A DESTINY DENIED, A DESTINY FULFILLED
Amphipolis. That's in Thrace isn't it? Gabrielle inquires though already knowing the answer. She smirks at her own cleverness and knowledge. The warrior woman takes no notice of her as she gathers up her saddlebags and begins to load them with what meager supplies are available to her. I like to study maps and place names, she continues trying to illicit some response from Xena. The woman in dark leather just places a bundle in her saddlebag then looks around to see if she has forgotten anything.
Gabrielle frowns then pushes forward. So what road do you usually take? she asks using her most subtle and innocent voice.
Don't even think about it, Xena says letting some menace seep into her voice as she grabs her sword and the rest of her traveling supplies.
What? Gabrielle says knowing that response doesn't sound nearly as uninterested as she wants it to.
Following me, Xena replies. The last thing she needs is some warrior worshipping village girl trailing behind her. She has one desire: to go home. To forget the sins of the past. To move on with her life. To start over if possible. She knows it may be difficult but she will try.
Gabrielle starts to explain the situation in this small village. She wants to tell the warrior woman why she'd like to travel with her. She's tired of this village life. Tired of her family telling her what she has to do. She knows she isn't meant to be here. She's meant for greater things. Greater things certainly than marrying Perdicus and tending fields and making babies. No one seems to understand her. Not even Lila.
But she doesn't get the chance to plead her case. Xena turns on her drawing her sword with practiced ease. Gabrielle lets out a squeal of fear as the point of Xena's blade is thrust under her chin. She stares into the steely blue eyes of a woman who has dealt death to hundreds, possibly thousands, in the past decade. There isn't anyone in this land that doesn't know Xena. Xena , the warrior princess. Xena, the Destroyer of Nations. But for a few moments Gabrielle had seen a woman who had stood up for innocent people when she had rescued them earlier in the day. But the eyes that stare back at her are not the eyes of a savior. They are the eyes of a killer who has no time for stupid peasant girls.
I travel alone, Xena hisses. She presses the point of her blade under the girl's chin and draws a drop of blood. The girl gasps as the single drop runs down her throat and follows the line of her neck and pools in the hollow above her chest. Got it? she asks making clear that any answer other than agreement may lead to more than a drop of her blood being spilled.
Fearing that if she speaks the point of the sword may cut open her throat , she blinks and hopes Xena understands the gesture. For a moment the warrior's eyes remain locked with hers and Gabrielle is terrified that she may die on this spot at this moment. Good, is all Xena says before she grabs up her gear and walks from the hut.
Gabrielle slumps to the floor. She sits there in silence contemplating just how close she had been to death. How could they be the same person? She thinks to herself. She had seen Xena fight for their freedom against Draco's men. It had seemed a selfless act. Perhaps she read something into it that was not there. The warrior woman had been smiling through out the duration of the fight. It occurs to Gabrielle that their savior may have just been happy to have a person and a reason to fight. She'd talked to men from other places who had passed through about war and fighting. None of them had said anything about it being fun. But Xena had been ecstatic while in combat with the warlord's minions. She places her hand under her chin and wipes at the blood. She looks at her blood in her hand and finds she is cold and shivering. No, not cold. She is shivering in fear. That woman is a monster, she thinks. Fine judge of character you are Gabrielle, she says aloud to herself. Maybe next time you can keep your big mouth shut.
She sits alone in the hut and continues to wipe her blood away with her hand. She waits until the bleeding stops before she exits and hopes that no one notices the cut under her chin. She doesn't feel like explaining it and listening to every say how they told her so. How the woman is dangerous and best left alone. As she walks across the village back to the hut she shares with her sister, she keeps her eyes to the ground. Several of her neighbors hail her asking about the warrior princess who has just left their village. She increases her speed to her home and is soon running.
As she reaches the hut, she is relieved to find that Lila is not inside. She barely makes it to her bed before collapsing of mental and nervous exhaustion. She buries her face is her pillows and for reasons she can't comprehend she starts crying like she hasn't since childhood. Something is tearing at her soul. She feels as though something very important in her life has been obliterated. She tells herself that she should be overjoyed to have left Xena's presence with her life. But deep inside of her it is as though she has been ripped in half and will never be the same again. That she will never be who she was meant to be.
I want you to spare that village, Xena says looking into the eyes of Draco. She can see that as she says the words he is absolutely stunned and confused.
You care about those peasants? Draco says in mild shock. What does Xena, Destroyer of Nations, care about a few measly villagers being sold into slavery for a profit? A thought occurs to him. Either she is teasing him or is testing him in some way. I could have mercy on that village if he holds the thought between them waiting to see how she will respond.
What? she says trying to bite back her disgust at what she knows Draco wants.
You join with me, Draco says with enthusiasm. Surely she cannot resist the idea of a union between them. Her skills and his army would be undefeatable. Together we'd make an invincible team.
I can't do it Draco, she replies to his offer.
The warlord can't hide his disappointment as Xena turns her back on him. What does that mean? he says. He can hardly believe the words she is uttering. Is this the same woman that held his army to a stand still those years ago? That dueled him and then shared his bed afterwards?
I'm going home, Xena states. There. She has said it. No more fighting. No more battles. No more wars.
Enraged Draco draws his dagger and puts it to the warrior princess's throat. I dreamt of being with you in love or against you in battle, he explains through teeth clenched in anger. You won't give me the satisfaction of either. Will you? Will you!
Xena turns to face him. All he can see is the face of a coward. The face of a little girl who is afraid of the big, bad world. This isn't the woman he knew. That Xena is dead. This child has replaced her. He sighs in exasperation. I could spare that village. For old times sake. In Ares' name, what a waste, he thinks.
Thank you, Xena says. Those villagers and that girl will be safe. She wonders for a moment why the girl stands out in her mind so much. When she had heard her running her mouth as her father asked Xena to leave she had been absorbed by the idea that she knew the girl somehow. But she has never been to Poteidia before, despite its relative location to her home. It hardly matters. She had made her point with the girl and knew she wouldn't follow her home.
What do you hope to find back in Amphipolis? Draco asks as she makes to leave. This at least he wants to know. Does she expect just to walk into her mother's tavern and for everything to be forgiven? For her kinsman to just accept her without question? She's a bigger fool than he thinks if she believes that.
Forgiveness? I tried to go home once. My father nearly beat me to death with a blacksmith's hammer. The memory makes him sick. He takes some solace from the fact that he returned years later and returned the favor. Only he got the job done and left his father's body in his smithy. You'll get the same treatment I did. I guarantee it.
Xena leaves without another word. Draco waits for a few moments before calling out to his lieutenant. Hector!
The scarred face of Hector steps from behind a curtain. He can hardly believe all that he has heard. That was Xena? The warrior princess? Sounded more like a Hestain virgin.
Have your men follow her, Draco instructs him. Let me know the moment she is out of this area.
Planning on following her then attacking her home valley? Hector asks.
Draco rounds on his subordinate and laughs. Of course not. We came here to get slaves to sell. And that is what we are going to do. We need weapons and supplies if we are to keep moving east. These are all hard working villagers. I'm betting they'll fetch a fine price on the market.
Hector grins, exposing his disgusting teeth. As you wish. Lord Draco. Hector salutes then leaves to carry out his orders.
Draco's eyes linger on the spot where Xena had stood. Pathetic, he says as he picks up a map and tries to decide on the easiest route to the nearest slave market.
Gabrielle sits up in bed staring at the door. It's a warm night but she feels cold nonetheless. She hugs the blankets closer to her and tries to will herself to forget about the day's events. She doesn't want to give Xena another thought but she can still see the cold blue of the warrior's eyes. How they had burned into her soul and left a scar there far more permanent than the cut under her chin. The discussion she'd had with her father earlier still fresh in her mind, she closes her eyes wanting sleep to overtake her.
Do you know what she is called outside of Thrace, Gabrielle? The Destroyer of Nations Her father had said those words with such conviction that she could see no way to contradict him. You were lucky to end up just with a cut. I'm going to have a talk with Perdicus. What was he thinking leaving you alone with that that butcher?
She knows her father is right. She had heard of Xena's reputation. Who in Greece hadn't? What did she think would happen? That Xena would let her travel with her? That the warrior would lift her up into the saddle like a friend? People like Xena don't have friends. Stupid, she says to herself.
Lila stirs in the bed next to her. Her younger sister sits up and sees Gabrielle staring at the door. You're not thinking of following her, are you? Lila asks.
Gabrielle laughs humorlessly. No Lila. There's no chance of that. She made it abundantly clear that she travels alone. She tilts her head back so Lila can see the small cut under her chin.
Gods, Gabrielle! Lila exclaims shooting out of bed to sit next to her sister. She looks carefully at the cut. What did you say to her?
I asked her where she was going, Gabrielle replies. That's all.
So you were planning on following her! Lila says. Gabrielle. That woman is a murderer. Her name is feared throughout Greece for a reason. She'd have killed you if she'd found you trailing after her. Why in Hera's name would you even contemplate such a thing?
Gabrielle turns to face her sister. Lila. We both know I don't belong here. I've told you this before. I was meant for greater things.
Don't start with your delusions of grandeur again Gabrielle. You were born a villager and that is what you'll be. How I wish that bard had never come through here and spouted those stories. You aren't a heroine from myth. You're Gabrielle. If you were meant to live any other life you wouldn't have been born here.
I'm not delusional Lila! I just know what my heart tells me. The wife of a farmer is not my destiny.
Destiny? Listen to you. You've let your head get filled with these crazy ideas. No wonder father is always so upset with you. Do you talk to him this way?
I would if he'd listen. But no one around here listens to me. Not father. Not mother. Not even you. Damn it! Gabrielle throws back the blankets and gets out of bed. I don't want this! she opens her arms to indicate the hut they live in. Don't you understand?
I understand that my sister is crazy, Lila states.
Gabrielle stares daggers at her sister and is about to unleash a string of curses when a scream cuts through the night.
What was that? Lila runs to the door and peers though the space between the door and its frame. She can see an orange wavering light that can mean only one thing. Fire. I think the village is being torched!
Gabrielle's anger with her sister in gone in an instant. What? Let me see. She pushes Lila aside and peeks through the opening. No. She sees a fire consuming a home across the way. Suddenly a shape blocks her view. She gasps and jumps back. The door opens to reveal
Perdicus! Gabrielle says with relief. Her betrothed fills the doorway and she finds herself glad for his presence.
Draco s men are attacking the village, he informs them. Your father told me to get the two of you out of here. So come on! We have to His words are cut short as the point of a sword erupts from her chest. He stares down at it with a mix of surprise and bewilderment. His eyes then turn to Gabrielle before they glaze over in death and he falls to the floor.
No! Gabrielle screams. She drops to her knees next to her childhood friend and future husband. As she watches his blood pool on the floor, she laments the fact that she never told him just how much she really cared about him. She had never cared for the idea of her prearranged marriage to him but she had cared deeply for Perdicus despite her actions and words to the contrary. Now she will never be able to let him know.
She looks up into the face of the man who had earlier in the day tried to kidnap her and others but was foiled by Xena's interference. The dirty face leers down at her. I remember you, he says gleefully. He looks at the body at his feet. Friend of yours? He bursts into laughter.
Gabrielle surges to her feet and draws back her fist. The man kicks her in the gut and she drops back to her knees clutching her stomach in pain.
Gabrielle! Lila shouts.
No warrior princess to help you this time, the man states as he lashes out with his foot and kicks Gabrielle in the head. Her vision swims for a few moments before she pitches forward to the floor.
Gabrielle awakens to find she cannot move a muscle. She is lying on her stomach with her arms wrenched painfully behind her back and bound together. Her legs are bound at the ankles and pulled up to be tied to her arms. The whole position has her arched in such a way that she wishes she were still unconscious. She tries to protest this treatment only to find she cannot speak due to being gagged by a huge wad of cloth.
There's no reason to treat her this way, Lila says. The man who'd captured them, Hector, holds her tightly in his grip as he breathes in her ear.
She's a feisty one, he explains to her. She can smell his awful breath as he continues. I think we might all be safer with her like this.
Gabrielle struggles on the floor uselessly for a few more moments before the pain makes her subside. She sees booted feet step before her. Hector? Draco says inquisitively. Why is there a girl hogtied at my feet? The warlord smiles as he asks the question.
Well she did try to attack me, Hector responds.
After you killed our friend! Lila cries out.
You need to be shutting up dear, Hector hisses as he gives her a squeeze. Not a good idea to speak to your new owner like that.
The words make Gabrielle's blood run cold in her veins. After all that had happened this morning. They were going to end up slaves after all.
Guess Xena should've stuck around to make certain I kept my word, Draco says laughing triumphantly.
Gabrielle thinks of the warrior princess and curses the woman for allowing this to happen. She had stepped in to help them this morning. And had apparently even gone to Draco. To tell them they could take the village or to warn them off? If the former then her father was right about Xena. If the latter then she is an even more contemptible human being than Gabrielle thought because she hadn't bothered to stay to make sure. She'd left. And now they would be slaves.
How many do we have Hector? Draco asks crouching down to look at Gabrielle closer. He finds that he likes the strawberry blond hair and the green eyes that stare back at him with such hatred.
Sixty two, Hector says quickly.
I thought this village was more populated than that, Draco says brushing a stray lock of Gabrielle's hair from her face. The girl growls at him like an animal.
Quite a few resisted, lord Draco, Hector says. He inhales the scent of the girl in his arms for a moment before he continues. We were forced to deal with many of them. Including that girl's boyfriend and their parents.
Oh well, Draco replies looking into Gabrielle's eyes as he casually shrugs off the murder of forty-six innocent people. He sees tears forming in the girl's eyes. He slaps her face playfully. Don't worry. I'll make sure you're not alone. He stands and points to the girl clutched in his lieutenant's arms who is also crying though a bit more audibly that the one bound before him. So these two are sisters?
Correct my lord, Hector says.
It would be a shame to split them up, Draco says wandering about the tavern. They are the only family they have left now. He jumps behind the bar and finds a bottle of wine. He pulls the cork out with his teeth and spits it aside. He gulps down half the contents of the bottle then tosses it to the floor where it shatters.
I think I'll keep them both.
Hector tries hard to hide the disappointment on his face. He had hoped to have the dark haired one for his own. Very well, lord Draco, he says. He nods to two men standing by the door. Have them taken to Draco's tent. And tell Anya to have them prepared for this evening. He shoves Lila into the arms of one of the men.
See, Draco says looking into the girl's watery eyes. You won't be alone. He smiles. And neither will I.
The woman Anya is no kindly old lady who will wash them and treat them like human beings. Before she is through dressing them she has slapped both girls on numerous occasions when they do not comply with her commands. She spends her time ordering a trio of other slaves girls to dress Gabrielle and Lila in clothing that hides very little of their bodies and what is under cloth can be easily seen through the sheer material. They are roughly cleaned and their hair rinsed. Then Anya has their faces powdered and painted saying that Draco likes his women to look pretty and presentable.' Their wet hair is tied back into tight buns behind their head. To hold their hair in place one of the slave girls slides thin silver ingots about a hand's length through the buns. Lastly leather collars with a foot of golden chair are secured about their necks. When Anya presents them before Draco, she shoves them both to their knees.
I believe these belong to you, my lord Draco, she says with pride at her work.
Yes indeed, Draco says looking up from his maps. They look exquisite; especially the blonde. He can't wait to give these new slaves a test ride.'
Gabrielle and Lila turn to face each other and see the fear reflected in each other's eyes. Anya seizes their heads and turns them forward so they are facing Draco. This is your new lord and master, she says in a voice dripping with venom and spite. He is the god of your world and if you want to survive you will do exactly as he says. She steps before them and lifts the chains around their collars. She holds them out for Draco. He comes forward and takes the chains. He tugs on them. The sisters do not respond so Anya seizes them by their throats and lifts them to their feet. She slaps them both. I think it might take a little doing to break these two, she states. She sees the hatred boiling in the eyes of the blonde. Especially this one.
That will only make it more fun Anya, he pulls on the chains leading the two girls towards his bedchambers. I think tonight will prove most pleasant.
As the last rays of sunset bath the fields on the edge of Thrace, a lone rider emerges from a forest whipping his horse into a gallop and dragging something behind him. He drives the horse halfway across a field of hard scrub and tall grass then reins the animal in. He dismounts and begins to loosen a rope tied around the saddle horn. Coiling up the rope onto his arm, he walks back to what is tethered to the opposite end of it. He unties the rope from the ankles of the unconscious woman at his feet. Clad in armor of leather with bronze filigree, the woman lays face down in the dirt. The leather is torn across her back in numerous places exposing skin and the underlying tissue. He reaches down and pulls the filigree from the armor deciding it will fetch a fine price for people interesting in raw bronze. Wedging his foot under her body he flips her over onto her back. She looks not much better. Bruises cover her face and again the leather armor is shredded revealing mangled flesh underneath. He pulls the bronze from the front as well. One eye in swollen shut and blood is trickling from her mouth, nose and ears. He doubts she'll ever smile the same since he sure some of her teeth were knocked out during the stoning.
He removes her gauntlets, armlets and greaves. They'll be worth something too. She groans as he unlaces one of her boots. He slams his elbow into her face just to be sure she doesn't regain consciousness while he is working. He gets off her other boot then walks over to his horse. He throws all he has taken from her into his saddlebags. He looks at her own saddlebags that Cyrene had slung over the horse as he'd begun dragging her out of town. He likes the sword. He'll keep that. The round thing he doesn't even know what to think off. He tosses it on the ground near her. He drops her saddlebags and a water skin next to the round metal object. He wishes he had the horse. The tan colored warhorse would've been worth more than the armor, bronze and sword combined. But the blasted animal had bolted as soon as they'd emerged from the tavern with her.
He stands over her and spits. I hope you've learned now Xena. We don't want you to come back. Ever. He stomps on her chest to make his point to the unconscious warrior princess. He mounts his horse and considers trampling her. But decides it is getting late. He should get back. His wife is making his favorite stew for dinner after all. He rides away into the woods.
Argo nuzzles her mistress's shoulder repeatedly and watches for any sign of movement. She remains still. She stomps the ground with her hooves with all her equine might. Still there is no reaction. She knows her mistress isn't dead. But she can't seem to wake her. Resigning herself to waiting she gets down on the ground as close to her as possible and watches her closely. She exhales a long breath before putting her head down to go to sleep.
Xena wakes up to a pain too much like the gauntlet for her tastes. Her head is throbbing. Her chest feels like someone is inside hacking away at her insides with a dull pickaxe. As she tries to lift herself up to a sitting position she painfully discovers that not only are two ribs broken but also her left arm. Something touches her shoulder and she turns to find Argo standing by her. She smiles a little and finds that hurts too. Bringing her hand to her mouth she finds blood still oozing. She bites down and hears a crack. She turns and spits out a molar.
Using her good arm she levers up to sitting position after a few minutes of self-diagnosing herself. One broken arm. Two broken ribs. Probably twice that many bruised. The pain in her kneecap tells her it's either broken or the tendons are torn. Ankle might be broken or perhaps nerve damage. Numerous cuts and lacerations. Some are into muscle. One or two may be down to the bone. She won't be seeing out of that eye for a while. She investigates her teeth with her tongue. Two good chewing teeth gone and one more chipped in half. She finds a nasty cut on the under side of her thigh that's going to require a lot of stitches. Going to need to get these cuts treated before infection sets in, she says aloud. Argo snorts loudly. Yes. Yes. I know. For once it seems Draco was right. You can't go home.
The pain of her mother telling the villagers to do whatever they wanted to her is more painful than any physical wound. Before Cortese she had been her mother's little girl. To go from that to having her mother walk away while the people she grew up with pelted her with rocks is nothing short of traumatic. She tries not to let the reality of it set in.
Ok, she says to Argo. We need to be leaving. Preferably to somewhere I can garner a healer for the afternoon. She thinks a moment about where to go. She could go back to Poteidaia. But her memory lingers on the girl, Gabrielle. She need not have been so harsh. She just wanted to be left alone. She can't understand why now she feels as if she should have said something else. Been kinder. Oh get a grip Xena, she says to herself. What were you going to do? Take her with you? Right. Still there was something about the girl's eyes.
With some effort she gathers her chakrum and saddlebags together. She searches the bags to find one hard as a rock loaf of bread and some moldy cheese. The water skin is only half full. And they took my herbs, she groans. She could have least used them as a temporary poultice on the wounds. She checks the wound on her thigh and finds it still weeping blood. She whistles Argo over. The horse stands by her and she reaches up to grasp the saddle with her good arm. She is about to try and haul herself up onto Argo's back when she hears a footstep behind her. She swings around with her chakrum ready to fight whomever it may be. Her knee and ankle unfortunately won't allow her to do that and she crashes to the ground seething in pain.
A man in dark clothing with a trim beard and close cropped hair stares down at her with what can only be described as disappointment on his face. His arms rest on a huge sword sheathed at his belt. You are such a disappointment to me Xena, he says crouching down so he is eye level with her.
And just who in Hades are you? Xena asks through the pain.
You don't recognize me? he inquires.
Should I? she retorts.
He stands and turns his back to her as he speaks again. That was quite a display of ineptitude and stupidity back there. First they stoned you then had some farmer drag you miles out of town behind his horse like you were a common criminal. He claps his hands slowly. I applaud you on your need for retribution for past sins. I'm assuming that's why you let them do that. And also why you let your army put you through the gauntlet. My half brother would be proud of the morality he's diseased your mind with.
Half brother? Xena says in confusion. Then it dawns on her who this is. She has never seen him before in the flesh but she has heard his voice and felt his presence many times before. Hercules pulled me back from the abyss that I jumped from so long ago Ares. She stares into the dark eyes and handsome face and finds it hard to believe this is the loathsome god that Hercules so despises.
And look where it's got you Xena, Ares says pointing to her. It's pathetic. This is what comes from trying to do the right thing. Trying to be a hero. Why are you doing this? I have armies all over this land that are waiting for you to lead them to conquest and victory.
I'm not going back Ares, she tells him.
Well going home certainly didn't work, did it? he says, his face cracking into a smile. You don't belong at home' Xena. You belong at my side. Ruling a world that you've conquered by the sheer of force of your will. Dominating the people whose only purpose is to be subject to those better than them. It's your destiny.
My destiny Xena pauses as she once again starts to pull herself onto Argo. The words come out through teeth gritted in agony. With each use of her muscles her body erupts in pain. Is what I make of it, Ares. With a grunt of pain she settles herself onto Argo's saddle. And it doesn't include you!
She signals Argo and the war horse takes off at a gallop leaving the god of war standing alone in the field.
Fine. This isn't over! He disappears in flash of white light and thunderous sound.
Gabrielle sits with her back against the wall listening to Lila in the next room thrashing about in the tub trying to wash Draco off of and from within her. The warlord has taken over the inn for his stay and has housed himself in the best room. Lila is muttering to herself repeatedly that this day is a dream, a nightmare. That it hasn't happened, that their parents are still alive and that they are not the sexual playthings of a warlord. The words keep spilling out like a mantra. Gabrielle claps her hands over her ears to drown it out. But she can't. The images of the past day repeat themselves in her mind. Perdicus's death. Their capture. The loss of all their family. And their ultimate humiliation in the bed of Draco. But she refuses to give in to it. Hector can tie her up. Anya can dress her like a whore. And Draco can treat her like one. But she will not let herself be broken. Never. She rips off the clothes Anya had put them in hours ago. She undoes the collar and tosses it aside though she'll be forced to where it when Anya returns. She pulls the silver ingot from her hair and begins to throw it away too but stops. She looks at the metal. It's long and thin. She stares at one end of it and contemplates something.
She looks around the room for a few moments until her eyes come to rest on a corner of the room where a nail protrudes from the wall. She rushes over to it and kneels down. She looks at the nail that is a bit jagged and rusty then looks at the piece of silver. She presses one corner of the silver to the nail and starts a short but fast rubbing motion. She stops when she hears voices in the hall. She watches the door intently but the voices pass by. Draco's soldiers going to their own rooms, she's certain. She returns to rubbing the ingot against the nail. After many minutes she looks at the metal. Just barely she can see where some of the silver has been rubbed away. She smiles knowing that with enough time and patience she can draw a point from it. She begins rubbing at the nail once more listening for anyone approaching. And wishing to the gods that Lila would shut up.
Xena cries out in pain as the young healer sets her arm back in place. The others gathered in the hospice all look in her direction. They look away just as quickly as she turns her eyes on them and yells, What are you looking at?
A young girl steps to her side with a bowl filled to its brim with a thick paste. She nods to the healer. I've brought the healing herbs Vontius, she says.
Okay. I'm going to get some stitching material, Vontius says. He lays a hand on Xena's arm. She immediately jerks her arm away. But since it is the one that's broken she yelps in pain. I'll be right back to finish tending to you ma'am. He walks quickly away.
The young girl has taken a step back. She seems a bit too timid to be working in a hospice in Xena's opinion. She holds the bowl at arm's length. Do you want to do it yourself? she asks in a low whisper that most people probably wouldn't be able to hear.
Xena looks at the girl and shakes her head. Best you do it, she says. I don't think I should move too much.
The girl simply nods then begins to layer the poultice onto a gash on her stomach. The healer, Vontius, had told her that she has sustained no internal injuries during whatever encounter it was that caused so much damage. Xena would consider that an act of the gods if she thought any of them was watching over her. Well Ares is but I hardly think he would do anyone a kindness, she thinks. So she chalks it up to dumb luck.
The girl layers some bandages over the cuts that won't need stitching. Could um you ah roll over, the girl mumbles.
With some effort Xena does just that. The girl hisses in shock when she sees the mangled tear on the back of Xena's thigh.
What's your name? Xena asks her feeling sorry for the girl now.
What? the girl replies apparently befuddled by being asked such a question.
It's a simple enough question, Xena replies. What is your name? Nobody ever ask you before?
Not in here, she answers. Most of the people that come in here seem to be either warriors or bandits or thieves. I don't expect any of their type to care about the name of the one saving their life.
Well I'm a warrior and I do want to know, Xena says hoping her remark about being a warrior doesn't scare the girl away.
Ti Tillia, she answers.
Thank you for your help Tillia, Xena says. A bit of advice though. I'd hold off on the poultice for that wound on the back of my leg until Vontius can stitch it shut.
Right, Tillia remarks as she begins applying poultice and bandages to other wounds on Xena's backside.
It takes Vontius an eternally long time, during which Xena repeatedly asks him if he even knows what he's doing, to stitch the wound on her thigh closed. The young healer takes it all in stride never once losing his temper or even faltering in his work.
When he is done Xena thanks him. You're pretty good at this for someone so young.
I've spent the last three years as a healer in Gaul with the Roman legions, he explains. I've gotten good at it through repetition.
The mention of Rome brings to mind only one thing. Caesar. She pushes it out of her mind knowing that if she starts to think about it too hard it will consume her. Healers are a light in the darkness of war, she says to him. I should know.
You are a warrior? Vontius asks.
It occurs to Xena that even if one of her former lieutenants was lying in the bed next to her, he might not recognize her because of how bruised her face is. Small wonder this young man doesn't know she is the warrior princess. Yes. She tries to roll back over.
But Vontius halts her. You should lay on your stomach for a while to give the stitches and the poultice time to work.
Of course. She extends her good arm out to him. Thank you for your help.
He surprises her by taking her arm in a warrior's grip and says, You're welcome. Best get some sleep.
She nods as he walks away. Tillia starts to walk away as well. Tillia, she calls out to the girl. She turns to look at the wounded warrior. Thank you, Xena says. Tillia smiles ever so briefly then rushes off to follow Vontius.
In a dreamscape void of light or shadow people line up before Xena to point accusing fingers at her. All those she has betrayed vent their hatred on her.
I had such hopes for you Xena! Lao Ma cries. But you are so consumed with death. Only your own demise shall end it.
We trusted you Xena! Cyane wails. We were going to make you one of us. Instead you killed us all and turned our souls over to Alti!
I loved you Xena! Borias screams. And for that crime I had my life and my son stolen from me!
You used me Xena! Iolaus shouts. You tried to turn me against my best friend!
Xena awakens. But realizes she is still dreaming when she sees the face of the last man she betrayed staring back at her.
Xena, Iolaus says reaching out to lay a hand on Xena's shoulder.
Xena curses aloud and nearly roles off her bed in an attempt to escape the phantasm. But she finds this is no dream as he catches her and keeps her from falling off and doing further harm to herself.
Iolaus? she mutters. She runs through a list in her head of people who would be the last person she'd want to see at that moment. Considering what she did to him, Iolaus is pretty high on that list.
What happened to you? he asks taking in all the cuts, bruises and various wounds.
She hears the concern in his voice and that hurts more than if he had been angry at her. She'd pretended to love him for the simple reason of turning him against Hercules whom she wanted out of the way. It makes her feel absolutely horrible that he can still care for her even after that.
Hercules told me that you were going home, he replies to her silence. This hospice is quite a ride from Amphipolis.
For a moment she considers lying to him. But she has done that enough to him. And he is too good of a man to treat him as she did before. She inhales deeply knowing that repeating to another living soul what has just happened to her will be painful. She does however leave out the visit to the village, Draco and the green eyed blonde. She finishes by telling her about the arrival of Ares.
Iolaus sits down on the cold stone floor of the hospice and looks into her eyes. I'm sorry, he says with a compassion that surprises her.
And so am I, she starts but before she can continue her apology for her past sins against him he holds up his hand for her to stop.
It's in the past, Xena, he informs her. Hercules told me that he trusts you. And that is enough for me.
She smiles but a single tear still rolls from her good eye. She opens her mouth to ask for his forgiveness but realizes that she doesn't need to. I really thought I could go home, Iolaus. I was fool. Draco was right. I mean my mother just walked away from me.
Xena, he says. She can see the emotions running through him as he tries to find any words that will help. When he finds none he takes her hand in his and holds it tightly.
She chuckles a little then says, A month ago who would've thought we'd be here like this?
He just smiles his boyish smile and shrugs.
What are you doing here anyway? she asks him at last.
I was traveling back east and passed by here, he answers. Tillia walks back towards them when she sees Iolaus, probably thinking he is another warrior in need of aid. He holds up his hand and shakes his head to let her know he needs no assistance.
But why? she retorts to his vague answer. Surely you didn't walk up to the building and go I sense a half dead warrior princess inside.' What made you come inside?
This, Iolaus says and holds up her chakrum. I don't know of too many others that use these things. So when I saw it dangling from a tan war horse outside I knew.
She stares at her weapon in shock. She hardly remembers arriving at the hospice. Small wonder she had forgotten to bring it with her.
Curiosity got the best of me, he says by way of explanation.
I'm glad it did, she responds. She squeezes his hand in gratitude.
Do you want me to find he trails off.
Hercules, she guesses. She thinks of her feeling for Hercules and draws her hand back from his slowly.
I'm sorry, Iolaus says aware of the intimacy of the contact suddenly. I didn't mean to
No. It's all right. I needed the touch of a friend right now. Preferable to the touch of the people I grew up with. And no. I don't think I can face him or my feelings for him right now. I'm still not sure about it myself. But will you do me a favor?
Stay with me until I can get out of here. I don't know that I want to be alone right now. Her mind wanders back to the girl again. Why do I keep thinking about her? she thinks.
That's what friends are for, he says. However I should probably see to the stabling of your horse.
Argo, she informs him of her mount's name. Then she remembers the nature of the beast. Wait a second. You just walked up and took the chakrum off my saddle? And she didn't react at all?
Just looked at me.
Guess she's a good judge of character.
He lays the weapon on the cot next to her then walks back towards the door. As he leaves he ponders why Xena doesn't wish to see Hercules. Is it because she thinks he'll be ashamed of her for some reason? Or is it because she doesn't want to show her current weakness to him?
As he ponders his conundrum, he sees a caravan moving down the road going past the hospice. He spies the blue sashes hanging from the shoulders of all the men both walking and on horseback with the wagons and carts. Draco, he says recognizing the sash as the badge of the warlord. For a moment he thinks of acting on the impulse to confront the man who has been having his way with local villages and selling citizens into slavery from Rome to Syria. The moment is gone quickly. I'm just one man. That's an army. Even I'm not that bull headed and arrogant. Despite what Hercules thinks sometimes. He laughs a little.
He sees the warlord himself astride a grey mare. The man rides with an air of authority as if he were royalty. His nose up in the air, one hand casually on his mare's reins and the other settled on his waist as he looks about him. With shock, Iolaus sees two girls, one dark haired and the other a strawberry blonde, walking to either side of Draco. They wear next to nothing and have collars around their necks. They are obviously prize slaves for him to present them so openly. His hand closes into a fist and he hears the joints cracking. He summons all his self-control not to try some desperate, and catastrophically stupid, act to free the girls. He shakes his head. Something about the blonde draws his attention. Whereas the dark haired girl walks with a dazed look on her face like she is sleepwalking, the blonde wears a look of defiance that only a man possessed of a rare ego bordering on megalomania could not see as something that could explode into a murderous rage. He suspects Draco possesses such an ego. He watches the caravan pass before making his way to Xena's horse.
Another dawn approaches. And so another night of being the warlord's whores has come to an end. Gabrielle and Lila are ensconced in a tent next to Draco's. Gabrielle pulls the silver hairpiece from her hair and lets it fall free. She stares at the piece of silver. She'd barely had time to work on it at the inn before Draco had set his army on this march. She looks all around the tent for anything she can use to work more on its transformation into a weapon. She sees nothing and curses silently.
Lila however is far from silent. She paces back and forth in the tent muttering too loudly for Gabrielle's liking. It'll never stop. He'll never let us go. We're going to be his slaves forever. Unless he just grows tired of us and kills us. We're dead. We'll never survive the season. He'll become disgusted with us. Then he'll slit out throats and leave our bodies on the road.
Gabrielle stands in front of her sister causing Lila to halt her pacing but not her constant muttering. Gabrielle slaps her sister so hard she drops to her knees. Shut up! Just shut up! Lila stares up into her sister's eyes with pain and confusion. Tears stream down her face smearing the colors Anya had painted on her face hours ago. Gabrielle runs her hand through hair and tries not to let the sight of her sister like this tear her up inside. She can't give in to the grief or the fear. She has to hold on to her anger. She knows that is the only thing that will keep her alive and allow them to escape one day. And more importantly will allow her to kill Draco when the time is right.
Her eyes latch onto something beside Lila. Something underneath the tent floor is causing the material to poke upwards. Ignoring her sister totally she shoves her aside then grips the fabric in her hand and rips it open. Underneath wedged into the soil is a rock. She picks it up and looks at it. It's a dull grey with flecks of some kind of crystal embedded in it. It seems heavy for its weight and is just big enough to rest in her palm. She sits down on her cot and starts to rub at the silver with the rock. She labors at it for several minutes before inspecting the silver hairpiece. She has indeed removed more material from the silver. It is not as significant as what she had removed with the nail in the inn. But it will work. And it might save her the trouble of constantly having to find something to work on the silver with everywhere they go. Her gaze goes to the rip in the floor. Her mind races trying to think of an excuse for it. Anya will no doubt want to know what happened. And she will not be happy whatever the reason.
Lila mumbles something but Gabrielle ignores her as she lies down on the cot and tries to go to sleep.
She is awakened what seems only seconds later by her cot being turned over and her spilling out onto the floor. She rolls onto her back to find herself looking up into the enraged visage of Anya.
On your feet now! she roars.
Gabrielle gets to her feet though not as quickly as she knows she should in this woman's presence. Her slow response to Anya's command does not go unnoticed by the taskmistress. She practically snarls as the words come from her lips. What are you hiding? she demands pointing down to the rip in the flooring.
Gabrielle wills herself not to look at the pitcher of water in which she hid the stone she found there so recently. Her answer to Anya's question is silence. From her cot Lila just watches in fear as her sister taunts the woman with her unresponsiveness.
Anya's reply is not so simple. With lightning quick speed she grabs a riding crop that Gabrielle has noticed on the woman's belt but has never given any thought to. The leather implement hits Gabrielle's right cheek and she spins around to fall to the ground. Her face stings like it is on fire. When she places her hand to it she draws it back to find blood. As she stares at her bloody hand she finds it trembling with rage. She turns her gaze up to the woman. She can see a staining of blood on the tip of the riding crop. And she can see the insidious smile on her face. She longs to take that crop and bring that smile to an end. She closes her hand in a fist and concentrates all her will to contain the anger she feels. Now is not the time, she tells herself.
She gets to her knees then bends her head down so that her eyes are on the floor. I am sorry mistress, she says in her most submissive tone. I accidentally ripped the floor a little while ago. I didn't want to get in any trouble so I hid it under my cot.
Anya grunts, satisfied with this excuse. Gabrielle is glad the woman's arrogance did not let her see the defiance in her eyes. She'll have to start acting more like a slave. If she ever wants to get the opportunity to make Draco pay for all that he has done.
Anya places the bloody end of the crop under Gabrielle's chin and lifts the girl's face up so she can look at it. She smiles quite pleased with her handiwork. I think I've given you a scar Gabrielle, she says. She plays the tip of the crop across the wound she has made. Almost in the exact same place his is. I think he may like it. You'll look fiercer. Like a warrior scarred in battle.
Yes mistress, Gabrielle replies making sure not to make eye contact. Gabrielle decides that when the time does come she'll kill this bitch as well.
Anya taps the crop against the wound and says, Get some sleep. I'm sure that Draco will want you both rested for his morning activities. She laughs as she exits the tent.
Before Gabrielle can stand Lila is kneeling by her. She places her hand on the gash on her sister's face. Are you all right? she asks.
Gabrielle hisses in pain as Lila touches her face. She shoves Lila to the floor. Don't touch me! she yells.
Lila skitters away from her sister terrified at the look in her green eyes. I'm I I'm sorry I she stutters as she tries to form words in the presence of her enraged sibling. I just wanted to see if all right I mean
Go to bed Lila, Gabrielle tells her. Lila merely nods and crawls onto her cot and pulls the cover over herself completely. With a tentative finger she touches the gash on her cheek. She has to agree with Anya. It will be a scar she will carry for the rest of her life.
Iolaus walks back into the hospice with a bundle tucked under one arm and a sheathed short sword in the other. He couldn't find any type of armor at the small shop nearby, only a simple tunic top and some cotton breeches. The smithy had been decidedly short on stock as well. He'd only had a few short swords and some axes. He doubts Xena will be up to swinging an axe any time soon. He actually doubts she'll be up to swinging anything for a little while. But no doubt she'll want some kind of sword while they travel. And if she wants armor she'll have to wait until they get to the next town or village. King Gregor's capital seems an obvious choice for a stop over once they have left the hospice.
As he nears Xena's cot he is shocked to find that she in no longer there. Instead another patient with black hair shorter than his now occupies her place. He looks around quickly to see if he can see where she has been moved. Surely it would be impossible for her to leave considering her condition. The patient is sitting on the cot with his back to Iolaus. He taps him on the shoulder and asks, Have you seen the woman that was just here?
The man turns and Iolaus finds himself facing Xena! he exclaims a bit louder than he intended. More than a few heads turn their way at his shout.
Shh She places a finger over her lips. I think there are more than a few people around here who might think the same way about me as my fellow villagers. She looks disappointed at his purchases.
That all you could find?
We'll have better luck in the next town, he replies handing her the sword.
She draws it out and tests the weight. It'll do.
Glad you approve, he says. Why did you do that? he asks pointing to her barely off the shoulder hair cut.
She runs her hand through her hair. I don't know, she answers with a shrug. New life. New look maybe.
These might help, he holds out the bundle of clothing to her.
She settles the clothing in her lap. Can you find Tillia? I don't think I'll be able to get these on by myself. She tries hard to hide the disgusted look on her face. For the better part of a decade she has done what she wants, when she wants. She swallows her pride, as she has to ask someone to help her dress.
Iolaus sees the look in her eyes and knows what it means. Sure, he says walking away from her to find the girl.
Vontius concludes his examination of Xena's legs then stands. He turns to Iolaus and says, I'd really she rather not travel too much. Her knee is swollen considerably.
But that will go down as long as she's off her feet. And she'll be riding her horse the whole way I can promise you that, Iolaus informs the healer. Over the shoulder of Vontius he can see Xena scowling at him as he says what she will and won't do.
The damage to her ankle is more pressing, Vontius goes on as if Iolaus had said nothing. Nothing is broken but I can't guarantee the tendons will heal back correctly. She'll walk again but it might be a permanent limp.
Perfect, Xena thinks. She walked with a limp after Caesar had her legs broken until Lao Ma healed the damage. She certainly has no intention of limping back to Lao Ma and begging the woman to heal her again. She probably wouldn't anyway after the way she disappointed the woman last time. She had wanted to turn Xena from her violent ways. But Xena would have none of it. She only wanted my salvation and I repaid her with grief, Xena thinks.
And the more she moves the more likely that wound on her thigh will reopen, Vontius informs them.
Look I promise I will do everything I can to keep her from doing any other injury to herself, Iolaus promises.
She really should stay until he begins again but Xena cuts him off.
I'm leaving whether any of you can agree on this or not, she tells them both. I'll crawl out of here to my bloody horse and have him drag me away if I have to. But I'm leaving here today.
See? How can you argue with that? Iolaus asks the healer who throws up his hands in defeat
Tillia! Find this woman a cane or a staff please, Vontius says. He looks over Iolaus's shoulder at Xena. Just please take care of yourself. All right?
Xena smiles at the healer's concern. I will. And thank you for all your help.
It's my purpose in life, Vontius says. His attention is drawn away from them as an older man is dragged in with cuts all over his body. Put him over there! Vontius instructs them as he makes his way over to any unoccupied cot.
Iolaus turns to Xena. Now would you really have crawled out of here?
I don't know, she replies. I just want to get away from here. Get out of Thrace all together.
Tillia returns holding a tall wooden cane in the shape of a T. Here you go, she says handing it to Xena.
Thank you, Xena says. She sits up off the bench and tries her weight on it. She cringes at the pain in her knee and ankle. Do you have another of these Tillia?
I think so, the girl says as she darts off again. She returns soon with an identical cane.
Thanks, Xena says again. She puts one cane under each arm then uses them to hold herself up but keep her injured leg off the ground. That works. I owe you Tillia.
The girl smiles. Take care of yourself, she tells the woman.
I will, Xena says reaching out and mussing the girl's hair. Tillia grins then walks over to aid Vontius.
Time for us to go then? Iolaus asks. Xena nods and they move towards the door.
As he helps her onto Argo Iolaus wonders if he should tell her about Draco moving through the area. He decides it best if he doesn't. She might feel the need to try and do something about the warlord and in her present condition that would be suicide. So where to?
West sounds good to me, she says pointing in the direction of the setting sun.
West it is then, he says giving Argo a gently tap on her hindquarters.
West proves to not be the best of ideas.
Xena drives Argo forward at an intense gallop right up next to the speeding chariot. With her good arm she reaches down and heaves up the small boy to settle him in front of her on the saddle. Then she turns the horse sharply as she sees Iolaus step out from behind a cluster of tall grass on the riverside. He hurls a spear straight at the chariot. The weapon gets caught in the wheels of the vehicle and the chariot veers out of control and breaks apart as the horses drag it along. The two men riding it are thrown to the ground.
You'll die for that! Cycnus screams as he rises with an axe in his hand.
People keep saying that to me. Iolaus shrugs. But I'm still here.
I'll finish him father! Sphaerus shouts as he charges towards Iolaus like an enraged beast. He screams the entire time as he closes with the man.
As Sphaerus slashes down Iolaus simply sidesteps the clumsy attack and punches the warrior in his side. The young warlord's breath is knocked from him and he stands there immobile. With the same hand he has just landed the punch with Iolaus shoves the man's sword arm out of his way then twists in to deliver a massive upper cut that lifts the man off his feet. He is out cold before he even touches the ground.
Iolaus turns to where Cycnus is standing in stunned disbelief. Iolaus gestures for the warlord to approach. Come on Cycnus! You know you wanna try! But then again if you've got half a brain maybe you'll just walk away.
The warlord seems as though he about to retreat but instead he runs to the remains of his chariot and pulls out a crossbow. He turns to Iolaus. He smiles when he sees the surprised look on his opponent's face. He is about to pull the trigger when he hears a high-pitched whistling noise. For an instant he ponders what the sound could be. In the next instant Xena's chakrum has cut his throat. He is dead before he even touches the ground.
Iolaus shakes his head and says, Guess he wasn't that smart. He looks over at where Xena sits astride Argo. The boy in still on the horse with her.
The chakrum comes back to her hand. She hooks it back on the saddle. She turns to meet Iolaus's eyes. She can see the look that tells her he wishes she hadn't killed him. But she'd had no choice. She reacted as a warrior to save him.
He walks to her and looks up at her. Are you okay? he asks.
She nods and indicates the boy. We'd better get him home, she says.
Right, Iolaus says glancing back to their brief battlefield. Maybe we should have tried east instead.
They stay at the home of the boy's father, a widower ex-soldier named Darius, for the night.
I'm happy you brought my son back to me but I have to ask you to leave first thing in the morning, Darius insists as he puts his children to bed. We're a peaceful people here. And we don't want any warriors here.
Look we just rescued your son, Iolaus protests. And I'm willing to bet you'll get no more visits from Cycnus any time soon.
You fought and you killed, Darius states. You expect me to praise your violent ways?
Hey! We Iolaus's protest dies on his lips when Xena places a hand on his shoulder.
We'll leave at first light, Xena informs the man. She shifts in her chair and winces when she accidentally puts weight on her injured leg. We appreciate you lodging us for the evening.
Darius goes to a closet and pulls out a few towels then hands them to Iolaus. The barn is out back, he says then heads back into his children's room.
Iolaus makes a fist and fights the urge to slam it onto the table. I don't think the table has done anything to earn your wrath, Xena says. She levers herself up and gets onto her crutches. Barn's out back. She nods towards the door. Iolaus just laughs and opens the door for her.
It takes him a little while to get a usable bed made of the straw in Darius's barn. Best I can do, he admits pointing to the pile of straw and blankets.
Xena looks down and shrugs. I've spent years sleeping in the dirt. This will do fine.
Guess we have that in common, Iolaus says making a make shift bed for himself as well. He sees her start to try and get down onto the bed by herself. He is unsure whether to help her or not. Wondering if her pride will allow it. But she manages to lay down with only a hiss of pain.
She watches him lay down to sleep. Iolaus, she says.
What is it? Iolaus questions.
Is this the fate I've brought on myself for past sins, she asks.
He is silent a moment before answering her question. I don't know Xena. It seems to me no one deserves to be treated as you have. Especially by their own kinsmen.
I brought shame to them all with what I've down, Xena interjects. Maybe I deserved every rock that hit me. Every foot that horse dragged me. Eventually the cycle of pain had to come full circle back to me. Right? Fate? Karma?
I'm hardly the person to talk to about matters of karma and fate. I spent some time in the east. But I was far more interested in their way of fighting than in their philosophy.
The east? Xena says surprised herself by his words. Did you ever go to Chin?
For a while, he replies. It was a long time ago.
I had a friend in Chin.
Had? Something happen to him?
Her. I use the past tense because she would have nothing to do with me now. She tried to change me. Tried to make me look past the violence that had become the focus of my life. I betrayed her trust. She was opposed to violence but was the strongest person I've ever known.
What was her name?
Iolaus closes his eyes for a moment. He allows the memory to seep into him. I met her once. He feels guilty somehow to admit it to her. He can still recall the meeting.
She was standing on the porch of her resplendent home dressed in a flowing gown of red silk. The man who was his teacher at that time was there to ask the woman for instruction in meditation for him. Iolaus had been young, brash and exceedingly arrogant. Before they had even placed one foot on the steps leading up to the house the woman had help up a hand.
Sui-Yong. There is no need to bring this boy any further, she proclaimed to them in a voice beautiful in its gentleness but suffused with an authority that he was sure could bring Zeus to his knees.
But please. He is Sui-Yong began but Lao Ma cut off his words with a glance from eyes that Iolaus was certain were staring not at him but at his soul. And his soul was trembling in fear.
He is arrogant and foolish. He desires to be a warrior but he has little understanding of what that means. His mind cannot know the peace of meditation for it is too preoccupied with his own desires to meet and exceed the accomplishments of all who have gone before him. Her eyes met his for the first time and he understood that she knew what was in his heart. How deep does your jealousy run boy?
Iolaus had turned and ran from the house with all the speed his young legs could generate.
Jealous? Xena says. Of Hercules?
Yes, Iolaus says. I would never be able to match up to Hercules. I was no son of Zeus. So I dedicated myself to becoming a warrior without peer. I trained my body to perfection. I never met anyone I couldn't beat. All of my fellow students fell before me time and again. I started strutting around like I was invincible. But when Lao Ma looked at me it all tumbled down. I wasn't a warrior. I was just a bully. I thought I was superior because I was a better fighter. I so often wonder what she could have taught me if I had been a better person.
Me too, Xena agrees. Guess we have more in common than I thought.
Seems so, he says. He puts his hands behind his head and looks up at the barn ceiling. So I thought we'd head to Gregor's kingdom.
No, Xena says. She shifts and feels the pain of her wounds. She grits her teeth and declares, I can't let my arrogance or my pride get in the way anymore. I'm going to be a better person. She rolls over to look at Iolaus. In the morning I'm going to take a first step in the right direction. I'm ready to see Hercules.
Lila is asleep and Gabrielle can tell by her tossing and turning that she is having nightmares again. No doubt seeing the leering face of Draco hovering over her while he violates her body. Her sister's nights have been like this for weeks. And with each passing night she grows more tired of it. She had always thought her sister was strong. But her continual crying and blubbering night after night has proven Gabrielle wrong. Lila is weak. And Draco likes her that way. Likes a pathetic girl he can toy with and break down physically and emotionally. He thinks he has that with them both. But each night after being taken from Draco's tent the submissive blonde who will do anything to please the warlord vanishes. To be replaced by a woman who wants only to see his blood on her hands. And soon she will.
The rock she had found nearly a month ago is hardly a pebble now but it has done almost all she needs. The piece of silver she holds in her hands is one step away from being the dagger she needs. The night she has been waiting for is nearly here. The next time she is in the bed of the great warlord Draco it will be a night to remember, for her at least. She returns her attention to her task and ignores the whimpering of her sister.
What are those? Hector says pointing to some strange totems tied to the trees before them. Draco's
caravan has halted at the edge of a lush forest where his lieutenant is studying the circles of feathers, stones and bones.
Those are the boundary markers of Amazon land Hector, Anya answers as she approaches. They basically translate, as trespassers will be disemboweled.' I can't quite figure out what the bones stand for. Never read about those.
It's quite simple actually, Draco informs them as he exits his tent. If you look closely you'll see that those are the long bones of an equine leg.
Horses? Hector bellows. What's the point of that?
Not horses Hector, Draco corrects him. Centaurs.
But why are there centaur bones in this totem? Anya asks leaning closer to examine the bone, which she now sees still, has a piece or two of rotting flesh attached to it. And she knows why. The centaurs are at war with the Amazons! So we're standing on the edge of a war zone? Are you insane?
No, Draco points out with a smirk. In fact here comes someone who can help us.
From the far side of the tree line a single rider emerges. A thin man with uneven stubble on his face and a pasty white baldhead he rides the horse uncomfortably and when the beast comes to a stop he practically falls off it. A neglected sword is stuck into his belt and a short bladed but exquisitely crafted dagger is sheathed next to it. He nods his head and asks, You are Draco?
Indeed I am, Draco replies sizing up the man and finding him definitely lacking. Krykus sent you?
Yes, the man says. My lord Krykus has agreed to inform you of the safest path through this war zone. For the price of two hundred dinars.
What? Hector roars drawing his sword. The man takes a step back and bumps into his own horse, which startles him enough to draw his own weapon. You would dare to ask for a toll from my lord Draco?
Oh stop it Hector, Anya says. Put your sword away. I'll gladly pay twice that to avoid traveling through a war zone occupied by Amazons and centaurs.
As would I, Draco agrees. You get half now and half when you guide us around tomorrow morning.
The man nods his understanding. Draco gestures towards where they are setting up camp and says in an inviting tone. Enjoy the hospitality of our camp.
Thank you my lord, the man says following them into the scattering of wagons and tents.
Might I inquire what started this little skirmish? Draco asks as his curiosity gets the better of him. I heard the Amazons and centaurs had been living in a truce for the last fifty years.
The man smiles and his misshapen teeth show through so vividly that Anya finds it repulsive. It seems that an Amazon princess was murdered by the son of the centaur's leader. He was captured and executed by the Amazon queen, Melosa. That was almost a month ago.
And your lord stays here because Anya starts.
The man chuckles, a sound nearly as disgusting to hear as his smile is to look at. He has mutual interest on both sides.
In other words he started it, Draco surmises.
An interesting theory, the man responds with a sneer. But as I said it was the centaurs who started it. Krykus is just there to look after his investments.
Draco looks into the woods. No need to take offence my friend. A war of hooves and harlots? I am left with no side to cheer for.
Draco returns to his tent to find Gabrielle and Lila already kneeling on opposite sides of his bed. Seeing then both dressed in red silk shifts and not much of anything else, he can feel his passion rising. He'll have a good time tonight. As usual he can see Lila trembling. Neither he nor Anya think she will ever grow into her role. No doubt he will have to kill her soon. Or maybe just give her to Hector. In which case she'd still die. The man has no control over any of his appetites. Gabrielle on the other hand is the portrait of what a slave should be. He lifts up her head and she still keeps her eyes from his. The scar Anya gave her mirrors his own. Appropriate, he thinks. Marks her as mine in a way I never can. He grabs the chain on her collar and lifts her to her feet.
Welcome my lord Draco, Gabrielle says in a whisper that speaks of her submission to the warlord.
He looks her up and down. Anya has done a superb job of dressing her tonight. The silk shift hugs her body as if it is painted on. And the downcast way she looks to the floor and never at him excites him so. He lets go of her chain and removes his shirt. He seizes her hair by the tight bun she always ties behind her head and smashes his lips onto hers. As usual there is no resistance. She gives in to his desire like a slave should while serving her master. He releases her then slings her onto the bed. He ignores Lila for now. He'll listen to her crying and whimpering later. For now he wants the feel of Gabrielle around him in so many ways.
He lies on top of her and does what he wants. She has no lover to compare him to but Gabrielle is certain real men do not wallow like pigs when they couple with a woman. But Draco isn't a real man. He's an animal, one to be butchered. She ignores the way his hands grab and squeeze at her body. She refuses to acknowledge when he enters her. She makes the appropriate noises and says the right things but she is only waiting.
Then it finally happens. He rolls over onto his back next to her. Your turn on top, he says manhandling her into a position so that she straddles his prone form. She has been in this position many times so he thinks nothing new of it. He lays his hands on her hips and starts to slam up into her. She bucks on him like she is riding a horse. Sounds of passion escape his lips but she makes no sound. She throws up her hands when she feels him reach the point of his release. Then she screams aloud like a wild animal.
Startled by the sound Draco looks up into her eyes and is shocked by what he sees. Her eyes are not the slightly closed and unfocused eyes of a slave. Instead he sees the cold stare of a killer. He sees murder in her green eyes.
He is about to call out for his guards when Gabrielle reaches behind her and grabs the silver hair ornament she has worked on for so long. She feels with some detachment her long hair drop down her back. Then with both hands she drives the improvised weapon into Draco's throat. She looks into his eyes and thrills to the look of shock and fear. He tries to speak but only blood comes out of his mouth. The blood pours from the wound in his throat and cascades over onto the bed turning the white sheets crimson.
Gabrielle leans forward and whispers into his ear, Tell Hades to expect more Draco. You won't be the last to die by my hand. The warlord's eyes dart around then stop moving as his life ebbs away. She looks at the bloody tableau she has made and feels pride and contentment.
The voice is a strange mixture of seduction and malevolence. It mirrors the sound of her tone as she had whispered those words to Draco. She turns to look around and finds that aside from the dead warlord and an aghast Lila they are alone.
You you killed him Lila mutters staring in horror at the blood-covered body of the warlord.
Of course I did! she says in a voice that causes her sister to back pedal away from her into the wall. What? You thought I'd just keep letting him do this to me to us?
There is the sound of movement and Anya is inside the tent. What was that sound my lord she stops and stares at the scene before her. Then she turns to run outside. In one fluid motion Gabrielle draws her weapon from Draco's neck, turns around and slings it at Anya. Before she has even seen what will happen she is off the bed and drawing a sword from the warlord's weapon rack against the wall. The silver implement hits Anya in the back of the thigh and the woman stumbles down before she can reach the tent flap. She lifts her head but as she does so a hand grabs her hair and pulls her head back savagely. They are going to love you in Tartarus Anya, Gabrielle says as she draws the length of the sword across the woman's throat. Blood sprays on the walls of the tent. Gabrielle drops Anya's head and admires the blood coating the fabric of the tent.
Gabrielle turns looking for the source of the voice again. Did you hear that? she asks a still stunned Lila who is looking back and forth from Draco's body to Anya's.
What have you done? Lila asks not believing what she is seeing. Gabrielle was always the gentlest of souls. How could she be capable of this carnage?
You'd prefer to be his whore? Gabrielle accuses her sister pointing at Draco's body.
Lila refuses to look at the bloody corpse. But she does shake her head in response.
Gabrielle begins looking about the room. Make sure no one is coming, she tells her sister. But Lila just stands there. Anya's body is between her and the tent flap. Lila. We'll be killed if someone finds us now. We have to get away and I need you to keep an eye out for me. Do it. She snarls the last words and Lila does as she is told. She can hardly wrap her mind around what is going on. She cannot believe this has happened. That her sister has become a murderer. Some part of her refuses to believe it still. The same part that denied that Draco was having her body every night. She lifts the tent flap a little. She can see men crowded around a large fire in the middle of the camp. She looks back at Gabrielle and shakes her head.
Gabrielle starts to search for something, anything, to wear so that she can get out of the red shift Anya stuffed her into. She turns her head to look towards a chest and feels something hit her chest. It is the chain attached to the collar. Enraged she fumbles with the buckle in her attempt to get it off from around her neck. She tosses it onto Draco's body once she has it off.
She opens the chest and finds various articles of clothing. Rummaging through, she finds several pieces that might fit them and lays them aside. She finds a travel bag in the bottom of the chest as well. She strips off the shift and pulls on a set on tan slacks that she has to secure with a belt to keep it from sliding down her slender waist. As she pulls on a black tunic top she whispers to her sister. Lila. Come here and get into something else. She moves past her sister to watch the tent flap. She finds it very lucky that only Anya chose to investigate her scream. But they need to hurry. When the woman does not return suspicion will arise.
There aren't any boots our size, Lila informs her.
Find the smallest size and then just tie something around them to make them as tight as you can, Gabrielle suggests. Fear grips Gabrielle as she sees one of the soldiers sit up from the fire and begin to walk their way. He is only feet away when he turns and heads into the woods, no doubt to relieve himself from a long night of drinking.
She watches for him to return and sure enough he stumbles back to the fire. Hurry up, she says over her shoulder in a hushed tone. A minute later Lila taps her on her shoulder. She looks back to see her sister dressed similarly to her. Watch here for a minute longer. If you see anyone coming, tell me.
She finds a pair of boots and discovers they are indeed too big. She slides them on nonetheless then wraps them as tight as she can with some lengths of blue cloth used to make the sashes for Draco's men. After donning the boots she searches the small desk Draco uses. She finds a small bag with about twenty dinars inside. Then she finds the scabbard that matches the sword she has. She puts the baldric attached to the scabbard over her shoulder. She finds a heavy dagger and belt and puts them on as well.
What are you doing? Lila says seeing Gabrielle arming herself.
Give me a break Lila, Gabrielle sighs. I am not about to go defenseless into those woods. Grab something yourself.
No, Lila says showing a little backbone for the first time in weeks. I refuse to become a killer.
Suit yourself, Gabrielle says. Her eyes fall on her silver dagger embedded in Anya's thigh. She pulls it loose then wipes the blood from it on the woman's clothes. She quickly rearranges her hair tightly behind her head and inserts the silver dagger.
Wait a minute, Lila says a bit louder than she intended. Gabrielle clamps her hand over her mouth and leers at her. Lila sits for a moment then pulls her mouth free. I heard there is a war going on in the woods. Amazons and others. Why don't we just go home? A hopeful look accompanies the suggestion.
To what Lila? In case you've forgotten all our friends and family are either dead or enslaved. What? You want to go home to an abandoned village?
We could start a new life there.
This isn't a story Lila. As you pointed out to me before I'm not some mythical heroine who gets to go back to a peaceful life after I've defeated the monster. There is no going home. Besides I'm not done yet.
What? Murdering two people isn't enough for you?
No. Because they aren't the reason this happened.
What do you mean?
Xena. I mean I'm going to kill Xena.
What? You're mad at her for not taking you with her?
No. Didn't you hear Draco when we were first captured? I guess Xena should've hung around to see that I kept my word.' She told him to leave us alone then just walked away expecting a warlord like him to keep his word. This is all her fault. I intend to make her pay for it.
This is insane Gabrielle.
Gabrielle ignores her sister's words and looks to the tent wall opposite the flap. This way, she indicates. Then pulling the dagger loose she uses it to cut a slit in the fabric. She parts the tent and looks carefully outside. The backside of the tent is up against the woods. Come on Lila.
Gabrielle quietly moves out of the tent into the woods with Lila following hesitantly behind her.
Ephiny runs faster than she ever has in her life. Her legs ache from the effort and her breath sears in her lungs from the exertion. She darts between huge trees and leaps over logs. She has lived in this wood since her birth and she has no desire to die in it. The sound of thundering hooves behind her informs her that death may soon be her fate this day whether she desires it or not. A whistling in the air tells her of the arrow's flight. She dives to her left and the arrow sails past to stick into a tree. She comes back to her feet and is running again. But she knows she can't keep up this pace for much longer.
She arrives at a clearing with a dense canopy of tress overhead and realizes this might be her only chance. She comes to a stop and uncoils the rope at her waist. Looking up she throws one end of the rope skyward and feels an instant of relief as the grapple at the other end secures into a high branch. She seizes the rope with both hands and begins to repel up it at top speed. Her instant of relief is gone when an arrow, expertly aimed, severs the rope and she plummets to the ground. She hits the earth with a bone-jarring jolt. Lurching unsteadily to her feet she prepares to take off running again when another arrow hits the back of her calf. She cries out in pain and collapses to the ground. She draws the sword that had until a month ago been Terrias's and lifts herself up as much as she can.
Too far away for her to reach with any weapon she can throw is a centaur drawing back another arrow. Before he lets fly with the arrow she sees how much he looks like the centaur she had driven this very sword into. She swings the blade and her ears ring with the impact as the metal of her sword hits the stone head of the centaur arrow. She has no idea how she performed that action but she thanks Artemis for it. The centaur reaches back for another arrow and curses when he finds his quiver empty.
Knowing she is virtually helpless being wounded in the leg and facing a centaur on open ground she prays silently to Artemis.
The centaur throws down his bow and draws his sword. What is your name Amazon? he calls out.
Without hesitation she screams back, I am Ephiny. Princess of the Amazons.
You are the one who killed my son, Phantes. It is not a question and Ephiny knows it.
After he killed Terrias she passed her rite of caste to me. Everything that was hers was mine. Including her royal status and the right to be her avenger. She manages to get herself up to one knee. Yes. I executed your son Tyldus! He murdered my sister so he faced Amazon justice!
Now you will face the justice of the centaurs! Tyldus screams as he charges towards her at a full gallop.
Ephiny knows she is dead. She can't fight and she can't run. For a moment she considers running herself through with her sword rather than giving Tyldus the satisfaction of trampling her to death. Then she sees movement to her left. Just as Tyldus is within a few yards of her a girl darts out of the trees. She screams and she swings a sword that cuts one of Tyldus's fore legs out from under him. The centaur tumbles head over heels to come to a stop in a heap in front of Ephiny. His leg is nearly severed at the knee joint. The leader of the centaurs roars in rage and pain. He sees Ephiny staring at him and raises his sword up towards her. But the girl is there again. She hacks at his arm savagely. She lacks the strength to cut the appendage off as a whole. The sword drops from the useless arm and now Ephiny can see her rescuer clearly. Reddish blond hair, green eyes and a scar on her cheek stand out to Ephiny as well as an expression of rage bordering on madness. The girl turns to look into the face of Tyldus. Ephiny is sickened to see a smile cross the girl's face as she lashes out and rips open the centaur's throat. A fountain of blood erupts momentarily and they are all coated in it. The girl lets out a piercing cry and stabs the centaur in its bulky equine half. When she pulls the sword loose blood and gore spill from the broad body.
Gabrielle! That's enough! a voice calls out. Another girl races into the clearing and grabs a hold of the blonde. He's dead. Just please stop. Shes safe.
Gabrielle looks at the body. It is the first time she has ever seen a centaur. She snickers at the man-beast. She'd always heard they were fierce warriors. But this thing died so easily she may as well have been butchering a cow.
Are you all right? the dark haired girl asks Ephiny.
The Amazon continues to stare at the blonde who has saved her life. She is studying the body of Tyldus curiously as if confused that he is dead. Thank you, she says.
Gabrielle looks from the centaur's body to the blonde woman kneeling next to her. You're an Amazon?
My name is Ephiny, she replies trying to get to her feet. The leg with the arrow stuck in it, however, refuses to cooperate and she goes back down.
Don't try and walk, Lila says. She looks from the Amazon back to Gabrielle. Her sister is gazing at Ephiny. Gabrielle. Help me. We have to get her out of here.
Amazons are great warriors, Gabrielle says. Ephiny is not sure if it is a question or a statement so she nods. Can you teach me?
Gabrielle! Now isn't the time! Lila yells. What if there are more of those? She nods at the centaur.
Your friend is right Gabrielle, Ephiny agrees. We have to get out of here. My village isn't far now. We can be there before sunrise. But I'm going to need some help.
Gabrielle considers the Amazon's words and sees that she is making sense. She wipes the blade of her sword on the centaur's body and sheathes it. She aids Lila in getting the warrior to her feet.
That way, Ephiny says pointing to the west.
She turns her head sharply. For the first time she can discern where the voice is coming from: the same direction that Ephiny is pointing. West.
The gates to the Amazon village open and several women come rushing forward. Ephiny! one dark haired woman wearing an elaborate type of headdress passes all the rest to seize the blonde warrior in a hug of deepest affection and relief. Thank Artemis you are alive. As if noticing the strangers supporting her sister and friend for the first time she looks Ephiny in the eyes. Chilapa and the others?
Ephiny shakes her head. There was a centaur war party waiting for us when we arrived in the hunting grounds. The others were slaughtered. I tried to get to the trees and escape. But Tyldus caught up with me. I'd be dead if it wasn't for Gabrielle. She indicates the blonde woman supporting her right side.
She killed Tyldus, Melosa. The leader of the centaurs is dead.
Tyldus is dead? one of the Amazon warriors who take Ephiny from the two strangers says in disbelief.
Tyldus id dead! another shouts for all to hear as the village square starts to fill with Amazons.
Ephiny has killed Tyldus! another yells enthusiastically.
No! Ephiny cries out in denouncement of the words. It was not I. She points to Gabrielle. It was she. She has slain the most feared of centaurs. She did it to save me.
Melosa steps towards Gabrielle and lays a hand on the girl's shoulder. I am Melosa, Queen of the Amazons. You have saved our Princess and rid us of one of our greatest enemies. With Tyldus dead, the end of the war may be in sight. I thank you in the name of all Amazons.
Unused to such praise and respect Gabrielle can only mutter, You're welcome.
We could use a place to rest and some food, the dark haired girl speaks up.
Melosa looks from her to the blonde and nods. Eponin! she calls out. A dark haired and extremely muscular woman seems to appear from nowhere. See that these two are given food and a place to rest.
Yes my queen, Eponin says saluting her queen. Follow me please, she indicates.
Ephiny lays her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder as they pass by. Can I speak to you later? she asks.
Gabrielle simply nods. As Ephiny watches her walk away she gets the sense that Gabrielle seems to be listening intently for something.
She's dangerous Melosa, Ephiny says as the healer finishes attending to the princess's wounds.
She saved your life Ephiny, Melosa says in a tone that lets her her know that she doesn't approve of her attitude towards the girl Gabrielle. And she killed Tyldus. Thanks to her the war may soon be over.
She didn't simply kill Tyldus. She slaughtered him. She murdered him, Ephiny waves a hand to the healer indicating to the woman that her presence is no longer needed. She bows and leaves the hut.
Who cares how she did it? What matters is that Tyldus is dead. Soon the centaurs will be thrown in chaos without a leader. We'll be able to crush them.
And then Krykus will come up with some other way to keep this war going. Like alerting Kaleipus that we are on the verge of wiping out an entire community of centaurs.
This ridiculous theory of yours is becoming annoying. Phantes killed my sister. He paid for it by your own hand. But still you feel some compassion for that animal.
I talked with Phantes that night, Melosa. I looked into his eyes. They weren't the eyes of an assassin. He was not a murderer. He was framed.
If you believe that then why did you carry out his execution?
Would you have let me live if I hadn't?
Melosa slaps Ephiny across the face. Terrias gave you the rite of caste. You are my true sister and princess of the Amazons. But don't expect me to tolerate your belligerence forever. You have fought them well these past months. You have proven that my sister did choose wisely. Don't make me believe otherwise. The queen leaves the hut without another word.
Ephiny closes her eyes and growls in rage. She pulls herself up to her feet. With her eyes closed she can once more see the face of Phantes that morning. I don't want to die, he had said.
I'm sorry , was all she could say before she had plunged the sword into his heart. She knew that with that one act she had started a war. But to not do so would have meant her death and the dishonoring of her friend's memory. I hope Artemis's hunting grounds are beautiful Terrias. I fear I will be joining you soon.
The first hint of dawn is in the air and Gabrielle cannot find sleep. Lila fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow in the hut they had been given. She tossed and turned for only a few minutes before giving up and going outside to sit by the fire around which a few Amazon warriors sat. Now those warriors stare at her curiously. Just who is this mere girl that she was able to slay Tyldus? Their whispers reach her ears but she pays them no mind. It had not been her intention to defeat some warrior in combat. She had only desired to save a woman who was about to be killed. But once she had attacked she had forgotten the blonde and her attention had been solely on killing the centaur.
She turns her mind from such things for a moment to stare into the fire. The orange glow of the flame dances before her eyes like a living thing. Forgetting all else she is soon entranced by the fire. She can hear the popping and cracking of the wood as it is consumed. She can smell the aroma of the oak wood as it drifts on the grey smoke. She can feel the heat of it on her face. She becomes lost in the flame like a child wandering in the woods amazed by all around her yet unaware that she is lost.
Gabrielle? The voice calls out to her this time with an inquisitive tone as if asking if she can hear it.
Yes, Gabrielle whispers for the first time responding to the voice. For the first time wanting to know what it has to say.
What? a voice says behind her as a hand is laid on her shoulder.
Gabrielle jumps from where she is sitting and has her hand on her sword.
Whoa! Calm down. It's just me. Ephiny. The Amazon princess holds up both hands to show the other woman that she is unarmed.
Gabrielle frowns at the woman then turns to look back into the fire. She waits for a few seconds hoping the voice will speak again. Damn, she mutters under her breath. She takes her hand off her blade and tries not to let her irritation show in her voice. What do you want?
I just wanted to think you for saving my life, Ephiny says now unsure whether it is a good idea to even be talking to the woman. And to tell you that you may have helped us take a step towards ending this war.
Gabrielle just says, You're welcome. She sits back down and begins staring into the fire again.
Are you all right? Ephiny asks. She waits for several moments and receives no answer. Gabrielle?
What? Gabrielle shouts exasperated now with the Amazon princess.
You don't seem well, Ephiny says. She can see that the blonde's body is trembling. Are you cold?
I want to be left alone. Gabrielle's voice is laden with a warning that Ephiny finds she would be a fool to ignore.
She walks away without another word. As she passes the hut in which the two girls had been led earlier she sees the dark haired one motioning to her from a window. Ephiny enters the hut to find the girl, Lila, still looking out the window at Gabrielle. Is my sister okay? Lila asks the concern clear in her voice and in her face.
I'm guessing this demeanor is not normal for her? Ephiny asks the question but she is sure she knows the answer already.
Lila turns away from the window and in what seems to be one long breath explains what has happened to them over the last couple of months. When she is done Ephiny is so shocked she can't even form a single word. She walks over to the window and watches Gabrielle.
She scares me, Lila says. She's not the sister I grew up with. Please. Don't teach her to be a warrior.
It won't be up to me, Ephiny says. She turns back to look at Lila. Melosa is our queen and I'm fairly certain she will grant any request Gabrielle makes since she has slain the leader of the Centaurs. As if the Fates are making sport of her Melosa walks up to Gabrielle and begins speaking to her. Damn! She races from the hut and up to her queen. Melosa? May I speak with you?
The queen meets the eyes of the princess and knows of what she wishes to speak. She finds she has no desire to waste her time. It will have to wait Ephiny. This way Gabrielle.
Melosa! Ephiny exclaims as the two pass by her like she isn't even there. It's important.
Ephiny, Melosa says with malice now thick in her voice. We are not going to speak of this again. Is that understood? The meaning of the question is clear. Broach the subject again and there will be consequences. The two women walk towards the training ground.
Wait. Ephiny concedes defeat and decides on another course of action.
Ephiny, Melosa says with the threat clear in her voice.
Let me train her, Ephiny requests.
Perplexed by this sudden turn around in attitude, Melosa steps away from Gabrielle. Why?
Because I want to be her friend, Ephiny answers.
Why? Melosa repeats her previous question still confused.
Because I think she needs one. The Amazon princess lets her eyes speak the volumes she keeps from her voice.
Melosa stares her heir in the eyes seeking any deception or duplicity. As she knew would be the case, she sees none. Very well. Train her well then Ephiny. She has done us a great service.
Ephiny salutes her queen and says, It shall be as you say.
Gabrielle looks considerably put out with this choice of teacher but makes no protest.
Follow me, Ephiny says leading Gabrielle in a different direction than the queen was leading only moments ago.
But Melosa was Gabrielle begins.
I think you need a change of clothes before you start any training, Ephiny says before the girl can complete her objection.
What I'm wearing suits me fine.
Maybe so. But I can only stay down wind for so long. Ephiny smiles but gets nothing but a noncommittal grunt for her effort.
Hold the sword up. Like this. Ephiny instructs holding her sword up over her head. In the high guard position, it allows for more force and better recovery during battle.
Gabrielle mimics Ephiny's pose with ease and awaits further instruction.
Good, Ephiny commends her. Now attack.
Gabrielle throws her weight into the downward stroke, which Ephiny easily parries. Then with a twist of her wrist she disarms the girl. Gabrielle curses loudly as she retrieves her sword from the ground.
That's a sword Gabrielle. Not a club. Ephiny informs her. And you hold it too tightly. I'll be able to disarm you every time if you continue to hold onto it like that.
Fine, Gabrielle grumbles taking the high guard again and waiting for Ephiny.
Attack. Ephiny winces when the blade contacts her own. It jars her arms and makes her shoulders tremble with the sheer force of it. She slides her own blade along it to disarm Gabrielle as she had done before but it doesn't work this time. Gabrielle goes with the movement Ephiny makes then swings back around from the opposite side and Ephiny is hard pressed to block the sideways attack. Good. That was a really good counter. You show some talent with the sword. She replaces her sword on a weapons rack then pulls two staves from it. Why don't we try
No! Gabrielle exclaims raising her sword once more into the high guard. A staff is pointless. I can kill far easier with this. She shakes the blade a little to make her point.
Kill far easier? Ephiny looks at the girl before her and can almost feel her loss. Why do you need to kill? What drives you so badly? Gabrielle does not answer. She remains standing waiting for Ephiny to initiate her next attack. Will killing Xena make it all better Gabrielle?
Gabrielle meets the Amazon's eyes. How?
Lila told me. Do you really believe that killing Xena will somehow erase it all? The death of your loved ones and what was done to you?
Gabrielle's entire body starts to tremble. At first Ephiny thinks it is with rage. Then she sees tears welling up in the girl's eyes. And she knows it is grief. The sword slips from her grasp and falls to the ground. Then so too does Gabrielle. Ephiny dashes to her side and collects the girl into her arms. The sobbing and crying girl she holds in her arms is not the killer she saw butcher Tyldus. This is Gabrielle as she should be: an innocent farm girl grieving for the life taken from her. She thought that Gabrielle needed a friend and she is right. I'm sorry Gabrielle.
The change is immediate. The trembling ceases and Ephiny can feel the girl growing rigid. The sobbing and crying diminish and are replaced by a heaving of breath that she knows is pent up rage. I don't need your pity! Gabrielle snarls pushing Ephiny away and getting steadily to her feet. And I don't want your help, Princess! She picks up her sword and storms off.
Wait! Ephiny cries out. I've tried to help, she thinks. I can't back out now. I'll try and help in any way I can. To be a friend. She needs one whether she knows it or not.
What? Gabrielle says spinning to face the Amazon.
If you don't want my pity then I'll not give it. Can I least offer my friendship?
What if I don't want your friendship?
Then my guidance. You want to be a warrior. Let me teach you.
That is all I want.
Then it is all I will give. Maybe friendship can come later.
Gabrielle does not respond to Ephiny's words. She steps closer and readies herself. Ephiny retrieves her sword. She stands in a ready position. Exhaling sharply in preparation she shouts, Attack!
Xena gazes out through the window onto the sprawling city of Athens and marvels at the sheer beauty of the city of the goddess of war and wisdom. From her new home she can see the Acropolis rising up from the city's center and the Parthenon atop it. Tomorrow, she decides, she will go up to it to see the statue of Athena that stands within. Years ago it was her fondest desire to lead her army into this city, to loot the temples and lay waste to it all. That had been her dream then. No. Not a dream. A nightmare. From which she is finally awake. The Destroyer of Nations is gone. And she'll never return, she says aloud.
Pardon, a voice says from behind her as strong arms encircle her in a loving embrace. A head comes to rest on her shoulder. Talking to yourself now?
She reaches back to touch the face of the man she loves. Just pondering aloud. Sorry.
Hercules kisses her on the cheek and says, You must be feeling better. To be up and around by yourself.
It is nearly noon, she says. I don't plan on sleeping the days away anymore. Now that I'm almost healed.
I did notice your crutches had been left by the bed, he says. Legs feeling that much stronger?
Xena turns in his embrace to face him. His handsome face and soulful eyes capture her attention and she forgets what she was about to say. The fact that he hasn't donned a shirt and she can see his muscular chest doesn't help to jog her memory. She plants a kiss on him that says a little bit more than good morning. When they pull apart she smirks. How can I think about pain when there is so much pleasure to be had?
He smiles and looks out the window. Do you feel up to going today? he asks.
Tomorrow, she replies. My ankle doesn't hurt at all anymore but my knee is still throbbing. I get the feeling I'll be knowing a dull pain there forever. But at least I can walk without limping. To prove her point she steps away from him and walks across the room. See?
I'm impressed, Hercules says crossing him arms and watching her progress back towards him. I have seen people crippled by less. Your healing is almost supernatural. You sure you aren't a demigod?
Very funny, she says flashing a smile that mere months ago once struck villagers numb with horror. She leans into him and he wraps his arms around her again. They both turn to look out the window at the Acropolis.
Have you given any more thought to Hercules doesn't finish the question hoping he won't have to.
Xena sighs loud enough to realize he won't get his answer today. I just she starts but pauses. A wedding is supposed to be a joyous occasion. Don't you think it will seem a bit odd that there would be no family on the bride's side of the ceremony?
Xena. This isn't something I ask lightly. I want to marry you. I never thought I could be happy again after the murder of my wife and children. You've proved to me that I can feel that way again. And I'm sure that your family will
Will what? Xena cuts him off with a hint of malice in her voice. Will decide that brutalizing me and leaving me for dead was a silly thing to do? Hercules. My own mother practically ordered my execution when she told the others to do whatever they wanted. You can't begin to understand what it means to be hated so much by your own family. As soon as the words leave her mouth she knows she has said the wrong thing.
Hercules steps away from her and walks to the window. He rests his arms on the ledge and stares out across the city.
Hercules. I'm sorry. Xena stands next to him and leans against the window frame. I know that while my family has disowned me I should be happy to have found a new one. Alcmene treats me like I'm her own daughter. Iolaus is like a brother to me. And you she pauses. I do love you Hercules. It's just that I need some time to adjust. My life has changed significantly. And trust me when I say I have destroyed enough meaningful relationships to want to make sure I don't screw this one up.
He reaches over ands takes her hand. Take all the time you need Xena.
Thank you, she replies giving his hand a squeeze. Where is Iolaus anyway? He's usually never late for a meal and it's nearly lunchtime.
He left last night, Hercules informs her.
He didn't tell me. Just said that something was bothering him and he needed to talk to someone about it. Knowing him he'll be back by dinner.
Iolaus pauses before the entrance that leads into the cave where the Oracle awaits. He looks around at the external temples that make up this section of Delphi. Statues of Apollo are everywhere. No great surprise there. He wonders just how self important the god thinks himself to have had so many statues placed here. There are at least twenty. Probably more are not in his line of sight. Hercules always says the gods are arrogant. Arrogant and vain in the case of Apollo. But he decides that line of thought won't be beneficial since he is here to speak with the Oracle of Delphi.
A woman dressed in robes of gold and white exits the cave and beckons him forward. You wish to speak with her?
Yes, he says simply. Since that day at the hospice the image of the strawberry blonde slave traveling with Draco has been wedged in his skull. He feels as if he should know who she is. There was something about her that didn't feel right. She was no slave in her mind. That was certain from the defiance that surrounded her like an aura. She possessed strength of will that he could feel like a physical presence. He has never told Xena or Hercules about her. He has never had any sense of foresight or prophecy that is certain. But since finding Xena in that hospice and seeing that girl he has had a sense of foreboding. That something has not quite been right. As if the all the world hiccupped and nothing was as it should be.
Follow me, the priestess says. She leads him into the cavern. For a cave it is exceedingly clean and free of dust. The walls are painted with images of heroes performing brave acts in the face of danger. He passes by one and sees that it is Hercules battling a monster that he can't quite identify. He sees a stylized image of the Argo passing through the clashing rocks. He wonders if one of the indistinct representations of those on deck is he. Further along the cave he sees images he does not recognize. A giant bound to a huge rock. Is that a Titan? He ponders at a painting of two women. One is tall and dark while the other is diminutive and lying down with an arrow protruding from her back. An army is arrayed against them. Near that is a man defending a pregnant woman from what seems to be Zeus hurling thunderbolts.
These are events yet to happen and some that never will, the priestess informs him.
I'm not even going to attempt to understand that, Iolaus says.
They enter the Oracle's chamber and a strange smelling haze that fills the room assaults his senses. At the far end the Oracle sits cross-legged on a metal tripod. Beneath her is a crack in the floor from which a reddish vapor seeps. Her hands rest upon her knees and her head is down as if she is asleep. She is small and thin. Her features are delicate and childlike. He guesses she might be fifteen years old. Maybe sixteen. A young age to assume such a responsibility. The priestess bows then exits the chamber. Iolaus looks around unsure of what to do. He spots a small bronze box with a slit in it just large enough to slip a dinar into. If he drops in a dinar and the Oracle wakes up he is leaving. He walks over and drops in a coin. He turns quickly. The girl makes no sign of coming to. He stands waiting for another few moments before deciding he is just wasting his time.
He is almost out of the chamber when a high melodious voice calls out. I am given a great gift by my god. Apollo does not long tolerate frauds my friend. Fear not for I will speak only the truth to you.
I wanted to ask about, he pauses not sure how to phrase his question. About a girl I saw.
The Oracle lifts her head and opens her eyes. They are milky white with blindness. Why do you wish to know? Seeking romance in your life? Jealous of your friend Hercules?
Stop it, Iolaus says. It is just there was something about her. Who is she?
The Oracle tilts her head to once side as if listening to someone whispering into her ear. She blinks. Her name is Gabrielle. She is a destiny denied. And a destiny fulfilled.
That makes no sense, Iolaus informs the Oracle. You said you would speak only the truth to me. That statement is contradictory at best and on out right lie at worst. Both can't be true.
An act of spite and an act of arrogance has changed what was meant to be. The Oracle turns so that her eyes seem to be staring at him.
Are you saying someone has altered this girl's fate? Iolaus ponders that idea. Surely only gods can do such a thing as interfere with the Fates.
No purpose was behind this. Merely human weakness.
So because one person said or did the wrong thing it has changed this girl's fate?
No. Because one person said or did the wrong thing it has changed this world's fate.
What? Iolaus shouts in disbelief. You must be joking.
I have promised only to speak the truth to you, the Oracle says closing her eyes once more.
You must wrong. Mistaken.
You wish to help this girl and help the world? the Oracle asks.
Yes. Iolaus steps closer in order to hear what words of wisdom can be gained.
Kill her, the Oracle says. She lowers her head slowly.
Kill her? he repeats the words in disbelief. You can't be serious.
But the Oracle does not respond. And from the steady rhythm of her breathing he can tell she is asleep. Or at least pretending to be. Oh come on! he shouts. This is ridiculous!
The priestess reenters the chamber. The Oracle needs her rest.
Yeah right! I'll bet she does! He pushes aside the priestess and heads for the exit. Of all the two for a dinar hydra crap!
She gave you the answers you sought, the priestess says in defense of the Oracle.
Iolaus rounds on her and points towards the Oracle. No. She just gave me a name and some vague allusions. Anybody could do that. This is pointless!
He storms out without a backward glance.
As the weeks pass two things become clear to the Amazons. One is that with the death of Tyldus the war seems to be at an end. There have been no battles since his death. Scouts report that the centaur village has been abandoned. And even the warlord Krykus who seemed to have so much to gain by the war is gone. And secondly is that Gabrielle is soon to be a warrior without equal. She is skilled and fearless. Her prowess with the sword seems superhuman. She can defeat nearly every Amazon on the training ground. And while she cannot overcome Ephiny or Melosa she can fight them to a stand still.
One cool evening Eponin arrives before Queen Melosa. She salutes and kneels.
What is it Eponin? Melosa asks. Beside her Ephiny too is curious what has brought the warrior running into the queen's hut.
My queen. Princess. There is a small army at our gates. Eponin stands and indicates they should follow quickly.
Centaurs, Melosa grumbles. I thought it was over.
Is it Kaleipus? Ephiny ask fearing the answer.
No, Eponin replies. It is an army of men. And Krykus is among them.
Should have known, Ephiny says. He couldn't destroy us by pitting us against the centaurs. Now he'll try and take our lands himself.
The gate into the Amazon village opens. Melosa, Ephiny and a cadre of Amazon warriors step forth. As soon as Ephiny is able to see the army she knows it isn't one come to conquer. It is far too small. Consisting of perhaps fifty men it can hardly be called an army at all. Standing at the front is the warlord Krykus and another man with a hideous face and his hair cut off except for a vertical crop running up and over the top of his head. There is a blue sash tied about his shoulder. He is cleaning the dirt from under his fingernails casually as if he is not facing down a group of Amazons.
What do you want Krykus? Melosa asks. Beside her Ephiny lays her hand on the sword sheathed at her waist.
You have something that belongs to us! the other man shouts.
And you are? Ephiny asks aloud.
Hector. Lieutenant to the late Draco, the man replies.
Ephiny grimaces remembering everything Lila told her. She has become friends with both the sisters since their arrival. She has had little success bringing out the Gabrielle she saw that day when she had first begun training the girl. They joke these days while they spare. And she has managed to coax a smile from Gabrielle every so often. Her enthusiasm for battle seems infectious sometimes during their sparing and the village's healer has grown tired of stitching the cuts and tending the huge bruises the two women constantly come to her with.
He's come for Gabrielle and Lila, she tells Melosa.
Melosa nods and asks, What do the Amazons have that could belong to you?
Two girls. One with dark hair, the other a blond, Krykus shouts. They are the property of this army. He indicates the men about him. Now don't be foolish Melosa. Give them to us.
Gabrielle! Melosa shouts at the top of her lungs. There are some associates of Draco here to see you!
Ephiny bites back the curse that forms on her lips at her queen's choice of words. Why did you do that? You know what these men represent to her.
Indeed I do, Melosa says smiling. Let her face that fear. You are her friend. You have trained her. Do you think she will lose?
No, Ephiny says. I think she will kill this man Hector with ease. And then we will be forced to destroy Krykus and what remains of Draco's army.
You should be happy then, Melosa says. Wasn't it Krykus who started all this? I should think you'd be happy to see an end to all this.
I do not want to see Gabrielle turn into a killer. Ephiny tries to think of anything to dissuade her queen from this when the Amazons behind them part to give another the opportunity to step forward. She sighs in defeat. It will have to end this way. Artemis be with us, she thinks.
The crowd of harlots parts and another steps forward. Hector stares at her for a moment before he recognizes her. She is dressed in Amazon leathers that don't really hide her body any better than the clothes Draco and Anya dressed her in. Her reddish blond hair is braided with bright red and blue feathers tied into it. A sword that he knows to be Draco's is sheathed on her back and a dagger he knows is Draco's as well is at her waist. A beaded necklace encircles her throat and bracelets adorn her wrists. Gabrielle looks every bit the Amazon warrior. He would almost think it wasn't her but for the scar on her cheek courtesy of Anya. He also sees curiously that some of her hair is tied back and held in place with a hairpiece similar to the one she wore while Draco's toy. He smiles. You look very nice Gabrielle. But you've had your fun with these harlots. It's time to come home.
I remember you, Gabrielle says standing beside Ephiny. Hector. Right?
Hector draws his sword. He is not alone as Krykus and all the others follow his example. Every Amazon weapon is drawn as well. You are the property of this army Gabrielle. Now come on without a fuss and we'll spare these women. He sees what he believes to be fear in Gabrielle's eyes. There's no warrior princess here to protect you this time either.
Gabrielle draws her sword. I don't need a warrior princess. I didn't need one to kill the mighty Draco. I'm going to kill you now Hector. But the rest of these men can leave with their lives.
Krykus chuckles. Just kill her Hector.
Hector moves towards Gabrielle. With pleasure.
Ephiny starts to take a step forward but Melosa holds her back. No. This is her fight.
Hector strikes with all the arrogance of a man fighting someone he knows is inferior. The problem is, he's wrong. Gabrielle easily parries the attack and nearly disarms the warrior with the same move Ephiny had taught her on their first day of training. Hector gasps and steps back but Gabrielle gives him no time to gather himself as she is striking out at him hard and fast. He defends himself as best he can but soon realizes that he may be up against an opponent he cannot beat. How can she be this skilled already? He takes a risk and falls onto his back on purpose. The girl's momentum carries hee forward and he is able to sweep out at her legs with his own. But she leaps into the air and cartwheels away from his attack. She lands on her feet to his left.
Surely you can do better than that, Gabrielle taunts him as she spins her sword in her grasp. She smiles a toothy grin. Come on. You know you want me.
Enraged Hector runs forward slashing. Gabrielle easily parries his weapon and leans in to smash her forehead against his. He staggers back expecting the end but she doesn't finish him off. He regains his balance then thrusts forward. She moves to block it but he twists around to throw his weight against her other side. The collision makes her stumble back and he uses the opportunity to hit her sword hand with the pommel of his sword. Her weapon falls to the ground. He pushes her away then casually rests his sword on his shoulder. Now. You were saying.
Gabrielle pulls the thin silver dagger from her hair and rams it under his chin with savage force. Blood erupts from his mouth as she looks into his eyes and watches the life slip away. I was saying you're a dead man.
She wants to reply to the voice but she sees Krykus moving. She draws the dagger at her waist and slings it towards him. The blade sticks into his chest piercing his heart. He falls soundlessly. She pulls her silver dagger from Hector's chin. She takes a moment to admire the handiwork of the Amazon weapon smith who forged the hairpiece into a proper blade. Then all hell breaks loose as Amazons and the remnants of Draco's army slam into each other.
When it is over every man is dead and only one Amazon has lost her life. In Ephiny's opinion, that is one too many. This could've been avoided if Melosa had not brought Gabrielle forward to face Hector. She wants to say something but knows the futility of it. Her eyes go to Gabrielle. She has to watch her closely but she is sure the woman is talking to someone. Even though she stands alone over Hector's body.
I hear you, Gabrielle says to the voice that speaks to her with such promise. Will you speak to me?
You are strong. But I can make you stronger still. Strong enough to have your revenge.
Where are you?
Follow my voice Gabrielle. You know the way.
West, Gabrielle states. To the west is the source of the voice that will give her that she desires.
Come to me Gabrielle. Follow my voice and my messenger.
Messenger? Gabrielle says in confusion. Who is
Gabrielle? Ephiny says laying her hand on the other woman's shoulder. Are you all right?
Gabrielle shudders as if she has just been awakened from a dream. Ephiny, she says in a amiable voice but the look in her eyes tells Ephiny that she is not at all pleased by the interruption. I'm fine. But Lila and I need to move on.
What? Ephiny asks. I thought
Sorry. But we have to leave. Today.
I just don't want us to be a burden to you anymore.
You're not a burden Gabrielle. You're my friend. For an instant there is a look of genuine joy in Gabrielle's eyes when she hears the word friend.' But then it is gone.
I'm sorry. But we have to go.
Melosa appears next to them and hands Gabrielle back her dagger. I appreciate your help Gabrielle. Now we can enjoy the freedom of our land without any interference from Krykus.
I was happy to be of assistance, Gabrielle says sheathing the dagger. I was just telling Ephiny that Lila and I must be going.
Do you not feel at home here? Melosa asks just as confused as Ephiny regarding this sudden need to leave. Has the battle scared her? Is she not as strong as I thought?
I do, Gabrielle replies. But I feel myself being drawn elsewhere.
To Xena, Ephiny accuses.
My concerns are my own Ephiny, Gabrielle says. Please don't make this an issue. We just have to go. Even Gabrielle starts to wonder why it is she feels the need to drag Lila along with her. Surely Lila would be safer and probably happier with the Amazons. No, she thinks. She is all the family I have left.
Not understanding why but also not wanting to deny this warrior her way in the world Melosa shrugs. I wish you a good journey then. Just know that you will always have a home here with us. You are not one of us. But you have the heart of an Amazon. We are indebted to you. Should you ever need anything, you have only to ask.
Thank you, Gabrielle says.
Ephiny feels a foreboding sense regarding Gabrielle's departure. She cannot put the feeling into words but it feels wrong somehow.
It takes several hours for all the good byes to be said. Lila and Gabrielle have become like family to the Amazons. Eponin gives Lila a bag filled with supplies and healing herbs and also a simple Amazon fighting staff. Lila is dubious about taking the weapon but Eponin insists. To defend yourself should you ever need to. Lila takes the gift graciously.
Ephiny hugs Lila and whispers to her. Watch out for her Lila. I'm afraid she is going down a dark path.
I will, Lila says turning to look where her sister is being bid farewell by Melosa.
The two of you are like family to us, Ephiny continues. If you ever need a place to stay we will welcome you back with open arms.
Thank you. Lila puts her pack on her shoulder. Then she paces towards the gate using the fighting staff like a walking stick.
Take it, Melosa says pushing a bag of dinars into Gabrielle's hand. Eventually you'll grow tired of walking. That should be enough to buy you a horse in the next village.
Thank you, Gabrielle hugs the queen. We won't forget you.
You better not, Melosa says ruffling Gabrielle's hair. A sad look comes over her. I wish you could have met my sister. I think that you and Terrias would have been good friends.
Gabrielle nods then walks towards the gate. Ephiny meets her there. She holds out a long bundle wrapped in leather. Take it, she says.
Gabrielle takes the bundle and unwraps it to find an eagle guard Amazon sword. She stares at the beautiful weapon then at Ephiny.
It was my sword before I inherited Terrias's. Ephiny lays her hand on the sword at her hip to make her point. I want you to have it.
Thank you, Gabrielle says lashing the weapon to her belt. Ephiny. I don't know what to say.
You don't have to say anything Gabrielle. We're friends. I hope it reminds you of that friendship. Ephiny just stands there, hesitant to do anything else.
Gabrielle embraces the Amazon. I won't forget you. I promise you, my friend.
Ephiny holds onto her friend for a moment longer then lets go. Be safe.
Gabrielle nods then follows Lila out of the gate. Where are we going? Lila asks.
West, Gabrielle answers.
Waste of time huh? Hercules says as he watches Xena practice in the courtyard below.
Yeah, Iolaus replies. The new Oracle's a fraud. If you need any questions answered I suggest trying tealeaves or entrails. That would be about as helpful.
That's too bad, Hercules says inhaling sharply when he sees Xena attempt a back flip. Xena lands and shows no ill effects as she returns to her swordplay. I'll have to advise Jason not to go there next season.
How is she doing? Iolaus asks. He watches her twirl through a series of parries, thrusts and attacks.
She says she's fine. I can't see any ill effects. I'd say she is one hundred percent recovered.
That's good to hear. So. No answer yet?
Hercules turns to face his best friend with a smile. You're just chomping at the bit, aren't you?
Oh. And you aren't? Iolaus says slugging his pal in the arm. Don't tell me that you aren't waiting impatiently every night for an answer.
Fine, Hercules admits. Guilty as charged. I just wish Xena would answer one way or the other.
Give her some time, Iolaus says. Her life has undergone one hell of an overhaul. It's going to take time to adjust. It would take anyone a while. Even Xena, warrior princess.
There is a distinctive battle cry and the next thing the two friends know Xena is sitting on the windowsill by them. Somebody call my name?
I really wish you wouldn't do that, Hercules pleads.
Unnerving isn't it? Iolaus adds.
I have to keep you on your toes, Xena says hopping down. Besides it's always so much fun to surprise you. Speaking of which. Xena presses against Hercules and kisses him passionately. When she breaks off she says, Yes.
Yes? Hercules inquires hearing an answer but unaware of asking a question.
Iolaus sighs. Herc. Buddy. What question have you asked that you've been waiting and waiting and waiting an answer for?
Hercules's eyes go wide and he looks deep into Xena's eyes. Yes? As in yes?
Xena chuckles. Yes an in yes. I'll marry you.
Hercules puts his hands on her waist and with all the strength granted to him by his father lifts Xena into the air and spins her around. All three of them laugh like children at the joyous moment.
And so by the power vested in me as king of Argos I am proud to pronounce you husband and wife! Jason shouts to the couple and to those assembled. A general uproar follows as Hercules and Xena kiss.
Iolaus, who had the honor of giving the bride away, cheers and claps.
Iphicles applauds overjoyed to see that his brother has found love once more.
Alcmene smiles and waves to the two of them.
Autolycus proclaims his joy with the others as he relieves the somewhat boisterous man next to him of his coin purse.
Salmoneus grins broadly trying to calculate in his head what he will make for catering the reception unaware that the man next to him is robbing him of his petty cash.
Watching from somewhere else a few other relatives of Hercules have different opinions.
I don't believe this! Ares screams. She's mine! She's not supposed to marry Hercules! He turns to shout at the others. Tell me how this can happen!
Cupid holds up his hands and says, Don't look at me. This was none of my doing.
Aphrodite saunters over and lays an arm over Ares' shoulder. Face it. You'll just have to wait for the next Destroyer of Nations to come around. Maybe you'll have better luck.
Ares roars as he slings a fireball into a nearby wall.
Throw you temper tantrum somewhere else please Ares, Zeus says from his throne. I'm trying to enjoy my son's wedding, if you don't mind.
Ares disappears but his cry of rage echoes after he is gone.
Oh and my dear, Zeus says to the woman seated next to him on a similar throne. Hera turns her peacock eyes to her husband. He flexes his hand and a thunderbolt forms in his fist. Don't even think about interfering in my son's happiness today. My patience has its limits.
Hera makes a noncommittal noise and leaves her husband's presence. The eyes of all the Olympians are on the wedding of Hercules and Xena. All save one. While elated at her half brother's happiness, Artemis's attention is drawn to a blond warrior who travels with her sister westward through the lands of Gaul.
What troubles you Artemis? Athena asks. This would-be Amazon and her sister?
There is something about her, the goddess of the hunt says. Something hidden and elusive. I wish I could put my finger on it. Can you not see it?
The goddess of war and wisdom peers intently at the blonde. She is possessed of a warrior's spirit that much is clear. She is courageous and bold. But at her core I can sense a fear that she has buried deeply. A complex mortal to be certain.
I fear she may become more than that, Artemis says.
I do not follow you, Athena admits.
I'm not sure I understand. It will become clear in time. Artemis turns from the girl to watch as Hercules and Xena enjoy their first dance as husband and wife.
Never thought I would see him this happy again, Jason says to Iolaus.
Me neither, Iolaus admits. Hard to believe that is the Destroyer of Nations dancing and laughing there.
Indeed, Jason says. For just a moment he remembers his own wedding day. That dredges up memories of Medea and he finds that he needs to be elsewhere. Make my apologies Iolaus. I need to rest.
Jason? Are you all right? Iolaus watches his old friend walk away from them all towards the exit. He knows what troubles the king. Memories of his wife's betrayal and his children's deaths are never far from the king's mind.
Iphicles makes his way over to Iolaus. Jason all right? he asks.
He'll be fine. Iolaus watches Xena laughing in Hercules's embrace as they spin around the floor of the audience chamber. Does it make me sound like an ass to say that I'm jealous?
Nah, Iphicles replies. His brother lifts his new bride over his head and she spreads her arms like she is flying. Makes you look like one though. He earns a punch to the shoulder for his comment. He laughs and is soon joined by Iolaus.
Hercules shares a dance with his mother later on. You look as happy as when you were a boy, Alcmene remarks as she tries not to let her son's enthusiasm work her too hard.
I hope I don't look that goofy, Hercules replies.
I don't think anyone will begrudge the groom looking goofy on his wedding day, she says to reassure him. Hercules throws back his head and laughs.
Dancing across the floor with Xena, Iolaus hears his best friend laughing like when they were boys. I hope you're proud of what you've done. You've turned the greatest hero in the land into a giggling school boy.
Xena spins away from then back into Iolaus's arms. So now I'm some kind of trouble maker am I? She says sarcastically.
No, he says. You're the best thing to happen to him in a long time. It may sound cliché but I want to thank you for giving that happiness back to him.
Xena smiles. And I promise you my friend I'll never do anything to take that happiness from him.
I know, Iolaus says. He feels a tap on his shoulder and turns to face Hercules.
Not trying to steal her away now are you? Hercules asks with a wink.
Never, Iolaus slaps his friend on the shoulder and walks away.
The new couple dance slowly enjoying every minute of their close embrace.
Getting tired yet? Xena asks as Hercules dips her close to the floor then pulls her up once again.
No, Hercules says. He lifts her into the air and spins her around. Not in the least.
Good. Because I think you'll need all your strength for tonight, she says turning a leering grin on her new husband she once reserved for victims of her wrath. The grin has a whole new meaning for tonight.
Hercules draws her into a passionate kiss. And somewhere at the edge of his range of hearing he can just make out the sound of Aphrodite giggling with glee.
Lila watches with growing apprehension as her sister sits in front of the fire and stares into the flames oblivious to the world around them. For over a week they have traveled through Gaul and still Gabrielle will not tell them where they are going. Each time she asks the answer is always the same: West.
She sees that Gabrielle's lips are moving but she hears nothing. She has been scared for her sister's sanity since leaving the Amazon village. Each night it is the same. Gabrielle makes their campfire then sits before it as if in meditation and talks with no one. Her one and only attempt to try and discern what her sister is doing has only left her more frightened. She had moved closer to Gabrielle to see if she could make out anything that was being said. Gabrielle had unsheathed her sword and stuck it into the ground between them. The threat had been clear and dangerous. At one time the idea of her sister inflicting bodily harm on her would have been so unthinkable as to be ludicrous. Now her own sister is a virtual stranger to her. She wishes so much that they had stayed with the Amazons.
Can you hear me? Gabrielle forms the words with her lips but does not let them leave her mouth. Please I need to hear your voice.
I am here Gabrielle.
Gabrielle shudders with exhilaration as she hears the voice that has been her guide these past few months. We are crossing the breadth of Gaul. Please. Do I near the end of my journey? Will I see you soon?
Be patient Gabrielle. Soon you will have all that you desire. The strength and power to see vengeance, your vengeance, done. This I have promised.
And for that I will be forever grateful. I continue to follow you west. Please tell me how much further.
Watch for my messenger Gabrielle. He will lead you to me.
Your messenger? How will I know him?
He will know you. Worry not Gabrielle. Know that you are chosen. Know that you will never be afraid again.
Gabrielle feels a tear roll down her cheek. Chosen?
All will be revealed to you in time Gabrielle. Soon you will stand in my presence.
Gabrielle can feel the presence of the voice depart. She knows she is alone again. A rustle of clothing catches her attention. Lila is shifting in her sleep again. It occurs to her again to wonder why she has brought her sister with her. Wouldn't she have been better off with the Amazons? She asks herself again. But something has compelled her to bring Lila along. She pushes it aside and focuses on the fire before her. The flame gives her comfort. The heat, the color, the smell; they all combine to create a soothing waypoint in her otherwise tumultuous life. Soon she drifts off to sleep and enters a dreamscape of fire and blood.
Lila struggles to wakefulness. She finds Gabrielle still awake and staring into the dying embers of their campfire. Upon closer inspection she sees that her sister's eyes are darting about erratically. She comes to the startling conclusion that Gabrielle is asleep and dreaming with her eyes open. She considers reaching over to wake her but decides it is not a good idea. She will wait for Gabrielle to wake up on her own. She opens her pack, pulls out a small loaf of bread and eats a meager breakfast.
Lila is watching a flock of birds winging its way to the west when she sees a plume of smoke appear over the trees. She watches for a few seconds and it is soon apparent that there is a fire just past the stand of trees they are camped in front of. She turns to check on Gabrielle and finds her sister on her feet. She is gathering her own pack and checking that her weapons are secure.
There's a fire, Lila says pointing towards the smoke.
I know, Gabrielle says then walks straight off into the woods towards the fire.
Gabrielle! Lila cries out in protest. We can't. It might be dangerous.
Gabrielle's response to her protest is to break into a run. Lila curses then picks up her gear and runs after her sister.
As they break through the tree line Gabrielle can see that it is a village that burns. Several bodies litter the narrow streets. A crowd is gathered in the center of the village. Or perhaps more appropriately it is a mob that is gathered there. For she can see that at least thirty people surround one man. She cannot make the person out through all the others. Lila gasps in horror as she beholds the village afire and the bodies.
Gabrielle can just make out some things being said.
You must have faith.
Faith won't keep those raiders away.
More die every time they come.
The One God does not protect us.
You can't believe that.
Your religion has only brought us tragedy.
Please! You must believe in the power of the One God.
Take your message elsewhere, Khrafstar!
Message, Gabrielle gasps not quite believing what she has heard. The messenger. She is close now. She runs towards the crowd.
You shall all see. Without the protection of the One God, this village and all surrounding it will be obliterated!
Don't threaten us Khrafstar.
I say he is the source of all our woes. Kill him!
No, Gabrielle states drawing her sword and twirling it make her point with the villagers.
As one they turn to face this interloper. Gabrielle can see the man for the first time. He is tall with long brown hair. He stands straight and proud though an entire village rallies against him. Who is this man that you would murder him?
I am Khrafstar, high priest in the temple of the One God. The man states his title loudly and without fear.
You plan to murder a priest because you do not share his religious views? Gabrielle asks already sickened by these people.
An older man points to Khrafstar. Since his arrival we have known nothing but pain and terror. He is a blight upon the land. Wherever he goes misfortune and tragedy follow him like a plague.
It would seem to me that you are all too cowardly to oppose whoever it is that attacks your village, Gabrielle says.
Gabrielle, Lila says stepping up behind her. You don't even know these people.
I know enough about them, she retorts. They are too weak and afraid to stand up for themselves so they lash out at an innocent priest to try and hide their short comings.
Just who do you think you are, little girl? A tall, well-built man says stepping up to her. He places his hands on his hips and stares down at her. Well?
With a casualness that frightens Lila to her core, Gabrielle slashes open the man's groin with her blade. He drops to his knees with a look of horror frozen on his face. He tries vainly to staunch the blood flowing from him. Gabrielle rams the sword into his throat and is splattered by the spray of blood that erupts forth.
My name is Gabrielle. And anyone who wishes may step forward and share his fate. She pulls the sword loose from the man and he falls lifelessly to the ground.
Gabrielle? Khrafstar says in disbelief.
The familiarity with which the man speaks her name makes her forget about anything else. She doesn't hear the sobs from the villagers or the sounds of Lila being sick behind her. Her attention is only on this man. You are the messenger? she asks feeling the expectation build within her.
Yes, he answers. I have heard your name in my dreams. You are the chosen of the One God.
I have traveled west for some time in search of the messenger to show me the way, Gabrielle voices with reverence. Can you take me to the One God?
I will bring you to the holy temple. Come. Khrafstar holds out his hand. The villagers make no move to stop any of them. They still stare at their dead kinsman.
Gabrielle reaches behind her and takes Lila's arm. Come on.
Too shocked to react in any way, Lila allows herself to be dragged from the village by her clearly mad sister. As they pass out of sight of the village Lila begins to cry. You murdered him Gabrielle! she screams. She pulls her arm from her sister's grasp. He was no threat to you. And you killed him! Tears stream down her face as she tries to control herself.
He was a coward Lila, Gabrielle says as if those words explain everything. And to her they do. I see no reason why you should shed any tears for him.
You've lost your mind Gabrielle. Lila realizes that the fighting staff Eponin gave her is still gripped tightly in her hand. You're becoming as bad as the men who killed our family.
Lila, Khrafstar says in a soothing voice. Gabrielle did what she had to do to help me. Those villagers were going to kill me.
Shut up! Lila screams. She brings the staff up to what she hopes is a fighting position. She turns her attention back to her sister. You didn't have to kill him. But you did. You murdered an innocent man. You're a monster! She swings the staff with all her might at her sister.
Gabrielle catches the staff and pulls it from her Lila's grasp. She takes it in both hands and snaps it over her knee as if it were a twig. She drops the broken halves and stares into her sister's fear filled eyes. You are my sister. I have endured your fear and your weakness because you are all the family I have left. I have listened to you whimper while you have nightmares about Draco. I have put up with your constant protesting. All these and more because you are my blood. Don't make me have to hurt you Lila.
Lila tries to mask her all consuming terror at Gabrielle's words but knows she can't. She drops to her knees crying and shaking her head in a vain attempt to deny everything that is happening.
We should be going, Khrafstar points out. The villagers may try and make good on their threats once their fear has abated.
How much further? Gabrielle asks enthusiastically.
We have only to cross the channel onto the Isle of Britannia, Khrafstar tells her happily. Finally he will fulfill the purpose for which he was born. He will bring the chosen one to the temple.
Gabrielle trembles with anticipation. She turns back to Lila. Get up. We have to go. We're nearly there.
Heart broken and afraid Lila nods then stands. As Gabrielle follows Khrafstar into the woods she falls into step behind Gabrielle.
I can't think of a more perfect day in all my life, Xena says caressing Hercules's bare chest with one hand. With her head resting on his chest in their bed, she has never felt more safe or at peace. They are both covered in sweat after their evening's activities but neither feels like separating. They are content to lie in each other's arms and enjoy their newly wedded bliss.
Hercules smiles as he strokes her raven black hair with his hand. The love he feels now is unlike anything he has ever felt. Several months ago this woman had been a mortal enemy. Now she is his wife. That he has played a role in her redemption means a lot to him. And that she allowed him to do so means even more. And I promise to make everyday from now on just as perfect.
She turns her head to look into his eyes. Snuggling closer she kisses his lips. I love you.
Having never dared dream to hear those words again, he is silent for a moment. When he sees the perplexed look on her face he kisses her as well. I love you too.
The temple is a single story rounded structure that Gabrielle could swear is carved right out of the land. It rises from the vast plains around them like a juggernaut. And she can feel power emanating from it.
I am here. The words form in her mind and she releases them into the ether. At least a dozen people exit the temple. Male and female, they all wear robes of black and red. As one they bow. Whether to her or to Khrafstar she does not know. Nor does she truly care. All that matters now is that her long quest is at an end. Will you not speak with me? I am here at long last.
Welcome Gabrielle. Enter my temple and gain that which I have promised you.
The robed acolytes drop to their knees and begin chanting in an unknown tongue.
What are they saying? Lila asks speaking for the first time since leaving the village in which they had found the high priest.
They are giving thanks to the One God for the arrival of his chosen, Khrafstar says then himself begins to repeat the chant on a low tone.
Gabrielle trembles with the need to run inside and seek out the power behind the voice. But she will not dishonor that power by mocking its followers. The chanting increases in speed and pitch until it is almost unbearable to hear then it stops. Gabrielle watches as the acolytes all sit cross-legged against the temple walls.
They will wait outside, Khrafstar explains. Follow me Gabrielle. Your destiny awaits. He walks towards the temple door.
Gabrielle grabs Lila by the wrist and drags her along. Lila doesn't protest or try to reason with her sister. She is so deathly afraid of her now that to resist her in any way might mean her death. So she endures the pain in her wrist as Gabrielle pulls her inside the stone edifice.
Praise be the One God! Khrafstar intones as they enter the temple. All glory to Him!
Gabrielle wonders whether she should say something as well. She decides instead to speak without words once again. I am honored to be in your temple. And to be your chosen.
A ring of rectangular columns radiate through out the temple supporting the roof. Smaller stones form two concentric circles within the temple itself. And in the center sits a massive stone slab. An altar. On the other side of the altar stands a young woman dressed in white. She holds an ornate dagger with its blade pointing down against her chest.
Welcome Gabrielle, she says in a melodious tone that seems more song than verb. My name is Meridian. We welcome you to the temple of the One God. I am honored to be here to receive the chosen one.
Still unsure of what to say in the face of such benediction to her she simply nods.
I am Khrafstar! the high priest wails with his arms held high. I have brought the chosen one here in accordance with ancient prophecy. Let now the will of the One God be fulfilled. He turns to Gabrielle. Call to the One God, Gabrielle. You are the chosen one.
Speak his true name Gabrielle, Meridian says in her singsong voice. Only you can speak it. Summon his presence to us. Make the will of the One God now flesh and blood with your words and with your deeds.
Gabrielle releases Lila. She lays her hands on the altar. I am prophecy made flesh. I am the living will of the One God. A warm breeze moves through the temple and Lila gasps as it passes over her. I am without fear. I have walked the path of blood to set my purpose upon the path of fire. The words come to Gabrielle of their own accord. As if they were locked away in her heart and soul to be released at this very moment. The warm breeze becomes a flowing torrent of heat that reddens Lila's skin and even causes blisters to form. She looks around to see no such reaction from Gabrielle, Khrafstar or Meridian.
Now I call upon the One God to bear witness to my ascension. Know my name is Gabrielle. And I am the chosen of
Dahak! she screams the last word for all to hear: the true name of a once nameless evil. The word has not been spoken in millennia. Flames erupt from between the supporting pillars in the temple walls. An inhuman roaring shakes the very walls of the temple until even Khrafstar fears they may fall.
Lila screams in pain as blood seeps from her ears. She clamps her hands over her ears to drown out the ungodly roar but it is no use. Tears start to stream down her face but they evaporate from the heat pulsing in the temple.
The heat finally seems to have an effect on Khrafstar as he flesh begins to burn and blister. But he feels no pain. Instead he feels the rapture of Dahak's blessing. His earthly flesh falls away to reveal a scaled hide. Fire bursts from his forehead and long spiral horn appear. His eyes boil and turn a deathly black. His teeth crack and elongate into a mouthful of fangs. The peasant robes he wore melt as if made from wax and reform into robes of red and black.
Gabrielle stands transfixed with her hands still on the altar. Her hair stands on end from the hot wind roiling around her.
For the first time Khrafstar knows the joy of hearing the One God Dahak's voice, not in dreams but in the real world. Deliverer. Offer up the sacrifice.
Khrafstar doesn't hesitate as he grabs Lila by the hair and drags her to the altar. With demonic strength he picks her up and throws her onto the altar to land before Gabrielle. Gabrielle looks into the scalded and burned face of her sister and smiles. Lila knows a fear like no other as she realizes why it is she has accompanied her sister all this time. She is to be the sacrifice to Gabrielle.
Meridian steps up to Gabrielle and offers her the dagger. Fulfill your destiny Gabrielle.
Gabrielle takes the dagger and steps up unto the altar. She seizes Lila by the hair and hauls her up to her feet. Please Gabrielle, Lila begs through charred and bloody lips. Her voice hurts in her throat as if she is inhaling and exhaling fire. Don't do this.
You know the sacrifice Gabrielle! Khrafstar screams enraptured.
Blood and innocence.
Blood and innocence, Gabrielle says.
I love you Gabrielle, Lila says giving voice to what she knows is her last thought on this earth.
Gabrielle slits her sister's throat with the dagger. Lila's eyes glaze over into lifelessness in an instant. Her blood drains from her throat like a flood. Gabrielle is bathed in it. She holds her sister's corpse up until every last drop has drained away. When she sees that she is standing in a pool of blood she tosses the body in her hand aside like it is garbage.
For one instant in time her eyes track the fall of Lila's lifeless and bloodless body and she cannot believe what she has done. For that one instant her sister's last words echo throughout her being. Then the instant is gone. But it is not forgotten.
She drops the dagger as well and watches as the blood pooled at her feet comes to life. The scarlet liquid moves around with the consistency of quicksilver. It masses into four points on the altar top where a symbol, a triumvirate flame, has been carved. Then the blood shoots into the air forming columns. The blood pulses for several seconds then is transfigured into four columns of fire. The fire twists and writhes with a life all its own. Gabrielle holds her arms straight out from her body.
I am ready my Lord Dahak.
Then accept all that I have promised.
The columns of flame wrap around her body like serpents coiling about their prey. Like razor sharp blades the fire cuts open her wrists and seeps in like molten lava. Gabrielle throws back her head and screams in a horrific amalgamation of unrelenting pain and near orgasmic ecstasy. Fire rears up like serpents to strike then drive down into her mouth and sear into throat. The heat in the temple becomes so intense that the stone walls begin to melt and buckle.
The acolytes outside stare in wonder at the distortion that warps the very stone of their temple. The chosen day has come. And they find at last that they can call out to the One God in praise with his true name. Dahak! Dahak! Dahak!
The structure of the temple groans under its own weight as the heat of the chosen one's transfiguration threatens to destroy it. The fire continues to seep into Gabrielle's wrists and mouth until it is gone. Gabrielle then drops back onto the altar causing the entire structure of the temple to vibrate to its foundation. She falls to one knee but does not collapse. The walls of the temple cease their warping and sagging. The chanting of the acolytes outside continues. Lila's body is a charred heap of bones on the temple floor.
Khrafstar and Meridian look in awe at Gabrielle kneeling on the altar.
Gabrielle stands and as she does the two of them kneel.
Avatar of Dahak. They say in unison.
When there is no reply Khrafstar looks up into the face of the chosen one. Gabrielle?
Her eyes open. Behind the green of those eyes burns an evil fire born in the darkest pits of the Netherworlds, the Fire of Dahak. When she speaks the very earth around them shudders in fear and loathing. My name is Hope.