Xena smiled to herself, as she neared the town of Nalimore. Her return had been delayed for days and, as each day had passed, she had become more and more anxious to get back to the village. She had managed to rescue her friend's wife and son with comparative ease. The man who had kidnapped them was someone Xena had once ridden with. Outwitting him had been a fairly easy task. Wife and son had been safely returned home. Xena had been prepared to ride out, but her friend had implored her to stay for one more day, so that he could thank her properly. Xena had resisted at first, but eventually had given in, mainly to give Argo a chance to rest. The mare had been pushed hard for several days and a day off for her was long overdue. Unfortunately, that night it had begun to storm. As the rains fell, the rivers rose, making the return trip essentially impossible. Several days passed before Xena was able to leave and, even then, the roads were so muddy that travel was slow at best. Fortunately, she was still within the two week deadline Gabrielle had given her, so she didn't have to worry that her friend had rallied the troops to begin looking for her.
As she drew closer to the town, a sense of uneasiness began to wash over her. At first she was unable to figure out what was bothering her, but soon she began to recognize the unmistakable signs that told her the town had recently been attacked. Fear rising up inside her, she kicked Argo into a gallop. She charged down the road, desperate to reach the village.
Argo thundered into the town, startling several of the residents, until a couple of them recognized the warrior who had been in their village the week before. "Gabrielle?" Xena shouted out frantically. "Gabrielle?" she repeated, a note of fear entering her voice, when she saw the sorrowful looks that the villagers were giving her, before quickly turning away.
Xena turned quickly at the sound of a familiar voice. An older man was slowly approaching her, his arm in a sling and a jagged scar showing on his right cheek. Xena racked her brain trying to remember the man's name, before it finally came to her. "Hrothgar," she said urgently, as she jumped down from Argo to approach him. "Where is Gabrielle? What happened here?"
"She's...she's at the temple. We were attacked several days ago by a large army. They were too much for us, I suppose we should be happy they didn't destroy the entire town," he said sadly.
"Is Gabrielle all right?" Xena demanded, fighting down the terror that was threatening to consume her.
Hrothgar's eye reflected infinite sadness, as he paused before replying. "I'm sorry Warrior. Gabrielle is dead."
"Dead? What do you mean she's dead?" Xena demanded angrily. "She can't be dead! There's got to be a mistake!"
Hrothgar shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry to be the one who has to tell you this, but your friend has crossed over to the other side."
Xena's mind reeled in shock, but she refused to believe that Gabrielle could actually be gone. "Where is she? I want to see her body now!"
Hrothgar hesitated momentarily before nodding. "As I said, she's at the temple, along with all her things," he replied, as he led Xena through the village in silence. Once they entered the temple, he gestured towards a small, plain sarcophagus resting at the opposite end and, as they approached, Xena could see Gabrielle's staff leaning up against it. "We weren't certain what to do about her, but we knew you were supposed to be back soon so we decided to wait a few more days before lighting a funeral fire for her."
Silently, Xena moved towards the sarcophagus. As she reached out to open the lid, Hrothgar quickly moved to place his hand on her arm to stop her. Without a word, Xena glanced down at the hand resting on her arm before slowly looking up to stare at the man beside her. Hastily pulling his hand back, he swallowed several times before he was able to speak. "I just wanted to warn you...her death was not an easy one...She was badly injured, and her body shows the marks of it," he finally managed to stammer.
Xena nodded woodenly as she turned back to face the sarcophagus. Taking a deep breath, she opened the lid and looked inside, praying that somehow a terrible mistake had been made. As she looked down on the body, however, she realized that her prayers had gone unanswered. The body inside had been severely mutilated, but there was no doubt that it was Gabrielle's. After a few brief moments Xena shut the coffin, unable to look at her friend any longer. Placing both hands on the lid, she silently stared at the sarcophagus for several long minutes, her expressionless face giving no clue as to what she was thinking or feeling. "How did it happen?" she finally asked dispassionately, as she remained focused on the sarcophagus. "Did you see it?"
Hrothgar cleared his throat nervously. "Many of us did...I...I could find someone who is better at this sort of thing...."
"You'll do. Tell me what happened."
"Warrior...you don't want to hear this. Let it go. We'll help you with the pyre...."
Xena suddenly whirled around to face him, grabbing him roughly and ignoring his gasp of pain as she hauled him close to her face. "I won't ask you again. Tell me how this happened. And if you leave anything out, I swear by Hades you will regret it for the rest of your short life!" she ground out, her voice like cold steel.
Hrothgar stumbled backwards as Xena abruptly pushed him away. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves and collect his thoughts, he slowly began to tell Xena what she had demanded to know. "The town was attacked....by the warlord Martakas...."
"Martakas? You're certain it was him?" Xena demanded in astonishment.
"Yes, he told us his name...wanted us to remember it," he replied, as he looked at Xena in confusion.
Xena nodded. "Okay...it was Martakas. Go on."
"His army attacked us. Your friend was in the tavern telling stories. When we heard the screams of the others, we all ran outside." Hrothgar paused to wipe the sweat from his brow before resuming. "Your friend was very brave. She saved the life of a small child and....and she saved my life as well. She even managed to disable several of the soldiers before Martakas saw her...He fought her himself, and he defeated her...he...he...." Hrothgar paused, unable to continue.
"Go on," Xena said, her voice completely lacking in emotion of any kind.
"He was angry, so angry. Gabrielle had beaten his men. She had landed several solid blows to him as well...I even thought for awhile she would defeat him. But once he finally had her, he began to beat her and...he raped her...and then several of his men raped her." Hrothgar hung his head, unable to look at the Warrior Princess. "That's enough Warrior. You don't need to hear anymore," he begged, unwilling to continue the story.
"Finish," she spat back at him.
Hrothgar sighed in defeat, realizing that nothing was going to stop Xena from hearing the entire, horrifying story. "The fighting was pretty much over by then, so Martakas gave her to his men. He told them they could do whatever they wanted with her as long as they didn't kill her and as long as they didn't mark her face. He wanted her to serve as an example to the rest of us as to what happened to those who would dare to resist him, and he didn't want us to forget the identity of the woman he was punishing. After several hours had passed, Martakas had the men bring her back to the town center. He ordered all the villagers to the town center as well. He was holding the children hostage; we didn't dare resist him. He ripped the remaining shreds of clothing from her body and then raped your friend one last time in front of everyone and then...then he ordered that she be flogged."
As Hrothgar continued to speak, Xena struggled to remain calm, knowing that if she lost control now she would never get it back again. She tried to just listen to Hrothgar's words, to keep things on an abstract, simple level. Slowly, though, the images of Gabrielle's pain and torture began to fill her head. and she saw everything as if it was happening before her.
Martakas laughed loudly while he watched the young woman writhing in anguish beneath the lash of the whip, as she hung from the whipping pole he had had his men put up. Her back was raw and bleeding, she was barely conscious and the sounds of her low moans of agony filled the air. Realizing that she would soon pass out if the beating continued, Martakas ordered his man to stop and then slowly approached the woman. Lifting her head, he waited calmly while she slowly focused her pain-filled eyes. Finally seeing a glimmer of recognition flash across her face, he smiled broadly before spitting at her and slapping her as hard as he could.
Gabrielle's senses were rocked by the powerful blow, but it was only one of many she had already suffered that day. She heard Martakas order her to be cut down and she collapsed to the ground gasping in pain, as the support of the ropes holding her was taken away. She lay on the ground, unable to try to get away, unable to even try to defend herself. Every part of her body was in agony, and she began praying to the gods that the torment would end soon.
"People of Nalimore. Do not forget what you see here today. Know that this is the fate of any who would dare resist Martakas," the warlord arrogantly called out. Kicking Gabrielle as hard as he could, he managed to roll her onto her back. Grinning widely, he loosened his trousers and then proceeded to piss on the young woman's face while his men cheered raucously. "Woman wake up!" he ordered loudly. "It would be a shame to miss what's coming next," he jeered.
Gabrielle sputtered as she struggled to get away, but she lacked the strength to do more than raise her hands in a feeble attempt to cover her face. She looked up helplessly at Martakas, wondering what the warlord had in mind for her next. "Put her on it," she heard him yell, as he fastened his trousers once again.
To her horror, she saw a large cross being carried into the town square. She looked at Martakas in astonishment, not believing that he could truly intend to put her up onto that thing. As two soldiers came forward and grabbed her, however, she realized that he was actually going to do it. She struggled frantically, ignoring the excruciating pain that wracked her entire body with every move she made, as she desperately tried to escape this new torment. Her reserves was too far gone, however, and she was helpless in the face of their superior strength.
The villagers began growing agitated when they realized Martakas' intentions, and for a brief moment Gabrielle thought they were going to try to help her. Martakas, noticing the villagers' behavior, turned to them and looked them over carefully. "If anyone helps this woman in anyway. If anyone makes a move to try to stop what we are doing to her. Then everyone in this village will die, starting with your children," he said calmly, smiling with satisfaction as he saw the villagers' will to resist vanish in the face of his statements.
Gabrielle thrashed wildly as the soldiers began tying her to the cross, until one of them smashed her across the face with his clenched fist, momentarily stunning her. The soldiers quickly finished the job and began to raise the cross, when Martakas stopped them. Moving close to the young woman, he ran his hands over her body, grinning when he saw her flinch beneath his touch. "You are a beauty. It's too bad you had to defy me. We could have had so much fun together," he smirked, squeezing her breasts as hard as he could and laughing when he heard the young woman yelp in pain. Running his hand down between her thighs, he rubbed his hand coarsely against her, laughing again when he saw her shudder of revulsion. "Ahh well, I guess it wasn't meant to be," he said with mock sadness as he stood up and began walking away. "Nail her to it," he said coldly, his voice radiating pure evil. "We don't want to take any chances of her falling off now do we."
Gabrielle screamed in agony as the soldiers drove the nails through her wrists and legs and tears began streaming down her face. Martakas watched the entire process with a broad smile, pleased with the effects of his torture. With a gesture, he ordered the cross lifted into place, laughing when he heard the young woman's choked, pain-filled sobs. He looked her over carefully, a satisfied grin on his face, before finally turning back to the villagers who were watching. "The woman will remain up there until my men and I are ready to leave. If anyone helps her, you all will die," he said harshly in a tone that brooked no argument, before turning and walking away.
The next several hours passed by in a pain-filled haze for Gabrielle. The soldiers came by regularly to taunt her and occasionally throw water at her, but she was rapidly losing any awareness of her surroundings. She tried to hold out hope for rescue, praying that somehow Xena would return in time to save her, but as more time passed she realized that that wasn't going to happen.
When the sun went down, the temperature dropped rapidly and Gabrielle began to shiver uncontrollably, increasing the torment she was in. She fell in and out of consciousness, waking up whenever she began gasping for air as she forced her body up so that she could take another breath, moaning in agony each and every time she had to do so.
Eventually the night ended and the sun rose, signaling the next day. As Gabrielle looked around at her surroundings, she knew with utter certainty that she would be dead before the end of the day. The thought terrified her, not because she feared death, but because there were things that needed to be done before she could allow herself to pass over to the other side, and she began to worry that she wasn't going to get the chance.
She fought to remain focused on who she was and where she was at, enduring the pain as she resisted the temptation to simply succumb. Finally she saw a familiar face standing nearby. With a feeble movement of her head, she begged the man to approach, ignoring the excruciating pain that the action caused.
Hrothgar approached hesitantly, conscious of the fact that it would mean the death of the entire village if they thought he was helping the young woman. Deep down he wanted nothing more than to do just that, but he knew he couldn't bring down the wrath of Martakas on the entire village, especially not on the children. "Yes?" he finally asked quietly, glancing around one last time to make certain there were no guards close at hand.
Gabrielle looked down at the man standing before her as she struggled to speak. Her voice was all but gone and she knew that the pain she had endured before would be nothing compared to what she was going to experience as soon as she tried to speak, but she had no choice, she had to get a message to Xena. Lifting herself up to take another breath, she ignored the pain as she began to speak. "Tell Xena...I want Ephiny...have my right...right of caste," she gasped out, before the waves of pain coursing through her body overwhelmed her once again.
Hrothgar stared at her in confusion, completely clueless as to what she was talking about and wondering if she was simply delirious from the pain. "You want me to tell Xena that you want Ephiny to have your 'right of caste'?" he finally asked, his voice making it clear he was certain he had misunderstood her.
Gabrielle nodded, as relief swept over her body. Struggling once again to speak, she reassured him, "It's okay...she'll know," she moaned, before collapsing once again.
"All right. I'll tell her as soon as I see her," Hrothgar promised, as he turned and began walking away, anxious to get away before any of the guards decided he was too close.
"Wait," he heard Gabrielle's tortured sob coming from behind him, stopping him in his tracks. Looking back up, he saw the young woman was desperately fighting to speak once again and his heart ached at the unbelievable torment she was enduring. Finally Gabrielle gained enough control of the pain rippling through her body to speak one last time. "Tell Xena...I...love her," she wheezed, before giving in to the agony sweeping over her body.
Hrothgar looked at her sadly. "I'll tell her," he promised again, moving away before any of the soldiers noticed him.
The rest of the day passed by in a pain-induced delirium for the young bard. At times she wanted to simply give up, to accept the sweet reprieve that her death would grant her, but she couldn't stop fighting; her will to live was simply too strong. Slowly she began to realize that Martakas and his men were preparing to leave the village, and she wondered once again if he intended to kill her before he left, or leave her alive as a continuing lesson to those in the village.
Martakas studied the woman hanging before him. "So my sweet. Will you miss me when I'm gone?" he asked derisively. "I know I'll miss you. It's seldom that I meet someone who can provide me with quite so much entertainment," he told her, before motioning forwards the soldier who was with him. "And now the fun really begins," he said with a grin. "Break them!" he ordered. Without a moment's hesitation, the soldier swung the club he was carrying in a savage arc, smashing the weapon across Gabrielle's legs. Martakas encouraged his man to continue, laughing wildly as he watched the club pound into the young woman's legs over and over, shattering the bones completely.
A loud scream of pure agony was ripped from Gabrielle's throat when she felt the first blow from the club. When the soldier stepped back, her body was shaking uncontrollably as spasms of pain wracked through her. Shuddering sobs were the only sound she was capable of making.
"Now we'll get to see just how strong you really are," Martakas told her. "Now that your legs are broken, you'll have to lift yourself up using just your arms. The average person dies after about three hours or so of this, but I'd bet you could last at least four or five," he said encouragingly, before turning and wandering away to see to the last of their departure preparations.
Gabrielle lost complete track of time and her surroundings as she struggled to hold out against the latest torment. Searing pain shot through her body with every breath she had to take, only to be replaced by an agonizing ache while she rested. She hadn't known it was possible to endure so much torment and still manage to stay alive. She knew though, that the end was almost near. One way or another, her suffering was going to end soon.
With an almost detached air, she finally noticed Martakas and several of his soldiers approaching her. "Get her down from there," Martakas ordered, waiting calmly while his men hurried to do his bidding. He watched calmly as Gabrielle fell to the ground in front of him, gasping for air as her body twitched convulsively. He continued to observe her with an almost curious expression for several moments before finally drawing his sword and facing the village. "Never forget what you have seen here," he said brazenly, before ordering two of his men to roll Gabrielle onto her back and then grab her hands and feet to hold her firmly on the ground before him.
Martakas waited for several minutes until he was certain that his plaything was once again fully aware of her surroundings. Looking down at her he grinned, before placing the tip of his sword against her left collarbone. He pressed against the blade until he began to draw blood and then slowly dragged the tip down her body until he reached her right hip.
Gabrielle struggled weakly for a moment and then gave up, knowing that it was futile and that Martakas wanted to see her struggle. As she felt the blade move to her right shoulder and then arc down to her left hip, she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out, but she couldn't stop her body from writhing in pain as she felt the tip of the sword slice open her breast.
Martakas raised his eyebrows in silent salute as he saw her fighting to remain silent, then smiled when he saw the trickle of blood coming from her lips where she had bitten through the tender skin. "You have been truly incredible," he said softly. "But alas, all good things must come to an end," he said regretfully, as he placed the blade to her neck. For one brief moment he acted as if he intended to cut her throat, and then he stopped himself. "No...this will be even better," he said as he pulled his sword away. Stepping forward slightly, he twirled his sword above his head and then brought it down quickly, severing both her hands from her body, laughing as her screams of horror filled the air and watching as she slowly bled to death before him.
For the first time since Hrothgar began speaking, Xena's eyes registered an emotion, pure and utter shock. Turning back to the sarcophagus she opened it once again and pulled back the sheet that was partially covering her friend, gasping softly as she saw that Hrothgar had been telling the truth. However, although Gabrielle's left hand was lying beside her body, her right hand was missing. "Where is her other hand?" she demanded angrily.
"Martakas...Martakas took it as a trophy...He made a comment about it...about it being a good luck charm."
Xena lowered the lid of the sarcophagus once again as she struggled desperately to gain control of her anger. "Martakas just stood there and watched her bleed to death?" she finally managed to ask.
Hrothgar nodded nervously. "Yeah...she uh...she passed out pretty quickly. Probably from the shock. Martakas waited until he was sure she was dead before he walked away though. I guess he didn't want to take even the slightest chance that someone might be able to save her." Clearing his throat, he hesitated before speaking again. "The right of caste thing...you know what she meant by that? I wasn't sure if I got that right but she seemed pretty worried about it."
"I know what she meant," Xena replied lifelessly, as she felt her heart break into a thousand pieces. She still couldn't believe that Gabrielle had actually managed to speak while being crucified. The pain must have been unimaginable for her friend. After several moments had passed she finally found her voice. "Thank you," she said dully. "I'll be taking her body with me. What do I owe you for this," she said, gesturing towards the sarcophagus.
"Nothing. It's all we could do for her...I just wish we could have done more, provided something more fitting."
Xena wasn't able to speak and so nodded to acknowledged Hrothgar's words. "I'll be leaving town shortly and I'll be back for her as soon as I'm ready to go," she finally choked out, as she turned and fled from the room.
Xena could feel the blood pounding in her head as the familiar, comforting darkness rose within her. Gabrielle was dead, she was gone...and there was nothing Xena could do to change it. Nothing mattered anymore, nothing made any difference. The only thing in the entire world that she cared about, the only thing that had given her life meaning, had been brutally taken from her. Someone was going to pay for this...and Xena knew exactly who that someone was.
Promise me if anything happens to me you will not become a monster...promise me.
Xena growled in frustration as she heard the words Gabrielle had said to her so long ago, and she shook her head angrily. 'I know I promised you Gabrielle...but this is too much to ask of me! When I made that promise to you I never thought I'd be asked to accept this...That bastard didn't kill you, he destroyed you!'
Martakas. The name alone filled her with a hatred unlike anything she had experienced in years. In the span of a few weeks, he had managed to cause the death of two people she had truly loved. Gods above, it would be so easy to just let go, to give in to the bloodlust that was coursing through her body. It wouldn't fill the void left in her soul, but it would deaden the pain. And all she had to do was just embrace that part of herself that she'd been trying to deny for so long now. Accept the anger, the madness, the darkness that rolled within her.
Xena took several deep breaths as she finally managed to control the rage that was threatening to overwhelm her. 'Focus damnit! Focus! No...No, I will not become a monster...but I will not accept this either! Martakas will pay...he will be brought to justice. I won't allow him to continue to destroy.'
Her fury under control again for the time being, Xena went to find Argo. 'Before I can do anything about Martakas I have to take care of Gabrielle first. I can take her to the Amazons, or I can take her to her family in Poteidaia.' Xena considered the two options as she continued to search for the mare, reaching a decision just as she found the horse. 'I'll take her to the Amazons. Gabrielle was the Amazon Queen; she deserves an Amazon funeral. I'll take her ashes to Poteidaia. If her family doesn't like my decision...well it certainly won't be the first time.'
It took Xena nearly a week to reach the Amazon territory. Everyday, she started travel early and continued until darkness had completely fallen. Fortunately, she was only troubled once during her journey when a half dozen men tried to convince her to hand over her horse, her money and her body. She coolly informed them that she had no time to waste on them and, when they continued to harass her, she calmly killed four of them, before the other two barely managed to escape with their lives.
Xena breathed a small sigh of relief as she reached Amazon territory, knowing that soon the nightmare would be over. She walked alongside Argo in silence for quite some time, completely aware that Amazon scouts had surrounded her, before they finally dropped out of the trees around her. Xena watched impassively as they carefully placed their swords on Gabrielle's sarcophagus, honoring their fallen Queen. As they lifted their masks, Xena recognized Solari and Ephiny and she nodded briefly at them as they approached. "We're so sorry," Ephiny said, her voice cracking slightly
"We need to get her back to the village," Xena said emotionlessly. "There are a few things I need to discuss with you."
Ephiny nodded, knowing better than to try to talk to the warrior at the moment. "Let's go," she said to the others, as she began moving back towards the village.
The trip back passed by quickly and in absolute silence. Once they entered the village, Ephiny ordered the sarcophagus to be taken to one of the huts and assigned four women to act as guards. Xena stopped her before it could be taken away and informed Ephiny that under no conditions was the sarcophagus to be opened until after they had talked. Ephiny hesitantly agreed and then led Xena to her own hut.
As they entered Ephiny's hut, the Amazon turned to face Xena. "You did bring her here for an Amazon funeral didn't you?" she asked, a note of concern in her voice.
Xena nodded. "Yes...the Amazons were important to her. I felt she should have an Amazon ceremony. I'll take her ashes to her parents afterwards."
Ephiny sighed in relief. "How did this happen?" she asked hesitantly.
Xena stood silently for several long moments before turning lifeless eyes towards Ephiny. In a halting voice, she told the Amazon the story of Gabrielle's death leaving out little in the retelling but stopping frequently whenever she felt her anger beginning to burn out of control. As she finished, she looked directly at Ephiny. "She wanted you to have her right of caste."
Ephiny nodded. "We will honor her memory throughout the night and tomorrow we will light the funeral pyre. What will you do then?"
"I'm going after the man responsible," Xena said, her voice cold and hard.
Ephiny looked at her uneasily. "Xena, you aren't really intending to take on an entire army on your own are you?"
Xena nearly laughed out loud at the irony. She had once destroyed an entire army over a woman whom she'd merely cared about. Now Ephiny was doubting whether or not she could handle the army that had killed the woman Xena had loved more than life itself. "I intend to put a stop to Martakas once and for all," she replied simply.
"Xena," Ephiny said carefully, knowing how painful this was for the warrior. "Gabrielle wouldn't want you to go on a killing spree over her."
"Ephiny," Xena shot back angrily. "Your Queen was murdered...more than that she was tortured, raped and crucified before they finally ended her torment! Can you honestly tell me as an Amazon that you don't want the man responsible dead?"
Ephiny's mind warred with her emotions. Part of her agreed completely with Xena. The man responsible must be made to pay. It was Amazon justice and they couldn't allow someone to murder their Queen and get away with it. On the other hand, she knew the fears Gabrielle had had about what Xena might do if anything ever happened to her and allowing Xena to go after Gabrielle's killer was an extremely dangerous thing to do. "I should go," she finally said quietly. "I should be the one to go after her killer. She gave her right of caste to me. It's my duty and my responsibility."
"You can't do it," Xena replied, holding her hand up to stop Ephiny's protests. "This village has changed Queens too many times over the past several months. Your place is here. The village needs you to provide them with some stability. The Queen can't leave on a mission of vengeance right now."
"But you can leave to seek vengeance on Gabrielle's killer? Do you honestly think that's what she'd want, Xena?" Ephiny demanded.
"I'm going Ephiny and that's final," Xena replied, as she glared at the Amazon standing before her. "I'll stay long enough to honor Gabrielle and then I'll be leaving to track down her killer," she said, before pushing past Ephiny to walk out the door.
Gabrielle's funeral the next day was a grand affair. Xena observed the entire thing calmly, appearing to an unknowing watcher to be untouched by the entire event. Inside, however, she was slowly dying, and as she watched the flames consume the sarcophagus that contained Gabrielle's body, she felt the darkness within her rising up as it struggled to consume her once again.
It was late in the afternoon by the time Xena was finally ready to leave. Ephiny had agreed earlier to guard Gabrielle's ashes until the warrior could return to retrieve them. Xena had briefly considered taking them to Poteidaia before she went after Martakas but had quickly discarded the idea. For one thing, the warlord already had a huge head start on her and it was time to end his reign of terror once and for all. For another, Xena wasn't particularly anxious to deal with Gabrielle's family any sooner than she had to. Putting that confrontation off for a little while longer was definitely an inviting option.
Xena was in the process of gathering up the last of her gear, when Ephiny entered her hut. Xena deliberately ignored the Amazon for several minutes, as she continued to get ready, and was almost amused by the fact that Ephiny was obviously prepared to wait her out as well. Finishing with her task, Xena turned to face her visitor, squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw as she did so. "You aren't going to try to change my mind are you?" she finally asked.
Ephiny shook her head. "No...you're right. Martakas must be brought to justice."
Xena nodded. "Good, I'm glad we're agreed."
"Oh we are," Ephiny assured her. "I've even talked to the tribunal about this matter. It's a bit of a gray area as far as Amazon law is concerned. We know who killed Gabrielle and, since she gave her right of caste to me, I would normally be the one expected to act as her avenger. But you were right. The tribunal agreed that, after everything that has happened, it would be wrong for me to leave the village right now to hunt down her murderer." Ephiny paused for a moment before continuing. "So we want you to bring Martakas back to the village after you capture him."
Xena looked at Ephiny in utter astonishment. "You can't be serious."
"I'm completely serious. Gabrielle gave her right of caste to me not you. We're all agreed that I can't leave the village right now, so if you intend to go after this man then you need to bring him back here once you capture him. He will be tried for his crimes against the Amazons and punished accordingly. It's Amazon justice."
"I'll handle Martakas my own way Ephiny," Xena snarled. "I don't need or care about Amazon justice."
"No?" Ephiny asked softly. "Gabrielle cared about it. It was important to her. Or don't you care about that either?"
Xena glared at Ephiny in mute fury, trapped by the very words she had once spoken to Gabrielle. Taking a deep breath, she tried another tack. "Ephiny...I may not even be able to capture him alive."
Ephiny looked at her calmly. "Try...and before you tell me that you won't be able to get him back here afterwards, I've already solved that problem. I'm sending six warriors along with you. They will help you capture him and bring him back here."
"I don't need any help to deal with this man," Xena snapped in an irritated voice.
"Maybe not. But this is an Amazon matter Xena. I understand your feelings for Gabrielle, but these warriors are going after the warlord regardless of what you choose to do, so I suggest you accept their help and work with them," she replied firmly. "Just be glad I'm only sending six. There wasn't a woman in this village who didn't beg to be allowed to go after Martakas. Limiting it to six was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
Xena was furious, but she could see no way out of the situation at the moment. "All right...but I'm leaving now."
Ephiny nodded. "Fine. They're ready to leave now as well. Cashta," she called loudly. Instantly the warrior appeared in the doorway. "Cashta, tell the others that Xena is ready to leave. You can meet her at the east entrance to the village."
Ephiny watched as Cashta left, before turning to face Xena once again. "Xena...I know you're hurting right now...but don't do anything you would regret Gabrielle knowing about," she said quietly.
Xena scowled at the Amazon as she tried to decide how to respond. "Damn you Ephiny," she finally muttered under her breath, as she picked up the rest of her gear and then pushed roughly past the Amazon on her way out the door.
Xena and the six Amazons traveled rapidly across the countryside towards Nalimore, the last known location of Martakas. Xena rarely spoke to any of the Amazons and they were all fully aware of the fact that she intensely resented their presence. They quickly came to an agreement that the Amazons would follow Xena's lead as long as she didn't interfere with their attempts to capture Martakas for trial. They also reached an unspoken agreement that Xena was to be left alone as much as possible.
Xena barely tolerated the women who were traveling with her, but she had to admit that at least Ephiny had chosen well. Cashta was the de facto leader of the group of Amazons. She was a seasoned warrior who was skilled with all her weapons but deadliest with the sword, where her lightning quick reflexes made her one of the most dangerous warriors Xena had ever seen. Zeles was the youngest of them all, younger even than Gabrielle had been. She was a skilled swordswoman, however, and was one of the few warriors Xena had even known that regularly fought with a sword in each hand. Sethline and Narnia were the archers of the group. Their skill with their crossbows was phenomenal but they were also more than able to handle themselves in both armed and unarmed combat. Derassa was the lone staffer. Her skill was impressive, but it was really her ability as a tracker that had earned her the right to be included in the group and Xena realized that even she could learn a thing or two from the young woman. Alaini was the final member of the group. Although she wore a sword strapped to her back, Xena had never seen her use it. Instead, the young woman's chosen weapons were the chobos, two short sticks that could be used as clubs. Xena had watched her practicing with them on several occasions and knew that Alaini was truly a master with these weapons, which could be used both to defend and to attack, with devastating results.
The group traveled without incident for several days until they finally reached Nalimore. As they neared the village, Xena brought Argo to a brief stop. "Wait for me here," she said flatly, before going on ahead alone. She had no idea how the villagers would react to the presence of the Amazon women and, at the moment, she was in no mood to deal with them if they turned out to be hostile. She wanted to get the information she needed and be on her way as quickly as possible.
Upon reaching the village, she paused momentarily before heading to the tavern, intending to ask the innkeeper about the whereabouts of Hrothgar. As she entered the inn, however, she saw the older man sitting at a table in the back corner. Crossing the room swiftly and silently, she was seated at his table before he even saw her approaching.
"Warrior!" he exclaimed in a surprised voice. "I never thought I'd see you again."
Xena nodded tersely, "I know, but I need any information that you can give me about Martakas. The size of his army, their fighting skills, their insignia...anything at all will help me."
Hrothgar looked at her carefully. "Help you what?"
"I'm going after Martakas. This is the last place I know he was so I'm starting here."
Hrothgar shook his head. "Warrior, you can't be serious. You can't go after an entire army by yourself."
"First, I'm not by myself. Second, it's none of your business what I choose to do. Now tell me what I want to know," Xena said, glaring at him angrily.
With a small shrug, Hrothgar began answering her questions. His information was sketchy but at least it provided Xena with a basis on which to start planning. As for the location of the warlord, the only thing Hrothgar knew was that Martakas had headed north after he'd left Nalimore. They'd heard a few reports that he'd attacked villages and towns in that direction but there had been no recent information.
Xena began to thank Hrothgar for his help, when a young man suddenly appeared at their table. He hesitated when he saw Xena and looked for a moment as if he intended to leave, but Hrothgar stopped his retreat. "It's all right, Askel, we're nearly finished here. You aren't interrupting."
The young man smiled in relief as he sat down beside Hrothgar. He looked at Xena curiously, then returned his attention to the older man. "We've finished rebuilding the defenses at the southern gate. There's nothing much left to do now unless something new has come up."
Hrothgar shook his head. "No lad. I think you and the boys have taken care of everything now." Turning to Xena, Hrothgar smiled slightly. "This is Askel. His parents were friends of mine but they were killed in the attack. Askel and several others came to Nalimore to help us rebuild our village." He paused as he smiled fondly at the young man sitting at his side. "I barely recognized the boy when I first saw him, but I thank the gods that he and the others came to help our village. We'd still just be getting started with the repairs if it wasn't for them. Askel, this is Xena. I believe I mentioned her to you once before," Hrothgar said carefully, his eyes flashing a silent warning to his young friend.
Askel nodded as he recognized the name. He looked at the warrior compassionately, not having needed Hrothgar's caution to remember the terrible loss she had suffered. Extending his arm, he smiled as she clasped his wrist. "It's good to meet you, Xena. I've heard a lot about you. I'm truly sorry about your friend. I guess that gives us something in common huh? We both lost people that we cared about to that butcher," he said softly, his voice tightening slightly as he spoke.
"Yeah I guess," Xena said tonelessly, before turning to face Hrothgar once again. "Thanks for the information. Now I just have to find Martakas."
"Martakas?" Askel asked in a surprised voice.
Xena nodded as Hrothgar explained. "Xena intends to go after the warlord."
Askel's eyes widened slightly. "Really? You're really going to put a stop to that hydra?"
Xena shrugged. "Yeah," she said simply.
Askel stared at her for a moment before leaning towards her. "Let me help you," he said earnestly. "Let me and the others go with you. We've been trying to figure out a way to put a stop to Martakas but we knew there was no way we could do it on our own. With you though...why there's no way he can escape you!"
"No," both Xena and Hrothgar said at the same time.
"No lad," Hrothgar repeated, as he placed his hand on the young man's shoulder. "This is no job for you. It's too dangerous."
Askel shook his head. "Hrothgar, I'm not the young kid you remember anymore. I'm a grown man and I'm capable of making my own decisions. This man killed my parents. I'll do anything to see that he's brought to justice."
"No," Xena repeated, as Askel looked at her hopefully. "I don't need you or your friends to help me."
"Probably not," Askel agreed. "But could you use our help? There's four of us and we're all skilled fighters. We could help you if you'd just accept us."
Xena shook her head. "This isn't some grand adventure we're going on. You're not going to find fame and fortune at the end of this journey. It's a bounty hunt, pure and simple."
"I know," Askel said quietly. "But it's the right thing to do. We have to stand up to men like this. Let me and my friends go with you. You won't regret it if you do."
Xena looked the young man over carefully. He had the appearance of a seasoned warrior, even if he did look a little young. As she considered his request, she slowly began to realize that she honestly didn't care one way or the other. If he wanted to go with her that was fine, and if he changed his mind tomorrow and left then that would be fine too. She'd already been saddled with six people she didn't want...what difference would a few more make? If she decided later that he was interfering with her efforts to deal with Martakas, she could always get rid of him then.
"All right," she finally said. "If you want to come, you can, but only if you've got horses. I'm not slowing down for anyone. And there are three conditions." She paused for a moment and then continued once she saw him nod. "First, I want to see for myself that you're a 'skilled fighter.' You and your friends will each face me in combat and if I decide you're good enough you can come with me. You have 30 minutes to meet me on the road north of town. If you're not there by then. I'm leaving without you."
"Second, you follow my orders completely. I didn't ask you to join me, you asked me. If you can't handle that, if you have any illusions that we'll have some kind of equal partnership, then stay here. I have no time to put up with arguing about my decisions."
Askel nodded as he heard each condition, then watched as the warrior stood up to leave. "And the third?" he asked.
"The third? The third is that you remember at all times that when we finally do catch up with Martakas...he's mine," she stated calmly, in a voice as cold as ice. "Agreed?"
Askel swallowed once under the intensity of her gaze and then nodded. "Agreed," he finally said.
"Good. I'll meet you north of town. Hrothgar," she said as she turned to the older man one last time. "Again, thanks," she said quietly, before stalking out of the tavern and heading out of town.
The four men proved to be as good as Askel had said they were and Xena agreed to let them accompany her. She immediately made it clear to all of them that she wanted to be left alone and that if they valued their lives they would respect her wishes. The Amazons were more than a little surprised that Xena had allowed the men to join them but they knew better than to protest. The presence of the newcomers didn't particularly affect their plans one way or the other, so it made no difference to them if they came along or not.
The small group of warriors traveled north rapidly, stopping occasionally in various towns as they tried to find out more information about Martakas. The members of the band got along well enough, but they didn't particularly meld together. The Amazons and the men tended to remain as isolated subgroups and Xena stayed apart from both of them. Still, they worked well together, with no obvious sources of tension among the group and the days passed quickly.
One morning, as they were traveling along a flat stretch of road, they caught sight of a band of thieves attacking a couple of merchants a short distance ahead of them. Immediately, Xena began racing down the road towards the scene and, after a slight hesitation, the others followed her lead. Screaming her war cry, she charged into the midst of the battle before vaulting off of Argo to land in front of one of the bandits. The man saw that she was unarmed and quickly came at her with his dagger. With a malicious grin, Xena reached out and caught the arm that was holding the knife and twisted it down and around to plunge it into the man's own body. Pushing him away from her, she quickly drew her sword and attacked the man closest to her, killing him as well.
The battle was over almost before it had begun, and seven dead highwaymen were lying on the ground around them. The three men they had saved looked at them nervously for a few seconds before finally smiling weakly as they realized that the warriors who had just appeared out of nowhere were there to save them, not to take the place of those they had defeated. "Thanks," one of them finally said, his voice still somewhat shaky. "We owe you our lives."
Xena simply nodded, then turned away from him to find Argo. The man watched her walk away and then curiously studied the others, before finally clearing his throat and asking, "So who do we have to thank for our rescue?"
Askel looked around and saw that no one was stepping forward, so he smiled and answered the man's question. "That's Xena," he said, pointing to the warrior. "And I guess the rest of us are just with her," he said with a wry grin.
The man chuckled. "I'm Roshard. I want to thank you again for helping us."
"Where are you headed Roshard?" Askel inquired politely.
Askel shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't know that village."
"Cardem isn't far. We should be there by the end of the day if we don't have any more trouble," Roshard replied.
From where she stood with Argo, Xena looked at Roshard silently for several seconds, having listened to the entire conversation between the two men. "Ever heard of a warlord called Martakas?" she asked suddenly.
Roshard's eyes widened slightly. "Yes I have. He attacked Cardem awhile back."
"Really?" Xena asked, growing more interested. "Do you think anyone there would know where we could find him?"
Roshard thought for a second. "My brother might," he said finally. "He runs the inn in Cardem so he hears all the gossip."
Xena nodded. "All right. We'll escort you there and then we'll talk to your brother."
The trip to Cardem passed by uneventfully. Xena rode slightly ahead of the group with the Amazons following just behind. The men followed after that, with Askel spending most of the trip talking to Roshard. When they finally began to draw near the village, it was beginning to get dark, so Xena told the others to start setting up camp while she went on ahead to talk to Roshard's brother.
Roshard immediately protested. "No that's not necessary. After what you did for me today you shouldn't have to spend the night out here in the cold. Please, all of you, come with me to my brother's inn. We'll put you up tonight free of charge."
Xena shook her head. "That's not necessary. Besides, I doubt your brother would be so pleased with you offering rooms to us like that."
Roshard smiled. "Half the supplies in this wagon belong to him. Putting you up for the night is the least he can do. Really, it's okay. It's a large inn and this is a slow season for travelers. He'll have plenty of rooms. Please, I insist."
Xena shrugged. It really made no difference to her one way or the other if they spent the night camped out or stayed at an inn. "All right," she finally agreed. "I guess it will make things easier," she said, before moving forward along the road and into the town.
As Roshard had said, his brother was extremely grateful to the band of warriors for their assistance and he willingly provided them with rooms for the evening. His knowledge of Martakas was slim but he had heard reports that the warlord was roaming through the north laying waste to everything in his path. He promised to ask around that evening to see if anyone else knew more about the warlord and then hurried off to prepare their rooms.
Xena went back outside to take care of Argo and retrieve her things, trusting no one else to do it for her. By the time she reentered the inn, her room was waiting for her. Quickly she climbed the stairs and walked the short distance down the hallway to reach the door. As she entered her room, she glanced around briefly. It looked like an average room at an inn: a bed, a table with two chairs, a window, a fireplace. There was nothing out of the ordinary, yet she felt awkward and out of place, and for a moment she couldn't figure out why. Suddenly it hit her. This was the first time in longer than she could remember that she had stayed at an inn without Gabrielle. She hadn't bothered staying at inns when she had had to travel without the young woman. Spending the night at an inn had been something she had done for Gabrielle's comfort and, without the bard here with her, the room seemed to mock her with its silence. She glanced momentarily at the bed before shaking her head and moving to lay her bedroll out on the opposite side of the room. There was no way she could possibly sleep in that bed without Gabrielle. It was already difficult enough for her to sleep at night without being able to hold the young woman in her arms. Trying to sleep in a bed without her would be nothing short of torture.
Xena briefly wandered around the room, before sitting down heavily in one of the chairs, as an overwhelming sense of emptiness washed over her. Her world had collapsed when Gabrielle had been taken from her. The pain that filled her soul was beyond anything she could have ever imagined, and things were only getting worse. Her sleep had always been plagued by nightmares, but they had become even more intense and disturbing over the past couple of weeks. She woke up several times a night in a cold sweat, her heart pounding and her body shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks. And every night it was a variation of the same dream...Gabrielle suffering at the hands of Martakas, begging for mercy, crying out for Xena to rescue her, and Xena never getting there in time to save her.
As she looked around the room, images of the last time she had seen Gabrielle alive raced through her mind. She saw the bard kneeling before her, her hands covering Xena's as she looked up at the warrior with such an expression of trust and love that it nearly took Xena's breath away. She saw the young woman's face as she held the bard in her arms, promising that she would always love her. She could feel Gabrielle's arms wrapping around her to hold her tight and she could feel the warmth of her body as the bard slept against her chest.
"Gods Gabrielle, I love you," she choked out hoarsely. "I miss you so much." Xena took a deep breath and fought to compose herself, desperately trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I looked for you again today," she finally whispered softly. "I just can't seem to stop doing that. I keep looking down from Argo expecting to see you walking along beside me. I glance across the campfire to catch a glimpse of you working on one of your scrolls. I keep closing my eyes, praying that when I open them I'll find out that this has all been some horrible dream, but it never works." Xena paused for several seconds as she felt her throat getting tight again and then sighed heavily before continuing. "Today...I was in a fight. And after it was over I looked for you, wanting to make sure you were all right. But it was too late for that...I was too late for that." Xena took a shuddering breath. "I'm so sorry Gabrielle. I never should have left you behind. I wasn't there when you needed me. I let you down and I'll never forgive myself for that. But Martakas won't win...I promise you he won't win," she vowed, as tears began falling down her face. She struggled for control for several seconds before finally giving in to the pain, resting her arms on the table and then laying her head down on top of them as silent sobs wracked her body.
It was quite awhile before Xena was able to go downstairs to join the others for dinner. Or at least, to go downstairs to eat dinner in the same room with the others since she sat alone at a table in a corner. The last thing in the world she wanted at the moment was company, a fact she made abundantly clear to all the men who thought a woman sitting alone at a table was an open invitation. After she nearly broke the arm of the third man who tried to join her, word rapidly spread throughout the tavern that the tall, dark-haired woman wanted to be left alone.
As the evening progressed, Xena continued to sit alone as she nursed her drink. The four men who were traveling with her were all sitting at one table, while the Amazons sat at another. After awhile, two of the Amazons left to go upstairs. Xena briefly considered leaving as well but quickly decided against it. That room brought back too many memories of the ones she had spent time in with Gabrielle. She wasn't going to go up there until she actually had to.
After a little more time had passed, Xena noticed a small commotion towards one end of the bar. Curious, she turned her attention in that direction as she tried to discern what was going on. Several seconds later she heard the bartender call for quiet, as a young man hopped up and sat on the counter. The bartender then announced that the bard was ready to give his performance for the evening and, after introducing the young man as Serolius, he backed away to give him more room.
Xena groaned inwardly as she heard the announcement. A performance by a bard was the last thing in the world she wanted to hear at the moment. She again thought about leaving but decide that maybe she could just ignore Serolius and put off going up to the room for a little while longer.
"On the sunny slopes of the Phrygian hills, two oak trees can be seen growing side by side...."
Xena's head snapped up as she heard the bard begin his story. Her face white with shock, she felt as if all the air had suddenly left her body, as she fought to breathe normally. As she listened to the bard start to tell his story, she had to forcibly resist the urge to charge across the room and beat him until he stopped speaking and she knew if she didn't get out of the room immediately, she would do just that. She struggled to her feet and stumbled over to the table where the Amazons were sitting. "We leave at dawn. Tell the others," she growled, as she jerked her head towards the table where Askel and the other men were sitting before fleeing from the main room.
Xena stormed into her own room and slammed the door behind her. Damn that bard! Out of every story the fool had to know, he had to chose to tell that one. She swore again loudly, as she raged against the hand she'd been dealt. This was not the way things were supposed to turn out. She and Gabrielle were supposed to end up like Philemon and Baucis; they were supposed to intertwine with one another for the rest of eternity. They had finally discovered their love for one another and now the Fates had ripped them apart. It was as if she was the butt of some great cosmic joke, and she was getting tired of the whole damn thing.
She took several deep breaths and forced herself to relax, knowing that if she didn't calm down immediately she was likely to go back downstairs and put a permanent end to that bard's storytelling days. This loss of control was getting harder and harder to handle and she was finding the dark thoughts of her past visiting her with increasing frequency, wrapping around her heart and soul, comforting and insulating her like a warm blanket on a cold day.
With an audible sigh, she removed her scabbard and chakram and tossed them into a corner, while banishing the thoughts of the bard and his story from her mind. She rolled her neck around for several seconds, as she tried to relieve the stress and tension of the past several days, and then sat down and began taking off her armor. Almost immediately, memories of Gabrielle helping her to remove her armor began to dominate her thoughts, and her fingers became uncharacteristically clumsy as she began to fumble with the buckles and straps. The harder she worked to remove the pieces, the more difficult she began to find the task and the angrier she became. By the time she finally managed to get the breastplate undone, her fury was raging out of control and she hurled the armor across the room, wanting the offending item as far away from herself as possible. She struggled to remove the rest of the armor, flinging each piece away from her as she removed it from her body, low angry snarls coming from her throat with every breath she took.
She stood up and walked around to stand behind the chair, clutching the top of it tightly as she fought back the anger and rage that were building within her, but it was no use. She had been pushed too far. Suddenly, with a muffled yell she lifted the chair and swung it over her head, before smashing it down across the table and breaking it into several pieces.
Xena heard the sound of someone running down the hall towards her room, followed by the noise of the door to her room opening. She knew that it was one of the Amazons who had entered but she remained where she was, standing with her back to the door, as she gazed down quietly at the table in front of her that was now covered with broken parts of the chair.
Alaini looked around the room for several seconds to assure herself that Xena was not under attack. Finally her gaze rested on the tall warrior standing silently in the middle of the room. Looking at Xena more closely, Alaini saw that she was holding two broken pieces of wood in her hands. She realized that they were part of a chair and that the rest of it was scattered across the table and floor. She hesitated for a few more moments before asking, "What happened?"
Xena continued to stand with her back to the door, as she answered the woman's question. "I tripped," she replied flatly.
Alaini looked the warrior over carefully, knowing that Xena was like a wounded animal at the moment and that made her even more deadly than usual. "All right," she said finally, her voice carefully neutral. "Do you think you will...trip...anymore tonight?"
Xena shook her head. "No. I'll be all right," she replied, sighing in relief as she heard the Amazon shut the door and walk away. Cursing softly, Xena dropped the two pieces of the chair she was still holding in her hands and walked over to look out the window. She was dangerously close to losing control completely and she knew it. She could feel her anger pulsing through her body with every beat of her heart. She stared out the window as she desperately tried to focus on her breathing. Concentrating on taking slow even breaths, she clenched her fists in frustration as she felt her rage slowly rising up once again. Despite all her efforts, she began to see visions of Gabrielle suffering at the hands of Martakas. She closed her eyes tightly as her body began to tremble and tried to banish the images, but they continued to overwhelm her. She saw her friend on the cross, screaming in agony, saw her being raped repeatedly by Martakas and his men, saw the expression on her face as Martakas' sword cut through her wrists.
"Enough!" she growled hoarsely, as she turned away from the window. Stalking around the room like a caged animal, she paused when she felt a warm, stickiness coating her left hand. Looking down, she noticed blood oozing out from between her still clenched fingers. Carefully opening her hand, she saw that it was covered in blood and several small cuts covered the palm where her fingernails had pierced the skin.
Xena stared at her hand with an indifferent expression, as if it was something unrelated and completely set apart from herself, watching as her blood slowly flowed over her skin. As she continued to examine her hand, a malevolent grin began to spread across her face. Blood on her hand. Gods what she wouldn't give for it to be Martakas' blood. She promised herself, though, that it would be soon. He would pay for what he had done. No matter how long it took to catch up with him, she would find him and she would make certain he was punished for his crimes.
But he hadn't acted alone. His soldiers had helped him, supported him. They had taken part in Gabrielle's torture with gleeful abandon. The gods only knew how many of them had abused, defiled and raped her before Martakas had had her brought back to the town square. And the villagers. They'd just stood by watching, never lifting a finger to help the woman whose only crime was that she had tried to protect their worthless lives. They might not have actively participated in Gabrielle's final horror, but they didn't do a thing to stop it either. They were guilty as well, and they should consider themselves fortunate that she didn't wipe their miserable village from the face of the earth as punishment for their inaction.
'Stop it,' she ordered herself harshly, as she realized the direction of her thoughts. Taking several deep breaths, she managed to slow her pounding heart once again. The villagers couldn't be blamed for being weak and afraid. She couldn't hold them responsible for Gabrielle's death. The soldiers were a different matter. She would love to destroy the entire army and, if any of them interfered with her plans for Martakas, then she would deal with them ruthlessly and mercilessly. But Martakas was the one she was really after. He was the one who had actually killed Gabrielle, and for that he would die.
Someone has to say no to this lust for revenge.
"This is not revenge!" Xena snarled angrily, as the words Gabrielle had said to her right after they had first met Callisto echoed in her mind. "This is justice!" Martakas had signed his own death warrant when he killed Gabrielle. He was a walking corpse, he just didn't know it yet. Whether Xena killed him herself or she turned him over to the Amazons, the result would still be the same for the warlord: death.
So why was she resisting the idea of capturing him and handing him over to the Amazons for trial? Despite what she had said to Ephiny, she knew she could capture Martakas alive if she wanted to, but that was just it...she didn't want to. She wanted to kill him herself. She wanted to see him on his knees in front of her. She wanted to hear him begging for the mercy he wouldn't give Gabrielle, the mercy he'd never get from her. She wanted to see the fear in his eyes when he realized he had no chance of escaping her; when he realized his own death was at hand. She wanted to watch his body writhe in agony beneath the tip of her sword, as she slowly carved intricate patterns across his skin. She wanted to hear his strangled screams of pain as she buried her sword in his chest and she wanted to feel his blood flowing out over her hand like a warm caress. She wanted to see the light slowly fade from his eyes and she wanted to hear the sounds of his last rattled breaths ringing in her ears.
As she looked at the blood that was now trailing down her arm, Xena shook her head in an attempt to calm her raging soul. Walking over to the washbowl, she filled it with water from the pitcher sitting beside it and then paused as she realized she needed something to use to clean up the blood. Moving to her saddlebags, she began digging aimlessly though them as she tried to find a rag she could use. As she finally found a clean cloth and began to pull it out, it caught on something in the bag. Growling in frustration, Xena jerked on the rag. To her surprise, it came out wrapped around Gabrielle's staff.
Xena froze in shock at the sight of the weapon, having completely forgotten that she had put the staff in her saddlebags. Her breathing grew ragged as she reached out to pick the staff up, her hand shaking violently as she clutched the weapon to her chest. With a low, keening moan, she collapsed to her knees and began slowly rocking back and forth as the pain of losing Gabrielle smashed through her, leaving her shivering uncontrollably as her grief finally overwhelmed her completely. The tears she had shed earlier that day were nothing compared to the sobs that wracked her body, as she finally broke down and allowed herself to mourn the death of her friend and lover.
Xena called Gabrielle's name over and over until her voice was hoarse and raw. She cried until she was too weak to support herself any longer and then slumped to the floor as shuddering, pain-filled sobs continued to be ripped from her soul. Gods above, she didn't want to go on living without Gabrielle. There was nothing left on the earth for her now that her lover had crossed over to the other side. She wanted to die. Even if she ended up in Tartarus and she wouldn't be able to be with Gabrielle, at least she wouldn't have to deal with the agony of knowing that she was alive while the only person she had ever truly loved was dead. And maybe, just maybe, Hades would remember the favors she had done for him and he would at least let her occasionally see Gabrielle as a reward.
She continued to cry for hours before she finally wore herself out. As her sobs slowly eased, changing to soft whimpers and then stopping all together, she lay quietly on the floor, staring silently at the wall. She was drained, physically and emotionally, and she felt completely empty inside. There was no way she was ever going to feel whole again. She had lost her heart and she had lost her soul, all that was left was a hollow shell.
As she continued to gaze silently at the wall, a cold, dark rage began to settle over her. She had grieved for Gabrielle, now she would avenge Gabrielle. No matter how much she might crave death, no matter how much she might desire the sweet release it would provide her, she couldn't allow herself to die just yet. She still had things that had to be done here in the world of the living. She had to see that Martakas paid for his crimes. She would never be able to rest until he was dead.
As she watched the first streaks of light signaling the dawn appear through her window, Xena carefully replaced Gabrielle's staff in the saddlebag, before rising to stand on somewhat shaky legs. Walking back over to the washbasin, she carefully began washing the dried blood from her hand and arm. Slowly she admitted the truth of the situation to herself. She wanted to kill Martakas more than she could even begin to describe, and that was the best reason in the world for her to let the Amazons handle him instead, but it was also the reason that she couldn't let them do it. He belonged to her. She would make certain that his punishment fit his crime. She wanted it and no one stopped the Warrior Princess from getting what she wanted. If Ephiny thought that six Amazons or six hundred Amazons would be able to stop her from doing exactly what she wanted, then Ephiny was in for some very rude surprises.
Xena carefully stretched her aching muscles as she struggled to put her armor on. She glanced at her reflection in the washbowl to make certain she appeared composed, and then quickly gathered up her things and went downstairs. To her surprise, she found Askel waiting in the main room for her.
"Xena," he said with a smile, as he saw her arrive. "Could I talk with you for a moment?"
Shrugging her shoulders, she sat down next to him. "What?"
Askel cleared his throat before speaking. "Well, we were down here for quite some time after you left last night and, after awhile, we got to talking with some of the people from around here about Martakas, trying to find out anything else we could about him." Askel paused for a moment, as a vaguely embarrassed look appeared on his face. "Anyway, a few of the men wanted to know if they could join us. I told them that you were in charge of that and that we couldn't say yes or no to them, but I said I'd ask you for them. I did tell them the conditions you gave us and they had no problems with them."
Xena looked at him skeptically. "They want to come along on a bounty hunt that promises to have no reward but could result in their deaths. Do they actually know what they'd be going up against?"
Askel shrugged. "Martakas attacked this village too," he reminded her. "He didn't do much damage, but he did kill quite a few people. These men want to help make certain no one else has to suffer at his hands again. They don't care about glory, they just want to see justice carried out."
Xena sighed and stood up. Looking down at the young man, she shrugged her shoulders indifferently. "Askel, I really don't care if they come along or not. If they've got horses, they'll agree to my conditions and they're capable fighters then they can come. But I'm not waiting around on them. Where are they now?"
"I told them to meet me here at dawn and to be ready to leave town if you gave them the okay."
"All right. I'm headed to the stables. When they get here come find me and I'll decide if they're strong enough fighters or not."
Askel nodded. "Okay. I don't think you'll be disappointed though," he said, as he watched the warrior walk silently away.
The next several days passed by peacefully for Xena and her growing band of followers. The five men that had joined them in Cardem were quickly followed by four others, bringing the total number of people traveling with the warrior to 19. With the exception of Askel and Alaini, however, Xena barely interacted with any of them. Askel generally acted as a go between for Xena and the men, since the majority of them were so in awe of the Warrior Princess that they found it hard to approach her and Xena did nothing to encourage them to do so. Alaini tended to serve this role for Xena and the Amazons, despite the fact that Cashta was in fact the leader of that small group. Cashta, however, was nearly as reserved as Xena was, while Alaini tended to be more outgoing and direct, making her more suited for dealing with the warrior on a one to one basis.
Xena had little interest in any of the people that had joined her. She knew their names but that was essentially it, and even that sometimes gave her difficulties. She simply didn't care about any of them as long as they stayed out of her way and left her alone. Each night when they set up camp she placed her bedroll far away from the others. She rode slightly ahead of everyone else during the day and rarely, if ever, initiated any conversations. She occasionally informed the others of her plans, but more often than not she simply ignored them. They meant nothing to her and if they all disappeared tomorrow she couldn't have cared less. There was only one thing in her life that mattered and that was finding Martakas and making him pay for what he had done.
"Xena?" she heard a voice call out from behind her.
Turning in her saddle, she saw one of the men moving up to talk to her and she had to struggle for a few seconds to remember his name. "What is it, Elam?" she asked, as she watched him reach her side.
Elam began riding alongside Xena. "There's a village just over those hills," he said, pointing towards the northeast. "They might have information about Martakas."
Xena looked in the direction he was pointing. She wasn't really familiar with this area but if Elam said there was a village over those hills then she believed him. She thought about his suggestion briefly and then nodded. "All right," she agreed. Without another word, Xena changed course and began heading in the direction that Elam had indicated. The men and women behind her followed silently, knowing that any questions directed towards the warrior would simply be ignored.
As they drew closer to the village, they began to hear the sounds of fighting and frantic screams. Xena immediately kicked Argo into a gallop, saying nothing to the others, not particularly caring if they went with her or not. The men and women with her didn't hesitate, however, and immediately followed her as she quickly closed the remaining distance to the village.
Xena charged into the town with her entire entourage close on her heels. It was a toss-up as to whether the townspeople or the raiders were more surprised by the sudden appearance of a score of armed warriors on horseback running through their midst. As Xena and her band began laying into the soldiers, however, the soldiers' astonishment quickly changed to fear and then outright hysteria as they realized they were no match for the new arrivals. A panicky retreat quickly became the order of the day, and the raiders fled in terror for their lives.
Xena moved through the soldiers effortlessly. Her sword flashed in a deadly arc as she carved a bloody path to their leader, killing a total of four men in the process. She laughed as she saw the fear in his eyes when he realized that he was vastly outclassed, and she toyed with him for several more seconds, taunting him as she drew out his horror. Finally he made a desperate lunge for her, hoping to catch her off guard. Xena easily parried his attack and then plunged her sword into his chest, killing him instantly.
Xena looked at the bodies lying on the ground all around her, as she casually wiped the blood from her sword on the man lying at her feet. Several of the raiders had been knocked unconscious by other members of her band and Xena immediately began ordering people to tie up the brigands before they regained consciousness. Glancing around, she finally caught sight of the men she was searching for. "Elam. Jolas," she called out loudly, ordering them to her side.
"A few of the raiders got away. Take however many others you need, I want those men captured...and take Derassa with you. She's the best tracker we have. I want every last one of them caught...No one is to be allowed to escape. Do I make myself clear?" she demanded.
The two men nodded and then hurriedly rounded up a group to track down the bandits. Xena watched them leave, a thoughtful expression on her face. Slowly she grinned, before calling another one of the men to her side. "Tristlac. I want you to gather as many people as you need and go find where these raiders left their supplies. They obviously weren't carrying everything with them, so they must have set up camp nearby. They must have left their food and other supplies there. I don't think they'll be needing them anymore," she finished with a smirk.
Tristlac nodded and hurried away, excited about having an opportunity to prove himself to the Warrior Princess. The immediate concerns taken care of, Xena looked around the village, noticing that she was on the receiving end of more than a few curious stares. Realizing that she was still holding her sword, she returned it to its scabbard and then began walking towards the few remaining members of her band who were standing guard over the prisoners they had captured. "What are we going to do with them?" one of the men asked her.
"Yes, what are you going to do with them...and with us?" she heard someone ask.
Turning in the direction of the voice, Xena saw an older man approaching her nervously. "Are you the leader of this village?" she asked.
"Yes. I'm Vroth. And you are?"
"I'm Xena. The answer to your first question is that we're going to turn these men over to you. They attacked your village, do with them as you wish; it makes no difference to me. As for your second question, we're not going to do anything with you. We were headed here looking for some information when we saw that you were being attacked, so we helped out."
A relieved expression crossed Vroth's face as he heard her words. "We thank you for your help. What information were you seeking?"
"We're looking for a warlord by the name of Martakas. Have you heard anything about him?"
The fearful expression reappeared on Vroth's face. "You're allies of Martakas?"
"No. We're tracking him to put a stop to him. We heard he was moving north but that's about all we know."
"Ahh. Well Martakas came through here a while back. He didn't attack our village but he destroyed a few of the surrounding farms...I don't know much more than that, although I do believe he was headed north from here. I will ask around, though. Someone may know more."
Xena nodded. "Fine. If anyone knows anything, then let one of us know," she said, before watching the man hurry away.
"Kolis," she said, as she turned back to the men who were guarding the prisoners.
"Yes Commander?" he asked as he rushed over to her side.
Xena did a slight double take when she heard the way he had addressed her, before giving a small mental shrug. It certainly made no difference to her what the men called her, as long as they followed her orders and left her alone the rest of the time. "Kolis, find out if anyone was wounded in the attack and needs medical attention. And find out if the villagers need any other help while your at it. Might as well make yourselves useful while we're waiting for the others to return."
Kolis nodded vigorously before saluting her and running off, determined to show that he was worthy of her attention.
Xena shook her head as she watched the young man hurry away. She had no intention of wasting much time in this village, but she couldn't leave until she knew that everyone was all right. And with any luck at all, Tristlac and the others would find that the raiders were well supplied. It was considerably harder for 20 people to live off the land than it was for two people, and Xena was somewhat concerned about their situation. Of course, she could always send the others on their way if things got too bad, but the glimmer of an idea was beginning to take shape in her mind. It had been unbelievably easy to defeat the raiders who had been attacking this town and Xena knew that she and the men and women following her could easily defeat almost any size-matched group of raiders. Martakas' army was still considerably larger than their small band, but who knew how many more people would be willing to join her to put a stop to the warlord once and for all.
Xena and the others left the village early the next morning. The supplies from the raiders had been less than she had hoped for but more than she had expected. The villagers, however, more than made up for any deficiencies, as they willingly contributed to supplying their saviors with whatever else they needed. And when they left the village, three more men accompanied them, bringing the total number of people traveling with the Warrior Princess to 22.
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