It was the middle of the afternoon and the excitement level in Xena's war camp was steadily mounting. The men were cleaning and polishing their weapons, as they mentally prepared themselves for the battle they would be in the next day. They had been chasing Martakas and his army for so long, that it was hard to believe that they had finally caught up with the warlord. But they had, and they had complete confidence in their commander. Tomorrow, Xena would lead them to victory, and Martakas would finally pay for his crimes.
However, there was one small group in Xena's army that did not share everyone else's rising thrill. The Amazons were deeply concerned about the upcoming battle. Not because they had any fears that Xena's army would be defeated, but instead because they were all but certain that Xena intended to kill Martakas herself, rather than allow him to be captured by the Amazons.
The Amazons had become increasingly alarmed about the changes they had seen in Xena over the past few weeks, but they had been powerless to do anything about them. While they were well aware of the fact that Xena had always been a determined and potentially ruthless warrior, there had also been a spark of compassion within her as well. The woman who had fought to keep the Amazons and Centaurs from going to war was gone, as was the woman who had spent time in their village with Gabrielle a couple of months ago. In her place was a cold, angry warlord who had a savage temper and was dangerously close to losing control of her rage. Too many times they had seen the madness and bloodlust in Xena's eyes. In the state she was in, they knew it wouldn't require much for her to snap completely, and killing Martakas would likely be all that it would take.
Alaini looked out across the camp to where Xena was standing over a map, as she half listened to what Cashta was saying. Suddenly becoming aware that her leader had finished speaking, Alaini glanced back guiltily, as she realized that Cashta was waiting for her to respond. "I'm sorry," she said contritely. "I didn't catch that last part."
Cashta shook her head. "Alaini, you have got to pay attention. I asked if you understood what needed to be done?"
Alaini sighed heavily. "Yes, I understand. I just don't think it's going to work."
Cashta shrugged helplessly. "We don't have a lot of options here. If you have a better idea, I'm open to suggestions."
"No," Alaini replied sadly, as she turned back to look at the Warrior Princess, "I don't. I just wish I thought this plan had a better chance of succeeding. And frankly...I wish it was up to someone else to carry it out."
"Ephiny thought it had a chance. She warned us that Xena was unlikely to be willing to simply capture Martakas and, I think we're all agreed that Xena intends to kill him tomorrow." Cashta paused and looked around at the other women. Seeing them all nod their assent, she continued, "And you also know that this is the main reason Ephiny wanted you here with us. You're the only one who has a chance with Xena at this point, the only one who can possibly relate to her and break through to her."
"I know," Alaini agreed heavily, "But that doesn't make this any easier. Dealing with Xena is bad enough at the moment, without trying something like this. One wrong move and I'll be lucky to escape with my head still attached to my shoulders," she said, only half in jest. The Amazon took a deep breath and mentally prepared herself for the challenge ahead. Straightening her shoulders, she started walking towards Xena, before stopping once again and looking at her leader. "Cashta, if this doesn't work...what are we going to do?"
Cashta sighed softly. "I don't know," she admitted. "Do we kill the woman our Queen loved to prevent her from avenging the Queen's death? To keep her from killing a man that we would only execute anyway?" Cashta glanced over to where Xena was standing. "And even if we were willing to...none of us would stand a chance against Xena in single combat and her men would never allow us to attack her as a group. Do we try to attack her from behind or while she's sleeping? All to keep her from killing a murderer?" Cashta sighed again. "If I thought we had a chance of taking her, I might be willing to try. But we can't stand against her and her army, and Martakas could get away from us if we tried. It's better that Xena be permitted to kill Martakas than to allow Gabrielle's murderer to go free."
"Maybe," Alaini said softly. "But do you really think Xena will be satisfied with merely killing him? I don't think that's what she has in mind at this point. She wants revenge, pure and simple...and Ephiny said that could finish her."
Cashta shook her head. "I know. Heads we lose, tails we lose. We either kill Xena to keep her from killing Martakas, or we let her do what she wants and let her destroy herself. Either way, the woman Gabrielle loved will be gone." Cashta took a deep breath, before looking Alaini squarely in the eyes. "We owe Gabrielle more than that," she said firmly. "We have to at least try this one last thing before we give up."
Alaini nodded silently. "All right," she said finally. "I'll try. Wish me luck," she said, as she slowly began moving towards Xena.
"Luck," Cashta said softly, before she began praying fervently to Artemis, hoping that somehow they would find a way out of the mess they were now in.
"Xena? Can I talk to you for a second?" Alaini asked quietly.
Xena looked up in surprise at the sound of the Amazon's voice. The Amazons had been avoiding her even more than usual lately and even Alaini hadn't spent much time with her recently. "Sure," Xena said after a momentary pause.
Alaini sighed to herself in relief, realizing that she had at least cleared the first hurdle. "I was just wondering about tomorrow's battle," she said carefully, her eyes not missing the way Xena immediately tensed up at her words. If she hadn't been sure of Xena's plans before, the warrior's reaction had just confirmed what the Amazons all feared. Xena had no intention of capturing Martakas alive.
"What were you wondering about?" Xena asked cautiously.
Alaini knew she was already treading on dangerous ground, so she deliberately kept her tone light and casual. "Well, we were all curious as to what your plans were for us. What you wanted us to do...that sort of thing."
Xena relaxed slightly, but she continued to keep her guard up. "Oh. Well, I was going to go talk to Cashta about this in a while, but as long as you're here, I'll just tell you," Xena replied, before motioning for the Amazon to come closer. Using the map, Xena described her battle plan to the young woman, pointing out the potential problem areas and explaining exactly what she wanted the Amazons to do during the attack.
After Xena had finished, Alaini was silent for several long seconds, as she carefully considered the warrior's scheme. It was a brilliant plan, but it was obvious that Xena had constructed this strategy with the intention of keeping the Amazons as far away from Martakas as possible. She glanced at the warrior briefly, noticing the barely controlled tension in her body. She knew Xena was waiting for her to make some comment about the plan, but she wasn't certain what to say that wouldn't just cause a confrontation.
After several more seconds had passed, Alaini finally found her voice. "You've outdone yourself, Xena. Martakas doesn't stand a chance."
"Thanks," Xena said roughly, shrugging off the young woman's praise.
"No, I mean it. Unless something completely unexpected happens, this will all be over after tomorrow." Alaini paused for several seconds, watching the warrior carefully. "So I guess the only question remaining is, what will you do then?"
"What do you mean?" Xena asked in a confused voice.
Alaini shrugged. "I mean that one way or the other, this will be finished after tomorrow's battle. Even if something goes wrong and we...we can't take Martakas alive, this will all be over for us. But what about you? What will you do after tomorrow's battle?"
Xena hesitated for a moment, as she suddenly realized she hadn't really thought about what would happen after the battle. She had been operating on sheer rage and anger for a long time now and the only thing she had been focused on was killing the warlord. What did she intend to do afterwards? "I guess I could just stay with the army," Xena finally said. Thinking about it for a few more seconds, she realized that it made as much sense as anything else. "We could do a lot of good."
Alaini looked at her intently. "What about Gabrielle's ashes?" she asked quietly. "What about her belongings? I thought you were going to take them to her parents."
Xena looked at the Amazon with a touch of surprise. "Yeah, I was. But I don't really need to be the one to do that," she said steadily, trying to convince Alaini as much as herself. "In fact, it might even be better if someone else went instead. Her family has never liked me and seeing me again would just upset them further. It would be better if I just stayed away."
Alaini looked at her unwaveringly. "Maybe," she finally said, after several seconds had passed. Turning away from Xena, the Amazon looked out over the camp, taking in the sight of all the warriors scattered around. Chuckling softly, she turned back to face Xena. "I wonder what Gabrielle would think of all of this?"
"All of what?" Xena asked gruffly.
"This," Alaini repeated, waving her hand towards all the warriors. "I wonder what she'd think about your army. It would probably be quite a surprise to her."
Xena glanced at the soldiers that surrounded them. "Yeah...I guess it would," she agreed quietly, before losing herself in thought.
"You know, I've been thinking about Gabrielle a lot lately...trying to imagine how she would fit into an army like this." Alaini smiled slightly at the warrior standing beside her. "It's not an easy picture to come up with."
Xena shrugged. "No, it isn't. Gabrielle would never be comfortable in an army like this for very long, no matter what it was that we were fighting for. Maybe an Amazon army that was fighting to defend its way of life," Xena conceded, "But never one like this."
"I think she'd try though," Alaini said softly. "I think for you she'd make the effort. She loved you very much you know."
"I know," Xena said tightly.
Alaini was quiet for several minutes, as she tried to figure out her next angle of attack. "Do you think Martakas' death will give you what you're looking for Xena?" she eventually asked.
Xena looked the young woman over carefully, trying to decide if there was an ulterior motive behind her questions. "I don't know," she finally replied. "But it's the only thing I have at the moment."
Alaini nodded. "I remember that feeling all too well." Seeing Xena's inquiring look, she shrugged sadly. "You're not the only one who's lost someone. The woman I loved was killed about a year and a half ago. She gave me her right of caste and I avenged her death. Fortunately, her killer was a simple bandit. I didn't have to go through an entire army to get to him."
Xena looked at the Amazon intently. "And did his death give you were looking for?"
Alaini shook her head. "No. I was looking for peace and, I guess, a release from my guilt...but that only came with time."
"Guilt?" Xena asked sharply.
Alaini nodded. "For a long time I blamed myself for Callise's death. I was supposed to be on patrol instead of her but I got tied up with other things and she went in my place. The other women with her managed to get her back to the village. She told me she loved me, but she died before I could tell her I loved her as well."
Xena shook her head. "You weren't to blame for her death. You had nothing to feel guilty about."
"I know that now. And, logically, I knew it back then. But when your heart's been broken, it's hard to listen to logic, isn't it?" she asked gently.
Xena stared at her unblinkingly. "Yeah...it is," she agreed quietly. Xena looked out at her soldiers again, struggling to compose herself. "So?" she finally asked. "How long did it take you to find peace again?"
Alaini shrugged. "I don't know. A long time. Fortunately, I never completely lost Callise. I could feel her with me, and I still carry a part of her soul around inside me...guiding me whenever I feel lost."
Xena was silent for several seconds, as she considered Alaini's words. "And what do you do when you can't feel that part of you anymore?" she finally asked softly. "What do you do when that part of you has been destroyed?"
Alaini looked at her carefully. "I don't know," she admitted. "But when two people truly love one another, when you carry around a piece of someone else's soul within you...it's not that easy for it to be destroyed. It may be hidden deep inside you...but it clings to you desperately. There were times I thought I'd lost Callise completely, but whenever I felt like that, I clung to the tangible things I still had that could remind me of her."
Alaini chuckled softly. "Like this," she replied, before reaching behind her to slowly draw her sword.
Xena's eyes narrowed momentarily when she saw Alaini's action, but she quickly relaxed once she realized that the Amazon was offering the weapon to her. She took the sword and examined it. It was a high quality weapon, perfect balance and expert craftsmanship. After a few seconds, she handed it back to Alaini, a curious expression on her face.
Alaini held the sword carefully and then smiled at the Warrior Princess. "Go ahead," she encouraged. "Draw your weapon...test my skill."
Xena raised an eyebrow questioningly and then accepted the young woman's challenge. The two women sparred briefly, before Xena managed to disarm the Amazon. Xena stared at her in astonishment, as she watched Alaini move to pick the weapon back up and then slide it into its scabbard. Alaini was one of the most skilled warriors she had ever seen with the chobos, but with the sword she was only marginally better than Gabrielle had been.
Alaini grinned ruefully at Xena, as she watched the warrior return her own sword to its scabbard as well. "The sword belonged to Callise. I wear it to remind me of her. To provide me with something solid and real to hold onto when I feel lost. But I never use it. I've never had any proficiency with the sword. Chobos have always been my first choice."
Xena nodded, finally understanding why she had never seen Alaini use her sword. "Does it really help?"
"Yeah...it does. I like the weight of it on my back. It's comfortable and it keeps me grounded. Whenever I used to feel like I was losing myself, I would hold onto the sword. It was my salvation on more than one occasion." Alaini paused, before looking at the warrior curiously. "What about you, Xena?" she asked softly. "Do you have something of Gabrielle's to hold onto? To help connect you to her?"
Xena thought about the question for a few seconds, before shrugging carelessly. "Yeah, I do."
"Then maybe you should try using it," Alaini advised. "Maybe it will help you start to find peace. Because Martakas' death is not going to give you that...no matter who kills him."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena asked, instantly on her guard once again.
"Nothing, Xena," Alaini responded quietly. "But Ephiny told me to remind you of two things before we caught up with Martakas. She said to remind you that Gabrielle loved you and to remind you not to do anything you wouldn't want Gabrielle to know about, because you'll only regret it later if you do. Martakas may have killed Gabrielle but he could never kill the love you two shared. There's only one person who could do that, and that's you." Alaini sighed softly, as she rubbed her hand across her eyes, the strain of the conversation beginning to tell on her. "So I guess you just need to decide where you're going to go from here," she said with a shrug, before calmly walking away.
Alaini could feel Xena's eyes boring into her back as she moved towards the rest of the Amazons, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she finally reached Cashta's side. "Well, I did it," she said in a tired voice.
Cashta nodded, as her eyes moved quickly to where Xena was once again studying her map. "And?"
"We were right. Xena told me her battle plan and it was obvious from what she said that she has no intention of allowing us to take on Martakas tomorrow."
Cashta nodded again. "Did you get through to her?"
Alaini shrugged. "I don't know," she replied. "I think I may have managed to get her pointed in the right direction but she has to decide for herself whether she'll take the next step. And to be completely honest, I have no idea what she's going to choose to do."
Xena spent the rest of the day preparing for the next day's battle and trying desperately not to think about her conversation with Alaini. She wasn't a fool. She knew the Amazon had deliberately brought up the subject of Gabrielle, in the hope that somehow it would sway Xena from the path she had decided to take. But Alaini didn't understand. Xena knew that Ephiny hadn't told the rest of the village all the details about what had happened to Gabrielle. Alaini and the others didn't know what Martakas had done to their Queen. If they did, then they would agree with Xena that it wasn't enough to simply execute Martakas. He needed to suffer the same way that Gabrielle had suffered.
As the afternoon faded into evening and then into night, Xena looked over her camp with satisfaction. Martakas knew they were coming; it wasn't possible for an army of this size to sneak up on anyone. But that knowledge would do the warlord no good. He had foolishly allowed himself to be maneuvered into an extremely vulnerable position, and tomorrow morning Xena and her men would ride right over the top of him. His army was slightly larger than hers, but every one of her men was on horseback, while only about a third of his were. Her soldiers had the advantage of speed, mobility and skill. Victory would be hers at last.
As the hour grew later, Xena tried to get some sleep, wanting to be rested for the upcoming battle. But her thoughts betrayed her and kept her wide awake. Eventually she gave up, realizing that she was too filled with pent-up energy to get to sleep anytime soon. In an effort to tire herself out, she wandered around the camp, sharpened her weapons, checked Argo's tack and tried numerous other tasks, but nothing helped. She was no closer to sleep than when she had first gotten up. Finally she tried to simply sit quietly and focus on her breathing, hoping that meditation would be the answer.
But it was no use and, with an angry growl, she finally gave up. She stalked around the camp like a wild animal, her thoughts and emotions racing out of control. Desperately she tried to remind herself that in a few short hours she would have Martakas at her feet. She just needed to hold on for a little while longer and everything would be all right.
Eventually she walked back over to her gear and began rifling through it, looking for something to keep her occupied. She stopped what she was doing when her hands suddenly came into contact with Gabrielle's staff and, after a few second's hesitation, she pulled the weapon out to take a look at it. She held the staff reverently, running her hands over its smooth lines, before she finally began to assemble it.
She grasped the staff lightly in her hands, enjoying the feel and the weight of it, letting it connect her to Gabrielle. She felt the peace that had eluded her all evening finally beginning to wash over her, as she moved away from the soldiers who were scattered around her. She walked a short distance from the camp until she reached a large open area. Slowly she began to move the staff in an intricate pattern around her body, just as she had watched Gabrielle do countless times in the past. As more time went by, she began moving faster and faster, increasing the complexity of her movements, feeling Gabrielle's presence growing stronger with every passing second.
Xena continued her silent sparring until she had utterly exhausted herself. Finishing her last pass with the staff, she stood completely still, resting her forehead against the top of the weapon as she continued to think about Gabrielle. Alaini was right she realized. Having something solid of Gabrielle's to hold onto did help to bring the bard closer. For the first time in longer than she could remember, Xena felt a sense of calmness in her soul. The fire and the hatred within her had temporarily died down to glowing embers.
Taking a deep breath, Xena walked back to the camp. She took one last look around to make certain that everything was still okay and then made her way to her bedroll. She carefully placed her weapons nearby and then stretched out on the blankets, still clutching Gabrielle's staff tightly in her hands. She hadn't changed her mind about Martakas. She still intended to kill the warlord, slowly and painfully, so in that respect, nothing had changed for her. But for tonight at least, she could pretend that Gabrielle was still a part of her life; she could make herself believe that the young bard would always be with her.
Xena woke up early the next morning, Gabrielle's staff still clasped firmly in her hands. She set the staff aside long enough to put on her armor and strap on her weapons and then picked the staff back up and went to check on her men. Everyone was just starting to wake up and the excitement in the camp was near fever pitch. Xena watched as the men began loosening up and preparing for the battle and then went to make her own final preparations.
She was gazing calmly in the direction she knew Martakas and his army to be, when she heard footsteps approaching her from behind. She waited for several seconds after they stopped before she finally moved. Turning around, she saw Askel standing before her, staring intently at the staff she was still holding in her hands. "What's wrong?" she asked tersely.
Askel shook his head as if to clear it and then looked at her carefully. "What's with the staff? I've never seen you with it before."
Xena shrugged. "It's not actually mine," she said simply, before changing the subject. "Are the men ready?"
Before Askel could answer, Cashta approached. "Xena? Could I talk to you for a second?"
Xena nodded. "What do you want?" she asked the Amazon.
Cashta took a deep breath. "I just wanted to make a suggestion about the upcoming battle...specifically about what you were wanting the Amazons to do. I was thinking that we might be more help somewhere else. The six of us have worked together as a unit for a long time, so maybe it would make more sense if you gave us the responsibility ofÖ."
Xena cut the Amazon off harshly, knowing what she was getting ready to suggest. "Cashta, there will be no changes to the battle plan that I have devised. You and the other Amazons will follow my strategy exactly. You will not deviate from it in any way. And if you don't think you can do that, then you will stay away from the battle completely. Is that understood?" Xena demanded icily.
Cashta opened her mouth to reply and then hesitated, as she heard the sound of movement behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that over a dozen of Xena's men were now standing behind her, watching every move she made with chilling intensity. Turning back around to look at Xena, Cashta nodded her head slightly in surrender. "Yes it is. We'll do it your way," she replied, before quietly walking away.
Xena watched the Amazon leave and then turned to face Askel once more. "Are the men ready?" she asked again.
Askel grinned widely. "We're ready," he said happily.
"Good. Get them in formation. We'll launch our attack shortly." Xena ordered. "Oh, and Askel," Xena said, a bit more softly, "I'm putting you personally in charge of the Amazons. Make certain they follow the plan and keep them away from me during the battle. I will hold you personally responsible if they interfere with me in anyway."
Askel nodded, his eyes glinting with a cold light. "All right. Just how 'forceful' am I allowed to be in making sure they stay away from you?"
Xena glanced at the staff she was still holding in her hands and then looked over to where the Amazons were standing. "Don't kill them. Don't do any permanent damage, but I expect you to do anything and everything necessary to prevent them from getting in my way. I have plans for Martakas and I don't want anything or anyone to interrupt those plans."
Askel smiled confidently. "They won't bother you, Commander. You can count on me."
"Good," Xena said. "Because if you fail me, I will see to it that you spend the rest of your short, miserable life regretting the day you decided to join me. Understood?"
Xena screamed her war cry at the top of her lungs, as she and her army charged into Martakas' forces. She and her men smashed into the waiting army at full speed and almost immediately began to overwhelm the warlord's inferior troops. Xena reveled in the absolute freedom of it all, as the almost carnal thrill of battle and bloodlust began washing over her with increasing intensity. She quickly vaulted off Argo and began cutting a bloody path through Martakas' army. Soldier after soldier fell to her blade. She was a woman possessed, her hatred radiating from her body in waves, and she intended to make certain that as many of Martakas' men as possible died at her hands. Her only regret was that she didn't have the time to make all of their deaths as slow and painful as she intended to make Martakas'
The battle was intense and fierce. Xena's plan had worked perfectly and it was soon clear that their victory was assured. There was no point in taking prisoners and the men knew that their unspoken order was to kill every last member of the warlord's army. The only way one of Martakas' men could avoid this fate was by throwing down his weapon and begging for mercy and, even then, it was anyone's guess as to whether or not he would actually be spared. The hatred that had consumed Xena had spread to the men that followed her and they were all too willing to do whatever it took to please their leader.
Xena lost track of how many men she had killed by the time she finally reached Martakas. As she looked at the man she had been chasing for so very long, her rage began to overpower her and she had to struggle to keep it under control so that she could use it as a weapon against him. She moved towards him deliberately, a feral gleam appearing in her eyes, and she smiled when she saw his eyes widen in fear at her approach.
The warlord took a deep breath and then charged towards the woman who was slowly stalking him. At first he planned to use his superior strength against her, but within seconds he realized that she was far, far stronger than he would have ever dreamed possible. Almost immediately, he was forced to assume a defensive posture, as the demon before him began to rapidly dominate him with her superior skill.
Xena toyed with the warlord for several minutes, laughing wickedly every time she pierced his skin with her blade. She repeatedly drew his blood, slashing his face and hands over and over again, reveling in the cries of pain that each new injury elicited from him. She gloried in the panic that was beginning to build within him, as he saw the hunger for the kill in her eyes. She knew she could kill him whenever she wanted to, but she was most definitely not ready to kill him yet, so she continued to draw the torment out, as she mocked him and promised him that the fun had only just begun.
Xena continued to taunt the warlord, as she slowly began driving him away from the rest of the battle. When Martakas realized what she was doing, he began looking for an opportunity to escape, knowing that he was vastly outclassed and stood no chance against the woman he was fighting. Xena realized his intentions and, with a sudden flurry, she disarmed the warlord, sending his sword arcing through the air to land several yards away. He stared at her in astonishment for a half a second, before Xena kicked out, driving her boot into his groin. As he started to double over in pain, she kicked him again, this time smashing his kneecap, shattering the bone completely.
Martakas fell to the ground, screaming in agony. Xena grinned fiendishly for a few seconds and then launched herself towards him, wrapping her fingers around his throat. Martakas desperately tried to fight her off but she ignored his feeble attempts as she began to throttle him, slamming his head repeatedly against the ground, barbarous snarls emanating from her throat. When she saw the warlord beginning to lose consciousness, a tiny shred of reason penetrated through her madness. No...she wouldn't kill him like this. This was not nearly enough of a punishment for his crimes.
Releasing her hold, Xena quickly rose to stand over her prey. Grabbing the rope at her waist, she hastily tied the warlord's wrists together before whistling for Argo. The mare appeared at her side instantly and Xena immediately leapt up onto the horse's back. Tying the other end of the rope around the saddlehorn, she kicked Argo into a gallop and charged away from the battle, dragging the nearly unconscious Martakas behind her.
Xena rode for a few minutes, until she reached the place she had found the day before while scouting the area. It was perfect for her needs. She would be able to deliver the punishment that the warlord so richly deserved, without having to worry about being disturbed. Jumping down from Argo, she grabbed the rope and began dragging the warlord to the next phase of his sentence. In no time at all, Martakas' arms were securely tied around a tree and his armor and shirt had been removed.
Xena waited patiently for the warlord to become aware of his surroundings, before she moved closer to look him directly in the eyes. "Do you know who I am?" she purred evilly.
The terror in the warlord's eyes was obvious. "You're Xena," he gasped.
"No," Xena corrected him. "I am the last person you're going to see before you leave this world. I am the one you're going to eventually beg to end your suffering. I am your death!" she growled angrily.
Walking back to Argo, Xena grabbed her newest acquisition: a scourge. Returning to Martakas' side, she showed her toy to the warlord, flicking it lightly against his skin and grinning when she saw him tremble with fear. "Ever seen one of these? What am I saying? Of course you have. It's been a very long time since I've used one, but a skill once mastered is never forgotten. Let's see how long it takes me to get this right."
Moving behind the warlord, Xena began the brutal process of flogging him. Martakas screamed in pain every time he felt the sting of the lash and, every time she heard that sound, Xena's heart pounded harder and faster. Her bloodlust was at its height, controlling every move she made and every thought she had. She would satisfy her need for vengeance completely, as she taught him the true meaning of the word torture. Eventually she lost count of the number of times she struck the warlord with the scourge. Every time he began losing consciousness, however, she immediately stopped and waited for him to recover, before beginning the process once again. Finally she realized that he wouldn't be able to take much more before he would be dead, so she threw the scourge aside. She still wasn't ready to kill the warlord yet, not when she had so many other torments left to explore.
For several seconds, Xena gazed at the warlord's bleeding, mutilated back with rapt fascination, before she finally moved to cut him down from the tree to which he'd been tied, smirking as she listened to his tortured groans of pain. She lifted him up with one hand and slapped him hard across the face with the other. She threw him across the clearing, she slammed him into the trees. She kicked, punched and beat him until he was barely able to breathe. She cracked his ribs, dislocated his shoulder, broke his arm and crushed his fingers and she enjoyed every single minute of it. She was pure rage, pure hatred, pure power.
Finally she laid him out on the ground and tied him back up. Xena smiled down at the man lying on the ground in front of her. The warlord pulled weakly at the ropes that held his wrists and ankles, but the bonds were secure and there was no possible means of escape. "Please," he begged frantically. "Have mercy."
A wave of satisfaction surged through Xena. "Mercy?" she asked, as a deranged gleam appeared in her eyes. "How many of your victims begged for mercy? How many of them pleaded with you to stop the torture?" she asked, her voice soft and sweet. She gazed down at him for a few seconds, as if waiting for an answer, before rage suddenly contorted her features into a hideous mask. "And how many of them did you grant mercy to?" she snarled angrily.
Glaring down at the man lying at her feet, Xena welcomed the darkness she could feel consuming her soul, knowing it would provide her with the strength to make Martakas' last remaining moments an utter nightmare. With a pitiless smile, she kicked the warlord's broken knee as hard as she could, laughing maniacally when she heard his screams of pain. Drawing her sword from its scabbard, she carefully placed the tip of it on his left collarbone and began slowly pressing down until she saw blood. A monstrous grin spread across her features, as she deliberately dragged the blade down across his body to his right hip. Reaching down, she drew her hand along the path her sword had just traced, smiling viciously as she watched his blood flow over her skin.
The warlord realized that the woman standing over him was completely mad. As he sobbed hysterically, he struggled against his bindings, but only succeeded in causing himself more pain. He watched with a horrified expression as the warrior placed her sword on his right collarbone and then began slowly moving it down to his left hip.
The warlord began shrieking uncontrollably, as spasms of pain ripped through his body. Xena watched him calmly, her eyes glowing with an inhuman light. After several minutes had passed, she finally moved forward and looked down at him, a bloodthirsty smile tugging at her lips. Placing her sword to his throat, she sneered at him contemptuously. "You have been truly pathetic," she spat out. "Fortunately, all bad things must come to an end." She pressed down lightly with her sword and then pulled it away with a demented little chuckle. "Oh no...that would be too easy wouldn't it? I think I can do even better by you," she said wickedly.
"Please," Martakas begged one last time. "I'll do anything you ask. I'll give you whatever you want. Anything I have is yours!" he promised. "Just don't kill me!"
The anger that had been coursing through Xena's veins before, was nothing compared to the absolute hatred and rage she felt come over her when she heard the warlord's pledge. "You can't give me what I want because you already destroyed the only thing I ever cared about!" she hissed furiously. "You stole the light from my soul. The only thing you have that I want is your blood," she snarled savagely. "And I will take it from you the same way you took my life from me." Quickly stepping forward towards the warlord's bound wrists, she raised her sword and looked at the warlord's terrified expression. "For Gabrielle," she said softly, before swiftly bringing her sword down, smiling demonically when she heard Martakas wail in abject fear.
Her sword buried itself deep into the ground beside the warlord's wrists, as he screamed in horror and passed out from the shock. Xena stared at her sword in confusion. How could she possibly have missed? The warlord hadn't moved a muscle and yet, somehow, she had missed her target. Shaking her head angrily, she brought her sword back up high over her head, took a deep breath and then froze. She ordered herself to bring the sword down, to cleave the warlord's hands from his body, but her muscles remained locked firmly in place.
No...this wasn't happening to her! She was going to kill this man, she swore angrily, tears of frustration beginning to stream down her cheeks. She tried again to make herself bring the sword down, but she couldn't do it, and after several long seconds, she dropped her arms to her side. She couldn't do it. This man deserved to die more than any other she had ever known, and she couldn't do it. Not like this. Not in cold blood. Not while he was unarmed and helpless. She would wait until he revived and then let him arm himself. Then she could kill him and she would still make it painful and torturous for him.
But she was fooling herself and she knew it. She wanted to kill him more than she had ever dreamed possible...and she couldn't do it. If she killed Martakas, then she'd be killing the last part of herself that was worth anything...the tiny part of her that still carried Gabrielle within her. She couldn't do that. She couldn't finish the job that Martakas had started when he had killed Gabrielle. It wasn't much, it had nearly been crushed out of existence, but there was still a sliver of Gabrielle's soul inside her and it was all she had left to cling to.
Glancing at the warlord briefly, Xena assured herself that he wouldn't die from the wounds she had already inflicted on him and then sat down to wait for the Amazons to arrive and take him off her hands. Time lost all meaning as she sat staring silently at the warlord, no longer caring about the battle that had meant so much to her earlier. She just wanted this to all be over.
She looked up as she heard footsteps approaching, relaxing slightly when she saw Askel advancing towards her. "We defeated them, Commander," he said happily, before looking in surprise at the warlord that was lying a short distance away from them. "He's still alive?" he asked in a confused voice.
"Yeah," Xena replied flatly.
Xena glanced at Askel and shrugged her shoulders. "Because I'm leaving him to the Amazons."
Askel stared at her in shock. "You can't be serious. He killed your friend and you're just going to let him get away with that?"
"He's not 'getting away' with anything," Xena snapped, her anger quickly rising at Askel's accusation. "There's only one punishment for his crime as far as the Amazons are concerned. He'll be put to death. He'll get what he deserves."
Askel shook his head. "He deserves a lot more than death...."
"I know that. But I'm not going to kill him."
Askel looked at her intently. "So what are you going to do now?"
Xena shrugged again. "I'll go back with the Amazons...I need to see the sentence carried out before I can put this behind me. And then...then I don't know what I'll do."
"What about us?"
"What about you?" Xena replied, the tone of her voice making it clear she couldn't possibly care less.
"You can't really be planning on leaving. You're our Commander. We're ready to go on serving you...."
"But I'm not ready to keep leading. We did what we said we were going to do. Martakas is a thing of the past, or at least he will be soon enough. That's all we were ever supposed to do."
Askel shook his head in denial. "No Xena, you're wrong. We're destined for so much more. This is stupid. Why are you wasting your time with this Amazon justice? Kill Martakas yourself. You admitted that the only punishment for his crime is death. What difference does it make who actually carries out the sentence? Kill him and be done with it. His blood belongs to you...not the Amazons!"
Xena struggled to resist the sweet appeal of his words. He was right. She'd said it herself. Martakas belonged to her. What difference did it make who killed him? He was essentially dead already, she could just finish the job and this would all be over.
Seeing her resolve weakening, Askel pressed his attack. "And then you can keep leading us. Think of all the good we can do...all the armies we can stop...all the villages we can save. It's what you do best, Xena. It's what you were fated to do and be."
It was true. There was so much she could accomplish with an army that she could never do on her own. She could bring peace and justice to places where there was only anarchy. She could get rid of the bandits that roamed the land. In time, she could even start to take on the larger kingdoms whose lords were unfair and despotic. She could force those men from power and install leaders who were more responsive to their people's needs. She could...she could....
She could be the Warrior Princess again, crushing all those who didn't bow down to her, who didn't share her vision of how the world should be. She could destroy armies and cities because they didn't pay her the proper respect. She could overthrow peaceful nations, simply because they stood in the way of her bringing about a new world order.
Xena shook her head. "No," she said softly. "I won't do it. Not again. Once was more than enough. I'll disband the army. Everyone will go home."
Askel cursed loudly, causing Xena to look up in surprise. "I can't believe it. After all this time and effort to build an army capable of defeating any challengers, you want to just throw it all away. What's wrong with you? I thought you were supposed to be a great warrior, but you refuse to accept your destiny. I can't believe I've wasted so much of my time on you," he finished indignantly. "This path you're on is the wrong one for you, Xena. You know in your heart that the only way you'll ever be satisfied is riding at the head of a mighty army!"
Xena stared at the man standing before her, a sick feeling suddenly beginning to sweep over her. "Who are you?" she demanded angrily.
Askel looked at her innocently but she could see the mocking glint in his eyes. "What are you talking about, Warrior Princess?"
"Ares!" Xena spat out, before quickly leaping to her feet and bringing her sword up to point it at the man standing in front of her.
Askel gave her a pleased look, before shaking his head. "No...but thanks for the compliment," he said, as his appearance slowly began to change before her eyes.
Xena stared at the lean, dark-haired young man dressed all in black who was now standing in front of her. "Strife," she said disgustedly. "Don't you two ever give up?" she asked in a weary tone.
"On you Xena? Come on, you know better than that! Now look. All I need from you is for you to just waste this guy and everything will be fine. You'll be back with Ares. I'll get a promotion. It's a win-win situation for us both," he said reasonably.
Xena glared at him furiously. "I'm not going to kill him, Strife. Get that through your head! Now what in Tartarus is going on here? Hrothgar said he knew you. He said you were the son of an old friend of his."
Strife looked at the warrior carefully. He knew Ares would be furious with him if he told Xena the truth about Hrothgar. Besides, there was still a chance to salvage all of this as long as Xena never discovered who Hrothgar really was. Grinning cockily, he shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Think about it Xena. It's not hard to convince some old geezer that you're someone he hasn't seen in years. I just kinda, you know, winged it. I really was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself," he finished, beaming with false modesty.
Xena rolled her eyes, loathing the sight of the arrogant young god standing before her. "So you expect me to believe that this was all your plan? Don't think for a second that I believe that! Where is Ares? I want to see him...NOW!" she growled in a loud, harsh voice.
"Well...Ares is pretty busy you know," Strife said evasively. "So many wars, so little time. Surely the two of us can come to some kind of understanding that...."
"It's all right, Strife," a deep, masculine voice suddenly said from behind Xena. "Go on. I'll take care of this."
"Uncle. I almost had this all wrapped up. Xena and I were about to come to an agreement...."
"Strife. Leave," Ares ordered firmly, sighing in relief when the godling disappeared. "He's a good boy...but he gets a little too overanxious at times," Ares remarked casually. "Still, decent help is hard to find," he finished, sitting down on a tree stump not far from where Xena was standing. "So, Xena. How've you been?" he asked artlessly.
"This was all a plot to get me back wasn't it?" Xena demanded, her voice trembling with rage. "You set me up...You killed Gabrielle...."
"Whoa, Xena," Ares said, holding his hands up to stop her tirade. "I did not kill your little friend."
Xena sneered. "Fine, you had Strife kill...."
Ares shook his head again. "No. Neither of us killed her. Oh, I admit we took advantage of the situation back there in Nalimore. Strife played the part of the long lost son of one of Hrothgar's dear friends to perfection. But neither of us made Martakas do anything he didn't want to do. The man doesn't exactly need encouragement to torture and kill people you know."
Xena glared at Ares in mute fury. "Why should I believe you?"
Ares shook his head. "Xena...you know that I always keep my word to you. I give you my word that I'm telling you the truth. Neither Strife nor I killed Gabrielle."
Xena's shoulders sagged in defeat, knowing that the god was telling her the truth. "Fine, you didn't kill her," she said flatly, before sheathing her sword and sinking back down to sit on the ground. She was completely exhausted, her strength having drained out of her as her anger had subsided.
Ares shook his head sadly as he looked her over. "Xena, what am I going to do with you? Why do you insist on denying who and what you are? Your friend is gone. I'll admit that I'm not sorry about that fact, but you should admit that there's nothing keeping you from coming back to me now." Ares rose from where he was sitting and moved forward to kneel beside Xena. His voice was soft and sensual and his words flowed over her like a silken caress. "Come back to me Xena. Use this army you built to do whatever you want. I don't care if you want to use it to protect peasants. I just want to watch you do what you do best. Ride at the head of this army again. Let me take in the delicious sight of you in all your magnificent glory. You have been awe inspiring and majestic these past few weeks. Come back to me Xena," he coaxed once again. "You know it's what you truly want to do."
Xena desperately fought against the seductiveness of Ares' voice and words. Closing her eyes tightly, she mentally reached out for something to hold onto, something to ground her, as she felt the amazing attraction that Ares had always held for her threatening to consume her once again. Finally, she found it. The same tiny piece of Gabrielle's soul that had kept her from killing Martakas now gave her the strength to resist the temptation to succumb to Ares as she had so long ago. "No," she ground out hoarsely, her breath coming in short, harsh gasps. "I'm not going back to that way of life. I won't be that person again."
Ares swore loudly, as he rose and stalked away. "So now what?" he demanded furiously. "What do you intend to do now? What about your army?"
Xena opened her eyes slowly and struggled to focus on the angry god who was now standing several feet away from her. "I'll see to it that the Amazons get Martakas back to their village. I'll take Gabrielle's things to her parents...And then I don't know what I'll do. After I take care of Gabrielle, it won't really matter what happens to me anymore...live or die...it won't make any difference to me," she said listlessly. "As for the army...I'll send them all home. They can have the spoils of Martakas' army as payment. I never cared about any of that."
Ares scoffed at her. "Do you think it will be that simple? Do you think you can so easily send them all away? You formed an army Xena and someone will be waiting to take control as soon as you step down."
Xena looked at him steadily. "Who? 'Askel'? We both know Strife can't lead the army for you. Don't forget Ares...those men wanted to follow me...They're good men, not mercenaries, not bandits, not bullies. Without Askel or me to lead them, the majority of them will be willing to go home. And the ones who aren't...well I'll handle them personally. That army will be no more. I'm not going to leave it as a mess for someone else to clean up."
"You don't have to do this Xena...."
"Yes...I do. I made a promise a long time ago, and I intend to keep it," Xena replied calmly, as she finally rose to her feet. "And we have nothing more to talk about. Good-bye Ares," she said quietly, before moving over to check on Martakas once again.
"Not good-bye Xena," Ares said softly. "Just until next time," he finished, before vanishing from sight.
Ares watched with silent rage as Xena and the Amazons left the battlefield with Martakas in tow. She had done what she had said she would do. She had disbanded her army and scattered the men to the winds. Xena had been right. Many of the men had only been interested in following her and defeating Martakas and, with the warlord crushed, the driving force to be a warrior had vanished for them. Most of them would have been willing to continue serving Xena, or perhaps even Askel, but without either of their two leaders, the majority of the men were ready to take what they wanted from what was left of Martakas' army and head home.
There were a few men who tried to hold the others together, wanting to keep the army going under their own leadership. Xena made it clear to everyone, however, that she would personally destroy any army that formed from the remnants of the one she had just dispersed, and the impetus for creating a new army quickly died down. Ares briefly considered stirring things up again to make things more difficult for Xena, but he realized it wouldn't accomplish anything. At best, he could force Xena into the position of killing several of the men who had once been her soldiers but that still wouldn't give him what he really wanted. It was time to cut his losses. He would just have to move on to something else.
"She really is magnificent. I can see why you want her back so much," Strife sighed softly, as he moved forward to stand beside the God of War. "I mean, the way she just tears across the plains, screaming that battle cry of hers. And the way she toys with her opponents just before she kills them...it's...it's...it's just incredible. And have you ever noticed how she...."
"STRIFE!" Ares growled angrily. "I don't want to hear about how wonderful Xena is. I already know and I'm definitely not in the mood to listen to this right now!"
"Riiiiight. Sorry about that," the young godling said contritely. "So, Unc'...what do we do now?"
"We finish it," Ares replied in a cold, hard voice.
Strife stared at him in confusion. "Finish it? But Xena has already...."
"Uh huh...And what do you want to do about the bard?"
Ares stared quietly in the direction Xena had disappeared. "The bard? The bard dies."
Strife looked at the God of War, a puzzled expression on his features. "Uhh...I thought you told Xena...."
Ares interrupted him. "I told Xena that we hadn't killed Gabrielle. Past tense." Ares glanced briefly at Strife, as a menacing grin began to spread across his face. "I didn't say anything about what could happen in the future."
A look of pure admiration appeared on Strife's face. "Now you see...that's why you're the God of War and I'm just...hmmm...what am I exactly anyway? I really need to get a decent title," he said plaintively, as he began wandering around, muttering under his breath, trying to come up with a new name.
Ares listened to him for a few seconds, before he rapidly began to lose his patience. "Strife! Go!" he finally ordered harshly, rolling his eyes in exasperation.
Strife looked at him with a touch of surprise. "All right...I'll just zip over and take care of that little bard for you...."
"Strife! I meant go away...as in leave. I'll take care of Xena's little friend on my own. I want that pleasure for myself."
"Ahhhh...okay. Well, I'll just catch up with you later. Let me know if you need me," he said eagerly, before fading away.
Ares stood where he was for several more minutes, before finally cursing softly. "I almost had you, Xena. I was so close that time." Shaking his head, he sighed ruefully. "Well Gabrielle, it looks like you were able to save Xena from me one last time. Too bad for you she won't be able to return the favor," he concluded with an evil chuckle, before finally fading from sight.
Ares stood in the tavern silently, as he watched Gabrielle cleaning the tables. He was invisible to her as well as the rest of the mortals at the moment and he intended to remain so for a little while longer. How had she managed it? How had this...this...thing managed to make such a change in Xena's life? He knew that his idiot half-brother Hercules was partly responsible as well, but Hercules' involvement had been negligible in the long-run. He had helped Xena to turn away from Ares' path, but the god would have had her back long ago if it wasn't for the influence of this stupid bard. He had been certain that all he had to do to get Xena back was to remove Gabrielle from her life, but the damage had already been done. It might have worked a year ago, but it was too late for that now.
Ares scowled as he watched Gabrielle wander around the room. He'd told her he preferred her as a slave than as a spirit in the Elysian Fields and he'd been telling the truth. But that had been when he was certain he was going to get Xena back. Now that his plan had failed, Gabrielle was a loose end...and he hated loose ends. There was no point in leaving her alive any longer. She would still end up in the Elysian Fields, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about the possibility of Xena finding her and getting her back. And maybe, just maybe, after more time had passed without Gabrielle around, Xena could be lured back to his side once again.
He waited patiently for Gabrielle to leave the tavern and enter the back room. With his powers, he could kill her anytime he wanted to, but he intended for the young woman to know that he was the one responsible for her death. He wanted to watch her face as he plunged his sword into her and to hear her moan in agony as her life drained from her body. Eventually his patience was rewarded and he saw Gabrielle walk into the back room and shut the door behind her. Grinning widely, he straightened up and began moving in that direction as well.
"Hello, Brother. How are you today?" he heard a voice ask smoothly, stopping him in his tracks.
Cursing to himself, Ares turned around slowly to see an athletic young woman leaning against the back wall. The woman was dressed in soft leathers but no armor, and was wearing a bow and quiver full of arrows on her back. "Artemis," he said tightly. "What an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. What brings you here?"
"I could ask the same of you Ares...but I think we both already know the answers to each other's questions, don't we?" she asked with a feral grin.
Ares' eyes narrowed slightly. "What's going on here Artemis? There's nothing here that concerns you."
The goddess laughed softly, as she straightened up and walked further into the room. "Nothing here that concerns me? Correct me if I'm wrong, Ares, but weren't you getting ready to kill an Amazon Queen? I'd say that definitely concerns me."
Ares rolled his eyes. "This is a personal matter between Gabrielle and me, Artemis. There's no reason for you to get involved."
"I got 'involved' the moment you decided to kill her. Now I'm telling you to back off and leave her alone."
Ares laughed out loud. "Since when did you get so concerned about this particular mortal? You certainly weren't paying much attention when she was sold into slavery and beaten repeatedly by her owner. Has she suddenly become your 'chosen one'?" he sneered rudely.
Artemis regarded him steadily. "Gabrielle is not my 'chosen'. I have no more interest in her than I'd have in any other Amazon Queen." Artemis looked her half-brother over with an expression of disdain and contempt. "I gave you a little room to maneuver here because you were trying to get Xena back, but now you've gone too far. You crossed the line when you made the decision to kill Gabrielle, and if you think I'm going to simply allow you to kill an Amazon Queen, either as part of one of your silly little schemes to get a warlord back to your side or for any other reason, then you're an even bigger fool than I thought."
"So now what? Do you expect me to return Gabrielle to Xena?" he asked mockingly.
Artemis shook her head. "No, I don't expect that from you at all. She'll end up with Xena again or she won't, but either way, her 'life' is off limits to you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that if you want to keep trying to win Xena back, fine...but you will leave Gabrielle's life out of it. There'll be no harming her to force Xena to return to your side. She is an Amazon Queen and therefore falls under my sphere of influence, not yours," Artemis said coolly, as she calmly looked her brother in the eyes. "Do we have an understanding here?" she asked, after several seconds had passed.
Ares glared at her silently for a few moments, before finally answering her question. "Yes," he ground out angrily. "We have an understanding."
"Good...now swear it by the River Styx," she demanded.
"By the River Styx?" he growled indignantly, unable to believe she wanted him to swear what would be an unbreakable oath.
"Swear it. Or I'll tell father who it was that seduced that virgin he was after...Jasline wasn't it?" she asked sweetly.
Ares swore loudly in frustration, before he finally submitted. "I swear, by the River Styx, that I will never in any way physically harm Gabrielle," he said in a low, angry voice.
"Good. And 'in any way' includes ordering or 'allowing' Strife or any of your other little immortal minions to do it for you. And you won't be giving some mortal godlike powers so that he can harm her either. Agreed?"
"Agreed. By the River Styx I agree," his fury at being thwarted radiated from him in waves.
"Fine. Well, now that that's settled, I guess you'll be leaving."
Ares stared at her for a few seconds, before finally responding. "Until next time, Sister dear," he said softly, as he faded from sight.
"Looking forward to it, Brother dear," Artemis replied, before vanishing from the tavern as well.
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