longer, so I knocked.
"Come in." I looked in to find Ephiny staring at the floor and Gabrielle fighting back tears.
"It looks like someone lost their best friend. What's wrong?"
Very low Ephiny said, "She just might." I caught the words along with the fact Gabrielle was quickly covering her words up.
"We were just talking about past memories, that’s all." She strained to smile.
"You’re dismissed, Regent." She bowed to her Conqueror then walked past me, never looking me in the eyes. My gut was telling me something was very wrong here. Before I could question, a scream shook my soul to the bone. We both ran into her bedchamber. Hope was crying, rocking herself in comfort.
"I want Grandma!" Gabrielle scooped her up and held her tight.
"So do I little one. So do I."
I sat on the bed near them, taking in the sight of mother and child. It took some time but her tears stopped.
"Can you tell me a story, Mama?" Gabrielle and I both swallowed the lumps in our throats.
"Sure." She moved Hope to where she was cradling her.
"I have a tale to tell you about a lone Warrior tired of her ways. This Warrior was ready to give up on life when she ran into a young woman who would change her forever. I call it ‘Sins Of The Past.’
If I hadn’t been so enthralled in the story I would have passed out. She was telling the tale of our life. Word for word on how we met. I'm sure Ares had some role in seeing that our stories were nothing more than Gabrielle's imagination in her eyes. He was quite the bastard.
"Are you alright, Xena?" I was pulled out of my haze to see concerned green eyes and a sleeping child.
"You’re a very good story teller, Gabrielle." She just looked down, kissing Hope on her head. "How did you think of a story like that?" She smiled.
"I can still dream, Xena." She reached out, taking my hand, giving it a squeeze.
We spent the day just talking. It felt like old times with my best friend, still I knew something wasn’t right. By the time Hope woke up, we had a brunch in Gabrielle’s garden. We played, laughed, just like a family. Nightfall came and we tucked Hope into her mother’s bed.
"Night, Xena." I was beginning to love this child as though she was my own. With Gabrielle watching us, I gave Hope a quick kiss and turned to the best smile I’ve seen the Conqueror give yet.
"Mama?" Gabrielle gave me a peck on the cheek then kneeled beside the bed.
"Can you, Xena and I be a family?" She turned to look at me. I had a huge grin on my face.
"I’ll see what I can do. Now you get some sleep, I’ll be here soon." She gave her a kiss and hug.
"Will you really?"
The child wasn’t dumb.
"Yes, little one and I’ll even hold you if you want." Hope seemed to like that. She raised herself slightly to give her mother a kiss.
"Night, baby." We waited until she was fully asleep, then we went into the other room.
"Xena…" She paused. "I wanted to thank you for giving the best day ever in my life." She then gave me the sweetest kiss. The gnawing in my stomach came back in full force, but right then I didn’t care. I’m not sure what was so odd, her words or the look in her eyes.
"These past few months have been up and down for us both, but you are probably the only other person on the earth that I trust."
"Why are you saying all this? Are you coming away with me?" A girl could wish.
"No, Xena. Just remember this day when you think of me."
"Don’t talk like that." I pulled her close.
"Please, forgive me." I was ready to ask why when Ephiny and a few guards barged in.
"Xena, we’re here to escort you to the brig." Ephiny had a hard time meeting my eye.
I looked from her to Gabrielle.
"What’s the meaning of this?" I was upset more then angry.
"It’s for your own good," Gabrielle reasoned.
"What is? Locking me up like a criminal? This is the trust you spoke of?" Now I was angry.
"Please come with us, Xena." Ephiny touched my shoulder.
"Get your hand off me before I break it." I turned to glare at the Regent. Then I felt a sharp blow to my head. Before my world went black I heard Gabrielle ask for forgiveness once more.
I woke up with a blaring headache in a dark cell.
"Right back to where I started." I growled.
"She’s doing this because she falling in love with you." I jumped slightly, only then noticing Aphrodite standing outside my cell. Magically she walks through the bars to stand in front of me.
"Doing what? Locking me up?"
"Saving you from a fight with Najara," she answered. "She believes Ephiny can win but…"
Aphrodite didn't want to say the words. I could tell. "I know she won't," she finally answered softly.
I watched as Aphrodite started to pace the cell. "Ares really messed things up Xena. We can't let Ephiny battle Najara. Any way we look at it's…it's bad."
I've seen many expressions on Aphrodite's face over the years – joy to anger, coy to insightful. But this expression…it's one I've never saw. One I never thought I could see on her. It's hopelessness.
"Find a way to get me out of here," I told her. "I'll battle Najara."
"And do what? Lose Gabby forever when Najara kills you. Okay you'd be dead and that would be bad too but…Damn it Ares!" She's angry now and I watch as she slumps down on my excuse for a bed. "You know something Xena?…I've been around for what seems like forever. Many mortals and immortals have passed in and out of my life, always wanting something from the goddess of love, always asking for something I could give them…Gabrielle never asked for a single thing. Ever. But she gave me her friendship anyway. It's ironic in a way. I don't have many friends even though I'm the goddess of love. But I had Gabby. Our Gabby. Not this booze hound, short tempered, arrogant, pig-head-."
"I get the point," I said cutting her off in her rant.
"Sorry. I'm just so totally pissed right now. Ares has done some pretty low down deeds in our time but this…Not only did he take away your bard but he took away the only true friend I ever had Xena."
"Yes he did," I told her. "Question is, are you gonna stand for it? Or are you gonna find a way to get me out of here so I can help bring her home?"
I watched as that coy grin came to her face. Next, the door of the cell opened.
"Don't forget to write." She grinned as she nodded toward the exit.
"Thanks Aphrodite," I replied honestly.
She walked over and pulled me down, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. "Bring her home Xena. Find a way and bring her home."
"I will. I promise."
I left the cell determined. Today it ends. One way or another.
My eyes have to adjust to the change in light. The brig was so dark and dank so I took a few moments to let my eyes settle into the brightness of the morning. I made my way to the arena, following the crowd that's walking down the streets to assemble there. I heard the chattering from spectators on who will win – the regent or the consort.
I entered the stands with the other spectators to see Gabrielle at her throne, looking quite regal dressed in her battle armor. Instead of Najara seated next to her, it's Ares. It reminded me of the day I battled to join her royal guard. But this time it's Ephiny who's in the practice ring warming up and not me.
Her swing is quick – much quicker than I remembered. For a moment I think she may come out of this triumphant but I remembered what Aphrodite said. She knows different. I also know that losing Ephiny might just be the end of Gabrielle and I'll never win her back. She'll draw into herself even more and I might be trapped here forever. I looked at Gabrielle when suddenly I heard the crowd give a loud boo. I leaned over the rail to see that Najara has made her way inside. Seems word of her deeds traveled quickly in this town.
She seemed unaffected by the crowd's reaction, focusing on Ephiny, as she started to warm up and get her arms and legs limber for the upcoming battle.
"You need to take a seat," I heard someone say behind me.
I turned to see a bruiser of a guard pointing me to the benches. Being sent back to the brig is the last thing I needed so quietly I complied, walking three rows back to sit down. I still had a good view and I was close enough to make my move when it's called for.
It seemed like forever as I sat and waited for the arena to fill up. Once the majority of the seats were occupied I watcedh as Gabrielle stoos up, taking a place on the speakers platform. A loud ring of applause went up and she held her hand in the air to quiet them.
"Friends and Greek countrymen. Thank you for joining us on this historical day. As many of you know my consort Najara is accused of crimes of treason against the State of Greece."
A loud ‘boo’ washed over the area, which made Gabrielle grin slightly. Even from this distance I could tell her lips curled.
"She challenges the throne here today…Over seeing this challenge is my champion and regent Ephiny of Amazonia."
With that a cheer went around with a few whistles and thundering applause. At least Ephiny had the crowd to her advantage. Now if only her skill could hold out long enough for me to make my move.
"As the flags fall the competition will begin. Are both contestants ready?"
"Yes my conqueror," Ephiny yells with a bow to Gabrielle. She seemed fearless and determined, unlike the woman a spotted just recently filled with self-doubt when Gabrielle made her request.
Gabrielle then turned to Najara. "And you consort?"
"Yes conqueror," she answered but without the bow. The crowd began to boo yet again for her obvious display of defiance of Gabrielle's reign.
Gabrielle raised her arm before suddenly dropping it. The flags around the arena unfurled and I watched as Ephiny and Najara head toward each other to square off. I watched the guards spread out around the guardrail. I've got the space and time I needed to make it into the arena so I made my move.
With a powerful war cry, I started to run and somersault into the arena before the guards can stop me. When my feet land, I know I have to move and move quickly. Just as I expected the crossbow bolts come flying in my direction. I weaved left and right, stopping occasionally to let the arrows pass by me before traveling onward. I glanced to Gabrielle to see her shocked expression as I made my way over to Ephiny. Both combatants saw me moving toward them and they lower their stance against each other, waiting for my arrival. From the ring Ephiny called off the guards attack.
"How did you-?" Ephiny remarked, as I get close enough.
"Doesn't matter. Get outta here Ephiny. This is my fight, not yours."
"I have my conquerors order Xena," she argued.
"Let her fight too," Najara announced. "I'm willing to take on two of the conquerors own to see justice is dealt."
"Justice? You don't know the concept Najara. You live by the voices in your head and nothing more."
"Shut up and fight," Najara saed taking a swing at me.
I jumped back just seconds before she could connect with my head and Ephiny swung. Najara moved too and backhandsed Ephiny.
Blood flies from the regent's mouth as she falls to the ground. Najara goes in for the kill but I deflect her sword. She's strong. Stronger than the Najara I battled in my world and I felt my sword being pushed closer to the regents neck.
It's slow going but Ephiny regroups quick enough to roll out from under our crossed blades. Once she was to her feet I relaxed and it's enough for Najara to drive my blade into the ground. She kicked me soundly in the chest, knocking me on my backside, the sword falling from my hand.
With me on the ground she engaged Ephiny. I'm amazed but Ephiny trades her blow for blow although it's obvious she's on the defensive. I regroup and rise to my feet again taking my blade with me as I darted over to engage Najara again.
Najara heard me approach and pulled another sword off her back. As I took my swing to slice her head off she blocked my blow while continuing to fight Ephiny head on. Damn it. Ares wasn't lying. She is good. Maybe too good. I realized that Ephiny was becoming a distraction to me and I had to get her out of the ring. I couldn't fight Najara and worry about Ephiny at the same time.
"Get out," I yelled to Ephiny again.
She ignored my warning. I realized I had to buy some time to talk to Ephiny. I reach down and grab a handful of sand. It was a dirty play I know but I didn't have time. I ran toward Najara and when she turned to face me, I threw the dirt in her eyes. She lowered her sword just for an instant but it's enough to kick her in the chest, knocking her flat on her back. I grabbed Ephiny's arm and raced away to the entrance.
"Please let me handle this," I begged again.
"Look, if I don't survive Gabrielle will need someone she trust. Someone that will help her go on. You can give her that - I know it. Please let me do this. Gabrielle will be angry you've left but she would never kill you."
"How can you be so sure?" Ephiny asked as she watched Najara move to her feet, wiping her eyes.
"Just trust me. I haven't lied to you before, have I?"
Ephiny considered it for a moment and I know I'm getting through. "Please. For Gabrielle. Leave this ring and let me handle Najara." With a deep sigh I heard Ephiny call toward the gatekeeper.
"Open the gate," she yelled. Quickly, they complied. "Ares be with you Xena," she told me, resting a hand on my shoulder.
I grin at the expression. "Are you kidding? The less Ares, the better. He's the reason for this mess."
She looked unsure of what I was talking about but I couldn't explain. I didn't have time. Najara made her way toward us.
"Go on," I nodded to her. I paused to see if she was truly leaving and felt when I watched her walk out of the arena, closing the gate behind her.
"Now I've got what I want," I growled at Najara as I charged ahead.
"You don’t want me," Najara said as our blades cross again. "You want my wife. But you'll never have her."
I realized I had an opening here - someway to psych her out. "Oh no," I egged, "your wife wants me," I smirked. "Pretty convenient huh?"
Najara growled in anger and started to advance but I didn't retreat I traded her blow for blow, pushing her away. We started to circle each other. And I continued to taunt her, trying to throw her off.
"She's sexy isn't she Najara? Worth dying for? Especially those sounds she makes. Those little sighs just before climax. The way her body hums with electricity when she wraps her thighs around your shoulders. Of course it's been awhile since you've been that close to her. You've probably forgotten. Just so you know. It hasn't changed. As a matter of fact, last night I've never seen her wilder."
Najara screamed and charged but her swordplay was sloppy and I took full advantage of it, knocking the weapon from her hands. Her sudden surprise turned into anger and she tackled me before I could strike the deathblow. My sword dropped too and soon we're both rolling on the ground. She delivered a strong blow to my jaw and I tasted the acidy flavor of my blood in my mouth.
Nah ha. Not again. I'm keeping all my teeth this time.
Before she can deliver another blow, I backhanded her, sending her flying off of me, as I reached back for the sword next to me. When she rolled to a stop I straddled, her standing above her. I glanced up to see Gabrielle literally sitting on the edge of her seat, a look of regret in her eyes. I realize in that instant I can't do it. I can't kill Najara. If I did a part of Gabrielle would never trust me. Never love me.
Yes Najara was a psycho. Yes she killed my mother. Yes she wanted Gabrielle's throne.
But a part of Gabrielle still went out to her. Najara's life wasn't mine to take. Najara closed her eyes waiting for me to send her to Hades but instead I dropped the sword on the ground and walked toward where Gabrielle was seated. I listened to the crowd boo because I didn't go for the kill they wanted to see.
Gabrielle would need to make the choice. It was either Najara or I. She would have to decide who lived and who died. I took a deep breath and remembered my resolve – one way or another it ends today.
Either Gabrielle would choose me or she would let Najara kill me in the ring. Either way, as I said, it ends today.
"I love you Gabrielle."
I looked up into the stands and I smile. No worry. No fear. If I died then I died knowing that she would finally believe me. I am truly hers and not for her power or her crown but for her. I heard Najara stalking me from behind. I'm sure she has the sword now and at any moment it will be finished.
Gabrielle's eyes went wider and before I realized it she hurdled the rail, jumping into the arena. A cheer goes through the crowd this time as the conqueror herself pulls her sword from her back, pushing me out of the way. I fell to the dirt and watched as Ares screams.
I turned back to see Gabrielle bury her sword in Najara's chest. Shock washeed over Najara's face as her body slid off the blade and tumbled to the ground. Gabriele looked shaken but only for a moment as she rushes over, coming to knell beside me.
"I love you Xena," she whispered before her lips descended up on mine.
The kiss is magical, intoxicating. I closed my eyes and I felt as if I was flying, moving at breakneck speed but I don't stop the kiss. I couldn't. It felt too wonderful. When I finally opened my eyes I look at Gabrielle who seems slightly confused. As I glanced around I notice there's no arena. No Najara.
We're in a clearing, on our bedrolls alone as the whinny of a horse caught my attention. I looked to my right and saw Argo starting to drink from a nearby stream.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. She looks down at her body. The armor is gone, replaced by the red velvet and leather garments I'd come to love. "Are we home?"
I felt myself start to grin and I couldn't help but pull her closer to me. "We're home," I told her.
Suddenly she began to cry. "I'm so sorry Xena. Everything I did to you-."
"Was an illusion," I told her. "Ares illusion. Nothing more. And in the end you made the right choice. The only choice."
She seemed to calm a bit and I looked up, the feeling of being watched overpowering me. Aphrodite was smiling at the two of us holding each other.
"Thank you," she mouthed silently. A look of sincere gratefulness was plastered to her face.
"No," I mouthed back. "Thank you."
She smiled with a crinkle of her nose and disappeared allowing us some privacy.
A flash of light and a chuckle I know all to well fills the small clearing next. And I felt Gabrielle pull back. I know the look on her face means trouble as she darted to her feet coming face to face with Ares.
He grins and shakes his head. "Damn. You two are something else," he chuckled. "I never know what to expect. I gotta admit – I like it."
Gabrielle marched over to Ares and started to poke him in the chest. "You self-centered, devious, manipulating bastard."
He wore a look of mock confusion. "Your point?" he asked sarcastically.
Gabrielle reared back and punched Ares square in the jaw, making him stumble back about two feet. At first I'm scared of what he'll do to her but when Ares started to chuckle I have to admit I'm a bit relieved.
"Cut it out," he told her. "That tickles."
"You son of a bitch," Gabrielle hissed.
"Well you got me there," Ares answered. "I am. I really am. Hera was real pain sometimes."
Gabrielle started her march again, poking him all over again. "If you EVER pull something like that again I will find me another hind's blood danger. I will bloody your body so bad even Athena in all her wisdom won't be able to figure out or distinguish which god I killed. Do you understand me?"
"Yeah. Yeah," he answered in a bored voice before looking back at me. "I'll say it again. She's gotta lot a spirit Xena." He looked down at Gabrielle, checking out her cleavage. "You've certainly got your hands full," he replied to me before clearing his throat and starting to vanish.
Gabrielle took another swing but it's too late. All she hit was the air as he disappeared before our eyes.
"Arghhh! I hate that man!"
"Well technically," I told her, "He's a God."
"True. Men have more sense than God's and my apology to all men in the world for the comparison."
I grinned and moved to my feet. I walked over and pulled her into a tight embrace. Her heart was beating fast. Her skin was flushed. "I know it was a pretty frightening experience at times," I told her. "But it wasn't all bad, was it?" I wiggled my eyebrows and she starts to blush.
"No," she admited. "Not all of it."
"And it was nice to see Ephiny again."
She had a somber look. "I know. But it wasn’t nice to see that loon again." She smiled.
"But forget about her. I know of some much better things we could remember." She looked up and saw the lecherous look in my eyes. She blushed again and looked away; knowing what I was thinking.
I felt her relax as my fingers started to smooth over her hair. "You know that shackle thing out in the woods-."
"Xena!" Gabrielle blushed again.
"What?" I asked. I couldn't hide my grin.
"I was a heartless warlord at the time. I didn't care about love or commitment or trust. I was driven by sex and lust and…and shackles huh?"
"Remember Gabrielle. The God's can't give us anything we aren't already capable of," I teased her.
"Then that means you can be the submissive once in awhile?"
Okay she got me. "Well I can…I just need a little dominance now and then."
She grinned and started to follow a lazy pattern on my breastplate with her fingertips. "Hmm. Now and then. How about right now?"
"Gabrielle!" I answered in surprise. "You little vixen."
Gabrielle gave me that come hither grin that always set me on fire. "You find a tree. What will we do for shackles?"
Who am I to say no to an eager bard? "We’ll think of something."
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