Disclaimer: Xena:Warrior Princess is a trademark of Renaissance Pictures. Story mine, main characters not.
This story is a sequel to Ides of March. I couldn't wait months for the resolution to a seasonal cliffhanger (who invented such an evil thing?) so I wrote one myself.
Warning: This story contains violence against humans and animals. Some of it is grim.
© June 1999 Charmer
'I sing of Gabrielle,
Child of Poteidaia,
And Warlord's Bane...'
The bard was not particularly good but he did his best. Perdicus was hardly the poetic type and everyone knew it. He had plenty of romantic ideas, but that was his problem. He dreamt of being so many things - a soldier one day, a bard the next - none of them quite right for him and many anything but. Yet Poteidaia owed Perdicus a debt of courage, so no one begrudged his fleeting attempts to live out his dreams.
'Warlord's Bane...' a brittle voice repeated quietly. 'I do like that name.'
Gabrielle turned to see Callisto standing beside her. As usual the blonde warrior had crept up like a thief in the night. Her leather armour creaked gently as she sat down and settled herself astride the bench. She ducked quickly and peered under Gabrielle's hood.
'You've cut your hair!'
'So have you.'
Callisto grinned sharply and shook her cropped head. 'Well, I need to swap around now and then. New clothes, new hair... it keeps them on their toes.' Her smooth forehead rippled slightly. 'But what's your excuse?'
Gabrielle sighed softly and pushed back the hood of her richly woven cloak. Everyone in the tavern would notice her now anyway, now that Callisto had arrived. 'I just felt like a change. It seemed... overdue.'
Callisto shrugged and signalled for service. 'It looks okay.'
A soft murmur travelled through the seated crowd. One after another heads turned in their direction, spotted the two women at the rear of the tavern and sent them broad, respectful smiles. How appropriate. The bard at the front recited Warlord's Bane while the subject of his epic graced them with her presence at the back.
'I hate that song,' Gabrielle said under her breath.
'Why? I wish they'd bestowed that title on me.'
'You can have it.'
'I don't deserve it. You do.'
A boy approached with two of the tavern's finest mugs and a fresh quart of ale. He set them down on the trestle, grinning from ear to ear. 'Dad says on the house!'
'Thank you.' Gabrielle nodded and the boy skipped away.
'Bet you always get free drinks,' said Callisto, pouring from the jug.
'I don't go out much.'
It was true. Gabrielle rarely ventured into Poteidaia's taverns. At first she had enjoyed the attention, but these days it made her cringe.
Callisto shook her head. 'I envy you, Gabrielle,' she admitted, and took a long swig.
Gabrielle faced her squarely, suddenly business-like. 'So. Have you got it?'
Callisto swallowed and licked foam from her lips. 'I think so.'
'Let me see.'
The warrior smiled. 'Must be important.'
Callisto put down her drink and hauled a leather satchel onto her lap. Gabrielle watched impatiently as she tugged open the buckles, lifted the flap and pulled out something wrapped tightly in a cloth.
'You do know it's broken?' Callisto checked as she put the package on the table.
'I told you it was,' said Gabrielle, moving quickly to untie the cloth.
'How did you know? How did you even know it was there? I had to dig three feet into a Roman cesspit to find that thing.'
'Did they give you any trouble?'
'The Romans? No. The soldiers were happy to help dig once I showed them your coins.'
'And they didn't try to keep it?'
'Why should they? It's broken.' Callisto raised an eyebrow. 'Must still be worth a bit though. I'm surprised it was just dumped.'
'It was buried,' Gabrielle said grimly, pulling away the last careful wrap, and then she gasped.
Two shiny pieces separated in her hands. Gabrielle stilled, her breath caught in her throat.
Callisto glanced between the broken circle of steel and the suddenly pale face. Lamp light glinted off the metal and flickered across wide green eyes.
Callisto frowned. Gabrielle's sudden silence was not what she had expected. 'I cleaned the muck off for you,' she said uncertainly. 'Did I do right?'
Gabrielle said nothing. She simply stared at the broken weapon in her hands.
'So is that it?'
At last Gabrielle blinked and stirred. She lowered the pieces to her lap and lifted her head, gazing vacantly into space. 'Yes,' she said softly. 'This is it.'
Callisto rolled her eyes. 'Well that's a relief. For a moment there I thought I'd screwed up.'
'No, this is what I saw.'
Callisto smirked. 'In your dreams, right?'
'In my dreams.'
It took Perdicus over an hour to finish Warlord's Bane, during which Callisto found her way through most of the jug.
'He might get passable if I drink enough,' she drawled.
'Don't count on it. The material's poor.'
No one else in the tavern seemed to think so. All had heard the tale before, several times over, and told by better bards than him. Yet it remained a favourite in Poteidaia, and popular elsewhere.
No telling was identical, but the villain and the hero were always the same. Time and again the most hated warlord in Greece descended upon the peaceful town of Poteidaia, and Poteidaia's golden daughter vanquished her with Artemis' help.
In truth the role of Artemis in the story was inconsistent. The warlord had been defeated on the town's Feast of Artemis, the virgin goddess, and the young Gabrielle was a virgin of course, so the outcome had Artemis' blessing at the very least. But Warlord's Bane was a practical tale. It was in essence a story of cunning, violence and death.
Callisto's role was better known, for upon learning that the warlord was nearing Poteidaia, young Gabrielle sought help from the survivors of Cirra. The warlord's earlier victims were eager to describe the atrocities they endured, and in their suffering Gabrielle found the inspiration for a trap. The warlord had lost her slave booty when so many died in Cirra's flames. An army could not live on grain alone. It had to sell its victims for gold.
And so, riding towards Poteidaia on the festival's eve, the warlord was met by nervous council elders offering the town's food store in return for peace. The warlord accepted, knowing that her prize would be greater if she avoided bloodshed at the start. Meanwhile most of Poteidaia's young men, women and children escaped to the forest.
Denied excitement, the soldiers commandeered the prepared feast and billeted themselves in the town for the night. It took the warlord little time to realise that she had been tricked. Perdicus bravely volunteered to endure five minutes of her torture before revealing the location of her new slaves. She divided her forces and sent her lieutenant to capture them... straight into Callisto's ambush.
The bards rarely agreed upon what Gabrielle did next. Some said she drugged the warlord with herbs, others that she used a magic potion, bound her with a spell from Artemis, or enchanted chains. One claimed the warlord was simply distracted by the pretty blonde, but that version was too prosaic for most. What really happened did not matter, for the warlord woke on the Feast in the town's small dungeon, her soldiers killed or scattered in the night, and Callisto presented the council with lieutenant Darfus' cleanly severed head.
The lieutenant's head swung for several weeks on a gibbet outside Poteidaia's main gate, where it drew flies and carrion and children pelted it with stones. Eventually it fell to the dust in a rotten heap and someone kicked it to a rubbish pit.
The warlord met no such merciful fate.
The town's blacksmith spent the morning of the Feast carefully forging a set of twin spikes, and every moment that followed was etched on Gabrielle's memory like letters carved in a slab of salt - the brazier set up in the town square, the red hot embers, the spectators, the sunshine so warm and bright. The shackled warlord was brought out to jeers and insults and wrestled to her knees. Her eyes gleamed as blue as the sky as two men held them open and the blacksmith drove in his sharp, glowing spikes. Gabrielle, awarded an undisturbed view at the front, could smell the burning as Xena's screams of rage and pain were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
The cheers were loud. Perdicus smiled broadly and collected a respectable weight of silver for his trouble. Poteidaia's townsfolk were not short of money and everyone appreciated this tale, no matter who told it. Callisto did not toss a coin but thumped her empty mug twice on the table. Gabrielle alone offered no applause.
'Where are you going to stay?' she asked quietly when the noise had died down and normal chatter took its place.
Callisto blinked. 'Here?'
'You won't find a room. The town's already full for the Feast.'
'Don't tell me it's the Feast of Artemis again already!'
'It's the same time every year, Callisto.'
'Damn. I wasn't planning to stay that long. I've got a commission from the Amazons. I dropped by on my way back.'
'Who is it this time?'
'Kraikus.' Callisto grinned suddenly. 'I love Amazons. They're so formal but so direct. I'll show you the warrant. It says, "Wanted: Dead."'
'How is Melosa?'
'Fine. Sends her regards.' Callisto peered at Gabrielle sideways. 'They respect you now, you know. After the help you sent with the Centaur war.'
Gabrielle stared at the trestle in front of her. 'It was politic, nothing more. Some of them weren't happy about Xena.'
Callisto chose that moment to spit on the floor. 'Speaking of which...'
Gabrielle waited, then prompted her. 'What?'
Callisto's eyebrows danced. 'Come on, Gabrielle, you know! I don't often get the chance.' Her lip curled upwards in a delicious sneer. 'I want to see the bitch.'
Poteidaia had grown rich on Xena's defeat. Gabrielle and Callisto passed buildings that boasted bright paintwork and new porticoes, all golden in the balmy evening's sunset. The smooth pavings were in good repair, the decorative trees were well watered and growing tall. Shops stocked with imported luxuries had taken over where local vegetable stalls once stood. The peasant farmers and fishermen became prosperous cosmopolitan citizens, with fine clothes and tastes to match.
There had been the loot from the warlord's army, of course; more capital than most poor peasants saw in a lifetime. And that bounty was followed by valuable trade - the pilgrimages, the stories, the influential visitors, the widespread acclaim. The town's Feast of Artemis grew into a week-long event and a dozen new inns went up to take the paying guests.
All were full and noisy as the two women passed by. Wealthy merchants were hurriedly locking up their shops and squeezing into heaving taverns. None missed the opportunity to drink and mingle with potential customers from out of town.
'You can stay in my house,' said Gabrielle.
'Much obliged.' Callisto peeked curiously through a set of shutters as they turned a corner into a quieter street. The blonde warrior kept glancing about, taking in the new additions since her last visit. 'Gabrielle,' she said at last, 'what do you do all day?'
'I sit on the council.'
Callisto snorted lewdly. 'One young woman amongst all those randy old men. I bet they wish you'd sit on them.'
Gabrielle did not respond so Callisto continued. 'Do they take your advice?'
'Like over the Amazons.'
'And what about Xena?'
Gabrielle hesitated. 'The subject doesn't come up.'
Like many buildings in the town the prison had been extended. Money and a growing population attracted crime. The women neither expected nor encountered any difficulty gaining admittance.
'Let me get you some lamps,' the head jailer offered helpfully, and hurriedly poured oil to light.
They held the lamps in front of them as they made their way down a windowless corridor. They could hear shouting through the walls from one of the cells to their right. A pickpocket had been caught and was giving his captors an earful while they searched him for further stolen goods.
Once at the far end they discarded the lamps in an alcove and stepped onto a criss-cross walkway, glad to be in the open air again. Below them was the secure interior, dug deep into the earth. Gabrielle led the way above the quadrangle towards a circular enclosure at one end.
'They keep her in the work-pit,' she said.
Callisto leered. 'Good.'
The grinding wheel was heavy stone, the bar a solid beam of oak. Few people had the strength to move it on their own. The warlord did.
Gabrielle and Callisto balanced cautious inches from the curved drop and watched her from above. The setting sun could not reach below the rim of the pit and the space beneath was grimly dusk. Xena trod an endless circle, her weight thrown against the beam at her chest. Milled flour trickled slowly from the edge of the wheel into a stone gully near her bare feet.
Callisto could not help grinning with satisfaction at the sight. Then she raised an eyebrow and spoke quietly. 'I'll say this for her. The bitch refuses to waste away.'
Gabrielle knew that well enough. This Xena was thinner than the warlord who had threatened her home four years ago, but despite her captivity she remained strong. A short rough tunic revealed limbs still bronzed and muscled from daily labour. Her long hair was unkempt, but as black and thick as the day she rode into Poteidaia with it whipping behind her like a war banner.
And her hearing was just as acute. The warlord halted her arduous pacing, paused, then stepped back from the beam as far as the well-oiled shackles on her neck and ankles would allow. Slowly she turned and lifted her face towards them.
The blacksmith had blinded Xena with the precision of a surgeon. There was no scarring of the surrounding skin, only smooth eyelids sealed half shut. The opaque damage that peeked underneath seemed unnaturally white in the evening half-light. Gabrielle could almost believe those gleaming whites spied and pierced her to the bone, though she knew they could see nothing at all.
The prisoner spoke. 'That must be you up there, Callisto. I recognise your feeble whine. Your mother and your sister whined like that... and crackled and popped.'
A tremor coursed through Callisto's limbs, then quickly stilled. 'Making bread for the festival, Xena?' she taunted. 'I guess they don't let you near the oven. You might char the goods.'
A jailer emerged from an open door below and promptly wielded his lash. Xena's tunics never lasted long. The one she wore now was already shredded at the back and the whip raised an instant welt.
'Get back to work!'
Xena arched at the pain but held her ground. 'Did you bring the little councillor with you?' she sneered up into the void.
The jailer lashed Xena's shoulders again. 'Move!'
When she silently refused he caught her shins with the whip and jerked her legs out from under her, bringing her crashing face down to the ground. She grunted with the impact and her chains scraped noisily across the stone.
'Get up!' he yelled, tugging the lash free and striking her again.
The jailer looked up to see Gabrielle glaring down at him. He nodded obediently and retreated back through the door.
'Spoil sport,' hissed Callisto, and turned swiftly on her heel.
Gabrielle watched the prisoner climb to her feet and lean against the beam once more. The wheel turned painfully slowly before Xena recovered her pace.
Then Gabrielle too turned away.
'Are you all right?' she called after Callisto, who was striding back the way they had come.
'Absolutely fine,' Callisto affirmed. 'Thank you, Gabrielle. That felt good. She's right where she belongs.'
Gabrielle did not hurry to keep up. Her heavy heart was weighing her down. 'No,' she whispered sadly. 'She's not.'
'My life is not what I wanted,' Gabrielle told herself with a sigh.
She looked out onto a beautiful morning from her colonnaded quarters that overlooked the central square. The town below was already busy and a servant had brought her fresh loaves and figs for breakfast.
She should be happy. Poteidaia was not the backwater she knew would doom her as a child. Gabrielle had feared she would outgrow the simple farm community and stifle here, but now she felt as though it had outgrown her.
She had everything she should want. Money. Comfort. Respect. They even let her on the council. What other woman in Greece could say that?
And they listened to her too. It was Gabrielle who had seen the threat to Poteidaia in the Amazon-Centaur war. The protracted campaign was spilling across neutral borders and disrupting trade. Worse still, a dangerous warlord was poised to take advantage of the weakening combatants and something had to be done.
Poteidaia spent gold on mercenaries and sent them to shore up the Amazon defence. The Centaurs crumbled, the Amazons claimed their land, and the warlord responsible fled with a bounty on his head.
That was early on, soon after Xena's capture. Melosa did not approve of Xena's treatment - "unfitting for a warrior", apparently - but she wisely let it slide. Alliances were consolidated, people prospered, the Feast of Artemis grew each year...
And then the dreams began.
Cold. Ice. Blood and shattered steel.
Gabrielle would wake in the night, shivering and alone. The nights were mild so she should not be shivering, but above all she knew that she should not be alone.
Perhaps she should be back with her parents and her sister, living in the modest farmhouse that was long since sold.
Or perhaps she was not meant to be here at all.
She sighed again and turned away from the town vista as her mother and sister arrived. The women had been on a long shopping trip to Athens and were eager to show Gabrielle the fine things they had bought; rich cloths, foreign spices, and a small scaly animal which Lila had chosen for a pet. Gabrielle did not recognise the species and guessed it came from Egypt.
She entertained them with wine and breakfast until Lila announced that her husband was waiting for her to help him in his shop. Gabrielle kissed her sister goodbye and dutifully petted the lizard in her arms, then looked surprised when her mother did not leave as well.
'Gabrielle,' her mother began gently. 'What's wrong?'
Gabrielle sat down again. 'I'm having bad dreams.'
Indeed they had been happening for some time, Gabrielle realised. Once a night, every night, fierce and vivid from the start. They were short but powerful, striking during the deepest sleep with the sharp cruelty of an icicle. Little shards of broken night which pierced her soul repeatedly, weakening her as time wore on. Their clarity terrified her, yet none of them made any sense. The warlord was present in every one.
'It must be weeks, now, Gabrielle! This is not natural.'
How much time had passed since she had woken with the image of the shattered metal and its location firmly detailed in her mind? At least long enough to send for Callisto to find it and bring it back...
'You must see the priestess,' her mother concluded. 'Such dreams are warnings from the gods.'
Gabrielle nodded. She had been thinking something similar herself.
Her mother hesitated. 'But things were wrong before the dreams started. You're not happy, Gabrielle.'
'I know.' She sighed. Gabrielle realised that she sighed a great deal these days.
Her mother spoke slowly, carefully preparing each word. 'I know Perdicus was not right for you, but have you thought of marriage yet?'
Gabrielle smiled sadly. 'I've found no one to love.'
'Children would make you happy,' her mother added.
'Children would make me happier than I am, but...' She shook her head.
The older woman's voice cracked when she saw the tear in her daughter's eye.
'Oh Gabrielle.' She took her hand and held it to comfort her. 'It's all right. Perhaps Artemis has another path for you. Already you've achieved so much.' She smiled bravely. 'The last thing I want is to see you with someone who would hurt you. That would truly break my heart.'
The worst dream yet came that night. Snow and swords and screams of death. The warlord was battling in front of her, crushing skulls and spilling guts.
Gabrielle tossed violently, sending the blanket onto the floor.
'No, Callisto! No!'
'Gabrielle! Wake up!'
Gabrielle woke abruptly to an oil lamp hovering by her head. She recoiled and gasped, then scrambled to sit up.
Callisto's shadowed face appeared on the other side of the flickering flame, concerned. 'By the gods, Gabrielle, are you all right?'
Gabrielle's chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath. Sweat was pouring off her but she felt as cold as clay. 'Just a nightmare,' she insisted, wiping damp hair away from her forehead.
'You're telling me. Your screaming woke me up.'
'You shouldn't have come in.'
Callisto regarded her steadily. 'I came in because you were screaming my name.'
Gabrielle started. 'Your name?'
'I was screaming for you?'
Callisto retrieved the blanket from the floor and gave it back to her. 'Well, you were screaming for me or at me. I'm not sure which.'
Interrupted, this dream was fading fast and for once Gabrielle had something to be grateful for. She hugged the blanket's softness to her clammy skin, covering her nakedness.
'Thank you. I'll be all right now. Go get some sleep.'
Callisto gave her one last uneasy look, then turned away from the bed. 'I'll try,' she said dryly, and shut the door tightly behind her.
The temple of Artemis was the largest and the finest in Poteidaia. Bright reds and yellows adorned its external pillars and marble steps welcomed worshippers inside. A statue of the goddess dominated the interior, decorated with tasteful gems and gold leaf. Behind, hidden by luxurious drapes, was the entrance to the high priestess' private chamber.
'Still a virgin, Gabrielle?' the priestess asked her with a smile.
'Surely Artemis doesn't object.'
'Of course not. A little surprised, that's all.'
The priestess led Gabrielle to some cushions and they sat down facing each other, their knees almost touching. The priestess was a graceful woman with deep brown eyes and very dark skin. No native of Greece, Gabrielle had surmised on seeing her for the first time three years ago, but then the devotees of Artemis travelled far and wide. The people of Poteidaia had not chosen their priestess, she had chosen them. Apparently the goddess favoured this town. What better place to fulfil her calling?
Gabrielle recounted her troubles. 'Last night was the worst,' she finished. 'I was there, at the foot of the mountains, with the dead and the dying all around.'
The priestess frowned. 'This broken circle you sent your agent to collect. Show it to me.'
Gabrielle brought the two pieces of steel out from beneath her cloak. The priestess took them and examined them, carefully fingering the jewelled designs.
'A chakram,' she said at last. 'An eastern weapon, not uncommon... though someone took much trouble forging this.' She moved to fit the pieces together but suddenly stiffened before they touched. Her eyes widened.
Gabrielle flinched. 'What is it?'
The priestess inhaled sharply, then quickly lay the pieces down on separate cushions at Gabrielle's sides.
'This is not meant to be here,' she said.
A crease formed in the middle of Gabrielle's brow. 'I should sent it east?'
'No,' the priestess clarified quickly, spreading her arms and indicating the world at large, 'it should not be here...' She shuddered then, as though a spirit took hold of her body and claimed it for itself.
Gabrielle looked alarmed. 'Priestess..?'
The priestess closed her eyes, paused, and when she opened them again they were inky and still like cavern pools. But she still spoke in her own low, wise voice.
'Foreign Lords are coming from the East. Jealous gods. They demand abject obedience, and each claims dominion over all the earth.'
Gabrielle looked at her blankly. 'What?'
The black eyes settled on her. 'Someone hid the chakram. They did not want it to be found. Do you know who?'
Gabrielle silently shook her head.
The priestess lowered her eyes. 'You came to the wrong temple, Gabrielle. Artemis can not help you. But Ares might put this right.'
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. She shrank back. Ares? No Poteidaian honoured that god!
'Ares wants his warlord back. He always has, he always will.'
Gabrielle's stomach turned over. Xena was a part of this. She had known it all along.
And a warlord meant a god of war. Well, there was more than one of those.
'I'll go to Athena's temple,' she said with new resolve.
'Athena has no part in this.'
Gabrielle despaired. 'But what help can Ares give me? His temple is deserted. There's no priest to hear me there!'
The priestess of Artemis sighed, pondering long and hard. Eventually she lifted a bronze basin and placed it in Gabrielle's hands.
'Come back tomorrow. Bring two doves. Sacrifice each with one side of the chakram, then blend the blood. I will prepare, and then perhaps I shall be able to tell you more.'
'It sounds like a load of old tosh to me,' said Callisto. 'What did the doves do to get up Artemis' nose?'
Gabrielle wished Artemis would be satisfied with barley cakes. Then again, the circumstances were unusual. If the goddess were trying to help her on behalf of the god of war...
The two women were eating supper in Gabrielle's quarters. Callisto was halfway into a succulent capon but Gabrielle had little appetite.
'You shouldn't doubt the gods, Callisto.'
'I don't doubt the gods,' Callisto managed through a mouthful of pale flesh. 'It's those that claim to know their bidding I have suspicions about.'
Gabrielle sipped some white wine. It was the only thing she could bring herself to swallow at the moment. 'Are you staying for the festival?' she asked eventually.
'Can't.' Callisto swallowed. 'Well, not for much of it.' She flashed a pearly grin across the table. 'But I'll be here for the start. I'd like to catch the opening procession.'
The opening procession. Gabrielle could not face her part in that. They would dress her in silks, garland her with flowers, sit her on a scented litter... and she would watch Xena paraded through the decorated streets.
Every year they brought out the blind prisoner to endure the people's cries of "Murderer!" and "Rapist!" and "Thief!". Gabrielle did not know if the warlord were a rapist, but the other charges could be proved through Greece a hundredfold. The people planned to make Xena pay as many times if they could.
'You might find it disappointing this year,' Gabrielle told her guest. 'I'm going to suggest that we keep Xena inside.'
Callisto dropped the bone she was gnawing back onto her plate. 'Oh no, Gabrielle, don't!'
Gabrielle smiled mirthlessly at Callisto's petulant pout. 'It's not settled. There are commercial interests on the council. No doubt they will object.'
That evening Gabrielle went walking and found herself drawn helplessly towards the prison again. She stood in front of its polished gate and gazed at the white-washed walls, thinking how neatly Poteidaia kept its famous criminal locked away, only to drag her out and flaunt her once a year for cash.
'These can not be my people,' she whispered to herself. 'This can not be my town, and this can not be me...'
She bought the doves in the morning market and took them to the temple, kneeling just inside the entrance to carry out her grisly task. First one, then the other; her own blood ran cold as she sliced off the white heads with the edges of the chakram and held the fiercely flapping corpses over the bronze dish. Some of the blood missed and spotted the pale marble, while yet more stained her fine white robe. When the dish was full Gabrielle cleaned the chakram on her ruined clothes, carefully picked up the bowl in both hands, and left the dead birds for a temple neophyte to clear up.
The high priestess welcomed her into her chamber and they sat down as before, the bowl between them on the floor. A curtain had been hung across the window and the room was dim.
'Did you dream last night?' asked the priestess.
'Yes. I dreamt of a battle at the foot of a white mountain. Just like before.'
The priestess nodded and looked into the dish of blood before her. She placed her hand palm down above it, moved it back and forth several times, then dropped her arm and gazed intently on the gleaming crimson surface.
Gabrielle waited. At any moment she expected something remarkable to happen - the blood would churn or burst into flames - but nothing did. She waited several minutes, wondering if the priestess had slipped into a trance. What could the woman be staring at in that smooth, featureless red pool?
She was about to speak when the priestess abruptly raised her head again and sighed. Gabrielle lifted her eyebrows, her question unspoken but clear.
'It is both simple and complex,' the priestess said. 'Ares gambled with Xena's soul; and lost.'
Gabrielle was indignant. It was not Xena's soul she was concerned about, it was her own. She told the priestess as much.
'The one is the other,' the priestess explained, her shoulders shrugging gently. 'What is hers is yours, what is yours is hers. Ares' gamble claims you both.'
'What gamble?' Gabrielle demanded, her anger rising in spite of her reverence for both Artemis and the woman who served her. 'What has he done to me? To us?'
'He stole her back to relive her years. To maintain her soul in his image, and save her body from the cross.'
'And dragged me with her?' Gabrielle scowled. 'How do we fix it?'
The priestess grimaced. 'I warned you that this was not something we could help you with.'
'You have to! I've no one else!'
The priestess acquiesced. 'Very well. Drink the blood.'
The dark woman's smile was sympathetic. 'Not all of it. One sip is enough.'
Gabrielle forced herself to lift the dish. Her hands trembled as she raised its rim to her mouth. The smell was sickly and metallic and she almost threw up, but she closed her eyes and managed to tip some of the tepid, viscous liquid past her lips. Somehow she swallowed, shuddered, and set the dish down again.
The priestess seized Gabrielle's face in two warm, dark hands and held her tight, staring hard into her eyes. Gabrielle felt a tremor move through her body and she stiffened in fear, but it passed just as suddenly and she made herself stay still.
'You want to know what to do,' the priestess said in a monotone.
'You want to know how to put things right.'
'Then complete the circle. Heal the wounds. Make the chakram whole.'
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. She found it difficult to speak with the hands gripping her jaw so tight. 'What... what wounds?'
The priestess' eyes bored into her own, intently seeking. 'The dreams that pierce you are the shards of a broken warrior. Mend her here, and she will mend the rest.'
'Xena will not ask forgiveness. Callisto will not weep.'
Gabrielle's voice rose in confusion and frustration. 'Callisto? What does Callisto have to do with this?'
'Callisto broke the chakram. Broke the warrior. Broke the rules.'
The priestess released her suddenly and buried her own dark head in her hands. 'That's all, Gabrielle,' she said with weary finality. 'It's Ares you want.'
Gabrielle stared helplessly. This was hopeless. She had no answers here.
She stood up unsteadily and turned away. As she reached the curtain to the chamber she paused and looked back.
'Priestess? If Ares lost his gamble, how can he be any help?'
The priestess lifted her face. She looked utterly drained. 'Perhaps it is you who must help him.'
Gabrielle found a quiet corner outside the temple and emptied the contents of her stomach.
'I warned you,' said Callisto, tugging a damp shirt down from someone's washing line and handing it to Gabrielle to wipe her mouth. 'How did you get on?'
'I'd get fewer riddles from the Sphinx.'
'You see, they're all the same - priests, oracles, seers - they just talk rubbish to hide their incompetence.'
'It can't all be rubbish. How do you explain the chakram?' Gabrielle gave a final retch towards the ground.
'The weapon I sent you to get.'
'Ah well, my point exactly, dear. You didn't talk rubbish. Your directions were beautifully detailed and precise. I love that in an employer.'
Gabrielle straightened and Callisto's eyes widened. 'Gods, Gabrielle, you look like death.'
'If I'm dead I've gone to Tartarus,' Gabrielle muttered, and headed for home.
Foreign gods; things broken; a gamble lost. The bizarre elements of her plight preyed upon her every thought. Gabrielle found her way back to her quarters by instinct more than by design. Perhaps Callisto had a point. She needed details - something solid to latch on to, not this inexplicable mess.
The warlord was undoubtedly real. She waited for her in the prison. Perhaps the answers waited there too.
Gabrielle washed and changed her clothes. She tried to eat some bread but her body rejected the plain fare. First she could not sleep properly, now she could not eat. Things were going from bad to worse.
She went to the prison and stood above the work-pit. It was midday and the sun blazed directly into its depths. The warlord sweated at her labour, her shoulders glistening in the sun. And, as Gabrielle somehow knew she would, Xena realised she was watching her.
'I know that's you up there, councillor. I can smell you, you know.'
The face that turned up towards Gabrielle bore fresh bruises. Clearly Xena had offended her jailers and they had punished her again.
Gabrielle did not answer her.
Xena smiled unpleasantly. 'On your own today? So why are you here?'
Gabrielle still remained silent so Xena continued. 'Come now, it's not like you to drop in for a gloat. You must want something.'
Gabrielle tried to speak but a sudden, bitter fear lodged in her throat.
Xena smirked. 'Can't manage it without your bodyguard, eh? Ah well...' She bent once more to her work.
Gabrielle turned away in anger. She was angry at the warlord, but more angry with herself. On her way out she passed the guardroom and stuck her head inside.
'Keep Xena in her cell tomorrow,' she told the jailer on duty. 'I need to question her.'
Then she hurried home.
That night Gabrielle dreamt she cradled the broken warlord in her arms. She woke up sobbing and curled in misery, another woman's tears on her cheeks and yet another shard buried in her soul.
If the head jailer wondered what questions the councillor could have for the prisoner after all this time he did not show it. It was not his place to question but to do as he was told.
'She's chained,' he told Gabrielle, 'but please don't get too close.'
He unlocked the door, moved inside to check, then held it wider for her so that she could enter.
Xena's cell was lodged between the work-pit and the guardroom, where they could keep her under close watch. It was small and almost featureless. A tiny window let in fresh air and a single shaft of light - not that Xena could see it. The pale walls and earthen floor were bare and clean; the jailers were proud of their new prison and made sure the inmates kept it swept.
The jailer stepped out again and shut the cell door quietly behind him, but did not lock it. Gabrielle realised he would wait just outside, ready to jump in if she shouted for help. She was glad he would not be able to hear her talking through the thick oak.
She stayed by the door and appraised the warlord. Xena was sitting on a stone bunk that projected from the base of the far wall, less than six feet away. She was tethered to the wall behind her by means of her collar. Her ankle chains were coupled to iron rings bolted near the floor.
The blind prisoner face her blankly. 'Councillor,' she said softly, identifying the visitor at once, 'I knew something was up. Normally they have me working from dawn 'til dusk.'
Gabrielle did not speak. Now that she was here with the warlord, face to face, she was not sure what to say.
Xena waited, then continued mockingly. 'Well, you're just as useless now as yesterday, it seems. Is this the latest form of punishment? Boring me to death?'
'Death was not part of your punishment.'
Gabrielle was surprised by how cold and ethereal her own voice sounded. Perhaps it was the starkness of the cell that leant it such a quality, or maybe the eerie chill came from within.
Even Xena seemed caught off guard, momentarily. The warlord shook her shoulders briefly and her collar clinked against its chain. 'No. You decided to make the most of me.' She smirked bitterly. 'I could have thwarted that, you know. Any time I wanted...' She raised her chin and pointed her fingers sharply at the arteries in her own throat. 'Any time, two quick jabs, and in seconds I'd be free.'
'Then why don't you?'
Xena lowered her hands and sneered. 'Callisto wonders that. Your pet warrior just can't fathom it, can she? She would feel so much better if I did.'
'You murdered her family,' Gabrielle said sharply, stung to defend Callisto in spite of how she felt.
Xena ignored the rebuke. 'Must be time for my outing soon,' she said brightly. 'It's the Feast of Artemis in, what... two days?' Her lip curled slowly, revealing glistening teeth. 'Soon be time to put me on my leash.'
Gabrielle took a deep, steadying breath. 'Your punishment was not my choice. I suggested mercy and the council decided that this was it.'
Xena broke into low, taunting laughter. 'They like you, don't they, little councillor? They're so very, very proud.'
Gabrielle closed her eyes. This was not what she needed to hear. This was not why she had come.
'Xena,' she said, trembling slightly as she used the warlord's name for the first time, 'I've brought something. I'd like you to tell me if you know what it is.'
Xena's eyebrows raised over her sightless eyes, her scorn tempered by intrigue.
Gabrielle withdrew the pieces of the chakram from beneath her cloak. Belatedly she realised that she could not show them to a blind woman, and yet she could not risk letting her hold the sharp blades.
'It's a weapon,' she explained. 'A steel circle with a sharpened outer edge.'
Xena snorted. 'Sounds like a chakram,' she said easily, unimpressed.
'You've heard of such a thing?'
'Seen them. It's nothing special. A throwing weapon used in the east.'
Gabrielle frowned and studied the pieces again. Nothing special? This one was beautiful, set with gems. 'Did you own such a weapon?' she asked.
'No.' Xena's brow furrowed slightly then, as though a distant memory caught her unawares. Her bronzed forehead quickly smoothed again. 'No,' she repeated firmly, with dramatic relish, 'I prefer a nice sharp sword.'
Gabrielle could feel her hopes fading. She studied the chakram again. 'This one is broken but it bears a fine design,' she said quickly. 'A golden inner border with nine frets, straight one side, jagged the other, each set with a pale blue stone.' She glanced up in time to see the warlord react, almost imperceptibly. 'Do you remember it?'
Xena was silent. Her face betrayed no emotion but the tension in her shoulders was apparent.
'Xena?' Gabrielle encouraged. 'Are you sure this chakram isn't yours?'
The warlord turned her face away abruptly, her tone resentful. 'Get out of here, councillor. Even if it were, what's it to you? Think you could use it for your celebration? Another nice trophy of my defeat?'
Gabrielle's heart sank.
The prisoner refused to look at her, even without her eyes. Gabrielle let her hands fall down to her sides and sighed.
'I'm going to speak to the council today,' she said soullessly. 'I'll get them to withdraw you from the parade.'
Xena half smiled, bitterly. 'And disappoint all those crowds?'
Gabrielle could not think of anything more to say. She carefully fitted the pieces of the chakram back under her belt and turned to go. As she raised her hand to knock on the door's featureless interior she paused.
'Xena,' she asked softly, 'do you dream of me?'
Xena waited slightly too long before answering, and when she did her leer was forced. 'Sure, little councillor. I dream of slitting your throat.'
The council listened to Gabrielle's suggestion and duly debated. Castelan led those who spoke against it. The rich innkeeper was new to his seat, having abandoned his farm and moved into town when the prosperity began. He was one of the youngest men present in the vaulted chamber and his voice was vigorous and clear.
The warlord was an important attraction, he insisted, and her absence from the celebrations would hit profits both now and in the future. He was quite correct, of course. Castelan more than anyone had worked to make the Feast of Artemis the success it had become.
They voted and Gabrielle's proposal lost. She excused herself and left the council chamber early, her pallor obvious and her steps weak.
Callisto laughed when she heard the news. 'Democracy!' she jeered. 'Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.'
Wolves? Gabrielle thought ruefully. The only one worthy of that description here is blind and chained and locked in our jail. This is a town of jackals.
Cold. Wind. Ice. Callisto catching snowflakes on her tongue. Gabrielle told Xena she loved her, heard the hammers pounding the nails, and woke to the midday sun.
'I told the servant to let you sleep,' said Callisto. 'You're obviously exhausted.'
Gabrielle could not understand it. She had lost the night and half the day, but felt as though she had not slept.
'Dreams,' she groaned, slumped at the table. 'Sleepless dreams, all night.'
Callisto noted Gabrielle's late breakfast. The fine cheeses and rare fruits lay untouched.
'You need a physician, not a priest,' she advised. 'I could fetch you one from the Amazons. They're the best.'
Gabrielle shook her head. 'I'm not ill.'
Callisto rolled her eyes. 'No, of course not. You're just ashen and sickly and look like the walking dead.'
Nails driven into wood...
Gabrielle put her hands to her head. Yes, the walking dead. I died last night, she realised. Me, Xena... we both did.
And now the dreams were seeping into her waking hours. She winced and rubbed her temples. Why couldn't the pounding just shut up?
'That noise getting to you?' asked Callisto.
Gabrielle glanced up at her. 'What?'
Callisto jerked her head towards the window. 'That hammering. Giving you a headache, is it?'
Gabrielle blinked rapidly. 'I thought...'
She stood up and crossed to the window. The pounding grew louder. 'What's going on?'
Callisto followed and stood at her shoulder. 'An "X" for Xena. Appropriate, don't you think?'
Gabrielle stared. Carpenters were busy below, erecting a diagonal crosspiece in the middle of the square. One side had already been painted in the colours of the festival - bright red and yellow and white.
'What's it for?' Gabrielle asked in a hushed voice, already dreading the answer. She recognised a scaffold when it stared her in the face.
Callisto's tone was uncharacteristically grim. 'I was chatting with Castelan last night. Apparently your proposal regarding Xena got the council's little minds a-churning after you left. They decided the Feast could do with some changes after all. You know, a fresh diversion to keep the popular interest high? When the procession reaches the square tomorrow they'll fasten Xena up to that and scourge her for the crowd.'
Gabrielle would have fallen if Callisto had not caught her. The nausea that overwhelmed her left her weak-limbed and faint. Callisto manhandled her back to her chair and sat her down, studying the loss of colour in Gabrielle's face.
'You can't go on like this, Gabrielle. When did you last eat?'
Gabrielle tried not to vomit. 'We've become monsters!' she gasped. 'We can't do this.'
Callisto was dismissive. 'She's a mass murderer, Gabrielle. She deserves whatever she gets.'
Gabrielle fought her dizziness to meet Callisto's eyes. 'This isn't justice! It's a sickness... for revenge and profit. Blood money, Callisto! And not just Xena's blood. We're trading on the suffering of her victims... your mother and your sister! Surely you see that.'
Callisto turned to stare out the window, her jaw suddenly set. 'Leave my family out of this.'
Gabrielle looked at the harsh planes of daylight that sculptured Callisto's face. She saw rigid pain and dry grief - the hopeless sorrow for stolen loved ones and a childhood lost.
'You don't cry for them,' Gabrielle said softly.
Callisto's knuckles whitened as her fist clenched. 'I never cry.'
'And Xena never asks forgiveness...'
The scoffing retort which Gabrielle expected did not come. Callisto still stared out the window, her dark eyes focused on another painful time and place.
'Are you going to watch it?' Gabrielle demanded. 'Are you going to join that diseased, self-righteous mob?'
Callisto turned on her swiftly. 'All right!' she hissed. 'If you're asking me whether I approve of this nonsense, then the answer's no. I never have. If she'd been mine to deal with I would've killed her, like I killed Darfus. That would've been justice, pure and swift. But she wasn't mine, she was yours. And it's a little late for you to get squeamish, Gabrielle. You could have stopped this four years ago, if you tried.'
'I did try,' said Gabrielle bitterly. 'I tried then, I tried yesterday... but this world is wrong and twisted. Nothing works the way it should.'
'Well it's the world you're stuck with, dear, so you'd better get used to it.' Angrily Callisto started marching to the door.
No it's not.
Gabrielle would see to that. Resolve condensed inside her and lent her strength. She refused to go on with this. One way or another she would end it. She would not let tomorrow come.
'I have another task for you,' she announced to Callisto's retreating back.
Callisto stopped and turned. 'I'm leaving first thing in the morning,' she said flatly. 'Hunting Kraikus.'
'It's simple. Bring me a wolf's heart.'
Callisto raised a surprised eyebrow, then smirked. 'You call that simple?'
'I need it by tonight.'
'Another dubious sacrifice?' The blonde warrior sighed in resignation. 'I guess I'm going hunting.' Then she turned again and left.
Gabrielle shouldered her way towards the prison again. The streets were thick with people, swelled by visitors and tradesmen preparing for the morrow's festivities. Their shouts mingled with the cries and bellows of animals destined for the Feast, raising a cacophony to Gabrielle's ears that made her want to scream in rage. By the time she reached the polished gates she had found a strength in her anger that she had not felt for weeks.
'I want to talk to her!' she demanded of the startled jailer on duty at the front.
She had to wait while they unchained her from the millstone and brought her inside. Gabrielle got the chance to see how they treated her - a chilling blend of wariness and contempt. Xena's jailers took no risks and found any excuse to strike her. The prisoner did not try to minimise their clinical brutality; she defied them with her warlord stature, ignoring their shoves and kicks.
Gabrielle noted where the keys to Xena's cell and shackles were kept, confirming their regimented positions on the guardroom wall. She stood impatiently in the dim corridor while the jailers re-secured the chains and hurried out of the cell. Then she strode in.
'You didn't answer my question yesterday,' she said in a commanding voice. 'Why haven't you killed yourself yet?'
The prisoner's half-lidded eyes settled in Gabrielle's direction. She stood with her arms loose and her feet braced wide, shoulders steaming in the cell's cool air. She had been labouring hard in the noon heat and her limbs were shiny with sweat.
'You're blind,' Gabrielle added when she got no answer. 'Even if you escape you'll never be the warlord you were. So why do you endure this?'
'Ares will come for me.'
Gabrielle inhaled sharply. Something made sense at last.
'He won't,' she said.
Xena smiled confidently. 'He will.'
'You're wrong. He can't.'
Xena said nothing so Gabrielle folded her arms and leant back against the solid door. 'When you broke he tried to save you, and it all went wrong. He sent your soul into your past, but he didn't reckon on me.'
Xena scowled. 'What nonsense are you talking?'
Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of fury. 'I think you know! You're not immune, are you, Xena? You have nightmares too!' She stepped forward suddenly and seized Xena's face in her hands. The warlord flinched at the unexpected contact but Gabrielle gripped tightly.
'We're connected,' she whispered harshly. 'He sent you back but I was dragged with you. I scuttled his precious equation. He didn't know what I could do to you...'
The warlord seized Gabrielle's wrists and twisted her, pinning her shoulders against her chest. One powerful arm circled her waist while another hand grabbed her hair and pulled.
'I could snap you,' Xena hissed across Gabrielle's cheek.
Gabrielle winced as her back arched painfully. 'Then why don't you?'
As the moments wore on Xena did not seem to have an answer. She covered her failure with a question of her own.
'So, will they take me out to play tomorrow? You said you'd try to spoil the fun.'
'I was voted down.' Gabrielle tried to keep her breathing steady. 'But there's a small enhancement to the itinerary. They plan to scourge you in the town square.'
Xena stiffened at the revelation but kept her tone level. 'I see. Well, it can't be much worse than some of the beatings I get in here.'
Gabrielle closed her eyes and shuddered. 'I won't let it happen,' she said quietly.
Xena sounded sceptical. 'That so? Are you going to break me out?'
'Ares can't come for you, but I can take you to him.'
They stood that way for a long time, their breath mingling in the chill. Gabrielle could feel Xena's heart behind her, beating steadily against her back. Then slowly, gently, as though she were releasing a lover from an embrace, Xena let her go.
Gabrielle turned round. She gazed up into the half-hidden, ruined whites of Xena's eyes. 'We'll put things right,' she said.
Put things right. Could she really put things right? She could change things, she was certain, but how to know what was right?
Callisto returned that evening with her prize wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth. She put it on the table and Gabrielle flicked the cloth open briefly, showing no emotion when she saw the solid lump of flesh. Ares would not be impressed by doves. This was more to his taste.
She could not let herself sleep. Instead she sat upright by the window, staring across the square into the night. A leather bag rested on her knees, containing the wolf's heart and a length of sturdy twine which she had bought on her journey back. The pieces of the broken chakram were tucked firmly in the belt beneath her cloak.
The dreams returned, but this time she was awake. They played across her open eyes like a tragedy, scene after scene, act after act. The shards were vibrant in their clarity and at last Gabrielle saw the truth. A foreign god, a Roman general, a failed mission, and death on the cross...
Xena, burdened with remorse, too proud to ask forgiveness and seeking redemption with her sword. Callisto, riddled with anguish, brittle with unshed tears and seeking nothing but revenge. And Gabrielle herself, tossed upon the sea of violence, forever seeking peace.
Then Ares, trying to reclaim his warrior and losing his gamble in the past.
We've moved through it now, she realised. The date has passed. Whatever I make happen, things can not be the same.
She got up from her chair before dawn and made her way back through the silent streets. The jailer on duty struggled to attention, smearing guilty sleep from his face.
'Where's the head jailer?' she demanded.
'In his bed.'
'Wake him. I need to speak to him.'
The man ran off unsteadily and Gabrielle hurried into the guardroom. She did not know where the head jailer's room was but she doubted she had much time. She took the keys she needed and let herself into Xena's cell.
Xena rose from her bunk. 'You managed to get rid of him, then.'
Gabrielle heard Xena grunt as she knotted the twine tightly round the warlord's wrists. She had not meant to hurt her but there was no time to be circumspect.
Xena's tone held a trace of humour. 'Not quite the rescue I might have hoped for, but it'll do.'
Gabrielle unlocked Xena's chains and pulled her by one arm. 'Come on.'
She locked the cell door behind her and replaced the keys. With any luck the jailers would assume that she had changed her mind, and even if they thought to check Xena's cell that would give her a head start.
She led the bound warlord out into the deserted night. Quickly they slipped beyond the torch-lit streets into dark alleys at the edge of town. Gabrielle knew the path she wanted. Once it had been a well-trod route in from the country, but now it was almost overgrown. New roads had been built for Poteidaia, more befitting its elevated status. Who needed this mean relic of a rustic past?
Besides, the path passed Ares' temple. No one wanted to look at that.
The distant grey of dawn lit the way between the briers that encroached along the edges of the track. Gabrielle drove Xena in front of her, checking regularly for pursuit. She saw none and soon the town disappeared behind them, swallowed by silence and oblivious sleep.
No one had desecrated Ares' temple. Only a fool would do that. But it was utterly deserted, its paintwork faded almost to the white stone underneath. Lichen smudged its outer walls and moss seeped along its steps. Dead leaves whispered under their feet and spiders scuttled for cover.
Xena sniffed the air as they entered. 'It's abandoned.'
With the night slowly retreating Gabrielle did not need a torch. She glanced about quickly to get her bearings and saw Ares' statue up ahead. The mighty god of war stood on a mildewed plinth, his beard tangled with cobwebs and his sword held aloft. If the statue had been bronze someone would have stolen it for melting down by now, but this sculpture was of marble, white and veined with red.
Nearby stood the altar. It was a huge grey monolith, its sides stained like rust. Carved rings of stone adorned the edges - utilitarian dÈcor where live animals could be tethered for sacrifice.
Gabrielle unshouldered her leather bag and checked its contents. The wolf's heart had seeped blood into the stitching but she guessed it was still fresh enough. She reached beneath her cloak for the chakram pieces, and realised too late that only one was left.
Xena's fist made swift contact with the side of Gabrielle's face. She spun and fell, hearing more than feeling the sickening crack as the back of her head hit the stone floor. The warlord was upon her instantly, straddling her waist. The severed remains of knotted twine still dangled from her wrists and the missing piece of the chakram appeared at Gabrielle's neck.
Dazed by the blows, Gabrielle tried not to swallow against the chill blade that pressed on her throat. 'What are you doing?' she gasped.
'It's like you said, little councillor. If Ares won't come to me, I will come to him.' The warlord raised her head and shouted. 'Ares! Hear me! I've returned to you. I've brought a sacrifice!'
Gabrielle struggled and Xena dropped the broken blade to grab her flailing arms. She pinned both wrists in one hand and forced them to the floor behind Gabrielle's head.
'No!' Gabrielle squirmed beneath her. She could feel a warm trickle of blood running down the back of her neck. 'You don't know what you're doing!'
Xena grinned beneath her sightless eyes. Her free hand gripped Gabrielle's chin, then roughly stroked the curves of her face.
'Oh I remember this,' said Xena, relishing her captive's fear. 'Your face was the last thing I saw, you know. They gave you pride of place at the front... the jewel in their crown.'
'Xena!' Gabrielle tried to shake herself free from the abrasive fingers. 'This won't work!'
'Really?' The warlord's hooded whites shone starkly. 'And what did you have in mind?'
Gabrielle could hardly move under Xena's weight and her chest heaved as she fought for breath.
Xena's grin became a leer. 'I bet you're still a virgin, aren't you? Well, he wouldn't want me to let that go to waste...'
Xena rose briefly and drove her knee down between Gabrielle's legs, forcing them apart. A cruel hand dug beneath Gabrielle's cloak, searching for the hem of her robe.
'No!' Gabrielle writhed, close to panic. 'Don't do it, Xena! You know it's not right!'
'Not right?' the warlord taunted. 'Who am I to know wrong from right? I'm a criminal, remember? I'm told so often enough.'
The warlord's legs shoved her wider, bruising the insides of her thighs. Gabrielle heard a ripping sound as Xena shredded her delicate robe.
This was it, Gabrielle realised. The moment when everything could fall apart. One way or another she had chosen to end it, and here was the fork in the road.
She compelled her voice to calm. 'He can't help you, Xena,' she said softly. 'Not like this.'
Gabrielle's change in tone gave Xena pause. Her free hand stilled on the trembling hip beneath it, and Gabrielle pressed home.
'He needs my help. He doesn't want me as a sacrifice.'
Xena cocked her head. 'You? The god of war needs you? I don't think so.'
'It's true.' Dizziness washed through her and Gabrielle struggled to stay coherent. 'You have to believe me, Xena. We're not meant to be enemies. I know you see me in your dreams.'
The temple fell quiet. Only the sound of laboured breathing touched the forsaken void. The blind warlord frowned, wavering. She hesitated over her prey...
Callisto's kick came out of nowhere. The warrior's boot landed like a battering ram against Xena's head and knocked her to the side.
'Get off her, you bitch!'
Callisto jumped over Gabrielle to follow up her attack. She started to draw her sword, but Xena caught the light wheep of metal on oiled leather and located her adversary. She sprang.
They wrestled like wild animals as Gabrielle scrambled out of the way. Callisto tried to kick herself free but Xena hung on fiercely, denying her any distance and the advantage of sight. Blows landed hard into ribs and the combatants careened across the room. Seeing the altar looming behind her, Callisto whirled at the last moment and drove Xena down onto it, slamming her skull against the stone.
Stunned, Xena fell back on the altar and Callisto used the momentum to hoist her further across the slab. The warlord groaned as she landed on it at an angle, her head dropping back on the far side. Callisto flung Xena's arms wide, using the twine on her wrists to bind them to the looped stone carvings on two adjacent sides.
Recovering, Xena kicked wildly with her bare feet but Callisto leapt over her and knelt hard on her hips.
'Knew you were planning something stupid, Gabrielle,' she said breathlessly. 'What could you want with a wolf's heart?'
She drew her sword and twirled it once to point straight down towards Xena's chest. 'I wanted to do this years ago,' she told the warlord, 'but the good folk of Poteidaia deserved to watch you suffer too.'
Then she straightened her arms above her head, ready to deliver the fatal plunge.
'No!' Gabrielle struck the sword aside.
The weapon flew out of Callisto's grip and clattered at the foot of Ares' plinth. Shocked, Callisto gaped at her. 'What are you doing?' she cried.
'That's not the way,' Gabrielle gasped.
Callisto rocked as the trapped body heaved beneath her. Xena tried to wrench herself free, but the coarse ropes held and Callisto's knees kept her lower body pinned.
'Ares!' Xena roared. 'Restore me! Now!'
Callisto still stared at Gabrielle, incredulous. 'Not the way?'
Gabrielle fell against the altar. Her head was swimming with concussion and she could hardly stand. 'Don't kill her. Please.'
'She deserves it! She killed my family!'
'But revenge won't put it right.'
Callisto's face contorted. 'Revenge or justice, call it what you like. It's overdue, Gabrielle.'
Gabrielle looked up, imploring. 'It won't help. She hurt you too much...' She clutched the edge of the stone weakly. She could not let herself faint.
Xena cried out in desperation. 'Ares, help me! I waited for you! I am your chosen! I kept the faith!'
Callisto looked down at her. 'Your god has abandoned you, Xena. This is a fitting place for you to die.'
She snatched the remaining piece of the chakram from Gabrielle's belt and thrust it under Xena's chin. The warlord's shoulders flattened against the altar and her head fell backwards, hanging over the edge.
'Ares!' Xena yelled in desperation.
The god of war did not reply.
Xena's howl of abandonment rang throughout the temple. She was answered with empty echoes, and Callisto's grim voice.
'Time to die now, Xena. Don't pretend you're not prepared. It's been coming for a while.'
'Don't do it,' Gabrielle pleaded. 'It won't bring them back.'
'No,' Callisto admitted, 'but it will make me feel good.'
'No it won't,' Gabrielle insisted, sagging against Xena's chest. She felt the warlord expel a sob of anguish beneath her.
'The little councillor's right.'
Xena had finally stopped struggling and lay collapsed on the altar, waiting for death. 'It never works,' she groaned. 'You purge for just an instant, then the misery comes flooding back.' She laughed bitterly. 'But kill me anyway, Callisto. You'll get your moment of heat.'
Gabrielle scraped together one last effort. She scrambled for the other piece of the chakram, retrieving it from the floor. She held it close to the piece that Callisto had poised at Xena's throat.
'Callisto, revenge won't give you peace. There's another way.'
Callisto glanced at her, sceptical. 'Really? What?'
'Mourning... and forgiveness.'
Callisto cackled. 'Forgiveness? She roasted my mother and my sister and forgiving her will make it right?'
Gabrielle shook her head in spite of the agony it caused her. 'Don't you get it, Callisto? Nothing makes that right! You don't forgive her for her sake, or even theirs, but for yourself!'
Callisto shook her head, bewildered. 'You're a dreamer, Gabrielle.'
Gabrielle looked between the warrior and the warlord. They were both defeated, she realised. Neither had anything left. She saw the despair in both their faces - the fissure in the circle, where all their lives were rent.
'Yes, I'm a dreamer. And the gods are impotent without us. My dreams have taught me that.' She bent to the warlord. 'We have to help him, Xena. Ask Callisto to forgive you now.'
Xena said nothing. Silence crept slowly past the altar, like a wraith in the night.
Callisto sneered quietly. 'Of course she won't,' she said.
Gabrielle lowered her face to Xena's and her lips brushed the warlord's cheek. 'Trust me,' she whispered, 'that's all that's needed, and the wounds will heal.'
The temple waited, still and hushed, while the women chose its fate. After a few moments Xena struggled to lift her head. Her tendons grew taut with the effort and the edge of the chakram pulsed against her neck.
'You'll still kill me,' she told Callisto.
'You know I will, you bitch.'
Xena nodded and swallowed, her words stuck in her throat. She had to drop her head again and when she spoke her voice was faint.
'Then forgive me first.'
Callisto stiffened. 'What?'
Xena crumpled beneath her, self-loathing suddenly gushing forth. 'Forgive me for hurting them... you...' She choked.
Callisto stared. Her eyes were wide and disbelieving, her face rigid like a corpse. A life of bitter drought cracked open, and the temple ached.
And then Gabrielle saw Callisto tremble. She held her breath.
Shaking, out of time with nature, Callisto's chin and shoulders dropped. The blade withdrew and a wracking sob convulsed her body, like a thunder clap.
The temple heaved and shimmered, drawing in a brand new breath. Gabrielle saw the chakram pieces fuse through a translucent light. Callisto sighed as the light enveloped her, and her tears fell into Xena's eyes.
Ares' priest entered the temple with a pitcher of water and a rag as usual, preparing to wash down the altar ready for the morning sacrifices. His step faltered when he saw two women propped up against the sacred stone. They were dishevelled, their clothing torn. One of them was barefoot.
He put down the pitcher and scowled. 'Hey! Get out of here!' He strode towards them angrily. 'Ares' temple is no place for beggars!'
Xena slowly got to her feet. She picked up Callisto's sword in one hand and her chakram in the other. Then she turned towards the priest, towered over him, and glared.
The priest visibly wilted under Xena's piercing gaze. Watching from her corner of the altar, Gabrielle thought the man might desiccate beneath that icy fire.
He stammered awkwardly. 'My apologies... I see you are a warrior. You're very welcome to stay and worship... did you bring a sacrifice?'
Xena looked at Gabrielle. 'No,' she said. 'Not this time.'
Gabrielle reached for her bag and opened it, but instead of the messy parcel she expected she found it packed with rolls of parchment, each one neatly tied with a leather thong. A thank you gift from a god.
She looked across at Ares' pristine statue.
She's mine, she warned the god of war. She isn't yours.
The temple smiled around her. But now she might be yet.
Xena transferred her weapons to one hand and held the other out to Gabrielle. 'Come on,' she said.
Gabrielle shouldered the bag and stood up. She took the offered hand and the two women stepped out into the dawn.
'What do you remember?' Gabrielle asked as they walked hand in hand along the well-worn track.
'Bits and pieces,' said Xena solemnly. 'Nothing's really clear.'
A distant cuckoo's call accompanied them a short distance, but was quickly lost amidst the lively songs of rival robins in the undergrowth.
'Where's Callisto?' Xena wondered.
'She found peace.'
'She forgave me?'
'You asked her to.'
Gabrielle spotted Castelan in front of them, leading his mule laden with fresh produce towards the small town up ahead. The farmer was keen to claim a good pitch in Poteidaia's morning market.
Xena slowed her pace. 'I'm afraid,' she said.
Gabrielle turned and clasped Xena's hand in both her own. 'Don't be. We belong here.'
'I know, but we were away so long.' Xena looked around her, like someone trying to confirm her lucidity after a vivid dream. 'I'm afraid I won't get it all back.' She looked down at Gabrielle again. 'What if I don't remember everything we're supposed to be? The good things that we've done?'
Gabrielle smiled up at Xena's eyes. All the beauty of the world resided in that blue, and a tenderness reserved for her alone.
'Don't worry. You'll remember. You can read it in my scrolls.'
Xena smiled back. 'Will I like them?'
'I know you will.'
And the world was reunited with its Bard and Warrior.
Return to Charmer