Well Worn Path
By - Enoon Erehwon
Part One In The Pardoner’s Path Series
Say it with me now...
1) The Characters Xena, Gabrielle, Draco, Ares, Ephiny, Joxer and Jett are not mine (if they were, then that would mean that I was married to Lucy Lawless and my life would be that much sweeter...), the copyrights of these characters still belong to Renaissance Productions, which is in turn owned by MGM/UA. Their use in this story is not a challenge to their copyrights or intellectual property. The characters Lieu Kei and Cepheus Sabinus are mine (mine, ya hear me!! Their lives are mine to toy with...) and can only be used with the expressed permission of the author. The story is mine as well; this disclaimer as well as permission must accompany any reproduction or use from the author (me).
2) There is violence in this story (big surprise there...). If the idea of everyone’s favorite Bard severing heads and generally acting in an un-Bardly fashion would upset you -- leave now and treasure your memories of her pre-India. Like I do...
3) Sex is implied and the subtext does come up. If you are under the age of legal adulthood, you shouldn’t be reading past this point (I’m not implying that you don’t know what happens, but I am doing this to protect myself legally. Trust me -- whatever innocence to this world you have should be treasured...take it from a grizzled old fart).
4) If you like what you have read and would like to see this theme and setting continued, please email me at: email@example.com. I also accept constructive criticism, congratulations and legitimate job offers. This is my first attempt at fan fiction and writing in general. Please, be gentle...
5) The quote that begins this story is from the song ‘Kryptonite’ by 3 Doors Down. The use of this quote is not meant as a challenge to their copyright, as they still own the rights to the lyrics. It just seemed an appropriate way to open this. They’re a good group -- buy the album.
6) Thanks to Uncle T. Springer for goading me into writing in general and my beta-reader who had the Sisyphean feat of editing this several times...
“You stumbled in and bumped your head.
If not for me, then you’d be dead.
I picked you up and put you back on solid ground again.”
3 Doors Down / Kryptonite
In her dreams, she was on the outer edge of the battle. Her love, her dearest heart was in the thickening center. Try as she might, the Conqueror could never get to the knot before the tragedy happened. Every night the dream played out. Every night she felt that if she could change the dream, she could change history. What was once a solo dream quickly gained a friendly audience. Her soldiers would sweep through one night, another night it was her personal guard. Even Ares appeared, but the dream-god was as effective as his real world counterpart. Every night, she would reach the center and the nightmare would climax in a screech of agony as the Fates re-asserted themselves.
Gabrielle would cradle the dying Xena in her lap, sobbing her grief to whatever cruel gods would deign to listen....
Sunlight hurt her eyes. She carefully opened one eye. The spokes of Apollo’s chariot penetrated Gabrielle’s brain and spun it to an agonizing level. Grunting, she swept a hand to shade her blood-shot green eyes. In the process, she tipped over a metal goblet. The clatter scraped new channels into her already throbbing brain.
“WHO LOWERED THE GODS DAMNED CURTAIN?!” she cried. Now her voice stoked the fire in her skull. Ladies-in-waiting scampered in and raised the heavy rug in front of the window to block out the light.
“I am sorry, Conqueror. It was so warm and stuffy in here last night that I thought--”
Gabrielle shot up to a sitting position. “You don’t think! You act! Specifically, you act on my orders alone! Now, close the window!” The room was plunged into cool, merciful darkness. “Guards, have this woman executed,” she said coldly. The sounds of struggling echoed down the hall as Gabrielle stood up slowly. She let her sheet drop to the ground.
Her body was compact and lean. Her skin was crisscrossed by faint scars from battles she never remembered or wanted to remember. Her hair was the color of a sun beginning its dying trip. Eyes that were green might have once held a spark of life and vitality that her life had crushed under its heel. Once, several lifetimes ago, she was a beautiful lass; worthy enough to catch the eye of a Princess. Now, that beauty was a hollow facade.
“Dress me and fetch me some wine.”
Soft silks wrapped themselves around her. The wine cup in her hand was growing heavy with liquid. She drained it with two gulps and demanded another cup full. A second cup was followed by a third and by a fourth. The pain of waking was slowly being dulled. She sipped her fifth cup slowly, finally taking the time to savor the taste of the grapes.
The alcohol began to silence the whispers of her conscience. She could never look at herself in the mirror with clear eyes. Xena was once able to act without any sense of remorse. She could ride Argo into the heat of battle and rally the troops, or wander through the grim silence and look down at the ghostly masks of dead husbands, brothers and sons with no feelings; but Gabrielle needed to numb herself with drink before she could act. She once was able to get through a day with only a single mug of wine. Now, she had to wake up drunk and stay drunk just to face the day. Her hardest foe wasn’t a general or a single soldier. It was her soul, and neither were willing to admit defeat.
She remembered Xena telling her, in the quiet hours of the evening, how much of her life was spend in a bland emotionless haze. She felt nothing good nor bad. Every emotion was tucked away in a part of her mind that nothing could touch.
“You made me feel something. Seeing you give yourself up to the slavers to save your own family gave me the courage to let me experience everything I had denied myself,” Xena used to say as she held her close in the evenings. “The first one was love. At that moment, I knew I had to protect you. I couldn’t live with myself if anything had happened to you.”
A spark of sorrow surfaced above the flood of her alcoholic anesthesia. She looked around at the trappings surrounding her. Silk from Chin, marble from Rome, and murals from Greece, all of them tributes from the conquered. She was the wealthiest woman in the world. For all her prizes -- these things, the power of life and death she held over people -- she was alone. Sex only filled a partial need. She raised her cup to her lips, “What I don’t have, I don’t need.” She felt her tongue beginning to thicken and stumble in her mouth
The sixth cup began to curl its claws around her brain. The voices of accusation began to recede underneath a dark flood of rage. No other feelings were present -- no love, no mirth -- nothing but bitter hate. The hate was good and pure, the only emotion she let herself feel completely. It kept her focused on her task. How Xena was able to do this day in and day out for years without going mad was beyond her.
Damn you, Xena. Damn you for leaving me, she thought as she began to stagger across the room with her empty cup. A lady-in-waiting quickly swooped over to fill it up again. Another cup put her nagging conscience down for the day. She straightened up.
A lady-in-waiting cleared her throat nervously and almost whispered, “He is in the war room, my Conqueror.”
Quietly, she left her bedchambers, dressed in a functional skirt and top. Hanging on her hip was an old, battered sword. Forged from Damascus steel, it had never before left the side of its owner. It served her faithfully until the end. Now, Xena’s sword was Gabrielle’s. She pried it from her fingers and used it to defend her lover’s body from the marauders who wanted a piece of the Destroyer of Nations to sell for the highest bidder. Whenever she wore it, she felt as if Xena’s spirit was watching over her.
Would you be proud? Do you turn your face from me when I think of you? Don’t you know how much I miss you? Every night I try to save you and every night I fail. Do you hate me? Gabrielle asked the air. Her footsteps grew silent as she approached the war room. The generals she gathered under her were ambitious, cunning and had little to spare in the morals department, which meant she watched them very carefully. She had no plans to die in the night by a well-planned dagger.
Leaning close into the door, she waited for one of them to open his mouth.
“. . . will arrive in four nights. From there, we can be set up to push into the steppes well before the winter sets.” She recognized the voice of Cepheus Sabinus, her general from Rome. He was loyal to Rome first, his men second, his wife third, and Gabrielle managed to merit a distant fourth. While his loyalties were misplaced as far as the Conqueror was concerned, Rome was a prefecture to the empire Gabrielle carved out of Greece, Rome, and Chin. As long as he remained loyal to Rome, his head stayed on his shoulders.
“And what are we supposed to do while we’re waiting for the grand legions of Rome? Talk the Amazons to death? Cut your travel time in half and we’ll increase your share of the slaves and booty.” Draco was Xena’s worst enemy, but thanks to a prank of the gods, he was blinded by love for Gabrielle. He was her bodyguard, lover and the closest thing she had to a loyal friend. This was another thing she regretted when she began to sober, seeing it as a betrayal of Xena, but the wine dulled those feelings too. However, even through the drunken haze of her life, there was still a part of her heart that he would never touch. As far as Gabrielle was concerned, Draco was little more than a body to stop the first arrow.
He was the first warlord to join her. He marched into the tent and said one word that kept him alive.
With that in mind, his men became hers and they had fought along with the Amazons. Ephiny would frown as the two plotted and schemed to defeat those that had killed Xena. She would complain, both in front of her troops and privately on how Gabrielle was changing for the worse. Gabrielle would just sullenly shrug her shoulders and get another drink.
Ephiny was patient, but even her patience broke when she found the pair in her bed. Gabrielle didn’t have the dignity to lie. She just stared at her with that vacant, half-lidded look. Draco just laughed and said to get used to it, this was the new Gabrielle. Ephiny never looked back. By the time Gabrielle was sober enough to comprehend what was happening, every last Amazon was gone. Afterwards, Draco became nothing more than a bitter pill to remind her the cost of betrayal.
After the Amazons left, Gabrielle became even more single-minded in her quest to find Xena’s killers and found herself willing to annihilate everything and everyone that stood in her way. Even after they had been found and killed, it didn’t stop. Gabrielle woke one day and found herself as the head of a large army and in control of a large part of Greece. After that, the rest of the world was easy. Xena had taught her well and she was never sober enough to care.
Now she was at war with the very Amazons that she used to love. Gabrielle gave a sickly laugh at the irony and took another long drink.
“You should not offer what you do not have,” said a voice, cultured and quiet to snap her out of her daydream. A voice that didn’t belong to this belligerent group. The voice was that of Lieu Kei. He was the youngest of the generals, but he was also the most able. It was his help that allowed her to march into the Imperial City and sit on the Throne of Dragons. His army was the smallest of the provinces, but he was able to perform miracles with those few men he owned. As a show of fealty, he murdered his wife and only child. This did not impress Gabrielle in the least. It only made her double her guard around him. A man who would kill a child to prove his loyalty would easily draw a blade across the throat of his leader.
“What can you do? You’re not in the war. Your men are sitting around and getting fat while mine are dying in the mud. Perhaps you’d like to test your mettle in the North?” Draco’s armor creaked. Gabrielle smiled as the battle lines were being drawn. As long as her high strung generals were at each other’s throats, they weren’t forming alliances against her.
Xena’s best lesson: divide and conquer.
“Perhaps you should admit to the fact that you are nothing more than the Conqueror’s favorite phal-,” said another voice as the scraping of swords from their sheathes finally brought her into the room.
“Everyone! Let’s focus on our true enemy. Draco, how much longer can you hold your line?” She walked in just as Draco and Lieu Kei were settling into their fighting stances. They were involved in their own world, waiting for the fatal lapse of attention to happen. Gabrielle stood in between them, making sure her back was to neither. “I asked you a question, Draco.”
Draco straightened up, slamming his sword home into his sheath, “I can hold for two nights, maybe three of we’re cautious with our forces.”
“Good, Lieu Kei has some men that are two nights hard march away.” She turned to face the other combatant. “I want your three best companies to fight along side Draco’s men.”
“With all due respect, after two nights of hard marching, even my men will be hard pressed to give you victory. It would be best if we were allowed to fight in three night’s travel. That way we can be sure that we are rested for combat,” the man said with a bow.
“You didn’t let me finish my plan. While your forces march, Cepheus will be bringing two legions of his cavalry. By horse, the trip will take three days at a medium pace. When it all comes together, the Steppe Amazons will be hit by a wave of new troops every day. They’ll have to pull back to conserve their forces. When they do, we advance. I want builders following behind to put up forts and earthworks to hold the territory. I want us to hold over half of the steppes before winter sets in. Any questions?” She dared anyone to say anything with her eyes.
The door burst open. A messenger held himself up with a spindly arm against the doorframe.
“Conqueror! A patrol has captured some Amazons!” he gasped.
Gabrielle strode quickly out the room, smiling at the mention of victory over her greatest rival. “Was Ephiny captured?”
The messenger shook his head cautiously. The messengers of ill tidings rarely got a second chance.
“Give him some water, then set him in one of the dignitaries’ room,” she said dismissively as she waved a guard to him. Her pace picked up as she neared the audience balcony. If Ephiny was there, then she could cut the final cord between her and the past she wanted so desperately to drown. She swallowed her wine greedily.
She stepped out into the bright sunlight. Below her, some citizens had been collected to witness the swiftness of justice in the new land. The Amazons were bound and kneeling in the center of arena. Their bruised faces were masks of defiance. Gabrielle had left instructions that any captured Amazons were not to be defiled. As always, one soldier thought he was immune to the decrees of the Conqueror. His skeleton was the first one seen by any soldier marching into the city.
The crowd cheered weakly.
“Amazons! My soldiers have captured you. As your Queen, I offer you the choice of allegiance. Swear your loyalty to me and I will let you live. You may have a piece of farmland that is your own to do whatever you wish. If you want, you can join my armies as a member of my personal legions. Some of your sisters already serve me with honor.” She waited and watched.
One of the Amazons, a woman with a young face and the old eyes of a weary campaigner, rose up to her full height. Scowling, she spat on the ground.
“We follow the Regent!”
Gabrielle reached back, snatching a spear from the guard. In one fluid motion, she hurled it at the standing Amazon. The spear punched through her belly. The impact drove her backwards. She would have slumped over but the shaft propped her up. Weakly, she grinned and looked to the balcony.
“Hail the Regent... hail, Artemis...,” she sighed before letting her spirit travel to its well-deserved rest.
“GUARDS! Take them below and let them fester with their sisters!” Gabrielle yelled as she shook with rage, “Anyone showing them an ounce of mercy will join them!” She left the box in a wrathful flutter of cloth and steel. Back in the protective coolness of the hallway, she let herself slump against the wall. The only thing she felt was the coolness of her empty cup in her grip.
Why? Why is this happening? Are you punishing me?
Her unspoken questions pushed her staggering to her room. She tried to hate Ephiny. She called up every image she could find in her grape haze. Only one memory came forth with any sort of clarity. . .
Gabrielle clenched and unclenched her hands to keep them from shaking. Amycus was coming. She blinked back tears of rage. The campaign had been going on far too long for both of them. Another winter was coming and there were few soldiers left to tend to their own crops. He was here to sue for peace. As Queen, she had to hear him out.
Did you give Xena a chance to sue? she wanted to scream it to him. Did your soldiers grant her mercy, besides that of a quick death? You didn’t do that either. I couldn’t even view her body because there was little left to view you son of a bitch!
As she wiped away tears, she heard footsteps behind her. A pair of voices whispered urgently.
“She can’t do this,” Joxer hissed urgently.
“She has to! She’s the Queen! It is her choice whether or not to take the treaty,” Ephiny’s voice drew a line in the sand.
“You’re the Regent! Over-ride her or depose her or something!”
She sighed, “It is not that easy,” she said slowly, as if explaining it to a slow child. “I can’t just take the mask from her and declare myself Queen. The title has to be handed down to me--”
“Or what? Harpies are going to snatch your sheep? I’ve known Gabby far--”
“Friend or not, you’re beginning to go down a dangerous path. Now, be quiet. For once, please, be quiet.”
The footsteps grew louder. Furtively, she gave her face one last wipe and tried to regain a little sense of dignity.
Ephiny cleared her throat, “My Queen. His Highness, King Amycus will be here to discuss the terms of the treaty.”
Joxer leaned down and kept his voice low, “Gabby, we can do this another time. Let him wait. I’m more worried about you.”
She touched his arm gently, “Thank you, but this has to be done. Please, don’t go -- either of you,” she looked back to Ephiny.
“I’ll be by your side.” Ephiny’s back straightened.
“So will I.”, Joxer said.
Gabrielle’s hand went to her lap. It brushed against Xena’s sword -- the only thing she had left to remind her of her love.
The herald walked in first. He looked around and bowed to the Queen, “Your Royal Highness, I respectfully give to you, King Amycus.”
He strode into the room as if he were still holding his court. On his face was a smug leer. He rearranged his cloak and gave a quick nod to the three waiting impatiently.
Something in Gabrielle broke at the sight of him. Launching herself forward with a roar, she unsheathed the blade and drove it deep into his chest. He gasped once, clutching the wound to keep his life from spilling onto the floor. Still screaming, she wrenched the sword out and slashed once, nearly severing his head from his neck. Blows furiously rained down on his body. Tears, hot with vehemence mixed with his cooling blood. She was dimly aware that there were three voices. One was screaming epithets and two others were calling some woman’s name urgently.
Hands grabbed and tugged her away. She fought them, swinging her arms and legs randomly. She connected with something, only to hear a grunt of pain. Her throat began to burn from crying and yelling, but something kept pushing her to wound and injure the bloody mass in front of her.
“Get her out of here!” Ephiny’s voice was the first to cut through the haze. There was a tinge of both disgust and sorrow in her words. Her surroundings were a teary blur of light and dark, finally clearing when she was in her tent. Her voice cracked into sobs as she pushed the Regent and Joxer aside.
“My Queen. . . ,” she approached her delicately.
“How many generals remain in his army?” she asked.
“Four, my Queen.”
“Move us out, then. We have to search them out.”
Ephiny hesitantly cleared her throat, “What of the village?”
“Leave it,” she croaked. “They can’t be blamed for following their king.”
She tried to comfort me. She did everything in her power to keep me from becoming what I did. In the end, I shut her out because I was too angry, the clarity of her final thought threatened to sober her up. She had to be alone.
Gabrielle walked back to her chamber, closing the door. She tipped the pitcher of wine forward, filling her cup.
“Busy day?” The voice was barely a whisper. She knew that voice. It haunted her memories even before she rose to power.
“You’ve got the drop on me, Jett, so do us both a favor and make it quick,” she whispered as she gulped down the wine in her cup.
There was a subtle shifting in the room. “No. I choose the hour of your death, not you. I want you sober when I draw my blade across your throat. It’s not the sort of demise that you deserve, but it will have to do. No one kills my little brother and gets away with it, especially the Conqueror.”
Damn it, where are the guards? she asked herself.
“Jett, I don’t remember anything about Joxer’s execution,” she said flatly. There were days that were a blur of disjointed images and there were days that didn’t exist at all. “All I remember telling him to mind what he says to whom.”
There was a subtle shifting in the room. Gabrielle realized that the nightingales -- boards in the floor made to squeak when pressure was applies -- never made a sound. She took another drink and tried to think of something to do. If she called for the guards, she would be dead before she hit the floor. She was in no condition to fight, especially in the dark -- which was Jett’s second home.
How did he get in? Why hasn’t anyone see him or the trail of dead bodies? Damn it!
“You’ll pardon me if I call you a lying bitch. He worshiped the ground you walked on. He would have crawled naked through burning glass for a smile. He told me that after he joined your quest to find Xena’s killer, you started to change for the worse. ‘It’s just the grief, don’t worry about it,’ he’d tell me. ‘She’ll be better once Amycus is powerless.’ He made so many excuses for you and that Amazon you ran with my ears rang. So, how do you reward him? You nail him to a cross, but don’t even have the decency to break his legs.” His voice was coming closer to her. She finished the wine quickly. Setting the cup on the bed, she let her hand rest near the grip of her sword. Her soul felt empty as she came to the same conclusion that Jett apparently had earlier -- someone was going to die tonight.
“Jett, please -- listen to me very carefully. I. . . do not . . . remember. . . If I could go back and change it, I would, but I don’t know who carried out the order. I don’t even remember giving those orders.”
There was another shifting as the bed sagged slightly, “Do you have any idea what I did when I found him? Do you know what he asked me to do? He asked me to get you and bring you to him. Even in his dying moments, he wanted to see you. You know what I did?”
Gabrielle felt his body heat right next to her. She could smell the copper waft of blood radiating from him. She shivered slightly. Her hands curled around the grip of her sword. She felt a morbid sort of peace shroud her. She knew that her hour had come and welcomed it. Finally, all the voices of accusation that screamed in her head would cease.
Jett came closer. “I climbed up to the joint and told him to close his eyes, and I slipped this knife in between his ribs. Not that you care. You once said that one Joxer was worth a thousand me? At least I am worth something.”
The last words were a hiss.
Drunken anger roared.
Gabrielle spun around, unsheathing her sword. The stroke was hard and fast. It whistled through empty air.
“No, no, no. . . remember. . . I choose it.” There was more shuffling, then silence. Gabrielle dashed for the door, flinging it open to chase away the shadows. She kept her back to the open door.
“Come on, Jett. Face me in a fair fight, you coward.”
There was no assassin lurking in the shadows. Only a disheveled room and clothes scattered across the floor. Gabrielle cursed and flung her sword to the ground. She refilled her cup with shaking hands and gulped down the drink. Minutes later, the guards came bursting through the doorway, led by Draco.
“You’re late,” she said icily. “Jett’s gone. Who was the captain of the watch?”
The guards looked at each other nervously. She glared at each of them in turn.
“I was, Conqueror.” A young faced man stepped out. A flash of silver caught the light as the head dropped from his shoulders. Draco walked in, stepping lightly over the pool of blood. Soldiers followed timidly behind, looking around as if the shadows would disgorge the famed King Of Assassins. Gabrielle picked up a small skirt from the floor that has been curiously spread out.
There was a hole in the floor.
Gabrielle smiled with a drunken glee. “Get the hot oil ready and send the guards to check the rest of the palace If our friend has any more hidey-holes, I want men posted there. If anyone crawls out, kill first, identify second.”
The soldiers ran out, leaving Draco alone with his Conqueror.
“I am glad you weren’t hurt,” he said, stepping close with a gleam in his eye.
“Not now, Draco. He may still be here.” She made a beeline for the pitcher.
“And so you’re going to get drunker. That’s a nice change of pace.”
Gabrielle set the cup down with a slam. “You’re dismissed.”
“Dismissed, Draco!” Gabrielle reached for her sword. Friend or no -- no one talked to her like that.
Draco bowed as he left. Gabrielle snapped her fingers for the torches to be lit and a fresh pitcher of wine to be brought to her. She closed the door as she finished off the pitcher. Collapsing into her chair, she poured a fresh cup. She drank this one slowly, hoping to keep her soul stifled. Letting her mind wander, she found a happy time to think about.
“You’re so beautiful...,” she whispered to no one in the room. That time in the caverns, when she was under the influence of that drug, she didn’t realize what she had said. Thankfully, the both of them laughed it off as the ravings of a young girl who was gently deluded. It wasn’t until months later, that she told Xena the truth. The drug had temporarily removed an inhibition to say what she finally worked up the internal strength to say anyway on her own.
Xena had been stunned -- a first to be sure. When she mentioned that she found Gabrielle attractive and had wanted to take their relationship to a more intimate level, Gabrielle couldn’t stop grinning. The year after that was nothing less than bliss defined. Days and nights spent exploring each other’s bodies. Even when the priests of Dahok tricked her into being a vessel for their Destroyer, Xena tried her best to comfort her.
Then Amycus came along and shattered her dream.
The tears found her way down their cheeks.
She took another hard swallow, draining the pitcher directly. Tossing it to the side, Gabrielle stood up on shaky feet. She flung open the door. Two ladies-in-waiting tried to gently guide her back into her room, but a backhand and a pitched cup persuaded them to leave their ruler alone.
The early evening air wiped the stupor from her mind. She approached a cross that was tucked away from the views of most citizens. The skeleton hung patiently, clad in a rag-tag collection of armor and a ridiculously pointed cap perched on the skull. A piece of parchment fluttered in the darkening skies, the letters were stilted, but clear in the moonlight.
A fresh bout of shaking sobs sent her to her knees. “I-I am sorry, Joxer... forgive me, please...” She clasped her hands behind her head, letting her tears wet the ground. Gabrielle rocked back and forth slowly
She never heard the horses approach. When she was jerked to her feet by rough hands, her sorrow sublimated into a disoriented rage.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she asked. Each of her generals stood before her, with a squad of men behind them. Cepheus stepped forward with a malefic grin on his face.
“This is a coup. It’s what happens to those who aren’t fit to lead us,” he sneered.
“GUARDS! GUARDS! SEIZE TH--” Cepheus placed a well-aimed blow to her jaw. She tasted blood and wine intermingled as stars danced crazily in her vision.
“You will be silent.” Lieu Kei turned to wave a horse and stable boy over. The crowd obligingly parted for the beast.
Gabrielle saw her moment to strike. She slammed her foot down on one sandaled guard. He grunted and let go of Gabrielle’s arm to cradle his injured foot. She jammed her fist into the other guard’s throat. As he fell, grabbing his collapsed windpipe, Gabrielle snatched the sword from his waist.
Cepheus yelled at his men to pin her down. Gabrielle lowered into her fighting stance, slashing and stabbing at anyone who dared to come close enough. More men joined in to fill in any gaps that Gabrielle carved. It seemed to be a standoff as she made her way slowly to the road.
Draco caught her eye with a warning glance. She smiled as she began to lower her sword. He was still in love and ready to do anything for her. She would have to reward his faithfulness with something beyond not executing him.
Lieu Kei wound his way through to the center. Slowly, he bowed and moved in a quick series of strikes - an invitation to hand-to-hand combat. He ordered the other men to stand away, giving him space to move freely.
“Fine.” Gabrielle tossed her sword aside. “You want to die slower, so be it.” She knew the wine was going to hamper her reflexes. As far as she was concerned, she had nothing left to lose.
The pair flowed into their stances, each one circling the other. Weaknesses were spied and attacks plotted deep in their minds. One waiting for the other to give away a move. Arms raised and lowered themselves in a hypnotic dance. They paused for a moment.
Gabrielle sprung like a tiger, swinging her arms and feet in a blurring procession. Lieu Kei blocked them all with a look of boredom. As soon as the attack began, Gabrielle broke it off and shuffled two steps back. Lieu Kei shifted his feet, settling his weight on the back leg. A breath was taken.
Before her wine soaked mind registered the impact of the blow, she was already on the ground, rolling away in pain. Her chest, sides and ribs blazed in agony. She made a quick mental check -- no broken bones, no sprains. Good.
She twisted herself to her feet, narrowly ducking an outstretched foot. She returned the favor with a foot sweep. Lieu Kei tumbled backwards, arms flailing wildly to keep his balance. Gabrielle chased after him, trying to keep the advantage on her side. A chop struck his collarbone, but his forearm took the brunt of the blow. An uppercut finally sent him to the ground. He shook his head to clear out the pain. All he saw was the bottom on Gabrielle’s boot coming for his throat.
He rolled to his feet just as her heel came down. Balancing on his hands and one knee, he drove his foot into Gabrielle’s side. She grunted once and stumbled forward into Draco’s arms.
Draco turned to shove her to his men and safety but someone ripped her out of his hands, tossing her into a different mob. This one consisted only of soldiers loyal to Lieu Kei. They thronged around her, arms whipping out and striking whatever part of her they could reach. Gabrielle tried to fight at first. Eventually, she was reduced to huddling inside herself to avoid the worst injuries.
After what felt like an eternity, there was a gentle cessation in the storm. Someone drew her roughly to her feet and wrapped her arms behind her with rope. Her eyes were swollen shut, so she didn’t know whom to thank as she was shoved into another body.
“For crimes against the Empire, we sentence you to exile. Once you have left the borders of your city, you will no longer enjoy the protection of the guards. You’re an outcast,” Cepheus’ said strongly in the night.
“Why are we doing this? Why not put her in prison?” Draco sounded nervous. He’d never been in this position before.
“Simple. Everyone fears the Conqueror. If the people find her alone and unarmed, they’ll kill her. No blood on our hands.”
The hiss of drawing steel quickly followed Draco’s voice, “No, I won’t allow that. Men, take her to the dun--”
Gabrielle’s heart sank as the sound of a body hit the ground. There was a whirlwind of confusion as she presumed his men were being herded to the side.
“I never liked him anyway.” Lieu Kei’s hiss only confirmed her fears.
Something was placed tightly around her eyes. She felt herself being placed upon a horse. If Cepheus was true to form, she was on it backwards in an attempt to foil any chance of coming back.
“You should have killed me when you had the chance, Cepheus. I’m coming for you first,” Gabrielle growled around a blossoming lower lip.
“I doubt that greatly,” he replied. A swat to the horse’s rear sent her off.
Gabrielle clutched onto the horse for dear life. Tree branches whistled by her ears. Great, she thought, Now I get to have my--
The flash of lightening agony was quickly consumed by the dark limbo of unconsciousness.
Painfully, she became aware of a solidity under her that wasn’t the ground. Slowly, she stood up and surveyed her surroundings. Clouds at ankle level were all that she could see. The air wasn’t cool, nor was it hot. It just was. The pain that she felt was short-lived. She was more like the air -- she just was.
A figure approached her. It was a tall, lanky woman, moving with a warrior’s grace. She brushed a lock of dark hair from her eyes. Gabrielle’s heart quickened its pace. She started to walk forward, tears blurring her sight.
The woman took Gabrielle in her arms. The pair held each other fiercely. Gabrielle looked up and planted her lips firmly on her lover’s mouth. She felt whole and complete now. There is only one way she could feel like this.
“I’ve died...,” she whispered.
Xena gently pushed her back, “No, Gabrielle. You’re very much alive, but your soul is in peril. Hades has given me this one chance to send you this message.”
She pulled her lover down to a rock that wasn’t there a minute ago. “You’re traveling a well-worn path. I’ve been down it and it leads nowhere. If I never met you, if I never witnessed the purity of your spirit, I would now be dead in spirit as well as in the flesh. You must turn around and go back to the road you were on when I met you. The road you sent me down years ago.”
Gabrielle stuttered as she buried her face in her lover’s neck, “X-X-Xena...I-I’m suh-suh...”
“Shush. I know how easy it is to give in to the hate. I did after the death of my brother and I wish to the gods that I hadn’t. You have to be strong. I know you can do this. Don’t let the rage and the hate rule you.”
She wiped at her eyes, “I don’t know where to start. I can’t possibly begin to atone for everything I’ve done in a single lifetime. Xena, I became you -- no -- I became worse than you. I’ve destroyed everything good that I had. Joxer, Ephiny -- everything,” she stood up and walked away, “I don’t even deserve mercy from you.”
“Don’t you ever say that. Don’t even think it. Everyone deserves mercy and the chance for atonement. You never let me give up on that idea, so you’re not going to, either. It’ll be hard and you’re going to have to do some things that are going to make you uncomfortable, but they have to be done. Gabrielle, look at me.” Xena took her face in her hands and lifted it up gently. “Whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.”
“Or leave me in great pain. It would be easier if I had you with me.” She looked up and smiled. “I miss you.”
“I know.” She kissed away Gabrielle’s tears. "We'll be together once more. Just be patient.”
The world darkened around Gabrielle, but the last things that stayed lit were a pair of bright blue eyes.
She started to yell for the shades. A wind filled with tree pollen reminded her of what happened. She rolled unsteadily to her feet. Gabrielle’s head swam uncomfortably, almost sending her to the ground again.
A cautious hand to the back of her head brought back a sticky blotch of blood and loose hair. She looked around slowly. She was rarely outside of the city unless she was moving her army towards a campaign. The sun told her it was early in the morning. Her stomach told her she was missing a meal. Her head told her she was missing the wine.
“Well, I guess this is where I start. The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step, right?” she asked herself. She started walking down the road. A soft breeze pushed her along. Gabrielle thought she caught the familiar scent of leather and steel in the air. She allowed a single tear to caress her face.
She knew she would never be alone.