The Edge of Nowhere
Author's note: I wrote this part before the tragic news about Kevin Smith. It is, of course, not my intention to offend anyone with my portrayal of the character of Ares at the end of this part. I just wanted to have this said because there have been people who've asked me to not put Ares in the following bits of this story and I hate to disappoint anyone, but I simply can not honour that request, even if I wanted to. Ares has a pretty important role in parts of this story, even though he might not be present in this or the next part all that much, and I just can't twist my plot around at this stage. On a more personal note, I believe that people live on in the memories of others and to shun the character is, from my perspective, just not the right thing to do. I hope those of you who read this can understand my view on the matter and see my use of the character the way I intended it, as a show of respect towards the character and the actor who so perfectly portrayed him. May he rest in peace .
Argo started as a scream echoed through the woods. Gabrielle's head shot up. "What the..."
Another cry of agony, this one even more overloaded with pain than the one before. Blond eyebrows furrowed, then Gabrielle slid of Argo's back, giving the mare an absent pat. "Go girl. But stay close."
Argo snorted in understanding, then took off in the opposite direction at an easy trot.
Ignoring the paths, she rushed through the dense forest, the occasional scream guiding her closer and closer until she suddenly spotted two figures. She slid to a halt. One was a blonde, her back turned towards her, and she held the second, the Conqueror, in the air, a hand wrapped around her neck. Xena cried out again, tossing her head back, the expression of utter agony on her face clearly visible from the warrior's point of view. Gabrielle watched in disbelief as a huge gash suddenly formed on the Empress's forehead out of nothing.
The Conqueror was clearly losing. She was streaked in blood, her body hanging in the blonde's grip weakly. She made a feeble attempt at escape from time to time, but her body was too exhausted and every attempt was followed by more yells of pain.
This is your chance! A voice in the back of her mind called out. She's no longer a threat to you now. You can run back to the palace, get Thalia and be out of here within moments!
I can't... Another, much softer voice disagreed. She'll die.
And what if she does? She's the one who crucified you, remember? The one who killed Naxos, and Kimon... The one who locked Thalia up... Locked Ephiny up...I don't care what happens to her! I...
And at that moment Xena looked over her attacker's shoulder, the pained blue eyes meeting her own... pleadingly.
And she answered that plea, without a second thought, without a thought at all really, simply rushing forward and hurling herself at Xena's attacker.
Within moments she'd wrapped her arm around the blonde's neck, snapping her head to the side with a quiet, decise motion.
Callisto dropped her victim from shock more than anything else. On pure instinct she launched herself upwards, flipping back and thereby worming her out of her attacker's hold. She landed, then spun around to face her new opponent.
A wicked grin lit up her face. "Well, well, well..." She laughed. "Look who we have here..."
Green eyes widened, staring at her in complete disbelief. "Callisto?"
"Oh, I was hoping it was you..." Callisto licked her lips expectantly. "When she described you I was thinking: 'My, that sounds a lot like dear old Gabs.'" A giggle. "I like your hair better this way...A lot less... frilly."
"I thought you were dead..." Gabrielle breathed, unmoving. "I heard..."
"So that's why you didn't come looking for me?" Callisto cocked her head in question. "You just...assumed I was dead?" She slowly closed the distance between them, tsk-ing. "Gabby, Gabby... You of all people should know to never make assumptions about me..." She reached out a hand, touching the back of her fingers to the warrior's cheek. "We were so close after all..."
Gabrielle swallowed. "I didn't know..."
"Oh, you didn't know..." Callisto released a grave breath, shaking her head a little as she circled the warrior, then she leaned close, whispering in her ear. "Well, that's awfully convenient, isn't it?"
Gabrielle turned her head, looking at the blonde over her shoulder.
"I opposed your placid theories. And people agreed with me." Callisto went on, trailing a finger from the top of a shoulder down the warrior's arm. "And then I suddenly disappear from the picture... But you couldn't help, could you? Cause you didn't know... So you ju..." Callisto paused for a moment, then whistled under her breath. "Great biceps there, Gabby. Verrry nice. I didn't believe it was you when Alti described you as a warrior. I couldn't picture my sweet, naïve, peace loving little Gab like that..." Dark eyes glanced down then back up the warrior's form. "But I have to say... it becomes you..."
"I didn't want t..." She stopped, as Callisto's words registered. "Alti?"
"Yes," Callisto smiled charmingly. "Alti's my girlfriend now... I'm sorry, dearest, you had your chance..."
Gabrielle turned, backing away from the blonde a few paces. "Callisto, you can't trust Alti. She's evil."
"That may be so... But at least she took the effort to dig me out of the pit I was stuck in for four years..." Callisto folded her hands together thoughtfully. "And I had a lot of time to think in there, Gabs. I had a lot of time to really, really learn to hate you... I had a lot of time to realise about how you betrayed me..."
"I didn't..." Gabrielle argued weakly.
"But never, ever..." Callisto continued on. ".. did I think you were in league with that..." She shot the Conqueror, who was lying curled up on the ground, a despising look. "...that piece of filth." She shook her head. "Very disappointing, Gabby... Very disappointing... I'd really hoped, maybe in time, we could have settled out differences... But I guess not..."
"You don't understand..." Gabrielle argued, finally regaining her composure a little. "Callisto, you can't help Alti. Don't you see? If you kill the Conqueror and she takes the throne, things are not going to change for the people. Most likely it'll just get worse..."
Callisto cocked her head a little, considering this. "Well... yes, I guess that's true... Things won't change for the people..." Her eyes twinkled. "But they'll definitely change for me..."
"But that's what the resistance was all about, that's what we strived for all those years."
Callisto laughed. "That's what YOU strived for, my dear. You know what I strived for..." She pointed a long sleek finger at the Conqueror. "That is what I strived for. Seeing her crawl... Making her crawl..." She turned her gaze on Xena once more, narrowing her eyes.
Xena yelled out again, curling up into a tighter ball.
Gabrielle frowned, not quite understanding what was happening, only that it was her ex-colleague who was doing it. "Callisto, stop it!"
A snort. "Why?"
"Because it's wrong."
"Wrong?!" The blonde pointed a finger at her, her voice dropping to a growl. "You know what's wrong? Burning my village was wrong. Killing my mother, my father... That was wrong, Gabrielle. This..." She waved a hand at the Empress negligently. "This is justice."
Gabrielle lifted her hands, calmingly. "Cal, I know how you feel, OK? But there's other ways. Better ways. The gods know I've been tempted too, but... But you have to think about the greater good..."
Urg... Alti's voice drifted up, sounding very bored. I've had about enough of this...
"Me too." Callisto agreed, before focussing again on the warrior. "Because of our... history, I'm gonna give you a chance to walk away now, Gab. I suggest you take it..." She stated, then turned her back on Gabrielle, heading back towards Xena's shivering form.
But her path was blocked. Gabrielle had flipped over her head and was now making a stand in front of the Empress, both hands holding onto the sword she'd picked off the ground, the edge pointing at Callisto. "I can't let you do this..."
Callisto raised an eyebrow at her. "And what are you gonna do? Hmm? Kill me?"
Gabrielle took a breath, squaring her shoulders. "I will if you leave me no choice."
Callisto shook her head in disappointment. "See, this is the thanks I get... You save a girl's life and next thing you know they're trying to kill ya..."
Gabrielle tightened her fingers around the sword hilt. "I can't let you help Alti rise to power."
A laugh, then Callisto started moving forward again, not impressed by the threats at all. "If you won't get out of my way, I'll just have to move you myself..." The blonde stated calmly, then lunged forward, kicking out.
Gabrielle ducked under the kick, then pushed her sword forward, aiming it for Callisto's side, intent on wounding her badly enough to make her give up. She felt the blade cut through flesh, then waited for the blonde's response, for her to stagger back, of fall to the ground, or just scream out in pain...
But there was nothing. Gabrielle frowned, then looked at her sword, to see it had indeed been pushed through Callisto's skin... But there was no blood.
"Nice shot, dear." Callisto drawled. "Problem is, I gave up on dying..." Gabrielle gasped as a hand suddenly wrapped itself tightly around her neck, making it hard to breath. "Now you on the other hand..."
No playing around, Callisto. Alti warned. Xena's regaining her senses. We need to finish her off. Now.
"Yeah, yeah..." Callisto muttered under her breath, then focussed back on Gabrielle. "It's been fun seeing you again, darling. But I'm afraid I'm gonna have to cut our meeting short... Don't worry though, I'm not gonna toy with you..." A giggle. "I'm gonna send you straight to the good stuff..."
The pain seared through her as the nail was slammed into her hand harshly.
Gabrielle screamed out as a wound formed on her left hand, blood dripping down her palm.
Another jolt of pain as a second nail edged through flesh, then a third, slamming through her feet. She could feel the blood flowing out of her body, and it left her weak and dizzy. The air rushed around her, chaotically, until all of a sudden it stopped and she was hanging. Through the blur of pain she could hear shrill laughter.
Gabrielle's outcry brought Xena back to her senses and she looked up to see the warrior dangling, her feet inches above the ground. In horror she saw wounds forming on the warrior's hands. "No! Gabri..." She struggled to get back to her feet, but her body was aching all over and she was unable to stand. Instinctively she reached for her chakram, but her brain reminded her that the weapon would be useless against an immortal.
She lifted her body up to breath, the pain searing through her hands. She felt weak, and drained and she wanted it to end. She felt herself slip away, deeper and deeper... But before she could give up completely, a voice called her back...
Xena's hearing picked up sounds in the distance, the very soft crackling of fire. She closed her eyes for a moment, focussing all her attention on pinpointing the location of those sounds. Then she lifted her chakram and with all her power she hurled it away.
"Gabrielle." The voice was warm and loving, and she couldn't resist it. She forced her eyes open and turned her head to look at the person hanging from the cross next to hers. Xena smiled back at her warmly.
The chakram soared through the forest, until it found its way into a small clearing. It bounced off a tree, then ricocheted all through the open space, back and forth, until finally it cut through skin.
Callisto yelled out in agony, grabbing for her head as a wisp of smoke escaped from her skull, screaming, and fled back into the forest.
Gabrielle crashed onto the ground, panting, her eyes wide as remnants of her vision kept flashing in front of them.
"No!" Callisto growled, as she realised Alti's spirit had vanished. "No! Not when I'm this close!" The dark eyes flicked around, then finally settled on the sword Gabrielle had dropped. She reached down and picked it up. "Well, I guess I'll have to just do this the old fashioned way then..."
But before she could advance on Gabrielle, hooves thundered closer and a large solid form crashed into her, sending her sprawling back. Argo snorted, stamping her front hoof on the ground angrily, defensively taking up a position in front of her rider.
Callisto scrambled back to her feet, tightening the hold on her sword. "Stupid beast..." She lifted her weapon. "You are gonna pay for this..."
With a shifting of air the chakram flew back and Xena forced herself to lift her hand and grab for the ring, somehow managing to scoop it out of the air. The next moment a scratchy voice called out. "Callisto!"
Callisto seemed hesitant for a moment, torn between her desire to kill Xena, Gabrielle and the obnoxious horse and the shamaness's pain filled yell. She took a breath, seeing Xena lifted her chakram in defence from the corner of her eyes, then she pointed her sword at the trio threateningly. "This isn't over." She stated, before turning and running off.
Xena gasped in another breath, her eyes following the blonde until she was sure she wasn't coming back, then she pulled all her effort into crawling closer to the fallen warrior. "Gabrielle?"
Wide green eyes turned in her direction, but the warrior seemed to be looking through her more than at her, utterly dazed and confused.
Xena closed the distance between them as fast as she could, then tentatively reached out and touched Gabrielle's arm. "Hey?"
Gabrielle blinked, the Empress's touch bringing her back from her haze. "I..." She looked up into concerned blue eyes. "It was so real..."
"It was Alti..." Xena offered, not sure what else to say. "She has the power to show people things... Visions..." The Empress's gaze trailed down, her eyes regretfully looking at the warrior's bleeding hands. "Past events..."
Gabrielle sucked in another breath, trying very hard to kick-start her brain again. A gentle shove against her back made her look up to see Argo looking down at her compassionately. "Hey girl..." She said softly, lifting her hand to stroke the horse's nose. "Great timing... You..." Her motions stilled as her gaze settled on the hole in her palm and she stared at it, flashes from the vision filling her mind's eye again.
It had hurt. Gods, it had hurt so much. But at the same time she'd felt so.... light. Peaceful. And the moment Callisto had let go of her hold the burden of her anger had settled on her like an icy stone pressing against her heart.
These visions, they had been nothing like her crucifixion. The feelings, the far off laughter... Xena... What was going on?
Xena watched the warrior stare at her bleeding hands, a lump forming in her own throat. She took a breath, then grabbed onto her tunic and ripped off a fairly bloodless strip from the bottom, before reaching out, carefully, and touching the warrior's wrist. Gabrielle's gaze shifted, her trance broken, and she looked up at the Empress. Xena held her eyes for just a moment, then glanced down, carefully winding the strip of cloth over Gabrielle's wound.
The warrior blinked, looking at her hand as the long fingers carefully looped the bandage over her palm. "You... You don't have to do that..."
"Yes, I do..." Xena mumbled, almost inaudibly. "I do..."
"I'm OK," Gabrielle assured her softly. "Really."
The Empress's eyes tracked up and met hers insecurely and Gabrielle was instantly reminded of the picture she'd found in the attic a few days back, seeing that same innocence in the woman's gaze... No more barriers, the shield around the Conqueror had dropped away, allowing the warrior to look straight into Xena's jaded soul.
A moment, then they both dropped their heads, breaking eye contact. Gabrielle drew in a breath. "We should go."
Xena swallowed, closing her eyes. "Yes. We should."
Gabrielle nodded softly, then reached out and grabbed onto a nearby stirrup, using it to help pull herself to her feet. The wounds in her feet stung, but the pain was bearable. She looked back down at the Conqueror. "Can you stand?"
Xena blinked, having nearly forgotten her own injuries in her concern for the warrior, then she sucked in a lungful of air and placed her hands flat on the ground, pushing herself up, gritting her teeth as her body complained. She pulled her legs under her, then shifted her weight to them, attempting to stand.
Bursts of pain raced through her, making her dizzy and nauseous. She bit her lip, trying to fight it, but her legs had been shattered so badly and no matter how much she willed it, she couldn't keep upright. Her knees buckled and she lost her balance, tumbling forward. But before she could impact with the harsh ground an arm wrapped around her and pulled her back upright. "Come on," Gabrielle's voice sounded very close to her ear. "Easy..."
"I... I'm sorry," she hastily stuttered. "I didn't mean..."
"It's OK," Gabrielle cut her short. "Let's just get you on the horse." She helped Xena over to the patiently waiting mare, then mounted as the Empress struggled to keep herself upright, aided by Argo's sturdy form. She settled in the saddle, took the reigns and then reaching out a hand. "Come on..."
Xena looked up at her, then grasped onto the warrior's arm and allowed herself to be pulled up, settling behind the warrior. She bit her lip, but couldn't suppress a small whimper of pain.
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. "You OK?"
The Empress swallowed, but nodded. "Broke a rib," she managed from between clenched teeth, as she waited for the aching to subside a little. "Broke my nose too, I think..."
Gabrielle urged Argo forward with a soft nudge of her heels. "Broken ribs, broken legs, broken nose..." She muttered softly. "Any part left of you intact?"
Xena considered this for a moment. "I think my little toe is still in one piece..."
The warrior snorted, shaking her head a little.
Silence fell for a moment, in which Xena pensively stared ahead of her, making out the outline of the trees in the dim light. "Gabrielle?"
"You saved my life."
The blonde gazed into the distance quietly. "Yes."
"Why?" Xena asked softly.
A light shrug. "Because it was the right thing to do."
Xena considered this. "How do you know?"
The warrior was quiet for a moment, mulling over this question. "You just do..." She finally answered.
The dark haired woman seated behind her released a breath, closing her eyes and shaking her head slightly. "I don't."
Gabrielle peeked over her shoulder, studying her quietly for a long moment. "I... I think part of you does," she finally said softly, turning back. "You're just not listening to it..."
Blue eyes opened, gazing into the darkness in front of her in silence, not sure of what to reply to that.
Argo quietly moved forward as they exited the forest. Several torches illuminated the palace garden and as they walked into the light she could hear anxious calls drifting up. Gabrielle pulled Argo to a halt, then swung her leg over the mare's head and dismounted. She'd barely touched the ground when she was surrounded by soldiers, all pointing their blades at her threateningly. "Conqueror?" A officer in charge looked up at the Empress anxiously. "Are you all right?"
"Back away from her!" Xena ordered, her eyes narrowing at the crowd.
The soldiers blinked up at her in confusion.
"Now!" The Conqueror snapped. "If any of you so much as lay a finger on her, I will personally cut off your head, stick it onto a spike and put it on display on the Agora. Do I make myself clear?"
The weapons dropped away in an instant, the soldiers even backing up a few paces, just to be sure they stayed clear of the warrior at any cost.
"Get back to your posts," Xena snapped, still seated on Argo's back. "Except you, Curtius. I wanna have a word with you."
The officer bowed his head. "Of course." He hastily waved a hand at the men, who scattered immediately.
"Empress!" Pyrron's voice called out, anxiously, as the Advisor came limping over as fast as he could. "I thought you said you'd be back within moments... Are you OK?"
"No," Xena muttered, swinging a leg over Argo's head and letting herself slide down to the ground. Her knees nearly buckled on her and Pyrron was beside her instantly, supporting her on one side while Gabrielle provided some help on the other.
"Good gods..." The advisor's dark brown eyes widened in shock, as he saw the cuts and bruises on the Conqueror's skin, which had before been hidden by the darkness, the blood seeping down her nose. "What happened to you?"
"Alti," Xena growled under her breath as she carefully took a step towards the palace. "That bitch double-crossed me." She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at lieutenant Curtius. "Run to the barracks and alert the troops. If you find Alti and the blonde that's helping her before the night is through, I might consider not killing you too brutally."
The man's eyes widened and he gulped, then nodded hastily and darted off without another word.
Pyrron was still staring at Xena's battered form in disbelief. "Xena, your legs..." He managed, staring at the shattered limbs in horror.
"I know," The Empress cut him short as she moved shakily towards the palace, aware of Gabrielle's presence close behind. "Don't make a fuss."
"You can't walk like this..." Pyrron argued, shaking his head.
"Sure I can. Doing just great." Xena refuted, gritting teeth.
"No, you're not." The Advisor released a breath, then reached down and wrapped an arm around her knees, lifting her straight off the ground. "Hold on."
"Pyrron!" Blue eyes flashed at him in outrage. "This is ridiculous. Put me down."
"Nuhuh." The man shook his head determinedly. "You carried me off a battlefield once too, Xena. It's about time I returned the favour."
The Conqueror scowled, considered struggling for a moment, but then she just accepted the situation and allowed herself be carried into the palace. "Fine, fine... But if you break your back it's your own damn fault."
Gabrielle grinned wryly as she followed them inside, walking past Pyrron and his burden to open the door to the Empress's quarters for the Advisor. Pyrron shot her a grateful look as he passed and Gabrielle smiled back at him, then watched from the doorway as Pyrron deposited Xena on her bed carefully.
Xena's private chambers were nothing like she'd expected. Which was something she should have expected by now really... The room was bare and functional, void of any form of decoration. There was a simple, single bed, made of rough oak wood with plain dark blue sheets. There was a closet made of the same material and a single comfortable-looking chair standing next to a small table that had a chessboard resting on its surface, the pieces scattered somewhere in mid-game. But except from those few bits of furniture there was nothing. No paintings, no expensive Persian carpets, no bronze statues... There were some golden swirls painted on the ceiling, but they seemed to be more of a standard in the palace rooms than something the Conqueror had placed there on purpose. The room was simple and functional. Impersonal.
While Gabrielle studied the Conqueror's bedroom, Xena studied the warrior. "Hey?" She called softly, dragging Gabrielle from her pondering. "Come here," she waved the warrior inside, then pointed at the chair near the bedside. "Sit down."
The comment reminded Gabrielle of her hurting feet and she made her way into the room, sighing in relief as she settled in the seat.
Xena's eyes followed her quietly as she walked closer, as she sat down, as she pulled one of her feet up on her knee and tentatively touched the sole of her boot, flinching as her wounds stung at the pressure. Then she turned to her advisor, who'd knelt down beside the closet and was digging several bandages and small jars from a drawer. "Pyrron. That can wait. I want you to do something for me first."
The advisor looked over his shoulder questioningly, then straightened. "What could be more important?"
"Go to the dungeons and get the rebel leader," Xena stated quietly. "Bring her here."
Pyrron's eyes met hers for a moment, then he inclined his head and turned, striding out of the room.
The Empress watched him go, then forced herself to look at the warrior sitting by her side. Confused green eyes blinked back at her, Gabrielle's body frozen somewhere in mid-motion. Xena dropped her gaze, fumbling with the edge of her blanket a little, uncomfortably. "The uhm..." She waved a hand at the warrior's wounds. "The pain will fade quicker now that Alti's been weakened... Hopefully it won't take too long to heal... You'll have to clean those wounds out thoroughly though, so uhm... if you don't have a place to go to you can use the facilities here, before you leave..."
Gabrielle's mouth opened several times, but no coherent sound came out. "You... I'm...?"
Xena let her head sink back into her pillow. "Yes."
"Her too." Xena confirmed, staring up at the ceiling quietly. "I'm not dragging her from her cell so we can go play midget golf, you know?"
"I..." Gabrielle gazed at her in disbelief. "B... Why?"
"Cause..." Xena turned her head, blue eyes meeting emerald ones quietly. "There's this part of me saying... it's the right thing to do."
"Where is she?" Thalia's voice drifted in from the hallway. "I swear, if you so much as harmed a hair on her head, I'll... I'll... I'll do something really horrible to you." Footsteps got closer, then Pyrron walked into the room again, soon followed by the still spluttering redhead. "Whatever you have in store for me, it won't..." She stopped as she spotted Gabrielle's sitting at the Conqueror's bedside. "Gab!" She took a step closer, then caught sight of the warrior's unbandaged right hand. Her eyes narrowed to slits, then lifted to look at the Conqueror. "You bitch! I'm gonna..."
"Thalia." Gabrielle lifted a hand decisively, stopping her ranting. "Be quiet."
The redhead blinked, but obediently kept her mouth shut.
The warrior turned back to look at the Empress.
"When you step outside, things will be as they were before. I will be a ruler. You will be a rebel." A pause. "Do you understand?"
The warrior nodded. "Yes," she confirmed. A moment of hesitation, then she reached out and covered one of Xena's hands with her own. "Thank you."
Long fingers closed around hers for a moment. "No. Thank you." Then Xena let go, allowing the warrior to rise to her feet. Gabrielle turned and walked towards the door, laying a hand on Thalia's shoulder as she passed the redhead, guiding her out.
"Pyrron, make sure no one tries to stop them." Xena ordered softly, her advisor quickly nodding and following the two women towards the door. Gabrielle ushered Thalia out in front of her, halting in the doorway for a moment and looking back, their eyes meeting for a last time, before she disappeared into the hallway.
Xena stared at the empty door opening for another moment, then she let herself sink back into her pillow and closed her eyes, a small content smile lighting up her face.
Moments passed in utter silence, until uneven footsteps echoed closer once more. Pyrron re-entered the room, walking straight to the still open drawer and kneeling down beside it, removing another rolled up bit of bandage.
Xena glanced at him, then stared back up at the ceiling, quietly listening to her advisor's rummaging about. "So... Do your job, Ronnie..."
Pyrron gathered the bandages and stood, carrying them towards the bed. "Empress?"
"Evaluate the current situation," Xena clarified for him. "I just made a grave tactical error, didn't I?"
Her advisor settled at the bedside, dipping a clean rag in water, before starting to wipe the blood of the Conqueror's arm. "Yes," he affirmed quietly, reaching out with his other hand and handing Xena a mug filled with water and a the small box of herbs he'd picked up as well. "You know as well as I do Gabrielle is a legend among the people. And when legends arise, they soon draw a following."
Xena nodded quietly, mixing several herbs into her water. "So, you think I made the wrong decision?"
"As your Advisor on the matters of the Empire, I'd have to say yes. You have just complicated matters immensely."
Xena lifted her mug and downed the mixture in one big gulp. She winced at the bitterness of the herbs. "Nothing wrong with complications..."
Pyrron half smiled. "No. No, nothing wrong with that..." He looked up at her with a twinkle in his dark eyes. "It was a good call, Empress."
A dark eyebrow raised at him. "Thought you just said it was a wrong decision..."
"Strategically speaking it was a horribly stupid move..." Pyrron affirmed, winding a bandage around a cut on Xena's arm. "On the other hand, you have managed to avoid the wrath of the children, saved me the torture of comforting my broken-hearted son and we now have one less prisoner to feed, which saves us exactly three dinars and thirty-five cents a day."
Xena chuckled wryly. "We're saved. Now we won't have to make those budget cuts after all."
Pyrron grinned, tying off the bandage and moving on to the next wound. "I doubt though that you did this because of the economic benefits, Empress."
Xena settled back in her pillow, serious now. "She saved me, Pyrron..." She bent her head. "I crucified her, I destroyed her life and... she saves mine... It doesn't make any sense..." A shake of her head. "She makes no sense to me..."
Brown eyes studied her for a moment, then Pyrron returned to his task with a soft laugh.
"What?" Xena lifted her head and looked at him indignantly.
"It's just..." Her advisor shook his head a little. "From my perspective you're so alike, Empress. It surprises me that you understand so little of one another..."
A dark eyebrow raised at him. "We're alike?" A snort. "Ronnie, you're deluded..."
"No, I'm not. It's quite obvious." Pyrron said easily, wincing at the angry bruises on the Conqueror's legs. "Uhm, you might wanna..." He poked at the empty air with two fingers.
Xena lifted her upper body up, then jabbed at a pressure point on her leg. "What do you mean, it's obvious?" A poke on her other leg.
"Well..." Pyrron grabbed hold of her ankle, then pulled back and twisted the limb, hearing the pop as bones slid back into place. "You're both warriors..."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh right, I see it now... We're perfectly alike..."
The Advisor gave her a bored look as he moved on to her second leg, repeating the procedure. "You're both smart, skilled and horribly stubborn..." More cracking of bones. "You value honour, are true to your word, willing to die for those you care for..." Pyrron checked her legs with a hand, making sure the bones were properly set. "All done..."
Xena looked around, then grabbed for the clean tunic Pyrron had brought. She placed the fabric between her teeth, then reached up and released the pressure points. And immediately dropped back in her pillow, her teeth grinding down on the edge of the tunic. A guttural sound of pain escaped her, but she managed to keep herself from crying out.
Finally the pain subsided and she gasped in a breath, taking the tunic from her mouth and flinging it away, spitting at the dry taste on her tongue. "Bwah... Damn, I hate that..."
Pyrron picked the garment up, sighing as he spotted the tiny holes in the fabric, neatly lined up a half circle. Wordlessly he tossed the tunic into a corner then walked back to the closet and pulled another shirt out.
Xena pushed her upper body up, leaning back on her hands and studying her legs. "You did leave some essential elements out of that summery of yours..."
"Like what, Empress?"
"She's a rebel and I'm the tyrant she opposes..."
"You're not a tyrant, Empress." Pyrron shook his head, handing her the clean shirt. "I would never serve I tyrant."
Xena considered this for a moment as she pensively tracked a cut on her thigh. "But you don't agree with certain things I did... The executions, the torture..." Blue eyes peeked up at him. "Did you?"
"No. No, I didn't... I don't..." Her advisor settled on the bedside, wiping some of the blood off her face carefully. "And I wish sometimes... I wish some things could have been dealt with less... brutally..."
Xena dropped her head.
"But I've seen enough of this world to know how it works, Empress..." He continued calmly. "I've seen enough people lie and cheat and manipulate to try and get what they want. No matter what the costs. And I know that if those people weren't afraid of you, didn't know that stepping out of line would mean their deaths... then a whole lot of innocents would suffer unnecessarily..."
"Innocents have suffered unnecessarily," Xena countered unhappily. "At my hands." She released a breath. "Sometimes... Sometimes I look back at my life and... And it makes me sick..."
Pyrron looked at her for a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. "You did a lot of good too. This Empire is prospering because of you..."
The Empress mumbled something inaudible.
"Iona wouldn't be alive today if it hadn't been for you..." Pyrron tried a more personal note. "And Niobe..."
"Niobe would have had a mother if it hadn't been for me." Xena shot back, her blue eyes blazing angrily now.
Pyrron shook his head. "That is not true. I know you wanted to be there..."
"But I wasn't!" Xena turned away from him, staring out the window. "I wasn't. I was out there killing people..."
"Ismene was a month early," Pyrron continued on, a hint of sadness tainting his voice. "You couldn't have known. That you managed to save Niobe was a miracle, Xena. And I'm sure that she is so grateful to you for saving her child... Just like I am..." He gently squeezed her shoulder. "No one blames you for that..."
"I blame myself," Xena muttered unhappily. "I... I loved her, Pyrron..." She looked up at him. "Not like you loved her, but... she..."
"She was your friend."
A breath. "Yeah... And I... I never told her that..."
Her advisor managed a small smile. "She knew." He wiped a smudge of blood of her cheek. "She always knew."
Xena closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath to calm her shattered nerves. "What a day..." She finally mumbled softy. "My shamaness betrays me, I nearly get flashbacked to death, I set free my toy and now I'm having sensitive chats... What is this world coming to?"
Pyrron chuckled, happy to see the Conqueror's sarcastic side resurfacing. "It was a day of changes, Empress."
"Yeah..." Xena rubbed her face tiredly. "Let's hope tomorrow turns out a bit more conservative, huh?"
A knock sounded and Agenor looked up from his book with a frown. "Who on earth...?"
Another knock, this one a bit more demanding.
"Just a moment." Agenor put the book aside and rose to his feet, running a hand through this curly blond hair. He glanced down, making sure the dagger he held hidden is his boot was not visible, then he walked towards the door and turned the knob. "Yes? Can I..."
His sentence halted and he just stared at the duo standing in front of his door, his jaw slightly ajar, his eyes widening more with every passing moment.
"Hi," Gabrielle smiled at him. "Could we come in?"
The man blinked. "I... Y...B..."
Thalia rolled her eyes. "Are you gonna go through the whole alphabet now or could you get us some tea first?"
"Tea?" His hazel eyes looked at her dazedly, then he shook his head, clearing it. "Yes, tea, of course... I... Come in!" He hastily waved them forward. Thalia held on to Gabrielle's shoulder tightly, helping her over to a nearby chair. The warrior sat down gratefully, placing the saddlebags she'd had lying over her other shoulder next to the chair. Agenor watched them, as he closed the door. "Forgive me, I'm just..." He shook his head a little in disbelief. "Fay! Fay, get in here! Come see who's here! Quick!"
Some stumbling sounded from the other room, then a door opened and a chubby woman entered the room, her dark brown hair pulled back. She rubbed her palms on her stained apron, trying to wipe the flour of them. "I'm here, I'm here..." She muttered grumpily. "Whas the matter with y..." A long pause in which she stared at their two visitors. "Oh my..." She finally managed, staring at Gabrielle as she took a shaky step closer. "It's you..." Her eyes drifted up to Thalia, who was standing by the warrior's side. "Both of you... I..." She took another breath, then just stepped forward and wrapped an arm around Thalia's shoulders, pulling her into a hug.
The redhead chuckled, patting the woman on the back amicably. "Good to see you too."
Fay leaned back a little, cupping Thalia's face between her large hands. "Can't believe it's really you. Goodness, child, it's been so long..." Her gaze shifted to look down at Gabrielle. "And you..." She knelt down, tentatively touching the warrior's cheek. "Girl, what have you done to that beautiful hair of yours?"
The comment struck Gabrielle as funny and she started laughing, reaching out and wrapping her arms around the woman. "Missed you too, Fay."
"Words were whispered on the streets," the woman murmured as she pulled back. "People said you'd returned, that you..." She stopped abruptly, then took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers. "Gracious..." She looked at the warrior. "Don't tell me she did it to you again?"
"No, no..." Gabrielle hastily shook her head. "It's uhm... It's a lot more complex..." She managed a smile as Agenor held out a cup of tea for her. "Thank you."
"Aggie, get that girl some bandages, will you?" Fay ordered, before heading back toward the kitchen herself, returning moments later with a bowl of lukewarm water and a sponge. "Come on, sweetie, let's get you cleaned up..." She reached over and took one of Gabrielle's hands, winding the bit of cloth that was wrapped around her palm off, tossing it on the ground near the warrior's saddlebags. "So, the situation is more complex, you say?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle smiled wryly, then looked up at her other two companions. "You'd better pull up a seat. We'll be at this for a while..."
"So..." Gabrielle took a sip of her tea, letting the mixture sooth her dry throat. "There I was, just about ready to send Argo on her way and head back, when I hear this scream."
"The Conqueror?" Thalia hazarded, leaning forward with her knees on her elbows, fascinated.
"Exactly." The warrior nodded in affirmation.
"But you said this Alti woman didn't have the power to fight her?" Agenor cut in.
"She had help..." She looked up, her eyes finally settling on Thalia. "It was Callisto."
The redhead immediately sat up straight, her eyes wide now. "You're kidding! But she's... She's dead!"
Gabrielle solemnly shook her head. "Far from."
Meanwhile, Fay was looking from one to the other with a frown. "Who's this then?"
Agenor crossed his arms. "Callisto was a resistance member from just about the beginning. But she... disappeared before you joined. She was very driven. Willing to do anything that was necessary. Whenever something really dangerous had to be done she'd step up and do it. She was fearless..."
"She had a death wish," Thalia corrected, with a shake of her head. "The Conqueror killed her family. She was obsessed with the woman."
Gabrielle released a breath. "She wasn't so bad at first..." She peeked up. "She did save me, remember?"
Gabrielle kicked at a pebble. It was getting dark early this time of year and she rubbed her forearms with her hands in an attempt to stay warm. She'd arrived in Athens only days ago, but she was already regretting even thinking of coming here. She'd had barely enough dinars to get her here and now she was flat broke, with no place to go and nothing to eat. She sneezed. "It's all her damn fault..." She muttered angrily, kicking at another pebble in frustration. "Death to the Conqueror..."
"Now, that is not a nice thing to say, little lass."
Gabrielle's head shot up to see several soldiers blocking her path. "I... I didn't mean..." She hastily backed away a few paces.
"Sure you didn't..." The soldier drawled, clearly not convinced. "But you know the penalty for making death threats to the Empress, don't you?" He reached out a hand. "You come with me n...Ah!" He hastily pulled back his arm, cradling it against his chest.
"Nuhuh..." Callisto waved a finger at him condescendingly. "No touching the merchandise, boys... Don't want your greasy little fingerprints all over her."
"Who the Hades..?!" The soldier growled, then waved his colleagues forward. "Get her!"
With a wicked laugh Callisto launched herself into the battle, ducking under a punch and then grabbing onto her attacker's head, twisting it around savagely. She kicked aside another, then head butted a third.
Gabrielle watched her in complete fascination. This woman was incredible. She saved her from the gods only know what kind of horrible punishment and she wasn't afraid of the Conqueror's men in the slightest. Another man fell limply to the sand. It was just like in her stories. A hero. Someone who stood up for others, just because she could. She had to try to commit the whole event to memory, so she could write this down later. What a great story this would make when she...
A hand wrapped around her arm and dragged her along. "Let's go, sugar," her saviour said as she ran by. "Gotta dash. Don't wanna be caught at the scene of the crime, now do ya?"
Gabrielle followed, nearly tripping over her dress as she tried to keep up. "Th..." She breathed heavily. "Thank you f... for..."
"Shush," Callisto tugged on her sleeve harder. "Run now, thank later..."
Agenor looked at her in disbelief. "You thought she was a hero?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I just came from Potedeia, OK? The most amazing thing I'd seen before was a house trained goat."
"I guess Callisto can top that, yeah..." Thalia muttered wryly. "But she only saved you because she felt like a good fight, Gab. You should stop trying to make excuses for her."
"I know, I know..." Gabrielle released a breath. "Old habits die hard, I guess..." A sigh. "Definitely in this case unfortunately..."
A frown from the redhead. "What do you mean?"
Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. "I fought her and...."
"Wait, wait..." Agenor interrupted now. "She was beating the Conqueror and you stopped her??"
"She was working with Alti." Gabrielle said. "Alti is so much worse than the Conqueror."
"That's hard to imagine," the man muttered under his breath.
Fay poked him in the side. "Aggie, would you just let the girl talk already?" She smiled at Gabrielle. "Go on, dear."
The warrior leaned back in her seat. "I wanted her to back off, so I tried to wound her. I stuck my blade in her side. But nothing happened."
"Nothing happened?" Fay blinked at her. "What do you mean?"
"Oh gods..." Thalia breathed in understanding. "She did it, didn't she? She's immortal?"
"Immortal?" Fay looked from one to the other. "You serious?"
"She always talked about that..." The redhead said pensively. "Talked about some place where she could find golden apples or something..."
"Yeah, well, she got 'm..." Gabrielle mumbled, taking another sip of her tea. "Anyway, so I tried to stab her, but that didn't work, then she grabbed onto my neck and used Alti's powers on me..." She lifted a bandaged hand. "So that's how I got these." She put her cup back down again. "And then the Conqueror managed to wound Alti and Argo came to my rescue just in time..."
Agenor cocked his head. "Who's Argo?"
"Your horse??" He looked at her in disbelief. "You got saved by a horse??"
Another poke from his wife. "Be quiet."
Gabrielle smiled a little. "Anyway, we rode back to the palace and then..." A shrug. "Then she let me go..."
"I still can't believe that... I just can't..." Thalia ran a hand through her hair. "Where's the catch? There has to be a catch..."
Green eyes studied the redhead quietly. "I did save her life, Thal..."
"She is the Conqueror, Gab." Her friend retorted sharply. "She's a soulless creature straight from the fires of Tartarus. She wouldn't know what mercy was if someone'd hang her upside down and stick her head in it."
For a moment Gabrielle considered arguing that statement, but then she reconsidered. She was too tired to get into a discussion with Thalia right now. Besides, how sure was she herself that there was no catch? The woman had seemed honest enough but... Thalia was right, she was the Conqueror. Gabrielle released a breath. "I don't know why she did it Thal. And frankly, I don't care. We're out of there and we're alive. That's the most important thing right now..."
"I'll second that." Agenor said, then pushed himself to his feet. "I think it's about time we all turn in. It's well past midnight by now."
"Yeah, you two go on now," Fay agreed with a smile. "I'll clean up the mess here."
Thalia pushed herself to her feet, stifling a yawn. "Thanks, Fay."
"No problem, dear." The woman replied easily, picking up the tray with empty cups and carrying it back into the kitchen. "I'm sure you're looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed."
Gabrielle chuckled, straightening and swinging her saddlebags onto her shoulder.
Thalia wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I can't believe you can walk with those wounds, Gab."
The warrior shrugged negligently. "I've had worse."
"Like when I nearly cracked my skull when I got slugged by an elephant."
Thalia's mouth dropped open. "You did not get slugged by an elephant!"
Fay smiled as she re-entered the living room, hearing the muted arguing as the trio moved down a pair of stairs and out of hearing range. Ah, she'd missed those two. She'd forgotten how much. She walked back into the room and picked up the bowl of water. Things had been so quiet these last few years. But now everything was changed. Thalia was back. And more importantly even, Gabrielle was back. And if anyone could blow new life into the rebellion, it'd be them. She walked over to Gabrielle's chair, leaning down to pick up the bloodied bit of bandage she'd left there, but it wasn't there anymore. She frowned for a moment, then shrugged it off, straightening and heading back towards the kitchen.
"Here you go..." Agenor pulled open a door for her, stepping aside to let her enter first. "It's a bit dusty I'm afraid, I tried to keep it clean but..."
Gabrielle stood in the doorway and stared inside. It was a small room, a single bed placed against the far wall and a small desk near the now open door, some shelves above it, stacked with rows of books and a few little trinkets. "I can't believe it..." She mumbled, almost hesitantly stepping into the room. "It's... it's exactly like I left it..."
The man scratched the back of his neck self-consciously. "I uhm... I considered clearing it out a few times, but..." A shrug. "Never could bring myself to actually doing it..." He walked inside after her, placing the candle he'd carried with him on her desk. "Besides, I knew it'd just be a matter of time before you came back." He turned around, gently touching her shoulder. "You get some good night's sleep. There's lots of work to be done in the morning."
Gabrielle nodded absently. Agenor managed a half smile, then walked out, softly closing the door behind him.
The warrior looked around her, standing silently in the centre of her room. It was like she'd gone back in time. Like nothing had changed. Like these last three years had never happened.
The flames from the candles sparkled off a faceted crystal hanging by a thread attached to the ceiling, casting small dots of yellowish light across the room.
"My mom gave it to me when I was little, because I was afraid in the dark. She said there were dreams inside and when it got dark and there was a moon shining they'd come out and fly across the room."
Gabrielle stared at the gift in wonder, but then shook her head, holding the crystal out to him. "Naxos, I can't take this..."
"I want you to have it..." he assured her, closing her fingers over the item. "This is what I want to give you for your birthday, Gabrielle. Dreams." He smiled. "I figured... maybe when you wake up, you could write about 'm... And then... maybe... the people who'll read it will start dreaming too..." He looked at her hopefully. "Isn't that what we're trying to do after all? Make people dream again?"
Gabrielle reached out, standing on her toes so she was just able to touch the crystal. She gave it a gentle push with a fingertip and the tiny flecks of light immediately started to dance across the room.
Dreams... How long had it been since she'd had dreams? How long had it been since she hadn't been plagued by images of Lao Ma's dead body, of Ming Tien's wide eyes as she pushed the dagger through his heart, then twisted it about savagely, plagued by the accusing voices of her friends, asking why she hadn't been there. Why she hadn't even cried.
She had no room for tears, she'd tell them every time. Tears accomplished nothing after all. She needed to revenge their deaths. There was only room for hate.
Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed, the wood creaking softly as she did so. The blankets were soft and they smelled like spring. Fay always made things smell like spring.
She looked up as she heard soft footsteps coming closer. "Gab?" Thalia whispered, poking her head inside. When she saw the warrior was still awake she carefully walked inside and settled down next to her on the bed.
They were both quiet, staring at the opposite wall, until Thalia spoke up again. "Freaky, isn't it?"
Gabrielle released a breath. "Very," she murmured softly. "I... When I was travelling, on my way here, I always thought about how nice it would be to get back... To come home..." She fidgeted with the edge of her blanket. "To walk back into this room, to see... everyone again..." A breath. "But now..." She folded her hands in her lap, staring at the bandages pensively. "So much has happened... And I..." She shook her head softly. "I don't feel... right... being here..."
Thalia studied her friend quietly. "Of course you being here is right..." She then countered softly but firmly, reaching out and pushing a lock of hair that was obscuring the warrior's grim face behind an ear. "I know..." She released a shaky breath. "I know things are rough... For me too, I mean... It's been nearly three years, ya know?" She placed a hand on her friend's shoulder. "But now we're back. You and me. And we're gonna shake this town up a little."
A smile tugged at Gabrielle's lips as she peeked up at the redhead. "Just like the good old days, huh?"
"You bet," Thalia grinned back at her. "The dynamic duo is gonna kick butt like they've never kicked butt before."
Gabrielle laughed softly, then half turned and wrapped an arm around her friend, pulling her into a hug.
Thalia replied wholeheartedly. "It's good to hear you laugh again," she mumbled. "You've been so worried these last few days back in..." Her sentence pulled to an abrupt halt. "Oh gods..." She pulled back, looking at Gabrielle with wide eyes. "Ephiny..."
The warrior smiled reassuringly. "I didn't forget about Ephiny."
"Yeah, well I did..." Thalia shook her head with a scowl. "Some friend I am..."
"You've just walked the streets of Athens for the first time in years, Thal. I think she'll forgive you," Gabrielle assured the redhead. "You just leave the Ephiny issue up to me, OK?"
Thalia frowned at her. "You're not gonna go back there, are you?" A pause. "Gabrielle, that place is a fortress. You can't get in there..."
The warrior chuckled softly. "We'll see..."
"Gab, I'm serious..." Thalia continued unhappily. "I really don't wanna leave Eph stuck in there, but I'm sure she wouldn't want you risking your life on a suicide mission..."
"I'll get her out," Gabrielle cut her short firmly. "I made her a promise. I'll just need some time to work out a plan."
"Oh, another plan..." The redhead muttered under her breath.
"Hey," Gabrielle shot her an indignant look. "I'll have you know my plan would have worked perfectly."
Thalia smiled. "I'm sure it would have..." She covered one of Gabrielle's hands with her own. "Thanks for getting me out, Gabrielle."
A soft snort. "Right..."
The warrior chuckled softly, then gently patted the hand resting on top of hers. "It's late... We should get some sleep..."
Thalia took a breath, then softly shook her head. "I think I'm just gonna sit up for a while... Wait for the sun..." A small smile. "It's been a while since I saw the sun rise..."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "Want some company?"
The redhead shook her head. "You need to sleep. You're tired..." She got to her feet, then leaned closer and placed a kiss on the warrior's forehead. "Good night, my friend."
"Good night." Gabrielle murmured in response as she watched Thalia walk out and close the door behind her. Then she reached for her saddlebags and pulled open a flap, digging out a clean white sleep shirt. She pulled off her tunic, careful not to jar her multitude of injuries, then folded the fabric up and laid it on top of her bags before slipping into her shirt.
She crept under the blankets, laid her head to rest on the soft pillow and stared up at the ceiling, where the little flecks of light were still chasing one another. Isn't that what we're trying to do after all? Naxos voice rung in her head again. Make people dream again?
She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the memories. Why don't you dream anymore, Gabrielle? The voice inquired softly. Why did you stop dreaming?
Gabrielle swallowed. "Because it hurts," she whispered softly to the empty air. "Because... Because I miss you so much..." She opened her eyes again and followed one of the dreams as it flew across the room. "But you know that, don't you? You can hear my thoughts, right? You know I... I'm sorry... for not..." A shaky breath. "Being here when you needed me, even though I promised... I'd always be there for you..."
A single tear silently trickled down her cheek, landing on her pillow with a soft splat. "Forgive me," Gabrielle whispered in a husky voice. "Please... Forgive me."
"Ah!!! Would you be careful!"
"Don't whine." Callisto tied off the bandage around the shamaness's stomach, nice and tight. "I saved your witchy butt at the expense of my own entertainment. Grovelling is in order."
"I don't grovel," Alti muttered indignantly, wincing as the slash Xena's chakram had cut stung painfully. "If this was such a sacrifice for you, why'd you come back anyway? You could have taken another shot at those two..."
"Three..." Callisto corrected in a mutter, judging the straw roof of the shack they'd found shelter in. Until recently it was occupied by an older man, but after grandpa had accidentally walked straight into Callisto's sword... Well... "And don't think I didn't consider that. Cause I did..."
The blonde rolled her eyes. "I'm not stupid, dear. You might be into premonitions, but I can look ahead too." She walked to a nearby table and filled a mug with water from a large jar. "If I killed tall, dark and nearly dead, her boring Advisor would have taken command and I would be haunted by soldiers for the rest of my eternity... No fun..." She strode back to the bed. "You have some influence at the palace though. They're afraid of you... So... If you take control, I won't get hunted and I will probably get some nice position in charge of... say..." She held the glass out to the shamaness, but kept it just out of the woman's reach. "...the army?" Callisto looked at the shamaness meaningfully.
Alti rolled her eyes. "Whatever..."
"Good," Callisto smiled cheerily as she handed the shamaness the mug and watched her greedily gulp the fluid down. "Besides, I kinda like your style. It would be a great disappointment to the world to lose a lean mean torturing machine like yourself..."
Alti chuckled a little in genuine amusement. "Well, I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."
"Oh yes, quite..." Callisto nodded enthusiastically. "Watching Xena squirm was very entertaining... And with the extra bonus of sweet Gabs to top it..." The blonde hummed under her breath appreciatively.
"Yes, that was interesting actually..." Alti cocked her head. "I had no idea you knew her..."
"Oh, me and the Gabster, we go way back..." Callisto giggled. "She was my biggest fan a few years ago..." A frown. "But then she started hanging out with the wrong crowd and that annoying Thalia intervened and made her all righteous and democratic..." She shivered. "Such a waste... She had great potential..."
"Until a few days ago, I thought she would make a great ally..." Alti agreed thoughtfully. "The amount of hate that was pouring from her was... incredible..."
A blonde eyebrow raised. "And now it's not?"
The shamaness gazed at the roof pensively. "It's still there, but... There is something else..." She turned her head and looked at her companion. "You saw the vision, didn't you?"
"The crucifixion. Yes." Callisto agreed, cocking her head a little. "That was funny, actually... It felt different then the flashbacks I gave Xena... Almost..."
"Like you were there yourself..." Alti added with a nod.
"But Gabs got nailed to that cross while I was stuck in that pit..."
"Yes, but I did not show the warrior her past..." The shamaness murmured. "I showed her the future..."
A moment of silence. "Oh!" Callisto then chortled in delight. "You mean we'll get to see 'm crucified? Both of 'm?"
"Apparently so..." Alti nodded pensively. "But only if we play it right..."
The blonde raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Did you hear the laughter? In the background?"
Callisto considered this for a moment. "Yes," she finally nodded, remembering. "It was..." A frown. "...a low voice... Male..."
"Exactly..." The shamaness muttered. "Without him the vision won't come true... We'll need him..."
Callisto drummed her fingers on her thigh. "OK... but how do we find out who this fellow is then? Half the population is male, last time I checked..."
"Oh, I know who he is..." Alti grimaced a little. "Unfortunately, I know exactly who he is..."
It was still dark when Xena blinked open her eyes, her internal clock waking her just before dawn. Experimentally she flexed the muscles in her upper arms. She was mildly content with the result, painful, but not something that would keep her pinned down for the rest of the day. Her legs were more of a problem however...
Xena pushed herself upright and flipped the blankets off her body, shivering a little as the cold morning air shifted over her exposed skin. Experimentally she prodded a finger at her knee, then let a flat hand slide down her right leg... As she had expected, the fractured bones were healing quicker then they would under normal circumstances. Though Alti's powers were great, the wounds created by her flashbacks were not like those inflicted in the here and now and healed much more rapidly, especially when their source was weakened, like now... She winced as she lifted her knee up with her hand and guided her leg off the bed. Walking was not going to be fun though for the time being. With a grimace she guided her second leg off the mattress, and then pushed herself up, only just able to bite back a groan of pain. "Oh that bitch is so going to pay for this..." She hissed between her teeth, finding some support from the bedpost. "When I find her..." She took a shaky pace forward. "I'm going to tie her to a wall and use her for target practice..." Another step. "And when she's all bled out I'm going to drag her rotting carcass all over town..." Another. "And then I'll chop her into bits and send parts to every province..."
She'd reached her study and sagged down in her chair with a sigh of relief, taking a moment to catch her breath before pulling open the drawer and digging for some herbs. She mixed them in her mug of water and then gulped the mixture down greedily, before leaning back in her chair, closing her eyes and waiting for the herbs to kick in.
Soon enough the pain in her legs numbed and she was capable of focussing her attention on other things than her aching body. She pulled on a bit of rope dangling near her and heard the faint echo of a bell in the hallway. Then she leaned down a little and opened a drawer, reaching inside, her fingers probing the surface of the wood until she felt the hilt of a blade and pulled it loose from its hiding place. She looked up as a guard paced into the room, saluting to her obediently. "Highness?"
"Any report from the hunters I sent out yesterday?"
The man shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Empress. They have not returned yet."
Xena nodded at this news. "Go get another regiment ready to move out. And get my horse saddled." She put the dagger she'd just retrieved on the table, the thin layer of hind's blood on the blade shimmering dully. "I'll lead them myself."
"Yes, Empress." He bowed politely, then strode off.
Xena watched him go, then she released a breath, leaning back and staring at the ceiling tiredly. Today was not going to be fun, she realised. In spite of the nice challenge of finding Alti and her immortal blonde sidekick, today was going to be painful, both mentally and physically. Now she'd have to deal with the events of yesterday. The spur of the moment decisions she'd made.
Xena folded her hands together, resting her elbows on the table's surface. Did she regret it? She considered this question seriously for a moment, then shook her head softly. No. Because the alternative would have been killing Gabrielle and she readily admitted to herself she had no desire to do that whatsoever... Not anymore...
Xena sighed gravely, hiding her face in her hands. Good gods, it was finally happening... She was growing soft... Some pretty blonde flashed her eyelashes a little and she gave up all her principles and just let the woman walk right off, no matter what the effects of that were on the Empire... She was turning into a big wuss...
Her hearing picked up tiny footsteps pattering closer and moments later Niobe poked her head through the door. "Sena?"
The Empress peeked through her fingers. "Hmm?"
The toddler wobbled closer, coming to stand beside her, looking up. "y'Okay?"
A smile tugged at her lips. "C'mere, shorty..." She reached down and swooped the toddler up and into her lap.
Niobe reached out and touched a small cut on Xena's forehead with a finger. "Owie?"
"Owie." Xena confirmed.
Niobe narrowed her eyes. "Bad lady."
"Yeah." The Empress ruffled the dark brown hair a little. "You were right, kiddo. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you."
"Hurt Sena." Niobe muttered angrily. "Bad."
"Very bad..." Xena agreed quietly. "Hey... You wanna know who saved me?"
"Abby." The toddler stated matter-of-factly.
Both dark eyebrows raised in surprise, then Xena chuckled in amusement. "You are so good."
Niobe grinned happily. "Good." She giggled. "Abby good."
"You're right." Xena nodded. "Gabby is good..."
"Good." The toddler repeated again for emphasis. "Go Abby!" She then instructed. "Say thank yous."
The Empress shook her head. "We can't, short stuff... I sent her home."
"Home?" Niobe frowned unhappily. "Abby way?"
"I'm afraid so..."
"Gabrielle's gone?" A third voice dropped into the conversation, as Iona walked inside.
Xena looked up at her, then nodded.
"But... But she can't be gone!" The girl put her hand son her hips. "She wasn't finished teaching me yet!"
"Teaching you what?"
"To sn..." The blonde hastily swallowed what she was about to say. "Uhm... to uhm... snare..."
Xena bit back a smile. "Snare?"
"Uhuh..." Iona nodded full of conviction. "You know, how to make snares... Catch bunnies and stuff..."
"Catch bunny?!" Niobe called out in horror. "No, no! No good! Bad! No catch bunny." She looked up at Xena pleadingly. "Sena?"
The Empress chuckled happily. "No bunny catching." She promised, hugging the three year old a little closer. "OK?"
"kay..." Niobe muttered, still unsettled, laying her head on Xena's shoulder.
Iona rolled her eyes then hopped up and took a seat on the edge of Xena's desk. "So you got hurt, huh?" She watched the Empress nod. "Pretty bad?"
"Quite," Xena admitted. "My legs aren't working properly."
Iona looked at her unhappily. "No fishing, I'm guessing?"
Xena leaned forward and patted her cheek. "Sorry. I know you were looking forward to it..."
Iona glanced down, shrugging. "I understand..."
"How about..." Xena bit her lip. "How about we make it a day trip, huh?"
Blue eyes peeked up hopefully.
"As soon as I'm better we'll go out to the lake. We'll bring some lunch. Stay there the whole day..."
"Really?" Iona smiled broadly.
"Really," Xena confirmed, then laughed as Iona hopped off the desk and started bouncing across the room.
"You are the coolest!" The blonde informed her cheerfully, bouncing over and giving her a hug. "I'm gonna go tell dad!" She said as she ran towards the door, disappearing from sight.
Xena chuckled, shaking her head at the girl with a tolerant smile. "I just can't seem to say no to that girl, you know that?" She commented to the three year old, who peeked up at her inquisitively.
"Yeah." Xena smiled at the toddler. "What do you think, short stuff? Honestly... Am I getting soft?"
"Yes." Niobe stated without hesitation, wrapping her arms around Xena's neck contently. "All soft." She pulled herself up and placed a sloppy kiss on Xena's cheek. "Luv ya."
Blue eyes looked down at her, then Xena just caved in and excepted her predicament, laughing softly. "Well, you know what?" She murmured, placing a kiss on top of the girl's head. "I love you too ..."
Gabrielle rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, then pushed herself up a little. Her body complained, but she ignored it, as she always did, and sat up straight, her bandaged feet touching the cold stone floor. There was no sunlight coming into her room, since it was situated in the basement of Agenor's home, so she couldn't officially tell what time it was, but her internal clock was pretty trustworthy and she was guessing a little before dawn. The candle Agenor had brought with him yesterday had nearly burned down and Gabrielle scolded herself for not extinguishing the flame and saving her friend the trouble of buying a new one... Oh well, the damage was done now... Maybe she could do some chores around the house to pay him for that and her stay here.
While she was pondering on this, she carefully unrolled the bandage around her left hand and took a peak at the wound in her palm. It was healing quicker than normal, and the wound wasn't bleeding anymore, but it still hurt quite a bit.
Gabrielle bent forward and reached for her saddlebags, pulling them closer and digging inside for the clean bits of bandage she knew she had hidden there somewhere. She frowned as her hands touched upon something unfamiliar and she pulled it out, studying it quietly as it rested on her hand.
It was a small wooden jar. She opened the top and peeked inside. Xena's herb mixture, the one she'd given her for her wounds. Gabrielle blinked, confused. She was sure she hadn't packed that... So how...?
She sighed gravely, closing her eyes. This was all so complex... She placed the jar next to her on the bed, then opened the other saddlebag and pulled out the ripped bit of fabric from Xena's tunic, which she'd tucked in there because...
Well, just because.
Pensively she fingered the material, scenes from her crucifixion resurfacing. The feeling, the pain, Xena's face... Tiredly, she ran the fingers of her free hand through her dishevelled hair. So horribly complex... What was she supposed to do with this... this vision anyway? It wasn't about the past, that much was clear. And it couldn't possibly be the future... Could it?
Gabrielle shivered at the mere thought. She had no desire to be crucified again anytime soon. She didn't know if she could stand that sort of pain again... She quietly studied her unbandaged hand. So what was this supposed to mean then? Was it a sign? To stay away from Xena? Or just the opposite, to not stay away from her? But why on earth would Callisto or Alti give her a sign of any sort?
Gabrielle shook her head, discarding the subject. It was no use thinking about it. She had more important matters to attend to today. She gently folded the bloodied bit of tunic back up and placed it securely at the bottom of a saddlebag, then she picked up the jar and took the top off, dipping a forefinger in the cream before spreading it on her wound.
Soon enough she'd redressed all her wounds and pulled on an old pair of leather pants and her green top with the Chinese design. Then she walked, a little unsteadily, into the hallway and towards the stairs. She poked her head into Thalia's room for a moment, checking if her friend was in, but she wasn't. She'd probably gone out for a walk, see the sun rise over the Acropolis. They used to watch the sunset together a lot, and discuss resistance-accomplishments of the day. Maybe they could do that again tonight. Gabrielle smiled a little as she headed to the stairs, grasping onto the banisters for some support as she got up the first step. She was looking forward to that. Rebuilding the resistance was probably gonna be hard, attracting people again and...
She cocked her head as she heard voices drifting in from the living room. Voices she didn't recognise, muttering amongst themselves.
"Would all of you stay quiet!" She heard Agenor hissing. "She deserves her rest. I am not going to let you wake her up."
Gabrielle frowned, then turned the last corner. And stopped dead, her eyes widening as she took in the packed living room, filled with men and women, Agenor's head poking out as he stood on his chair, trying to calm the crowd.
"I don't believe you." She heard a young man say grumpily. "I think you're upset you're no longer in charge, old man, and you thought this up to get some attention."
"But I saw her, Mentius!" A woman's voice argued. "I saw her riding into town. On a huge horse and..."
"Oh, right, and it had wings and was breathing fire, right?" Mentius snorted, getting a few laughs out of the group around him.
"But I did see her!" The woman insisted firmly.
"You couldn't have!" Mentius shot back. "Gabrielle is dead!"
Gabrielle decided this was a good time to clear her throat. "Uhm... Excuse me?"
Complete silence fell, then the crowd turned as one, all eyes suddenly focused on her.
"Hi." The warrior wiggled her fingers at them. "Would you mind letting me through for a moment? I'd like to get some breakfast..."
Dozens of eyes kept goggling at her for another moment, then enthusiastic muttering rose up. "See, I told you!" The woman called out triumphantly. "It is her! I told you!"
Mentius wormed his way forward and she could now see he was a little younger than she was, had blond, curly hair and determined hazel eyes. She produced a polite smile for him, but he just narrowed his eyes back at her. "We don't know that's her."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms. "Excuse me?"
But Mentius ignored her. "I've heard the stories of Gabrielle. And they never said she wore anything like... that..."
The warrior glanced down at her outfit. "What's wrong with this?"
"And she has long hair."
Gabrielle tossed up her hands in defeat. "I cut it off. It happens..."
Mentius stepped in front of her, facing the crowd. "The stories say she was a peasant girl, right?" He waved a hand over his shoulder. "This isn't a peasant girl."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she muttered, then stepped past him. "You can think I'm one of the Furies for all I care. Just let me get to the kitchen, OK?" She stepped forward and the crowd immediately parted, allowing her passage through.
It felt like a walking a gauntlet, the scrutinizing looks she was getting weighing down on her, the close presence of so many people prodding at her senses, but she kept her calm and just kept going forward.
She stopped at the hesitant voice called out to her and looked to the woman on her right, who'd managed to find her way towards her. She had long, dark blond hair and deep grey eyes, that were looking back at her shyly, but warmly.
"I..." She hesitantly reached out and touched the warrior's shoulder. "I know it's you." She dropped her head. "You probably don't remember, but..."
"Egeria?" Gabrielle smiled at her, happy to find a familiar face. "Of course I remember." She covered the hand on her shoulder with her own. "When I last saw you, you wanted to quit, because..." She cocked her head inquisitively. "Did everything go OK? With the pregnancy?"
"Great!" Egeria beamed a smile back, delighted at being recognised. "We had a son. He's almost three now." A shy look. "We named him Gabriel. After you."
The warrior blinked at this news. "I'm... I'm flattered." She managed to stutter, then she waved a hand at the kitchen door. "Have you had breakfast?"
The woman shook her head.
"Well, come on then." She wrapped an arm around Egeria's shoulders. "Lets sit down. I wanna hear all about this little boy."
"Sure!" The woman easily let herself be steered towards the kitchen. "He's the sweetest thing you've ever seen..."
"Definitely picked a good name for him then," Gabrielle commented cheerfully, getting a laugh out of the woman.
The crowd closed in behind them, murmuring drifting up again.
"It has to be her, Mentius." A woman said softly, looking up at the young man at her side. "How could she have known about Egeria otherwise?"
"She could have planned this," Mentius insisted, but doubt was now clearly lingering in his voice. "Or... Or Agenor could have told her."
The woman shot him a disbelieving look. "Do you really believe that?"
"I'm not about to hand over leadership of the resistance to some impostor," Mentius hissed under his breath. "I need proof she is who she says she is..."
"But what if it's true?" A bearded man on his right inquired. "What if she really is Gabrielle?"
"If she is..." Mentius murmured, then looked up at his friend. "If she is... then a new era has begun... And I'll gladly let her lead me into it."
Fay muttered some curses as she sliced off another bit of bread, then walked over to the table and handed it to Gabrielle. "Here you go, dear."
The warrior smiled up at her gratefully. "Thanks, Fay."
"I'm very sorry about all of this..." the woman muttered as she took a seat beside the blonde. "We didn't ask for these people to come, you know? They just showed up one by one and wouldn't leave..."
"They mean well," Egeria offered, a little guiltily. "Everybody just got so excited when they heard you'd come back..."
Gabrielle frowned, swallowing back another bite of bread. "Why is that anyway? I mean, I know I've been gone for a while..." She waved a hand at the door. "But I don't even know most of the people out there..."
"Oh, but they know you, sweetie," Fay said as she cut an apple into four equal parts, handing one to the warrior and one to her guest. "You're a bit of a legend."
Gabrielle snorted, shaking her head. "I'm not a legend."
"Oh, you are," Egeria insisted. "There are scrolls circling among the people about all the amazing things you did. I've read all of them." She said proudly. "They are wonderful."
"Scrolls?" Gabrielle looked at the woman, then turned to Fay. "What kind of scrolls?"
"The scrolls, dear. The ones that Naxos wrote."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Naxos wrote??"
Fay looked surprised. "You didn't know?"
"No, I..." Gabrielle shook her head, disbelievingly. "I mean, I know he wanted to. He always said he wished he could write, just like me, but... I never..." She released a breath. "I can't believe he kept that from me."
"He didn't write that much at first." Fay offered in a way of explanation. "But after you left the stories kept coming and coming... The members where so sad that you left and the stories gave them faith again... I think... he was afraid to tell you before, because he didn't know how you'd react."
Gabrielle balanced her head on her hand, not sure of what to say. "They're... about me? All of them?"
Egeria nodded vehemently.
"He really admired you, Gabrielle. He looked up to you..." Fay said. "The way he was constantly tagging along behind you..." She laughed softly in remembrance. "The boy would have driven me nuts with all his curiosity. It's a good thing you were so patient."
"His curiosity is what I liked most about him," the warrior said softly, taking a sip of her tea to moisten her dry throat.
They all remained silent for a moment, then Gabrielle looked up from her thoughts. "These... scrolls... Could I read them?"
"Of course." Fay said, getting up from her chair. "I think I have the first one around here somewhere..."
"The first one..." Gabrielle repeated softly. "So... How many of these scrolls are there?"
"Twenty two." Egeria eagerly supplied.
"Twenty two?!" Green eyes looked at her in disbelief. "There's twenty two scr... How did he manage to fill twenty two scrolls about just me??"
"He learned from the best, dear," Fay murmured, the sound slightly muted as she dug around in a cabinet. "Ah, here we go..."
Gabrielle could see her pull back a brick from the wall, then stick her hand inside and retrieve a single scroll. The parchment was worn and had obviously been read very often, judging by the many folds and cuts. Gabrielle reached out and took the scroll as it was handed to her, then rolled it open at the top and started reading.
Help me, great muses, to tell this story of your chosen one, Gabrielle of Potedeia. Gifted bard. Leader of the rebellion. And my best friend.
Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her eyes, quickly wiping away the beginnings of tears. "I uhm..." She stared at the familiar handwriting for another moment, then rolled the scroll back up. "I think I'll read this... a little later. If that's OK."
Fay gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "Of course, sweetie. You just take as long as you need."
The door was pushed open and Thalia wormed her way inside, curious faces peeking around the edge as it opened, trying to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle.
"For crying out loud..." The redhead muttered, slamming the door shut behind her. "Freaking bunch of overgrown..." She turned to the three woman at the table. "I hate to complain, Fay, but this is turning into a pretty crappy hideout."
The woman chuckled, then waved her into a seat, pushing a plate with a bit of fresh bread and some fruit towards her. "Agenor is trying to get rid of 'm, but they won't take no for an answer, I'm afraid."
Thalia plumped down in her seat gracelessly. "What are they doing here anyway?"
Gabrielle ran a unsteady hand through her hair. "They're here to see me."
Her friend frowned, then looked at her. "Excuse me?"
"Apparently, I uhm..." The warrior scratched the back of her neck uncomfortably. "I've turned into a bit of a legend of sorts..." She pushed the scroll towards Thalia. "Naxos wrote some stuff about... me..."
"I heard he started scribbling," Thalia muttered, unrolling the scroll and letting her eyes flick over the first line. "Hmm hmm chosen one, Gabrielle of Potedeia, leader of the... Hey!" She looked up indignantly. "When did you start running this Rebellion single-handedly?"
Gabrielle laughed softly, holding her hands up in defence. "Hey, I didn't write this..."
"No, your little fan did..." Thalia muttered, shaking her head and returning her attention to the scroll, reading a few more lines, unable to suppress a small smile. "Gods, that boy sure was in awe of you, Gab." She shook her head a little. "You know, back when, before..." A tense pause. "...you know..."
Gabrielle nodded mutely.
"He was always so convinced you'd come back. He never doubted it for a moment. And whenever I was on the brim of just giving in he'd show up and start chastising me that I couldn't just give in now and that if I gave up and you came back you'd be so disappointed and you'd blame him for not supporting me and he wasn't going to have any of it..." She shook her head sadly. "Gods, I miss that boy..."
Gabrielle pensively studied the grains in the wooden table. "Me too."
They were all quiet for a moment, no one sure of what to say. Then finally Thalia looked up. "So... Now what?" She wave a hand at the door. "Your fandom can't keep hanging around here, Gab. We'll have the Empress's troops on us in a heartbeat if they do."
Gabrielle sighed, hiding her face in her hands for a moment, trying to get her brain to stop spinning and start functioning. "You're right..." She finally murmured, pushing herself back to her feet.
Thalia followed suit. "What's the plan?"
"I'm gonna send these people home." The warrior stated, walking towards the door and pushing it open resolutely.
Silence fell again as Gabrielle walked back into the living room. From the looks of it even more people had entered since she'd disappeared into the kitchen. She felt Thalia step up behind her, her friend's close presence reassuring her as she looked at the masses staring back at her curiously. She sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders, then decided she'd have to be higher up to address the entire crowd. "Thal? Stand back a little, would you?"
Thalia frowned, but complied. "Why do y...?" Her sentence stopped abruptly as she watched Gabrielle push off and flip over the people, landing neatly on top of the table in the centre of the room. "Oh... Right..."
The warrior lifted both her hands, trying to hush the murmuring that drifted up around her. "Please, listen to me." Silence fell around her immediately, the attention of the entire room focussed on her. "I... I appreciate all you coming here to see me." She swallowed, suppressing her uncomfortableness with this whole situation. "Before I woke up this morning I thought the resistance was dead, but I know better now..."
Some cheers went up at the back of the room and enthusiastic voices rose again.
"But..." Gabrielle hastily lifted her hands again. "But now I need all of you to leave. To go back to your homes." She looked at them pleadingly. "The Conqueror is looking for me and if all of you stay here it won't be long before she figures out where I am... So please, go home..."
"But we want to help you!" A voice called out.
"Listen!" The warrior called over the cheering that followed. "I don't want you to do anything careless on my behalf." The crowd calmed a little at this. "Thalia and I will be moving to another hideout as soon as we can. We're gonna need some time to regroup and make plans, but you can be sure that when the time comes I'll be counting on every one of you to help me." Gabrielle let her eyes flick over the crowd. "Now, though, I need you to leave. And to not mention where I am to anyone. Understood?"
Nods and consenting murmurs followed, then the ones at the back of the room turned and headed for the door.
Gabrielle watched the room empty from her elevated position atop of the table. Most seemed to be obeying her hesitantly, but dutifully, yet a small group of men and woman wasn't moving. She recognised the man in the middle as the one who'd spoken against her before. They muttered amongst themselves, then finally the leader stepped forward, towards her.
Gabrielle hopped off the table, letting the man have the advantage of height, him being a few inches taller than she was.
Mentius stopped before her, hazel eyes studying her for a moment. "I need to speak with you." He finally stated.
Gabrielle looked back at him, taking in his confident stand and sense of authority, then produced a smile for him. "Sure..." She waved a hand at the kitchen. "After you..."
They re-entered the kitchen and Mentius sat down on one side of the table, while Gabrielle circled to the other and took a seat across from him. She saw Fay narrow her eyes at the young man and slide over to come to stand behind her, where she joined Agenor and Egeria. Two muscular men took up spots behind Mentius, while Thalia pulled up a seat next to the warrior and settled down as well, casually popping a foot onto the table. "Hey Gab..." She whispered, leaning closer. "Did anyone tell you you are a major show off?"
Gabrielle smacked her on the shoulder, but chuckled nevertheless, appreciating her friend's attempt at lightening the mood. Then she focussed her attention on the man before her. "So... You wanted to talk?"
He sat up straight, folding his hands together. "My name is Mentius. I've been leading this rebellion for over a year now."
"I see..." Gabrielle nodded, understanding his suspicious reaction better now.
"I've done my best to keep everything as hushed up as possible. Since the executions two and a half years back..."
Gabriele and Thalia both flinched, but kept quiet.
"... it's been hard, getting people to join, to keep opposing the Conqueror..." He leaned forward, balancing his elbows on the table's surface. "And I am not going to let someone ruin everything I've worked for."
The warrior eyed him calmly. "I don't want to ruin anything..."
"Perhaps..." Mentius leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms. "But over the years I've learned to be cautious. You could be an assassin sent by the Conqueror, for all I know..."
Thalia rolled her eyes. "That's ridiculous. Gabrielle would never..."
"Thalia..." The warrior hushed her friend. "Mentius here is right to be careful... We would be too..." She turned her attention back to the young man. "So, you think I might be an assassin?"
Mentius shrugged. "You could be..."
"Well, I guess..." Gabrielle started, then reached for her boot in one fast move, drawing a dagger from its hiding place and flicking it towards him before his two bodyguards could do so much as flinch. She dagger seared just over his head, cutting off a few hairs before firmly embedding itself in the opposite wall.
Mentius's spun around in his seat to look at the dagger stuck in the wall, then looked back at her with wide eyes.
"I'm not an assassin." Gabrielle stated calmly, folding her hands. "If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it before."
One of the men at Mentius's side took a threatening pace forward, but before he could reach for Gabrielle, Mentius had raised his hand, silently ordering him to stop. He looked doubtful for a moment, but then took a step back, resuming his position.
Mentius focussed his attention back on Gabrielle, studying her quietly. "The scrolls never mentioned you could wield weapons of any sort."
Gabrielle smiled. "A lot can happen in three years time..."
"Indeed..." Mentius nodded quietly. "Indeed..." He took a breath, then met her eyes for a long moment. "My heart is telling me to trust you..." He finally said, with a small smile. "And I tend to listen to my heart..."
"You wouldn't be in the resistance if you didn't," Gabrielle stated.
A chuckle. "True enough..." He admitted, then straightened and bowed his head. "Welcome back, Gabrielle of Potedeia." He looked up at her again, and Gabrielle instantly saw the change in his eyes, which had gone from reserved and cautious to open and hopeful, reminding her of the dozens of eyes that had been looking up at her only moments before. "What is it you want me to do?"
Xena spun her horse around, then headed in the direction the call had come from. Moments later she entered a small clearing, where a threesome of soldiers was waiting for her. They all saluted her as she rode up to them.
"The remnants of a fire, Empress." The first said, pointing at a pile of ashes lying in the centre of a circle of stones.
Xena stared down at the ashes, then let her eyes flick around the clearing. "This is it..." She affirmed, noticing the slices in several trees where her chakram had ricocheted off the wood.
"These were near the fire, general." A second soldier said, handing her a few pouches and a bowl.
Xena took the items, glancing into the bowl first, seeing the dried blood clinging to the wood. "Figures... Woman can't do anything that doesn't involve blood..." She focussed her attention on the pouches, dipping her finger in one and sniffing. "Hmm..." She checked a few more. "Interesting combination..." She murmured, tucking the bags into her saddlebag before looking up. "Any tracks around here? Any indication of where they went?"
"There's some blood here, Empress." The first soldier said, kneeling on the ground. "And some broken twigs too..."
Xena nodded. "South it is then... Call the others over. You guys lead the way..."
"Yes, Empress." Was the unanimous reply, before the soldiers moved in the indicated direction, one pulling a horn from his pack and lifting it to his lips.
Xena watched them go, then looked back at what had previously been the campfire where Alti had sat. "I'm gonna find you, Alti..." She whispered into the wind. "And when I do..." She lifted the wooden bowl and then flung it away with all her strength, the item smacking up against a nearby tree and shattering to bits.
"She's following us..."
Callisto rolled her eyes, tugging on a reign and guiding her horse around a few trees. "Geez, miss psychic. Ya think?"
Alti shot the blonde a look, seriously considering flashbacking her into a nice encounter with an arrow, but she decided against it, realising having them both injured while Xena was on their heals was probably not real handy. "I'd prefer it if you kept your witty remarks to yourself..."
"I'd prefer it if you told me where the heck we're going." Callisto retorted easily, looking at her companion pointedly.
Alti released a tired breath. "There's a small house on the tip of the peninsula. It's where I live..."
Dark eyes studied her. "We're going to your home?"
A nod from the shamaness.
"And you haven't considered that Xena might figure out about this ingenious hideout of yours?"
Alti rolled her eyes. "There is something there I need to get."
The blonde shook her head. "Yeah, well, I don't think this..."
"Callisto." Alti cut her off with a sharp hand gesture.
Her companion raised an eyebrow at her.
"You'll understand when we get there... Just trust me..."
Callisto looked at her doubtfully for another moment, then she faced forward again, spurring her horse into a faster pace. "I trust you implicitly, dear... As long as it suits my purposes..."
"But we could..."
"No..." Gabrielle cut in. "No, we can't..."
Mentius blinked back at her. "But with you here, isn't this..."
"No!" The warrior tossed up her hands in frustration. "We aren't going to overthrow her tomorrow just because I'm here, Mentius. It doesn't work like that..." Gabrielle rubbed her face with a palm. "These things take time."
Thalia stepped up behind her friend, laying a hand on the warrior's shoulder. "Let's just get those flyers ready before tomorrow, OK? Let's focus on letting this town know we are back, before we start doing anything rash."
"I... I guess..." Mentius seemed a little disappointed.
"Good, glad you agree." Thalia said shortly. "Now take off and get things arranged. Get those bits of parchment here before dawn, got it?"
The young man blinked, then looked at Gabrielle questioningly. "Is that what you want, Gabrielle? Just the flyers?"
The warrior nodded. "For now, yes."
"All right..." Mentius rose to his feet. "I'll get things arranged."
"Thank you." Gabrielle managed a smile for him.
He bent his head reverently, then turned and strode out of the room, followed by his two companions.
Gabrielle released a tired breath, then looked up at the redhead gratefully. "You're my hero..."
Thalia chuckled, patting her friend's cheek affectionately. "Good to know I'm somebody's hero these days..."
The warrior bit her lip apologetically. "Is this bothering you?"
Thalia circled the blond and took a seat across from her, considering this question seriously for a moment. "A little bit..." She finally admitted. "I mean, I don't care much for fame and glory and all that, you know that, right?"
A nod from the warrior.
"But..." A shrug. "I guess I had sorta hoped some people would remember me at least..."
Gabrelle glanced down at her folded hands. "I'm sorry..."
"Hardly your fault, Gab." Thalia leaned forward, covering the warrior's hands with one of her own. "I know this is tough for you... And... And I'm sorry that I can't take some of this weight off of you..."
Insecure green eyes looked up at her. "They all..." A breath. "They look at me like I'm the solution to all their problems... They think that now that I'm back, everything is going to just be OK all of a sudden..." Gabrielle shook her head. "How do I explain to them that it doesn't work like that, Thal? I've tried, but... they just won't listen..."
"They'll figure it out eventually," the redhead ensured her, her voice filled with the confidence Gabrielle felt she herself was lacking. "Don't listen to them, OK? We're just gonna go about things our way, and if they've got a problem with that they can just scram and find another blond haired, kick ass legend to put their faith in."
Gabrielle chuckled in spite of herself, then gently squeezed her friend's hand. "I wouldn't know what to do without you... You know that, right?"
Thalia flashed a grin at her. "Yup, I know, I know..."
The blonde rolled her eyes, but couldn't repress a smile. "Brat."
"Heh," her friend chortled happily. "You know I..."
A knock sounded.
"...am going to send whoever that is away from here..." Thalia completed her sentence with a growl, pushing herself up from the table.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Go at 'm, girl..."
"You just stay here," The redhead ordered, before walking into the living room and towards the door, pulling it open. "What do ya want?"
The brunette in front of the door raised an eyebrow at the woman. "I'm here to see Gabrielle."
"Well, too bad..." Thalia snapped her fingers. "She just left. Come back tomorrow..." She tried to close the door, but a foot blocked it from falling into the lock.
Gabrielle chose this moment to walk into the living room, having heard a familiar voice. "Solari?" She smiled as she spotted the Amazon blocking the doorway. "Thal, it's OK, she's a..."
With a growl Solari shoved open the door, sending Thalia flying backwards. She rushed inside, pulling a dagger from her belt and tossing it towards the warrior.
Gabrielle ducked, letting the metal fly past and embed itself into the door behind her. "...friend..." She finished in a murmur, blinking at the brunette in confusion.
"You liar!" Solari snapped, flinging a fist towards her head, which Gabrielle only just managed to avoid. "You cheating..." A kick. "...lying..." A blocked elbow. "...double-crossing..."
"Solari, stop it!" Gabrielle pushed herself up, flipping over the Amazon's head and landing behind her, quickly grabbing onto an arm and twisting it behind the woman's back. "Stop it!" She repeated as the brunette struggled in her grasp. "I don't wanna hurt you..."
"Well, I wanna hurt you!" Solari spit back, her eyes blazing angrily. "You said you'd help her! You said you'd get her out! But you were just doing this to save your own neck all along!"
"That is not true!"
"Bitch! You conniving piece of... "
The warrior twisted the Amazon's arm, stopping any further insults. "Now, you listen to me and you listen good!" She hissed in the brunette's ear. "I have had a crappy day and am not going to listen to your whining for another second."
Solari growled something incoherent, but didn't speak.
"I wanted to help Ephiny, but stuff happened, OK?" Gabrielle continued, her voice a bit calmer now. "The Conqueror told me to walk off and take Thalia with me. What was I supposed to say? 'No, I won't go unless I can bring Ephiny too?' That would have been a little stupid, don't you agree?" Gabrielle allowed a moment to let this sink in, then she released her hold on the brunette, taking a step back to put some distance between them
Solari turned, her hands balled to fist as her eyes flashed at the warrior. "You..." She took a shaky breath. "You promised!"
"Hey, Gabrielle's been through enough today and..." Thalia tried to stand up for her friend, but the warrior turned her head and shot her a look, slightly shaking her head. So she stopped speaking, simply taking up a place at her friend's side silently.
Gabrielle looked at the Amazon. "I will get her out," she stated solemnly. "You're right, I promised, and I make good on my promises." She took a step closer. "But you have to give me some time." Another step. "Please?"
"I heard you saved the Conqueror." Solari eyed her suspiciously. "Give me one reason to trust you?"
The warrior released a breath. "If I was working for her, don't you think I would have told her about you? Don't you think you would have been dead by now if I had?"
Solari frowned, mulling over this statement for a moment. "I... I guess that's true..."
"How about we stop fighting and sit down for a chat, OK?" Gabrielle suggested, waving her towards a seat.
The Amazon looked hesitant.
Thalia decided she'd had enough of all this standing back and being quiet and stepped forward. "Look, you're not going to get Ephiny out of that hellhole by standing here and yelling at Gabrielle..."
Solari turned her attention to the redhead. "And who might you be?"
"Thalia," the redhead introduced herself, extending a hand towards the Amazon. "I've heard a lot about you..."
Solari took her hand, cocking her head in question. "You have?"
"Sure." Thalia affirmed. "Eph talks about you all the time..."
A happy little smile tugged at the brunette's lips. "She... She does?"
Gabrielle stifled a grin. "Let's sit down, OK? I think we have a lot to talk about..."
Twilight had set in by the time Callisto and Alti rode up to the small hut that Alti lived in. They dismounted, Alti wincing as she jarred her injuries, then headed into the house.
Callisto looked around with a frown, judging the interior of the small house. "Lovely place..." She said sarcastically, picking up a human skull that was lying forsaken in a corner, blowing in one eye socket, sending dust flying out of the other. "Geez..." She coughed loudly, waving the dust particles away with her free hand. "Ever thought about getting a housekeeper?"
"I don't spend much time in this place..." Alti stated, walking over to a desk on the far left, digging into its drawers.
"I wonder why..." Callisto muttered, her eyes tracking over the sparse interior, a desk, a bookcase and some chairs, all covered by a multitude of cobwebs.
"If you're done judging the way I live," the shamaness looked at her pointedly. "...you can start a fire in the fireplace over there..."
Callisto looked into the indicated direction. "A fire?" She turned back to the shamaness. "Like one with smoke drifting up that people who are tracking us can easily spot? That kind of fire?"
Alti sighed gravely, muttering some curses in a foreign language. "I need a fire." She growled.
"Oh, this is another one of those things I have to trust you on, right?" Callisto drawled, then she waved a hand at the shamaness dismissively. "Fine, dear... You're the one running the risk, being mortal and all..." She said, before kneeling down next to the fireplace and pulling a few dust-covered wooden logs from a basket close by.
Alti shot a look skyward, then continued her rummaging.
Meanwhile Callisto rubbed to flints together until the wood caught fire, crackling softly. "Here we go..." She said contently, straightening and dusting her hands off, before turning to the shamaness. "Did you find what you're looking for?"
"I can't seem to..." Alti started, then stopped, drawing an item from the back of the drawer. "Ah... Yes, I just did..."
Calisto watched as Alti lifted the item up, cocking her head in intrigue. "Interesting..." It was an blue orb, about the size of Alti's palm. The exterior seemed to be made of some sort of glasslike material and inside there were black clouds shifting, small sparks of blue lighting up the darkness from time to time. "What is it?"
"A portal." Alti said calmly, walking over to the fire. "Stand back."
Callisto obeyed, then watched as the shamaness tossed the ball into the flames. She shielded her eyes as the orb exploded with a bright flash. When she looked back the black clouds had filled the fireplace completely, but oddly enough the fumes seemed to stay inside and not drift out into the room. "Nice trick..." She complimented the shamaness. "But what exactly is th... whoa!"
She took a step back as a figure suddenly stepped out of the darkness, ducking under the wooden beams that supported the chimney's structure, before straightening slowly and letting his dark brown eyes slide across the room until they finally settled on Alti. He crossed his arms over his leather clad chest. "I was having a grand time torturing Odin, so this had better be important..."
"I didn't call you over here because you're such great company, Ares," Alti retorted, unintimidated as the king of the gods narrowed his eyes at her.
Ares snorted. "Let me guess... You couldn't keep her in line, could ya?" The look in the shamaness's eyes answered his question. "That's what I thought... You leave a woman in charge and look what you get..."
Alti rolled her eyes. "Oh please... Like you have so much control over what Xena does."
The god placed his hands on his hips. "Well, I sure have more control over her then you do. I mean, obviously..."
They both turned and looked at Callisto.
"Is anyone concerned by the fact we're being hunted down by the leader of the known world and her pack of merry men or is it just me?"
Ares frowned. "Hunted?" He glanced at Alti. "Why is she hunting you down?"
"Well..." Alti started hesitantly.
Callisto tossed up her hands. "Cause we tried to kill her of course..."
The shamaness narrowed her eyes at the blonde.
"You..." Ares glanced from one to the other. "You tried to kill her?"
Alti released a breath. "The situation was getting out of control..."
"So you decide to KILL her??" Ares tossed up his hands in utter frustration. "Are you INSANE?!" Alti tried to explain once more, but Ares cut her off before she could even start. "Do I need to remind you what happened to the last person who tried to kill her??"
"She strung him up by his feet, then cut off parts of his anatomy at regular intervals until he bled to death. First an ear, then a hand, then a nose, then... then some other very vital parts..." Ares shivered at the mere though, then pointed a finger at her. "That woman's got a hind's blood dagger and I do not feel like being chopped into little pieces..."
"She's got a hind's blood dagger?" Callisto joined in. "You didn't tell me she had one of those!"
"Argh," Alti growled, covering her face in her hands. "This reminds me why I generally work alone..."
"I can't believe you'd be foolish enough to even think about attempting to assassinate her," Ares continued on obliviously. "I mean for the love of..."
Alti lifted her head and looked at him, then narrowed her eyes savagely. Ares gasped in a breath as visions flooded his senses.
A hooded warrior blocking a road in Macedonia.
Xena fighting a blonde woman in the arena.
And losing to her.
The Empress snatching a dart meant for the blonde out of the air, then slicing her chakram through the neck of one of her lieutenants.
Another battle in the arena where Xena was clearly winning, but consciously refrained from ending the fight.
This warrior defending Xena as she was lying helplessly on the ground.
Blue eyes meeting green.
Ares' eyes shot open as the images receded. He blinked, looked at Callisto, then turned to Alti. "OK..." He shook his head a little, trying to shake of the dreadful visions of Xena displaying mercy. "I uhm... I get your point now...."
"Bout time..." The shamaness muttered.
"Maybe..." He took a few paces, considering the situation. "Maybe you're right, maybe it's time Xena got... replaced..."
"Glad we agree." Alti drawled, crossing her arms. "So, does this mean you're gonna help?"
Ares' head shot up. "Well uhm... I uhm..." He scratched the back of his neck. "You know, I'd love to, but uhm..." He waved a hand at the empty air nervously. "I've still got some business with the Norse gods and all..."
Alti shot him a bored look. "Right..."
"But..." Ares narrowed his eyes at her. "I know someone who can help you out while I'm... detained..."
He snapped his finger and vanished in a flash of dark blue, then reappeared again, a silent, armoured form standing beside him. "Here you go..."
Callisto raised an eyebrow, looking at the frame of what appeared to be one of Xena's lieutenants. He seemed to be missing some important parts though. "Uhm..." She waved a hand at the figure. "Where's his head?"
Ares looked at her, then turned to the headless man beside him. "Oh..." He poked a hand through the spot where the head was supposed to be. "Darn..." He stood on his tiptoes, glancing into the soldier's armour. "Head, head, head..." He muttered, then finally cheered up. "Ah, here we go..."
He grabbed onto the figure's shoulders and spun him around, making him face forward.
"Oh..." Callisto crossed her arms, looking at the head that was dangling by a tiny bit of unsevered skin, the man's dark blond hair resting against his well armoured back. "Funky..."
At this the man blinked his eyes open, dazedly looking around the room. "Where am I?"
"Oh, and it talks too..." Callisto chortled. "Nice..."
"What are you talking about?" The officer snapped at her, then frowned. "And why the Hades are you standing on the ceiling? Show some respect for Pompey the Magnus and get down from there!"
Callisto looked at him, then glanced up at Ares. "Your boy toy's not too smart, godking."
Ares glowered back at her, then turned to Alti. "She's obnoxious." He pointed a thumb at the blonde.
"You're telling me..." The shamaness sighed in response.
Callisto crossed her arms indignantly. "Oh yeah... And this coming from the god who's afraid of a tiny little dagger..."
"You!" Pompey called out angrily, turning towards Alti as he heard the familiar voice, lifting a hand and pointing a finger at the empty spot behind him. "Witch! You set me up! You told me to attack her and then I..." His sentence pulled to an abrupt halt. "And then I... I died..." He instinctively lifted a hand to touch his throat, his eyes widening as he touched nothing but air. "What the..." He glanced down, straight up at the thatched roof. "Whaaaa!!" He started hopping around frantically. "What is going on here!!!"
"Easy, darling..."Callisto grabbed onto a shoulder. "Don't lose your head..." She giggled, then grabbed a handful of the officers bangs and tugged, pulling his head back on top of his torso. "Now there... That's more comfortable, don't you agree?"
"Wh..." He glanced down at the floor, then back up at her. "Bu..."
"Very eloquent fellow..." Callisto commented to her other two companions over her shoulder. "If we want to bore Xena to death, he'll come in quite handy..."
"Xena?" Dark eyes narrowed. "I served her faithfully for years and what is the thanks I get... She just ki..." He blinked, then glanced up at Alti. "She did kill me... right?"
"Quite." The shamaness affirmed with a nod.
"Bitch..." Pompey growled. "So uhm..." he glanced at his companions. "How come I'm uhm... here?"
"Because I brought you here..."
Pompey looked up, then his eyes widened as he recognised the king of the gods. "Great Ares..." He bowed deeply. "I'm... I'm honoured..."
"Heh," Ares crossed his arms, looking down at the bowing soldier smugly, then he shot Alti and Callisto a meaningful look. "See, ladies, this is how this worshipping thing works... You two could learn a lot from this good fellow..."
Alti and Callisto looked at each other, then rolled their eyes simultaneously, before Alti turned back to the god. "It's not that I don't appreciate your.. gift... But what exactly is his use?"
Ares smirked at her. "Good old Pompey here is going to make you some friends in the military."
Continued in Part VIII