Champions by Kamouraskan
A sequel to Champion http://www.academyofbards.org/kam_champion.html
Disclaimer: Characters are owned by others, the story is mine. I have been blessed with the help of some the most talented women in the Xenaverse. I am indebted to them all, Unfortunately, I was still the one to write it. But their spirited assistance just proves what a special place this is. I am very grateful to Eve Ng, Maribel Piloto, Barbara Davies, Advocate, Lariel, IseQween, Georgia, Verrath, Mary Morgan, Lawlsfan, and my partner in crime, Archaeobard. Quite a list, because I am very fortunate.
Mail is always appreciated and answered Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
Xena looked around the cell. It was actually a captured slavers cage, with the hut built around it. Once out of the chains, she had begun pacing. Three strides back and forth, combined with stretching exercises. The fact that she could escape at any time was not relieving any of her tension.
She caught the sound of her guards moving away from the hut, and she reached automatically for her chakram, halting just before she touched the vacant loop. There was another noise and she felt her stress levels instantly and magically drop, and she almost smiled as she heard the hesitant footsteps outside.
Her smile grew at the concern she heard in the quiet voice outside. "Are you okay?"
Xena looked around her cell and couldnt resist teasing the princess. "Why? Is there something else I can do for you?"
Standing in the night air, Gabrielles head slumped foreword. "I dont know what to say...."
"Gabrielle. If this is making you uncomfortable, I can always leave."
That earned a reluctant giggle. "Id like to talk, if thats okay"
Gabrielle continued to smile on hearing the exaggerated groan, followed by, "Why am I not surprised?" There was silence for a moment, broken by an almost plaintive, "Why dont you come in?"
The princess moved closer to the side of the hut and whispered "I have to look out, so that were not overheard." Now it was the girls turn to be silent before continuing. "Anyway, I really dont want to see you in chains."
"Im not in chains. I dont like them."
"Oh? So you just... took them off? But they were the biggest we have."
She seemed almost disappointed, and Xena nearly felt like apologizing. "I was spending too much time in other peoples dungeons, so I took a short course from this expert. He showed me that the larger the chain is, the more pry points it has. The longer it is, the more chances of finding a weakness. And you know, that works with people and armies as well."
"This expert wouldnt have been named Autolycus, would it?"
"Ah. Youve met."
"He, well, he knows Hercules."
Xena thought for a moment of the Princess time with Iolaus and the demi-god. "What was that like, traveling with them?"
"Does this mean I can tell you a story?" Gabrielle didnt disguise her eagerness.
"Why not? I wasnt going anywhere for a while...."
So, taking a moment to get comfortable, and separated only by the bars and thin wood and thatch, Gabrielle finally got her chance to tell the story of the Titans. How she had tried to show off to some villagers, and nearly destroyed them and their town. Xena sat back with her eyes half closed and listened to the clear voice. Neither could have said how long the tale took to tell. They both were aware that the circumstances should have prevented it, but for whatever reason they both forgot about the next day, and there was no one else they wanted to be with. Both could feel the warmth of the others back, as well as the absurdity of their situation, and yet neither had felt so at ease for a such a very long time. Xena laughed occasionally in places that Gabrielle hadnt intended, but that was okay too.
When the story concluded, Xena asked "I cant believe Hercules even let you tag along. What did you have to do to him?"
"Well, they sort of put up with me more than anything else. And I kept getting in trouble." Gabrielle halted suspiciously. "Youre nodding at that, in there. Arent you?"
Xena immediately stopped that exact motion. Both women laughed. Another comfortable silence fell
Gabrielle stared up at the stars above her.
"Xena? Could you see the two of us together like that?" she asked. "Like Hercules and Iolaus? Traveling around the country, righting wrongs, saving and helping people who cant defend themselves?"
Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, I am many things, but I am not Hercules."
Gabrielle ignored the derision. "Thats the point! Youd be Xena, the brave Warrior Princess, with her Amazon Bard by her side."
There was more laughter from inside the hut. "Nope, sorry Gabrielle, Cant see that. The bard part though, that I can see."
"Its something Ive always dreamed of doing." She added, "and its not like this Queen business is working out all that well..." There was another laugh.
"There are advantages to you becoming a bard. Maybe if you were telling stories you could keep your mouth shut the rest of the time. You might be almost bearable then."
"I thought about that...Hey!"
"Sorry." But there was still laughter in her tone
Both were lost in their own thoughts for a moment.
"Xena." Gabrielle whispered.
"I dont think I can do this." Finally shed said it. There was a small rustling, and Gabrielle was astonished to feel a firm hand rest itself on her shoulder. It was almost with wonder that she reached across and laid her own hand on it.
"You arent talking about the fight now, are you?" Came the voice inside the cell.
"Most people would have thought that getting me in here would have been the hardest part."
Gabrielle tried to swallow the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. "It was." She took a deep breath. "Velasca offered me some concessions."
The warrior perked up. Strategy and tactics, this is what she knew. "Then the plans working? Shell pass on swords now. Shell just need another little push to pick staffs."
"Xena. She offered me safe passage, protection for my friends, and their voice on council."
"I said no."
"I thought you didnt want to be Queen....?"
Gabrielle interrupted. "You still die."
The princess could hear, anger? in that low, velvet voice. "Gabrielle. I defend myself."
"No. Not ... not anymore. Youve done your part. Friends stand beside each other."
"Friends?" There was a movement in the brush, and Gabrielle looked up to see the guard motioning to her.
"Xena. Its the change of the guards shift. The replacements arent..."
"...arent with you?"
"Yes, so I have to go. But Xena, I want you to know. I cant let you die this way, Ive got to make sure that..."
"I die for the right reason?"
Annoyance crept into the princess voice. "How many times have I told you, theres always a way, and if there isnt, theres a reason."
The voice inside the hut seemed lost. "Ive accepted the reason, Gabrielle. And I dont need a way anymore."
"NO! Dont talk like that. There are people who need you... I need you...The things I have to do tomorrow.... it would just be so much easier if it wasnt all dependent on me. I need you there, Xena, because I need to see you,...I need to be like you. I wish I was."
The response was quick, and firm. "No, you dont."
But so was the rejoinder. "Yes, I have to be. I have to be, for everyones sake, at least for tomorrow." There was a rustle, her hand was released, and then the Warrior was all alone again.
Velasca had awakened with the greatest anticipation for a day that she had ever known. As she dressed she could hear her people getting ready for the escort, and her heart beat faster. All the days spent watching, planning. All for this day, the first day of her reign. She put on her leathers with a growing sense of purpose, a visceral pleasure so great she could not hold back her own laughter. She thought about how her group was going to descend on the practice grounds scaring those sheep that followed the princess. Then there would be the look on Gabrielles face as the life eased from her body, when she finally realized her true destiny. And the Amazons would cheer her name and kneel to her as she stood over the body.
It was going to be good to be the Queen.
Velascas group had created their own compound within the village, and when she stepped outside she saw to her satisfaction that over one hundred warriors were masked and mounted, in full battle armor. She felt an adrenaline rush that was fueled by her followers excitement and basked in it. She held her hands up, and waited till all eyes were on her. "THIS is the day. THIS is the beginning!" she exulted. "YOU, each of you.... is the beginning! YOU... are my hammer! And with YOU... I will rebuild this Nation! It all begins today!"
Amid the whoops and war cries, she mounted her horse. "Little girl," she thought "You have so much to learn about leadership. Too bad you dont have any time left."
They halted below the rise that led to the grounds and grouped into formation. Velasca raised her hand, and then threw it forward as the command to charge. Then they reached the top.
What they saw there, caused those in front to draw up their mounts up so abruptly they came close to colliding with those behind them.
The practice grounds seemed to have been overtaken by some sort of circus. There were musicians playing and children everywhere. What was really confusing was the predominance of the colours red and gold. Everyone, children and adults seemed to carrying some sort of flower, or grain, or wearing clothing with those shades. The ersatz war party froze there, slack jawed until Ephiny and Gabrielle, looking disgustingly confident in tanned Amazon leathers, rode up to them.
Velasca had some blistering comment almost prepared when Gabrielle angrily blasted the war party first. "What do you think youre doing? There are children here!"
While the challenger was still trying to get her tongue to work, Ephiny continued, "Ardia, Vivia! Your nieces and nephews are down there! Are you trying to scare them to death?"
Shamefaced, the named Amazons removed their masks.
"What," hissed Velasca to her opponents, "do you think youre doing? Are the kids supposed to watch?"
Gabrielle answered smoothly. "Of course not. But the official period of mourning is over, and today theyll have a new Queen. So we decided to have a Festival of Life to celebrate. Before we escort them away, we thought they should have some fun. Id have thought with your confidence in the outcome, you would appreciate it?" The princess wrinkled her nose.
Ephiny asked with a straight face. "Did we spoil something?"
The Challenger smiled thinly. "No. Of course not. Whats with the wheat and Roses?"
Gabrielle shook out her hair, and let it catch the light. "My colours. Gold and Red. Im hoping to have them adopted as colours of the Nation. Do you like them? Oh, sorry. Guess youre not the best person to ask." Then the two turned their backs and their mounts and rode down to the party. Their laughter carried back to her on the wind.
Velasca turned to her warriors, her face like stone. "Dismount. Remove your masks." One more for you, little girl , but it wont count for anything by the time this day is done.
Velasca felt shed had enough surprises, but then she saw the warrior princess. Tethered almost casually to a post, she was occupied with showing a young Amazon how to throw a spear. The Challenger finally exploded. "What is SHE doing here!"
Gabrielle looked over nonchalantly. "Xena?"
"Yes. XENA. What is she doing out of her cell?"
"Well, with everyone here, there really werent enough people to guard her." Gabrielle deliberately raised her voice. "Anyway, when they went to check on her this morning, she had removed her chains and opened the door."
Velasca dismounted and strode over to the warrior. "What kind of game do you think this is?" she demanded angrily "Why didnt you escape?"
Xena called out as loudly as Gabrielle had. "I gave my word to the Princess. Im her prisoner. I just dont like chains." she shrugged casually, but there was a smile fighting to get onto her face.
Velasca looked about the grounds. Gabrielles supporters were acting like this was a celebration. With the children and the colours dominating everything, her own group had been absorbed like a rock into a stream. And now, here was the infamous Warrior Princess brought out like she was the princess personal trophy. Velasca fumed at being out maneuvered by this child. Incensed, she turned to Xena and demanded. "Youre doing this for her arent you? Dont you understand that she cant release you? She doesnt have the law, or any authority to help you. Shes just using you to screw with my head!"
There was pronounced smirk in the reply. "Lately, I cant resist a good cause."
Velasca reached back to slap the smile off the prisoners face when the glint in Xenas eyes warned her. She pulled back her hand quickly, and smiled at the warriors obvious disappointment.
"I nearly fell for that." She shook her head. "Another scam. No. Thats not going to happen. I think its time we got this show on the road."
The challenger moved to her Weapons Master and once more evaluated each of the weapons she had been practicing with as her ribs healed. Just as she assumed the Princess had. Her eyes passed over the chobos and the sword, resting finally on the fighting stave. The princess had become much too strong in the minds of her Amazons. She had to be made small. There was only one way to make sure that cult of Gabrielle would be broken now and that was to take her on with her own weapon. She went over to the musicians stand and tore a lyre from the players hands and smashed it against a table, stunning the crowd.
In the ensuing silence she called "I demand the Queens challenge! I choose..." She drew out the pause to watch the expression on Gabrielles face. "... fighting staffs". She was rewarded only by a relieved smile that gave her another chill. Shaking her mind free of that, she called to her warriors. "Clear this field of all but the warriors and the council!"
Velasca watched as Gabrielle reached over to Xena, and took her hand for a moment. She caught the glance between them and laughed ruefully. So thats it. Why didnt I see it before? Princess! I offered you everything you could have wanted, and still youre here to fight. This isnt about the Amazons at all, is it? Youve become XENAS Champion! She tilted back her head and began to laugh.
Velasca looked about the crowd that now encircled the two fighters. She twirled her staff and gave a mock bow to the girl across from her.
"So, Princess, lets talk about Destiny, shall we? That seems to be a favorite subject of yours. Heres MY Destiny. Im supposed to take that mask from your cold stiff hands, execute the second greatest female warrior of all time, and then take this nation to its greatest heights. And it all starts with your blood."
There was no submission in that set young face. "Thats not whats going to happen. You end here, Velasca."
Velasca laughed loud and long. "Tell it to Artemis. Oh, I forgot, tell it Hades. Because youve got as much chance of making it to the Amazon Fields as Xena here does."
Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly, feeling its familiar strength through her palms. "Enough talk, Velasca."
"Couldnt agree more., Princess. Im eager to begin."
Velasca made a few feints, laughing as Gabrielle moved to block them. Finally she made a backhanded sweep and the first blow was struck. Gabrielle was relieved to note that it lacked the sting of Xenas strikes. Another cross swipe and then an undercut, which Gabrielle easily avoided. Another strike and another. Each blocked. The watching Amazons grew restless.
Aware of her audience, Velasca taunted. "I already knew you could spar, Princess, but cant you ever take the offensive?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and ignored the jibe, watching as the dark Amazon circled her. Another strike and then she saw an a opening. But it was a false one and she barely avoided the counter strike.
"Good move, Princess, but..." then a full attack was launched. Straining to respond, Gabrielle was out of position and Velasca managed to get inside her defenses and strike her injured arm. The padding did not absorb all of the impact and Gabrielle felt the pain run up her shoulder. She looked over to the warrior, and Velasca took that moment to strike a blow to her cheek that almost stunned her, but she managed to stumble out of each in time to raise her staff to block the next blow.
Still keeping an eye on Gabrielle, the challenger glanced back at the stoic warrior watching in chains. "Eh Xena? How does it feel? Having to let this little girl fight for you? Its almost romantic! Pity shed have to put a sword in your heart tomorrow." She continued to laugh, turning back to her opponent. "But dont worry, little princess. I wont be doing that. No, I intend to savour that precious heart. Im going to have it cut out and served to me on a platter the night before we march on the Centaurs village to destroy every one of those animals and their friends."
She smiled, as a flush of anger appeared on the Princess face. Then Gabrielle rushed forward.
It was clear that the two were evenly matched. Gabrielle was swifter, but that was not enough to balance Velascas greater height and weight. The warrior watched with her mask firmly in place. No one could have told from her stance or expression how she agonized with each strike, or that she felt each hit.
Exactly as Xena had predicted, Gabrielles chance finally came. The Princess saw the flicker of the eyes to the ground before the move was made. Then Velasca dropped her eyes and rolled to snatch a handful of earth to fling into her face. But the princess was a move ahead of her and as Velasca wheeled she was struck heavily on the head and then again on the shoulders as her body reacted to the strike. She managed to stagger away before a third stroke made contact. She stood and tasted the pain, and stared at the grim girl across from her.
"Tell me again about your Destiny now, Velasca!" Gabrielle was panting, hazily aware of the blood in her mouth.
Velasca advanced warily, but continued to taunt the wounded girl, speaking softly, but with confidence. "I said, I will kill your supposed Champion, cut out her heart and eat it on the night before our first battle."
That was enough to break Gabrielles concentration. She growled and moved in, and Velasca countered, found the opening and struck another blow to her head, and Gabrielle tottered for a moment. Somehow, finding a core of strength she had never tapped before, she brought up the staff, , and struck the challenger with all the force she found there. She was barely aware that she had finally managed to strike a solid blow to her opponents ribs and though she didnt hear the crack, she knew they had been broken again. Velasca cried out, and even half unconscious, Gabrielles body remembered the drills, and she reversed her grip and brought the other end up to catch Velascas forehead solidly as she was bent over gasping. The dark Amazon tottered, and fell on her side dazed and barely able to breathe.
Gabrielle swayed, and though she really needed time to clear her head, she staggered over to the fallen woman, shoved her body flat with her foot, and placed the tip of her stave against her throat. Velasca gasped for air.
"Tell me about your destiny now!" The crowd grew silent.
Velasca stared up with defiance burning in her eyes. "Go ahead and kill me, Princess. Please, go ahead. Lets see you draw your first blood. I promise you, itll make the sentencing of Xena easier."
Gabrielle ignored her, and called over her shoulder, "Ephiny! Bring out Rasas."
There was a murmur as the healer was dragged through the crowd, and released, swaying, beside the two fighters..
"Tell your sisters what you did. Tell them!" Gabrielle commanded.
The healer collapsed on her knees. "I broke my oath..."She muttered.
"I BROKE MY OATH! I set your arm so that it would crack under the strain of practice, Velasca... Velasca, she forced me, she told me..."
"Enough. We dont need your excuses..." Gabrielle turned from her in disgust, and addressed the warriors. "AMAZONS!" She pointed at her fallen foe. "This is your great warrior? This Cheat, who couldnt be sure of her victory, and then tried to have me crippled? What honour does she have?"
There were mutterings, and the challengers supporters lowered their eyes, unable to meet the fierce stare. Gabrielle turned again to Velasca.
"Stand up. Show us how a true Amazon fights."
Velasca stared into the eyes of the girl above, She didnt move.
Gabrielle called to her supporters. "Stand her up."
The closest Amazon blinked in surprise. "Your Highness?"
"Stand her up!" Gabrielle repeated.
Gabrielle withdrew a blade from the sheath of the Amazon nearest her and tossed it negligently at Velasca. The Challenger caught it, shook off her supporters, and stared balefully at her opponent.
"Fight." Gabrielle taunted. "Fight or slit your own throat. Because Im not going to stain my hands with the blood of a beaten cheat."
She turned her back, and Xena held her breath. Unlike in practice, her timing was perfect, and she whirled about to strike down the knife with her staff as it was thrown at her unprotected back. Changing hands, she struck Velasca on the side of the skull sending her to the ground.
"Coward AND Cheat," she shouted. "Stand up!"
"No." The words were groggy, but clear to all.
Gabrielle once again placed her stave on the throat. She stood over the body of the vanquished challenger and faced the abashed Velasca supporters. She called to them, "Who is the Queen?" Without hesitation, they each dropped to their knees.
"I demand your oaths of loyalty. Swear them, NOW! " She ordered.
As if they had one voice, they chanted. "We swear by almighty Artemis, by our sacred names and oaths that we will follow our Queen Gabrielle."
Turning to the spectators behind her she asked. "Council, are we united?"
The elders knelt and were quickly followed by the rest of the assembly.
Gabrielle looked about her, at the hundreds of warriors kneeling before her, and searched within herself to find any satisfaction. There was only exhaustion, and pain. She looked again to her source of strength, and held the pale blue eyes for a moment. I can do this. I must do this. She returned her attention to the broken warrior at her feet.
"Velasca. This is the last time your name will be spoken by any Amazon." Gabrielle reached down, and steeling herself, not letting any see her distress, tore the upper portion of the leathers of the injured woman, exposing her Amazon crest tattooed into the challengers shoulder. She brought the edge of the blade to it. Velasca closed her eyes, and Gabrielle carved the tattoo off of the shoulder, while the now former Amazon screamed in pain. Stone faced, Gabrielle discarded the palm size piece of flesh with forced disdain. Blood gushed from the wound. The crowd was frozen in surprise and shock, staring at the Princess as though a changeling had hatched in front of their eyes. Gabrielle put the blade to her victims throat. She closed her eyes, and considered her action and its consequences one more time.
She spoke in a clear yet quiet voice that was heard by all.
"Velasca, I can kill you. BUT..... I dont have to now. Do I?"
She withdrew the knife and stood supported only by her staff.
"Do you understand? For me, youre better than dead. Youre nothing now. I dont need to kill you... so I wont."
She raised her head and addressed her warriors. "Do you understand? I can kill, Artemis knows I want to, but I dont have to. So I wont. Thats all. Nothing more."
She gestured with her free hand to Rasas. "Healer, tend to this...woman. She and you are no longer Amazons. You will be taken to the border, given a few coins, and your names will never be spoken by us again. You know what will happen if you ever are seen on any Amazon territory." She called to the Guard. "Get them out of my sight, and off of our land."
Xena watched, wondering at the sadness she felt. Everything had happened as they had planned. Why was there no exhilaration? Why was she staring at this fierce warrior she had helped create, and finding herself almost overwhelmed with the desire to comfort her? So much pain and strain. How much longer could she maintain this?
Gabrielle straightened once more, and Ephiny and Solari rushed to aid her. She waved them off, and they both knelt again as she began to walk off the grounds on her own. She caught Xenas eye, and saw the pain and sympathy there. She called to the guards. "Take the prisoner back to her cell. Make certain she is fed and is given a chance to clean herself before her trial. I only ask that she gives me her oath that she will not attempt an escape."
Xena spoke across the field of still kneeling Amazons. "I give my oath," She hesitated. Suddenly the plans seemed secondary. She only wanted this to be over. To be able to walk over to this girl and comfort her. For her to walk away from her now, was causing a churning in her guts that she knew would end only if...she wasnt who she was... "I ask to be sentenced now. There is no point in a trial. I freely admit to the charge of murder. I would like to be judged by the Princess, and not by the Queen."
Gabrielle closed her eyes wearily, and fighting tears, gestured to the still prostrated assemblage. "Its too late for that. Theres only the Queen now....The taking of the mask is just a formality."
Xena scanned the masses of bowed heads, and acknowledged the truth of that statement. She felt embarrassment at her momentary weakness, and committing herself, drew herself to her full stature. "Nevertheless, I ask for a judgment now."
The Queen took a deep breath. The two women, the only ones standing in the open field, gazed at one another. The distance had never before seemed so great between them. But the Queens voice was firm.
"Then, I find you guilty, and responsible for taking the lives of my sister Amazons, for which you will pay. Your exact sentence to be announced after the masking ceremony. Guards. Take the prisoner back to her cell."
Their eyes held for a moment, and Gabrielle saw only acceptance there. She walked away, followed closely by her seconds. There was a silence, until one voice began a chant. Then another, and another until finally it had spread throughout the crowd. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! GAB-ri-ELLE!"
It seemed to have no effect on the girl. In her daze, the walk to the Queens hut seemed to take an eternity. She turned to her friends, and quietly said to them. "Send the healer in half a candlemark. I need time to be alone. Please." They nodded and watched as she slowly entered the hut and closed the door.
Once inside, the new Amazon Queen emptied the contents of her stomach, and continued to retch long after there was anything left in it.
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